Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Learning the Jokes

Ellis Sharp reports on what sounds like a fascinating talk given tonight by Gabriel Josipovici. According to Josipovici, he says, the vast portion of British writing "is carried out as if Kafka and Proust had never existed. Modernism is something which everyone knows exists but which most prefer not to think about." I've recently stepped up my efforts to better acquaint myself with the history of literature (by reading it, in case that wasn't clear). This is for two reasons. First, plainly, simply to read some good books (turns out Middlemarch is pretty good!). Second, to be able to recognize the kinds of thing that Josipovici is talking about. A post from Golden Rule Jones last week ended with this interpretation of something J.M. Coetzee said about young writers not reading: "you can’t be a serious writer if you don’t know the jokes." I take it as given that the same is true of being a serious reader.

Of course, I learned about Josipovici through Steve Mitchelmore (who briefly mentions the talk and Ellis' account here), and more via Ready Steady Book and Spurious. I've read one novel by Josipovici (In a Hotel Garden, which I wrote about here), and I was able to find two others when I was in Paris last Fall (Moo Pak and Now). I have his criticism high on my list of books to acquire (The Book of God: A Response to the Bible looks especially interesting). Ellis writes that he left the talk with his "faith in serious writing renewed".


Andrew said...

"He also described how modernism has evoked three standard responses: firstly, the philistine, conservative one which dismisses modernist texts as difficult and boring". He seems to consider it a given that his tastes must be correct in considering modernist texts as unquestionably great. He fails to mention the possibility that one may ultimately feel repelled by writers such as Joyce and Proust on what culd be termed psychological grounds. Which isn't to say that modernist texts can't be great but that, for example, there is a self-obsessed psychological wallowing that one finds anathema and from which one recoils as does the healthy from the unhealthy.
As for 'machines that secrete spurious meanings into the world’, if he is talking about art in general rather than bad art, it seems to me a very ignorant statement. Great art is by definition oozing with the true or profound which resonates in the mind of the perceiver- a resonance of the true with the true. If he is arguing that there is no meaning, that this is artificial imposition by the mind, then it would be very hard to see how such a resonance could occur.
Perhaps with that statement he is targeting bad novels with obvious moralistic plots, though analysis of weak art is perhaps a bit of a a waste of time.

Andrew said...

Also surely having read or not having read Proust is hardly going to make a relatively mediocre artist into a great one. The question instead seems to become one of why aren't there more geniuses engaged in literary creation, or even perhaps why if it be the case, is there a comparative dearth in artistic genius in an era of such unprecedented human numbers.

Richard said...

What makes you think that anyone is saying that merely reading Proust will "make a relatively mediocre artist into a great one"? It seems to me that that's clearly not the case.

As for whether Josipovici takes it as given that his taste is correct concerning the greatness of the Modernists--well, of course he does. He has a critical perspective. It appears that he thinks the Modernists are important, and haven't been dealt with by their successors. He sees this as a failing. No doubt in his criticism (which, again, I haven't read any of, other than an excerpt here and there) he makes his argument (or perhaps discusses that literature that he sees as not failing thus).

From what I gather, he's not just talking about "bad novels", by the way, but rather some of the most praised "literary fiction" of the day.

Also, I find this bizarre: "self-obsessed psychological wallowing that one finds anathema and from which one recoils as does the healthy from the unhealthy".

Andrew said...

"self-obsessed psychological wallowing that one finds anathema and from which one recoils as does the healthy from the unhealthy". may indeed be rather laboriously put, but as regards Joyce, it should be reasonably self-evident that his art became a very obsessive kind of immersion in language, and I personally find it somewhat tedious, unnatural and suffocating. Not liking Proust or Joyce, Josipovici on the other hand seems to consider can only explained by being a philistine. Aldous Huxley, certainly no philistine, had this to write about Proust, "That asthmatic seeker of lost times forever squatting in a tepid bath of his remembered past and all the stale soap suds of countless previous washings, all the accumulated dirt of years lay crusty on the sides of the tub. And there he sat, scooping up spongefuls of his own thick soup and squeezing it over his face ... like a pious Hindu in the Ganges." Thus the self obsessed...unhealthy etc.
I was of course simplifying somewhat crudely in saying his point was that reading Proust would improve one as an artist, but it surely true that an artist is roughly as good as that which he produces, and the quality isn't determined by lacking the seriousness of intent to produce greatness. I seriously doubt keeping modernism in mind will improve anyone's art as art shoudn't be such a conscious, artificial process. I see little point in chastising mediocre artists for their mediocrity, as they are presumably producing the art that reflects what they are capable of. A dearth of passionate artists of genius seems to me a far likelier cause of a lack of great art, than people keeping the importance of modernism in mind.