Archive for the ‘modernism’ Category
Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.
First, Self describes finding inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.
In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.
Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.
In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.
Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself. In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.
Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. [...] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.
So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.
Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.
I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.
In his fine review of McCarthy’s C, Leo Robson refers to a review-cum-manifesto that McCarthy wrote recently in the LRB. I was absolutely sure that I’d written something on here about this, and in particular the very passage that Robson astutely cites, but as it turns out there’s nothing more than this, which isn’t very helpful. Probably there’s something frozen deep in drafts that never quite made it up. But at any rate the relevant passages from the LRB piece (a review of a couple of novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint) are these:
What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on – but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.
In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which – prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides – assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.
OK. A few things about this:
1) Robson wonders the following about McCarthy’s pseudo-manifesto:
McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with “middlebrow aesthetics” and “liberal humanism”, especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn’t enjoy them.
I think this is slightly unfair on Robson’s part. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large the norm that McCarthy names remains fairly hegemonic. For instance, I’ve reviewed a bunch of novels in the last few months – some I asked to do, some I was asked to do – and I can’t think of one that didn’t conform fairly solidly to McCarthy’s description. Some were better than others, but each indeed centered on “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on.”
But there’s something else that’s operating behind McCarthy’s assumption I think, something a bit interesting and almost funny. I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time, and in fact I’ll cop to teaching it frequently, despite the fact that I hate it, and putting it to just such a use. And further, it just now occurs to me that I’ve written and said more about Saturday this summer than any other work of fiction. Odd, and worthy of more reflection I think, its seemingly unspoken but universally acknowledged bad architypicality. (Just finished another piece the other day – and one that drew heavily on Marco Roth’s excellent piece on the neuronovel from n+1).
2) But there’s something even more important to say about McCarthy’s initial manifesto. It should be clear from my other posts that I definitely agree with him in his frustration about the novelistic norm, the stasis that it brings, the sclerosis that’s engendered. But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be. In the work I’m doing on the aggregate – which of course is more than simply a critical or theoretical proposition on my part – it’s something that I’m struggling, successfully or not, to put into artistic practice – I am trying to be as clear as I can about the reasons why the changes I am sketching would be an improvement over the status quo.
At any rate, pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose simply doesn’t appeal to me. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.
From the description of Gabriel Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism at the Yale University Press site:
Modernism, Josipovici suggests, is only superficially a reaction to industrialization or a revolution in diction and form; essentially, it is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. And its origins are to be sought not in 1850 or 1800, but in the early 1500s, with the crisis of society and perception that also led to the rise of Protestantism. With sophistication and persuasiveness, Josipovici charts some of Modernism’s key stages, from Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes to the present, bringing together a rich array of artists, musicians, and writers both familiar and unexpected—including Beckett, Borges, Friedrich, Cézanne, Stevens, Robbe-Grillet, Beethoven, and Wordsworth.
Very much in agreement with this approach, I must say, and genuinely excited by the prospect of this book. But it also bears noting that this sort of move, the everything good was always already modernist play, when committed by younger scholars of modernism (say, at a job interview) can land one in a world of hurt – or at least deliver unto you frantic and belligerent questioners. On the other hand, every modernist who has spent some time delivering her or his work to mixed audience is familiar with the argumentum ex Shandy, in which agitated 18th-centuryists, Rennaissancers, medievalists or even ballsy classicists impatiently explain that there was nothing new under the early 20th-century sun…
Even more interesting stuff comes at the end of the paragraph that I just cited:
He concludes with a stinging attack on the current literary scene in Britain and America, which raises questions not only about national taste, but contemporary culture itself.
Wait! What’s that? A work of literary criticism released by an academic publisher that dares to approach the question of What is to be done? here and now – that takes literary production itself as a going, if troubled, concern? What is the world coming to? Nothing to lose but our utterly indifferent irrelevance, I guess…
Hurrah for Josipovici then. Will have more to say about him soon, as I’m currently reading some of his stuff….
(via the perpetually excellent This Space)
If you had to teach a seminar on Gertrude Stein, and the seminar was to be focused on “queerness” however construed, which text would you discuss?
Filling in a bit of a glaring gap here, as it were. I’ll admit it.
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.
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!
From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:
When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.
Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle! Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…
Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.
Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:
[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.
The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *
There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.
So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.
* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!
“Of the vaporization and centralization of the Ego. Everything depends upon that.” (Baudelaire, “My Heart Laid Bare”)
Henri Lefebvre toward the end of the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, in the course of arguing on behalf of American literature and against the French stuff of the period:
Petty-bourgeois individualism has reached the extreme limit of exhaustion, and that goes for the intellectual as well as the writer. In the ‘human sand’, each grain, which is so dreadfully similar to all the others (unless we look at it through a psychological microscope) thinks it is frightfully original, even unique! Individualism ends up as the impersonality of the individual. It is the dialectical result of the ‘private’ consciousness and of its internal contradiction: the separation of the human being from the human. Nothing is easier to express than that abstract ‘psychology’ of this individuality, devoid of any content which might be difficult to express. Only a little knowledge of grammar is necessary. And there is plenty of that around! But unfortunately the tone of all these confidences and all these descriptions happens to be that of impersonality; therefore of boredom. The accusation that the Marxist dialectician levels at modern French literature as a whole is not that it expresses individuality, but rather that it expresses only false individuality, a facade of individuality, and abstraction. Nor is it by working in an element of ‘anguish’ that a young writer can give his descriptions or his story the direct, visual, physical, moving style, so much more individualized and varied, that one finds in Faulkner’s characters and novels. (237)
Yes. Not so worried about the Faulkner issue right now. But what’s interesting about this is the way that it maps on to the complicated issue of literary impersonality, which is significantly different from the impersonality (actual individual impersonality, that is lack of a personality, an interesting one) that Lefebvre’s discussing right here. That is to say, literary impersonality, which is generally understood to mean the distancing or problematization of the notions and ideas of the author (you knew what Dickens wanted to tell you but with Joyce it’s much harder) is a formal stance, not a psychological status or condition.
Maybe you know Eliot’s exquisite joke about this…. He really was funny sometimes in his essays. This is from “Traditional and the Individual Talent”:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
But here’s the thing. Literary impersonality, which in its narrative manifestations generally takes the shape of some variety of free indirect style, tends as it happens to be a priviledged means of exposing just the sort of impersonality that Lefebvre’s describing above. The free indirect form penetrates the interiority of the character, but only in such a way that we seem to remain outside of the character. We are not probing it, like a headshrinker, nor is the poor guy or girl spilling his or her guts – it’s just there on the surface of the prose for us to see. As a form, free indirect discourse depends upon the exteriorization of the interior. Or – and I should show my math, but just bear with me for the moment – it depends upon the exteriorability of the interior, even the pre-exteriority of the interior. It doesn’t take too much in the way of mental gymnastics to see that for what goes on inside to come out in a shape that (sometimes, often, in the best cases) is intelligible, fairly coherent, and not really all that out of step with conventional narration (in step enough that you have to teach people to see this fact, right?) might well have been, well, conventional, available for this sort of presentation right from the start.
It’s no wonder that Flaubert pushes the form to the fore in the work that he does – in a way, a romance novel about a woman who reads romance novels is a straight shot…. One even starts to wonder whether the theme that he chose didn’t invent the form rather than the other way around.
We’re coming pretty close to what I would call the tacit, implicit, or unconscious formal politics of modernist prose. Lefebvre believes we learn something important when we, having passed through the moment of the Cogito, come to a further step along the path toward self-understanding – the step which takes the alienated, flimsy self for a marker of both alienation and the possibilities that might come of the social forms that generate it. The recognition that we are not simply ourselves turns from a tragic consequence of modernity into the announcement itself of the imminence of another sort of world, a better sociality and sociability.
(There – I’m going to count that as having worked on the m’script today…. That’s clearer than usual and I’ll work with it….)
A few lead-in infobits and then a continuation of an argument:
1) Bought Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones today after hearing yet another respected litblog voice vouch that he couldn’t put it down, would rush home from work to read it, hadn’t showered since he started etc. I have to say: I started reading it today (while watching Arsenal get clubbed by Chelsea – look at norf london me, oy!) and I have a feeling everyone is right. You can tell a murderer from his fancy prose style, but bureaucratic murderers are masters of understatement and that’s what we refreshingly get here. I’ll report as I go, but so far so good.
2) Very much relatedly, found Journey Planet via Ken MacLeod’s site, and within the former I found something truly excellent. Not sure the ethics of cutting and pasting this here, but what the hell. It’s a cover design for 1984 by someone named Kris Stewart according to the caption in the zine.
Absolutely perfect… funny how one can defamiliarize something that everyone knows so well by refamiliarizing it.
3) OK now for the (again, related) argument. We all had quite a skuffle in the comments box a few posts back about genre fiction and what I was calling (sort of reluctantly) or what was being called the bourgeois novel. Some these skuffles have continued off-line. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I think I’m ready to explain a bit more about why “genre fiction” doesn’t really do it for me.
First, though, the fine print. 1) I don’t hate genre fiction. In fact I read or try to read quite a lot of it. I very much like the idea of it! I was being a bit too stark and polemical for my own good. 2) Christ, I don’t hate J.G. Ballard. I will say that I am continually disappointed by Ballard’s work – whenever I read it I feel that it could be so much better than it actually is. But there’s probably even a bit of anxiety of influence type psycho-dynamic going on when I talk about him, and as I keep promising, I’m going to try to say something bigger and better soon. But just to prove that I don’t dismiss him: I’m teaching a graduate seminar on him next year, by choice! 3) Issues of taste are really complicated! How can they be discussed without the weird slant logic of what I like is admittedly only what I like but on the other hand I have to make a claim for universal value or else why the fuck are we talking about this? Kantian or something? I think so…. But it’s complicated talking about things in this way and strangely, strangely, we’re not used to doing it anymore – maybe because we don’t really understand (or understand all too well) the bit I just put into italics.
End of small print. On to the argument, stated very succinctly but ripe for expansion:
I believe that narrative fiction’s principle interest, what it does best and is basically meant to do, is to rehearse a rhythm of banality and eventfulness, ordinariness and emergence, everyday life and the shocking turn, the crisis. It goes on at length about nothing really happening, things being ordinary, and then something else happens.
The problem for me with most genre fiction is that it skews from the start and by structural mandate the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar that is the very baseline of fiction, in my opinion and according to my tastes. I think this is easy to see. When the generic presupposition is in the distance future, when everything is utterly different and new, something happens or whatever, I get lost, I doesn’t sound like music but rather only noise.
Of course there are “genre” writers who are invested in boredom and ordinariness. And of course this is complicated by the fact that there are many “conventional” or “bourgeois” novelists who start with a defamiliarizing gesture. But I also think you can see what I mean. And from what I understand (which is not much) this is an active line of debate and discussion in “genre” circles themselves. And it’s not that I simply can’t read past this stuff as wallpaper, because of course I can. The problem isn’t that – the problem is that the mandate to start from the unfamiliar skews the writers’ relationship to the form itself, generally seems to make them misunderstand the first and primary thing that the form does well.
I also happen to think – and much of my work is staked on this claim, so christ I hope I’m right – that one of the main things that modernist narrative was invested in was the exposure of this dialectic, or in particular the shadowy part of this cycle, the everyday side. I’d even go so far as to say that most of the works that we think of as major milestones in the development of modernist prose were in fact invested in an experiment in prose narrative without the fateful turn, the illuminating exposure, the shocking revelation. Perhaps – consciously or unconsciously, or somewhere between the two – they were trying to teach us something about the nature of fiction, trying to get us to think about this dialectic and the phase of it that we’d often generally rather forget.
I further think that there is a politics implicit in this arrangement, a politics of uneventfulness, an implicit practice that works against the event. And I’m going to try to say this, at length and in depth, as I rewrite the goddamned manuscript yet again but for the first time really, this summer.
But just to circle back for a moment: most of the genre or quasi-genre stuff that I like is stuff that fulfills this contract, the contract of the narrative form. Lots of utopian and dystopian fiction is in touch with this issue – lots of it even hyperbolizes the point, making it more visible that it generally is with other thematic frames. But when we start in a spaceship, or with a bodice that’s always already ripped, or with a seamonster who is god or the devil or both, or with vampires, or anything else that skews the realism, that is to say the tedium, of the work, I am lost and I cannot read, not willingly anyway.
I showed up too late to see this, for reasons mentioned two posts above…. Wish the person who posted this would put the rest online for us all to see!
Tell yourself the story of Oedipus Rex. Take a few seconds to do it, a few minutes. If you want the particulars, look them up.
So, it’s a bit more complicated than this due to the preserved unities (and more on this complexity in a minute), but you’ve got the prophesy, the slaying of the father and the marrying of the mother, with the riddle of the Sphinx in between. Then (now we’re in the real time of Sophocles’s play), we have the arrival of Tiresias, the revelation of the true nature of Oedipus’s crimes, the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’s eyes out with the brooch, and then his self-exile.
Now, imagine alternate ways the story might have been told or might have happened. We could have followed blind, dripping Oedipus along his way to Colonus, but left off before we got there or just as he made it to the gates? What if we had narrowly focused in on a day featuring nothing but particularly good sex with Jocasta, or another in which Oedipus spent 9-5 working on land distribution in Thebes or hearing court cases?
Better yet, what if Oedipus had never found out about his crimes, and instead had died of old age? Or what if he had never committed the crimes in the first place, but rather stayed on with Polybus and Merope, eventually reigning unspectacularly in Corinth for a decade or two, before his own son took his place on the throne?
What if he did kill his father and marry his mother but such practices were so widespread at the time that it wasn’t really much of a big deal – he kills Tiresias, shrugs, and heads back to bed with his mother?
What sort of play would Oedipus Rex be if it didn’t locate itself right at the crucial moment, the moment of anagnorisis and peripeteia, retroactive revelation and reversal of circumstances? What if bad things happened, but nothing changed. Or no one knew (or allowed themselves to know) that the bad things had happened. What if the bad things – at least these bad things – had never taken place, either because they didn’t happen or for one reason or another they were not “bad.”
Aristotle, in the Poetics, discusses plot in a way that seems to hold room open for both Sophocles’s play and my own versions of it.
Some plots are simple, others complex, since the actions of which the plots are imitations are themselves also of these two kinds. By a simple action I mean one which is, in the sense defined, continuous and unified, and in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition. By complex, I mean one in which the change of fortune involves reversal or recognition or both. These must arise from the actual structure of the plot, so that they come about as a result of what has happened before, out of necessity or in accordance with probability. There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events.
The simple plot with a simple action “in which the change of fortune comes about without reversal and recognition.” We have two words for that sort of action when we’re made to watch it on stage, the movie screen, or the television news; those words are boring and fucked-up. Nothing happens, or something fails to happen, or something happens but no one pays a price, no one even notices, catharsis fails to come, retribution is not ours or theirs. In some sense, what Aristotle describes there with the notion of the simple plot is at once a formula an unstageable play and the logic of history, its brutality, most of the time.
It’s also the formula, I would argue, that best defines the diffuse field of texts that we label today modernist narrative. Imagine these possibilities:
- Insanely brutal events happen in the Belgian Congo, but it is hard to figure out what or why. One agent of the company in charge is sent to find out the status of another. The latter dies unspectacularly, and the first agent heads back to Europe to talk to the deceased’s girlfriend.
- A writer writing during and just after the First World War writes a work of epical scope that seems to be bent on the full capture of the realities of life during modernity. But despite the war raging all around him as he writes, he sets the work in the second city (if that!) of the British empire, a backwater full of semi-employed wanderers, and most unnervingly, he sets it exactly ten years before the beginning of the war that would define the early part of the century. *
- A shell-shocked war veteran kills himself by leaping from his doctor’s window and landing on the area fence. Nonetheless, a woman hosts a lavish party. Not long before this 500,000 Armenians are massacred, and no one really notices.
- A man comes to a door that has been erected only for him. He does not pass through the door. Nearby, a man is summonded to a trial of the gravest importance that never happens. In the same general area, a family goes back to work after the death of the eldest son, who had been turned into…
When I claim that preoccupation with the everyday is one of the defining characteristics of modernist narrative, I mean the everyday that takes place in lieu of or in resistance to the event. Or even better, the everyday is what takes the place where we would normally expect to find the event – the historical event, yes, but more specifically – technically – the action that turns and in turning provokes reflection that is the most fundamentally characteristic gesture of narrative itself. It would be utterly easy, in certain sense, and utterly literary, in a specific sense, to organize narratives that deal directly with the events of the period: colonial brutality, the advent of total war, bureaucratization verging on dehumanizing totalitarianism. War and sex, violence and news all give themselves to retelling in fiction – but for some reason, the most memorable texts of the most memorable period of fictional production during the past century and a half refuse to take the bait.
Just as water flows downhill, fictional impetus flows into Aristotle’s complex plot forms. Modernist authors did not so much reverse the flow, but rather, however fluid their discursive forms might be, resisted the notion of flow and change altogether.
Fénéon’s three-line news items, considered as a single work,
represent a crucial if hitherto overlooked milestone in the history of
modernism. Even as the entries are obsessively handcrafted, the work is
in a sense the first readymade. It heralds the age of mass media, via a
sensibility formed by the cadences and symmetries of classical prose;
forecasts a century of statistics, while foregrounding individual
quotidian detail; invites speed of consumption, while manifesting
time-consuming labor of execution. It recognizes its own transience but
does not concede to it. It savors the ironies of chance without
fabricating a moral agency to explain them, but never shies from
properly attributing the consequences of power, greed, and stupidity.
Like the work of certain photographers it is dispassionate sometimes to
the point of cruelty, but by the same token, respecting its readers, it
does not package a facile response for them. It is a dry bundle of
small slivers of occurrence that lie beneath history, but it represents
the whole world, with all of its contradictions.
The relationship between the form of these three-liners and the political-historical context that Sante evokes is worth thinking more about.
(Also worth looking at in the current NYRB: John Gross’s piece on William Empson’s letters – unfortunately not free like the one above. Somehow, the story of his rather long, well, dalliance isn’t the right word for it – advocacy of Mao and his China are a story that we missed when I studied him as a student…)
Don DeLillo’s Falling Man is the first bit of American fiction that I’ve read in quite awhile that I didn’t despise. It’s subtle and sharp, but blunted at the same time (did I promise anything other than impressionism here?), just what the times require. Nearly devoid of action (a husband comes home, an extremely arid affair takes place, kids huddle anxiously, a parent dies, someone finds a new line of work). The characterization is extremely abstract – we catch these people in the middle of things, and we are given very little save for the dry little actions and situations that we watch them march through, and still, in a very deep sense, we totally know who these people are. We live with them everyday – the backstory, as with our neighbors, is redundant. Delillo leaves the landscape out – we are all too familiar with it, and, really, it’s too boring to describe anyway: the upper west side apartment, the community center, the streets of the east side. Why bother?
No chatty kids, no superheros, no invention of funk, no flipbook reversal of the collapse of the towers – what a gloriously dessicated work, just what our desiccated times require if we are not going to lie to ourselves, pretend its all still vivid and colorful and interesting just to cheer ourselves up. I am being a bit perverse, I know, but taste is taste, and my taste is and has long been fixed up those works that defy the generic mandate to vivification during a period when it is hard to believe that anything can be brought back to life.
It’s wonderful to find that Americans once in a while can write a good book, even today, after all the oxygen seems to have been sucked up by the harrowing tragic cycle crashing itself out daily on the news. But… despite the fact that Delillo has written a fine novel, it is one that, alternately subtly and not, repeatedly announces the terminal status of American culture, and in particular the culture of American novel writing. I won’t bore you with transcribed notes from the back of my book, but any work of fiction fixated upon a community center writing activity for Alzheimer’s patients and televised poker games (storytelling about a past that is fizzling away as the brain cells rapidly die off / Constant! Action! that is meaningless and boring and anti-programed by the empty randomness of the carddraw). And on the level of form, the novel delivers a similarly bleak message about the life in the US today by breaking the entire novel into a sort of montage of empty epiphanies. As it draws upon media images (per the title, but elsewhere as well) it strains to announce the fact that it is shuffling them, these photographs and scenes, recombining them randomly in order to render vividly the disjunction of the era.
In fact, he even seems to head into Eliot territory with this tactic, annoncing the image of the “falling man” to be just one card among many that might have been pulled:
She thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, the figure twisting down in a story night sky.
The tarot deck is deployed in Eliot’s The Waste Land as an image of social and epistemological breakdown. Rather than writing a poem that is narratively organized, that follows the parameters of gradual, progressive revelation, Eliot’s conceit is that he is pulling cards (images and scenes) randomly off the deck, thus the disjunctive style of the piece, because there is no principle of social organization arranging the world into the image that he would like to see and believe in. And in a sense, to my mind, Delillo’s project runs in a parallel direction…
…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.
But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.
This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.
Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.
More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s
fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.
…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?
And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?
Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”
Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…
Unfortunately, this is all of the Maison de Verre that most of us will ever be able to see….
See the tiny little bit of verre there in back, through the window? It was a bit consoling to know that in standing before the locked front door, I was standing where some of my heroes, like Benjamin, once stood. But a building as important as this one really shouldn’t be in private hands…