Archive for the ‘answers without questions’ Category
What else does the novel, by the very nature of its elemental form, teach us than that there is some relation, or at least should be, between our internal subjective states and the world in which we move. Foreground / background. Protagonist / context. Romance / history. The family / the city. Wires run between the one to the other, from the outside in and back again. Almost every name of a novelistic subgenre or period movement (realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, to name just a few of the recent ones) names a different mode of wiring. Shifts in genre represent new ideas about how to write the machine. How tangled or untangled it is, how many wires run hither and how many yon, what buttons there are to push to control the voltage and wattage of the link up, how much bandwidth in total is carried.
Has there ever been a “terrorist attack” as uncanny as the one that happened yesterday in Woolwich? And uncanny is the right word – utterly familiar (tropes of beheading, tropes of “bringing the fight back to the oppressor,” the visibility of violence) yet at the same time utterly not (the refusal of both escape or self-immolative martyrdom, the implicit invocation of the laws of war when it comes to “innocent bystanders,” the further refusal to “let the event speak for itself,” or be spoken for by leadership organisations far away and ex post facto, or through pre-recorded statements aired after the event, and the immediate extinguishing of the fear of further attacks, at least by the same actors, as per Boston). With this one, we seem to slip from the genre called “terrorism” to something else: a gruesome morality play about the calculus of war, the algebra of carnage. Street theatre allegory that trades the fake blood for the real.
So was it the “genre shift” that explains the strange reactions of the bystanders who observed the attack and its aftermath? Women reportedly ran over, in the course of the attack itself, to attempt to help the dying or dead soldier, thinking that the three actors in this play were rehearsing an all-too-common everyday scene we call “a car accident.” Who was it, and why was it, that someone stayed to film a man whose arms were drenched in blood, who carried a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, while he delivered his final soliloquy? What to make of these recorded conversations between the killers and their audience?
Is there a better answer than that a genre had been disrupted or reinvented, and thus the rules that normal apply (murders try to escape, bystanders flee, etc) were unavailable for consultation?
Genre is also another name for myth. While it sometimes postures as science, it has far more in common with superstition. Throw salt over your shoulder, and lucky will occur. One character says something, the other, naturally, touches wood. We now, in our pharmacologically-lexiconed period, are far more likely to call superstitious practices the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One has to check, and check again, that the water’s not running in the bathroom before one leaves the flat. Push hard three times on the front door to make sure it’s locked… or else another storyline will ensue, the one that has an evening return to a gaping door, the laptop gone, the bedroom drawers dumped. This is literally it – some sort of chemical depletion or superfluity occurs, some traumatic event takes place, and then an almost mystical belief in certain irrational storylines takes over. To disobey the mandates of genre is to open oneself to an unhappy ending.
Last night: this news-story. On television and especially on the web. Fraught conversations about the arithmetic of death. And then a phone call. Bad news of the sort that late night phone calls usually bring. The trope of the middle-aged son and the ailing parent. The novel teaches us to think of the one thing as related, if complex, to the other. At least metaphorically, or even just formally. What is happening out there of course is a prelude to what is about to happen right in here, in the space of the family home and especially the skulls (and bodies) of those that inhabit it.
Think of the script. The call in the night in the movie. The early middle-aged son who ignores the call momentarily, caught up as he is in an argument about the gruesome news on television. The politics of violence, the physics of the world system. The cigarette whose space allows a second thought, a second glance at the mobile phone. Ominous – we can imagine what will happen next. The film that will play out from its start in a graphic sequence of news images morphs into a dark family drama. How does one cope when the worst comes home to roost?
A fallacy (a word quite close to “myth” and “superstition”) that doesn’t have a name, one that is hardwired into the DNA of the novel as a form. I’ve tried to name it in things that I’ve written, in seminars that I’ve led. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with temporality. What happens after what, or at the same times as each other. We could call it presumptive fallacy. Retro-prospective fallacy. The fallacy of coincidence. Sometimes it’s simply about the structural mandate that the foreground be read in the light of the background and vice versa. Contextual fallacy? Flaubert, disrupter through over-fulfilment of so many genre mandates, so early in the game, was aware of the problem. Think of Frédéric waiting for Madame Arnoux while the revolution kicks off a few blocks away in L’Éducation sentimentale. The New Critics liked to label fallacies on the part of the reader. I am more interested in the fallacies inherent in artistic forms themselves, even though obviously these can turn into the former and often do through the sort of training that novels provide.
But of course, myths are also true in a very serious sense. I don’t simply mean that what we believe we are. What we think is the only thing there is. Although that may well be true. In this case, it is also useful to think of myth or superstition or even fallacy as a customary practice, a mode of operation, running orders against confusion. The world, as we know, lives out the demands of its many operative genres every single day. Perhaps now as much as ever. A myth is habitus, generated by practice, an operating manual written and re-written each time we act.
The novel makes us stupid in one sense, solipsistic, tends to make us look for our angle on things, what does this mean to us? What were the attackers yesterday, in both his words and deeds, and deeds both during and after the attack, trying to say to me? Or at least us? There is a counter-instinct, for those disciplined a certain way, to try to climb up the ladder of transcendent wisdom, to disavow the inwrought narcissism of our conditioned response. To gasp and yell when the news commentators reduce a global to a local question, an a serious question to a matter of insanity or unanchored spite. They might think what they want, but they have no right to act it out here. To force us into these stringent attempts to adjust the genre back to something we’re comfortable with.
But the attempt to climb out of the fray of self-interest, however complex, however Wallace-ianly convoluted and self-reflexive, is of course a trope in yet another sort of story, another sort of myth, one that – we need to remind ourselves – has the deepest affinities with an imperial mindset, one that takes the world panoptically, one for whom impersonality is a transferable skill.
What retards political development – and really contemporary thought as a whole – more right now than an inability to come to terms with the relationship between the self, located wherever it might be, and the world-system as a whole? At least here where we are? What are we, sequestered in the posh uptowns and suburbs of the global system, meant to think or say when we are in the wrong jurisdiction? We know not to fall into the ethical mode, charity is of no use, but there may be an exitless cloverleaf, a highway cul de sac, ahead if
Despite all the complicities of the novel, these generic demands and the demands of its sub-genres, the promise remains that the bad faith strictures themselves make space for revelatory manipulation, clarifying detournage. They even, potentially, lead us toward the formulation of simpler questions, question more pressing in their semi-solipsistic simplicity. Like this one, that with the little revision, some shifts in seemingly inevitable consequence, the script I outlined above could be made to ask:
Who has to die in the prime of life, and who is afforded the luxury of death that comes at an actuarially appropriate stage?
I was asked by students and others several times last week what I made of Coetzee’s new novel. I’ve been a bit annoyed with myself that I haven’t really had any good answers yet, and have been forced to make the same gestures towards “bafflement” that just about all the reviews I’ve read have made. But I’m starting to think that its our bafflement itself that we should be looking into – that there’s more to be made of it than a shoulder-shrug.
Chris Tayler, in his review of the novel in the LRB, gives us a good start at a list of the questions begged but left unanswered in the course of the narrative:
As a reading experience it’s utterly absorbing, with almost painful levels of meta-suspense as you try to work out where the story is aiming to lead you. Questions are as close as Coetzee comes to direct statements, and the novel is richly generative of these. Is the world it depicts an afterlife, a pre-life, a mere stage in an unending transmigration of souls, a realm of ideal images as discussed in Coetzee’s recent essay on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, or none of the above? How does the Jesus plot fit in with this? How come Inés has access to sausages? Do the deadpan jokes get less frequent or just ascend to a higher sphere?
One of the things that I try to teach my students is to developed a more nuanced take on literary “difficulty.” Most of us, especially when we’re starting out at reading “difficult” books and thus insecure about our ability to understand, let alone intrepret, them, take it on instinct that there always is something to figure out in such works. One acquires a “reader’s guide” to Ulysses, one takes up the challenge of the notes at the end of The Waste Land – one struggles to “solve” the riddles of the poems, to understand the allusions, etc. But what if (so I argue in my first-year seminars) we’re meant in dealing with these texts not so much to penetrate the difficult but to have an experience of difficulty’s opacity itself. (My favourite example is to use in teaching is the beginning of the second section of The Waste Land, where I think Eliot’s putting us through a sort of routine having to do with the “dissociation of sensibility.” We simply can’t see the image described, and perhaps that’s meant to make us feel our own post-lapsarianness…)
Why does Inés have access to meat – and what is La Residencia in the first place?
It has been a preoccupation of Coetzee’s for quite awhile, to tantalise the reader with the sense that there are answers to questions raised by the text, that there is an interrogate-able reality lurking behind the narrative itself, and thus, when the answers fail to arrive, perhaps to push the reader back into an awareness of her or his own need for answers in the first place. (Think for instance of Disgrace, where the reader is left in the same position as David Lurie himself – completely unable to understand the reasons why his daughter Lucy does what she does [or doesn't do what she doesn't do] in the wake of her rape.) In this case, why, in the end, are we bothered by Inés’s access to sausages? Why are we worried about the nature of La Residencia? It feels as though, at the beginning of the work, Simón would have asked them too – but by the end of the novel, he’s lost his appetite for questions of this sort – his appetite for questions about appetite and its fulfilment. In other words, the reader’s persistence in wondering falls out of sync with the characters in the text – it’s we readers who remain new arrivals at Novilla.
Likewise with the question “How does the Jesus plot fit in with this?” Not only is the abstraction inherent in this sort of typology or allegorical sense incompatible with the putative Jesus’s incessant refusal of such abstraction, but the question is exactly the sort that Coetzee’s fiction time and again refuses to solve for us – or stages the struggle and failure to solve on the part of his characters. Again, think of Lurie’s attempts to place is daughter into a discernable “category” of rape victim after their attack, or even more pressingly, the efforts of the administrators of the camp that Michael K ends up in at the end of his novel to deduce the “meaning” of this man who has come into their care and custody.
Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me. If it were, if the origin of this meaning were no more than a lack in myself, a lack, say, of something to believe in, since we all know how difficult it is to satisfy a hunger for belief with the vision of times to come that the way, to say nothing of the camps, presents us with, if it were a mere craving for meaning that sent me to Michaels and his story, if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be (what you seem to be), a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip (pardon me, I name only the obvious), then I would have every justification for retiring to the toilets behind the jockey’s changing-rooms and locking myself into the last cubicle and putting a bullet through my head.
With just a shift of a few details and a reduction in intensity, this passage from Michael K could stand as a rendition of what I was feeling when asked last week “what the new novel means” and probably isn’t all that far away from the sort of frustration that the reviewers felt as they worked up their pieces for the magazines, or so I guess…
Coetzee is often – with obvious justification – labelled a “meta-fictional” writer: his works build on and distort previous literary works, or are “about” the act of writing itself. But they are also books that generate – or should generate – a sort of “meta-reading.” Just as the writer is writing about writing, when we read them, we are reading about reading. Or at least that seems to be the point. Were a new (or even the first) messiah to arrive on earth, would we be so concerned with his meaning and relation to precedent, his conformity or lack of conformity to the models that we would impose, that we would fail to listen to him right from the start? With inherited instrumental logics and instinct to abstract categorization, our need to extract reified meanings from things, would we be able to read him at all?
At the place where I teach, we still have the students do two courses (one at the beginning of their time with us, and one at the end) in “practical criticism.” We don’t call it that (we just call it “criticism”) but that’s what it is. If we were an American institution, we’d think of it descending out of what is termed “The New Criticism,” but because we are where we are, it’s seen as an import from Cambridge. As the folks to the north-north east describe it on their department website:
Practical criticism is, like the formal study of English literature itself, a relatively young discipline. It began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I.A. Richards. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. In Practical Criticism of 1929 he reported on and analysed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an ‘organised response’. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.
If you’ve been a reader of this site for awhile, or are familiar with my work in “the real world,” you might think that’d I’d buck against this model of instruction. Any good materialist critic of course should. It approaches the literary work in isolation of its context – the work as an ahistorical entity that emerged autonomously and without the frictional influence of the writer who wrote it or the world that the writer wrote it in.
But on the other hand – and this is why I not only do not buck against it but actively enjoy teaching on this course, perhaps more than any other – it is an extremely valuable method for enabling students to develop “against the grain” critical insights about texts. In the absence of astute attention of the “practical criticism” variety, it’s very difficult for students (or, really, anyone) to develop convincingly novel interpretations of texts. The close attention to the words on the page, and the dynamics of their interaction, not only sets the stage for an appreciation of the “value added” that comes of distilling whatever contextual and personal issues inform the piece once the history is added back in, but, due to the multiplicity and idiosyncrasy of possible interpretations, provides an opening for critical newness – for the saying of something provocatively different about the work.
So how do I teach “practical criticism”? In the seminar groups that I lead, I model and encourage the following “flow chart” of thought: Anticipate what other intelligent readers of this piece might say about it. Try to imagine the “conventional wisdom” about it that would emerge as if automatically in the minds of the relatively well-informed and intelligent. And then, but only then, figure out a perverse turn that you can make within the context of but against this conventional wisdom. “Of course that seems right, but on the other hand it fails to account for…” “On first glace, it would be easy and to a degree justifiable to conclude that…. But what if we reconsider this conclusion in the light of….”
Students tend to demonstrate resistance, early on, to this practice. For one thing, especially in the first year, they don’t really (and couldn’t possibly) have a fully developed sense of what the “conventional wisdom” is that their supposed to be augmenting, contradicting, perverting. At this early stage, the process requires them to make an uncomfortable Pascalian wager with themselves – to pretend as though they are confident in their apprehensions until the confidence itself arrives. But even if there’s a certain awkwardness in play, it does seem to exercise the right parts of the students’ critical and analytical faculties so that they (to continue the metaphor) develop a sort of “muscle memory” of the “right” way to do criticism. From what I can tell, encouraging them to develop an instinct of this sort early measurably improves their writing as they move through their degree.
But still (and here, finally, I’m getting to the point of this post) there’s a big problem with all of this. I warn the students of this very early on – generally the first time I run one of their criticism seminars. There’s a big unanswered question lurking behind this entire process. Why must we be perverse? What is the value of aiming always for provocative difference, novelty, rather than any other goal? Of course, there’s a pragmatic answer: Because it will cause your writing to be better received. Because you will earn better marks by doing it this way rather than the other. Because you will develop a skill – one that can be shifted to other fields of endeavour – that will be recognised as what the world generally calls “intelligence.” But – in particular because none of this should simply be about the pragmatics of getting up the various ladders and depth charts of life – this simply isn’t a sufficient response, or at least is one that begs as many questions as it answers. What are, after all the politics of “novelty”? What are we to make of the structural similarity between what it takes to impress one’s markers and what it takes to make it “on the market,” whether as a human or inhuman commodity? What if – in the end – the answers to question that need (ethically, politically) answering are simple rather than complex, the obvious rather than the surprising?
In my own work, I’m starting to take this issue up. And I try to keep it – when it’s appropriate – at the centre of my teaching, even if that can be difficult. (And there’s the further matter that to advocate “simple” rather than “complex” answers to things is itself an “against the grain” argument, is itself incredibly perverse, at least within an academic setting. There’s a fruitful performative contradiction at play that, in short, makes my advocacy of non-perversity attractively perverse!)
I’ll talk more about what I’m arguing in this new work some other time, but for now, I’m after something else – something isomorphic with but only complexly related to the issues with “practical criticism” and the issues that it raises. It has to do with politics – in particular the politics of those of a “theoretical” or in particular “radically theoretical” mindset, and the arguments that they make and why they make them.
Take this article that appeared yesterday on The Guardian‘s “Comment is free” website. The title of the piece (which of course was probably not chosen by the author, but is sanctioned I think by where the piece ends up) is “What might a world without work look like?” and the tag under the title continues, “As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.” While the first two-thirds of the article is simply a description of the poor state of the labour market, it is the end that gets to the “provocative” argument at play.
But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested ”citizen’s income” are gathering pace.
The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”
In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.
It may be a somewhat bad faith line to allege that “interesting perversity” rather than some well-founded and straightforward belief is at work behind an argument of this sort, but in the absence of any substantive suggestions of what the answers to these questions might be, or in fact why these are the right questions to ask at the moment, what else are we to assume? It is provocatively perverse to suggest, at a time of stagnant employment rate and when people are suffering due to the fact that they are out of work or locked in cycles or precarity, that we might do away with work altogether. It isn’t the standard line – but it’s a line that allows the author to avoid repeating the conventional wisdom about what a left response to such a crisis might be. This in turn affords an avenue to publication, as well as a place in the temporary mental canons of those who read it.
Unfortunately, of course, the Tories (and their ideological near-cousins in all of the other mainline parties) are also asking the same sort of questions about a world (or at least a nation) without work. How might one keep the tables turned toward what benefits employers? How might one keep wages (and relatedly, inflation) low but still spur “growth”? How might one manage this system of precarious non-work, at once depressing wages but keeping the employable populace alive and not building barricades. In short, the question of “What a world without work might look like” is a question that is just as pressing to the powers that we oppose as to people like the writer of this article.
We’ve seen other episodes of the same. During the student protests over tuition increases (among other things) I myself criticised (and had a bit of a comment box scrap over) the Really Free School and those who were busily advocating the destruction of the university system…. just as the government was doing its best to destroy the university system. That many of those making such “radical” arguments about university education were themselves beneficiaries of just such an education only made matters more contradictory, hypocritical, and frustrating.
In short, in countering some perceived conventional wisdom, in begging questions that seem to derive from a radical rather than a “reformist” perspective, the author (and others of her ilk) ends up embracing an argument that is not only unhelpfully utopian, but actually deeply compatible with the very situation that seems to provoke the advocacy of such a solution. I can’t help but sense that the same instinct towards perversity that makes for a good English paper – and, perhaps even more pressingly, a good work of reputation-building “theory” – is what drives a writer to take a line like this one at a time like this. One might counter that I’m being a bit of a philistine – that I’m closing off avenues of speculative thought and analysis. I’m not. I’m just wondering what the point of writing all this up in a questi0n-begging article in a popular publication is, an article that does little more than raise unanswerable questions and then ends with what might as well be the banging of a Zen gong.
Let’s definitely not extrapolate from personal (and privileged) experience…
Not feeling so great tonight at the thought that a) on the one hand someone told me I could potentially get paid £900 for this piece that I am supposed to be writing, a piece that I’ve basically (it seems incredibly clear) I’ve been angling basically my adult life to get, and I got excited, as believe you me the £900 would come in some serious handy…
b) The girl from downstairs, a first-year undergraduate at the university at which I teach, came up last night whilst I was out to ask my girlfriend if she could use out washing machine. Thing is, she had a job interview today and needed to wash some clothes for it. Out of politeness, said girlfriend said yes and then asked her what the interview was for. “Oh, Goldman Sachs. An internship!” Right. “It pays £10,000 a month – it’s a month’s work. I really need this! Thank so you much etc etc etc.”
Look. I’m fine. I live beyond my means and seriously shouldn’t complain and etc. But still… Jesus fucking christ does that stick in the craw amidst bank machine balance checking and aggressive notes from landlords and all the rest. Hard to imagine, in the end, that the value added that she adds to the world is etc.
Wonder if she got the job.
Strong sense tonight that it’s time to FSU. And etc.
- a sense that somehow the historical and cultural situation has somehow turned such that it is arranged in a configuration that is on longer receptive to you, your thinking, your interjection.
- that ever so recently the world was a workbook of problem sets you were consistently able to solve and so very rapidly
- having done some sort of intellectual damage to yourself through the struggles (biological, psychological) you have endured recently in simply living
- you are aging and as you age time speeds up
- stuffy head, the pressure behind the eyes, the tightness in the chest
- there simply isn’t in the day, no matter how clear, the when and where
- again and again, the same thought of Kafka, whose image hangs about your neck on a string of wellworn rosary beads
- the internet, or missing breakfast
- always another obligation, which preoccupies you from the second that you get up
- you are not taking things in the right order
- perhaps it’s all of us at once
- problems that you are spending so much energy trying to solve are boring and thus you are bored
- becoming forgetful, a memory issue
- there is something or someone you are missing
- there is probably a computer program available to help
- the old forms are broken and your frustration and inability is itself a mark of your deeper aptitude
- the sense that there is another way to work, one fully compatible with or even a development directly out of your current situation
- or that if you wait for a bit, if you are patient, perhaps the high pressure system will settle once more over your life and the world itself, and you will find yourself standing in full light under a blue sky again, able at last to see
He is sitting behind a guy on the bus to Finsbury Park last week. Said guy is holding his iPhone such that it is easy to read what he is texting, the texts that he receiving. Her message is first and then his:
- still in bed x
- in cab x
The scenarios that would inform such a lie – he is not where he is supposed to be, he is trying to impress her and thinks (or know?) that bus travel isn’t the fastest mode of transit into her deepest deep – proliferate in his mind until they don’t.
Next he tells her that he is being sent to Bradford to cover some murders that happened, x.
He is sitting on a train, riding back from a conference in a small city (pop. 44,000). He is sitting with a young but still quite successful novelist and and another academic, a theorist. He talks to the novelist about reviewery, the vicissitudes of teaching writing, the advances that the latter received, the meeting that he himself is having with a literary agent this week. He, they, ignore the theorist, though later he will feel bad about this.
A couple is sitting in the seats across the aisle. She is reading a magazine, he a novel. Not long into the trip, he drops the book noisily on the table between them, pulls out his phone, and begins to play a game instead.
He wonders whether a) he was bored with the novel b) bothered by the volume of their conversation c) bothered by the content of their conversation.
Earlier, at the conference dinner, he receives advice about dealing with agents from a novelist who would know. She outlined the differences between working with a big agent at a small house and a small agent at a big house. Later she hinted at the possibility of him reviewing her next novel – joked about whether she would or wouldn’t have him sent a copy, and then made a joke about the Canadian fishing village where his mother grew up, which she knew of, had even visited, or so she let on.
At this dinner, he fails to finish his quattro formaggi pizza, or even half of it. He had forgotten that this chain of Italian restaurants was the one where he doesn’t like one of the cheeses on the quattro formaggi.
It is embarrassing, for a man of his size, not to finish – especially in England, where everyone finishes. He is relieved when the wait staff has taken the husk of it away while he is out for a cigarette.
Earlier than that, before the dinner, he worried throughout the conference about his extremely persistent cough. He worried for two reasons – that he was really bothering others in the audience was one reason.
When he meets a Canadian, say at a conference, he feels a need to prove his Canadianess to them, though he has only ever visited the place. Likewise, when he meets a writer of fiction, he needs to do the same – subtly somehow prove that, despite the fact he’s published nothing nor has he tried to publish anything, at least prospectively he is one too.
The fact that he has a Canadian citizenship card does render the former task easier than the later, but both are in their way confidence games, aimed to sell himself as much as his interlocutor on aspects of his identity that are only themselves fictional, even if legally or prospectively true.
A review in The Forward of Joshua Cohen’s forthcoming novel Witz ends on the following note:
At more than 800 pages of involved and unusual reading, “Witz” is a book for those who are prepared to spend the time and effort of a full 40-hour workweek reading a novel. It is a week of work that will be quite unlike any other you’ve ever experienced.
It has taken him at least a full 40-hour workweek to read it, but a work-week entirely conducted after-hours and on buses and trains.
At some point this weekend, he decides that he will work exclusively on his novel and not at all on his scholarly work, this summer. Though this, of course, is a lie.
On Sunday morning, he reads Terry Eagleton’s review of Christopher Hitchens Hitch-22 in The New Statesman. Later, as he buys the book at his local book shop, the woman at the counter jokes about the picture on the cover, that it is a flattering one given what Hitchens looks like now. She uses at one point the word “sexy,” but he misses the rest of the sentence and doesn’t ask her to repeat it.
Later he uses the index to look for references to the graduate seminar that his wife took with Hitchens during the Fall of 2001 and finds just what he is looking for, which confirms one story that he told someone at the conference the day before. Other stories remain unconfirmed.
The night before, upon returning from the conference, he orders both of the young novelist’s novels and discovers, to his surprise, that the young novelist is actually four months older than he is. This is a relief, and explains why this novelist groaned as loud as he did when saw the line on the backcover of Witz: “JOSHUA COHEN was born in 1980 in New Jersey.”
He, like the young novelist, was born in 1976.
Later, when he discovers that a podcast of his conference lecture has been posted on the web, he watches it, calls his wife down to watch it. It’s been a long time since she has seen him lecture, years.
She leaves him to it after a few minutes, clearly put off by his fascination with the video, the rapt attention that he pays, there at the kitchen table, to himself.
He takes decongestants for the cough to no avail – the cough persists. In addition, he has a strange, sore spot on his head, the back of his head. Sore to the touch, but the source of the pain is underneath the skin, between the scalp and the skull. He beat hypochondria, and beat it conclusively, years and years ago. But beating hypochondria brings its own dangers and with them its own even deeper fears.
He is reading Witz in the living room while he wife looks up options on sabbaticalhomes.com for the summer, for their daughter’s summer break. Six weeks, from mid-July to the end of August. There are people eager to rent a place like his in London, people with kids, people willing to take care of cats, but no one with a place for rent in New York. He wonders if they should go to a European city instead, and she agrees that since they are here, they really should at least think about that. But Italy would be too hot, and so would Spain, and Paris they’ve done, and Germany is boring, and they’ve just been to Amsterdam. And he hasn’t been to the new Yankee Stadium, though he promised he’d never in his life go there, a year or so ago.
Someone has a place available in Maplewood, New Jersey, located just at the base of South Mountain. A strange siren song sings itself in his heart, but no, for chrissake, come on. He suggests staying with his grandmother, in Nova Scotia, in the fishing village. Think about the babysitting.
On the train back from the conference, the novelist mentions that he and his girlfriend spent six months in Buenos Aires while he finished his second novel. When he and his wife were in Buenos Aires, just after the devaluation, they joked about buying an apartment with their credit card, putting down a downpayment anyway, but there was grad school to return to, work to return to.
Later he thinks that he is not sure there was a better time than when they were in Buenos Aires, and wonders if they shouldn’t in fact go back for those six weeks.
He sends his father, who has never seen him teach, a link to the podcast of him lecturing. He anticipates receiving a message back telling him that he read too quickly, way too quickly, as his father once took a public speaking course with William F. Buckley’s brother which seemed to have only two takeaway points: 1) Speak very slowly. 2) Print your speach with no more than 40-50 words per page.
But he is wrong, that’s not what he gets in return. Rather, an hour later he receives an email from his father featuring a podcast starring an engineer from BP, explaining the efforts the corporation is taking to seal the leak in the Gulf. No reference, none at all, to his lecture in his father’s email.
This surprises him for only about seven seconds, which is perhaps the time that it takes for things that are obvious and inevitable to unseat things that are wished for but impossible.
This is also the reason why this post – its form, its content, both together – exists.
Earlier, Sunday afternoon, he discusses all of the above, except of course for the things that would happen later, with his wife as they walk with the children into town to get some lunch. His older daughter assumes that her parents are fighting – pouts, fits, cries, and then demands that only her mother take her to lunch and that he father “go to work, because he has a lot of things to do at work.”
Things spin a bit, his mind fills with anxiety, anger, guilt all at once. He is silent and away for the first ten minutes of lunch and then returns, tries to speak.
1. Amidst bouts of very adult sadness, the kids’ pictures and drawings and things that hang on the refrigerator are at once a beacon of hope and a source of torment: Just join the dots to complete this picture of a super sunflower and a beautiful butterfly. A sort of simple and joyful structural support of the world, where it starts, but one that is bound to rust and crumble into the anxiety and even psychopathology that is adulthood.
And then a grimmer sense that I am getting even this wrong.
2. At the National Gallery this afternoon, stopped by the Van Goghs to look again at this for a bit:
Am falling in love, at an only somewhat careful distance, with the brilliant bêtise of Van Gogh and his work. Leaving aside the humble craftsman, humble chair, but would a humble craftsman ever paint himself as a humble chair? question implicit in this painting, I am keep laughing to myself about the portrait of the artist as his packet of pipe tobacco thing, as that seems to be the ultimate joke of the piece. There is a strange erotic component to it too, a cockeyed metonymics of sexual parts on display, except they don’t work quite right (in short, you put the female stuff inside the phallic thing and smoke it…) Whatever – brilliantly fucked up painting, and I only wish that the gift shop had had one for sale so that I could display it in my office in a gesture of angry post-bourgeois glee.
3. My own kitchen table and chairs don’t fit the space they’re in. We bought them for the previous house, which was much bigger, and even had a lovely breakfast room along side the dining area. It was a beautiful house, and I remember it fondly, even though I’m not a better homes and gardens sort of guy and have a bit of a perverse streak when it comes to my own living spaces. But somehow the current arrangement, the fact that one of the chairs is pinned to the wall by the table, as there’s no room for it to fit otherwise, pleases me. I will never allow the table to be replaced, not while we live here.
4. In lieu of Van Gogh’s Chair, I purchased for my daughter a print of his Sunflowers:
I thought to tell her the story about VVG hanging these in his guest bedroom for Gaughin, but realized I didn’t want to tell her the rest of the story of their friendship and how it turned out, and so we left it at the Sunflowers themselves.
5. We were at the National Gallery for a lovely thing they put on for kids every Sunday morning. Because we have, to different degrees, exceded many of the probables and likelies encoded in us by our respective upbringings, we both get a kick out of the fact that our kids go to a thing at the National Gallery in London on some Sunday mornings. (I first visited an art museum was I was fifteen.)
6. It is 3 AM and the International Herald Tribune just dropped through the mail slot. Something disturbing and alluring at once about being up so early and hearing it hit the floor.
7. On the way with all of the kids and the parents to look at the painting that we were all going to look at together at the National Gallery, we passed Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake….
… which T.J. Clark wrote an interesting, but more than slightly compulsive, book about, which I started but did not finish. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that it was in the National Gallery. But we had been warned by our handler not to dawdle and look on our way to the painting of the day, and so I let it be.
8. The painting that the guide chose to talk to the kids about today was an odd one: Drouet’s Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame. Meh. I think the selection principle at play has one main determinant: there has to be a doggie, or animal of some sort, involved:
At one point, one of the kids asked if she was the queen. The guide only half-nervously answered No, not quite. She was more like the kings, um, special friend, right parents? Softly nervous adult laughter was laughed and I thought to myself Laugh softly, like a nervous adult. This is the time for nervous adult laughter, softly.
9. Later at lunch, my daughter asked us what we were going to be when we grew up (thanks, kid) and we turned the question on her. She asked, in turn, what we thought she would be and my wife said I think that you might be a doctor who helps people, because you’re very good at helping people, which made my daughter happy. I did not tell her that I thought, and secretly hoped, that she would end up an artist, going to art school and the like, like all of those no good hipsters that I rage at, generally sotto voce, daily.
10. I am supposed to be teaching her how to read as the utterly-to-be-expected-to-happen happened: one of the other kids in her class has emerged as a reading prodigy. Son of the only other academic parents in the group, the kid is basically reading his parents’ monographs at night to put himself to sleep.
I think instead I want to teach her to do something that I absolutely cannot do, like draw.
I do not want her to go into the business that I am in. At all. Any of the businesses that I am in.
11. Much is left out, but what strangely honest posts these are, my Sunday (or immediately post-Sunday) numbers. I actually go back and edit out inaccuracies and half-truths. For instance, above I had originally written that I told her the story about Van Gogh and Gaughin, except for the end, but this was untrue and so I changed it, as I told her nothing on this point.
12. What happened after we returned from the museum and lunch, and after we stopped for groceries, I cannot say. Things got very bad in a rather amorphous way, and then I slept, and now I am writing, which makes me feel better, though not as much as the sleep did.
13. Things that nearly made me cry this weekend… I mean palpably have the tears come up only to be forced back down through force of will and masculine embarrassment:
- Sunday, as we prepared to enter the gallery, the guide warned the children not to touch any paintings, and then warned the parents to ensure that the children did not touch any of the paintings.
- Saturday, at her school fair, my daughter found on the used toy table at Barbie doll missing her top. It was the sort of Barbie that comes with the clothes attached, and this one was missing her top. She begged us to buy it for her (40p) and we did and then there was the sight of her gripping it and stroking its blonde hair and showing her friends that she had a new Barbie.
- Other things, some of which I can remember, some of which I can’t.
14. Despite the fact that the logorrhea that is fueling this post should be as worrying as the affectual state that preceded it, it almost impossible to see it that way, to believe that that is so. One takes the mania when it comes, seeks the mania when it is gone, would pay any price just to keep it here rather than slip into its psycho-chemical dialectical partner.
15. On the way to the Van Goghs my daughter stopped us at Carracci’s Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way:
Strange picture, based on the apocryphal Peter-in-Rome stuff. But my daughter is fascinated by Jesus (stupid UK state school system introduces her to the story, has her draw pictures of Bible scenes and the like… America is rarely secular, but when it is, thank god, it is truly secular…) and wanted to know what is happening and so we told her:
You know that the man with the cross, Jesus, got in trouble with people and was killed. The man on the right, who was Jesus’s friend, pretended not to know him afterward. Three times people came up to him and asked him, “Do you know this Jesus guy?” And each time he said no, so that he wouldn’t get in trouble. And now, in the picture, he’s having a bad dream about it because he’s feeling guilty.
My wife said the dream part, and I corrected her. Not quite a dream, but still. We moved on…
16. Amazing how fast, when I am in a state like this one, that my imagistic vocabulary, metaphoric tendencies, and general narrative sensibility turns back to the Roman Catholicism that I long ago abandoned. Everything goes Heaven and Hell, venerated images, and a sense of femininity / sexuality organized by constantly collapsing binary oppositions.
Sometimes I wonder if I am one of the last people (in my part of the world) to truly go through the experience of Catholic education – education considered quite broadly. Could this even happen here and today? I am glad that I won’t find out from my own daughters.
17. I am reading a big new novel for a review, something that you’ll likely be hearing about in a few weeks, especially if you’re American and interested in such things. I am disappointed with it – it tries for manic lyricism and ends up with what to me seems more like Joycean pastiche. This in turn is nudging me to rethink Joyce himself, the bloodlessness of his self-conscious verbal play.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am – have always been – trying to write. Actually, as you can see, I am constantly writing. But very little of it passes muster – my muster, not anyone else’s as I never send it out. I do not send it out. But lately it is becoming more clear to me what it is that I have found to be lacking in the stuff that I do… Something like the opposite of bloodlessness, something like the lurid. I have cast my lot with the artists of precision, and would never give that up to fall into the other camp. But still, between the hard folds of rigorous self-consciousness, I’d want there to be something organic, animal, leaking or even in spots spurting through.
18. Two versions of the Christian lurid are contained to two relatively recent and similarly controversial films about Christ. The corporeal materiality of The Passion of the Christ and the limbic romantic (sur)realism of The Last Temptation of Christ. Obviously I’m talking more about the latter, as applied to my own work, but who knows – maybe there’s something I need to sort out on this point.
It now seems to me that one could sort each of the paintings posted above into one of the two categories, with only a bit of stretching.
18. Watching Linha de Passe last night, I found myself wishing that I had a brother, or even brothers. But perhaps if I had a brother, or brothers, and they were likeminded or at least sympathetic, perhaps I’d send all this stuff to him or them instead of writing it out on here in letters to all of you.
Stupid only-child fantasy of fraternal intimacy! I’m sure it almost never happens!
19. I am working on a story, something like a primitive or proto version of this aggregate fiction stuff that I keep going on about. There probably are more subtle and thus better ways to get at the aggregate, but one way that suggests itself rather insistently is to let architecture do the work. That is to say, you can find places where the individual subject and the mass of subjects blur and become complex in certain architectural situations, where the interior experience remains at once distinct and idiosyncratic but perhaps predictably so.
I had my start thinking about the aggregate in fiction after writing about it outside of fiction and then teaching Don DeLillo’s Underworld in an MA seminar. In particular, the following passage from the first section, set at the Polo Grounds, stood out to me:
Men passing in and out of the toilets, men zipping their flies as they turn from the trough and other men approaching the long receptacle, thinking where they want to stand and next to whom and not next to whom, and the old ballpark’s reek and mold are consolidated here, generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions, and they are thinking in the ordinary way that helps a person glide through a life, thinking thoughts unconnected to events, the dusty hum of who you are, men shouldering through the traffic in the men’s room as the game goes on, the coming and going, the lifting out of dicks and the meditative pissing.
The thing I am working on at the moment is something like this, extended into a (somewhat) progressive narrative. But it is set not in a men’s room but, to borrow from Dante, lo passo che non lasciò mai persona viva – the hellmouth.
20. I suppose one simple and stupid way to put it is that just as VVG took pastelish Impressionism and rendered it lurid and generally off-kilter, that’s sort of what I’d like to do with prose fiction. You take the rational but insipid phenomenology of the sophisticated standard issue, but then do it over it fucked up dense colors and on inappropriate themes, often with inappropriate focus and focalization.
It’s not completely clear to me what the aggregate has to do with the lurid.
The best part is I have only the dimmest sense of why I would want to do this. Which seems, intuitionally, a good thing, but also a bit frightening.
21. What balls I have, or something else, to write this way about writing, on here and like this. Interesting to note that if you had me in person, whether my best day or my worst, whether drunk or sober, whether we were lifelong intimates or airport-intersecting contingents, I promise that you’d never in a million years hear me talk like this, have me tell you any of this.
Further, I will push the button to post this, and then I will have a cigarette and think of twenty other things I meant to say…
Grant me to accept, with requisite disdain and without anxiety, the inferior yet successful works of others.
For the world is full of successful books that I am glad I neither wrote nor read.
Let me not follow them unto that tomb of google monitoring and the endless fulfillment of empty requests.
For I would feel shallow, and I know that that is what I like least of all.
Teach me to work in the blind, having read and written and rewritten until right – and even before that, having thought and thought again until ready.
For the undercooked is no more kosher than the stupid.
Allow me not to fall into the perversion of easy fulfillment.
For what is easy is, as the saying says, not all that worth it.
Allow me to choose to be right rather than popular, full rather than ready, worked rather than underfed and without an actual argument.
For underfeeding and hurry starves thought, and thought is all there is.
Let me get this sentence right, and then the next one, rather than worrying about schedules and word-counts.
For I have read the hurried books, and I remain glad that I did not write them – a deep subjective crisis would ensue.
Grant me not to write at speed, whatever the others are doing.
For writing at speed is the enemy of both argument and real pertinence – edible only by the stupid, and this is not my demographic.
For years and years, from the beginning, the nightly prayer (even after God) finally to work properly tomorrow. The schedule, the set of texts. At one point, it was the Norton Anthology of World Literature and a teach-yourself guide to Spanish, then Latin, then Homeric Greek, Italian, and finally Chinese. Earlier than that it was all the books listed in the back of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Of late, there isn’t even a set of books to read – the list has turned into a toppling and random stack. It was also always certain amount of writing, either in the morning or at night (my nights are unworkable now – I am too old). But in conflict with this, a steadily developing doubt in volition and will. We are waifs amid forces, we do what we will do. You can make a list but you cannot make yourself keep to the list. But still one says the prayer, even after God, for the work to come and for everything, finally, to be in its right place.
“I was thinking about my father the other day, today…” his father says on the phone. The job at the corn oil plant, the insufficiency, the boredom, the drink, and “other problems.” “It wasn’t my mother’s fault. It might have seemed so but it wasn’t.” It is amazing, nearly uncanny, how well his father seems to know him, despite it all.
He has a strange sense, a dawning sense, that his father thinks that he is just like his grandfather, more like his grandfather than his father is himself, which opens in him unanswerable problems but also a well of strange delight. After all the fear, after the implicitly potential violence and the hard hurt of soft disappointment, now he is his father’s father, all of a sudden, just right now. It is an odd think to feel, given the place that his grandfather has always played in the whispered familial mythology. “He was incredibly intelligent. His brother told me that he was twice as smart as him. And then janitorial work, and drink…” But he doesn’t know who this brother was – didn’t even know that his grandfather had a brother.
More than a decade ago, some hobbyist wrote a book about the Canadian RAF (later RCAF) pilots of Lancaster bombers during the second world war. His grandfather featured as a sort of Everypilot in the last chapter. “On the ground, he was Buck and he was good times. But in the air, he was always and only Captain xxxxx. All business in the air….”
His daughter is going on a fieldtrip to the RAF museum north of Brent Cross on Monday. He very much wanted to go, cannot go because he has to teach Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. What would it be to tell his own daughter that yes, this is the plane that your great-grandfather flew. He bombed bridges and cities while seated in the cockpit of just this. He knows that she would be fascinated by this; he is tempted to cancel his fucking seminar.
When he was a boy, and his father parlayed a job interview in London into a family vacation, the two of them visited the museum, way the fuck up the Northern Line, while his mother writhed with food poisoning that came of eating egg salad at the cafe in Hyde Park. They saw a Lancaster Bomber, his grandfather’s plane, and when they came back to the borrowed flat in Knightsbridge, cricket was on the TV.
He suspects, yes, that he would have made an excellent pilot of a Lancaster bomber. His youthful hesitancy has blossomed into an adult nihilism and rage, and he has never cared about himself in the sense that would make fear of death in the air a problem.
Tomorrow he will co-teach an MA seminar, and his co-teaching partner will leave thinking “Christ, he is one thing at the pub, another thing when the game is on….”
The insufficiency of the comparison is not lost on him.
He is walking somewhere, in the dream: it has come to walking. He has to jump a low fence, at one point, to get back to the sidewalk. A man is tottering randomly down the street, alternately trying to cross it and not. His legs seem to be crippled, and the jeans that he wears are slightly baggy, too large in both the waist and the inseam.
He tries not to recognize the man, walks past him, then stops to look back. It is his father, or at least someone who looks like his father, who approaches and says simply “You are dying.”
He feels three things on his way home, late Friday night.
First he feels menaced at the bus stop because there are packs of drunken youths around and for some reason (because he is big, something else – because he looks like the sort of guy that it would be worth fucking up – little do they know how worthlessly with the grain of things it would be) is absolutely sure they’re going to come over to where he is and start something. He has learned not to smoke at bus stops at night – it only draws the attention of kids like these.
Later, he feels frustrated when another group of youths board his bus and argue with the bus driver about Oyster Cards and fares for about ten minutes, delaying the journey. Something in him has always made him feel like it’s his duty to intervene in situations like this – but again, he seems to be the right sort to fight it out with, and four on one is no good. Thankfully, a middle-aged woman with a strong West Indian accent shouts them down for having no respect for their elders and they leave. One of them spits on his window as the bus pulls away.
Finally, he feels disgust with England mixed with a overwhelming sense of fear when, as the bus nears his stop, the driver slows down because a man has fallen over dead drunk, legs on the sidewalk, head on the street right where the bus is meant to go. Some kids – themselves drunk – run up and lift the guy onto the bus stop bench. He does fucking nothing, walks home.
A sizable percentage of the patrons one night are working behind the bar the next night. And vice versa.
He dreams of getting mugged, missing appointments, fighting with someone and hurting them quite badly at first but by the end getting severely injured himself, being told off by both adults and children, getting caught in compromising positions, walking around with his fly open, and forgetting what he was going to say at a key moment.
Secular society’s lack of any viable purification rituals leaves everything up to the dream, and dreams don’t really work, not like that.
Full force, he suddenly sees it: the animal strangeness of spending an entire Saturday sitting at the kitchen table, typing revisions into a piece that was begun in 2000. Others are walking and looking, soon they’ll be eating and drinking. He, on the other hand, is in keystroke dialogue with a younger version of himself at once cleaner and less intelligent but somehow braver for it.
A cat drips from a bush out back and scatters towards home. Back at the table, state-sponsored classical music trickles out of his laptop’s speakers.
The structural stress of his line of work is abstract but profound – at once ridiculous and, unfortunately, utterly real. Everything else follows, as if fatally, when one takes it too seriously. That is to say, when one takes it at all.