Thursday, July 25, 2019

Philip Roth's Late Aesthetic Statement

I'm deeply impressed by this passage from a speech Philip Roth delivered at his 80th birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, March 19, 2013. Into a single, beautiful paragraph, Roth packs both a statement of his personal aesthetic and an implied program for the realistic novel generally. This is also an example of late, late Roth returning to the aesthetic idol of his collegiate youth and striking a Master-fully Jamesian stylistic note. One can almost imagine Roth dictating these lines to a typist as he gazes out over the garden at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex, circa 1905:

"I was saying that this passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing. Without strong representation of the thing--animate or inanimate--without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing. Its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities, is fiction's lifeblood. It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromising particularity--from its physicalness--that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy."

Here's an audio recording of the entire speech, a truly wonderful performance that includes extended comments on, and a reading from, Sabbath's Theater. The paragraph I've quoted begins at 7:15:

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Best of MINDFUL PLEASURES

Now that Mindful Pleasures is over a decade old and past its 600-post mark, I guess it's time for a bit of curation--if not exactly a "Mindful Pleasures Greatest Hits," at least a "Best of" CD. So here's my personal selection of the best things I've written on MP over the past ten years. (Click on the links to read the posts.)
And here are links to all of my "Adversaria" posts, lengthy collections of random ruminations, quirky quotes, and asinine alliterations culled from my utterly disorganized notebooks:

Friday, May 24, 2019

Summer Reading Recommendations

Summer's coming. Time to trundle out the 40-gallon barrel of SPF90 sunscreen and spread it frosting-thick over all exposed flesh to deflect those dastardly UV rays. And don't forget to have fun... Here are my reading recommendations for this year's hot times (click to buy at Bezosland):
We begin with singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen's second and last novel, 1966's Beautiful Losers. If Ralph Ellison can be considered a major American novelist solely on the basis of Invisible Man (and he can, obviously), then Beautiful Losers marks Cohen as one of Canada's major novelists. This is the Great Canadian Postmodern Novel, and if Cohen had not shifted into a performance career, he might have been the Canadian Thomas Pynchon. Next, we catch a transatlantic flight at YYZ (cue the Rush instrumental) and land in the terrible, horrible, no good Portugal of Antonio Lobo Antunes' savage imagination. Tragically timely, The Inquisitor's Manual is the great Portuguese novelist's masterful anti-fascist novel; we might think of it as an Autumn of the Patriarch for the Salazar regime. And we might think of its monstrous, and terrifyingly human, central character, Senhor Francisco, as a prescient satire of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Fleeing from that dread thought, flying back to Canadian freedom, we pick up Alice Munro's only novel (a novel-in-stories, of course), Lives of Girls and Women. If you're looking for a female equivalent of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this is it. Munro's kunstlerroman is really that good, and it deserves to be much more widely known and read. After Munro, we soar back across the ocean, rent a James Bond sports car, and shift into a radically different imaginative gear for Ballard's High Rise. A great, imaginative, well-written, surrealistically vivid, cinematically lucid science fiction novel, this is also a good social allegory, an interesting dramatization of the intersections of technology and psychology, and, I would argue, a knowing parody of structuralism that is simultaneously a self-deconstructing structuralist horror novel. (I'll explain the last part, briefly: A novel so binary with regard to gender, told entirely from three male points-of-view, permits--indeed, provokes--a deconstructive reading. The male-centrism encourages a female-centric counter-reading. The novel's demonstration that the original gender binary and its reversal both lead to hellish domination thus radically destabilizes the gender binary upon which the novel only seems to be built.) Yes, Ballard pulls all of that off, and does it in under 200 pages--the mind boggles... And we bring our boggled minds back to earth at last with Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry. Last year, this novel received some rather voyeuristic attention in the bookchat media due to its first part, a roman a clef about the author's affair with Philip Roth (apropos of which, Roth gave Halliday the ultimate good review, telling a friend, "She got me."). But Asymmetry is much more than its first section. Unlike virtually all the Brooklyned and Iowaed novels swelling the litfic cybershelves these days, this is a genuinely, and interestingly, original work of art. Formally, it's a dialectical novel, following a strict Hegelian triad: the first section, the 'Roth' narrative, constantly and deliberately risks a descent into chick-lit vapidity; the second section is an absolute negation of the first; and the briefer third section attempts a synthesis. The whole is one of the more remarkable American novels of recent years. Enjoy....and stay out of that damned sun.

A thought on "The Rock" by Wallace Stevens

Reading the pages on "The Rock" in Harold Bloom's Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, I found the florid one's commentary illuminating but--as usual for the works of Bloom's 'theoretical' middle years--too hermetically literary. Like Cleanth Brooks (an old Bloom bête noir) figuring Keats's urn as an ideal New Critic, Bloom tends to trope (to use a favorite Bloomverb) every poet he writes about as a version of himself, a revisionary reader of poetry. This can be a fruitful critical line, but Bloom hews to it too exclusively. He thus, unsurprisingly, reads 'The Rock' as metapoetic statement; I read it as an existentialist aesthetic crisis poem; others might read it as a deconstructionist drama, or even as religious allegory--and all four readings might well be compellingly supported by Stevens' text. Although I--and this may merely be my bias speaking--suspect that an existentialism-inflected reading that understands the poem as dramatizing a dialectic of being and/from nothingness might subsume all the others.


My reading, nutshelled: The rock is a symbol of the existential nothingness that underlies reality, the nothing on the other side of Ahab's "pasteboard mask." Upon this vertiginously terrifying nonfoundational foundation, the mind projects Being (leaves, lilacs) as a protective barrier, a prophylactic, a shield. This Being, an imaginary creation--like a work of art, a poem--so enraptures us that our act of creation is repressed and we reify our projection as the Real, the cure, the panacea for our existential angst. And, ecstatically, if only for the duration of the poem, the medicine works.... Something like that seems to be the through-line of "The Rock."

A Heretical Theoretical Thought

A thought upon finishing the late M. H. Abrams' eminently reasonable, humanistic (and thus multiply deconstructible) critique of deconstruction in "The Deconstructive Angel":


I wonder if deconstruction may be one of the least interesting things language does. What if it's little more than a banal, paradoxical quirk in our species' principal representational technology (language)? Perhaps the deconstructibility of linguistic forms is an inconsequential, rather meaningless 'flaw in the glass' of the linguistic window through which we represent reality, just as Zeno's Paradox is a similar flaw in the mathematical glass through which we represent space and motion. (Zeno's Paradox functions only in the mathematical representational grid, not in reality. We prove this every time we move.) Perhaps deconstruction is no grandiose portal to a utopia "beyond metaphysics," as some of its apologists have claimed. Maybe it's merely a quirk of language, a reminder (that is, a meaningful sign) that our species has developed representational strategies so efficient, so empirically 'close' to the represented real object, that these strategies tend toward transparency. We can see through them, so we need the flaws to remind us they are made of glass.

ALL THINGS SHINING by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

For reasons unconscious, I'm finally reading Dreyfus and Kelly's All Things Shining. I guess Gary Wills' definitive takedown of the book in the NYRB didn't entirely convince me. It should have.


Subtitled "Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age" (an idea that I find quite attractive, given that I've been doing it since junior high), this book promises so much and actually delivers so little that I'm tempted to remark that with friends like these, the "Western Classics" don't need enemies. Dreyfus and Kelly's arguments are weaker than a dying cancer patient, built on evidence so obviously cherry-picked that it belongs in a produce aisle, and stated so hyperbolically that I checked the copyright page for a Trump trademark. Additionally, the book's over-reliance on the writings of, and post-suicide hagiography around, David Foster Wallace marks it as an immediately dated artifact of the early 2010s. All the DFW references seem pretty pathetic today, a misguided attempt at trendy 'relevance' that weakens the book's 'long view' of the Western canon. It's as though Harold Bloom had ended his Western Canon with a Snoop Dogg-style rap about Fernando Pessoa. And in case that's not irritating enough, the Simon & Schuster copy editor must've been Sleepy Dwarf, because the text is riddled with elementary grammatical errors. Additionally, the academic authors' dismissal of existentialism (Sartre's) is a fatal blindness, for Sartre shows how the nihilism they decry is not an end but a beginning, point zero of any authentic life. There's no need for the unwise professors' giddy leap into mysticism; the Nothing is simply where we begin.


All Things Shining, in short, is not one of those titular things. In a time of fascism, religious fanaticism environmental catastrophe, and murderous corporatism (BP, Boeing...), a book offering a dubious 'cure' for the supposed 'nihilism' of a relatively tiny number of privileged Americans does seem direly beside the point. And that's how Dreyfus and Kelly's ahistorical approach leads them to shipwreck on the shoals of their book's inescapable now.


That said, the section on Moby Dick is actually not bad. They should've published it as an article and ditched the rest of the manuscript.

Itinerary for an Intellectual Orgy

Amidst all the cat videos, conspiracy theorists, and painfully pathetic self-promoters on YouTube, the discerning searcher might even in these bad times find, hidden like crusty porn in a cyber back-cupboard, videos of actual intellectual value. As proof, I offer the following itinerary of a day-long highbrow orgy drawn from the Dark Tube.

We begin with a late-1970s interview (general topic: philosophy and literature) with novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, conducted by philosopher Bryan Magee:


Next, we raise our brow-height a few more feet when Magee interviews Noam Chomsky. Check out Chomsky's amused grin at the end when Magee brings things to a close as soon as Chomsky mentions the word 'anarchism.' They should've done two episodes:

I disagree with Bryan Magee's evaluation of Sartre, but I'm impressed, in all of his interviews, by the amazing amount of ground he can cover without ever seeming to rush the conversation. Here he discusses Existentialism with William Barrett, author of the classic 1958 study of the movement, Irrational Man:

Continuing with the existentialists, here's Magee and Hubert Dreyfus discussing, with surprisingly lucidity, the fundamental ideas of Husserl and Heidegger:
 
Next up, we fly our mental planes to Frankfurt for Magee's 1977 interview with Herbert Marcuse. This is a great example of two men who profoundly disagree on many issues and are secure enough in their thoughts to have a calm, civil, enlightening conversation. We need more of this in the world of today.

Next up is Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick's portrait of Jacques Derrida, a documentary in which we see Le Grand Deconstructeur as a man living a fairly ordinary bourgeois academic life in the Paris suburbs:

Here's an interesting, albeit melodramatic, take on the life and (some of the) work of Michel Foucault. Really, how can any doc on Foucault avoid melodrama?

And to bring it all to a close, check out this lecture by art historian T. J. Clark on Picasso's Guernica. Fascinating.

And if all this still leaves you intellectually and aesthetically unsatiated, check out this BBC documentary called "Picasso's Last Stand," a wonderful account of the artist's great but underappreciated late period.

Walter A. Davis on YouTube

Yep, I'm bringing Mindful Pleasures back from the Valley of the Shadow (which only Orson knows...). After letting this blog lie liminally near death for an almost total circuit of the Sun, I've decided to roll out the crash cart, apply paddles to bared chest, yell "Clear!", and Lazarus this sucker back to life. The lilac in my dooryard says the time is right:

The immediate occasion for this vernal resurrection (cf. lilacs out of the dead land, blossoms on a bough, all those dusty Victorian volumes of Frazer...) is the recent appearance on YouTube of two videos featuring Walter A. Davis. Philosopher, actor, literary theorist, cultural critic, playwright, Davis is an American intellectual (yes, we still have a few of those) whose name will be familiar to frequent readers of this blog. Among his many books, Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx and Freud is merely the most important work in Existentialist philosophy of the past half-century (this year is the 30th anniversary of its publication, so celebrate by checking it out), and his Get the Guests rethinks the possibilities of theater through impressively close readings of five classic modern plays. 

Here is a cinematic adaptation of his own one-man play, Hamlet at 75, an exercise in performative criticism that achieves a theatrical synthesis of the aforementioned books:


And here is an enlightening, entertaining, wide-ranging podcast interview with Davis: 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Adversaria 2018

For my 600th post here at Mindful Pleasures (and likely my last for a while), a collection of random ruminations, pithy parentheticals, crabby comments, quirky quotes, and hopefully thoughtful asides culled from my notebook of the past year-and-more:

("Hopefully thoughtful" is probably the most we can ask for in Trumptime; "thoughtfully hopeful" is about as likely as the resurrection of Philip Roth.)

William Gass's obituary in Le Monde (newspaper of record for a country that still has a literary culture (of sorts)) refers to Gass as a prosateur, a word that deserves a place in the English lexicon, that ShakesJoycean trickbag of Tristy wordthefts and phunny portmanteaux. Prosateur: a prose stylist (fem. Prosateuse, for the old-fash and/or gynocentric). I'm attracted to its sonic similarity to provocateur, something all good prosateurs should be. (Gass certainly was. His best sentences are long-fuse wordbombs set to blow your mind.)

"One reads poetry with one's nerves." -- Wallace Stevens, in his notebook

Every dystopia is the utopia of its ruling class. (Until we understand this, we will not understand the actions of the Trump regime.)

Against identity politics as a motive for fiction: A novelist who cannot imagine her way into the mind of a central character radically unlike herself should probably find another line of work.

"[P]hilosophy must beware of the wish to be edifying." -- G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. (The same can be said of art.)

The problem for writers of fiction in 2018: How to capture the feeling of life in America today, this sensation of nightmare surrealism, of the inability to wake from a dark dream of slow-mo moronic fascism, this Trumped-out Amerika like a bad acid trip where we hallucinate ourselves trapped inside a sewer pipe and unable to move anything but our heads, Christopher Reeved inside a giant tube of shit--and always, in a shadowy corner of a tiny cupboard at the back of our minds, lingers the idea that these last 18 months have been a dream we're dreaming on the night of November 7, 2016, and in 24 hours we'll be celebrating the ignominious end of Donald Trump's political career... Oh, what the hell do you do when your worst political nightmare comes true? (This is the question the American left must answer in the streets.)

This is what fascism looks like: you wake up one morning and find half of your country cheering for your nightmare.

Picasso: "Art is a lie that tells the truth."  A fine definition of good fiction, a fair description of what a good novel does. Cien Anos de Soledad, for example, overflows with the fantastic, the surreal, the unbelievable, but most if not all of this comes in the service of truths about Columbian history, politics, culture and psychology. Likewise Catch-22 and the American way of war, Naked Lunch and addiction, Joyce and early 20th-century Irish life, Proust and erotic desire, Kafka and the darkest sides of modernity, Nathanael West  and American psychosis, Pynchon and techno-corporatism, Eugene O'Neill and familial resentment, Sade and domination, the books of Joshua and Judges and the unspeakable, giddy, Lacanian enjoyment of genocide.

A single episode of any Kardashian-related TV show should be enough to convince us that it's time for a French Revolution in these Whitmanic states. Indeed, compared to France in 1789, we have a far larger do-nothing parasitic aristocracy ripe for head-harvesting...

In an interview, Salman Rushdie tells the following anecdote: When he first met Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, Gottlieb handed him a copy of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, a book that sold few copies, and told him, "I'm keeping this book in print because it's better than Anna Karenina." In the 21st century, America's commercial publishers appear to have jettisoned the idea that books deserve to be published simply because they're great. Today, even William Gaddis's The Recognitions, one of the few true classics of midcentury American literature, has fallen out of Penguin Classics into the relative limbo of Dalkey Archive Press.

William Faulkner was fundamentally a tour de force writer. His lesser achievements tend to be the books he carefully planned and deliberated over (e.g. A Fable), while his greatest (Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Go Down, Moses; some of the short stories) seem like orgasmic dam-bursts, gushings, overflowings, all written at white heat with steam rising from his ink and pen piercing paper.
That is to say, Faulkner wrote fiction like the ecstatic Romantic poet he secretly believed he was. Not the Melville of Mississippi, but Oxford's Keats. After the turbulently productive years of his 'long Thirties' (from about 1928 through 1942), he relaxed into 'mature' deliberation, his prose lost some of its hypnotically baroque texture (a development today's critics, their brains laved in Iowa Waiter's Workshop (not a typo) dogma, should loudly cheer), and he began to repeat stories like a tiresome old man on the porch at Varner's store.


In The Liberal Imagination--a book from 1950 that the America of 2018 sorely needs--Lionel Trilling writes of adolescence as "the age when we find the books we give up but do not get over." That's perfect, just perfect.

Clarice Lispector seems to have been so impressed by the park scene in Sartre's La Nausee that she made it her body of work, dove into it the way Turner dove into the sunlit skies of Claude Lorraine. Because she first came to semi-prominence in America in the 1970s, her work championed by French feminist literary theorist Helene Cixous, Lispector has been reified as a feminist writer, but it seems more illuminating, and closer to her texts, to read her in light of existentialism, that great philosophy of anti-reification: Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Heidegger, the Pessoa of The Book of Disquiet (the great unacknowledged classic of 20th-century existentialist literature), the Beckett of the 40s and 50s, early Robbe-Grillet.

For me, D. H. Lawrence is an almost sui generis paradox: a humourless novelist whom I cannot take seriously. (I speak only of Lawrence the novelist. Lawrence the poet is one of the major writers of English Modernism (largely on  the strength of the poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers), his short fiction can be quite good, his travel writing excellent, and his Studies in Classic American Literature is one of the foundational texts of American literary criticism. It's important to remember in this officially xenophobic time that a work of such importance to America's understanding of itself was written by a foreigner.)

"The book we begin tomorrow must be as if there had been none before; new and outrageous as the morning sun." -- George Steiner, "The Pythagorean Genre," Language and Silence

In mid-December night falls fast, like a wino from a highwire.

Reading Freud's book on Wit (the opening pages of which might have decisively influenced the style of Finnegans Wake) is like watching a comedy team in which the straight man never gets out of the clown's way. The jokes are (usually) good; the analysis is laborious (emphasis on the second syllable), falling prey to the irony inhabiting all 'serious' writing about comedy: the examples will always overpower the text because the examples solicit a physical reaction (laughter) alongside the intellectual one, while the analysis appeals to the mind alone.

Jarry's Ubu Roi--a great play to read in this time of Trump, just as Pasolini's Salo is the movie to watch--contains my all-time favorite stage direction, "A clown explodes." I recall this every time I see Trump speaking without a script, every time I see Sarah Huckleberry Sanders speaking, period.

Ideas in fiction, especially the ideas closest to us, should be dramatized, tested in fictional action, not merely stated. Similarly, an idea in our lives is mere verbiage unless and until it is lived.

In Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, Pope Northrop I commands the totality of literature to dance to the music of Poussin's time.
Nicholas Poussin. A Dance to the Music of Time. ca.1635.
Wallace Collection, London.


"The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society's values, can force it to change." -- Samuel Delany, Empire Star (Needless to say, this naively Romantic sentiment hails us from the heart of the Sixties. Ignore the naivete and feel the provocation.)

The Jean Genet of his five early novels (Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, Querelle, The Thief's Journal) is both the foremost French surrealist novelist and the foremost French disciple of Proust. Perhaps only Claude Simon has an equal claim to the latter distinction.

Description of the prose style of Notre Dame des Fleurs in Frechtman's English translation, Our Lady of the Flowers: hardboiled Proust.

"No man is a hero to his valet," a line that Proust or Wilde might have written, is in fact from Hegel's Phenomenology, paragraph 665, a passage that finds GWFH in a surprisingly Proustian mood.

On being 'inappropriate': Art is an inappropriate act, and life the most improbable, inappropriate thing of all. Most of our universe is empty, and atoms are mostly air; so it seems the most appropriate thing of all is the void. Given a choice between MOMA and the void, I'll take Manhattan--and then, with Leonard Cohen's help, I'll take Berlin...

Walt Whitman throws his arms so wide to embrace the All that he risks dislocating his shoulders. But the All he embraces is most often a matter of matter, defiantly material, a vulgar (in the best sense) challenge to vulgar (in the worst sense) religions: "The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer..." (Song of Myself, section 24).

Moralism can be as much of a scourge as its erstwhile fuckfellow, religion. Both, at their worst, try to paralyze critical thought under a lava flow of dogma. (To my Joycean ear, magma sounds like moral dogma, and dogma like canine regurgitant--which is exactly how it feels in the mouth.)

"The great thing about playing with Cecil is that when you play with him, you know you're going to go all the way, and you're not going to stop until the music gets where it's going." -- one of jazz pianist Cecil Taylor's sidemen, quoted in the re-readable article "The World of Cecil Taylor" by Adam Shatz, New York Review of Books online.

You lose your grip
and then you slip
into the masterpiece
             --Leonard Cohen, "A Thousand Kisses Deep"

One way American artists can fight fascism is to win back the carnivalesque for the side of liberation--of life, of excess, eroticism, freedom, self-exploration, Dionysian transgression, anarchism. All in opposition to the nauseating fascist carnivalesque of the Pussygrabbin' Prez and the child-molesting Republican Party of Roy Moore and Denny Hastert.

At a time when one of our two viable political parties has become a cartoon caricature of repressive desublimation, those of us on the other side can recapture eros from the forces of death by the counterforce of a liberating desublimation. (See Marcuse's late essay "The Aesthetic Dimension" and Adam Philips' essay "Against Inhibition.")

All consensual sexual acts are matters of taste, not ethics or morals.

"There are no dirty words." -- Leonard Cohen

No false modesty: At the root, perhaps, of my distance from our current leftist identity politics is the fact that my ideas on sex (a matter of acts, not identities), gender (a socially constructed grid floating upon a fluid reality), race (a scientifically meaningless category designating superficial evolutionary adaptations to environmental differences), etc. are so far ahead of theirs that until they catch up with me, I have nothing useful to say to them.

Given the fluidity of sexuality over the course of a life, defining oneself in terms of one's sexuality, sexual partners or sexual acts constitutes a severe mutilation of the omniperverse human self.

Kafka's "A Country Doctor," a lesser-known tale that deserves to be widely read, is perhaps the most nightmarish thing his formidable imagination ever conceived. It's darkly marvelous, Kafka unbound, the author tossing all inhibition to the void, writing--it seems--directly from his unconscious, and creating this dreamy, Expressionist phantasm that reads like the best short film Guy Maddin has never (yet) made.

It is little remarked that in The Shining Stephen King created an impressively complex portrait of an alcoholic adult victim of child abuse. Jack Torrance is a psychologically astute characterization and by far the most impressive thing in the book. If we can read past its generic clichés and pulpy residue, we find in The Shining a fairly successful psychological novel in which the supernatural elements can almost be interpreted as psychological externalizations.

I can now no longer claim not to have read Jane Eyre, and I found the book less ridiculous than I feared. Also less sentimental, more gothic Romantic, and somewhat better written than I expected. I do, however, find myself in agreement with the critic who remarked that if the book had been one chapter longer, Rochester's hand would've grown back.

Puritanisms come and puritanisms go, but the three stately plump volumes of the Grove Press Marquis de Sade remain in print. He was neither a great writer nor a great thinker, but I wager his perpetually influential books will still be read when our current puritans of right and left have been time-transformed to dust.

Wizened, weary, wasting, wise Harold Bloom, frail now in his mid-80s, remarked in a rare recent interview that bebop is the kabbalah of jazz. Putting words in that loquacious mouth, I might expand on this point: If the Great American Songbook is our Torah (and it is), then bebop is indeed our kabbalah, a genre of radically (re-)visionary commentary, and John Coltrane is our Isaac Luria. The Bloomian analogy is perfect.

Building my own analogy upon this, I will argue that Philip Roth is a bebop prose stylist and present as supporting evidence (Exhibit No. 1 for the goateed prosecution) James Wood's close reading of a passage from Sabbath's Theater in How Fiction Works (a wildly mistitled little book with some valuable things inside). Roth's darting among various registers of discourse, ably analyzed by Wood, analogizes closely to the intervallic leaps in a Coltrane solo.

Thought experiment: Imagine a culture that takes as its sacred text Walter Pater's The Renaissance. An aesthetic culture, a culture of pleasure, hedonism, beauty, a pansexual culture, a culture of appreciation, an intelligent culture.

Reply to Hegel: The only Absolut spirit I recognize comes in a vodka bottle.

...back to art, I'm always coming back to art: In a dark time, art is our refuge, our weapon and our transcendence (our transcending dance). Art is eros, the life that transcends death--where death is understood not as the banal end of this painful vapidity of pulse and breath and absence of thought, but as that vapidity itself, the daily Beckettian death-in-life of conformity, atomization, alienation, repression, oppression, depression, all the forces that deprive human beings of freedom and authentic life, all the dark Blakean mills that crush life into mere existence. A fatuous existence is my definition of death. (I embolden that line because it's an epigram to live by.) The garden variety corpse-chewer is definition number 2 or 3 in my mental dictionary. It's a banality. Happens to everybody.

"...all writing worth reading comes, like suicide, from outrage or revenge..." -- William Gaddis, Agape Agape

Let the imagination run like a wild tiger; it will kill nothing that does not deserve to die.

Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, like Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and even The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, can be easily interpreted as a hermeneutical novel. (Is this a distinctively American 19th-century subgenre? And if so, why here? why then?) Like the Dick, the Portrait is substantially about the difficulty of interpreting its title character. James repeatedly foregrounds this in the novel's Wagnerian leitmotif: other characters frequently find Isabel Archer 'hard to read.' The ambiguities of James's novel are not so much its "problems" as its point. The characters' and narrator's inability to 'read' Isabel is clearly an allegory of our own reading of the novel. And of other people. And of ourselves. (Yes, even in the rarefied air of Henry James--perhaps especially here--we collide unexpectedly with the psychoanalytic unconscious.)

The greatest prose is a kind of vers libre, a poetry free and unbroken.

A characteristic rhetorical movement of John Donne's Songs and Sonnets can be likened to the act of turning a glove inside-out. In "The Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rising," for example, the speaker begins by stating a straightforward, traditional poetic argument. This is the glove inside-in. Over the course of the poem he methodically turns the glove inside out (turns the argument around), pulling out the palm, unfurling the fingers, until by poem's end his argument is exactly the opposite of his initial position, but still, eccentrically, it works--very like a glove turned inside-out, strange-looking but still functional. It still fits the hand. (Months after writing this in my notebook, I discovered that I unconsciously lifted the glove trope from the clown Feste in Twelfth Night, act 3, scene 1: "A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward." I've long considered Feste's lines in this scene to be deconstruction avant Derrida; now I add that his image is a fine commentary on Donne.)

When in despair, quote Flaubert.

"The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy." -- Gustave Flaubert, letter to Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, Sept. 4, 1858

Death is an unoriginal ending. Avoid it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

On Gertrude Stein

I'm inclined to agree with Picasso biographer John Richardson's view of Gertrude Stein as Modernism's preeminent example of artistic grandiosity, a writer with a ridiculously elephantine estimate of her own genius. I cannot read even a few paragraphs of Three Lives without erupting in derisive laughter at her prose voice--best described as the tone of a failed children's book writer: "They lived in a little house. The house was little and made of red bricks. The little house of red bricks was on a prairie. The prairie was where the little house was." That sort of thing. And as for her acclaimed and notorious, Dalkey Archived 'masterpiece,' The Making of Americans--well, the word 'excrementitious' is not exactly the first that comes to mind, but it is perhaps the best. Probably the least-read canonical work in American literature, the book's grinding repetitions seem designed to induce a soporific trance in the--I hesitate to say 'reader,' for I can't imagine anyone actually reading this bilge--let's say, the glancer, the browser, the poor, unfortunate soul who plopped down 15 bucks for 800 pages of a boring rich woman's opaque effusions about...what exactly? effusing?


However,...


as brilliant a reader as the late William H. Gass considered Stein a great and important writer. So I'm willing (just a hangnail's width of willing, an armhair's diameter of willing) to suspend judgment and say Trudy is simply not to my taste.


Stein, always her own most enthusiastic admirer (Alice was her wife but she was her own eternal husband), compared her prose to Cezanne's brushstrokes. I see the similarity, understand her point, and still dislike her prose. (I'll never see enough paintings by Cezanne; the first page of Three Lives gave me more than enough of Stein's prose.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

LOVE AND DEATH after all these years; or, A Fiddle for Fiedler

Here's the question (or one of them, at least) begged by the central thesis of Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel: Did classic American writers, as Fiedler contends, flee from Freudianly 'mature' adult heterosexuality into dreams of queerness, or was a more primal queerness, a polymorphous perversity of the American psyche, rather the cause of such a flight from 'civilization'?


I lean toward the latter idea, the queer 'vice' of Fiedler's 'versa.' Fiedler's idea is married (gay-married?) to a moralistic Freudian concept of sexual development that commonly led American literary critics astray in the 1950s and early 1960s (cf. Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians), so we probably shouldn't hammer the Fiddler too hard for playing a zeitgeisty tune. But it's fair to point out that instead of being 'too Freudian,' L.A.F. (what a laf!) was not nearly Freudian enough. A shift of emphasis to Freud's ideas of polymorphous perversity and originary bisexuality, would've flipped his book into a less moralistic, more radical, and probably more correct direction. If Love and Death had been, that is to say, influenced by Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (published, unfortunately for Fiedler, the same year), he might've written a book still provocative 60 years later. As it stands, Fiedler's once cutting-edge work now seems a curiously conformist and surprisingly crabby performance. It's a book rendered obsolete by the subsequent half-century of American novels and hobbled by a rather weakly argued case overall. That said, Love and Death remains valuable for its critical insights into specific texts, and for the intelligent epigrams Fiedler throws off along his highly questionable way. A good example of the latter is this sentence from early in the book, an indictment Love and Death itself does not escape:


"American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact."

Monday, July 23, 2018

Religion, Our Biggest Mistake

Perhaps the worst mistake in human history was made by those unknown people, lost in the dark backward of pre-literate time, who first decided to take tall tales literally, thus beginning the Religious Error. Contra that good atheist Gore Vidal, it's not monotheism that's our species' greatest mistake. The more fundamental error (in the etymo-scatological sense of 'issuing from the fundament') is the reification of an imaginary 'spiritual' realm into that vast pseudodoxia epidemica we call religion and spirituality. The first human beings who understood that they could control other human beings by deploying certain carefully selected fictions (which the deployers themselves might have considered factual) set our species upon the path that has led to murder, genocide, war, and the meaningless deaths of millions. But for the intellectual laziness and/or enforced ignorance of the vast majority of the human race--a situation favorable to arbitrary power since time immemorial--we would have outgrown the gods millennia ago. At the very least, given the vast advances made by science since the Enlightenment, there is neither need nor excuse for religious belief today. It is indeed the opium of the people (tragically redundant in an age of Oxycontin), and it has a similar side effect: wastage of life.


The only serious question I have about religion (and spiritual belief generally) is whether it is best analogized to opium (Marx) or a virus (Dawkins). The wasting drug or the wasting disease?


Philip Roth once said in an interview that he was the least religious person he knew. He could say that only because he never met me.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

VINELAND by Thomas Pynchon

While not Major Pynchon (that Bugs Bunny-playing-R. Lee Ermey military officer quired up from the pages of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, and Against the Day), Vineland is essential to an understanding of the worldview underlying those greater novels. For Vineland is Pynchon's most explicit, angry, even at times hopeless, statement on the Sixties counterculture and its failure--indeed, its self-betrayal--as seen from the vantage point of Reagan's 1980s. Fascism as the thanatozation of eros, the fascisization of America beginning with Dick the Trickster (and culminating 30 years after Pynchon's novel with the triumph of Don the Con), the psychology of revolution and its subversion by power, the erotic fascination of fascism--all these themes that energize major Pynchon by implication or subtext are here explicitly, even pedantically, stated. Aesthetic diminution is the predictable price of preachiness, but Vineland stands as perhaps the best skeleton key to the TP oeuvre.


I'm trying and failing to think of another case where a minor novel is so truly essential to a writer's major works.... It's as though A Fable somehow illuminated Absalom, Absalom!.


Contra all this seriousness, I feel compelled to remind myself that Vineland is also, in more than a few places, very funny, laugh-out-loud outrageously funny, with several excellent examples of TP propelling the jams with the business ends of his nether appendages... It is a fuckin' Pynchon novel, after all.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

THE ENCHANTER by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov's The Enchanter, while impressively written and translated, is surely the most minor and conventional Nabokov book I've ever read. An early, skeletal, melodramatic conception of the Lolita narrative, its best-left-in-manuscript quality was probably recognized by the author, who never made more than a gesture toward publishing it during his lifetime. As usual in these cases, the estate should have trusted the author's apparent instincts. Nabokov is at his best with all stops pulled; The Enchanter, while it has its pleasures--the expressionistic suicide at the end, Nabokov's handling of the terror of desire and its frustrations--reads as a relatively muted, hedged and hasty performance. It's not a necessary addition to the V.N. canon; all but completists can safely skip it. In the inevitable context of Lolita, this little book is nothing more than an idea Vlad got right the next time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Dostoyevsky Problem - A Confession

For me, Dostoyevsky is Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, two of the most impressive works of fiction I've ever read, the former a formally and stylistically original novel written in a voice that reverberates through the next 150 years of world literature, and the latter a hallucinatory, proto-Expressionist, proto-Freudian, proto-Kafkaesque fever dream of guilt, paranoia and murder. These two books, and maybe The Double, are the Dostoyevskys that impress me most. The later, longer Dostoyevsky I find considerably less compelling. The unquestionably canonical Big Late Three--The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov--have never successfully captured my reading mind. Oh, I've read parts of them, of course. Over the years, I've begun each novel multiple times and have read the first quarter of The Idiot, the first 150 pages and the "Stavrogin's Confession" chapter from The Possessed/The Devils/Demons, and from The Brothers K the opening chapters, "One Onion" and, of course, "The Grand Inquisitor." But none of these--sometimes impressive, sometimes intriguing, sometimes annoying--excerpts has appealed to me with sufficient force to send me plowing through the whole ponderous, reactionary, Russian Orthodox shebang. Maybe Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment is Dostoyevsky enough for me. As for the other three, maybe I'll finish them next year, maybe the year after, maybe...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Rushdie's Top Ten: A Video Lecture

Here's a video of a lecture in which Salman Rushdie introduces a classroom of apparently catatonic students to ten of his favorite books: the soi-disant Arabian Nights, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gulliver's Travels, Great Expectations, the tales of Borges, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Calvino's Our Ancestors trilogy (The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount), and The Master and Margarita. One heavenly hell of a reading list. (No word on whether the spirit of Oliver Sacks was summoned to 'awaken' the students...)

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Thought on Jung, Freud, and Oneiric Hermeneutics

Jungian dream interpretation, as evidenced by the doctor's long essay on dream symbolism and alchemy ("Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy" in The Portable Jung, Joseph Campbell, ed.), seems more a tribute to Jung's cleverness as hermeneut than to the validity of his hermeneutic. All the presented dream fragments could be interpreted by Freudians, according to their hermeneutic, with equal validity and likely greater material interest.


A distinction: Jung's mysticism leads him into a kind of dogmatism which Freud's scientism serves to counteract. Freud, whom Jung rejected as too dogmatic, turns out to be the less dogmatic thinker, likely due to his grounding in empirical, self-corrective, falsifiable science.


Also, Jung's hermeneutic is given a false air of validity by his suppression of the dreaming subject. Having no information about the dreamer, no material facts to act as a check on Jung's interpretations, we are given the false choice of either accepting Jung's obsessive, repetitive pronouncements or not reading the essay. Compare the rich contextualization of Freud's dream analyses and case histories, which sometimes compare favorably to tales by Balzac and/or Kafka, and which provide more than enough information for later readers to radically reinterpret Freud's evidence. Compared to Sigmund, Carl Gustav looks like a quaint Victorian spiritualist riding his bouncing table.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Xenophilia

George Steiner, proud diasporist, once lamented (in an interview conducted, unfortunately, by a woman who seemed intent on pressing into Steiner's hand a one-way ticket to a settlement on the West Bank; Steiner, courtly old-world gentleman he is, politely and repeatedly (and thus rather comically) demurred) that although the Greek word xenos means both 'foreigner' and  'guest'  (elsewhere in the interview, he quotes Heidegger, "We are the guests of life."), it survives in English only as 'xenophobia,' not 'xenophilia.' The latter is an idea the world desperately needs right now. Speaking as a narcissistic xenophile, one who loves being a foreigner, who has never felt more heimlich, more 'at home,' than when traveling in a foreign country, blurring the 'other' line among all the other lines, I think it would be an excellent idea to counter Trump's fascist xenophobia not with the tepid, wishy-washy corporatist liberal xenophobia of "We must secure our borders, but..." but with the xenophilia of "Hello, refugee from Central American terrorism. Welcome to the richest country in the history of the world. How many IHOP pancakes would you like?....No, no, of course we're not going to rip your children out of your arms and put them in cages. What do you think we are, a bunch of crazy fascist assholes!?"

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Harold Bloom on the death of Philip Roth

As far as I know, Harold Bloom's sole public statement on the death of his friend Philip Roth is this paragraph posted on the Library of America's website:


"Philip Roth’s departure is a dark day for me and for many others. His two greatest novels, American Pastoral and Sabbath’s Theater, have a controlled frenzy, a high imaginative ferocity, and a deep perception of America in the days of its decline. The Zuckerman tetralogy remains fully alive and relevant, and I should mention too the extraordinary invention of Operation Shylock, the astonishing achievement of The Counterlife, and the pungency of The Plot Against America. His My Life as a Man still haunts me. In one sense Philip Roth is the culmination of the unsolved riddle of Jewish literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The complex influences of Kafka and Freud and the malaise of American Jewish life produced in Philip a new kind of synthesis. Pynchon aside, he must be estimated as the major American novelist since Faulkner." -- Harold Bloom

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Philip Roth, American Atheist

Here's a quote from Philip Roth that I don't recall reading in the last month's crop of obituaries and memorial essays:

"When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it will be a great place."

Roth said this in a 2010 interview on CBS Sunday Morning:

Here and elsewhere, Roth also remarks that he doesn't have a religious bone in his body.

Note the self-evident, matter-of-fact quality of Roth's atheism. He's neither an angry, embattled atheist raging against gods nor a backwards preacher sermonizing the deity's nonexistence. He comes across as someone for whom religion does not matter. He is secular and personally indifferent to it. He has matured out of it and put away its childish things and wishes the rest of the world would do likewise. I find this position wholly admirable.

The Cycladic Harpist


Harpist. Marble. Late 2000s BCE. Height: 8.5 in.
From the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The Cycladic Harpist transfixes me. It may or may not be a figure of Orpheus, but its soundless song nonetheless holds me spellbound. A sublime, ecstatic image of artistic inspiration (remember the breathy etymology of that word and look at the harpist's head, upturned to the enlightening glare of the seabright sun, inhaling the breezy Aegean air through that geometric nose (and inhaling with it the mysterious, Orphic, god-like power of artistic creation (a meaning that calls out to be hidden, like a mystical secret, inside a parenthesis within a parenthesis within a...))), the figure is rendered even more mysterious and poignant by the loss of its hands. The object becomes an image of time's dissolution and imaginative man's necessarily incomplete attempts at reconstitution, recovery. Just as the missing head of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" energizes the poet's imagination to fill the void (and Rilke promptly fills it with an image ("...sein unerhortes Haupt, / darin die Augenapfel reiften."; "his legendary head / where the eye-apples ripen.") inspired by an Arcimboldo painting hanging in another gallery of the Louvre), the harpist's timelost hands, like his unseeable harp strings, become absent images of his unheard music, negative spaces powerfully charged with potential meaning, like that masterful space between the Virgin's dramatically foreshortened hand and the Christ child's head in the London National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks. Ca. 1500.
National Gallery, London.
(This space is cluttered in the more rhetorical Paris canvas by the inclusion of the angel's unnecessarily pointing hand:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks (detail). Late 1400s.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.)
The harpist's missing hands engage the viewer's imagination in an almost Modernist way (the greatest works of art are always already Modernist: Homer is packed with Joyce-style allusions to mythologies even more ancient), permitting/allowing/forcing the viewer to complete the artwork, to hear its unimaginable music. The harpist's mystery licenses our imagination. It is an image of inspiration that inspires us. Breathe it in.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Summer Reading Recommendations, 2018

Summer is coming (even to Westeros, eventually), so it's time for some non-light but highly enlightening summer reading. This year I'm suggesting a handful of books from other languages in translation. (But if you read the other languages, then by all means read 'em in the original.) Click on the titles to buy the books at Bezosworld.
Okay, second things first. I know The Tale of Genji is enormous and because I'm challenging you to read Royall Tyler's unabridged translation, it will take up most of the summer. But relax. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. The other five books are much shorter; all of them are under 200 pages. So it's a challenge, yes, but not an impossible load. Back to the beginning. And it is indeed a beginning, for the four non-Orestean tragedies of Aeschylus lie close to the origins of Western literature. Reading them is like witnessing a literary primal scene. After our extended excursion to Lady Murasaki's Heian Japan, we cross the continent to Iran and read Hedayat's Blind Owl, a horrifying fever-dream of a novella that's widely considered one of the greatest works of 20th-century Persian literature. Next we speed to Pinochet's Chile for Bolano's nearly perfect novella in the form of the interior monologue of a dying Opus Dei priest. Then it's back to Europe and our own time to end with a pair of German-language jewels, Sebald's verse triptych After Nature and Ledig's panoramic WWII combat novel Die Stalinorgel, 'the Stalin organ' (the German Army nickname for the Red Army's mobile Katyusha rocket launchers), published by NYRB as The Stalin Front.

Bloomsday 2018 : Streaming/Screaming

...yes and I'm streaming straight from my cuntsciousness Mollyblooming on this bluetiful boomsday (shifting out of mockwakish into my natural tongs) when the state of the arts in America shares the general mood of crisis and stupidity unbound yes as the leftish side of America responds to that Ringling Brothers embodiment of repressive desublimation in the White House by tightening its own ass, slapping a buckled hat on its head, and witchburning Junot Diaz (who is, ironically, a full-on, true believing, academic identity politics writer, and whose offenses, as far as I can tell, amount to a couple of failed passes and, horror of horrors, publicly arguing with a woman at one of his book signings...) Bad days... If I could give a Bloomsday gift to every leftist in the country, it would be a Xerox of two essays, Herbert Marcuse's "The Aesthetic Dimension" and Adam Phillips' "Against Inhibition". Introduce them to the idea that there is also a liberating desublimation, that it's a force behind and within works of art (late Picasso spurts it like come), and that when it's blocked, art dies. (Check out that 16th-century dumbshow, The Murder of the Renaissance, as performed by the Council of Trent. Ungod knows what might've happened if that murdering sodomite Caravaggio hadn't come along to shake things up ca.1600.) Yes, art dies. It dies into kitsch (American translation: 'happy horseshit') and propaganda, exactly the functions of art our p.c. academics most prize, valuing only those books that don't offend them, reinforce their ideologies, and/or provide positive images of people like themselves--the last a laudable goal, for kitsch and propaganda... Harold Bloom, a better prophet than Jeremiah, decried all of this 30 years ago--and was treated like a portly Cassandra... And now I see that publishers have begun adding morality clauses to writers' contracts. That's a fine way to kill the novel. Who amongst the Modernists would've 'scaped whipping? Let's see: Joyce (living in sin!), Pound (unspeakable spokesman for fascism), Eliot (terrible reactionary), Wharton (anti-semite), H. Miller (ditto and sexist), Papa Hem (double ditto), Picasso (abusive), Woolf (classist and racist), Lawrence (abusive), Stein (racist), Lowry (violent), Faulkner (drunken corncob fetishist), Genet (bum, burglar, and bumburglar), Proust (obsessive control freak), Hitchcock (ditto and poster boy for morbid obesity), Welles (triple ditto), Griffith (white supremacist), Riefenstahl (Nazi bitch), Cocteau (collaborator).... If the Modernists had had morality clauses there would've been no Modernism--and that's exactly the point of moralistic 'criticism' of the arts. As the woefully underrated Jack Klugman would've said, "This isn't art criticism, Sam. This is murder..."


Such is my thoughtspew this second Bloomsday of Trumptime, Year Two of the reign of Dear Leader Kim Jong Don, that 'Biblical' pornstar fucker and 'good Christian' destroyer of families (or is it the other way around?), a fake president so stupid he probably thinks stupid is spelled with two O's. (May his reign be short and quickly undone.) And I'm also reminded of this little list, slightly amended from an old blogpost:



A Thirteen-Step Cure for Political Correctness:
  1. The Satyricon by Petronius
  2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  3. The Decameron by Boccaccio (Musa/Bondanella unexpurgated translation)
  4. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
  5. The London National Gallery's collection of paintings by Titian
  6. Dialogues by Pietro Aretino (Rosenthal translation)
  7. Shakespeare's plays and poems
  8. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
  9. The paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery of Picasso
  10. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  11. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
  12. The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
  13. The director's cut of Lars Von Trier's film Nymphomaniac



So, HAPPY BLOOMSDAY! to all and to all the wish that by this time next year Americans will have regained their senses at least as far as art is concerned. I'm not optimistic, but neither am I immune to hope. The future is, as Phillip Roth said, the domain of the great unforeseen. Maybe in twelve more moons, the left's moralistic anti-orgy will have run its course and they will be able to focus on the real problem facing America: defeating Trump and discrediting Trumpite fascism, making the ideology so toxic that not even a brain-dead asshole with "Wite Powr" tattooed on his forehead would touch it. The left must pull itself together and focus on the one true opponent: not Harvey Weinstein, not Junot Diaz, but Donald Fuckface Trump. Send the person packing (preferably to prison) and perhaps the cult of personality will dwindle and die. It's possible.... It's hope.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

SAND IN THE WIND by Robert Roth

Add one more title to the list of undeservedly obscure American novels. Robert Roth's Sand in the Wind, the first major American literary work to emerge from the Vietnam War--before Dog Soldiers, before Dispatches, long before Tim O'Brien went after Cacciato--was a Book of the Month Club selection upon publication, but then both novel and author slipped into obscurity. (Perhaps the novel was a victim of its own precocity: in 1973-74, who wanted to spend 600+ pages in a war the U.S. had only yesterday extricated itself from? If Sand in the Wind had been published a few years later, it might have become canonical.) A Google search turns up more than one "Robert Roth" who might be the author of this novel but does not definitively connect any of those men to this book, so I can't answer the question "Whatever happened to Robert Roth?" He seems to have laid this one amazing book on us and promptly Houdinied himself out of the literary scene. Whatever and wherever its author is today, Sand in the Wind is a remarkable novel punctuated by scenes of astonishingly assured power. Fitting his combat experience to Edmund Wilson's textbook definition of Modernism, Roth synthesizes the Naturalistic war novel of Crane, Hemingway, Mailer and Jones with a sometimes sneaky Symbolism that looks back to Melville and Poe. This synthesis holds until about halfway through the novel, when a gruesome act of group cannibalism by an American platoon, depicted as an event of giddy, obscene enjoyment in the darkest Lacanian sense of the word, bursts the book apart in a manner akin to the breaking of the film in Bergman's Persona. After this central traumatic scene, the aesthetic of the novel seems to shift from Modernism to a kind of Postmodernism. The narrative attempts to re-establish itself, but cannot overcome its fragmentation into various types of pastiche: Heller pastiche, Altman pastiche, James Jones pastiche, etc. All of which can be easily interpreted as a flight from the unassimilable knowledge of that descent into cannibalistic horror. After such knowledge, no forgiveness--only the attempt to deny the past by leaping manically aboard any available fragment of narrative that seems to offer a moment of sense and sanity. Above all: don't look back. The novel thus uncannily predicts its own oblivion: given the chance to look back upon the trauma of Vietnam by reading Roth's book, most readers turned away and reached for a copy of Carrie. A (re-)discovery and re-evaluation of this complex novel is long overdue.

Two by Updike

Can something be made of the fact that John Updike's most explicitly religious, even theological, novel, 1975's A Month of Sundays, is also his most experimental and--in tone, style and narrative form--his most Nabokovian? Largely ignored today, a joker in Johnny's deck, this may be Updike's freest and most exuberantly playful work of fiction. It's a bit long at just 271 pages and Updike pads it with golf and poker near the end, but the first half of this novel is typically dazzling and very funny.


The Centaur, published in 1963 and written at the end of the author's twenties, reads like an A-student's exercise in the rhetoric of High Modernism. Updike, perhaps 20th-century American literature's consummate professional, our buttoned-down, 9 to 5, civil engineer of fiction, here designs an interesting textual trolley that pauses at just about every stop on the Modernist line: ironic mythological parallels, surrealism, scatology, stream of consciousness, flashbacks, literary allusions, sexuality, etc. And Updike's masterfully competent deployment of other writers' innovations is, in its way, satisfying. And his natural lyricism, the beating heart of his talent (Who in his generation wrote better lyrical descriptions--of just about anything--than John Updike?), is impressive, as always... But in the end, for me, the mythological aspects, at their most explicit, disappointed by failing to satisfactorily mesh with the realistic narrative, the most lyrical parts of which are the novel's best moments. As in all of Updike's works, there are impressive scenes and sentences (as well as a few outdated passages apropos race and gender sure to send P.C. contemporary readers into fits of apoplectic rage), and the central character, based on the author's father, is an accomplished portrait in pathological self-deprecation (one gets the feeling that this guy has spent his whole life kicking his own ass), but the novel as a whole seems more a deliberate technical exercise than a necessary work of art. Young Johnny gets his gold star, but the novel is not top drawer.