Friday, April 24, 2009

Good, better, best

Art Durkee deserves credit for rising to my challenge to show just how my five definitive propositions about literature are conservative or essentialist.

The common error, if I may be permitted use of such a phrase, is memorably described by Philip Roth in American Pastoral:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar threads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank.The classic example of having the brain of a tank showed up on an anonymous student evaluation one semester when I taught Bible as literature. “This course is an introduction to problems of the biblical text, canon, and interpretation,” I had written on the syllabus. On his evaluation the student wrote: “Dr. Myers needs to understand that the Bible has no problems.”

One of the easier ways to get people wrong is to assume that they mean the same thing you would when they use a specific word. Thus, as R.T. observes, the “fly in the ointment” is the word best in Patrick Kurp’s and my clearly labeled “selected bibliography” of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998. The unthinking assumption, exemplified most openly by Andrew Seal’s complaint that there are “more Philip Roth books . . . on there than books by men of color,” is that selections of best books are made on the basis of some illegitimate and carefully concealed criterion like race. How does Seal know this? Because that is how he would use the word best, as he immediately demonstrated by resolving, in response to Kurp’s and my list, “to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year.”

Similarly, Durkee assumes that just any selection of the best is an attempt to establish a fixed and restrictive canon. “The word [best] carries implied value judgments, obviously,” he says. “The presumption is that, as you write, and R.T. amends, ‘There are some works of literature that every civilized American [or educated person] should be familiar with.’ ”

But this is mistaken on several scores.

(1) “Best” is simply the superlative form of the adjective good, and I have said again and again that the use of the word good yields no fixed definition.

(2) The best ballplayers, the best restaurants, the best cars under $40,000—nor is any should implied. Deontological advice is distinct in kind and effect from value judgments. Here, for comparison, is a list of What Books Every High School Student Should Have Read. On the list are the essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I might agree that every American high-school graduate should have read these, but that does not mean they are particularly good.

(3) R.T.’s amendment, changing “every civilized American” to “every educated person,” is R.T.’s, not mine. As an Orthodox Jew, in fact, I most emphatically do not accept it. For centuries, the Jews have resisted the pseudo-universalism which takes for granted that the dominant culture is a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which everything else is barbarism. There are, as I have dogmatically asserted, “some works of literature every civilized American should be familiar with. . . .” And there are some works that every educated Jew should be familiar with. But these are different works. A civilized American need not be familiar with the Talmud; an educated Jew who lives in France need not be familiar with, say, the essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And the American who knows not the Talmud, or the French Jew who is ignorant of Emerson, is not a barbarian as a consequence.

(4) It does not follow that the best works of a thirty-year period are among the works that every American should be familiar with. I could offer you a list of the best American poetry prior to 1850 without believing that you or anyone else should be familiar with it.

(5) Besides, I added the qualifying phrase “there will be much disagreement about what [those works every civilized American should be familiar with] will be.” This qualifier puts disagreement on at least an equal footing with the duties of civilization.

So much for Durkee’s accusation of conservatism. There is a way in which my thinking—and Kurp’s too—is conservative, although Durkee did not point it out. Namely: Kurp and I believe in value. And I cannot speak for Kurp, but I even plump for objective values. Shocking, I know.

Durkee’s accusation of essentialism does not fare much better. Any value judgment is essentialist, he argues, because it implies the objects of value (in this case, books) have “an underlying and unchanging essence.” Here is how he identifies the essence: “That we would all agree that a list of which books are the best books relies upon a presumed agreement to a value judgment.”

But here again he commits a fundamental mistake. A selection of best books does not imply that agreement, because someone might agree with the judgment while founding it upon any entirely different value. Kurp and I might select a book because we are impressed by the precision of its grammar, the exactness of its phrasing, while you might enjoy it because you identify with the main character. Kurp and I might even believe that such a value (“identification”) is naïve and destructive of the otherness upon which good writing depends. But we and you still agree that the writing is good.

The technical term essence needs to be used with exactness, or not at all. In philosophy it refers to the foundation of being, which in Christian theology is God. Thus Hooker:God hath his influence into the very essence of all things, without which influence of Deity supporting them their utter annihilation could not choose but follow. Of him all things have both received their first being and their continuance to be that which they are.1But good writing is not founded upon its value without which it could not exist. This is a significant point upon which I differ heatedly with Daniel Green, who holds that literature is fiction (in the old sense) which “seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria” or that “the primary goal” in writing fiction is “to produce a work that succeeds most immediately as art.” On the contrary, value judgments are secondary and subsequent. Even when the quality to be valued is objectively there—coherence, clarity, accuracy or lifelikeness, what have you—its achievement is distinguished from the recognition of it, and from the even later claim that the quality is valuable.

The essence of a thing is what makes it what it is. Literature is indeed constituted by its value, but—to paraphrase E. D. Hirsch Jr. once again—its value is stipulated, and no one must agree to the stipulation. Or, in other words, literary value has no fixed definition. No fixity means, well, nothing unchanging. Doesn’t it? Therefore, no essence.

This has already grown long, but I need to dispense with one more objection to my five-fold definition of literature. Litlove finds it of “uncertain value.” She asks:[W]hat does the definition of the category of “literature” provide for us? Why do you think it is essential that we have one? I wonder whether considering this question is a route towards finding the definition that is most useful, as opposed to (although it may prove to be the same as) the one that has the fewest exceptions.Again with essence! Seriously, though, I am trying to identify what makes literature literature, but not by identifying it with any fixed and universal quality or value. Nor was my definition composed in an arm chair. It is historical and descriptive rather than ideal and prescriptive. But I am fully prepared to acknowledge that it is not very useful, perhaps not even very meaningful. The reason is that, in offering it, I am not hoping to influence literary practice. I am doing literary theory. Such reflection is not what the phrase literary theory refers to in most English departments these days, but I can’t help that. I am simply following my thoughts wherever they lead, even if they end up getting me tarred and feathered as a conservative and essentialist.

Update: Upon reflection it dawns upon me that there is a practical effect after all that I should like to see my redefinition of literature achieve, although I am not so unrealistic or preening as to expect it would ever come about. Namely: it would be well if critics stopped using the word literature as an term of praise, as if there were an upper class of works, an aristocracy of books. As my redefinition should establish, to use the word in such a manner is to speak tautologically. For a critic to describe a book as literature is to testify to nothing more than his describing the book as literature.

Update, II: To distinguish further between “best books” and “books every civilized American should be familiar with.” If it were stipulated that only American fiction from the period 1968 to 1998 could be considered, I would have no problem agreeing that, say, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved should be known by any civilized American. But if I am asked whether Beloved is any good, I have to answer, reluctantly, “No.”

1. Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy (5.56.5), quoted in J. V. Cunningham, “Idea as Structure: The Phoenix and the Turtle,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), p. 199.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Houston dies at 75

The California novelist James D. Houston died last Thursday from cancer at the age of seventy-five. Houston taught at Santa Cruz while I was an undergraduate there. During those years he assisted his wife Jeanne Wakatsuki in writing Farewell to Manzanar, a memoir of the Japanese American internment during the Second World War. They had been married fifteen years before she finally confided to him that her family had been interned at Manzanar during the war.

A San Francisco native, Houston was educated at San Jose State and Stanford, where he studied under Wallage Stegner. (At Santa Cruz he was colleagues with Page Stegner, Wallace’s son. His closest friend on campus, though, was Ray Carver.) Between Battles (1968), his first novel, was based on his experience in the U.S. Air Force. Gig (1969) and A Native Son of the Golden West (1971) were the novels that all of the young writers at Santa Cruz read. The first was about a jazz pianist, the second about a surfer. Houston was not yet forty, and seemed to understand the countercultural youth about as well as we understood ourselves. Better, the truth is.

He also coauthored San Francisco 49er quarterback John Brodie’s memoir Open Field (1974). And he wrote five more novels, including Snow Mountain Passage (2001), about the Donner Party, and Bird of Another Heaven, a historical romance about the last king of Hawaii and his great-great grandson, which was published two years ago by Knopf.

Conservative, essentialist

In his comment to Frank Wilson’s kind link to my post on argument and monologue, Art Durkee says that my definitions of literature reflect “the very conservative literary view, almost the essentialist view,” while Green’s is “the more post-modern view.”

Neither of these is quite right.

The view that literature is distinguished by different and higher ambitions than other kinds of writing (it “seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria”), and that it is restricted to fiction (“fiction, poetry, and the drama”), seems pretty old-fashioned to me. I would even describe it as Arnoldian—a variation, that is, on Arnold’s criterion of seriousness.

And while it is true that I am a political conservative—I was upset yesterday, for example, when President Obama opened the door to prosecution of Bush administration figures who approved or engaged in “torture”—I am entirely unclear on how my definitions of literature are conservative. Even more, how they are essentialist. What essence do I posit for literary texts?

My definitions, again, run like this:

(1) Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is.

(2) If the former, it must be arbitrarily restricted by means of some acceptable scholarly category (e.g. historical period, gender). If the latter, it must be selected.

(3) Those who pursue the former solution are literary scholars; the latter, literary critics.

(4) Except when the word is used by literary scholars (who mean “everything written”), literature is a title of prestige bestowed by literary critics upon some written works and not others.

(5) The only account that I have been able to devise that subsumes all the different selections of prestigious works made at different times and in different places by different critics is this: Literature is good writing, where by definition ‘good’ yields no fixed definition.

If Mr Durkee or someone else could tell me how these five propositions are “conservative,” I should be grateful.

For a genuinely conservative voice in criticism, I offer by contrast David P. Goldman (a.k.a. Spengler) of the Asian Times, whom I quoted below saying that the celebration of Susan Boyle, the singer who wowed the audience on Britain’s Got Talent, “validates the mediocrity of popular audiences and represents a ‘[c]hurlish resentment of high culture.’ ” Or the late Hugh Kenner, whom Patrick Kurp touchingly discusses today. It is Kenner whom I am quoting when I hold dogmatically that “There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with.” Please note, however, that I go on in particularly unconservative fashion to add that “there will be much disagreement over what [those literary works] are.” Despite the tone of smug superiority that puts off many of my readers, this addition is intended to create an opening for my intellectual opponents.

Update: Frank Wilson characterizes my views as existentialist. The correct answer, for fifty points (buzzer, please), is eclectic.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nths of a sending

On Sunday, Stephen Romei asked, “What are the best final sentences in literature?” He himself nominated the last sentences of Der Prozess, Nineteen Eighty-Four, L’Etranger, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and Slaughterhouse Five.

Readers added the closing lines of Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway, Lolita, Brave New World, and some poor soul went on and on about the film version of Philip Roth’s Dying Animal, though what it had to do with memorable literary conclusions was last lost on me [great slip!].

Roth, however, contributed one of the best endings ever: “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Other personal favorites. From Invisible Man: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

The Assistant: “After Passover he became a Jew.”

Francine Prose, Blue Angel: “But how strangely light-hearted he feels, what a relief it is to admit, even just for one moment, how much he will never know.”

Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre: “But when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.”

The American: “Newman instinctively turned to see if the little paper was in fact consumed; but there was nothing left of it.” (The words are not impressive, but the image, returned to its narrative context, may be the best concluding image ever. On the paper is written evidence that the two people who betrayed his trust and broke his heart—Madame de Bellegarde and her son Urbain, who had forbidden Christopher Newman’s marriage to Claire de Cintre after they had published the engagement—were guilty of murder. Making the evidence public will be his revenge, but Newman decides in the end not to follow through—decides to let go of his betrayal and broken heart. He tosses the paper into the fire. And only then does Mrs Tristram tell him that the Bellegardes had depended upon him to do that very thing, not to take revenge. Then the last sentence.)

Finally, from Herzog: “Not a single word.”

Argument and monologue

A sadly neglected portion of graduate training—in any field, not just English—is what might be called the ethics of argument. Young scholars should be taught the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem, for example, but they also need to be taught that attacking a man’s argument is not the same as attacking the man. While the resort to argumenta ad hominem is filthy perhaps even worse is the indiscriminate reception of any attack upon a man’s argument as an attack upon the man, because it corrupts the devotion to argument upon which the Republic of Letters relies.

I begin this way because I suspect that Daniel Green feels abused by me. He has removed A Commonplace Blog from his blogroll, and he pointedly ignores my argumentative challenges to his stated views. From my side, the matter looks slightly different. In January, we engaged in a scuffle over the definition of literature. The whole thing began when, replying to criticisms of Patrick Kurp’s and my selection of the best American fiction from 1968 to 1998, I had said: “Literature just is a selection of masterpieces. There is no getting around this obstacle. The problem is what criteria of selection you are going to use.” Now, faithful readers of this blog will recognize in this a restatement and combination of my first two dogmas: “(1) Literature is good writing, where ‘good’ by definition yields no fixed definition. (2) Literature is a title of prestige bestowed by critics. . . .”

Two and a half weeks later Green blasted my assertion, saying, “I really can’t imagine a more reductive and . . . a more implicitly dismissive view of the value of literature and literary study.” I replied later the same day, quoting E. D. Hirsch Jr. as the source and provocation of my views: “Either literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates,” Hirsch wrote, “in which case literature can be defined as one pleases; or literature is what the authorities call ‘literature,’ in which case The Origin of Species is literature.” Hence my conclusion that literature is a special status bestowed by critics, for this statement covers both of Hirsch’s cases.

As I was soon to learn is somewhat characteristic of him, Green did not reply in the Comments section of my post. In order to carry the fight to him, I was obliged to reply in the Comments section at his own Reading Experience. Fair enough: there, at least, Green accepted the responsibility of answering my challenges. I explained how I had arrived at the assertion that he had described as reductive: “Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is. If the former the problem becomes how to reduce it to manageable proportions, and the only fair tactic—since by definition you are foregoing selectivity—is by means of some arbitrary category. If the latter then you must choose.” Either one must be a scholar and read everything in an arbitrarily restricted field, or be a critic and recommend only some of it.

Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is. Green responded: “Or everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature, if the author intends it to be taken as literature.” And finally, finally, we were engaged in a face-to-face debate. But not for long. I pointed out that the first half of his definition (“everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama”) was exactly what Hirsch referred to in saying that “literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates.” Not everyone agrees with the stipulation. In fact, Hirsch had supplied an example of a literary work that falls outside it: Darwin’s Origin of Species. The second half of Green’s definition, I pointed out, was tautological. But “[i]f a writer of fiction intends his work to be judged as ‘literature,’ ” Green objected, “then I don‘t see why we shouldn‘t do that.” Because then literature would not be everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama, but something else—that’s why.

Green tried again: “Literature is fiction, poetry, or drama that seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria,” he said. Right. “And cows are mammals that are known as ‘cows,’ ” I scoffed. The definition begs the question. “It doesn’t beg the question,” Green replied, although denial is not refutation. “It simply acknowledges that the question can be answered only by looking at specific cases.”

At this point I threw up my hands. For if literature exists only in specific cases there is no possibility of generalizing about it at all. What sense would it make, then, to say that any text seeks to be judged by “literary” criteria? Green would have to hold that a text seeks to be judged by its own specific criteria. On the contrary, however, he explicitly maintained that specifying what “literary” criteria he would apply in judging self-described “literature” is what he had been doing for years on his blog.

My guess is that Green had confused definition with a priori knowledge, which is arrived at independently of experience. By preferring to look at specific cases, he may simply have been expressing a preference for a posteriori knowledge. But a definition can be offered in advance without its necessarily being a priori. If it is derived from experience it will serve as a summary of experience—a report delivered after the fact—although its abstract form can lead incautious readers to mistake it for something else. (It is also readily confused with dogma, for example.)

At all events, I decided to give Green some time to rethink his position, as I had invited him to do when I pointed out that he had fallen victim to petitio principii. And that is why I reentered the lists only two weeks ago, when he set forth a generalizing and abstract account of literary criticism, complete with instructions on what and what not to do, which violated his stated attachment to specific cases. I acknowledge that I was rough on him. My conclusion may even have seemed to have crossed the line into a personal attack, although I will hold till my dying day that if you are not devoted to argument—if you are content with question-begging conceptions of experience—then you can only resort to force when you put those conceptions into play.

And I say all this because, once again this morning, Green has written something to which I should like to reply. In fact, I read his review of Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff’s memoir of his mother Susan Sontag, as an invitation to an argument. While making a sharp and useful distinction between biography and gossip, Green goes on to challenge the place of biography in literary understanding. He is worried about a literary culture in which the “biographical will triumph over the exegetic.” This is, in my opinion, a false distinction. But what is the point of developing an argument to that effect if it will go pointedly ignored? Unless you open yourself to the possibility of correction and refutation—unless you are devoted to argument, even if it gets rough at times—you have chosen to set up camp outside the Republic of Letters. You have preferred the solitary life of monologue. I should welcome a dialogue on biography and exegesis, but I cannot carry it on by myself—though perhaps Daniel Green can.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Strout brings home Pulitzer

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a novel in stories about life in small-town Maine, has won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In its Jacket Copy blog, the Los Angeles Times breaks the story, noting that Strout edged out Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves and Christine Schutt’s All Souls, the other two finalists. Earlier in the year, Strout discussed the book in a talk recorded by WGBH.

Reviews: Ann Cummins, San Francisco Chronicle; Molly Gross, Washington Post; J. A. Kaszuba Locke, BookLoons; Valerie Ryan, Seattle Times; Lizzie Skurnick, Critical Mass; Louisa Thomas, New York Times; Jessica Treadway, Boston Globe.

I have never read the book, never before heard of Strout, hadn’t even realized Olive Kitteridge was nominated. Just goes to show. What? I am not sure.

Truth-telling does not get much better

Although I have small interest in popular culture, and even less in reality TV, like pretty much everyone else in the English-speaking world I found myself arrested by the incredible story of Susan Boyle. It is a story that is particularly fitting for our time, because it requires more than words.

I had caught a short segment about Boyle on a morning show that my wife was watching as she dressed for work. But I had been unaware of the background to the segment—unaware either of her life prior to appearing on Britain’s Got Talent ten days ago or the reception Boyle was given by the audience at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow. And I was only vaguely aware—aware, that is, beneath the level of verbal consciousness—of how the television directors, in both the U.K. and U.S., had selected camera angles that emphasized the 47-year-old Scottish spinster’s physical awkwardness and lack of beauty. The contrast between her looks and her voice was intended to be shattering. The power and depth of her singing—she performed “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical drama Les Misérables—were more than sufficient to move even a casual listener. For television, however, and for a world that has been schooled in its visual values, her singing was not enough. Boyle was a sensation precisely because the beauty of her voice was treated as astonishing given her lack of physical beauty.

And I write all this—not one word about literature till now—because this morning, warming up with a cup of coffee, I read a wise and lovely column about Boyle and her worldwide reception by Colette Douglas Home, a Northern Irish writer who is married to the editor of the Glasgow Herald. As they say, read the whole thing. Truth-telling does not get much better.

Update: In the New York Post, Maureen Callahan is suspicious. It is not that she believes there is really no such person as Susan Boyle. Rather, she is suspicious of the impresario Simon Cowell. “Not since P.T. Barnum has there been a show business master of the trompe l’oeil like Simon Cowell,” she says. I am in no position to judge, having only the vaguest knowledge of Cowell. Yet Callahan goes on to say that Boyle’s story “would not be so compelling without the contradictions: the beautiful voice possessed by this defiantly unglamorous woman, who can somehow fully inhabit and interpret a love song without ever having been in love.” And I wonder if his genius, if indeed Cowell staged the whole thing, may be to spot a good story when he sees one—and to know just how to heighten the contradictions, to make a good story even better. Even if all that is true, the fact remains that the contradictions depend upon just the cultural assumptions that Douglas Home identified in her column: “Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect.” Even from the likes of Maureen Callahan.

Update, II: David P. Goldman, the Asia Times columnist who writes under the appropriate pseudonym Spengler, for he too is convinced of the West’s decline, argues that Susan Boyle validates the mediocrity of popular audiences and represents a “[c]hurlish resentment of high culture.” Tone deaf as I am, I have no truly informed opinion about Boyle’s singing. As Robert Levy observes, the whole thing was great theater. Yet I still maintain that Colette Douglas Home has reported a real cultural distemper—our confusion of youthful beauty with talent and goodness, and our increasing willingness to show a lack of respect for those who do not meet our standards of youth and beauty. That insight, rather than Boyle’s singing, is what motivated my original post.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I should be nonplussed, I suppose, to have been cast as Garth Knight in Elberry’s remake of Robin of Sherwood. But it is refreshing to learn that Garth Knight is also a bondage artist and the father of Bristol Palin’s baby. These are cultural roles that suit my unique abilities to a farthing!

Rather than the picture that Elberry posted, I prefer this self-portrait from my pre-Raphaelite or hippie days. (I can’t decide which.) Coated with cobwebs and dust, indeed!

By the way, I shall be online only sporadically over the next three or four days, since I am on deadline with an article for a magazine. Periphrastic insults, not banal, should be forwarded to Nigel Beale, Frank Wilson, Patrick Kurp, or any other Old Boy with a blog. Although, let’s face it, none of them can touch me when it comes to being “knowing to the point of arrogance.”

Update: In the comments section, Lee Lowe accuses me of a “certain dogmatism.” I reply to the accusation there.

But her accusation got me to thinking. What are the dogmas that I have enunciated so far on this Commonplace Blog? Here are ten.

( 1) Literature is good writing, where “good” by definition yields no fixed definition.

( 2) Literature is a title of prestige bestowed by critics (who mean to distinguish good writing from, say, John Banfield’s Banville’s).

( 3) Literary persuasion is of a different order from political persuasion, because it is mediated by style—that is, the concern to write well.

( 4) English literature is a discipline of knowledge rather than a fine sensibility.

( 5) There are some works of literature that every civilized American should be familiar with, although there will be much disagreement over what they are.

( 6) The sciences are not the court of last rational resort, because the claim that they are is not itself a scientific claim, leaving other courts to conduct at least some rational business.

( 7) Fiction’s truth may only be secured extrinsically—that is, it must also be contained in the community where the fiction was originally written. More than the fictional world alone must exist for fiction to enter the service of truth.

( 8) Academic boycotts of Israel are terrorism by other means.

( 9) Meaning is produced not by the material aspects of writing, but by its intellectual conditions.

(10) Literature does not come from groups, marginalized or otherwise, but from individual men and women; and it is a product, not of the immutable racial and sexual identities they receive at birth, but of innumerable choices. Literature is a realm of freedom, including the freedom to dissociate yourself from antipathetic ideas, even those espoused by a group with which you otherwise identify.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Don’t go there

In the name of God, what are two books by Jonathan Culler doing alongside Arnold Bennett, Somerset Maugham, F. R. Leavis, and J. M. Coetzee in Nigel Beale’s stack of books to lug home from South Africa?

The Los Angeles Times handicaps the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, to be announced Monday. Top three picks: Marilynne Robinson’s Home (too Christian), John Updike’s Widows of Eastwick (the jury won’t award the prize posthumously), and Philip Roth’s Indignation (not a “big”-enough Roth). You heard it here first. The winner will be Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves.

Jerome Weeks appears to have abandoned Book/Daddy.

Ben Kipela discovers the nineteenth-century American poet Agnes Lee, who leads him to reread J. V. Cunningham. Any poet who achieves such an effect deserves immediate immortality.

Maud Newton interviews Marlon James, another of those novelists who has turned his back upon the unspeakable evils of capitalism to write instead of slavery.

“After a steady diet of Victorian Catholic novelists,” Miriam Burstein cheats with Stephen Booth’s Kill Call and Ruth Rendell’s Birthday Present.

Making sure that more Pulitzer Prize-winners are not forgotten, Roger K. Miller praises The Bridge of San Luis Rey (final verdict: plenty of riches, but not perfect) and one of the reviewers at Mookse and the Gripes tackles Humboldt’s Gift (arouses a curiosity about his three National Book Award-winning novels, but not for “all things Bellow”).

Patrick Kurp celebrates fiction’s ability to draw together disparate events.

And Daniel Green continues to ignore his incoherence on the question of literature.

Miles Franklin short list

The shortlist for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award was released yesterday.

One of the nominees is a personal favorite. Tim Winton is compared in the official release to Ian McEwan and Philip Roth (“major chroniclers of the human condition”). He far more closely resembles Richard Russo. His novels are similarly loose, yet driven by narrative rather than theme or thesis. They invite you to keep reading, partly because they never invite you to stop, underline a passage, and ponder. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Literary intellectuals have become too tolerant of essayistic digressions and sententious reflections. Winton’s novels don’t loop back on themselves. They drive forward. Here is hoping that Breath, his novel about surfers, brings home his fourth Miles Franklin Award.

Perry Middlemiss’s page dedicated to the award is here. It includes a list of every award-winner since 1957.

Update: The Guardian says that Winton holds the “pole position” for the award (h/t: Books, Inq.).

Top 10 forgotten prize winners

The American Book Exchange has compiled a list of the Top 10 Forgotten Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novels (h/t: Books, Inq.). First on the list is James Gould Cozzens’s Guard of Honor, which I named earlier as a celebrated book whose author had outlived his reputation. Martin Dressler hardly belongs on the same list as The Able McLaughlins and Lamb in His Bosom, though. How about Edna Ferber’s So Big, John Hersey’s Bell for Adano, or Jane Smiley’s Thousand Acres?

A more useful list would include prize-winning novels that have been forgotten, but do not deserve to be:

( 1) Thomas Williams, The Hair of Harold Roux (National Book Award, 1975)
( 2) Adele Wiseman, The Sacrifice (Governor General’s Award, 1956)
( 3) Linda Grant, When I Lived in Modern Times (Orange Prize, 2000)
( 4) Jean Stafford, The Collected Stories (Pulitzer Prize, 1970)
( 5) Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils (Booker Prize, 1986)
( 6) Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (James Tait Black Prize, 1921)
( 7) Brian Moore, The Luck of Ginger Coffey (Governor General’s Award, 1960)
( 8) Wright Morris, The Field of Vision (National Book Award, 1957)
( 9) Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter (Governor General’s Award, 1997)
(10) Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (Lambda Award, 2002)

The error behind Amazon’s

So Larry Kramer, who has also collected eighteen thousand signatures on a petition calling for a boycott, does not think—not for one second—that a computer glitch caused some books by prominent homosexuals to lose their Amazon sales rankings and become harder to find in searches. Michael Lukas goes even further. The glitch “targeted” homosexuals’ books, he yells: “Not only does the incident reek of blatant bias, it also displays a profound ignorance of literary history.”

That is quite a lot for one mistake to accomplish. If Kramer and Lukas do not believe that a programming error caused the “deranking” of some books, what do they believe was behind it? Lukas is clear on the point, offering a “short list of titles that Amazon might consider for the next round of censorship” and wondering darkly whether “this is the company we want controlling the future of literature.” But aren’t these contradictory ambitions? If Amazon seeks to corner the book-buying market, why would it also seek to shrink the size of the market? Do Kramer and Lukas really believe that it is good business to eliminate homosexuals’ books from a bookstore’s inventory? How would that be in Amazon’s interests? Are homosexual writers and readers such an insignificant public that the company could afford to offend and exclude them?

The programming error suggests exactly the opposite. Amazon was apparently trying to revise its search algorithms to make it easier for customers to find books on what are politely described as “gay themes.” But here is just exactly the source of the problem. And it is evidence of special pleading on the part of homosexual writers and readers. They want books with “gay themes” to be distinguished from all other books—set apart in a separate universe, with its own separate foundation and its own separate prizes—and they annex an ever-increasing area of literary history to this universe, but then they object, as Daniel Mendelsohn does in the same New York Times article in which Kramer is quoted, that “the words gay and lesbian were clearly flagged” when Amazon sought to revise its search algorithms. Since they themselves insist upon euphemisms like “gay” and “lesbian”—to speak more plainly would be a slur—they are the ones who have installed euphemism at the heart of the process and complicated the effort of distinguishing their writing from everyone else’s. They want to be singled out. They bridle at being singled out. Perhaps the very idea of “gay literature” is to blame for the whole snafu.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Post and run

Hate to post and run, but last two days of Passover start in half an hour. Comments here are moderated, because in the past I have received antisemitic remarks, advertisements for Viagra, links to irrelevant websites, and self-publishing novelists’ self-promotions. No way, then, to reply till Thursday night, when I shall be back online, and with any luck, someone will have accepted my challenges. Talk to you then.

Would someone explain. . .

. . . what either occurrence of the word literary refers to in the following sentence: “Th[e] ability to enlist various kinds of writing not themselves per se ‘literary’ in the creation of literary form is part of what has allowed fiction to retain its vitality. . . .” If both refer to the same thing why is the first handled with quotation marks? And if they refer to different things how do the quotation marks specify the difference? Help me. I’m lost.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The gods cannot be proved

In a provocative day-after-Easter post, Elberry considers the historical basis of Christianity—the subject also of an early essay by Michael Oakeshott, which I commend to him. Basing a religious understanding upon historical events is objectionable, Elberry says; few would find themselves driven to Christ even if it could be proved that his resurrection was a historical fact. “The gods cannot be proved,” he writes. Oakeshott elaborates:

Religion demands not that the necessity for the existence of what it believes in should be proved, for that is an academic interest, but to be made intensely aware of the actual existence of the object of belief.[1]That is, the historical claims of Christianity serve the purpose, not of fixing an event in the past, but of giving it “a permanent and not merely a temporary meaning.” Through rituals like the Easter service, Christians reexperience the resurrection in the present. Not for nothing do the Jews recite from the Haggadah during the Passover seder:In every generation, one is obliged to regard himself as though he himself had actually gone out from Egypt, for the Torah says: “You shall tell your son on the day saying, ‘For the sake of this, the LORD did for me when I went out from Egypt.’ ” Not only our fathers were redeemed by the Holy One, blessed be he, but he also redeemed us with them, for so it says: “And he brought us out from there, so that he might bring us and give us the land which he had promised to our fathers.”These claims are not proofs, but invocations. They are attempts to reexperience the actual existence of God—in the same terms that generations of believers have experienced it. While nonbeliever and naïve believer assume that the Bible and its historical events are intended to be a “compelling demonstration of God,” they are better understood as an effort to provide language adequate to the experience of his actual existence.

The effort is doomed to failure. As Elberry points out,If there is any determining purpose, a god, it lies outside of the world, or it is just another counter we push around, a pebble we shift from pocket to pocket. If an absolute meaning is to be communicated to the world it must do so within the world; and so it cannot be absolute, or it would destroy the world—that is, it would not be apprehendable in worldly terms; the world would end where it began.The prooftext for his view, a brilliant anticipation of the kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum or God’s self-withdrawal from creation, comes at the end of Exodus, when the children of Israel have completed work on the Tabernacle: “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.” God must leave for man to enter. He can only be sought in his absence.

Elberry has it exactly right, and the atheist, exactly backwards.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, “The Importance of the Historical Element in Christianity” (1928), in Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 63–73.

Posterity makes its choice

Over the first days of Passover, I rested from my labors and reread Cakes and Ale (1930). It is W. Somerset Maugham’s best, the only one of his novels, as Joseph Epstein says, that is “completely successful.” A hilarious “easel picture” of literary life in Edwardian England (“I have painted easel pictures,” Maugham later confessed, “not frescoes”), the novel can also stand on its own as Maugham’s artistic credo. That it was once regarded as a roman à clef, having great fun at the expense of Hugh Walpole and the two-years-deceased Thomas Hardy, is no longer very interesting or significant. Contemporaries found the portraits so exact that, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “there were loud cries of ‘Slay the Monster!’ ” Six months after the novel was published a counterattack appeared under the title Gin and Bitters by “A. Riposte.” But who now reads Hugh Walpole, or giggles at the scandal of describing Hardy’s novels as boring?

And yet a good part of the fun in reading the novel is to be found in its literary opinions. When asked whether he remembers any of Edward Driffield’s remarks about literature, for example, Ashenden (the book’s narrator, who knew the Grand Old Man of English Letters when both were much younger men) replies,

[W]hen I was lunching with the Driffields a few years ago I overheard him saying that Henry James had turned his back on one of the great events of the world’s history, the rise of the United States, in order to report tittle-tattle at tea parties in English country houses. Driffield called it il gran rifiuto [the great refusal]. I was surprised at hearing the old man use an Italian phrase and amused because a great big bouncing duchess who was there was the only person who knew what the devil he was talking about. He said, “Poor Henry, he’s spending eternity wandering round and round a stately park and the fence is just too high for him to peep over and they’re having tea just too far for him to hear what the countess is saying.”This is at once unerringly true and wide of the mark. Something like it could also be said of Maugham himself, of course. Cakes and Ale he calls his novel, meaning not bread and water. Moreover, the one time he tried to cook up a novel around one of the great events in world history—England at war—he wound up with a blackened pot of melodrama. As Granville Hicks said, The Hour before the Dawn (1942) included “a German spy, a conscientious objector, an escape from France after Dunkirk, and an air raid, to say nothing of a collection of landed gentry, some evacuees, and a triangle”—everything, Hicks concluded, “except a literary conscience.”

The critics never approved of him. David Daiches spoke for the clan when he dismissed Maugham as an “accomplished professional” who lacked “any original vision of humanity or any great distinction of style.” The lack of an original vision did not seem to dissuade book buyers (and theatergoers), who approved of him sufficiently to place him in “the £20,000 a year class,” as the New York Times reported in 1925—more than $97,000 in U.S. currency. Popular approval had its costs, however, which Maugham continued to pay for the rest of the century. As Anthony Daniels (better known as Theodore Dalrymple) wrote in the New Criterion in 2000, “[A]dmitting to an admiration for Maugham is to an intellectual what voyaging overseas once was to an orthodox Brahmin: it leads automatically to a loss of caste.”

Maugham was unapologetic about being a popular writer. In a central passage of Cakes and Ale comparing literary reputations, Ashenden says:The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is a proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes it choice not from among the unknown writers of a period, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still-born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the best sellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.The modern quarrel between popularity and posterity is Maugham’s theme. With the exception of Driffield, who must have “thought about his writing, but never mentioned it,” the literary men of Cakes and Ale are the sort whom I described yesterday as bureaucrats of literature. They are anglers for succès d’estime if not £20,000 a year.

Alroy Kear, the author of some thirty books, has enjoyed a career that “might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature,” because no one else among his contemporaries has “achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.” Kear rises in the world of letters by means of what would now be called social networking and seizing every opportunity to advance himself:He could be counted on to reply for literature at a public dinner and he was invariably on the reception committee formed to give a proper welcome to a literary celebrity from overseas. No bazaar lacked an autographed copy of at least one of his books. He never refused to grant an interview. He justly said that no one knew better than he the hardships of the author’s trade and if he could help a struggling journalist to earn a few guineas by having a pleasant chat with him he had not the inhumanity to refuse. He generally asked his interview to luncheon and seldom failed to make a good impression on him.Driffield’s widow has asked Kear to write the late great novelist’s biography. In typical fashion, Kear had sent a letter to Driffield several years earlier, professing admiration for his novels, was invited to visit, and eventually came to know him well. At first he hesitated over the biography, but he has decided to do it. “[I]f I can make a pretty good job of it,” he tells Ashenden, “it can’t fail to do me a lot of good. People have so much more respect for a novelist if he writes something serious now and then.”

His problem is the first Mrs. Driffield—a working-class beauty with a mischievous smile, a former barmaid, a tart who is spectacularly unfaithful, chucking Driffield and England over for another man and America. Kear does not want to “make a sensation,” nor does he want to be accused to “imitating Lytton Strachey.” He should like to do something “with a good deal of atmosphere, you know, and a certain gravity, and with a sort of aristocratic distinction”—in about eighty thousand words. “I don’t want to say anything that’s untrue,” he tells Ashenden, “but I do think there’s a certain amount that’s better left unsaid.”

Cakes and Ale is the reverse image, the book that Kear has no intention of writing. Telling the story as if he were writing a casual gossipy memoir, Ashenden says everything about Edward Driffield’s first marriage that Kear plans to leave unsaid—although an age that has been informed that Lincoln was gay or has learned that Flannery O’Connor liked racist jokes will find the revelations mild enough. The first-person narrative moves gracefully between the literary present, in which Kear hopes to forestall Ashenden from turning out anything about Driffield and “blowing the gaff,” and the extraliterary past, when Ashenden knew the Driffields as neighbors and friends and spent many happy hours in their company. Although he is no less a hack than his rival—Maugham scorches himself as badly as Hugh Walpole—Ashenden writes to a different standard. If Kear’s is a policy of “reserve and delicacy,” his is one of unembarrassed plainness. He explains in the novel’s last pages. No matter how badly he is treated by posterity and a “fickle public,” the writer has one compensation:Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as the theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.This was also Maugham’s credo. He did not seek to claim more for himself than he deserved. He knew his limitations as a writer; his prose style, which (as Theodore Spencer memorably put it) “conceals its real economy under an air of apparent garrulity,” perfectly suits the modesty of his literary ambitions. Like Alroy Kear, he hoped to be chosen by posterity. But he knew that his best chance was to be straight with it, and to leave questions of greatness to another time.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Doctrine suspended in the void

In the latest Weekly Standard, Edward Short begins a review of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings by quoting from Henry James:

The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions. It is a gift inestimably precious and beautiful; therefore, so far from thinking that it passes overmuch from hand to hand, one knows that one has only to stand by the counter an hour to see that business is done with baser coin. We have too many schoolmasters; yet not only do I not question in literature the high utility of criticism, but I should be tempted to say that the part it plays may be the supremely beneficent one when it proceeds from deep sources, from the efficient combination of experience and perception. In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother.Although Short does not identify the source, this passage comes from James’s essay “The Science of Criticism” originally published in the New Review in May 1891 and reprinted in book form two years later in Essays in London and Elsewhere. (The Library of America includes it in its volume of James’s criticism on American and English writers.)

James begins the essay by observing that, despite an affluence of periodical criticism in his day, it was curiously disconnected from the literature under review. Barren of examples and illustrations, a stranger to “literary conduct,” much criticism was characterized by a “deluge of doctrine suspended in the void”—not unlike many pronouncements on criticism one hundred years and more later. James marveled that literature was able to resist “such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance,” and worried that it would not long be able to, “speedily going down beneath it.” How will anyone know if literature goes under? The signs will be obvious—“the failure of distinction, the failure of style, the failure of knowledge, the failure of thought.”

With the disappearance of many American newspapers’ book pages, the threat would seem to have disappeared too. But not so fast. James was concerned lest “the diffusion of penmanship and opportunity” prove fatal to literature. If book pages are disappearing, programs in creative writing are multiplying. As I observed in the Afterword to the new edition of The Elephants Teach, “the total number of degree-granting programs” in the U.S. has climbed to “well over three hundred.” In his scholarly study published earlier this month, Mark McGurl argues that “the rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history”; he calls the era in American fiction The Program Era. The “multiplication of endowments for chatter” troubled James in his day. In our day, different institutions are endowed, and the multiplication increases.

The threat remains. Literature is highly susceptible to demoralization, and “nothing is better calculated than irresponsible pedagogy to make it close its ears and lips.” Since creative writing has relieved it of the responsibility for tutoring writers, criticism has become an even more unreliable pedagogue. Critics seem no longer willing to recognize that many books have “nothing to say to the critical sense, that they do not belong to literature, and that the possession of a critical sense is exactly what makes it impossible to read them and dreary to discuss them—places them, as a part of the critical experience, out of the question.” As I have said so many times that I have become a bore on the subject, literature is a title which is bestowed by critics, and if they fail to perform their duty, literature becomes a tear in the ocean of books. This is the sense in which Frank Wilson hits the target when he says that “any accurate and precise description of anything is necessarily implicitly evaluative.” Although descriptive utterances may be logically distinguishable from evaluative utterances, a critic must admit that some books are just too dreary to describe. Its evaluative commitment, its acceptance of the kingmaker’s role, is what distinguishes criticism from irresponsible pedagogy. Without Samuel there is neither Saul nor David.

And it is at this point in the argument that the passage quoted by Short (reproduced above) appears. The critical sense is not widely distributed—at least not as widely distributed as English departments across the land. The critic’s function is “sacrificial”; indeed, the critic sacrifices himself to the founding of literature. “To lend himself, to project himself and steep himself, to feel and feel till he understands, and to understand so well that he can say, to have perception at the pitch of passion and expression as embracing as the air, to be infinitely curious and incorrigibly patient”—these are the self-sacrificing qualities of a critic. That they are unusual goes without saying. To be instead a servant of doctrine, to know in advance what any literary text will say, to decide what to read on the basis of irrelevant criteria like authors’ race and sex, to intone magisterially about “literature as a whole” and then to restrict it to only those who deliver an “aesthetic experience”—these are among the ways in which schoolmasters, administering budgets and alloting classroom space and angling for a promotion, pretend to the world that they are critics. They are not. They are bureaucrats of literature. They may “continue to talk about it long after it has bored itself to death,” and they give every appearance of making sure that their descendants will hear about it in this fashion, but they will “acquiesce in its extinction.”

Saturday, April 11, 2009

An undeserved honor

Many thanks to Mark Sarvas of Elegant Variation for including A Commonplace Blog among the “Top 10 Really, Really Smart Literary Blogs.” As Frank Wilson observed, it is a pity that Sarvas momentarily forgot Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence, the best of the best. The same day that Sarvas’s ten best appeared at, after all, Kurp quoted from the “funniest literary account of a Seder”—from Isaac Rosenfeld’s only novel, Passage from Home. This was a polite correction of my post on Passover reading below.

At all events, I apologize for not being around to greet any new readers on Thursday or Friday. Please make yourself at home. Help yourself to a Coke or a handful of chips.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hag kasher v’sameyah

A happy Passover to kol Yisrael. Tonight Jews all over the world sit down to read, study, and reenact a famous work of literature called simply Haggadah—the narrative. As if there were no other.

The National Review asked five Jewish intellectuals for recommended Passover reading. Other than commentaries on the Haggadah, the only books that received a mention were Leon Uris’s Exodus, Aaron Wildavsky’s Moses as a Political Leader, and Marcy Goldman’s Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking.

Yosef Ḥaim Brenner’s novel Breakdown and Bereavement (1920) might seem an odd choice for Pesaḥ reading. As the Israeli critic Gershon Shaked describes it, the novel is about a “neurotic individual who tries to become a ḥalutz (pioneer) but whose tendencies toward moroseness and despair are only exacerbated by his experiences in Palestine.” But the novel is not a political allegory. In the words of Hillel Halkin, its English translator, it offers a “last, lingering glimpse of Palestinian life in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire. . . .” Breakdown and Bereavement is a portrait, that is, the first Jews to arrive in Palestine from the new Exodus, although for complicated historical reasons it was called the Second Aliyah, and the enormous task they faced. That Brenner was pessimistic about their chances is irrelevant, because he was proven wrong. And his novel remains great—a reminder that the work of Jewish freedom is unfinished.

An antidote to the spirit of Brenner’s novel is another about making exodus to the holy land—Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times (2001). An altogether unexpected novel from a British feminist who had written a history of the sexual revolution, the novel is about the last days of British Mandate Palestine and the first heady stirrings of Jewish independence. Grant’s heroine Evelyn Sert realizes, when she arrives in Palestine, that she is “part of a grand narrative that had started before [she] was ever born.” She belongs, that is, to Haggadah. And in arriving in the land that will become Israel, she has “come to the place where no Jew need ever invent himself again or pretend to be someone else he wasn’t.” Offhand I cannot think of a better summary than that of the Passover message. Grant was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for last year’s Clothes on their Backs, but the earlier novel is her masterpiece. It is one of the undiscovered jewels of modern English-language fiction.

Not that anyone should notice, but starting this evening I will be offline for three days—two holy days and then the Sabbath.

Happy Easter to those who did not have to hunt down the last crumb of ḥamets last night. (Here is a bleg, my dear Christian readers. What are the best Easter books?) May the reexperience of his death and resurrection lift every Christian to new heights in the coming year.

And to my fellow Jews, in the coming months may you have plenty of ḥaroset and not so much ḥazeret.

Criticism and the police

Daniel Green continues to police the stray and fugitive remarks about literary criticism that steal across the literary blogscape. His latest warning comes in response to some reflections on criticism by the fiction writer J. Robert Lennon, although he does not spare Nigel Beale, an unrepentant recidivist who keeps “fall[ing] back on his core notion that criticism is essentially an evaluative act.” Green instructs them in the law, barking that, in addition to its mission of being “at least as much descriptive as evaluative,” criticism must also take into account the “larger context of literature itself, within which the reader must approach the work. . . .” The most “substantive” criticism, you see, is written by “literary critics who conceive their first and primary commitment to be to literature as a whole, defined as an ongoing collective enterprise with an identifiable history to which current works inevitably have a meaningful relationship and among whose current exponents some equally meaningful connections can be made.” Wake me when the sentence is over.

Set aside the fact that Green’s conception of literature is question-begging and circular. “[E]verything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature,” he finally concluded after long pestering from me, “if the author intends it to be taken as literature.” Until he locates the key to unlock the self-enclosed circle of his own confusion—a first responsibility which he has never accepted onto himself—Green is disqualified from speaking of “literature as a whole.” The phrase, when used by him, is vacuous.

But what could the phrase possibly mean? Even adopting a more coherent version of Green’s late Victorian ideal, literature-as-a-whole would include fiction, poetry, and drama written in many different languages, most of which will not be known with sufficient fluency for the writer and critic to make “meaningful connections.” Does every poem refer helplessly to every other poem ever written? Even if it were possible to conceive what this might mean, how would the conception be useful? How would it work?

Here is a small example. Jane Austen was born in 1775; Nahman of Breslov, the famous Hasidic rabbi, was born three years earlier. Both wrote fiction. Nahman’s Sippurei Maasiyyot, a collection of thirteen mystical tales, was published, in Yiddish and Hebrew, in 1816—the same year in which Austen wrote Emma. On any conception of it, literature-as-a-whole would have to contain both Austen and the Breslover, but in what conceivable sense do both of them belong and contribute to the same “ongoing collective enterprise with an identifiable history to which current works inevitably have a meaningful relationship”? What are the “meaningful connections” that might be drawn between these two “current exponents”? And what difference would they make?

What we have here is evidence of the decay of faith. And Daniel Green is a pious mutawwa, a one-man Committee for the Prevention of Literary Vice, correcting this one and that one, enforcing conformity where he can no longer enjoy a community of belief. The time of the religion of literature has long passed.

Swept along by Stanley Elkin

Earlier this morning Nige recorded his first encounter with Stanley Elkin’s brilliant and rollicking Dick Gibson Show. “Elkin is, among other things, an absolute master of the spiel,” Nige writes—“once he gets going, he has you, there’s no resisting, he sweeps you along on his torrent of words. Rather than a man writing a novel, he sounds and feels like a man talking to you, urgently, hilariously, endlessly inventively, twisting and turning the language, keeping it alive, always keeping you with him. . . .”

I studied under Elkin at Washington University in St. Louis. In fact, I wrote my masters thesis on The Dick Gibson Show—surely an academic first of some kind, as I put it elsewhere. Nige’s description of his prose, the best thing I have ever read about the experience of reading him, reminds me of the principle of style that Elkin enunciated one day in class. A student complained about Conrad’s lack of verbal concision. She held that “Less is more.” Elkin became impatient. “Less is less,” he said irritably. “More is more. Enough is enough.”

One small correction. Nige writes: “The Dick Gibson Show is loosely structured—as with Bellow, the structure is hardly the point. . . .” This is not wrong at all. Elkin’s novel is loosely structure indeed, but it has a structure. Elkin adopts the Enlightenment commonplace, which divided European history into the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Golden Age. And perhaps this might be described as a flexible structure rather than a loose one, like a card file, since Elkin is able to expand and contract it as suits his needs (“Enough is enough”), while proceeding more or less steadily toward his goal.

My full-length essay on the novel is here. The time has come for an Elkin revival.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

What to do about Rochester

Lord Rochester’s verse poses a problem of a different magnitude from Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Instead of the occasional blemish, or what Mark Athitakis points out is a bizarre obsession with how women smell, there is top-to-bottom misogyny:

Love a woman? You’re an ass.
’Tis a most insipid passion
To choose out for your happiness
The idlest part of God's creation.

Let the porter and the groom,
Things designed for dirty slaves,
Drudge in fair Aurelia’s womb
To get supplies for age and graves.

Farewell, woman! I intend
Henceforth every night to sit
With my lewd, well-natured friend,
Drinking to engender wit.

Then give me health, wealth, mirth, and wind,
And if busy Love intrenches,
There’s a sweet, soft page of mine
Does the trick worth forty wenches.
By the time of his death in 1680 from syphilis, gonorhea, and Lord knows what else, Rochester’s reputation for scurrility in verse was so well-established that for a century or more the editors of anthologies would attribute any bawdy poem to him.

Rochester never intended his rake-hell verses to be published. He wrote them for his own amusement, and that of his friends. As his close friend Robert Wolseley later said, he did not write “for any public or common entertainment whatever, but for the private diversion of those happy few whom he used to charm with his company and honor with his friendship.” The trouble is that Rochester’s verses are amusing. “The Imperfect Enjoyment”—a satire on what is now called, with medical primness, erectile dysfunction. “Signior Dildo”—an encomium to that “noble Italian.” “Upon His Leaving His Mistress”—so that she might “be the mistress of mankind.” “Upon His Drinking Bowl”—a toast to his saints Cupid and Bacchus. To read Rochester is to reexperience what it must have been like to sit with a circle of Restoration buddies, drinking heavily and trading incredibly well-made and witty obscenities.

Apart from its private amusement value, how can such a sinful poet be as great as Rochester so clearly is? Here is why. His character, as Kenneth Burke would say, “is based upon an integrity, or constancy,” and not upon a fixed and universal mode code (which is the real perversion of morality). Rochester had at least the integrity of being constant in his sin. He does not seek to set himself up as a moral champion, but only to achieve that integrity or constancy of keeping faith with his friends and enjoyments, no matter how imperfect.

The quantification dodge

In his April Fool’s Day post, Will Wilkinson takes on what he calls “the meaning dodge.” What he means by this phrase, although he is not sure what meaning is, is that the appeal to its “meaning” is resorted to when an experience can be defended in no better terms. His example is having children. In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks studied the numbers closely, and concluded that “Marriage makes people very happy, but children have the opposite effect: The happiness of couples, and the quality of their marriage, falls after the birth of the first child.” I dispute this conclusion. I have four children, and have never been happier. But this datum will be dismissed as “anecdotal,” of course, and thus my experience rendered meaningless.

Or perhaps that is the meaning of meaning—the statistically insignificant experience that nevertheless is experienced as significant; significant, that is, in some other terms than statistics. Wilkinson is dubious. Unless a finding is quantifiable, it does not exist for him:

How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can’t just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need to get started on measuring meaning.Here is a classic example of the ignoratio elenchi or category mistake. For Wilkinson, the only form that “intellectual virtue” can take is quantification, measurement, the reduction of experience to numerical value. But is this claim quantifiable? Or is it an appeal to meaning—the assertion that measurement is more valuable than any other method of evaluating an experience? On what basis, though?

What such thinking represents is the imperialism of science. I couldn’t resist the phrase, but in truth, real scientists are far more modest in their claims than their unscientific cheerleaders. Since science is, as Michael Oakeshott said, “the attempt to conceive of the world under the category of quantity,” real scientists confine themselves to quantification and what claims quantification can support.[1] But quantification cannot support all claims: “ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people”; “ ’Twere profanation of our joys/ To tell the laity our love”; “In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.”

Indeed, the opposition of quantification to meaning belongs to meaning, because it cannot be quantified. Wilkinson may boggle at meaning for as long as he wishes, but he cannot do without the concept. In his insistence that “we should try to quantify” all things, he is otherwise engaged in what Viktor Frankl famously called “man’s search for meaning.”

Frankl sought to found psychotherapy on a human “will to meaning.” This was an explicit repudiation of Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis, which held on the contrary that either the “pleasure principle” (or will to pleasure) or the “will to power” (or the striving for superiority) are at bottom of human conduct. In Frankl’s view, the “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” But what is meaning? Frankl explained:By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.[2]Meaning lies outside the immediate experience (or verbal utterance), pries open the system, and connects it with something larger. It is public; it can be reproduced; it can be shared. It yields the conviction that discrete events are not random and accidental, but parts of a whole. It produces the will to science, without which the results of scientific experimentation would be what Wilkinson dismisses as “lumps in the rug.” It is the proof of human consciousness.

Wilkinson calls for a “new field of ‘meaning research,’ ” but the field has flourished for some time. For lack of a better name, it might be known as the humanities. Its empire has been scaled back, but it cannot be destroyed altogether without destroying the very basis of the almost religious belief in science’s sole and ultimate good.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), p. 176.

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon, 1959), p. 115.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Clearance items

History is what cannot be fooled.

Where the writer is obscure, he is still in the process of getting things done; where he is clear, he is finished.

A good writer rarely takes his own advice.

You can look at anything closely enough. The question is whether it repays your attention. (Attention must be a loan, then.)

By describing a writer’s style, you ought to be able to describe the personality he puts forth—the kind of person his writing makes him out to be.

For there to be a violation, there must be a duty.

The style conducts the argument that the plot controls.

You can’t sneak around anywhere without starting a dog barking.

News may be true and still not be the truth.

The minute an authority becomes the authorities, it is time to turn tail and run.

A man in a baseball cap cannot be taken seriously.

Conservative-bashing is the gay-bashing of the American intelligentsia.

Literature is not a claim that the world is textual; it is an effort to organize the world in terms of a text.

Certain elements of American society, when they disapprove of something, endeavor to get it banned. What is needed is more intelligent persons who ask with honest puzzlement why anyone would think to waste his time with such a thing.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Isaac Rosenfeld

Steven J. Zipperstein, Rosenfeld’s Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). 240 pp. $27.50.

By one of those coincidences that lead me to suspect that God has a bizarre sense of humor, a new biography of Isaac Rosenfeld arrived on April Fool’s Day, while I was assembling a literary hoax around one of his detractors. Wallace Markfield shamelessly exploited Rosenfeld’s life, making his funeral the comic subject of his first novel. To the end he remained bitter that Rosenfeld, who died with only one book to his name, was better known and more highly regarded than he. Shortly before his own death, Markfield told Heeb, “As a writer, [Rosenfeld] became a gas bag.”

If so it was not the worst thing he could have become. Rosenfeld was afforded only thirty-eight years on earth to finish what he started. In this sympathetic but unsparing biography, Steven Zipperstein—a literary historian whose last book was a biography of the cranky secular Zionist Ahad Ha-Am—reveals that, in addition to Passage from Home (1946), Rosenfeld chipped away at five more novels that remain in manuscript. His friends expected a “Gogol-like masterpiece” from him about Greenwich Village, where his apartment “acquired the standing of a legendary bohemian enclave.” Rosenfeld confided to a friend:

Some day soon I hope to start a story about the village which should say everything I’ve been thinking and feeling about the village, life in general, people, friends, love, sex. . . . I think I’ve come to understand the matter somewhat better now, and if I can clean out the insides of my own head it may do me some good.It was a promising theme. Despite serving as the basis for Paul Mazursky’s delightful film Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) and Anatole Broyard’s posthumous memoir Kafka Was the Rage (1993), the postwar bohemian life of Greenwich Village has never inspired an even minimally good novel. Rosenfeld was the writer to do it, but though “[h]e completed a small mountain of work on the theme,” as Zipperstein reports, he was never able to finish his Village novel. Nor was he able to complete the expansion of his award-winning novella “The Colony,” about Gandhi and Nehru, for which he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and time at Yaddo, the writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs. Mother Russia, a novel about the Soviet Union under Stalin, added up to three hundred pages in manuscript before Rosenfeld abandoned it. What he compiled were “incomplete manuscripts that he knew to contain nuggets of brilliance for which he was reaching,” Zipperstein says, “but that he couldn’t sustain.”

The problem was that Rosenfeld was a born critic in an age that valued the novel almost to the exclusion of any other literary form. Worse yet, his native genre was the book review—a kind of writing that, no matter how well it wears, does not collect well. “ ‘Taking a good look’ is how he described reading,” Zipperstein writes in his book’s opening sentence. And this is a fitting place to begin, because reading was Rosenfeld’s method for ordering his mind and taming his demons. At the same time, he saw the life of reading as a life of limitation. As Zipperstein writes a little later, “[H]e refused to see books as the only way life might be understood,” while he never denied “his undying reliance upon them.”

An Age of Enormity (1962), a posthumous volume of his reviews, contains some of the best critical prose from the forties and fifties. The tight compass of the book review obliged Rosenfeld to concentrate his immense intelligence, and not to waste any words. Early in the history of this blog I quoted my favorite passage from his criticism. Here is Rosenfeld on the British novelist Henry Green, who was “overevaluated,” in his opinion:Perhaps Green’s advance reputation had something to do with this; he was known, for a period of several years before his publication here, to only a few in this country, who regarded his work as though it held the last light of truth in the modern novel. This is a disadvantage to all but the truly great. Of Green it must now be said, what there would otherwise have been no need to say, that he is not a major novelist, that he does not have a major sensibility, and that his work, granting its excellence, is nevertheless quite small. He is another English writer in the tradition which has become dominant since the death of D. H. Lawrence—the tradition of sensibility, manners, and the brilliant image, at the expense of everything else in the novel.The quick dispatch of Green to the right tradition, the aphoristic unbelabored distinction between major novelists and minor (who seek effects “at the expense of everything else in the novel”), the sure touch that enables him to whisk together literary history and literary criticism without the sauce’s starting to separate—this is superb writing, no matter what your own opinion of Henry Green. But the other problem was that, as a critic, Rosenfeld was the creature of his editors’ assignments. An Age of Enormity reprints essays from the Partisan Review, Commentary, the New Republic, the Nation, the Kenyon Review, and Jewish journals on Kafka, Orwell, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright, but also on Nancy Hale, Jerre Mangione, Anaïs Nin, Kenneth Patchen, E. B. White, and Jo Sinclair. Not a word about Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, or Kingsley Amis, and only passing remarks about Eudora Welty and John Cheever. Because his criticism was merely occasional, Rosenfeld was never encouraged to develop a comprehensive or coherent view of postwar English-language fiction.

Let me be honest. Rosenfeld’s name remains alive for two reasons. First, because he impressed, with his personality and literary promise, the reputation makers of his generation—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Eliot Cohen (the founding editor of Commentary). He was embraced as the “golden boy” of the New York intellectuals, and then died far too early to fulfill their dreams for him. As Theodore Solotaroff recalled, some of his friends spoke the name Isaac as if it were “a magic word for joy and wit,” others as if “it were the most poignant word in the language.” Second, he was Saul Bellow’s best friend. Three years younger, he and Bellow became friends at Tuley High School on Chicago’s west side, and their intense bookish conversations, stuffed with references—as Rosenfeld listed them at the time—to Dalí, André Breton, Matisse, Picasso, Mann, T. S. Eliot, Huxley, Trotsky, influenced both men’s styles for the rest of their lives. They collaborated on a celebrated Yiddish parody of Prufrock called “Der shir hashirm [Song of Songs] fun Mendl Pumshtok” when they were graduate students at the University of Chicago in the thirties. Zipperstein reprints the poem, first published in an essay by Ruth R. Wisse, in its entirety—in a transliterated Yiddish with English translation. A small sample:Ikh ver alt . . . ikh ver alt . . .
Es vert mir in pupik kalt.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I feel my bellybutton getting cold.
Bellow wrote about Rosenfeld repeatedly, composing his obituary for the Partisan Review (“The sight of one of his rooms with Isaac hard at work, smoking, capably and firmly writing on his yellow second sheets, would have made Hogarth happy”), recreating him as King Dahfu in Henderson the Rain King, and studying him in his propria persona and at some length in “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” one of his best stories. (It is the only extant piece of a novel about their friendship that Bellow planned to call Charm and Death.)

Perhaps significantly, Wikipedia has no biographical entry for Rosenfeld. [Update: An article on him was finally created there on May 10, 2009.] He was born March 10, 1918, in Chicago, the son of a “buyer for a downtown fancy food store,” as Zipperstein says. His mother died of influenza at twenty-one; Rosenfeld was barely a year and a half old. At the University of Chicago, where he became a Trotskyist—that is, a member of the anti-Stalinist Left—he won an undergraduate literary prize, but when he moved on to graduate work, he wrote a masters thesis on “animal nature” in Santayana and Dewey. That same year he married Vasiliki Sarantakis, two years older (“She wears earrings, looks Jewish, acts crazy, and I think the world of her”), with whom he eventually had two children, a girl and a boy, before they divorced ten years later. Rosenfeld enrolled at NYU to work toward a doctorate in philosophy, but while sick in bed with pleurisy, reading Moby-Dick, he decided once for all to switch to literature. He quit school, began writing for the Partisan Review, and when he won the an award for “The Colony,” he seemed to be on his way. Indeed, Rosenfeld worried that he had left Bellow in the dust. They published their first novels about the same time—Bellow’s Dangling Man in 1944, Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home two years later—but then the older friend began to outpace the younger, publishing The Victim followed by The Adventures of Augie March, which established Bellow as the leading novelist of his generation.

Because he forever compared himself to Bellow, Rosenfeld judged himself a failure. And that has become “the posthumous theme,” according to Zipperstein, which has been “attached to his life. . . .” As close as anyone has ever approached to being a child prodigy in literature (he published his first story, in Yiddish, at fourteen), Rosenfeld died of a heart attack, on July 15, 1956, at the age at which Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March. To call him a failure is to fail to recognize that his life was cut tragically short. Even so, one reads his erratically brilliant prose, especially his criticism, with a sort of impatience to know how he would have developed his ideas if his editors had only given him more room to stretch, and God more time. His description of the writer’s “social role”—a notion that angered him—suggests that he might have developed into the best of his generation. The writer, he said, is selected by fate to bethe one left alone at three o’clock in the morning, when it’s always the dark night of the soul; to be the man whom one encounters when there is no longer any uniform to wear . . . the man who is naked, who is alone, and the man who pretty much of the time is afraid: the man who sees himself as he really is in this flesh and in these bones and in these feelings, in these impulses, in these emotions; the man who confronts himself in his dreams and in his reveries.Odd how Zipperstein’s loving biography of him can lead you to mourn, half a century after his death, a man whom every writer and intellectual has confronted at one time or another, wrestling with his fears of failure, unrealized promise, or untimely death at three in the morning.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Shabbes the rabbi wore panties

Wallace Markfield, Rosenzweig’s Panties (New York: Stein & Day, 2009). 401 pp. $27.00.

Novels about rabbis are a rarity. Noah Gordon was able to call his 1965 novel simply The Rabbi, because it was very nearly the first of its kind. Harry Kemelman wrote a week’s worth of mysteries about the crime-solving Rabbi David Small, starting in 1964 with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. The only serious novelist to tackle the subject was Stanley Elkin, whose third-to-last novel The Rabbi of Lud (1987) marked his return to Jewish subjects.

All of which makes Wallace Markfield’s posthumous novel Rosenzweig’s Panties, released today by Stein & Day, an occasion for literary rejoicing. Although Markfield had made something of a first-novel splash with To an Early Grave in 1964—reviewers made the ritual comparisons to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Chaim Potok—his second novel, Teitelbaum’s Window, was a disappointment even to his mother. As Daniel Belasco wrote in Heeb, Markfield “effectively withdrew from the literary scene” after publishing one more novel. “The American Jewish novel as a genre is quite dead,” he explained to an interviewer.

Not quite. Markfield told no one, not even his closest friend Alfred Kazin, who had done so much to lift Teitelbaum’s Window into the pantheon of Jewish classics with a glowing review in the Sunday New York Times, and who, as Markfield himself later said, “by any kind of moral or ethical principle should have turned it down,” that he was making one last stab at reviving the genre—with a dense, 400-page “confession” from Rabbi Kevin Rosenzweig, whose “sin” is transvestism. To be specific, Rabbi Rosenzweig enjoys wearing panties. Especially on Shabbes mornings, when he leads services at Temple Maaseh Kundes. He explains:

Ascending the bima to grasp the Torah like a demon lover, I feel the soft swish of Mrs. Rosenfeld’s frilly pink silk pass over my tuchis like the hand of a Japanese masseuse, who charges maybe twenty-five dollars an hour, thirty tops. Next week, I tell myself, I shall wear Mrs. Fackenheim’s white cotton grandma panties and pull them up over my stomach till the elastic band just tickles my nipples.As this passage suggests, Rosenzweig is also guilty of stealing his congregants’ underwear. Invited to Shabbes lunch, he excuses himself to “go to the little boys’ room, or, as we say in Yiddish, the Yeshivah bokher’s real Yeshivah,” and darts into the master bedroom, where an unfailing moral compass leads him straight to the missus’s chifarobe. Even he is shocked when he opens the underwear drawer of Heather Heschel, a “heavyset mother of three with a scrapbooking business on the side,” to find black crotchless panties. But that is not the only place he draws the line. “If I find a pair with even the shadow of a remnant of a blood stain,” he says, “I drop it like a pork chop.”

Such fastidiousness about biblical “cleanliness” is the only traditional taboo that has any hold over him. In the mornings, when an Orthodox Jewish male thanks God shelo asani isha, “for not making me a woman,” Rabbi Rosenzweig prays: “Blessed art Thou, O LORD our God, king of the universe, who hast made me to wear high-cut step-ins, and sometimes boyshorts.” The reason he likes to don panties, he explains, is “out of solidarity with one half of the Jewish race, who were subject for centuries to such unbearable restrictions as not having to pray three times a day.” The only times he does not put on women’s undergarments is when he must take the car to a wedding or funeral, “always mindful of Mama’s advice to ‘wear clean undies in case you should get into an accident.’ ” He drives commando, and upon arrival makes a bee line for the can, where he snaps open his attaché case and selects a pair of lacy hipsters. And when he finally does have an accident, sideswiping Mrs. Cohen-Levy’s car in the Temple parking lot, he starts shaking like a man in a fit, and temporarily promises himself to “go cold turkey on the knickers.”

Markfield’s literary problem was to sustain interest in Rosenzweig’s “sacred unholy predilection,” as the rabbi calls it, for four hundred pages. Halfway through the novel, then, “Going on a Bear Hunt” takes Rosenzweig into the Ontario woods with the president of his congregation, who confesses one night by the campfire—that he enjoys wearing pantyhose. The rabbi is both relieved and outraged. “Pantyhose!” he shouts. “Good God, man, don’t you get itchy in the crotch?” Markfield left the novel unfinished at his death seven years ago, and so was unable to write the last scene, in which Rosenzweig is finally exposed by a congregant whose vintage chiffon pin-up panties the rabbi stole. But that is the only defect in an otherwise penetrating peek at a rabbi’s private life.

Go here for an important update.