This Space

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

"A mighty, contagious absence"

The number of obituaries, tributes, backhanded compliments and overt smears in the corporate news media following the death of John Pilger reveal the state of journalism in our time. [1] Can you name one living Anglophone journalist whose loss would prompt such widespread notice? That the obvious one, who had worked with The Guardian and New York Times to expose the biggest stories of our time, is held without charge in a high-security prison and close to death without outrage let alone industrial action from his colleagues, should be evidence enough of a profound shift in news media culture. [2] Those who walk in John Pilger's footsteps are now to be found working independently, funded by public appeals, and often, like Julian Assange, frequently denied the label of journalist by those appropriating its authority. [3]

The Media is the Enemy on a bottle bank

The shift has not been limited to journalism, as dissent from prominent artists has become rare, with only an 80-year-old musician and an 87-year-old filmmaker paying the price for publicly challenging the political narrative. [4] Novelists have escaped censure. Twenty years ago, with characteristically bitter passion, Pilger lamented the silence of writers over contemporary political events, comparing it to the noise and organisation of their forerunners in 1935. He wanted them to be outspoken in public and producing works that "illuminate...the shadows of rapacious power". He wished for public utterance and the production of novels as imaginative reportage, citing among others Timothy Mo's novel The Redundancy of Courage set in East Timor during the western-backed genocide about which Pilger made one of his most harrowing documentary (not mentioned in the ITV news obituary, the network on which it was broadcast). He complains that instead of dissent from writers appearing in the newspapers, "Column after column is devoted to the Martin Amis cult: he who ... sneers at the great anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations". Twenty years on only the quality of the cult writer has changed, with JK Rowling leading the sneers at a "solipsistic personality cult" when opposition to rapacious power threatens to be successful. [5] Other genre novelists – John le Carré, Fay Weldon, Frederick Forsyth, Tony Parsons and William Boyd – also wished to distance themselves from opposition, and perhaps slightly higher taxes.

The pitiful literary horizon onto which this sextet opens emphasises how diminished the calibre of public-facing writers is compared to 1935, with film and television dominating public consciousness and which is itself, as James Meek describes, rapacious power in action. This suggests literature needs a form that is not a storyboard, one that goes in the opposite direction and opens an entirely new and different space, only what hope is there if even an experimental writer presented as doing precisely this joins in with the rest? [6]

John Pilger's lament has stayed with me over the years as a sometimes distant, sometimes insistent hammering on the door, disturbing the hallowed silence of this empty church. What, after all, is the point of sitting here with all these books of prayer? If Pilger challenges the responsibilities of the author by dismissing the distinction between what's inside and what's outside, between novels and journalism, he does so with ease, as easily as submission to a story. Except the experience of one is very different to the experience of the other: the first is an encounter with the noise of both a particular time in everyday language, with an empirical outside investigated by a particular person or organisation that implicitly contains evidence of its truth and value and which, if done properly, provokes a sense of urgency for action in the world, while the second is an encounter with the outside of time, aside from experience, an encounter with something that has not happened, will not happen, and will not happen over and over again, and for which the writer has no responsibility to provide evidence for its truth or value, provoking in its audience an unfocusable need and so a unique presence in our lives – a perennial absence beyond our lives – and so the interminable anxieties it generates about its meaning, authority and place in society. [7]  

If his article is not quite a manifesto, Pilger inadvertently reminds us that these anxieties constitutes a fundamental part of the experience of literature, which lately has led to a manifesto expressing similar concerns. 

Vomit on concrete, England 2023

In Counterblast! (a manifesto for poetry), her final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Alice Oswald claims that "whatever keeps mattering makes a form" and so poetry must be "like the spirals of the inner ear shaped by sound, or a stoop shaped by shyness". What keeps mattering for her is the profusion of the world and she proposes a poetry that alters the imagination by immersion in "the deep grammar of the situated self among other selves", with simile being poetry's form of profusion. Homer is her prime example: "we would like to discover the inmost manifesto of Homer, meaning the mattering which makes his fall and claim it as our own". This is "a manifesto of likeness", she says: "We like this word 'like'. It is a stitch between things". The Greek word for stitchwork is rhapsody, with simile – similarity – stitching the world together, and she opposes rhapsody to lyric poetry: "We declare that modernism with all its isms was essentially a lyric voice because it described the problem of perception rather than the profusion of being." She reads the first stanza of TS Eliot's poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night ending in the lines "Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium" and describes the similes as "hallucinations" rather than stitches revealing "not other selves but the poet's own self over and over". [8]

Living geraniums become the touchstone for the manifesto as Alice Oswald sees the culmination of the modernists' dead flower in "the genre of the artificial geranium" in which poetry is created by a computer. She examines a poem created in ChatGPT using her instruction "to write a poem about an eagle and a hare in the style of Shakespeare", which you can hear from 38:30 below. After commenting favourably on the algorithm's choice of meter she notes how the poem's images are impressionistic "whereas as a poet sees sharply before summoning words". It is impressionistic "because it is not situated". The presence or absence behind the words is her primary concern:

Each time the algorithm uses the word 'I', it does not mean the same situated self that we mean and this difference spreads through the grammar, altering first the meaning of 'we' and then the meaning of 'this' and then the meaning of 'that' and then the meaning of 'near' and then the meaning of 'love' and then the meaning of 'death' and then the meaning of 'with' and then the meaning of 'like', and so on and so on until the poem reveals its mighty contagious absence in that final line. Each meeting fated, each parting brief in life's great stage infernal, which is a malicious demon's manifesto with no understanding of actuality. [9]

Why is each parting brief? Is it because AI operates in unextended space in which parting has no meaning. Does that imply that death doesn't exist and is that why the hare is gambolling in fear. Is death brief, in which case please decide whether this is a poem about fate or resurrection and adapt the form accordingly since the gambolling rhyming heptameter implies constraint but this poem implies no awareness of constraint because it is not about things which are, since things which are must suffer the constraints of place. But in the genre of the artificial geranium there is no place and therefore no point of view, no topological self, no resistant other, no matter and therefore no mattering and therefore no meaning, no death, no flesh, no weight, no love, no life.

The curious thing with this complaint is that in citing Homer as the manifesto's poetic hero it follows the reasons Socrates gives for rejecting the recitation of poetry as a means of truth-telling and is as such a danger to civil society. Alice Oswald's questions for the AI poem receive the same replies as Socrates:

The fact is, Phaedrus, that writing involves a similar disadvantage to painting. The productions of painting look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence. The same holds true of written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again. [10]

Socrates is happy that younger people with their "modern sophistication" are no longer satisfied with messages from "an oak or a rock", which were the earliest forms taken by the oracle at Dodona, and prefer a living, speaking person who can answer back once they have spoken. A footnote tells us that rustling of an oak's leaves were interpreted by priests or priestesses as sacred enlightenment. As daft as this may appear to us now, we can see the reverend recitation of poetry as modern-day rustling, returning the same answers over and over with literary critics and professors of poetry as priests and priestesses processing its meaning and value. [11] 

The crucial element of AI poetry is the human input for the program to produce a poem. As we have seen, Alice Oswald specified it must be "in the style" of Shakespeare; that is, like Shakespeare. But perhaps its likeness did not satisfy for this reason. While some elements are familiar, others are not, giving the impression of AI's resistance to needs and human control. When we talk about a poem or play that Shakespeare has produced, we call it a work, but there is no work in AI, or, rather, there is the work of absence, and so two-and-a-half thousand years later, Alice Oswald remains alongside Socrates midway between ancient and modern worlds, between the sacred and the secular, because a mighty, contagious outside opens in poetry. [12] Our humanist horror arises at the AI poem's disobedient likeness to something other than human, to that which is not, or to what is situated elsewhere, and its failure to be a resource for exploitation (King Leopold's Nongo). What if, however, in sutbly altering the meaning of words, by unworking meaning word by word, AI poetry reveals the possibility of another actuality, or at least that the actuality of which it is accused of having no understanding is the malicious demon?

The threat of AI literature may also be its potential by failing to act like Paul Celan's Gegenwort, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop as "a word against the grain" but more generally as a 'counterword', and yet also failing to be enough like Shakespeare, et al., so at the same time to act as one. Celan's example is spoken by Lucile in Büchner's play Danton’s Death, who, upon seeing her husband led to scaffold, cries "Long live the king!" not only guaranteeing her own execution but spoken when the king is already dead. For Celan, her cry "is the word that cuts the 'string,' the word that no longer bows down before 'the bystanders and old war-horses of history'. It is an act of freedom. It is a step." Stephen Dowden widens its meaning as a word "against exhausted narrative ploys and poetic forms, against inherited cultural complicity in the horrors of the twentieth century" [13]

It is perhaps then notable that when Celan's friend Hubert Hoppert visited him in Paris in 1966 and read some of Celan's recently published poems and commented that they were "indescribably abstract" and "imponderably spiritual" [14], Celan's responded:

I'm glad that you say 'abstract;' and 'spiritual' is also fitting. I hope that the information in my verse is spiritual. [...] Formerly, in Vienna, I experimented with psychic mediums of communication. I was playing hide and seek behind the metaphors. Today, after twenty years of conflict between inner and outer worlds, I have banished the word 'like' from my workshop. One of my poems, 'Speech-Grille,' became the title of an entire collection of poems. Do you know what a 'grille' can be? In that book I used, for a nearly final time, 'like' in the following four lines.

Were I like you. Were you like me.
Did we not stand
under one tradewind?
We are strangers.

That was my farewell to the treacherous 'like'. I stand at another point in time and space than my reader – who can only understand me 'from afar,' cannot get hold of me, can only grasp the grille bars between us.

Celan's poetry faces the same accusations directed at AI poetry because it is the epitome of its inverse [15]. However, the example of his counterpoetry may help us to see the exploitable value of literature produced by artificial intelligence in its example of likeness. Another word for likeness is genre. Everything produced by AI depends on the example of what already exists fed into its program. When Amazon limited an account holder's uploads of AI-produced novels to three a day, it only emphasised the conveyor-belt nature of book production, appealing always to likeness, mascerating everything into easily digestible pulp. Even reviews of a novel seeking escape from such inheritance claws it back with likenesses. The world becomes trapped by the rapacious power of likeness. The end of genre is the daybreak of literature. What keeps mattering is the absence of another world; a mighty, contagious need for that which is not.



[1] Media Lens addresses an example of the latter in a tribute in keeping with Pilger's critical legacy. Select the back arrow on your browser to return to the main body above.

[2] Look at what his ex-colleagues said instead. Clues about how and why can be found this article on what happened at The Guardian post Snowden, and then there's Peter Oborne on the rise of client journalism, but it is also as simple as regular groupthink as demonstrated in the Asch Conformity Experiment

This infects the entire British media class: for many years I listened to the Kermode & Mayo film review podcast then hosted by BBC Radio, and one day among the various titles was XY Chelsea about the US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. In the first 15 seconds of his review Kermode states that Manning "released classified information that were then released in unredacted form on Wikileaks". In fact it was The Guardian that released the passwords, as a Wikileaks editorial explains. Kermode was the chief film critic for The Guardian's sister paper at the time. The comment would be forgivable were it not for Kermode's outburst that XY Chelsea is not a film about Julian Assange "much as he wants to be the centre of every story". This wasn't the first time the presenters had made impromptu digs at Assange, but none as bitter. So in order to be the centre of every story did Assange expose himself "to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture"? These are the words of Nils Melzer, at the time the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. I emailed the show with this information and quotation but, of course, I didn't receive a reply and I didn't hear any correction on the podcast as, after all those years, I unsubscribed.

Read Chris Hedges' hair-raising summary of the facts behind the prosecution of Julian Assange before his final appeal against extradition. 

[3] Glenn Greenwald is an "online influencer", while Seymour Hersh, who in the New Yorker exposed the massacre at My Lai in 1969 and torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, as soon as he reported how the Nord Stream pipeline was sabotaged, suddenly became that epitome of vanity and irrelevance, "a blogger". In the UK, Craig Murray, who as a UK Ambassador blew the whistle on intelligence gained through torture, has been denied membership of the NUJ and was gaoled for reporting the case for the defence in the trial of Alex Salmond while those in the mainstream who he says did more or less the same were left alone. (Salmond was acquitted; there was a jury, unlike in Murray's trial). And, as with others outside of the club, such as Kit Klarenberg and Tony Greenstein, Murray has been detained under the Terrorism Act. 

Incidentally, the tweet below that followed expulsion of the son of a rabbi from the Labour Party was for me the first indication of Sir Keir Starmer's perfidy.

The Labour Files documentary series has provided ample confirmation since, though it doesn't end there.

In addition to those mentioned above, for commentary and investigations, I recommend following the work of among others Chris Hedges, Aaron Maté, Mark Curtis, Matt Kennard, Abby Martin, Alan MacLeod, Peter Oborne, Jonathan Cook, and frontline reporter Eva Karene Bartlett.

[4] Roger Waters and Ken Loach. In my teenage years, I was a fan of Pink Floyd to the point of nerdily cataloguing my LP and bootleg collection and typing up attempts at music criticism. Many years later and after I had moved on, I heard a song by them whose title I didn't recognise and to which I exclaimed "What the hell is this crap?!". It turned out to be post-Roger-Waters Pink Floyd – a velvet glove limp without its iron fist. I realised then why it was Pink Floyd of the 1970s, especially Dogs, appealed to me above all. The recent claims that the theatrical performance of The Wall in which a fictional rock star becomes a demogogue, a performance I saw live on June 16th, 1981 and that has toured the world without controversy since, meant that Waters himself was promoting fascism and should be banned from live performance would be hilarious if it weren't so disturbing in what it revealed about the powerful people who made them and the solemnity with which they were reported.

[5] She's right, of course, as we must regret the luring of millions into a cult of infantilising fantasy and wish fulfilment.

[6] From an interview in The New Statesman:

Even if it is presented as an alternative, Eimear McBride's novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a prime example of what Rachael Allen diagnoses as an issue in the publishing industry in her superb essay Difficult and Bad: an industry dominated by a middle-class patting itself on the back for its patronage of writers who may otherwise be dismissed as inaccessible but in reality gain industry traction because of its promotion of identity politics, a virtue-hoarding disguise for privileging their class interests. The novel's publisher may be independent but its director worked at The Guardian for many years and conformed to its offensive on Corbyn's mildly social-democratic programme.

For a hugely enjoyable satire on the centrists' favoured writers, I highly recommend Ellis Sharp's novel Concrete Impressions, reviewed here by The Modern Novel.

[7] In my earliest days of reading, attracted by elevated titles, I borrowed a library copy of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory in the 1984 translation by C. Lenhardt and was very taken with a passage preceded by Adorno's observation that reason subsumes suffering under concepts but can never express it: "Therefore, even when it is understood, suffering remains mute and inconsequential":

What recommends itself, then, is the idea that art may be the only remaining medium of truth in age of incomprehensible terror and suffering. As the real world grows dark, the irrationality of art is becoming rational, especially at a time when art is radically tenebrous itself. What the enemies of modern art, endowed with a greater sensitivity than its timid apologists, call the negativity of modern art, is the epitome of all that has been repressed by the established culture. That is indeed the direction in which modern art is moving. By cathecting the repressed, art internalises the repressing principle, i.e. the unredeemed condition of the world, instead of merely airing futile protests against it. Art identifies and expresses that condition, thus anticipating its overcoming. It is this, and not the photographic rendition of the unredeemed state or a false sense of beatitude, that defines the position of authentic modern art towards a gloomy objectivity. Everything else is worthless mawkishness.

I understand that Lenhardt's translation is considered problematic and Robert Hullot-Kentor's 1997 version includes references to Hegel and Brecht featured nowhere above. Compare the final sentences: 

That art enunciates the disaster by identifying with it anticipates its enervation; this, not any photograph of the disaster or false happiness, defines the attitude of authentic contemporary art to a radically darkened objectivity; the sweetness of any other gives itself the lie.

This version leaves me cold. The passage's said faithlessness to the original may also anticipate an overcoming, which in turn suggests a value in theory beyond rational understanding.

[8] Which will be news to those who think Joyce's Ulysses is the key modernist novel. It isn't – it has other qualities – so perhaps she's right. Either way, we declare this is another example of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of modernism endemic in English-speaking literary circles. Cf. an alternative understanding.

[9] Mention of a malicious demon suggests Alice Oswald imagines the threat of Gnosticism behind AI poetry. I've written about this in relation to the novel.

[10] Plato's Phraedrus, translated by Walter Hamilton (Penguin Classics, 1973). Socrates goes on to say "once a thing is committed to writing it circulates equally among those who understand the subject and those who have no business with it; a writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers", a sentiment echoed much later by Lichtenberg in his famous line: "A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, don't expect an apostle to peer out."

[11] Judi Dench's performance of a Shakespeare sonnet on a chat show is a fine albeit cringeworthy example.

[12] According to Massimo Recalcati's account, this distrust of absence finds its culmination in God, by way of Christ:

From Jesus’ perspective, there is, in effect, no possible truth without its testimony. That means that the truth of the Word consists in its incarnation alone. It’s the radical ethical hermeneutics of Christianity: the letter without testimony is a dead letter; without heart—without desire—the meaning of the Law can’t be understood.

[13] In Thomas Bernhard's Afterlives. This is cited in Lars Iyer's The Opposite Direction: Taubes, Bernhard and the Gnostic Imaginary in which he suggests a rewrite of Beckett's famous lines: "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" to "nothing to say in this world, nothing to express in this world, no means of expression in this world – nothing, except the obligation of the counterword, the questioning of what is and what is not complicit with the horrors".

[14] In Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France.

[15] Notably from Clive James.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Notes from overground

Seventeen years ago my copy of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land was delayed in the post and arrived long after the novel had been reviewed in all the big newspapers so, instead of riding the wave of publication, I was dragged under by its backwash. I had to answer a question not one of the reviews asked: Why is Frank Bascombe writing this?

However, one question my readers might like answered first is: Why are you reading Richard Ford?! His work is hardly a paragon of the short, aesthetically constrained European Modernist novel this blog champions, and in fact appears to be a prime example of the dreaded lyric first-person narration dominating prize-winning British and American "literary fiction". Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for Independence Day says it is written in "Harold Brodkey-style" – not that, please, not that! I don't have an answer except that, prompted by a review in the NME I read in 1986 [1], I bought The Sportswriter and read it three times in my first years of reading and never became disillusioned with it as I did with the novels of John Updike and Philip Roth, the big name American authors of the time.

The reason why I'm writing about Frank Bascombe again is because my answer to the initial question was glib. I realise this now. It appropriated a phrase Frank uses that is typical of the man himself, also glib. (The review is no longer online but is the first chapter of this book.) And while I began to reread The Sportswriter and The Lay of the Land without any intention of raising the question again and only for pleasure and happy anticipation of Be Mine, the unexpected fourth volume (fifth if you include the short stories), I nevertheless found a scene that raised it for me.

Frank visits a widow called Marguerite as a "sponsor", a friendly stranger willing to listen to someone who is either lonely or just needs someone to talk to. In their initial introduction Frank half-remembers a one-night stand years they had had when he showed her around a house but isn't absolutely sure and isn't sure if she's half-remembering the same thing. They settle down for a serious chat and she tells Frank she has an urge to confess something but cannot imagine what exactly. However, she reckons that if there is something buried in memory, like "you once fucked your realtor" Frank thinks to himself, it's best left that way:

"I call it a need to confess. But maybe it's something else."
"What else could you maybe call it?
Marguerite suddenly sits up even more erectly, her softened features alert. "I haven't really thought about that."
"You might just have to make it up, then."

Isn't this condition precisely what constitutes Frank Bascombe's presence, his need to write, and explains why Richard Ford keep returning to makes things up with this character? Both would have to stop if Frank (or Richard) had a decisive act to confess. We are sponsors for both. How had I missed this before? I could point to the stupefaction induced by The Lay of the Land's 726-page first-person narration, but it was really that I wanted to say something profound about writing that turned out to be glib. 

The exchange jumped out this time because confession is a key word in Gabriel Josipovici's essay Act and Action in the Spring 2022 edition of Raritan (not online). The inconspicuous title conceals a brief history of a rich literary tradition in which Bascombe is now part, and for me explains what is missing from the almost-univeral praise given to the novel series.

Not that Bascombe features in the essay at all, with the most recent literary character cited being TS Eliot's "little old man" Gerontion, the first few lines of whose poem provides an epigram. He is looking back on his life and expressing a sense of its unreality. He had not been part of any great event of history to give it that meaning and instead "has spent his entire life waiting for some kind of life-giving rain which never comes". Josipovici shows that expressions of the same sense emerged before this in different ways in different characters: in Melville's Bartleby, in Henry James' John Marcher, and in the indecisive young man in Kierkegaard's Either/Or who, like Bartleby, can see no reason to do one thing because he could just as easily do the opposite. The condition is traced back to the Protestant revolutions of the 16th century that eroded a sense of community, a condition intensified after the French Revolution when it seemed that anyone whatever their social status could rise to become a leader like Napoleon or a billionaire like Rothschild. "Still most people were neither, nor were they ever likely to be. This realization led not just to resentment but to melancholy and depression". Josipovici draws a comparison with Hannah Arendt's discussion of slaves in the ancient world fearing they would live and die without leaving a trace of their existence:

Though slavery was abolished in the West in the course of the nineteenth century, the curious fact is that it was in that precise period that many people began to feel that they themselves had in a strange way been deprived of freedom and visibility, that they too were destined to pass away leaving no trace that they had ever existed.

We don't have to think for too long before recognising its presence in the way Reality TV and social media promises visibility and meaning to people, but it's not something that we see in contemporary novels, which tend to be seeking visibility and meaning by appealing to marketable social and political fashions rather than exploring why both are in demand. The essay finds its pathological effects especially clear in Dostoevsky's early novels featuring minor civil servants involved in drudge work, with its most extreme expression found in the spite and despair of Notes from Underground. Whenever the Underground Man tries to forge an identity, to become someone in the world, he is appalled to find it is always an act. No matter what he does, he remains an actor. The disconnect is why he has to write "because only in this way can he get close to his particular condition, which is one of perpetual volatility, unable to anchor himself in the world". Of course, his narrative is also an act, leading to the silence and invisibility he feared most.

One hundred and twenty years later, Frank Bascombe expresses the same condition: "I was always able to 'see around the sides' of whatever I was feeling", he says in The Sportswriter. "If I was mad or ecstatic, I always realized I could just as easily feel or act another way if I wanted to." It infected career as a novelist:

'Seeing around' is exactly what I did in my stories (though I didn’t know it), and in the novel I abandoned, and one reason why I had to quit. I could always think of other ways I might be feeling about what I was writing, or other voices I might be speaking in. In fact, I could usually think of quite a number of things I might be doing at any moment! And what real writing requires, of course, is that you merge into the oneness of the writer’s vision—something I could never quite get the hang of...

Oneness of vision is he says "a minor but pernicious lie of literature" and by falling into conventions fails to tell the truth of 'seeing around'. Nevertheless, there is irony in Frank's post-abandonment career in the convention of sportwriting because he likes to think athletes have a oneness of vision and "probably think and feel the fewest things of anyone at important times". He can spin upbeat stories out of their victory or defeat, leaving readers satisfied. One of the most distinctive qualities of the novels is the way Frank defines by people their activity, as if they're disappearing into whatever they do: "the slow joggers, the single-dog walkers, the skinny men with metal detectors—their wives in the van waiting, reading John Grisham", each of whom he is both contemptuous and envious. He feels the promise and threat of disappearance entering a hardware store and smelling "the cardboard and corrugated-metal and feed-store aromas of all the dervish endeavors a human can be busily up to". This is not far from the young man in Either/Or, though Frank is no longer young. When he interviews a sportsman who doesn't fit the visionary template and instead wants to share his anxiety and despair, Frank refuses to admit to him that he feels the same. To us, his sponsors, it's clearly a front, an act. So the narration might then be said to be the actor stepping off the stage. At last, literature is not falling for the pernicious lie. 

This may be a good thing for literature, but what use is it for Frank, for us? Unlike Dostoevsky's characters, Frank has a busy work and family life, he has no money worries, and he's respected in both professions he takes up; in effect he is the Overground Man, seen and heard by all. The same can be said of Richard Ford, and yet the sickness continues; both are seen and heard precisely because of the sickness. If Frank seeks oneness in romantic relationships, they never last. He tells Vicki Arcenault he wants to marry her but instead of feeling happy anticipation of a romantic weekend citybreak what he feels is "in a word: a disturbance". [2] Across the series, the only women with whom he seems to have uncomplicated relationships are Mrs Miller, the fortune-teller he pays to make banal, generalised predictions, and Betty, the Asian masseuse, with whom he becomes infatuated. He owes them nothing but money and they give him what he wants as far as that money goes. Both echo the Underground Man's encounter with the prostitute Liza, a relationship also based on playacting. It seems the more a civilisation is centred on commerce, the more people become actors and reality a script. It's no coincidence both "Mrs Miller" and "Betty" are not their birth names. This is may explain why one typical sentence in The Sportswriter stands out as exemplary of Frank's condition, the condition of the modern actor, the condition of the modern world, and so the contemporary novel. He is driving through his hometown after visiting Mrs Miller and comes to one particular road:

I idled down Seminary Street, abstracted and empty in the lemony vapor of suburban eventide.

Frank's lonely self is wandering, blank and unengaged down a street named after a college building that trained clergy in the theology and protocols of a transcendence, a oneness, both of which are no longer ongoing though each maintains a presence in the street's name and the unnamable, abstract longing in those who live in its vaporous shadow. The building has been replaced by suburban houses designed for a middle-class professionals to enjoy a polite atmosphere as they drift into the eventide of their lives. I quoted this line in my 2006 essay as an example of "fancy phrasing", a caricature of what distinguishes "literary fiction" from overtly commercial genre fiction, and I expressed regret for Richard Ford's resort to the "event glamour" [3] of a robbery and shooting at the end of the third novel without realising how it epitomises literary fiction's concentrated expression of the human condition and the frustration with "opaquely written novels" as Nick Hornby called them, those said to prioritise style over story, a frustration that drives publishers to offer bad faith mitigation to the reader with promises of titillating transgressive action. Ultimately, however, such action is as unsatisfying as fancy phrasing, as both are formed by words and words only. What can be done?

Josipovici's answer comes when he turns to Dostoevsky's next novel in which the familiarly desperate lead character acts more decisively. Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker and her sister in order "to be someone rather than the no one he feels himself to be". And has the same realisation that it hasn't transformed his life at all and has in fact made it worse. Josipovici turns again to Hannah Arendt and how she contrasts the Greek and Roman concept of action with the modern, found in the distinction of action with and without accompanying speech. Without speech, action would be done effectively by performing robots: "Speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time a speaker of words." Actions on their own, then, such as Frank idling along a street, are meaningless in themselves, and so Raskolnikov's dreadful act is meaningless without his confession.

Arendt both helps us to understand the underlying logic of Crime and Punishment and frees us from having to see it, as Dostoyevsky himself and most of his commentators ever since have seen it, in purely Christian terms. For when Sonya insists that he must give himself up and confess his crimes … she is merely putting in a popular Russian form what, according to Arendt, the classical world perfectly understood. It is only when Raskolnikov can speak to others, telling them what he has done, that he can move beyond playacting and finally find some kind of peace. For the first time he is fully something: not “a criminal who has confessed,” but one who confesses. Confession, the finding of words for his deed, is an action, not a state. But that too is where the book has to end, for speech/action cannot of its nature be permanent.

This is not the end of the essay however, as Josipovici believes Arendt places too much stress on the bond between word and deed, and provides an example from his own life of an action in which "we can retain the idea of self-disclosure, of the actor surprising him or herself in the act they perform, of something radically new appearing...without needing to make speech crucial to the situation". It's a story of his mother's decision as she sought to escape the clutches of the Gestapo with her small son in tow, one that readers of 100 Days and A Life won't forget. Indeed, the latter title is indicative of Josipovici's practice as a writer: in his novels there is a concern for shape and, in his critical writing, an ambivalence for strict oppositions, such as playacting and the essential self. It's something caught in one line of Be Mine in which Frank says "I don’t believe I have an essential self, though if I have one it is always on display". If his sense of apartness causes him despair, he also relies upon it to exist; as a fictional invention, his display is essential for his self. For Josipovici, this is the case for every novelist, as it enables something radically new to appear, hence why those who suspect novels are thinly disguised autobiography entirely miss the point and shouldn't be reading or reviewing them. For Dostoevsky this means "dramatizing multiple falsehoods to reach the point where something that is not falsehood emerges". It is the shape of a life, of a novel, that requires attention:

a shape made up of many tragedies and many triumphs but that is somehow more than the sum of all these. But neither they nor we can fully grasp it until it is over—while we live we can only grope, trusting in time.

The length of Frank's narration is an attempt to find its end in order to grasp the sum of its meaning, but does it just "grind to a halt" without discovery as one of "the most scathing reviews of the year" claimed? [4]

It's appropriate that Josipovici's essay begins with a quotation from TS Eliot, as the end of the Frank Bascombe novels can be found in its beginning. In the opening scene of The Sportswriter Frank is in a cemetery awaiting his ex-wife to mark merely by their silent presence what would have been the birthday of their first-born son Ralph and, at the end of Be Mine, he's taking his second son 47-year-old son Paul towards a grave, albeit rather like the novel series itself, by a roundabout route. Paul has a terminal diagnosis and the novel follows father and son on a valedictory road trip to Mount Rushmore, repeating a trip Frank made in as child with his parents. Much of the drama and comedy comes from the patient, organised father dealing with his otherwise-engaged, incapacitated son. And then, after the long build up to the journey and the long journey itself with all of its detours and digressions, as they enter the park Paul exclaims "Oh wow" when he sees all the attractions supplementing the mountain sculptures: "This is great. I love this". Suddenly for Frank his son is not only the cranky lump in a wheelchair but also the enchanted boy we saw in The Sportswriter sending notes by pigeon to his dead brother he imagines is still alive and living far away. "How often do anyone's best-laid plans work out?" Frank asks. "How often are promises kept and destinations arrived? Buddhists profess all is the journey. Abjure arrival. But what do they know?"

Frank, and perhaps Richard Ford, has finally found peace as he dedicates his time and effort to someone else without expecting anything in return; an end to commerce. The narrative enacts a movement towards his own death, off-stage like Ralph's and Paul's, and so a literary death, one that will never arrive, as we can return to the beginning of The Sportswriter and start the journey all over again, a beginning which is also an arrival.



[2] Note for what it's worth that the title of Thomas Bernhard's second novel Verstörung (published in English as Gargoyles) translates as Disturbance.

[3] A phrase of Saul Bellow's, or perhaps Martin Amis'.

[4] One of the most scathing reviews of the year according to Book Marks is this one in the TLS, which begins with literary gossip and moves on to suspicion of the author's intentions and the people who "favour fiction that showcases the mundane" (it cites Knausgaard as well as Ford). It wonders if it's because "the swathes of mediocre prose..are quite easy to read". Even if one doesn't enjoy it, Ford's prose is anything but mediocre – I am reminded reading the novels of John Self's description of Adam Mars-Jones' Cedilla as "a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars" – and Knausgaard's workmanlike prose puts stress on such ease with the fleeting presence of the infinite. The review quotes passages of scatological dialogue and says "It is hard to tell whether Ford thinks these moments are funny". In what way would an answer change the book? Most bizarrely, the review is "certain" that "Frank’s hokey, homespun wisdom is offered to us entirely without irony". This must be one of the strangest comments ever made by a professional reviewer. The existence alone of the four novels is ironic, as every expression of such wisdom is ironised in its performance. The review ends by wondering why Richard Ford "is taking up fresh shelf space in 2023". Perhaps a more pressing question is why the august TLS continues to include such defiantly narrow-minded criticism.


Tuesday, December 05, 2023

The enigma for criticism

To this day, I can learn only from bad films. The good ones I watch in the same spirit in which I watched when I was a kid. The great ones, even when I see them many times, are just an enigma. 

Werner Herzog describes a few "bad films" in his autobiography, all from his childhood, but neither names them nor the "great" films he's seen many times. The absence of titles enhances the aura of greatness as we are left to imagine numinous light oozing into each frame of an imaginary film. By naming, we focus on particulars: director, actors, subject matter, scenes, cinematography, soundtrack, awards, controversies; lyrics of the sirens' song drawing us to the innocent doom of criticism. But what else can be said about the greatness of enigma, the enigma of greatness?
If the lack of titles appears to be a cop out, as it does to me and David Trotter, with Herzog threatening to become "a dilettante of intangible sensations" as Charles Swann is described in Proust's novel, his legend as a filmmaker appears to depend on such reticence, with his career owing much to instinct and chance. The book is a catalogue of bizarre decisions, coincidences, and outrageous fortune, good and bad. On filming a prehistoric image in the Chauvet Cave discovered in 1994, he recognises similarities with lithographs made by Picasso in the 1930s, and asks: "are there images that slumber within us and are sometimes set free by some sort of jolt?". He believes there are, and "somehow all my works have pursued such images". He cites the 10,000 windmills in Signs of Life and the steamship being hauled over a hill in Fitzcarraldo.  

What is the value of such images? Again, Herzog doesn't specify, but it must be related to the concept of "ecstatic truth" he says requires another book to explain (another apparent cop out), but is, essentially, the shadowed illuminations of creativity, the familiar technique of defamiliarisation. If that is the case, what is the value of such truth?

"The image is always sacred", writes Jean-Luc Nancy, standing apart from "the world of things considered as a world of availability". For this reason, the sacred should not be confused with the religious. The religious is "the observance of a rite that forms and maintains a bond" while the sacred "signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off". Understanding the sacred in this sense is enough to excuse Herzog's reticence and to distinguish his films. The cave wall paintings in Cave of Forgotten Dreams are available to us in the obvious, visual way, but we're also set aside, removed and cut off. This is what distinguishes them.
The greatness, or part of the greatness, of an Aeneid, of a View of Delft, of a Don Giovanni, of a Ulysses, rests in the fact that they are, in an essential way, closed. By this I do no mean to say that these works of art are difficult, or obscure – what could be more limpid than the light that hovers over Delft? – but that they are mysterious at their core.
In historical terms, compared to cave paintings, the works John Banville cites in an essay were completed yesterday, and in naming them Banville tempts us toward the gossip of particulars, with greatness becoming a critical cliché. Once again, how can criticism look beyond them? The title of Blanchot's collection La Part du feu suggests it can by referring to the share of a work taken by fire, the uninhabitable side of a firebreak, and yet the essays focus on particular authors and particular works, and particular elements in those works, means either that the particulars are precisely what leads us toward what's closed, or to awareness that there is something closed. Herzog's images are also the result of extreme patience and tenacity with particulars: 
I never see the truth as a fixed star on the horizon but always as an activity, a search, an approximation.
The appearance of a new star fixed in the sky sets Karl Ove Knausgaard's novels The Morning Star and The Wolves of Eternity apart even as the content becomes increasingly prosaic: the latter has 400 pages dedicated to a short time in a teenager's small-town life. The star is closed to the characters, its presence looming without meaning over their local concerns. As such the star becomes an image of the novel as it relates to its content, which in The Wolves of Eternity gradually becomes the force generating its content, which, as I argued in my review of The Morning Star, correlates to the withdrawn presence of the Book in our lives.
Perhaps works become great by generating images their content dissimulates, and this is why they appear to be closed, mysterious at their core. A star is, of course, a fire.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Proust regained

I recommend very highly for anyone who has read or not read In Search of Lost Time Brian Nelson's The Swann Way, the first volume in a new translation of the entire novel by diverse hands, in this fine and very affordable paperback from Oxford World's Classics. His translation of the chapter Swann in Love, a novel in itself more or less, was published separately in 2017, so this edition includes Combray and Place Names: The Name

This is the fourth translation of Du côté de chez Swann following Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin, James Grieve's, and Lydia Davis', and the third version of the title. It's a pity (no doubt for publishing reasons) they can't all be Swann's Way, as the flow of the two esses and double double-u into the final wye has the mellifluous quality of Proust's prose.

I don't have any French (not since the ransom was paid anyway), so I can't judge it as a translation, but reading this version was like rediscovering Proust, puffing away the dust of Great Literature. I found the narrative clearer, the scenes funnier, the characters more distinctive – Aunt Léonie, Dr Cottard, Swann and Odette in particular – and the existential pressure of perception closer to the surface. And Proust's study of Swann's jealousy – "the shadow of his love" for Odette – is simply breathtaking.

Over the years I've written about Proust, most of it (like this) bookchat ephemera, but here, bar the final one, is a short list of longer, more in-depth posts:

Extratemporal meditations, on Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher.

Encountering the fabulous point, indirectly on Józef Czapski's Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp.

When now? on Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse

Can there be a pure narrative? is also the question opening Blanchot's essay The Experience of Proust, not included in selected bibliography for The Swann Way despite it being undoubtedly the best essay on Proust's novel and Brian Nelson having edited Leslie Hill's After Blanchot.

Perhaps most enjoyably, Albertine Asleep, my recording of a reading of a passage from The Captive broadcast in the early hours of the morning on the BBC World Service in 1978 that marks my discovery of Proust. It also includes the word mellifluous

And talking of my discovery of Proust: a few years after the radio broadcast, I watched the Channel 4 series The Modern World: Ten Great Writers, which also had a huge impact on me, if only then of atmosphere. In the episode below Terence Kilmartin says that Proust is the most intelligent man who ever wrote a novel (obviously, this was long before Tony Parsons). The episode also features Michel Butor.

Finally, if we needed a guarantee of equal quality for the second volume, Charlotte Mandell's name would be enough, and the good news is that I understand her translation is due in 2024.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Kevin Hart and the outside

There are two reasons why listening to Kevin Hart's interview on the Hermitix podcast, and reading his new collection and The Dark Gaze for the second time, has helped me to recognise what I have forgotten, missed, misconstrued or misunderstood in Maurice Blanchot's writing or, rather, setting all that side as inevitable, what has been a distraction from what matters to me in his writing and in reading generally.

The first is the signal clarity of Hart's summaries whose presence in the source is shrouded in paragraphs as long, seductive and mind-expanding as Proust's. And while Proust's prose is bright and Blanchot's "darkly incantatory", the implications of what he writes, felt with a palatial intensity, often vanish as soon as one of Marcel's ecstatic instants. Such vanishing is also the product of what Blanchot calls "the light, innocent Yes of reading", which is not worth losing in favour of knowledge.

The other reason is that Hart is a theologian, unique in Blanchot studies. Most scholars constrain their discussion to Blanchot's relation to writers and philosophers of the last 200 years, but Hart includes medieval Christian mystics. For Blanchot, he says, belief in God is a belief in an original unity, a belief in oneness and, for him, to do away with God means doing away with unity of the Self, of the Book, and of the Subject (all of which he gives leading capitals). He is prepared to accept a world without such grounding in unity. Except Blanchot's atheism is something other than a straightforward deletion: "As Heidegger warned," Hart writes in The Dark Gaze, "the absence of God is 'not nothing' but on the contrary is the fullness of a vast and complex heritage, and...that 'The flight of the gods must be experienced and endured'":

If Blanchot interprets this experience by way of atheism, he acknowledges that the deity returns as a ghost in the assumptions of philosophy and in the reserve on which literature calls. [...] To deny God is not thereby to eliminate transcendence; it is to see how that question is transformed and where it takes up its new abodes.

Its apparent abode in modern literature has been a recurring theme on this blog in recent years, slowly turning it away from bookchat and straightforward reviews as I discovered what drove both and what both concealed. But I may have misconstrued the presence of the not-nothing permeating the books I have written about here in those years. Even as someone entirely untouched by religious observance, instruction and practice, and certainly not new age "spirituality", have I made of it something more than it is, "acceding to a secular occult" to use Hart's words, going in the opposite direction to Blanchot's "anonymous, distracted, deferred, and dispersed way of being", appropriating petty escape as quasi-mystical, projecting the possibility of gnosis onto the blank intuitions of reading?

An answer of sorts comes when the presenter of the podcast assumes Blanchot would not be sympathetic to a religious thinker like Meister Eckhart and Hart replies that it's not that simple: Blanchot thought that Eckhart and other theologians concerned with apophatic thought and negative theology were onto something, only he thinks it wasn't God they were approaching but "the outside, the neutral, or the impossible".

It's unclear whether each word is meant as an equivalence of the other two, but I will assume they are. In the new collection he says the outside "can be discerned in "intransitive writing", which he says for Blanchot means "literary writing". Writing poetry and narrative can be defined as "something that happens when we respond to the outside", when the singular 'I' is displaced, as writing replaces the object with an image, as a portrait replaces the sitter. In the new collection he describes the process as "the perpetual passing of being into nothingness" and in The Dark Gaze: "To write is to transform the instant into an imaginary space, to pass from a time in which death could occur to an endless interval of dying." If we still regard a work of literature is a product of mastery, this should challenge us, as should the recent proliferation of novels created by AI that have swamped the Amazon bookstore as it dispenses with the encounter with the presence and biography of an author.

On the side of the reader, we might see the effects of displacement in the focus in reviews on story, a stylistic tour de force and subject matter or, in literary criticism, on technical analysis and the tracing of an author's oeuvre. Nevertheless, the experience of something other than being in familiar time and space forms the cultural awe and reverence for books, but which in these displacements is immediately instrumentalised out of recognition; defining it as an experience is evidence enough of domestication. It is instead closer to a non-experience, and so the demand for it to mean something in the world, to be made real in some way; hence the vacillation between passion and ambivalence for books, more often than not patronising the act of reading as an indulgence, an escape, at best a tool with which to tackle current affairs. For some, however, a grave resonance remains: the eponymous character in Saul Bellow's novel Mr Sammler's Planet, who, like Blanchot in real life, survived a firing squad in the second world war, is captivated by Meister Eckhart: "Mr Sammler could not say that he literally believed what he was reading. He could, however, say that he cared to read nothing but this." Blanchot may provide understanding of such care as an experience of, as Hart writes, "the ceaseless oscillation of being and nonbeing", an awareness of "a neutral state that can only fascinate us and, in doing so, bind us to itself".

Despite all this, Hart complains that Blanchot is "less than clear" on the definition of the outside, though "perhaps we should not expect someone who mainly writes literary columns in journals to supply rigorous answers". He must surely know already that Blanchot mainly wrote literary columns because the outside can only be approached indirectly, intransitively, often in a performative mode (the light, innocent Yes of writing), so the answers may be considered rigorous in respect of the outside.

Hart also notes that "it is odd that many of his readers who work in colleges and universities have not sought clarification". Well, there is at least one book published in the same imprint whose title suggests otherwise. However, William Allen writes that "Blanchot never precisely defines what he means by the outside, because its status as the outside makes definition impossible", so perhaps this can be included under Hart's note. Nevertheless, the book does contain a description of how the experience of literature at least raises the question of the outside.

While the book comprises close readings of Blanchot's novel The Most-High and the récit The one who was standing apart from me, I have to constrain my attention to the introduction in which Allen addresses Blanchot's image of the "two slopes" of literature found in the essay Literature and the Right to Death (an image and title that Allen says is also unclear). There is the slope familiar to us all with its uncomplicated, common sense representation of things in the world – the kind that "protests against revelation" as Blanchot puts it –  and there is the other slope "by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated". In the hyperbolic terminology of the essay, there is the revelation of death in the enabling of things in the world to be communicated. Only it's a death that never quite occurs, as language never quite appears in itself nor disappears into its object, and in this impasse each slope is exposed to the other "without however converging on it, leading to an endless ambiguity about the presence of meaning"; we cannot locate meaning solely in language or in the world so there is an anxiety we overcome only in the violence of denial or by seeking sanctuary in the hypotheses of scholarship. 

Allen provides an example of ambiguity in a bravura passage on the consequences of the slogan "Liberty or Death!". In pronouncing it, the revolutionary impresses us with their heroic stance, but also frightens us by placing themselves at a distance from everyday values. In doing so, death becomes a part of everyday life, "coextensive" with liberty:

If the claim initially appears as all or nothing, then it quickly transforms into all and nothing, insofar as both outcomes are the same at this extreme, and this leads to its further transformation as all is nothing. But...this is not nihilism, as the status of the two terms has changed utterly in being so removed from ordinary values. What is exposed is a netherworld beyond their simple alternation or negation, a world that presents itself absolutely and also removes itself leaving neither a presence nor an absence.

I imagine we could apply the political "Liberty or Death!" to the literary "War on Cliché!", in which what we experience as a defamiliarising phrase liberating us from habit soon becomes a cliché itself deadening its impact, which thereby demands endless war and endless dying. Martin Amis' later writing became obsessed by death cults only because they revealed his own.

If I have been distracted from what matters to me in reading, it may be in seeking an accommodation of exposure to this netherworld within a culture that recognises only power and control. This blog is a prime example.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Further in the opposite direction

Modernity is supposed to be the moment when religious claims and systems of authority reveal themselves to be human-all-too-human fictions that lack divine legitimation. Religion is supposed to wither away. But this itself...can be understood as a religious claim: the very groundlessness, the very contentlessness of the messianic call is what makes it religious. Modernity, on this account, might be understood as the fulfilment of messianic thinking. The relation to the divine can now be revealed in its contentlessness as an empty transcendence. And when that happens, a whole theological vocabulary puts itself out of use, ready for new appropriations outside traditional religious practice.

This is from The Opposite Direction: Taubes, Bernhard and the Gnostic Imaginary, an exceptionally rich essay by Lars Iyer. 

The title offers a marvellous advancement on my haphazard post on Bernhard, also entitled The opposite direction, and another on Gnosticism called The withdrawal of the novel, both of which can be found on this blog but also in my unfallen from no press freely downloadable epub or PDF collection.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The disaster of writing: My Weil by Lars Iyer

"When a plane crashes, a bomb explodes, a city floods or a pandemic begins, Lucy Easthope's phone starts to ring" says the blurb to her recent book subtitled Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster, and goes on to report rapturous praise from critics and common readers alike, that it became a Sunday Times bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and New Statesman. Disaster is good for business.

It's also good news for academic departments assailed by reform in the public sector, as studying disasters provides an ideal opportunity to supply measurable outputs demanded by university management. The journal Disaster Studies for example publishes papers "that examine how disasters are anticipated, experienced, governed, and understood". The range of events listed suggests a disaster can be more than atom bombs and asteroids, leaving room for all kinds of events requiring examination. In Lars Iyer's latest novel, the Philosophy department of a Manchester university has been rebranded as The Centre for Disaster Studies to surf the neoliberal Tsunami. For its PhD students, this is fine.

The new title has the double advantage of more accurately describing philosophy not as a love of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom but recognition that the stars have fallen (the etymology of 'disaster'), and also of concealing the abyss between Philosophy and Business Studies, the pseudo-academic discipline gradually replacing the Humanities, allowing the students to remain hidden within the system despite their opposition. Indeed, two of them are called Marcie and Valentine, hinting at a Gnostic hope of another world, a better world, an intellectual equivalent of Lucy Easthope's practical redemption. While their studies may lead nowhere but back into Manchester's destitute working-class districts, it is resistance to the demonic world embodied by Business Studies. They look at its students – keen, smartly dressed, actually writing their theses – and ask: "Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their diseases of the soul? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them."

Readers of Lars Iyer's two previous novels Wittgenstein Jr and Nietzsche and the Burbs will relish the familiar chorused voice of hyperbole as the students seek to distinguish their studies from the banality of their everyday lives, as well as recognise the passive sentences describing the students' location – The Ees. A clearing. A long-sunken basin. Water, ankle deep. – situating the students as italicised observers of a world indifferent to their hysterics. The Ees is a swampy wasteland in the city used as a dump by locals but has a mystical aura for the students: "You come to the Ees to lose yourself. To be forgotten."

Also as in the previous two novels, an intellectual doppelgänger of a long dead philosopher enters to shake things up. In this case it's a new student calling herself Simone Weil, a convert to Christianity, challenging the students' incipient paganism. "Isn't God dead?" the students ask, and she says, yes, the "God of the philosophers is dead". Instead, God withdrew from the world in order to create it and evil, the very thing that appears to prove his non-existence, is "the very thing that reveals him in his truth". God's goodness shows himself through what we do, so rather than reject the world, we should seek to do good in the world, as she does by giving money to the homeless, speaking calmly to the madman on the bus, and praying for the addicts and the drunks. 

Such selflessness, however, a giving oneself over to something unknown, something outside, is also the promise of the Ees. In this way the novel appears to set up a debate about the best way to deal with what's missing from our lives and from the world – indulgent escape or self-sacrifice? – and it would have taken place if My Weil was not itself subject to disaster. What's missing from our lives and the world is precisely what the novel as a genre seeks to provide: a space filled with presence that is also, like a literary equivalent of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit illusion, saturated in absence. We cannot see one without the other. The anxiety this provokes is everywhere in novels, the blurbs of novels and the review pages promising all kinds of events ("an act of shocking violence") and special information contained within a novel to mitigate absence, which must go without saying. 

For James Joyce, said Beckett, "there was no difference between the fall of a bomb and the fall of a leaf”. For us, too, in reading. The intensity of My Weil's bombing campaign of ideas and expression is matched only by its leaf-like lightness, the futility of which we cannot ignore even as we lose ourselves in its comedy. The effect is to open a space, a clearing like the Ees, for the presence of the black and empty sky to be raised in a novel. 

The word 'clearing' has to be noted as an allusion to the translation of Lichtung, the word used by Heidegger as he sought to return philosophy to its beginnings in ancient Greece. It is in those beginnings, however, that he also saw the end of philosophy as the sciences that developed "within the field that philosophy opened up" turned philosophy into "the empirical science of man" governed by systems of method, what he calls cybernetics:

This science corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being. For it is the theory of the regulation of the possible planning and arrangement of human labor. Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news. The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.

It has led to a culture in which its "technological-scientific-industrial character" has become "the sole criterion of man's world sojourn". A clearing for such a return would be the equivalent of a dead end of a forest path apparently leading nowhere that opens into the light where trees have been removed. But, Heidegger says, "philosophy knows nothing of the clearing", hence his turn towards poetry as the potential for such light.

We may see here discussion of the death of the novel in a similar context rather than one of quality and cultural relevance, as the contemporary literary novel has little more to offer than an exchange of news by other means, while the popular genres offer a happy escape into the repetition of storytelling. The end of literature follows the end of philosophy as it is usurped by the unendlicher Verkehr of information. 

In a dark night in the Ees, Valentine announces that "Only French prose-poetry philosophy can save us now" and so they read aloud from Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster, a book whose own blurb sells it relevance to modern literature "haunted by world wars, concentration camps, [and] Hiroshima", the familiar examples of disaster, and that a new academic study applies to a reading of recent novels because in them "an understanding of critical events – death, ecological catastrophe, pandemics – is possible", but what the students read suggests something else entirely:

Between the disaster and the other there would be the
contact, the disjunction of absent meaning—friendship.

Marcie, reading (just able to make out the words):

It is in friendship that I can respond . . . a friendship
un . . . un . . . shared . . . without reciprocity . . . friendship
for that which has passed leaving no trace . . .

The relation to the other is disastrous: that’s what this book argues,
Ismail says. It’s a break with what we know. With earthly order.
Like Simone . . . , I say.
Is Simone disastrous? we wonder.
She dresses disastrously, Gita says. Those nun-shoes . . .

The novel is in this sense the disaster for us, as Simone is for the group, and as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche were before, and as is indeed the bathos of Gita's remark; for a brief time there is a loosening of the ties that bind us not only to the earthly order and that of the stars, the cosmic order, but also to the order of philosophy and literature. But what follows? The lost soul of the group, Johnny, seeks to push friendship into something more with Gita, which she says is not a wise idea. "Why not? I say. Why—really—not? Don’t you see—this might be a chance. A chance for what? Gita asks."

For the same not to be the same, I say. For one day not to follow another. For the inevitable not to be inevitable. For cog not to be locked into cog . . . Wouldn’t you like to think that we’re on the brink of something? That something’s about to happen?

A phone, ringing.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

A loss of problems

Martin Amis' novels were among those I read when I began reading novels – one read what was being talked about on television and in newspapers. Money was the first quickly followed by each and every one that preceded it, including the journalism in The Moronic Inferno, which I may have read twice, and London Fields in the year it was published. This was when I realised that reading Amis had been time well spent; time that from then on I would no longer waste. This was forgotten and reaffirmed several years later when I borrowed copies of The Information and Experience, and it was only out of duty that I read The Zone of Interest when I wrote something about Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

The same can be said of the novels of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, and JG Ballard, the big names of Britain’s literary scene in the 1980s and 90s, and Philip Roth and John Updike of the USA’s (the exception was Saul Bellow). Why did I feel mild indifference reading their novels compared to the entirely different feeling I got reading various European novels (and Saul Bellow)? To my surprise, the names of Amis, McEwan and Ballard have appeared several times on this blog over the years, often as I seek an answer to this question. The news of Amis’ death brought those early days back to me and now, with the death of Milan Kundera whose Unbearable Lightness of Being was the catalyst of recognition, I am thinking about it again. 

I read various postmortem articles invariably focusing on Amis' style, many of which Jack Arden says in an excellent piece create "the impression that style was also more than this – something supra-personal”. I was certainly seduced by Amis’ style in Money – I remember the effect of reading the verb "sharking" on the first page (coincident no doubt with the "Martian" poetry I was reading at the time) – but evidently there wasn’t, for me, much more than style, and while I could assume this was because, as Terry Eagleton says, Amis "was the great poet of the postmodern metropolis", subject matter that sparks nothing in me, one could also say Proust was a great poet of the modern metropolis (in Sodom and Gomorrah at least), and my discovery of Proust never became a waste of time. Eagleton’s article would also suggest my lack of interest in their novels follows distaste for the liberal politics of "the Amis group" – to which he adds Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Clive James – except the writers whose work excited me did not do so for political reasons; Saul Bellow’s reactionary tendencies being evidence of that. But it’s here that Eagleton gets closer to the difference when he describes the rightward trajectory of the group: Hitchens, for example, moved from being a "practising Trotskyist at Oxford" to "dining with the architects of Western butchery in Iraq". But, he says, "the relation between politics and letters is more complex than that, as a glance at the great modernist writers would suggest":

Joseph Conrad was a deep-dyed conservative and misogynist with a virulent hatred of the political Left. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis supported the fascist cause, while W.B. Yeats, a champion of plans to stop the poor from breeding, flirted with fascism as well. D.H. Lawrence was racist, sexist, homophobic and antisemitic, while T.S. Eliot was a high Tory who championed a quasi-fascistic French movement. Yet all of these figures were radicals — radicals of the Right rather than the Left — and the fineness of their work is related to the depth and breadth of their challenge to a liberal democracy in profound crisis. Besides, there were plenty of modernist experiments on the political Left as well.

Almost all of these writers thought deeply about politics, philosophy and the shape of a whole civilisation, which is hardly true of Clive James. Some of them were powerful visionaries, which is not quite how one would describe Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan. This is one reason why their work, taken as a whole, has never been equalled in the century or so which has passed since it appeared, and certainly not by the Amis group.

While I would dispute that the work of "the great modernist writers" has not been equalled, it's understandable that it appears this way, especially if one's focus is on the Anglophone sphere, as thinking deeply here has been replaced by a condition Wittgenstein defined in his own time:

Some philosophers (or whatever you like to call them) suffer from what may be called “loss of problems”. Then everything seems quite simple to them, no deep problems seem to exist any more, the world becomes broad and flat and loses all depth, and what they write becomes immeasurably shallow and trivial. (Translated by GEM Anscombe)

One can discern this condition across the entirety of Britain's public discourse. Behold in awe and reverence the deep thought underwriting this insight from an honorary member of the Amis group:

Amis himself said he never finished either one of Kafka's novels, but then again neither did Kafka. Very witty, of course, and characteristic: George Steiner once said an Englishman's corner-of-the-mouth "come off it" would have stopped Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and Beethoven composing the Fifth Symphony. Kafka's "failure" is thereby judged in the context of literary mastery rather than in relation to anything larger; Walter Benjamin, for example, said "it is the fact that his books are incomplete which shows the true working of grace in his writings".

One may object and point out the novels of Amis and McEwan address important issues, with former's books about terrorism, Stalin's Gulag and the Shoah (although curiously not one about crimes closer to home), and the latter's narrativised punditry drawing attention from literary journalists like never before; hardly shallow and trivial. Except the larger questions have been settled, as the Pope of scientism and Cardinal Hitchens insist, which leaves the novel seeking relevance in terms of a public profile, in an absurd war on cliché – the eternal return of a goldfish in its bowl – and in ambulance-chasing pseudo-journalism.

One might characterise the form of the novel as a search for an authority for itself, with genre providing prefab solutions, so a focus on parochial animations is an inevitable development of its Humanism; it demands constant movement to keep up with the times. But the shock of Martin Amis' death should remind us of the thin ice upon which such movement proceeds. Amis described the impulse behind his 1995 novel The Information as "an hysterical overreaction to the certain knowledge that you're going to die" and Julian Barnes, said to be the Gwyn Barry of that novel, wrote a book on the same knowledge. The horror of the self before the ultimate problem is an intensification of the writer's anxiety before the blank page, hence the blossoming of autofiction in the confluence of both. 

The problem of the recognition of the death for writers was addressed by Kierkegaard in his 1848 book On Authority and Revelation, an appropriate title given the expressed impulse and subject of those two books:

Since our age … is supposed to be an age of movement, it then is not unlikely that many people's lives go on in such a way that they have premises for living but do not arrive at any conclusion – just like the age, which is an age of movement that has set the premises in motion but is also an age of movement that has not come to the conclusion. The lives of such people go on until death comes and puts an end to life, yet without, in the sense of a conclusion, bringing the end with it.     [Translated by Hong and Hong]

The revelation of death provides authority from the outside for the lack of ultimate meaning in one's life.

Such a person can, in proportion to his gifts...go on and become an author, according to his opinion of it. But this opinion is an illusion. For that matter, he may...possess extraordinary talents, exceptional knowledge, but he is not an author, even though he produces. His writing will be just like his life, material; perhaps this material will be worth its weight in gold, but it is only material. ... No, although he writes, he is not essentially an author; he can write the first part, but he cannot write the second part; or, lest there be misunderstanding, he can indeed write the first and second parts, but then he cannot write the third part – the last part he cannot write.     

What then is to be done to complete a work?

In order to find the conclusion, it is first and foremost necessary to perceive very vividly that it is lacking and thereby in turn very vividly to miss it. 

No doubt giving up on Kafka's novels is in keeping with what one aspect of what their incompletion reveals, but it also suggests an unwillingness to face the other because of what it would mean for authoring novels, and perhaps a wish for novels to face the other is why I turned away from the Amis group and why, for me at least, Kafka's fragments remain a living presence despite the increasing obscurity of his problems.


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