Tag Archives: literature

Tonguecat by Peter Verhelst

TonguecatTonguecat by Peter Verhelst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admire this book more than I like it. That is, I understand that Verhelst is pulling off a kind of writerly virtuosity and I applaud appropriately. But I feel about it like I feel about a good bit of contemporary music that appeals to the musical theorist rather than the musical ear. It’s possible to feel intellectually compelled, but viscerally unmoved; that’s kind of where I end up with Verhelst and his cast of characters. The book recounts fantastical and horrific events in the aftermath of the apocalyptic end of an empire, but the books surfaces are icy, a little like the frigid ice age that descends on the countryside as a major event of the novel. The characters are frozen and statuesque, a little like the frozen corpses that litter the landscape. They remain untouchable, and so untouched and untouching. As a result, Verhlest’s story works like an allegory, but one from which I remain mostly removed and uncaring. I’m not sorry I read the book, but why go back. Given that the book is at least in part about terror, terrorism, empire, and totalitarianism, I’m not sure this is a great way to feel

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Uncreative Writing: Kenneth Goldsmith and Liz Laribee on Originality in the Digital Age

Professors have endless angst over the new possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of intellectual property theft in the digital age.  But according to Kenneth Goldsmith in the Chronicle Review, such anxiety misses the point that we long entered a new age of uncreative creativity, a fact to be celebrated rather than lamented since it points to our having gotten beyond simplisitic and romantic or modernist notions of the creative individual.  Of course, Goldsmith is promoting his new book, which I guess he would to take to be some kind of act of creation and for which I’m guessing he will gain his portion of individual profits—though if he wants to share the profits with all those from whom his ideas derive in an uncreative fashion, I’m sure they will oblige.

My snarky comment aside, I think there’s something to Goldsmith’s ideas, encapsulated in his title “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’”  As Goldsmith puts it.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.

Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau’s 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.

I really do think there is something to this notion that there is a mark of “creativity”—sanitized or put under erasure (to use that hoary old theoretical term) by the quotation marks—in the ways in which we appropriate and redeploy sources from other areas on the internet.  We create personae through citation, quotation, sharing, and commentary rather than through creative acts that spring fully formed from our minds and imagination.  What we choose to cite and how we choose to comment on it, who we share it with, what other citations we assemble together with it in a kind of linguistic collage.  On one level this is old stuff, as Goldsmith points out, stretching back to a particular strand of modernism and even beyond.  Indeed, to go with a different reference to Benjamin, the figure of the storyteller is one who is best understood under the sign of repetition and appropriation, retelling stories that take on new meanings through their performance within particular contexts, rather than creating novel stories that exist on the page in the effort to create their own context.

Good behavior is the proper posture of the weak. (or, Jamaica Kincaid)

I’m reminded in this of some of the work of my friend and former student Liz Laribee, whose art I find visually provocative and surprisingly moving on an emotional scale, made up out of assemblage of leftovers.  About her work, Liz says the following:

My work almost always involves the repurposing of something else, and it’s in this process that I am trying to find meaning. Here, I used discarded bits and overlooked scraps of this bookstore to continue telling stories. The authors I’ve chosen are layered in my life in ways I can’t even quite tell you about. The dime novel poems force a new meaning to make room for a cheekier, sleuthier past

I’m not exactly sure what Liz means by a cheekier, sleuthier past, but what I take from it is that detritus, the schlocky stuff our commercial culture seems to vomit out and then shovel in to a corner is not something to be lamented so much as it is to be viewed as an opportunity, an occasion for a new kind of creativity that takes the vacuous surfaces of that commercial culture and creates a surprising visual and emotional depth.

Goldsmith thinks we are still too absolutely captive to old forms of doing things and thinks writing and literature has descended into irrelevance as a result.  He advocated for the development of a writing machine that moves us beyond the cult of personality and intended effect and into a realm of fortuitous and occasional affect.  Students need to be forced, he thinks, not to be original in the old sense, but to be repetitive and find whatever newness there is through this act of what Liz calls “repurposing.”

All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler.

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.

After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student’s “creativity” by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being “creative,” she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity—the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training—she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it’s been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

I think there is something to this, although I doubt traditional novels and stories will disappear or should, any more than the writing of novels did away with storytelling in the old sense in any absolute way.  But I do think we need to think through, and not only in creative writing classes, what we might mean in encouraging our students to come up with their own original ideas, their personal arguments.

How might this notion change what we are doing, recognizing that we are in a period in which creative work, either artistic or academic, is primarily an act of redeploying, distributing, and remaking, rather than being original in the old sense of that word?

In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

Read two poems and call me in the morning

I freely admit that we literary types are wont to say everything comes back to story and that words can change the world.  (We are also given to words like “wont” but that is another matter).  This is mostly just the self-aggrandizement that accompanies any disciplinary passion.  But I also really think there is something serious to the idea that stories can make a big difference to hearts and minds, and therefore our bodies.  This might be that this is because my father was a practicing physician, but also a storyteller, and somehow it seemed to me that these things always fit together in my mind:   The well-told story fixed something, put something broken back together, almost as literally as my father set a bone or wrapped a cast.

Some of you know that I have a growing interest in what is sometimes called the medical humanities, and I have been deeply interested in how the literary arts have been used in healing practices in everything from psych wards to cancer wards to Alzheimer’s facilities.  The recent lovely piece from Kristin Sanner in the  Chronicle Review, “The Literature Cure” is not quite so officially about the medical humanities, but it gets at this idea that somehow literature can be involved in our healing and our wholeness, even in the midst of dying and disease.  A few notes from Sanner,  on how her battle with breast cancer both changed her sense of literature and on how her commitment to literature changed her understanding of and response to her disease.

English majors and reluctant students of literature in my general-education courses often ask me questions like: “What exactly can you do with a degree in English?” “Why read all of these books from the past?” Before my cancer diagnosis, I would answer the English majors with practical examples. You could go into publishing or journalism, I told them, or go to graduate or law school. To the general-education students, I would answer with a vague “literature enriches our lives and makes us more well-rounded individuals.”

After my cancer diagnosis, my responses changed, becoming more universal and less practical. We read and study literature, I told my students, because it helps us understand how to live and how to die. It shows us how to persevere in the face of adversity, how to reach into our personal depths and find both meaning and will. It reminds us of the dichotomous fragility and tenacity of earthly living. It also teaches us how to care for those who suffer.

At a time when colleges and universities are making unilateral cuts to humanities programs, these reasons seem pertinent. Each of us, unfortunately, will experience adversity at some point in our lives. Many of us will find ourselves facing a tragedy, a trauma, or a loss that cannot be explained in simple terms. Conventional medicine and science may help us cope in a practical, physical sense—they may even cure us of our illnesses and pain. Religious faith will temper the suffering for some. But it is our universal stories—written, oral, and visual—that help us navigate through these adversities with grace and courage. For many of us, stories give us the hope that we may be able to bear the burdens of our afflictions and live fully, even as we are dying. Stories teach us that suffering and perseverance unify us as humans in a way that transcends race, religion, and class.

…………………………………………….

Throughout my battle with cancer, I have turned to literature and writing to make sense of this miserable and mysterious disease. Books help me understand that human suffering is universal. They have also taught me empathy—how to reach out to others who suffer. In a world where spite and hatred mark the rhetoric of so many, such an intangible attribute should be a vital, required outcome of every student’s educational experience.

Indeed.

Borders fantasies

Book lovers have always turned a blind eye to the god Mammon, remembering only with regret the fact that the house they live in with their truest love was bought and paid for by the leering uncle down the street. Jonathan Gourlay took up that ill-begotten relationship in a nice personal essay on the demise of Borders. For Gourlay, Borders was an opportunity missed whose demise was figured long ago in it’s decision to skip a flirtation with the labor movement and bend the knee to a corporatist ethos.

“For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

“Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

This romantic vision may have a grain of truth.  But it’s worth remembering that scrolls and codexes(codices?) required immense amounts of money–and so wealthy patrons who had to be appeased–to produce. And at some level when you come down to it a book is a commodity as surely as a coke can. So we like to imagine ourselves as counter cultural in our love of texts, but that romantic ethos is purchased at a price like everything else.

The promise of the Internet is in part the idea of thinking and writing and reading without the necessary intervention of the dollar bill. But is that too just a romantic fancy?

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

Joseph Conrad

Typhoon by Conrad, Joseph

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

I think one reason I don’t write and publish more than I do is because I am far too slow on the trigger. The ubiquity of blogging hasn’t helped this any since I usually find that someone else much more intelligent and articulate than I has blogged on what I think of as MY SUBJECT in a manner far more perspicacious, acute and interesting than I could manage. Take Charles Simic’s meditation on boredom during the recent power outages along the east coast, blogged over at the NYRB. I had several of those, Yes-that-is-exactly-what-was-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue moments reading lines like these:

“We sit with our heads bowed as if trying to summon spirits, while in truth struggling to see what’s on our dinner plates. Being temporarily unable to use the technology we’ve grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them.”

Of course, these words weren’t actually on the tip of my tongue, but by imagining that the poet is only telling us what we have always known but could not say so well, we are able to give ourselves credit for a lot of intelligence and imagination that we don’t actually possess. Simic goes on to talk about the notable demise of reading and other delights like radio in the fact of our ubiquitous gadgets. Now, of course, reading books on a rainy afternoon or listening to a radio show has the faint reek of quaintness when we can’t manage to champion with a straight face these distractions as relics of authenticity. Simic reminds us that reading too was a form of distraction as surely as an i-phone.

“All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn’t in church, but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom. I had friends so addicted to books, their parents were convinced they were going crazy with so many strange stories and ideas running like fever through their brains, not to mention becoming hard of hearing, after failing to perform the simplest household chores like letting the cat out.

“Living in a quiet neighborhood made it even worse. Old people stared out of windows at all hours, when they were not staring at the walls. There were radios, but their delights—with the exception of a few programs—were reserved for the grownups only. Thousands died of ennui in such homes. Others joined the navy, got married, or moved to California. Even so, looking back now, I realize how much I owe to my boredom. Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror.”

Be that as it may, I lived out this boredom during the last hurricane by taking up Conrad’s Typhoon, the Project Gutenberg version, on the recommendation I received via my facebook friending of the New Yorker Magazine. (Let’s be frank, folks.  Oprah’s book club is absolutely yesterday).  Too dark to read, yes, but unlike the youthful Simic I had one gadget in hand that bore its own light to me in hand, my trusty iPad, fully charged and functioning.

When I began blogging three years ago at Read, Write, Now (a title I have come to detest, so future bloggers choose carefully), I had a suspicious and doubtful mindset about e-books, e-readers, and many things e-in-general. To be sure, I saw the advantages of blogging as a means of immediate intellectual self-gratification, and even then I think I felt that a great deal of writing and reading, especially in the academic world, would migrate effectively online. But I could not imagine, then, that an electronic gadget could take the place of paper. I wrote about the fact that I freely took my paper books in to saunas and bathtubs, that I could find my way through paper books more quickly and simply than with a scrolling sidebar, that I didn’t have to worry about whether it was sunny outside. And the smell, the smell, the smell. E-books were sterile, it seemed to me. In a word inauthentic.

I may still believe some of this, but I believe it less than I used to, largely due to my i-Pad. To come back to the

The steamer Nan Shan in the Storm

ostensible purpose of this review, Conrad’s Typhoon, it was the first full book I had read on my IPad, if a novella of 100 some odd pages can be thought of as a full book. And the verdict is that it was like reading…well…a book. The interface felt book like, I can adjust the light to the needs of my aging eyes, and can read more clearly than I could have managed by candlelight. I’ve always worried about the ability to personalize the texts, but iBooks lets me underline, and if anything I personalized the text more than I might have some others since my handwriting is unreadable and my notes in paperbooks cryptic and unintelligible. By contrast, the marginalia tool in iBooks is clean and my notes copious. Perhaps above all, I loved my iPad for remaining charged and working when everything else failed, leaving in the dark and to my own devices. Scary what I might find in that mirror. I read the entire book undistracted by facebook or my email apps, but I took comfort in knowing they were available for my distraction should I need them.

Now as to Typhoon itself. I want to say “Yes,” with qualifications. The story is gripping and intense, a naturalist drama of man against nature that becomes a kind of paean to stoic and pedestrian endurance, though one that is ironic and complicated in the end. The main human character is Captain MacWhirr, whose name betokens a machine-like efficiency. He is a man of small intellect, little imagination, and no intellectual curiosity. Because of this it is hard to describe him as actually courageous in the teeth of the hurricane. While a more imaginative man might have hidden his response to the terrors of the outrageous sea in cryptic understatement, MacWhirr is mostly just given to small emotion and small imagination.

Captain MacWhirr was trying to do up the top button of his oilskin coat with unwonted haste. The hurricane, with its power to madden the seas, to sink ships, to uproot trees, to overturn strong walls and dash the very birds of the air to the ground, had found this taciturn man in its path, and, doing its utmost, had managed to wring out a few words. Before the renewed wrath of winds swooped on his ship, Captain MacWhirr was moved to declare, in a tone of vexation, as it were: “I wouldn’t like to lose her.”

One doesn’t come away from this novel feeling grand and heroic and triumphant about human beings. On the other hand, one doesn’t come away feeling like human beings are small and accidental as you do, for instance in reading Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”. Instead endurance seems something to be achieved, and we end up happy for MacWhirr that he has achieved it, knowing we’d rather have him dull and unimaginative, but steady, were we caught in the writhing seas ourselves.

The story as a whole is gripping and seems to reveal something about both our human frailty and our strength and complexity, making it more than just a good adventure story. If I had read it first, I’m sure I would say that The Perfect Storm reminded me of it in being only partly a book about humans against the storm, and as much or more about humans against themselves.

One thing keeps me from a whole hearted endorsement. It really is the case that the depictions of Chinese in the book are deeply troubling. Passages in which Chinese are cast a jabbering animals or as writhing forces of nature are offensive and hard to find a way to redeem. I have always thought the criticism of Heart of Darkness was perhaps unearned since the thesis of that book had always seemed to me to be the evils of imperialism. But there is no redeeming theme that I can find for the representation of the Chinese coolies as brutes, and I found myself less inclined to defend Conrad, either here or for Heart of Darkness than I was before I began. To say this is not to say that the book is not worth reading, since there is no good human thing that is free of the scent of corruption, but it is to say that the goodness in the book does not overcome that corruption and reminds this reader at least that human beings are mixed creations, leaving us to admire and cringe in the same moment.

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The Devil’s Party

My continuing devotion to The New York Review of Books probably signifies nothing so much as my being an archaic throwback, born out of sync with my time. In a way, it seems to me that NYRB has become countercultural in part simply by just staying the same. The world has passed it by–who has time, after all, for a thought that requires an argument?–but in so doing I wonder whether we won’t long at last for just its kind of sober and articulate seriousness that tries to comprehend our troubles, tiring finally of the jokey popculturism of the web that seems mostly content to glide glibly along our surfaces, troubles merely another occasion for self display.

NYRB seems to revel in this archaic status, reprinting as it does forgotten masterpieces through its press and classic articles for it’s archives, apparently insisting pugnaciously that literature and thought really do remain news against the ephemera of what passes for the hot things of the moment.

Of course, it does this on the web now too, like everyone else. Most recently I picked up “A Modern Master by Paul de Man”  off the Facebook page that I have “liked.” A good “classic” essay on Borges, though as with a lot of deconstructionists it becomes impossible to know whether I am supposed to appreciate what de Man is saying or the prolix way in which he goes about saying it. And, of course, it’s sometimes hard to know with these guys whether I’m learning something about Borges or about Paul de Man reading Borges. De Man is primarily interested in the thesis that villainy becomes in some sense a poetic and aesthetic principle for Borges, one that he explores and unfolds throughout his career.

It is true that, especially in his earlier works, Borges writes about villains: The collection History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935) contains an engaging gallery of scoundrels. But Borges does not consider infamy primarily as a moral theme; the stories in now way suggest an indictment of society or of human nature or of destiny. Nor do they suggest the lighthearted view of Gide’s Nietzschean hero Lafcadio. Instead, infamy functions here as an aesthetic, formal principle. The fictions literally could not have taken shape but for the presence of villainy at their very heart. Many different worlds are conjured up—cotton plantations along the Mississippi, pirate-infested South seas, the Wild West, the slums of New York, Japanese courts, the Arabian desert, etc.—all of which would be shapeless without the ordering presence of a villain at the center.

A good illustration can be taken from the imaginary essays on literary subjects that Borges was writing at the same time as the History of Infamy. Borrowing the stylistic conventions of scholarly critical writing, the essays read like a combination of Empson, Paulhan, and PMLA, except that they are a great deal more succinct and devious. In an essay on the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, Borges quotes an impressive list of examples showing how translator after translator mercilessly cut, expanded, distorted, and falsified the original in order to make it conform to his own and his audience’s artistic and moral standards. The list, which amounts in fact to a full catalogue of human sins, culminates in the sterling character of Enna Littmann, whose 1923-1928 edition is scrupulously exact: “Incapable, like George Washington, of telling a lie, his work reveals nothing but German candor.” This translation is vastly inferior, in Borges’s eyes, to all others. It lacks the wealth of literary associations that allows the other, villainous translators to give their language depth, suggestiveness, ambiguity—in a word, style. The artist has to wear the mask of the villain or order to create a style.

So far, so good. All of us know that the poet is of the devil’s party and that sin makes for better stories than virtue. It takes some effort to prefer La nouvelle Héloise to Les liaisons dangereuses or, for that matter, to prefer the second part of the Nouvelle Héloise to the first. Borges’s theme of infamy could be just another form of fin-de-siècle aestheticism, a late gasp of romantic agony. Or, perhaps worse, he might be writing out of moral despair as an escape from the trappings of style. But such assumptions go against the grain of a writer whose commitment to style remains unshakable; whatever Borges’s existential anxieties may be, they have little in common with Sartre’s robustly prosaic view of literature, with the earnestness of Camus’s moralism, or with the weighty profundity of German existential thought. Rather, they are the consistent expansion of a purely poetic consciousness to its furthest limits.

The line “the poet is of the devil’s party” stood out to me, even though de Man’s “All of us know” sets it up sniffily as a throwaway line that demarcates the star-bellied sneeches from their know-nothing cousins. In part I think I seized on this line because it suddenly struck me that it really is the case that everyone I’ve know has mostly assumed that poet’s were of the devil’s party. It’s an issue I’ve thought about for a very long time, maybe for as long as I’ve engaged literature. As I wrote in my book, encountering literature has been, for me, always been fraught with the question of whether or not I was encountering the devil’s party in some metaphorical sense or another. From the time my parents forbid me to go to see The Great Gatsby with friends, or the year I was not allowed to read The Catcher in the Rye along with all my classmates. In some longer range and more significant way, this idea goes all the way back to Plato’s restriction of the poet from the Republic in the belief that poets served merely to inflame the passions, the devil’s party for the rationalist Greek. In my literary theory and other classes, I’ve often invoked the authority of Augustine’s notion of the felix peccatum, the happy fall, to suggest the notion that literature depends on the fact of fallenness, the fact of evil. If the poet is not of the devil’s party, he is at least secretly glad–along with all his readers–that the devil had his way if only for a moment.

An unsettling notion, that our pleasures, even our highest intellectual and aesthetic pleasures depend in some deep sense upon our and the world’s brokenness and violence. At the deepest level, I think this speaks to something unsettling about literature and art in general, something that goes beyond the question of offensiveness, and may go deeper than PLato’s concerns with the surface manifestations of inflamed aesthetic passions. Literature–perhaps other arts, but literature especially–unsettles because it depends so thoroughly and obviously and completely on brokenness and struggle and conflict and, yes, sometimes, violence as a condition of its existence. And it is most unsettling in that it makes takes these and makes them pleasurable, moving, beautiful. I think this is unsettling not on the simple level that we feel moralistically that literature shouldn’t do this, but the fact that it does do this has the force of revelation, showing us something about how we are built to experience the world. We exclude the poet from the city walls because by her fictions she shows us the fictions of our virtues.

As tiresome as I often find the deconstructionists–the tendency to find an infinity in a phrase often being nothing more than making a mountain our of a molehill–it still seems to me that this conundrum is something they troubled over endlessly and rightly.