Thinking Blue Guitars

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Month: October, 2011

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.


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.

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