Friday, June 26, 2015

Knausgaard, Heidegger, and Literary Society

Another recent-ish Stephen Mitchelmore blog post lamented (albeit in very strong terms) the state of online literature writing, its diminishment in the face of concentration and generally dudely commentary. In the post, he reminds us of a passage from the second volume of Knausgaard's much bruited My Struggle books. Knausgaard reports having been unable to make poetry open up to him, how he felt like a fraud, judged. He goes on to present a litany of ways in which we could write about poetry in objective terms, for example about Hölderlin and his poetry.  But, "It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up. The same could be done with all poets, and of course it has been. (Translated by Don Bartlett)".

Re-reading Knausgaard's words brought to mind for me Heidegger's essay (or series of lectures) called "The Nature of Language" (located in On the Way to Language), which somewhat randomly I had been reading at about the same time. There are numerous passages I could quote by way of illustration, but I'll go with this one:
But as for us, it must remain open whether we are capable of entering properly into this poetic experience. There is the danger that we will overstrain a poem such as this by thinking too much into it, and thereby debar ourselves from being moved by its poetry. Much greater of course--but who today would admit it?--is the danger that we will think too little, and reject the thought that the true experience with language can only be a thinking experience, all the more so because the lofty poetry of all great poetic work always vibrates within a realm of thinking. But if what matters first of all is a thinking experience with language, then why this stress on a poetic experience? Because thinking in turn goes its way in the neighborhood of poetry. It is well, therefore, to give thought to the neighbor, to him who dwells in the same neighborhood. Poetry and thought, each needs the other in its neighborhood, each in its fashion, when it comes to ultimates. In what region the neighborhood itself has its domain, each of them, thought and poetry, will define differently, but always so that they will find themselves within the same domain. But because we are caught in the prejudice nurtured through centuries that thinking is a matter of ratiocination, that is, of calculation in the widest sense, the mere talk of a neighborhood of thinking to poetry is suspect. (Translated by Peter D. Hertz)
I don't have a lot to add, beyond highlighting this convergence, in part because I'm still trying to get the Heidegger essay to open up to me. The previous sentence was written back in February when Stephen's post was still new, and in fact, I failed to finish the Heidegger essay (I'm not certain I've ever finished a Heidegger essay or chapter, come to think of it)... (and god what a portentous post-title! you should have seen what it was in the first place...)

. . . but I had wanted to say something seemingly unrelated, but which was originally prompted by this convergence. Knausgaard is interested in whether poems open themselves up to us, he is interested in ultimates, as it were, as Heidegger puts it, he is interested in the contrast between what is often said, in "objective" terms about a poem, or a poet, and what the writing actually does, or could do, to us were we awake to it. And yet Knausgaard has become a kind of literary celebrity, called on to write travelogues for the New York Times Magazine, to be a native informer in the pages of the New Yorker, to sit comfortably alongside Jonathan Franzen, happily domesticated for our consumption. I mention Franzen, because he is the quintessential literary celebrity, it seems to me, and I have frequently seen him and Knausgaard mentioned in the same breath, the same tweet, as though they were very much the same thing (highly praised white male authors who are perhaps not all that, being the general vibe). I find the yoking baffling and unpleasant and obfuscating, not least because as writers, I think they have little in common - and though I certainly much prefer Knausgaard, surely even whatever merit Franzen's writing has is utterly obscured by his weird celebrity? It pushes us away from the writing, does it not? Prevents us from allowing a work to open up to us? There is backlash: Knausgaard is dismissed, the praise is surely excessive, isn't it?, the celebrity off-putting, and what the fuck is up with that title anyway? (Though why Hitler should get to own forever two such useful words as "my struggle" is honestly beyond me. If we don't name our 3000-page pseudo-memoir-y novel series My Struggle, surely the terrorists win? Hello?) Even extra-literary criticism that I find potentially interesting and valid - would a woman writing something like My Struggle be taken so seriously? (So so seriously.) Indeed not; probably not. But even this question, just as it is (literary society is unquestionably sexist, as in fact Steve's post touches on), pushes away the writing, prevents it from opening up - we are suspicious. We are suspicious! But in such questions it is also assumed that if a woman wrote a long autobiographical novel-ish thing, that it would thereby be much like Knasugaard's, because in such terms our only mode of inquiry appears to be at the level of chatter and celebrity and ratios of recognition. The experience is placed at a distance, foreclosed. We are not open.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Short Remarks on Extinction

Having recently read Thomas Bernhard's final novel, Extinction, I was interested to read this account by Stephen Mitchelmore of the narrative in Jen Craig's novel, Panthers and the Museum of Fire:
Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before. 
This made me think of how I'd try to explain what a Bernhard narrator is doing as he's narrating. Bernhard's books are frequently characterized as extended rants, which is strange if only because it's rare for his narrators to not reverse position and undermine, or at least mitigate, what seem to initially be very firmly held opinions. But such a blanket characterization also ignores that the narrator is typically expressing his opinions, or remembering having expressed them, to someone.

In any case, more so perhaps than with other Bernhard novels, I was very much taken with noticing such things as I was reading Extinction. This is the first sentence of the novel:
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o'clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died.
This sentence has so much. For one thing, we see "writes Franz-Josef Murau", three words that are easy to forget over the next 300-plus pages (fairly long for a Bernhard novel!), as they're virtually never referred to again. So narrator is writing; the book in front of us is a document of some kind. He lives in Rome, and walks its streets, as indeed at various points in the narrative he recollects doing, recounting events, expressing opinions, recounting opinions expressed, remembering people he expressed them to. There's Wolfsegg, his childhood home. There's his pupil Gambetti - to whom he remembers having recounted so many of his opinions and ideas and memories. And finally, of course, there is the fateful telegram, the narrator's response to and meditations on the contents of which occupy the rest of the novel.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Notes on Malcolm X: In Our Own Image

Recall that, in The Portable Malcolm X Reader, Manning Marable wrote that the 900-plus books written about Malcolm X, "with remarkably few exceptions, accepted as fact most if not all of the chronology of events and personal experiences depicted in the Autobiography's narrative." One book Marable mentioned positively is a short collection of essays titled Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, edited by Joe Wood, who had been a columnist for the Village Voice. (I'd not heard of Wood prior to reading the book, and only just looked him up as I began writing this post. He disappeared in 1999 hiking on Mt. Rainier and was never seen again. He was 34.)

It's on balance a good collection, certainly worth reading if you're especially interested either in Malcolm X or the black intellectual tradition, or, you know, what the fuck's the matter with this country. It was published in 1992, and appears to be out of print, though used and library copies are probably not hard to come by (if you're local, Enoch Pratt has several). The "our own image" of the title, it perhaps should be made clear, is that of black American writers. Several well known black writers have essays in the book, including Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Patricia Hill Collins, John Edgar Wideman, Greg Tate, Adolph Reed.

The various writers here are much concerned with the nature of Malcolm X's legacy and influence, and by no means is his Autobiography taken as anything like the last word. This, too, was the time of the proliferation of the X imagery and merchandise, and rappers, such as Public Enemy, explicitly invoking him as an icon, as well as the Spike Lee biopic, about which few who mention it have much nice to say. Published the same year was Bruce Perry's biography, Malcolm, which is frequently criticized in these pages for its psychoanalytical approach, in isolation of politics and historical events and forces. There's interesting stuff on Alex Haley and the Autobiography (Wideman), gender (Hill Collins), the effect of Malcolm's "zoot suit" years in shaping his later political outlook and style (Robin D. G. Kelley), and so on.

I'd like to briefly highlight two essays in particular. The first is by the poet Hilton Als, previously completely unknown to me. His essay is called "Philosopher or Dog?" and it begins in a manner that I initially found off-putting. But it finds a groove (or I found its groove) and by the end, I felt it was brilliant. It's a poetic meditation, if you will, on Malcolm X's mother, and the unfair uses he puts her to in his Autobiography. For example, he describes his mother, who was from Granada, as looking like a white woman, being more educated than his father, and even inviting occasional abuse for that reason. Als a) calls bullshit on all of that, but b) also tries to imagine her life, her politics. . . Among other things, it's a fascinating riff on the uses and distortions of autobiography and memoir. (Interestingly enough, the piece also appeared later in Als' book White Girls.)

The other essay I want to highlight is Adolph Reed's excellent and depressing "The Allure of Malcolm X and the Changing Character of Black Politics". Reed is critical of the continuing usefulness of Malcolm X as a political symbol, given the changed political circumstances. Then he describes what those changed circumstances are, by tracing the course of insider-oriented accommodationist politics that took hold after Malcolm's death, and especially after Black Power. This move, as Reed describes it, is less cynical than that short-hand makes it sounds, but just as defeatist. He's talking about a) people who are less radical anyway but who b) use the threat of 'deal with us or you'll have those scary radicals to deal with' - who are insider-oriented in that they believe incremental changes within the system are a better approach. But of course this threat only works if the possibility of mass revolt exists. Whereas this process ended up helping to demobilize the mass of black people, thus neutralizing the effectiveness of the threat. Though it worked well enough for their purposes through the 1970s, in the 1980s, Reagan called their bluff, and they were revealed as meaningless. Surprisingly left out of Reed's essay altogether are the drug war and mass incarceration, which at first glance appear to be a glaring oversights. Perhaps in 1992 those particular long-term trends there were not as obvious to everyone as they have since become, though they seem from this vantage point to be crucial neutralizing factors.