Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

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”.

Thinking Blue Guitars Now on Facebook

Thinking Blue Guitars now has its own Facebook Page. If you don’t want the hassle of following the blog via Google Reader or RSS feed, then simply “like” the page and you’ll receive all blog updates directly to your Facebook news feed. You’ll also receive links to literary, political and theological articles which I find of interest (and which I wouldn’t bother to publish on the blog itself).

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!

The Biblical Alex Ferguson

For someone not raised as a practising Christian, a first encounter with the Bible is almost inevitably an anti-climax. If you’re used to reading realist or modernist novels, whose complex hypotactical sentence-structures go unnoticed because they are the very life-blood of what you think of as ‘normal writing’; and if you have even the slightest inkling of the world-historical importance attributed to the disparate texts which make up the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the countless millions who have dedicated their entire lives to them, who have loved, lost and died for them, then the sheer sparseness of Biblical prose is one big disappointment:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

It’s not exactly Tolstoy is it? “Jesus came from Nazareth” – yes, but how? Did he walk, ride a donkey, catch a lift? What was the weather like? What exactly was he wearing? What was his mood? What did he eat for breakfast before he came? What about that annoying splinter in his finger – surely an occupational hazard for any self-respecting carpenter – and what about its symbolic value? And what about God’s “with you I am well pleased” – he could at least sound a little bit enthusiastic! Yet these questions don’t seem to bother pre-modern writers very much, and hence to a modern – or even postmodern – ear they sound simple, naïve, almost childish. (Schiller would have much to say on a topic not a million miles from this…).

For the non-Christian modern reader of the Bible then, just as for the modern reader of almost any medieval or ancient text, the problem is to acclimatize oneself to the resonances of a pared down, paratactic prose. Proust’s language resounds, of course, but not quite in the same way as the two-word “Jesus wept.” The sheer emotional intensity which these premodern words are forced to bear is sometimes mind-blowing. But it can only become so once the reader develops a sense for the depth of significance behind phrases which appear superficially bare, once she has become accustomed to a type of language whose importance resides, not in the profundity of individual sentences, but in the overall moral project of which they are a part.

I was surprised to note, then, that this type of pre-modern or Biblical prose has survived in the unlikeliest of places: football-speak. Take these lines from an interview with Alex Ferguson at the weekend:

I don’t think we have a major problem with Rio […] He has been with us eight years now and has been fantastically consistent, top class. He is still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of using the ball, he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence.

The first half of this extract belies its modernity: the adverb ‘fantastically’ is a give away, as is the apposition ‘top class’. But the second sentence is interesting: ‘he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence’. For someone who is not a football fan, these might seem strange words of praise; surely, they would say to themselves, 99% of people who play football even in the school playground can tackle and head the ball. They might not be good at it, but they can do it. ‘Great presence’ is presumably rarer, but just vague enough that we could imagine quite a few non-professional players who possess it. The point, of course, is that Ferguson is not just neutrally stating that Rio Ferdinand can tackle and head the ball: he’s mustering all of his managerial authority, drawing on the vast unconscious reservoirs of football history and of football fans’ unspoken presuppositions to make his words mean something like ‘Rio Ferdinand is a superlative defender, an embodiment of the virtuous football player who fulfils the objectives of his position’. This is the meaning which ‘resonates’ in and through the words he actually utters.

It is in this precise sense that football-speak and Biblical language are not worlds apart. They are both merely elements of a whole set of cultural and emotional practices. They are part of a whole way of life and only make sense in that context.

Of a Melancholy-Apocalyptic Tone Newly Adopted in American Culture

The thesis of this blog post is fairly simple: Lana del Rey’s “Video Games” is a cultural symptom of the demise of the American Empire. Her very name is an amalgam of the golden-age Hollywood actress, Lana Turner, and of the 1980s Latin American cult automobile, the Ford Del Rey. The video for her song “Video Games” is awash with postmodern retro nostalgia and a painful yearning for that black and white iPhone-style ‘authentic’ past. But it is not your average postmodern nostalgia. Usually that entails the unself-conscious, historically amnesiac appropriation of a bygone fashion for the purposes of celebrating a present which has forgotten what went before it. The point is that usually po-mo celebrates; it doesn’t know where it came from, but it loves to party nonetheless. The difference here is that del Rey doesn’t seem too chirpy. Paz de la Huerta is seen staggering drunkenly and despairingly to her knees, the very allegory of a nation whose best days are somehow behind it. It’s as if since the fall of the Soviet Union – aided by a few years of patriotic fundamentalism post-9/11 – the US has been running on air, refusing to look at where it came from and where it’s headed, but now, in the midst of a global financial meltdown and gradually weakening hegemony, it is undergoing the return of the repressed.

Lana del Rey captures the moment when nostalgia mutates from a painless symptom into a full-blown disease. Even commodities themselves are beginning to wonder how they got here. Their surface sheen used to deflect prying eyes, but now the glow is slowly becoming a self-questioning opacity. “Video Games” is sickly, almost post-human; when faced with a historical situation which delves to the very core of things, its attempt to keep on singing the romantic lovers’ 50s pop-song becomes a parody of helplessness. Melancholy and apocalypse vibrate at the heart of all that once was gold. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” she sings; but who is this you? The video never shows the mockery of a postwar macho male whom she superficially addresses. The you becomes rather the Lacanian Other: “Che vuoi?”, we ask it, “what do you want from me?” God is on his knees, Money and Fame have zombiefied, Success is beyond cosmetic repair: “what do you want from me?” is now historically unanswerable. The corpses of soldiers and natives mount in Afghanistan, oppressed peoples are throwing off their shackles the world over, America is sinking to its knees, desperately preparing one last handful of murderous forays – so many imperial death throes. Lana del Rey looks out across the wasteland, singing the first of decades of swan songs.

The Quality of Autumn Light

Magritte, 'Homesickness'

A year or so ago I came across the following passage in Thomas Hardy:

The gray tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of morning, light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening, it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.

Such prose seems to arise from an Adamic urge to fuse the names of things with things themselves, to lift up the dumb linguistic animal to a level of discernment which is  normally beyond it. Ultimately, it is doomed to fail: the range of the world’s phenomenal nuance is infinitely greater than the combinations of words we have for it. Where denotation falls short, however, connotation fills in the gaps, offering us a provisional anchor in the swirling singularities around us. At its best, such language – whether it be prose or poetry – extends the potential gamut of experience, making new vistas suddenly visible like fairy-tale palaces emerging from the mist.

Just such a discernment is the palpable difference in quality between the light of summer and the light of autumn. A sky can be clear and blue in July and in October, but the feeling of the light is totally distinct. In summer, the sun is so potent, so magisterial and elevated that it acts as a spot-light on all below it, and just as with a spotlight, its heat is intense. What it loses from withdrawing itself from the line of sight it compensates for by burning itself into our flesh. Autumn is the opposite; the sun is far lower in the sky, and on a cloudless day practically blinding. Its heat recedes and is overtaken by freezing winds, but its visual presence waxes.

Everything seems faded, bleached of its essential colour. Every cloudless day feels like a Sunday. There is even something solitary about the light of autumn. The summer sun makes for an animal warmth which invites gatherings, urges us to celebrations of the bodily passions, but autumn is far more philosophical. It is as if, built into the clinical exactitude of its luminescence, there is a certain self-distancing, the gaze of the objective observer who does not participate in the common labour. As the sun steps down in the sky, man steps back from his surroundings, just long enough to sense the faintest odour of thawing nettles on the frosty mid-morning air.

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.

Autumn

The evening is once more ‘spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table’, but it is something other than a yellow fog which rubs its back and muzzle at every corner of every window of every street. You hear it in the rain, you feel it in the fresh-remembered cold, you smell it in the newly radiatored rooms: something is afoot that moves like loss. Fallen leaves – brown amnesiacs – forget the branches who shudder from their grief. Puddles gather to reflect on their incertitude. The whole world is broken-hearted.

Reliable, secretly contemplative husbands imagine what might have been or what simply never was; the wives stand at their doors exhaling smoke into the nearly liberating air. The threshold is renewed each time they never cross it in their mind. Even children seem to sense a brooding undertow to games that just a month ago (but what is time to they who live in dreams?) felt light as beach balls in the multicoloured air. Everything contracts and hugs itself, suspecting absence where something should have been.

Even Melancholy doesn’t strut or pout, but sadly lingers at the steps outside the station. The platforms, where the trains are always leaving, where the people say goodbye and let things go, surrender to the early nights whose frost defies all welcome.

But the fleeting waft of a distant log fire is enough to kindle something else. Loss prowls like a jaguar through the town and in his eyes there is a glow. It is the memory of the pain of old desire.

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…

Being and Time of PhDs

The most fundamental experience of writing a Ph.D. is the horrifying passage of freedom  into necessity. It is that constant pattern whereby a sentence or a paragraph which was scribbled down spontaneously, off-the-cuff, half-heartedly, one eye on the page, one eye on Facebook, a sentence which was in its very essence provisional, non-final, incomplete and imperfect, slowly, over time, out of sheer brute necessity, becomes final, complete and perfect. An imperfect perfection for which you will be held responsible. By which you will be judged.

The judges mistake your essential inauthenticity – the emptiness-towards-fullness which time drags out till death – for an ontologically complete, fully (impossibly) self-conscious intentional act. They take you at your word. If only they could hear the perfect words inside your head, the finished ones which you yourself have never even heard, but which you sense, which you know, are in there, awaiting inscription. The book you have written has come, but this other Book, the one inside your head, is the Book-to-come, the Book that never comes.

And yet you are responsible. You take these words that lie lifeless before you on the page, your objectified essence that never felt essential in the first place, and you claim them as your own. Like a blind date with the ugly duckling, you make the best of a bad job. Smile at the passersby as you wonder where the better-looking sister has got to. You accept that unless you start to write like Derrida, this feeling of potentially-having-been-avoidable mediocrity is here to stay. You buckle up for the ride.

The more you write and the more time goes by, the closer the gap between provisionality and necessity begins to feel. You start to train yourself mentally to write in the future anterior: this sentence will have been final. You live the present via the projected judgment which the future will bring. The distance between freedom and necessity can never be entirely bridged; or, rather, it is always-already bridged, yet time itself prevents the immediate experience of this ‘always-already’. You develop a certain temporal boldness, you tarry with the clock-face and dance with the hours. You limit your expectations, increase your self-discipline, work harder and learn to wager. It is the wager of writing: he who dares loses. But he who has foreseen this loss and said yes to it wins.

A Selection of Slavoj Žižek’s Book Blurbs

Over the last year or so I’ve become increasingly struck by the melodramatic book blurbs which Slavoj Žižek has written for a variety of books. Here is a small selection.

On Eric Santner’s On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life:
“I wonder how many people will be aware, when taking this book into their hands, that they are holding one of the key texts of the last hundred years – that a new classic is being born, on a par with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.”

On Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject:
“A rare achievement, a true philosophical classic, comparable to only two or three books in the twentieth century, such as Heidegger’s Being and Time. The difference is that, if Being and Time left its mark on twentieth-century thought, Theory of the Subject announces the thought of the twenty-first century. It opens up the path that Badiou followed in his two later classics, Being and Event and Logics of Worlds, but it enforces this opening with a violent freshness which far surpasses its later developments. So beware, reader: when you open this book, you hold in your hands proof that philosophers of the status of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger are still walking around today!”

On Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness:
“It is easy to write a deep book on a big crucial concept like anxiety love or evil but it takes a true master to do for awkwardness what Heidegger in his Sein und Zeit did for anxiety and this is what Kotsko does. In his book which combines philosophical stringency with references to popular culture awkwardness is elevated into a universal singularity: a prismatic knot in which our entire historical moment is reflected. If this will not become an instant classic then we really live in awkward times.”

On Terry Eagleton’s Trouble With Strangers:
“Written in Eagleton’s very readable, clear and witty style, this book may achieve the unthinkable: bridging the gap between academic High Thought and popular philosophy manuals.”

On Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains:
“Eric Santner’s The Royal Remains stands out, not only as the most important book on political philosophy of the last decade, but as a classic at the level of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ or Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies. It prolongs their analyses into today’s world of micro-politics, raising the key question of what happens to the king’s other sublime body in a democratic society where the people-collectively-are the new sovereign. My reaction to reading this book is of wonder and awe; it is as if a new Benjamin (with the added features of Freud and Lacan) is walking among us.”

Starkey, Delingpole and “Culture”

It’s not just young black people being demonised by David Starkey and James Delingpole: it’s the whole working class

In his influential 1948 publication, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot famously stated that “Culture…includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.” In other words, as Raymond Williams wryly noted in his Culture and Society: 1780-1950, it includes “sport, food, and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure”. (He suggested adding “steelmaking, touring motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining, and London Transport”). Eliot had craftily conflated two senses of the word “culture”: firstly, that of the general body of arts and learning (which, during the long industrial revolution and the struggle for the franchise, came to be practically separated from everyday social judgment and associated with a privileged ‘cultured’ elite) and, secondly, culture as a whole way of life. Eliot’s “whole way of life”, however, looked suspiciously like that of the upper echelons of British class society.

I was reminded of this passage in Eliot when I read an article by James Delingpole, in which he defends the dangerous and offensive remarks made by David Starkey on Friday’s edition of Newsnight. Having listed the ways in which, as Starkey argued, the “whites” have become “black” – essentially, “they” don’t speak RP and “they” wear their underpants too high – he goes on to make the following point: “Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis? Or does anyone, perhaps, want to persuade me that this is but one tiny and much-exaggerated facet of a broader black culture dominated by opera and madrigal singing and crochet and sonnet-construction and lawn bowls and Shakespeare and new translations of Ovid?” Look at that list of characteristic “white” activities: Eliot himself could have written it. And this should alert us to an important aspect of such ill-considered and offensive discourses. The opposition Starkey and Delingpole construct between a mythical, homogenous “white culture” and a mythical, homogeneous “black culture” is a rerun of the traditional opposition between “culture” and “common”. It is an opposition based on class.

Which is not to say that the white-black opposition is identical to the one which Williams exposed. Rather, as we have seen, each is now mediated by the other. Class prejudice informs racial prejudice which feeds back into class prejudice in a quite literally vicious circle. Thus, David Starkey’s ridiculous and malicious imitation of what he called “a language which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England” combines a patrician disdain for common speech with a reduction of the rich patchwork of intercultural London accents and dialects to a homogenous “black culture”; this is then equated with “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”, as if a lack of “Standard English” itself had caused the riots.

The only way to interrupt this cycle is for the Left universally to condemn such dangerous simplifications and to expose the complex interrelation of racial stereotyping and economic exploitation. Political temperatures are soaring in Britain, and it is imperative that the Left come together to battle the right-wing media onslaught. In the words of Raymond Williams: “There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future.”

On Learning a Language

Learning a language is not just about memorising grammar and vocabulary (though without these, better to be a carpenter without tools and wood), and nor is it a matter of simply finding one’s way in an alien culture (though, again, without this, better to be an invading soldier). To learn a language is to learn to fail consistently. Fail again, fail better. It is not so much a tale of increasing glory as of diminishing despair. Perhaps the errors begin in the classroom, that patch of land where mistakes fall like seeds to the soil, cultivated, honed and raised by a teacher whose guiding principle must be forgiveness if ever her students’ wrongs are to grow into rights. But here, surrounded by others making the same errors, with no natives in sight (except the teacher herself, of course, but who doesn’t judge), failing is a gentle thing. It is only on being pitched into the streets of the country whose words feel like stones in the mouth that the soft – if stern – gaze of the teacher fades to a distant memory.

Learning a language in the country in which it is spoken is to undergo a series of humiliations. At home, unnoticed by everyone, your speech was invisible and inaudible because universal: you blended in. But here, say one word and the eyes will fix you instantly, single you out as the one who doesn’t belong. You will incite caution, interest, malice, kindness, humour, and sometimes – if you’re lucky – desire. Everywhere you go you will be surrounded by a thin veil of strangeness; no matter how hospitable your hosts, the inner precincts of their life together are out of bounds to you. You will remain forever outside the temple.

You are no longer in control. To learn a language you must die to yourself. Accept that you will make embarrassing mistakes, ones which sometimes shame you – but sweetly, nostalgically – to look back on. Each wrongly uttered verb, each false agreement of noun and adjective, every hilarious confusion of vocabulary – all of them accompanied by the gentle laughter of those who accept you, but to whom you do not belong – all of these are small, felicitous wounds. Nicks of the blade. And when you come to speak these words again, correctly this time, you will utter, not so much a word, as a memory. The language itself becomes a tissue of shamings and souvenirs, such that the past is emotionally built into the future you’re trying to speak. The words, like you, bear their scars and these you sense in all their ambivalence on the tongue.

Learning a language is like learning to speak for the second time: but this time we remember.

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