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.
My good friend Julia Kasdorf wrote a book called “The Body and the Book,” broadly taking up the theme of contrast and connections between intellectuality/textuality and embodiment/materiality. Karin Littau seems to be mining a similar territory in Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, a book I just started in on, though Littau is explicitly interested in reading as a bodily or material act, one in which affect more than cognition takes a center stage.
A couple of quotations and impressions from the early going:
Discussing early perspectives on novel reading on page 3–“William Wordsworth saw [the novel providing] ‘deluges of idle and extravagant stories.’ Insofar as ferocious novel reading also fostered disconnected and ‘higgledy-piggledy’ practices of reading (Schenda 1988: 60), it was thought that, ‘if persisted in’, it would have the effect of ‘enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies and undermining the vigour of nations’ (Austin 1874: 251). Like all addictions, those afflicted demanded more and more of the same: more to read, more excitement, more tears, horror and thrills. Bibliomania is therefore part of a larger cultural malaise specifically associated with modernity: sensory overstimulation. From the perspective of a theory of reading it shows that reading, insofar as it is either bad or good for the reader’s health, is in both instances conceived in physicalist terms.”
I think Littau is right here. One of my commenters on yesterdays post apparently objected to the notion that we require permission to read. But I really think I’m write about this for a big swath of Middle America. There’s a long history of reading being seen as deleterious and slothful. So in some sense we had to turn it in to a moral activity. We had to quit reading for pleasure plain and simple and had to start reading for aesthetic experience, or meaning, or as a form or religion, or in order to improve ourselves. This is deeply endemic to English deparments, and, I think, is one of our biggest failings; we fail to account adequately for the grosser affective pleasures of narrative art which bring us our students in the first place. Instead we have to imagine how literature improves their minds in order to justify our budgets.
I think that although I would grant Littau her premises here, that I would go beyond her simple statement of reading’s physicality to point out that these early and later continuing critiques of excessive reading have a moral dimension to them. The sense that reading might have deleterious effects on the body, or, alternatively, that it awoke the passions and so had a deleterious effect upon self-control, both spoke to a much broader ethos than the simplistic enlightenment division between mind and body really captures. There is a certain morality of the body associated with Christianity that isn’t captured in the simplistic notion that Christians despise the body. Rather the body is to be situated and used and built up in particular kinds of ways because it is the temple of the holy spirit, and so forth. Thus the physicality that Littau notes occasions a moral dilemma for the reader–one, frankly, that I still experience in a way. Well, I’m reading, but I could really be out helping the homeless, or stumping for Obama, or doing other good works. Or, more basically, I could be working out and trying to shave off all the pounds that I’ve put on over the course of my 49 years. I truly suspect that if I read half as much and used the time to work out, I would be healthier (perhaps wealthier, perhaps wiser). This is a judgment of relative goods, but the critique of reading isn’t as dumb and outmoded as it first appears. How we use our time is an ethical conundrum, and so the fact of reading isn’t self-evidently justified, however many good moral benefits we may tend to attach to it as devotees of books.
From page 10–“Thus, the bulk of twentieth centiury reader-oriented theories, with some notable exceptions from within feminist theory, are concerned predominantly either with how readers make sense of a text (Culler, Fish, Iser, Jauss, Gadamer), how texts frustrate readers’ attempts at making sense (de Man, Miller, Hartmen, Bloom, Derrida), or how readers resist the meanings of certain texts (Fetterley, Radway, Bobo). Thus, even when theorists turned away from an overly textualist approach to a more contextual, or politically engaged, approach, the production of meaning is still the primary concern. By contrast, theories of reading before the twentieth century were also concerned with readers’ sensations.”
I think Littau is really on the mark here. I remember sitting around with Jim Berger at a coffee shop called Kiari’s when I was teaching at George Mason University. Jim and I would reflect on the fact that we didn’t know how to talk with students about the pleasure of literature, and didn’t quite know how to lead students into taking pleasure in more complicated and difficult texts. I know that one of the great benefits of my undergraduate education was certain the ability to make and discover meaning in texts. However, another huge benefit was learning how to take pleasure in things I could never before have imagined as pleasurable (Joyce’s Ulysses is NOT a natural taste). I think we’ve shied away from pleasure as beneath the “serious” pursuit of ethical and metaphysical views of literature, but I wonder whether there isn’t an ethical dimension to the means and manner and ranges of our pleasure. Finding ways to take pleasure in things that aren’t in our inherited bad of tricks is, it seems to me, a sign of growth and maturity and even, in some sense, an act of opening the self to otherness, a kind of ethical stance in and of itself.
I’m interested in how to take our pleasures seriously, how to learn our pleasures and how to learn from them.
Fish returned again today to his continued probing of the rationale for the humanities, concluding—surprise!—there is no such rationale, at least not one that anyone will bother to pay for. Fish’s arguments change, somewhat, this time around but he’s mostly sticking to familiar territory, unconvinced by the hundreds of readers who mustered the energy to respond before the Times cut off the opportunity to comment.
Fish begins with an interesting and powerful disquisition on the nature of humanistic investigations.
“In a poem titled ‘Matins,’ the 17th century Anglican poet George Herbert says to God, If you will ‘teach me thy love to know . . . Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.’ But the dynamics of the proffered bargain – if you do X, I’ll do Y – are undercut by the line that proposes it, and especially by the double pun in ‘sunbeam.’
“‘Sun’ is a standard pun on Son; it refers to Jesus Christ; ‘beam’ means not only ray of light, but a piece of wood large enough to support a structure; it refers to the cross on which a crucified Christ by dying takes upon himself and redeems (pays the price for) the sins of those who believe in him. So while ‘by a sunbeam’ seems to specify the means by which the poem’s speaker will perform a certain act – ‘I will climb to thee’ – the phrase undercut his claim to be able to do so by reminding us (not him) that Christ has already done the climbing and thereby prevented (in the sense of anticipating) any positive act man mistakenly thinks to be his own. If the speaker climbs to God, he does so by means of God, and cannot take any personal credit for what he ‘does.’ If he truly knows God’s love, he will know that as an unconditional and all-sufficing gift it has disabled him as an agent.
“This brief analysis of a line of poetry that simultaneously reports a resolution and undermines it is an example of the kind of work and teaching I have done for almost five decades. It is the work of a humanist, that is, someone employed in a college to teach literary, philosophical and historical texts. The questions raised in my previous column and in the responses to it are: what is the value of such work, why should anyone fund it, and why (for what reasons) does anyone do it?”
This is Fish the quintessential close reader, to my mind demonstrating once again that whatever the peregrinations he and we may have made through high theory, our debt as a discipline to the New Critics remains in some sense unexceedable. What we do, he rightly says, what we always return to, what we inevitably affirm whatever our allegiances to history or whatever our convictions about the possibility and impossibility of meaning, is this activity, the simple and yet difficult act of attending, of reading what the flow of language tempts us always to miss.
For Fish, again, this is its own pleasure and its own rationale. It serves no larger purpose. And, as he now comes out frankly in his final paragraphs and asserts, it’s not clear that there is any justification in being paid for it.
“One final point. Nguyen Chau Giao asks, ‘Dr. Fish, when was the last time you read a poem . . . that so moved you to take certain actions to improve your lot or others?’ To tell the truth, I can’t remember a single time. But I can remember countless times when I’ve read a poem (like Herbert’s “Matins”) and said ‘Wow!’ or ‘Isn’t that just great?’ That’s more than enough in my view to justify the enterprise of humanistic study, but I cannot believe, as much as I would like to, that the world can be persuaded to subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment.”
To some degree I’ve already argued with Fish’s position here in my post last Thursday. However, I want to point out today that there’s a very long distance between his opening disquisition and his late affirmation of aesthetic wonderment. In between, Fish again makes the case that the study of literature does absolutely nothing in the world. However, I think his own example may suggest otherwise.
Fish continues to imagine the bases of the discipline in the triumph of literature, he is stuck in noting the division between the production—and perhaps usefulness—of great art and the uselessness of studying it. However although this self-substantive view of literature has been at the center of English studies for the past century, it seems to me that we need not be captive to this particular image of what it is we do and why.
Fish the rhetorician surely knows that an older rationale for study of literature is that it teaches us about how language works and how it can be used. Literature is not an icon that exists apart from the world in a separate sphere; Literature subsists in language, and by studying literature seriously we come to understand better how language works in the world, no small thing to accomplish. Indeed, the skill that Fish ably demonstrates in his opening is not a natural but a learned skill, one that requires substantial practice and study.
I have suggested with some colleagues for some time now that English studies needs to return to or reemphasize it’s roots in rhetoric and philology. The study of literature is only one, but one very good way to study how language has worked in the past and what its possibilities might be for the future. As a corollary, writing studies needs to be rescued from it’s marginal status in most English departments. Unless one believes that imitation is useless, the study of how works of literature achieve their effects in the present—or how they achieved similar or different effects in the past—can be a doorway in to understanding how the written word can function effectively in the present.
I realize this only applies to English studies; the rest of the humanities will have to fend for themselves. However would my suggestions satisfy Fish even as to the study of literature. I doubt it. But that’s because he has narrowly defined his pleasures over and against utility. Perhaps Fish has studied a bit too much of the Milton the Puritan. It is, perhaps, one of the great blessings of literary study, that pleasure and utility can be achieved in the same fertile moment, rather than existing in futile opposition.