Category: literature

Dickensian

Dickens gentrified Grub Street.

He wrote to the popular taste — which at the time was in thrall of sentimentality — and thus diminished his literary art.

Dickens did create iconic characters: Tiny Tim, Scrooge, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, etc.

The idea of the writer (the novelist) as an artist, initiated by Flaubert and formalised by Henry James, only gained traction in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the time Joyce and Woolf arrived on the scene, the now self-conscious, serious work of literary art had become inaccessible to the popular taste against which the British modernists waged an aesthetic war.

Woolf words

The eyes of others our prisons; the thoughts of others our cages. — “An Unwritten Novel”

… I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. — “The Mark on the Wall”

‘Good books?’ she said, looking at the ceiling. ‘You must remember,’ she began, speaking with extreme rapidity, ‘that fiction is the mirror of life’… ‘Well, tell us the truth,’ we bade her… ‘Oh, the truth,’ she stammered, ‘the truth has nothing to do with literature,’ and sitting down she refused to say another word. It all seemed to us very inconclusive. — “A Society”

Adieux au prolétariat

From a political standpoint, it is time to stop romanticizing today’s American “working class.” It is time to drop the noble savage imagery and face the reality is that it is a class that fully embraced the “values” of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia displayed in Mr Trump’s campaign. This embrace reflects the degraded state of working class cultural values (in the old days, it might have been characterized as a “culture of poverty”). Mr Trump made these values a centerpiece of his campaign and he was rewarded by the massive support of this electoral demographic. Consequently, right-wing identity politics is no longer distinguishable from working class identity politics.

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Mr Trump is the champion of the characters who populate “dirty realist” American novels. Carver country is Trumpland.

Und Sie wissen nicht, mit wem Sie reden

There will always be angry men shouting on the touchline of life.

The infelicitous confluence of the confessional disposition (or self-surveillance ala Foucault) and the rising prominence of visual media (tv and film) marked the advent of the confessional writer and his/her distortion of the writing workshop dictum “write what you know.” This writer type shares nothing in common with Montaigne but everything in common with Rousseau.

The aesthetic value placed on the vérité humaine by realism and naturalism meant the novel should be “true to life.” It did not mean the novel should be an exposé of the writer’s personal life or feelings. The contemporary concern with authenticity dates from the 1960s; in the worst cases, “authenticity” is manifested in narcissistic auto-narratives.

Between strangers

The Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times proclaiming that he will oppose “gay marriage” by all means necessary. Mr Jindal gives away the purpose for his Op-Ed in this paragraph (emphasis added).

If we, as conservatives, are to succeed in advancing the cause of freedom and free enterprise, the business community must stand shoulder to shoulder with those fighting for religious liberty. The left-wing ideologues who oppose religious freedom are the same ones who seek to tax and regulate businesses out of existence. The same people who think that profit making is vulgar believe that religiosity is folly. The fight against this misguided, government-dictating ideology is one fight, not two. Conservative leaders cannot sit idly by and allow large corporations to rip our coalition in half.

He is concerned with maintaining a (conservative) coalition. His purported defense of religious freedom and free enterprise is a political strategy, not a moral cause.

The “We” Mr Jindal addresses is not the “We” imagined in the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”; he addresses an apparently shrinking political coalition of conservatives who think exactly as he does. He finds it unfathomable that “left-wing ideologues” (translation: people who think the 14th Amendment means something) would be part of the “We” he addresses. Even other conservatives and members of the “business community” who opposed the Arkansas and Indiana laws as de jure discrimination risk being cast into the left-wing pit of grave evil if they do not conform to the beliefs of Mr Jindal’s coalition. In fact, the point of difference is this: the conservative voices and businesses leaders (recognizing that discrimination is bad for business) who spoke out against anti-LGBT bigotry are speaking to the “We” of E Pluribus Unum.

Mr Jindal unwittingly (or intentionally) excludes his vision of conservatism from this “We.” In so doing, he reveals himself as a political radical wrapped in the accoutrements of a conservative.

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In an interview published in The Guardian, the author Toni Morrison describes her self-conception as a writer:

Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”

She is claiming a right to self-limitation, no matter how essentialist. How does she know what Tolstoy was thinking?

The characterisation of Tolstoy is a matter of projection on the part of Ms Morrison. What she implies is that Tolstoy was only writing to Russians (the literate ones). One can extend the logic of this claim further: Shakespeare wrote only for the English (Londoners in the main), Flaubert wrote only for the French (but probably only Parisians), Baudelaire wrote only for prostitutes (again, probably only Parisian ones), Joyce wrote only for … god knows who, etc. ad nauseum. There’s no empirical evidence that supports this sort of speculation about literary intentions.

In literary-critical terms, Morrison’s perspective stands opposed to modernism; moreover, it is a 1960s-inspired racialist realism that prioritises the author’s experience and that of her “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) as opposed to the vérité humaine of nineteenth-century realism (which some of her writing clearly violates) . Rather than treating literary works as open books, available to be appropriated by all, Ms Morrison takes a position on literary works that comports well with the publishing marketplace: slap the label of a genre on it (YA, crime, science fiction, romance), and it will sell.

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What do these strangers — Mr Jindal and Ms Morrison — share in common? An allergic response to the idea of the universal, of the porousness of socio-historically imposed boundaries, of the fluidity of imagined communities, of the polyphonic character of the self.  The “left-wing ideologue” and the “white critic” function as convenient bogeys to motivate the insistence on essential identity, whether conceived in politico-religious or racialist and/or ethnic terms. They are necessary fictions for the defense of a world that no longer exists. Perhaps it never existed apart from acts of political and imaginative will.

Heavy horse

Georg Lukács, “Realism in the Balance” [1938], in Theodor Adorno et al., Aesthetics and Politics, 41:

One inescapable consequence of an attitude alien or hostile to reality makes itself increasingly evident in the art of the ‘avant-garde’: a growing paucity of content, extended to a point where absence of content or hostility towards it is upheld on principle.

This is a good thing: content is myth.

The Sound of Music is likely the best piece of Popera (in the English language) ever, followed closely by My Fair Lady.

Criticism of hipsters, whether they live in Brooklyn, Neukölln, or East London, is hackneyed.

The trouble with patriotic Russian propaganda is not that it’s propaganda but rather that it is so boringly predictable. The same cliched code words are shuffled around: CIA, fascists, oligarchs, NATO imperialism, etc. The same reports of Mr Putin’s popularity (sometimes 70%, sometimes 80%) indicate levels of support not seen since Stalin. It’s bargain bin junk, not even worth debunking.

My plea to TASS: be bold. Be original. Throw away the old CCCP counter-intelligence handbook. Surprise us!

Kiss them for me

Brutalism had its minute. Fortunately, it only lasted 15 seconds.

Polytheism is a possible bulwark against the carnage wrought by monotheism.

I’ll admit I like the hipster Jesus, but the Norse gods were the OHs (original hipsters). Plus dragons. Game, set, match.

An FBI archive of its literary criticism of African-American writers is the subject of a new book. I wish the FBI would publish its review of The Corrections in the Paris Review.

As a representative example of the lackluster year for film, it would be apt for the cinematic YA Bildungsroman “Boyhood” to receive the top gong.