Tag Archives: New York Review of Books

Are writers afraid of the dark?

In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

(via Instapaper)

I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is.  In some sense literature is a coping mechanism.  I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside.  It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is?  Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do.  Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding.  There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!”  Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution.  Well.  The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.

Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects.  It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living.  Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life.  Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera.  Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps.  It would be better to ask what we would do without them.  The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves.  It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched.  It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.

Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter.  The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.

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.