Saturday, January 31, 2009

AUSTERLITZ by W. G. Sebald

There are good writers, great writers, the greatest writers, and then there are those writers who are just scary. W.G. Sebald, a great writer at the belated beginning of his career, by the too-early end of his life achieved a level of frightening brilliance.

Great books compel re-reading, but the very greatest improve and deepen upon re-reading, providing a second or third experience even more profound than the first (at which the reader was, presumably, already blown away). Sebald's Austerlitz, Vertigo (which I didn't like much the first time through), and probably his other two prose fictions are in this category.

Here's a disturbing thought: A darker motivation for some American intellectuals' interest in the Holocaust may be the necessity of focusing on the crimes of official enemies in order to avoid seeing our own. We speak of Lidice but not of Gnaddenhutten, Babi Yar but not My Lai. The discourse of one nation's atrocities facilitates the erasure of another nation's crimes. This is not, however, to suggest a facile equivalence and curse all houses with pox from a position of godlike superiority. There's an equal danger in 'losing' the uniquely shocking technocratic horror of the Holocaust by blending it into that darkest night where all atrocities are blacker than black.

We must 'preserve' the shocking nature of violence, for if we ever become immune or inured or numb to it, we cease to be human.

These thoughts are occasioned by a second reading of Sebald's Austerlitz, which reminds me that Modernist novels can only be re-read by revealing the meaning of an ending I presumably didn't understand the first time through. The novel's last scene, in which the narrator sits outside the former Nazi prison at Breendonk and reads Dan Jacobson's Heshel's Kingdom, gives us on this novel's penultimate page another image of the abyss of death and meaninglessness comparable to that near the end of Vertigo. But here, instead of being overwhelmed by a text (as Vertigo's chasm is 'overwritten' by a memory of Pepys's description of the Great Fire of London), the image is itself carefully textualized and accompanied by, as well as encapsulated within, images of reading as recovery--recovery of personal and historical memory. At the end of the book, we the readers, the narrator and his protagonist are left reading the signs that history has left us, even as they are being erased...And interestingly,the ending might suggest that the written sign, a text in a book, is among the most durable of all. Buildings, as Sebald shows us, can be obliterated. Towns like Terezin can change utterly. But the witness of writing is more tenacious. It is still possible to track down the traces of the past, and we exist--if we desire an authentic existence--under a moral imperative to read the writing on the prison walls. The work may be all but impossible, but the past remains recoverable. This is as hopeful as Max Sebald gets.

Matthew Battles' LIBRARY and mine

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles informs me that the Ptolemies, in order to ensure their Alexandrian Library's monopoly on knowledge, banned the export of papyrus. This led the rival rulers and librarians at Pergamon to develop parchment, a superior support. This may be history's most ironic example of censorship inadvertently assisting the spread of ideas. Battles also argues that the Alexandrian libraries were in sharp decline after centuries of Roman hegemony, Christian antipathy, general neglect and natural decay, so the caliph's perhaps legendary burning order merely put a period to a death sentence already longer than Faulkner at his friskiest. In an eye-opening passage, Battles also tells us that the catalog of titles in the British Library--just the catalog--had grown by 1991 to an outrageous 2300 volumes!! In the old round reading room at the British Museum (no longer used as such; the British Library now has an enormous building of its own a few blocks north in St. Pancras) the catalog was housed in a double row of circular shelves around the librarians' central desk. (In the photograph near the top right corner of this blog, the catalog volumes occupy the outermost ring of the central circles.) Unfortunately, I didn't make it to London until the library had already moved north and the round room had been transformed into an almost entirely unused reading room devoted to the Museum's collection. I don't recall ever seeing anyone reading there, although there was a steady stream of North Korean tourists paying homage to Marx by having themselves photographed in the room he probably knew better than any of his homes. (By the way, Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (US title: The Trial of Elizabeth Cree) is an excellent romp of a historical novel in which we see Marx and George Gissing at work under the British Museum's lovely dome.)

Thinking about libraries and vast accumulations of books encourages me to do a book count of my own relatively modest stockpile. Two or three hours at this senseless activity yields an approximate total of 3455 volumes in my library. (I guess I can call it by such a grandiose term, although I prefer to think of them as my books, my tools, things to use, not a collection of the embalmed and unread.) So I'm approaching 3500 volumes. Not bad, but certainly not in the league of Susan Sontag's legendary 20,000. And no, I haven't read all of them... (I remember a scene in the documentary Derrida where the filmmaker follows the eponymous philosopher into his library and asks the question all nonserious readers ask when faced with a serious reader's collection of books: "Have you read all of these books?" Derrida replied, "No, no...only three or four. But I've read them very carefully." Watching the scene, I thought: Truer words were never spoken by the Old Hedgehog.) But read or unread, they are all books that I have chosen to own, and they thus provide a fairly accurate snapshot of my interests. It's a library heavy on what Barnes and Noble categorizes as "literary fiction:" a lot of Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics, Bantam Classics, Signet Classics, Vintage International, Vintage Contemporary and NYRB Classics editions, some New Directions and Dalkey Archive Press titles. Included in and aside from this is a large amount of poetry, from massive anthologies to individual volumes from Homer and Ovid and Chaucer to Philip Larkin and Rita Dove and Richard Howard. My collection of plays runs from Aeschylus and Aristophanes (a personal favorite--"There is a god and his name is Aristophanes"-Heine) to Shakespeare (god's other name) to Joe Orton and Sam Shepard. There's also a good deal of literary biography, criticism and theory mixed in with this: Edel on James, Ellmann on Joyce, Carter and Tadie on Proust (Painter's classic life has been definitively superseded); a shelf's worth of Joyce criticism, too much Harold Bloom, several books each by Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, de Man, Adorno, Benjamin, Edward Said (whose work I like enormously), Walter A. Davis (whose work continues to challenge me--and everyone else who reads it), Walter Pater, Camille Paglia (whose Sexual Personae introduced me to Pater), several volumes of William Gass's absurdly alliterative essays. And then there are my art books, perhaps the heaviest category by weight: enormous textbooks, big exhibition catalogs, smaller monographs, the 4 volumes of Hauser's Social History of Art, collections of criticism by John Berger, Robert Hughes, Arthur Danto, Pauline Kael, etc. In philosophy I have much Plato (a poet, really), a bit of Aristotle (almost entirely unread), random volumes from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Voltaire, Hume, Schopenhauer, equal amounts of Nietzsche and Sartre, as well as some unread Heidegger and dipped-in Wittgenstein. (True confession time: the philosophy book I consult most often is the 'fake book' I keep on my desk, Bryan Magee's The Story of Philosophy, a good place to turn when I need a quick reminder of what the hell Hume was all about.) My history and political books run the gamut from Howard Zinn to Noam Chomsky (HA!). Actually, it's a little more balanced than that, but the collection does tilt decidedly leftward--a corrective to the History Channel, TV news, and all the crap that came out of my history teachers' mouths in high school. I have a traveler's collection of travel books and a heavy shelf of travel guides (mostly the extremely helpful DK Eyewitness guides that I've carried to Europe and back on various trips; the London volume proved its waterproofing when I carried it across Hampstead Heath in a driving rain with no damage, a bookish miracle). One of the largest categories, though, is miscellaneous, that catchall that catches everyone from Freud and Jung (more books by the former) to Solzhenitsyn and Andrea Dworkin (there's a marriage made in Russian Orthodox heaven!)... and all of this seems to me now like an exercise in the merest of surface-scratching. I just have too damn many books...and now if you'll excuse me I have to go buy a few more.

CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER by Thomas De Quincey

The first (1821) edition of De Quincey's Confessions, published in the Penguin Classics series, is an odd, anticlimactic, disappointing work, but it still contains just enough great writing and interesting insights to recommend it. This version was written hurriedly, says our editor, and it shows: the work is detailed where it should be summary and summary where it should be detailed (in the descriptions of opium dreams, for example). I'd like to read the final edition, which the editor calls overwritten and overwrought but which I suspect is more detailed and superior by virtue of its greater temporal (and thus critical) distance from the narrated events.

JEALOUSY by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Just 12 pages into Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, I can already project a strategy for deconstructing it. The novel's illusion of objectivity depends upon the narrator's rhetorical self-effacement, sometimes at the expense of obviously artificial circumlocutions. The objectivity is thus undermined by the very rhetoric used to construct it, rhetoric that points ineluctably toward subjectivity, the narrator's too-obviously masked presence. The next step is to understand that this subjectivity depends upon the same rhetorical devices and is thus in its turn as compromised as the illusion of objectivity, which it creates... We end, as in all deconstructive readings, in an indeterminate oscillation of meanings, understanding objectivity and subjectivity as constructions or 'side effects' of language not referable to any extralinguistic 'reality.' (Um, with Robbe-Grillet's novels in print since the 1950s, can someone explain to me why we needed Paul de Man??) If Paul de Man had not existed, Robbe-Grillet would have been forced to invent him--and probably did.

Upon finishing the book I find that there's some very good stuff in Jealousy. I was impressed by the way the reader's narrative expectations are co-opted and deployed in support of the narrator's paranoia, implying that narrative itself is a paranoid construction projected upon random events that only achieve significance in terms of the projected, paranoid, jealous narrative. (Note to self: must re-read Freud's essay on jealousy, paranoia and homosexuality.) Some of the book's descriptions, such as the passage describing A's hair in labyrinthine terms, are marvelous. Other passages are, however, eminently skippable (e.g. the notorious tree-counting scene). But it's a very good, excitingly original book overall. The theme of narrative paranoia, or narrative as paranoia, seems like a missing link between Proust and Pynchon. (Whaddya know!) That said, while I appreciate Robbe-Grillet, I certainly don't want to write books like his. He is very not me.

ALLEGORIES FOR READING PYNCHON (and a tangent into the work of Niki de Saint Phalle)

I'm probably not the first person to remark that interpreting one of Thomas Pynchon's long novels is like trying to nail mercury to a wall or pour gasoline into a styrofoam cup. On second thought, I probably am the first person to use that last analogy, so let's milk it. Interpreting a Pynchon novel is like pouring gasoline into a styrofoam cup. Not only will the interpretation (the cup) fail to capture the entire work, but the work (the petrol) will eat through the interpretation, dissolving it in conflicting levels of meaning, multiple ironies, a narrative pluralism that subverts any univocal interpretation. The petrol of the text eats through the interpretive cup, rendering it useless.

My best metaphor for Pynchon, though, is the Tinguely machine. His novels are like those incredibly complex Rube Goldberg contraptions built by the artist Jean Tinguely, labyrinthine machines made out of random junk and designed to break apart the moment they are set in motion. Pynchon's novels are Tinguely machines that elaborately deconstruct themselves during attentive reading.

Thinking about Tinguely led me to the Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists (one of my favorite desk references) where the entry on Tinguely's partner Niki de Saint Phalle describes her sculpture She, a 25 meter-long, hollow reclining figure of a woman which visitors could walk through. Visitors entered through the vagina and paused for refreshments at a milk bar in the breasts. It was constructed at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1963, and since the dictionary describes it in past tense, I assume the work no longer exists. Quel dommage! The work was a collaboration With Tinguely. I want to see pictures of it.

(SLIGHTLY LATER)

Unfortunately the only pics online are old newsphotos showing the enormous figure lying on its back with knees up and legs spread while a crowd lines up to enter the vagina--a surreal spectacle in itself, especially the two men near the end of the line who read newspapers as they wait. Ah, that great European blase! I would like to see some interior photos, a side view, a cross-section. The Dictionary describes the interior environment as a "fun fair", which connotes carnival: games, barkers, rides (a curving slide through the colon?) Was there a house of mirrors in the skull? (I'm making things up to fill the documentary void. I'd like to see a fully-illustrated book devoted solely to this work.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

THE ORCHARD KEEPER by Cormac McCarthy

Surely one reason for the European popularity of Faulkner, Hemingway and now Cormac McCarthy is that these writers show Europeans an America that conforms to stereotype: violent, elemental, primitive, gruff, laconic, anti- and non-intellectual. Of course, if read carefully and critically, the works of these writers would be a poor fit for the stereotype, but few readers read that closely.

A reading of Ol' Cormac's (as they still call him in Tennessee) first novel, The Orchard Keeper, shows that while he has always been a beautiful writer, he has over the course of his career gained greater control of his prose instrument and become a tighter, somewhat less elliptical storyteller. The Orchard Keeper, telling a simpler story than No Country For Old Men (CM's worst book, by the way; some passages read like the winner of a Bad Hemingway contest), tells it in a much more elliptical and puzzling manner, although at the end there is an old-fashioned readerly satisfaction as the various puzzle pieces lock into place. There's also, amidst the beautifully lyrical prose, a chilling roadside murder scene that's one of the best things McCarthy has ever written. It's not a great book, but it is a very impressive first novel, a sure-handed signing of the promissory note McCarthy has spent the rest of his career paying.

A possibly interesting tangential thought: Reading No Country for Old Men and The Road, I was struck by the thought that I was reading books that had been conceived and/or initially drafted in some form in the early 1980s. I wonder if McCarthy, reeling from the commercial failure of Suttree, might have conceived these two novels in the 1980s as 'quicker' and more commercial projects that might bring in a little cash while he researched and wrote his Great Western Novel(s). No Country, as I recall, seems to take place ca.1980, and the post-apocalyptic world of The Road is straight out of the 1980s discourse of nuclear winter. I may be completely off base, but I suspect Ol' Cormac has had these ideas lying around in his notebooks for quite some time--not that there's anything wrong with that.

MEDITATIONS IN GREEN by Stephen Wright

Wake up, America! There's a great novelist in your midst and you've never even heard of him. Stephen Wright (not to be confused with the brilliant deadpan comic with a similar name) has over the past 25 years produced four brilliant, polished, masterful novels: Meditations in Green, M25: A Family Romance, Going Native and The Amalgamation Polka. Check them out.

Wright's first novel, 1983's Meditations in Green, shows us a writer with talent to burn. An essentially plotless, atmospheric book with a fast, jagged rhythm, this 'synoptic' Vietnam novel may stand alongside Michael Herr's Dispatches, a masterpiece of 20th century American literature, as one of the very best books about the war. The book is a showcase for Wright's lyrical prose and fearless imagination. In addition to showing us the casual brutality and institutionalized sadism of the war (there's an indelible description of a field 'interrogation' using a crank telephone), Wright also takes us back home, showing us the men who, after the war, continued to fight it in their minds on the streets of America. This is a very, very good novel, wonderful and rich, knowing and ironic, and its author deserves a little recognition beyond his miniscule 'cult' following--if he even has that. If such a cult does exist, count me in. Wright's talent is on a level with Don DeLillo's and Robert Stone's, and he deserves to be at least as well-known and well-rewarded as they.

OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Of Love and Other Demons is a good novella by Gabo. It is well worth reading, but not by any means on a level with One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Autumn of the Patriarch. Aside from the central Garcia Marquesan love story, my favorite element of the novella (and, I suppose, also the author's) is the theme of forbidden books, Enlightenment treatises and old romances imprisoned like heretics for the ideas they carry. The ecclesiastical library's locked cabinet containing forbidden volumes is the master image of this theme, and Gabo artfully counters it with his description of the physician's eclectic, house-filling, heresy-ridden book collection. And yes, the 'master image' of both of these libraries is Don Quixote's collection of dangerous books. The influence of Quixote--a book that very few people, I suppose, have read all the way through--is inescapable, and not just in Latin America. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the entire history of the Western novel is a series of footnotes to Don Quixote, the case could certainly be made that much of the very best in Western literature since 1600 would not exist without it. That's a no brainer, as that no-brainer Dick Cheney liked to say. (Gratuitous political comment that Gabo would surely approve: It was refreshing to see Cheney finally in character as Dr. Strangelove on Inauguration Day 2009.)

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon

This is not a great or even a very impressive book. It's better than the overlong and overrated Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I didn't bother to finish, but nowhere near the excellence of Wonder Boys and Mysteries of Pittsburgh (or The Final Solution). (The Pulitzer jury strikes again, awarding Chabon the prize for what is, to date, his worst novel.) In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon mixes two familiar genres, the alternative history and the detective story, without ringing any really interesting changes on either, so any critical or deconstructive irony is negligible. Chabon artfully appropriates the genre elements, but he neither transforms them nor uses them more effectively than any number of genre writers could have. Yes, the book is entertaining from beginning to end, but as the sage Sean Penn once said, "If you want entertainment, get two hookers and an eight-ball." This is not, contra the flap copy, a book that only Michael Chabon could have written. Wonder Boys was.

ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan

McEwan's On Chesil Beach is a fine, fast novella that seems after a first reading to be more complex that it initially appears. What are we to make of the novel's narrator and his choices (outlandish comic metaphors that come at moments of dramatic intensity, thus provoking bathos; the decision to 'focalize' [if that's the correct narratological term] the 40 years after the end of the story through Edward's consciousness rather than Florence's; his simultaneous intimation and veiling of Florence's possible molestation by her father on his boat)? The motivation for these choices seems to lie below the level of the narrated events, in the nature of the narration itself. It's as if McEwan has taken the superfluous postmodernism of Atonement and integrated it into his narrative voice here, subtilizing it and making it a deeper, more profound element of the novel because it's now part of the fabric and process of the story rather than an extra episode designed to deconstruct the previous ones. This is real progress. McEwan continues to improve.

THE NATURE OF NARRATIVE by Robert Scholes, James Phelan and Robert Kellogg

This new edition of Scholes and Kellogg's classic The Nature of Narrative, with a long afterword by James Phelan providing an overview of Narrative Theory since the book's initial publication, is a clear, well-written and highly readable introduction to a field too often obscured by impenetrable jargon (like "internally focalized heterodiegetic narrator"). Of special interest to me is the book's argument that the first-person autobiographical narrative was an innovation of the later Roman Empire (Petronius, Apuleius, Lucian, Augustine). The Western tradition of autobiography is thus born in an inward-turning, late, decadent milieu--a fact that may say something about the taste for memoirs (or novels disguised as memoirs and vice versa) in contemporary America, another empire in decline. The authors also suggest that ancient oral storytellers were apparently improvisors who 'riffed' (within strict limits, one assumes) on traditional scenes and formulae. It's possible (this is my thought now, not Scholes' or Kellogg's [although they do seem to suggest it]) that the long traveler's tale narrated by Odysseus within the Odyssey, his tale of the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Lestrygonians, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, etc., is just such an improvisation, an entertaining lie performed by that old windbag Odysseus, the 'man of many wiles,' the legendary trickster. (I wonder if Joyce had Ulysses-as-storyteller in mind when he was choosing archetypes for his own vast invention.) Scholes and Kellogg are also interesting on the classical ancestry of interior monologue (which they helpfully distinguish from stream of consciousness), a pedigree stretching back to Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes, Vergil and Ovid.

One serious weakness is the book's lack of any extraliterary historical sense. Scholes and Kellogg chart all of these momentous changes in the representation of consciousness in Europe but only briefly (if that) hint at the social, political and intellectual changes that formed and/or were informed by these literary changes. The Nature would be better if it were more 'natural,' i.e., materialistic. It seems that we still need a grand, synthesizing 'social history' of European literature along the lines of what Arnold Hauser did for art in general. But who alive today--indeed, who since the death of Erich Auerbach--would be capable of writing such a book? George Steiner? Franco Moretti?...

In the end I return this book to the shelf having learned some interesting things from it, but I remain unconvinced that the Narratology to which it helped give birth is anything more than the last gasp of a moribund Structuralism. Phelan essentially confirms this in his afterword when he relegates a brief mention of deconstruction to an endnote. The works of Derrida, de Man and Miller must be thus quarantined by Narrative Theory, since they have the power to annihilate all of Narratology's beloved categories.

ARIADNE'S THREAD by J. Hillis Miller

This is a wonderful, challenging, provocative book written in what must be the most readable prose of any of the major deconstructionists. Ariadne's Thread is deconstruction at its very best, transforming the act of reading and interpreting texts into an intellectual adventure, a hermeneutical high-wire act. "Constantly risking absurdity," Miller rarely stumbles. He pushes as far into his chosen texts as he can, and then he pushes farther. The extended considerations of character in Meredith's The Egoist and of relationships in Elective Affinities are startling and illuminating, and the ultimate, climactic reading of "Death and the Compass" is clever to the point of comedy (albeit very dark comedy, as befits Borges). Miller's shorter readings of Nietzsche, Joyce, Wittgenstein, etc. are never less than interesting. A very good book.

TWO MORE RANDOM THOUGHTS ON DECONSTRUCTION; OR, MORE OF YESTERDAY'S NEWS

The insight of deconstruction into the volatile, collapsible nature of figurative language is probably something writers shouldn't think about too much. Indeed, it's probably something most human beings needn't worry themselves about in their day-to-day linguistic activity. Even deconstructionists pragmatically forget all those aporias when they, for example, order a meal at an expensive restaurant (or a hooker from Eliot Spitzer's favorite website). A good analogy for the relationship between deconstruction and the 'everyday' use of language is the difference between the subatomic and 'macro' understandings of the structure of matter. We all know that a brick, on the subatomic level, consists mostly of empty space (the space between the nucleus of each atom and its electrons); we also know, however, that the 'empty space' of a brick slamming into the 'empty space' of a forehead will cause intense pain. By this analogy, deconstruction presents a 'subatomic' view of language that, while likely accurate, can hardly be a paradigm for language use in the realm of everyday discourse. We understand each other through a pretended univocality that deconstruction exposes and undermines. We may 'know better,' but that knowledge is not especially useful when asking for directions in a strange town. (Unless it's a very strange town, populated entirely by strict Derrideans.)

Every successful deconstructive reading is a defeat, and all these defeats take the same general form: two radically incompatible meanings oscillate around an aporia, a point of epistemological failure. In the world according to de Man, the winner always loses.

DECONSTRUCTION AND CRITICISM by Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller (the gang's all here!)

J. Hillis Miller, who comes alphabetically last among the authors of this collection, is responsible for its best essay. "The Critic as Host" is very good, probably the best single deconstructive essay I've ever read and a great intro to the school--a much better intro than Derrida's "Differance" from Margins of Philosophy. It's also a little contagious, as any strong critical work must be (as Bloom's influence theories are and Frye's structural ones aren't, for me). Reading Miller, it's easy to slip into deconstructive mania, seeing a wilderness of oppositions crying out to be set in ultimate oscillation over an abyss of meaning(lessness). I think the best introductions to deconstruction in practice are probably Derrida's "Force and Signification" and "Structure, Sign and Play...," De Man's essays on Derrida and Rilke, and this piece by Miller. It's a very impressive essay, not to mention troubling (but in a salutary way). Help! All of these words are implying their dark deconstructive doppelgangers!...

While reading Miller, I thought that one possible deconstructive strategy for Harold Bloom's theory of influence might begin by relating Bloom's 'influence' to 'influenza' and bring in the idea that texts create their precursors, even rewrite them, in a way analogous to the passage of a cold virus around a family, infecting each family member in turn and then re-infecting the now-recovered initial infectee. But this, on further reflection, really is Bloom's theory of influence, not its deconstruction. Bloomian influence theory is most vulnerable on another score (and now Jacques Derrida knocks down a door in my mind to remind me that 'score' also signifies [under erasure, bien sur] a mark made by a sharp tool, like a writing stylus... Oh, go back to your coffin, Jacques!). Bloom's theory is vulnerable due to the hermetically sealed textual universe it posits, his expulsion of the world from the text. The barbarians of historicism have already burst Bloom's gates, so this exclusion is obviously untenable. But a deconstructive reading of The Anxiety of Influence would try to show that the very rhetorical moves by which Bloom expels the world from his text also function to let the world in, like a screendoor that is simultaneously 'closed' (the frame) and 'open' (the window). The next movement would then probably be the deconstruction of this open/closed polarity by the interrogation of the figures used to express it...and then everything will end the way these readings always do: with the reader and writer gazing upon a wondrous aporia that bears a disconcerting resemblance to Paul de Man's fuzzy Belgian navel.

(In the Foreward to the second edition of Blindness and Insight [a book I recommend highly, by the way], de Man writes: "I am not given to retrospective self-examination and mercifully forget what I have written with the same alacrity I forget bad movies--although, as with bad movies, certain scenes or phrases return at times to embarrass and haunt me like a guilty conscience." I'm not going to take the easy and obvious route, responding to this statement by saying that de Man's distaste for self-examination may be grounded in the fact that every time he looked in the mirror he saw a fascist collaborator staring back at him. No, I'm not going to say that. David Lehman has already said it all in what is surely the only book on deconstruction to which the adjective 'thrilling' might be unblushingly applied, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man. Now that the furor is long past and de Man's youthful Nazi collaboration is old news, I think we might more fruitfully focus on the last part of the passage. Although de Man, master rhetorician that he is, tries to undercut the impact of those last six words with an analogy to superficial products of popular culture ['bad movies'], the impact remains--indeed, in an irony de Man would certainly appreciate, the impact is increased by his transparent attempt to undermine it. There is surely nothing in Blindness and Insight that would "haunt" Paul de Man "like a guilty conscience." He must be referring to some other writings, perhaps even those articles he wrote during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in the fascist newspaper Le Soir. But even if this supposition is accurate, this passage should probably not be understood as a kind of veiled confession. I think it's closer to self-pity: the old collaborator whining about all that he has suffered. Interpreted this way, it may be the most despicable thing the man ever wrote.)

Impressed as I am by Miller's "Critic as Host," I can also readily see the text and its author as ripe for parody. Miller enjoys flaunting his Yale-ish authority and proclaiming dubious critical 'laws'; he's like Moses of Yale, the lawgiver of deconstruction. Even his image for the ultimate promise of deconstruction is Mosaic: the successfully deconstructive critic will be granted only a glimpse of a Promised Land 'beyond metaphysics.' I see Hillis the Lawgiver with a long, white Hestonian beard standing on the outskirts of New Haven ca.1979 holding two blank stone tablets that he insists are inscribed with the secrets of a world beyond metaphysics. The New Havenites slide by on grease.

And it seems to me now (the strength of Miller's deconstructive virus having kept the thought at bay for several hours) that Derridean and de Manian and Millerian deconstruction might themselves be deconstructed along the same lines as Bloomian influence theory, by showing how the rhetoric by which it establishes and enlarges its textual domain also provides an opening to the extratextual, the beyond-language or hors-texte that all good Derrideans deny the way Christian Fundamentalists deny Darwinian evolution. Such a reading, on the other hand, might serve to confirm rather than deny the efficacy of deconstruction... I suspect that this circle seems inescapable only because deconstructionists can't think their way out of it. You can't deconstruct your way out of deconstruction. It's a closed system--or better, it's a technique that can only confirm itself. (Is this true?) Trying to deconstruct your way out of deconstruction is like trying to swim your way out of an aquarium. Both are closed systems, so some other method of escape is required. Fish must jump to escape from an aquarium; critics looking for an Archimedes point from which to overturn deconstruction should probably investigate its material basis.

When deconstruction is historicized, it can be seen as an 'academic' concern, in all the worst senses of that adjective: divorced from the world in which most people live; confined to institutes; protected by an elite; encoded in specialized jargon; and, for all these reasons, potentially reactionary despite its pretense of radicalism. (I hasten to add that the first charge of this indictment--divorce from 'reality'--is not necessarily a bad thing.) In short, deconstruction is one of the academic faces of corporate technocratic capitalism, and all the criticisms leveled at technocrats in John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards can be leveled at the deconstructionists (whom Saul mentions only in passing and seems not to understand). Deconstructionists can deconstruct each of these criticisms, but they cannot refute them, because the criticisms have a basis in a material, historical reality (corporate capitalism in its academic manifestation, the modern university) rather than a purely linguistic one. Deconstruction flies in the superstructure, so an authentically radical critique--a critique as radical as the decontructionists think they are--must show that even their wildest deconstructive flights remain tethered to the good old vulgar Marxist ground, 'based' in the realities of American capitalism in its current corporate phase.

ULYSSES ON THE LIFFEY by Richard Ellmann

While Richard Ellmann was a great biographer (his bios of Joyce and Wilde stand beside Edel's Henry James and John Richardson's multi-volume work-in-progress A Life of Picasso as models of the form), his critical book Ulysses on the Liffey doesn't impress me much. Ellmann's attempt to derive his own schema for Ulysses based on internal evidence ultimately produces a structural diagram so all-encompassing that many major literary works could probably be interpreted to fit it. His interpretation is neither convincing nor interesting, and he seems at times oblivious of how badly the novel kicks his interpretation's ass. Still, Ellmann being Ellmann, the book does contain some interesting asides. But it also suffers from a handicap seemingly endemic to academic Joyce criticism: humourlessness. The one question I would ask of any Joyce scholar is this: Does Ulysses still make you laugh? If not, it's time to move on...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SOME THOUGHTS TOWARD A COSMOPOLITAN MANIFESTO

"--But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.
--What? says Alf.
--Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred..."

-James Joyce, Ulysses


As a January snow softly falls upon all the living and the dead outside my window, I'm sitting here thinking about James Joyce and the future of the past. The future, that is, of Modernism (and its late phase, soi-disant postmodernism), and the need for a Modernist-style revolution in literature today. Not a national or a nationalist revolution, but an international, cosmopolitan movement or tendency. The last example of such a phenomenon was probably magic realism, a literary tendency that spread across the world like avian flu (although it was a considerably more beneficent epidemic). With Kafka and Cervantes as its cosmopolitan precursors, magic realism spanned the globe like Jim McKay, eventually entering English literature courtesy of a short kid from Bombay whom I will call Sal the Man. But this is all old literary news. We need a new revolution now, a new movement to energize the six addled souls who still give a shit. (Pessimism keeps me grounded.)... Yes, pessimism is realism, but let's not overdo it. Let's not talk/think ourselves into Morris Berman's infuriatingly attractive black hole of cultural despair. For me, that would be little more than artistic suicide--or, more appropriately, artistic abortion. It's necessary to remind oneself that the collapse of America--now well underway as the economy crashes through its worst slow-motion train wreck since 1929--is not the end of the world. It's the end of an idea of America, but so-called 'American ideals' (more properly, the ideals of the European Enlightenment) are actually being achieved more effectively in countries that will probably weather the current crisis better than the United States (France, Germany, Sweden). I'm not saying that Europe is a mixed-economy Promised Land while Reaganized and Bushified America is an insufferable hellhole; I'm merely pointing out that in Western Europe, although racism is rampant and the far rights are rising, decent health care is considered a right rather than a privilege of wealth, the political left (the real left, not the centrist liberals called 'leftists' by American 'conservatives') has a voice and a role in government, the social safety net is strong, and unions have real power. In short, the end of America is not the end of the world, and to be cosmopolitan today is to be ahead of the curve, ready for a decentered, pluralistic future, an age with multiple centers of power rather than a single superpower. It's going to be a dangerous next few decades, though, because America in decline will inevitably lash out like a wounded tiger. We will undoubtedly kill many thousands more before our death. How to counter this sickness, this psychopathology of national decline? Deploy cosmopolitanism, intellect, eros, the difficult pleasures of the greatest art. Work against the day by thinking against it and creating opportunities for thinking otherwise. That's probably the best and most that art can do.

"In a world of lies the lie is not removed from the world by means of its opposite, but only by means of a world of truth"--Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks

To provide opportunities for thinking otherwise. That may be the end, means and purpose of art, insofar as its sociopolitical efficacy is concerned. Books that are worth our time, books that strive toward the state of Kafka ice-axes, give their readers occasion to think differently, to ride thought-trains and make connections undreamt of in the hegemonic ideologies; such books increase the circumference and volume and depth of our imaginations; they show us the impossible--which can be defined as that which our dominant ideologies render unthinkable. This is the ultimately subversive chord struck by the slogan of our great-grandfathers' avant-garde: "Make it new." The authentically new, as opposed to the advertisers' 'new and improved,' is always the unthinkable, the unseeable, the unsayable, the unheimlich. An art worth more than a few minutes of our time must embody this, body it forth (to use a lovely archaism).

American writers today are in a dubiously privileged position for writing about hegemony because we're in the midst of it. We live at ground zero, we're citizens of Rome during the reign of Constantine (now hoping that Obama might be a successful Julian); the artifacts of corporatist ideology--its products, forms and structures--are all around us. It may be impossible to write about America today without writing in some way (even implicitly) about corporatism. This is the ideology that shapes the information we receive and pollutes the air we breathe; it's everywhere, riding each new wave of technology like a virus (this time hardly beneficent), infecting and infesting our minds until we mistake it for reality and can imagine no alternatives. Art can counter this exactly by imagining those alternatives, seeing the unseeable, speaking the silences, pushing back the claustrophobic horizons that threaten to crush us and inviting the world inside. That's what cosmopolitanism means to me: pushing back those horizons, expanding the imaginable world. We must counter the world of corporatist lies with a Kafkaesque "world of truth."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A FAN'S NOTES by Frederick Exley

"To talk about oneself a great deal can also be a means of concealing oneself." --Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Exley's A Fan's Notes isn't bad, but it certainly isn't great either. It doesn't live up to its most hyperbolic back cover blurb: "The best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby." Thus spake Newsday. Well... I know it's unfair to hold a book responsible for what a publisher's marketing department decides to slap on the back cover, but this kind of egregious hyperbole demands to be smacked down. The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! are perhaps slightly better than A Fan's Notes and were both published between Gatsby's 1926 and Exley's 1968. But enough blurb criticism. The book itself is an interesting autobiographical fiction, a good literary drunkalogue with some excellent moments. The description of undergoing insulin and electroshock 'therapy' was especially well executed--no mean feat in dealing with subject matter that can easily slip into Snake Pit melodrama--and Exley actually managed to make interesting reading out of his months spent on a davenport staring at his feet. But I often found myself wondering what Exley wasn't telling us. What is he leaving out? I finished the book with the feeling that there was another novel (or 'fictional memoir,' to use Exley's term) concealed in the lacunae of A Fan's Notes. I also left the book thinking that for all Exley's eloquently expressed self-loathing, he probably didn't loathe himself as much as many readers will. And for all of his tough-writer, warts-and-all self-examination, there are major elements of Exley's character that remain tellingly unexamined (most strikingly, his homophobia), suggesting that at book's end, after all the apparent confessions, Exley's still living a life Socrates would consider hardly worth the effort.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

THE RECOGNITIONS by William Gaddis

I have just done something that few readers of literary fiction will ever do: I have finished The Recognitions. The book that I have referred to for years as my Penguin Classics Bad Conscience will trouble me no more. (Excuse me while I reset my shoulder; I just dislocated it patting myself on the back.) At the end of this first reading, I conclude that it's a book worth reading once, but probably not twice. And even as I type this, I remind myself that I sometimes don't recognize (pun intended) the greatness of a book until my second reading. My first reading of Ulysses left me bewildered and nonplussed; I've now read it 7 or 8 times and it's at the top of my 'favorite novels' list. On the other hand, the overwhelming greatness of some books (Tristram Shandy, The Master and Margarita, Jacques the Fatalist) was readily apparent to me during my first reading. I don't think The Recognitions belongs in that exalted company, and the reasons are several.

While the book begins very strongly, with a brilliant and beautifully written (and long, but it's so good the length doesn't bother me) first chapter describing Wyatt Gwyon's childhood in a narrative voice that surprisingly echoes the bitter ironies of Mark Twain's late style, the novel then very quickly goes off the rails. To mix metaphors, it's as though Gaddis puts his novel in a centrifuge and forces us to watch as the parts fly off in various directions. I also (and perhaps more appropriately given the book's repeated references to the atomic bomb) thought of those diagrams of the results of atom smashing experiments, with subatomic particles flying off on various trajectories. (This analogy probably fits Gravity's Rainbow better than The Recognitions.) While all of these analogies might be used to justify Gaddis's structure, none of them can explain away the book's biggest structural and conceptual flaw: with only a few surprising exceptions (Stanley, Mr. Pivner) the other characters Gaddis introduces are less interesting and original than Wyatt. The Wyatt Gwyon narrative is the book's strongest and strangest. The novel's big Dickensian world of other people and stories ultimately broadens Gaddis's themes without substantially deepening them.

I also think that about 300 pages could be cut from this novel without harming it a bit. There are too many cocktail parties, too many scenes at the bohemian cafe where Return to Sorrento is always playing on the jukebox, too many pages devoted to annoying minor characters who add little or nothing to the book, too much...well, just too much--of everything.

A perhaps subconscious motive for this overabundance may lie at the heart of the novel's strength, in the Wyatt Gwyon story itself. The Wyatt narrative is so original that it threatens to undermine the novel's major theme: the impossibility of authenticity and originality in the modern world. Here at the center of his own novel, Gaddis has constructed a solid (albeit highly ironized) answer to his novel's argument, a brilliant example of original, authentic artistic creation in the age of Dale Carnegie and Geritol. On some level Gaddis must have sensed the danger that the Wyatt narrative posed to his larger project, and this realization might have led to the desire to 'conceal' Wyatt behind a screen of cardboard cut-out characters, to bury his story under a flood of fakes and fakery. (Gaddis, were he still alive, might object that this was all exactly his point and that I've missed a level of irony. This is entirely possible. Even the Wyatt narrative, after all, is finally just like all the others: a bit of Gaddisean fakery built from the abracadabra of the author's words--and not entirely his words, come to think of it, for some of them were taken from J.G. Frazer and T.S. Eliot and...)

That said, there is some truly gorgeous and remarkable stuff in this book, even outside the Wyatt story. The Mephistophelean Recktall Brown is a wonderful creation with a perfectly crappy name. ("Recktall Brown is reality" says a character at one point.) The Stanley narrative at times comes close to the Wyatt storyline in terms of sheer religious weirdness, and Stanley's death is a near-perfect closing note, the church collapsing on top of him because he's an American and doesn't bother to learn Italian before traveling to Italy. (A nice little cautionary tale for Ugly Americans abroad.) Gaddis's characterization of Mr. Pivner, a man who takes Dale Carnegie as his textbook and ends up lobotomized in a prison for a crime he didn't commit, contains a few brief passages that are as close as the novel ever comes to moments of truly earned pathos. There are also a few passages that read like pitch-perfect predictions of the prose of Thomas Pynchon.

And therein lies a possible problem for Gaddis in literary historical terms. If nothing else, reading this book shows me a novel that Thomas Pynchon almost certainly read in college or shortly thereafter. (I detect a Recognitions influence as early as V.: Pynchon's New York characters seem to be twisted descendents of Gaddis's pseudo-intellectual pseudo-bohemians. And Gaddis's joke names [Agnes Deigh, the aforementioned Mr. Brown] must have licensed Pynchon's own occasionally awful puns.) The problem for Gaddis here is that the pupil (Pynchon) has so far outpaced his one-time master that the older writer might be relegated by literary history to the Marlovian shadows cast by Pynchon's "Shakespeherian" sunlight. Time is rarely kind to writers who show others the way to greater things. Have you read anything by Edouard Dujardin lately?

I began this post by saying that my Penguin Classics Bad Conscience would trouble me no more. That was perhaps a bit overly optimistic. It would be more correct to say that The Recognitions will henceforth bother me in a different way. Instead of mocking me with the fact of its unreadness, it will now nag me to read it again, to pick up on the things I inevitably missed the first time through. I probably will read this novel again, but not soon. I'll probably return to it sometime during the next decade. But before I do, I intend to read J.R., a book that I suspect might be better than this one.

Monday, January 12, 2009

THE LAST CATHOLIC by Walter A. Davis

I have an unofficial rule here at Mindful Pleasures of only commenting on books that readers can (at least theoretically) read for themselves, but I'm breaking that rule today to write about an important book that has not yet been published and that I have had the privilege of reading in manuscript, Walter A. Davis's The Last Catholic.

Attentive readers of this blog might recognize Davis's name, but it deserves to be much better-known. A Professor Emeritus of English, now retired from Ohio State University, Davis is the author of the interdisciplinary nonfiction books Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx and Freud; Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative; Death's Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9/11; Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience; and several other books (all of which can be purchased at Amazon.com).

His massive fictional work-in-progress, The Last Catholic (of which I have just read the finished first volume), is a novel unlike any other in American literature. To call it the story of a Catholic childhood, youth and young adulthood in 1950's Chicago is like calling Moby Dick a fishing story; to call it an American bildungsroman is like calling The Great Gatsby the story of a rich guy who gets capped. The Last Catholic is indeed a modern American version of an intellectual bildungsroman (or 'antibildungsroman,' as Davis has it); it's "the story of the growth of a mind," but it's also so much more: an intense psychological study of family relations and sexuality; a reinvention of the Naturalism/Realism of Dreiser and Sinclair (especially in a chapter in which Davis's narrator works one summer on a construction crew building a Chicago high-rise); an exploration of the dialectical relationship between reading and experience that effectively deconstructs the duality, showing that reading is experience (when done deeply); a phenomenology of reading containing multiple descriptions of the experience that are unlike anything in American literature; an unsparing account of teenage and young adult sexuality in the 1950s-60s and the regulation and deployment of this desire by social authorities (the family and the Catholic Church); an exploration of 'consciousness' as a fundamental reality that we cannot think past (although we can 'feel' our way into it by following our emotions)... And even this list doesn't exhaust the riches of Davis's novel. It's a book studded with original, stand-out scenes: a Rorschach test that culminates in the narrator's memory of viewing Willem de Kooning's Excavation; a bizarre, heartbreaking letter written to the narrator by a friend in a mental hospital; several scenes that are like anthropological descriptions of pre-Sixties American sexuality; one scene in a cloakroom at a Catholic school that absolutely nails the crazy fetishism of teenage male desire; in that same chapter, a description of Catholic education that takes the theme of martyrdom to places that will shock most readers; a near-journalistic account of the response of students at Marquette University to the Cuban Missile Crisis (a good portion of this novel is set at Marquette in the early Sixties, so it is, among other things, the Great Marquette Novel). In short, The Last Catholic is that rare thing in our country's literature, a philosophical novel that stands comparison to the great philosophical novels of Europe (some of which are discussed in detail in the book; the 'climax' of the novel comes when the narrator locks himself in a room for a week and reads The Brothers Karamazov, an experience that changes his life). Davis is writing an answer to all those who have wondered why American literature no longer deals with the 'Big Issues': Life, Death, the Meaning (or meaninglessness) of Existence. This is the kind of book that many Americans have been waiting and reading for. Any publisher who cares about the future of American literature as art and exploration should rush to acquire this book and publish it, making it available to a reading public that's famished for truly serious, complex and challenging fiction. Davis's novel promises to be an event in our literature. It deserves to be read.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

NEW YEAR, NEW FONT; REMEMBERING ROSA, OPPEN AND BUNUEL

A new year deserves a new font; Mindful Pleasures needs a typeface slightly more readable than last year's, with more distinct commas, periods and semicolons. Since the comma is my god and the semicolon my demigod, this matter is crucial. Here's hoping everyone prefers Verdana to the old Times.

Among my resolutions for 2009, I pledge to do everything within my admittedly slight powers to make the following three old dead artists better known:

SALVATOR ROSA (1615-73) was an Italian painter of the Baroque era. If you've been to any of the world's great art museums, you've undoubtedly walked past his paintings. Next time, stop and look. Rosa's marvelous, moody, proto-Romantic landscapes influenced 18th-century notions of the Sublime, and the London National Gallery's unforgettable Self-Portrait is a great portrait of the artist as judge, weighing his fellow men and women in the balance and finding them wanting. Rosa paints himself half-length against a grey sky; one hand rests on a tablet upon which is inscribed the Latin phrase Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio, "Either be silent, or speak things better than silence." I've never seen a painting by Rosa that was less than interesting (although he was a prolific and diverse artist, so I'm sure there are some duds out there). It's high time for one of the major museums (London National, Met, Louvre, Uffizi) to host a Rosa retrospective. Let's give this unknown-except-to-specialists master the respect he deserves.

GEORGE OPPEN (1908-1984) was an American poet who seems to have slipped back into obscurity in the years since his death. This fate probably wouldn't have surprised or much bothered Oppen, a lifelong left-wing activist who spent much of his life not writing but doing what philistines call ''real work": union organizing, working at an auto plant, fighting in WWII (he was a highly decorated soldier in the European theater), building houses, partnering in a small furniture business. But the other, more literary side of Oppen's life deserves to be remembered and read. For me, the stand-outs among his works are two long poems, "Route" (his great sui generis masterpiece) and "Of Being Numerous." The former begins:

"Tell the beads of the chromosomes like a rosary,
Love in the genes, if it fails

We will produce no sane man again..."

It also contains a couple of typically concise statements of Oppen's poetics: "I have not and never did have any motive of poetry / But to achieve clarity" and the brilliant "Words cannot be wholly transparent. And that is the / 'heartlessness' of words." The high point of "Route," though--and possibly the best thing Oppen ever wrote--is the prose section describing the horrors of life in Alsace under the Nazi occupation. This section was my introduction to Oppen. I heard Paul Auster (who knew Oppen during the 1970s; hell, Auster knew everybody during the 1970s) read this section at a PEN event a couple years ago, and when he was finished I thought, "Whoa! What the hell was that?! And why haven't I ever read it?" I encourage anyone who has never read Oppen to check him out. I'll end this discussion with another quote from the man himself:

"Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous."

LUIS BUNUEL (1900-1983) was the greatest of all Surrealist filmmakers. I'm always surprised when I mention Bunuel to Americans and discover that their knowledge of him begins and ends with the eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou. Outside the subtitle-loving subculture of foreign film buffs (I'm a charter member), Bunuel's career is pretty much unknown here in freedom's home and bravery's land (as Gore Vidal called it). It's time for a Great American Bunuel Revival (or Introduction, as the case may be). It should become common knowledge that Bunuel had a career as long as Hitchcock's, beginning in silents and ending in the Seventies, and directed films as brilliant (and in their own way more shocking) as any created by the master of suspense. The great works of his last two decades deserve to become at least as well-known on these shores as the films of Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut. I especially recommend Viridiana, The Phantom of Liberty, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, The Milky Way and That Obscure Object of Desire. Seek them out. Check them out. You won't be disappointed.