Monday, November 23, 2009

THE SONNETS by William Shakespeare

I began this re-reading of Shakespeare's sonnets with the idea that contemporary readings of Shakespeare tend to overcompensate for centuries of puritanical commentary by overemphasizing the same-sex elements. Every generation creates its own Shakespeare, and our Shakespeare is perhaps too gay... Well, having just finished a sustained, single-sitting reading of all 154 sonnets, I am now of the opposite opinion. The 'Shakespeare' imagined/implied by contemporary criticism is not nearly gay or bisexual enough. When read the only way they should be read, in sequence and in totality, the sonnets reveal themselves as a brilliant, complex, sublime narrative of the agonies and exaltations of bisexual love. And while the poem's eroticism is clearly bisexual, it is also just as obviously overwhelmingly homosexual. Roughly two-thirds of the work narrates a relationship between men; the historically overemphasized "dark lady" narrative doesn't begin until sonnet 127, and the element in this relationship that most puts the poet-speaker on the erotic rack is the fact that it's a triangular relationship in which the lady is also the poet's rival for the "man right fair." So even the 'straight' sonnets are also crucially gay. (I'm leaving aside for the length of this post the problematic question of projecting modern sexual categories into the past. For the nonce I'm more Boswellian than Foucaultian. Pun intended.) It's probably not possible to overemphasize the gayness of this particular Shakespearean work, and that's a fact too important to remain hidden in the hortus conclusus of academe. The word needs to get out that these very famous poems are very famous gay poems. Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"), for example, is read by every American teenager in junior high or high school, but how often is it taught as a love poem 'spoken' by a man to a man? In my own public school encounters with the poem (during the 1980s), it was carefully decontextualized, ripped out of the sequence and presented as an ostensibly independent work, the better to mask its object's gender. Decontextualization and selective emphasis were the usual strategies for 'straightening the canon' at My Horrible High School (and probably at yours too). The unwritten rules went something like this: Read Chaucer, but pay no attention to that gay Pardoner behind the curtain; read a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, but don't mention the gender of the beloved; read some Marlowe, but certainly not Edward II; read Paradise Lost but not Lycidas; read Idylls of the King but not In Memoriam; spend far too much time reading Jonathan Edwards; ignore Swinburne; for god's sake, don't even mention Oscar Wilde; pretend Hemingway's Garden of Eden doesn't exist; and the most important rule of all: end the class ca.1940 so as to avoid any openly gay contemporary writers. Thus was the canon sanitized for the protection of Reagan's America, and in most of the country the situation is probably the same today.

Returning to the text, corrupt and typo-ridden though it is in my edition of the Complete Works, I note on this reading that while the narrative through-line is stronger than I've noticed before, the amount of connection between contiguous sonnets can vary greatly. This variance can mask the larger narrative unity. Sonnets 15, 16 and 17, for example, lock into a tight rhetorical sequence of statement, counter-statement and synthesis, which then issues in Sonnet 18, an example of the speaker's deathless, death-haunted verse. Sonnet 19 beautifully varies and restates some of 18, but then comes the appropriately jarring Sonnet 20, which has little rhetorical relationship to the immediately preceding verses. This disjunction works because in narrative terms Sonnet 20 constitutes a reversal; it tosses a phallic spanner into the erotic works. The editor of my edition cites Sonnet 20 as evidence that the speaker's homosexual love is unconsummated. I beg to differ. Sonnet 20 describes a moment of frustration in the narrative, but it is a moment definitively overcome in Sonnet 33, which I read as a homosexual aubade describing a hasty and troubled consummation ("...he was but one hour mine").

Another point of contention comes at the very end of the sequence. The last two sonnets are generally considered bathetically insipid, a disappointing whimper of an ending after so many big bangs. But I would argue that this may be exactly Shakespeare's intention. The two mythological sonnets exemplify exactly what they narrate: a failed retreat into pastoral. They thus constitute a final turn of the sequence's screw. By the end of the sequence, the erotically tormented poet is stretched out on the rack of his desires, and Shakespeare leaves him there. There can be no arcadian relief, no magical mythological cure. Even the thought of his beloved young man, which once (in the sublime Sonnet 29) brought him spiritual ecstasy in a world of pain, can now only redouble his torment. And the last two sonnets close off his final escape route. There is no exit.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

CHILD OF GOD by Cormac McCarthy

Forget Bret Easton Ellis. Forget him completely. The real 'American Psycho' is this 1973 novel by Cormac McCarthy. Lester Ballard, McCarthy's "child of God much like yourself perhaps," is the frontier hero as psychopath, Natty Bumpo as necrophile, Huck Finn as transvestite serial killer. He's the classic American mountain man and pathfinder as refracted through the same blackened glass that will later show us that most nightmarish of all American Westerns, Blood Meridian. Lester Ballard's story is also the closest McCarthy has ever come to a psychological novel. Although Ol' Cormac has always been more mythographer than psychologist, and while characterization is not his strongest suit--and this book is no exception to either rule--Child of God does contain a compelling case study in the sexual psychopathology of serial killing. McCarthy cuts to the paradoxical core of Ballard's murderous desire: his need to have sex with a woman who is both dead and alive, who both exhibits a literal kadavergehorsamkeit before his god-like power and presents him with the warmth of living flesh. This is the paradox that makes him a serial killer: he murders repeatedly in a quest for the heat of the freshly killed. This desire, with its ideal, continued fulfilment always just out of reach, is also artfully underscored by the Echo and Narcissus motifs that McCarthy threads through the fabric of the novel. (And that I did not entirely catch on my first reading.)

One structural anomaly bothered me as I read. The novel begins with two alternating narrative voices: the lyrical authorial voice familiar from McCarthy's other novels, and a plainer, chattier, more rambling, cracker barrel storyteller's voice. This second voice, which contains the book's best humor, drops out at the end of Part One, presumably because McCarthy (or his editor) thought a comic counterpoint would detract from his progressively grimmer central narrative. I felt the loss of this voice in the book's second half. Perhaps Cormac wants us to feel its absence as his story goes completely insane.

I suppose it's now possible to divide McCarthy's work into three distinct periods. First comes the Southern Novelist who wrote The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God and Suttree. Next is the Western Novelist of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. And now in our current dispensation we have the Popular Novelist, the Pulitzered and Oprahfied and proxy-Oscared author of No Country for Old Men and The Road. I never thought I would see the author of Child of God in the audience at an Oscar ceremony, but there he was back in February 2008, sitting with his young son in the fifth or sixth row and pumping his fist when Javier Bardem's victory was announced. But surely the evening's most surreal conjunction came earlier, when McCarthy walked along the red carpet and passed just behind Regis Philbin. If those men had met, it would've been like matter and anti-matter colliding. 2012 would've come early.


Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet is a philosophical prose poem disguised as a work of literary criticism--and vice versa. Fortunately, both disguises are highly accomplished. Of the four books by Carson I've read (Glass, Irony and God; Plainwater and The Beauty of the Husband are the others, all poetry collections), this is the one I would most enthusiastically recommend. A fittingly elusive and allusive text about the paradoxes of desire, the book moves like its author's mind--poetically--as it presents readings (often impressively close) of texts from Sappho to
Plato and in the process throws off sparks that reach as far as 20th century literature and philosophy. The entire book might be fruitfully read in conjunction with Shakespeare's sonnets (unmentioned by Carson), Wuthering Heights (ditto), Proust (a startlingly unspoken presence in Carson's text), Lacan (mentioned only once in passing), and Derrida (unnamed). In the case of the last two, Carson's text appears to be (in her book's own terms) erotically 'wooing' Lacan and Derrida, coyly and indirectly invoking and implicitly critiquing their ideas. In her reading of a Sappho fragment, for example, Carson briefly (too much is too brief in this book) outlines a theory of the erotic genesis of self-consciousness--desire in grasping for an object knows itself as lack--that resonates with Lacan. More subtly, her repeated invocations of 'edge,' 'fold,' and (less subtly) 'difference' signal toward Derrida's texts (specifically, the essays in Dissemination) without mentioning his name. Likewise, the pointed absence of any direct reference to Jacques le Mort in her extended discussion of the Phaedrus (which no contemporary academic can mention without bowing to "Plato's Pharmacy") appropriately inscribes Derrida into her text as an absent presence. We might even argue that Carson's text constructs a highly paradoxical 'desire' for Derrida that can only be sustained by keeping him unnamed and thus 'outside the text.' The Great Deconstructor floats like Sappho's apple just out of reach, in the 'nothingness' of the very hors-texte which he famously claimed did not exist. This is a damn clever book.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

REMAINDER by Tom McCarthy

Jonathan Lethem’s front cover blurb on the US edition of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is exceptionally misleading. It reads: "A stunningly strange book about the rarest of fictional subjects: happiness." The Kirkus Reviewer on the back cover appears to have read a different book: "An assured work of existential horror....Perfectly disturbing." Which is it, happiness or horror? The Kirkus reviewer is more to the point, but Lethem is not entirely wrong. For Remainder is ultimately a novel about the happiness that comes from committing acts of horror.

When I finished reading Remainder I wanted to say "Wow!" This is that rare thing, a truly great ‘postmodern’ novel. It’s also the best first novel I’ve read in years, and the fact that it was first published in Paris in 2005, had to wait a year for British publication and didn’t appear in the US (as a paperback original, the publishing industry’s version of direct-to-video movies) until 2007 is a situation that should force the British and American publishing industry to hang its collective head in shame. (This will never happen, of course. Bertelsmann AG bought shame and liquidated it a long time ago.) Remainder’s greatest interest lies in the fact that while it touches most of the usual ‘postmodern’ bases (self-consciousness, radical uncertainty, metafiction, simulation, the construction of the self and reality, personality as performance, De Lillo-ish paranoia, Will Selfish satire), it more importantly inscribes the postmodern condition as an affliction that must be overcome to achieve authenticity. The overall form of the narrator’s search for an escape from extreme self-consciousness might be understood as a classic Hegelian triad. The first 100 pages state the thesis: a will to authenticity in a postmodern world. The next hundred pages describe an antithetical drive to dominate other human beings (the narrator becomes a totalitarian child playing with living dolls) that soon turns thanatotic, becoming a desire to annihilate self-consciousness by "re-enacting" his own death. The final third of the novel executes a terrible synthesis, combining the drives to authenticity, domination and death in acts of violence, murder and terrorism, all exquisitely aestheticized in a way that Walter Benjamin identified as typically fascistic. (The novel’s most chilling moment comes when the narrator imagines the beautiful spectacle of passenger planes exploding in midair. September 11 is very close here, and we are reminded that Osama bin Laden, like our narrator, was a man with enough money to turn his fantasies into reality.) In his ultimate, terroristic incarnation, the narrator can finally accept the material world from which he has previously fled, because that world has now become the ‘simulation’ in which he acts. His flight from postmodernism ends in the only way it can, as a full-armed embrace of the always already inauthentic postmodern world.

This is just one possible interpretation--and not an entirely satisfying one. (Like Stephen Dedalus, I don't believe my own theory...) To use the book’s own terms, it leaves a large textual remainder, a troubling residue of matters unaccounted for. (Any interpretation of anything leaves such a remainder, that hermeneutic surplus for which this novel provides an encyclopedia of images.) What are we to make, for example, of the ending of chapter three, where the narrator’s admission of fictionalization places the remainder of Remainder under a cloud of radical uncertainty. Do the subsequent events happen in the novel’s ‘real’ world, or are they too an elaborate narrative fantasy in the narrator’s mind a la the long fantasy sequences in Rushdie's Satanic Verses? The best answer is surely "Both," but with a narrator this utterly unreliable we can be sure of nothing. My own reading tends to demote this moment in importance, since these metafictional leaps are such a hoary postmodern convention by this point that perceptive readers can’t possibly take them seriously. Overuse has fatally ironized metafictional irony. That may be the anti-postmodern point of the episode.

I was also struck by the monkish sexlessness of the narrator (and, for the most part, the novel). This asexuality is a blind spot as gaping as the one in which the exact nature of the narrator’s absurd trauma lies buried. Perhaps his eros has passed entirely into thanatos, revealing itself as an apparently asexual drive to dominate and kill. This would be yet another characteristic of the inescapable postmodernity the narrator exemplifies. And it also suggests a more psychological interpretation of the novel, focusing on that unspeakable trauma and the narrator’s overpowering repetition compulsion...

And there’s also the matter of this novel’s similarity to Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. This seems to be a case of two artists independently and simultaneously arriving at the same central conceit. Kaufman was asked about the similarity in an interview and said this:

"This script, for the record, [was] written before that novel came out. I saw a review of that thing [Remainder]; I was freaked out. I intentionally did not read it. I have not read it. I hadn’t made the movie yet, and I didn’t want to have any kind of influence [from] it. But like I said, this script was written before that came out. I saw it online and I thought, A) oh fuck, and B) this is a book that I would read, normally. This sounds like a cool book. But I won’t. And I haven’t. And I probably at some point I will, but I don’t know…now it might be awful to read it. It might be like, Oh, he had this great idea that I didn’t have and I cant do anything about it." (From Anthem interview with Charlie Kaufman)