Saturday, September 25, 2010

Žižek in the New Left Review; Elections as Experiences

This article, which unfortunately is paywall-blocked, is a fairly pithy recapitulation of a number of Žižek's recent (and not so recent) themes, or at least it seems to be; he is so prolific it is difficult to follow him closely. At any rate, I thought I'd put up a few of the choicer quotes from this typically provocative piece:
There is no lack of anti-capitalists today. We are even witnessing an overload of critiques of capitalism’s horrors: newspaper investigations, TV reports and best-selling books abound on companies polluting our environment, corrupt bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their firms are saved by public money, sweatshops where children work overtime. There is, however, a catch to all this criticism, ruthless as it may appear: what is as a rule not questioned is the liberal-democratic framework within which these excesses should be fought. The goal, explicit or implied, is to regulate capitalism—through the pressure of the media, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations—but never to question the liberal-democratic institutional mechanisms of the bourgeois state of law. This remains the sacred cow, which even the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’—the Porto Allegre [sic] World Social Forum, the Seattle movement—do not dare to touch.

It is here that Marx’s key insight remains valid, perhaps today more than ever. For Marx, the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere proper, as with the criteria the global financial institutions apply when they want to pronounce a judgement on a country—does it have free elections? Are the judges independent? Is the press free from hidden pressures? Are human rights respected? The key to actual freedom resides rather in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production. We do not vote about who owns what, or about worker–management relations in a factory; all this is left to processes outside the sphere of the political. It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by ‘extending’ democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing ‘democratic’ banks under people’s control. Radical changes in this domain lie outside the sphere of legal rights. Such democratic procedures can, of course, have a positive role to play. But they remain part of the state apparatus of the bourgeoisie, whose purpose is to guarantee the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. In this precise sense, Badiou was right in his claim that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire or exploitation, but democracy. It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations…
I am unconvinced that the inadequacy of extending democratic forms into the "'apolitical' network of social relations" requires naming democracy as the ultimate enemy of freedom today, as Žižek and Badiou would have us do. Žižek's line that "It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations" seems to me to be a misdiagnosis which even he must see directly conflicts with his other diagnosis of the increasing tendency toward public-private partnership as a preferred style of rule, as we'll see in the passage below. If this tendency is as severe a problem as he (and many others) thinks it is, surely it indicates that rather than "democratic mechanisms" being the ultimate frame, it is much more the case that free market ideology remains the ultimate frame as it rapidly engulfs democracy itself (where it hasn't already been confused with democracy for some time).
What has happened in the latest stage of post-68 capitalism is that the economy itself—the logic of market and competition—has progressively imposed itself as the hegemonic ideology. In education, we are witnessing the gradual dismantling of the classical-bourgeois school ISA: the school system is less and less the compulsory network, elevated above the market and organized directly by the state, bearer of enlightened values—liberty, equality, fraternity. On behalf of the sacred formula of ‘lower costs, higher efficiency’, it is progressively penetrated by different forms of PPP, or public–private partnership. In the organization and legitimization of power, too, the electoral system is increasingly conceived on the model of market competition: elections are like a commercial exchange where voters ‘buy’ the option that offers to do the job of maintaining social order, prosecuting crime, and so on, most efficiently.

On behalf of the same formula of ‘lower costs, higher efficiency’, functions once exclusive to the domain of state power, like running prisons, can be privatized; the military is no longer based on universal conscription, but composed of hired mercenaries. Even the state bureaucracy is no longer perceived as the Hegelian universal class, as is becoming evident in the case of Berlusconi. In today’s Italy, state power is directly exerted by the base bourgeois who ruthlessly and openly exploits it as a means to protect his personal interests.
I also want to change the terms of Žižek's argument that "the electoral system is increasingly conceived on the model of market competition;" it seems to me that the way he means for this argument to function reflects an (arguably) outdated reality. (I should say that he may in fact have in mind exclusively European elections, so my disagreement may be merely a product of my U.S. parochialism, but I have certainly seen and heard this argument being made about U.S. elections as well, particularly in connection with moments (as this year miserably promises to be) of a switch in control of one or more of the branches of government.)

It is not that I see no truth in this argument, but, for one thing, I question the historical accuracy of Žižek's implication that this is an emergent tendency or that it is newly dominant in electoral politics. What I think he is also implying, though, seems to me even farther from the truth: that parties have given up on attempting to demonstrate real essential differences from one another and seek merely to convince voters that they will deliver the same things as the other party, only better—with "lower costs, higher efficiency." This is also a popular argument made about U.S. politics, but it completely ignores the intensity of partisan rancor which, while not new, has become (arguably) newly inescapable with the emergent media technologies of cable television and the blogosphere. The idea that a voter is just like a shopper choosing between negligibly different brands of laundry detergent seems absolutely disconnected from the demands being placed on her by this constant assault of animus and extremism. If there is an analogue in the world of consumer goods for this polarization, it would not be laundry detergent, but something more like the Mac-PC divide (which most people happily map directly onto the political divide, even if that really doesn't work well), in which the consumer's choice is not seen as an attempt to maximize efficiency and lower costs but as a conversion (or an apostasy) and a public act of self-definition.

Žižek's argument also (strangely naively) presumes that most voters retain a belief that electoral choice imitates consumer choice in that you can expect product satisfaction from your purchase. Maybe the ambient disillusionment of 2010 is greater than is usually the case, but even while campaigning in 2008, I found that enthusiasm was generally located at the point of the symbolism of electing Obama as president, rather than the expectation that he would govern with "lower costs, higher efficiency." This was, I think, not just a reflection of the general understanding that all politicians break their campaign promises, but a more acute sense that the election of Obama was the "purchase" itself, and that his presidency—the actual details of his governance—was something separate. Again, this may be specific to the 2008 election and may not recur, but I feel there is still somewhat of the same thing going on at the present with the Tea Party: candidates are products not in the sense of what they do in office—that's not what you're purchasing—but products in the sense of a specific electoral (or more generally political) experience. The campaign—or more accurately, the campaigning process (which has been stretched out as never before) is the primary product which is being purchased, and not the act of governance. The idea of politics as consumption has been delimited to the experience of enjoying (and perhaps participating in) their campaigning, and not to the experience of being governed by them.

The talk this year of an enthusiasm gap acknowledges these realities better than prior years' emphasis on the way that independents were leaning; while the idea of the enthusiasm gap is not new, I feel that this year there has been a softer focus on the battle for the Independents and more a fretting about whether the people who are going to vote Democratic no matter what might just stay home. (I don't watch much cable news, though.) Electoral politics seems to me to be mostly about mobilization rather than persuasion at this juncture; success is premised less on convincing the unconvinced to vote for you than it is about convincing the already convinced to vote at all. Again, this may be a geographically specific situation (if I have even diagnosed the U.S. situation correctly), and I would be interested if anyone has some insights into whether or to what extent this may apply elsewhere in the world.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elif Batuman and Mark McGurl

According to the Internet, Elif Batuman's review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era (or, rather, since the review is published in the London Review of Books, The Programme Era) is a hit. Although I think it is actually an extremely valuable addition to the theorization of the significance and value of writing programs, let me register a dissent. In fact, a sequence of dissents.

Let's start with some basic stuff. How about this:
I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.
I think everyone will probably have some trouble finding these sentences palatable, if only for reasons of political correctness. That's not so much what bothers me, though: what irks and rather surprises me is that, for someone who appears to be so worldly, Batuman thinks she can find a culture that has "no literary tradition" from which to draw. What she means to say, patently, is no indigenous literary tradition from which to draw, because as we know from reading any of a very, very large number of novels from "developing nations," the legacy of imperialism has left quite an ample literary tradition in all parts of the world from which a writer could draw. And, it goes without saying, that Batuman is assuming that oral or other narrative traditions are inadequate for inspiring Literature—a claim I'm skeptical about, but which I suppose one might let pass if for no other reason than that I want to make a different point. What really bugs me about this comment is that, despite her distaste for the literature of "developing nations," she holds up Don Quixote as a great beacon of literature when, if there is any single work of literature which justifies a belief that an extraordinarily talented writer can invent a new fully-fleshed form almost ex nihilo, it is Cervantes's novel.

Batuman is also under the impression that workshop writers are intent on maintaining a pose of being "tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition." She attributes the notion that this babe-in-the-woods attitude is a staple of workshop culture to McGurl, although the citation she gives directs the reader toward a different conclusion about just what is meant by a "a commitment to innocence" (his phrase); McGurl's exemplar for what Batuman calls "this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum" is Vladimir Nabokov (10), who certainly did not give many people the impression that he "seldom refer[red] to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years… rarely refer[red] to other books at all," which is how Batuman sums up the workshop's attitude toward its literary forebears. Much later in the piece, she says, "The value placed on creativity and originality [in the workshop] causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether." This has genuinely not been my impression of how the products of workshops portray themselves. The sense of a lineage is often invoked by Iowa graduates (Nam Le is the example most familiar to me), and I find much program fiction to be plagued rather by the opposite problem: so eager are young writers to prove that they've learned their lessons from past masters that their influences—Chekhov, Lahiri, Flannery O'Connor, Carver—are crudely displayed. How can read something like American Salvage or Knockemstiff and not think, "I'm in Carver Country?" How many multicultural sagas of the past ten years chatter loudly of White Teeth?

Even if Batuman apparently doesn't pay attention to the products of workshop fiction, she knows who likes it: White People. As a running gag, she notes when things which are associated or tangentially connected to writing programs appear in the coffee-table book Stuff White People Like: "Stuff White People Like #44: ‘Public Radio’… #116: ‘Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.’"She makes some excellent points about the racial dimensions of the authority to speak through an Other, but her reliance on the Stuff White People Like line to drive her point home is more than a little lazy and actually undercuts any serious examination of why "white people" find things like "Being an Expert on Your Culture" so appealing and why program fiction is so successful at supplying it. Batuman shorthands it by saying that it's due to "the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures," but it should be quite obvious that not liking workshop fiction—or any of the things which appear in the Stuff White People Like book—makes no one any the less "white," even in the very limited sense of 'bourgie-quasi-hipster.' Preferring Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks or James Patterson to Toni Morrison makes no white person any the less part of the system of reproducing white privilege. The reasons why William Styron could write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ventriloquizing a black man go well beyond the coffee table.

(Additionally, Batuman's essay reveals more than a little deficit in self-consciousness about who the "white people" in the book are; surely a comment like, "I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction" could feature as a highlighted exhibit in the kind of taste that the Stuff White People Like book skewers.)

Batuman snarks at McGurl's claim that the post-G.I. Bill university created a writing environment in which shame became an intrinsic aspect of the writer's formation:
In his fascination with the GI Bill, McGurl occasionally conveys the impression that writers didn’t go to college before 1945… The GI Bill dramatically increased the percentage of college-educated Americans, but did it really affect the percentage of college-educated American writers? According to the internet, writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years. The claim that the GI Bill produced a generation of unprecedentedly shameful young people, meanwhile, is weakened by the fact that outsiders, from Balzac’s parvenus to Proletkult, have been joining the intelligentsia for nearly as long as there has been an intelligentsia to join.
In what was a consistent theme for my frustrations with Batuman's piece, I find this reading to be so uncharitable as to be genuinely distortive of McGurl's basic point about the effects of the G.I. Bill on American fiction. (It also, for the purposes of being able to stick in that "according to the internet" barb, neatly ignores the rather substantial material in McGurl's book about pre-WWII writing programs, the discussions of the educational backgrounds of the founders of the programs--who were obviously educated before WWII, etc.) A careful and attentive reading of even just the passage that Batuman cites as evidence of McGurl's muddleheadedness about the Big G.I. Bill Divide allows us to understand that the point McGurl is making is not that no or few writers went to college before WWII, but that few if any thought of college or higher education in general as preparation for a writing career. Journalism was very much the type of career choice that aspiring writers made before the start of writing programs, or in some cases (Sinclair Lewis, for example), publishing. At best, a literary or humor magazine at college would be joined to establish connections with other aspiring writers, but again, very few of these men or women went to college for the express purpose of joining a magazine.

Batuman's rebuttal to McGurl's claim about the importance of "shame" as newly constitutive of the writer's experience after the G.I. Bill is very similarly constructed scrupulously to remove the parts of McGurl's argument that give it coherence and cogency. Batuman ignores (this too is a repeated problem throughout her essay) the brute fact of the collegiate or university workshop experience as the actual site of McGurl's argument: in introducing the application of various theories of shame to this literature, McGurl says, "What I am calling lower-middle-class modernism is the meeting of all these phenomena—social dislocation, affect, narrative, and the individual—in and around the scene of creative writing instruction in the postwar period…" (286, emphasis added). Batuman just extends this specificity to higher education in general and literary practice in general, but McGurl is not saying that shame was absent from literature or from higher education before the G.I. Bill; he's saying that having the workshop experience as part of one's writerly formation at an institution of higher education produces a historically unique form of shame (and pride—McGurl mentions pride as part of a dialectic with shame, but Batuman almost completely erases it). It is the specific confluence of these factors—and not their separate existences—which is genuinely new after the G.I. Bill.

Batuman's indifference to this specificity leads me to a more general frustration—her adamantine feeling that there is nothing new under the sun, and if someone's telling you differently, he's an idiot. When Ken Kesey thought he had put a new spin on the ancient problem of point-of-view, well, he deserves this kind of censure:
Although he recognises that Kesey is reinventing the wheel – a technology apparently pioneered by Henry James – McGurl treats this reinvention as the sign of a bright student. So it would be, in a schoolboy, or someone who grew up in a preliterate tribe. But there is something disturbing in the idea of a Stanford creative writing student – a college graduate pursuing an advanced degree in ‘fiction’ at a world-class university – who appears to believe that he invented intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration.
(Again with the sneers toward preliterate tribes!) But seriously, what kind of sin did Kesey really commit in convincing himself that he was "revolutionary" when he wasn't? Intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration isn't copyrighted, and surely the proof is in the pudding, not in the theory: if his book convinced his readers that it was revolutionary, it would be, regardless of whether Batuman could point to a precursor we all should have known about. That's the power of literature (or music, for that matter), that it can convince us at least momentarily that it has rearranged its limited number of possible elements into a configuration we've never encountered before, even if we've encountered it many times? Or even if we are too experienced to believe it is "revolutionary," we at least experience it as fresh, as new-in-this-moment.

I don't dissent from Batuman's debunking because I resent the application of scholarship to literature or worry that it can impede enjoyment (anyone who has read this blog before should surely know I hold the diametrically opposite views in both cases). I dissent because the logic of Batuman's formalism—if it's been done before, it's no longer revolutionary—doesn't admit of the fact that literary texts interact with the times in which they are written and read, and their revolutionary quality or their hackneyedness isn't a formal problem but a social one. We can only assess the "newness" of a technique within its social context because "newness" itself is produced by and through the society of any given moment. To fantasize otherwise is to abdicate any responsibility for accounting for why literature matters to people—something I would think the author of a book subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" might be concerned about.

Edit [10/2]: Mark McGurl has responded in the LRB's letters section here, and has a lengthier rejoinder here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

U.S.A., by John Dos Passos

What is to be done with U.S.A.? Like a few other novels, John Dos Passos's trilogy is one whose stature substantially exceeds the general reader's familiarity with it, and so one of the inevitable questions that arises when bringing it up is "what kind of novel is it?" a question which is code for "what relationship might it continue to have to readers today?" a question which is itself code for, "why should I read it?"

U.S.A. is a tricky novel to place, and therefore it's surprisingly difficult to make a case for why "you," the general reader, should knock about through its 1300 pages. For reasons I will get into in a moment, it's not exactly a historical novel, or at least it will not satisfy someone looking for a historical novel. It also fails to satisfy as a modernist novel, regardless of whether your flavor of modernism comes in Hemingway or Joyce. It is experimental, but its experiments push against language and narrative in ways that will probably seem too regular, too machined, and not "difficult" enough to someone of the latter persuasion. To a reader of the former, the Lost Generation mythos is here as well, but the glamour of war-time Paris and Italy or the Jazz Age is much shabbier, less heroic. Drinking here is occasionally if not often boring (one might compare the liquors consumed in Hemingway relative to Dos Passos; I imagine those in Dos Passos are typically cheaper, less savored, and less specific), and violence and sex aren't Capital-T Themes so much as things characters do or don't do.

It also won't really do as a "relevant" novel, a novel which "speaks to our time." It would take a great deal of effort to discover more than a partial reflection of 2010 in its characters, its plot, or especially its concerns. And yet, unlike, say, Mad Men, it would also be difficult to glean contrasts—favorable or unfavorable—which allow us to congratulate or castigate ourselves on our progress or backsliding. The stories of emergent industries or professions (automobiles, airplanes, public relations) look so little like the internet start-ups of today, and the enormity of class conflict and working-class consciousness which makes up so much of the trilogy is basically unrecognizable in the present.

Race and gender roles are more crudely created and enforced by the characters than we are used to seeing today, but there is also a casualness and simplicity to them that undercuts any feeling of knowing better; in a very disturbing way, Dos Passos does not make race and gender into problems for the reader, giving her no real opportunity to feel more enlightened than the characters in the way one is directed to take very conscious note of Don or Betty Draper's prejudices and insensitivities, or in the way one can't avoid squirming at a particularly caricatured portrayal of a black servant in a 1930s film. There is certainly a shock, as there always is, at running into an epithet or a mark of prejudice in the trilogy, but that shock does not reverberate into the book in any way we are by now accustomed to, and that lack of reverberation impedes the formation of any sense of where one stands in relation to the book or to the characters.

In a very similar manner, Dos Passos's whole attitude toward history—or even to the United States—interrupts the formation of any stable relationship to the reader's own views of the U.S. or U.S. history. U.S.A. as a whole is neither comfortably historical or comfortably "contemporary;" somehow Dos Passos blocks both the feeling that his novel is safely in the past and the feeling that it can serve as an analogy for the present. This is perhaps not too surprising, though. Even among his peers, Dos Passos's feelings about America were, shall we say, idiosyncratic and arguably unstable; after years of being a both vocal and visible activist in Leftist politics, Dos Passos took a hard swing to the right during the Cold War; hardly unique in his time, but, for a variety of reasons, his apostasy was much more puzzling and less explicable. Yet that idiosyncrasy is not the reason for this neither-past-nor-present feeling of the novel, or not quite.

A quite substantial part of the problem—or, if it's not a problem, and I don't think it is, it is at least a situation that appears to the reader as an obstacle to understanding—is that the U.S.A. trilogy takes part in what might validly be called a myth (or a grand narrative) which has very little purchase on the minds of Americans (or readers of American fiction) today. Michael Denning, in his book The Cultural Front, calls this myth "the decline and fall of the Lincoln Republic." (And I should probably say now that by myth, I mean to emphasize less the validity or truth-content of the narrative but rather its role in people's lives, as a story that organizes experience and history into a knowable and comprehensible shape). In a subsequent post I'll examine that myth and where it has ended up in the present, and why it is difficult to access today.

In the meantime, if you've been reading along, or have read the U.S.A. trilogy in the past—or other Dos Passos novels—please consider this an open thread; talk about your experiences with Dos Passos and how you think it fits into the larger literary landscape.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Multiple reviews have now picked up on the placement of Tolstoy's War and Peace in Jonathan Franzen's new novel. The two reviewers I linked to in fact make this allusion into a sort of master-code for the novel, titling their coverage "Peace and War" and "The Tolstoy of the Internet Era." This is absurd not only because comparison of this sort is the laziest and least valuable form of criticism, but also because the allusion on which hangs this invidious comparison is in fact rather slight. Arguably, a reference to a now quite obscure Greek film, O drakos, or The Fiend of Athens, is of much more considerable relevance to the book's plot.

It's true, Patty Berglund does read the novel while she is at something of a crossroads in her adult life and she does identify with Natasha, caught between two men: "The autobiographer [Patty is writing a third-person autobiography] wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn't reached the very pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei. Patty had not seen this coming. Pierre's loss unfolded, as she read it, like a catastrophe in slow motion. Things probably would not have gone any differently, but the effect those pages had on her, their pertinence, was almost psychedelic" (166).

This pertinence is deceptive, even within Franzen's own terms. Later, Patty gives a more complete recapitulation of Natasha's story which now fits her own quite imperfectly: "Natasha had promised herself to Andrei but then was corrupted by the wicked Anatole, and Andrei went off in despair to get himself mortally wounded in battle, surviving only long enough to be nursed by Natasha and forgive her, whereupon excellent old Pierre, who had done some growing up and deep thinking as a prisoner of war, stepped forward to present himself as a consolation prize; and lots of babies followed" (175).

I don't know whether Franzen means for this allusion to War and Peace to be a red herring of sorts or not, the kind of thing which is designed to catch a critic who is on a hunt for a hook to bite down on, for something portentous to compare the year's biggest novel to. Franzen does preface Patty's later recounting of Natasha's story with the comment, "And she became a better reader. At first in desperate escapism, later in search of help." Patty's first connection to War and Peace is escapist; she uses it to justify sleeping with the Andrei character, Richard, literally making life resemble art. Later, Patty becomes a better reader by accepting that the analogy between Tolstoy and her life is imperfect and not to be lived through, just to be consulted for truth or "help."

This, in a nutshell, is in fact Franzen's own ethics of reading, at least as they are articulated in the Harper's essay: Franzen's own autobiographic narrative there is a similar story of recognizing that the imperfect fit between life and art is the real source of its power—just as long as we recognize that art is not meant to make a perfect fit, is not meant to act directly as a model, that we're not supposed to act like characters. Understanding characters helps us understand ourselves, yes, but we err when that understanding is of ourselves-as-characters. And the fact that War and Peace is in fact only mentioned five times in the novel—and four of those instances within twenty pages—suggests that this episode similarly is not meant to be so fundamental to our understanding of the novel: not a code or a key but a symptom, a single instance of a leitmotiv at most. To do more with War and Peace or Tolstoy is merely to fetishize allusion for its own sake—exactly the type of conflation of art and life that Franzen is (at least in my reading) trying to guard against.

Yet there is, perhaps, something we can recover from this comparison between Franzen and Tolstoy: consider the bald singularity of Franzen's title relative to Tolstoy's: "Freedom." "War and Peace." For Franzen, "freedom" is already its own antithesis; freedom is the name of a dialectic, not a state or event.

That's a common story, particularly in the libertarian strain it takes when trying to negotiate the harm principle: you're free to do as you like as long as your actions don't hurt anyone. (Amelia Atlas, whose excellent blog I recently discovered, has a fascinating discussion of this engagement with political philosophy in the novel.) Exercising freedom completely freely always leads to a variety of unfreedom: one inevitably becomes so committed to one's own process of self-liberation that one cannot change course: Freedom becomes a demand external to the self, no longer a healthy intrinsic desire. Some version of this narrative fills the space between (at least every Boomer if not) every person and his morning reflection.

What is missing from this story is the other thing filling that space: self-pity. Self-pity would not have made a good conjunctive term for the title ("Freedom and Self-Pity" would get nixed quickly, I imagine, by the editors), but it is at least equal to freedom in thematic weight in the book1, although I would not necessarily assume that Franzen sees it in those terms. Self-pity is not, after all, a perfect antithesis of freedom, at least not in a traditional understanding of the term. It functions rather something like an enzyme or reagent, corroding the feeling of freedom into the belief that one is unfree, catalyzing that unfreedom into a desire for some other form of freedom. Self-pity acts when one realizes that the freedoms one has worked toward have merely been the raw materials of a more complicated set of confinements: when, to be a little more specific and more germane to Franzen's novel, one's rebellion against one's parents ends up shaping the terms of one's own errors in child-rearing or marital life or career.2 In the bluntest statement of this theme, Patty querulously comments, "The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free" (181). A few pages later she comes across a small monument on the Swarthmore campus engraved with the words "USE WELL THY FREEDOM." (Franzen, a Swarthmore graduate, actually gets one of the details about this carving wrong: he attributes it to the Class of 1920, but as you can see from the linked picture, it was given by the Class of 1927.)

Because of these lines and many others like them, the heavy-handedness of Franzen's novel has been the aspect most frequently used to suggest that, "yeah, it's pretty good, but," which is essentially the tone of Ron Charles's hilarious video review. And it is quite valid to complain about the way that Franzen insults his readers with the incredible obviousness of the "freedom" theme, particularly when he begins sloppily to equate3 freedom with unchecked growth (361-362); other, healthier traditions of freedom are ignored or subordinated.

But the heavy-handedness of the freedom theme seems connected to the other theme I have tried to outline; in fact, I'm compelled to ask: Isn't portentousness a writer's equivalent of self-pity? That is, if self-pity is what keeps our dissatisfactions with the idea and experience of freedom from completely curdling into bitterness and misanthropy (two outcomes that Franzen identifies as very real possibilities), then isn't portentousness also a kind of stopgap for preventing our dissatisfaction with the basic banality of words and ideas from turning into a Beckettian minimalism or a Jamesian super-refined obliquity? In plainer words, isn't heavy-handedness what keeps the realist novel "real"? Repetitions of thematic keywords, overdetermined allusions to meaningful books or films or events, plausible impossibilities, extraordinary coincidences, "meet-cutes," etc.—it is Franzen's argument that they are necessary to hold art in a place where we may be tempted to escape but ultimately where we choose to return for help.

Franzen has two of his characters attend a Bright Eyes concert; Walter, Patty's husband, and Richard, her lover and Walter's best friend, have the following exchange after the show:
"A few too many songs about adolescent soap operas."
"They're all about belief," Walter said, "The new record's this incredible kind of pantheistic effort to keep believing in something in a world full of death. Oberst [the boy genius behind Bright Eyes] works the word 'lift' into every song. That's the name of the record, Lifted. It's like religion without the bullshit of religious dogma" (370).
It's almost too easy to see Franzen's signature here, a sort of excuse and rationale for the portentousness: we need this word "freedom," just as we need to be lifted by hope. (At any rate, it is extremely likely that Franzen would not be scared off by Conor Oberst's own reputation for breathtaking self-pity or for heavy-handedness.)4

It is this confidence, this assuredness in the continued necessity of realism that accounts for Franzen's commercial and critical successes; he is, along with only a very few other writers at work today, capable of convincing his audience that he writes "serious" fiction in the nineteenth-century sense of that word: not just fiction meant to be read by smart people, which is what "serious" so often means today, but solid bourgeois fiction that one can trust to talk about adult things (sex and business, mostly) without blushing but also without prurience or disproportionate avidity. Franzen fits pretty well the quote that I cited a few days ago from William Dean Howells about the role of the novelist in society:
They require of a novelist whom they respect unquestionable proof of his seriousness, if he proposes to deal with certain phases of life; they require a sort of scientific decorum. He can no longer expect to be received on the ground of entertainment only; he assumes a higher function, something like that of a physician or a priest, and they expect him to be bound by laws as sacred as those of such professions; they hold him solemnly pledged not to betray them or abuse their confidence. If he will accept the conditions, they give him their confidence, and he may then treat to his greater honor, and not at all to his disadvantage, of such experiences, such relations of men and women…
It is probably inevitable that having written this, I will be assumed to be myself defending this form of "serious" fiction, and to be lauding Franzen. But I'm ambivalent about Franzen's novel (it's worth reading), and I think realism can have and should have a wider compass than the one Franzen (or Howells) is likely to give it. I think that those who are ready to scorn Franzen for being what he is are generally impatient and narrow, but anyone who is willing to give Franzen more than what he's asking for (which is, I think, the case with the absurdly grandiose plaudits being bestowed upon this book) needs a bracing splash of very cold water. Franzen is complicit in this irrational exuberance, no doubt, but the novel itself is much, much more modest than anything the majority of his reviewers, blurbers, and marketers have put into circulation.

1 It is an incredibly significant theme for everyone but the one non-white character—Lalitha—whom Franzen draws as too ingenuous and submissive to be subject to something as whitely complex as self-pity; his idea of adding depth to this representative of the non-Western world is making her an aggressive driver. Srsly.
2 One of the more interesting (to me) examples that Franzen gives of this basic structure is geographical: "Patty, with a frozen smile, sat looking at the glamorous and plutocratic parties at other tables in the restaurant's lovely discreet light. There was, of course, nowhere better in the world to be than New York City. This fact was the foundation of her family's satisfaction with itself, the platform from which all else could be ridiculed, the collateral of adult sophistication that bought them the right to behave like children. To be Patty and sitting in that SoHo restaurant was to confront a force she had not the slightest chance of competing with. Her family had claimed New York and was never going to budge. Simply never coming here again—just forgetting that restaurant scenes like this even existed—was her only option" (123).
3 By the way, what is Franzen's deal with splitting as many infinitives as he can? Is this some kind of compositional principle? Does he have some sort of vendetta against pedants? It was maddening to me.
4 It is interesting to compare the well-remarked upon heavy-handedness of Freedom with comments Franzen made last year about the social novel: "I couldn’t smoke enough cigarettes in a day to interest myself in using a novel to illustrate points I already understood very well. I think, although he is extremely kind and erudite and a lovely person, Richard Powers’s books are good examples of what happens when you try to illustrate a social reality that’s already known to you." More here.

Edit: Charles Baxter has another Tolstoy comparison in the NYRB: "Franzen, judging from the evidence of this novel, doesn’t want to be Jane Austen; he wants to be Tolstoy." Maybe this idea of the Tolstoyan ambitions of Freedom went out with the promotional materials/ARCs?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: The Big Money, by John Dos Passos

There will be a post looking at the trilogy as a whole and trying to place it in the landscape of American literary history as that history looks to someone at the present moment, but for now, I'll simply complete the inventorying project of describing the contents of this last volume of the U.S.A. trilogy.

Some of the most famous "Camera Eye" sections of the trilogy are to be found in The Big Money, in particular Camera Eye 50, which some of the more biographically-oriented critics consider the climax of the trilogy, as it depicts Dos Passos's own efforts trying to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti—supposedly the experiential germ or origin of the project:
   they have clubbed us off the streets   they are stronger   they are rich   they hire and fire the politicians the newspapereditors the old judges the small men with reputations the collegepresidents the wardheelers (listen businessmen collegepresidents judges   America will not forget her betrayers)   they hire the men with guns   the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons
   all right you have won   you will kill the brave men   our friends tonight…
   America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
   their hired men sit on the judge's bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants
   they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
   all right we are two nations
   America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner to throw the switch
   but do they know that the old world of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know that the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here in the mouth of a Back Bay socialworker in the mouth of an Italian printer of a hobo from Arkansas    the language of the beaten nation is not forgotten in our ears tonight
   the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died…
Camera Eye 49 is also among the more famous passages in the novel, dealing with basically the same themes, material, and even diction:
   rebuild the ruined words worn slimy in the mouths of lawyers   district-attorneys   collegepresidents   Judges without the old words the immigrants haters of oppression brought to Plymouth how can you know who are your betrayers America
    or that this fishpeddler you have in Charlestown Jail is one of your founders Massachusetts?
Not only do these passages sit quite comfortably as a sort of midpoint between Langston Hughes ("Let America Be America Again") and Allen Ginsberg ("America"), but they also recall (or rather look forward to) the collective invocation Dos Passos would give to the trilogy when it was released as a one-volume edition in 1938: "But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people."

The Big Money features nine biographies: Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford, Thorstein Veblen, Isadora Duncan (the only biography of a woman in the entire trilogy), Rudolph Valentino, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Randolph Hearst, and Samuel Insull. Although Veblen was acerbically critical of the way Americans used their wealth, none of these figures can be reasonably called a radical (or working-class) hero; in the previous two volumes, there had been some balance between the portraits of industrialists and those of the advocates for the working class, but Dos Passos denies that a balance exists any longer. The closest we come is Rudolph Valentino, a representative of mass culture, not mass democracy.

The narrative sections follow around just four different characters, and one of them, Richard Ellsworth Savage, has only one section and that only at the very end of the book. So for the whole first 86% of The Big Money, the action is dominated by three protagonists: Charley Anderson (seven sections; he was also one of the protagonists of The 42nd Parallel); Mary French (four sections); and Margo Dowling (five sections). Of course, as with the other two books, many if not most of the previously introduced protagonists run around inside this volume's narratives: Ben Compton is in a relationship with Mary French for a good portion of her narrative; Charley Anderson has an affair with Eveline Hutchins and runs in her circle, encountering Richard Ellsworth Savagee; Savage's own section also features J. Ward Moorehouse, Janey Williams and Eleanor Stoddard, who is marrying a Russian prince. Margo and Charley also have an affair.

Charley Anderson returns from his war-time experiences as a hero; after some time in the ambulance corps, he becomes a pilot and, evidently, an ace. Once back in America, he goes to his brother Jim's in St. Paul; Jim attempts to trade on his war record to get publicity and sales for his Ford dealership, which he appears to be mismanaging. After Charley's mother dies, Jim coerces him into signing a power-of-attorney deed to manage his share of the estate; Jim intends to use the whole estate to pull his dealership back into profitability. Charley, angry, takes a small lump sum and leaves for New York, where he is supposed to start a business for airplane parts with a wartime buddy. The business takes off in large part due to Charley's engineering acumen, but Charley's interests get diverted by playing the stock market and chasing Doris, a frivolous society girl who eventually does sleep with him but arbitrarily marries an Anglo-American who has "people in the Doomsday Book… [and who] have copper interests. They are almost like the Guggenheims except of course they are not Jewish." Unfortunately, Charley ends up with Gladys, who is in her own way probably worse for Charley than Doris would have been (although it must be said that Charley is himself a rotten husband). Already by this time, Charley's drinking has seriously affected his work, but he is spied by a Detroit airplane manufacturer who, impressed with the engine starter he was instrumental in designing, convinces him to leave the small company he helped to found. Now in "the big money," he lives much closer to the edge, drunk most of the time and completely irresponsible, and always putting as much of his money as he fails to spend on liquor and luxury items into the stock market. An airplane crash allows his wife and his rivals in business to make their move, not ruining him but making him completely reliant on playing the market; his job as a vice president at the airplane company is effectively over. Charley does not respond well, drinking even more, spending more, and generally being reckless Margo is a part of this prolonged spree; we get much of the narrative of his decline from Margo's point of view, as he travels around Florida and New York as her lover and patron (Margo is pursuing a performing career of a sort). In his last section he falls completely apart, leaving a dance he's attending with Margo in anger when she becomes jealous of the attention he's paying to another girl; he takes the other girl with him and drunkenly plays chicken with a train. He loses, the girl dies, he ends up in the hospital, eventually dying of peritonitis (like Rudolph Valentino), but not before his brother Jim is able to swoop in to try to convince him to make him his executor and not before Margo is able to get one last check out of him. The check bounces.

Mary French is a doctor's daughter from Colorado; her father is a self-sacrificing soul who eventually dies in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Her mother is less selfless; she disapproves of Mary's public-spiritedness and of Mary's best friend, Ada Cohn. Mary goes off to Vassar for college and Ada follows a year later; eventually both go to Hull-House in Chicago to work for the summer there. After her father dies, she decides not to finish her college education and instead to work full-time at Hull-House. After a few years there she simply leaves, getting a job as a counter-girl in Cleveland. She moves on to Pittsburgh where she gets a job as a reporter; she winds up with an assignment covering a strike. Her editor wants her to find out that there are Russian agitators behind it, but she instead falls in with the organizers and becomes a devoted worker for the union. G. H. Barrow, who has shown up in all three books, comes to town and offers her a job, largely because of ulterior motives, although Mary is a diligent and very competent secretary and researcher. Barrow impregnates her and she runs off to New York to have an abortion, aided by her old friend Ada, who is now an accomplished violinist. She gets involved in radical politics there, and, while sheltering Ben Compton, who has been released from jail and is in a post-traumatic state, falls in love with him. They eventually quarrel, and she leaves New York to work for the Sacco & Vanzetti case in Boston, where she meets Don Stevens, who also appeared in 1919. Mary then goes back to New York and gets involved with a coal strike going on near Pittsburgh; she also gets involved with Don Stevens, although he leaves her for Russia and ends up marrying another girl. Downcast, Mary attends a party with Ada that is being hosted by Eveline. Remarking, "You know, it does seem too silly to spend your life filling up rooms with illassorted people who really hate each other, Eveline wishes Ada and Mary goodnight. Mary finds out the next day that Eveline killed herself later that night. Mary returns to her work.

Margo Dowling is born in New York; her father runs out on her and the woman, Agnes, who is raising her. Agnes gets involved with a vaudeville performer, Frank Mandeville. Mandeville eventually brings Margo into his act as a child actress; when she is perhaps 14, he rapes her. She runs off at 16 with a Cuban young man named Tony; they go to Havana, she hates it, and she gets a young boy at the consulate to smuggle her out of the country. She returns to New York and dances as a chorus girl. A wealthy young man named Tad begins to take her out, and eventually takes her down to Florida to go boating. The trip goes to smash when they run into Tony; Tad leaves. After spending a few days with Tony, he steals what is left of her money and vanishes. She goes to a lunchcounter despairing of what she'll do; it is there she meets Charley. Charley takes her back to New York and sets her up nicely. She becomes a model at a French dress shop; the owner arranges for her to have her picture taken by a photographer named Margolies. Margolies asks her to come to his studio and she poses for some other kind of pictures, which Charley pays for. The French dressmaker kills himself (he's going bankrupt) and Margo decides to head back to Miami to sing in a club there. Charley follows her down there as his decline steepens; he dies and she has to figure out how she's going to make some money (her gig never did very well). Tony shows up again, and Agnes has come down from New York for Charley's funeral; the three of them take off for California. While there, Margo bumps into Margolies, who has quickly become a big-time movie producer; remembering Margo, he casts her as his next big star. Tony is killed by a man he may be sleeping with, an Austrian polo-player named Max. Not that it's exactly been a big obstacle for her seeing other men, but with her marriage now over, Margo marries Margolies, although he in effect pimps her out to her co-star, Rodney Cathcart. Her career is about to take off when her narrative cuts out.

Richard Ellsworth Savage has been employed by J. Ward Moorehouse for a few years now and has risen to Moorehouse's second-in-command. We see the public relations business in full swing (it's a little reminiscent of Mad Men, as it's transitioning to advertising) as Savage tries to win over Bingham, a bizarre millionaire who sells patent medicines. Moorehouse gets very ill, meanwhile, and Savage becomes the de facto president of the pr firm and the responsibility of "the molding of the public mind," a phrase which certainly seems like it has a double meaning. Savage gets really drunk and ends up dancing with a young man in Harlem; the young man follows him back to his room and robs Savage while he sleeps. Savage goes into work the next day worried about blackmail, but it appears everything will work out.

There is a final section which is ambiguous in its relationship to the four modes of the trilogy: titled "Vag" (short for vagrant), it is not exactly a narrative section but seems more allegorical. It might be considered, in fact, one of the biographies; in the Table of Contents it is typeset in the same fashion as the other headings for biographies (italicized, all-caps, indented). It is a peculiar close to the trilogy.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

From Fredric Jameson, "History and Class Consciousness as an Unfinished Project"

Sometimes when I'm reading Jameson on Georg Lukács, I feel like I may be the only one agreeing with him on Lukács's continued relevance and even necessity. Jameson opens this 1988 essay with a challenge which has yet, I think, to be taken up: "The actuality of Georg Lukács has in recent years always seemed to founder on two concepts: the defense of literary realism and the idea of totality. When one considers that these are virtually the two most important and central conceptual achievements of his life's work, no little discouragement tends to surround the project of 'reviving' him" (Valences of the Dialectic 201). And indeed, the task of re-introducing the concept of totality and the view of literary realism as a strategy of resistance to (and not a practice of submission toward) market society is at least daunting if not dispiriting. Very few people want to hear the Lukács side of the Brecht-Lukács debate anymore, and, as Jameson quickly but cogently lays out, very few people want to bother with dissociating the notion of totality from an intimidating ensemble of bad things which have, under postmodernism, come to be seen as inseparable:
these positions [of postmodern intellectuals]… conflate intellectual authority (the subject that knows totality), social relationships (a totalizing picture of society that represses difference, or differentiation), politics (a single-party politics, as opposed to the pluralism of the so-called new social movements), ideology or philosophy (Hegelian idealization, which represses matter, the Other, or Nature), aesthetics (the old organic work of art or concrete universal, as opposed to the contemporary fragment or aleatory "work"), and ethics and psychoanalysis (the old "centered subject," the ideal of a unified personality or ego and a unified life project. In the koiné of contemporary theoretical debate, the name Lukács has become interchangeable with those of Hegel and Stalin as the word that illustrates the enormity of all these values by uniting them in a single program. It would be frivolous, but not wrong, to observe that the undifferentiated identification of these distinct positions with each other is itself something of a caricature of what is generally attributed to "totalizing thought" at its worst. (Valences 210)
Jameson's objective in this essay is to show how these two obstacles to "reviving" Lukács, literary realism and the totality, are in fact crucially linked across Lukács's corpus. In this regard, the essay feels a little truncated; Jameson moves on too quickly in demonstrating this connection, and I would have liked a more in-depth reading of Lukács's writings on realism to show where the totality persists in these later works (I should say I haven't read Jameson's essay on Lukács in Marxism and Form yet; perhaps I will find more there).

But Jameson does something else which is, on its own terms, extremely interesting; he takes a problem many people have with Lukács, his workerism, that is his belief in the epistemological priority of the proletariat in understanding capitalism, and puts it in plain terms which are easily translated into many other projects of emancipation or resistance: he argues that Lukács's point about the working class is a more general truth, namely, that the exploited always understand exploitation better than the exploiters. He proceeds to connect this directly to standpoint theory in feminism (e.g. Nancy Hartsock, Sandra Harding, Alison M. Jagger) by saying, "one has the feeling that the most authentic descendency of Lukács's thinking is to be found, not among the Marxists, but within a certain feminism, where the unique conceptual move of History and Class Consciousness has been appropriated for a whole program…" (Valences 215)

Jameson extends this argument in a very remarkable way for the rest of the essay; taking as his presupposition that what feminism (and, he will argue later, black and Jewish identities) have in common with Lukács's prioritization of the class consciousness of workers is that, "owing to its structural situation in the social order and to the specific forms of oppression and exploitation unique to that situation, each group lives the world in a phenomenologically specific way that allows it to see, or, better still, that it makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups" (Valences 215-216). That emphasis on the unavoidability of this seeing and knowing is crucial, I think, and Jameson should perhaps have emphasized it even more.

The truly valuable addition that Jameson makes to this not-entirely-original (but often contested) point about collective experience comes when he considers the historical contribution of Jews to Marxism:
Meanwhile, particularly since George Steiner has so often complained of the suppression of the specifically Jewish component in Marxian and dialectical literary tradition—if not from Marx himself, then at least from Lukács all the way to Adorno—it seems appropriate to say a word about this specific social and epistemological situation as well. We are in fact often tempted, as intellectuals, to stress the obvious formal analogies between the Talmudic tradition and its exegetical relationship to sacred texts and the intricacies of modern dialectical reading and writing. But these analogies presuppose a cultural transmission which remains obscure, and which may well be very problematic indeed in the case of assimilated urban Jews whose interest in the tradition (one thinks of Walter Benjamin) was purely intellectual and a development in later adult life. The moment of truth of the Central European Jewish situation seems to me very different from this… This is not first and foremost the formal and aesthetic stress on pain and suffering, on dissonance and the negative, everywhere present in Adorno; but rather a more primary experience, namely that of collective fear and of vulnerability… [T]his experience of fear, in all its radicality, which cuts across class and gender to the point of touching the bourgeois in the very isolation of his town house or sumptuous Berlin apartment, is surely the very moment of truth of ghetto life itself, as the Jews and so many other ethnic groups have had to live it: the helplessness of the village community before the perpetual and unpredictable imminence of the lynching or the pogrom, the race riot. Other groups' experience of fear is occasional, rather than constitutive: standpoint analysis specifically demands a differentiation between the various negative experiences of constraint, between the exploitation suffered by workers and the oppression suffered by women and continuing on through the distinct structural forms of exclusion and alienation characteristic of other kinds of group experience. (Valences 220)1
Jameson caps this insight off by directing it toward an "unfinished project" which is consonant with (if it does not in fact coincide with) the unfinished project of History and Class Consciousness:
What emerges form the feminist project, and from the speculations it inspires, is an "unfinished project": namely the differentiation of all those situations of what I have tried neutrally to characterize as "constraint," which are often monolithically subsumed under single-shot political concepts such as "domination" or "power"; economic concepts such as "exploitation"; social concepts such as "oppression"; or philosophical concepts such as "alienation." These reified concepts and terms, taken on their own as meaningful starting points, encourage the revival of what I have characterized as an essentially metaphysical polemic about the ultimate priority of the political, say (the defense of the primacy of "domination"), versus that of the economic (the counter-primacy of the notion of "exploitation").
What seems more productive is to dissolve this conceptuality once again back into the concrete situation from which it emerged: to make an inventory of the variable structures of "constraint" lived by the various marginal, oppressed, or dominated groups—the so-called "new social movements" fully as much as the working classes—with this difference, that each form of privation is acknowledged as producing its own specific "epistemology," its own specific view from below, and its own specific and distinctive truth claim. It is a project that will sound like "relativism" or "pluralism" only if the identity of the absent common object of such "theorization" from multiple "standpoints" is overlooked—what one therefore does not exactly have the right to call (but let it stand as contradictory shorthand) "late capitalism."
That absent common object is also, of course, the reintroduction of the notion of "totality."

What remains left out of this project, however, is the whole question, once again, of the connection of the totality to literary realism, and, of course, to the very vexed question of the connection between the realist novel and the bourgeois or middle class audience to which it is generally directed. I need to do a lot more reading in Lukács to begin to understand how these two connections relate, but what interests me for now is how far we might push Jameson's quickly-abandoned comment that "collective fear and vulnerability… cuts across class and gender to the point of touching the bourgeois in the very isolation of his town house or sumptuous Berlin apartment"—in other words, to what ends does fear cut across class lines, and would pursuing this unfinished project of differentiating forms of constraint among the middle class or (more particularly) among the professional/managerial class be a continuation or a deformation of this project as it is carried out among "the various marginal, oppressed, or dominated groups?" What terms are being changed and to what degree when we turn the tools of this project onto analyzing a (self-consciously) bourgeois realist novel like, say, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which so nakedly begs for precisely this kind of inventorying of forms of "constraint?" All I can say is stay tuned…

1Paul Gilroy actually quotes part of this passage in The Black Atlantic, and I heard Cornel West make basically this point in a lecture given right after 9/11: white Americans, many of them for the first time in their adult lives, were experiencing the sort of miasmic, enveloping fear that characterizes an existence subject to random violence and injustice—in other words, the day-to-day experience of many African-Americans.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Genteel Tradition, Young Girls, and a Different Theory of Prudery in American Fiction

In an incomplete essay on the short story in his third volume of Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington recovers a quote from William Dean Howells about James: "To enjoy his work, to feel its rare excellence, both in conception and expression, is a brevet of intellectual good form" (Parrington 399; the original source is Howells's introduction to a 1906 re-printing of Daisy Miller). Parrington's full comments should be quoted; enjoying his prose may no longer (as it once was) be considered in its own way a brevet of intellectual good form, but it is still quite fun:
Henry James. His position peculiar. From his youth déraciné—his father hated American vulgarity, American journalism, and would not permit his son to take root. He grew up with an aristocratic conception of civilization—his sole interest lay in such civilization, and the manners of the polite society of that civilization. No other American has so hated and feared contamination from the vulgar. He was thus the last flower of the Genteel Tradition, transplanted to an environment more congenial. As the middle-class became more clamorous, he withdrew to the Continent, to England, where the older ideas still lingered. There in the spirit of the realist he wrote with refined art and persistent detachment—even to a punctilious and princely refinement. As Mr. Howells says… (ibid.)
I think "brevet" is not a terribly common word, so in spite of my feelings about the cliché of beginning a thought with "the Oxford English Dictionary defines…" I'll offer the OED definitions anyway:
1. An official or authoritative message in writing; esp. a Papal Indulgence. Obs.
2. An official document granting certain privileges from a sovereign or government; spec. in the Army, a document conferring nominal rank on an officer, but giving no right to extra pay.

Parrington's opinion is not difficult to parse, but "a brevet of intellectual good form…"? What a weird thing to say. It sounds so much like a backhanded compliment, an acknowledgment that the reason one likes James is because doing so makes one feel worthy of liking James—a circular frenzy of Bourdieusian-level cultural capital accumulation. Yet if it is a genuine compliment, then recognizing that fact may in a way its own little test: to imagine that the achievement of intellectual good form is not only a dignified objective, but even a normative one.

But wait: What makes the compliment even more interesting is its setting—a highly gendered reading of post-bellum literary history which Parrington completely elides:
Mr. James's time is still ours, and while perfect artistry is prized in literature, it is likely to be prolonged indefinitely beyond our time. But he belongs preeminently to that period following the Civil War when our authorship felt the rising tide of national life in an impulse to work of the highest refinement, the most essential truth. The tendency was then toward a subtile beauty, which he more than any other American writer has expressed in his form, and toward a keen, humorous, penetrating self-criticism, which seized with joy upon the expanding national life, and made it the material of fiction as truly national as any yet known. "The finer female sense," in whose favor the prosperity of our fiction resides, Mr. James lastingly piqued, and to read him if for nothing but to condemn him is the high intellectual experience of the daughters of mothers whose indignant girlhood resented while it adored his portraits of American women. To enjoy his work, to feel its rare excellence, both in conception and expression, is a brevet of intellectual good form which the women who have it prize at all its worth.
By 1906, there was already in literary circles a bit of a backlash against what was typically characterized as the tyranny of what might be called the daughter standard:
Remote from and insensitive to the dominant tendencies and major developments of American life, they [James Russell Lowell, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Richard Watson Gilder, et al.] cast a fog of gentility over our literature. They came from and spoke for the least fecund class in the commonwealth, the class of the comfortably situated, governed by prejudice, incapable of realistic thought, committed to the worship of respectability in every sphere of action. Like that class they mistook prudery for refinement, timidity for self-restraint, and abstinence from the taking of bribes for civic duty. They were prepared to take Lowell's absurd dictum that no man should write what he [Lowell] was not willing for his daughter to read, and turn it into the even absurder one that no man should write what they were unwilling for their [own] daughters to read. (Granville Hicks, The Great Tradition 20)
In a similar vein, Frank Norris had said that, "It is the 'young girl' and the family center table that determines the standard of the American short story" (quoted in John Tomsich, A Genteel Endeavor, 5). More examples could be adduced (a particularly bitter—and early one—is mentioned here). In a sense, this bucking against the tyranny of the girl reader is the complement of Hawthorne's griping about the "damned mob of scribbling women." But there is also a quote from Howells to throw into the hopper which addresses the question far more thoughtfully, though he ends up very close to precisely the caricature Sinclair Lewis made of him when he mocked him in his Nobel Lecture ("Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men, but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H. G. Wells has called "the jolly coarsenesses of life". In his fantastic vision of life, which he innocently conceived to be realistic, farmers, and seamen and factory hands might exist, but the farmer must never be covered with muck, the seaman must never roll out bawdy chanteys, the factory hand must be thankful to his good kind employer, and all of them must long for the opportunity to visit Florence and smile gently at the quaintness of the beggars.") Here's Howells:
they [other American authors] ask why, when the conventions of the plastic and histrionic arts liberate their followers to the portrayal of almost any phase of the physical or of the emotional nature, an American novelist may not write a story on the lines of 'Anna Karenina' or 'Madame Bovary.' They wish to touch one of the most serious and sorrowful problems of life in the spirit of Tolstoy and Flaubert, and they ask why they may not. At one time, they remind us, the Anglo-Saxon novelist did deal with such problems--De Foe in his spirit, Richardson in his, Goldsmith in his. At what moment did our fiction lose this privilege? In what fatal hour did the Young Girl arise and seal the lips of Fiction, with a touch of her finger, to some of the most vital interests of life?

Whether I wished to oppose them in their aspiration for greater freedom, or whether I wished to encourage them, I should begin to answer them by saying that the Young Girl has never done anything of the kind. The manners of the novel have been improving with those of its readers; that is all. Gentlemen no longer swear or fall drunk under the table, or abduct young ladies and shut them up in lonely country-houses, or so habitually set about the ruin of their neighbors' wives, as they once did. Generally, people now call a spade an agricultural implement; they have not grown decent without having also grown a little squeamish, but they have grown comparatively decent; there is no doubt about that. They require of a novelist whom they respect unquestionable proof of his seriousness, if he proposes to deal with certain phases of life; they require a sort of scientific decorum. He can no longer expect to be received on the ground of entertainment only; he assumes a higher function, something like that of a physician or a priest, and they expect him to be bound by laws as sacred as those of such professions; they hold him solemnly pledged not to betray them or abuse their confidence. If he will accept the conditions, they give him their confidence, and he may then treat to his greater honor, and not at all to his disadvantage, of such experiences, such relations of men and women as George Eliot treats in 'Adam Bede,' in 'Daniel Deronda,' in 'Romola,' in almost all her books; such as Hawthorne treats in 'The Scarlet Letter;' such as Dickens treats in 'David Copperfield;' such as Thackeray treats in 'Pendennis,' and glances at in every one of his fictions; such as most of the masters of English fiction have at same time treated more or less openly. It is quite false or quite mistaken to suppose that our novels have left untouched these most important realities of life. They have only not made them their stock in trade; they have kept a true perspective in regard to them; they have relegated them in their pictures of life to the space and place they occupy in life itself, as we know it in England and America. They have kept a correct proportion, knowing perfectly well that unless the novel is to be a map, with everything scrupulously laid down in it, a faithful record of life in far the greater extent could be made to the exclusion of guilty love and all its circumstances and consequences.
What is remarkable (for me, at any rate) about this passage is the way that Howells hooks the growing "decentness" of the American writer onto the emerging discourses of scientific detachment (precisely the language that Zola, about whom Howells himself was ambivalent but who was certainly the bête noire of the other genteel American littérateurs) and of professionalism. The writer has become more circumspect because he has turned writing into a profession, and his readers have expectations of him similar to those they would hold when submitting to a lawyer's or a doctor's ministrations: a certain delicacy, and a confidentiality which suppresses rather than just contains unpleasantness. What an extraordinary image of the writer!