Archive for November 2009
This piece made me want to vomit. Quite seriously – kitchen started spinning about around me as I read it. Not the writer’s fault, he / she (she, right? I had to read it skippingly due to the vomit provocation) is all to the good. But lord almighty, what sort of world do we live in?
Quick! A corrective from Josipovici via this space:
Of course one can go on playing the game of who ‘really’ is in the Modernist tradition and who isn’t. I myself, like Everett, would make Auden rather than Bunting central. But that, as I understand it, is not the main thrust of Kenner’s argument. In this country, today, ‘ambitious’ tends to mean ‘long’; ‘wildly imaginative’ tends to mean ‘working in the minor mode of fantasy’; ‘sensitive’ and ‘compassionate’ to mean ‘this author still writes like Hardy.’ Instead of the ambition of an Eliot, a Kafka, or Beckett, to speak the truth at whatever cost in terms of popularity, we have variants on Hemingway’s absurd boast that he could take Tolstoy to 15 rounds, or the even more debased ambition to win a major prize. What I find absent from the bulk of contemporary English fiction and poetry, clever and witty as much of it is, is precisely that sense of the voice of a person subject to his or her own experience, which Everett finds in Larkin. ‘Defeated, the poet starts to sound like a person: unique,’ she writes. I think she is right, and not just about Larkin: there is a profound conjunction between the acknowledgment of defeat – as a writer, as well as as a person – and the quality of art. But the implications of that have not, it seems to me, ever really been taken on board in England. I don’t think American letters have all that much to boast about at present, but unfortunately more of Kenner’s critique of English writing holds than Everett is prepared to accept.
Phew. OK. Let’s stick with that for awhile rather than the other thing! I was planning to read Handke tonight instead of this bit from Salon. Serious mistake!
Why is it that capitalist culture has always been so well provisioned with visions of its own end? Whether in the catastrophic or entropic tense, it has always been easy to predict and represent an end of the world that arrives via the developments of capitalism. The crisis of overproduction (and the concomitant emergence of “unemployment” as a concept) during the Great Depression of 1873-1895 informed the mindless dystopia of Wells’s The Time Machine. The high pressure system that settled in after the two great wars of the early twentieth centuries postered its bedrooms with images of an all-too-achievable Mutually Assured Destruction. Our own fin de la siècle (and start of another) can’t seem to stop showing itself its own imagined death scenes – by plague or alien invasion, loose nukes or technology gone sentient or, of course, environmental catastrophe.
So the first thing that it’s important to know about capitalist apocalypticism is that it’s persistent. These visions just keep appearing, always impersonating their predecessors while at the same time adapting these predecessors to new local dynamics. If one wants it to mark the arrival of an actual crisis, one has to admit that this crisis is nothing new, but rather a persistent feature of capitalism itself.
It’s understandible, to an extent, why many on the left find hope in representations of apocalypse. Slavoj Zizek has famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. During a period in which it in fact became close to impossible to imagine either capitalism’s end or a potential replacement for it, many of us decided to take the end of the world as sort of allegorical stand in for the end of the current economic regime. If we couldn’t have the latter, we’d settle for the former and rebrand its anxieties as a strange sort of hope. Many of us, therefore, watched both the filmic representations of catastrophe and the increasingly ominous news about the state of the economy with at least some degree of perversely optimistic anticipation.
But if the “arrival” and playout of the current (and long-awaited) economic catastrophe signals anything at all, it is not the imminence of climactic collapse but its opposite – the very power of capitalism (together with the co-opted state) to avert crisis. The specter of collapse, the possibility of the arrival of the end of the hegemonic economic form, is deferred, as it has been and will forever be deferred, by means of a massive transfer of wealth from the state into private hands. “Too big to fail” was from the start an apocalyptic claim, an apocalyptic fiction, mobilized by the banks themselves in order to trigger the response that was bound to be triggered.
The cynical narrativization of the crisis by the banks and their helpers in government speaks to a larger issue – the issue of the native temporality, or temporalities, of capitalism. While capitalism advertises itself as affiliated sudden change, unexpected novelty, and revolutionary change, in actual fact it works always and everywhere to flatten whatever forms of time that it can. It attempts, at every turn, to transform qualititative change into quantitative accumuation, differential turbulence into a concretized status-quo. In fact, recent economic developments point toward the secret trajectory (and capitalist use-value) of neo-liberalism. While for many years it was possible to think of the emergence of the liberal center-left as a hybirdization of social democratic politics in service of a cynical (and cynically capitalized) power grab against the strong right of the Thatcher and Reagan era, the last year or so has shown what the relatively strong state of the the third way was actually for – collusion with and the buttressing of corporations, the nullifcation of risk. Along with risk, of course, disappears the temporality of risk – that is to say time itself, in any form more open than inevitable progression of the same. Catastrophe itself is ransomed off by state funds.
It is very important for us to be clear about agency and intention and reception when we discuss cultural works and ideology. “Capital” does not make films and other cultural works, though films take capital to make. While films of course are influenced directly and indirectly by those who would use them to distribute propaganda, this still, in our current culture, is not the driving force behind the composition of films. Further, while capitalist culture may make certain messages difficult or even impossible to distribute widely, it generally does not directly prohibit or promote certain forms of content to political ends. (Again, there are of course exceptions). The current bubble of apocalyptically-themed films should not be interpreted as propaganda. The rise of the genre, according to all indications, should be attributed to its mass-appeal.
But mass appeal is not necessarily equivalent to usefulness in the cause of mass politics. To be sure, the ultimate goal of any left-oriented cutural politics must necessarily be to appeal to the masses, but not blindly, without full consideration of the source and potential ends of the appeal. While the most obvious answer in this case might be the libidinal pleasure that comes of watching things be destroyed, often on an incredible scale, there are many genres and plot-types that can afford opportunity for the delivery of this sort of thrill. While the destructive violence is the affective content, there has to be something about the form in which it is contained that concretizes the special interest in this form now and before.
Capitalism has always fought a halting and ambivalent fight to separate itself from older social forms and cultural manifestations that have lingered on past its arrival, persistently obsolescent. The fight is ambivalent because at times it makes peace with one or more of the old forms in order to do better battle with others. Religion, the family, value-in-land, the strong state in certain incarnations, racial and sexual difference, the organic community – the trendlines run against all of these, though all of these causes have been taken up by states, parties, and factions in service of the progress of capitalism and capitalist reaction – as well as of course retrograde reaction against capitalism.
The appeal of the apocalyptic cultural product, beyond the libidinal magnetism of destruction, seems to me to take the shape of another one of those concepts lingering on past the point of its own obsolescence. That concept is, of course, eschatological itself – anticipated endings, summations, terminal crises. Like religion or racism, natural hierarchy or sexual difference, it is a concept that functions to abridge that which is difficult to contemplate and live with.
When I was a Catholic school boy, I used to wonder about the purpose of Judgment Day, the biblical Apocalypse. If most everyone – all but a tiny fraction still living when the world ends – have already been judged and sentenced at the hour of their death, why design a system in which everyone is resummoned from hell or heaven, or has their purgatorial sentence commuted, only to judge them all again, redelivering a verdict that almost all of the souls have long since known and lived (after-lived?) with? The only good answer that I can come up with now is that the Apocalypse is one of those contradictory temporal abstractions that softens the cognitive blow that comes of the contemplation of sublime temporalities – the time of incessance is reified down into a concluding punctum. It is mystification by shorthand, a perspectival trick.
Nothing ever ends, and certainly nothing ends like that. There’s a picture of a queen on the notes in my wallet. And my children attend a school where there are crayon-drawn illustrations of scenes from the Bible on the walls. Not all that different from Emma Bovary’s ravenous desire to experience an event like those that she’s read about in her aristocratically-originated romances, we today still long for the cognitive and psychological benefit that comes of abbreviation and culmination. It is pleasing to have what troubles us – whether the corrupt inhumanity of our economic system or the slow-motion collapse of our enviroment – narrowed to two hours, wrapped up before the closing credits, fully contained within a dramatic movement.
Whatever happens, and whatever the news and the entertainment providers tell us, nothing will ever come to an end, at least not at once, and definitely not climactically. This is simply not the way the world works, nor has it ever, nor will it ever. Change comes sometimes in fits and starts, othertimes at a glacial pace, but whatever the change is, it never brings anything fully to an end and always bears within it the contradictions that it would have us believe it had eliminated. The terrors that await us – economic or environmental – will never finally arrive, but rather will take the pattern of crisis and resolution, new crisis and new resolution, that we’re quickly becoming accustomed to in our still relatively new century. Most important of all, if we would use art to provoke improvement, we would do well to accustom our audience both to the real paceless pace of capitalism as well as the rhythm of life in a better world, which would be anything but apocalyptically accented.
Don DeLillo has a story in the current, or at least a recent, New Yorker. He’s been experimenting forever, but more and more as time goes on, with plural forms of one sort or another – the depiction of crowds or aggregates, etc. (I’m sure I’ve posted something about this, right? Actually, looks like not. I’m probably going to write something mid to largish about it after Xmas… I’m sure some of it will dribble through on to here…) In this new story, something a bit different. Narration in large part in the first-person plural, a rhythmic alternation between first-person plural and singular. This technique allows DeLillo to dramatise something like the internal differentiation and self-disagreement that drives narration (or even thought in general) but which also threatens narration (or thought) with fissuring collapse. You’ll see what I mean, maybe, if you read the story. Here’s a bit of it up front:
I tried to invent an etymology for the word “parka” but couldn’t think fast enough. Todd was on another subject—the freight train, laws of motion, effects of force, sneaking in a question about the number of boxcars that trailed the locomotive. We hadn’t stated in advance that a tally would be taken, but each of us had known that the other would be counting, even as we spoke about other things. When I told him now what my number was, he did not respond, and I knew what this meant. It meant that he’d arrived at the same number. This was not supposed to happen—it unsettled us, it made the world flat—and we walked for a time in chagrined silence. Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine, and we understood now that the rest of the afternoon would be spent in the marking of differences.
Now, why does this matter? A very long story, and one that makes up a large part of the posts of fiction that I’ve lately promised. But for the moment: if one of the problems that we face as writers, critics, or readers of narrative fiction is that it is bound by formal convention always to tell stories grounded or promotional of the autonomy and importance of the individual self, the emergence of techniques that strain against this mandate holds the possibility of renewal and ideological repurposing. More soon….
Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, argues that the very category of the literary is born of the tormented working through of a true contradiction by certain artists . The contradiction arrives in the attempt to reach classless autonomy via a bourgeois, instrumentalized form – to create works that escape the mediocritizing determination of the market within the market itself.
We can extrapolate that the ineluctability of the contradiction is what leads to the privileging of failure as a literary motif during and after modernism. The very structure of the situation determines the fact that there is no winning this game. Le mot juste and all of the other juste things that were strived after in order to escape the banalizing forcefield of the market are of course nothing more than impossible, self-deconstructing chimera.
Let me put it another way. Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, determines the very definition of the literary to be misery. Contradiction, double bind, antinomy were always already the devalued currency of this dysphoric realm.
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher might just be the best film about teaching that I’ve ever seen. In particular, high-end teaching – the instruction of students potentially good enough to better their teacher. In the film, Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory. She once had hopes, it seems, of being a big-time pianiste herself – hopes which are still held by her tyrannical mother, who warns her daughter in an early scene “If you want your students to have a career instead of you… No one must surpass you, my girl… Ne sois pas maladroite.” But of course her mother’s words speak to (or around) the insurmountable problem, even paradox, at the center of high-end teaching. One teaches because one can’t quite do, but can nevertheless do well enough to instruct others – others with a hope (that’s why they’re there!) of doing better, even doing well enough not to have to teach. Erika, as it turns out, obeys her mother’s orders with shocking fidelity.
She’s an extremely demanding teacher, but what she teaches is a demanding topic – interpretation. We hear her again and again criticize her students for faulty comprehension of the composer’s directions as to tempo or dynamics, or in the case of music accompanied by song, their understanding of the relationship between the notes that they play and the words that go with them. At one point, she berates one of her charges for missing the fact that “here, the mood switches to irony” as well as the “obstinacy of the complacent middle-class” expressed in one of the songs. In the scene that I’ve clipped in here, it’s the question of what Schubert’s instructions mean – “Schubert’s dynamics run from scream to whisper not loud to soft.”
She is an extremely good teacher, it seems – but her aptitude only heighens the contradiction that I described above. In fact, it heightens it so much that the film has to shift registers, translating what had been an issue of interpretitive education into one of sexuality. Erika’s affair with Walter Klemmer starts where the piano instruction left off. He is desperate for her attention, and she responds by giving orders, and eventually composing an entire textbook of sexual interpretation for Walter to follow. The results are disastrous (and unfortunately, not English subtitled on Youtube….)
It is worth remembering at this point that Erika’s sexuality has been figured all along as not only masochistic but spectatorial. She doesn’t seem to get off, but what fun she has in this department arrives via the observation of the fun of others. She spies on people fucking in their cars at a drive-in movie theater, and retrieves the cum-rags in a porn shop video-cell in order to sniff them. Those who cannot do… But at the point in the film captured in the video above, Walter rejects her instructions as insane – in fact, insanely overly-instructional. She reacts desperately, but despite her desperation, anything beyond written instructions, anything beyond teaching, is too much for her. (In the next scene, as she apologizes to him and begs him to stay with her, she frantically offers him oral sex – but vomits when he ejaculates in her mouth….) Thus begins her plummeting fall from the position of the teacherly mastery at the hands (and cock) of a student who will both follow her instructions all too literally (showing up at her apartment that night to beat the shit out of her, breaking her nose, ignoring her pleas for him to stop – all per her previous written instructions) and at the same time asserting his own right to make up some rules of his own.
As he says just after breaking her nose, “You know, I do realise that all this isn’t very nice of me. But if you’re honest, you’ll admit you’re partly responsible. I mean, it’s true… Yes or no?” She answers in the affirmative. He repeats, “Am I right?” And she responds “Yes, Walter.” And as he rapes her, he utterances take on an uncannily pedagogical tone, a series of imperatives and scolding prohibitions: “You have to give a bit… You can’t leave me now… You can’t humiliate a man that way and… It’s not possible.”
Stringent instructions on musical interpretation have given on to sexual orders, but this time Erika’s student at once fulfils and outsteps the paths that she has outlined in her teacherly instructions. It is the ostensibly blissful moment of the student’s supercession of the master, what we teachers all would say that we hope for, that we teach for, but which in fact – whether we know it or not – constitutes an act of fatal violence upon ourselves and the very authority upon which our instructorial authority is based. All of which significantly clarifies the stakes of the final scene.
Back during Walter’s initial admission interview, Erika had argued that he was too old to have a shot at a career as a professional pianist. But if he is too old, what does that make her? Her belated turn toward sexual adventurism in lieu of the intensities of work was always already a registration of her failures as an artist – in a sense, it was implicit in her taking up of a position, right from the start. She will never get her shot, it’s way too late – she can only give instruction and live on with he ambivalent hopes and fears that someone learns to obey them so thoroughly that they come to disobey them. That is to say, to learn to love her with all the sexualized violence and hatred that she displays toward her own mother. But unlike the the pathetic old woman with whom she shares a bed, she is enough of a professional to do herself in (if that is what she has done) just at the moment when the outcome – of all of it – is clear and she has finally lost and her student has in his own way won. But even this act, as you can see in the clip above, hovers undecidibly between stonecold hari-kari and some sort of apotheosis of childish passive-aggression. Whatever she has done in this scene, and whatever the outcome, she has missed the heart yet again.
Provoked it seems by the imminent release of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, a forthcoming book I’ve grumbled about before, Zadie Smith has another one of her big state-of-the-novel via the state-of-Zadie-Smith’s-writing-block pieces in the Guardian today. (You might remember her previous stab at this sort of thing in the course of reviewing Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder in the NYRB). Here’s a bit:
[...] Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthiness” – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an “unbearably artificial world”. He recommends instead that artists break “ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It’s a tribute to Shields’s skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect “built” rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.
A deliberate polemic, it sets what one could be forgiven for thinking were two perfectly companionable instincts – the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other. Shields likes to say such things as “Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn’t”; to which I want to say, “Bad story does that, yes, but surely good story exists, too”. Anyway, there’s a pleasure to be had reading and internally fighting with Shields’s provocations, especially if you happen to be a novelist who writes essays (or a reader who enjoys both). The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: “The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe.” And: “All the best stories are true.” And: “The world exists. Why recreate it?” It’s tempting to chalk this up to one author’s personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn’t written a novel since the early 90s), but in expressing his novel-nausea so frankly he hopes to show that he is not alone in having such feelings – and my sense is that he’s right.
Ultimately, though, Smith wants to stage a defense of the novel as a form. Problem is, she can’t quite get beyond two moves that don’t add up to all that much. On the one hand, she lists a bunch of good novels without quite establishing why they are good let alone if they have anything at all in common – Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, and so on. On the other, she argues against Shields’s claims about the over-conformity of the genre that the history of the novel is a history of nonconformity. Fair enough. Beyond these two claims, all we get is a single sentence of praise for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (oy) for providing “‘a convincing imitation of multiple consciousnesses’, otherwise known as ‘other people.’)”
Disappointing, I must say. I was excited enough when I saw – but did not have time to read – the piece this morning as I was ferrying children to a kids’ play that I actually stopped and bought her new collection of essays on my way. While the death of the novel is the sort of news that stays news – when are we not hearing about the failure of this form, its readership, its profit model, its quality, etc – I’ll admit I’ve been thinking dark thoughts about the genre of late. I’ve got as much of myself as anyone invested in the form – I have just finished a book on the novel, I spend my days teaching very talented students about it, and I tap away at my own when the welter of academic work of all sorts momentarily recedes. But the academic humanties are in even more chaos than academia in general; the discipline of English has lost its path in the wake of theory; and to be honest I’ve not read anything new and good in 2009 save for Summertime by Coetzee, and as Smith explains in her piece, Summertime is an fin de la genre sort of novel down to its core. And let’s not even talk about dollars and pounds, bookshop placement, and failing publishing houses.
People say this sort of thing all of the time, and probably it’s just the rough time I’ve been going through lately that makes it stick, but Philip Roth’s recent prediction that within 25 years the novel would be a “cultic” niche-market object (presumably, even more so than it is today) has been echoing around in my head the last few days. At any rate, adswithoutproducts will devote itself, primarily if not exclusively, to trying to provide some sort of answer to the question of the future of the novel. In particular, I’m going to consider both the value of the form and a few possibilities for its renewal. Another way to look at this turn, perhaps more of a relief than anything else to some, is that I will try to stop live-blogging my protacted early-mid-life crisis and do this instead. Many have suggested, perhaps with good reason, that work issues underlie a lot of the meta-mess that I get up to. So let’s see if I can’t figure out a few things to say. I’ll start very soon with a long overdue gloss on the title of my blog.
But for now: was joking with a couple of friends, apropos of I can’t tell you what, that ZS probably wouldn’t share the disdain for us academics that many in the writerly circuits do. The reason being, we speculated, that she in fact wants to be one of us. In part anyway – she probably isn’t fantasizing about board of studies meetings and the like. I don’t mean this in either a snarky or (certainly) a conceited way, and it’s something that definitely something that suggests something very promising about her, a sort of aspiration to gravitas that’s almost entirely missing from the scene nowadays. But of course the problem is that unlike us, and let’s extrapolate and say also unlike the best living practitioners of analysis of and speculation on the novel, she refuses to let actually enunciated politics muddle these essays up. For, and here’s a bit of a leap that I hope I’ll be able to land as I move through what I’ll say next, the central problematic of the novel has always been aligned with the problematic of politics, even left politics. That is to say, what novels have always tested and probed is the question of what’s in it for me and me and me to get onboard with an immersion in the they. This is the reason why the style indirect libre has long since stepped to the center as the definitive formal innovation (and question) of literary fiction, as it’s a form that negotiates between the atomised solipsistical I and the chattering, vulgar they. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. More to come, soon….
Dammit. Am writing a lecture and would like to look at what I remember as a Benjamin Kunkel review of a new history of the literature MFA in America, Flannery O’Connor at Iowa and the like. Cannot find it anywhere! Can anyone remember the name of the book? Came out, or at least was reviewed, in the early summer.
Really hate it when all of the many search devices (google, spotlight, etc) at once act like it’s my job or failing that your job to remember stuff. Jesus.
1. Strange. I seem to have, through canniness and sheer force of will, sorted out some major problems in the last week, short term ones and long term ones. I am somewhat remarkable in a crisis. What will! What energy! What absolute drive to solve problems and not stop until they are solved. That’s not what’s strange. I knew about that already. (In a sense, this is why I have been successful on the job market. The job market, remember, is just one big crisis.) What’s strange is that sorting it out has left me a little bit – OK a lot bit – depressed. Almost as if I miss the stress, the joy of stress. Almost as if, despite the misery I’ve been through over the last ten days, there’s a part of me – OK a lot of me – that actually loves to live that way. Lives to live that way.
2. Mrs. Ads says to me, Yes, but we need to learn to enjoy life a bit. But we she means me. She procedes to cry rather interestingly and perhaps symptomatically through the terminal and real split-up scenes in the climactic episode of Mad Men Season 3. Telling the kids and all that. Keep in mind, and spoiler warning, it is of course Mrs. Draper who is driving this split. At least locally. On the show I mean. Hmmm… Don’t jump to conclusions – it’s way more complicated than that, as marriage always is, especially once kids and jobs are involved.
3. Art follows life. The climactic episode of Mad Men Season 3 is all about precarity, omifuckinggod precarity, and then turning it around on the bosses just before they fire you. They consolidate to save labor expenses, you heroically rise up to fuck them over by bravado and skill. Our fantasies, ourselves. For those who do not understand Americans and how they respond to things (I’ve encountered at least a few recently, as you might be able to tell) this episode would be a very good primer. Especially the temporality involved. Literally the second that shit starts to go wrong, they get down to business, chosing conspirators, stealing files, organizing a coup.
4. Someone today read the first chapter post-introduction and described it as “very sexy.” That’s a nice way to put it. Phew. Someone else (OK – Mrs. Ads) just said that there is so much of me in this book, really a ridiculous amount for an academic book. Not a single mention of me, of course. ** I think this has something to do with why it was so hard to finish. It is the most impersonal memoir imaginable, but memoir it in fact is. People say this sort of shit all the time, but it’s rarely all that true. In this case it’s true. Others have understood in a sense without reading the book: Why did you write about X, when X is the thing that is absolutely impossible for you to handle, even for a minute. As they knew, they’d already answered their own question.
5. Part of the reason that it’s a memoir, but only part, is that about 75 percent of me is made of But what do we make, really, of the style indirect libre? Sounds bleak. Part of me wishes that meant I was dry and academic, boring and office-hugging. Unfortunately it means exactly the opposite of that. These questions are hard, and running from them can take you along way in life.
6. Now that Mad Men is over till next August (oh jesus) we have to find something new to watch. I glanced at the HBO website to see what we’ve been missing and found this. It’s a precis of a series called Bored to Death:
Jonathan Ames, a young Brooklyn writer, is feeling lost. He’s just gone through a painful break-up, thanks in part to his drinking, can’t write his second novel, and carouses too much with his magazine editor. Rather than face reality, Jonathan turns instead to his fantasies — moonlighting as a private detective — because he wants to be a hero and a man of action.
The offbeat comedy series ‘Bored to Death,’ created by Jonathan Ames (author of several books, including the acclaimed graphic novel ‘The Alcoholic’), follows the misadventures of a fictional Jonathan Ames as he pursues his quixotic dream of emulating his heroes from classic private detective novels.
[post edited because I was being a dick and was rightly called out for it by someone, well after the fact... I apologize... Half of point 6 is now gone, as is point 7...]
8. Someone suggested that I ask anyone, you know, like your father, to copy-edit my manuscript. Hahahahahaahaha! What sort of world ended I up in? I told him there were only three books in our house when I was growing up, aside from the World Book Encyclopedias I begged them to buy me and buy me they did. The first, and oldest, was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I assume a wedding present. The second was what some have called “the best business book ever,” Barbarians at the Gate which (from a highly us-centric angle) chronicled the first brush with precarity that I can remember (my dad is an extra in it, not named), and The Joy of Stress, which may or may not have been a gag gift at some point.
9. So my dad can’t copy-edit my book, no. In fact, I sent him an email to look over yesterday before I sent it, a highly important one. It took him an unreasonable amount of time to read it – like 20 minutes for a 500 word message. I sat on the phone while he did so I know. But he did, I must say, copy-edit it just the right way, taking out one line, changing a certain word. Because, readers, I won today with that message. Just wish that I could, you know, enjoy winning. But really it only makes me miss the game itself.
By winning, let me me clear, I mean that things seem to have returned simply to relatively frantic normalcy. Nothing more exciting than that.
Both the ability to win and the inability to take winning to heart, both of these things are mine because I am the conscientious only-son of an interesting man whose definining traits are his insatiable need to be anxious and his incredible ability to look calm and charismatic in a crisis.
** In fact, in the previous iteration there was a tiny, 5 pp segment on how I came up with the project before and after 9/11, and how 9/11 inflected the development of the book. Wasn’t cheesy, trust me – and involved a rather smart archive-driven history of the emergence of the phrase “the new normal.” (I should actually go back and cut that out and expand it and publish it… hmmm…) This was mentioned in a reader’s report, and made the editor flip out, rather unreasonably I think. So I’ve eradicated every drop of “I” in the new version.
OK. So technically done with the book, as of just now. Sort of. Nine straight days of writing, 9 am to 10 pm. Why do these things never end? I’ll probably want to readjust the conclusion, which I really should expand into a proper epilogue, and I have some notes on changes to the beginning. And then there’s the copy-editting (thanks again tireless Mrs Ads!) and comments from a colleague to metabolize.
You have no idea what a fucking exorcism it would be to get this thing under contract. I’ve barely tried to sell it, have only sent it to a tiny selection of places most of which, I’ve since learned, aren’t in the practice of publishing “first books.” But now I basically have to sell it. Have been working on it since 2001, although there’s material in there, even still, that was written as early as 1999. And many of the things that I write about I started writing about circa 1997 or so. It concludes with a chapter centered on a text that my wife copied for me from special collections (ah, life pre-Amazon) for my twentieth birthday. So before you give me a hard time about tardiness – well first of all get in line. Secondly remember that since I started this book I have moved house six times, I’ve lived in four different places (2 US states and 1 different country), I’ve had three academic appointments at three very different universities (one elite US school, one decent state school in the US, one elite UK school), I’ve had two children and at least two nervous breakdowns. At least.
The current thinking is that whatever the nervous breakdowns were ostensibly about, they were ultimately and truly about this book.
World might end, soonish, but I am too tired to care. Good night and good luck, readers. Save up to buy my book – it’ll cost, if it works, 20 times more than IT’s or Owen’s, and sell 20 times fewer copies. If I’m lucky. It’s certainly 20 times more boring, but on the other hand it contains, what, fifteen years or so of work within it. Ah academia! You are what you are! You cost what you cost and pay what you pay!
Pray for everything to go smoothly, because I am so definitely looking at a pre-40 heart attack that it’s not funny…. Partly my own fault, but only partly…. Will be in at work tomorrow, again, all day – marking papers, answering email, prepping a lecture on the whole of fiction post 1945 (they wrote some? who? maybe I’ll just talk about DFW for an hour – the kids wouldnt’t be disappointed….), and reading a PhD whose defense I get to play along with telephonically on Monday. At night, because someone else on the panel doesn’t as a rule get up before noon. Geezus. Gay guys have all the luck…. and sleep!
Think I just, whilst having my 30th cigarette of the day down below my office *, broke the back of the last and hardest part of my book-in-revision. In mind if not yet on paper. It’s an analysis of one of my favorite scenes in literature, and just happens to be a scene about masturbation. What’s there is based on an ancient piece I wrote, my first good publication, and I just now, ten years later and in an instant figured out how to make it fit properly.
Making it fit properly, by the way, involves an interesting expansion upon the text that gave this blog its name. **
How about a little help, though, to get me rolling. Scenes from modern literature – preferably say 1850 – 1940 – that feature signficant chance encounters. Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” Bouvard and Pécuchet on their parkbench, Leonard Bast and his umbrella and the Schlegel girls in Howards End, Peter Walsh seeing Septimus and Rezia on the parkbench in Regent’s Park (ah Regent’s Park) in Dalloway.
Now your turn, go on….
* I’ve been working too much (12 hour days, eight days in a row, in my office) and smoking too much while I do. Yesterday, a colleague knocked to chat, entered, and said in a knowing tone: ADS! You’ve been smoking in your office during reading week! I responded that it was just my disgustingly nicotine-inundated jacket hanging on the door. Embarrassing. Today I wore the only other light jacket I own, a sporty Adidas windbreaker, that just looks wrong in an academic setting and has been drawing wtf? stares from everyone all day. But I can’t worry about these things! I have a book to finish!
** UPDATE: Ha! I’d forgotten that I sneak my blogname into this chapter. Just came across this:
In the section of The Coming Community entitled “Without Classes,” Georgio Agamben, compares the life of “single planetary bourgeoisie,” who have inherited the world in the wake of the rise of capitalist modernity and the arrival of secular nihilism, to an ad without products. With the dissolution of diversity, social identity, and meaning, they are brought face to face with the “phantasmagorical vacuousness” of inauthenticity without end:
[T]he absurdity of individual existence, inherited from the subbase of nihilism, has become in the meantime so senseless that it has lost all pathos and been transformed, brought out into the open, into an everyday exhibition: Nothing resembles the life of this new humanity more than advertising footage from which every trace of the advertised product has been wiped out. The contradiction of the petty bourgeois, however, is obstinately trying, against all odds, to make their own an identity that has become in reality absolutely improper and insignificant to them. Shame and arrogance, conformity and marginality remain thus the poles of all their emotional registers. (62-3)
Just as Agamben’s post-historical actors go through the motion of acting out the ad, whistfully staring at the car in the garage (except there’s no car), ravenously devouring the entrée (except there’s no food on the plate), going to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster (except there’s nothing on the screen)…
…and then back to the lit text at hand. How tricky am I!
Special shoutout to Mrs Ads, who has been providing me with every comfort, material and immaterial, during the Crisis. We have gotten through tough times together, right from the start, but this is perhaps the toughest. And she’s there. The point is not lost on Mr. Ads.
Oh my. What violent oscillations in attitude. I have no idea what’s going on and I’m trying as hard as I can not to think about it. My father called today and suggested that I could go to law school if it came to that. When I told him that I had absolutely no interest in that, he responded by suggesting an MBA.
Dear readers, I think I shall sort things out by raw force of will. I am quite something when I get focused, when all the chaff and static subsides. Watch as I double down, turn piss into lemonade, make some Jetzzeit in a selben Augenblick. Just in time delivery, with transcedence attached.
As on Friday and Saturday, I spent 14 hours in my office today. Yesterday was my birthday. Today I wrote 6000 words – that’s 20 double-spaced pages to you Americans. Mind you, 20 pages on things like Barthes’s “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” Badiou, Osborne on Badiou, and Franco Moretti’s “Serious Century” from the first volume of his anthology on the novel. And 20 pages that absolutely have to work. So this was some day.
You should really read “Serious Century.” Sorry Jameson, but Moretti is the top dog of our bleak time, and the only one doing interesting work. I’m pretty sure Moretti’s 20 pp. are worth more than my 300 or so.
I am growing a beard. I think I may not shave for awhile. It makes me look serious and French but also adolescent, so fuck it. It’s also going to turn into an act of passive-aggression once the department returns after the weekend. Why is he growing that weird spotty beard? He’s having a nervous breakdown, isn’t he. He might be! So I refuse to shave.
My wife reminds me that I work best under deep threat, when the pressure is highest. It was a nice thing to say and she’s basically right. Neurosis and ambient anxiety recedes. The needle on the concentration meter shoots upward. And I work. I make things turn out OK. I take decades off of my life, but it’s OK. It’s what I like to do… Love to do.
Of course, this is an adaptation to the environment that we call capitalism. Both nature / nurture originated at once, I’m sure. Massive class change doesn’t come without pain and dysfunction, but neither does it arrive without… What? An adaptation to shitty modes of life, a love of them? A visceral fucking absolute adoration of modes of life that are ultimately deeply alienating? That steal the grape from the vine? That bring the crop to harvest before its time? That sort of thing?
The best piece I’ve ever written – and you’ve seen some fragments of it on here recently – was written with a kid on the way, no other prospects than to get this or that job. The piece of course was about precarity and X.
Pieces of my soul are on the pavement outside my office. Drop off as I smoke 2 cigarettes with each smoke break, along with the bits of my lungs that I cough up. I can see them from my office window – the soul bits, the lung bits. I smoke 50 cigarettes today. Ho hum.
I become almost unconscious when I am writing well. The thought almost stops – I don’t hear its steps as it clambers up the stairs of my mind and out through the fingers to the screen. Automatonic. One of the things that I understand and in understanding appreciate about modernism is the fact that it was in favor of this sort of development, the stop of conscious thought, and generally was in favor of it for the right reasons. Those reasons being that it, consciousness, is the most ambiguous gift of modernity.
It helps to listen to music while I write. I was wishing all day that BBC Radio 3 would stop with the Remembrace Day stuff, and modernist music makes me change the station. I hate Remembrance Day – it’s English draped in more mawkish kitsch than even usual. Fucking poppies! (Don’t tell her I told you this – but last year round this time IT got a little upset when I made fun of Remembrance Day! I kid you not – she told me that I don’t understand. Poppies! And ridiculous Anglican services through the afternoon on BBC Radio 3! And people standing up in pubs with their hands over their hearts because the queen is on tv! Queens! Poppies!)
I switched to some WNYC classical channel. The music wasn’t as good, but there was ni Dieu, ni nation on there. Go figure – when America does soft left liberalism, it damn well does it right! It made me afterall!
When I was a kid and still believed in a punishing god, I walked around concerned that I was going to go to hell. I was never sure – I certainly wasn’t perfect, but neither was I all that bad. Just somewhere in between. I wonder if part of what’s gone into the recent RC de-emphasising of purgatory doesn’t have something to do with this. Given the goals of the church, keeping the flock persistently uncertain about where they’re headed (no one’s a saint, not even the saints – but no one, not even the damned, is sure of the other bit either) is useful. When you think about it, purgatory would catch almost everyone.
Precarity is like that too. Somehow.
Back to work tomorrow. 14 hours again, I’m sure of it. My nightly beer ration has been increased, and I had a nice hotdog tonight at Finsbury Park on the way home, so it’s no big thing….
Obviously I had to take that last post down, but thanks for your comments. I’ll sort things out, one way or another. But really: it is a shitty line of work.
Taught Conrad to the grad students yesterday. When I say taught, I mean it. I’m a little worried that my seminars turn into lectures, each and every time. Not because I’m reading from a stack of pages or anything. I basically go in and freform for two hours, a semi-conversation, not unlike what Marlow’s doing on the decks of the Nellie himself.
Anyway, they seem to like it. Or did last year on the evaluation forms, so I’ll not change. They scribbled and nodded often and insistently today as I ranted, so I’ll take that as a thumbs-up. Mostly, with HoD, we look at paragraphs like this one:
I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.
The rhythm of Marlow’s discourse is keyed to frantic oscillations just like this one. Back to work, back to work, no more thinking about my mad colleagues, no more thinking or seeing in general. (Remember from the start: “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency.” Indeed – but saves us from what?) Then, then: the still. Do you see the pivot. “One must look about sometimes.” Uh oh. “I asked myself sometimes what it all meant” – no don’t do that! And from there it plummets into frantic pilgrims and corpse stink, a Wellsian space-invasion and a avant-Lawrentian apocalypse as Marlow’s eyes and mouth run away with him.
The whole novel works like that. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious, Conrad’s stuff is often about the obsolescence of vision, thought, subjectivity, and interiority in a world in which those things seem to have been just now invented. Modernist subjectivism is born under the sign of its own unsuitability, is born to the sound of a whispered wish that it would simply go away.
Anywho. I get quite ramped up when I teach stuff like this. Hard to keep quiet. Especially when there are things like this to talk about, from a letter from Conrad to William Blackwood, the editor at the magazine that had commissioned HoD in the first place:
And this is all I can say unless I were to unfold for the nth time the miserable tale of my inefficiency. I trust however that in Jany I’ll be able to send you about 30000 words or perhaps a little less, towards the Vol: of short stories. Apart from my interest it is such a pleasure for me to appear in the Maga that you may well believe it is not laziness that keeps me back. It is, alas, something – I don’t know what – not so easy to overcome. With an immense effort a thin trickle of MS is produced – and that, just now, must be kept in one channel only lest no one gets anything and I am completely undone.
Can you spot the HoD keywords lurking in the letter? I’ve given you one clue already. The last sentence is chocked with them, tho. Remember the “thin trickle of ivory” that comes out of the jungle in exchange for all the manufactured trinkets and other garbage they send up river? And the “one channel” is just slightly interesting, right, given the fact that he’s writing novel about a guy headed on a little boat up an increasingly narrow river?
The much-discussed politics of the novel are to be found in this sort of thing, I think… and have argued this much in print. If you want the rest, you’ll either have to use your google-fu until you find the paper or sign up for our MA programme. Preferably the latter, and especially if you’re from elsewhere, as we need the loose change.
It’s definitely the perversest possible point to take away from HoD, but I too am trying to keep myself and my energies in “one channel” lately, trying not to “look about,” not even “sometimes.” I am fantasizing this morning about a life lived clockworkwise – get up, read the paper and eat breakfast, play with kids, off to the bus same time every morning. Instantly to desk and computer on and typing with the time I have. No mooning about – no thinking about. Then home, then relaxation, then reading, then bed. If there was an operation, preferably non-painful and I guess reversable, that could extract the self-distracting, meaning-seeking part of the brain and put it in a beaker for a bit, I’d be the first on-line, if a bit reluctantly, just at the moment.
At any rate, I started working last night – as a stupid sort of hobby – on a short and sloppy little book – one written in semi-blog style and which proposes some suggestions toward a new prosaics. It’ll follow the rubric suggested by Aristotle in his Poetics – “Every tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality – namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, song.” I’m going to take up each of those aspects, translated into novelistic application of course. I’ll post things here as I write them – I have no idea what I’d do with this little book if I actually finish it. And just so you know which future posts are attached to this project, I’ll title them like this: prosaics x.x, indicating the chapter at hand and (roughly) where it might fit in that chapter. So:
0 = Introduction
1 = Plot
2 = Character
3 = Diction
4 = Thought
5 = Spectacle
6 = Song
7 = Conclusion
Let’s see what happens. Going to try to do a page a night, whenever possible. Might be interesting, this – and perhaps a slightly more pragmatic (and pragmatically programmatic) use of the time that give to blogwriting than disparate random stuff. As far as I can imagine it, the point of the book will be to look again at the lessons of modernist innovations, identify their persistence in the present, and then propose alternative ways forward.
The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.
The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.
Since I was brought up by latter-day Empsonians (Christ! No! Not my parents! My first instructors at university!), this is a fairly accurate precis of how I was taught to read, how I try to read, and how I try to teach my students to read. Go look at the piece – Raban has interesting things to say about the value of doing so…..
I’d like to say more about this soon. Recently had a young teacher sit in on a few of my classes – she’s French, but teaching over here, and she wanted to see how Anglo-Americans do the close reading thing in the classroom. Good intuition on her part, to sense that there’s a difference. For as much as we anglos tried to approximate, over the decades when most under the spell of the French, Gallic modes of explication du texte and the like, there’s a way that it’s never quite worked out for us, I think. I kept apologizing to her in advance, saying that I wasn’t sure she was going to find what she was looking for in my classrooms, that she was welcome to come along but that I was making no representations as to the usefulness of what she’d see, etc etc. Anyway, what I do, when I’m at my best, is something like what’s described above – just not with Empson’s idiosyncratic and precocious brilliance.