Sunday, August 30, 2009

Appearing Elsewhere

I have a post up at Conversational Reading, taking on Lev Grossman's painfully obtuse essay "Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard." Grossman has just published a fairly well-received fantasy-ish novel, and he's now trying his hand at the self-promotion disguised as general-theory-of-the-novel genre: the essay is about how the Modernists have kept smart people from enjoying plotty novels for the past century or so, but now, never fear, writers (like Grossman) are shrugging off all that baggage and indulging themselves to their respective hilts.

As Stephen Mitchelmore points out in a comment, this is a Groundhog Day situation: writers like Grossman say ridiculous things like this all the damn time. Maybe it's not worth the bother, but what bugged me about this particular instance was not so much the general argument or the attitude, but the ridiculousness of Grossman's specific examples. The blithe inaccuracy of selling A Passage to India as some plotless, unenjoyable Modernist experiment is deeply offensive to me. (And that's not to mention my irritation at such an insulting characterization of Modernist experimentation.) Surely, if there is any honor among magazine critics, such indifference to fact is antithetical to it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Put-Down Come On," by A. R. Ammons

You would think I'd be a specialist in contemporary
literature: novels, short stories, books of poetry,
my friends write many of them: I don't read much
and some drinks are too strong for me: my empty-headed

contemplation is still where the ideas of permanence
and transience fuse in a single body: ice, for example,
or a leaf: green pushes white up the slope: a maple
leaf gets the wobbles in a light wind and comes loose

half-ready: where what has always happened and what
has never happened before seem for an instant reconciled:
that takes up most of my time and keeps me uninformed:
but the slope, after maybe a thousand years, may spill

and the ice have a very different look withdrawing into
the lofts of cold: only a little of that kind of
thinking flashes through: but turning the permanent also
into the transient takes up all the time that's left.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"T. K. Whipple," by Edmund Wilson

I think this is a fantastic biographical review, about a figure unknown to me, although I am now very interested and hope to track down some of his books. The whole essay (only 11 wide margin pages) is worth your time, but in the light of upcoming events, I was particularly drawn to the section beginning with the last line of page 74 and continuing through "The whole spectacle gave me a horror of Ph.D. theses from which I have never recovered" near the bottom of page 75.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


The Criterion Collection blog asks for your top twenty favorite Criterion releases. Because I've been bogged down trying to move my stuff from one apartment to another (a process not likely to end soon, or at least not soon enough), here's some cheaply produced content: rather than a top twenty favorite releases, here are twenty I wish Criterion would release—most are, I have found, unavailable on DVD:1
  1. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Renoir, 1936)
  2. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, 1991)
  3. Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, 1952)
  4. Apu Trilogy (Ray, 1955, 1956, 1959)
  5. Mad Men (Weiner, 2007- )2
  6. The Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964) (Finally! releasing in June 2010)
  7. The Dead (Huston, 1987)
  8. Paisan (Rossellini, 1946)3 (releasing in Jan. 2010)
  9. Tristana (Buñuel, 1970)
  10. Fat City (Huston, 1972)
  11. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965)
  12. Two English Girls (Truffaut, 1971)
  13. Tom Jones (Richardson, 1963)
  14. The Go-Between (Losey, 1970)
  15. Senso (Visconti, 1954)
  16. The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)
  17. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1988)
  18. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, 1996)
  19. The Traveling Players (Angelopoulos, 1975)
  20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)
  21. The Criminal Life of Archibald Cruz (Buñuel, 1955)
Okay, you got a bonus one. What are some titles you'd like to see?

1 Yes, I know that there are numerous threads in various fora for these kind of geeked-out lists. But I don't want to contribute, just to pontificate.
2 Obviously available on DVD, but can you imagine how many sad young literary men would squeal with glee if this merger were to happen?
3 I had to watch this with Spanish subtitles. Since this film is about Americans and Italians often failing to speak to one another because they can only speak their own languages, this produced an amusing exercise.

Update: Evidently Lionsgate is releasing The Dead on DVD, but its cover makes me wish they weren't. Why couldn't they have just waited for Criterion to get around to it?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!"
-Alexander Pope, "Essay on Man," Epistle II, ll. 1-18

The way Lem's novel seems most often to be interpreted is to suggest that the story simply affirms a sentiment very like Pope's, that self-knowledge is at least the precondition for any further knowledge of nature or God, if it does not mark the absolute limits of our knowledge. Pope jumps from can't to oughtn't and admonishes that human limitations on what we can possibly know should also be limitations on what we should hope to know—the proper, in both the senses of belonging and suitability, study of mankind is man.

Lem is a bit more of a pessimist in terms of what degree he believes that self-knowledge to be achievable. His depiction of men struggling in terror with the possibility that the planet Solaris can know them thoroughly, shocking them into a form of self-knowledge that is also a self-alienation, suggests that perhaps the study of man might be appropriate for mankind, but not something it can lay claim to with any authority.

Yet I think there is a deeper divergence from the "proper study of mankind is man" line: Lem's novel offers a tantalizing vision of an intellectual problem so large and alluringly complex that human intellectual energy can simply be poured endlessly into its depths. This is what was so exciting to me: the imagination of entire centuries, generations of lives, of research and theorization, an edifice of thought and experiment that Lem fabricates so well. Solaristics is a sort of second Enlightenment for humanity, and Lem makes it convincing as a project, a sustained effort that envelops humankind, or at least as much of it as Lem allows us to see.

Lem, particularly in the passage I excerpted before, also is quick to suggest that we might imagine this project as exceptionally wasteful, a total intellectual loss. And that is almost more thrilling, that this edifice of thought and experiment is at the very least transitory, if not entirely a castle of the air, modeled clearly on the symmetriads that Solaris projects onto its surface from time to time. The novel is a terrifying but wondrous evocation of humanity's ability to attach itself to futilely grandiose projects. The possibility of a "proper study" is itself called into question. Humanity does not, contrary to Pope, "hang between; in doubt to act, or rest," but is over-eager to act, and will keep acting until the edifice topples or subsides back into itself. But again, this is what is most exciting about the novel, most exciting about Solaristics: the depiction of humans throwing themselves into the breach again and again, even at times imagining breaches when there are none.

Pope imagines humanity's fate to be, pitiably, "Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err," but Lem sees beyond that and suggests that mortality and fallibility are part of a larger system of multi-generational human effort that compensates for and corrects (to some extent) both mortality and fallibility. Yet there is no certainty, despite the corrections and compensations of multiple generations of effort, that the project will be, in any sense, "proper."

"His Rooms in College," by Thom Gunn

All through the damp morning he works, he reads.
The papers of his students are interrupted
Still by the raw fury, the awkward sadness
His marriage has become. The young serious voices
Are drowned by her remembered piteous wail
'Discovering' the one unfaithfulness
He never did commit.

                         Be more specific.
What do they have ahead of them, poor dears,
This kind of thing?

                      Today no supervisions;
But though he meant these hours for his research
He takes a book, not even in his 'field,'
And some note touches him, he goes on reading
Hours long into the afternoon from which
The same low river fog has never lifted.
If every now and then he raises his eyes
And stares at winter lawns below, each time
He sees their hard blurred slopes the less. He reads,
He reads, until the chapel clock strikes five,
And suddenly discovers that the book,
Unevenly, gradually, and with difficulty,
Has all along been showing him its mind
(Like no one ever met at a dinner party),
And his attention has become prolonged
To the quiet passion with which he in return
Has given himself completely to the book.
He looks out at the darkened lawns, surprised
Less by the loss of grief than by the trust.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Holiday, by George Cukor (1938)

If it's Hepburn and Grant and high society, you have to be thinking screwball comedy. Yet this film is far stranger, and I think deliberately so, than a screwball comedy; watching it, I felt continuously wrong-footed, as if Cukor, the director had a regular screwball script, and then changed everything on the set, zigging at every zag.

Here's the Wikipedia description:  "Holiday is a 1938 film directed by George Cukor, a remake of the 1930 film of the same name — a romantic comedy which tells the story of a man who has risen from humble beginnings only to be torn between his free-thinking lifestyle and the tradition of his wealthy fiancée's family." That doesn't quite cover it.

Parts of the film are like an O'Neill play, maybe Strange Interlude without the strange interludic soliloquies. But at any rate, it is just as intense: powerfully driven by the character's ideas of themselves and who they want to be, and punctuated with extremely blunt moments of anti-capitalist anger (at one point, a number of the characters give two shallow capitalists a Sieg Heil salute to mock them—wasn't expecting that from a studio film).

Parts of the film are indeed like a screwball comedy… if it were written by the young Henry James. In fact, I would submit that the film owes a certain something to Washington Square, but wouldn't want to push that too far.

I liked the film a great deal; my surprise at the kind of film it actually was (and not the film I presumed it to be) didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the terrific acting, occasionally very good dialogue, and luscious sets.

But… what's with the hats above? Did the film share costume designers with The Wizard of Oz or something?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

From Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

Begin reading on page 165 at "It was Gravinsky's Compendium…" and continue reading through page 169 "…an ocean of printed paper." Page 168 is missing, and you can read that text below the embedded Google reader feature:

"death-throes—impressive enough, nonetheless—which had been going on for centuries. Thus, for instance, the extensors and mimoids were seen as tumors, and all the surface processes of the huge fluid body as expressions of chaos and anarchy. This approach to the problem became an obsession. For seven or eight years, the academic literature produced a spate of assertions which although framed in polite, cautious terms, amounted to little more than insults, the revenge of a rabble of leaderless suitors when they realized that the object of their most pressing attentions was indifferent to the point of obstinately ignoring all their advances.

A group of European psychologists once carried out a public opinion poll spread over a period of several years. Their report had no direct bearing on Solarist studies, and was not included in the library collection, but I had read it, and retained a clear memory of its findings. The investigators had strikingly demonstrated that the changes in lay opinion were closely correlated to the fluctuations of opinion recorded in scientific circles.

That change was expressed even in the coordinating committee of the Institute of Planetology, which controls the financial appropriations for research, by means of a progressive reduction in the budgets of institutes and appointments devoted to Solarist studies, as well as by restrictions on the size of the exploration teams.

Some scientists adopted a position at the other extreme, and agitated for more vigorous steps to be taken. The administrative director of the Universal Cosmological Institute ventured to assert that the living ocean did not despise men in the least, but had not noticed them, as an elephant neither feels nor sees the ants crawling on its back. To attract and hold the ocean's attention, it would be necessary to devise more powerful stimuli, and gigantic machines tailored to the dimensions of the entire planet. Malicious commentators were not slow to point out that the director could well afford to be generous, since it was the Institute of Planetology which would have had to foot the bill.

Still, the hypotheses rained down—old, 'resurrected'…"

Friday, August 7, 2009

From "Outside from the Start," by Denise Riley


What does the hard look do to what it sees?
Pull beauty out of it, or stare it in? Slippery

heart on legs clops into the boiling swirl as
a pale calm page shoots up, opening rapidly

to say I know – something unskinned me, so
now it bites into me – it has skinned me alive,

I get dried from dark red to dark windspun
withered jerky, to shape handy flyports out

of my lattice, or pulled out am membranes
arched bluish, webby, staked out to twang

or am mouthslick of chewed gum, dragged
in a tearing tent, flopped to a raggy soft sag.

Yet none have hard real edges, since each one
is rightly spilled over, from the start of her life.

How long do I pretend to be all of us.
Will you come in out of that air now.


True sweetness must fan out to find its end
but tied off from its object it will swell –

lumping across sterile air it counts itself
lonely and brave. At once it festers. Why shape

these sentiments, prosecution witnesses, in violet
washes of light where rock cascades to water bluer

than powdering hopes of home. A hook’s tossed out
across one shoulder to snag on to any tufts of thrift:

Have I spoken only when things have hardened?
But wouldn’t the fact of you melt a watch?

Unfurls no father-car umbrella here. No beautiful
fate is sought, nor any cut-out heart renunciation

– if only some Aztec god could get placated! But he don’t –
there’s just a swollen modesty to champ at its own breast.

High on itself, it sings of its own end, rejoicing
that this cannot come about. Because I am alive here.

The full poem can be found here, and two other Denise Riley poems here and (a little way down the page) here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Toward a History of the 'Big, Ambitious Novel,'" by Mark Greif

I mentioned this article in my post on Kafka; it comes from the same issue of boundary 2 that features the Jonathan Franzen interview I excerpted a few days earlier.

It's a great article—ambitious, inventive, and important. Greif begins:
Criticism works by criteria it is willing to name and others it disowns. The “big, ambitious novel” is one of those categories used by nearly everyone to sift and sort new work. Yet it is not respectable. It is more common to conversation than to professional discourse… It exists as almost an atmospheric effect, apparently a natural consequence of the way that novels are written and the taxonomy by which they must be ordered—a category without a history. This essay argues that the “big, ambitious novel” in the contemporary United States does possess a history. That history entered a distinct phase sixty years ago, at the moment another disreputable but resilient concept established its hold in criticism: that of the “death of the novel.” “Death of the novel” discourse existed in modernist discussion before World War II, but its hardening after 1945 changed critical expectations for the major American novel and, ultimately, the sorts of novels that were written and won success. The “big, ambitious novel” as it emerged in the postwar period first appeared in response to, then came to depend upon, the maintenance of a conceit of the “death of the novel.” This was true even or especially after that idea passed out of the possession of critics and into the hands of novelists.
The article mostly focuses on analyzing this post-war moment when the "death of the novel" was being discussed, as Lionel Trilling noted, "from all sides." Greif draws a lot from Trilling's essay "Art and Fortune" (published in Partisan Review in 1948, reprinted in The Liberal Imagination in 1950), making Trilling the spokesperson for this moment; his articulation of the "death of the novel" is clear and direct. The novel, Trilling argued, might be considered dead if its internal possibilities had all been tested, used up by modernist experimentation. It might be considered dead if the novel had a historical shelf-life: emerging from a particular social and cultural configuration of forces, if we have now moved into a significantly different configuration, the novel will no longer speak to our times. It might be considered dead if, although circumstances haven't completely changed, "we either lack the power to use the form, or no longer find value in the answers that the novel provides, because the continuing circumstances have entered a phase of increased intensity."

Trilling (and Greif) give more emphasis to this last possibility, and it is here that the "crisis of man" discourse I spoke of in the Kafka post makes its strongest appearance. Here is where Trilling bids contemporary novelists to take up the great task of their time: "the restoration and reconstitution of the will." And here is where Greif brings in the cases of Hemingway and Faulkner to demonstrate how seriously writers began to take this task, and how eagerly critics re-interpreted older texts in terms that would fulfill it.

Greif then turns to the younger generation, the generation of Bellow and Ellison, Mailer and Styron; these writers were consistently slapped down by their elders for being unable to provide the kind of "will of man" narratives which were thought to be necessary for a world reeling from mass death. Then, Ellison and Bellow came out with Invisible Man and The Adventures of Augie March in succeeding years (1952, 1953). This, Greif argues, inaugurated the tradition of the "big, ambitious novel." By adding the ethnic dimension to the "unmarked, universal man" that the "death of the novel" discourse rested upon, and by reviving old forms of storytelling (the picaresque), Ellison and Bellow were able to claim victory over death:
Of course both men were wrong to think they had ultimately won against the “death of the novel” idea. They had helped create new forms in which to ceaselessly disprove it, however; forms which would develop into the “big, ambitious novels” we still have now. In fact, serious critics ceased to ride the “death of the novel” thesis very hard; it had emerged from certain intellectual concerns of the postwar era that were no longer to be as interesting to them over time. What Bellow and Ellison could not yet see was that the “death of the novel” fear, and the need to disprove it, would not really die out among writers, even as it ceased to be so interesting to critics.
Greif now turns to a few of these writers who took up the "death of the novel" banner: he describes a tradition of essays by novelists despairing over the possibilities of even writing: "Philip Roth’s 'Writing American Fiction' (1961) to David Foster Wallace’s 'E Unibus Pluram' (1993) and Jonathan Franzen’s 'Perchance to Dream' (1996)." There are a few titles that could be added, although I was disappointed to see John Barth's "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967) left out.

At any rate, Greif continues to make a very strong case that it is only by focusing on this ineradicable challenge of the novel's potential "death" that we can account for the development and success of the "big, ambitious novel" genre: "Vitality becomes its own pursuit in an age when the 'death of the novel' is a presumption that never can be laid to rest." Vitality for its own sake, of course, being one of James Wood's most lashing critiques in his essay on hysterical realism. Greif notes, however, that not too long after Bellow and Ellison's inaugural efforts, this genre, and this sense of vitality for its own sake, came to be associated not with a reconstitution of man and his will, but as a deeper questioning, and even an attack:
How did a form of the novel whose birth came in answer to a demand for the “restoration of the will of man”—and first met these demands by speaking from outside, but directed to, the usual stories of human universalism—ultimately metamorphose into that form of fiction most associated with an antihumanism? How, that is, did it become a form understood to exist precisely in order to prove the true impossibility, or meaninglessness, of any “restoration of the will of man”…? This would be the essential question for further research.
I think this is a valuable question, but I question whether it is the essential one; Greif notes that the idea of the "death of the novel" moved from critics to writers, but he doesn't touch upon the political (anti-Communist) valence this discourse carried when it was being bandied about among the Partisan Review crowd and others on the center-left. This valence did not, I think, travel when the "death of the novel" was picked up by the writers themselves. Absent the political context, the liberal humanism that attached to the discourse became superfluous and, I'd argue, contradictory: the "death of the novel" became attached instead to an idea of "man" or the self as inevitably fractured, not capable of being restored in the way Trilling envisioned. That understanding of man and the self was arriving from different vectors; it didn't mutate within the history of this discourse.

I have a different question about this history of the 'big, ambitious novel': it would seem to me that in 1948, the term 'big, ambitious novel' would more likely to refer to Michener or Wouk or Uris's novels or Gone with the Wind or its near cousin Raintree County, and I feel some accounting needs to be made for that context. Greif even quotes Michener. I think it would be valuable to recognize that this type of "big, ambitious [middlebrow] novel" must be included in our history, and I think that extends somewhat to the present day. Is something like Middlesex or The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Corrections a "big, ambitious novel" or a "big, ambitious (middlebrow) novel?" I think it depends on which critic you ask, and if this genre or form is more of a conversational/journalistic than an academic one, it would seem to me that there is a non-trivial question here. I don't know if it's the "essential" question about this genre either, but it's one that interests me greatly.

At any rate, Greif's article is really great: again, like the Franzen interview, I'm afraid it's either subscription or a university affiliation or buying the single article, but I do think the essay is a very important first step to talking more seriously and more historically about this genre.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Very Queer"

I now have a comment [update: a few comments now] on D. G. Myers's latest attack on me, in which he criticizes me for not wishing to engage with him over my post on Willa Cather and Alice Walker. In my comment, I itemize some of the argumentative strategies he employs which make engaging with him often frustrating and counterproductive.

However, amidst those stratagems, I think I can draw out a distinction or difference of expectations between his view of what a queer reading is and my view on the matter.

Myers insists on calling my "reading" (it wasn't much of a reading, just a brief description of one aspect of my experience) of Death Comes for the Archbishop "very queer." Those are my words, and they come from this paragraph:
Death Comes for the Archbishop, to me, was an achingly beautiful love story about two men, Bishop LaTour and his vicar Father Vaillant. Yes, I know I'm not the first person to read it this way, and yes, I could cite many passages that don't really require much strain to read them as evidence of this love, and yes, I know that Cather is often assumed to have been queer herself. I think it's completely, 100% intellectually valid to read the novel as a very queer love story. But I also know that the novel doesn't make this reading necessary, and that arguing someone into a queer reading might be a self-defeating proposition: you haven't given them the experience of reading the novel this way, just the idea that it can be read this way. And I think being able to share the experience of reading a novel is sometimes much more important than being able to convince someone that your idea of a novel is possible or valid.
I stand by what I said: I think there are sections of the novel that display the archbishop and his vicar in a relationship that exceeds mere collegiality; they are committed in a way that to me more resembles the love of a couple than the camaraderie of co-workers.
Now, let's examine what I didn't say: I didn't say these men were engaged in sexual relations with one another. I didn't call them homosexuals or gays, terms which, for the place and time period involved, might even be somewhat anachronistic. I didn't call into question Cather's obvious sympathy "with Bishop Latour’s celibacy over Padre Martínez’s debauchery," which Myers correctly insists is crucial to the novel.

But Myers doesn't just insist that this sympathy with celibacy is crucial; he argues that it excludes the possibility that these two male characters were in love*. And it is between Myers's insistence on exclusivity and my insistence that these two readings are compatible—the sympathy with celibacy, the presence of love between the two men—that we can see where our basic notions of what a queer reading is turn in very different directions.

For me, reading the relationship of LaTour and Vaillant as a love story has very little effect on my opinion of them as dutiful servants of the Roman Catholic Church, which the novel absolutely defends them as. I don't see the possibility of a love relationship between them as one that necessitates the presumption that it is sexually active or even physically expressed. I don't even think it changes the way we read their actions within the wider scope of the archdiocese; I don't think, and never argued, for instance, that Bishop LaTour has sexual feelings for Kit Carson, or romantic feelings even, or that Father Vaillant's trip to Colorado to an all-male camp had anything to do with his feelings for LaTour. To me, the overlay of a love story on the relationship between LaTour and Vaillant alters the story negligibly from how I would read it without the love story.

For Myers, however, adding a love story is literally sacrilegious; assuming that the two priests have stronger feelings than camaraderie means assuming they're having sex, that they're breaking their vows of celibacy. Since Myers is very upfront about his conservative credentials, I don't think it's out of bounds to draw a connection between common conservative views on the "inherent" promiscuity of homosexuality and Myers's interpretation of the novel. For Myers, same-sex love can't stay unconsummated.

Furthermore, if a man does love another man, this interpretation requires that this love must in some sense control him, so that adding a same-sex love story to the novel requires that we re-interpret everything, because these men are now completely different characters from their normal heterosexual interpretations. Note that one of his arguments (a comical one, perhaps, but one he did make) about why these men could not have loved one another is a simple display of their portraits: whether Myers means they're too ugly to be in love (because, again, same-sex love is all sexually driven and only sexually expressed, and how could either one of those ugly men be sexually attracted to the other?) or too staid looking to be gay, in which case they can't be in love with one another because again, gays can't repress themselves, so if they're not flamboyant, they're probably not in love with another man. (Myers will probably say I'm missing a joke here. Nota bene: I usually miss jokes about stereotypes.)

In this mode of reading, there is no "queer," just "very queer," and maybe not even that—just very, very gay, intrusively gay, over-bearingly gay. And to be very gay is to do damage to this novel which he evidently can't bear to see misinterpreted.

*Edit: By "in love" I mean in the full spectrum of love, so including sexual attraction.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Going Everywhere! Miscellaneous Links and Comment

  • The Chronicle Review takes a deeper look at the "Littlest Literary Hoax," where someone submitted to the journal Modernism/Modernity a critique of David Foster Wallace under the name Jay Murray Siskind, a character from Don DeLillo's White Noise. The embarrassing part about the hoax is that, even if people "got it" when it happened, no one's bothered to call attention to it as a joke or hoax for five years. (Scott Esposito reported on this story previously.) Here's the original blog post "discovering" the ruse and a response from some of the editors of Modernism/Modernity. [Update 8/7: HTMLGiant adds a bit more to the story.]
  • A Kay Ryan poem in this week's New Yorker.
  • David Mitchell! God, I loved both Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green.
  • At The Rumpus, a great interview with Sam Anderson, book critic for New York mag.
  • I was reading an article by Alexander Nehamas ("Critical Monism as a Regulative Ideal"—it was really good), and wanted to know more about him and ended up at this review of Nehamas's most recent book, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. The reviewer is Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whose byline I always enjoy seeing. Lewis-Kraus has only good things to say about Nehamas, and I am very intrigued.
  • A conversation on Michael Mann (the director, not the sociologist). It's quite long, but the stuff I've read from it is insightful and articulated well.
  • The trailer from Bright Star, the Jane Campion biopic of Keats. Reaction: blech.
  • On the other hand, the new Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, looks very good.

The Trial, by Franz Kafka

It is a little shocking to discover that Josef K. is, even considering the circumstances, a jerk. That's not one of the things that gets put on the back cover, or mentioned in arguments about Kafka's "prescience" about totalitarianism, bureaucracy or mixtures of the two.

Which is not to say that this facet of the novel has been ignored; finally reading The Trial put into place a fairly important piece in terms of thinking about the character dynamics of a good many later 20th and 21st century novels dealing with menacing bureaucracy and/or totalitarianism—for instance, Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness. Understanding the narrator/protagonist of that novel in the context of Josef K. gives me a greater appreciation for Moya, even if I still am not fully on board with the necessity of blending narcissism and paranoia so slapdashedly.

I think it's interesting, however, to ask why the arrogant and self-important personality of Josef K. is an unexpected aspect of the book, or why I was anticipating a different kind of character. Thinking about this seemingly minor question opens up a much larger can of worms about how modernism is often very different from what we expect it to be, and what some of the reasons were for what I would argue are strong and purposeful manipulations of the image, themes, and tenor of modernism by later hands.

But I'll try to stick to the main question first: why was I anticipating a different kind of character? Well, who was I expecting? I think I was expecting someone much more like a combination of Gregor Samsa and Winston Smith, from Nineteen Eighty-Four—a little meek, a great deal confused, and not very important. And I think that between these two characters, two influences on the continued reception and understanding of The Trial can be discerned.

First, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that Kafka's stories are overly determinative in characterizing his work as a whole, and this is particularly the case when it comes to The Trial. I don't mean to argue that there is a radical discontinuity between the stories and The Trial but simply that the continuity has been overstated and has obscured the novel, especially given the fact that the stories are far more famous and far more widely read. I think it is very limiting to read The Trial as if it were an elongated story from the same mold as "The Metamorphosis" or "In the Penal Colony," yet I think this understanding of the novel is not uncommon.

Secondly, I think it is fairly common to read The Trial as if its closest literary kin were dystopian and/or anti-Stalin books like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Darkness at Noon, or even One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Kafka may be more parabolic, more mystical, but there is certainly a nebulous sense of affinity floating over this group. Even if he is not counted a direct influence, Kafka is seen as the necessary precursor of any attempt to come to grips with the 20th century's traumas. You might be forgiven for thinking that without Kafka, we would be incapable of responding to the century, and more particularly incapable of responding to Hitler and Stalin.

I certainly don't mean to belittle Kafka; while I would come down rather closer to Edmund Wilson's (in)famous 1947 "A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka" than I imagine most people would, I would never go so far as to say, as Wilson did,
with much admiration for Kafka, I find it impossible to take him seriously as a major writer and have never ceased to be amazed at the number of people who can… "One must not cheat anybody," says Kafka, in an aphorism which has been much applauded, "not even the world of its triumph." But what are writers here for if it is not to cheat the world of its triumph? In Kafka's case, it was he who was cheated and never lived to get his own back. What he has left us is the half-expressed gasp of a self-doubting soul trampled under. I do not see how one can possible take him for either a great artist or a moral guide.
Wilson is striking out more at the High-Churchiness so prevalent in the wake of T. S. Eliot, a type of sentimentality which was beginning to collide with existentialism and was being buttressed back in America by the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and others who felt that it was time to justify the ways of God to man (again). I think that impulse is right, even if Kafka becomes collateral damage of protesting the persistent influence of this complex of ideas which Wilson was lashing out against. That complex, I feel, radically changed—simplified, revalued, and evangelized—modernism, and did so in ways that may be particularly noticeable with Kafka.

Let me restate: I think Kafka is the paradigmatic example of a more wholesale reformation of modernism that occurred in the years immediately after the Second World War, where writers were sorted for their possible utility to a reconstruction of the idea of man, his nature, his will, and his likelihood of survival in a terrifying world.

Mark Greif, in a recent article in boundary 2 (from the same issue I pulled the Franzen quotes) carries out an excellent examination of how William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were re-tooled in the wake of WWII, re-cut to fit a new pattern of affirmation of the spirit of mankind and the indomitability of his will. Particularly interesting is Greif's account of Hemingway's reaction to Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech (the one about "the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice"):
There is biographical evidence to suggest that Faulkner’s Nobel speech was at the origin of The Old Man and the Sea. “It may have been only coincidence, but [Hemingway] started to write The Old Man and the Sea hard on the heels of Faulkner’s much publicized Nobel Prize acceptance speech,” a prize of which Hemingway was deeply covetous (Reynolds, Hemingway, 252). Later, when The Old Man and the Sea was complete, the New York Times journalist Harvey Breit solicited an innocuous comment on the book from Faulkner, and showed this comment to Hemingway. Hemingway sent Breit this response: “He [Faulkner] made a speech, very good. I knew he could never, now, or ever again write up to his speech. I also knew I could write a book better and straighter than his speech and without tricks or rhetoric.” The exchange with Breit is in Reynolds, Hemingway, 252–53.
I have a good deal more to say about Greif's very interesting paper, but it belongs in another post. What is important to this post is that there was a very conscious effort on the part of many writers and critics to find or create texts to fulfill the needs of a project that Lionel Trilling described as "the restoration and reconstitution of the will."

And while The Trial has never, I think, been read in these terms of indomitable human wills, etc., what I do think is the case is that Kafka's writings have been homogenized (so that the tone of some of the stories is taken to be Kafka's only tone) and that the product of that homogenization was employed as the necessary complement of the project to restore the human will: reading Kafka supplied the gaze into the abyss which allows the will to know what it's up against. Kafka, I feel, was drafted into the "crisis of man" discourse just as much as Hemingway or Faulkner, only he wasn't around to help with his re-interpretation and reformation.

What I'd like to argue is that passage through this reconstruction project has made certain readings of modernist works much more difficult or much less likely and has in fact flattened a great deal of the variety and, I would say, personality out of many modernist writers. Josef K.'s unpleasantness is significant because I feel it greatly resists the "crisis of man" project, and allows The Trial to be something better (fuller, richer) than an allegory. The Trial does not actually read (I would argue) as a sort of Everyman morality play for our benighted 20th century; it frustrates the conditions of universality as much as it invokes them; identification with Josef K. is not always desired by the reader and certainly not always requested by the author—these are aspects of the book that are well hidden behind an interpretation of Kafka that emphasizes universality, political relevance, and angst to the exclusion of all other concerns or elements of his work.

Richard and I have batted the idea of imperialist modernism around in comments before, and I think I am much more comfortable with re-locating any imperialist impulses here, in the immediate post-war period, when some twentieth-century writers were grabbed hold of as standard-bearers for the human will or for "man." And I think it is important to sharpen this point further: this project was not a non-political one, but rather, as the presence of Trilling should indicate, intimately tied to the goals and philosophies of the anti-Stalinist/anti-Marxist Left.

This is just a preliminary conjecture, but I think it might be worth considering the "crisis of man"/"reconstitution of the will" project as an effort to de-Marxify even non-Marxist texts, or, rather, to make all "important" texts permanently unusable to Marxists or to historical (or later cultural) materialist analysis and critique. That is, I'm not arguing that Kafka (or Hemingway or Fitzgerald) are or should be read as Marxist texts, but rather that the efforts of people like Trilling were aimed at least in part at blocking these texts from ever being appropriated by Marxist critics. (This is my embroidery on Greif's ideas, and not something which I'm drawing from his article, but I think it is an interesting hypothesis and one I hope to explore more.)

At the very least, however, the idea that The Trial belongs unreservedly within this discourse of the "crisis of man," that it in fact says similar things about human authority and the abuses of authority as the other participants in this discourse (as, say, The Origins of Totalitarianism or Orwell) needs to be challenged. Edmund Wilson may have been wrong to dissent that Kafka was not a great artist, but he was right to protest the way Kafka was turned into a saint of the post-war years.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

From The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Begin reading below at "For instance, the following story is told…" near the bottom of page 118, and continue through "…even more resolute, more vigilant, more severe, more malicious" near the top of page 120.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Francis Bacon at the Met

Maybe it's just because the exhibit isn't really new, but there were many fewer hipsters moseying about the galleries than I expected to see.
The exhibit was also a great deal smaller than I had hoped; while I think it occupied the same space that the Turner exhibit took up (I could be completely wrong about that, though—for a former Boy Scout, my sense of direction is atrocious), I felt that the whole thing was so much more spare and seemingly more hastily assembled—especially the curatorial notes. And there were just a lot of paintings missing that I had hoped to see. But then again, Bacon's one of my favorite artists and so far I had only seen the MoMA's paintings, so I probably shouldn't complain. Here's the Met page for the paintings they are displaying.

Shelley at Read Red also visited the exhibit recently and has some reflections on Bacon.

Has anyone read the Deleuze book on Bacon? There are a couple of quotes drawn from it which are used in the curatorial material, but it seems to be rarely cited when discussing Deleuze's work and philosophy.