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raban on empson: slow reading

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Jonathan Raban on, among other things, learning to read via an early encounter with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity:

The first lesson Empson taught was to slow down drastically; to read at the level of the word, the phrase, the line; to listen, question, ponder, think. This was easy because his own writing enforced it. A single paragraph in Seven Types of Ambiguity was like a street closely punctuated with traffic-calming sleeping policemen: you had to study the relationship between one sentence and the next – and often one clause and the next – to see the logic that connected them, and if I tried to read them in my usual skimming style, I instantly lost the thread.

The second, more general lesson required one to greatly enlarge one’s understanding of what writing is and does (all writing, not just poetry; Empson illustrated his arguments with sentences from novels, book titles, newspaper headlines that had caught his eye and so on). On this, Empson was inexplicit except by inference, but as a fisherman, I saw it in angling terms. Every piece of writing was like a pond, sunlit, overhung by willows, with clustering water lilies, and, perhaps, the rippling circle made by a fish rising to snatch a dying fly. This much could be seen and appreciated by any passing hiker. But the true life of the pond lay below the surface, in deep water where only the attentive and experienced eye would detect the suspended cloud of midge larvae, the submarine shadow of the cruising pike, the exploding shoal of bug-eyed small fry. It was with the subaquatic life of literature that Empson – a scientist by early inclination, whose interest in science is a recurrent feature of his writing – was concerned.

Since I was brought up by latter-day Empsonians (Christ! No! Not my parents! My first instructors at university!), this is a fairly accurate precis of how I was taught to read, how I try to read, and how I try to teach my students to read. Go look at the piece – Raban has interesting things to say about the value of doing so…..

I’d like to say more about this soon. Recently had a young teacher sit in on a few of my classes – she’s French, but teaching over here, and she wanted to see how Anglo-Americans do the close reading thing in the classroom. Good intuition on her part, to sense that there’s a difference. For as much as we anglos tried to approximate, over the decades when most under the spell of the French, Gallic modes of explication du texte and the like, there’s a way that it’s never quite worked out for us, I think. I kept apologizing to her in advance, saying that I wasn’t sure she was going to find what she was looking for in my classrooms, that she was welcome to come along but that I was making no representations as to the usefulness of what she’d see, etc etc. Anyway, what I do, when I’m at my best, is something like what’s described above – just not with Empson’s idiosyncratic and precocious brilliance.

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November 5, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in literature

there have always been crises

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October 12, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Posted in crisis, literature

misuse of literature

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We don’t grow beasts like Hitchens in the US. Filled to the brim with satanic figures we surely are, but they rarely have reams of poetry by heart. Ours slick and equivocate, but not with the likes of Yeats and Shakespeare on their forked tongues.

Here he is with his latest and perhaps worst piece to date:

I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed “Seen This?” The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by
Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described thedeath, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his
words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth ofJuly, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:

“Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there
was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens
on the moral case for war deeply influenced him … “

Did you notice that the moments of ethical adding up that happen in the piece, the places where Hitchens “solves” the problem of his own complicity with this horrible thing (the war, the death of this kid), involve the deployment of literature. Literature that serves here as a cloud of easy equivalence, as permission to say mistily what you couldn’t possibly say without the screen of metaphor and allusion.

For the piece relies upon the equation: Hitchens is to Iraq what Yeats is to the Easter Rising and Orwell is to Barcelona. But of course Iraq is not the Easter Rising, nor is it Barcelona, unless perhaps you’re seeing it from the other side of the lines.

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October 5, 2007 at 9:46 am

Posted in distraction, literature, war

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…

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June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

the other modernism

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So you end up broken in half, as a student of modernism, by the split in the period and in its emblematic works. On the one hand, the hyper-psychologized dystopias of individual complexity and political ineffability. On the other, the union of form and function under a banner of progress (even real progress). The former is the reflexive stance of the modernist literary text; the later, of modernist architecture and design. Think Joyce vs. Corbusier. Woolf vs. Niemeyer, Kafka vs. Tiege. You find the architectural / progressive motif more attractive – more potentially useful today – as a seed for revivification. But, on the other hand, you work with literature – this is what you do for a living.

It is tough to mine the latter from the former, the simple from the complex, the beautiful utility from the gratingly indifferent. It is tough to find, in short, the other modernism in literary texts. After all, literature doesn’t love hopeful contentment, and work (vs. dark dreamlife) toward that end – and most of all, it does not love utopia, whether actual or anticipated, whether exuberant or fadedly just OK.

Or maybe it’s just you, er, that is, me, as Owen Hatherley has found it hiding in plain sight in a J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.

[T]here is only one instance of a speculative community approaching a Ballardian ideal – a site where we definitively leave the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cautionary, anti-Modernist dystopia – and that is in Vermilion Sands. This is a 1971 collection of stories spanning his first published story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) to 1970, all set in the same community: a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas. Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments. It is, as Ballard writes in the 1971 introduction, a picture of an ideal he wanted and expected to see realised. The dystopian tradition is refuted in this introduction: ‘very few attempts (in SF) have been made to visualise a unique and self-contained future that contains no warnings to us. Perhaps because of this cautionary tone, so many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness.’ So could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?

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May 9, 2007 at 12:14 am

go look

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An insanely good thread over at The Kugelmass Episodes dealing with, among other things, radical politics, academia, the aesthetic, post-scarcity economies, consciousness, socialism, theory, and everything else… Everything.

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May 5, 2007 at 1:04 am

bêtise

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The New York Observer is to the realm of print journalism what Cops is to television programing. Both are born of utter rot. Both primarily feed and water the worst impulses in their audiences. But interestingly, both, because of their malignant rottenness, are venues for the near-exclusive exposure of the truth of American cultural life and its decay today.

I’ll leave you to troll through youtube looking for Cops examples, but here’s one from the Observer.

Dana Vachon, the 28-year-old banker turned blogger turned novelist about town, was not wearing socks. Just loafers. A buttery brown leather pair that may or may not have been Gucci and cocooned his feet to reveal just the manliest hint of hair-sprinkled skin. Set against an outfit of cobalt blue jeans, gold-coin cufflinks, and a gold-buttoned blazer, they perfected the look of a fresh Welton Academy grad who had just arrived for cocktails at the club.

As it happened, Mr. Vachon wasn’t sipping cocktails but herbal tea, and he was reclining at a table at the 1990’s trend-spot Balthazar—a restaurant that is, in theory at least, not a private club. It was an intriguing choice for a young scribbler whose first novel, Mergers and Acquisitions, is being promoted as the spiritual and stylistic heir to Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s coke-powered chronicle of early New York yuppiedom.

(snip)

He began by freelancing for magazines like The American Conservative, which led, at the suggestion of his B.B.F. (best blogger friend) Elizabeth Spiers, to a blog about the “life and adventures of a 26-year-old investment banker,” which led to his discovery by power-agent David Kuhn, which led, in the spring of 2005, to a deal with Riverhead Books. A big deal. Mr. Vachon would get $650,000 to produce two novels for the imprint. That he was a first-time author who sealed the deal on spec, with just a 70-page taste of his novel-to-be, made him irresistible to lit gossips.

(snip)

“I wanted to set down a portrait of this generation. Period,” he continued. “What’s the great Flaubertian quote? ‘All it takes for a member of the bourgeoisie to be happy is good health, selfishness, and stupidity, but the first two will get you nowhere if you don’t have the third’?” he said, slightly misquoting the author. “I love that.”

Seriously. Please. Stay. Away. From. The. Flaubert. You. Are. Going. To. Hurt. Yourself.

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April 6, 2007 at 2:42 am