Friday, June 15, 2012

...and another thing for BLOOMSDAY 2012

...because once I get started on the nacheinander and nebeneinander of Joycean thoughts it's really impossible to stop cold turkey (cue the Lennon tune) until I've remarked that the Modernists (a category I'll expand to include everyone from Manet to Philip Roth) have become far too fucking respectable in recent decades, haven't they? They've been mastered and doctored, syllabied and conferenced, MLA'd and IJJF'd, deluxe editioned, multiply translated, banned and boned (I don't even know what I mean there), presidential medalled and national treasured, and now we have a holiday (in puritanical Ireland of all places) celebrating a novel in which the central character does "love sticky" on a public beach. Hell, even that despicable asshole (and sometime great writer) Celine (not Dion, the other one) has been duly canonized--a fate he would surely have bemoaned and blamed on a cabal of les juifs. (To give the sorry sonofabitch his due, the WWI scenes near the beginning of Journey to the End of the Night are among the best war writing of the 20th (or any other) century.)

The Good Celine. Her heart will go on...
The Bad Celine. His heart never did...

Modernism, which hoped to be Henry Miller's gob of spit in the face of bourgeois culture, has become altogether too authoritative, academicized, anaesthetized, too much of an official commodity. (Too Dion, we might say, and not enough Celine.) The culture it was meant to gag has consumed it as easily as a handful of M&Ms. It's time to recover the pornographic scandal of Modernism, to be jolted anew by the multiple electric chair shocks of its new, to understand Ulysses as a work as indigestible as Brigadier Pudding's late night snacks, to see a Miro painting through the lens of the shit banquet scene in Pasolini's Salo (which was re-released by the Criterion Collection to coincide with the 2008 Republican National Convention, because timing is everything), to make Modernism obscene again, to recognize James Joyce as a man who never met a dick joke he couldn't work into the Wake, to read Proust as a guy who wrote 3000 pages and seven volumes so he could conceal from censorial eyes an explicit sadistic brothel scene hidden deep inside the final volume (surely the only reason the Recherche didn't suffer the fate of Ulysses and Chatterley is that no prudes made it to volume seven), to understand the haughty mandarin Nabokov as a punning 13 year-old boy who names a nymphomaniacal character "Dr. Anita Johnson." We need to recover the grand 'immaturity' of Modernism, as 'immaturity' is understood in Ross Posnock's wonderful, essential critical study, Philip Roth's Rude Truth, the title of which reminds me that near the beginning of Posnock's book he quotes from Roth's The Counterlife a character's 'countereulogy' for the Rothian writer Nathan Zuckerman. The passage can be read as a rude, ranting, impassioned lament for the sanitizing of modern art, so I'll quote it in full:
The deballing of Zuckerman is now complete...A sanitized death, a travesty of a eulogy, and no ceremony at all--completely secular, having nothing to do with the way Jews bury people. At least a good cry around the hole, a little remorse as they lower the coffin, but no, no one even allowed to go off with the body. Burn it. There is no body. The satirist of the clamoring body--without a body. All backwards and sterile and stupid. The cancer deaths are horrifying. That’s what I would have figured him for. Wouldn’t you? Where was the rawness and the mess? Where was the embarrassment and the shame? Shame in this guy operated always.Here is a writer who broke taboos, fucked around, indiscreet, stepped outside that stuff deliberately, and they bury him like Neil Simon—Simonize our filthy, self-afflicted Zuck! Hegel’s unhappy consciousness out under the guise of sentiment and love! This unsatisfiable, suspect, quarrelsome novelist, this ego driven to its furthest extremes, ups and presents them with a palatable death—and the feeling police, the grammar police, they give him a palatable funeral with all the horseshit and the mythmaking! The only way to have a funeral is to invite everyone who ever knew the person and just wait fore the accident to happen--somebody who comes in out of the blue and tells the truth. Everything else is table manners. I can’t get over it. He’s not even going to rot in the ground, this guy who was made for it. This insidious, unregenerate defiler, this irritant in the Jewish bloodstream, making people uncomfortable and angry by looking with a mirror up his own asshole, really despised by a lot of smart people, offensive to every possible lobby, and they put him away, decontaminated, deloused—suddenly he’s Abe Lincoln and Chaim Weizmann in one! Could this be what he wanted, this kosherization, this stenchlessness? I really had him down for cancer, the works. The catastrophe-extravaganza, the seventy-eight pound death, with the stops all pulled out. A handful of hairless pain howling for the needle, even while begging the nurse's aide to have a heart and touch his prick--one last blow job for the innocent victim. Instead, the dripping hard-on gets out clean as a whistle. All dignity. A big person. These writers are great--real fakes. Want it all. Madly aggressive, shit on the page, shoot on the page, show off their every last fart on the page. And for that they expect medals. Shameless. You gotta love 'em.
Philip Roth receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, 2011.

Bloomsday 2012

Bloomsday comes around again tomorrow like the lastfirst sentence of Finnegans Wake, and instead of adding a bit more to the Everest of verbiage occasioned by the novel, instead of saying again things that Hugh Kenner or Richard Ellmann already said 50 years ago, instead of pointing out that the Homeric intertexts, that Odyssey and its prequel at the arbitrary origin of Western literature, are already rather Modernist (belated, ironic, influentially anxious) in their tapestry of allusions to even earlier stories, tales, myths, legends; instead of remarking upon the climactic imagery of the "Nausicaa" episode and its queer reimagining in Kenneth Anger's Fireworks; instead of writing a post titled "Joyscrap" that attempts to think about the role of excrement in Joyce's works without ever referencing Bakhtin, Kristeva or Pynchon's Brigadier Pudding (TP's ultimate comment on the British palate); instead of any of that, I've decided to take it easy this Bloomsday and just link to some photos from my trip to Dublin a few years ago.

And if that's not enough, here's the gallery of all my travel photos and miscellanea that I've scanned in recent years. If you enjoy them, you will have enjoyed them; if not, not.

Apropos of nothing except a trip to my 'pictures' folder, here are three great images of writers influenced by Joyce (a category that arguably includes just about everyone who has written literary fiction since 1920): Hemingway, Georges Perec, and between them the man known to his French Resistance comrades as l'Irlandais, 'the Irishman,' Samuel Beckett (whose photo reminds me of Harold Brodkey's observation that Beckett's nihilism ended at the barbershop door; he had the best hair of any canonical male writer).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Transparency, Translucency, Opacity: Some Thoughts on the Continuum of Novelistic Prose

If the medium of prose can be likened to window glass, then the major genera of novelistic prose (popular, literary, experimental) might be placed on a continuum stretching from transparency through translucency to opacity. The overwhelming majority of the prose that people purchase and read, the prose of popular fiction, is carefully crafted to create an illusion of transparency. It seems a clear, flawless, almost invisible window through which the stories and characters are viewed. Transparent prose is the quintessence of 'slick shit,' even slicker than the glossy paperback covers that usually bind it. (I hasten to add that my use of the phrase 'slick shit' is not as derogatory as it may seem; it was the phrase the Epstein brothers used to refer to their Casablanca screenplay, a work I hold in quite high esteem.) Transparent prose flows like an undammed river, presenting no obstacles to readerly navigation. It is written to be safely and enjoyably consumed, and while it is not exactly the literary equivalent of Muzak (because it must successfully create an alternative world and transport the reader there, a function no one would apply to a canned instrumental arrangement of "In My Life"), it is undeniably the kind of prose most closely associated with commodification. All those rows upon rows of genre novels as superficially different and profoundly similar as breakfast cereals in a supermarket are written in transparent prose. The transparent is a plain style, eschewing complex sentence structures and figurative language, but not all plain styles are transparent. Hemingway and Carver, for example, are masters of translucent plainness, and Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans stands as a perverse masterpiece of the plain opaque. The prose of Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and Thomas Harris (a trio I choose solely because they are the three best contemporary popular novelists I have read in recent years) can stand as exemplary of a prose that tends toward transparency as a Platonic ideal. James Ellroy would also be a good example, although in recent years his telegraphic style has tended in interpose itself between reader and representation, becoming a reductio ad absurdum of the truism that plainness can be just as mannered as complexity. It's not necessary to quote examples of transparent prose, because it's all around us. Open any bestseller and you will see it.

The prose of literary fiction--which I suppose can be defined as fiction intended primarily as an aesthetic object and only secondarily as a commercial one--tends to cluster around the translucent middle of the continuum. If the transparent is a pane of clear glass, the translucent is a tinted or molded window that "diffuses the light so that objects beyond cannot be seen clearly" (as Webster defines 'translucent'). Translucent prose calls attention to itself, becoming a visible barrier between the reader and the object it represents, a lens that distorts the object in the very act of making it visible. If transparent prose is as smooth as a fiber optic cable, translucent prose twists itself into barbs that tear at the reader's brain. In so doing, translucent prose retards the reading process, forcing the reader to notice the medium as well as its representations, the designs and patterns and flaws in the glass as well as the objects still visible beyond. Thus, it raises the questions of reading and writing as processes, makes unavoidable a sense of the novel as a constructed object, and, ideally, forces into consciousness the ideologically inflected decisions made by writers while writing novels and readers while reading them. The slick prose of popular fiction seems designed to forestall these three moments, to keep the reading process easy, fast, naive, and anything but (horror!) dialectical. Translucent prose tends to be dialectically unsettling, with the power to destabilize our received opinions not only of reading and writing but of the world and ourselves. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Melville's Moby Dick, Joyce's Ulysses, the vast roman fleuve of Proust--these are the first works that come to my mind as masterpieces of translucent prose. We can always 'see' (in the Conradian sense) the objects that Faulkner or Joyce or Melville or Proust prose-poetically present to us, but we can also always 'see' (indeed, we can never help but see) the poetic prose that presents them. Thus are we teased into questioning the novelistic illusion that enraptures us. If you seek more examples of translucent prose, walk down the literature aisles of a Barnes & Noble (this may be your last chance; brick and mortar bookstores might soon be deader than Adorno). Hemingway, in his own minimal way, is as translucent as Faulkner (James M. Cain would be their transparent contemporary), but in general, translucent prose tends to lengthen sentences to the point of absurdity (Proust, Thomas Bernhard, Faulkner), to promiscuously compound subordinate clauses (Henry James, Proust), to revivify words you might never eye outside pagan papyri and obscure incunabulae inscribed for the perusal of callipygian queens (Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux), to break up the reading process by means of footnotes, endnotes, parentheses (Nabokov, Wallace, Faulkner), to launch into seemingly endless catalogues of exemplary objects (Rabelais, Joyce, William Gass), to burst unexpectedly into metaphors as natural and abundant as white blossoms on an apple tree after an April rain (Proust, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Bruno Schulz).

If the outer limit of transparency is the purely instrumental prose of children's books (which seems translucently minimal to the mature eye), the endpoint of translucence would be an opacity through which not even the outlines of represented objects would be visible. Opaque prose approaches the condition of a window painted black. It seems to exist only as language on a page, without any recognizable referent. It enacts a disappearance of signified into signifier. I think of Finnegans Wake, Stein's The Making of Americans, Julian Rios's Larva, the later works of Arno Schmidt. None of these is perfectly opaque, of course (only Dadaist glossolalial poetry touches that ultimate Malevich black square), but in passages of each the signified seems to dissolve into 'pure' language. In a way, this is analogous to certain paintings by Picasso and Braque from the early 1910s in which the iconicity of the painted sign (the resemblance between an object and its painted representation) is stretched to the breaking point in a process more familiarly known as Cubism. Perhaps paradoxically, opaque prose tends not to Beckettian sterility but to platitudinous plenitude. It builds Great Chinese Walls of words, literary monuments that seem almost enormous enough to be visible from space. Beyond their walls we can barely see, and this very fact may lead us to suspect a Melvillean void on the other side of the pasteboard mask, an essential Derridean meaninglessness that all language conceals. And it's only a small step from there to the idea that all of this "free playing" of the signifier isn't free at all; it's a compulsive, hysterical defense mechanism. One might further remark that opaque prose silvers the back of the window, transforming it into a magnifying mirror reflecting the writer's already engorged ego back upon itself in an infinitely inflating, infinitely repeating series. It is a synthesis of the infinite and the infinitesimal, an enormous claustrophobia. (Which is not to say it can't be great fun to read. The Wake, for all its opacity, is laugh-out-lud* funny.)

* I'm letting the typo stand since it's perfectly Wakish, referring to the legendary King Lud of London, namesake of Ludgate. It is also, as Joyce the Joyous would surely have pointed out, related to the Latin ludere, to play (whence comes Huizinga's Homo Ludens and the various ludicrosities of postmodernism). And we musn't forget old Ned Ludd, apocryphal first luddite, who would be sledgehammering my Toshiba right about now--