Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Reader of Talent

This past week, the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas penned a curious tribute to the 2008 Cervantes Prize winner, Juan Marsé [link is in Spanish, the following is my poor attempt at translation]. Vila-Matas puts Marsé's triumph in the context of the ongoing financial crisis, proclaiming that Marsé's prize is evidence that the book has persisted while we were distracted by the rise and fall of financial fortunes:
When we awoke from the dream of mortgages and those economic powers that we had believed eternal, when we awoke in the dead center of the maelstrom that had devastated everything, the book was still there. It was amazing, no one—but no one!—had succeeded in altering it, no one had moved it from its perpetual position. We looked, incredulous—it seemed a lie! There it was, completely imperturbable. Years of barbarity had not managed to alter it, and now, at the beginning of that century that had commenced with the great tumult, the book was there to remind us or simply to inform us, for if we didn’t know it, literature speaks a distinct language—not that of the oppressor, and very different from the rest of those perverse languages which enslave us with their mundane tyrannies: the languages of economics, of politics, of religion, of the family, of television.
Vila-Matas uses the title of the prize to digress to Sterne, who "renewed the relation of the writer with the reader." Vila-Matas argues that at this moment, this relationship can once more be renewed, as the turbulence of the economic crises brings us to a new appreciation of the unique forms of "distraction par excellence" that the novel can provide.

But Vila-Matas has a very distinctive notion of distraction in mind—one that cannot be employed by the inactive reader:
In the flames of this dream of mortgages and the golden calf of the gothic novel, the stupid legend of the passive reader was forged. This monster’s fall is giving way to the reappearance of the reader of talent, and the terms of the moral contract between author and the public are being reframed. Those writers breathe once more who are desperate for an active reader, for a reader open enough to permit into her mind the figure of a conscience radically different from her own.
Vila-Matas finds hope that, "en un mundo sin alegrías" (in a world without joys), "new times [nevertheless] bring a revision and renovation of the necessary pact between writers and readers. The reader of talent returns."

Vila-Matas's brief homage to Marsé and to the reader of talent could not stand at a more oblique angle to the position which Walter Benn Michaels takes on the needs of fiction at the present, and about which I just posted. Michaels's certainty that the reader has absolutely no talent makes it necessary for a reimagining of what literature should be "about"—it must make clear to the sluggish reader that the currents of capitalism have almost drowned him, but it cannot do so by looking into history. I should pause to note here that Michaels's argument should not be reduced to a preference for Zola-esque realism (or, more properly, naturalism); Michaels has demonstrated no quarrel per se with non-realism. But his aversion to asking anything of the reader in the way of an adjustment from the personal to the political seems to me to be an exacerbation of the economic problem we find ourselves in, and not its solution.

Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine exposes many things about the networks of capital and the justifications used for the deeper integration of those networks into our everyday lives, but one thing I found particularly illuminating was her description of a highly paternalistic attitude on the part of the captains of industry and the neoconservatives toward the populations undergoing economic "shock therapy"—they assumed that these populations would never recover the ability to connect their individual plight to the larger political framework, that the fragmentations which these shocks occasioned would prevent the re-formation of collective action. Once shocked, twice shy.

Michaels's attitude is obviously very different, but his complete lack of trust in readers to be able to integrate themselves, their life stories, and the stories they "identify with" into the larger narratives of economic and political events is just as paternalistic. It is almost as if Michaels is afraid that once we drift off into Morrison's Magic Land of Slavery and Historical Problems, we're going to lose our ability to comprehend our immediate political and economic situation.

Vila-Matas, on the other hand, inverts this relationship. It is always the world which is most present to us, and the book which surprisingly persists, even through our inattention. Vila-Matas trusts that the reader will always return to the world—what else can she do? The reader of talent, however, is one for whom the meaning of reading as a distraction is not about disengagement from the world but an engagement with the world on another's terms and in another's words—the terms and words of the author. Vila-Matas is confident that the reader of talent cannot and will not be alienated by this engagement, but will find it refreshing, even liberating.

I think there are more direct political valences to be gleaned from reading precisely those novels which Michaels would chuck, but you can certainly sign me up for Vila-Matas's program: a reader of talent is what I'd like to be.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Continuing Trouble with Walter Benn Michaels

The Walter Benn Michaels essay I posted on a couple of months ago has been receiving renewed attention of late because of an NYPL event. The discussion featured both Michaels and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the show which Michaels praised as a model for the kind of novel he believed was lacking from and needed in contemporary American letters. In that essay, Michaels argued that there is little point in writing novels about the Holocaust, slavery or other historical tragedies when "the only relevant past here is the very recent one;" older pasts recede to irrelevance in the face of the magnitude of the disaster with which "burgeoning capitalism" has saddled the world. No literature which doesn't make visible (to him) the economic conditions which produced this crisis is worth composing, much less printing and reading.

A video of the event is available from the NYPL's event page (click on "Download an mp4 video file") or in their iTunes store (free)—introductory remarks and Michaels's reading of his essay (yeah, they actually asked him to read the thing instead of summarize it) take up the first 22 and a half minutes, so feel free to skip to this point, if not further. Michaels is exceedingly provocative, as per usual, and David Simon seems to be trying to make sense of what Michaels thinks his show is, but has some nice remarks of his own. Dale Peck is there to be annoying and to awkwardly avoid looking at Susan Straight even as she talks directly to him and Susan Straight is there, I think, for reasons appropriate to her surname—the calm foil for three effusive performers.

I don't want to repeat my argument against Michaels's rejection of the "historical caretaking" genre he loathes, but there are a few further points which are better borne out by his comments at this event which I would like to talk about now.

In my post about Michaels's essay, I said that The Wire has become a cultural object which acts as a universal mirror—everyone sees their ideology attractively reflected in it. A large part of Michaels's rejection of memoirs and what he calls "historical caretaking" novels is their acceptance of the idea of the family as the self-evident architecture for the development and growth of the individual. Michaels believes that the ideal of the family is a neoliberal ideology used as a tool for eroding class solidarity, an argument which has legs even if it doesn't seem to conceive of the family as something with a history/histories and internal logic(s) vastly exceeding neoliberalism in both time and space (which he is challenged on by Dale Peck but dismisses without real argumentation). Regardless of his chronology, Michaels certainly doesn't see the importance of family-like relationships to the characters in The Wire (Aaron's brilliant paper on the show argues differently). This willful blindness is a problem that I'll return to in a bit.

Secondly, it becomes apparent that Michaels seems to take some part of his energy for this renewed idea of economically-conscious literature from a sense that white people have been hit hardest by the economic crisis. Michaels doesn't really put up much of a pretense that his argument against diversity-consciousness and against "historical caretaking" are themselves extremely racially conscious and have a racialized agenda: they do, and it is "pay more attention to the white victims of capitalism."

Where I really find Michaels troubling is that he's not, as one might naïvely think, arguing that the economic conditions and political rights of poor whites have been underaddressed and need to be included in a cross-racial anti-poverty politics. Racial solidarity in confronting poverty simply isn't a part of the politics he implicitly imagines—and in fact, it appears to be one that he can't. His politics can't be cross-racial because he doesn't pretend that poverty is universally and unilaterally a result of capitalist structures. He readily allows that racism is a factor in black poverty, and this is, in fact, the biggest sign for him of how unjust the economic situation is—poor whites, who aren't even the victims of racism, are falling behind. "The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They're not the victims of slavery… They’re victims of capitalism. And everyone wants to talk about everything but capitalism."

But talking about capitalism here doesn't mean—can't mean—talking about poverty in general. It means talking about the type of poverty that can be completely removed from racism (which he doesn't want to talk about at all), and that is white poverty. Black poverty, which must include a discussion of racism, will have to wait for later (for now, Michaels says, "at this moment in American history, anti-racism is completely empty as a left politics"). Christ said, "the poor you will always have with you"—I guess Michaels updates that to "the black poor you will always have with you."

Thirdly (and getting back to literature), Michaels argues against character as something that exists solely for the reader's gratification, a sort of node in the fabric of reality that we congratulate ourselves for successfully occupying for a brief period of time. Michaels argues forcefully that the obsession with character has its own (bad) politics, and he also says that the proper response to this type of fiction is not the creation of an oppositional politics but the imagination of alternative forms which may lead to (or at least affirm) better politics. Then he talks about American Psycho and clothing.

Michaels is certain of two things: First, that the popularity of memoirs and historical caretaking is premised on the bad politics of this character-driven fiction, politics which is deeply self-congratulatory and self-affirming because it offers to us a picture of the world as a personalized space: "The world we live in is personalized, it’s [presented as] a matter of making good personal choices or bad personal choices." Second, this popularity has crowded out the former success of protest or dissent fiction, which has atrophied under the shade of these character-driven fictions.

Most people (including those on the panel) don't understand how Michaels comes up with this second certainty: I guess for that you'd have to agree completely with his argument in The Trouble with Diversity, which very few people do agree with on all its points. I think the first certainty is also untenable—Michaels makes no attempt to demonstrate how a novel like Beloved or The Plot Against America offers us a world where the crucial conflict is between "good personal choices" and "bad personal choices," and tries to cram them in with memoir because (so he argues) they take uncontroversial positions (slavery is bad! genocide bad!) and give the reader a languid frisson of self-approval for agreeing with them. Michaels's reduction of all attitudes about things like slavery and genocide to "for" and "against" is ridiculous—he shows absolutely no understanding how a general consensus can mask residual prejudices and resentments (read Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person" for that). But that first certainty is also untenable because it muddles the production and the consumption of literature. Michaels's main case is that dissent-minded protest literature isn't being written now, but he never really addresses the fate of older forms of protest literature, of whether former critics of capitalism have also been silenced, suppressed in favor of the "new" attention to slavery's legacies. Again, "the only relevant past here is the very recent one." It doesn't matter that there are still popular examples of older literary critiques of capitalism, many of which were discussed with great familiarity by the panelists—these powerful novels can yet demonstrate the realities of the structures he argues novels should be depicting, but Michaels remains glibly content with his idea that Toni Morrison's readership is a grave threat to leftist intellectual politics.

But more broadly, I'd also like to ask whether character is really so antithetical to a commitment to the critique of larger societal structures, as Michaels is certain it must be. After all, isn't a novel like Invisible Man a wonderful example of how character brings the reader into contact with social reality: the immersion in the mind of the narrator and in his story opens the reader's eyes to the grotesqueries of racism in all its many forms. Without the attention to character, the novel simply wouldn't exist. How something similar cannot serve as a model for opening a reader's eyes to other forms of oppressive social structures I cannot fathom, and Michaels's willful interpretation of The Wire as essentially characterless—"The characters on The Wire are interesting but they’re deeply subordinate to structures"—seems to me to ignore fatally the fact that most people kept watching—and witnessing the degradations of capitalism and maybe even thinking about them—because they bought into the characters, and even more, into the interpersonal reactions of one character to another. We tune in because we want to see what one character does to another, not to see what the system does to a character—though we see that too, and note it well.

And here is where the family comes in again. The family, or a familial-type structure, is a useful structure for the novel or for a television show because it allows a procedural unity to attach to a diversity of characters. For Michaels, this wouldn't be a virtue, but if I have argued somewhat compellingly that character is not anithetical to structural critique, I think the family can be seen as an enlargement of the capacity for character to bring the reader/viewer into contact with a variety of structures.

The systole/diastole pattern of circulating the characters, each to confront a different facet of the general reality, and each to return to the familial unit, is the lifeblood of nearly all novels and television shows, so of course there are numerous examples where this basic narrative pattern is used to reinforce the types of "personalization" Michaels critiques. We get the idea, if we're not careful, that what sends these different characters into their different scenes is merely their personal choices, that the single organ of the family is a symbol of the equality of opportunity that all characters begin with, and which they squander or capitalize on. But how many family-oriented narratives really bear that out or uphold that logic continuously? Many family dramas are rife with the conflicts of unfair advantages that one sibling has over another. Watch Rachel Getting Married, read The Corrections—these works don't tell us that everyone gets the same shot at success, or even that all siblings have the same chance at happiness.

To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset, but the larger point is not that Michaels "fails to consider" counter-examples, but that his argument doesn't fully comprehend what families do in narratives. I think this incomprehension (and the disdain it generates for anything that traffics in families) is crucial to understanding the failures of Michaels's politics as well. Michaels has no use for resistance to racism or to anti-Semitism because the most lasting effects of those histories persist in familial structures—the families unrecoverably shattered and decimated by the violence of slavery and racism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust—and because resistance to their continued presence in the world most often arises from the family.

That Michaels can't comprehend and won't countenance these forms of resistance is really too bad: there is no reason why capitalism won't (or doesn't already) shatter families unrecoverably, and why the familial strategies of resistance one finds in a novel like Beloved or even like Everything Is Illuminated cannot also apply to the displacements and disappearances meted out by capitalism. Acknowledging this would also remove Michaels's main obstacle to regarding racial solidarity as a necessary part of anti-poverty activism: it would also make his vision look a lot more like David Simon's.

(x-posted 4/28 with some minor amendments and improvements)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Kingdom of This World, by Alejo Carpentier

I don't often have this reaction, but this book was just plain cool. It's a short book, but was made slightly longer by the number of times I had to put the book down just to allow the biblical thunder of the prose to pass over me. I don't really care for those "this writer is like a Kafkaesque Chekhov" type of pseudo-evaluations, but I think I can nearly get away with saying that the book reads like what I would expect if Cormac McCarthy decided to re-write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

That being said, the diction of the book is also vigorously distinct. Even in translation, the shifts in register are noticeable, cutting very close to the marmoreal solidities of Latin at some points, and at others laughing in an acutely piquant patois. But the range isn't just some ostentatious display, eager to impress, reticent to mean. Carpentier's range isn't shy of meaningfulness: stylistic elevations or plunges are extraordinarily effective at creating the sense of a society seething with arcane energies, weird forces which can only be expressed in strange idioms.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Copy-Editor Looks at Austerlitz

The most peculiar thing about the inclusion of photographs, diagrams, and other images among the pages of Austerlitz is the haphazardness of their placement on the page. In most cases, the images are obviously pertinent to something on the page or on the preceding page, but in many cases, they are not positioned in such a way to make meaning out of the displacement of text their inclusion creates.

That is, line-endings, word-wraps, and the general shape of the (very long) paragraphs on or across pages seems to have little bearing on the precise positioning of the images. Many if not most (non-full-page) images interrupt sentences with little or no regard to the point of interruption—an attempt to find meaning in which words get separated will probably come up with a handful of "meaningful" line breaks, but overall there seems to be no effort to break lines on or in words that have more than average meaning in the larger context of the book. More generally, there seems to be only intermittent effort given to laying out the individual pages of the book with attention to these small details; there are some pages which are laid out very pleasingly, but many others are laid out relatively unimaginatively, even rather unaesthetically.

(taken from Vertigo)

If we can think of the long paragraphs as a way of quickening (or lulling) the eye, the images' precise positions on the page come to acquire a great deal of significance, as they do redirect and possibly refocus the eye, and therefore the attention and the mental process of the reader. Because there are precious few paragraph breaks in Austerlitz, the interruptions of these images are made more noticeable, and begin to assume (at least in the way I was reading) the role of paragraph breaks—suitable nodes within the flow of thoughts, appropriate pausing points for a moment of reflection on the preceding words. One would think that this additional semantic role would mean that the images' position would be more obviously finessed, managed, or at least considered—there would be more of an obvious effort to arrange the page in a way that maximized the semantic meaning of the image placement. But this isn't the case.

Now, the obvious comment to be made here is that I was reading in English, and Sebald was writing in a language that often differs in syntactical structure, so hanging too much on the placement of the images is a fairly tenuous and tendentious proposition. Yet from what I've read, Sebald was quite active in the process of translation, and I wouldn't think he'd just forget to mention something like "Oh yeah, and watch where you stick those pictures."

If it can be assumed, then, that the ostensible haphazardness of image placement is intentional, or at least that there is no overriding intention that determines placement precisely, what must the logic behind this disorder be?

In a sense, the images' haphazardness is a stronger sense of "embedding"—although it seems as if they could be moved up or down a few lines without a loss of any specific meaning, this small amount of indifference also fortifies the images' significance to the narrative: these are not mere illustrations, tucked into pleasing corners of the page. They "interact" with the text in a manner very different from the way one expects them to: their ostensibly indifferent placement means that they are always a little belated or even a little premature in relation to the text which they most likely "illustrate"—they come just before or just after the position on the page where we might expect to find "Figure 1.1 Breendonk."

The images therefore become dislocated in a very real sense, although also in a sense that redefines "dislocated." It is defined not as something that needs to be put back into place in order to function properly (as a joint can be dislocated), but rather as something which has become accessible from another position, one unexpected perhaps, which has slipped or been pushed, but which remains visible.

The possible accessibility of lost time is one of those themes which has been dissertated to death, whether it comes in a discussion of Proust, Sebald, or Wordsworth, but Sebald's sense of lost or dislocated time is, I think, a little more agnostic on the desire to set time aright in order to regain access to it. The dislocation of time is not in itself a command to relocate it: the images do not need to move to a "proper" position in order to activate their meaning. Dislocation may still be functional, Sebald seems to say. He seems to urge, in fact, that we attempt to function within our dislocations, that it is more important to do so than to try to stand athwart time to get it to stop long enough to re-set our joints. This admonition, I feel, is quite different, and quite, quite powerful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Duplicity, Tony Gilroy

Forget Judd Apatow. The screenwriter with the most interesting things to say today about men, masculinity, and maturity is Tony Gilroy. Apatow's bromances may provide some very friendly discussion points about what it means to be a man in contemporary American society, but Tony Gilroy's films (both the two he's directed—Michael Clayton and Duplicity—and those he's written—the Bourne films, the new State of Play, Armageddon, and The Cutting Edge {wha?}) offer intelligence where Apatow reaches for bathos, and face up to the world where Apatow's heros usually start turning to their "best man."

Gilroy, however, is just as concerned with the fragility of men, with the complex ways masculinity has been pulled into odd shapes by societal formations which seem not so much crushing as incomprehensible—mirrors of the ego so large that they dwarf one's reflection. In Gilroy's scripts, action, decisiveness, and courage have become fungible commodities, not personal attributes, not ways of stabilizing an identity or stiffening one's self-confidence. I don't want to give away a major plot point of Duplicity, which is a tremendous film and really worth seeing, but virility itself has become, for Gilroy's characters, an institutional and not a personal characteristic, and men can only exercise it in the name of an institution—a corporation, a nation, an agency.

But the most interesting aspect of Gilroy's meditations on masculinity—where he really excels, as Clive Owen's character Ray might say—is on what to do with women in his films. In this, Gilroy is smarter and more subtle than Michael Mann, who is otherwise probably the most interesting director of action films and one of the most interesting writers when it comes to masculinity. And it goes without saying that Gilroy is light years ahead of the troglodytic Apatow.

It's not exactly eye-opening cultural criticism to say that action films typically struggle with what roles to assign women, particularly when they are also trying to interrogate how "men of action" can be integrated into a society which is fairly ambivalent about the need for action. And god help the action film that tries to empower women and retain a compelling male lead! It's not that this feat hasn't been accomplished, (although I'm a little stumped for examples) but I would most certainly like to proffer both Michael Clayton and Duplicity as at least mostly successful in this regard.

Both films are able to find ways to acknowledge that women participate actively and (so far as anyone is able) autonomously in the power structures which threaten and deform masculinity, and both films tease the audience with the possibility of mistaking this feminine participation for these threats itself, with using these women as stand-ins for the institutional forces which have depersonalized action and virility. Yet both films ultimately make this mistaken substitution impossible—neither Julia Roberts nor Tilda Swinton are or can possibly be seen to be the emasculating dragon ladies one might initially expect them to become.

In other, simpler words, Gilroy presents a way of introducing women into a world of action which is not constrained by the codes of masculinity which he is depicting as threatened. This move is, I think, extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily subtle—for nearly all action directors, the introduction of (empowered) women and the introduction of the theme of threatened masculinity are so closely correlated as to presume causality. Again, that's not really a ground-breaking analysis of the action genre, but I think what Gilroy is doing within it is legitimately groundbreaking.

Also, I just want to say that you are unlikely to see a more competently made film this spring, and probably not this summer either: Duplicity is remarkably well-paced, extremely well-written, the leads are compelling and the character actors (Giamatti especially) are really fun to watch.

Fail Blog got it wrong

Monday, April 13, 2009

But not under modern conditions

An interesting passage from Saki's The Westminster Alice:
"You see," [said the White Knight,] "I had read a book by some one to prove that warfare under modern conditions was impossible. You may imagine how disturbing that was to a man of my profession. Many men would have thrown up the whole thing and gone home. But I grappled with the situation. You will never guess what I did."

Alice pondered. "You went to war, of course——"

"Yes; but not under modern conditions.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor

It is my impression that O'Connor is most famous for two of the first stories in this collection, the title story and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I cannot entirely understand this, except, perhaps, by thinking of their utility in high school or even advanced middle school education: these stories are perfect bones to throw to high schoolers for a game of Symbolism-Scavenger-Hunt, and serve as durable but facile prompts for banal discussion, mostly centering around religion and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy may be the richest goldmine for the shallowest discussions: because hypocrisy tends toward dichotomous interpretations (s/he is or is not a hypocrite; one character or the other is the bigger hypocrite; hypocrisy is or isn't worse than outright evil), the reader gets the glamour of ambiguity but the solidity of a highly constrained field of options. You can argue endlessly in this shimmering playground of fixed positions.

Outside of this very dull level of interest, these two stories, along with the others in the first four-fifths of this book, left me wondering how O'Connor could ever be reckoned a great American writer, or even an interesting storyteller. The "Southern Gothic" ethos she is renowned for seemed to be like a stick of butter covered in chocolate: tasteful shadows just barely obscuring the greasily overdetermined but ultimately spineless plot. (Actually, "The River" isn't bad, and stands out over the rest of the first eight stories quite strikingly.) But the worst thing I think I can say about them is that no character is ever smarter than they need to be.

The last two stories, however—"Good Country People" and the relatively long "The Displaced Person"—are masterpieces. Well, I have one or two scruples about the last few pages of "Good Country People" (I think O'Connor re-descends into her tedious considerations of hypocrisy), but "The Displaced Person" is unequivocally the work of a master hand. O'Connor lets ambiguity seep into her story without guiding those ambiguities toward particular, plot-oriented ends. The characters seem larger than the plot, which may be a horribly James Wood-en thing to say, but which is certainly true, regardless of my feelings about Wood's overweening love of "characters who are real to themselves" or whatever. But in O'Connor's stories, a character who seems to be active on more levels than those which the plot bids is rare, precious, and surprising.

***
If hypocrisy is O'Connor's AP English Gold Star, "salvation" may be her Freshman Comp essay theme. Yet I think "salvation" has a little bit more to recommend it than hypocrisy, if only because its dichotomies have more meat to them.

Yet O'Connor's stories are not really about salvation—they are about justification.1 The mechanism of justification is the focus and constant preoccupation of her stories, each one carefully built to disclose the possibility of justification in the form of an epiphanic apprehension of the existence of mystery in life. This epiphany is not always made available to the characters, but it is granted to the reader, held out like a Communion wafer.

Because O'Connor is working from the Catholic understanding of justification, there is an equation for how this epiphany is to be enclosed into the story, a sort of soteriological algebra: where the Catholics have

works + faith + grace = justification

O'Connor's stories operate like

(plot + imagery) + characters + x = story

where x is the epiphanic mystery which is disclosed by the story to the reader—an analogue (but not substitute or vehicle) for grace. The creation of a story thus becomes a simple operation of solving for x, of defining that ineffable variable.

***
I think this equation has been immensely successful as an ideal for the writing of short stories, and that it spread through O'Connor to many other writers, particularly those connected with the Iowa Writing Program. I don't really think it has been an explicit formula, but I think its internal logic has prevailed over a number of writers, and is generally acknowledged to be the paradigm for how a short story is constructed. I am, I must confess, speaking from a vast lack of experience—I have never been in a creative writing classroom, and its rituals are as obscure to me as those of Opus Dei.

But I know what I read, and the kinds of short stories I read all seem to be built on the simple, elegant and utterly dull logic of this equation. Each writer seems to be possessed of a great deal of confidence that the crucial work of the writing of a story occurs in solving for this variable, and that this variable, by its addition to the plot, imagery, and characters, completes the story. This is an adaptable formula (because it has a variable in it), but it is nevertheless a formula, an algorithm, and it is subject to a certain noticeable consistency in its products because of their shared internal logic.

I think it is also interesting how a belief in this equation allows one to evaluate a story; by solving for x (by subtracting the elements on the left from the story on the right), one gets a certain idea of what the mystery enclosed is supposed to feel like, and one can test this against the feeling one actually gets, and if the weight of the mystery is found wanting or profuse, then the story is guilty of some excess or deficiency of one of its elements—a wrong value was assigned to the plot or the imagery or the characters, and too much or too little has been taken away from the story to square with the mystery.

Excesses are, therefore, dangerous things—they require that other elements be adjusted, or that the mystery must be diminished. This is, I think, O'Connor's problem in the first eight stories of the collection, and particularly in the two most famous stories. She tries to keep strict bookkeeping, but her characters get too large on her, and she is torn between her equation and her mystery. She wants to keep the mystery the same size, but can't bear to break the justifying equation. In the end, I think she sort of punts. But in the last two stories, she makes a firm decision and breaks the equation; she accepts excess—visions which whisper and burn on the page but have no consequential effects, characters who are bigger than they need to be—O'Connor for a moment looks at her story and decides it doesn't all need to be, well, justified.

1 A little soteriological background: if we simplify things a great deal, we can say that Protestant ideas of salvation and Catholic ideas of salvation differ most saliently at the point not of salvation's origin (both believe that it is in Christ alone, and through grace that salvation comes to humanity) but in the nature and degree of our responses to it: is our faith in this salvation a necessary part of its actualization, and are works undertaken in cooperation with grace of any consideration in the continued availability of grace. The question is about the mechanism of justification: how we become amenable to God's salvation. (As I said, this is reductive, but if you're interested, read this and/or this, and this.) O'Connor is right to shift her terms (implicitly) from salvation to justification: this is the thornier and more narratively interesting problem.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Parks and Recreation

When I heard that Indiana would be the location for an "Office"-like show about small town government, I began to wonder which of my home state's fine municipalities would get the Scranton treatment, turned unexpectedly into a byword for the foibles and quaint blandness of middle America.

Pawnee, Indiana, where Parks and Recreation is set, is not a real town, and the show doesn't even seem to be filmed in the Midwest, much less in Indiana (I'm a little insulted the NBC folks think Pasadena can pass for the Hoosier State). To add insult to injury, the show's creators don't even seem to know what the Midwest looks like. Below is the establishing shot for the title sequence. I honestly cannot tell what is growing in these fine-figured rows, but it isn't corn or soybeans, wheat or anything else one might expect from Indiana.
My disappointment is a little petty, I suppose, but the choice to fabricate a town wholesale does say some interesting things about the show's treatment of its setting. I wonder whether, like the movie Hoosiers, which is set in the mythical Hickory, Indiana, but which is based on an actual small town's run to the state championship from Milan (pronounced My-lin, unfortunately), the entertainment brass feel as if no actually existing Hoosier town adequately represents the purity of the popular conception of middle America. "Indiana" is more of a pastoral trope than a filming location and would always underwhelm audience expectations, whereas Rust Belt America can be approximated more palatably and convincingly by Scranton, PA.

A friend of mine wrote a very good op-ed about Parks and Rec which deals with the economic side of this pastoralizing condescension: Scranton has become a surprise tourist destination, and has cashed in on its ambiguous fame. No town in Indiana will be able to say the same, even if Parks and Recreation becomes a monster hit, which it looks like it will not.

On the other hand, the pilot (which is now up on NBC's website) surprised me somewhat in drawing its humor from a non-regional, nearly universal source: the pettiness of small-time (not necessarily small-town) politics. The town—what we saw of it—was not coded as very Midwestern, in fact; there was a very noticeable attention to assembling a racially diverse cast (even more so, I think, than The Office), and there has not really been an obvious gesture toward quaintness—the town looks like a generic, faceless suburb which could just as easily sit outside Albany or Springfield, Massachusetts. There is no rural presence (other than that shot from the title sequence), and the cast is, as yet, strikingly young—there are no old-timers, a favorite trope of the static, rural small town. The show's writers do not seem to want to milk any laughs from the setting of the show; just from its characters.

Yet this avoidance of the show's setting seems to indicate a future crisis of representation: the documentary-like filming techniques which viewers of The Office (and other shows) have now been trained to accept as a bridge between obviously absurd behavior and the very real work-related issues we really do face is now being imported whole into an imaginary setting. I can't understand how this bridge will reach far enough; any absurd behavior captured in this filming style will just appear more and more estranging, and there won't be any "outside world" to sink this estrangement in. Even if we've never been to Scranton, the knowledge of its reality is a sort of passageway to a place like Scranton that we have been to; knowing that Pawnee is unreal seems as if it will just repel any attempt to find a similar place in our imagination or experience, because there is no place like Pawnee.

There are, of course, shows which are quite successful in settling into an imaginary town in a real state: I'm thinking of Weeds and Twin Peaks, but there are obviously others. These shows are conspicuosly not shot in any manner which betrays a desire for confusion with documentary or cinéma vérité. They are shot like feature films and rely on a sort of positive alienation from the events depicted: Nancy Botwin and Dale Cooper are compelling protagonists because we have never faced any problems like they face.

Which leads me to wonder why bother with a real state, anyway? For a television show like this, isn't this an immediately obvious case of square peg, round hole?

I have only seen the pilot of Parks and Rec, and maybe subsequent episodes will explore the town a bit more and drum up some yokels to laugh at, but for now I'm left wondering whether the setting serves any point at all, whether choosing an imaginary town didn't kill any sort of connection to the reality of life in a small town, and whether this won't end up making the show airless, in both senses of the word.

(x-posted)

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.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Apologies...


for the recent hiatus: baseball intervened, and gosh, if it hasn't taken over my evenings. I'm reading Flannery O'Connor now and I think I'll have some interesting things to say about her in a couple of days, but for now, I'm reposting a great baseball-related poem about my favorite sports sanctuary:

"The Fugitive Poets of Fenway Park"
by Martín Espada

The Chilean secret police
searched everywhere
for the poet Neruda: in the dark shafts
of mines, in the boxcars of railroad yards,
in the sewers of Santiago.
The government intended to confiscate his mouth
and extract the poems one by one like bad teeth.
But the mines and boxcars and sewers were empty.

I know where he was. Neruda was at Fenway Park,
burly and bearded in a flat black cap, hidden
in the kaleidoscope of the bleachers.
He sat quietly, chomping a hot dog
when Ted Williams walked to the crest of the diamond,
slender as my father remembers him,
squinting at the pitcher, bat swaying in a memory of trees.

The stroke was a pendulum of long muscle and wood,
Ted's face tilted up, the home run
zooming into the right field grandstand.
Then the crowd stood together, cheering
for this blasphemer of newsprint, the heretic
who would not tip his cap as he toed home plate
or grin like a war hero at the sportswriters
surrounding his locker for a quote.

The fugitive poet could not keep silent,
standing on his seat to declaim the ode
erupted in crowd-bewildering Spanish from his mouth:

Praise Ted Williams, raising his sword
cut from the ash tree, the ball
a white planet glowing in the atmosphere
of the right field grandstand!

Praise the Wall rising
like a great green wave
from the green sea of the outfield!

Praise the hot dog, pink meat,
pork snouts, sawdust, mouse feces,
human hair, plugging our intestines,
yet baptized joyfully with mustard!

Praise the wobbling drunk, seasick beer
in hand, staring at the number on his ticket,
demanding my seat!


Everyone gawked at the man standing
on his seat, bellowing poetry in Spanish.
Anonymous no longer,
Neruda saw the Chilean secret police
as they scrambled through the bleachers,
pointing and shouting, so the poet
jumped a guardrail to disappear
through a Fenway tunnel,
the black cap flying from his head
and spinning into center field.

This is true. I was there at Fenway
on August 7, 1948, even if I was born
exactly nine years later
when my father
almost named me Theodore.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chronic, by D.A. Powell, and Live or Die, by Anne Sexton

I blush to take a quote from Harold Bloom, but in his preface to The Anxiety of Influence, he flourishes a typically "sublime" Wilde quip: "All bad poetry is sincere." Bloom goes on to say, "Doubtless it would be wrong to say that all great poetry is insincere, but of course almost all of it necessarily tells lies, fictions essential to literary art."

I wonder where the "almost" in "almost all" comes from; he nixed Plath, Sexton and Snodgrass from his canon, so I can't imagine his qualification has anything to do with confessional poetry. But what poetry, then, does not lie to Harold Bloom?

This may be an exceedingly silly question, and to be honest, I really don't care, but I think the question of what value there is in Wilde's flip judgment is sort of interesting, particularly in the context of confessional poets (like Sexton) and poets who often get labeled "post-confessional" (like Powell).

The question of sincerity is difficult to consider outside of or apart from the confessional genre; although there has been some excellent work (James Longenbach, Dan Chiasson) bridging the confessional attention to the subject with the modernist attention to form, it's still difficult to see the emergence of confessional poetry as anything other than a colossal change in the way poetry was received. Even more undeniable is that confessional poetry marked a sea change in the way amateur poetry would be written; if all bad poetry is sincere, bad poetry was never so bad as after Life Studies, Heart's Needle, and Ariel were published.

But one of the things you realize when you read a poet like Sexton next to a poet like Powell (who, let me just say again, is absolutely one of the best American poets writing today) is that characterizing a poet as "sincere" or "insincere" is really a way of abstracting them from the poems themselves; sincerity is really not about what a poem hides from us, but what a poet hides from her poem. In a poem like Sexton's "Menstruation at Forty" (which is one of the best, I think, in Live or Die—all of the poems about her children are completely excellent), not much is hidden from the poem, but at least a little is masked with imagery or metaphor.

Part of the problem with dealing with poets whom we can't outright call sincere, poets who do seem to hide maybe a little something from their poems, is that even the non-pejorative antonyms of "sincere" are all so deficient: "coy" may describe a poet like Powell satisfactorily to some of his readers, as his wit can seem elusive and playful, but it in no way prepares the reader to do anything with the poem other than register those elements which fulfill that coyness: flippant puns, light-hearted pop-cultural allusions, knowingly clever formal stylings (e.g., there is a pull-out extra-large page at the center of the book: on one side is a poem called "Cinemascope," on the other, "Centerfold"). Where do you really get with a "coy" poem? At least with a poem you assume to be sincere, you tend to look at the architecture of the poem either to validate that sincerity or to undermine/deconstruct it. "Sincerity" presumes some depth, which the reader is obliged to fathom at least tentatively.

Chronic, Powell's fourth book, brings this problem to a calm but rolling boil. His previous books have excelled at creating voices, situations, formulas, and styles which keep the reader constantly on the move, the poet ever cleverer by half-a-step or more, yet always close enough to make a moving intimacy felt. The emotional force of Powell's poems was transmitted less by touch than by proximity. They have been "coy," if you want to call them that, but their playfulness was hardly superficial.

Or rather, the poems resisted the idea of "superficiality," of "depth," of "layers" of meaning: the surface didn't hide depths because the vertical wasn't the primary axis of meaning. In his first book, Tea, Powell wrote (almost?) entirely in very long lines: the book itself was bound oddly to emphasize this horizontality. The extra-long line (which you can read about here in a very good interview) was not just a formal trick: even Powell's regular-sized lines (in Lunch and Cocktails) seem to grow and move and mean across the page as much or more than down it.

The title of this new collection is, then, a perfect theme for this horizontal orientation: the chronic diseases of our planet and our bodies, our minds and our societies are incurable, persistent, and so very deadly because they exist horizontally, across our days. We rarely reach a point of separation, or a point of depth; intensities ebb and flow, but the continuity of our condition is that condition's primary experience.

But Powell has also added an element to this collection that was, if not absent, certainly less notable in his previous books: the pastoral tradition, that genre that specializes in moments frozen in ideality, cuts down into this chronic ongoingness, asserting that the verticality of memory's depths and the earth's depths and heights can still be meaningful bulwarks against the chronic.

There are quite a few poems from Powell's new collection up at Poetry magazine: I highly recommend them, and I think they illustrate this dynamic well, particularly "continental divide." Powell's use of the pastoral is not so much a way of preserving an idealized former state of existence, and it is certainly not a way of creating an idyllic alternative existence, but is rather a way of securing the ability to resist the chronic, to acknowledge, as he says in one poem, that "even the business of dying must be set aside occasionally."

Chronic is not a lament for a time when death was un-thought of, unacknowledged, unheeded. The epigraph of the collection is from Vergil's ninth Eclogue: "Time robs us of all, even of memory: oft as a boy I recall that with song I would lay the long summer days to rest. Now I have forgotten all my songs." This is from the Fairclough translation, which (as you can see) is in prose (grumble), but here's the Latin:

Omnia fert aetas, animum quoque. Saepe ego longos

cantando puerum memini me condere soles.
Nunc oblita mihi tot carmina…

The use of aetas instead of tempus (which one might expect from the translation) is important: tempus (time) is an impersonal force, whereas aetas (age or, even more loosely, aging) here bears a more personal resonance; "memory" is also a pretty bad choice for animum (a better translation has "wit," which in its 18th or 19th C. meaning would be fairly good, I think); and "forgotten" also seems to be a slight miss for oblita—"forgotten" is too careless, I feel, too casual—"Oops! I guess I can't remember. My memory's not what it used to be."

I can't say for sure that Powell is, like me, dissatisfied with Fairclough's translation—he did pick it instead of others, I suppose—and that the meaning he intended is closer to what I take to be the Latin. But in reading his poetry, particularly the poems that have most to do with the past (the aforementioned "continental divide" and the wonderful "meditating upon the meaning of the line 'clams on the halfshell and rollerskates' in the song "good times" by chic"), the sense is not "I was young, and now I'm older, and I've forgotten so much of the past," but that there is a process of aging, a sort of chronic death, which we can more or less thwart for a moment, not by nostalgic reverie, but by acknowledging the failure of aging to close out the possibilities we saw (or failed to see) in the past:

…it's still 1980 somewhere, some corner of your dark apartment
where the mystery of the lyric hasn't faded. and love is in the chorus waiting to be born

is how the "chic" poem ends. It is very difficult not to read such a poem as nostalgia, and not to read some of Powell's other poems (the awesome, Jeffers-like "Republic," for instance) as straight pastoral, dipped in the honey of idyllic sunlight, but a little bitter now that the sun has faded. But I think there is a different, more dynamic relationship to the past than nostalgia, and a more complex idea of what can be retrieved—it is something much more than memory.

To bring things back to the beginning of this post, pastoral has long had a vexed relationship to sincerity: Empson defined it as literature that is "about" the people, but not "by" or "for" them. Raymond Williams's The City and the Country is, among other things, a demonstration of the massive insincerity of most pastoral literature on precisely this score. Yet I think that, like his previous work, Powell has attempted to reconfigure the poet's relationship to sincerity—to recalibrate those ratios of "about" and "by" and "for." The pastorals of this book are an enormous step forward in that recalibration, offering a nearly perfect workspace for a poet who gets so much meaning and imagination into a single line; the pastoral, one could say, has transformed these lines into horizons.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Of a Postcolonial Persuasion

[This post owes a great deal to the tremendously interesting discussion going on at The Valve about postcolonial criticism and to Aaron's and Rohan's comments over at Novel Readings. But I'm finding it a little cumbersome to try to join their discussion directly, so I'll just pretend to start ab novo.]

It's curious to read Persuasion in the light of the (in)famous Said reading of Mansfield Park in his Culture and Imperialism. Said pointed out the Bertram family's Antigua plantation was a sort of enabling fiction, sustaining the family's fortunes and thus making the action of the novel possible in a very real way. Said focused in particular on a casual exchange between Fanny Price and Sir Thomas about the plantation, drawing some fairly broad conclusions. A number of critics (and likely a number of readers) have taken issue with Said's rough handling of Austen and with the implication that Austen was just one more lackey of the slave trade and British imperial oppression more generally.

Persuasion, it seems to me, would have been a better choice for postcolonial critique: even the most inveterately romantic of readers would accept that foregrounding the novel's coziness to Empire would produce a valid reading. Austen effusively and earnestly sings the praises of the British navy in two prominent places, and the fortunes of a number of characters have been made by the imperial project (though not explicitly at the expense of enslaved peoples). Some may still object to Said's act of "implication" and not-so-veiled judgment, but I seriously doubt anyone's going to say that the issues of violent imperial expansion and Great-Power competition are of dubious importance to the novel.

Yet I think that Said's choice was the correct one, although I realize that it is often this question of choice that seems to be most grating to those who resist Poco's Empire: the idea that poco critics are picking books because they are intent on picking on them, and that the forgoing of other, more obviously valid choices is done primarily for political, polemical, or promotional reasons. Although this strategy (or the perception that it is used) has tended to discredit postcolonial criticism in some quarters or otherwise to give rise to the belief (sometimes founded in experience) that poco renders books through its blades and gears like so much meat (as Rohan alluded to). But I think it is generally the selection process, and not the grinding, that its critics find so distasteful: not the sausage, but the choice of whom to call a pig. It is the initial selection that makes the result feel, as Rohan says, like a "gotcha!"

Certainly, Said's choice of Mansfield Park (or of Austen more generally) does have tremendous strategic value. Lionel Trilling's essay on the book anointed it, more or less, as the most intellectually fulfilled (or most morally vexed) of Austen's novels and also limned a darker side to Austen: "She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation… She herself is an agent of the Terror." So engagement with Mansfield Park is certainly a way of striking to Austen's moral/intellectual core, of mounting an effort to draw her into decisive battle. (It might be pointed out that, as Mansfield Park is probably the least beloved of Austen's novels, its relative unpopularity might dampen the ire of Said's critics, but I think the idea of implying that Jane Austen was some kind of complaisant monster is outrageous enough to most people, regardless of the book.)

But Persuasion is also, perhaps, unsuited for the type of "space clearing gestures" (to use Aaron's term) that Said and postcolonialism needed to execute at the time in order to stake out a sufficiently large amount of intellectual working-room. Unlike the other novels, Persuasion is almost void of those firmly plotted junctures which knock the characters onto paths perpendicular to their prior direction. In fact, the idea of continuity or constancy runs through the book like a circulatory system, vivifying every scene and cell. The two protagonists do not, as most of Austen's lovers do, need to reorient their trajectories in order to meet happily; there are not the kinds of transformations, humblings, or self-surmountings which characterize the love-plots of all her other books, and the moral lessons that those books so strongly implied are, if not disavowed, at least a little abrogated. Pride and sensibility are not disciplined; prejudice and sense are not forced to moderate themselves.

Rather than transformation, the book is about its title: persuasion is a watchword for the author and her protagonists. It explains their actions comprehensively: they have been persuaded to do as they did, by social pressures, by familial pressures, by friends or confidants. But in all instances, one cannot say that either ever does something they are entirely opposed to; even Anne's initial rejection of Wentworth is recovered at the end of the novel when she tells him, "I was perfectly right in being guided… I was right in submitting to her [Lady Russell]." The minor characters (Benwick, the Musgrove sisters) may be transformed by events, but Anne and Wentworth are at most nudged closer together, but remain walking in the same direction the whole book through.

Yet this utter constancy is accomplished not in spite of the power of persuasion, but because of its prevalence and strength; Anne's susceptibility to persuasion is also a completely effective defense against the forces which threaten a transformation (her cousin). We can contrast this dynamic with the usual Austenian trope of the headstrong heroine, unwilling to accede to any force of mere persuasion, an obdurance necessitating the right angles of transformative events or revelations which has its apotheosis in Elizabeth Bennett. Fanny Price is almost more like Anne than she is like Elizabeth, but she is far more resistant to certain concessions (like participating in the Inchbald play) than Anne would ever be, and her timid obstinacy is the critical element that allows her to act abruptly on occasion and to act in abrupt occasions, as when the Bertram family is shaken up in such a way that marriage to Edmund becomes possible. The obstacles Austen drops into the plot force everything to go perpendicular; Fanny is able to turn with it.

It seems to me that the type of novel, then, that Persuasion is, is not very well structured for the type of ambitious critique Said wanted to accomplish when he set about analyzing Mansfield Park. How do you score the contrapuntal voice for a straight line?

Yet this does not mean that Persuasion would resist postcolonial criticism, or that the average reader's greater comfort with it being so glossed would be wrong; I think Persuasion actually has a great deal more to say about the different types of power active in the Empire and in the navy than Mansfield Park, but not because those concerns are front and center here and ostensibly tangential there.

The structure or shape of the book, I think, is of more consequence than the subject, and a comparison of Mansfield Park and Persuasion may demonstrate the different kinds of postcolonial criticism one can engage in. The Saidian form is (perhaps too) well-suited for a novel of transformations and right angles, seeming to choose them just to one-up their own voilàs; it is a dramatic criticism, and its postures are abrupt in their turns. But there is an equally valid form of postcolonial criticism which does not require right angles or precipitous revelations.

Or, at least, I think there could be.

(x-posted)