Saturday, May 31, 2008

Perhaps the most impressive thing about [the book] is that it's 700 large-format pages long, yet winds up seeming too short.
Jonathan Rosenbaum reviews Richard Brody's Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. For me, there is only Je vous salue, Marie (1985) and one other:
Brody is clearly a Godard partisan - ready to defend the intractable Éloge de l'amour (2001) against all comers.
Quite right too. Yes, intractable. Unmanageable, uncontrollable, difficult, awkward, troublesome, demanding. Does anyone else read that as a positive?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Against science

Jonathan Gottschall admits that he's not the first to argue for a marriage of the two cultures but goes further than CP Snow by calling for literary scholars to adopt science's "theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, [scholars] should embrace science's spirit of intellectual optimism". "In some cases", he says, "it's possible to use scientific methods to question cherished tenets of modern literary theory." So why doesn't he apply these high standards to his key example?

"[C]onsider this shibboleth of modern literary theory" he says, "the author is dead".
Roughly speaking, this statement means that authors have no power over their readers. When we read stories we do not so much yield to the author's creation as create it anew ourselves - manufacturing our own highly idiosyncratic meanings as we go along. This idea has radical implications: If it is true, there can be no shared understanding of what literary works mean. But like so much else that passes for knowledge in contemporary literary studies, this assertion has its basis only in the swaggering authority of its asserter - in this case, Roland Barthes, one of the founding giants of poststructuralist literary theory.
He then debunks this "cherished tenet" with results from scientific tests. Yet anyone who reads Barthes' essay will find that the "radical implications" are only that. Nowhere does it say that we manufacture "our own highly idiosyncratic meanings as we go along". Nor does it deny the possibility of a shared understanding. It's ironic, given Gottschall's evident contempt for Barthes' swagger, that his refutation relies on a reduction of a complex essay to a "statement" and his own idiosyncratic extrapolation of the final passage of the essay:
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.
It's just about fair to imply from this that "authors have no power over their readers", but Gottschall is presenting it as an expression of Reader Response theory. The destination of writing cannot any longer be personal. What else do we share but impersonality? Rather than test "statements" with scientific method, it might have been better for Gottschall to call for more intellectual history in literary scholarship (at least for himself). The Death of the Author is part of a deep movement in Western culture. It reaffirms modernist resistance to romantic notions of mastery begun in Proust's Against Sainte-Beuve (beginning: "Daily, I attach less value to the intellect").

Just as Gottschall isn't the first to cede authority to utility and rationalism, Barthes wasn't the first French literary thinker to distance the author from his work. Fourteen years before The Death of the Author, Maurice Blanchot published The Essential Solitude, an essay on the literary work's neutrality. We can see where Barthes is coming from because, as Christophe Bident outlines in R/M, 1953, he writes in parallel to Blanchot. The Essential Solitude begins by distinguishing the author's solitude from the social world:
In the solitude of the work - the work of art, the literary work - we discover a more essential solitude. It excludes the complacent isolation of individualism; it has nothing to do with the quest for singularity. The fact that one sustains a stalwart attitude throughout the disciplined course of the day does not dissipate it. He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed, moreover, doesn't know it. This ignorance preserves him. It distracts him by authorizing him to persevere. The writer never knows whether the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he starts over or destroys in another. Valéry, celebrating this infinite quality which the work enjoys, still sees only its least problematic aspect. That the work is infinite means, for him, that the artist, though unable to finish it, can nevertheless make it the delimited site of an endless task whose incompleteness develops the mastery of the mind, expresses this mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power.

[Translated by Ann Smock]
Power is what Gottschall and the literary bloggers sympathetic to his call remain in thrall to. In their case it is the understandable desire for "relevance", a respected academic career and a book-buying public ready to afford criticism the same market share as popular science. However, for Barthes and Blanchot (and Heidegger before them in Poetry, Language, Thought) the focus remains literature itself.
[T]he work of art, the literary work is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively this: that it is - and nothing more. Beyond that it is nothing. Whoever wants to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. He whose life depends upon the work, either because he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent void of the work. The solitude of the work has as its primary framework the absence of any defining criteria. This absence makes it impossible ever to declare the work finished or unfinished. The work is without any proof, just as it is without any use. It can't be verified. Truth can appropriate it, renown draws attention to it, but the existence it thus acquires doesn't concern it. This demonstrability renders it neither certain nor real - does not make it manifest. The work is solitary: this does not mean that it remains uncommunicable, that it has no reader. But whoever reads it enters into the affirmation of the work's solitude, just as he who writes it belongs to the risk of this solitude.
There is a reason for these overlong quotations. Blanchot's writing - its unique and relentless patience - is performative rather than didactic. Neither information nor wisdom is being imparted but, as Barthes says, it is writing "borne by a pure gesture of inscription" tracing "a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins".

Barthes, sharing Valéry's optimism, heralds the absence of authorial control as the birth of a new freedom, a new quest for the key to all mythologies. This headline-grabbing opportunism is perhaps what draws attention to Barthes and obscurity to his secret sharer. And it enables Gottschall to present a caricature of his own misreading of Barthes' essay and to believe it is guaranteed by means of extra-literary verification. Even his expression of appreciation for literature - "stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature" - indicates a patronising tolerance for literature only as fodder for the mills of science. "Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition". But in what way is "the human condition" already transfigured by the unnatural force of art? Unfortunately for Gottschall and his Monday-morning optimism, science, like religion, is just another system of expression; a literary genre.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

More disconnection

When, the other day, I quoted two bloggers' headline summaries of Thomas Bernhard and his work in order to report on the dedicated PEN event, and then said I didn't recognise my Thomas Bernhard in their descriptions, it wasn't meant as a criticism. Only after Bill Marx replied did I hear negative overtones. (One thing that annoys me about my hampering passion for concision is the countervailing demand for clarification and qualification flaring from every bloggin' sentence). Instead, I wrote it as an expression of puzzlement. Another example:
The novel seems the perfect form to examine what has happened in real life, the things that have deeply affected ordinary people and reflected the times they lived in.
David Peace quoted in The Guardian. Disconnection perhaps because the novel is also the absence of time; an eternal interval, and therefore unease with such apparent trust in stories (necessary no doubt to be eligible for the Potato Head British Book Awards). I've written before about the deep affect of stories.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

In the margins with Jean Paulhan

In the last couple of days, wood s lot has offered links to downloads of very desirable books in PDF. One of them contains a translation of Blanchot's "How is Literature Possible?", his landmark review-essay of Jean Paulhan's The Flower of Tarbes or, Terror in Literature.

As Michael Syrotinski explains in his profile of Paulhan, the book explores the opposition between Terror in literature - summarised as "the endless necessity of writing against the literature and language of one's predecessors" - and Rhetoric - "conventional language, commonplaces, and literary clichés". It's an opposition that still inspires English-speaking writers. For example, Mark Sarvas in his interview with Bat Segundo expressed solidarity with Martin Amis' war against cliché. The trouble with this position is, as Blanchot explains, that:
Anyone who wants, at every moment, to be absent from words, to be present only at the ones he reinvents, is endlessly preoccupied with them, so that of all the authors, those who strive most keenly to avoid the reproach of verbalism are also precisely those who are most exposed to this reproach. "Run away from language, it comes after you”, says Paulhan, “go after language, it runs away from you". We might think of Victor Hugo, the writer par excellence obsessed with words, who indeed did everything he could to triumph over rhetoric, and who said: "The poet must not write with what has already been written (that is, with words) but with his soul and his heart."
Yet, while this might suggest the hope for literature to be more than dry abstraction is futility itself, Blanchot says:
The same is true of those who, by prodigious asceticism, deluded themselves into thinking that they set themselves apart from all literature. Because they wanted to rid themselves of conventions and forms, in order to be in direct contact with the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they wished to reveal, they were ultimately content to use this world, this secret, this metaphysics as conventions and forms, which they complacently presented, and which constituted both the visible framework and the basis of their works. As Jean Paulhan remarks decisively on this point: "Castles that come tumbling down, lights in the night, ghosts and dreams (for example) are . . . pure conventions, like rhyme and the three unities, but they are conventions that we happily take for dreams and castles, whereas no one has ever thought they have seen the three unities." In other words, for these kinds of writers, metaphysics religion and feelings take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre, in a word, literature.

So we are now in a position to give an answer to the question: how is literature possible? It is in fact by virtue of a double illusion - the illusion of some writers who fight against commonplace expressions and language by the very same means which engender language and commonplace expressions; and the illusion of other writers who, in renouncing literary conventions or, as they say, literature itself, cause it to be reborn in a form - as metaphysics, religion, etc. - which is not its own.
[Translated by Michael Syrotinski]
We might add science to that list.

By the way, you can read more about the encounter between Paulhan and Blanchot in Allan Stoekl's The Agonies of the Intellectuals (if you can find a copy) and, at ReadySteadyBook, Michael Syrotinski's introduction to The Flowers of Tarbes. But there's more - in June, the University of Illinois Press is publishing On Poetry and Politics, a collection of Paulhan's essays in translation. The promotional material says he published his own work in a manner that deliberately kept it inconspicuous, or as Maurice Blanchot put it, "in the margins." Enough perhaps to explain why he, Blanchot and other French writers more worth our while now tend still to be overshadowed by biography-friendly writers.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Only disconnect

Corny trash, vulgar clichés, philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature.
Yes, welcome to PEN World Voices!

Not Thomas Bernhard's words - though they suit him - but Nabokov's (quoted in link via The Literary Saloon). The Millions and The Arts Fuse report on The Art of Failure, the panel discussion of Bernhard that hasn't quite received the coverage as those featuring our finest purveyors of said pseudo-literature.

As a confessed newcomer to Bernhard, Garth Risk Hallberg on The Millions can be forgiven for accepting unchallenged phrases like "Bernhard's misanthropy". Only, whenever I read such casual summaries - "a man who turned his ferocious hatred of his native Austria and obsession with misery and failure into literature" as Bill Marx puts it on The Arts Fuse - I don't quite recognise the author to whose work I feel so close. (Nor indeed "Bernhard is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison." from Horacio Castellanos Moya in the panel discussion itself). Perhaps Bernhard has "so many loving fans" - those who turned up to this event despite it clashing with an audience with Ian McEwan - because there remains a readership for whom a work of art that manages to produce aesthetic bliss while facing the worst for what it is and what it does (to literature as much as to us) is far more vital to their lives than incontinent exoticism or polite novels "about global warming".

Saturday, May 03, 2008

My unwritten blogs

In February, I said here that I hoped to be back to normal within two weeks. In March, the medical estimate was closer to six months. The paucity of posts confirms who was right. And while returning to work and the unrelenting fatigue associated with a serious brain injury are the obvious causes, there is another.

It's not like there haven't been provocations to post. From Nigel Beale's continued defence of literary biography, to Jeremy Adler's review-essay on Novalis and, most recently, the middlebrow fear of literature at PEN World Voices in New York, the blogging throb was felt. And, while each of these might have maintained the pleasant momentum of blogging, I held back. Writing these unwritten blogs would, I sensed, dissipate the pressure of the essential question pulsing around my damaged head.

"But surely" says Nigel, resisting alternative readings of Proust's Contre Sainte-Beuve, "the 'essence' which makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, Picasso Picasso etc., although obviously important, is something beyond description, or comprehension." Well, yes. But not quite. We comprehend it every time we watch a Shakespeare play, look at painting by Picasso or read novels like Proust's. Everyone can comprehend the essence, just as everyone can frown over the painter's behaviour or gossip about the writer's sexuality. Yet comprehension is also the intoxication of reading. It ends as soon as the encounter is over. From then on, we begin to read backwards, towards the mirage of origin. No wonder biography sells: after all, the moi profond won't fill The Guardian's book pages.

Yet, if comprehension flits by, what can we do other than bury our reveries inside the platitudes of public discourse? This might be the question maintained in the blogs I will not write.

Friday, May 02, 2008


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