Friday, July 03, 2009

Mystery in literature

People happily talk about the mystery of poetry and of literature. They talk about it ad nauseam. However, nothing is explained, I have to confess, by alluding here to magic or religious ecstasy, wishing stones or observant animals. To talk about the ineffable is to say precisely nothing at all. To talk about secrets is to confess nothing. Poets may indeed be devout, but to what are they devoted? Writers may know a great deal, but what kind of knowledge is it?
It is seventy years since Jean Paulhan wrote this, the introductory paragraph The Flowers of Tarbes, his study of literary language, and it seems pretty dated. After all, isn't everything in the process of being explained? Now it is clear they don't talk about the mystery of poetry and of literature ad nauseam. Mystery has been replaced. In the US, according to BookForum, "the enormous novel of technical, scientific, or historical knowledge [has] become the highest credential for male writers". The buzz in bookchat rises when fiction dramatises and enables discussion about current ideas and events, perhaps because this also encourages popular consumption and debate among those for whom fiction is so much play. The situation is due to many contingent factors - such as those outlined in Mark McGurl's The Program Era reviewed above - but the underlying trend suggests a fundamental disconnect with the origins and direction of art. While people still respond to the deep current of literature - why else are we stirred by fiction? - rationalism and commerce has drowned the happy talk. Paulhan goes on to accuse critics of neglecting mystery. But what mystery is there to be found?

Summarised crudely, Paulhan examines the place of mystery in literature by outlining the two opposing conceptions of literary language. One – which he calls Terrorist – that is at war with cliché as it seeks to bring the absolute immediacy of actual lived experience to the word, while the other – Rhetoricist – is content to work with conventional language to maintain clarity and order. While the implications go beyond literature, we can summarise its literary aspect with a reminder of the historical opposition of, for example, Joycean stream-of-consciousness and Edwardian fiction. To make it contemporary, we are all familiar with the widespread perplexity over the distinction between literary and genre fiction. Paulhan finds the Terrorist conception wrongheaded. After all, a word is also a sign - its referent's Platonic ideal perhaps - a cliché by necessity. The reader recognises unrefined, authentic language only by failing to remember its ideality. The war on cliché demands an impossible private language. Even when a populist like Nick Hornby complains about "opaquely written" fiction, he isn't claiming it's gibberish. Whatever we write, literature takes possession of it; thus "experimental" writing is as far from the ineffable real as the most formulaic genre piece. Mystery, it turns out, is in the illusion of literature's absence.

So how does the individual, uncontent with illusion and compelled to resist silence in order to capture the pressing matter of real thought and real experience, begin to write? Paulhan recommends ceding to cliché and working within its constraints - comparable today perhaps to Daniel Green's championing of literary aesthetics. We can see how this has been embraced in its crudest form in mass market book culture. Here the highest praise for a writer is that she does "a good professional job for the reader". The irony is that in the embrace of constraint, cliché itself becomes an elitist private language, indistinguishable from its sworn enemy. Unless one has been initiated into the true meaning of clichés, they can appear like cryptic clues to the machinations of an arcane world (hence the apocryphal nerdism of genre communities). One has to read very carefully before one can forget one is reading. Genre literature thereby performs a dual function - worldly and mysterious.

Given this happy double, it's no surprise that creative writers submit to the constraints of technical, scientific and historical knowledge. It also explains the emergence of autobiography – the so-called misery memoir – as a force in the literary marketplace. Shorn of artifice, the life story purports to be truth in the raw, closer to reality than the contrivances of novels. Of course, as the James Frey Controversy revealed, fiction is not so easily dispensed with. Oprah Winfrey's public admonition of the author is perhaps revealed as less an expression of propriety than one of distress and disbelief in the mysterious, illusory movement of the Book, the form she has otherwise embraced as a means of self-help and social empowerment.


  1. What can I say... 40 years ago... woulda said:
    right on... no exclamation points. that's what we call irony now.

    But the irony only applies to the lack of exclamation points... not to the nod to what you've written... been turning myself inside out over this stuff for ...

  2. Anonymous6:08 am

    "Literature is the language of mystery." Coleridge



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