Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Zombie lit

July 18, 2007

From William H. McNeill’s Venice:

Dositheos’ second great achievement was to give the Orthodox tradition a historical definition. He did this by writing a History of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, published in 1715, eight years after his death.

I have to wonder if his editors got so grumpy (like me) with the fact that McNeill mentions Venice only a very few times in his last chapter that they failed to notice (unlike me) that he slipped in a bizarre instance of posthumous writing. A great achievement indeed!


Reading at the horizon

June 26, 2007

The perversity inherent in my being currently unable to stomach the vastest majority of novels is not lost on me: the thesis that marks the final barrier to my Master’s degree in English literature is only a few revisions and a formality away from being finished; my bookshelves are filled with novels that I haven’t read. Yet this state of being unable to bear novels has gone on for over six months now and accounts for both the unmistakably hobbled gait with which my thesis has marched toward completion and the bottleneck playing out amongst the rest of my books.

Even so, this situation has not been entirely without its consolations. In an altogether difficult meeting with the professor who might best be called my mentor, I forced myself first to admit that all of the PhD programs I’d applied to had rejected me, then that I had found myself unable to read novels for, at that point, a couple months. “Good,” she said, shocking the hell out of me, “You’ve moved on already. It was a good thing that you got rejected from these English programs: they would have constrained you too much.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.

But in as much as this amounts to a totally involuntary turning away, it’s been a disturbing situation to me and one which I’ve tried to remedy no few times. You might remember when I read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and commented on that book here. Even though I wanted desperately to like it – even if only for the sake of communing with Roland Barthes (who used The Sorrows as a basis for his Lover’s Discourse) – I would put off reading the thin volume, doing who-knows-what to put the better part of a week between my beginning the book and finishing it.

I was not enjoying myself: not getting a buzz of satisfaction, nor a frisson of meaning, nor any other phrase one might use to describe, in terms that do justice to both the dignity of literature and the profoundity of its possible effects, the urge to carry on reading.

This same falling flat has been duplicated in my attempt at reading Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. At first, it seemed the perfect novelistic chaser to the two more theoretical books which I’d read before it: Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity. Both were excellent books (though I’ve since learned that the translation of Huizinga which I read may leave a lot to be desired), dealing in two somewhat different ways with an identical space – a space characterized by the presence of rules and the absence of total rigidity. Huizinga’s emphasis on play and the existence of society “through and as play” foreshadows Taylor’s more interdisciplinary tack, occupied as it is with self-organization and emergent properties.

And Hesse’s novel would seem to follow these two books perfectly, striking a middle ground thematically as well as chronologically. For even though Hesse obviously makes use of an element of play in this book, he also seems to be closer to Taylor in focusing more on the parts whose interactions create society than he is to Huizinga’s unexamined faith in the applicability of a theory for society as a whole. (If this is not entirely borne out in Hesse’s rather essentialistic views of East and West, let me suggest that, in The Glass Bead Game as a semi-utopian novel, he has created a world in which those distinctions are easily surpassed, if not totally disregarded.) Add to the felicitous connection of themes with the preceding books Wikipedia’s gathering a fascinating group of attempts at creating a glass bead game and you will perhaps understand why I thought my aversion to novels could be at its end.

Predictable – by the very fact of my having to write this entry – as the outcome of my attempt at reading The Glass Bead Game is, it did join with one as yet undisclosed fact to hint at why I felt such repulsion toward novels. The fact is that, even though my distaste for the genre is not waning but steadily increasing in the face of my attempts at curbing it, one novelist alone requires no rapprochement – that my fondness for him continues almost as if it were never interrupted, and that I was able to pick up a novel of his and scarcely remember that I had ever, in some forgotten but evidently binding moment, abjured his genre so completely. That author is Henry James.

You see, reader, while Hesse labors sweatily over the character of Joseph Knecht, cataloging his great sincerities, his exemplary deeds, and his exemplary failures, James’s narration is a curious if somewhat casual walk through the narrative space. Hesse builds an edifice, piling diagetic stone upon diagetic stone until he is done and asks you, pointing with his now-calloused hands, to behold the perfection of the work; James, though, might tour that same building and, even emphasizing the contrast of interior and exterior by couching his tour in a series of permissions and intimacies, make art out of his observations instead of the thing itself.

In the same meeting with my professor-mentor that I mentioned earlier, she charged me with “seeing what is just over the horizon.” Though I’m sure I’ll find James there too, I can’t help but wonder if the most fruitful part of this incident – my malady, as it were – doesn’t lie somewhere in the basis on which I’ve contrasted these two authors.

Subject to famine

May 6, 2007

When I observe the restrictions that lock up a person’s active and probing powers, when I see how all activity is directed toward achieving the satisfaction of needs that in turn have no goal but to prolong our miserable existence, and that all reassurance about certain points of inquiry is only a dreaming resignation, since one paints with colorful figures and airy views the walls within which one sits imprisoned – all that, Wilhelm, makes me mute. I withdraw into myself and find a world!


[W]hoever recognizes in his humility where it all ends, whoever sees how nicely every comfortable citizen knows how to trim his little garden into a paradise, and yet sees too how the unfortunate person groans along on his path undaunted under his burden, and all are equally interested in seeing the light of this sun for just one minute longer – yes, he is quiet and forms his world out of himself and is also happy because he is a human being.

Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

In these passages, Werther manages both to “find a world” inside himself and to make a formula whereby one “forms his world out of himself.” Consider the mix of sociality and quietude: observing the universality of needs in others, the individual becomes quiet and constructs that world.

Consider, too, what a world is in this passage. Is it simply a microcosm – a walled-off space full of intricate intra-actions like a medieval town? In other words, is the “worldliness” of a space determined by the ability to draw an analogy with the larger world? Or is there in this passage a more radical definition of a world as that which is completely self-sustaining? One builds his world out of himself “and is also happy because he is a human being;” that is, one’s being human creates a happiness which is separate from (and not necessary to) the completion of that world. It does not penetrate the world which one builds from oneself, but sits beside it or, perhaps, is the pedestal on which that world rests – pleasant, but entirely unneeded.

Is it any wonder then, that Goethe associates quietude with making a world out of oneself? For the mouth of this world-forming person is full of himself. His weight is “where it all ends” – the limits of orderly matter that are spent, little by little, until entropy and dissolution take over: like dreaming of autofellatio. Maybe this is what Werther is about: the economy of resources that each person discovers only in building a world of himself.

Susan Sontag tells us in Regarding the Pain of Others that George Bataille kept a photo of a torture victim on his desk and looked at it every day; he would gaze at the ecstatic expression on the victim’s face and try to remember that suffering is not as one-dimensional as we usually think it is. Maybe Goethe is on this same tack: in forming a world of yourself, you have no option but to consume that self; but without that suffering, you can never experience (through consumption) the self either.

On DailyLit

October 3, 2006

My often scattered attentions were drawn some weeks back by to a website called DailyLit, whose mission it is to provide easily digestible chunks of classic novels to the busy reader’s e-mail. The website says, “[I]f you are like us, you spend hours each day reading email but don’t find the time to read books.”

I am, as someone who not uncommonly surfeits himself on 200 pages a day, deeply ambivalent about the project, whose advantages have complexities and, dare I say, a heritage not immediately obvious.

DailyLit renews the form of the serial under which many of our classic novels were published. These segments came monthly – thereby forcing an even longer break in the continuity of the story – and were often spread out for more than a year. To break up a novel is not a consequence of modern ADD, but simply of the length of the thing. DailyLit is not doing anything truly new here.

This length forces an interaction with the outside world. Few novels can be digested in one sitting, by even the most patient of readers (despite Joan Didion’s advocacy of this style of novel reading). Literary critic D.A. Miller writes:

What the form [of the novel] really secures is a close imbrication of individual and social, domestic and institutional, private and public, leisure and work. A drill in the rhythms of bourgeois industrial culture, the novel generates a nostalgic desire to get home (where the novel can be resumed) in the same degree as it inures its readers to the necessity of periodically renouncing home (for the world where the novel finds its justification and its truth).

The novel, according to this understanding, is predicated on the construction of an idealized, supremely busy reader for whom literature is a humanistic/humanizing foil to the anonymity suffered by the daily transformation into “economic man”; studying literature (as I do, monomaniacally) is dissociating it from its necessary compliment, probably spiraling the reader off into all kinds of strange fancies – the truth of which theory can be found in any English department.

If DailyLit is able to renew the place of art in everyday life, that’s certainly a worthy goal; but if, by its inbox peers, it subsumes literature in work, then it fails in that goal. The novel functioned as a way to restore the working reader to real life after a day spent in an artificial state – not as a porthole through which to view real life from the impenetrable and acquisitive hull of the marketplace.