Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Meet Humbert Polanski

I don’t want to wade into the controversy over filmmaker Roman Polanski’s arrest at the Zurich airport on Saturday for raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977, mainly because I don’t see any controversy. Polanski raped a child; he confessed; then he fled to escape punishment; he deserves prison time. End of controversy.

No, what has caught my attention is the degree to which Polanski’s defenders are unconsciously repeating the involved and sophisticated defense of his “nympholepsy” offered by Humbert Humbert, who did his imitation of Polanski back in the ’fifties.

Thus Polanski is a “renown [sic] and international artist,” say Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Martin Scorsese, and other film people in a petition demanding his immediate release. “The gentle and dreamy regions through which I crept were the patrimonies of poets,” Humbert protests—“not crime’s prowling ground.”[1]

“I know it wasn’t ‘rape’ rape. I think it was something else, but I don’t believe it was ‘rape’ rape,” Whoopi Goldberg says on the ABC chat show The View. Such men as he, Humbert agrees, “are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet” (p. 88).

“The 13-year old model ‘seduced’ by Polanski had been thrust onto him by her mother, who wanted her in the movies,” Joan Z. Shore writes in the Huffington Post. “I am going to tell you something very strange,” Humbert confides: “it was she who seduced me” (p. 132).

“The girl was just a few weeks short of her 14th birthday,” Shore goes on, “which was the age of consent in California. (It’s probably 13 by now!)” “Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces,” Humbert observes learnedly. “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds” (p. 19).

The difference between them is that Humbert Humbert abandons these lame justifications when, as I have argued elsewhere, he atones for his sin, which he comes to acknowledge as a sin.

And Polanski? “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see?” he told Martin Amis in 1979. “But . . . f---ing, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to f--- young girls. Juries want to f--- young girls. Everyone wants to f--- young girls!”

Not everyone, you monster. Not Humbert Humbert, for example. Not any longer.

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita [1955] (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 131. Subsequent references in parentheses.

The 1,000-page morality tale

. . . that advocates killing homosexual men. This is how a commentator on the question of overrated novels, taunting bravely from behind the screen of anonymity, characterized the Bible. No other book in Western literature is so likely to generate an automated response. And nothing that I can say about it will change anyone’s mind at this late date.

Perhaps, though, I might correct a couple of errors. I am not qualified to speak of the Christian Bible, except to observe that grafting the Greek testamentum, written between 51 and 150 C.E., onto the Hebrew scriptures, some of which was written fifteen centuries earlier, created a literary monster. As a literary critic, Marcion had the better of the argument. But the early Church fathers, who decided to include the Hebrew scriptures in the Christian canon and to ostracize Marcionite views as heretical, were not interested in creating a book. The word bible derives from the Greek phrase employed by Hellenized Jews and later by Jewish Christians to refer to their sacred books—ta biblia. The expression was plural, and so was the canon. In canonizing what came to be called the Old Testament, the Church fathers were agreeing to recognize a textual tradition. They were not creating a singular text.

So too for the Hebrew scriptures. In my classes on the Bible as literature, in fact, I like to tell my students that the book might be more accurately called The Norton Anthology of Ancient Hebrew Literature. It is, in any event, a library—and no singular term, certainly not “1,000-page morality tale,” can adequately describe it. It contains tales, yes; but also historical chronicles, genealogies, songs and poems, legal codes, sermons, political tracts and propaganda, prayers, elegies, allegories, dream visions and apocalyptic visions, and proverbs and other wisdom literature. The only true “morality tale” is the book of Job, which belongs to that last genre.

But does it advocate the killing of homosexual men?

The post-Christian bien-pensant, for whom sexual freedom is the only freedom that dare speak its name, hasten to isolate two prooftexts to substantiate the charge. (Never mind that prooftexting entails a perversion of the text.) These are Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13. Since those who advocate the view that the Hebrew Bible advocates killing homosexual men are ignorant of the actual Hebrew text, I will set down the two pasukim (“verses”) here:

18.22: V’et zakhar lo tishkav mish’k’vey ishah toevah hi. And with a male do not bed down as you bed down with a woman: an adomination it is.

20.13: V’im asher ishkav et-zakhar mish’k’vey ishah toevah asu sh’neyhem mot yumato d’meyhem bam. And if a man beds down with a male as you bed down with a woman—an abomination done by both—they will die, yes, die; upon them is blood.
Although the interpretive traditions of both Judaism and Christianity treat the meanings of these two sentences as straightforward and obvious, they are anything but. Notice, first, that the prohibition is upon going to bed with a zakhar. A man (ish) is not forbidden to lie with a man (ish), but with a zakhar. Usually the word is translated “male,” and perhaps that is what it means here. But the word can also refer to a male child (Gen 17.10, Lev 12.2), and then the proscription takes on a very different meaning. What is abominable then is not male homosexuality, but child rape.

This reading takes on even greater plausibility when you step back and realize that lesbianism is not being proscribed. And lest you object that the prohibitions concern men alone, consider the very next prohibition in chapter 18. Not only is the sex act explicitly spelled out—“emission of seed” as compared to the more equivocal “bedding down”—but a woman is explicily commanded not to mate with an animal. If Leviticus had wanted to proscribe a man’s emission of seed into another man, or had wanted to forbid women from lying down with each other, the language was available to it to do so.

And as for the death penalty. The Hebrew text says only that a man who beds down with a male, perhaps a male child, will die—along with his partner or victim. No legal mechanism is created to carry out the punishment, which is spoken of as merely inevitable. Nor is anyone instructed to “kill” them. Again, the Bible could have given the instruction. After all, in the very first chapter of Leviticus, the Israelites are given detailed instructions to kill the cattle they are offering to YHVH. They could have been given equally detailed instructions to kill homosexual men. But they are not, because nothing of the sort appears anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A difficult fast

As they head into Yom Kippur, Jews wish one another a tsom kal, an “easy fast.” The wish may be contrary to God’s plans. The Jews fast on Yom Kippur, after all, to afflict themselves. “An easy affliction,” they might as well say.

Yesterday’s fast was an especially difficult one for me. My caffeine-withdrawal headache struck early and often. And I did not think that the book I was reading—Roland Merullo’s smart and witty American Savior, in which Jesus runs for president—was appropriate for shul. I can usually find something in the 800-page mahzor to divert if not to inspire me. Not yesterday, for some reason. (When asked to explain Yom Kippur, I say that the Jews afflict themselves by fasting and by reading a 800-page book aloud in public. When the book is finished, so is Yom Kippur, and the fast.)

My wife was canny and brought three books, including two by Rebbetzin Jungreis. I am allergic to inspirational literature, though. And so I was stuck with Irving Kristol’s Reflections of a Neoconservative, which I was rereading for the first time in twenty years. The essays on income redistribution and foreign policy did not hold my attention. I turned to the end of the book, where Kristol talks about the Jewish religion.

“Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism,” the book’s concluding essay, reminded me that I had begun my journey to Jewish Orthodoxy about the same time that I broke with the political Left, and for much the same reason. Kristol prefaces his remarks by observing that he “speak[s] as a neo-Orthodox Jew,” that is, as a Jew who is not religiously observant “but, in principle, very sympathetic to the spirit of orthodoxy.”

Two different tempers divide the worlds of politics and religion between them. Kristol calls them “rabbinic Judaism” or “rabbinic Christianity—to coin a phrase”—and “prophetic Judaism” or “prophetic Christianity.” These religious traditions correspond to the spirit of orthodoxy and the spirit of gnosticism. In the “eternal debate about the nature of reality, about the nature of human authenticity,” one of these always adopts the Affirmative and the other always adopts the Negative.

The gnostic position is that human authenticity, keening aware of injustice and human suffering, demands “some kind of indignant metaphysical rebellion, a rebellion that will liberate us from the prison of this world.” Gnosticisms tend to be antinomian and millenarian, “to insist that this hell in which live, this ‘unfair’ world, can be radically corrected.”

Orthodoxy takes the opposite view. “The function of orthodoxy in all religions is to sanctify daily life and to urge us to achieve our fullest human potential through virtuous practice in our daily life, whether it be the fulfillment of the law in Judaism or Islam or imitatio Christi in Christianity.” Orthodoxy is stoical; it accepts the existence of injustice and suffering without believing they can ever be wholly eradicated; they must be fought where they are found, and endured when they cannot be fought. Orthodoxy is the encouragement of “spiritual governance” rather than metaphysical rebellion.

While trying to endure yesterday’s fast—an annual rite of governing my appetites—I was distracted by Kristol’s argument. I began to wonder if the dichotomy between the rabbis and the prophets, between gnosticism and orthodoxy, might also apply to the universe of literature. My head pounded, I paid little attention to the hazzan chanting musaf, but at least, in this way, I made it through the afternoon.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The form of modern degradation

A mere ten years after the United States government tried for the last time to censor obscene literature, Philip Roth published a novel that blew the doors off charges of obscenity. Portnoy’s Complaint set out to épater community standards, which the Supreme Court had held, in creating the ironically named Roth test, constituted the yardstick for judging obscenity. The community was obligingly épatés. “I’m not impressed by his writing,” sniffed Roth’s French teacher at Weequahic High School in Newark. “Why does he beat this one, narrow, little vein of human experience?”[1] Indeed, Jacqueline Susann notoriously told Johnny Carson that she would not shake the hand that beat that vein. “In my writing lifetime,” Roth replied, “the use of obscenity has by and large been governed by one’s literary taste and tact and not by the mores of the audience.”[2]

Taste and tact are not the first words that crowd into the mind upon reaching the novel’s second chapter:

Then came adolescence—half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out. Or else I was doubled over my flying fist, eyes pressed closed but mouth wide open, to take that sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox on my own tongue and teeth—though not infrequently, in my blindness and ecstasy, I got it all in the pompadour, like a blast of Wildroot Cream Oil.[3]Top that, Updike! Published the year before, Couples had dynamited the prohibition on sex chatter. “Let me make you come,” he begs. “With my mouth.” “No,” she demurs. “I’m all wet down there.” “But it’s me,” he protests, “it’s my wetness.” Although he self-defensively cited Updike as a forerunner in the “deliberate” and “artistic” use of obscenity, Roth was after something bigger in Portnoy’s Complaint. He wanted to smash the taboo on the sexual degradation of another human being.

Since the novel takes the form of a Freudian psychoanalysis, it is only fitting that Freud should be Alexander Portnoy’s source for the concept of erotic degradation. Explaining to his analyst that he is “under the influence at the moment of an essay entitled ‘The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life’ ”—also the title of the novel’s fifth chapter—Portnoy exposits the concept:In the “Degradation” essay there is that phrase, “currents of feeling.” For a “fully normal attitude in love” (deserving of semantic scrutiny, that “fully normal,” but go on— ) for a fully normal attitude toward love, says [Freud], it is necessary that two currents of feeling be united: the tender, affectionate feelings, and the sensuous feelings. And in many instances this just doesn’t happen, sad to say. “Where such men love they have no desire, and where they desire they cannot love.” (pp. 185–86)The characterization suits Portnoy. It accounts for his refusal to “enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of [his] days” (p. 104). People don’t marry out of the love that “the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about,” he insists. They marry out of “convenience and apathy and guilt,” out of “fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple. . .” (p. 105). What are they so afraid of? The answer: sexual freedom—the great bugaboo of the bourgeoisie, to whom it rather threatnest, than dost promise aught. “Why should I bend to the bourgeoisie?” Portnoy asks. “Do I ask them to bend to me? Maybe I’ve been touched by the tarbush of Bohemia a little—is that so awful?” (p. 103).

Perhaps it is. Wouldn’t that be a shocker? Although he declares that “to be bad—and to enjoy it”—is the “real struggle,” Portnoy cannot bring himself to plunge into badness. He does not smoke, does not take drugs, does not gamble nor borrow money. “Sure, I say fuck a lot,” he admits, “but I assure you, that’s about the sum of my success with transgressing.” His soul is tormented by his inability to smash the taboos. “Why must the least deviation from respectable conventions cause me inner hell?” he moans. “When I hate those fucking conventions!” (p. 124).

All that changes when he meets Mary Jane Reed. Portnoy calls her the Monkey, because of an incident from her earlier life that she tells him about. One evening a couple of swingers picked her up and asked her to watch while they copulated in front of her. While she watched, she grabbed a banana and started eating (p. 159). The nickname is degrading, of course, and so is the incident: not perhaps in her telling, because the Monkey seems to want only to titillate Portnoy. But in his retelling: for him it is the baptismal image of her degradation.

And so he proceeds to degrade her in his turn. On a weekend trip to Vermont, he unexpectedly finds his sensuous feelings for her beginning to unite with tender, affectionate feelings. But on their return to New York, where Portnoy serves as assistant commissioner for human opportunity under Mayor John V. Lindsay, his usual feelings for her, never far from contempt, begin to resurface. She is a miner’s daughter from rural West Virginia; she can barely spell; she goes to a reception at Gracie Mansion looking like a stripper; she once accepted money from a one-night lover in Las Vegas. Besides, there is his dignity to consider. Precisely because she is the incarnation of all his erotic dreams (a “fantasy begging you to make it real!”), precisely because she is beautiful and wanton (a “wild piece of ass”), anyone who sees them together will divine the reason why: “Take her fully for my own, you see, and the whole neighborhood will know at last the truth about my dirty little mind” (p. 201).

He does bend to the bourgeoisie, then, after all? Unable to accept the thought of marrying someone for whom the whole world knows he has sensuous feelings, he forces her, on successive nights, into a menage à trois with a streetwalker in Rome. Although he thinks No! No! No! he goes ahead with it: “Into whose hole, into what sort of hole, I deposited my final load is entirely a matter for conjecture.” And then he vomits into the toilet bowl. The Monkey is even more distraught; she cries that Portnoy has “delivered her into evil” (p. 138). She is convinced that he will leave her, since he has got what he wanted: “To you I’m just another her, anyway! You, will all your big words and big shit holy ideals and all I am in your eyes is just a cunt—and a lesbian!—and a whore!” (p. 141). Portnoy takes her to Athens, but she is unpropitiated. She wants a husband, a home, and a child. “I am not a lesbian!” she shrieks. “I am not a whore!” She climbs on the hotel balcony and threatens to jump unless Portnoy marries her. He leaves her instead.

Although he remarks that “the worst thing” he has ever done was to masturbate into the beef liver that his mother served the family later the same night, Portnoy knows that the Monkey is right when she says that his degradation and abandonment of her is evil. He flees to Israel, but he fails “to convert [himself] from the bewildered runaway into a man again” (p. 252). He meets a young Israeli from a kibbutz near the Lebanon border, a “red-headed, freckled, ideological hunk of a girl,” who successfully wards off his advances and informs him that he is the most unhappy person she has ever known:     “I don’t believe you actually want to improve your life. Everything you say is somehow always twisted, some way or another, to come out ‘funny.’ All day long the same thing. In some little way or other, everything is ironical, or self-depreciating. Self-depreciating?”
     “Self-deprecating. Self-mocking.”
     “Exactly! And you are a highly intelligent man—that is what makes it even more disagreeable. The contribution you could make! Such stupid self-deprecation. How disagreeable!”
     “Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “self-deprecation is, after all, a classic form of Jewish humor.”
     “Not Jewish humor! No! Ghetto humor.” (pp. 264–65)
And she is right too. The late Irving Kristol pointed out that Jewish humor, taking as its “frame of reference the complex structure of ghetto society, ghetto life, and Jewish tradition,” was born out of a “God-forsaken religiosity.” It became possible only when the Jewish people were thrust into modernity, and began to lose their faith. Like the Israelis, who “prefer not to think of the ghetto,” Kristol wondered if Jewish humor had really survived the Holocaust: “For just as humor cannot mature in a life of utter religious faith, so it cannot survive a life of sheer nihilism.”

Portnoy is scornful of what he calls the Nazi excuse. The source of his life’s nihilism lies elsewhere. He finally admits that his life is empty:[I]nstead of tucking in my children and lying down beside a loyal wife (to whom I am loyal too), I have, on two different evenings, taken to bed with me—coinstanteously, as they say in the whorehouses—a fat little Italian whore and an illiterate, unbalanced American mannequin. And that isn’t even my idea of a good time, damn it. What is? I told you! And I meant it—sitting at home listening to Jack Benny with my kids! Raising intelligent, loving, sturdy children! Protecting some good woman! Dignity! Health! Love! Industry! Intelligence! Trust! Decency! High Spirits! Compassion! What the hell do I care about sensational sex? (p.248)But if he does not care about sensational sex, what has Portnoy’s Complaint been about? Up to this point, after all, it has consisted of practically nothing but sensational sex.

What Portnoy learns is that discarding the respectable conventions of the bourgeoisie and taking up the tarbrush of Bohemia makes it impossible ever to have the life that he yearns for most deeply. Hard work in an idealistic profession, faithful marriage, children to raise, family forgiveness, love depend for their existence upon the very taboos that he makes it his business to smash. Portnoy is the victim of his own cultural aspirations, his own advanced thinking, his own “big shit holy ideals.”

In commenting on Roth, Eric of Beyond Assumptions worried that “you need to be Jewish to fully appreciate his work.” Here is why I don’t think so. Although Portnoy’s Complaint is packed with Yiddish, despite the narrator’s warning that he only knows twenty-five words of the language, and though its setting is the hothouse of a second-generation lower middle-class Jewish family, the novel established Philip Roth as the diagnostician of the modern predicament. Jew or Gentile, believer or not, you and I are in exactly the same position as Alexander Portnoy. We yearn for the happiness of bourgeois respectability, and we are irritated by its arbitrary fucking conventions, even when we abide by them. Our fragmentation, our inner turmoil, is the most prevalent form of our modern degradation. No literary form embodies this cultural contradiction more fully than the novel, and no novelist has faced up to it more relentlessly than Roth. The result is farce, not tragedy, but the ending is unhappy all the same.

[1] Quoted in Arnold H. Lubasch, “Philip Roth Shakes Weequahic High,” New York Times (Feb. 28, 1969): 28.

[2] George Plimpton, “Roth’s Exact Intent,” New York Times Book Review (Feb. 23, 1969): 2.

[3] Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 17–18. Subsequent references in parentheses.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Core terms

A local private school has asked me to help revise and standardize the English curriculum. By the time its students graduate and head off to college, they should know, in my opinion, at least these core terms, arranged under three headings:

Short story

Formal components and structural devices
Point of view
   Unreliable narrator
Stream of consciousness
Theme and motif
   Blank verse
   Free verse
   Iambic verse

Elements of style
Connotation and denotation

The accomplished student ought to progress from definition to recognition of literary examples and finally to application of the terms in criticism.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Her scarlet letter

Francine Prose, Touch (New York: Harper Teen, 2009). 262 pp. $16.99.

While other writers of her generation spill their talents in “genre-bending and stylistic play,” Francine Prose quietly goes about her business within the tradition of the novel. With each new book she achieves a significant revision of the tradition—not merely by adding something new and eye-catching, but by subtly altering the received opinion of her percursors’ books. Last year’s Goldengrove was her Mill on the Floss. Where Maggie Tulliver was tragically prevented from enjoying the full life she yearned for, Prose drowns her at the beginning rather than the end of the novel, suggesting that the aftermath of tragedy—its effects upon the survivors—may be the more interesting story.

Her new novel, a young adult novel marketed by an arm of Harper Collins that “features books for all teens,” books that “reflect teens’ own lives,” is her Scarlet Letter. It is a testament to Prose’s seriousness as a novelist that Touch neither mocks nor patronizes the conventions of young adult fiction, bending them to adult self-admiration. She expects her young readers to rise capably to the challenge of a reworking of Hawthorne’s themes. And as a consequence, she writes a novel that will appeal just as powerfully to adults.

Maisie Willard has been friends with three boys “for so long that it seemed perfectly normal.” She “can’t remember a time before the four of [them] were friends.” Kevin is the goofy one. Chris is the one who smoothes things over. Shakes is the one who stands out. His real name is Edward, but afflicted with “some weird kind of palsy,” he prefers to be called Shakes. Having been born “messed up” makes him different, and perhaps even better:

Even when he was little, you could see him stopping and thinking before he said anything, maybe because it was harder for him to talk. And he’d say these totally poetic things. Once when we were at Chris’s house, watching some honeybees fly around, Shakes said you could watch them singing to each other and thanking the flowers for their nectar. In grade school he was elected class president more often than anyone else—not because the other kids felt sorry for him, but because even people who hardly knew him could see what a model human being he was.Although he warns her that “[i]t’s going to be worse there than it is here,” Maisie leaves Philadelphia and her father’s second marriage to a narcissist who wears “outfits you’d expect to see on some slutty high school girl” and who enjoys boasting about her white Volvo SUV; she moves to Milwaukee to live her mother and her new husband, a spoiled brat who throws his dinner on the floor when it is over-salted and yanks the TV remote out of Maisie’s hands in the middle of Top Chef. “If I live to be a thousand years old,” she says, “I’ll never understand why my parents chose the people they married—remarried—after they split up.”

Maisie is only gone a year—her eighth-grade year—but when she returns to Philadelphia everything has changed:I’d gotten a whole new body during my year away. I’d grown breasts and a weird curvy ass. I’d gotten my period, too. I felt like a spectator watching my body do whatever it wanted, without my knowledge or permission. I felt like someone who’d been tricked into thinking she had one body, and now—surprise!—she had another.The boys have changed too. Chris has a girlfriend, with whom he denies having sex. “Kissing isn’t sex,” he says. When Maisie comes by to see them for the first time in a year, they are watching Girls Gone Wild. She glimpses “two blue dots dancing on the chest of a half-naked blond girl.” She realizes they are no longer kids, although they are not yet “even teenage boys.” And she becomes suddenly self-conscious. The problem is that she did not merely get breasts while she was gone. “I had these gigantic mega-boobs,” she says, “the kind movie stars pay fortunes for. I’d gotten them practically overnight, for free.”

Within a few weeks she and Shakes have begun to cuddle and then to neck in the back of the bus on the way to school. She permits Shakes to touch her breasts. Once, when they are caught and the whole bus stares at them, Chris and Kevin are badly upset:[I]t was as if they thought we’d done something to them. As if we’d cheated on them with each other. As if I’d broken up the four-person gang we’d had since we were little. As if I’d chosen Shakes over them, and they would never forgive me.They don’t, either. One morning they confront Maisie on the bus and ask when she is going to let them touch her breasts. “Like Shakes does, every morning?” Kevin adds. Maisie is amazed that Shakes has told them, but she is even more amazed when he does not defend her.

What follows is scandal. The boys paw at her breasts for all the bus to see—either because she offers to let them for cash payment or because they pin her down and assault her against her will or perhaps for some third reason. When the school principal is informed, adults become involved, and things go from bad to worse. Her stepmother sues the school administration, and Maisie’s fellow students jingle change at her approach and urge her to go into the girls’ bathroom where a stick figure labeled with her name has been given “two humongous naked boobs” and a speech balloon which says, How much?

Maisie refuses to back down. “[W]hat did they expect?” she asks. “Did they think I’d just stand there like Hester Prynne and let them make me wear the letter B for Boobs on my chest?” Later she tells her therapist that she is writing a school paper on The Scarlet Letter:“Outrageous, right?” I say. “How typically insensitive to make me sit in a class where the kids are discussing that book, of all the books in the world. I’m so offended by the thought—because now I’m the shunned Hester Prynne, the one the whole community thinks is a slut and maybe even a witch—that I almost forget I’m lying. It takes me a moment to remember that we’re actually not reading it for school.The fact that the allusion is spelled out at such length in the midst of a lie is a giveaway. Maisie’s self-identification with Hester Prynne is also a falsehood—if and only if Hester is conceived of as “the one the whole community thinks is a slut and maybe even a witch.”

Her therapist, believing that Maisie is telling the truth, starts to say that The Scarlet Letter is “the perfect book” for her to read, because it “makes you realize how often the whole community can be wrong, and how crucial it is for the individual to believe in herself and her basic goodness and—” But Maisie interrupts her, putting a stop to the literary pablum. It is a therapeutic version of the interpretation offered by Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Tradition: “[T]he subject of the book is the moral and psychological results of sin—the isolation and morbidity, the distortion and thwarting of the emotional life.”

Maybe so, but not for Francine Prose. For her—and, consequently, for Maisie—the real subject is the damage that is done, to individuals and communities, by assertions of the truth that assume the voice of certainty, when the telling and retelling of stories—with their particular circumstances, exact details, and the different personalities involved—gradually make certainty conditional. The truth about human events can never be fully and impeccably known, which is why they must be told and retold.

Francine Prose has dedicated her career to some such view of literature’s purpose. Her young adult novels differ from her grownup fiction only in pacing and capaciousness. She allows herself fewer expansions of theme, fewer expository digressions and fascinating subplots, and reduces her narrative to the briskness of story. She is one of the great storytellers of the age.

With one thing more. She also has a moral vision of the novel. In Touch, she shows that Maisie, falsely accused of offering her humongous boobs for money, resembles Hester Prynne not because she is the one everyone considers a slut, but because she is the one person in the community—the only one—with moral courage. Among the conventions of the young adult novel is that it must point a moral, and in characteristic fashion, Francine Prose does so indirectly—with playful allusion to her literary predecessors—but she does not flinch from doing so. Touch is a novel that every American teenager should read. Most grownups too.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Irving Kristol, 1920–2009

Irving Kristol, founder and editor of Encounter and the Public Interest, former managing editor of Commentary, and author of Reflections of a Neoconservative (1983) and Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (1995), died earlier today from complications of lung cancer in Arlington, Va.

Although he did not write a lot, he was a “crafter of English prose almost without peer in his time, strong and bold and authoritative,” John Podhoretz observes in a moving tribute on Commentary’s blog Contentions. And he influenced an entire generation of intellectuals, including me. My copy of Reflections of a Neoconservative is one of the most heavily underlined books in my library. I read it for the first time the year after the public reaction to Israel’s War in Lebanon provoked me to break with the Left at last. Kristol almost singlehandedly converted me to neoconservatism. That I never had a chance to meet him is one of the chief regrets of my life.

Kristol was the husband of the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and the father of William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. His place in the history of American political ideas is permanent and secure.

Overrated novels

Continuing the discussion that he broached in the comments section to a post here, Alex Jurek asks his readers to name the most overrated novel of all time.

His choice is The Lord of the Rings. His readers suggest One Hundred Years of Solitude and Emma (no way, no how).

The highest ranked novel in the Modern Library’s 100 best that does not merit its perch, as I told Jurek when he asked, is Brave New World.

Upon reflection, though, the most overrated novel of all time is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

And you?

Highbrow and lowbrow

Everybody knows that the terms and the distinction between them were introduced by Van Wyck Brooks, but what is not so widely appreciated is that he introduced them in the service of the Left. The “lyrical Left,” to be specific; America’s first Left, according to the historian John Patrick Diggins. Its intellectual spokesman was Randolph Bourne, creator of the American antiwar movement; its political leader, Eugene V. Debs. Brooks was an undependable Leftist for whom organized politics was secondary, although he pioneered the attitude that was summarized in the later Leftist slogan the Personal Is Political:

The only serious approach to society is the personal approach; and what I have called the quickening realism of contemporary social thought is at bottom simply a restatement for the mass of commercialized men, and in relation to issues which directly concern the mass of men as a whole, of those personal instincts that have been the essence of art, religion, literature—the essence of personality itself—since the beginning of the world. It will remain of the least importance to patch up politics, to become infected with social consciousness, or to do any of the other easy popular contemporary things unless, in some way, personality can be made to release itself on a middle plane between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality; unless, in short, self-fulfillment as an ideal can be substituted for self-assertion as an ideal. On the economic plane that implies socialism; on every other plane it implies something which a majority of Americans in our day certainly do not possess—an object in living.By the ’sixties, the substitution of ideals that Brooks called for had been attained. The “middle plane between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality” had become the primary residence of American culture.

For Brooks, that middle was situated between highbrow and lowbrow culture, an antithesis (or what would now be called a binary opposition) that he saw as uniquely American:What side of American life is not touched by this antithesis? What explanation of American life is more central or more illuminating? In everything one finds this frank acceptance of twin values which are not expected to have anything in common: on the one hand a quite unclouded, quite unhypocritical assumption of transcendent theory (“high ideals”); on the other a simultaneous acceptance of catchpenny realities. Between university ethics and business ethics, between American culture and American humor, between Good Government and Tammany, between academic pedantry and pavement slang, there is no community, no genial middle ground.[1]Ever since the “lyrical years” before this country’s entry into World War I, the American Left has sought to cultivate that middle ground. Highbrow and lowbrow were adopted as terms of scorn. Highbrow culture was scorned as the private entertainment of the literate upper class; lowbrow culture was scorned as the commercialized products of modern mass entertainment, which entail the destruction of authentic folk art. If the political purpose of high culture is to train a ruling elite in common values, which are reinforced by repeated allusion to the same art, music, and literature, the political purpose of low culture—popular culture, mass culture—is to reconcile the working classes to their economic conditions. (Think of the popular songs in Nineteen Eighty-Four that are produced “for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator.”)

But the middle culture, when it finally emerged, was not exactly what had been dreamed of by the lyrical Left. It was instead what Dwight Macdonald called a “middlebrow compromise,” a “peculiar hybrid” that resulted from mass culture’s “unnatural intercourse” with high culture:A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form—let us call it Midcult—has the essential qualities of Masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.[2]As examples of Midcult fiction, Macdonald named Steinback, J. P. Marquand, Pearl Buck, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, and John Hersey; forty years later the obvious examples would be John Irving, Jonathan Franzen, Pat Conroy, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, David Wroblewski, and Lev Grossman.

But a large portion of “serious” contemporary fiction is also written out of the middlebrown compromise. Much of what passes for “genre-bending and stylistic play,” to adopt Michael Chabon’s phrase for it, is little more than the attempt to be simultaneously ordinary and refined. In Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, for example, a sensibility and technique that were once considered avant garde are placed in the service of the vaguely Leftist project of unmasking the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals:Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever—those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?As Macdonald quips, I may agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it like that. American literary culture will not be revived by making the “boundaries” of “genres” more “porous.” There is far more literary freedom to be had in the traditional genres, because a firm adherence to formal requirements enables a writer to expand or contract his subject as needed.

How, then? Macdonald found promise in the very fragmentation of the literary marketplace to which I drew attention the other day. After the Second World War, he pointed out, it was discovered thatthere is not One Big Audience but rather a number of smaller more specialized audiences that may still be commercially profitable. (I take it for granted that the less differentiated the audience, the less chance there is of something original and lively creeping in, since the principle of the lowest common denominator applies.) . . . The mass audience is divisible, we have discovered—and the more it is divided, the better. (pp. 73–74)As long as the highest standards are maintained in each division of the market, I might add. And this is one thing that could possibly be meant by establishing the limits of literature.

[1] Van Wyck Brooks, “Highbrow and Lowbrow,” Forum 53 (April 1915): 481–92.

[2] Dwight Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” in Against the American Grain (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 37. Subsequent reference in parentheses.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Genres and niche markets

In a comment to my summary of our recent symposium The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, Jeff Sypeck challenges my claim about the fragmentation of the literary culture, saying that its source lies back in the past “more than 80 years ago, when critics started drawing distinctions that kept the genres popularized in pulp magazines and dime novel[s] out of the ‘republic of letters.’ ” I am not sure what events he is referring to, and I hope he will elaborate, but “pulp magazines and dime novels” go even even farther back, and the dichotomy between them and the Republic of Letters has never been quite as neat and tidy-looking as Sypeck suggests.

Among the earliest uses of the term popular culture is an anonymous Contemporary Review editorial, reprinted under that title in the New York Times, bemoaning its lack. The “addiction to low and vitiating forms of reading remains as the most widely operating cause of the virtual non-existence of a popular culture,” the editorial said. “Never before was there so little prospect of those given to such reading being driven to most wholesome mental food by a limited supply of garbage.”

The distinction between low and high was not an economic distinction. “Our marvelously cheap literature includes a wide range of high-class reading,” the editorial said. What is more, a generation before the “penny” literature was better:

True, even then penny dreadfuls were not unknown, but every week did not bring forth its new one. Nor did they appeal so directly to boys as do the existing race of dreadfuls. “The Boy Highwayman,” “The Boy Brigand,” “The Boy Pirate,” “The Boy King of the Outlaws,” &c., are modern inventions. The long drawn out “Mysteries of London” and “Mysteries of the Court,” the leading dreadfuls of the last generation, were happily not meat for babes. Then, as now, also penny serials—which should not be confounded with the penny dreadfuls—were a popular form of reading. But they were very much fewer in number and decidedly better in quality than those of the present day. Their to-be-continued-in-our-next stories were more robust, and their miscellaneous contents less trashy and frivolous.[1]The distinction, for lack of a better word, was literary. “High class” means high quality. I might quarrel with the value-terms robust and frivolous. But they were advanced in order to distinguish good “dime” literature from bad “dime” literature. The retail price of the literature was a different category of value altogether.

The common error is to confuse them. And the source of the problem is the substitution of economic terms—marketing labels, really—for the traditional names of genres.

Sypeck says, for example, that these days “genre boundaries are the most porous” they have been since James’s time, but what he really means is that literary markets are fluid. Readers and writers wash between detective fiction and “literary fiction” without caring overmuch what market niche a book belongs to. That’s the bookseller’s headache. The traditional meaning of the term genre has been distorted. Nowadays it is, as I wrote in an essay on Michael Chabon, “not a traditional kind of writing, but a publisher’s or bookseller’s category, grouping together books that attract readers who are looking for similar books. . . .” The markets for literature have become more porous.

Thus Sypeck speaks of “pulp magazines and dime novels” as if these were literary genres, but they are not. That they are not can be demonstrated by the way in which the term pulp was introduced into literary discourse. In a 1928 essay, the poet and novelist Henry Morton Robinson (who later went on to write The Cardinal, a bestseller of 1950 about a Catholic priest) writes:Wood-pulp literature is bought by the bale and sold by the long ton. It is printed on paper made (apparently) from gray oatmeal, pressed between illustrated covers seven times too vivid to be called garish, and shipped in car-load lots to all points of the English-speaking compass. “For sale at all newsstands,” it is avidly bought up by twenty million readers a week, and read in the best pool-rooms, banking houses, subway trains and University halls in the United States. Wood-pulp literature is the great unrecorded fact of American literature, the successor to the dime-novel as the standard literary diet of a thrill-hungry populace. It is the reading-dividend of a democracy; the weekly fiction light that dare not fail.Robinson goes on to distinguish pulp writing from “the tradition of beautiful letters,” but only in terms of working conditions for authors. For “that part of the tradition most painfully concerned with the mot juste, it seems impossible,” he says, ”not to say sacrilegious, that one man should be guilty of sixty thousand words a week.” But their guilt does not diminish their talent. “Their talent—and it is considerable,” he acknowledges—“is narrative; their genius—and it is magnificent—is stretching that narrative out into forty or fifty thousand words without loosening their hold on the lapel of the reader’s interest.”[2]

If pulp fiction must be defined as a literary genre, Robinson has provided the differentia: a prose narrative of forty or fifty thousand words with plenty of action. What determined whether it was pulp, though, when the pulps still existed, was how it was marketed: “For sale at all newsstands.” Pulp, then, is a misleading name for the genre. Action-filled prose narratives about fifty thousand words have been around at least since Apollonius. The distinction between “wood-pulp literature” and “beautiful letters” is a market distinction.

The fundamental error, as Alastair Fowler argues in Kinds of Literature, is to conceive genre as a system of classification. No sooner are the categories established than, as Sypeck observes, the boundaries turn out to be porous. This observation is not particularly new, however. Kames pointed out the problem in the eighteenth century, noting that “literary compositions run into each other, precisely like colours: in their strong tints they are easily distinguished; but are susceptible of so much variety, and take on so many different forms, that we never can say where one species ends and another begins.”[3]

Perhaps it would be more adequate to conceive of genre as the requirements for getting a piece of writing done. Whether fifty thousand words of prose action or fourteen decasyllabic lines of verse with a strict rhyme scheme, a genre is a list of the minimal conditions that a writer must meet. He may even bend the rules, writing more than fifty thousand words or fewer than ten syllables, to finish his job. The purpose of genre, though, is to provide the measure for determining completion. The question of what to include or exclude—how porous to make the boundaries—is a different question: perhaps a question of style. And once the job is finished, the text may be grouped or shelved with other texts that amuse or appall the writer. That’s not his business, however.

Nor is it the business of the critic, who is less worried how to classify a text than how to evaluate it. The categories that publishers and booksellers use to market books will be of little use to him. What might help would be to learn what other critics make of the text. If they are off in a different corner of the bookstore, though, refusing to read any books except for those on the shelves that surround them like a heavy coat on a winter’s day, they will be of little use to him too.

[1] “Popular Culture,” New York Times (August 7, 1881): 3.

[2] Henry Morton Robinson, “The Wood-Pulp Racket,” Bookman 67 (August 1928): 648–51.

[3] Henry Home, Lord Kames, The Elements of Criticism (1762) quoted in Alaistar Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 37.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Q.: Why is it that, when I leave class aware of not having done justice to a literary text, I feel as if I have betrayed it?

A. [via Patrick Kurp]: “I have always wished that I would never lose the belief that great works of the spirit are more objective than we are. And they will judge us. Someone very rightly said that not only do we read Homer, look at frescoes of Giotto, listen to Mozart, but Homer, Giotto and Mozart steal looks at us, eavesdrop on us and ascertain our vanity and stupidity.” (Zbigniew Herbert)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Summing up

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 14

After nearly two weeks of reflection on book blogging by some of the best bloggers out there, what have we learned? That book blogging expands the range of book discussion. That it is a form of literary criticism, however implicitly. That it is more conversational but also more ephemeral than formal criticism. That it may be cynical, but is always rooted in a love for books. That it is still in its infancy. That the audience for it is small. That it is unpaid.

After reading the symposiasts who participated in The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, I am encouraged by the wit, knowledge, and book sense on exhibition in a few well-tended parks of the literary blogscape. But I am also discouraged about the future of book blogging. I no longer believe, as I once did, that book blogs might revive a free-wheeling and raucous literary culture. The source of my discouragement is our symposiasts’ conception of blogging. Terry Teachout puts it best: blogging is “introspection made public.”

Consider the answers we received to our question about “the vicious nature of the beast”—the ad hominem attacks that the public nature of introspective blogging seems to invite. “I favor shunning,” Frank Wilson says. Mark Athitakis is not so adamant, but is no more hopeful. “Ultimately,” he says, “there are only two ways a conversation can go—either people can find some common ground and room for compromise, or they can keep barking about the points on which they disagree.”

Athitakis goes on to condemn “taking-my-toys-and-going-home behavior: removing somebody’s blog from a blogroll, unfollowing them from Twitter, huffy posts about how you shall never speak of [Blogger X] again.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine John Crowe Ransom’s huffing that he would never mention Yvor Winters again after being attacked at length (fifty-four pages!) in The Anatomy of Nonsense.

But that points to the real problem.

If it is true that “there are only two ways a conversation can go” then the inevitable destination is the very behavior that Athitakis condemns. Compromise entails a surrender of interests, but if a critic is willing to concede a principle that he secretly believes to be true—and only for the sake of keeping the peace—then he was not really engaging in a critical conversation in the first place. He was writing, like Kafka’s hunger artist, to be admired. Or if he keeps barking about the points of disagreement then he is a propagandist; he conceives his role as propagating the faith. A true disagreement obliges a literary critic to rethink his conclusions, to reexamine his premises, to doublecheck his logic, to scour for further evidence, to remain open to correction or even the possibility of being proved wrong.

Every critical position is the implicit denial of other contrary positions. Like most ordinary mortals, however, book bloggers tend not to know how to develop or extend their assertions. When challenged, they repeat their claims, perhaps with a slight variation in phrasing, perhaps with mounting anger. They might benefit from the sort of intellectual training described by John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography:

The first intellectual operation in which I arrived at any proficiency, was dissecting a bad argument, and finding in what part the fallacy lay.  . . . I am persuaded that nothing, in modern education, tends so much, when properly used, to form exact thinkers, who attach a precise meaning to words and propositions, and are not imposed on by vague, loose, or ambiguous terms.  . . . [By this means students] may become capable of disentangling the intricacies of confused and self-contradictory thought, before their own thinking faculties are much advanced; a power which, for want of some such discipline, many otherwise able men altogether lack; and when they have to answer opponents, only endeavour, by such arguments as they can command, to support the opposite conclusion, scarcely even attempting to confute the reasonings of their antagonists; and, therefore, at the utmost, leaving the question, as far as it depends on argument, a balanced one.On second thought, they will only get themselves removed from his blogroll if they dissect another blogger’s bad argument.

Because of the popular tendency to confuse all argument with argumentum ad hominem (as Walter Aske observes, only “those who think they’re much more intelligent than they actually are” present this confusion), book bloggers retreat into public introspection. There are, as our symposiasts point out, ample precedents: coffee-house talk, the “personal style of Montaigne,” tracts and pamphlets, diaries and journals by the likes of Kierkegaard, Emerson, and Thoreau, My One Hundred Dearest Poems, “self-produced ’zines with tiny circulations” (think of George Hitchcock’s Kayak, for instance), and “mental rambles.” (Although Michael Gilleland doubts that Dr. Johnson would blog if he were alive today, his Rambler is a distinguished example of introspection made public.) In my own case, the direct antecedent was Ben Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries.

All of these promote a kind of literary eavesdropping. A public is not addressed; it is invited to listen in. Like the culture as a whole, the republic of letters is fragmenting into niche markets—science fiction, mysteries, romance novels, “literary fiction,” metafiction, anything but “domestic fiction,” even poetry. As Ronan McDonald writes in The Death of the Critic:The danger . . . is that while everybody's interests are catered for, nobody’s are challenged or expanded. The sheer size of the internet is, then, part of this problem. In order for there to be a public sphere, an arena for the sharing of ideas and cultural critique, the organs and venues of communication need to be limited. There need to be some voices heard above the din. The number of arenas the internet provides for criticism and reviewing counterpoints the contraction of academic criticism. But dilation, so far as an arena for public discussion is concerned, is also dilution.I do not agree with McDonald that “the organs and venues of communication need to be limited.” But I do think that any revival of literary culture will demand the mutual allegiance to a common pursuit. Mark Athitakis theorizes that literary disputes in book blogs quickly go up in flames because “the stakes are low and the environment of one-upmanship is high.” Nicely said, but what is needed are more book bloggers for whom the stakes are high and for whom personal dignity and reputation take a back seat to the advancement of literature.

And this would require book bloggers who are committed to argument—who are sworn to defend the books they cherish from those who would make a hash of them, who understand that the literary heritage can be lost, as most of Sappho’s poetry was lost, when it ceases to be valued. It is not the number of “organs and venues” that must be limited, but the number of books. The function of book blogging at the present time should be to establish those limits.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

One year after Ike

Photo by Guy Reynolds, Dallas Morning News

One year ago, just after 2:00 in the morning, Hurricane Ike made landfall over Galveston with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph stretching two hundred and fifty miles from the storm’s center.

My wife and I and our four children, including our five-month-old baby, were huddled together in an airless interior hallway, playing games and trying not to let ourselves be consumed by fear. The wind, squeezing through the cracks in the doorframes, squealed like devils released from hell. I peeked outside the back window and saw a fifty-year-old oak bent double. An eerie groan followed by an ear-splitting crash, and our sukkah was ripped from its moorings on the patio and flung onto the driveway.

I rushed back into the protection of the hallway. Almost immediately the power went out. It would remain out for sixteen days.

That does not sound like a very long time now, but living without power for a little more than two weeks—no air-conditioning in the subtropical heat and humidity of Houston, no way to cook, no hot water, no means of communication other than cell phone, and no means of recharging a cell phone—took all our energy and ingenuity. We learned quickly whom we could count on, and who was counting only upon himself. Some of our neighbors banded together, emptying their refrigerators and freezers and cooking everything on propane grills before it spoiled, sharing with the rest of the neighborhood in sprawling banquets by candlelight, but other neighbors—even among our fellow Jews—became impatient and told people to go away. (In a sign that God’s justice will be eternally inscrutable, they were the first to get their power back.)

I was in the second week of a semester’s sabbatical. Any research that I had hoped to accomplish disappeared along with the power. I had little time during the day to read, and of course it was nearly impossible to read after dark. Even nine or ten candles, burning on the side table while I sat in an easy chair, provided inadequate light to read with anything more than flickering attention.

It was during this period of unelected lassitude that A Commonplace Blog was conceived. Not only did I read Philip Roth’s Indignation, the subject of my very first post, while briefly at a Jewish youth camp to escape Houston, where not even the grocery stores had power yet. (It was the first book to which I had been able to give my full attention since Ike.)

What is more, I experienced the slipping away of my sabbatical with something like rising panic. Two weeks without power, followed by another two weeks of getting life back in order—and then I would have to fumble for the thread of my research. There was, I realized with a sour stomach, little chance to accomplish much of anything in the time left to me.

And so I began A Commonplace Blog three weeks after the power came back on. By the time I returned to the classroom in January, I had managed somehow to write more than eighty posts, giving the blog a good hard shove into the world. Whatever else it is, it has been for me a redemption of lost time, a small portion of the cleanup after Hurricane Ike.

Infinitely more interesting

Patrick Kurp, author of Anecdotal Evidence, majority leader of the party of book bloggers, and cohost of this symposium, wraps up his end of The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time with reflections that are full of “golden moments.”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Blogging is still on the nipple

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 12

by James Marcus

House of Mirth

What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

It is tempting to see essayists as proto-bloggers, since they anticipate the waywardness and freedom and occasional narcissism of the form. In my book, Amazonia, I actually anointed Emerson as the First American Online. I think he’s a better candidate than, say, Montaigne, since he was a small-canvas artist whose unit of thought was the sentence: that seems very bloggy to me. The other non-electronic precursors would be the diary and commonplace book. But really, blogging is something different. I think it’s more defined by its universal accessibility than by any specific style.

Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Nobody in particular. It was the chaotic, fun, anti-professional vibe that got me interested in blogging, and that precluded following any fixed star. (In many other aspects of my life, I am lost without a map and compass and motel reservation.)

How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

Two answers. First: not at all. When I write things for House of Mirth, I proceed almost exactly as I would if I were writing something for print. That’s because blogging strikes me a form of publication—it’s there for public consumption. On the other hand, I often post things that don’t easily fit into the ecosystem of publishing (which I picture as a medium-sized plastic terrarium with lots of lizards and too much humidity fogging up the walls). A small meditation on the rock opera I wrote as a teenager, an account of my visit with Aldo Buzzi in Milan—these are things I could probably shape into a conventionally publishable format, but am happy to post as they are. Oh, I forgot the other glaring difference: you don’t get paid for blogging.

How do you respond to this statement? “Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.”

Or like fishing, chess, cooking, sex, music, scrimshaw, gardening. . . . The statement is quasi-true but its assumptions are pathetic: that anything you do outside of your professional life is trivial. Many people are at their happiest and most fulfilled when practicing their so-called hobbies.

How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

It hasn’t.

What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?—the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

The Internet is real life on steroids—unless it’s not. I don’t think people are any kinder or more vicious online than they are in real life, but the remote nature of their interactions, and the absence of adult supervision, turns many human beings into assholes. Even Pericles might have behaved like a frat boy under such circumstances. The great thing is that you can delete comments, trash emails, and generally ignore the stuff that bothers you. I was on a panel with Lee Siegel a couple of years ago, and he was complaining about the coercive nature of the Web. I said that I didn’t find it any more coercive than the radio. If you don’t like it, pull the plug.

Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

This question made me smile. Blogging is in its infancy, still (as my father likes to say) on the nipple. In fifty years, to pass the time in our warren of underground, climate-controlled fallout shelters, we can muse over whether blogging lived up to its delightful promise. Hell, we can blog about it. As for the fame thing—outside of gossip, gadgets, and porn, the mighty Internet trifecta, bloggers tend to address a small audience. The level of fame is miniscule. So the lack of fame is meaningless.

In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have “earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not,” because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers “to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better.” Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

See my previous answer. Literary bloggers write for small audiences. As far as I know, even the biggest names (and I don’t mean me) bring in a few thousand visitors per day. To me that is marvelous and impressive and proportionate. But on the playing field of popular culture, those numbers are rounded down to zero. I don’t think Michael Malone is wrong about why certain bloggers have earned bigger audiences—in the end it does come down to trust, which is paradoxical, since you seldom meet the person behind the blog. But when a literary blogger ascends the pulpit, the congregation will mostly be small, ardent, and (mostly) amiable.

Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Sure, why not?

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 and the literary fallacy

In the spring of 1943, as the tide was beginning to turn against the Axis in the Second World War, Bernard DeVoto delivered a series of lectures at Indiana University on American literature in the ’twenties. A fierce conservationist and even more fiery liberal who later tangled with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, DeVoto was “rather tory than whig,” to use his own distinction, in his literary criticism. Defending his examination of two-decades-old writing before “young men and women who will presently be taking an active part in the war,” he explained that the country’s literature had repudiated American life during the ’twenties, “shut[ting] it away from the realities of that life, the evils as well as the good.”

And the distortions had had an effect. Not only upon DeVoto’s listeners (“Literature has given you some ideas which are erroneous and built into your thinking misrepresentations and fallacies which impair the instruments you must use”). But also upon America’s enemies. “Clearly the master race accepted in good faith the description of America which American writers had provided, and made their plans,” DeVoto said, “in accordance with it.”[1]

At bottom was what he called, when he published the lectures in book form one year later, The Literary Fallacy. This is the mistake of believing that experience can be absorbed, both understood and expressed, wholly in literature; and in literature, moreover, which is reduced to belles-lettres (prose fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism). It is the undertaking “to judge our society by means of literature and nothing else” (p. 31). It entails an aggrandizement of literature’s importance in human affairs accompanied by its underside—playing down the significance of empirical facts. To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies. (p. 50)There is perhaps no better example of the literary fallacy than the literature of 9/11.

The novels of 9/11 and its aftermath, which I have listed elsewhere, are almost without exception victims’ or bystanders’ novels. They reduce an attack upon “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom,” as President Bush called it in a televised address that evening, to private emotions and limited perceptions.

What may have been the first allusion to the attacks in American fiction pointed a way that, despite its promise, few other writers took. In Roland Merullo’s In Revere, in Those Days—a novel in the form of a memoir about growing up in the early ’sixties—the narrator remembers a time when his parents left for a trip to New York. He drove with them to Logan Airport:We climbed up to the open-air observation deck on the roof of the terminal—people did not bomb airplanes in those days, or fly them into buildings—and watched the jet back slowly out of its berth and roll off to the edge of the runway, only a few inches, it seemed, from the sea. We stood and stared as it gathered speed there, lifted up in a neat silver line, climbed, banked, folded its wheels in, and blinked off toward the exotic territory called New York.[2]His novel was published less than a year after the attacks—so soon after them that Merullo may only have had time to revise his galleys. And so soon after them any reference to planes taking off from Logan for New York was bound to summon up thoughts of 9/11. He was obliged to quash those thoughts, but he did so in a brief parenthetical insertion that, more perhaps than any other image in his novel, located his boyhood in a distant and more innocent time. Without belaboring the point, Merullo suggested that the world had irrevocably changed. The very modesty of his allusion contributed to its power.

Those who followed, however, were not given to modest aims. Few committed the error of Hugh Nissenson, who pretended to enter the mind of a man who jumps from the North Tower:     My last look at the Empire State Building, the East River, the Hudson. He pushed off with his right hand under his thigh on the [window] sill. He feel feet first, his arms and legs spread. He shut his eyes. He felt the cool air against his face. Funny! I don’t feel I’m falling. I feel like I’m floating in one place. He heard a roaring wind. Don’t look! Keep your eyes closed!
     His earliest memory returned to him. . . .[3]
Jonathan Safran Foer came close, though, when he ended Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) with a flip book of a series of photographs taken by Lyle Owerko, which carries the body of a man who had jumped back up from the ground into the Tower.

Don DeLillo evoked the same or a similar image in the title of his Falling Man (2007). In the novel, the Falling Man is a “performance artist” who shows upunannounced, in various parts of the city, suspended from one or antoher structure, always upside down, wearing a suit, a tie and dress shows. He brought it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump. He’d been seen dangling from a balcony in a hotel atrium and police had escorted him out of a concert hall and two or three apartment buildings with terraces or accessible rooftops.[4]His champions, among whom I am not to be numbered, argue that DeLillo means to demonstrate literature’s inadequacy ever to “bring it back.” The novel tells no story, but wanders among images of life after the attacks, trying to make sense of it all. If that were the case, Falling Man might even be praised as an act of atonement on the part of a novelist who had written ten years earlier, as I have noted noted elsewhere, “There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists.” His 9/11 novel might have been written to cut the curious knot.

But none of this is the case. DeLillo’s novel separates 9/11 from the misrepresentations and fallacies about American life that had assisted the terrorists in making their plans—including the romantic impression of terrorists published abroad by such writers as Don DeLillo—and it isolates the events of that day from any other aspect of the American character than shock and disorientation. That is how the novel ends:     He went past a line of fire trucks and they stood empty now, headlights flashing. He could not find himself in the things he saw and heard. Two men ran by with a stretcher, someone face-down, smoke seeping out of his hair and clothes. He watched them move into the stunned distance. That’s where everything was, all around him, falling away, street signs, people, things he could not name.
     Then he saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life. (p. 246)
I was teaching on September 11, 2001. I too “could not name” what I had seen and heard, which was “like nothing in this life.” But then I went to class, intending to mumble a few words, perhaps a prayer, and then to dismiss my students to find the persons they loved. But my students did not want to go quickly. They wanted to talk. And they were angry. One of them, a young Cadet, said with level-voiced determination, “This is our Pearl Harbor.” If he was right he was describing his own future, because as a Cadet he was likely to become an army officer on the front lines of the war that, to his mind, had just been started. Throughout the lecture hall, heads nodded in solemn agreement. My students had little trouble finding themselves in the things they saw and heard. But then they were not literary men. They did not believe that 9/11 could be judged by means of literature and nothing else.

[1] Bernard DeVoto, The Literary Fallacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1944), pp. 19–20. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[2] Roland Merullo, In Revere, in Those Days (New York: Shaye Areheart, 2002), p. 32.

[3] Hugh Nissenson, The Days of Awe (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005), p. 151.

[4] Don DeLillo, Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007), p. 33. Subsequent reference in parentheses.

Calm and fit and even-keeled

Levi Stahl, author of Ivebeenreadinglately and an editor who works in publishing, considers book blogging as a form of exercise in the eleventh chapter of The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, the symposium cohosted by Anecdotal Evidence and this Commonplace Blog.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blogging is a way of life

The Function of Book Blogging at the Present Time, 10

by Nigel Beale

Nota Bene Books

• What are the non-electronic precursors of book blogging?

Short answer: anything that enabled the A) storage and/or B) sharing of ideas.

A) Given that I call my site “a commonplace book blog”: “A place to quote, abridge, and commonplace passages of rhetorical, dialectic and factual interest, mix them with comment and reflection, and index them to facilitate retrieval and use, notably in the composition of my own prose,” I’d say that the commonplace book is the obvious precursor, but anything that facilitated the storage of thoughts—one’s own and others’—would qualify I think: journals, letters, notebooks.

So, a place to store ideas:

“A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories’: and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”

Jonathan Swift, A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet

In addition to written material, it’s also a place to store and present audio/video material: a place to house the interviews I conduct. “These interviews attempt to document what’s going on with the book, as art (their contents) and object, at the turn of the 21st century, by capturing and presenting the ideas of passionate, talented authors, publishers, booksellers, collectors, conservators, illustrators, digitizers, librarians—with the goal of creating a place where interested parties can visit to get a comprehensive, entertaining, informative overview of what’s happening, real time, at this crucial stage in the book’s development.”

A precursor to the audio blog might be a tape recorder/player

B) Which leads us to the communicative aspect of blogging: the sharing of thoughts and ideas: in this regard short essays, feuilleton and the like in newspapers, magazines, journals would qualify as precursors, as would intimate gatherings and book clubs.

In fact, some years ago a close friend of mine left to teach at a university in the Maritimes; his departure left a void. We had been meeting monthly, on and off, for about ten years. Mostly we met, usually with one or two others, to discuss the plays of Shakespeare. I missed those rich encounters. To compensate I decided to launch a radio program featuring interviews with authors and other book related professionals. I called it The Biblio File. Coincidental with this I started blogging. The blog, then, grew out of a desire to share thoughts, enthusiasms, and musings on and about literature, poetry and the book.

These interviews are aired on a local radio station in Ottawa, another precursor to the (audio/video component of a) blog.

• Who do you look toward for inspiration and models?

Initial response: no one. I do my own thing. Whatever stuns my mind long enough to make an impression . . . whatever I think worthy of saving/sharing, I record and/or ruminate upon. Sometimes it’s merely a quote, other times it’s a quote with a response; sometimes short unsubstantiated opinion, other times lengthier polemics, reviews, etc. So, ‘who’ do I look toward for inspiration? Anyone who has said or written something worth remembering; because this is a book blog, more often than not, it’s a literary critic: Steiner, Bloom, Barthes, Clive James, John Metcalf; Dr. Johnson is a regular; or a poet, Auden, or an author: Maugham, Montaigne, Huxley . . . yes: lots of dead white males . . . because they come immediately to mind: Helen Gardner . . . George Eliot; Carol Ann Duffy; Susan Sontag from time to time.

As for blogs: I have a list of favourites I frequent. They tend to fall into one of two categories: those that focus on providing links, with accompanying, usually pithy, commentary (Books Inq., Bookninja, The Elegant Variation, Readysteadybook); those that serve up longer, essay-like fare (Ed Champion, Steve Mitchelmore, D. G. Myers, Patrick Kurp, Amateur Reader). I also like what Sarah Crown is doing at the Guardian.

• How does book blogging differ from print counterparts such as book reviews?

No editors/quality control (good and bad); no space restrictions (good and bad); timeless (good); anything goes (good and bad); freedom to focus on the important, rather than “urgent” (good); anyone can do it (good and bad).

• How do you respond to this statement? “Blogging is just another hobby, like stamp collecting or hockey.”

Blogging is more a way of life, of satisfying an urge to respond to stimuli and to receive feed back; to communicate, connect; to share thoughts on what has been seen or read or heard with like-minded people; to comment on significant events or entertainments. Life now doesn’t seem complete unless I'm actively contributing/participating in this way. Watching, listening, reading alone is now, just not enough. I’ll often see and photograph things for my blog. Blogging isn’t just a hobby, it’s a way of experiencing the world.

• How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write?

Not sure that it has changed it all that significantly; perhaps because posts are written for myself primarily; but of course there is an audience, so I do pay more attention to spelling . . . or spell checking . . . I’m an atrocious speller; I may have become a bit more succinct; more aware of the need to capture and hold the attention of readers . . . also, too, I suppose because my blog serves as a kind of CV, I do try to maintain at least a modicum of professionalism.

• What about the sometimes vicious nature of the beast?—the ad hominem attacks, and the widespread tendency to confuse harsh disagreement with such ad hominem attacks.

For the most part I have enjoyed disagreeing with commenters on my site and at others. Argument and counter-argument is what literary criticism is all about. I have however been harassed at times by a well-known anonymous book blog troll . . . one who has illegally assumed my identity, and slandered me. Needless to say this is upsetting. I can only hope that those who administer such things will make this behavior more difficult in future, especially the anonymity part.

• Some say the golden age of blogging has already passed, that blogging has failed to fulfill its early promise; and the evidence which is given is that no one becomes famous from blogging any longer. Do you agree?

No. While the desire for fame and fortune does lurk somewhere deep in the murky motivation department: who doesn’t want to get paid well for what they love doing: blogging per se fulfills its promise just fine for me: it provides a platform for expression of the joys and pleasures that books provide; as well as a forum within which to exchange thoughts and feelings about same. This is the gold.

• In a recent blog column, the technology writer Michael S. Malone suggests that a handful of bloggers have “earned huge audiences, while millions of others have not,” because readers have learned to trust the more popular bloggers “to either consistently entertain us, or we trust their judgment in selecting interesting items for us to read, or we trust that their world view is just like our own and their ability to enunciate those views even better.” Do you agree? Does this explain why no book blogger has earned a huge audience?

No. I think this is horse shit. What with all the brainless, effortless entertainment that surrounds us, it's little wonder that book bloggers don't attract “huge” audiences . . . but I suspect the better ones do earn large audiences, relative to the total pool of book loving, screen reading intelligence seeking denizens that are out there.

• Are book bloggers wise or foolish to include political commentary?

Not a question of wise or foolish. Book bloggers, like any others, are free to include or exclude whatever they see fit. I have an interest in evaluative criticism, and the aesthetic valuation of literature and art; this could change. Others may go cuckoo over thematic criticism, how social or political issues influence the production of literature . . . some may obsess on a particular critic or author . . . for most book bloggers taste and inclination is what drives content . . . and this is as it should be. If the putative topic is books, but the content is overwhelmingly political, polemical, then a-political book loving visitors will no doubt move on.; there are plenty of alternatives.

From time to time I’ll weigh in on an issue that affects what I’m interested in: the Canadian government’s recent decision to implement more stringent funding criteria for magazines for example. The foolish book blogger , I’d say, is one who disingenuously cultivates an audience; who blogs not out of true interest, but out of a desire simply to generate numbers; to present ears and eyeballs to prospective advertisers. Political or “popular culture” or other types of commentary may attract more visitors but if it’s just a ploy, committed bibliophiles will soon tire of it and leave. Conversely, political “commentary” can at times be interesting; the blogger may have something valuable to say about the influence of Enron on fiction for example; or 9/11 on poetry; Obama on drama. It gets foolish when ulterior motives unveil themselves.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Less than God, excelling other creatures

The nature and condition of man, wherin he is lasse than god almightie, and excellinge nat withstanding all other creatures in erthe, is called humanitie whiche is a generall name to those vertues in whome semeth to be a mutuall concorde and loue in the nature of man.

—Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke named The Governour (1531), II.viii

The last time I quoted Elyot I lamented his influence upon a word’s later career. Would that he had had some leverage over the subsequent use of the word humanity!

Last Friday, when I replied to Benjamin Stein’s criticism of my assault upon Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I asked whether it is true (as Stein had claimed without further elaboration) that “no matter how gruesome the crime, no matter how little remorse he shows for his act, [a mass murderer] is still a human being.” I suggested instead that humanity might be a moral achievement. If this were true, Stein objected, “a newborn would not deserve human rights, but it surely does.”

The confusion of a person’s moral status with his legal rights is a common error. It descends, I believe, from the contemporary degradation of the word humanity. Few are now so frumpy and anachronistic as to use the word to denote the moral dimension of the biological species homo sapiens. Instead, the word has become a mere synonym for the species.

There is, for example, the plant scientist Simon Lewis, who warns of humanity’s heavy hand: “Just as changes to the Earth’s orbit, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts in the distant past have set the world on radically new courses, humanity itself has now become a collective force of nature, with far-reaching consequences.”[1] There is the Australia-based Vision of Humanity, which “groups together a number of interrelated initiatives focused on global peace” in order to raise awareness of “the importance of peacefulness to humanity’s survival in the 21st century.” There is the late American sculptor Alice Bindeman, who was described by a fellow artist: “She takes [her subjects] with all their humanities and their pride and their hubris and she celebrates it. She manages to do this with humor and respect and warmth. She just truly celebrates humanity in all of its weaknesses and strengths.”[2]

But giving the word a moral connotation is how the humanists used it. As in More:[R]eason directs us to keep our minds as free from passion and as cheerful as we can, and that we should consider ourselves as bound by the ties of good-nature and humanity to use our utmost endeavours to help forward the happiness of all other persons; for there never was any man such a morose and severe pursuer of virtue, such an enemy to pleasure, that though he set hard rules for men to undergo, much pain, many watchings, and other rigors, yet did not at the same time advise them to do all they could in order to relieve and ease the miserable, and who did not represent gentleness and good-nature as amiable dispositions. Or Montaigne: “There is nothing so little to be expected or hoped for from this many-headed monster [a mob], in its fury, as humanity and good nature; it is much more capable of reverence and fear.” Or Erasmus: “[Seneca] sets up a stony semblance of a man, void of all sense and common feeling of humanity.”

And now in the inaugural issue of National Affairs, a new quarterly modeled upon the four-years-defunct Public Interest, Leon Kass dusts off the humanists’ humanity to make a case for “teaching philosophical and literary texts” to an “old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way”: namely, to derive wisdom from them—yes, wisdom—about “the meaning of our humanity.”

Kass’s largely autobiographical account of his “adopted career as an unlicensed humanist” strikes a deep chord within me. I believe that university students need to learn how to read difficult texts—how to derive their authors’ intended meaning from them—but they need more than to learn merely how to read them. They also need to come to grips with why the texts continue to be read at all; that is, they need to evaluate their authors’ message.

In class I find myself offering any number of moral hypotheses for students to consider. Teaching Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence yesterday, for example, I observed that the moral dilemma in which Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska find themselves—unable to marry without damaging others—no longer seems like much of a moral dilemma.

As W. Bradford Wilcox observes in the same issue of National Affairs, expectations of marriage have changed in America over the past four decades. “Prior to the late 1960s,” Wilcox writes,Americans were more likely to look at marriage and family through the prisms of duty, obligation, and sacrifice. A successful, happy home was one in which intimacy was an important good, but by no means the only one in view. A decent job, a well-maintained home, mutual spousal aid, child-rearing, and shared religious faith were seen almost universally as the goods that marriage and family life were intended to advance.Now, however, marriage is looked upon as another conduit of personal fulfillment. Keeping faith, standing by promises, duty to children and family—these cannot be permitted to override the bawl of unhappiness. What I am looking for, after all, is not someone with whom to make a home, but someone who completes me. “The 1970s marked the period when, for many Americans, a more institutional model of marriage gave way to the ‘soul-mate model’ of marriage,” Wilcox says.

The double bind of The Age of Innocence may strike my students as no longer relevant. Only Newland’s horror at being buried alive in a passionless marriage may have any significance for them. The “battle of ugly appetites” which is loosed when men and women chase personal fulfillment instead of doing what has to be done may seem an inevitable patch of unpleasantness, a mere episode, to young persons who have grown up in the popular ideology of you owe it to yourself!

Kass, however, thinks more highly of them than that:Most young people in my experience still want to be taken seriously. Despite their facile sophistications and easy-going cynicisms—more often than not, largely a defense against disappointment—most of them are in fact looking for a meaningful life or listening for a summons. Many of them are self-consciously looking for their own humanity and for a personal answer to Diogenes’ question [anthropon zeto,“I am looking for human being”]. If we treat them uncynically and respectfully, as people interested in the good, the true, and the beautiful, and if we read books with them in search of the good, the true, and the beautiful, they invariably rise to the occasion, vindicating our trust in their potential. And they more than repay our efforts by contributing to our quest their own remarkable insights and discoveries.If he is right the young seek the moral achievement of humanity—to excel all other creatures, including those who would condemn them to creatureliness—and they long for the wisdom of literature to assist them on the way.

[1] Simon Lewis, “An Epoch of Destruction,” Manchester Guardian (July 24, 2009): 32.

[2] Patricia Sullivan, “Artist Reflected Humanity’s Good Side and Bad,” Washington Post (August 17, 2009): B4.