Friday, April 10, 2009

Hugging the Shore: Reading and the Obligation of Ignorance

I'm just now digging into the collection of essays you see at your left; Ilan Stavans has assembled a roster of literary all-stars from both sides of the Río Bravo/Rio Grande, each one containing the commentary of a writer on a hemispheric compatriot. The essays are of varying lengths, levels of sympathy, and degrees of insight. The book is divided into a section of "South Reading North" and then one of "North Reading South."

Stavans makes an implicit personal commitment to one side of the equation by including an essay he wrote on Julia Álvarez in the "South Reading North" section (Stavans was born in Mexico). Stavans has reason to ally himself with this cohort; as he acknowledges, "Americans [he means U.S. writers], almost by definition, have an imperfect, partial knowledge of reality south of the border. Their understanding of it is ruled by fashion, not by consistency." The "South Reading North" section is, correspondingly, a great deal "more substantial" than the gringo section, if not so much by page count (about a 40pp. edge for Latin America), then certainly by complexity of readings. As Stavans says in comparing the two pieces which act as prologues to their respective sections:
Pedro Henríquez Ureña, a startling essayist and among the first south of the Rio Grande to study the literature of the United States in a consistent fashion (he delievered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1940-41), wrote his panoramic piece in La Plata, Argentina in 1927. It is a scintillating display of erudition (in spite of its many blind spots and contradiction [sic]), a sideboard of the kind of curiosity that literature in [from?] the United States generates throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Henríquez Ureña's objective is to explain the artistic transformation that swept American writers during the two decades from 1907 to 1927, a time of extraordinary renewal in fiction and poetry. I frankly cannot imagine a similar piece on Latin American letters—at once panoramic and extraordinarily detailed, well-informed, inclusive, and incisive—written in a belletristic style by a U.S. intellectual.
I can't either, at least at the moment, and especially when we come to realize how difficult it may be just to replace a bland, genial generalist like John Updike. The obituaries for and tributes to Updike frequently made panegyric reference to his willingness—almost considered courage—to review books by Eastern Europeans and English-speaking Africans, among others. It's a sad judgment on American culture that we feel such attention to be both risky and irreplaceable.

It's especially sad when you actually read one of these risk-taking essays by Updike; Stavans chose his review of Augusto Roa Bastos, a Paraguayan novelist most famous for Yo el supremo (I, the Supreme), a novel about the Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, and the subject of Updike's review. Updike gives one of those "it's not worth reading, just worth mentioning at a cocktail party to look really smart" performances: he says, and this is the most complementary he gets, "if a masterpiece, it is the sort one should read for academic credit." He compares it unfavorably to Ulysses, although only in the most general way possible (he was able to follow what was happening in Ulysses, he says, but got kind of lost in Bastos). One wonders why the review was even written. The piece is so slight I can't even build from it much of an argument for whether or why this kind of condescending notice of "foreign fiction" does more harm than good.

Scott Esposito has posted an interesting notice about a prospective renaissance of Mexican fiction (and two posts about upcoming translations of two of Mexican authors) which has me quite excited, but I also instinctively draw back into a familiar posture of self-questioning: what drives me, what drives anyone to read fiction from another language, or even just from another (obviously non-American) nation? Is it what I guess could be called the "obligation of ignorance," the simple idea that knowing little or nothing about another country is a deficiency which one must correct? If so, I think this is very tenuous ground on which to promote the reading of literature in translation, or "foreign" fiction—the obligation of ignorance is much more easily satisfied by reading a review like Updike's than it is by reading Yo el supremo or even just its (surprisingly ample) Wikipedia page (linked above). It's a sort of white man's burden of the mind, and it is, at heart, imperial.1

But what other than imperialism can ground a project that is, by nature, about (intellectual) expansion? The control-focused growth of empires is the strongest model Anglo-European culture has for any form of expansion, and the literary world is really no different. I guess if I had to sum up in a single question what drives (subtly, I think, up to now, but in the future, I hope, more explicitly) what I'm trying to do on this blog, it is, how can I develop ways of reading and learning that escapes the desire for simple acquisition and accumulation? Some of my more self-reflective posts have been about that, more or less—can consciously choosing to read (only) books by minority authors make a difference in the way I view a literary-historical period, and if so, what kind of a difference? Can the lit-blog do more than just record the aggregation of one's reading choices—the books or essays or reviews read, with a response or an evaluation not so much of the thing read, but of the choice one made to read it? And what does the choice to read new books really entail? Is it really about self-determination (i.e., "forming one's own opinion"), or is it about trying to speculate on what books to read based on anticipated future value? How can one change one's reasons for reading? How can one find better reasons?

The element necessary for avoiding the type of reading that I think is, basically, imperialist—the equation of reading with accumulation, aggregation, or conquest—is what Stavans points to when he describes the case of North Reading South: our knowledge, our understanding, even our acknowledgment of the South's existence (as just one example) is "ruled by fashion, not by consistency." How can critical consistency be achieved in a reading environment that is often, to put it mildly, distracting? How can fashion be written out of our reading habits without retreating from immediate concerns which touch large numbers of people, without being merely purposely unfashionable, contrarian? How can reading, and writing about reading, live a different life than a career of acquisition—shelves filled, bylines accumulated, another writer checked off another list of must-reads?

I'll post more on Mutual Impressions: I think there are a couple of essays which present some compelling alternative models for non-acquisitive reading, and I'd like to deal with those ideas in posts of their own.

1(For the record, I think writers like Scott and M.A. Orthofer and Chad Post are all basing their advocacy for literature in translation on much, much better ground than this burdened sense of obligation, and I don't intend in the least to suggest that this obligation drives them in any way.)


Patrick Murtha said...

As far as I'm concerned, you're just being holier-than-thou about this. Enjoy your guilt-as-a-form-of-moral-superiority; the rest of us can just keep reading.

Patrick Murtha said...

And I have to notice how, in your end-note, you take pains to dissociate what you have written from the possibility of offending anyone who is a friend or whom you want to remain on the good side of; how incredibly calculating, political, and self-serving is that?

Andrew Seal said...

Or just honest--I really do think these writers have more complex and more laudable grounds for advocating for international literature than this condition I'm trying to diagnose, and I wanted to make that clear.

I'm not sure what I've done to merit your skepticism, but I think I have a fairly solid record of going out of my way on this blog to make my disagreements with other bloggers known. If you won't take my word for it, ask Nigel Beale or D.G. Myers or Garth Risk Hallberg.

Furthermore, I probably got more traffic from my spat(s) with Myers than I ever will by praising Chad Post's wonderful stewardship of Three Percent. This is the internet--if you want to self-promote, flamewars are the way to go, not blandly complimentary references tucked away at the bottom of a post.

Patrick Murtha said...

I supported you in your disagreements with the odious Myers, but I think you in your way are just as bad. To take an example from the post in question: I am the last one to claim that the late John Updike was perfect -- who is? -- but your glib dismissal of a serious life's work with the phrase "bland, genial generalist" tells me pretty much everything I need to know about your literary standards and ethics. The fact is that Updike will be remembered for a long time, while you'll be lucky to be remembered for a minute. Right now you're just peddling the old Susan Sontag "white race is the cancer of human history" line, and at least Sontag and Edward Said got there first.

Andrew Seal said...

I think you have me confused with someone else if you think I'm blogging to be "remembered."

Patrick Murtha said...

You're the one who referred to "self-promotion"...Remembered, noticed, promoted, whatever you like. No one writes in a public forum without wanting something. You could as easily keep a private notebook.

What I find especially heinous about you is your suggestion that, unless your motives for reading a Paraguayan or Tamil or Zimbabwean novel are pure, pure, pure, it would be ethically preferable for you not to read it and remain ignorant on whatever subjects those novels explore. That's going Said one step further. And although Said was undoubtedly a brilliant man, I come down on the side of Camille Paglia (who admires Said) when she takes him to task for a simplistic and condescending reading of Western "orientalist" scholars who loved and served their subject-matters -- maybe with a dash of imperialism in the mix, to be sure, but everyone is human and no one rises entirely above their surroundings. The same thing with Achebe on Conrad -- of course Achebe is right in a way, but how does that make Conrad less of a giant?

I have no patience with your or anyone else's arguments from guilt. Awareness is good; reading literature outside your own experience can expand your awareness, and that's good, too. Guilt, on the other hand, is a god-damned waste of time; and your fine-tuned ethical discriminations boil down, in the end, to so much self-congratulation. Get out of your navel. No one cares about it.

Andrew Seal said...

First, I want to make clear that I did not argue that reading nothing would be preferable to reading out of what I'm calling the obligation of ignorance. I'm arguing that this obligation is an unstable foundation for any project that truly seeks to create a vigorous consciousness of world literature, and that there are likely better ways to ground such a project.

More generally, on the guilt question: I find it interesting but not terribly surprising that, despite your disavowal of Myers, you have me wrong in just the same way he does.

I have never understood how guilt becomes the operative assumption for why a critique which may be self-encompassing is conducted. Whenever a white person talks about white privilege, it's white guilt; whenever a person from a comfortable background makes a case against capitalism or any form of inequality, it's liberal guilt. The motive is always assumed to be some sort of shame for being party to an original sin and the desire to expiate that sin through critique.

This is an extraordinarily lazy form of counter-argument, needing no proof other than knowledge of the person's attributes, which can be imputed to him if they are not evident. I'm white, ergo white guilt. Done!

What I'm interested in has almost nothing to do with guilt--not with engendering it, not with harboring it, ultimately, not even very much with assigning it, although I think there are moments when it is critically useful to make the obvious point and say something is fucked up when it is indeed fucked up.

This blog is foremost about reading--about what I read, and why I chose to read what I do. It is also about larger patterns of reading--those I feel are common among lit-blogs or more generally among those who would identify as "serious" readers--an elitist category, to be sure, but one which actually exists, and which has some interesting and notable quirks, to say the least.

What I have been trying to do is not only to consider these categories, but to try to imagine them differently, and to try to imagine alternatives to these patterns and choices. This is an open-ended experiment, and I'm not entirely certain I'll have any results which will be satisfactory to the readers of the blog or to me.

I think a consideration of reading and a reimagining of its possibilities and paradigms is one of the activities for which blogging happens to be very well-suited: it's communicative, communal, and much closer to the actual experience of reading than most other forms of writing (books, journal articles) can ever hope to be. That's it--that's what I'm doing and why I'm doing it on a blog--not for self-promotion. Why I'm doing it in the first place? Reading structures a large part of my life and the way I think about my life, so it's natural that it would be interesting to me, and that the way reading fits into lives other than mine would be interesting to me as well. There's no dark stain of guilt here.

Well, I've had my say. I don't really intend to respond if you insist that I'm mired in guilt, my navel, self-congratulation, Edward Said's navel, Susan Sontag or anything else.

Patrick Murtha said...

I won't respond again either, as I strongly believe that you are indeed so "mired." I have unsubscribed from your blog in my RSS feed. There are better things to read.