Thursday, July 26, 2007

Unnecessary Secrecy

Lenin, in a post on the vague kinds of information the public receives with respect to risk:
A ubiquitous public understanding of risks and how to handle them is fatal to power, because the sources of these risks are quite commonly embedded in our social structure. In the United States, for example, an exercise called Dark Winter was run in June 2001 by the John Hopkins Centre for Civilian Biodefense. It involved several senior national politicians and former security and intelligence directors. Its findings were perfectly predictable: one was that the political leadership was fairly clueless about how to handle such things as bioattacks; another was that America's healthcare system didn't have the capacity to deal with such eventualities; another was that the response of ordinary people would be key. The latter is very often the case: the response of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 was in some ways a model in disaster-prevention - they stopped the attackers from finding a much better target than a field in Pennsylvania by collectively discussing the situation and then acting decisively. But the broader point is that to understand the risks we live with is not merely to have a handle on the failings of a particular administration. It is to strip away the mostly unnecessary secrecy of official deliberations and planning. This would render us both more effective at dealing with problems and less susceptible to scaremongering. It is also to understand properly the nature of the social world that we are reproducing (and may choose to stop reproducing at some point).

Friday, July 20, 2007

Stories Interrupted

Steve Mitchelmore highlights, with furrowed brow, two blogland reactions to the prospect of J. M. Coetzee's upcoming book, Diary of a Bad Year. The description of the book at Coetzee's agent's site begins like this:
An eminent, seventy-two-year-old Australian writer is invited to contribute to a book entitled "Strong Opinions". It is a chance to air some urgent concerns. He writes short essays on the origins of the state, on Machiavelli, on anarchism, on al Qaida, on intelligent design, on music.
Scott Esposito is "a little concerned that it's a book about a writer writing a book" and that "Coetzee's metafiction hasn't thrilled" him, whereas The Literary Saloon is "not entirely sure about the turn the book is described as taking". Steve, on the other hand, "experiences a frisson at the prospect of book about a writer by such a fine writer as Coetzee?" I do too. And I wonder why so many readers are so put off by "writers writing about writing". Is it just the topic itself? Does it seem inherently too self-conscious? Are we ultimately impatient with even our finest writers that they just get on with the business of telling us a story? Why has Coetzee gotten so derailed from his gift of writing challenging novels?

I've defended Coetzee's recent books before, here and at Scott's (as well as more recently at The Literate Kitten). I liked both Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man; I don't think of Elizabeth Costello as "metafiction", whereas Slow Man unquestionably is. (Steve also points out that Strong Opinions happens--by pure coincidence, no doubt--to be the title of a collection of "non-fiction miscellany" by Nabokov.)

Instead of worrying about metafiction, maybe we should be asking why Coetzee is doing this kind of thing now. With Slow Man, we have what appears to be a "conventional", old-style Coetzee sort of story (man has accident, spends time recuperating, broods, becomes attracted to Croation nurse), interrupted by the appearance of Costello, claiming to be the author. A lot of readers were annoyed that the story was thus interrupted. But, as I said over at Scott's, "surely that story has no purpose without her showing up. I mean, it's not like there was some story out there he ought to have been telling that he ruined by bringing her in. He begins to tell that story for the express purpose of bringing her in. Why does he do this? Why is he making these choices?" I like what Waggish had to say about it:
Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel--this postcolonial narrative--self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul's reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello's presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.
I've not read Foe (or, well, Heidegger), but it's interesting that Waggish sees Slow Man as essentially calling into question the symbolic and allegorical aspects of Coetzee's earlier work--the very aspects, it appears, that readers tend to see as having been Coetzee's strengths. With Disgrace, for example, he believes that "the character's acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey". I did not feel this--I felt that it was a little to easy to think this, in fact, which is one of the reasons why I didn't think it. I felt that, if anything, the characters believed that their actions and situations were determined by history, that they in a sense deserved their fates, that perhaps their belief in this actually caused it to be true.

Regardless, I like Waggish's suggestion that Slow Man is Coetzee's "confession"; that he "seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty." I don't know if his earlier fiction conveyed "certainty", exactly, but they have been read as explicitly political, as allegorical, as neat. (James Wood, in his review of Disgrace, suggests that Coetzee's "intellectual and formal tidiness" leads the reader toward certain overly reductive interpretations: "Disgrace is so firmly plotted and shaped, so clearly blocked out, that it seems to request a kind of clarity of reading which is ultimately simplifying and harmful to the novel".) He could be reacting against the apparent certainty of his earlier books, or, if nothing else, against the tidy and reductive interpretations his novels have been subjected to. After years of his fiction being so reduced, he wrote Elizabeth Costello, a book apparently doomed to be read as merely Coetzee's opinions presented in fictional form. I wonder if he is exasperated by this, or amused.

I am increasingly interested in questions of certainty, and in authors pursuing variations, be they formal or thematic, and I think of Coetzee, in part, in those sorts of terms. In due time I will return to Disgrace and the earlier books, especially in light of the turns taken in Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. But I'm very interested to see what happens with Diary of a Bad Year. Will the "strong opinions" resemble the silliness spouted by Costello? Will they resemble Coetzee's own essays? How will Coetzee write through his scenario?

The same book over and over

I have not yet read David Markson's new book, The Last Novel. Even so, I was a little surprised to see this review at Quiet Bubble, in which Markson is said to have "licked this flavor of ice cream too many times" and The Last Novel is said to be "a retread of This Is Not A Novel, only more reticent about the narrator and less emotionally engaging". I clicked over to the review from The Reading Experience, where Dan Green admits that he "[has] to agree" with the assessment--also surprising. Well, less surprising, I guess, than strange, or unexpected. A strange thing to say about Markson and this book, an unexpected criticism to see leveled by readers open to work like Markson's. After all, Quiet Bubble doesn't say that The Last Novel is bad, or even weak. In fact, The Last Novel "is terrific if you’ve never read Markson before". As with the previous books in what Quiet Bubble calls the Markson Quartet (which I like: no doubt we can expect the collected set to be reissued in an attractive Everyman edition, just like Updike's Rabbit books or Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, right?), Markson (or Markson's proxy) is preoccupied with death--the deaths of artists, of people he's known, with his own mortality. Quiet Bubble says:
...outliving his usefulness—being outdated—is one of the primary anguishes motivating The Last Novel. [...] More here than any previous novel, Markson (excuse me, Writer) worries about getting old. Again, though, he’s done this better—in the far superior and deeply moving Vanishing Point.
Of course, I can't argue this last point, not yet. But it seems to me that, instead of simply comparing the latest one with the previous three, a better course might be to think of them as a quartet, as a collective. I prefer to think of them in the kinds of terms described by Derik Badman in his much more positive review of The Last Novel, which appeared in The Quarterly Conversation. Derik is an unabashed fan of Markson's work, but still his take on the book appeals to me. He admits that The Last Novel "will be familiar" to readers who have read the previous three, but that "it is not worn of pleasures and novelty. Markson is not working from a cookie cutter; rather his four most recent works display a planned and well-executed set of variations". He quotes from the book, on exactly this topic:

Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.

Like their grandly perspicacious uncles--who groused that Monet had done those damnable water lilies nine dozen times already also.

I think it's impressive that Markson has made it four books into "writing in his own personal genre, as it were" before there have been grumblings that he is repeating himself (though I suppose the quoted passage implies that my perception of a lack of such grumblings is not correct). We expect writers, somehow, to always be doing something "new". The "experimental" writer, especially, must always be innovating. But how can a writer always be innovating? Always be shaking up the form he or she uses? Markson, it seems to me, has hit upon a form that is his own, and he has written in it, and continued to write in it, because it is of aesthetic interest to him.

I'm reminded of the jazz musician who blazed a trail in the 1960s and has explored what was then a new, exciting sound ever since, only to be accused of no longer blazing a trail in his dotage, to be found aesthetically conservtive. Even those artists who go against the grain, we all too often demand that they write as we would have them write, play as we would have them play, we who are the consumers of the off-beat, the difficult, the idiosyncratic. We demand, almost, that even they be career-conscious, that they be wary of the reception, that they not bore us through repetition. As if the artistic choices aren't theirs to make. As if the writing isn't its own reward.

Derik closes his review of The Last Novel musing on the question of variations:
This brief passage [quoted above] makes an excellent point about the novel in contrast to other forms of art. Variations and repetitions are much more frequent in painting or music than novels. While many authors take up the same themes time after time (Paul Auster is a good example of this), Markson's recent works are very similar in form and content (though as far as I can tell he does not repeat his facts). Such variations are difficult to compare from one to the next. . .
In isolation, then, The Last Novel can stand alone--as Quiet Bubble allows. But we can also read it as part of a set of variations on a theme, or as another entry in a writer's "own personal genre", or both. If, in fact, as Quiet Bubble and Dan Green both claim, this particular variation is not as strong or compelling as the previous examples, this need not mean that Markson has simply gone to the well once too often ("licked this flavor of ice cream one too many times"). Maybe it just means that it's not as good. Maybe a subsequent effort in the same vein would be better. Maybe not. Maybe such assessments are in some respects beside the point. Quiet Bubble's review ends with the suggestion that now is the time for Markson "to step back, regroup, and perhaps rediscover the pleasures of old things." It strikes me as extremely unlikely that Markson, having found his own genre, his own style, would, at his age, with his history of writing, do anything of the kind.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Becoming Human

Last year I read Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, Chris Knight's fascinating book that persuasively argues, as the book jacket puts it, that human culture "was the product of an immense social, sexual, and political revolution initiated by women". It was via this interview at Ready Steady Book that I was introduced to Knight and subsequently sought out his work (I posted about this interview before, specifically focusing on what Knight says in it about Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins). I'm glad I did: Blood Relations has become probably the best, most exciting science book I've read. I didn't write about it at the time because I didn't want to misrepresent it. He covers a lot of territory, and an overly simplistic summary seemed all too likely. But I am moved to bring it up today through an unexpected convergence in my mind of a couple of other books I'm reading.

First, a brief overview of the theory detailed in Blood Relations. The basic idea is that the emergence of human culture is rooted in gender solidarity. Women, as individuals, needed to be able to take care of their offspring and also to induce men into providing food and protection, who would otherwise instead simply try to spread their seed all over the place by having sex with as many women as possible, leaving the individual women to fend for themselves. To ensure that men could not go elsewhere for sex, women needed to band together to ensure that none of them was available at certain times. This was effected through a general sex-strike, through which women collectively said "No!" to men. This, in turn, was effected through menstrual synchronization--if all women in the group were menstruating at more or less the same time, men could not simply move on to another member of the group if "his" partner was refusing him. Several chapters are devoted to a lengthy investigation into the ethnographic record, revealing that the many stories and taboos found in countless variations in 'primitive' cultures throughout the world, share several key similarities and indeed make a lot more sense when understood in the context of this theory. Blood taboos--the equation of menstrual blood with blood from killed meat. Sex taboos--against incest, against sex during a woman's period. Taboos against men eating the meat of animals they themselves have killed (and the widespread reports of guilt when they do). The use of red ochre in initiation rites and in art. Origin stories, hunting rituals, cooking rituals.

Knight was inspired by findings in sociobiology and feminist anthropology, and comes out of an avowedly Marxist background. With its apparent emphasis on genes competing for survival, some political critics from the left have read The Selfish Gene, Dawkins' classic book on evolutionary theory, as reactionary. As I said in my earlier post, I see no reason to read the book in this way. Nor does Knight. In the RSB interview mentioned earlier, he said: "It was precisely selfish gene theory which exploded the earlier idea that natural selection pitted 'race' against 'race'. The left's response to this scientific revolution was embarrassingly ignorant and self-destructive," even if Dawkins himself tends not to be interested in "theories which investigate the sexual, social and foraging strategies of evolving humans." Knight quotes Dawkins: "We, alone on earth, [...] can rebel against the tryanny of the selfish replicators."

In a brief discussion of Dawkins' theory of memes (introduced in The Selfish Gene), Knight argues that: "Politics must be centre stage in any discussion of 'memes'. This is because a condition of memic immortality is at least a relative absence of political conflict." The egalitarian society that must have been the result of the "human revolution" (enabling us to "transcend the level of determinism which is represented by competition between genes") was the precondition necessary for this memic immortality--the transmission and perpetuation of culture--to be possible.

Now, to the books that have brought this back up for me. For a variety of reasons, I've been brushing up on the Enlightenment (one reason: to continue my goal to, as Casey put it with respect to himself, "make up for the neglect I have suffered at the hands of public education"). As part of this, I'm reading Peter Gay's intellectual history, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation/The Rise of Modern Paganism (published in 1966). The thinkers of the Enlightenment, of course, saw reason and science, skepticism and criticism as the ways forward, out of the darkness of superstition and religion, toward freedom in all spheres of human life. Early in his book, Gay describes the differences between two basic mentalities with which people confront their world--the mythopoeic and the critical. Mythical thinking
is not necessarily primitive, monotonous, purely superstitious, or prelogical [...] . Mythical thinking is true thinking; it reduces the world to order, but its categories are unsettled, alive. They shift under the potent pressure of immediate experience or become rigid under the equally overwhelming weight of tradition. [. . .]

Mythical thinking is a collective term describing a wide variety of mental operations. It can be observed in all its purity among primitive peoples, while it was overlaid among advanced ancient civilizations by touches of rationality, beauty of expression, and complexity of institutions. Yet mythical thinking seems to crumble at the edges first; its basic logical operations remain intact long after civilizations have acquired large rational sectors. [. . .] In the mythmaking mind, state and universe, king and god, man and nature, stood for and melted into each other. Ancient man did not think that his king resembled divinity: he was divine, the true son and accredited representative of a god. Ritual did not recall a miraculous event, it was that event. The warrior who fashioned a little statue of an enemy and then pierced it with a dagger was not merely uttering a ceremonial wish to harm the enemy: the doll was the enemy, and the damage to the doll was identical with the damage done in combat--indeed, in a sense hard for the scientific mind to grasp, it was that combat. Since empirical verification was severely restricted to certain practical operations, the efficacy of the ceremony could not be rendered questionable by continued good health of the enemy. Proof and disproof are categories in a matrix of thought alien to the mythopoeic mind. (Gay; 89-90)
Whereas critical thinking relies on those very qualities that are absent in mythical thinking.

Knight's account of the origins of culture is not, he emphasizes late in Blood Relations, a brand-new scientific paradigm, but instead fits squarely in the Marxist tradition of anthropology. In light of that, it is important to note, he writes, that Marx and Engels saw their revolution as scientific and believed that politics should be subordinated to science, not the other way around (perhaps contrary to common conceptions of Marxists): "Their idea was not that science is inadequate, and that politics must replace it or be added to it. It was that science--when fearlessly true to itself--is intrinsically revolutionary, and that it must recognize no other politics than its own. (Knight; 520)" No doubt the leading figures of the Enlightenment would agree.

Knight offers a provocative conception of science, one that appeals to me a great deal. It was this that I was reminded of as I read about the claims of the Enlightenment and the distinctions noted above between critical and mythopoeic thinking. The Enlightenment looked back to and claimed as their own those ancients who, in their view, fought the good fight, on behalf of scientific knowledge, against superstition. They might have been able to look even further back, had they but known or been able to recognize (though, obviously, the eventual ability to recognize depends on the Enlightenment having come first). In Knight's theory, the act of women coming together in solidarity, engaging in eventually ritualized sex-strikes, thus creating culture--this was science. It was science because they were able to pull together--indeed, had to pull together--to solve a basic set of problems affecting their very survival: How can they care for human infants, who require much more intensive care than do other primates, and still get food to eat and get men involved (with sharing food, with protection) and avoid continuous rape? As part of his concluding thoughts, Knight writes:
Humans first became scientific--first learned to share their experiential and other findings so as to compare notes and subject them to collective scrutiny and evaluation--thanks to their discovery of what solidarity can mean. Their science, like ours, was essentially their consciousness of their own collective strength. This consciousness could become encoded in shared symbols [...] because understanding themselves could be widely shared. Basic power inequalities and political conflicts--had these existed--would have obstructed such sharing and therefore distorted the objectivity of science. Thanks to the manner in which the human revolution had been achieved, such inequalities and conflicts were not basic to the alliances within which culture evolved. The very earliest cultures therefore had no need for religious myths. Although there was plenty of room for magic--for an awareness of the world-changing potency of such activities as dance, poetry and song--religion was not needed because there was no one to mystify, no one to exploit, no one whose conceptual world needed standing on its head.
But religious myths did arise, inequalities did emerge, men took power. How? Why?
Mysticism and convoluted theologism emerged only when masculinist institutions began reasserting themselves as the first step in an immensely drawn-out process which was eventually to result in class society and so-called 'civilization'. Constructs of 'the feminine' became deified only in proportion as real women, in the flesh and blood, were deprived of their power. Goddesses, god and other miraculous powers could enrich themselves only in proportion as ordinary humans were impoverished--robbed of the magic in their own lives. Only in the course of this process was genuine science--or 'the ancient wisdom', if you prefer to call it that--progressively subjected to the distorting lenses of sectional interest, partisan special pleading and political ideology masquerading as science.

Only when social life had become irretrievably conflict-ridden was the community-wide sharing of understandings no longer possible. At this point, humanity's basic capital of accumulated knowledge became increasingly fragmented, pulled in opposite directions, fought over and--in part--monopolized by ruling elites. To the extent that shared symbols could be preserved at all, they now meant one thing to one section of society, quite another to the rest. This is the symbolic essence of all secret or esoteric cults. (Knight; 521-522)
In his detailed survey of the ethnographic record, Knight notes in several places that, built into many of the myths, into the systems of taboos and the origin stories, is the admission by men that the true power originally belonged to women and that the men took it from them and now must prevent women from taking part in it.

This question of how the initial act or series of acts might have been transformed into such elaborately ritualized behavior, brings me to the other book that brought Knight's work back to mind. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life by William H. Gass, specifically the essay titled "The Stylization of Desire". Gass begins wondering why philosophers have ignored the basic biological functions, "as if to come near the breathing, sweating, farting body were an unphilosophic act." Indeed, "We always ski on the higher slopes when we can. Countless works of rich abstraction have been written about perception. I know none on the subject of chewing." The hungry person may satisfy his or her hunger in any number of ways. The poor person does not stand on ceremony, but eats what is available, when it is available; "where the purely hungry man wished food, the mildly hungry man with choice considers vegetables and meats and fruits, considers soups and casseroles and stews, and in the object of each new desire may arrange all its probable representatives according to his preferences." Eventually, circumstances permitting, people not only don't eat just to satisfy immediate, pure hunger, but have developed specific styles of dining, ritualizing the act in service of several desires, several ultimate needs, at once. The ritual becomes as important as the need it fulfills, before finally being identified with the need itself:
The most important step in the stylization of desire, as in the stylization of anything whatever, is the amalgamation of a means with its end. This fastens the whole force of desire as firmly on the method as a leech on a leg. Success henceforth requires not only the enjoyment of the end but the use of one path to it. When I want bananas only if they are stick-struck; when I want money, power, and the love of women only because I'm the heavyweight champ; when I want my julep in a silver cup; it's clear that I've proposed a new goal for myself, a goal which possesses more than the character of an object of lust, pride, or hunger, but an additional character, a ritual one. My desire has become precise in its object and concrete in its method until the method and the object have merged. [. . .] The child often fails to distinguish means from ends in any situation, so that Christmas, for example, isn't Christmas without a tree or without a certain cake or a visit to grandmother. The child, who is forever a stylist, identifies the celebration with selected ways of celebrating, and the child may feel, as the primitive man was supposed to, that any kind of success can be guaranteed only by repeating, and by repeating exactly, everything that was done the first time. The aim is good luck and the method is magic, for the actual cause lies unknown in the welter of surrounding conditions. The result is the security that proceeds from repetition, so that if the feeling sought is lost or if the prize is not forthcoming, something in the total order of the acts was wrong--some gesture, some item of clothing, some fragment of the sacred initial occasion left out. (Gass; 197-198)
If Knight's version of the origins of culture is correct, then we can start to imagine how the initial collective refusal by women led to taboos and rituals, and eventually to the abstractions and complicated ceremonies associated with religion and civilization. Thus Gass (who I could quote from all day, he's such a joy to read):
The amalgamation of means and ends, because it makes for a new aim, clearly shifts the original desire still further from its natural base. The fact that the straight expression of desire is hindered, not by want of objects but by increasing scrupulosity concerning means, makes contemplation possible, and this contemplation discovers what the object is, beyond its mere utility. There is an accompanying rise in value as well as an altered attitude and a changed emotion. Standards, at the same time, make their appearance, for before the only measurements were speed, economy, and success. Now, in addition, there are all those added forms and ceremonies, and judgment frequently turns on them: this gesture has not been made, that rite has been ignored; this sauce employs poor brandy, that caress is crude. (Gass; 200)
Gass is talking chiefly about the refinements of civilization, of course, but it should not be difficult to see how the process he describes relates to the elaborations of rituals and the construction of complex taboos, the beginnings of which had been lost in the mists of time and must now be reconstructed.

Moving back to Chris Knight. His work is exciting to me, because it offers a scientific basis for believing that an egalitarian society need not be just utopian fantasies in the minds of leftists. The idea that egalitarianism--an egalitarianism in which women played the central role--formed the basis for the existence of our very culture, is inspiring. I link this explicitly with my readings into the origins of and opposition to capitalism, and the various revolutionary moments in human history. As does Knight. As noted earlier, he emphasizes that his theory falls within the tradition of Marxist anthropology. This is important: the working class's ability and need to act in solidarity parallels the original solidarity of women. The sex-strikes forced men to act on terms established by women, who effectively liberated sexuality from its basic reproductive function. Knight writes:
When sex is used not just reproductively but politically--as a way of negotiating one's way through a conflict-ridden political landscape, or as a way of acquiring privileges or food--then this results in selection pressures placing sex increasingly under cortical rather than hormonal control. (Knight; 532)
This may sound uncomfortably akin to prostitution, and Knight notes the evident paradox that "human morality was prepared by prostitution", but he reminds us of Marx's description of capitalism as "the prostitution of labour", and concludes:
Capitalism, as the most developed system of universal labour prostitution there as has ever been, is within this paradigm only a dialectical 'return', on a higher plane, to the competitive sexual systems and forms of dominance of pre-cultural humans and of the higher primates. It is this which makes the future revolution the same as the human one: in both epochs, in modern times as in the paleolithic, the struggle for humanity is directed against the same kind of thing. (Knight; 533)
In recent years, Noam Chomsky has often closed his speeches or writings by stating that the very survival of the species may depend on the ability of people to stop the United States and the capitalist class from pursuing their single-minded and destructive goals. Knight ends Blood Relations on a similar theme, but with an admixture of hope:
As we fight to become free, it is as if we were becoming human for the first time in our lives. But in this sense, because it concerns becoming human, the birth process we have got to win [. . .] has in the deepest sense been won already. None of us would be here had it not been. To understand this may be to understand, and thereby to make ourselves the instruments of, the real strength of our cause and the inevitability of our emancipation as women, as workers and as a species.
I recommend Blood Relations to anyone interested in evolutionary science and cultural anthropology, certainly, but also anyone looking for inspiration in the continual struggle for freedom.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Anxiety and artistic choices

The annual Vision Festival took place in New York a couple of weeks ago. I didn't make it up this year--I've only ever made it once, and then for only one of the nights--but I've been reading some of the accounts (which I came across mostly via Destination: Out!), Brian Olewnick's posts in particular (here and here). Brian argues that the festival in many ways embodies a conservatism in so-called "free music":
The odd (sad?) thing was that the better music from each evening almost inevitably referred directly to earlier great music. So you get pastiches of Handy, the Art Ensemble, Ellington etc., which are enjoyable enough but hardly possessing any "vision". Not surprising, of course, but still. Worse, as always, for something describing itself as "free music", countless strictures were constantly in place. There was rarely a moment where you got the idea that a given musician could do anything that came to mind. Solo order tended to follow the standard routes (horns to piano to bass to drums).
This kind of argument has been made before, of course. It's often noted that the inheritors of the legacy of 1960s "fire music" (or indeed its players, several of whom are still going strong) are no more pushing boundaries at this point than are those who represent the more "traditional" jazz espoused and played by the likes of Wynton Marsalis.

I bring this up here because it makes me think, again, of the problems that arise for the performer or the writer (or the reader or listener) when it appears that all of the possible forms have been used up, when it perhaps doesn't seem as if there is any further "out" or "experimental" to go. I used to feel, with confidence, that being into "new music" (free jazz, experimental noise, whatever) was no reason to assume that perfectly good, even great, music could not be created in the older forms. If someone released a Horace Silver-style hard bop record in 2007, there is no reason why it couldn't be great, or even the best record of the year, whether we noticed it as such being a separate matter. With literature, my attitude was similarly catholic: a great book can still be written in the style of the 19th century novel, writers shouldn't feel compelled to push formal boundaries when they are more comfortable in an older style, that it's the writing, the individual voice, that's the important thing. And as a reader, I should try to sample widely--there could, and would, be excellence found in any style or genre.

My thinking on this has evolved. I still think that someone could write a perfectly good specimen of an older style--and I'm really talking about fiction-writing, of course: novels--but I often wonder why he or she would want to. I wonder why such an effort should be praised for having been done at all. (I have similar thoughts on music, but for the rest of this post, I will be discussing literature only. I may return to music in this vein for another post.)

From my vantage point, I look out at the options available to the writer, and I see chaos. How does a writer choose? Think of the imaginary, present-day writer writing a sonnet--such an effort would not be hailed as innovative or revolutionary, however well it re-produced the style, and it's not a controversial thing to say. But with the novel, those that resemble the 19th century novel definitely are praised--maybe not as "innovative" but as accomplishments in their own right. To the extent that a "literary establishment" exists, it looks on the novel as a certain thing that looks a certain way, perhaps with variations within the general form, what with Modernism and post-modernism, and Beckett and Barth and Stein and Sterne and all that has come before. This is seen as a virtue: the novel is big enough for all of us! It is a fictional container than can, and does, include any number of styles: just pick one!

The writer has some urge to write, of course. And some decisions to make on how to proceed--maybe short stories instead of novels? Maybe science fiction or mysteries or romance or young adult? Maybe the writer is interested in capital-L "Literature". The would-be writer picks one or more of these, or dabbles in them all, and then sits down to write. A lot. There is general acknowledgment of this: that the writer must, in fact, write. And write. A lot. The writer must work at his or her craft. Inspiration is a given, I suppose. If an urge to write exists, the topics will come, the voice, if indeed any talent exists along with the urge, will develop, if only the writer writes.

But is this craft? And what of the choices available? Are these the most important choices?

I admit that I have thought of this as craft, and that I've been divided between the conception of the writer as one who crafted fiction and one who is compelled to write, perhaps a false dichotomy. But I look at the blank sheet of paper, or the blank document on the computer screen (or the blank blog post), and I ask, what is to be done? I've blogged before about the things that have blocked me from writing. What I said there remains true, but there's more to it than that, I think. It's not just that things I have to say may have been addressed by others (indeed, they probably have), but that formal problems vex me. It's not just why to proceed, but how. (Or, depending on the day, it's not just how to proceed, by why.) But this post is not supposed to be about my personal problems with writing (or maybe it is, who can say? maybe they all are).

I will return in future posts to this question of craft, specifically in the context of my reading of Gabriel Josipovici. . .

Monday, July 09, 2007

Remembering Remainder

I was fortunate to read Tom McCarthy's marvelous novel, Remainder, last Fall, a few months ahead of its appearance in the U.S. I'd picked it up in France and read it on the flight back. Since then, it's been great to see that its reception by American readers has been so positive (The Complete Review, naturally, has its own review, including their customary review round-up), and I've noticed more and more bloggers mentioning it in passing, with praise, though few have yet had the chance to discuss it at length (Matthew Tiffany, for example, has had Remainder on the mind of late, when he hasn't been thinking about diapers!).

Reading about the book again, as well as taking a couple of flights in the months since our honeymoon, has reminded me of something I meant to write about before, but which slipped my mind. If you've read the book, or read about it, recall that the narrator stages elaborate "re-enactments", which eventually he has slowed down to an unreal, excessive extent, so that he can enter into the atomic moments, if you will, those moments in which, he thinks, life happens, those moments, anyway, in which he feels most alive. In my review I said this:
. . . he is trying to have a real experience, to enter into the experience, and his experience is such that we enter into it ourselves, almost achieve a trance state in our reading... In the re-enactments, as the narrator seeks to enter into the moment, to recreate these fleeting sensations when he felt most real, most alive, as he slows down the process, the prose slows, and we enter into the moment as readers, achieve an almost trance-like state, as he does.
Right. As I said, I read this on the flight home from France, a fairly long flight. This is what happened: You know how, when you're on a flight in a large plane, it often seems, especially looking into the cabin, as if you're not moving at all? I experienced this effect, and then some, on this particular flight. It's the "and then some" that I'm reminded of now. I was sitting in a window seat, thoroughly engrossed in the book, though I'd look out the window on occasion and see--white. Not just clouds, it appeared, but white. As far as I could see, there was the crisp, bright, edge-of-the-world blue of the sky in the upper half, and the completely flat, unchanging, featureless white in the lower. This happened several times over the space of an hour. I would emerge from the printed page, having read one of these re-enactments, or series of re-enactments, and attained the very trance-like state I describe above. I'd look out the window, and I felt as if I really was in a trance, or that the plane really wasn't moving. So strong was the illusion that getting up to use the restroom did not dispel it. It was, I admit, a little eerie.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Irresponsible Meanderings

Three passages from Walter Abish's novel, How German Is It:
. . . the mind is so created that it habitually sets up standards of perfection for everything: for marriage and for driving, for love affairs and for garden furniture, for table tennis and for gas ovens, for faces and for something as petty as the weather. And then, having established these standards, it sets up other standards of comparison, which serve, if nothing else, to confirm in the minds of most people that a great many things are less than perfect. (p. 19)
. . . often what people had to say about themselves became, in time, an impediment. (p. 41)
One had so little control over the irresponsible meanderings of one's brain, over the improbable connections that are activated as thoughts by impulses from the brain, yet, occasionally, these remote, farfetched, hypothetical links had a way of coming true. Almost anything the brain can conjure up is possible. (p. 43)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth

I've read a fair amount of Philip Roth's fiction (13 novels) and have liked a lot of it. Sabbath's Theater, for example, is one of my favorite novels. But he's quite patchy, I think, and annoyingly, his books that appear to be about something "important" (American Pastoral) or can be read as commenting on current events (The Human Stain; The Plot Against America) are the ones that seem to receive the most praise. When he's on, he's very good, and even in those books that I think are over-praised there are astonishing passages in which that voice kicks into overdrive and it becomes clear to me, again, why Philip Roth is worth reading (I excerpted one such passage from American Pastoral here).

Of the 13 Roth novels I've read, however, only two date from the first two decades of his publishing life--his debut, the National Book Award-winning Goodbye, Columbus (from 1959), and Portnoy's Complaint (1969) Portnoy was the first Roth book I ever read. I was underwhelmed by it at the time but liked enough in it to continue reading him. I re-read the book last week, and found more to appreciate this time around but also more to question. It's funnier than I found it the first time (and, of course, that's it's rep: it's supposed to be fucking hilarious) and there are those brilliant flights of the Roth voice. But it has some troubling aspects, some of which may be generational, some of which are, in a sense, political. The book is in the form of Alexander Portnoy's sessions with his psychiatrist. We only read what Portnoy says. He weaves in and out of reveries about his childhood, complaints about his parents, his hard-working, constipated father, his ubiquitous mother (a lot of Oedipal business--it is in part a parody of Freudian psychosexual theories), his obsession with masturbation (admittedly very funny), his fixation on gentile women.

In his generally unfavorable review of Sabbath's Theater, which appears in the essay collection The War Against Cliché (I was looking for a specific line I thought I'd remembered--something to the effect of "Roth has always been a transgressive writer"--but of course I was unable to find such a line, though the word "transgressive" appears in the review), Martin Amis writes the following:
Erotic prose is either pallidly general or unviewably specialized. Universality crumbles into a litter of quirks. After a while it provokes in the reader only one desire: the desire to skip. You toil on, looking for the clean bits.
I differ with Amis about Sabbath's Theater (though he's quite right that it's very dirty), but his point, I think, is true enough. I'm not a prude, I'm not offended by the presence of sex in a book, certainly not by profanity, but I do tend to find an abundance of scenes like this off-putting. Aside from being often very boring, they are tiring. Or, rather, the frequency is tiring. And here's where I come to the generational point. Reading Portnoy's Complaint again, I was reminded of something I've observed in other male writers of a similar age--for example, John Updike or David Lodge--that is, how often the characters in these writers' books fuck, how much they are fixated on finding women, primarily to fuck. (I use the word "fuck" with purpose, and in a particular way: sex is "fucking" and is what is done to women.) The passages in the books that actually describe sexual acts are, as mentioned, often boring or embarrassing, but it's the passages (or the accumulation of such passages) about the obsession that are mysterious to me. I ascribe much of it to the fact that these writers were beginning their writing lives in the 1950s and 1960s, when, the story goes, sexual matters were loosening up, culturally. It's very difficult to imagine the more straight-laced mores of popular memory, difficult to imagine the milieu in which these writers were first coming of age and then writing. It must have felt liberating to be able to actually write explicitly about sexuality, but it can make for some tiresome reading.

I have a bigger problem with Portnoy's Complaint than the occasional bit of tiresome reading. While leafing through The War Against Cliché, I noticed Amis' review of The Counterlife. To Amis, this is the great Philip Roth novel, the book in which Roth finally fulfilled his early promise. It's hard to argue; it is indeed one of Roth's finest works, probably second to Sabbath's Theater in my estimation. In the review, Amis argues the following:
The agent, the catalyst, is unquestionably Israel. Here is a subject all right, and it may even be that Roth has spent half his life readying himself to take it on. He went there before, carrying Portnoy's passport, and the place defeated him: the Israel section was the only major weakness of Portnoy's Complaint, and that is a measure of how far we have come [in Roth's fiction]. Set against The Counterlife, the earlier book looks regressive and dead-ended; for all its savage splendours, Portnoy was a farewell to youth, and Roth had to say goodbye to all that. Yet Jewishness in one form or another--and the more obsessive the better--has always been the real goad to his eloquence. [...] In any event, Roth has now come home, artistically. 'Jews Jews', 'Jew-engrossed, Jew-engorged', 'JewJewJew': this is the front line of the talent.
I think Amis is dead-on here. Certainly the best parts of Portnoy's Complaint (most of the book, in truth, including the sex) consist of his riffing on Jewishness--what it means to be a Jew, growing up Jewish, and American, among the goyim, exploited by those perfect Protestants, with their ridiculous, comical Christianity. Amis is also right about the weakness of the Israel section, though perhaps not entirely for the reasons he might name. Towards the end of the book, Portnoy recounts the events of his trip to Israel, having fled his latest goyische girlfriend in Greece after a nasty fight. Arriving in Israel, he notices something: "I am in a Jewish country. In this country, everybody is Jewish." (It perhaps goes without saying that Portnoy, or Roth, does not see--or does not notice--Arabs. This I find, well, interesting, to say the least. But I won't delve into what that absence represents.) Throughout the novel, he has been obsessed with his Jewishness and how it measures up against the mainstream American culture. He has been fixated on sex ("Crazy for Cunt" as he puts it), obsessed with shikses. He has been the good little boy, getting the good grades, growing up to do good, to in fact be good (he becomes a lawyer who works for the city on behalf of the downtrodden), yet forever drawn to ever more perverse sexual relationships, inevitably--he thinks--unsatisfactory relationships, which he looks on with shame, conflicting as they do with his received notions of what constitutes "goodness"--amidst reveries in which he realizes that he really only wants the life his parents had. Again, the Freudian stuff has been laid on intentionally thick (in a passage explaining why he doesn't need dreams since his real life is "disproportionate and melodramatic" enough, he says: "Who else do you know whose mother threatened him with the dreaded knife? Who else was so lucky as to have the threat of castration so straight-forwardly put by his momma?").

Against this backdrop, Portnoy arrives in Israel, astonished to find Jews comfortable in their own skin. He tries to take Israeli women to bed (as he inevitably must, or else he wouldn't be in a Roth book), but is unable to perform. He finally meets a woman, recently done with her Army service, who grew up within the kibbutz movement, and who in his "hysterical" condition he decides, virtually instantly, he must marry:
Right off we began making serious talk about mankind. Her conversation was replete with passionate slogans not unlike those of my adolescence. A just society. The common struggle. Individual freedom. A socially productive life. But how naturally she wore her idealism, I thought. Yes, this was my kind of girl, all right--innocent, good-hearted, zaftig, unsophisticated and unfucked-up. Of course! I don't want the movie stars and mannequins and whores, or any combination thereof. I don't want a sexual extravaganza for a life, or a continuation of this masochistic extravaganza I've been living, either. No, I want simplicity, I want health, I want her!
In fact, she looks just like his mother. Yes, and Portnoy is well aware of how ridiculous it is that the simplistic Oedipal drama seems to be unfolding in the most vulgar form in his real life. But that's not my problem. My problem is what he does with this. Up till this point, at least in Portnoy's version of events (which is all we have, obviously), Portnoy may have acted like an insensitive jerk with many of the women he involved himself with, but he doesn't appear to clearly be the villain. But in Israel it's different: He wants to marry the good Jewish girl who looks like his mother. She, naturally, thinks he's insane. He tries to persuade her to have sex with him. She refuses. He persists. She tries to leave his hotel room. He tackles her. He tries to rape her (his "mother"). He is unsuccessful because he can still not maintain an erection in Israel. And in his telling he expresses no regret for trying to force himself on her, but only regret that he was unable to succeed. These paragraphs are particularly ugly and left a bad taste in my mouth.

The Israel section seems tacked on and unconvincing after the more assured parts of the rest of the book. But they also lay bare the ugliness underlying the basic attitude towards women throughout which holds that women owe men sex, or that they are merely the pawns moved about in the lives of men, the medium on which men work out their psychosexual problems, unable themselves to escape the simplistic Madonna/whore dichotomy. My point here is not to be yet another person accusing Roth of "hating women". Unfortunately, it can be argued all too accurately that his fiction, in this respect, simply reflects the wider misogynist societal attitudes. The point is also not that Roth should be conforming to my own sense of political correctness, but rather that a literary weakness is revealed. Returning to Martin Amis' Counterlife review, in which Amis praises Roth's ability to render a particularly clandestine--and to the English Amis, dismayingly accurate--form of English anti-Semitism. Amis says: "Roth did well to hear it, to catch it; but that is how he interprets the world--he listens to it." In large part, this observation is correct. But Roth evinces a certain tone-deafness, a certain inability to listen when it comes to women, and the degree to which this is true--even as his response that he is a man and therefore writes about men makes a certain degree of sense to me--amounts to a weakness in his art. It is definitely a weakness in Portnoy's Complaint.