Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's "sedative patronisation"

Untroubling familiarity and base populism is what “the people” are, dubiously, supposed to crave. This is certainly what “the people” get whenever the avant-garde is deemed to have failed.
Jonathan Meades reviews Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism.
But is populism actually popular? Or is it simply sedative patronisation, bread and circuses devised by a cynical caste of free marketeers who presumptuously underestimate the collective intellect?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ballard: another last modernist

Rhys Tranter has posted several blogs in response to the death of JG Ballard. So far I have managed to avoid comment. However, the latest links to Chris Petit's appreciation The Last Modernist and now I have something to say.

What is it with this title? In 1996, Anthony Cronin published The Last Modernist, a biography of Beckett and, three years ago, James Wood wrote an article about Henry Green entitled The last English Modernist (to which I responded at the time). We can assume it's a muted overstatement to assert the importance of a writer even when writing - certainly in these three cases - means the erasure of the author as a distinct personality. Here though, in its blithely confident use, it reveals the anxiety with which British literary culture regards modernism (the case, by the way, is lower to maintain the present tense).

In the two tributes, the word is used in its most general sense: a modernist is a writer concerned with the modern world. Ballard was certainly that. What's more, he insisted that he was "not a literary man" - that is, uninterested in writing in itself. His concern instead was for precise representation of his subject: "He transcribed the images that unspooled in his head with an intense reverence and literalness, with no hint of po-mo irony, the last modernist." Petit places the focus on Ballard observation of "a world teetering on the brink of crash and catastrophe" and the epidemic of psychosis it provokes. This is reiterated in his tribute by Martin Amis:
[Ballard] kept asking: what effect does the modern setting have on our psyches - the motion sculpture of the highways, the airport architecture, the culture of the shopping mall, pornography and technology? The answer to that question is a perversity that takes various mental forms, all of them extreme.
This is certainly the climate of modernism and it cannot be denied that, in their novels, both Ballard and Amis raise a terrible caricature that might be called modern life and might thereby be called modernistic. Yet why isn't writing also subject to modernity as much as "our psyches"? In both appreciations, the writers demonstrate their own distance from the caricature. They are able to remove themselves from modernity in order to explain why its fictional presentation is worth celebrating. What does this tell us about the reach of modernity?

Amis refers to his father's friendship with the writer "did not survive Ballard's increasing interest in experimentalism" but the only forms mentioned are the perversely mental. Perhaps it was that Ballard's novels display "very little interest in human beings in the conventional sense" and are "remorselessly visual", both necessary symptoms of modernity. I suspect these are individual features of the author's style rather than experiment, although the unrelenting boredom of The Unlimited Dream Company might be an exception. So, again, what about the distance of the author; the remove from what is taking its course in the novel? Since his death we've read how Ballard himself was a very conservative character, in contrast to his imagination. This is told with a mixture of amusement and unreflective perplexity. Yet the refusal to investigate that separation is - for me at least - what finally limits such fiction; not interesting as fiction. Ballard's is a form in which the author and his means are not subject to the threat of chaos and castastrophe, always able to maintain a knowing distance. People in novels are never writers, just as characters in soaps never watch soaps. In this way, fiction can be more easily assimilated by the culture of journalism and presented as attention to the world while remaining a comforting escape.

We might compare all this to a classic modernist work, Kafka's The Judgment. The final action - in which Georg Bendemann leaps from a bridge into a river - returns the story to its origins or, rather, its pre-origins; its non-existence. Judgment has been made on the imagination that has produced the story and thereby betrayed the lie of its efforts to enter the world; the story is condemned to a release that is also a sentence of death. It is sentence that is, for the writer and reader, both swift and endless. "Last" is thereby also a misconstrual and misrepresentation of literary modernism; hence perhaps its popular repetition.

Human Smoke signals

Oppressors don't fear pacifism. They fear aggression. Baker quotes a demonstrator's placard: 'WAR MEANS FASCISM'. The truth is the exact reverse.
This is the end of Max Dunbar's review of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, which has just been published in paperback. Isn't the reverse true only because the phrase is chiastic? Whichever, it is meant as the triumphant rebuttal of Baker's support for pacifists in the 1930s. Looking back in the knowledge of the Holocaust, Baker's position seems not only dubious but downright callous. Back at the beginning of the review, it's clear Dunbar agrees and quotes Orwell in support of the suggestion that pacifists are "secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty". And, before he begins to address the book, he also quotes three other reviews that take issue with the morality of Baker's project (though how all four can be described as "professional historians" is a question that'll have to remain for others to answer - Adam Kirsch, for instance, is a poet and literary critic). The potential reader is well-primed to be suspicious.

For me, otherwise unperturbed by the challenge of Human Smoke, the reception has been troubling because the issue of the Holocaust has been raised to address and, at the same, to obscure the reviewers' responsibility for more recent atrocities. For all the reviewers haughty disgust at Baker, the fact is the British did not declare war on Germany to end oppression of European Jewry. Forgive me for repeating the obvious, but it was only when Nazi Germany invaded a sovereign nation that war began. It's worth pointing out too that those, like Max Dunbar, who supported the invasion of Iraq, it wasn't Saddam's oppression that prompted the US and UK governments. Indeed, he was toppled at his least oppressive, least dangerous time. In the 80s, at the height of his well-sponsored reign, the powerful whose aggressive policies Dunbar so admires, encouraged a terrible war on Iran and, in order to maintain military support, turned a blind eye to the gassing of civilians that would later be used to back-up spurious warnings of WMD that were themselves used to justify an invasion.

Moreover, oppressors do fear pacifism. The Nazis were so fearful of The White Rose movement that they beheaded a 16-year-old girl. We might wonder whose "power and successful cruelty" Sophie Scholl admired - Orwell's perhaps? And more recently, in Iraq, there was a campaign of non-violent resistance which, Chomsky observes, "compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals". Insurgent aggression, it could be said, enables the oppression the US seeks to impose on Iraq as it had previously relied on Saddam to do (overthrowing once he became too weak) - enables it, that is, to present the oppressive occupation as "resolve" and "determination" to bring "freedom" at some vague point in the distant future.

Finally, Dunbar observes that Baker's juxtaposition of fragments "becomes a technique for lazy moral equivalence". I can see how this is likely. Yet Dunbar himself uses suggestion when he asks "how honourable were the war's opponents?". For example, Gandhi, he tells us, was "a committed racist". If one decides every pronouncement made by each individual quoted by Baker is relevant then juxtaposition becomes impossible. Surely absences is as much the point of juxtaposition as presence, or is thinking for one's self - awareness of resonances and alternatives - problematic for some? Still, let's avoid laziness and rely on definitions supplied by international law. The recent invasions by US and UK forces are direct equivalents of the Nazi assaults on Poland and Russia in that they violate the sixth Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention. Those with executive power in each nation are potentially guilty of the supreme war crime - the waging of a war of aggression (they have to be tried first of course). This isn't a mere technicality. As we know, the death toll as direct result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq has risen well above one million civilians. Reading the overt supporters and covert apologists of aggression, one has to ask: what part of Never Again don't they understand?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

January 19, 1922

What meaning have yesterday's conclusions today? They have the same meaning as yesterday's, are true, except the blood is oozing away in the chinks between the great stones of the law.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Oh all to publish

This is a picture of the front of The Guardian's review pages on March 3rd, 1989, nine months before the death of the man pictured. It is the first publication of his beautiful late work Stirrings Still. John Calder published it in a limited edition retailing at £1,000 each (though every copy was signed by the weary author).

I was prompted to dig out the clipping from my yellowing archives by A Piece of Monologue's report on Faber & Faber's new editions of Beckett's plays and fiction. Faber's own pages on the series reveal a welcome new edition of what Beckett himself called Nohow On, a loose trilogy comprising Company, Ill Seen Ill Said and Worstward Ho.

In a letter to the NYRB, Calder explained the origin of the volume and why Stirrings Still could not be included. The good news is that Faber has now added it, thereby completing a Beckett Quartet. The bad news is that Nohow On has been dropped. Instead, the volume has four titles. Ever failed indeed.

On the other side of the page, the Guardian has a review of Stirrings Still by Frank Kermode:
So the end is a matter of muttering, in a voice so low that it does not even deserve an exclamation mark at the end. This is another of Beckett's nihilistic mantras, best mumbled aloud. They are inescapably paradoxical: representing the last possible act of imagination, they also suggest that even this quasi-Berkeleyan man, existing as perceived but almost not perceiving, cannot be represented without payment of tribute, however reluctant, to a specifically human power, not extinguished so long as one can speak of such things.
Beside Sir Frank's words there is a review of Stark by Ben Elton.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Transverse connections

Jill Marsden, author After Nietzsche, a book I chose as one of my favourites of last year, tells Christopher Branson what's next.
Well, I'm planning to write another book. I feel like I'm approaching that sort of space. I want to develop, in the broadest terms, a philosophy and literature project. It won’t be "how can philosophers use literature to do philosophy?" and it certainly won’t be literary criticism with a philosophical edge to it. I suppose it relates to some of what we've been speaking about. I want to explore, particularly in modernism and modernist writers, this alertness to different rhythms of thought and the way in which certain texts map out alternative cartographies of the human. I'm not sure if this is going to be a case of leaving Nietzsche behind… I suspect not.
Branson observes that the project is "quite different in spirit from the current demands of academic production".
It's not something that worries me very much: the beginnings of projects, starting something. You have an instinctive urge to read a story by Kleist, or to read a poem by Trakl or a passage from Nietzsche. It isn’t obvious that they are connected in any way but at a more unconscious level some path between them is apparently being forged. There are a lot of blind alleys, of course, when you work in this meandering fashion but I like to work like this, to think about why the things that really interest me interest me. It's what I love, pursuing these transverse connections.

The only film I haven't seen

From what I've seen, in Spider the frame of mind makes subtle reference — especially through Peter Suschitzky's cinematography — to the style of Il deserto rosso. And just as in that film, it seems that every futile attempt to connect with the outside world indicates the inability to define a personal identity. Am I Spider?
from East End, a new story by Enrique Vila-Matas.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Written misses

How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold - all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don't reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts.
            Kafka, in a letter to Milena.
If kisses fail, how about licks?

(via Love German Books)


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