Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was. I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name. She was from Indiana, too.
"My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier?"
I admitted I was.
"I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier." 
"I'm not," I said. "I never knew anybody who was."
"Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I've been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything."
"That's reassuring." 
"You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?"
"He's a Hoosier. and the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo…"
"Attaché," said her husband.
"He's a Hoosier," said Hazel. "And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia…"
"A Hoosier?" I asked.
"Not only him, but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too. And that man in Chile…"
"A Hoosier, too?"
"You can't go anywhere a Hoosier hasn't made his mark," she said.
"The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier." 
"And James Whitcomb Riley." 
"Are you from Indiana, too?" I asked her husband.
"Nope. I'm a Prairie Stater. 'Land of Lincoln,' as they say."
"As far as that goes," said Hazel triumphantly, "Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County."
"Sure," I said.
"I don't know what it is about Hoosiers," said Hazel, "but they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they'd be amazed."
"That's true," I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm. "We Hoosiers got to stick together." 
"you call me 'Mom.'"
"Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, 'You call me Mom.'"
"Uh huh."
"Let me hear you say it," she urged.
She smiled and let go of my arm. Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle. My calling Hazel "Mom" had shut it off, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along.

Hazel's obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the was God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere. (89-92)

This passage reminded me of a line I've noted before on this blog: in My Ántonia, Willa Cather wrote,
We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate… We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.
Cather's not talking about Indiana, but to some extent, I think that what Vonnegut's making fun of is a more general Midwestern phenomenon, although I find that it is strongest among Hoosiers—although geographically, we're one of the easternmost states of the region, in a certain sense, we're the Midwest of the Midwest, the Heart of the Heart of the Country, as Gass has it, and so the "kind of freemasonry" which Cather describes and which Vonnegut ribs is most pronounced among us. As a Hoosier myself, I can personally attest to this sense of sodality, of a sort of immediate and unspoken mutual understanding which flashes up the moment you realize you're talking to another Hoosier abroad (this only works if you're not in Indiana, for obvious reasons).

My hypothesis for why this kind of thing happens is that Hoosiers are taught almost from birth that we are a rooted, immobile people, practically buried, as Cather says, in our wheat and corn, but we are also eager to compensate for the inferiority complex this creates by over-lauding anyone who makes it out of Indiana and makes good someplace else. Yet this excessive adulation further drives home the idea that Hoosiers mostly stay at home, and so when any of us who do leave the state meet someone else who has done so, we fasten onto this meeting quickly as a rare and improbable occurrence, and we trust that the feeling is mutual. It's a very magnified case of innocents abroad, yet even knowing this doesn't really diminish its rather funny power.

The rather amusing flip side of this is that non-Hoosiers, I've found, tend to assume that all Hoosiers know each other. I've been asked more than once if I know some fellow Hoosier who, come to find out, actually grew up in South Bend or in Bloomington or in Carmel—places an hour or two or three from where I grew up. The sad part is that sometimes I do know the person in question, or have a friend in common.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reviews on the Run II

Back for more?

  • Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks: It is really too bad that Brooks wrote no other novels; this one has an odd sense of playfulness similar to some of her poems, but that really swells within the looser constraints of prose. 
  • On Native Grounds, by Alfred Kazin: A very thick history of "American prose literature" between William Dean Howells and the 1940s, it was amusing to read alongside John Dos Passos's U.S.A.; many of the characterizations of writers or intellectuals—Thorstein Veblen, in particular—and just to the general tenor and texture of the time owe so much to Dos Passos. Kazin is at his best, I think, when he is defending someone; his attacks are more spasmodic and most abstract. His reclamation of Howells, in particular, seems like a very personal—but nonetheless, very effective—project, and some of the smaller niches which he brings forward to the reader as deserving continued attention are quite convincing—I especially found his chapter on the "exquisites" (Thomas Beer, Carl Van Vechten, Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell) almost riveting as a story of rising and falling literary fortunes and reputations. His treatment of Ellen Glasgow also made me want to read something by her—has anyone a suggestion?
  • Appointment in Samarra, by John O'Hara: It is with writers like O'Hara that I feel most keenly the basic arbitrariness of the literary system. O'Hara is fine—there weren't any moments I felt irritated or disgruntled or disappointed, exactly, because very quickly it was apparent that this is only a good book, something you read because someone or some review told you to (it was Kazin that brought him up, actually, and made me decide to try this) and which you keep reading because it gives you no adequate reason to toss it aside—not even its length, which is modest without being slight. There is really no reason why he should be more often read or better remembered than probably about a dozen other novelists of his time, but he had his champions (Hemingway, for one), and his detractors (like Edmund Wilson) had nothing particularly savage to say about him which could render him truly ridiculous, like Louis Bromfield. I'm not particularly resentful of having read this book rather than another, but I doubt there's anything more to be taken from O'Hara.
  • North of Boston, by Robert Frost: I've always disliked Frost, but I wanted to check that this was still true. It is.
  • The Education of Henry Adams: There are more interminably tedious episodes in this book than in any other I've ever both read and liked. The whole London chunk (except the bizarre dinner Adams has with Swinburne) is dull to the point of exhaustion, although frankly I think diplomatic history has to be about the least interesting subject imaginable, so I'm most definitely biased. But there are also so many absolutely marvelous passages; the misfortune is that they are not well distributed, so there will be almost a fifth of the book which makes your teeth chatter with boredom and then a few really quick delights practically tripping over one another, and then you're stuck with something else which makes skimming seem attractive. (I didn't skim, though.)
  • In Our Time, by Ernest Hemingway: If, like me, your exposure to Hemingway's short stories is through those in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, I think you'll find these stories very strange. I haven't decided which I prefer; part of the problem is the appalling casual racism that crops up almost incessantly in In Our Time. One of the effects of this racism, though, is to make these stories seem less polished, less grand, less like something a Writer-making-a-Statement might write. It's not an effect one would like to see repeated, but that is what it does. In Our Time has a very different kind of simplicity from the more celebrated simplicity of Hemingway's later work; there is none of the sententiousness of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" here, nor the overdetermined allegories of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Really, there's very little of the heroism of the novels, either; Nick Adams, even in "The Big Two-Hearted River," is very small in his actions, and his focus on the simple actions of fishing seems genuinely therapeutic, as does Hemingway's lean prose, like an attempt to get down to essentials without trying to elevate those essentials to something metaphysical. Hemingway's understatedness in this book is a way of not saying the Big Things; the understatedness of his later work (especially The Old Man and the Sea) is, I think, an attempt to say all the Big Things. On second thought, I've made up my mind—I like this a lot better.
  • Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev: Many late nineteenth century American writers (like William Dean Howells) believed Turgenev to be superior to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I think that's a very defensible opinion, although Turgenev probably has a really strong appeal to fewer people. I am among that happy few.
  • You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner: It is evident from this fix-up "novel" why Lardner stuck to short stories. The first few times around all the jokes are hilarious; the second couple of times around they're whimsical; the last quarter or so of the book clearly bored the writer, so what do you think happens to the poor reader? The mastery of dialect is so complete and so consistent and so smooth, though, that even that last quarter can be intermittently good—just pay attention to the language, not the plot.
  • Crumbling Idols, by Hamlin Garland: Available to read in full at Google Books, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. A collection of manifestos, it's tremendously repetitive and repeats itself a lot. Still, it is very useful to me in thinking about the mentality of a Midwesterner trying not just to fight against the Eastern establishment but to convince everyone that there could be more to American literature than an Eastern establishment. 
  • Hunger, by Steve McQueen: A film that somehow has it both ways but doesn't seem like it's trying to have it both ways. I would probably need to see it again to say more intelligent things about it, but I think in certain ways it compares very well to a film like The White Ribbon, which I also liked, but which tries to play the spectacular nature of the act of filming against itself too much. Haneke seems to think that what happens on the screen is what overwhelms the spectator; instead of F I N one expects to see Q E D at the end of his films, even though what is being demonstrated is usually more ambiguous than I think many critics allow. McQueen, on the other hand, is one of the few directors I've encountered who actually thinks that shock is not a paralytic effect, but rather the opening of something deeper. Shock is part of the process of coping and comprehending, not antithetical to it. (On the other hand, my girlfriend had to stop watching Hunger after one particularly brutal scene, so maybe mine is a minority opinion.) I appreciate very much that attitude if it is what McQueen is going for; I look forward to future work from him.
  • Robin Hood, by Ridley Scott: This completely justifies for me, my intense loathing of Blade Runner. The passage of time does not exonerate Scott; any mind that could ever willfully inflict this upon itself, nevermind the audience, is one I can safely dismiss in its entirety.
  • Earth, by Alexander Dovzhenko and Strike, by Sergei Esenstein: Two great Soviet silents, but I have to recommend Strike far above Earth; perhaps it is my inner socialist realist, but the poetic touches of Earth are just too much. No one likes tractors that much, not even Kenny Chesney.
  • Mildred Pierce, by Michael Curtiz: I generally dislike declensionist narratives, but after seeing films like this, so melodramatic but so good, it's easy to argue the absolute decline of Hollywood. No film trusts its star this much anymore, and the results of that lack have not been good. 
  • The English Patient, by Anthony Minghella: Part of the problem, I think, with this film is that, because it is a film and you know it's going to last about three hours, you start waiting for the end. If it were a mini-series of, say, six or seven hours, I think this effect would disappear and you could enjoy it all the way through without worrying about how long it is, which is mainly what I was thinking about in the last hour or so. It's counterintuitive that the answer is to make it longer, but I think I would have enjoyed it more in that form.
  • Nine to Five, by Colin Higgins: There was so much unused potential here—I would have liked more, but shorter, dream sequences, and I thought Jane Fonda's screen time could have been divided up between Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton to great effect—but the real effect of this film—which made a ton of money—is that it makes one ask why Hollywood is so averse to women-driven comedies. That a film could be this much fun without really being that well directed or written is a pretty strong statement that women can carry a mediocre comedy quite easily if given the chance. 
  • Diner, by Barry Levinson: Not a bad film, but also pretty close to being Exhibit A in terms of Hollywood's willingness to let male directors go chase their dream even without a very good idea (dudes talking about girls, music, and sports in an all-night diner in Maryland—what fires does that light?).
  • The Marriage of Maria Braun, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder: This is the first film I've seen in a year or so which truly brought home why I love watching movies. I haven't seen any other Fassbinder (tried Berlin Alexanderplatz twice, though), but now I have a feeling I'll be seeing a lot more.

Reviews on the Run

It's been quite awhile since I've written one of these catch-all/clean-up posts, so some of the following is written not exactly at first blush with the books and movies I'm writing about. But anyway, here are some quick hits of things I've read or seen in the past four or five months:

  • The Fever, by Wallace Shawn: Who really knows what to do with Wallace Shawn? If he managed his career more like other playwrights (instead of playing iconic self-deprecating bit parts in popular films and television shows), I think that he'd easily be considered one of our greatest living writers. But another problem may be that, among all American writers today, he seems like he least needs recognition to feel good about his work; there is an assurance to his plays that may turn off or alienate those who are used to being asked by the artist for their approval. Of course, Shawn can afford—and in more ways than just financial—to be this self-directed, whereas many genuinely can't. But of all artists of the past fifty years who were born into privilege and connections, Shawn has to be something like a saint for how he has turned that privilege into a genuine artistic problem.
  • Blood on the Forge, by William Attaway: I read this novel of the Great Migration because I failed to read the back copy closely enough: I thought it was going to be set in Michigan or Illinois or something Midwestern (Attaway himself moved from the South to Chicago). It is instead set in the steel mills of the Pittsburgh area. However, it was well worth the read; it is very little wonder that the New York Review of Books Classics series has revived it. It is among those novels which give the lie to the supposed shallowness and tendentiousness of both working-class and protest fiction; I've been reading a lot of James Baldwin recently, and with books like Attaway's in mind, one has to begin asking just how many protest novels Baldwin really read before penning his philippics against Richard Wright. 
  • Dispatches and Kubrick, by Michael Herr: I just read Herr's memoir-essay on Kubrick, but I read Dispatches a few months ago now. I suppose it is very difficult now to separate Dispatches from Full Metal Jacket, but it was rather difficult to do so when I was reading it as well. At any rate, I find Herr's approach to sorting out the various moral problems of complicity, agency, and memory much more artistically and intellectually rewarding than Tim O'Brien's
  • But really, what one-ups Herr in a very provocative and original way with regard to these questions is Joe Sacco's graphic novel The Fixer, which is about Sacco's relationship with a sort of super-guide to post-war Bosnia, someone who helps him find the stories which are dramatic enough to dramatize. I read The Fixer at about the same time as Dispatches, and I probably should have written then about the way that Sacco was able to manipulate his medium to pursue some really provocative lines of thought and representation which Herr simply could not have except through his collaborations with Coppola and Kubrick on Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (respectively, of course). While Herr's work was obviously extremely innovative for its time, its "characters"—depicted only in words, of course—fade more easily into the larger narratives; it is through actual visual representation that something like the individual dimension really comes alive.
  • The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte: I really didn't blog about this book? That's tough to believe because I feel like I had so much to say. The short of it is that I think it's a better novel than Home Land, but that is mostly at the level of plotting and secondary characters; the protagonist of The Ask is less believable in his actions but more especially in his words. At times, Lipsyte seems to be borrowing on the job he did in Home Land, allowing Milo a crack or a cracked thought which would probably not have occurred to him, or would only have occurred to him well after the fact. The Ask is, however, one of my favorite novels of the year so far.
  • Jakob von Gunten (also called Institute Benjamenta), by Robert Walser: If something has told you anything good about Walser, they were probably underselling him. He's incredible.
  • Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis: I will be reading more Lewis over the coming year, so hang tight for a real post, but for now, I just want to ask why Lewis is supposed to be only a fair-to-middling prose stylist. I think that for a long time people have read him for his social commentary and for his humor, and perhaps some of the later, quite popular books which I have yet to read suffered stylistically, but there are really fantastic lyric passages in Babbitt, and his ear for speech is not just very accurate, but admirably selective: the banalities he transcribes are, if it's not too contradictory to say so, the best banalities he could have chosen, and best not just in the sense of most representative or most typical, but also best in aesthetic terms. Even among dead or overused metaphors, some are still preferable aesthetically, and Lewis always manages to find them, or even things a little better than them. 
  • Shock Corridor (1963), by Sam Fuller: Why can't this film—and not the ultimately maudlin One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—be our iconic representation of the madhouse? The more I think about this film, the smarter it gets. 
  • Twentieth Century (1934), by Howard Hawks: First of all, how awesome was Carole Lombard. Secondly, I kind of love old Hollywood films about Broadway; it's so strange to see Hollywood as actually having a sort of rival in terms of cultural power, as having yet to break up the theatrical circuits on which the stars used to glide. I saw The Band Wagon (1953, Minnelli) not long after, and while it wasn't very good at all, it depicted a similar arrangement.
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell: Do yourself a favor: if you have a free afternoon, read this very short book. If I hadn't already said The Ask was so great, I'd probably be getting around to saying that this was my favorite thing I've read since Middlemarch. Well, close anyway.
  • Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett: Hammett was much better at killing characters than Cain or Chandler. They should have contracted him to be their hired gun.
  • Penrod, by Booth Tarkington: One of the more successful Tom Sawyer knock-offs of American literature. Unfortunately, it is also shot to hell with casual and not-so-casual racism.
  • Blacklist, by Sara Paretsky: I can't decide if I'll want to revisit Paretsky's other novels in the future or not. Blacklist was a very good thriller, and the mystery was quite compelling, but I also feel like this book's themes—the legacy of leftist politics and reactionary suppression of those politics—was so exactly targeted to my interests and ideas of what would make a good mystery/thriller that I'm worried I'll be disappointed with other books in the series.
There are actually a few more books and movies I want to say a few things about, so I'll probably write another of these capsule-type posts in the near future. But this should be adequate for now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mutually Assured Distraction

I am not a great fan of Gary Shteyngart's fiction, but I think that, apart from some stylistic idiosyncrasies common to both, my distaste for his novels played little role in the irritation his New York Times Book Review essay caused me this weekend (the fluffy interview in the weekend's Magazine didn't help, though). Although, as we shall see, the content of this essay is, in essence, a justification of his fiction, much like Lev Grossman's ridiculous essay from about a year ago, although not nearly as ignorant or misconceived as that nadir of critical daftness.

Shteyngart writes about the personal effects of owning an iPhone or, more generally, of living among the new social media technologies, both hard and soft. The complaints are familiar:
With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person — solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film. And, increasingly, irrevocably, I am a stranger to books, to the long-form text, to the pleasures of leaving myself and inhabiting the free-floating consciousness of another.
But as I read further down, the complaint began to sound more familiar still; a melody from the 1950s began to play—the one about The Bomb and a deep change in Human Nature—whose most glorious variation is probably to be found in William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech in 1950. One can practically re-write a couple of the paragraphs from that speech with a bit of cut-and-paste and it almost isn't ridiculous; it almost sounds like something we hear today.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical distraction so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: Has my page reloaded? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be distracted; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but 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. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the digital life, the network.
How far off is that really, apart from Faulkner's consciously archaicized tone and the rather sloppy ending I gave it?

I think a number of American writers—New Yorkers, mostly—have either decided or come to some unspoken and maybe half-conscious consensus that the societal changes being brought about by social media are as encompassing and as threatening to the fundamentals of something which used to be called human nature as the threat of nuclear war was in the 1950s. That may sound extreme, and it actually is, but I am not merely trying to be provocative; there is a genuine homology between the threat today's writers perceive in social media and the way they are gathering to respond to it and the twinned discourse of the End of the Novel and the Crisis of Man that Mark Greif (of n+1) has written about and which I covered here.

In both cases, what is being described as a threat is a putatively immersive environment—in the 1950s, the fear of nuclear war; today, the distraction of social media—which is pushing humanity (seemingly as a species, although in real terms the most threatened are the most advanced societies) toward a point of crisis where what has been driven into latency or rarity—in the 1950s, the "dignity of man" or, articulated in more practical terms, the feeling of agency and choice; today, attention, which is often articulated again in practical terms either as genuine connectedness with other people or the ability to read dense works of literature—might in fact become irrecoverably lost.

But more acutely still, these discourses resemble one another because of the identity of their ultimate purposes—to advocate for the renewed importance of serious literature as a bulwark against these threats, as a source of regeneration for an embattled human race—and because they are in effect responses not so much to real material conditions, but to the fear that fiction—"serious literature"—is being outflanked and outstripped by non-fiction and other non-literary intellectual discourses, that pop and real intellectuals are absorbing more and more of the attention (and the buying power) of this country's educated audience. Bluntly and maybe a little glibly put, with essays like Shteyngart's and, to a much less dignified extent, Grossman's, we may be seeing the first skirmishes of a new, massive promotional campaign for serious fiction more energetic than any since the 1950s, when writers like Hemingway and Faulkner and Bellow and Ellison and Trilling undertook to wed the fate of the novel and the fate of the human race together in the minds of America's educated elite. It's a new arms race—can enough Important Novels be written to stave off the Great Distraction?

For what is Shteyngart saying, really? That he checks his iPhone too often? He says, "I don’t know how to read anymore. I can only read 20 or 30 words at a time before taking out my iPhone and caressing it and snuggling with it." May I suggest that before he had an iPhone, like most readers, his mind might have wondered momentarily every "20 or 30 words"—not to an iPhone screen, of course, but to some "interior" distraction? Do iPhones and the like really produce distraction, or do they just give a single physical destination for it? I suppose this is empirically testable, but for now mark me down as skeptical that Mr. Shteyngart's once formidable powers of unbroken concentration have been unequivocally obliterated by his new acquaintance with the social media landscape.

Shteyngart then uses a pastoral fantasy to drive home his point about the overwhelmingness of social media and the consequent need to de-link/disconnect/light out for the territory—not very original, but at least simple and very direct. But what this move suggests is that Shteyngart is possessed of a belief that human interaction outside of the mediasphere is equally simple and direct, that "mediation" is only ever the consequence of actual "media" interference, that we bring nothing to an "unmediated" social interaction outside of the "single malts and beers before us," that once we shed our digital shackles, we are free to be fully human. This is more than a little naive, and is probably not what Shteyngart would say if presented that idea so baldly, but it is the gist of his pastoral story. It is not a good sign for a novelist that he can let himself think of people and of interpersonal interactions as being so "naturally" straightforward; even more than we make tools to communicate, humans make reasons to foul communications up, to make our relations more complicated and more difficult. No iPhones are needed to send mixed messages, nor is Facebook required to have a public identity crisis. If Shteyngart truly knows that—and he should if he reads the Russian classics as assiduously as he claims to—then he needs to begin showing it—in his essays and in his novels.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Notes on James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover

The Changing Light at Sandover is a 560-page occult epic/apocalypse published between 1976 and 1982, composed from the transcripts of about 25 years worth of Ouija séances that James Merrill and his partner David Jackson held to communicate with a variety of spirits, including their parents, W. H. Auden, a first century Jew named Ephraim, and various supernatural beings, including the archangel Michael. (A few more details here.)

It's difficult to say what Sandover's standing is today; Harold Bloom put it in his Western Canon in 1994 (gosh, so long ago!) and in the past six years three monographs have come out using Sandover as one of their core texts (if the Library of Congress subject headings are any indication—the actual LOC catalog shows two, but my university's library adds a third: Brian McHale's Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodern Long Poems). It is often difficult to tell if academic attention is a sign of health or of recent demise, though.*

If Sandover is now a dead letter, its fate is at least a little peculiar given the extreme praise it received when it was being published and then again when Merrill died in 1995; people even seemed to mean it when they said that it merited comparisons to "Yeats and Blake, if not Milton and Dante" (that link provides a number of similarly exuberant assessments). While highly-touted "masterpieces" sinking into obscurity are a regular, even anticipated, occurrence in literary history, usually those disappearing acts are either because a different work with similar qualities or attributes soaks up the retrospective attention and memory of later readers, or because the tradition it was read into at its debut has re-shaped itself in a way that now excludes it. There aren't too many occult epics published in the last quarter of the 20th century, so I don't really think Sandover suffers from the success of a competitor. Is it, then, that the tradition it supposedly fell into—Yeats, Blake, Milton, Dante, perhaps T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens—no longer seems to extend to meet Sandover? I think this is largely the case—to a large extent, the shadow of these poets has only lengthened as we have moved further away from modernism, and the inclusion of a contemporary or postmodern poet among their number begins to seem preposterous—more preposterous, at any rate, than it may have in 1982, when Eliot was fewer than twenty years in the grave and Auden fewer than ten.

Of course there may be other reasons why an occult epic would produce less heat today: the tide of New Age spirituality in which Merrill's poem was awash has largely receded, I think. But I would say that the problem is largely the "major poet/major poem" dinner jacket which was provided to Sandover at its initial reception, an outfit which now seems either too roomy or too constricting. That is not to say that it is not a great poem—parts of it, especially the first section, "The Book of Ephraim," genuinely are some of the best poetry of the past half-century that I have read and do, I feel, measure up to Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats. But saying so and throwing in Milton and Dante isn't going to get you taken very seriously these days, I'm afraid: no one expects to find a postmodern poem that deserves such company.

And I don't think it really needs it, and a change in what it is compared to might do it some good. Sandover is a very interesting poem on its own terms, but it also would become a much livelier one if we were to compare it to some more contemporary occultists or world-builders—to works like Lovecraft or Tolkien or Le Guin or Ishmael Reed, even to Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman or Grant Morrison. (In fact, although I've only read one volume of Morrison's The Invisibles, it above all things was what has kept popping up as I read Sandover.) The point being not to knock Merrill down a few pegs to a more appropriate cultural location, but to get more out of the poem, which I think comparing it to these less lofty figures enables.

Merrill himself actually makes an explicit reference to Tolkien in the work, an allusion which can take one aback if one has strait-jacketed Merrill into the "major poet" tradition—what is this throwaway reference to a teenager's book doing in here? Yet it is anything but a throwaway reference. Here are the lines:
Remember Sam and Frodo in their hot
Waterless desolation overshot
By evil zombies. They of course come through
—It's what, in any Quest, the heroes do—
But at the cost of being set apart,
Emptied, diminished. Tolkien knew this. Art—
The tale that all but shapes itself—survives
By feeding on its personages' lives.
The stripping process, sort of. What to say?
Our lives led to this. It's the price we pay. (218)
These are in fact very significant lines, expressing a crucial reflection on the larger nature of Merrill's project in particular and, more generally, the demands and runaway nature of any large project upon the artist. Throughout Sandover, as Helen Vendler has said, "for rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija 'guests' from the other world a folie à deux [mutual madness] between Merrill and his friend David Jackson." But what comes through here quite clearly which I think is elsewhere obscured (especially when Merrill dabs on these strokes of "self-protective irony") is that the project of Sandover affects Merrill and Jackson not primarily by implanting a system of beliefs in their minds but by absorbing them into a process or a practice. The "Quest" and "the tale that all but shapes itself" are identically indifferent to questions of belief, in the sense of articles of faith which one positively affirms; Frodo loses his faith and Sam's wavers, but that is of no matter—what counts is that they are swept up in the process of the Quest, just as Jackson and Merrill are swept up in the process or practice of Ouija board consultation.

That may sound like I'm letting Merrill off rather lightly; certainly, it is quite difficult to set aside the question of belief and ask whether or not, final answer, Merrill thought he was receiving messages from beings independent of himself and his partner. Yet the more important question is in fact whether the work would be substantially different depending on what the answer to that belief question would be. I think that here Merrill is indicating that it wouldn't be. What I believe Merrill to be saying here is that, like Tolkien's saga, the Sandover project, because of its size and density (a key word in Sandover), absorbs and in effect dissolves its subjects not primarily in questions of belief, but through the slow corrosion of the process it requires—in his case, the addictive process of consulting the Ouija board with his partner, in Sam and Frodo's case the un-refusable task of delivering the ring to Mount Doom, and in Tolkien's own case, the process of meeting the undeniable demands already in place in the Quest narrative, the foreordained structures of myth.

Of course, questions of artists' beliefs will never entirely go away—it seems too important to ask whether Merrill thought Ephraim was a real being or whether Grant Morrison really believes in his sigil stuff. But these questions seem to have a greater force if we insist upon reading Merrill into the company of Blake, Milton, Dante, et al. For whatever we actually believe about the origins or inspirations of those poets and their poems, we tend to treat their works like revelations to us—monumental, indivisible, eternal. What is impeded by the "major poets" business but gained by putting Sandover instead in the company of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Reed, and Gaiman is not just the easier recognition that the poem looks ridiculous coming down from a mountainside on tablets but quite intriguing as a mass market paperback, but also that it belongs to a time when much of the world, and even much of the elite to whom Merrill was still addressing his poem, seems to have accepted wholeheartedly the idea that myths no longer come on tablets but are very glad to get them in pulp. That may be merely yet another way of saying Welcome to Postmodernism, but wasn't the insistence on reading Merrill into the "major poet" tradition—or any attempt to categorize a contemporary writer as "the last modernist" or any reactionary Bloom-like attempt to acknowledge that the "Western Canon" is still open to new members—actually a refusal of postmodernism, of the fragmentation of grand narratives?

Changing what company Sandover fits into isn't just an argument about periodization but also a way of giving substance to what postmodernism was/is supposed to be about. By reading it out of the "major poets" tradition and into a loose confederation (not a tradition) of occultists or world-builders like those mentioned above, we not only free the text of Sandover up to be used and interpreted in new and original ways, but we also place it within a context within which we can more easily and perhaps more casually talk about the relation between belief and practice without the pressure of the work's canonicity or "greatness." That should be what postmodernism can do for texts—allow a greater field for comparison, evaluation, and connection. And it is precisely what, I think, needs to be done to Sandover.

* There is also a memoir of sorts which the novelist Alison Lurie published about the Sandover project; Lurie was a friend of Merrill's and Jackson's for many decades, and her book, Familiar Spirits, is an account of the personal consequences of their occult dabbling on their lives. Lurie believes that the Ouija sessions both kept them together and eventually altered them to such a profound extent that they were driven into either self-destructive behavior (Jackson) or a sort of terminal narcissism (Merrill). I suppose that is the other option for what will become of Sandover: that it will exist as a very curious episode in the biography of a great lyric poet.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Difficult Books

The Millions has an interesting feature in which some of their staff writers introduce and kind of promote some "Difficult Books": The Anatomy of Melancholy, Paradise Lost, A Tale of a Tub, Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, The Cantos, To the Lighthouse, Ted Berrigan's Sonnets, The Dream Songs, Ada or Ardor, and Dhalgren so far. According to the introductory post, the series is "devoted to identifying and describing these most difficult books: ones we’ve read/wrangled with ourselves, ones we’ve known students to struggle with time and again, ones that, more simply, 'everyone knows' are hard to read—those works whose mere titles glisten with an aura of rarefied impenetrability."

I think the writers at The Millions and I tend to have different ideas about how to approach literature, no doubt largely because we sit at different positions within the literary ecosystem. I've made known my differences with some of their orientations and values before, so the less said about that, probably the better. And I certainly should say that I respect what they're trying to do and what they have accomplished as a site and as a community.

But what interests me about the project and about many of the responses it has generated in the comments is the very strong emphasis on readerly perseverance, on reading challenging books mostly, it seems, to prove to oneself that one can "get through" them. Many of the phrases used across these posts make reading sound more like arm-wrestling or mountain-climbing or endurance-running than anything else.

Enjoyment is emphasized as well, but usually as a surprise or a bonus: "perhaps, now that we think on it again, having finished, could it be that it was worth the struggle? Could it be that in the pain of it was a tinge of pleasure, of value (not to mention pride)?"

Perhaps pride should not be tucked into a parenthetical here, because it seems like the principal motivating force, both positively and negatively. Closing the book on the final page is both carrot—the self-confidence boost one will receive upon being able to say to oneself and others that "I've read Moby-Dick"—and stick—feeling beaten by the book, guilty about one's lack of self-discipline and intellectual endurance.

Honestly, I feel that there is no reason why most people should feel guilty about Berryman's Dream Songs or even Milton's Paradise Lost if they haven't read them all the way through, and not a lot of reason why they should feel great about themselves if they have. Reading some of both would be a great idea and I would be very pleased if every teenager were given some of Milton's sonnets and at least a few of the Dream Songs in high school (this one would be ideal), but very few people really need to be concerned or dismayed if they don't "finish" it or don't get very far. The amount of time someone might spend reading those works after they've stopped enjoying it is time I, frankly, would much rather see being devoted to reading a less intimidating novel, perhaps, or re-reading the parts of The Dream Songs or Paradise Lost that they did enjoy.

I certainly am not advocating a sort of general strike of readers refusing to finish difficult books or to skip anything that doesn't seem immediately pleasurable. What I chafe at is this sense that difficult books are most meaningful as an experience when you've bested them, outlasted them, pinned them to the ground by enduring them to the bitter end. This emphasis on readerly perseverance ("finished at last!"), on not letting the book beat you, is something I find very bizarre, and pretty counter-productive for encouraging people to try challenging work.

Rather than glorifying the difficulty of getting all the way through "difficult books," it would be nice if critics (myself included) went about removing the obstacles to getting some enjoyment out of them—highlighting really vivid passages, advising them on what parts are particularly tedious, where specific obscurities are or what crucial facts or revelations might be missed, etc. Infinite Summer did a very good job with these kind of tips, and The Millions writers do a little of it, and in places have done it quite well, but I feel like their idea is generally to encourage people to power through to the end, rather than to encourage them to find some bits that they will really like and work their way around the book from there. The latter goal is something I should try to do better myself, especially with forthcoming posts on John Dos Passos's U.S.A.

Friday, July 9, 2010

An Intertextual Moment between The Octopus and U.S.A.

Right now I'm reading Frank Norris's novel The Octopus alongside John Dos Passos's U.S.A., and the conjunction just turned up what may be a neat little moment of intertextuality between the two novels.

In The Octopus (1901), some of the main characters are in a gentlemen's club (a genuine one, not a euphemistically-named one) where a raffle is being held of a competent but, I think we're supposed to believe, rather dry and imitative landscape painting by a minor character, Hartrath. Here's the scene:
But the focus of the assembly was the little space before Hartrath's painting. It was called "A Study of the Contra Costa Foothills," and was set in a frame of natural redwood, the bark still adhering. It was conspicuously displayed on an easel at the right of the entrance to the main room of the club, and was very large. In the foreground, and to the left, under the shade of a live-oak, stood a couple of reddish cows, knee-deep in a patch of yellow poppies, while in the right-hand corner, to balance the composition, was placed a girl in a pink dress and white sunbonnet, in which the shadows were indicated by broad dashes of pale blue paint. The ladies and young girls examined the production with little murmurs of admiration, hazarding remembered phrases, searching for the exact balance between generous praise and critical discrimination, expressing their opinions in the mild technicalities of the Art Books and painting classes. They spoke of atmospheric effects, of middle distance, of "chiaro-oscuro," of fore-shortening, of the decomposition of light, of the subordination of individuality to fidelity of interpretation.
One tall girl, with hair almost white in its blondness, having observed that the handling of the masses reminded her strongly of Corot, her companion, who carried a gold lorgnette by a chain around her neck, answered:
"Ah! Millet, perhaps, but not Corot."
This verdict had an immediate success. It was passed from group to group. It seemed to imply a delicate distinction that carried conviction at once. It was decided formally that the reddish brown cows in the picture were reminiscent of Daubigny, and that the handling of the masses was altogether Millet, but that the general effect was not quite Corot.
Now, when Eleanor Stoddard and Eveline Hutchins meet in the Art Institute of Chicago, here is what they say:
"What other pictures do you like?" [Eveline said.] Eleanor looked carefully at the Whistler; then she said slowly, "I like Whistler and Corot." "I do too, but I like Millet best. He's so round and warm… Have you ever been to Barbizon?" "No, but I'd love to." There was a pause. "But I think Millet's a little coarse, don't you?" Eleanor ventured. "You mean that chromo of the Angelus? Yes, I simply loathe and despise religious feeling in a picture, don't you?" Eleanor didn't quite know what to say to that, so she shook her head and said, "I love Whistler so; when I've been looking at them I can look out of the window and everything looks, you know, pastelly like that."
Now, Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot would often have been grouped together as the leading figures in the Barbizon school of painting (Daubigny, also mentioned by Norris was another in the school), so perhaps this isn't so intertextual after all, simply the result of two writers wanting to introduce an explicit discussion  of realism into their novels, rather like Ibsen and Strindberg turning up together in conversation in two separate novels.

Yet there is something similar, and perhaps similarly mean, about both scenes of young women grasping at cultural straws to impress other young women; "Corot" and "Millet" de-code in both passages as a sort of feminized, shallow, rather frivolous appropriation of the vitality of realism, the realism of the male writer composing this scene. I don't know a very great deal about the Barbizon school, but the most famous product of it, Millet's "The Gleaners," which inspired Agnès Varda's magnificent documentary The Gleaners and I, would seem visually to corroborate this hunch:
Obviously, they're women, but it's not just that; it is the painting's implied comparison of the unheroic, in a sense unproductive, women who come out to gather the remaining grain from (the men's) harvest to the more noble (and artistically valid) masculine tradition of the pastoral scene or of an agrarian landscape. These women are doing something that is definitively (and definitionally, I think) not man's work. I'm having trouble finding a Corot painting which contains the "handling of the masses" of which Norris speaks, but at any rate, his paintings also seem somehow feminized, especially in relation to an earlier French landscape artist like Poussin or Lorrain. (That is not necessarily to say that Norris or Dos Passos would prefer Poussin or Lorrain to Millet, Corot, and Whistler, though.)

Now, like I said, I don't know very much about 19th century painting, so my characterization of Corot and Millet may be incorrect and I would greatly appreciate any art historians or generally more knowledgeable people to help me out here, but it is my sense that Norris and Dos Passos are each making a slight dig at a more feminized version of realism which is the kind of thing one appreciates with a lorgnette and titters over with a word like "pastelly." In a sense, these women stand in relation to the masculine realism of the authors in exactly the same relationship as the subject's of Millet's painting do to the farmers who cut the grain in the first place: Eleanor and Eveline are aesthetic gleaners, taking the scattered leavings of the trailblazers and geniuses, who of course just happen to be both male and masculine.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

There Is No New Media

There's got to be some kind of underlying joke here, right?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Country and the City: The U.S. Case

In my first post on Raymond Williams's The Country and the City, I wrote that "at least for U.S. literature, there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the city and there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the country, but there is no single study which actively attempts to fuse those together and read them as not only the same history but the result of a single process or regime (capitalism), which is what Williams does."

A commenter at The Valve pointed out that Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden is "the book that comes closest, I think, to the kind of AmLit history you want to do." That probably is true, but it doesn't actually come that close for a number of reasons which I find demonstrate pretty well some of the basic reasons why there still hasn't been a study of American literary history which does what Williams did and why it would still be quite difficult to write such a one. I didn't initially plan on spending so much time on The Machine and the Garden in trying to puzzle out why I feel this is so, but that comment led me back to a closer look at the book, and I've found the comparison rewarding. Marx's book is rightly renowned, even if, like most myth and symbol criticism from the 1950s and 1960s, it has worn a little shabbily. Most of my comments on it will be in a critical vein, but my point in doing so is not to question its worth on its own terms but to suggest the continued necessity of some other terms in which to think about the literary histories of the country and of the city in the U.S.

The first, most elementary, point about The Machine in the Gardenis that even Marx acknowledged that his book isn't a literary history:
My purpose is to describe and evaluate the use of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of American experience. I shall be tracing it adaptation to the conditions of life in the New World, its emergence as a distinctive American theory of society, and its subsequent transformation under the impact of industrialism. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey. If I were telling the story in all its significant detail, chronologically, I should have to begin at the moment the idea of America entered the mind of Europe and come down to the present—to the death of Robert Frost in 1963. But I have chosen to concentrate upon selected examples, "some versions," as William Empon might put it, of American pastoralism. Nor have I confined myself to the richest of literary materials. At points I shall consider examples which have little or no intrinsic literary value. In fact, this is not, strictly speaking, a book about literature; it is about the region of culture where literature, general ideas, and certain products of the collective imagination—we may call them "cultural symbols"—meet.
It is to Marx's credit that he recognizes that a study focusing on the classic handful of U.S. writers—Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain—is not a comprehensive history of American literature. And the use of "examples which have little or no intrinsic literary value," while still quite bold for its moment (and much the best part of the book, in my opinion), is somewhat undercut by the fact that what Marx assumes is important about these writers—Thomas Jefferson, Tench Coxe, St. John de Crèvecoeur, and Robert Beverley—is that they have turned up these powerful cultural symbols for later artists to use. The point of contact between them and Hawthorne, et al. is primarily and preeminently on the symbolic plane, as Marx defines the "cultural symbol:" "A 'cultural symbol' is an image that conveys a special meaning (thought and feeling) to a large number of those who share the culture" (ibid.).

"Share" may be the most important—and least well-defined—word in that sentence. So much analytical and ideological work is accomplished by it, and so very much is obscured with it. The nature of this "sharing" is ambiguous, if not indeterminate in its directionality: does it mean receiving culture or transmitting it? Both? Something else more nebulous, like "participation?" Regardless, the long specter of ideology is raised—just what understanding of ideology does Marx have? How is this sharing process orchestrated, and who or what, if anything, controls it? I'll cut to the chase for you and tell you that Marx doesn't offer a clear answer or even really acknowledge the question. (Another important instance of this "sharing" business is on page 143: "Americans, so far as they shared an idea of what they were doing as a people, actually saw themselves creating a society in the image of a garden." And Marx characterizes Henry Nash Smith's thesis in Virgin Land by using the word: "In Virgin Land… he ascribed much of American thought and behavior to a shared vision of the nation's future, heritage of biblical myth, as the new Garden of the World.")

If Marx comes close to an explicit theory of ideology, it is on page 193:
[I]ts [the machine's] meaning is carried not so much by express ideas as by the evocative quality of the language, by attitude and tone. All of the writers of our first significant literary generation—that of Emerson and Hawthorne—knew this tone. It was the dominant tone of public rhetoric. They grew up with it; it was in their heads; and in one way or another they all responded to it. It forms a kind of undertone for the serious writing of the period, sometimes rising to the surface spontaneously, the writer momentarily sharing [!] the prevailing ebullience, sometimes brought there by design for satiric or ironic purposes. In its purest form we hear the tone in Emerson's more exuberant flights; but it also turns up in Thoreau's witty parodies, in Melville's (Ahab's) bombast, in Hawthorne's satires on the age, and in Whitman's strutting gab and brag. To say this is not enough, however; one must hear the words, for their meaning is inseparable from the texture—the diction, cadence, imagery, or, in a word, from the "language."
This is practically Jungian, an image of ideology as a giant aquifer of ideas which can be extracted in purer or siltier forms depending on how deep you go. Now, this image has its recommendations and I don't mean to call it inadequate, but it also leads quite easily to a sort of adjectivization of power: Marx can speak of "certain controlling facts of life in nineteenth-century America" (343) without asking who has the control or how it is being used. (In fact, it seems "controlling" is used in just this way eleven times in the book, "compelling" another six, as if these words have no direction, no compellers and compelled.) "Controlling ideas" are simply an ether in which one finds oneself, "turn[ing] up" here and there and everywhere in purer or dingier (or in Marx's other key terms, complex or simple) terms, depending, but always "shared."  This is what the consensus school of history looks like on the level of diction.

Marx's intense interest in "shared" culture and "shared" visions is also ironic in one sense; the critical tension within Marx's work—and maybe within myth and symbol criticism generally—is that between the primacy of "sharing" and a phrase that Marx borrows from Melville—"mistaking a temporary feeling for a lasting possibility." How ephemeral is the hold of these cultural symbols which we Americans "share," and to what extent is that ephemerality a check on their power? That is, is the nature of our participation in this shared culture or vision an immersion or a dip, and if it is a dip, or a series of dips, how do we weigh the amount of time we're all wet against the time that we are dry? Marx loves that Melville critiques "the spurious pastoralism of the age… While Hawthorne [in "Ethan Brand"] hints guardedly at the false character of the essentially moribund, Augustan pastoralism of the dominant culture, Melville's witty attack embraces the flummery of the romantic avant-garde as well—including, to a degree, himself [in Typee]." Melville does this by telling Hawthorne that (and I'll quote his note, or rather his postscript, in full because it's beautiful, and sums up how I feel about myth and symbol criticism very well)
This "all" feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.
To what extent is Marx's work an insistence upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion? Marx (probably self-consciously) walks the thinnest of edges in resting his entire book upon just such a temporary feeling or opinion—the stray moment in Hawthorne's journal which provides the master symbol for Marx's thesis—a train's shriek breaking the silence of a wooded glen. Marx takes this fugitive (and, as I read it, fairly casual) thought as paradigmatic of the entire experience of industrialism at least in the nineteenth century, the pattern upon which to cut all similar encounters with technology in a still-quite rural nation. Marx badly wants Hawthorne's moment to be something which Williams might call a whole structure of feeling, but he risks the possibility that it is, in the end, actually a moment, one which many of us—from the U.S. or elsewhere, 19th, 20th or 21st century—may have shared, but which may have had little—and certainly not universal—application or influence.

Williams, whose marxian concept of ideology is, you have to admit, more defined even if you disagree with it, does not run into this problem of ephemerality because for him, symbols are tools, not drops of some ideological aquifer beneath our feet. As such, the key question for Williams is when the tools are being used and to what ends, questions which to a large extent take ephemerality into account. Recurrence of the same symbols—a major concern of both Williams and Marx—is explained not by a "shared" culture which poets keep dipping into, but by persistent contradictions within a single system and consistent strategies used to try to resolve those in favor of the interests of the same class or class fraction. Marx's emphasis on a "shared" culture ultimately cannot identify these contradictions or these strategies except as tensions inherent in the 'way things are,' directionless, miasmic, inert in their repetitions. It is notable and characteristic, I think, that (so far as I can recall) not once does Marx inquire about the direction of the many trains which dart through the pages of his authors' notes and stories. Is Hawthorne's "train in the Concord woods" coming into Concord or leaving it? Moving toward Boston or away from it? The city, or the country? No matter—the dynamics of power between country and city are ultimately not what interests Marx—not that they have to—but rather the fact that the train is there, is seen or heard, and that its presence can be shared as a defining, foundational moment for the experience of industrialization.

Myth and symbol criticism is so good and so focused on getting at the roots—or what look like roots—the primordial images, the deepest ideas that American culture (supposedly) "shares," that it ignores almost all the dirt around those roots. What I want to ask for is instead a study that focuses on all that dirt, that is interested in which direction the "train in the Concord woods" is running. The closest thing I can think of to doing that is not a study of literature: it is William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis.

But that leaves alone the question of why there isn't a study of American literature interested in those things, and instead why we have The Machine in the Garden and why it might still be difficult to think in Williams's terms instead of Marx's. This post is already running long, and I hope there is enough to chew on for now, so I'll push those questions into a third post, but for now I'll offer one longish quote from near the end of Machine:
Precisely because it is relatively unformed, wild, and new, James [in The American Scene] is saying, the scenery of America is peculiarly hospitable to pastoral illusions. It invites us to cross the commonsense boundary between art and reality, to impose literary ideas upon the world. (351-352)
The word "hospitable" here is quite as interesting as "shared" is above, and "peculiarly" does all the exceptionalist work an Americanist can ever hope for. The first settlers upon the land evidently could not help themselves from pastoralizing it, so "hospitable" and "inviting" was it to their illusions. This is more than just personification of the land; it is turning a made thing—the pastoral illusions, the desire to impost literary ideas upon the world—into a found thing. The fact is that this has been such a frequent ideological move for Americanists—not only but, as they might say, "peculiarly." Much of this is adopted from the rhetoric of and about the frontier, and while Frederick Jackson Turner receives only a single page reference in Marx's index, The Machine in the Garden is, it goes without saying, impossible without him.

The "peculiar" situation of settler colonialism is the seedbed for the made-into-found conversion because such a conversion can be convincingly made; a frontier booster or an American studies professor alike can take representations of non-urban areas to be found things—found whole, entire, at a glance—not made things, or only secondarily made things—the virginity (or pastorality) of the land is not a concept we created but a property of its very existence. Williams's case, however, is different. The enclosures which are so important to Williams's history and the land tenancy structures in general are so obviously only made things (only things which men made up) and never found things (never basic properties of the land's existence or essence) that this problem barely exists in English literature.


For what it's worth, Marx did publish a review of Williams's City and the Country (in The Sewanee Review 82.2 {Spring 1974} 351-362): he called it a "searching, wise, and important book," but he also felt that Williams "seems to miss the essence of the [pastoral] mode." That in fact misses the essence of Williams, who was not writing a book about the pastoral mode (which explains why Empson is absent from the index, something which Marx wonders at) but about how the countryside is depicted, a focus which Marx apparently can only turn into a question of genre or form because he assumes it is through formal or generic analysis that the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice of writing about the countryside will be resolved or will settle into a pleasing ambiguity. When Williams does talk specifically about modes or forms, it is largely to introduce the term "counterpastoral," in order to group the poetry and prose which attempts to pierce the general habits of depicting the countryside, habits which may well be prevalent in the pastoral, but which also suffuse whole structures of feeling which well exceed that particular mode or form.

However, Marx accurately summarizes the most important part of Williams's book with the following paragraph:
In Williams's view our whole way of thinking about country and city, our tendency to identify the country with "nature" and the city with "society," is only one of the many false divisions nurtured by our alienating system of production, which constantly reproduces its contradictions within our minds. As Williams says so well, it "teaches, impresses, offers to make normal and even rigid, modes of detached, separated, external perception and action: modes of using and consuming rather than accepting and enjoying people and things." If there is a cardinal metaphor expressive of the divisions in our world, it may well be the contrast between city and country. (362)

Party in the U.S.A. also over at The Valve

I've been forgetting to cross-link between here and The Valve on my posts on John Dos Passos's U.S.A., but I'll do so now because there's a little bit more discussion going on over there than we've had here so far.

As another brief note of housekeeping, going here will show you all my posts (present and, when they're written, future) about U.S.A.

Finally, I haven't yet acknowledged my inspiration for this reading project. My apologies, Miley (embedding was disabled, so you just get the link).

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Structure and The 42nd Parallel

An inordinate amount of what has been written on U.S.A. has been devoted to its structure—the four modes of biography, Newsreel, Camera Eye, and narrative. I think critics generally fasten onto this tetra-partite structure as the most importantly obvious part of the book as it looks so much like the key to a deeper, substructural meaning, but evaluations of its cumulative aesthetic value seem to be rather mixed or confused. Alfred Kazin is probably typical in saying,
Technically U.S.A. is one of the great achievements of the modern novel, yet what that achievement is can easily be confused with its elaborate formal structure. For the success of Dos Passos's method does not rest primarily on his schematization of the novel into four panels, four levels of American experience—the narrative proper, the "Camera Eye," the "Biographies," and the "Newsreel." That arrangement, while original enough, is the most obvious thing in the book and soon becomes the most mechanical. (On Native Grounds 1970, 353)
Kazin's reaction is interesting, and grows more interesting as he goes along so I'll play out this quote further below, but here he gives things away by referring to this formal "schematization" and to "the narrative proper," as if the other sections are either external to the novel (i.e., not its own) or vaguely inappropriate to its real "achievement."
The book lives by its narrative style, the wonderfully concrete yet elliptical prose which bears along and winds around the life stories in the book like a conveyor belt carrying Americans through some vast Ford plant of the human spirit. U.S.A. is a national epic, the first great national epic of its kind in the modern American novel; and its triumph is not the pyrotechnical display that the shuttling between the various devices seems to suggest, but Dos Passos's power to weave so many different lives together in narrative.  (ibid.)
Cold War criticism at its best. The individual life—the origin and destination of all narrative meaning. E pluribus unum rah rah rah. (Happy Fourth of July, by the way.)
It is possible that the narrative sections would lose much of that power if they were not so craftily built into the elaborate framework of the book. But the framework holds the book together and encloses it; the narrative makes it. The "Newsreel," the "Camera Eye," and even the very vivid and often brilliant "Biographies" are meant to lie a little outside the book always; they speak with the formal and ironic voice of History. The "Newsreel" sounds the time; the "Biographies" stand above time, chanting the stories of American leaders; the "Camera Eye" moralizes shyly in a lyric stammer upon them. But the great thing about U.S.A. is that though it sweeps up so many human lives together and intones their waste and illusion and defeat so steadily, we seem to be swept along with them and to see each life perfectly at the moment it passes by us. (ibid.)
What is most interesting about Kazin's reaction is how difficult it is for him to find a way to think of the "narrative proper" and these more experimental or modernist sections as occupying the same space: they are "four panels" or "four levels." Also, Dos Passos "winds [his prose] around the life stories in the book" which are in turn 'woven' altogether, but between these narratives and the other modes he "shuttles" back and forth—inside-outside. Finally, the non-narrative modes are the "framework" which "enclose" and "lie a little outside" the narratives. And he ends with an idea of the reader being swept through the narrative sections, a reading experience which suggests even less time or attention granted to those other sections; if we are swept through the longer narratives, then what are we doing in the others—skimming, presumably?

Other critics (like Donald Pizer) have spent more time and effort marrying the non-narrative sections to the "life stories," and I won't attempt to summarize those (rather elaborate) arguments here. I'm interested in a rather more specific problem caused by the presence and interaction of the four modes, but before I get going, I better say that the following are intended as preliminary remarks to be applied only to 42nd Parallel; I think some of what I see happening in this novel may be altered if not overturned by the next two volumes. Still, I think there is a definite problem which crops up in 42nd Parallel, and I wish to give it some play now so that I can return to it later after having read 1919 and The Big Money and make some kind of assessment of the way the novel's structure changes and develops.

I see the chief difficulty for the reader as not (or not only) one of relating all four of these modes to one another, but really to think of them as building toward the titular aspiration of the novel: a national consciousness, or at least a consciousness of the nation, in a more robust and more profound manner than the general novel does. But I don't think this happens. The main difference between U.S.A. and most other (U.S.) novels is simply its larger canvas; its characters move through more parts of the nation than almost any novel I can think of (even road novels), and on top of that, still other places are mentioned in the Camera Eye, biographical, and Newsreel sections. In a future post, maybe one after I've read all three volumes, I want to talk about the geography of U.S.A.; Google Maps integrates with Google Books in a neat way which plots all the cities and towns mentioned in a given novel, and I hope to have some fun with that.1

Apart from geography, however, what do we have that really gives a sense of a national—as opposed to transnational, regional, local, or even individual—consciousness? The Newsreel sections seem tailor-made to buttress a Benedict Anderson-type argument about the importance of newspapers and print culture for the creation and absorption of the idea of living within an imagined national community, but as I noted in the last post, the fragmentary and mangled nature of the news reports and popular songs which Dos Passos uses must destroy—even, I think for audiences of the 1930s more familiar with the named referents—the possibility of feeling involved in the often nonsensical amalgamations of references to contemporary figures and events. The feeling of synchrony or simultaneity so necessary for an imagined community to exist is simply lost with a chain of "news items" which seem to have no obvious temporal relationship to one another: "MOON'S PATENT IS FIZZLE   insurgents win at Kansas polls.   Oak Park soulmates part   Eight thousand to take auto ride   says girl begged for her husband" (Newsreel X). Even if all of that material were indeed taken from a single day's newspapers, would the knowledge of that simultaneity be available to a reader even in 1930?2

The Camera Eye sections are even less capable of producing something like a consciousness of the nation; not only is it often even more difficult to extract any kind of hard data about the referents of these passages, but they function (intentionally, I believe) as a sort of safety valve for subjective expression in the novel, drawing away all of Dos Passos's personal reflections and emotionally-charged memories from the other sections. So they're not just frequently semantically inscrutable, but they are historically inaccessible in the sense that even if we have places and times to match them against, much of their material has little to do with the kinds of events or even images which might be considered historically common or general. This Camera Eye section (XXV, my favorite so far) is loaded with easily traceable referents and is entirely locatable in time and place as "depicting" Dos Passos's undergraduate years at Harvard, yet it evades any real sense of history. "grow cold with culture like a cup of tea forgotten between an incenseburner and a volume of Oscar Wilde cold and not strong like a claret lemonade drunk at a Pop Concert in Symphony Hall / four years I didn't know you could do what you Michelangelo wanted say / Marx / to all / the professors with a small Swift break all the Greenoughs in the shooting gallery / ... / and I hadn't the nerve / to jump up and walk out of doors and tell them all to / go take a flying / Rimbaud / at the moon"

The biography sections might seem like our best bet for creating a robust consciousness of the nation, as most of them are about national figures who have, to greater or lesser extent, a certain mythic quality about them. But the biography sections evade that mythic quality in some interesting ways. There is a certain abstractness to the free verse form which limits sentimentality and plays up irony; clever line breaks and enjambments turn frequently on a smirk or a cocked eyebrow. But more importantly, they aren't even written up as Representative or exemplary Men. What Dos Passos seems to value about his subjects—heroes and villains alike—is precisely whatever makes them so indissoluble in society that they end up standing out or rising above its surface, some freakish quality or strain in their character that makes ordinariness impossible and exemplarity an even more dubious proposition. They are not types any more than they are average. They are not, in any real sense of the word, representative; most—even Edison and Carnegie—are marginal, even quasi-grotesque.

Many critics, even in Dos Passos's time, noted the surprisingly narrow band of society from which the characters of the narrative sections are taken. The racial and ethnic composition is particularly bland, but even more constricting, perhaps, is the lack of representation of very many types of work or ways of life. This might not be a constriction for another kind of writer, but Dos Passos believed that "people are formed by their trades and occupations much more than by their opinions. The fact that a man is a shoesaleman or a butcher is in every respect more important than that he's a republican or a theosophist" (quoted on Denning 178). So the intense focus on vagabonds and public relations and the absence of (among other professions) factory line workers, farmers, bankers, lawyers, professors, doctors, clergy, government bureaucrats, or police or firemen makes (at least) The 42nd Parallel seem suddenly rather small.

More important still may be the following observation made by Michael Denning:
Perhaps the most striking and unsettling aspect of U.S.A. is the lack of any coherent connection between the characters: no family or set of families constitutes the world of the novel; no town, neighborhood, or city serves as a knowable community; no industry or business, no university or film colony unites public and private lives; and no plot, murder, or inheritance links the separate destinies… Dos Passos's lists of characters are just that, not the genealogies that epic novelists ordinarily create. The characters in U.S.A. come together by accident, usually at cocktail parties (Denning 182).
This would be more accurate if we were to add "single" in front of each noun there: "no single family… no single town… no single industry… no single plot…" but that would just be making explicit what Denning is already implying. If one were to compare U.S.A. either to actual epics like Dante or Homer or Vergil, or to what Franco Moretti has called the "modern epic" (a category including, for him, Faust, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, and Cien años de soledad, among others), or even to the capacious Victorian novels of somewhat similar ambition (Bleak House, Middlemarch), the lack of a single element which stands in the last instance as the novel's unifying force is quite apparent.

The question is what effect this lack ultimately has on U.S.A. At this point, I am only one-third qualified to judge, but I haven't been regretting the absence of unity, and one might make a favorable comparison from Dos Passos's ability to avoid forcing cheapening unities on his materials when they aren't necessary to the mawkish "world-is-flat" stories of the (hopefully defunct) vogue in "network narrative" films from the middle of this decade (Iñárritu's films generally but particularly Babel; Syriana; Crash). In other words, I'm enjoying the loose ends and the hollow center feeling; Dos Passos writes very well on a page-by-page basis without making much attempt to be lyrical—as Adam said, it reads as a little potboilerish, but not, I think, in a particularly manipulative or callow way. I can understand why others find the trilogy rough going or even have strongly negative reactions to it, but I'm glad to be reading it and frankly, right now I'm holding myself back from racing through 1919.

1The 42nd Parallel map is here. Also notable is obviously the title,  decoded in a prefatory note in the first edition of The 42nd Parallel when it was published as a stand-alone novel in 1930; the title comes from "an 1865 book, American Climatology, which suggested that North American storms followed the 42nd Parallel. The novel seemed to follow its characters as if they were so many storms crossing the continent" (Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, 190).
2 As Denning has it, the Newsreel sections are "undated and unauthored, they remain less a firm grounding in the spirit of the time or even an evocation of historical color than a repetitive and finally ahistorical serial, establishing the always already contemporary, an emblem of industrial society's 'idiot lack of memory'" (Cultural Front, 171).