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Category: Literature

Lars Iyer’s Misreading of Badiou

In many ways Alain Badiou and Lars Iyer constitute the existential extremities of the present political conjuncture. Where the latter has raised bathos to a fine but torturous art (too bathetic, too fine and too torturous for my tastes), the former has reinvented the heroic for the post-heroic age. If I have time, I will write more on this opposition but for now I want merely to point out that Lars Iyer’s reading of Badiou (if this extract from his latest novel is anything to go by) is mistaken. I say this with no particular malice since it was a (mis)reading I more or less shared until being set straight by Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism.

The excerpt from Iyer’s novel ends thus:

But what would Alain Badiou make of us? What would he conclude? Enemies, he would think. No, not even that, Badiou would think. – ‘Pas enemies. Les tosseurs’. But perhaps he wouldn’t think anything at all. Perhaps he’d just look through us, as if, as with evil for Plato, we didn’t really exist.

For the mathematical philosopher, vagueness doesn’t exist, not really; it’s only a deficiency of precision. And pathos doesn’t exist for the political philosopher, not unless it is the glint of starlight, impersonal and remote, on the eyeglasses of the militant, brick in hand, charging the police.

This is wrong: vagueness does exist for Badiou. In his Ethics, for example, he makes it clear that those forms of politics which attempt to expunge “opinion” – here a synonym for (Gramscian) “common sense” or the sedimentation of habit (i.e., the vagueness of Platonic doxa) – amount to Evil. As Bosteels has it:

…in Badiou’s Ethics both the temptation of “total reeducation” dreamed of by some of Mao’s Red Guards and Nietzsche’s mad dream of a “grand politics” are diagnosed as disastrous forms of extremism. These are attempts to draw a rigid and dogmatic line of demarcation between truth and opinion, in the name of which all immanence to the existing state of things is denied as sheer decadence or bourgeois revisionism. To be more precise, these are attempts to perform a complete tabula rasa of the past for the sake of truth’s absolute present. “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life; or when certain Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution proclaim, in 1967, the complete suppression of self-interest, they are indeed inspired by a vision of a situation in which all opinions have been replaced by the truth to which Nietzsche and the Red Guards are committed,” claims Badiou. But these are forms of absolutization of the power of truth that amount to a disastrous Evil: “Not only does this Evil destroy the situation (for the will to eliminate opinion is, fundamentally, the same as the will to eliminate, in the human animal, its very animality, i.e. its being), but it also interrupts the truth-process in whose name it proceeds, since it fails to preserve, within the composition of the subject, the duality [duplicité] of interests (disinterested-interest and interest pure and simple).” To avoid the trap of speculative leftism, therefore, a certain degree of duplicity and impurity must be preserved in the articulation between the old state of things and the new emancipatory truth.

The worst that can be said of Badiou is that he deals with vagueness precisely – but between this and the eradication of vagueness tout court, there is a world of difference.

Proust: In Search of the Present

I noted long ago a common misconception about Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Put simply, people seem to think that the “lost time” of the title denotes the past, but in fact it denotes the present. More specifically, it implies a present that is present to itself in all its plenitude. So why, you might ask, was there all this talk of involuntary memory? Why care so much about memory if what you really want is a full present? It is my thesis that it was not involuntary memory as such that interested Proust, but rather the problem of narrating the atemporal plenitude which that memory implied. In short, Proust raised to the level of a literary phenomenology the split between Erzählzeit (time of narrating)and erzählte Zeit (narrated time).

Let us take the example of the famous “madeleine” scene. This is the scene that everybody knows – even those who have never read the book. According to common wisdom, it is the prime example of Proust’s concern with recovering a lost past. I claim, on the contrary, that this passage is a literary exemplification of the temporal dislocation of the phenomenological “now”.

The scene begins when Marcel’s mother (i.e., the narrator’s mother, not the real Marcel Proust) sends out for the little “madeleine” cakes. He “mechanically” raises the tea-spoon to his lips on which crumbs of the madeleine are soaked in tea. The moment the concoction touches his palate, he is invaded by an “extraordinary” pleasure. The next few paragraphs are an attempt to discover the source of this pleasure. Important for our purposes are the tenses Proust uses throughout the passage. It begins in the traditional French storytelling tense, the passé simple. But as soon as the unattended pleasure sets in, the tenses alternate between passé simple and the pluperfect. The first tense implies a conventional relation between the “now” of the act of narration and the “now” of the story’s present. But the use of the pluperfect adds a temporal depth: it produces a time-lag internal to the storyworld itself between the “now” of the character’s reflection and the “now” of a previous act or experience. Thus, when we read

Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause.

we are confronted with three tenses. The passé simple (toucha, tressaillis) produces a clear relation between the time of narration (the time in which toucha is uttered) and narrated time (the actual event that happened in the past). The imperfect (se passait)  implies an ongoing state of affairs (a happening through time). The pluperfect (m’avait envahi), however, indicates the character’s reflection – within the narrated time – on what has just happened to him – also within the narrated time. So here we have a narrator telling us about his past self and what this past self was itself thinking about its own immediately past self. Throughout the rest of this paragraph, the shift is always between: a) present of narration/ present of the narrated and b) the present of the narrated/ present of a past narrated.

But the real temporal confusion (as if it wasn’t confusing enough already) arises when the tense switches to the present: Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. What is the ontological status of this present (bois, trouve)? We know from the context that this present must be the present of narrated time, but the interweaving presence of the time of narration can still be felt. The past present is haunted by the present present, such that the present seems neither truly past nor completely present. The ambiguous status of this time is only compounded when (the past) Marcel tries to force himself to “retrograde his thought” to its initial configuration prior to having eaten the madeleine.

The ambiguity comes to a head in the following sentence:

Arrivera-t-il jusqu’à la surface de ma claire conscience, ce souvenir, l’instant ancien que l’attraction d’un instant identique est venue de si loin solliciter, émouvoir, soulever tout au fond de moi ? Je ne sais. Maintenant je ne sens plus rien…

It is precisely this maintenant, this “now”, which is at the heart of Proust’s entire project. The “now” in which he does not know and no longer feels anything (Je ne sais…je ne sens plus rien) brings to consciousness for the reader, almost in spite of itself, the not-yet-forgotten “now” of the time of narration: i.e., that time in which it is quite clear that Marcel does know because he’s about to tell us! What we have here can only be described as something like the zero degree of that hairline fracture which prevents the “I” from ever coinciding with itself: the split that forever separates the I-utterer from the I-uttered. It is a split internal to the “now” as such, one which means that the present can never present itself without simultaneously absenting itself.

It should thus come as no surprise that when the Marcel of narrated time finally remembers whence he knows this taste, the narration immediately switches to the passé composé tense: Et tout d’un coup le souvenir m’est apparu. Why the past perfect and not the passé simple? Both tenses seal off the presentness of a past, but the past perfect implies more of an ongoing relation to the present than the passé simple could ever muster. In other words, the past perfect voids the presentness of apparition (an index of the impossibility of the self-present “now”) whilst trying to mask the rift between Erzählzeit and erzählte Zeit (given that it could be used in either). In short, the act of remembrance never actually presents itself.

À la Recherche is full of such failed nows; it is for this reason that the “lost time” of the title denotes the present and not the past.

(I am grateful to Andrew Kahn for pointing out two errors in a previous version of this blog post).

Seamus Heaney on Life and Death in Larkin and Yeats

As I try to fight off a fairly unpleasant bout of flu, I turned last night to an old essay by Seamus Heaney. The essay, entitled “Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin”, collected in his excellent volume, The Redress of Poetry, is an examination of how one’s fundamental attitude towards death affects one’s poetry. I shan’t write about it at length, since my aim is merely to recommend it to readers. I shall, nonetheless, make one or two brief observations.

One of the pleasures of this essay is its emphasis on form as a constitutive aspect of a poem’s meaning. Indeed, Heaney endows form with a nigh-on metaphysical import: “[W]hen a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity” (p. 158). Thus it is that the poetry of Larkin and Yeats comes to be seen as a battle ground between life and death: the dialectic of “life as cornucopia” and “life as empty shell” plays itself out in both overt moral pronouncements and the forms in which those pronouncements are embodied. In Yeats, Heaney claims, no matter how close he drives to the “aboriginal ice” – the cold heart of all things – there is in this very drive itself a superabundant Yes! to life, which overcomes the terrestrial No! of human suffering and nihilism. Because of this, Yeats’s “aboriginal ice” is of a very different glacial genre from Larkin’s “sun-comprehending glass”: “It represented not so much a frigid exhaustion as an ultimate attainment” (p. 157). Larkin, however, reneges on the fundamental task of poetry, as Heaney sees it: “[Larkin’s ‘Aubade’] does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld; it does not make the Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all odds” (p. 158). No matter how much the form of Larkin’s poem cried out for life, its argument could not overcome its entrapment in the vision of life as empty shell, in which “Death is no different whined at than withstood”. Heaney, with Yeats as corroboration, suggests it is very different – very different indeed.

From the Archive

On Learning a Language

On Rilke and Love

On Autumn

Derrida and Literarity

The Condition of Mediocrity

I hope you enjoy them!

Q. D. Leavis on J. G. Ballard

Q. D. Leavis (1906-1981)

I came across this quotation last week in an essay by Francis Mulhern. Q. D. Leavis thinks she’s describing the general destitution of Britain and its literature, but what she’s actually doing is summarising the key elements of J. G. Ballard’s fiction.

The England that bore the classical English novel has gone forever, and we can’t expect a country of high-rise flat-dwellers, office workers and factory robots and unassimilated multi-racial minorities, with a suburbanized countryside, factory farming, sexual emancipation without responsibility, rising crime and violence, and the Trade Union mentality, to give rise to a literature comparable with the novel tradition of a so different past.

Touché, Queenie.

The Ideology of Form: Boyle’s Opening Ceremony

Of Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, spectacle was the least important, plot the most. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was devoid of plot but a virtuoso spectacle: lucky for him, then, that he wasn’t writing a tragedy. But what was the ceremony? Under what genre could we class it? The modern world is full of these bizarre performances in which nations riven by class divisions present themselves to themselves as harmonious communities. They assume many different forms – plays, films, advertisements, paintings – but Boyle’s, I claim, was fundamentally a chronicle.

A chronicle, in a nutshell, is ‘one damned thing after another’: a series of discontinuous events whose only mutual connection is that they happen to be united by temporal or spatial sequence. Quite why these things occurred, and why they occurred in the manner that they did, is never explicitly explained. But, as Hayden White has observed, they don’t have to be: “The paratactical style of the chronicle falls short of pure nonsense because it presupposes the capacity of its envisaged audience to apprehend both the significance of the events reported in it and the causal connections presumed to link the events depicted in a comprehensible order of occurrence”. In other words, where no causal connection is represented, the audience fills in the blanks by drawing on what you might call the “political imaginary” – the warehouse of (generally historically unsound) common sense which helps us make sense of the everyday world around us.

Thus, in Boyle’s representation of British history, the rolling hills gave way to industrial Pandemonium without so much as a how’s-your-father, and the Sex Pistols followed the Beatles as peacefully as if John Lennon had never been scandalous and “God Save the Queen” had never been written. In the choreographed scenes of the Industrial Revolution, the workers and the bosses were spatially contiguous rather than politically antagonistic. Time and again throughout the performance, history was shown to be one thing after another, a series of contingent happenings in a timeless vacuum, controllable by no one and on account of no human deed. (At a push – and it is a push – you might infer from Boyle’s potted history that technology, void of all context and social relations, is the driving force of change.) But this is almost never registered by the audience because its storehouse of common sense imposes the feel of a narrative onto what is, in fact, just about as far from narrative as you can possibly get.

What the form of the chronicle can never register is conflict as the driving force of history. Where was the Empire, the massacres, the slave trade, the organised theft of indigenous natural resources which enabled the Industrial Revolution in the first place? (Is it too much to see a return of the repressed in the black monsters of the NHS scene? Shooed away, of all things, by a patronising middle-class white woman…). Where were the strike-breakers? Where were the calculated and imposed Hungers? And that’s just for History. At the level of pop culture, we can spot the same lack of conflict: Boyle’s performance captured none of the drama of these musical events. His rock ‘n’ roll was all roll and no rock: where were the grey-suited patriarchs against whom a whole generation rebelled? Where was the sense of outrage and profound libidinal release so central to those heady years?

Here, then, we begin to see why for Aristotle spectacle was less important than plot, which almost invariably included conflict (and, usually, conflict-resolution). Boyle’s implicit non-conflictual historiography affected the very form of the performance as such, because it voided it of drama. Thus, in the pop music section, where the real drama of the time lay in the communal upheavals of young versus old, of new forms of capitalist organisation rendering old ones obsolete, of the Pax Britannica ceding to the Pax Americana, what we get instead is a young couple flirting via SMS. The genre of the romance is grafted onto the chronicle to conceal the latter’s lack of drama; the fate of erotic individuals usurps the destinies of political collectivities. And this, put crudely, is what literary theorists mean when they refer to the ‘ideology of form’: the ideology of Boyle’s opening ceremony was contained, not in its content, but in the very form itself.

Fredric Jameson: The Antinomies of Realism (Excerpt)

For anyone who is in any way passionate about the work of Fredric Jameson, this will be an absolute treat: an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Antinomies of Realism. It’s a photocopy of a section of the manuscript, and like the modernist that at heart he remains, it is typed on a type-writer with handwritten alterations interspersed throughout (rumour has it that he has a specialist manufacture the type-writer ribbon since it is no longer commercially available). Longer quotations taken from other works are photocopied and then cut and pasted into the manuscript. If anyone has ever enquired into the stylistic mechanics of Jameson’s prose, this will offer a rare glimpse “under the hood”.

On Two Types of Plot

Of all the elements of tragedy, said Aristotle, plot is the most important:

[F]or tragedy is a representation, not of people, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness – and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. The purpose of living is an end which is a kind of activity, not a quality; it is their characters, indeed, that make people what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse.

This is a very unmodern conception, both of fiction and of ethics, but my novel-writing experience to date has convinced me of its soundness. There are, I have discovered to my detriment, two types of ‘plot’: the first – my original understanding – is that of a series of events, one leading inexorably to the other until a point of closure. I’ve started several novels and short stories with that definition of plot in mind, attempting to ‘write blind’ and hoping that the subsequent events would magically spring out of the current one. Unsurprisingly, it would now seem (with hindsight), I never finished them. That includes the novel I began earlier this month. I’d written some pretty decent individual scenes, but I had no real feel for how the pieces would come together.

Then, on Friday 13th, just before midnight, the departing evil spirits whispered the secrets of a Young Adult novel into my disconsolate ear. It was my ‘crossroads’ moment. Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan sold their souls to the devil the better to play guitar; all I had to do was sit in my office chair looking diabolical. And for that I received the art of muthos. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, the story jumped out whole. I sat down and started writing. I didn’t stop until 4.30a.m. I had 2,000 words. And within those few hours, the outline of the entire story was clear in my mind

That’s when I really knew what plot was. A plot is not a series of events, it’s a field of forces. It consists of fundamental agents counteracting one another, battling for supremacy, but – and here is the key – these forces do not coincide with the characters. As Aristotle rightly claims, you could have a tragedy without characters but never a tragedy without plot. The characters are the organic outgrowths of the clash of forces. Their entire raison d’être is not contained within themselves, but only arises in the context of the clash of forces of which they are but one element.

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that when you sit down to write, the characters burn through your mind’s eye because they have the force of a whole action behind them. They overpower you with their longings, their vices, their idiosyncrasies – all because of the drama they’re caught up in. Their words and deeds flow from the pen much more readily because the plot decrees that what they say or do will have been necessary. Everything you write, everything they say, all of it builds up inexorably to that central event that holds the entire novel together.

Plot is the Aristotelian unity of action; it is the synoptic, nightmarish gaze of the Author. It is the reason I do not sleep at night.

Kindle Single Review: Dean Koontz, The Moonlit Mind

I suspect the key to Dean Koontz’s popularity can be summed up in two words which happen to be the titles of two of his novels: Breathless and Relentless.

His sentences are generally short, staccato affairs. It’s all about pace. It doesn’t matter whether he’s describing a mut or a murder, he’s gonna charge you through that son-of-a-bitch scene if it’s the last thing he does. (As someone who’s read Proust, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: if Dean Koontz had written the salon scenes, he’d have spared us a good three months of our lives!) Yet such constant relentlessness becomes strangely wearying. When the rhythm refuses to conform to the dramatic requirements of the action, making relatively irrelevant setting descriptions just as swift as grand climaxes, the style itself becomes a sort of steam-roller, crushing all the diverse vitality of the world beneath it.

This general stylistic issue is then reflected at the level of narrative voice. Occasionally, there is at work in this narrator’s mouth what I should call the “Great American Male”. It is that voice which runs through the very marrow of the un-self-doubting male American penman, from Mark Twain (“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter”) and Herman Melville (“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely…”) all the way to Saul Bellow (“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way”) and Don DeLillo (“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”). It is the man who holds God in one hand and Satan in the other, he who has known and experienced the whole wide world, such that his love for that world and for Life in general (with a capital ‘L’) begins to overflow like ink from a broken pen, casting an equally jovial beam on the sinner and saint alike. Not that I would want to argue that Koontz is their literary equal – if The Moonlit Mind is anything to go by, he is not. But nonetheless he clearly taps into some strange reservoir of inveterate unflinchingness.

That said, if he inherits this tradition’s general openness to life’s exotica, he most certainly does not inherit its magnanimity. There is a puritan preacher hidden behind the pages of this book, one which would be riotously mocked by the aforementioned writers. The Moonlit Mind follows the fate of Crispin and his dog, Harley. At the age of 9 Crispin witnesses the brutal murder of his brother. The chapters then alternate between a present in which Crispin is 12 years old and a past in which he is still 9. The older Crispin is a lone wanderer, trying to come to terms with what happened to his younger self. Koontz draws on many of the tried-and-tested modes of evil: child abuse, guardian figures who are secretly demonic, black mass rituals and so forth. But he adds a few more, just for good measure: laziness, sexuality, homosexuality. The principal evil figures in this book are an alcoholic mother who has a lesbian tryst with one of her rich husband’s maids, a nanny who attempts to sexually seduce the young protagonist, and several very wealthy figures whose only fault seems to be laziness. Only to a puritan mind could sex and leisure pose such profound threats.

Still, despite the barely hidden moral agenda of this book (which doesn’t shy away from offering overt lessons for the reader to take away with her), it’s not a bad yarn. If you like swift-flowing, sometimes genuinely beautiful prose, with paper-thin but undeniably arousing housemaids, plus occasional esoteric references to angels – and all of this framed within a view of the Good Life congenial to a seventeenth-century puritan colony, then knock yourself out!

Academic versus ‘Creative’ Writing

Working on this novel has reconfirmed what I already knew: my natural disposition is obsessiveness. When I work on a particular project, I have to be able to immerse myself in it completely, chip away at it for hours on end, day after day, with minimum interruption. Even when I’m not working on it directly, it needs to remain in the back of my mind and never leave, constantly ticking over.

Unfortunately, writing a novel and a Ph.D. simultaneously (not to mention other side-projects) prevents such undivided attention. The monomaniacal mind must learn to shift between two or more projects and, more than that, must learn not to sacrifice the requisite passion for either of them in the process. The problem is that academic writing and ‘creative’ writing (actually, both are creative, just in different ways) require very different types of attention and distinct types of skills.

Academic writing has its own internal order; it consists of a series of interrelated logical propositions, the task being to move from one to the other with the least possible confusion and the most compelling line of argument. The research for such work usually involves the synthesising of large amounts of information or notations, making links between disparate material, drawing out hidden correspondences from beneath the deceptive  façade of mere appearance. The mind becomes hawk-like, scanning the terrain with a cooly calculating eye. Its attitude is fundamentally analytic.

With the novel it is not so. Writing a novel is like training a whole new set of muscles, or learning to play tennis with your left hand after years of playing with your right. The mind’s basic attitude is attentiveness, attunedness to the world, to language and to the mind itself. The soul becomes an antenna, picking up signals wherever it goes, expanding itself into the ether, attracting static from the four dimensions. There is a narrative order whose limits are felt, but it does not coincide with the burden of logical rigour. (Which is not to say that it is irrational – far from it). In writing fiction the self must give way, release its grip on the world, allowing something else to speak.

The two types of writing are not mutually exclusive. Analysis and attentiveness are not and should not be seen as opposed. In the greatest writers, they are fused. For now, though, it is like learning to live with two bodies and two souls.

John Updike Links

As well as reading my first Amazon Kindle Single ready for review next week, I’ve also been reading John Updike’s short story collection, The Maples Stories. The juxtaposition between the bestselling Kindle Single and Updike’s stylistic prowess is dramatic indeed. It’s led me to return to a few articles on Updike that I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. I thought I’d share some of them with you.

  1. Updike’s 1968 Paris Review interview – it reads like an extension of one of his more cerebral novels. A sheer joy.
  2. A short, insightful piece on Updike’s theology by Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology.
  3. James Wood’s fairly critical appraisal of Updike’s later work. (Worth it for lines such as these alone: “If Updike’s earlier work was consumed with wife-swapping, his late work is consumed by nostalgia for it.”)
  4. A lovely audio-photo montage interview with Updike from 1984 (not overly informative, but enjoyable nonetheless).

The more Updike I read, the more I start asking myself the question: Updike or Bellow? All such questions are basically meaningless (except – perhaps – that oldest of chestnuts: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?), but I begin to sense a certain reluctance in myself to cede to the inevitable preference for Bellow. There’s a great sympathy for mediocrity in Updike that, whilst present in Bellow (or in what I’ve read of him), seems somehow more attuned to habitual failure than his more esteemed counterpart.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s “Poor Prose”

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that in 1961 the Nobel jury considered C. S. Lewis’s request for Tolkien to be awarded the prize but ultimately decided against it on the grounds of his “poor prose” which “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”. This is an unusual claim. What tends to happen in the history of the novel (in France it begins with Flaubert, in England around the beginning of the twentieth century with, say, Conrad) is a split which occurs between the level of style and the level of narrative. On the one hand, you get the development of the art novel, in which each sentence is individually sculpted and crafted to perfection, becoming an entity in itself (Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Henry James). On the other hand, you get the pure storytelling drive of the adventure tale or the potboiler; here, individual sentence style is spurned in the interest of narrative intensity (take your pick from any popular genre). The ultimate modern day inheritor of this split is John Banville, a man who has literally divided his writing self in two between the “John Banville” of the art novel (e.g. The Sea) and “Benjamin Black” the crime writer. (For anyone who doubts the validity of this claim, watch this video interview).

So for the Nobel Prize jury to criticise Tolkien’s storytelling prowess on the basis of his poor prose is bizarre indeed. If anything, one would expect them to criticise his “poor prose” precisely on the basis of his excellent storytelling. But then that would be to assume that Tolkien’s prose is, in fact, poor. And here once again the problem of the criteria of literary excellence emerges from the murky deep. And since I’ve written on this recently, in the context of the Booker Prize furore, I shall simply redirect you there: “On the Booker Debacle”.

Kindle Singles Book Review Series

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a student and scholar of literature. This has its advantages, in that I’ve read a fair amount of what is deemed “high literature”. But it also has its disadvantages, such as that I’ve had less time for more popular authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz or Suzanne Collins. To try and rectify that, and to try to teach myself what makes these authors so popular in the first place, I’ve decided to launch a new book review series on this blog. Once a week or once every two weeks (time allowing), I’ll write a review of a top ten bestselling Amazon Kindle “Single”. Kindle Singles are basically works of fiction or non-fiction that are longer than a mere article or short story but shorter than a full-blown novel or book. Unfortunately, my other commitments mean I don’t have time to read anything longer than that. The aim of these reviews will be, not only to provide the standard evaluation of literary success, but also to think through the mechanics of these works: what are the authors doing in them that people seem to love so much? In that sense, these reviews are aimed both at readers of books and at writers of them.

The Time of Writing

Writing takes time. It demands that you acquiesce to the passing of the minutes and the hours. There is a time of writing, but there is also a time in writing. The first kind of time is the time it takes to do the basic sitting down and actually getting on with the novel: plotting, character development, scene-setting, structuring, negotiating voices, practising points of view, and so on. A wise man once said “life is what happens whilst you’re making other plans”, in which case writing would be what happens when you consciously disregard those other plans and isolate yourself from the exigencies of daily life. In that sense, whilst you turn away from the time of business, you submit to the time of creation. You rest like a sunken stone and let the river of the day wash over you.

The second type of time, the time in writing, is narrative time. Without engaging in a massive detour ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit, let it be said that at a basic level narrative time is the time it takes for a complete action to unfold. There is a certain moral quality at work in narrative time: it defies impatience. Take, for example, a scene I wrote last night, in which a man realises he is being observed, approaches the observer, at which point the observer flees. For that simple action to approach its optimum dramatic intensity it is necessary that the tempo of the scene be set at a certain pace. It must lead inevitably to the climax of the observer’s flight, but in order for this moment to constitute a climax, for the reader to experience it as a climax, the writer must have invoked the powers of time. The man must hesitate, contemplate the stranger who is watching him, prepare himself for the approach, and so on; all of these sub-actions combine to elongate time, to stretch it out until it can finally snap back into place with the climax. And these are the bits that are boring to write, these constant fillers or “satellites” that elongate the scene, that set the rhythm, when all you really want to do is have the scene over and done with.

In this sense, we might say that there is a certain temporal economy of writing which dovetails with a certain moral economy of writing. One must have the patience to sit down at the desk day after day, week after week, month after month, and one must also have the patience to offer the created world the time it requires to unfold. This is not to say that good writers are automatically good people – far from it. But it is certainly to suggest that there are particular qualities which lend themselves to the virtue of patience which are also common to virtuous fiction. This would go a long way to explaining why, as yet, I am neither a virtuous person nor a virtuous writer.

The Critic and the Writer; or, the Labour of Writing

Viriginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912. Woolf was one of the great writer-critics.

Writing a novel is a painful process. If there were ever such a thing as a Muse then she certainly isn’t whispering in my ear. Between divine afflatus and sublunary deflation il n’y a qu’un pas. And part of the reason for this general pain of writing, this labour of writing – that which makes writing work – is, for me personally, the internal split that occurs between the critic and the writer. Karl Marx once demanded “the ruthless criticism of everything that exists”, and once you’ve worked as a Marxist literary critic for a few years, you become accustomed to deconstructing things, reading texts against the grain, exposing the secret unions between the inner workings of form and the great forces of history itself. Your natural disposition is suspicious and analytic; you take things apart and reconstruct them into an intellectually more satisfying whole, transvaluing aesthetic autonomy into historical truth. But the work of the writer is very different.

It is very difficult to describe what the writer actually does. She doesn’t so much sacrifice critical rationality as adopt a different kind of rationality altogether. To use the ancient categories, we could say that the writer’s reason involves techné (geared towards poiesis) rather than dialectic, a concern with the making of an artefact rather than intellectual reasoning towards a truth. And yet the very fact I feel it necessary to return to the ancient categories is a sign of what a mess we’ve been in for quite some time now when it comes to defining “creative writing”. One of the most moving passages in Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature is where he shows, not only that the post-Romantic distinction between creative/ fictional/ subjective writing and non-creative/ factual/ objective writing is, on closer inspection, simply untenable, but where he suggests that it can actually be damaging. The external opposition between fact and fiction, objective and subjective becomes reflected into the writer herself, creating a rift within her own psyche. When she puts pen to paper, she is bound by these distinctions which do not cohere with her actual experience. The reality and objectivity of her inner life, which is in any case always socially mediated, is denied by the external conventions of categorising literature. She begins to think of her own inner life as indeed non-objective, and hence as one subjective atom in a sea of countless others. And this is truly damaging: for the writer, the reader and for the society at large in its self-understanding.

The point of all this was merely to suggest, firstly, that the split between the writer and the critic is not and should not be absolute, but that, secondly, it is still sufficiently dominant to produce a sort of schizophrenia within the writer-critic’s mind. It is not simply that the aims of the critic and the writer are different in nature, but that their very languages have been torn apart. My first task as a novelist, then, is to learn to negotiate the gulf between critical prose and narrative fiction. To learn to write like a writer and not like a critic, all the while recognising that that distinction is false from the outset.

Writing a First Novel

Like many self-deluding fools, my new year’s resolution for 2012 is to write my first novel. Unlike many self-deluding fools, however, I’m announcing this publicly. There’s a very simple reason for this: a public announcement means that I can be held to account for what I said I was going to do; in other words, I’m hoping I can force myself into writing a novel through sheer fear of shame. You could call this the “Catholic” approach to novel writing: confess your sins to the world and the world will ensure you tow the line. (As opposed to the “Protestant” approach which involves entire days of guilt-induced suffering and privatised soul-searching).

I’m not going to say what the novel is about (partly because I don’t even know myself) other than to make it clear that it won’t be a literary masterpiece. I imagine it will be a below-par first novel, possibly a run-of-the-mill genre piece, possibly something more unusual. But whatever it is, it has to get written in the next twelve months. The task of writing this novel is as much a moral as a literary one: can I commit myself to a future and stay true to it? That, my dear readers, remains to be seen.

I warn you now, there will be excuses: conference papers need writing, essays need proofreading, translations need doing – not to mention the small fact of actually writing my Ph.D. – but by hook or by crook this has to happen. And on this blog I shall be publishing some reflections on the writing process. I guess these will include pieces ranging from general writing problems (characterisation, point of view etc.) all the way to the politics of form (why do we automatically assume that a novel must include characters and point of view in the first place?). I won’t bore you with extracts from the work-in-progress, but I at least hope you’ll find the occasional post of interest. Think of it as a communalisation of writerly misery – a sort of socialist redistribution of autodidactic ineptitude.

But that’s enough of that casual 2011 pessimism: here’s to 2012!

On Rilke and Love

The Duino Elegies are a sequence of exquisite variations on the theme of the intersection of finitude and infinity, of beings and Being. Humans for Rilke are dark scars on a blissful self-present landscape; their self-consciousness – shadows chasing shadows – sunders them from nature and from themselves. As desiring, temporal creatures, they are always launching themselves ahead of themselves out to the horizon and beyond. Between the brute unconscious being of animals and the terrifying, self-rejuvenating Dasein of the angels, man is a quivering beast who is always ahead and yet still catching up.

What does love look like in a world like this? There are several kinds of love in the Duino Elegies. The first is that madly passionate, all-consuming love: through total possession of the physical body of the beloved, the lover attempts to raise herself to infinity, to destroy herself in exchange for blind glimpses of bliss. In moments of climax, the self dissolves and briefly folds itself into the oneness of Being. And yet this is only an ersatz, transient permanence, not the real thing:

When you lift one another, raise each other to drink
the full draught, mouth on mouth – oh, strange
the way each drinker grows distant from the act.

At the heart of this seeming communion of the Two into the One, the alienation of the separation seems somehow to live on, there beneath the screams of unified oblivion.

So what is the alternative? Here, Rilke turns to the ‘Attic stellae’ (gravestones) with their gestures of restraint:

…Didn’t love and parting
sit so gently on their shoulders that they appeared
to be made of material other than this world?
Remember how lightly the hands pressed, though there
was such great strength in the torsos? Those people knew
such self-control…

This type of love is the polar opposite of, say, True Blood, of the vampiric drinking of the beloved, a consummation which is at the same time a consumption. There is a certain tragic, aristocratic poise in this second kind. It recognises limits and doesn’t make a virtue of overstepping them. Just as Proust’s Marcel, sat reading in the garden, discovered a fine almost invisible lining at the edge of all things, making it impossible for his mind ever truly to know them, so this kind of love looks on the beloved and  lightly, gently caresses her, knowing that in the holding-back the love itself may synchronise with the time of desire and grow into something much more potent.

The extension of this self-restraint is everyday, mundane companionship, the love that emanates like a warm glow from simple daily chores. In the third elegy, the beloved has fooled herself into thinking that she is the source of her lover’s desire. But Rilke mocks her innocent vanity:

Do you really think you could have startled him so
with your gentle arrival, you who move
as delicately as a breeze at dawn. Of course,
you gave his heart a shaking, but really
it was these older horrors, driven to his depths
at your touch.

She has awakened in him the old gods of desire, the ‘primal forest within’, the ‘ancient blood’; she is but the cue for him to love the bloody secrets of himself. Only everyday companionship can stand a chance against this Narcissistic excess:

[…]Let him watch you
at some steady, everyday task – lovingly, lead him
close up to the garden, give him whatever might
outweigh the nights…
    Hold him back…

To break the circuit of infinite self-desire the beloved must reinstate the claims of the here and now, of the subtle delicacies of labour in the mundane world. Like classical self-restraint, labour itself seems to offer hope of fruitful self-limitation.

The other type of ‘restraint’ is involuntary:

[…]if desire tempts you, sing of the lovers,
those famous ones, though even their love’s
not immortal enough, those – you almost envy
them this – forsaken, abandoned and unrequited,
who have so much more loving in them
than those who are satisfied.

The ‘forsaken, abandoned and unrequited’ – the ordinary Didos of this world – have access to a melancholy sweetness unknown to the successful amant. A first kiss, a first walk, a first foray into the madness of the night: these are ephemeral joys, soon to be replaced by the dull mechanics of habit. But to be forsaken or heart-broken, to love a person who does not love you back, this is the realm in which the imagined first kiss can last forever. It endures ‘as the arrow endures the tensed bowstring’, and though the arrow never flies, though the lover will never know the first tentative touching of mouths, the shudder of excitement as the lining of the self begins to come undone, and  – after much fumbling and courageous shame – the final surrender to the passionate embrace, at least he can relive them forever in the purity of his mind, ever young and alive.

For Rilke, then, love is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between excessive Narcissism and objective self-restraint. But there is one type of love he fails to mention: first love. Surely, first love is the most powerful of all? It combines all the types of which he speaks, and yet it recognises no separation between them. First love is when the lover sees the beloved at work, and when the inner terrors of lust and the classical self-restraint all surge together in a floodtide of which the lover is as much an onlooker as a protagonist. The first love is the second Mother, she goes all the way down; she is the ultimate object of desire in whom the self can disappear as easily when she is waiting for the bus as when you’re locked in the throes of midnight. She is the conduit for all your vitriolic hatred and the delta of your self-emptying desire. Only when first love ends, when you fall from the Imaginary into the Symbolic for the second time, when your self is rent in two, and your dreams become forever haunted by a memory, only then does the Rilkean economy of love become actual.

 

(All translations from Martyn Crucefix’s version)

Oh McCrumbs! It’s the Booker again!

As an example of sheer tautological inanity, you’d be hard-pushed to beat Robert McCrum’s Guardian blog post. Having reminded us of the air of cultural crisis surrounding this year’s Booker prize (about which I have written at length here) he goes on to make two wonderfully circular claims:

1. “Barnes’s 11th novel is perhaps not his best, and nowhere near as original as Flaubert’s Parrot, but it is a work of art, and conforms to the high standard set by previous winners.”
2. “Say what you like about this prize – and most of the commentariat have done that pretty freely this year – Booker has a record of picking winners, from In a Free State (Naipaul) and Rites of Passage (Golding) to Oscar and Lucinda (Carey) and Disgrace (Coetzee).”

The Booker, he wisely informs us, “has a record of picking winners” – to which one is tempted to respond: of course it does! It’s a fucking book prize! McCrum has pulled off the ideological manoeuvre par excellence: he has stated an empirical fact (the Booker chooses winners) with enough suavity that it is transformed into a value (the Booker chooses winners). Rather like when a foreigner doesn’t understand the meaning of a native’s phrase and the native responds by simply shouting it louder, when someone asks McCrum what he means by ‘excellence’ he just shouts ‘excellence!’ with a bit more glee. The Booker chooses excellent books, therefore excellence is what the Booker chooses: such is McCrum’s logic.

The irony is that with this tautology in place, he can then go on to admonish the Booker institution for being “completely out of sync with the reality of the creative society whose activity it adjudicates”. But how can the Booker be out of sync with anything when what it decrees will always-already have been a ‘winner’? Like T. S. Eliot’s notion of the Tradition, the Booker is a mystical, proleptic community which has internalised and accommodated in advance any new Great Book which happens to appear. Torn between the celestial claims of ‘excellence’ – the ether of the literary absolute – and a mundane concern for proportional representation (most writing is by young people, therefore the Booker shouldn’t be run by OAPs), McCrum is constitutively incapable of reconciling the two. He cannot think literature and society together because he hasn’t even considered the nature of the terms he’s using: ‘work of art’, ‘high standard’, ‘winner’, ‘adjudicate’.

As a literary reviewer, McCrum’s not a bad read, but as a cultural ideologue his pronouncements are best taken with a pinch of salt.

On the Booker Debacle

This year the Booker judges have caused a stir by claiming they are selecting books with ‘readability’ over those with ‘quality’. Predictably, this has caused a backlash amongst the literati: why, asks Andrew Motion, should readability be assumed to be different in kind from quality? To raise a false opposition between the two is ‘a pernicious and a dangerous thing’. Likewise, literary agent, Andrew Kidd, has announced he will be launching a new literary prize, one whose sole criterion is ‘excellence’.

The basic anti-Booker argument, if we accept the current terms of the debate, is surely irrefutable. If the whole point of awarding a literary prize is to celebrate (and publicize) an outstanding book, why would you award it to a lesser book which happens to be ‘readable’? So far so obvious. The problems begin to arise, however, when we sit down and ask ourselves the meaning of the terms being bandied about: namely, ‘readability’ and ‘excellence’.

It was once said of Thomas Hardy that he couldn’t write, which, as Terry Eagleton has observed, is a rather major disadvantage for a novelist. In the current context, we might say that for a book to be unreadable is a similarly unfortunate handicap, given that the point of a book is that it be read. What ‘readable’ means here, then, is clearly something different from the capacity optically to compute a series of signs which are combined in sentences and paragraphs. Any book is ‘readable’ in this sense, from Spot the Dog to Finnegans Wake. And yet, in another sense, the latter is clearly not as ‘readable’ as the former. Spot the Dog has a clear linear narrative; it is generally not self-reflexive; since its aim is to delight and to educate children it tends to go easy on the puns, and it almost certainly doesn’t aim to destroy a given language from the inside in the way that Joyce does. In other words, Spot the Dog conforms to conventional standards of plot construction with a clear beginning, middle and an end, and is in that sense ‘readable’ because conformable to unwritten standards of narrative normality. Readibility, then, is a matter of convention and of form.

A convention, says Raymond Williams, is a coming-together, a technique and a tacit agreement, a series of unspoken presuppositions about how and why a work has been produced, how it is to be used and how it is to be received. A dominant convention is the hegemon of the literary-formal world. Today, arguably, the Western literary hegemon remains a variation on the naturalist-cum-realist novel: this is what the Booker Prize means by ‘readable’. ‘Unreadable’, by contrast, would be any variation upon the modernist and postmodernist attempt to undermine the international dominance of this particular form and of all the implicit values and stances on life which are its concomitants.

When the literati then pipe up in the name of ‘excellence’ they implicitly claim that modernist and postmodernist literary experimentations are just as – and probably more – ‘excellent’ than traditional realist novels (or at least those novels which remain, relatively speaking, non-self-reflexive and which spin a good yarn). But what do they mean by ‘excellent’? Here the old bogeyman of Aesthetic Value – that monster that lurks under the beds of first-year Literature students – raises its ugly dead-white-male head. What is literary excellence and who possesses the power to define it?

A short historical detour is in order. Back in classical antiquity there existed – within rhetoric and to some extent within poetics – a series of communally shared standards by which what counted as fine speaking and fine writing could be ascertained. In Aristotle, for example, linguistic excellence is usually a series of golden means: neither too plain nor too metaphorical, phrases neither too long nor too short, and so on. Essentially, the community of slave-owning men (not women) conformed to and internalised these conventions of fine speaking and attempted to embody them in their own speaking and writing. But – long story short – by the time of modernity the classical polis and the Roman legal system, the social forms of which rhetoric was the linguistic lifeblood, had fallen; in their place begins to arise a series of nation-states, each with its own incipient bourgeoisie. In overthrowing the ancien régime, the bourgeoisie also overthrew its communally shared standards of what counted as literary excellence. Indeed, the birth of “Literature” as such is coextensive with the breakdown of hegemonic linguistic conventions. Literature itself was twinned at birth with the crisis of ‘excellence’. The rise of the novel, and the breaking free of elocutio from the grips of the rhetorical pentad, were then part of this same process of crisis.

From this time on, changing conceptions of literary excellence have been in effect what Raymond Williams would call ‘selective traditions’: spontaneously constructed canons conforming to the interests of whatever elite intellectual minority happens to be in power at any given time. Just as a political hegemon attempts to impose a historical amnesia on its subjects, selling them the lie that things have always been like this, so the literary hegemon, the current arbiter of literary ‘excellence’, attempts to do the same.

What this ignores is the historicity of literary forms themselves. Each literary form is the embodiment of particular historical experiences. Realism and naturalism, for example, were part of the bourgeois cultural revolution against mystificatory narratives attributing human agency to supernatural sources; they were a cultural appendage to the economic and political overthrow of the ancien régime. In this historicist light, it doesn’t make much sense to judge as ‘excellent’ or ‘non-excellent’ a novel by Balzac or a short story by Maupassant.

So does this mean that there is no such thing as literary excellence? Not quite. The problem with the Andrew Motion/ Andrew Kidd line is that it implicitly assumes an ahistorical criterion of judgment. Likewise, those who assume that books which are self-reflexive, which question the very possibility of communication and of literature as such,   which play games with formal conventions – those who assume that these books are inherently superior are similarly ahistorical in that they merely assume that a mode of literary production generated more or less with modernism is now somehow the be all and end all. Nor does it help that in practical terms such books are almost always favoured by cultural elites rather than the reading public at large. It is thus that one publisher could claim that ‘the whole thing needs to be an utter snobfest’: here, ironically, given that liberal humanists revere books as windows onto the ‘human condition’, literary excellence becomes coextensive with a rejection of common humanity as such.

The solution is twofold. Firstly, criteria of literary judgment must be immanent to history itself. Raymond Williams’ Drama From Ibsen to Brecht points the way here: in this book, literary ‘excellence’ is nothing other than a given author working his way to a unique form capable of embodying the totality of his unique historical experience. It is the point at which a mere ‘technique’ raises itself to the level of a ‘convention’. Secondly, literary judgment must be democratised. Rather than a whole industry of Oxbridge-educated bores informing of us of the latest ‘excellent’ book (probably written by one of their friends – cf. Motion on Barnes), the public at large must be sufficiently equipped with the critical and intellectual tools necessary to the intelligent judgment of literary communications. For that is what literature is: communication – even when, in the likes of Beckett, it is about the impossible necessity of communicating anything at all. Writing is a human act like any other; to judge it we must draw on the same resources by which we judge all human acts.

Terry Eagleton: The Event of Literature

Good news: Terry Eagleton will be publishing a new book in the spring. Published by Yale University Press, it is entitled The Event of Literature and will deal with purely “literary” matters. Here’s the blurb:

In this characteristically concise, witty, and lucid book, Terry Eagleton turns his attention to the questions we should ask about literature, but rarely do. What is literature? Can we even speak of “literature” at all? What do different literary theories tell us about what texts mean and do? In throwing new light on these and other questions he has raised in previous best-sellers, Eagleton offers a new theory of what we mean by literature. He also shows what it is that a great many different literary theories have in common.

In a highly unusual combination of critical theory and analytic philosophy, the author sees all literary work, from novels to poems, as a strategy to contain a reality that seeks to thwart that containment, and in doing so throws up new problems that the work tries to resolve. The “event” of literature, Eagleton argues, consists in this continual transformative encounter, unique and endlessly repeatable. Freewheeling through centuries of critical ideas, he sheds light on the place of literature in our culture, and in doing so reaffirms the value and validity of literary thought today.

Eagleton had mentioned his intention to write this book in a recent in-depth interview with Matthew Beaumont, published as The Task of the Critic. (The latter is very much his version of the legendary NLR interview with Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters). Here’s to trying to get my hands on a review copy…

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