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 bĂȘte 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: