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battle of the titans…

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…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…

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

2 Responses

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  1. Do you know this essay–“Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?”–by T.J. Clark? It’s in Boundary 2 (Spring ’03) and forms an effective and, as usual, subtle and deeply considered response to Coetzee et al.

    Jasper B

    June 9, 2007 at 2:11 am

  2. I have read it, and I thought I had blogged about it, but I can’t find evidence of that. But you’re right that it’s applicable here.

    CR

    June 11, 2007 at 3:20 pm


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