Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books Read - 2009

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2009, in chronological order of completion (links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts), with comments and observations, not to mention the all-important statistical breakdown, to follow:

1. The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon
2. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein
3. Rock Crystal, Adalbert Stifter (Elizabeth Mayer & Marianne Moore, trans.)
4. Not to Disturb, Muriel Spark
5. The Takeover, Muriel Spark
6. The Great Fire of London, Jacques Roubaud (also) (Dominic Di Bernardi, trans.)
7. By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño (Chris Andrews, trans.)
8. The Tenants, Bernard Malamud
9. Indignation, Philip Roth
10. Fear and Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard (also) (Alastair Hannay, trans.)
11. Boyhood, J.M. Coetzee
12. Youth, J.M. Coetzee
13. The Square, Marguerite Duras (Sonia Pitt-Rivers & Irina Morduch, trans.)
14. Moderato Cantabile, Marguerite Duras (Richard Seaver, trans.)
15. 10:30 on a Summer Night, Marguerite Duras (Anne Borchardt, trans.)
16. The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas, Marguerite Duras (Anne Borchardt, trans.)
17. A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
18. The Victim, Saul Bellow
19. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow (also) (re-read)
20. Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich
21. The Red Badge of Courage and Selected Stories, Stephen Crane (some re-read)
22. The Hunter, Richard Stark
23. Jealousy, Alain Robbe-Grillet (Richard Howard, trans.)
24. Martin Heidegger, Timothy Clark
25. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, Giorgio Agamben (Daniel Heller-Roazen, trans.)
26. Maurice Blanchot, Ullrich Haase & William Large
27. The Limits to Capital, David Harvey (also)
28. The Thirtieth Year, Ingeborg Bachmann (Michael Bullock, trans.)
29. Walden and Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau (also, also)
30. Night Work, Thomas Glavinic (John Brownjohn, trans.)
31. Passing, Nella Larsen
32. Slow Homecoming, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
33. Across, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.) (re-read)
34. Contre-Jour: A triptych after Pierre Bonnard, Gabriel Josipovici
35. In the Fertile Land, Gabriel Josipovici
36. Hunger, Knut Hamsun (Robert Bly, trans.)
37. Sula, Toni Morrison
38. My Old Sweetheart, Susanna Moore
39. The Outfit, Richard Stark
40. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
41. Life Is Elsewhere, Milan Kundera (Peter Kussi, trans.)
42. Homo Faber, Max Frisch (Michael Bullock, trans.)
43. Man, Beast, and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature, Kenan Malik
44. The Execution, Hugo Wilcken
45. Corregidora, Gayl Jones
46. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Daniel C. Dennett
47. Everything Passes, Gabriel Josipovici (re-read)
48. Escapade, Evelyn Scott (also)
49. Colony, Hugo Wilcken
50. On the Geneology of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche (also) (Walter Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale, trans.)
51. Collected Stories, Franz Kafka (various translators)
52. A Life, Gabriel Josipovici
53. Exit Ghost, Philip Roth
54. The Fixer, Bernard Malamud
55. Migrations, Evelyn Scott
56. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
57. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor
58. My Ántonia, Willa Cather
59. Amulet, Roberto Bolaño (Chris Andrews, trans.)
60. Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason, Alfie Kohn
61. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
62. The Dying Animal, Philip Roth
63. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem (Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox, trans.)
64. Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians, Hugh Kenner
65. Monstrous Possibility: An Invitation to Literary Politics, Curtis White
66. Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (also) (James Strachey, trans.)
67. Effi Briest, Theodor Fontane (Douglas Parmée, trans.)
68. Three Lives, Gertrude Stein
69. Friendship, Maurice Blanchot (also, also, also, also) (Elizabeth Rottenberg, trans.)
70. The Fall, Albert Camus (Justin O'Brien, trans.) (re-read)
71. The Voice Imitator, Thomas Bernhard (Kenneth J. Northcott, trans.)
72. The Hothouse by the East River, Muriel Spark
73. Confessions of a Mask, Yukio Mishima (Meredith Weatherby, trans.)
74. O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
75. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
76. Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolaño (Chris Andrews, trans.)
77. Man in the Dark, Paul Auster
78. Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre (Lloyd Alexander, trans.)
79. Self-Help, Lorrie Moore (re-read)
80. Dubin's Lives, Bernard Malamud
81. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott
82. Anarchism, Daniel Guérin (Mary Klopper, trans.)
83. Fear and Trembling, Amélie Nothomb (Adriana Hunter, trans.)
84. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Silvia Federici
85. Goldengrove, Francine Prose
86. L'amante Anglaise, Marguerite Duras (Barbara Bray, trans.)
87. Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Robin Dunbar
88. The Character of Rain, Amélie Nothomb (Timothy Bent, trans.)
89. Tokyo Fiancée, Amélie Nothomb (Alison Anderson, trans.)
90. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 61
Number of books written by women: 29 (better than usual, but still: !)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 1 (Curtis White)
Number of other Dalkey books: 2 (Roubaud, Kenner)
Number of books in translation: 34

Fiction or Poetry (or sufficiently literary memoir):
Number of books: 66
Number that are poetry: 0
Number that are memoirs: 3 (Evelyn Scott's Escapade, both by Coetzee)
Number that are re-reads: 6
Number of authors represented: 41
Number of books by female authors: 25
Number of female authors: 14
Number of books by American authors: 26
Number of American authors: 18
Number of books by African-American authors: 3
Number of African-American authors: 3
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 11
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 4 (Coetzee, Josipovici, Spark, Wilcken)
Number of books in translation: 28
Number of authors of books in translation: 19
Number of translated books by female authors: 9
Number of foreign languages represented: 7 (German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Norwegian, Czech*, Polish*) (*Lem's Solaris and Kundera's Life is Elsewhere were both translated into English from the French translations, not directly from Polish or Czech, respectively)
Most represented foreign languages: French (12 books), German (9)

Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 6 (Bellow, Camus, Coetzee, Hamsun, Morrison, Sartre)
Number of books from before 1800: 0
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 3 (Stifter, Crane, Fontane)
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 3 (Conrad, Stein, Cather's O Pioneers!)
Number of books from 1915-1944: 6
Number of books from 1945 to 1970: 17
Number of books from 1971-1989: 15
Number of books from 1990 to 1999: 3
Number of books from 2000 to 2008: 15
Number of books from 2009: 1 (Francine Prose)

Number of non-fiction books: 24
Number of books by female authors: 4 (Klein, Woolf, Federici, Hrdy)
Number of books in translation: 6 (primarily philosophy or criticism)
Number that are biographies or letters: 1 (Josipovici's A Life)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 7
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 7
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 3
Number about pop music: 0
Number about science: 4
Number about parenting: 1

Comment & Observations:
Brief pointless note on the numbers: things were back to usual this year, with fiction dominating the count, though the actual number of non-fiction books didn't decline by much. Also, I easily surpassed my previous blog-life high of 77 books, back in the blog year-one of 2006; statistics are unavailable for my pre-blog life, as if such a thing existed. It is perhaps worth noting that the number is slightly inflated by the appearance of a great many very short works, fiction and non. Not that it matters.

That leads into my observation about my goals. Unlike 2008, when my goal had been to read Proust and Beckett (successfully met), I had no special goals for 2009. I had hoped to continue my engagement with Marx; in particular, I wanted to study Capital. But I was unable to do so this year; lack of mental space being the primary reason, though I did fruitfully read David Harvey's The Limits to Capital. Similarly, some of the more opaque philosophical or critical theory authors I've had my eye were usually beyond me this year. Though I did read Blanchot's Friendship and a few of the essays in The Book to Come, I didn't return this year to The Space of Literature. Nor did I return to Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought; I did take a shot at the intro to Being and Time, without much success. In general, I just wasn't up for it. (The classics didn't fare too well either: even passes at Plato's Republic or Cicero's On the Good Life were short-lived.) I did read the books in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series on Heidegger (by Timothy Clark) and Blanchot (by Ullrich Haase & Will Large); both were lucid introductions and very helpful. In addition, I read Agamben for the first time. I found his Remnants of Auschwitz fascinating, if not entirely satisfying; I was doing pretty well with his Man without Content, but I stopped reading it in part because I was so engaged by it. I realized I was reading it a little too quickly and that I wanted to spend more time with it, taking notes, considering his arguments.

Moving right along.... See my earlier post for some of my thoughts on my reading year.

Other thoughts:
I read a lot more books written by women this year. Five titles by Maguerite Duras and three by Muriel Spark, to name two writers with whom I was already committed to reading deep into. Spark's books seemed minor. I liked Not to Disturb, didn't quite get the Josipovici-raved The Hothouse by the East River, found The Takeover rather tedious. Duras' were very short (four compiled into one volume). I enjoyed most The Square, The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas, and L'amante Anglaise. I've already said quite a bit about Evelyn Scott (though not nearly so much as I intended; lucky you), and I had something to say about Flannery O'Connor. I liked the three Willa Cather novels I read. I finally read some Gertrude Stein; when I could get into the flow of the writing, Three Lives was a fascinating read. If I got distracted, returning to the text was often difficult, to the point of boredom. I had meant to say quite a bit about Gayl Jones' fascinating Corregidora. Several others I wrote about elsewhere. Late in the year, I returned to Amélie Nothomb after an absence of three years, with three novels, in part, I admit, because they are so short and so easy to read. But there's something fascinating, if occasionally overly precious, about Nothomb's writing (and are they all autobiographical? I sometimes get the sense she's written one large novel, in a dozen or so novella-length sections. . .).

I read books by many of the old standbys, Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Coetzee, Bernhard, Handke, Kafka (the rest of the Collected Stories, about a fifth of the Diaries). Finally read Lord Jim and Solaris; a random Kundera; two of Richard Stark's Parker novels (entertaining, hard-boiled crime fiction). I re-read Bellow, Josipovici, Lorrie Moore. Blanchot had me going back to Camus' The Fall, to see if I could see what he saw in his marvelous essay on that book. Alas, it was not to be, though I appreciated the book more this time around (I'm not a big Camus guy).

Other books I read portions of: again Peter Brown's fascinating history, The Rise of Western Christendom, which I actually started over. Half of Pascal's Provincial Letters (and just a few pages in Pensées). Graham Robb's The Discovery of France. And of course I read bits and pieces of various books about parenting and childhood and education (including Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education), though perhaps not as many as I should have. Not much poetry this year: a Wallace Stevens poem here, Emily Dickinson there, a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, glanced at Rilke and Rimbaud, and so on.

I could probably ramble on and on without saying much more. So I may as well end this post here, which effectively ends another fine year for reading. Here's to a great 2010. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Noted: Thoreau

From The Journal, an entry from July 25, 1839, when he was 22:
I confess I have no little sympathy with the Indians and hunter men. They seem to me an distinct and equally respectable people, born to wander and to hunt, and not to be inoculated with the twilight civilization of the white man.


The Indian, perchance, has not made up his mind to some things which the white man has consented to; he has not, in all respect, stooped so low; and hence, though he too loves food and warmth, he draws his tattered blanket about him and follows his fathers, rather than barter his birthright. He dies, and no doubt his Genius judges well for him. But he is not worsted in the fight; he is not destroyed. He only migrates beyond the Pacific to more spacious and happier hunting grounds.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Yay for Yale University Press

By the way, James C. Scott's excellent Seeing Like a State, which I mentioned in the last post, was published in 1998 by Yale University Press, which that year also published a certain On Trust by Gabriel Josipovici. I'd call that a good year. Yale has published several other books by Scott (two of which I received for Christmas: The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia and Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance) and The Book of God by Josipovici, as well as Chris Knight's crucial Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. Color me impressed.

Books of the Year

In the last two years, I contributed to Ready Steady Book's end-of-year symposium. There wasn't one this year, but since I enjoyed the format, I thought I'd briefly mention my books of the year here instead.

For fiction, the standout is Peter Handke's beautiful Slow Homecoming, recently reissued by NYRB. In a similar mode were "A Wildermuth" and "Everything", the best stories, I think, in Ingeborg Bachmann's The Thirtieth Year. I'd also like to make special mention of Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London. And I was pleased to have read three of Willa Cather's novels, in particular My Ántonia. I also read three novels by Bernard Malamud; his Dubin's Lives was the last great novel I read in the year.

The Roubaud and the Handke, certainly, were books that I knew I would read eventually, and neither Cather nor Malamud is exactly obscure. But I'd never heard of Evelyn Scott prior to this year; her wonderful memoir Escapade was probably my great literary discovery of the year.

For recent fiction, the only books I feel the need to highlight are Aleksandar Hemon's widely (and justly) praised novel The Lazarus Project and two by Hugo Wilcken, The Execution and Colony. The latter has received some blog-love, by Stephen Mitchelmore and, especially, John Self, but I'd like to draw your attention to The Execution, Wilcken's first novel. A seemingly straightforward thriller of sorts, there is a tension to the writing that elevates it. Both of Wilcken's novels, by the way, have that rarest of literary features: the first-rate ending.

For non-fiction, I'd like to mention five books:
Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism needs no introduction from me. Klein's occasional arguments for a return to Keynesian solutions are not convincing, and she does perhaps focus a little too heavily on the ogre that was Milton Friedman. But it deserves to be read for its devastating record of the effects of 30 years of neoliberal economic policies across the globe.

For my still-to-come reading of Marx's Capital, I plan to lean heavily on David Harvey as one of my many guides. In that light, his huge The Limits to Capital was a key book for me this year. It's just a beginning for me, but Harvey's book, while itself necessarily very complicated, is enormously helpful in teasing out various aspects of Marx's (and Marxists') important analysis of capital.

James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation are both, to my mind, utterly necessary books. They have both contributed mightily to my recent thinking on the problems of modern life. I hope to be discussing the arguments of both here on the blog, but for now let me just point to them and say: yes.

And, finally, I read several science books this year, all very good-to-excellent. The best of the bunch is Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, about which more to come, I hope. Suffice it to say that, if you're interested in the evolutionary bases for cooperation, you should read it.

Noted: Spinoza

"The endeavor to live in a shared, peaceful agreement with others is an extension of the endeavor to preserve oneself." — Spinoza, quoted in Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

" 't was heels up and head down"

One of Mirah's more charming books is Duck Song, a board book by Kenneth Grahame, pictures by Joung Un Kim [Update: I probably should have already known this, but I just noticed the fine print on the book informing us that the words earlier appeared in Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows]. Here are the words:
All along the backwater,
Through the brushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,

Up tails all!

Ducks' tails, drakes' tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

Slushy green undergrowth
Where the fish swim--
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.

Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!

High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call--
We are down a-dabbling

Up tails all!
It's one her recent favorites; we like to read it to her too. Then, just this morning, going through my excellent Christmas book haul, I found in the new NYRB edition of Thoreau's Journal (edited by Damion Searls) the entry from October 29, 1837:
Two ducks, of the summer or wood species, which were merrily dabbling in their favorite basin, struck up a retreat on my approach, and seemed disposed to take French leave, paddling off with swan-like majesty. They are first-rate swimmers, beating me at a round pace, and—what was to me a new trait in the duck character—dove every minute or two and swam several feet under water, in order to escape our attention. Just before immersion they seemed to give each other a significant nod, and then, as if by a common understanding, 't was heels up and head down in the shaking of a duck's wing. When they reappeared, it was amusing to observe with what a self-satisfied, darn-it-how-he-nicks-'em air they paddled off to repeat the experiment.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Condensed Spirit of Literature

At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove has long been one of blogdom's most persistent champions of Gabriel Josipovici. There are too few of us. Recently she had the opportunity to meet the writer and found him to be "like the condensed spirit of literature". I love this expression. And based on my readings of Josipovici's fiction and criticism, and also A Life, his loving biography of his mother, the translator (of Blanchot, as well as Henri Lefebvre, among others) Sacha Rabinovitch, the phrase is apt.

For some of us Josipovici means almost too much to convey. I find I could write about him constantly, and nearly do. Just last month, Stephen Mitchelmore wrote of his first encounter with Josipovici, as far back as 1988, via a letter to the editor of the London Review of Books, an encounter that, for him, ultimately had a profound impact. My own first encounter was as a name seen in passing, across a blog here or there, a name which stuck in my mind well enough to be dimly recognizable when I spied a remaindered copy of the New Directions edition of In a Hotel Garden. I enjoyed the novel, but I wouldn't chalk the experience up as a life-changer. But then came the critical books On Trust and The Book of God, books that hit me at just the right time in my life, when I was both dissatisfied with my reading and also working through certain borderline existential (not to say banal) issues in my personal life. The implications of the arguments in these two books alone continue to strike me as hugely important. The impact on my thinking, anyway, has been enormous, and much that I have written about since then has been deeply informed by his writing. With litlove's phrase in mind, along with Stephen's remembrance of a "profound conjunction", I wanted to take this opportunity to simply offer a little thanks.

"the simplest, if perhaps least imaginative, way"

Following up on the recent Blanchot posts, this comes from Charlotte Mandell's translator's note to The Book to Come, which I've only dipped into here and there (the opening essay on Proust is excellent):
there flourish two much-beloved groups of words, whose ambiguities in fact pervade ordinary French usage, but which are here frequently and trenchantly put into play.

First is the simple-seeming word expérience. A good deal of the time it serves the same purposes and covers the same terrain as the word it looks so much like in English. The word however also means, in ordinary French, "experiment" in the scientific sense—but also (and here the reader is warned to be wary) in the literary or artistic sense, as when one speaks of an experimental novel. There are more than a few sentences in this book in which the translator has candidly had to guess which hand of the word was gesturing in the text. "The Experience of Proust" is also "Proust's Experiment." And a sentence that plausibly reads "The experience of literature is a total experience" might suddenly seem far richer a statement if read as "The literary experiment is a total experience," or "The experience of literature is utterly an experiment." To rescue my author from my own opinions (which seems decent chivalry for a translator), I have usually chosen the simplest, if perhaps least imaginative, way of handling this issue, that is, construing what seems most obvious at the moment, and alerting the reader, herewith, to the problem of the word's surprising range of meaning.
Though at times I've had considerable anxiety about translation, I am generally not one to avoid reading an author because I lack the language to read it in the original. But it remains the case that there are times when that lack becomes a potential barrier. A crucial word might have multiple possible meanings, all of which can come into play; reading is in part about balancing that play. One doesn't necessarily decide on a particular meaning while reading. And if even lovingly scrupulous translators like Charlotte Mandell are nonetheless forced into deciding on a meaning, perhaps settling on the most prosaic sense for the purposes of expediency or consistency, something is undoubtedly lost, and who's to say that that something isn't the element that allows a work to live for the reader?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Careful, Painstaking, Scrupulous

Speaking of Blanchot, this paragraph, about Derrida, could as well be a good description of Blanchot:
[Derrida] is an extraordinarily precise and faithful reader. In a quite disarming way, Derrida's readings [...] can often appear to be just describing what is happening in that text. [...] It is a [...] class-room cliché to say that Derrida is 'difficult'. But we could also see this the other way round. Always remarkably careful, painstaking and scrupulous in his readings, he offers superb expositions and elucidations of philosophical and other texts that are themselves 'difficult'. Would anyone want to pretend that reading Plato or Shakespeare or Freud is 'easy'? Derrida helps us read and make sense of the great, and less great, texts of western history.
This is from an excerpt from Nicholas Royle's Jacques Derrida posted recently by Rhys Tranter at A Piece of Monologue (thus some of the excisions are Rhys', some mine). I was taken by this, not because I have much investment in Derrida, who in fact I've never read, but because it strikes me as helpful in thinking about Blanchot, as I suggest above, and who is said anyway to have been a major influence on Derrida.

I've written several times about the difficulty I've had with reading Blanchot, for make no mistake, Blanchot is difficult, reading him requires patience, "a patience one can gain only through reading Blanchot again and again". Indeed, so far, much of my blogging about Blanchot's criticism has been writing about this difficulty rather than engaging and responding to the actual essays themselves. Sometimes, I am sure, it comes off as so much whining. And my attempts at a more careful writing in response to his essays, as with my posts on The Space of Literature, have been difficult to sustain. But why bother reading if it's so difficult? I, for one, persist in part because of the openings that I find myself wandering into after I've worked my way through the apparent opacity. And there are those moments of great lucidity. But what's so difficult, after all? Well, describing an experience, any experience, is difficult. Why do we feel tempted to write about how we identify with characters, about the ideas, as abstracted from the experience, about various things external to the text? It's not that those things are irrelevant, but is it not in part because we find it hard to articulate what the reading experience is like? I've also argued that, in English, we perhaps lack certain necessary expressions, for all our emphasis on utility and pragmatism, we too often lack precision. A reader like Blanchot, and perhaps like Derrida, is willing to patiently go where the text takes him, and then as a writer to faithfully explore what has happened in the reading. This is almost the opposite of "getting to the point", as if a literary experience could be simply reduced to a single point.

"At last I understand Kafka"

Since the beginning of this blog, I've been ostentatiously listing on the sidebar the books I've read in the current year, which I then convert into a mammoth end of year round-up of sorts. I don't really know why I do this, other than I enjoy lists and like keeping track of my reading. Regardless, there is a tension even in such a simple exercise as this. If I've read a book, do I claim to have read it well? Or to have understood it? Some weeks ago, I added Blanchot's Friendship to the list; given my admitted struggles with Blanchot's writing, how did I do with this particular book? I confess that I was unable to get much of anything out of some of the essays, whereas others I found myself able to read and profit from. I don't pretend to have a full grasp of all of Blanchot's major themes, but the best of the essays are remarkably supple and subtle pieces that I hope to return to again and again.

This reminds me of a passage from William H. Gass' marvelous introduction to William Gaddis' imposing novel, The Recognitions. It is one of the great introductions, and I've read it several times. Here is Gass:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation—indeed, any explanation—would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its designs—useful as sometimes such helps are—nevertheless very seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. "Okay, I get it," we say, dusting our hands, "and that takes care of that." "At last I understand Kafka" is a foolish and conceited remark.
(Keeping with the theme of this post, yes, I have "read" the novel, too, some ten years ago, though I was under no illusion at the time that I was equal to the task; a second reading, in the context of the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time Gaddis Drinking Club group blog, was aborted about halfway through (and my only two posts at the blog weren't even about the reading itself but about introductory material). Ours was not the only well-intentioned but short-lived group blog devoted to reading The Recognitions; there was also Reading Gaddis from last year, and no doubt there are others. The book seems to inspire such projects. Lately the gang at An und für sich have themselves embarked on what looks like a fruitful group reading, which isn't too surprising given that blog's particular focus on theology and philosophy; the relevant posts are collected here.)

On modernization and its discontents

In one of my early posts engaging with Josipovici's On Trust, I opened with this passage, which actually is from his equally excellent study, The Book of God:
. . . once Luther stood up and asserted the need to speak the truth as he saw it and not pay lip-service to tradition, things could never be quite the same again. We tend to see Luther's break with the medieval church, like Spinoza's with Jewish tradition, as the triumph of light and integrity over the forces of obscurantism and hypocrisy; but this is to see it from their own point of view. It is important, however, to grasp what gets lost as well as what is won in such revolutions. . .
I'm interested here in this question of point of view. Because not only is it their own point of view, Luther's and Spinoza's, it is in fact our point of view. We have adopted wholesale this point of view; it would have been difficult for us not to have. Not only do we experience capitalism as natural—it's the air we breathe—but we experience progress as natural, technological progress in particular. We simply expect it to happen, as if it were causeless (though we may chalk it up unthinkingly to "innovation" or "human ingenuity", each only made possible by that natural market).

I find, in my intermittent attempts to take on Marx, that I am vastly more interested in his analysis of capital than I am his theories of history. The teleological view that history has certain necessary stages strikes me as deeply problematic, though not uniquely so. Marx and his successors were working within a widely shared set of beliefs, a set of beliefs that took such progress as both necessary and good. They have done great work to unpack the complicated workings of capital so that it can be seen to be historically contingent, but I'm less persuaded by the historical project itself.

But why am I talking about Marx here? I'm not sure I have, just yet, a satisfactory answer. I look on the history of modernization with unease and from a historically privileged standpoint. I want to ask questions about the overall justification of that modernization. We hold onto its inevitability and necessity as a matters of faith. We are conditioned to tacitly accept, if we don't always come right out and say it explicitly, Marx's characterization of the "idiocy of rural life". Modernization is seen as necessary in order for freedom to truly exist, in order, indeed, for us to be in a sense truly human.

And yet, I am not automatically given to anti-modernism. I wouldn't know what to do with myself in a rural, unlinked environment. I love big cities, I like basic dentistry, I like refrigerators, ice cubes, regular electricity, running water, rock music and jazz, movies, the telephone, email, etc and so on and on. I have a hard time conceiving of myself living in a different time, so used to the amenities of modern life am I. But with the real possibility of drastic climatic change as a result of global warming, such modern life may not be sustainable for long. And that's not the only reason to question the very lives we lead—that is, questions arise in the area of viability, yes, but also justification, moral and otherwise. Our lives, as we live them, are only possible as a function of massive global inequality and widespread privation, both of which appear to be necessary outputs of the capitalist system. We cannot all be modernized, even without the spectre of global warming. And, of course, now, as ever, there are those resisting attempts at modernization, just as their counterparts resist, as they always have, the wholesale theft necessary to keep the system running. Marx called this process "primitive accumulation"—the capital accumulation that was necessary for a capitalist system to get going in the first place. Capitalists needed to have stolen a whole bunch of shit in order to amass piles big enough to get the ball rolling. It was Rosa Luxembourg, I believe, who observed that this process must be ongoing—capital must continue to look "outside" itself to get what it needs—and feminist critics of Marx, for example Silvia Federici (I've just read her excellent Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, which has much bearing on these matters), have observed further that this process of accumulation amounts to a war against women.

This is not the first time I've touched on these topics, but I hope it will be the beginning of a more extended and fruitful exploration of the problems.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

On bodies and capitalism

A few weeks ago, Shelley at Read Red had an interesting post about Bodies by Susie Orbach. She has mixed feelings about the book, some of her criticisms having to do with the absence of class analysis by Orbach, or any attention to the role of agribusiness. Here is Shelley:
[Orbach] is not oblivious to the economic system and writes a good deal about how various corporations and industries are profiting from body-related commerce. But she fails to say anything explicit about what's really going on here--that it's the capitalist market, the global capitalist market, that gives rise to all these horrific, ever-increasing profit-taking assaults on bodies, women's especially. It's the elephant--and that's a damned big body!--in the room of Bodies. Everything she writes about is a creation of capitalism, yet she declines to name capitalism as the problem or any kind of mass struggle as the solution.
In her defense of fat women against groups like Weight Watchers, for the false promises and for its reliance on the consistent weight fluctuation characteristic of long-term dieters, Orbach "cites some studies showing that you can be fit and 'overweight,'", which Shelley says is "a welcome corrective to the nasty, ignorant stereotypes of lazy fat people." Shelley shares a little about her own experience trying to lose weight, through Weight Watchers, while being conscious of some of the many contradictions involved. For her, she says, it's not so much about image as about how she feels inside her own body. The book, she says, has
many worthwhile points here, having to do with the commodification of bodies under late capitalism (my characterization, not hers), women's bodies especially but more and more men's as well; with the terrible destructive effects of the fashion, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; with the alienation, the estrangement, from their bodies that is the experience of so many women as well as, again of late, men; and more. Orbach is in some ways quite astute about what's going on here. She incorporates recent findings in neuroscience, economic and social statistics, as well as psychoanalytic insights.
I think that all of this is very important stuff. Shelley's post reminded me of this slideshow I saw a couple of months back at Shapely Prose ("home of the mordantly obese" is the site's tagline) which shows pretty well the ridiculousness of the Body Mass Index standards. From there, I spent some time reading through the blog's archives. I found it very instructive, but at times I admit I was puzzled. The site is one of many "fat acceptance" blogs (the fatosphere). My puzzlement was primarily at the far reaches of this acceptance. That is, I think there's a difference between body acceptance, which I believe is important, and simply accepting without question poor diets, poor food choices, and excessively sedentary lifestyles, all of which we do not have complete control over--which I imagine is part of the point of the acceptance movement; so often fat people, as well as poor people, are attacked as if they only needed to make better decisions and they wouldn't be in their current position, as if our lifestyle choices are not substantially conditioned by exposure to mass media, and more generally by the larger problem of living in an unhealthy capitalist society. I had some questions, but I'm generally reluctant to begin commenting at a blog that's new to me, particularly if I'm about to ask a common question--surely such points are already addressed somewhere on this very site, right? And I especially despise the stereotypical male commenter who swoops in to tell it like it is, as if the bloggers and regular readership have never heard of dominant arguments. Masculine argumentation I can do without. So, I don't want to be that guy. Happily, many feminist blogs, of necessity we can be sure, have commenting rules and guidelines, and even FAQ sections. The excellent well-known blog I Blame the Patriarchy, for example. Anyway, if you're curious about these matters, I recommend taking a look at the Shapely Prose blog, if you don't already. For starters, here is the link to their FAQ section, which provides many links to interesting topics, such as Health at Every Size and The Fantasy of Being Thin.

On generic masculine language

Returning to Freud for a moment, one thing that stands out from his writing is the sexist language; e.g., "according to them, man is wholly good", and so on. This isn't surprising. He was writing in 1929, and everyone wrote like this. It was always "man", always "he" or "his", etc. Though I've always avoided this myself, my take on it used to be that it was primarily a quirk of the language, and I admit that I felt that people often read too much into it (I believe the sexist language I'm sure I used, if only to myself, was that people overreacted). In certain instances, perhaps I wasn't wrong. It might not be worth getting too upset about the generic "he" in a lot of older writing (not that it's up to me to decide, which is why I've never much argued the point). But I guess it depends on what the writing is about. In Freud, as in Nietzsche, it's the inquiry into origins and the bold claims about human nature that drives the point home, finally, so that I can see it better. Perhaps it helps that I come to their writings late, already believing in a female-centered view of human cultural development, and already interested in exploring what has been left out of the dominant historical narratives (namely, women). For not only do they use the masculine generic pronouns, not only does "man" stand in for "human", but in the context of these claims, we are told about the actions of men, who among other things have wives and, possibly, mothers. Wives and mothers who apparently have little agency of their own. They are certainly not interesting, except insofar as they can be seen to have had effects, probably negative effects, on men.

I have elsewhere already criticized Freud and Nietzsche for their near-exclusive focus on men in this regard. In that post, I noted that it seems that Marx and Engels come off much better in their work on origins. And yet, they certainly do not get a free pass. In another post, I observed that a reason we're only lately getting around to some decent understanding of such areas as childhood development is because science has for so long been the province of men, and science and philosophy have privileged the adult, male standpoint. History, too. Men did things, and that was that. It is my belief that we need to focus more on women, and gender, if we hope to understand anything about how we got here, and if we hope to find better ways to live.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On Flannery O'Connor and politics and literature

Dan Green wrote this recently in a post on Flannery O'Connor:
[David E.] Anderson identifies as a flaw in O'Connor's fiction "the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement." It has always seemed bizarre to me that an "absence of attention" to this or that condition or phenomenon in a writer's work could be considered a "shortcoming," as if every writer is under the necessary burden to address every fact of life that confronted the writer in his/her time and place. O'Connor had no obligation to portray race relations or to confront issues of civil rights. Her subject lay elsewhere, in the lives of white Southerners and the effects of class and religion. If it is true that O'Connor's work is anchored in the belief that the world around her was "mired in nihilism," that view could not plausibly be embodied in stories centered on the lives of Southern blacks. They were themselves neither nihilists nor the victims of nihilism in the theological/philosophical terms with which O'Connor was concerned. They were the victims of bigotry, and this is a more mundane human evil that doesn't really get to the spiritual corruptions O'Connor was at pains to disclose. A writer should be judged by what her work does attempt, not by what it doesn't.
This leads in fairly well to some thoughts I've been having about Flannery O'Conner's fiction. I read O'Connor for the first time several months ago, in the famous story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. O'Connor had always been on my mental well-I-guess-I-should-read-it list, but I admit I'd had little enthusiasm for the idea. My interest was actually piqued by Andrew Seal's somewhat ambivalent post on the collection from April, and Shelley Ettinger's extremely negative post on O'Connor from March. I also thought it would be interesting to read these stories after having just read Evelyn Scott's marvelous Migrations—both writers being Southern women, with Scott largely forgotten and O'Connor widely hailed as a literary genius, the master of the short story. It turns out there's finally not much similarity between them as writers, other than the casual racism of their characters. Scott appears to have been more ambitious. O'Connor has an easier-to-read surface prose style and possibly the most negative view of human nature this side of William Golding.

Shelley was writing on the occasion of a review in The New York Times Book Review of a new biography of O'Connor. She highlighted these choice quotes from Joy Williams' review:
"She was a connoisseur of racial jokes." And: "The civil rights movement interested her not at all." And in response to "a request to stage one of her stories, she wrote, 'The only thing I would positively object to would be somebody turning one of my colored idiots into a hero.'"
Shelley goes on to explain why she couldn't stomach O'Connor's stories and to re-articulate her views on art and politics, and on form and content. Shelley is at all times clear that she is a communist and that she views literature through the lens of class struggle (in fact, I've merely re-worded her blog's tagline in saying so). I am deeply sympathetic to her perspective, but I disagree on some important points. I've made no bones about my leftism here, nor have I felt the need to isolate my political writing from my blogging about literary matters. I have in the past, however, struggled with the questions of politics and art, politics and literature in particular. In early posts (for example, this one), I claimed to hold aesthetics above all else, to oppose the didactically political, and so on. Since then I've realized that I don't really buy the separation of so-called aesthetic values from whatever else fiction (which is what really concerns me here) has to offer; that, in fact, I'm not entirely sure I know what aesthetics even could be, when so isolated. As I observed last Fall, literature is not innocent: it has definite effects in the world, many of which are broadly speaking political. I've intended to discuss these matters further, in part in response to certain calls for an explicitly leftwing, or liberatory, literature, and, with respect, I hope to use Shelley's ideas as a way to begin doing so. Though this post is not the place for a detailed investigation of her ideas, I will nonetheless need to address some of them here.

I happen to think that she's missing something on O'Connor, though I am by no means an immediate convert to that particular church. Rather I think that there's a misreading of O'Connor that may help me address some of Shelley's more general points. These are, as she puts it, "the old questions of (1) form and content, (2) the writer and the writing, (3) social responsibility and literary neutrality". The standard bourgeois critical positions on these matters being, respectively, (1) form--or aesthetics--trumps content, (2) the writer's politics are irrelevant to his or her work, and (3) literary art is properly politically neutral. I stand with Shelley in opposition to these bourgeois shibboleths but for, I think, somewhat different reasons. Or rather, our positions do not always coincide.

With respect to the first point, Shelley calls bullshit, and says that "content matters", period. I'm not going to spend much time in this post on this point, except to say that in my view form and content are not easily separable. That is, yes, content matters, but if a book can be easily reduced to a statement or message, then it's probably not worth reading. Form is a problem for the writer, it is not merely something lying about awaiting use—it is not a container for whatever "content" the writer wishes to use it to convey. I'm going to leave it at that, if only because this blog is in many respects basically about this question, when it's about writing. I've been working up to, or around, a more detailed articulation of what I mean, but that is for a different post. I will say, however, that the general view that the novel is a container for story and character is actually itself a major reason to take issue with calls for a more liberatory novel. Because what happens is the novel contains the politics within. Not only does it necessarily reach very few potential readers, as do the vast majority of books not written by Dan Brown or Stephen King, but its very containment within the standard novel mutes the politics. This is not to say that people can't and don't learn things from novels having bearing on political matters, but that the very private nature of reading, on balance, makes it difficult to translate what we glean from a good work of fiction into effective political action. They end up being political entertainments. People read the book and then move on, the messy politics kept safely between the covers.

With respect to the third point, Shelley says "there is no such thing as literary neutrality on the great social questions. There is faux neutrality, which amounts to alignment with the status quo." I agree without hesitation that there's no such thing as plain neutrality—that there's no such thing as being "apolitical", practically speaking. You might be apolitical in the sense that you do not follow politics, or vote, or any number of other things. But this is an effectively conservative position, and by conservative I here mean only "reinforcing the status quo" (and I am closer and closer to believing that voting, at least, is, in this sense, itself an inherently conservative act). But what does it mean to speak of literary neutrality? Shelley says, earlier in the post, that the question is "whose truth is being told, and what is it being told in service of? The status quo or change?" I don't think this question is irrelevant, but I think it's not quite as clear cut as she implies.

Let me return, then, to Flannery O'Connor. When she read her work, Shelley says she encountered "sympathetic portrayals of racist characters and varied but by my read mostly insensitive, one-dimensional portrayals of African Americans" and numerous uses of "the N word". She figured there must have been some sort of anti-racist point coming, but there wasn't. O'Connor's work, she suggests, "with skill and art, subverts fiction's promise, fiction's potential, fiction's hope, and delivers instead a portfolio for the power of words as bulwark against progress." Something like "the thinking person's Margaret Mitchell." Well, I admit that sounds pretty horrible! However, I think it unfortunate that Shelley did not continue to read; it would have been interesting to know what she thought of she'd read further. One observation: every use of the word "nigger" is by a character, not by the narrator, who always uses "Negro". Another: the characters in most of the stories are poor whites, though some are not. They are unquestionably bigoted in the most casual, unthinking way. But, though these people are indeed sketched with some sympathy, it's also true that most of them are fools or even idiots, not to mention often doomed. (Andrew is much less charitable on this score; he says "no character is ever smarter than they need to be".)

The difference between O'Connor and Margaret Mitchell is vast, and not just in the area of literary ability. Gone With the Wind is an actual fictional apologia for the Old South; it effectively mourns for a lost way of life (I am admittedly basing this mostly on the movie, which, unaccountably, I have seen several times—I enjoy the melodrama, what can I say; for what it's worth, as I learned from this piece by Carolyn Porter on Mitchell and Faulkner, which appears in A New Literary History of America, apparently Mitchell thought she was being critical of the South and expected attacks from the South for her depictions, which is quite the opposite of what happened). It is deeply reactionary. O'Connor's stories are nothing like this. For one thing, they take place in what was for O'Connor the present day, that is, the mid-20th century. For another, there is no editorializing by the narrator in favor of, say, Jim Crow, or racial bigotry. O'Connor may personally not have been interested in the Civil Rights Movement, but her fiction does not overtly argue against the aims of that movement. One may then argue that this is not enough, and one may further argue, as Shelley does in the explication of her second point, that the writer's politics will come through in the text, whether the work is overtly political or not. Possibly. In fact, I think to some extent Shelley is correct on this point. However, I would suggest that literature is more ambiguous than that. To shamelessly recycle a sentence from a comment I made to Dan's post: I think a great writer, however unpleasant in real life, will see things in his or her art that they might not cotton to outside of it. I think this was often true of Flannery O'Connor. And, I would argue further that by realistically depicting the lives and views of Southern whites during the Jim Crow period O'Connor at least enables us to learn something of value about such people.

I would like finish up by briefly considering one story in particular, "The Artificial Nigger". Right off, of course, the title seems unfortunate. In this story, Mr. Head and his young grandson Nelson take a trip into the city of Atlanta, where Nelson had been born but never revisited. Mr. Head wants to cure Nelson of any desire to ever go into the city again. He tries to scare Nelson ahead of time by telling him that the city is "full of niggers". Nelson shrugs. He's never seen a black person, and he's not worried. On the train they encounter three black people, a man and two women. Mr. Head gawks at them and asks Nelson if he saw who he saw. Nelson reports that he saw a man, a fat man, what else does his grandfather want? He doesn't know enough to recognize these people as "niggers" ("you said they were black", he complains; "How do you expect me to know anything when you don't tell me right?"). Mr. Head feels he's scored a point. When they get to the city, Mr. Head tries to avoid actually showing Nelson anything of interest; he walks them in circles. When Nelson picks up on it, they change course and promptly get very lost. Before long they find themselves in a black part of town. After much blaming and bickering back and forth, Nelson finally asks a black woman for help (he "was afraid of the colored men and didn't want to be laughed at by the colored children"):
Nelson stopped. He felt his breath drawn up by the woman's dark eyes. "How do you get back to town?" he said in a voice that did not sound like his own.

After a minute she said, "You in town now," in a rich low tone that made Nelson feel as if a cool spray had been turned on him.

"How do you get back to the train?" he said in the same reed-like voice.

"You can catch you a car," she said.

He understood she was making fun of him but he was too paralyzed even to scowl. He stood drinking in every detail of her. His eyes traveled up from her great knees to her forehead and then made a triangular path from the glistening sweat on her neck down and across her tremendous bosom and over her bare arm back to where her fingers lay hidden in her hair. He suddenly wanted her to reach down and pick him up and draw him against her and then he wanted to feel her breath on his face. He wanted to look down and down into her eyes while she held him tighter and tighter. He had never had such a feeling before. He felt as if he were reeling down through a pitchblack tunnel.

"You can go a block down yonder and catch you a car take you to the railroad station, Sugarpie," she said.

Nelson would have collapsed at her feet if Mr. Head had not pulled him roughly away. "You act like you don't have any sense!" the old man growled.

They hurried down the street and Nelson did not look back at the woman. He pushed his hat sharply forward over his face which was already burning with shame. The sneering ghost he had seen in the train window and all the foreboding feelings he had on the way returned to him and he remembered that his ticket from the scale had said to beware of dark women and that his grandfather's had said he was upright and brave. He took hold of the old man's hand, a sign of dependence that he seldom showed.
After a bit, following the tracks and finally, to their relief, back in a white part of town, Nelson decides to rest and falls asleep. To teach him a lesson about "impudence", Mr. Head hides so the boy will wake up alone. When he feels Nelson's slept too long, he bangs a trash can lid, causing Nelson to jump up and, not seeing his grandfather, run. Mr. Head runs after him; when he finally catches up, he sees that Nelson has run into a women, who is screaming that she has a broken ankle. At first, Mr. Head hides himself before finally coming forward; Nelson throws himself around his grandfather and clings to him. By now a crowd has assembled, and, with a police officer approaching, the woman accuses and shouts "Your boy has broken my ankle!":
"This is not my boy," he said. "I never seen him before."

He felt Nelson's fingers fall out of his flesh.
As they continue walking, Nelson keeps well behind his grandfather, refusing to have anything to do with him, refusing water, "his mind had frozen around his grandfather's treachery as if he were trying to preserve it intact to present at the final judgment." Mr. Head is appalled at the depth of his sin: "He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without light and what man would be like without salvation." He is saved when he spies a lawn ornament in the form of a black person, the "artificial nigger" of the title, which phrase he says, and the boy repeats. They both stare at the thing. Mr. Head looks at Nelson and sees "a hungry need for [...] assurance", a need for "him to explain once and for all the mystery of existence." He says: "They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one." And Nelson is, pathetically, back in the fold.

I've quoted excessively from this story in a desire to give a flavor of the flow, to allow for some small appreciation for the reading experience, also because I'm uncharacteristically focusing here on what the story might be seen to be saying about racism. Because it seems to me that if one wanted to read this story only for a reductive message, the message would have to be that bigotry is fear-based and irrational and frankly stupid. And consider that, for all his obvious flaws, and for all their incessant bickering, Mr. Head is all Nelson has in the world. When he is betrayed, he can't help but feel lost. He needs to forgive his grandfather. In finally doing so, he necessarily, though his own brief encounter with the woman who gave him directions seems to conflict with what he'd always been told about black people, re-enemizes them. Though it's possible he'll remember his experience as a counterweight to his grandfather's ignorance, it seems more likely that that ignorance will instead continue to be passed on through him. In such ways, the story could be saying, is the racism of poor whites reinforced and maintained.

"As usual, I wish to observe..."

Speaking of Freud, as I was below, I was looking at the author forewards to the three Nabokov books I picked up in last week's library sale (about which, decent bounty, but: utter pandemonium) and was delighted to find our man upholding certain expectations, as noted in my little tweak of him in my recent post on Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year.

Here's a passage from the foreward to King, Queen, Knave:
As usual, I wish to observe, as usual (and as usual several sensitive people I like will look huffy), the Viennese delegation has not been invited. If, however, a resolute Freudian manages to slip in, he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there in the novel.
And The Eye:
As is well known (to employ a famous Russian phrase), my books are not only blessed by a total lack of significance, but are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach with itching oviducts, stop, sniff, and recoil.
And Nabokov's Quartet:
Kafka and Kafkaesque shall not be dragged in by the student in connection with "The Visit to the Museum," and as usual Freudians should keep out.
The two novels originally appeared in Russian, as did "The Visit to the Museum"; that is, he was, again, framing these works for the (apparently quite dim) American reader of the 1960s. Just for kicks, then, indulge me as I belabor the point by reproducing certain often amusing passages from Nabokov's forewards to his other Russian novels (other than Mary and Laughter in the Dark, which are now the only Russian ones I lack a copies of; while Bend Sinister is the only novel originally written in English that I'm missing, and haven't yet read, not counting the abomination that is the recent posthumous publication of The Original of Laura). Ok, to the novels.

The Defense:
In the Prefaces I have been writing of late for the English-language editions of my Russian novels [...] I have made it a rule to address a few words of encouragement to the Viennese delegation. The present Foreward shall not be an exception. Analysts and analyzed will enjoy, I hope, certain details of the treatment Luzhin is subjected to after his breakdown (such is the curative insinuation that a chess player see Mom in his Queen and Pop in his opponent's King), and the little Freudian who mistakes a Pixlok set for the key to a novel will no doubt continue continue to identify my characters with his comic-book notion of my parents, sweethearts and serial selves. For the benefit of such sleuths I may as well confess that I gave Luzhin my French governess, my pocket chess set, my sweet temper, and the stone of the peach I plucked in my own walled garden.
Nowadays, when Freudism is discredited, the author recalls with a whistle of wonder that not so long ago--say before 1959 (i.e., before the publication of the first of the seven forewards to his Englished novels)--a child's personality was supposed to split automatically in sympathetic consequence of parental divorce. His parents' separation has no such effect on Martin's mind, and only a desperate saphead in the throes of a nightmare examination may be excused for connecting Martin's plunge into his fatherland with his having been deprived of his father. No less reckless would it be to point out, with womby wonder, that the girl Martin loves and his mother bear the same name.
Despair (which I believe was more drastically revised than the others, to the point of being almost a different novel entirely):
. . .in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it show humanity the right exit. It contains far fewer "ideas" than do those rich vulgar novels that are acclaimed so hysterically in the short echo-walk between the ballyhoo and the hoot. The attractively shaped object or Wiener-schnitzel dream that the eager Freudian may think he distinguishes in the remoteness of my wastes will turn out to be on closer inspection a derisive mirage organized by my agents. Let me add, just in case, that experts on literary "schools" should wisely refrain this time from casually dragging in "the influence of German Impressionists": I do not know German, have never read the Impressionists--whoever they are. On the other hand, I do know French and shall be interested to see if anyone calls my Hermann "the father of existentialism."
Invitation to a Beheading:
. . . is a violin in a void. The worldling will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures. No clubwoman will thrill. The evil-minded will perceive in little Emmie a sister of Lolita, and the disciples of the Viennese witch-doctor will snigger over it in their grotesque world of communal guilt and progresivnoe education.
Only, alas, in his foreward to The Gift, his longest, and last, novel written in Russian, does Nabokov manage to refrain from poking at Freud or Freudians, nor any other figure, though he does take the time to steer the reader away from the crime of identifying the author with the main character in the book ("I had been living in Berlin since 1922, thus synchronously with the young man of the book; but neither this fact, nor my sharing some of his interests, such as literature and lepidoptera, should make one say 'aha' and identify the designer with the design.").

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"My mother's a feminist"

One day in my university course on 20th Century African American history, I remember another student beginning his remarks with "My mother's a feminist..." We may have been discussing bell hooks, I can't recall. I do, however, remember something of my contribution to the discussion. I said that it seemed odd to me that he would have referred to his mother in this way. Not that it was at all strange his mother was a feminist but rather that he so clearly did not think of himself as one. In fact, I believe I said, in that vaguely condescending way I had, "it seems to me that we should all be feminists". In a sense this remark reflected the naivete I had at the time towards progress and social justice. I've mentioned this before, but to recap: Just as I believed each generation would necessarily be less racist than the one before it, so I earnestly believed each generation would be less sexist, less misogynist, less homophobic than the one before it. It simply didn't occur to me that people in general saw things differently. As such, feminism, in my conception, was simply the way I looked at the world. And yet it’s not as if I knew anything about it. I hadn’t read anything by feminists. In fact, I don’t think it occurred to me that feminism was in any way theoretical; that is, it didn’t occur to me that I needed to read much feminist thought (though I did try and fail to register for a Woman’s Studies course: not enough prereqs). You either believed women and men were politically, legally, morally equal, or you didn't, and I had a hard time believing there were young people who didn’t.

What strikes me now about my classmate's words, and I think what struck me even at the time, hence my response, is that feminism was located outside of him, as something that didn't involve him. He might have believed in equality, but feminism perhaps represented something more strident, something more political, and don't feminists hate men or something? He would have been right that feminism is something more political, I've long since realized; feminism is something more political than simply believing, and even behaving as if you believe, in equality. But what is it? It's been said that feminism is the radical belief that women are human. The troubling implication of this formulation is the fact that women have been all too often treated as something less than human, as something other.

My point of this rambling is to articulate a political position. I have no desire to define feminism here, not least because I am a man and it's not my business to do so. I know there are many strands of feminist thought, and I know that there's no reason why I should have to be on board with them all. But I firmly believe that feminism is about all of us and that gender issues, and the basic problems facing most women, should be at the center of any liberatory politics—questions of reproduction and reproductive rights and childcare chief among them. That is, any viable politics must be radically feminist, and as such must be centrally concerned with the actual lives of women, the actual problems faced by most women. I mention reproductive rights and childcare, not because everyone should be parents or have children, but because most people do have children; it's a basic experience for people and we treat it like it's a merely a matter of someone else's personal choice and personal health, a problem getting in the way of productivity. I believe that women, far beyond the individual "right to choose" of abortion politics (which right, anyway, I also completely support), must collectively have control over reproduction. I'm not going to try to spell out what this might mean in practice in this post, except to note that such a program is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism, and the implications would be far-reaching, positively affecting men as well as women, those completely uninterested in having children as well as parents. For me, then, a radically feminist politics is a class politics is an anti-capitalist politics. Consider this just another beginning in my exploration of these issues.

No One Says This

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes the following:
The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbor; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men. Since everyone’s needs would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another as his enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary. I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communist system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous. But I am able to recognize that the psychological premisses on which the system is based are an untenable illusion.
What follows is the typical stuff about man's love of aggressiveness and vague assertions about origins ("Aggressiveness was not created by property. It reigned almost without limit in primitive times..." etc.) With regard to the excerpt, in particular the phrases I've italicized, I have scribbled in the margins of my copy, no one says this (I scribble in italics). The temptation is strong to make allowances for the time in which Freud was writing (1929), as it is to write at length admitting that I haven't read everything that everyone has ever written about capitalism and private property and plans for a better world. But this passage simply made me mad. No one thinks that conflict will disappear if capitalism is overturned. No one thinks that people are "wholly good". Now, I imagine there have existed people who have believed something like what he says, that the removal of the regime of private ownership of capital and the elimination of capitalism will result in paradise on earth and a life free of conflict. I imagine such people exist, but I have never heard of one or seen any writings by one. What we have here is little more than propaganda (which isn't to say Freud didn't believe it), which has the effect of making people believe that communists or anarchists or frankly anyone opposed to capitalism are utopian fantasists, mere dreamers, are fundamentally and necessarily unrealistic. It is part of the time-honored practice of discrediting opposition and keeping people in place.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Modernism against Modernity

This is from an interview with Aleksandar Hemon at Paper Cuts (link via BLCKDGRD), about the new collection of European fiction he has edited for the Dalkey Archive:
Q. What was the biggest surprise for you, editing the collection?

A. It was less of a surprise than a reminder: how unabashedly comfortable many of the writers are to engage with literary forms that would be perceived as experimental or avant-garde here. In turn, I was reminded how deeply conservative contemporary American literature is in terms of form. And that conservative bent is a recent development, I believe. The European form flexibility is not a consequence of some snotty, elitist aesthetic but rather of the fact that there are many stories to be told and many traditions to draw from.
I've gotten the same sense through my much more limited experience with European writers. No doubt there is much crap that is thankfully not translated into English, or otherwise brought to our attention, while all manner of Dan Browns and John Grishams are translated out. Even so, the difference strikes me as true enough. And it seems to me that it's no accident that it's the Anglo-American literary mainstream that so despises writers who "engage with literary forms", dismissing them or marginalizing them as "experimental" or frivolously avant-garde. Alongside Hemon's point "that there are many stories to be told and many traditions to draw from" is the huge political fact of hegemony and empire. The center doesn't need to listen to the periphery, or see it. England and the United States stand as the most pervasive, the most dominant empires of the last two centuries, even as England, since 1945, operates as a junior partner in the concern. Both cultures are highly technical, pragmatic, analytic. All is utility, power, confidence, containment.

Much can be said about the socio-political effects of literature, its lack of innocence. I took a preliminary stab last year myself. But what effect does politics--a political culture--have on literature?

As ever, Gabriel Josipovici is a helpful guide in these matters. Recently Stephen Mitchelmore forwarded to me the abridged text of the much-discussed lecture on Modernism that Josipovici gave two years ago (the text appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 2007, under the Beckettian title "Fail Again. Fail Better"). Interestingly, it was the blog discussions of this lecture that first introduced me to Josipovici's criticism (I had already read and reviewed his fine novel In a Hotel Garden) and led me to his important books, On Trust and The Book of God, yet till now I had never actually read the text of the talk. It came to me at a good time, just as I was working through some of these very issues. In the lecture, he talked about "a curious case of knowing and not knowing" that obtains in the English (and certainly American) literary world today, asking "what has happened to our culture such that serious critics and intelligent, well-read reviewers, many of whom studied the poems of Eliot, the stories of Kafka and the plays of Beckett at University, should go into ecstasies over Atonement or Suite Francaise, while ignoring the work of marvellous novelists such as Robert Pinget and Gert Hofmann?" He offers three suggestions:
The first is that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by Nazi forces during the Second World War, which was a blessing for it but has left it strangely innocent and resistant to Europe, and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States. This has turned a robust, pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one. Though there is something appealing in the resolute determination not to be taken in evinced by Larkin and Amis in the face of Modernism and Modernists [...] it soon begins to pall. Second, and related to this, ours is the first generation in which High Art and fashion have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties. When we are enjoined to buy three books for the price of two and a serious newspaper like the Independent offers its readers the chance to gatecrash a book launch of their choice with the paper's literary editor as a Christmas bonanza, we have truly arrived at the age of uncircumscribed consumerism. Finally, as Kierkegaard well understood, it is hard to keep "the wound of the negative open", and we prefer not to remember that the price of not doing so is that the wound will fester.
I could take up a lot of space investigating each part of this paragraph, and there is as always much else in the talk worth quoting and discussing, but for now I'm most interested in the implications of the first point, the different experiences of World War II. I think this can be extended to the experience of modernity itself. It is in this way that literary Modernism is quite different, I think, from the other Modernisms (e.g., architecture, agriculture, etc). Or, rather, that, again, the historical European Modernists are different from the most famous Anglo-American Modernists--the ones most famous as Modernists; I'm thinking Pound, Stein, Hemingway as examples in the latter group, versus Proust, Kafka, Beckett in the former. Triumph versus failure. Josipovici talks here and elsewhere about the "crisis of Modernism". For the European Modernist, modernity is experienced as a calamity, and why not? Two world wars will do that. Such is not the case for England, and especially the United States. Modernity is experienced by Americans especially as our time ("the American Century"), the best time. We are the New World, we are progress, triumphant. When Josipovici refers to American innocence he is obviously not ignorant of America's many wars and other crimes against humanity. What we are innocent of, however, is invasion, of struggle, of suffering, in the grand sense--which is not to say that there are not wide swaths of Americans who struggle and suffer. But that is the periphery within the dominant culture; the overriding themes are success, happiness, positive thinking, moving forward. (Failure is our own damn fault.) We don't experience bombings, we inflict them, at a distance (with good intentions, by golly). And we get things done, we are practical, technical, tell us like it is, dammit. American writers are generally a liberal lot, even when politically conservative, generally untroubled by the problems of writing--that is untroubled by the question of whether to write, unless the question has to do with practical concerns, such as whether it pays, not so much whether the act is warranted--we need to express ourselves, have the right to be published, or so it seems, and books and stories proliferate. It might be argued that it's a good thing to hear so many voices, and I'd agree, if it weren't for the containment of these voices in the same old thing, voices trapped as they try to learn the "right" way to hone the craft which is not a craft.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Get Over It

Lately I've been re-reading some of Lorrie Moore's stories, from both Self-Help and Birds of America, especially Self-Help. I'd been meaning to do so even before learning that she had a new novel out (A Gate at the Stairs), but certainly its appearance moved the stories a little higher on my pile. Then I read this post from Paul Dorell at flyover about the novel and its reception. The post has more to do with Moore's depiction of the American Midwest ("flyover country") in the book, but I'm more interested here in the short comment thread that followed. One reader referred to an allegedly "strong undercurrent of Misandry in her stories", which was supposedly exemplary of the "male-bashing cant [that] became a kind of popular de rigueur" in recent decades. I replied that "no such undercurrent exists". Dorell took the reader's side, saying that in Moore's work "the men are often implicitly responsible for the relative unhappiness of the women" and "tend to be ciphers whose main significance is their bringing of grief to the women", and that Moore has "virtually nothing to say about how [a functional adult relationship between a man and a woman] is possible or worthwhile".

Well, two things occurred to me when I read these words. First, the characterization bore little resemblance to my memory of Moore's stories. Therefore, I thought to myself, I will read them again. Second, and much more important, who fucking cares? That is, since when is it Lorrie Moore's responsibility to write about "functional adult relationships"? More to the point, it is not her job, nor any other woman's job, to make men feel better about themselves, nor is it the writer's job to objectively depict all sides of every one's reality, as if that were even possible. But, for many women--I'd go so far as to say most--it is in fact men who are primarily responsible for bringing grief and misery into their lives. Writing from such a perspective--the perspective of a woman's actual experience--is not automatically "anti-male" or what-the-fuck-ever.

Having now read many of the stories again, I am not in the least surprised to find absolutely nothing to support the kind of hyper-sensitive reading I am responding to. Naturally, I needn't have bothered. For I returned to flyover, looking for the link provided above, and I see Dorell's final comment, responding to me. Apparently Lorrie Moore's recent stories are "more male-neutral" (thank God for that!) but "some of her earliest writing seems to seethe with the the sort [of] anti-male feminism that was the hallmark of her generation of women who are now in their early fifties to mid-sixties". Thankfully, he says, we are now in a "post-feminist world". Golly.

No. It takes a certain kind of man to make such a remark. Basically, if you're capable of making a blanket statement about "anti-male feminism" then you have been missing the point on a massive scale for years. Frankly, men in general are lucky that most feminists are nothing like "anti-male". They'd certainly deserve it if they were. Look, men are in no position to criticize women on this score. It doesn't mean that every woman is always right or that every man is always wrong, but the experience of women means something. It matters! If the preponderance of women report that things are a certain way, then it would behoove men to fucking listen. And when it comes to fiction? Though I don't think Lorrie Moore's stories can in any way be characterized as "anti-man", if it so happened that they could be, my position is that men need to get over it.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The writer's true problem: Everything Passes

Over the Summer I was asked to contribute to a symposium on Gabriel Josipovici's novel Everything Passes and its relation to contemporary English-language literary fiction (a relation of distance). For various reasons the symposium never happened, so I'm posting my short essay below. It should be read with this context in mind. For another view, please see Stephen Mitchelmore's contribution at This Space.

How is Everything Passes different? It looks and feels almost like a poetry chapbook. It's very short--a mere 60 pages--and the writing is sparse; there is much repetition and lots of white space. Events are barely narrated, with specific details, images, sounds, repeated. A man standing at a window. Footsteps, snatches of conversation. What's going on? Slowly a narrative of sorts can be pieced together, but we can never be quite sure of it; it remains just around the corner (perhaps on the next page? but no). The writing is suggestive, not journalistic; the events are elusive, just briefly coming into focus. The repetition has the effect of slowing the reading, a necessary slowing-down, for it would be very easy to speed through this book, missing much.

Then, all of a sudden we're reading casual literary criticism about Rabelais. The text speeds up with the speaker's excitement in the topic. What's all this about? What does the noisy, ribald, bursting-at-the-seams Rabelais have to do with this quiet, restrained narrative? The man standing at the window is a writer and a critic, a teacher perhaps, a mentor certainly. His ideas are the sorts of ideas one would find in Josipovici's own criticism. It is this literary criticism, enjoyable and thrilling on its own terms, that I think is the key to this book. What is he saying?
--Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther is the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he said, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.
He wants to "tell people about [Rabelais's] modernity. About what he means or should mean to all of us, now." He wants "to make our culture aware of what he sensed and how he responded to the crisis of his time, which is also the crisis of our time." He wants to "clear the ground for a genuine renewal of fiction writing in our day." Rabelais is also "the first author in history to find the idea of authority ridiculous." And yet, in the speaker's personal life, the glimpses we get are of one who insists on his own authority. This irony is perhaps the tragedy of his life; some of that which he insists on in art he cannot live. Though, consistent with his thesis, he is not forthcoming about what he himself needs or wants.

In Everything Passes, there is little "fine writing", though it is obvious that words have been chosen with care. What is the difference? What so often passes for literary fiction is very story-driven, even plot-driven, for all the periodic complaints from some about the alleged plotlessness of literary books. As such, the finely wrought sentences in such books end up being merely journalism, albeit journalism about fictional characters (or fictionalized people). The form of the novel is taken for granted (though different historical examples may be recombined as the author so chooses) as if the novel was simply there to be filled up with whatever story the author wants, as if this were a perfectly justified endeavor. In Everything Passes, the form is consistent with its content, with whatever it is there to say. The invocation of Rabelais (and, by extension, the lineage of writers including Cervantes and Sterne) is to a purpose. And since Everything Passes itself seems to look nothing like those rollicking books of the past, the connection must be much deeper. It has to do with what the writer can do, what the writer ought to do, now that he or she cannot know who will read. When he says that the writer "had gained the world and lost [his or her] audience"--this is not a facile statement implying simply that the audience is irrelevant (it does not refer to audience expectations, as built up by centuries of writers ignoring this problem), and that therefore anything goes, the writer can do whatever he or she wants. It means the writer no longer has any natural audience, though in theory anyone could be reading. And yet the need for the writer to be responsible remains. This is part of the writer's true problem. Everything Passes is both in part about this problem, and an example of one writer's solution to it.