Saturday, May 31, 2008

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Ruth Franklin's appraisal of Achebe in The New Yorker inspired me finally to read Things Fall Apart. Like most books I read, I had meant to read it for some time but kept getting distracted by other books—and unfortunately more often, by life itself.

I turned to Achebe's book partially because I was frustrated by a few comments Franklin made, and felt the need to check them against the source. Franklin asks, "Is it too utopian to imagine that the African novel could exist simply as a novel, absolved of its social and pedagogical mission? Achebe has been fiercely critical of those who search for 'universality' in African fiction, arguing that such a standard is never applied to Western fiction. But there is something reductive about Achebe’s insistence on defining writers by their ethnicity. To say that a work of literature transcends national boundaries is not to deny its moral or political value."

I'm not certain this is what Achebe is saying, but even if he is, I feel that the questions Franklin poses speak to a very different anxiety about the place of postcolonial works in our cultural landscape.

What Franklin seems to be concerned with is not Achebe's (putative) insistence that the imaginative geography of African literature be strictly bounded and concrete. Rather, she is nearly explicit about a peculiar exasperation that is usually more tactfully or more subtly expressed/repressed: just who is Achebe to tell white/Western audiences how we can read a subaltern literature?

I have riffed on this idea a bit in previous posts about Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz—the idea of a new genteel tradition in American culture comprising mostly immigrant narratives and some postcolonial works which have sold fairly well, garnered prizes fairly regularly, and are often prescribed as a form of racial nutrition—the idea being that white audiences have certain literary deficiencies which can be filled by frequent doses of Latin American magical realism or novels written by a Real African Writer.

While I agree that white audiences are indeed severely deficient in terms of their awareness of world literature, novels are not vitamins, and neither are writers. Jhumpa Lahiri is not a form of literary arugula to be read to make up for our guilty binging on Dan Brown and Janet Evanovich, to fortify ourselves with a few minerals our typical diet lacks.

I suppose this nutrition-themed form of consumption is a small step up from what it was previously—prurient tourism—but not by much.

Reading Achebe's novel, I mostly was caught up by the influence of an idea presented in the paperback's back-cover promotional copy. It stated that Achebe's novel has often been compared to ancient Greek tragedy. I suppose this is an interesting and somewhat apt comparison—it at least provides a fruitful background for consideration of how we exoticize certain writers (like Achebe) while others (like Sophocles or Euripides) we have somehow gotten used to, shocking though they may be, and even find in their narratives the roots of many modern phenomena.

Let me be more specific. I would wager that most people reading Things Fall Apart are disturbed in a different way by Okonkwo killing his adopted son than they are disturbed by Oedipus's marriage to his mother, or by Medea's murdering her children. We find the former disturbing in a way that distances us from the action—we feel that it is part of a culture that is very different from our own—and read the latter in a way that dissociates its explicit action from a greater artistic truth—i.e. we allegorize it. The meaning of Oedipus's marriage to his mother goes beyond some form of sociological truth or proposition about ancient Theban society and renders an insight into human nature which some(/many) argue is still valid today. We feel that Sophocles articulates something about human nature or the human mind; does someone reading about a pre-colonial Igbo man hacking his son in two with a machete feel the same thing?

Because this is a question of feelings—we find ourselves reacting on an emotional level in different ways when we read something we are told is part of another culture. When we read Sophocles in school, the focus is not on the Greeks as a wholly other culture, but on their contributions to our culture, to Western culture.

This emotional differentiation is, I think, primary, and must be considered before the explicitly ideological questions which Franklin raises. I am not sure how to address it, though—pedagogically or personally.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

From Brown, by Richard Rodriguez

How a society orders its bookshelves is as telling as the books a society writes and reads. American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe its fractiousness, reduction, hurt. Books are isolated from one another, like gardenias or peaches, lest they bruise or become bruised, or, worse, consort, confuse. If a man in a wheelchair writes his life, his book will be parked in a blue-crossed zone: "Self-Help" or "Health." There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. The professor of Romance languages at Dresden, a convert to Protestantism, was tortured by the Nazis as a Jew—only that—a Jew. His book, published sixty years after the events it recounts, is shelved in my neighborhood bookstore as "Judaica." There is no shelf for irony.

Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: "Ports have names they call the sea." Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use—high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

John Ashbery, Selected Poems

john ashbery selected poemsFrom Some Trees: "Pictures of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers":

Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.
In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.

These two couplets capture a great deal of the spirit and nature of Ashbery's poetry: built on non-sequitur and fragmentary, disjunctive imagery, it seems Ashbery's technique depends on two goals. First, to extend the range of metaphor beyond the traditional purpose of comparison. Second to convert the moment of surprise (which has always been a goal of poets, even very narrative-focused ones) from its common result—a pause—to a new function—an acceleration.

Yet these two goals are in essence the same motion. The traditional power and use of metaphor has always resided not in comparison, but in the act of self-recognition that underlies any and all comparisons. That is to say, metaphors only work insofar as we internalize the explicit comparison and measure it against something—a ratio, an experience, a sense of harmony—within ourselves. "Is my beloved like a summer's day?" is a question more about me—the way I have measured and do measure my beloved—than it is a question of aligning traits, properties, parameters and predicates.

Extending the range of metaphor beyond comparison, therefore, means breaking the desire for self-recognition, the need for internalization. I say this is the same motion as the conversion of surprise from a moment of arrest to a process of acceleration because it is in this pause that one initiates the process of internalization, of self-measuring that operates as metaphor, though is not necessarily read as such. Surprise in a poem is not just a semantic caesura, but a redirection or refraction of meaning back through all that has come before. We re-read or re-think the poem to see if we missed a word of foreshadowing or preparation. At the moment in "Porphyria's Lover," for instance, where we read "And strangled her," we are not quite anticipating violence and naturally return the previous lines to see if we overlooked a subtext or nuance that would have earlier revealed the speaker's intent. Even the line immediately prior ("Three times her little throat around") does not truly make explicit what we assume to be a latent violence, and so we go hunting through the whole poem, interpreting every line in the light of this moment of shock. The deeper question we are asking is not, however, "how did the poet set up this moment," but "why was I surprised? How could I have missed the signs?" Surprise necessitates a process of re-internalization of the poem, of internal re-contextualization which allows us to absorb the shock into a new interior version of the poem which smooths out the surprise and makes it consistent with a sort of internal equilibrium which I believe we all calibrate differently, but which is necessarily a part of reading.

But to inject persistent surprises, disjunctions, non-sequiturs, is to overload this operation: to read the poem successfully, one must disregard one's internal sense of harmony and equilibrium, must cease the process of self-measuring and internalization. Reading a typical poem and encountering a metaphor or a moment of surprise is like walking through a lovely room and suddenly passing a mirror. One stops a moment to recognize that it is one's likeness, not someone else's, that it is coherent (albeit reversed) and coterminous with your self-image, and then one passes on. The pause is necessary. But to walk through an Ashbery poem is to find oneself surrounded by mirrors, and the proper thing seems to be to continue walking, accelerating, even, past the images tauntingly pressing your for attention and the pause of self-recognition. "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" indeed.

Or in Ashbery's own words:

But there is something else—call it a consistent eventfulness,
A common appreciation of the way things have of enfolding
When your attention is distracted for a moment, and then
It's all bumps and history, as though this crusted surface
Had always been around, didn't just happen to come into being
A short time ago.
("A Wave")

Friday, May 16, 2008

From Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Most of us who turn to any subject with love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love. Something of that sort happened to Lydgate. He was a quick fellow, and when hot from play, would toss himself in a corner, and in five minutes be deep in any sort of book that he could lay his hands on: if it were Rasselas or Gulliver, so much the better, but Bailey's Dictionary would do, or the Bible with the Apocrypha in it. Something he must read, when he was not riding the pony, or running and hunting, or listening to the talk of men. All this was true of him at ten years of age; he had then read through "Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea," which was neither milk for babes, nor any chalky mixture meant to pass for milk, and it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid. His school studies had not much modified that opinion, for though he "did" his classics and mathematics, he was not pre-eminent in them. It was said of him, that Lydgate could do anything he liked, but he had certainly not yet liked to do anything remarkable. He was a vigorous animal with a ready understanding, but no spark had yet kindled in him an intellectual passion; knowledge seemed to him a very superficial affair, easily mastered: judging from the conversation of his elders, he had apparently got already more than was necessary for mature life. Probably this was not an exceptional result of expensive teaching at that period of short-waisted coats, and other fashions which have not yet recurred. But, one vacation, a wet day sent him to the small home library to hunt once more for a book which might have some freshness for him: in vain! unless, indeed, he took down a dusty row of volumes with gray-paper backs and dingy labels--the volumes of an old Cyclopaedia which he had never disturbed. It would at least be a novelty to disturb them. They were on the highest shelf, and he stood on a chair to get them down. But he opened the volume which he first took from the shelf: somehow, one is apt to read in a makeshift attitude, just where it might seem inconvenient to do so. The page he opened on was under the head of Anatomy, and the first passage that drew his eyes was on the valves of the heart. He was not much acquainted with valves of any sort, but he knew that valvae were folding-doors, and through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanism in the human frame. A liberal education had of course left him free to read the indecent passages in the school classics, but beyond a general sense of secrecy and obscenity in connection with his internal structure, had left his imagination quite unbiassed, so that for anything he knew his brains lay in small bags at his temples, and he had no more thought of representing to himself how his blood circulated than how paper served instead of gold. But the moment of vocation had come, and before he got down from his chair, the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast spaces planked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge. From that hour Lydgate felt the growth of an intellectual passion.

From Playing in the Dark, by Toni Morrison

Race has become metaphorical—a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological "race" ever was. Expensively kept, economically unsound, a spurious and useless political asset in election campaigns, racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment. It seems that it has a utility far beyond economy, beyond the sequestering of classes from one another, and has assumed a metaphorical life so completely embedded in daily discourse that it is perhaps more necessary and more on display than ever before. (1990)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Father, in Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud, by Li-Young Lee

My father, in heaven, is reading out loud
to himself Psalms or news. Now he ponders what
he's read. No. He is listening for the sound
of children in the yard. Was that laughing
or crying? So much depends upon the answer, for either he will go on reading,
or he'll run to save a child's day from grief.
As it is in heaven, so it was on earth.

Because my father walked the earth with a grave,
determined rhythm, my shoulders ached
from his gaze. Because my father's shoulders
ached from the pulling of oars, my life now moves
with a powerful back-and-forth rhythm:
nostalgia, speculation. Because he
made me recite a book a month, I forget
everything as soon as I read it. And knowledge
never comes but while I'm mid-stride a flight
of stairs, or lost a moment on some adventure.

A remarkable disappointment to him,
I am like anyone who arrives late
in the millennium and is unable
to stay to the end of days. The world's
beginnings are obscure to me, its outcomes
inaccessible. I don't understand
the source of starlight, or starlights destinations.
And already another year slides out
of balance. But I don't disparage scholars;
my father was one and I loved him,
who packed his books once, and all our belongings,
then sat down to await instruction
from his god, yes, but also from a radio.
At the doorway, I watched, and I suddenly
knew he was one like me, who got my learning
under a lintel; he was one of the powerless,
to whom knowledge came while he sat among
suitcases, boxes, old newspapers, string.

He did not decide peace or war, home or exile,
escape by land or escape by sea.
He waited merely, as always someone
waits, far, near, here, hereafter, to find out:
is it praise or lament hidden in the next moment?

-from The City in Which I Love You

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Inside the Midget, by Mary Jo Salter

In town again some ten years later,
led by new companions to
a flashy restaurant—Chinese—
I know it like I know my face.
Whatever it was . . . why can't I think?
Sitting before a blank

placemat, as at an exam—or worse,
the dreams of exams one had back then,
of never having taken the course—
I hear my ears pound when a friend
whispers the impossible answer:
"This used to be the Midget Deli."

The Midget! It was half this size.
I thought everything was supposed to shrink
when one came back. They must have torn
down the wall between the rooms; then
refurnished, refinished, refined until
there's nothing left we'd recognize—

Darling, you should be here. How many
Sunday mornings did we stumble in,
hung over, egging the other on
to order feasts we'd barely touch?
("Some toast, at least. Soaks up the wine.")
Where's our exhausted, pickle-faced waitress

who'd extract a pad and pencil from
the marsupial pouch in her uniform?
Thick-rimmed as a bathtub, white
but ringed with a tannin stain, the mug
of tea she'd bring had the bag already
soaking in lukewarm, shallow water,

limp tag like a dangling arm.
One can grown nostalgic over anything,
it seems. Tonight, the tea pours hot
from a metal pot into porcelain.
Much better—which is hard to admit
to that happy pessimist, still dressed

in jeans and college black, whose heart
(she tells me) beats beneath my pearls.
Ten years ago? No—twelve, thirteen.
And think of it: grown-up even then,
as, over some table her (no X
to mark the spot) your eyes would meet

mine in one thrilling thought—Last night
and nothing need be said.
Look: I'm shaking. I can hardly find
the ladies' room without a guide,
and then the lady in the mirror
isn't the one I was seeking out—

she looks more like my mother. I know
that tender, disappointed frown;
she gave it to some midget
version of myself (two front teeth
missing) who'd just ripped a skirt.
But now what have I done

to feel so guilty for? Was I
the one who chose to gut the place?
Or to gild the walls, as if space fills
equally well with true or false?
The door swings open: in the dining room
I can see at once the counter where,

above a pastry-case of strudel,
a plastic dome like a crystal ball
housed yesterday's last bagel.
They're opening fortune cookies there,
chuckling at strips of paper far
too small, from here, to read.

-from A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems

Foreign Policy's Top 100 Public Intellectuals

Collect 'em all!

Sins of Omission:
  • Eric Hobsbawm
  • Alain Badiou
  • Paul Virilio
  • Giorgio Agamben
  • Fredric Jameson
  • Chantal Mouffe
  • Ernesto Laclau
  • Julia Kristeva
  • Antonio Negri
  • Etienne Balibar
  • David Harvey
  • Michael Mann (the sociologist, not the director
  • Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Philip Glass
  • Steve Reich
  • Arthur Danto
  • Grigori Perlman
  • Arne Naess
  • Stanley Cavell
  • David Bromwich
  • C.A. Bayly
  • Don DeLillo
  • David Foster Wallace
  • Terry Eagleton
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
  • Perry Anderson

Sins of Comission:
  • Pope Benedict XVI
  • Malcolm Gladwell
  • Frank Fukuyama
  • Niall Ferguson
  • Umberto Eco
  • Samuel Huntington
  • Robert Kagan
  • Paul Krugman
  • Bernard Lewis
  • Salman Rushdie
  • David Petraeus

Okay, looking at my two lists, I think I've given a fairly good idea of where my ideological commitments lie, and while I understand that FP is not the most Leftist-friendly magazine, for God's sake, their roster of "Public Intellectuals" reads like a Who's Who of the Enablers of the Iraq war, a Coalition of the Eagerly Willing. (Not all those I pointed out are of this sort, obviously—Rushdie, for instance, is just a bad novelist.)

I mean really, how can we possibly validate these men as public intellectuals when their ideas have led to the catastrophe that is the American invasion and occupation of Iraq? The fact that these men were ever recognized as intellectuals speaks volumes about the impoverished state of the Anglo-American intelligentsia, the fact that they are still recognized as such suggests that no one has come to terms with how much of an intellectual failure Iraq is, not just a political or tactical disaster. Iraq was not just the result of poor (or no) planning or even just a cavalier blindness to the "otherness" of another part of the world. No, the fundamental philosophical ideas that launched our incursion into Iraq were completely unsound, remnants of a Nietzscheanized Hegelianism. To fail to understand how completely deficient this philosophy's account of such basic things as causality, difference, history, and identity is and remains is to beg for a repetition of the errors we see so vividly in Iraq.

NYTBR on Harry, Revised

Troy Patterson reviews Mark Sarvas's novel Harry, Revised in the Sunday Book Review, and his take isn't much different from mine a few days ago:
Harry does not seem to have been reread, never mind revised. I will grant you that these days, only chess players seem to use the word “gambit” properly, but Harry is supposed to be infatuated with the game of kings. Other terms that the novelist is pretentious enough to use despite his not knowing their precise meanings include “enormity,” “parameters,” “jumper,” “tortuous” and “petty crime.” The choicest mixed metaphor finds Harry “keeping his balls in the air” while he’s “stuck on a roller coaster” carrying him along by “sheer momentum.”

Hang-ups about class seem to be both a theme of “Harry, Revised” and a motive for its composition, with Sarvas writing about “old money” in a fashion indicating that he’s never met anyone in possession of it. Harry, whose background remains vague, has always felt inferior to Anna’s “swarm of Greenwich suitors” and jealous of her “patrician” metabolism. Does there exist a Fairfield County Anti-Defamation League?
I noted this latter anxiety myself while reading, but there was just so much to pick on Sarvas about I left it out. Thinking back to it, though, the cluelessly sniveling reactions Harry (and his author) have to the "old money" set dovetail smoothly with what I have noticed is a certain amount of reflexive animosity on Sarvas's part toward the East Coast and its elites. There is a long history between Sarvas and n+1 (which appears to be, for Sarvas, exemplary of hollow New York literary elitism), a history which is in itself quite interesting and which I may post on separately at some point.

However, I'll offer a link to one Sarvas post to demonstrate the virulence of an anti-East Coast bias that I honestly never knew existed in such a potent strain. Note well that the main reason I'm linking to it is to highlight a comment on Sarvas's blog, not his own writing, and while I fully recognize that it is not a very fair practice to use the comments on someone's blog against them, in this case the venom is so disproportionate that I feel Sarvas should have stepped in to moderate. The fact that it was an anonymous comment makes it more necessary, as bloggers do, I feel, have an obligation to maintain a balance of transparency and civility on their blogs. If your commenters are not going to be civil, they should claim their words; if their words are trivial, anonymity's sort of beside the point.

This entry—from a couple of years before the 2007 clash where Sarvas posted Gessen's private correspondence—is itself reeking of bile, but read the response to it by an n+1 supporter and then especially read the long comment by "Citoyen Fantomas" to get what I'm talking about. It's really quite incredible.

More (5/4): I don't have very much more to say about Sarvas and that put-upon air bloggers get when they see their name in print not fixed between two compliments or as a byline but I find the bloggers' reactions to Patterson's review exceedingly frustrating. A friend of Sarvas's questions Troy Patterson's motives, alluding to a line which bloggers have descended upon en masse already "That you are reading a review of this novel in these pages is a testament to the author’s success as a blogger.":

Now, it's possible that Mr. Troy Patterson, the reviewer, read the novel, hated it as much as he seems to have based on his comments, and then looked into Mark Sarvas' background. But, I don't think so. Mr. Patterson follows it up with comments about a couple of other literary bloggers, detailed enough to suggest he's well enough aware of them that he knew of them prior to being given this novel to review.
It might just be my reading of the review, and it could certainly be that I have some bias as I a) consider Mark a friend, b) really liked the novel a lot, and c) am a literary blogger myself (supposedly), but I read the review thinking the whole time, 'Wow, this guy really hated this book, and he, .... Oh, wait, he doesn't like the fact that a blogger is getting attention."
I question the judgment of anyone who thinks Sarvas wrote a good book, but I am even more skeptical of someone who is so paranoid of print that he'll wave away a fairly well-supported excoriation of Sarvas's book by implying that Patterson's just jealous. Which is not to say that jealousy does not play a part in reviewing (paging Dale Peck), but why should Patterson be jealous of a man whose first book is being panned in one of the back pages of the Book Review?

Patterson could not have written anything more incendiary for bloggers—it obliquely affirms a certain disdainful consciousness among print-based media of the blogosphere while supposedly denying them (really, just denying Sarvas) a claim to literary merit. Not to mention that the idea this statement implicitly supports—that coverage in literary reviews may be based in certain cases on something other than the book's merit—confirms the image of print culture that bloggers love to denounce—all about insider relationships, advances, publicity machines, drained of any actual love for literature or desire to find and promote books that bloggers people everywhere will enjoy. Because bloggers are never nepotistic and never write about anything they don't believe in with all their heart. You can trust a blogger—they're in it for all the Right Reasons.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Geranium, by Theodore Roethke

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine--
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she'd lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured!--
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me--
And that was scary--
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.