Friday, November 30, 2007

D.H. Lawrence on Whitman

D.H. LawrenceWhitman's essential message was the Open Road. The leaving of the soul free unto herself, the leaving of his fate to her and to the loom of the open road. Which is the bravest doctrine man has ever proposed to himself.

Alas, he didn't quite carry it out. He couldn't quite break the old maddening bond of the love-compulsion; he couldn't quite get out of the rut of the charity habit - for Love and Charity have degenerated now into a habit: a bad habit.

Whitman said Sympathy. If only he had stuck to it! Because Sympathy means feeling with, not feeling for. He kept on having a passionate feeling
for the negro slave, or the prostitute, or the syphilitic - which is merging. A sinking of Walt Whitman's soul in the souls of these others.

He wasn't keeping to the open road. He was forcing his soul down an old rut. He wasn't leaving her free. He was forcing her into other people's circumstances.

Supposing he had felt true sympathy with the negro slave? He would have felt
with the negro slave. Sympathy - compassion - which is partaking of the passion which was in the soul of the negro slave. ...

The soul is a very perfect judge of her own motions, if your mind doesn't dictate to her. Because the mind says Charity! Charity! you don't have to force your soul into kissing lepers or embracing syphilitics. Your lips are the lips of your soul, your body is the body of your soul; you own single, individual soul. That is Whitman's message. And your soul hates syphilis and leprosy. Because it
is a soul, it hates these things, which are against the soul. And therefore to force the body of your soul into contact with uncleanness is a great violation of your soul. The soul wishes to keep clean and whole. The soul's deepest will is to preserve its own integrity against the mind and the whole mass of disintegrating forces.

Soul sympathizes with soul. And that which tries to kill my soul, my soul hates. My soul and my body are one. Soul and body wish to keep clean and whole. Only the mind is capable of great perversion. Only the mind tries to drive my soul and body into uncleanness and unwholesomeness.

What my soul loves, I love.
What my soul hates, I hate.
When my soul is stirred with compassion, I am compassionate.
What my soul turns away from, I turn away from.
That is the
true interpretation of Whitman's creed: the true revelation of his Sympathy.

--from Studies in Classic American Literature

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño The Savage DetectivesJust to get it out of the way: Believe the hype. God, this is good.

Okay, now.

All through the reading of this novel, the title puzzled me: the men who seem to be the focus of the novel, and thus deserving titular status, are not particularly savage, though they do exhibit bursts of savagery, nor are they detectives in any real sense, even if the central metaphor/plotline is the search for a missing person. Even with those qualifications, the name "the savage detectives" comes out of nowhere, unless it's meant to be a synonym of "the visceral realists"—the poetic gang to which most characters belong. If this is, in fact, the case, it says an enormous amount about what Bolaño understands by realism, and how he characterizes its application.

Is realism a form of detective work? Is Bolaño even interested in realism, properly speaking? One almost feels these are impertinent questions. A man—I think Salvatierra, but I can't remember—tells Belano and Lima that realism isn't visceral, so there is that.

The loosely applicable title is just one of a number of gregariously indifferent puzzles strewn throughout the novel, puzzles which seem shallow at first—like the easily decoded poem by Cesárea Tinajero. But these minor teases—who's collecting the testimonies of all the people in the middle section of the book? why? and to what end? who drives Quim's Impala when he sees it years later back in Mexico City? what happens to Belano in the chasm?—deepen and seep through the novel in a wild and yet hermetic way once you are through with it.

The Savage Detectives is not, however, a petty puzzle book, nor even a postmodern formal experiment like, say, Hopscotch. I have my theories about some of its mysteries, but much as I have developed theories to answer some unresolved questions about any great and shaggy novel—The Brothers Karamazov, or Ulysses, or Moby-Dick.

But if it is not a puzzle book, it is a novel that takes curiosity as one of its main subjects. Curiosity flashes through the novel in many forms—the curiosity of and for sex, of and for a story, of and for the variety of human life. At one perhaps crucial moment in the novel, Cesárea Tinajero tells Amadeo that "the search for a place to live and a place to work was the common fate of all mankind." The novel proves this point with every narrative and sub-narrative in ways that expand well beyond that point's simplicity. And while what may be called the domestic urge which Tinajero speaks of may seem opposed to the kind of gallivanting and debauchery which the novel chronicles, it is Bolaño's clear and poignant insight that these two forms of curiosity—note that Tinajero calls it a search—the curiosity for adventure and the curiosity for security may not be separated by object, but rather by age, and by age only.

"Curiosity for security"? That seems like an oxymoron! But security, for nearly everyone, exists at the center of a magnetic field—one on side of it, you are repelled, on another, attracted ineluctably. The path one takes, without changing direction, will drift from one polarity into the other, and often the change is more subtle than we can detect. And Bolaño, who demonstrates an intense familiarity with the classics, must have known how close curiositas is to curo.


One of my favorite parts of the novel is its multiple theories of literature: there is the sexing of literary form by Ernesto San Epifanio ("Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn't say so," and poetry itself is further divided into forms of queerness: "faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes"—it's really a stunning reading of poetry, honestly) and the Directory of the Avant-Garde, full of typos and commentary on the typos, and a series of wonderfully self-reflexive asides about obscurity and obscurantism. And then there's this:
There are books for when you're bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you're calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you're sad. And there are books for when you're happy. There are books for when you thirst for knowledge. And there are books for when you're desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we'll soon see. Let's take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you're calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That's how I see it. I hope I'm not offending anyone. Now let's take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He's the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he's a limited reader. Why limited? That's easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who's unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Misérables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. Furthermore: desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or later they're exhausted! Why? It's obvious! One can't live one's whole life in desperation. In the end they body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insufferable, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he's cured! And then, as part of the regenerative process, he returns slowly—as if wrapped in swaddling cloths, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives—he returns, as I was saying, to a literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what's called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from adolescence to adulthood. And by that I don't mean that once someone has become a cool-headed reader he no longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if they're good or decent or recommended by a friend. But ultimately, they bore him! Ultimately, that literature of resentment, full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs, doesn't pierce his heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does. I told them so. I warned them. I showed them the technically perfect page. I alerted them to the dangers. Don't exhaust the vein! Humility! Seek oneself, lose oneself in strange lands! And yet I was mad, driven mad by them, by my daughters, by Laura Damián, and so they didn't listen.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Robert Hass, "In Weather" from Field Guide

Robert Hass Field GuideThis poem is too long for transcription and unavailable online, so I'm posting only part 2:

I can't decide
about my garbage and the creatures
who come at night to root
and scatter it. I could lock it
in the shed, but I imagine
wet noses, bodies grown alert
to the smells of warm decay
in the cold air. It seems a small thing
to share what I don't want,
but winter mornings the white yard
blossoms grapefruit peels,
tin cans, plastic bags,
the russet cores of apples.
The refuse of my life
surrounds me and the sense of waste
in the dreary gathering of it
compels me all the more
to labor for the creatures
who quiver and are quick-eyed
and bang the cans at night
and are not grateful. The other morning,
walking early in the new sun,
I was rewarded. A thaw turned up
the lobster shells from Christmas eve.
They rotted in the yard
and standing in the muddy field I caught,
as if across great distances,
a faint rank fragrance of the sea.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have to confess: I still don't fully understand the mechanics of sprung rhythm, much less its metaphysics. I suppose this makes me unqualified to write (or read) Hopkins, but it is fun.

Well, a strange and somewhat aesthetically perverse form of fun, but enjoyable in its own way.

Here you may see what I mean. "The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo" (at least read "The Golden Echo" section) illustrates quite well the intensity of a Hopkins line, and although the uneven line lengths is somewhat uncharacteristic of Hopkins,
the imperious disregard for the comfort of the reader is well-captured.

Hopkins would rather break a line than mend a thought, and with that kind of attitude, one can imagine his feelings about the reader's pleasure. Hopkins is enormously resistant to the vagaries of his material, even though he professed, like Wordsworth, to be bringing poetry closer to the rhythms of common speech. If you ever meet someone who speaks like a Hopkins poem, run the other way.

Here is another (shorter) Hopkins poem, called (though not by him, I think) "Carrion Comfort":
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
The diacritical marks are gross authorial interventions, compensations for a God who has refused to intervene—in language or anything else.

Yet these interventions are not intended to exert or assert a demiurgic poetic power or principle, but to restrain it and preclude the possibility of Hopkins imagining it. Donne takes charge of his Holy Sonnets by drawing God to him (commanding the Deity, famously, to ravish him); Milton tortures his syntax so, God resigns himself to occupying whichever foot Milton desires; but Hopkins intervenes principally to make trouble for himself—trouble from which only God can save him.

I cannot scan very well, but I believe that sprung rhythm features a certain amount of indiscretion between lines—that is, the length of a foot in a given line may intrude upon the next. And at any rate, Hopkins's added diacritical marks are ways of shoehorning a whole thought into a place it cannot fit metrically, and his commitment to the thought's coherence will cause further metrical problems down the road. Either way, I believe it is right to say that the more Hopkins sticks his fingers into the poem, the more holes he creates which he must somehow fill in.

Note the relative profusion in this poem of interjections. Metrically, I believe these solidify the lines, stutter-stepping their way to the proper stride. They also, I would argue, manifest or reveal the touch of God, or represent that manifestation in the poem. Take, for instance, "Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod"—is this not the momentary ignition of conscience? This conscience is not internal, but is broken out of Hopkins, like the grain left bare when the Lord blew the chaff away. And then in the last line, we see again the
poet's impulse toward impertinence and self-justification checked—the parenthetical "(my God!)" is the poet's recognition, once again forced upon him, of just who he's dealing with. The numerous ohs and ahs also are moments of taking note of the Divine, and mostly (it seems) at his insistence.

Hopkins creates metrical heresies (the intensity with which he describes his "invention" of sprung rhythm sounds a great deal like a heretic hawking his mad ideas, and one of the title pages of the 1918 volume bears the word "Catharinae") so that God may have a place in his poetry. For purely religious poetry is hermetic, and sealed against God. God must have room and reason to throttle the poet, and this demands heresy.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Indecision, Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel IndecisionI wrote in part about this novel when earlier responding to Melvin Jules Bukiet's essay on the Eggers-type novel. I felt bad about responding to Kunkel's work without having read it, and so pulled it off the shelf, jumping the queue of books that I set for myself months ago—a list which has remained depressingly static.

At any rate, I think I was correct in diagnosing the problem of the novel—the central metaphor (indecision as an affliction) is used with damaging inconsistency—sometimes Kunkel deploys it with some earnestness, other times with irony, and most often with some sense of hesitation. He continually erases the real effects of the metaphor, leaving the reader sure only of the fact that it is a metaphor. Of course, to write a book with a decisive metaphor concerning indecision might be a self-defeating project, and I think it is a crucial issue for Kunkel's (and my) generation, so I applaud Kunkel's attempt.

Reviewers (other than Michael Agger) tend to read Kunkel's metaphor as relating indecision to a private affliction, rather than a social/political affliction. I suppose their mistake is not entirely their fault; the book was billed as a fictionalized memoir, and those tend to turn the private realm of the author's life public, but not political. And even if it isn't a memoir, it's easy to read Indecision in the context of other bildungsromane that are markedly apolitical (Salinger, primarily). The novel and its narrator also don't sound political in a climate which equates politics with vituperation and broadsides. Dwight is an extremely congenial voice, and it's difficult to hear passion in the midst of that sea of tranquility.

In these contexts, the novel's politics begin to seem peripheral, or even superfluous—as personality quirks the characters possess (or don't), rather than something the novel itself tries to animate. But make no mistake: Kunkel's book is centrally concerned with questioning the nature and dynamics of the grounds for political action, especially for young people.

If I am correct in assuming this is the central question, it becomes easy to see why the novel's metaphor ultimately does not measure up to its ambition. An analysis of the grounds for political action cannot end with answering the question of how and why, in this case, young people choose to become politically active or aware. In other words, the novel cannot merely ask, how can indecision be overcome? It must also ask (and I think it does, implicitly) what the political worth of decisiveness is, and what its dangers are.

I say it does ask these questions implicitly because of the inclusions of Heidegger and 9/11. Heidegger is smuggled in under another name, but acknowledged in a note following the text, and the events of 9/11 occupy the narrative and emotional center position of the novel. Kunkel also has written (brilliantly) of the connections and tensions between terrorists and novelists as in some sense rivals (the DeLillo thesis).

Putting Heidegger and 9/11 into the novel illustrates the dangers of decisive political action: terrorism and Heidegger's Rektoratsrede are frightening examples of sudden (although deliberate) political awakening. The fact that these fears are presented only implicitly is unfortunate for the novel, as much for the imbalance it creates narratively as for its ideological coherence.

What Kunkel tries to do to correct this lack of balance and coherence is, however, tremendously interesting, both more subtle and more obvious. Rather than further examine Heidegger and terrorism as bad examples of political decisiveness opposed to the good political decisiveness of Brigid and his sister (and eventually Dwight), Kunkel opposes indecision to its most obvious antithesis: impulsiveness.

But here comes the subtlety: in the context of political action, someone who at least appears to be upholding the cause of revolutionary or radical political engagement should, one would think, favor and promote political impulsiveness and disdain political indecision. I would not go so far to argue that Kunkel ends up praising political indecision, but the ending of the novel suggests a suspicion of impulsiveness and a qualified embrace of what may seem (to either a revolutionary or a reactionary) to be indecision.

Indecision seems to be as sterile for the growth of radical revolutionary politics (one of Kunkel's themes) as it would be for romance (another theme, perhaps the other theme). In some intuitive way, indecision is counterrevolutionary, because impotent. It is countered by, once again intuitively speaking, revolutionary impulsiveness, brash and unmeasured action. The basic, broad-brimmed narrative bears this out: Dwight loses his indecisiveness and gains both love and revolutionary fervor while he becomes more spontaneous and less dependent on foreign influences (such as the coin he flips) making his decisions for him. This quasi-bildungsroman, then, is a tale of growth-by-decision.

However, by "indecision," we seem naturally to understand something different by the term than the condition of abulia as Dwight describes it. Rather than as a complete absence of decisions, we see it as something more along the lines of a gridlock of intentions, or, closer to the thing, the state of numbness we feel when confronted with the persistence of this gridlock. We tend to think of indecision somewhat like a computer freezing—too much strain or input has blocked any possible output, and it is helpless to prioritize tasks on its own to accomplish all commands. And in a world thrashed with thousands of ephemeral freedoms, we find this gridlock characteristic of social experience even more than private experience. And increasingly, we recognize (with Žižek) that the increase of inconsequential decisions that capitalism has forced on us translates into political indecision—there are simply too many needs to address; factionalism and identity politics increases, allowing governments to do nothing as we make more and more requests of them.

However, the ending of the novel suggests that focused, consistent, low-level, government-independent action, which may look from the outside like a continuance of the listless activities of indecision, is the strongest option to create political change. This kind of burrowing action does, in fact, restrict the number and frequency of decisions one makes; a political free-swinger like Chris Hitchens, because of his ostentatious spontaneity, seems much more "free-thinking" than a diligent activist who sticks to her message and doesn't waver. The lip-service given to "free-thinking" and the disdain heaped upon political "orthodoxy" (e.g. political correctness or socialism or anything that smacks of a consistent program for greater equality) have been historical methods of discrediting left-liberals who espouse these views or these ambitions. And leftists rarely help, canonizing the impulsive and ignoring the merely diligent.

For Kunkel, I believe radical/revolutionary political action is plodding, like the writing of a novel—it is no mistake that Dwight's newly formed political engagement coincides with the composition of this narrative. This novel-like political engagement looks a lot like indecision—the frozen computer version. Gridlock is the reality of revolutionary politics, not flash and rallies. Terrorism, on the other hand, is utterly reliant on the spectacle, and that reliance precludes any actions but those whose appearance is most brazen, most impulsive, most spontaneous, most isolated from the world it challenges.

By the end of Indecision, the impulsiveness Dwight experiences while on bobohuariza and in the arms of Brigid has gone, but a lasting change has occurred, and Dwight remains just as committed, just as decisive, but ostensibly just as inconsequential. I think the challenge of the novel is to see Dwight as truly changed and truly effective in his new life, even, perhaps, truly fulfilled. It is a challenge first of all to read the novel as a political statement, and second to read it as saying, essentially, that impulsiveness is a characteristic which vitiates true action (political or, for what it's worth, romantic) more surely than indecisiveness possibly can.

Kunkel does offer an answer to the question I said he asked above: what are the grounds for political action, especially for young people? His reply: "only when other people have the same freedom which we have devoted ourselves to squandering—only then will we really finally know what we should have done with ours in the first place." In other words, the only way out is through: we must work for others' freedom to know the nature and value of ours. This is only a middle-age passage and a rash of mysticism away from the words of Heidegger, in his interview with Der Spiegel: "Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavors. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god."

"To prepare readiness"—a difficult motto to start a revolution with, and I think Kunkel knows this, leaving Agger's aforementioned review (the only one I know to engage with Kunkel politically) somewhat beside the point. Kunkel can't intend his novel to be a democratic socialist version of The Fountainhead—that kind of indoctrination/mindless emulation is precisely the impulsive form of political engagement we need to avoid.

Other than Agger, the reviewers' penchant for reading the politics out of Indecision is unfortunate; while most of them (and I) agree that its characters and its narrative voice are both enjoyable and accomplished, the centrality of politics to the novel makes it much more interesting, at least for this reader.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson

jeanette winterson written on the bodyI suppose in some ways I pride myself on enjoying books but rarely needing them, and more rarely still needing to read a particular book. Written on the Body is a book to be needed, a book which creates your need for it as you move through the pages.

Well, until the ending, which I find rather flags in such a way that one's need for the book terminates approximately in time with the narrative, perhaps a little before. Then again, I was reading the last few pages on a crowded bus packed with Harvard kids down to New Haven for this year's iteration of The Game. (I attended. I've never seen so many college kids confused—the scoreboard, which is laid out kind of strangely, didn't help, but it was clear most of them rarely watch football. Not that that is an indictment, just a comment.)

Disregarding the ending, however, a few thoughts:
The celebrated sexual ambiguity of the narrator is, I was somewhat surprised to note, remarkably natural. Not to such a degree that a hypothetical uninformed reader wouldn't pick up on it, but certainly to the degree that Winterson must have intended—it's a nagging question on every page, with every gesture and every clothing choice (those "recycle" shorts—more likely a woman's or a man's?), but it's an insistent, and not irritating, nagging.

The real charm of the novel is that it exposes the complexity of desire only by playing up its simplicity. Bodies are desired as such, and people are desired as such, and not as representatives of their gender. The title, then, suggests that the body exists underneath gender categories, as we exist underneath a layer of mostly dead or soon-to-be-dead epidermal cells. That's a grotesque metaphor, but if I read her right, Winterson supplies it. Desire is written on the body, but gender is something that comes between. One might even go so far as to call it a disconnect or a discontinuity between two people, between two bodies. We tend to think (and often to laugh) about the differences between the sexes as something ineradicable, natural, and universal—a universal bifurcation. Even as radical a notion as gender performativity assumes difference is foundational. Winterson asks us to imagine a simple unity at the core of desire. It's frightening.

Written on the Body is certainly not a mere roman à thèse or Tendenzroman (do we have a word for that in English?) but it is nearly one—it does encourage the reader to take it as such. Although it professes indifference toward its implications, it at times begs too hard some rather obvious gender studies-type questions.

Yet it is beautiful because of its aching passion for simplicity, for oneness, and ultimately for wholeness. It is both naïve and progressive, retro-romantic and utopian—and its conflicts box you in. Or they did me, and I think they trap readers especially. Winterson introduces her titular metaphor thus:
Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn't know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.
The last sentence is beautifully ambiguous. There is the simple, obvious meaning—Louise has taken the words off the narrator's body and turned them into her own words, making a book. But there is also the more etymologically subtle sense—it may be a stretch, but contextually it works—trans + latus (4th principal part of fero) is to bear across—Louise is interpolating or consuming the narrator as well. We tend to think of translation as a conversion of words and not a consumption of them, an enclosing of them into our own book. We enter into a mutual translation with Winterson's novel then—we translate her novel into our book, and her novel translates our desire into itself.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind, Twenty Years On

allan bloom closing of the american mindAs The New Criterion points out with four (4!) articles on the matter, 2007 is The Closing of the American Mind's twentieth anniversary.

I read The Closing of the American Mind sometime during my junior year, or at about the point I believe most self-reflective students begin to question seriously the long-term value of their educational experience. I was simultaneously trying to crawl my way out of any residual conservatism I had trucked in from my red state heritage and my Fox News-watching father. (I have always been rather late to the rebellion.) It was a strange time to be reading this book—trying to embrace more consistently liberal values consonant with contemporary academic culture while re-assessing that culture's pedagogical purpose and methods, I found myself bewildered and unsure while reading Bloom's account of the failures of higher education.

I came out of the experience believing Bloom that academics for the most part had erred by teaching too heavily from the modish tenets of theory, but, influenced by my previous year's reading of Rorty, I assumed that their error was not so much in the texts themselves as in their lack of resistance to letting nihilism and relativism overwhelm their students and their work. I still agree with one of Bloom's key observations—that the fluid importation of (mostly) French and (some) German ideas required the application of some intellectual tariffs, but none were instituted, and this lack of consideration for the ways post-Nietzschean Continental philosophy might be received by American students and academics caused some malformations in the ideas to swell and sometimes concatenate grotesquely (e.g. Stanley Fish). My feelings about the gravity of these malformations and about their metastasis are somewhat tempered by a greater knowledge of some very good critics who make use of structuralism and/or post-structuralism (not to mention Heidegger or Benjamin) with the necessity of reimagining it in an American idiom always in mind (Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? provides a solid summation of the way this can be done). I also read Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, which goes a long way toward demystifying the curricular politics of higher education.

But Levine's major target seems to be the perceived center of Bloom's book—its alleged insistence on a Dartmouth Review-like canon which must be not just the pith, but the whole fruit of higher education. I think I am a minority opinion in this matter, but I believe that Bloom was less concerned with what particular texts were being taught and more concerned with the nature of the pedagogical relationship. Of course, his interpretation of the proper relationship between student and teacher is grounded completely in his work on Rousseau and Plato, and is, therefore, immediately predisposed toward a stiff-backed classicism, but this concern—and not the canon wars of Bill Bennett and Jeffrey Hart—is what is central to Bloom's critique.

My experience of the book was complicated by my work on Saul Bellow last year; Bellow encouraged Bloom to write the book, himself wrote the foreword, and then novelized Bloom memorably in the late masterpiece Ravelstein. So close were Bellow and Bloom that one reviewer of Closing mockingly asserted that Bloom was in fact another one of Bellow's (Jewish, pedantic, pessimistic) characters, and that Closing was in fact an elaborate new formal experiment—a novel disguised as a cultural critique! A hilarious review, mostly because it was almost plausible. Bellow had already written a novel (supposedly) constructed around one of his colleagues—Artur Sammler is in some broad sense meant to be Edward Shils (or so it's said).

At any rate, I read Closing again to try to pull out what might have been the result of cross-pollinating with Bellow, or what Bellow may have robbed from Bloom. Bellow tended to portray their relationship as intellectually one-sided, with Bloom doing most of the talking and idea-generating. I am not so sure that was the case. While Bellow's intellectual life moved primarily by a process of what looks rather like apprenticeship—first with Isaac Rosenfeld, then Delmore Schwartz, then Shils at Chicago, then Bloom—Bellow was also "onto" a number of Bloom's ideas well before Bloom had the experiences (the so-called "Cornell Siege") which led to The Closing of the American Mind. Bellow says similar things about Nietzsche and Heidegger in Herzog, for example, as Bloom will later expatiate upon in Closing, more than twenty years later (Herzog, 1964, Closing, 1987).

At any rate, this second encounter with Bloom grew when I read the English edition of Kojève he edited. Kojève, of course, became a central figure for neoconservatism, and Bloom is typically claimed by neocons as an intellectual fellow-traveler. Bellow and Bloom's connection to neoconservatism is not as clear as I think many people assume it to be, although I wouldn't argue that such a connection is incorrect. At any rate, Bloom's foreword to Kojève almost certainly influenced the neocons in their reading, and so it is not at all surprising to find that he asserts that Kojève was a completely faithful interpreter of Hegel. (An opinion which is contrary to what nearly everyone else thinks; Kojève even contradicts himself in regard to the particulars of the end of history, so I don't see how he can be a faithful Hegelian, but I digress.)

The second time through Closing, I recognized fewer of Bloom's criticisms as valid, especially with regard to students. I found his insights into the student mind to have about the same relationship to student culture as Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons—he mainly describes how students differ from himself and so only picks up on their vulgarity, their promiscuity, and their preference for pop culture. (Wow, right? Really incisive.) All I can say is, at least he didn't have any graphic date rape scenes. (Thank you, Tom Wolfe. I will forever remember the phrase "otorhinolaryngological caverns" with a tremendous shudder.)

Be that as it may, Bloom's book is rightly recognized as important document in terms of understanding the culture wars, and not just for its massive popularity and influence. Although it was effectively the first real shot of the culture wars, it also seems like the terminal point or an admission of defeat—Bloom knew that the pedagogical function he cherished would be impossible to maintain in an era of greater competition to get into America's top schools. Bloom wasn't really describing higher education in toto; he was talking about America's elite schools, and he knew that increased competition for admission made the whole system both a game and an economy. This development had very little to do with what professors were teaching or not teaching, and he probably knew it. But that wouldn't have made a very good critique, would it?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

karen russell st. lucy's home for girls raised by wolvesI've always hated describing books as "magical realism" and only do so with a grimace. I find the term nearly meaningless; if all it means is that the author has taken an enlarged view of her poetic license with regard to things like physics, biology, history or logic, well, then you've just described Hollywood action movies much better than the novels of García Marquéz.

I believe what is meant by the "magic" in "magical realism" is less concerned with what is included in the realm of possibility and more about the author's sensibility and relationship to her material—invariably that sensibility is acutely playful, ostentatious, and yet curiously self-circumscribed, like a man who puns aloud for his own amusement. Magical realism is a speciousspecial brand or subgenre of realism because its disengagements with realism are arbitrary and typically ornamental, rather than systematic and structural, as is the case with straight-on fantasy or science fiction. It would be impossible, for these reasons, to write an allegorical work in the vein of magical realism, while it seems to be nearly impossible to do anything but in SFF.

This lack of systematicity and its consequent enlarged sense of freedom and play is, I believe, what attracts writers to the genre. Writers enjoy writing magical realism because it gives them almost infinite warrant for creativity and yet does not impose upon them the hard work of creating a consistent environment and internal logic for their novel, elements which both realism and SFF demand and require.

However, arbitrariness and ornamentation—the warrant which magical realists enjoy—threaten constantly to wallow in mere frivolousness. The penchant of most magical realism seems to be to toward frivolous and even boring (Rushdie) disengagements with realism rather than meaningful ones. These digressions from the strictures of realism (such as they are—a fraught topic, I know, I know) can at times be pure superfluities, not even advancing the plot or characterization. Such writing does little more than illustrate its status as a created object—a function which has its place, I understand, but which teeters into banality the more that it is used.*

Karen Russell uses her magical realist card almost indecently often, but unlike many others, she does not flash it for pure ostentation; rather, her deployment of magical realist detail is always in the deepest sense necessary—for the plot, for the characterization, for the creation of each story's sensibility and tone. The departures from reality are not used as flourishes which cut away from the meat of the story and of realism itself—the development of a human consciousness at the center of the story—but as the bone supporting that meat and giving it shape. In most cases, one must say that the magic of magical realism is contingent upon its realism—in Russell's case, it is definitively not. Instead, the magic and the realism proceed in step, the development of a human consciousness in these stories growing along with the unfolding of Russell's magical touches, one line of development depending on the other.

Consider "from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration": our growing understanding of the peculiar nature of the narrator's father coincides with our burgeoning sense of the young man as a person, as a consciousness. The same goes for "Z.Z.'s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers," "Haunting Olivia," "The City of Shells," "Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows," "Accident Brief, Occurrence #00/422" and, to a lesser (or less successful) extent, the title story. (I didn't think the alligator story worked, btw. Sorry.)

Russell uses magic to take us deeper into the shared world of emotion, and particularly those emotions related to family and to childhood. In doing so, she crosses another perilous bridge which has collapsed under a number of contemporary writers (JSF, for one, in his second novel). I don't know how she threads this needle—the only other recent example of a writer depicting childhood so acutely and with such a lack of strain or condescension (to the reader or to the child-character) is David Mitchell in Black Swan Green. However, while BSG is entirely self-constrained in terms of narrative voice by the plausible limits (in diction, sophistication, and observation) of a smart, perceptive, sensitive child, I do not think you can say the same of Russell's stories. No child, no matter how precocious, speaks in the manner in which her narrators indulge. In fact, Russell seems entirely indifferent to considerations of what might be the age-and-character-appropriate articulation of any sight, event, or thought.

However, this lack is, stunningly, an achievement, and not a deficiency. One is compelled by the quality of the prose even as it grows more dubious in its connection to the actualities of the narrator's person or consciousness. It's extraordinary and, at least in my experience, unparalleled in any other contemporary writer. I feel and resent the author speaking over their characters in almost every instance. In Russell, it's an almost welcome fact.

In short, I desperately await Russell's next work—there is so much talent there, I only hope it isn't ruined by the elongation of the novel form.

*Shteyngart's Absurdistan is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Although it is not, strictly speaking, a magical realist novel, its absurdities are so improbable that it might as well be. And now that I think about it, following my musing about allegory and magical realism, its attempt to be in some flabby sense allegorical is quite definitely its major flaw, principally because its absurdities are so ornamental and not structural in any real sense. In contrast, Absurdistan's spiritual fathers, Gogol's Dead Souls and Goncharov's Oblomov, succeed precisely because their departures from probability are completely structural and not in the least ornamental. Don't get me wrong, though—I like Absurdistan a lot, but I do resent its failures.

EDIT: It occurs to me that my remarks about magical realism and allegory seem extremely stupid in consideration of Perfume and The Tin Drum (both German for what it's worth). There are probably a great deal more. Disregard my thoughts, I guess; I just wasn't thinking very hard, it seems.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

From "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," by David Foster Wallace

In A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (which seems like a pretty good description of life itself):
The reason why today's [that would be 1993] Image-Fiction isn't the rescue from a passive, addictive TV-psychology that it tries so hard to be is that most Image-Fiction writers render their material with the same tone of irony and self-consciousness that their ancestors, the literary insurgents of Beat and postmodernism, used so effectively to rebel against their own world and context. And the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails to help the new Imagists transfigure TV is simply that TV has beaten the new Imagists to the punch. The fact is that for at least ten years now, television has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing, and re-presenting the very same cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative. How TV's done this is blackly fascinating to see.
This part of DFW's critique has become (or was already) pretty standard fare, but the way in which he connects the dots between advertising and the use of irony—as a way of soothing the increasingly obvious contradictions between the recalcitrant ideals of individualism and the mass-ness of mass media and, secondarily, as a way of counteracting the technological advances of cable and VCRs (which threatened to make commercials irrelevant, much like DVR today) by softening differences between programming and advertising—that part of the critique is pretty extraordinary.
if television can invite Joe Briefcase into itself via in-gags and irony, it can ease that painful tension between Joe's need to transcend the crowd and his inescapable status as Audience-member. For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about "seeing through" the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it's taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent on the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling.
Coming to this passage, however, I wondered if, for a certain segment of the population not necessarily distinct from Joe Briefcase but in most cases divergent, "radical critique" could not be substituted almost cleanly for "TV." DFW's point in this essay is that contemporary fiction runs the risk of acquiescing to this possibility of simple supplementarity (a point which Franzen echoes in his Harpers essay a few years later and which Wood will consider in a number of places), but the key feature of Theory's dominion starting in the late 80s is, I think, quite analogous to this televisual strategy.

Radical critiques are not depictions of the world as it is, or at least that's how I've come to understand them. The notion that the author is dead, and that all that persists is an author-function, is of course not literally true. Lots of authors, including Mssrs. Foucault and Barthes, were alive at the time of these pronouncements.

On a separate but perhaps related topic, The History of Sexuality is patently nothing of the sort, at least not in the coffee-table-book manner we might expect from the title. Post-structural critiques likewise are not intended as pure empiricism. Orthodox and many (most?) heterodox Marxist or Marxist-inflected critiques (Frankfurt, postcolonialism, some forms of feminism) may be intended as in some sense empirical, but that intention is highly suspect, to put the matter kindly. The best way to read radical critiques (and things that should be radical critiques) is something along the lines of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." (A great example of this in practice is Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene—that book was a radical critique of evolutionary biology as it stood when he wrote it, and it seems like most scientists took it as such—not as a claim that genes acted selfishly, or acted at all in an anthropomorphic sense.)*

However, the rapid ascendancy of Theory in a culture heavily charged with irony made this rather simple truth—that radical critique is something distinct from empirical observation—almost impossible for college students (and clearly some professors, not to mention critics of the academy) to pick up on. Count in the fact that both Theory's greatest proponents and professional resenters were approaching structuralism and post-structuralism from the point of view of former or vestigial Marxists, meaning that both sides continued to assume a certain amount of dialectical materialism as the foundation of these critiques, and one can see why we plummeted into a culture war.

The seduction of Theory, however, was precisely the addictiveness of this "feeling of canny superiority" which TV offers Joe Briefcase (DFW's term for the average television-viewer), and just as with television, this feeling is more emollient than irritant, and its soothing qualities are self-reinforcing principally because they further alienate their target from the world which they are in the business of supplanting or critiquing. One reads Foucault and starts seeing the world as a panopticon (if one takes him as a purely descriptive historian). This makes showering uncomfortable.

Please note, however, that, like DFW's essay's relationship to television, this post is a criticism of the social uses of Theory, not a condemnation of the works which it comprises.

Back to DFW's essay for one final (long) quote:
The emergence of something called Metafiction in the American '60s was hailed by academic critics as a radical aesthetic, a whole new literary form, literature unshackled from the cultural cinctures of mimetic narrative and free to plunge into reflexivity and self-conscious meditation on aboutness. Radical it may have been, but thinking that postmodern Metafiction evolved unconscious of prior changes in readerly taste is about as innocent as thinking that all those college students we saw on television protesting the Vietnam war were protesting only because they hated the Vietnam war. (They may have hated the war, but they also wanted to be seen protesting on television. TV was where they'd seen this war, after all. Why wouldn't they go about hating it on the very medium that made their hate possible?) Metafictionists may have had aesthetic theories out the bazoo, but they were also sentient citizens of a community that was exchanging an old idea of itself as a nation of doers and b-ers for a new vision of the U.S.A. as an atomized mass of self-conscious watchers and appearers. For Metafiction, in its ascendant and most important phases, was really nothing more than a single-order expansion of its own great theoretical nemesis, Realism: if Realism called it like it saw it, Metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it. This high-cultural postmodern genre, in other words, was deeply informed by the emergence of television and the metastasis of self-conscious watching. And (I claim) American fiction remains deeply informed by television ... especially those strains of fiction with roots in postmodernism, which even at its rebellious Metafictional zenith was less a "response to" televisual culture than a kind of abiding-in-TV. Even back then, the borders were starting to come down.
*Note: The thoughts here expressed owe a great deal to comments made by Keith Gessen in the n+1 pamphlet I mentioned earlier.

The Dream of the Unified Field, by Jorie Graham

jorie graham the dream of the unified fieldThis collection of poems cleaves abruptly in two, and not, surprisingly, at any break between two of the excerpted volumes but towards the end of one. Passing through all the poems selected from Graham's 1980 Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts
and 1983's Erosion and through most of 1987's End of Beauty, one thinks one has Graham's measure: a Rilke-like wash of image and language, unbroken in its steady stream of gorgeousness. It is almost too consistently beautiful in texture: never is it broken or knotted dramatically, and one misses the sudden rush of a juddering line of angular tension or hard emotion that makes a poem memorable apart from its luminous beauty. There is no bite, no moment where the smooth lushness of Graham's words and sentences sharpens to a point of arrest or intensity. There are ripples, but no peaks in her unified field. This evenness is not a frustrating lack, perhaps, but it is persistently noticeable.

Also like Rilke, the poems up to this point are marked by a sense of permanent evanescence, of cold or cool ecstasy, of distant eroticism. Transformation is the key theme, and the wondrousness of an enlarging consciousness of the world. This wondrousness tends to de-emphasize the poet and concomitantly blurs any fine distinctions between human and nature, foreshortening all existence into what Henry James calls "the palpable present intimate." This foreshortening eliminates the middle ground in which we typically perceive our distance from nature—in fact, perception itself seems to be eliminated as the language inundates us with a fulsome but controlled torrent of imagery.

Then one gets to "Imperialism," and it is as if the director of this film switched from Super 8 to Cinemascope (but without the vulgarity of that most ostentatious of formats). The poems become more ambitious, more political, more historical in outlook, and never look back. A series of incredible poems follows, opening 1991's Region of Unlikeliness. Graham suddenly becomes an Eliot or Yeats-like poet, with terrifying vigor. The imagery still strong, still inundating, now becomes chiseled, more like the rocks in the river than the water flowing over it. It's a breath-catching change.

"Imperialism" has got to be one of the finest poems I have read from a living poet, but I would have to quote the whole thing if I were to quote any of it. Instead, I'll offer this (still lengthy) bit from "The Tree of Knowledge," which is actually a sort of midpoint between the two styles—there is a sharpness to it, but it is intimate rather than historical:
When I reached for your hand in there,
when I ran my hand onto your hand,
it was to get that other sense of flesh,

where touch is the way to disappear,
the old dream of an underneath,
is it still there?
I feel the very top of your hand.
I feel the edge of you, the souvenir.
Ruffle the skin—gently.
Look down at it. Then close my eyes. Then try again.
What if there is no other side to this anymore—

just skin, skin,
rippling, folding under, tucked tight, taking
shape—rounding the corners, lining the
singleness, opening here and there to let the
eye through—
the sound of a moan now but magnified,

the sound of a moan in the speakers—
the red velvet corridors leafing back that way,
ticket booths, concession stands—brocade, embossed organza—
gold trimming, recessed lighting, rooms, rest rooms,
back that way, branching back, all the red foliage,
more in every direction,
starting from this plush armrest
with the reddish hand splayed out on it I can
no longer feel

out to the four edges of the only known world.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

"Vanilla Bright Like Eminem," by Michel Faber

This story can be found here.

I ran across this story as an item on one of the Guardian book page's many top ten lists: top ten short stories, in this case. The title sounded familiar, I thought, although his name didn't quite ring a bell.

The story is slight and, I thought, rather callow. I was surprised, when I looked Faber up, to find that he is a well-established author. The story just seemed rather MFA-program-like—fresh but shallow, eager but unpracticed.

Yet it is affecting, even in its headlong rush to drop the reader into the waiting consciousness of Don and his perfectly distributed set of character types which also passes for a family. I find the depiction of American-ness somewhat hasty in its ready use of body types and features to stand in for personal histories and dispositions. It's a short story, sure, but there's a great deal of reliance on shorthand to flesh out what meaning the story holds. And the leap into the future is just silly and crudely dramatic. But it is, as I said, affecting, and I'm rather puzzled as to why I should find it so.

Edit: Another story from the list, this one by Hanif Kureishi, about a man who "innocently" is force to film jihadist beheadings. Chilling and emotionally complex, but its restraint and brevity end up undermining it somewhat, whereas a greater length but equal concision (as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist) might succeed in rendering the great power of its premise.

Archive Fever

From "Future Reading," by Anthony Grafton, in last week's New Yorker:
The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database. Neither Google nor anyone else will fuse the proprietary databases of early books and the local systems created by individual archives into one accessible store of information. Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.
A little grandiose in its metaphors, perhaps, but highly accurate, I think, in its diagnosis. I only question the statement that "Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible." I'm not entirely sure what that means: "accessibility" is a word, like globalization, which assumes a certain solipsistic worldview yet presumes to have none, to be simply a description of the way a thing can be—"globalized" or "made accessible." The present is, of course, the only thing that actually is accessible, in a certain real-life sense, and it is indeed already "overwhelmingly" so. To walk through a large city is to feel a quite overwhelming sense of "accessibility." Just so, the planet is quite "globalized" already, in the literal sense of being made a globe. It is only our hubris which makes us think that our commerce or our technology is what creates a "globe" out of the earth.

What these words have in common, then, is not their promise of actual accessibility or globalization—that we have already, it is the natural state of things—but a promise of virtual accessibility or globalization—those things we have to create.

Is a First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays actually, existentially accessible? Of course it is, if I'm willing to go to a library to see it, and that has been the case for many years. Grafton does an otherwise remarkable job of casting the digital revolution in a plus ça change frame, but it is incredibly difficult not to be bowled over occasionally and believe (or express the belief) that the internet can actually bring the present to us—"overwhelmingly."

I love this paragraph from later in the article:
And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have written of the so-called “social life of information”—the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it. Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book—a new and growing tribe—read books as scouts read trails. Bindings, usually custom-made in the early centuries of printing, can tell you who owned them and what level of society they belonged to. Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. Many original writers and thinkers—Martin Luther, John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—have filled their books with notes that are indispensable to understanding their thought. Thousands of forgotten men and women have covered Bibles and prayer books, recipe collections, and political pamphlets with pointing hands, underlining, and notes that give insights into which books mattered, and why. If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints. The databases include multiple copies of some titles. But they will never provide all the copies of, say, “The Wealth of Nations” and the early responses it provoked.
I should say I am not anti-digitization in the least: I used Google Book Search, Amazon's "Search Inside" and Google Scholar heavily while writing my thesis. These tools expedited greatly finding the quotes I needed or pulling out quotes I had forgotten about. I think these tools can, if used properly, make scholarship more bold in terms of its scope and goals. If I can sit at my computer and index every reference to Hegel, Kojève, or Spengler that Saul Bellow ever made in his novels or essays, I believe I can give myself a greater warrant for expressing some definitive views of his philosophy of history, and of how that sense developed.

Or so I'd like to think.