Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Books Read - 2008

This is the final list of books I completed reading in 2008, 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 statistical breakdown, to follow:

1. Swann's Way, Marcel Proust (C.K. Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, trans.; D.J. Enright revised) (re-read)
2. Within a Budding Grove, Marcel Proust (trans. as above)
3. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels (Samuel Moore, trans.) (re-read?)
4. The German Ideology, Marx & Engels (C.Dutt, C.P.Magill, W.Lough trans.; C.J. Arthur, editor)
5. Moscow Diary, Walter Benjamin (Richard Sieburth, trans.; Gary Smith, editor)
6. God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens
7. The Guermantes Way, Marcel Proust (Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright, trans.)
8. Sodom and Gomorrah, Marcel Proust (trans. as above)
9. Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson
10. To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, T.S. Eliot
11. Taming Democracy: "The People," the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution, Terry Bouton
12. Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker
13. The Singer on the Shore, Gabriel Josipovici
14. Molloy, Samuel Beckett
15. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
16. Mythologies, Roland Barthes (Annette Lavers, trans.)
17. Heroes, John Pilger
18. Master of Reality, John Darnielle
19. Love and Living, Thomas Merton
20. Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
21. The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
22. The Captive, Marcel Proust (Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright, trans.)
23. The Fugitive, Marcel Proust (trans. as above)
24. Letter to His Father, Franz Kafka (Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins, trans.)
25. The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews 1977-1982, Gabriel Josipovici
26. Time Regained, Marcel Proust (Andreas Mayor & Terance Kilmartin, trans.; D.J. Enright revised)
27. Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas (Jonathan Dunne, trans.)
28. Montano's Malady, Enrique Vila-Matas (Jonathan Dunne, trans.)
29. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
30. The Inferno, Dante (Robert & Jean Hollander, trans.)
31. Orlando, Virginia Woolf
32. The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Peter Handke (Michael Roloff, trans.)
33. Now, Gabriel Josipovici
34. Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard (Richard & Clara Winston, trans.)
35. Adventures in Marxism, Marshall Berman
36. To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson
37. The Spire, William Golding
38. Moo Pak, Gabriel Josipovici
39. Gathering Evidence, Thomas Bernhard (David McLintock, trans.)
40. Endgame, Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen
41. The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes (Richard Miller, trans.)
42. Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee
43. The World We Wish to See: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century, Samir Amin (James Membrez, trans.)
44. The Immortal Bartfuss, Aharon Appelfeld (Jeffrey M. Green, trans.)
45. War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, Michael Schwartz
46. Correction, Thomas Bernhard (Sophie Wilkins, trans.)
47. Home, Marilynne Robinson
48. Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said
49. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño (Natasha Wimmer, trans.)
50. Touch, Gabriel Josipovici
51. A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, Hugh Kenner
52. Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, Dahr Jamail
53. Reflections, Walter Benjamin (Edmund Jephcott, trans.)
54. Blindness, José Saramago (Giovanni Pontiero, trans.)
55. Endgame, Volume II: Resistance, Derrick Jensen
56. Spleen, Olive Moore
57. Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, Myla & Jon Kabat-Zinn
58. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Slavoj Žižek
59. The New Imperialism, David Harvey
60. The Actual, Saul Bellow
61. The Aspern Papers, Henry James

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 56.5
Number of books written by women: 4.5 (!!)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 0
Number of other Dalkey books: 1

Fiction or Poetry:
Number of books of fiction or Poetry: 30
Number of authors represented: 17
Number of books by female authors: 4
Number of female authors: 3
Number of books by American authors: 4 (including T.S. Eliot)
Number of American authors: 4
Number of books by African-American authors: 0
Number of African-American authors: 0
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 7
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 5
Number of books in translation: 19 (including all 3 by Beckett)
Number of authors of books in translation: 9
Number of translated books by female authors: 0
Number of foreign languages represented: 6 (German, French, Italian, Portugese, Hebrew, Spanish)
Most represented foreign language: French (10 total: Proust and Beckett)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 6 (Beckett, Bellow, Coetzee, Eliot, Golding, Saramago)
Number of books from before 1800: 1 (Dante)
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 1 (James)
Number of books from 1900 to 1949: 11
Number of books from 1950 to 1989: 8
Number of books from 1990 to 1999: 5
Number of books from 2000 to 2007: 3
Number of books from 2008: 1 (Robinson)

Number of non-fiction books: 31
Number of books by female authors: .5
Number of books in translation: 9
Number that are memoirs of sorts or letters: 2 (Kafka, Bernhard)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 0
Number that are books of criticism: 10
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 17
Number about pop music: 2
Number about science: 0
Number about parenting: 1

Comment & Observations:
Brief pointless note on the numbers: this is the first time, probably since I started reading fiction seriously more than a decade ago, when I read more non-fiction titles than fiction. (Though, with the late addition of The Aspern Papers, it's tighter, and may flip in fiction's favor, since I'm sort of ambivalent on what to call Darnielle's Master of Reality. Strictly speaking it's fiction, I guess, but for some reason it doesn't feel right to call it that.) Anyway, works are listed if I felt they could be justifiably called a "book". Certainly, single novels count, but then In Search of Lost Time is divided into seven parts, the fifth and sixth of which are contained in one volume (in the Moncrieff et al. translation, that is). So I count them as one each, contributing seven to the whole. I have the Grove 100-year anniversary edition of Beckett's works, which is everything packed into four volumes. If they were published individually originally (as books), I count them as such. But, while I counted Waiting for Godot last year, given its length (and would count any of Shakespeare's plays), I don't count the other short plays (no Krapp's Last Tape or Not I, for example).

Back to possibly less pointless observations: As noted earlier, see the Books of the Year Symposium at Mark Thwaite's Ready Steady Book for some of my thoughts on my reading year. For the most part, I won't discuss the books I mentioned over there. However, one book I forgot to mention and neglected to mention at all on this blog this year, was Carl Wilson's excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. It's putatively about Celine Dion, from the perspective of a decided non-fan perplexed by her popularity, but it's really a fascinating enquiry into the nature of taste and politics and democracy. I expected to write extensively about this book, but my apparent wholesale abandonment of music as a writing subject, plus my general busy-ness, meant it got left out.

Other thoughts: My main reading goal this year, as articulated in passing here, was pretty much limited to reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time, as well as Beckett's prose trilogy, both of which I did in fact read, even finishing them with plenty of time to spare before the birth of our daughter (which had seemed important to me, since I expected to see a drastic reduction in my available reading time). I expect them to be reading companions for some time (though I know I'll be re-reading the considerably shorter Beckett works much sooner!). I read a lot of works in translation, but other than Vila-Matas and Bolaño (and, well, Dante), this did not mean I was reading authors new to me (Bernhard, Handke, Saramago, Appelfeld, and of course Proust and Beckett were the familiar names).

I read more literary criticism, as I'd hoped; this amounted to seven full books, the three by Josipovici, two by Barthes, and books by Eliot and Kenner. (It doesn't seem to me that Benjamin's Reflections quite qualifies). I read a fairly large chunk of A.D. Nuttall's (so far very good) Shakespeare the Thinker, and of course struggled with Blanchot's The Space of Literature and Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought. And I read a substantial portion of part one of Kierkegaard's Either/Or. Obviously the last two are philosophy.

Other books I read portions of: I read the first three stories in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice collection, including the title story, or novella. So far I still struggle with Mann (in particular, here, there were some things about the Lowe-Porter translation that bugged me), but I hope to finish the collection, and possibly move on to Dr. Faustus in the new year (maybe even another attempt at scaling The Magic Mountain??). I dipped into Kafka's collected stories, reading primarily the very short pieces, having previously read most of the longer ones. I read about one quarter of Peter Brown's fascinating history, The Rise of Western Christendom. And of course I read bits and pieces of various books about pregnancy, childbirth, babies, parenting, breastfeeding, and, crucially, baby-related sleep issues.

Poetry! I've always had difficulty with poetry and have long felt this to be one of my great shortcomings as a reader (in that I sense that it limits my engagement with non-poetry as much as poetry itself). With Josipovici's guidance (via his beautiful essay collected in The Singer on the Shore), I decided to try Eliot's The Four Quartets, reading various parts of it several times. I found I could read it, with some limited understanding and appreciation. I also tried my hand at some of Wallace Stevens' poetry (we have a beat-up Vintage Collected Poems; unaccountably, I already covet the expensive Library of America edition), with limited success so far. And of course, I read The Inferno, my first real pass at Dante, in the Hollander & Hollander translation. I had a good time with it, though I confess I read it more like narrative (for the account being narrated), than like a reader of poetry, but I hope to be able to approach it differently in the future.

Finally, I took the plunge this year and began reading more seriously in and around Marx and political economy. Marshall Berman's fine essay collection, Adventures in Marxism, made me want to read Capital more than ever (though it also inspired me to read Edmund Wilson's interesting but rather bloated To the Finland Station, which, if I'd read it first, might have soured me on taking on Capital; happily, I was forewarned, both by Berman and by Louis Menand's imperfect introduction; also, Wilson's text comes more alive when he quotes Marx, so that's another indicator). So, I'm excited to actually read Capital itself next year (with as much guidance from David Harvey as I can manage to view), as well as Harvey's own The Limits to Capital. Finishing the year with Harvey's excellent The New Imperialism, which lucidly explains the crisis of capital overaccumulation (which I gather he lays out in the earlier Limits), I hope to be on much better footing than I would have been if I'd tackled Marx's mammoth work any earlier. Oh, and I re-started Ellen Meiksins Wood's Democracy Against Capitalism, again reading the first 60 pages or so; I should read the balance of it in the first part of the year, which should also help.

And so ends another fine year for reading. Here's to a great 2009. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The chocolate laxative

From Žižek's Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (ellipses and italics in original):
The structure of the 'chocolate laxative', of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape. There are two topics which determine today's tolerant liberal attitude towards others: respect for otherness, openness towards it, and obsessive fear of harassment--in short, the other is all right in so far as its presence is not intrusive, in so far as the other is not really other. . . . In strict analogy with the paradoxical structure of the chocolate laxative, tolerance thus coincides with its opposite: my duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to her, or intrude into her space--in short, that I should respect her intolerance towards my overproximity. This is what is increasingly emerging as the central 'human right' in late-capitalist society: the right not to be 'harassed', that is, to be kept at safe distance from others. A similar structure is clearly present in the way we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is acceptable if it is counteracted with charitable activities--first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy. The same goes for war, for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is permissible in so far as it really serves to bring about peace and democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. The same holds increasingly even for democracy and human rights: human rights are to be defended if they are 'rethought' in order to include torture and a permanent state of emergency; democracy is a good thing if it is cleansed of its populist 'excesses' and limited to those who are 'mature' enough to practise it.

This same structure of the chocolate laxative is also what makes a figure like George Soros ethically so repulsive: does he not stand for the most ruthless financial speculative exploitation combined with its counter-agent, humanitarian concern about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy? Soros's very daily routine is an embodied lie: half of his working time is devoted to financial speculation, and the other half to 'humanitarian' activities (providing finance for cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) which ultimately combat the effects of his own speculation. Figures such as Soros are ideologically much more dangerous than crude direct market profiteers--this is where one should be truly Leninist, that is, react like Lenin when he heard a fellow Bolshevik praising a good priest who sincerely sympathized with the plight of the poor. Lenin retorted that what the Bolsheviks needed were priests who got drunk, robbed the peasants of the last remnants of their meagre resources, and raped their wives--for they made the peasants clearly aware of what priests in fact were, while the 'good' priests only confused this insight. (pp.151-153)

RSB Books of the Year Symposium

Things have been quiet around here, as my prediction that I'd be rather short of blogging time has finally come true. I have a few posts backlogged here, plus I should have my obligatory end-of-the-year reading round-up tomorrow, but in the meantime, please take a look at Ready Steady Book's Books of the Year 2008 Symposium, which again includes a contribution from me, as well as from numerous other bloggers and various non-blogging writers and critics.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Reading The Space of Literature (iv)

This series of posts came to an abrupt halt in the middle of my engagement with the opening essay, in part because of the very struggle I was having with it, which in part took me to Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought. And it needed quieter time than I have had, in which to both read the book and to think and take notes. But I had some moments more recently, and I return here, then, to "The Essential Solitude" after a lengthy absence. Turning the pages, I noticed that I had already marked off a passage that has direct bearing on the issues being discussed in the wake of Zadie Smith's recent essay (well, really the whole project has direct bearing, but this passage speaks to it in some of the same terms). Here is Blanchot:
The writer we call classic--at least in France--sacrifices within himself the idiom which is proper to him, but he does so in order to give voice to the universal. The calm of a regular form, the certainty of a language free from idiosyncrasy, where impersonal generality speaks, secures him a relation with truth--with truth which is beyond the person and purports to be beyond time. Then literature has the glorious solitude of reason, that rarefied life at the heart of the whole which would require resolution and courage if this reason were not in fact the stability of an ordered aristocratic society; that is, the noble satisfaction of a part of society which concentrates the whole within itself by isolating itself well above what sustains it.

When to write is to discover the interminable, the writer who enters this region does not leave himself behind in order to approach the universal. He does not move toward a surer world, a finer or better justified world where everything would be ordered according to the clarity of the impartial light of day. He does not discover the admirable language which speaks honorably for all.
The bourgeois novel, the "classic" novel, presents an ordered world, an ordered world where a universal Truth is accessible. But the writer who writes in his proper idiom does not have access to this, "does not discover the admirable language which speaks honorably for all".

I'm going to deal very loosely with the rest of this essay. I promise nothing. Quoted passages are, as always, from the translation by Ann Smock.

Blanchot writes about the writer's journal: not a confession, not the writer's story, but an act through which the writer remembers himself. Does this mean this is how the writer grounds himself? That route by which he staves off getting lost in the dangerous solitude? Lost in the fascination?

". . .fascination is solitude's gaze. It is the gaze of the incessant and interminable."

some (dictionary) definitions:
incessant: ceaseless, ongoing, without interruption
interminable: without end; connotes "endless", tedious even; dictionary includes "monotonously or annoyingly protracted or continued; unceasing"...

So, then, there is something potentially negative about it? About this gaze, this solitude? Or is negative not quite the right word? (Meanwhile, the section under the heading The Interminable, the Incessant I return to again and again, because I don't understand it, though it includes the clarity of the excerpt presented at the top of this entry. And again I am struck by how elusive much of Blanchot can be. I struggle to retain his meaning in my head, over time. Just as I've managed, I think, to nail down a phrase, or a term, he moves on to something that seems to rely on that term or phrase, and my understanding dissipates. But then, as I have described before, in relation to Benjamin, there are those wide open spaces, like the passage above, where I find myself breathing easier. Even the elusive passages keep me coming back. Not just because I'm trying to understand it, but because something just under the surface, or rather just beyond my ken, seems real in what he is saying. I struggle the same way with Poetry, Language, Thought, in which I also sense something just around the corner, coming into view, aided, this sense, by those observations that feel so right, that tell me that it must be worth struggling with.)

Working through the rest of this opening essay, words take on new meanings. No, not new meanings, that's not right. Words used with a greater precision than usual, words taken seriously, in all their weight. (When I wrote about my problems with certain writers, I skirted this point. We are used to a lazier writing. This is perhaps the hallmark of utilitarian writing, of everyday journalistic writing--use whatever seems to work, to get the general point across, then move on--not that journalism can't be more precise than it often is. But if the general point isn't enough?) On the one hand, then, words are used with greater precision; on the other, some of these words appear to serve technical functions, are part of a technical language distinct from everyday usage (perhaps the technical language of philosophy--part of the importance of Hegel and Heidegger here, I have no doubt) (though, perhaps even some of these are instances of a precision, becoming technical in our specific encounter with them). One such word here is "fascination" or "fascinating". I use the word a lot, casually, but when I do, it rarely quite means what I mean for it to mean. I employ it as a substitute, an elegant variation, when I don't want to say interesting or brilliant or engrossing or affecting or whatever. Of course the same is largely true of those words (not that I use them exactly interchangeably).

"Seeing pre-supposes distance, decisiveness which separates . . . Seeing means that this separation has nevertheless become an encounter." The gaze: one doesn't touch but is held by the gaze, this holding is a contact.

"What is given us by this contact at a distance is the image, and fascination is passion for the image." I catch myself lost in a gaze, fascinated by something, time seems to stop. Better: I watch my daughter, staring, the absorbed look in her eyes, but it's less a stare than a gaze (they talk of mother and nursing baby gazing into each others' eyes); she is fascinated, and though she may smile, it's usually not in the moment--not as she gazes--the smile interrupts the gaze, punctuates it. Interestingly, Blanchot calls childhood "the moment of fascination":
Perhaps the force of the maternal figure receives its intensity from the very force of fascination, and one might say then, that if the mother exerts this fascinating attraction it is because, appearing when the child lives altogether in fascination's gaze, she concentrates in herself all the powers of enchantment. It is because the child is fascinated that the mother is fascinating, and that is also why all the impressions of early childhood have a kind of fixity which comes from fascination.
Ok, time to finish up this round. I've taken some incoherent stabs at different parts of this essay. And clearly this essay leads into the next ("Approaching Literature's Space"), and so on. (And as Blanchot remarks in a note in the front of the book, the whole thing revolves around the center that is the essay "Orpheus' Gaze".) So it's perhaps a mistake to draw any conclusions from just the one essay. I note for now some recurring words: interminable, incessant, fascination, gaze, time's absence, solitude (of course). "To write is to enter into the affirmation of the solitude in which fascination threatens. It is to surrender to the risk of time's absence, where eternal starting over reigns." Why? He leaves the question open, at least for now . . . but what does this mean? Threatens? This sounds as though fascination is dangerous for the would-be writer. Again a negative connotation. No peaceful process, writing. Perhaps it starts to come together here: Writing is a risk. For the writer to write what is properly his or her to write, without an eye on so-called universal truths, the writer must be willing to take risks, willing to risk being lost in fascination. In the space where this fascination looms, this is where the writer enters, surrenders. . .

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Writing that is an event

From an interview with Carole Maso by David F. Hoenigman (link via Ron Silliman):
DH: Do you consider yourself an experimental writer?

CM: I do consider myself a writer of experiment in that the available models for writing novels for instance do not approximate the ways I perceive and experience story and so I am put into the position of continually trying to find resonant shapes to approximate the world I move through, and the ways in which I live in language. Because my forms are not borrowed or inherited or already decided every day is a day of great excitement and surprise and joy. I feel content is wed to form and so with each project the shape has to be reinvented to some degree—and this requires the willingness to experiment, to risk appearing ridiculous, to fail if necessary. I am much more interested in producing a flawed, mortal document, than something that is just a nod to a certain set of conventions. I also tend to favor writing that is an event in some way, and not just the record of an event; it creates a more vulnerable, fluid space, where the unforeseen, or the errant, or something a a little wild is allowed to enter. It's quite thrilling.

The haiku is not for me

This n+1 essay, about Roberto Bolaño and his reception by American readers and critics, includes this passage (italics in original):
American critics and regular readers alike usually don't care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can't be a really important novelist anymore unless you can't really write novels.
In a post responding to this essay, Scott Esposito addresses this passage thus:
Of course, when the unsigned editorialist says "can't really write novels," he/she is referring to novels in the 19th century (and maybe early 20th century) sense. Sebald's and Bolano's works are certainly novels, just not in the sense that some critics would like novels to only be viewed as."
I've wondered why we insist on having the word "novel" encompass so much. Why must it be asserted that the books written by Sebald and Bolaño "are certainly" novels? Are they? What is a novel? A novel is, presumably, everything, the genre-less genre, as I've said previously. Those critics, such as perhaps James Wood, who appear to be seeking to "limit" the novel, must then emerge as the enemy. (Though even for Wood, the novel is so flexible as to be just about anything, so long as it is "real".)

I was recently reading through the archives at zunguzungu, the excellent blog written by Aaron Bady that has too late come to my attention, and I came across this post from March, about a talk given at Berkeley by Franco Moretti. Moretti made the "provocative point that the high aesthetic novel is more of an epiphenomena of a mass commodity culture than the transcendence of it", and the "major question . . . was why the Chinese novel didn't develop like the novel did in Europe" . . . there are all sorts of obvious historical factors Moretti addresses: capitalism, imperialism, China's pre-industrial development, and so on. For Bady, these sorts of questions normally bother him, because "Why shouldn't [the Chinese novel] be different?" The question for him is "why the Chinese novel even gets called a novel in the first place, why a term of art derived from the French word for 'new' under a very historically contingent set of circumstances, in Europe, would be considered appropriate (to anyone) for reference to the classic long fictive prose narratives in China." He goes on (italics his):
the intractable problem at its roots, which is whether a novel is a novel because of historical or formal characteristics. One narrative of the rise of the novel points to the historical circumstances, the social factors that produce a particular kind of textual object and invest it with particular meanings and significance. Another narrative derives it from a structural form: the novel is a fictional narrative which is long and written in prose. That these "objective" features are historically defined (what it means to be fictional, for example, requires a secular consciousness) needs to be suppressed, as does the fact that giving history a legible form requires treating unreliably contingent objective forms as if they really were objective. But while history and form define each other, and are really separable, neither do the narratives collapse into each other. Is Robinson Crusoe a novel because that's what it was called at a certain point in history, or because it achieved some essentially novelistic form? If the former, a historical paradigm, then there can be no Chinese novel at all, just something that looks superficially similar from a distance. Yet if its the latter, a formalist definition, then how can a Chinese novel be Chinese?
I remember I used to think it was strange that there were Japanese novels. In part, I'm sure this had something to do with the logographic form of writing: I had a hard time imagining such works reading as novels. (Are Japanese prose works even written logographically?) I generally dismissed this puzzlement as my own problem, but the question nagged at me on occasion, though usually it remained just out of focus. Anyway, pondering the Japanese novel, I would think about those forms we're taught in grade school that belong to this or that national culture. We would write imitations for class assigments--haiku being the example that comes most readily to mind. But clearly haiku is not a form truly available to the writer writing in English. Later I would think of older European forms--the sonnet, say--and think to myself that the sonnet is not available to the contemporary writer. I could set out to compose a sonnet, yes, but it would be at best pastiche; however well done, however beautiful (or, more likely, ugly), it would stand awkwardly in relation to literary history, imitative, inappropriate, suspect, wrong. Its form is not for me, just as I understood intuitively that the haiku is not for me.

I was never really sure what precisely to think about my problem with the Japanese novel, but Bady's post zeroes in on some of what was troubling me. What is a novel? It seems to me that it's become defined down as simply "prose narrative of a certain length". Gabriel Josipovici has argued that the narrative mode of the 19th century novel became so dominant (not least because of England's--and to lesser extent France's--role as imperial power, I would add), that we expect it to hold true for very different sorts of narratives. The Bible, for example, we approach as if it should yield the same sorts of effects as would a George Eliot novel. When it does not yield these effects, we find it wanting, incomprehensible; or, we read effects into it that are not there, and could not be, an approach with numerous interpretative and affective pitfalls of its own. Why should the effects be similar? Why should we read a Japanese prose narrative as if it followed the same rules, created the same effects, as a Dickens novel? Why should contemporary prose works necessarily be treated as novels? Why do we insist that of course a given work is a novel, just not the kind of novel some readers expect? Why, indeed, should adventurous or exploratory or so-called experimental prose writing be subject to the same expectations as a novel? Why called a novel at all? (As always, I am ignoring the needs of the publishing industry.) Are Thomas Bernhard's works novels? Or might it be better to call them, simply, "prose works"? What about Blanchot's récit? Is Josipovici's Everything Passes a novel? David Markson's This Is Not A Novel was titled, so I understand, in response to what one reviewer reportedly actually wrote in dismissing Reader's Block, his previous work. But what if we just saw the title as simply accurate and then worked from there?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Literature is not Innocent

Following up on my post from last week, responding to Zadie Smith's essay in the New York Review of Books, "Two Path for the Novel": Why might the narrative modes of what Smith calls "lyrical Realism" not be justified? Not because they are old, or even necessarily because someone else has used them. I think there are a few reasons. Here I will discuss just one of them. They are not justified, not least because, to quote a character from Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, "Literature isn't innocent."

Literature is not innocent. What does this mean? Zadie Smith refers to "the Anglophone novel", a term that obviously covers a lot of area, given the extent of the British Empire and the widespread influence of both British and American cultural products. I think this is a clue. For Smith, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland represents the path of "lyrical Realism" (a term, Anthony Cummins suggests, possibly meant to specifically counter James Wood's famous denunciations of so-called "hysterical realism"); Mark Thwaite's favored term is "Establishment Literary Fiction". I'd like to revive for a moment the term "bourgeois novel". If we remember that the bourgeois novel was in cultural ascendance during the heyday of the British Empire, I think we can get closer to having a handle on it.

Let me revisit a portion of the passage from Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism that I have already excerpted. Said writes:
. . . the almost oppressive force of Marlow's narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion, Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.

Yet neither Conrad nor Marlow gives us a full view of what is outside the world-conquering attitudes embodied by Kurtz, Marlow, the circle of listeners on the deck of the Nellie, and Conrad. By that I mean that Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so speak, imperialist, which in the closing years of the nineteenth century seemed to be at the same time an aesthetic, politics, and even epistemology inevitable and unavoidable. For if we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aesthetically but also mentally unassailable.
While empire is pursued and maintained abroad, daily life in the metropolitan center continues in its shadow. Narrative papers over everything; everything is rendered comprehensible through narrative. The novel presents a world that makes sense, passing over certain details in silence, while other details make it abundantly clear how much the narrated world depends on the activities of empire, as Said shows, for example, with Sir Thomas Bertram's lengthy absences, attending to the far off Antiguan plantation, in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Said is far from reductively political; he neither condemns nor dismisses the classic European novels. On the contrary, he treasures them as great works of art. But he is arguing that the peace and prosperity of the English countryside in Austen's novel are not possible without the unseen violence of slavery, and that this fact is present in the novel, though obscured by most readings. And the same is true of the narrative form of the bourgeois novel in general (whether it be the Bildungsoman or imperial adventure or travel narrative or fictional biography, etc; thanks to Edmond Caldwell for the link). I think this basic point is indisputable.

In a post addressing Lionel Shriver's idiotic harangue against writers not using quotation marks, Dan Green reminds us that:
"Literature" of course is itself a concept that develops during the 19th century and after as an umbrella term that attempts to gather "poetry" together again with its now renegade forms, fiction and drama, precisely in order to make them available to the newly literate middle class as "good for" such readers. However, even this dilution of literary value--by which literature becomes valuable not in and for itself but as a tool of education and emergent nationalism--assumed that the appreciation of works of literature was something to aspire to, that "great books" required an elevation of taste and skill, although "common readers" could indeed reach this higher level.We now appear to have reached the point where literature can be relevant only if it turns itself into just another "inviting" mass entertainment.
It is not just the concept of Literature that develops in the 19th century, but the idea of Culture itself, its chief virtue being as "a tool of . . . emergent nationalism". I'm not so sure that this represented a "dilution of literary value", as Dan puts it, but he's of course right to note that this is when literature begins to appeal to a larger class of literate people, a class that needed to be incorporated into the dominant work of the day--which is not to say that writers set out to serve this function. But, as resistant to the idea of "learning" from literature as some of us might be, it can't be denied that one of the chief cultural functions of the novel was to normalize the reality and activities of Empire, nor that cultural artifacts contribute to what we "know" about the world, whether or not we are consciously aware of the specific contributions themselves. In his book, Said repeatedly stresses that it is "too simple and reductive to argue that everything in European or American culture . . . prepares for or consolidates the grand idea of empire." However, it would be "historically inaccurate to ignore those tendencies--whether in narrative, political theory, or pictorial technique--that enabled, encouraged, and otherwise assure the West's readiness to assume and enjoy the experience of empire." And the novel does this work not just with its "content" but also through its formal properties, which of course can never be easily separated.

The fictional container that is the descendant of the bourgeois novel today can at times appear rather different than the Victorian novel of the 19th century. But just as capitalism has no trouble co-opting rebellion or counter-culture, or even eventually insurrection, for its own systemic ends, the novel sucks in everything around it. The novel purports to be the genre-less genre: it can and does contain anything. It has absorbed the techniques of the modernists, smoothing them out, transforming them into mere items in the writer's toolbox, as if those techniques had not been arrived at as a result of highly personal responses to what those writers perceived as an artistic crisis.

Returning to the question of innocence, focusing on the United States for a moment. One common theme in American history is the strange notion of American "innocence". It remains astonishing that, in a country founded on genocide and slavery, Americans have been able to appear innocent, if only to themselves. And yet the idea persists. The United States, and Americans generally, have good intentions, the story goes, and just don't understand--or even know about--all the damage that is caused by American so-called bumbling on the world stage. Not only do we act innocent of the crimes that maintain our standard of living, we innocently consume cultural artifacts as if there were no question at all that we have the absolute right to be entertained, and that our entertainment is untainted by the violence of the American enforcement of the global capitalist system, that our consumption of entertainment is innocent. But our pleasures do not exist in a vacuum. That pretty, well-written, journalistic novel has a pedigree, a pedigree of cultural work in service of Empire, the ongoing consequences of which we may choose to ignore as we read yet another iteration, but that choice is itself the function of this process and an enormous privilege.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Public Vice

I have to admit that there have always been apparently basic things about economics that have been incomprehensible to me. One example of this can be exemplified by an image that has, for me, been symbolic of the Great Depression as a whole: piles of apples, with prices set ridiculously low, yet going to waste, rotting, because still no one can afford them. Deflation, of course (link via American Leftist).

A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman, every Liberal's favorite economist, wrote about the decline in American consumption, the "long-feared capitulation of American consumers". In doing so, he touches on another example of what I'm talking about. He provides some numbers showing this decline in consumption and reminds us that this is unusual, since Americans "almost never cut spending". Americans, of course, have been without any manufacturing base for some time and have thus long since been relegated to the role of the world's consumers. Krugman doesn't say anything about this. He does, however, try to explain why the "timing of the new sobriety is deeply unfortunate". He writes:
. . .one of the high points of the semester, if you’re a teacher of introductory macroeconomics, comes when you explain how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires — a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.
Here, Krugman helps me to better understand what my problem has been. We are continually told that, collectively, we do not save enough--Americans' savings rate is effectively zero--while at the same time we are constantly told to consume more, that consumption will save us. Krugman's paragraph essentially makes it plain that the economic system does not serve people, rather people serve the system. Not that this was news to me.

My problem with the phenomenon of the rotting apples was that, in my youth and ignorance, I did not understand why the price of the apples mattered; I didn't understand why they couldn't simply be given to people. And yet, I felt that there must be some obscure reason, and I had no doubt it would be a good one and that if I studied economics I would grasp it. The fact, however, is that there is no good reason. But we've so internalized the idea that capitalism is the natural order of things that we simply accept the notion that food can and will go to waste alongside masses of people starving to death.

Krugman's article points to another element of capitalism that is deeply troubling. Any system in which "individual virtue can be public vice", in the manner in which he is discussing, is simply and profoundly wrong.

Since what I'm suggesting with the example of the apples sounds dangerously like communism, allow me to close with a quote from an article by David Graeber (link via From Despair to Where?--apologies to Stuart for quoting much of the same passage!):
Consider here the term "communism." Rarely has a term come to be so utterly reviled. The standard line, which we accept more or less unthinkingly, is that communism means state control of the economy, and this is an impossible utopian dream because history has shown it simply "doesn't work." Capitalism, however unpleasant, is thus the only remaining option. But in fact communism really just means any situation where people act according to the principle of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs"—which is the way pretty much everyone always act if they are working together to get something done. If two people are fixing a pipe and one says "hand me the wrench," the other doesn’t say, "and what do I get for it?"(That is, if they actually want it to be fixed.) This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply principles of communism because it’s the only thing that really works. This is also the reason whole cities or countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters, or economic collapse (one might say, in those circumstances, markets and hierarchical chains of command are luxuries they can’t afford.) The more creativity is required, the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be: that's why even Republican computer engineers, when trying to innovate new software ideas, tend to form small democratic collectives. It's only when work becomes standardized and boring—as on production lines—that it becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism.
(This passage is strikingly similar to that found in a pamphlet I read a few years back--called, I think, "What is Anarchism?". The simple idea was that anarchism is what we do everyday in order to get things done. I found this to be a remarkably liberating idea. Meanwhile, the other day I rejected a comment from a brave anonymous soul, which read as follows: "Please leave the Western world. We have no room for socialists. We like our people independent of mind and carefully guarding and accumulating property." No doubt.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Not everything can be bought off

Towards the end of Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said discusses the different oppositions, intellectual and otherwise, to the systemic evils of capitalism and imperialism, employing along the way the work of Immanuel Wallerstein:
. . . the exilic, the marginal, subjective, migratory energies of modern life, which the liberationist struggles have deployed when these energies are too toughly resilient to disappear, have also emerged in what Immanuel Wallerstein calls "anti-systemic movements." Remember that the main feature of imperialist expansion historically was accumulation, a process that accelerated during the twentieth century. Wallerstein's argument is that at bottom capital accumulation is irrational; its additive, acquisitive gains continue unchecked even though its costs--in maintaining the process, in paying for wars to protect it, in "buying off" and co-opting "intermediate cadres," in living in an atmosphere of permanent crisis--are exorbitant, not worth the gains. Thus, Wallerstein says, "the very superstructure [of state power and the national cultures that support the idea of state power] that was put in place to maximize the free flow of the factors of production in the world-economy is the nursery of national movements that mobilize against the inequalities inherent in the world system." Those people compelled by the system to play subordinate or imprisoning roles within it emerge as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute the totalitarian compulsions of the world market. Not everything can be bought off. (p.334-5)

Forcing into Existence

"Of the canonical Latin Americans of the 20th century--Vallejo, Neruda, Borges, Paz, Lezama--Paz is probably the weakest poet, the one who is most willful in forcing poems into existence that don't really need to exist." - Jonathan Mayhew (italics mine)

Failure called Joy

". . . I saw that our struggles and dreams all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy." - Amadeo Salvatierra, in Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (p. 379)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two paths for the novel?

In her recent essay in The New York Review of Books, "Two Paths for the Novel", Zadie Smith says some important things about fiction, things that are rarely discussed in mainstream venues such as the NYRB. In the essay, Smith discusses two books that have been widely praised: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (unread by me) and Tom McCarthy's Remainder (my review here). For Smith, with these two novels "a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel." She writes: "The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other":
A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.
It may be too-perfect, but Netherland is also formally aware of the problems with "lyrical Realism" and its effects, effects it wishes to traffic in anyway. Smith spends some time showing how the book does this, how class and formal anxieties are packed into the book's narrative, both its content and its mode. Smith again: "It's a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most practitioners of lyrical Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O'Neill." Thus one path. McCarthy's Remainder represents for Smith, then, the other path, the refusal of Netherland, the refusal to traffic in the effects of "lyrical Realism".

Some have cluelessly read the piece as a "critique of Realism", which it is not. Others, such as the newly resurrected Rake, reduce the essay to merely another salvo in the "Realism v. Not-Realism debate". (And, though he is generally on the not-Realism "side" of this tiresome battle, the Rake is able to say he couldn't quite get on the Remainder bandwagon because its narrator is unpleasant, its repetition tiresome, its sentences not pretty enough. Thus, in my view, affirming the values represented by "lyrical Realism".) In a sense, Smith encourages this sort of reading of her essay by positioning the two novels in one of two "paths" the novel might take or have taken. In fact, this is my main quibble with what is an otherwise excellent, much-needed essay. For there is only one path, the well-worn one. The other so-called path is in fact an "anti-path". Just as there are no models, there is no path for the real writer.

Let's look at what Mark Thwaite has to say about this well-worn path, in a post addressing some of the responses to Smith's essay:
The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, [Establishment Literary Fiction], call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself.
A few Jamesian knobs, perhaps even some techniques devised originally by the Modernists, for we are not complete reactionaries, certainly not. And some may fetishize these Modernist techniques, or writers, to the point that others can comment that, "[t]here was something about Modernism that seems to have hypnotized people who liked it into thinking that there never had been anything else ever." Except that in this view the Modernists are reduced to innovators, ground-breakers--and one may simply "like" or "dislike" them--for it all comes down to entertainment, does it not? Indeed, all narrative is rolled in as part of "the novel", with occasional deviations from the accepted norm effectively reinforcing the view of what the novel really is. It is simply taken for granted that writers, as Gabriel Josipovici puts it, "are now free to plunder from all traditions, selecting what we want and dismissing the rest." But, without worshiping them as Gods (for how much would that miss the point?), what the Modernists were concerned with cannot be just swept aside, cannot be truly absorbed into the main stream of literary history. For it seems to me that the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, "conventional" ways are simply not suitable, not justified. This is language echoing what McCarthy himself has had to say on the matter: "Modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond." Whereas for most, Modernism was a moment in time, its "advances" duly absorbed into the body of the novel in the name of progress, what if we look at it, instead, as this event, an event that is ongoing, "eternal, interminable", in Steve Mitchelmore's words? (I've taken Steve's words from this highly suggestive post from last year, in which he names Dante as one of the top European Modernists. What might it mean to include Dante in such a grouping? What if we thought about literature in these terms? The implications of this are staggering.)

The question as to why there might be something wrong, suspect, unjustifiable about the "traditional" novel is a topic for a forthcoming post.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Noted: Edward Said

From Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism:
What makes Conrad different from the other colonial writers who were his contemporaries is that, for reasons having partly to do with the colonialism that turned him, a Polish expatriate, into an employee of the imperial system, he was so self-conscious about what he did. Like most of his other tales, therefore, Heart of Darkness cannot just be a straightforward recital of Marlow's adventures: it is also a dramatization of Marlow himself, the former wanderer in colonial regions, telling his story to a group of British listeners at a particular time and in a specific place. That this group of people is drawn largely from the business world is Conrad's way of emphasizing the fact that during the 1890s the business of empire, once an adventurous and often individualistic enterprise, had become the empire of business. [...] Although the almost oppressive force of Marlow's narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion, Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.

Yet neither Conrad nor Marlow gives us a full view of what is outside the world-conquering attitudes embodied by Kurtz, Marlow, the circle of listeners on the deck of the Nellie, and Conrad. By that I mean that Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so speak, imperialist, which in the closing years of the nineteenth century seemed to be at the same time an aesthetic, politics, and even epistemology inevitable and unavoidable. For if we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aesthetically but also mentally unassailable. (pp. 23-24; italics in original)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Noted: Gabriel Josipovici

Leafing through Gabriel Josipovici's novel Moo Pak for the purposes of wrapping up my brief notes on that novel, I happened upon this passage, late in the book, which I remember, but which in the wake of some of the anthropological stuff I've been reading jumped out at me even more:
The whole history of language and of human culture, he said, is to be found in the decision to renounce the immediate pleasure for the long-term benefit. Aaaaah to Ma-Ma, as Roman Jakobson has so well described it. The task of art, on the other hand, he said, is to find a way of returning to the Aaaah! but in such a way that it can be grasped by others, that it enters the sphere of the social. Is it a coincidence do you think, he said, that both Jakobson and Chomsky are Jews? That Chomsky's first published work was on the Hebrew language? I am of course not suggesting that Hebrew was the original language or is closer to the origins of language than any other language, just as I am not suggesting that Jews were the first at anything whatsoever. I am only wondering out loud, as others must have wondered, though no-one has, to my knowledge, put such ideas into print, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, he said, the power of Chomsky's work has perhaps retarded rather than advanced our understanding of the origins of human language. For, like so many thinkers before him, but now in full awareness of what he is doing, Chomsky has found the means of cutting man off from his past and so from all other animals. There is a fierce rationality about Chomsky, he said, which more than one commentator, taking up hints in his own writing, has compared to that of Descartes. I myself, he said, prefer to see it as a Jewish trait, like the burning intellectual intensity of a Spinoza or a Wittgenstein. But if he is to be compared to Wittgenstein, he said, it has to be to the young Wittgenstein, for though Wittgenstein lost none of his intensity as he grew older he came to see that our confusions and failures are at least as important as our triumphs and successes and as much in need of explanation. Confusion for Descartes, on the other hand, he said, is something to be eliminated, much as Luther and Calvin wished to eliminate sin. But I am with the later Wittgenstein in this, Jack said, that I believe we eliminate sin and confusion at the cost of eliminating our humanity. On the other hand, he said, we should obviously not make a fetish of failure and confusion.

In Brief: William Golding's The Spire

Brief notes on William Golding's novel, The Spire:

Father Jocelin has had an exciting vision. He has ordered an enormous spire be built, to the glory of God, on the site of the old church. Jocelin insists on it, over the objections of the building foreman, who says it can't be done--the foundation will not hold--and other church figures, who say it shouldn't be. We are limited to Jocelin's perspective, what he hears or understands, however dimly, is related in the third person. Strange happenings just beyond his knowing are hinted at, via his uncertain sense of them. It eventually emerges that Jocelin may be mad. It matters not that he is told that the foundation will not--cannot--hold if the spire is built. God will provide. Various calamities ensue as a result of his devotion to his vision.

With Pincher Martin last year, this is the second William Golding novel I've read. I've found them both surprisingly slow reads. It's not that the individual sentences are difficult, but somehow the prose, as with Handke, resists me. I am unable to get into a flow. Though perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps "getting into a flow" all too often allows me to float on the surface of narrative, without attending to what I'm reading. Perhaps this is what "smoothness of surface" is all about. Anyway, Golding's writing is knotty. At various times I have had difficulty even determining what precisely is being narrated. This was a bigger problem for me with Pincher Martin, with its more limited setting and sensory space (open sea, rock, air, brutal conditions), but here, too, the same single-minded devotion to a point of view--all is narrated as seen or understood by Father Jocelin's limited perspective--makes one yearn--I weakly admit--for an authoritative voice. Just as Jocelin is devoted to his vision, Golding is devoted to his. He does not waver. Except that, in both novels, we are unexpectedly graced, in the end, with a voice that knows.

In Brief: Two by Josipovici

Brief notes on Gabriel Josipovici's mid-90s novels, Now and Moo Pak:

Now is entirely in dialogue; not halting, half-sentences a la Gaddis, but discrete moments. Family situations, battles. As in any family, there are conversations about this or that character's future, conversations dwelling on the past, characters expressing anxiety about their own futures, and so on. A very quick read, perhaps too quick. This is one of those books where the title serves as an organizing principle, forcing the reader--or perhaps allowing the reader--to make sense of the narrative. It seems somehow appropriate that I read a novel called Now the day before Mirah was born.

I enjoyed Moo Pak more, after these initial readings at least. Constructed like a Bernhard novel--a single, book-length paragraph, with a narrator recounting the many remarks made by another, the other's concerns being the central focus of the book. Like a Bernhard novel, but lighter, not so relentless, not quite so despairing, though not without despair, or melancholy. Here, the remarks are made over the course of many walks the two characters share and they are stitched together to almost seem like one continuous monologue, with brief interruptions indicating shifting setting, some making it clear that multiple conversations are involved.

The speaker, Jack Toledano, the voice we hear in this would-be monologue, is very similar in some respects, though by no means identical, to Josipovici himself--certain biographical details and literary concerns--so that it often feels like Josipovici speaking to us, as if we were his walking companions. Kafka, Pascal, Wittgenstein, the English, life as an exile, Sterne, Shakespeare, and numerous other topics and literary figures are discussed, but most of all Jonathan Swift, who is in a sense the novel's presiding spirit. The title refers to Moor Park, where Swift lived and worked for many years; Toledano is reportedly working on a mammoth, 800-page history of Moor Park (one of several details, it seems to me, clearly differentiating him from Josipovici; I have a hard time imagining Josipovici writing either a history or an 800-page book). On the book cover, Frank Kermode blurbs the novel as "wisdom literature". I think the phrase is apt.

In Brief: Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Brief notes on Peter Handke's early novel, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (translated by Michael Roloff):

I've always liked the title of this book. It's suggested to me the excitement of a tension-filled moment. I've recalled those few times when I played goalie. At the ready. Alert. Alive. I wondered what a book with such a title would be like, and it remains suggestive. Certainly, I didn't imagine a novel about a soccer game! Indeed not. But we do have a former goalie, more or less wandering about, it seems aimlessly. Suddenly, he kills a woman. Why? Who knows? Least of all him. His struggle seems to be with being alive in the world, feeling authentic.

I've mentioned problems I've had with reading Handke in the past. Here, too, there is resistance. His fairly simple sentences seem unsteady; I have trouble moving from one to the other, though eventually I read on. I've read with interest Edmond Caldwell's two posts describing what he calls "the Handke Effekt". I haven't read either of the novels under discussion in those posts, but his observations seems relevant to my experience. Perhaps I hold on to expectations of a different kind of narrative, one that Handke refuses to offer, refuses because it is unjustified.

Not nearly as good as Across, it seems to me, but a worthy read.

Novel Thoughts

While I've read a number of novels since In Search of Lost Time, I probably won't get around to writing much about them. But that doesn't mean I don't have anything to say about any of them, however brief or truncated. Here are notes on some of them; other novels have their own posts.

Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett:
Gabriel Josipovici has written in a few places about how, as a young man feeling urgently the need to write, he felt overwhelmed by the examples set by such writers as Tolstoy, Conrad, Dickens, George Eliot. Their works seemed complete, hermetically sealed, sure of themselves. It was writers like Proust and T.S. Eliot who helped show him the way out of his problem, with their inclusion of, awareness of, failure in their work. Beckett, too, of course. "Fail better", and so on. I've felt a twinge of recognition in reading Josipovici's words. As I've said here before, my problem was even more acute: I refused to even acknowledge the need to speak. There were however times when words would occur to me, formal ideas perhaps, and I'd immediately discount them as invalid. Which brings me to Beckett's prose trilogy. I actually read these before finishing Proust. Where I'd previously said that I didn't want to read any other fiction till I'd finished In Search of Lost Time, I found myself bogged down, unable to get started with the fifth volume, The Captive. With none of my available non-fiction doing it for me either, I opted for Beckett. It was just what I needed: I quickly read Molloy and Malone Dies, though The Unnamable was somewhat slower going, as might be expected. I feel a great affinity with his writing, in a way that's hard to describe, so I won't try to cram it in here. But there's something familiar here, a recognition. I'll be reading a lot of Beckett in the coming years.

Bartleby & Co. and Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas (both translated by Jonathan Dunne): It's uncanny: here is a writer seemingly addressing the very things I've been thinking about, perhaps without my always knowing it, though certainly the correspondence with what have been ongoing concerns here is obvious. Lars is right, of course, there are no models. But it was nice, semi-inspiring even, to come across such assemblages of writers confronting these similar types of problems. Writers of No; refusals; the sickness of literature, literature as sickness. I must, however, admit that my attention flagged while reading both, and the second was in particular a slog for me to finish. Almost as if he'd made his point, and I grew increasingly weary of the elaboration (though no doubt he needed to see his conception through, and can I blame him?).

To the Lighthouse and Orlando by Virginia Woolf:
Ten months into the year, and I've only read two books written by women? Wow. Woolf was long one of those writers, like Joyce, who represented for my imagination "difficulty" in literary Modernism. This, of course, was without reading a word of her writing. Mrs Dalloway changed that slightly, some years ago. These even more so. They were a great pleasure to read, particularly To the Lighthouse. In both, I especially enjoyed the short passages describing the artist's vision and process, one of which I excerpted elsewhere. Other than The Waves, which is already on my to-read list, what else of Woolf's fiction should I read? All of it?

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee:
I'm with Waggish and Steve on this one. Actually, in this case, I suspect I will have more to say about it. For now let me just say that I'm amazed that readers still insist on assuming that the "opinions" in this book are necessarily held by J.M. Coetzee himself, and that their content have much to do with the success or failure of the book.

The Immortal Bartfuss by Aharon Appelfeld (translated by Jeffrey Green):
This is the first Appelfeld novel I've read that takes place after the Holocaust. I'm sorry to report that I have very little to say about it at this time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Allow to see

Some months back, I wrote here about my own memories, awakened physically it seemed to me. At the end of the piece, I appended a passage from Proust. In a comment to that post, Lloyd Mintern argued that the truth value of my own writing was, in sense, negated, or at least undermined, by my inclusion of Proust's writing. I had to conclude that he was right: as writing of its own, as writing qua writing, it works better without the Proust passage, the addition of which feels like a strange appeal to authority, as if Proust could authorize my own memory, as if he were proof that the memory weren't bogus. I recall that even at the time, it felt tacked on, and the transition awkward, at best.

Why did I include it? I considered possible explanations: I was showing my work; or, I had had a larger piece in mind, in which Proust played a key part, which I never got around to finishing, but like the novelist who doesn't want to waste all that precious research, I felt the need to leave it all in. These reasons are part of it. But more than that, I was making a claim, I think. My experience was not a subset of Proust's, but in a very real sense, I was able to take note of it, to think about it, in part through having the experience of reading Proust. And, in a way, through this taking note, I was able to in fact have the experience at all. Instead of a fleeting, forgotten moment, it becomes a memory, something I take the trouble to record, which recording allows me to perhaps pursue the line of thought further, to facilitate further experiences, further memories. Isn't this in part what the experience of literature is for? One of literature's uses, so to speak? To allow us to see?

This experience, once written, what becomes of it? Does it escape me? Is it too literary? Does it, by existing, misrepresent the experience as I experienced it? In a sense the piece was an attempt to bring the personal to the fore, in the context of, or under the influence of, my reading. But is it mine anymore? I can tell you that I still have the memory of the experience of having the memory come to me--but in the telling, does it become something else? Does it become other than fact? Not false, but a truth separate from fact? A literary truth?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's name is socialism

Jodi Dean:
McCain's biggest mistake, then, seems to be his demonstration that he would do anything to be elected. Anything at all. It's like his enjoyment is on display and it is shameful. We are ashamed at having to confront our enjoyment of the excesses of feeling, consumption, violence, and negligence which we've indulged over the last eight years. I wonder if this is a turning point, where we might grow up a little bit, where we might put aside our cravings for gratification and stimulation, for so much more of everything that everything becomes shit, an excess that stains and covers us.

McCain has actually named this maturity. He has meant to slur it and the Democrats are too afraid, at least right now, to claim it as their own. He's named this maturity that is the other of the barbarism of his campaign and of the last eight years.

It's name is socialism.

Anthropology of Money

The following passages are a small portion from a fascinating article titled "Notes towards an anthropology of money" by Keith Hart (I don't remember where I found the link, though no doubt it had something to do with Stuart at From Despair to Where?):

Traders are unusual people (Hicks 1969). They own things they neither made nor will use, but still claim the right to the value of their sale. They are willing to give up their goods in return for payment; and their customers then have the right to do what they like with them. This is so commonplace in our world that we think of it as eternal. It is in fact quite rare within the range of known human societies. What gives buyer and seller confidence that they each have exclusive rights to dispose of the commodity? The power of state law reinforces their contract and usually supports the money involved. They may operate as isolated individuals only because of the huge social apparatus backing their exchange.

If trading with money is a special institution, how else have people circulated objects between themselves? In barter two parties exchange goods taken to be equivalent; the timing and the quantities must be right; both sides must have the right to dispose of their goods without involving others; there is a risk of conflict in haggling. How much simpler to persuade you to give up your goods in return for money that you can hold for purchases from others in different times and places. But it is not convincing that such a complicated arrangement as barter would prevail before people thought of inventing money.

Barter is often found where markets using money prices are ineffective, usually because of a shortage of liquidity. [...]

I have been struck by the tenacity with which ordinary people cling to the barter origin myth of money. Can this merely be an example of Keynes' (1936: 383) famous claim that our ideas are nothing more than the echoes of a defunct economists theory? A Sudanese friend once asserted that the original economic system of his country was barter between villages; and then, when pushed, he admitted that these villages had been involved with merchant networks and money for thousands of years. It would be more plausible to locate the origins of exchange in the gift, as Mauss (1990 [1925]) suggested. But this would give priority to a personalised conception of money, seeing markets as a form of symbolic human activity rather than as the circulation of dissociated objects between isolated individuals. The general appeal of the barter origin myth is that it leaves the notion of the private property complex undisturbed.


The contributors to Parry and Bloch (1990) share the view that indigenous societies around the world take modern money in their stride, turning it to their own social purposes rather than being subject to its impersonal logic. The underlying theory is familiar from Durkheim (1965 [1912]). There are two circuits of social life: one, the everyday, is short-term, individuated and materialistic; the other, the social, is long-term, collective and idealised, even spiritual. Market transactions fall into the first category and all societies seek to subordinate them to the conditions of their own reproduction, which is the realm of the second category. For some reason, which they do not investigate, money has acquired in Western economies a social force all of its own, whereas the rest of the world retains the ability to keep it in its place.


Where does the social pressure come from to make markets impersonal? Weber (1981 [1927]) had one answer: rational calculation of profit in enterprises depends on the capitalist’s ability to control product and factor markets, especially that for labour. But human work is not an object separable from the person performing it, so people must be taught to submit to the impersonal disciplines of the workplace. The war to impose this submission has never been completely won (see Parry infra). So, just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace, which means that the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres separate, if only at the conceptual level, is huge.

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control. Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside. Commodities are goods because we consume them in person, but we find it difficult to embrace money, the means of their exchange, as good because it belongs to a sphere that is indifferent to morality and, in some sense, stays there. The good life, instead of uniting work and home, is restricted to what takes place in the latter.

This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. Today money is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. If Durkheim (1965 [1912]) said we worship society and call it God, then money is the God of capitalist society.

Scattered thoughts on the election

I've spent months deferring writing anything about Barack Obama and the presidential campaigns. I've been short of time, yes, but the truth is that it would be all too easy to write a long post detailing all the problems with Barack Obama and why I'm wary of the excitement others have for him and why I don't think he offers what this country needs at this time (which, frankly, is drastic change, decades late, in the form of some kind of bottom-up non-capitalist socialism or communism; see, incidentally, this mostly excellent video lecture explaining the economic crisis, from Professor Richard Wolff of Amherst, in which he proposes just that. Link via the new blog Marx and the Financial Crisis of 2008 (thanks to Infinite Thought for pointing to this blog), video first seen at Lenin's Tomb).

But, sadly, it's pretty clear that Obama is just about the best that the two-party system can plausibly come up with for a Presidential nomination. He's a vastly better candidate than either Gore or Kerry were (which is not to say that he is substantially different from them). And people are genuinely excited about him, which is something. Excitement is not something to be dismissed lightly, though, again, I'm wary that people expect things of him that he's not prepared to even attempt to deliver. (I remember being excited about Bill Clinton, it saddens me to admit.) Regardless, it remains mind-boggling that, for example, anyone could view any of the debates between Obama and McCain and conclude that McCain is worth supporting or voting for.

(By the way, the morning after the final debate, I was making just this observation to one of my bus-riding companions--that I have numerous problems with Obama, but find McCain repellent in every way, utterly and always devoid of integrity, incoherent, and so on, and inconceivable that anyone could have watched the debate and decided that McCain was their man--when another rider interrupted and wanted to know what I didn't like about Obama. I started off with his odious foreign policy, that he's a serious hawk whose version of "leaving Iraq" doesn't look much like leaving, etc . . .I didn't get very far, because he interrupted again and asked if I thought the United States should just pull its troops out of Iraq. Yes, in fact, I said. No, he countered, and said further that the United States must stay in Iraq because the major conflict in the world today is between the Christian world and the Muslim world and the U.S. is needed to stop terrorism and has been spreading democracy in the region, witness this or that election, etc. etc., blah blah blah . . . I didn't know what to say. I could have had a conversation with someone arguing that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq, as wrong as they'd be, but I wasn't expecting this kind of argument--I didn't know that normal people spouted reductive versions of Samuel Huntington's stupid, racist, discredited "clash of civilizations" thesis. What can you say to that? I can talk to people with whom I disagree, but some positions are so wrong that I often simply don't know where to begin and I either say nothing or try to say too much in too short a period of time, which only contributes to the trivialization of discourse. Is it my job, on a ten-minute bus-ride, to hold court on recent geo-political history? It is not. I held my own as best I could, but have to admit that I did indeed sputter incoherence at least once.)

(Regarding that last debate, I will say that I learned one good thing from McCain. It was news to me that Joe Biden had voted against the first Gulf War. Good for him! For McCain this was just one time among many when Biden was wrong about foreign policy, it being naturally one of the few times he was actually right.)

Anyway, though Obama is the best the two parties can come up with, he remains a center-right figure of limited vision. But he nevertheless pays lip service to worthy values, and it is these values that matter to his supporters. And it is this, along with the ongoing lunacy of the Republican Party, that makes his candidacy worth supporting. Steven Shaviro made an excellent argument along these lines in two posts from September. In the first one, he writes:
no matter how hypocritical the Democrats are [...] — nonetheless, the fact that they pay lip service to human rights, human dignity, and freedom from unnecessary suffering makes them morally superior to the Republicans, who are so crassly cynical that they overtly and positively revel in the prospects of torture, bigotry, destroying the environment for quick corporate profits, and enriching the already-rich at the expense of everyone else.

Thus, the Democrats’ hypocrisy is to be preferred to the Republicans’ cynicism, for good Kantian reasons [...]. As Kant famously said about the French Revolution, no matter how much this uprising might have “miscarried” or been “filled with misery and atrocities,” nonetheless any decent human being, observing the events of the Revolution from afar, would have to be caught up in “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; the sheer fact of this “sympathy,” despite everything that goes wrong in actuality, itself testifies to “a moral predisposition in the human race.” In other words, the sheer fact that something like the French Revolution could occur, no matter how badly it went wrong subsequently, gives us a legitimate ground for hoping that human beings are not forever subject to the Hobbesian alternative of either continual war of all against all, or severe and violent repression.

In the present circumstances, this means that Obama’s rhetoric of hope, no matter how vapid and empty it may actually be, still matters. Anyone who thinks that Obama will actually change things is in for severe disappointment if he wins. It’s pretty clear that Obama will do no more than restore Clintonian neoliberalism, in place of the revanchist militarism and rampant looting and pillaging that characterizes the current Bush-Cheney regime (and that McCain, for all his promises of “change”, will do nothing to alter). In other words, Obama may well rescue us somewhat from the nightmare of the last eight years, but only to the extent of restoring the status quo ante, with its foreign bombings and domestic “rationalizations” of the economy, that we rightly objected to in the 1990s. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama, Biden, and company pay lip service to humane values that they will not actually uphold is in itself a cause for hope, for maintaining a “hope we can believe in,” or (to quote a past Presidential candidate whom it is now taboo to mention) for “keep[ing] hope alive.”

We should vote for Obama because
we should make it clear that even the most minimal sense of human dignity requires us to throw the Republicans out of power. It is not stupid to vote for McCain/Palin; rather, it is evil. Republicans are intrinsically, and necessarily, morally depraved. Anyone who votes for McCain/Palin, or supports them, by that very fact demonstrates that he or she is a person utterly devoid of basic morality, and lacking in any respect for others. To vote for McCain is to shit on human civilization, and show utter contempt for human values and human hopes.
Shaviro's second post is a discussion of the idea of evil, in the wake of the discussions that took place in the comments at his blog, and also in response to two posts by Jodi Dean and subsequent discussions at her blog.

(For the record, I voted for Ralph Nader in each of the last two presidential elections. I have no trouble with either vote, nor do I have a problem with people voting for Nader again this time, or for that matter for Cynthia McKinney. I've considered writing a lengthy defense of both those votes and of Nader himself and his candidacies, in part because it keeps coming up: Liberals keep dragging Nader and Nader-voters through the mud; each time something awful happens, be it a terrible Supreme Court decision or a certain military action, you can still see blog comments blaming Nader for it. An argument that Nader and those who voted for him are somehow responsible for the Bush presidency is not one that can be fruitfully defended if one is interested in the facts. I intended to explain why, at interminable length, and also why I still believe the 2000 vote in particular was the right thing to do at the time, but I don't have the heart for such an endeavor anymore--or possibly I'm just tired of being accused of "not getting it", or worse, of being a racist by tiresome, over-indulged commenters at other people's blogs.)

(Before concluding, let me offer yet another parenthetical and say that there have been some things I've liked about Obama. I was very impressed by this speech about religion, for example. I was less impressed by the much-ballyhooed speech on race, though he did say many important things worth saying in it, dragged down as it was by the awful boilterplate about Israel and fact-challenged distancing from Rev. Jeremiah Wright. On the latter, I'd meant to point to a few analyses I found of value way back in March, but I got bogged down and distracted. Here are two: Tim Wise, in CounterPunch, typically excellent on Obama, Wright, and "the Unacceptability of Truth" to white America; and I Hear a New World's brilliant post linking Wright's oratory to African American popular music, including linking the now-infamous "God damn America" phrase to Nina Simone's classic "Mississippi Goddamn".)

On Saturday, we attended another Iraq Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier event, at 2640, followed by a not well-attended anti-war march. One of the panel members at the event was Michael Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University who's written articles appearing at TomDispatch, Z, Asia Times, and others, and has written a book titled War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (which I'm currently reading; it's not perfect, but it's pretty damn good). Towards the end of the Q&A session, the panel was asked whether there was any glimmer of hope with the upcoming election; that is, would there be any substantive change in policy, in terms of the continuation of the war and occupation? Schwartz replied that the only glimmer of hope he could discern was that the economic crisis would get so bad that the United States could literally not afford to keep troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, whether combat or occupation, and be forced to withdraw. I think it's fairly clear that he's correct. Now, Obama is invested in the American imperial project--he merely believes he can manage it better--and he is a proponent of neo-liberalism (with figures like Robert Rubin and Paul Volcker as close advisers, why would we think anything different?), and so on. But the truth is that, with Obama, under such circumstances one can at least imagine him being able to modify his policies and move toward more genuinely populist positions, however difficult they might be to implement. One can imagine no such thing with John McCain.