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Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Marginal Revolution

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Is it only a coincidence that just as Britain had touched bottom and was about to emerge from the Great Depression (the first Great Depression, from 1873 ’till the mid-90s), Oscar Wilde would write his preface to Dorian Gray?

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors…
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admiires it intensely…

A depression that taught the west the new rules of the game, the fact that from here on in economic crises would not arise from production failures, from lack, but rather from surplus, from a crisis of demand. *
This denigration of the useful, like society’s secret safety valve speaking through the artist here… In Wilde, the nineteenth century’s crisis of economic overproduction intersects its literary overproduction.
Think, for instance, of the extreme tediousness Chapter XI, when we go through Dorian’s belongings one by one by one by one:

And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.
   At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gipsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave, yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass and charmed…

And so on… The commodity and the tedium of the commodity, the failure of our desire to live up to the needs of the world…
What Wilde learned from Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde: We each need two selves nowadays just to keep up with the demand for demand…
* Of course, there is no such thing as a “crisis of demand,” any more than there are natural famines

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August 16, 2005 at 11:02 am

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Antiseptic Modernism

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Went to the optometrist today, because it’s time for reading glasses. (Was glad that the new floater, just at the focal point of the right eye, was the “good kind of floater” rather than the “bad kind”…)

Anyway, you know when the optometrist (or ophthalmologist, if you’re a snob like that) puts you through the “this one or that one” “one or two, two or three, three or four” game with the lenses. Well, one or two?

Here’s one:

And they went back over their lives.
    They’d both been failures, the one who’d dreamed of Love and the one who’d dreamed of Power. How had it come about?
    “Perhaps it was lack of perseverance?” said Frédéric.
    “For you maybe. For me, it was the other way round, I was too rigid, I didn’t take into account a hundred and one smaller things that are more crucial than all the rest. I was tooo logical and you were too sentimental.”
    Then they blamed it on bad luck, the circumstances, the times in which they had been born […]
So one Sunday, while everyone was at Vespers, Frédéric and Deslauriers, having previously got their hair curled, picked some flowers in Madame Moreau’s garden, left by the back way over the fields, took a roundabout path through the vineyards, came back via the fishery and slipped down to the Turkish woman’s house, still clasping their large bouquet.
Frédéric held his out like a sweetheart offering flowers to his bride-to-be. But the heat, fear of the unknown, a vague feeling of guilt, and even the thrill of seeing, at one glance, so many women at his disposal, upset him so much that he went very pale and stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak. The women were all laughing, amused by his embarrassment; thinking they were making fun of him, he turned tail and fled; and since he was holding the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.
    They were seen leaving the house; the scandal this aroused still lingered on three years later.
    They told each other the story at great length, each filling in the details left out by the other, and when they’d reached the end:
    “Ah, that was our best time!” said Frédéric.
    “Could be? Yes, that was our best time!” said Deslauriers.

Here’s two:

    Yes, society must go on; it must breed, like rabbits. That is what we are here for. But then, I don’t like society–much. I am that absurd figure, an American millionaire, who has bought one of the ancient haunts of English peace. I sit here, in Edward’s gun-room, all day and all day in a house that is absolutely quiet. No one visits me, for I visit no one. No one is interested in me, for I have no interests. In twenty minutes or so I shall walk down to the village, beneath my own oaks, alongside my own clumps of gorse, to get the American mail. My tenants, the village boys and the tradesmen will touch their hats to me. So life peters out. I shall return to dine and Nancy will sit opposite me with the old nurse standing behind her.  Enigmatic, silent, utterly well-behaved as far as her knife and fork go, Nancy will stare in front of her with the blue eyes that have over them strained, stretched brows. Once, or perhaps twice, during the meal her knife and fork will be suspended in mid-air as if she were trying to think of something that she had forgotten. Then she will say that she believes in an Omnipotent Deity or she will utter the one word "shuttle-cocks", perhaps. It is very extraordinary to see the perfect flush of health on her cheeks, to see the lustre of her coiled black hair, the poise of the head upon the neck, the grace of the white hands–and to think that it all means nothing–that it is a picture without a meaning. Yes, it is queer.

OK – it’s obvious that one wins. Not really fair. But why these two together? Both Flaubert and Ford, at the end of L’Education sentimentale and The Good Soldier are involved in the long secularization of literature that some like to call “modernism.” Flaubert after the romantically-inflected bildungsroman, and Ford after the society romance – the health-spa idyll or whatever it should be called. Straining the fluffy elsewhereness and otherwisity out of the forms – turning these forms so deeply affiliated with the event back toward the everyday.

But what’s interesting, I think, is the way that Flaubert’s everyday is always haunted by the event that explodes out of it – even if it never quite (never does) escape the gravity of the everyday. Starting from Madame Bovary, about the codependency of the two terms – what’s learned in his (first) novel of “education” is that what comes after the brotherly brothel episode

Ford has to turn his anticlimactic climax baroque – gothic – in order to sell it… Imagine leaving out the stuff about Nancy in the paragraph above. Ford wants – needs – the flatly round world of the secular and quotidian to cap his “exposure” of the base reality behind the appearance of the “good people” who hangout at German resort towns.

This dirty little bit of madwoman come down out of the attic to dinner, tea-party between Humbert Humbert and a lobotomized Lolita – it spoils the antiseptics of Ford’s novel, it’s true (if mindnumbingly tedious) modernity…

Anyway, just trying to figure out what to say about Ford, because I think I’m going to teach The Good Soldier in the fall… Hadn’t read it in awhile, and it’s not the most teachable book in the world…

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May 24, 2005 at 2:15 am

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9610185Ok – way too early to say it – but I’m reading this right now, and it includes two bonus Lovecraft stories at the back of the book. While I’ve read everything by Houellebecq, I’ve never before tonight read a single thing by Lovecraft. So I skipped to the back and read "The Call of the Cthulhu"… (The other included story is "The Whisperer in the Darkness.")

Don’t be angry if you’re a huge Lovecraft fan, but I just don’t get it. Guy finds uncle’s documents, lots of people are acting strange, sailor finds exactly what we would expect him to find… Just not working for me. (I had the same reaction to The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers…) Anyway, I tried… I’m already wondering if it’s not one of those weird Gallic over-reactions to American lit – a la Paul Auster. Perhaps Lovecraft gains something in translation…

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May 12, 2005 at 1:26 am

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Terrific little find over on Reason Thunders, who I hope doesn’t mind if I clip in full:


      In case you’ve ever wondered what Adorno would say about the decline in family values:

realizes with horror that earlier, opposing one’s parents because they
represented the world, one was often secretly the mouthpiece, against a
bad world, of one even worse. Unpolitical attempts to break out of the
bourgeois family usually lead only to deeper entanglement in it, and it
sometimes seems as if the fatal germ-cell of society, the family, were
at the same time the nurturing germ-cell of uncompromising pursuit of
another. With the family there passes away, while the system lasts, not
only the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the
resistance which, though repressing the individual, also strengthened,
perhaps even produced him. The end of the family paralyses the forces
of opposition. The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a
classless one: together with the bourgeois it liquidates the Utopia
that once drew sustenance from motherly love.

capitalist order without the traditional family is a bigger threat to
Utopia than a fully bourgeois world. Perhaps it’s time for an alliance
between radical Marxism and Focus on the Family.


From Minima Moralia of course… I think it’s a good question…

Just finished The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian, who, according to the dust jacket bio, "left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1987, shortly before his books were banned in China." And the dissidence of this dissident novel seems to be very much on Adorno’s or Reason Thunder’s point: a Schnitzlerian circle of interlocking stories, all pointing in one direction: that socialist totalitarianism has rid China’s population of empathy, fellow-feeling, love, affection… Socialism (or is it the totalitarianism?) paradoxically, perversely, informs the emergence of a population entirely driven by the profit motive, with love and money.

So we find in this novel, among other things, an entreprenurial son who kills his mother, a boyfriend who indifferently allows his girlfriend to kill herself on stage, a gang rape in the middle of town… Jian suggests that contemporary China is one big Hubert Selby novel dragged out of the Red Hook night into the light of the Shenzen noon-time, repeated across the nation’s nearly innumerable population.

But of course, as soon as we start speaking of such things, we know whose camp we find ourselves in… We become reticent, and for good reason.

For instance, in real life, I attended more than 12 years of Catholic school, was a full-bore true believer until about age 16. I cannot be sure that without this early faith, I wouldn’t be doing something altogether different with my life – that I wouldn’t have altogether different interests and aims. But this is not a fact that fits comfortably with the world as I’d have it now, the work that I do, the demands that I would make if I were in a position to do so… Interesting…

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May 5, 2005 at 1:35 am

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Ishiguro’s Future Past

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Serious spoiler alert re: Never Let Me Go. (I’ve never understood, really, why anyone cares about "spoilers"… but some do, really do…)

I’m serious – if you’re worried about me spoiling the end of this utterly mediocre novel, stop reading now….

Ok. I’ve looked at most of the reviews listed here. And no one seems to even hint at one of the central premises of the work, in my view: the Nazis won WWII in this novel, right? That’s the point of the strange dating of the novel in the 1990s… The Germans won the war, somehow, and thus theraputic cloning was both invented and accepted much earlier than "in reality." Or am I totally crazy?

It’s not a good book, in general. Perhaps I’ll tell you why soon enough. (I’ve gotta defend the dissertation at 3 PM, twelve or so hours from now, so it’s time for me to hit the sack).

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April 26, 2005 at 2:38 am

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Imperial Impersonality

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Two passages. The first from Joyce’s Portrait, of course:

The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

The second from T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom of 1926. He’s talking about the proper type to administer the British system of "indirect rule" in the colonies.

Class one, subtle and insinuating, caught the characteristics of the people about him, their speech, their conventions of thought, almost their manner. He directed men secretly, guiding them as he would. In such frictionless habit of influence his own nature lay hid, unnoticed.

I’m wondering tonight if a line could be run from the principle of indirect rule in the British colonies to free indirect narration in the period’s modernist fiction. That the fictional mode is a reflection of increasing sophistication on the part of governing bodies, managers. Suggestion rather than direct influence, anticipation rather than instruction. Both relying on a knowledge of the "speech… conventions of thought, almost the manner" of the represented. And both staked on the invisiblity of power, the author.

(Related: just saw Control Room tonight for the first time on DVD. Interesting to draw the above together with the US naive faith / cynical pretence of faith in the Iraqi citizenry’s endorsement of their "liberation.")

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April 2, 2005 at 1:40 am

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The Torture Room

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From J.M. Coetzee, "Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa" (1986)

The dark, forbidden chamber is the origin of novelistic
fantasy per se; in creating an obscenity, in enveloping it in mystery, the
state creates the preconditions for the novel to set about its work of

Yet there is something tawdry about following the state in
this way, making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the
deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by
the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce
representations of them.

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March 30, 2005 at 1:31 am

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ImagesJohn Banville’s got a good piece on Houellebecq in Bookforum this month. (Unfortunately, the magazine’s not got the current issue posted yet, so I can’t link to the article…)

Utterly fascinated by Houllebecq. Have read all of his stuff. Would love to write something if I had the time.

For now, a few thoughts inspired by some of the passages that Banville quotes.

From Whatever (An English title that misses the boat entirely on what’s afoot in the real title: Extension du domaine de la lutte):

There are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of soul, character traits, etc. I shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me, I’m sorry to say.

    The pages that follow constitute a novel; I mean, a succession of anecdotes in which I am the hero. This autobiographical choice isnt’ one, really: in any case I have no other way out. If I don’t write about what I’ve seen I will suffer just the same – and perhaps a bit more so. But only a bit, I insist on this. Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism. One stumbles around in a cruel fog, but there is the odd pointer. Chaos is no more than a few feet away.

    The novel form is not conceived for depicting indifference or nothingness; a flatter, more terse and dreary discourse would need to be invented.

    But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world, you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear – a somwhat masculine system, let’s call it Mars; there’s a feminine system based on seduction and sex, Venus let’s say. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else?

Well, so there we are. Houellebecq is constantly writing in such a way that signals the obsolescence of the novel form – can it’s obsolescence be doubted? – but which forms novels, as if by instinct, by habit. A mirror of how we live – the novel and the "idea in back of it" is long gone, but we write on nonetheless.

What’s’ more interesting perhaps is this construction: "Writing brings scant relief. It retraces, it delimits. It lends a touch of coherence, the idea of a kind of realism." Wish I had the French, but what are we to make of the fact that the "idea of a kind of realism" is not just an attribute of the novel, by syntactiaclly here what is "lent" to the writer by the writing, what brings "scant relief"? How is realism a relief, and what is it relieving us from?

I do think that Banville misses the ultimate joke that runs underneath The Elementary Particles like a fault-line. The novel is ostensibly narrated by one of the posthumans ("one of the" is definitely the wrong way to put it when it comes to this race that’s left individuality behind…) whose invention the novel describes. But here’s the joke: what need does this race have for the novel form itself? Why does it need to tell the story that is Houllebecq’s novel, if it truly is "posthuman"?

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March 22, 2005 at 1:26 am

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Terry Castle on Sontag

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Fantastically good piece remembering Sontag in this week’s LRB, and lucky you, it’s not behind the subscription barrier. 

My favorite bit. Castle is dragged along on what Sontag calls "a real New York evening" and it turns out to be a dinner party at Marina Abramovic’s Soho loft. (Abramovic’s a performance artist, she’d "recently been in the news for having lived for 12 days,
stark naked, on an exposed wooden platform – fitted with shower and
toilet – in the window of the Sean Kelly Gallery.") Famous folk are there – Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson – and Castle’s naturally not getting much conversational play.

Here’s the line I liked: "True, Sontag tried briefly to call the group’s attention to me (with
the soul-destroying words, ‘Terry is an English professor’); and
Abramovic kindly gave me a little place card to write my name on."


Anyway, the funny thing is just how lost on the current generation of academics Sontag’s works are. I’d be willing to bet that not a single person in my cohort of English Ph.D. candidates on their way to assistant professorships (with a little luck) has ever read a single work by Sontag. Seriously. I’ve never heard the name come up either in seminar room or bar.

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March 18, 2005 at 12:40 am

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James on Wells on the Lower Middle Class

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Found all this interesting stuff in a excerpt from David Lodge’s intro to a new edition of H.G. Wells’s Kipps in today’s Guardian.

From a letter to Henry James upon publication of the novel:

You have for the very
first time treated the English "lower middle class", etc. without the
picturesque, the grotesque, the fantastic and romantic interference, of
which Dickens, eg, is so misleadingly, of which even George Eliot is so
deviatingly, full. You have handled its vulgarity in so scientific and
historic a spirit, and seen the whole thing all in its own strong light.

Lodge thinks that James must not have read the novel all that carefully. But maybe he did. Lodge cites the following passage from the novel…

‘The stupid little tragedies of these clipped and limited lives!

I think of them lying unhappily there in the darkness, my vision
pierces the night … Above them, brooding over them … there is a
monster, a lumpish monster … It is matter and darkness, it is the
anti-soul, it is the ruling power of this land, Stupidity. My Kippses
live in its shadow … I have laughed, and I laugh at these two people;
I have sought to make you laugh … But I see through the darkness the
souls of my Kippses as they are … as things like the bodies of
little, ill-nourished, ailing, ignorant children – children who feel
pain, who are naughty and muddled and suffer, and do not understand
why. And the claw of this Beast rests upon them!’

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March 5, 2005 at 12:25 am

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Life and the Novel

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From D.H. Lawrence, “Why the Novel Matters” (1936):

Let us learn from the novel. In the novel, the characters
can do nothing but live. If they keep
on being good, according to pattern, or bad, according to pattern, or even
volatile, according to pattern, they cease to live, and the novel falls dead. A
character in a novel has got to live, or it is nothing.

On the one hand, the novel as a struggle against the cliché,
the idée reçue, in play here just as
it has been directly thematized all the way back through Joyce and Flaubert and
Sterne and Cervantes. The essence of the novel is its staging (embodiment?) of
the resistance to the pattern. And further, without escaping the pattern, DHL
implies that a novel’s not a novel. Why not? It’s imbedded in its very name,

(Transitional question: Who would have thought that merely living would be so difficult that
it would take such a heroic, nay, impossible struggle as this?)

On the other hand, what about this “can do nothing but” part
of the first line? “In the novel, the characters can do nothing but live.” Who puts in place this law, and
who enforces it?

I sense a jutting turn between the first sentence of the
passage and what follows. A retreat… The novel is the form in which the
character can do nothing but live
Interesting that the piece begins with the dissolution of the mind-body
distinction as well.

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January 16, 2005 at 12:13 am

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Lucky Jim / Confession

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Lucky_jimAnyone else feel it’s vastly overrated?

(Felt like I should stick one up that’s on topic, my topic, for once).

(But here’s the thing. The business of being a young academic, finishing a Ph.d., on the job market for the first time, links up with blogging only awkwardly, guardedly, half-heartedly. For a few reasons. First of all – there’s the anonymity thing. I used to have a site that wasn’t anonymous, but then I pretty much panicked for fear that one of the places I’m applying to for a job would see my posts. Not that anything’s too controversial – but being almost hard-left, resolutely anti-Christian in my web persona might give the impression (the wrong impression, I guess) that I’m a polemicist in the classroom, intolerant, brow-beating the younguns into the one, true, holy, and apostolic church of secular socialism when I’m supposed to be teaching them Yeats or Shakespeare or how to come up with a "true but arguable" thesis. Secondly, there’s the intellectual property thing. My sole commodity for sale are the ideas that I produce about literature. Rather good ones from time to time, I’d like to think. And even to give the faintest hint of what I’m on to would send me into spirals of paranoia that someone else would pick up on it, type up the very article that I’m working on, and submit it to ELH, PMLA, Critical Inquiry… Maybe one day, when I’m well tenured, tired of writing out these rather good thoughts, I’ll drop them into the ether stream for popular consumption and reuse. But I just can’t afford it right now. So I keep my ideas to myself – and post of Frank Rich, the Marine killing the "insurgent," and Carol Lin…)

Back to Amis, now that I’ve got that out of my system. Interesting look, I guess, at British academia circa-1950. Things haven’t changed in some ways – in other ways the world’s been turned upside down. (First of all, no one could get a job who’s completely incompetent. Jim does and is. It’s utterly impossible nowadays. Just degrees of over-competancy, all the way down the line. And I guess I’m mildly interested which girl he ends up with – I’ve got 30 or so pages left. But otherwise, the humor no longer works… And it’s built on the humor, doncha think?

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November 21, 2004 at 1:26 am

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