Thursday, November 12, 2020

The disappearance of criticism, part two

A friend mentioned to me that he felt alienated by the articulacy of a literary critical book he was reading; by its neutrality of tone, by its calm. Unruffled was another word he used. We all might recognise this feeling while assuming it is admiration, respect, perhaps even envy. We become convinced without noticing that command over what one has read defines the value of criticism, and that the object serves a purpose only the critic may determine.

His comments made me realise that I am often similarly alienated by book reviews: “We know everything,” they say, “nothing can surprise us.” The critic may be disturbed by the content, offended, made angry, impressed, amused, surprised or delighted, but these result only in the language of reproach or approval, in hachet jobs or raves, each accommodated under the alibi of industrial evaluation. Literature is again subordinated to its public uses, so that for the critic to experience a separation from that regular accommodation is to experience self-doubt and the suspicion of incompetence. Asking fundamental questions is not advisable.

Alienation is the residue of those unasked fundamental questions. Their repression is only one of many symptoms of the despair of contemporary culture in its dealing with literature; a despair that manifests in newspaper book pages desperately seeking an aura for what we must call post-literary novels. The fierce policing of despair is manifest in this newspaper's report of the stern rebuking of Barry Pierce for his appropriately tongue-in-cheek review of some generic ephemera.

For the critic to become ruffled, it would be necessary for them to become aware of that which makes it possible for a work to become a work of art, and for their criticism to be subject to that experience. When art is completely absent, or used as a keyword for elegance and good taste, the only thing left to say is said by Barry Pierce.

By “makes it possible”, I’m thinking not of the conditions of a literary work’s production, the biography of its author, or the poetic or experimental quality of the prose, but of what Maurice Blanchot’s writes paraphrasing Rilke’s lament for a dismembered Orpheus: “The work is Orpheus, but it is also the adverse power which tears it and divides Orpheus.” The work is that of mastery and of mastery’s undoing, which means, he adds, that the work belongs to an order that we do not associate with achievement. Articulacy would then risk betraying the work by ignoring, dismissing or, more likely, remaining completely unaware of the part that distinguishes art from other human creative activity; the part taken by fire, to adapt Blanchot’s title for a collection of his essays; that which is non-essential, useless, even destructive. Instead, articulacy emerges in firm judgments on technique and the utilitarian aspects of the work. As the 2020 Booker shortlist also reveals, this tendency also now dominates the production of novels.

While this domination is perhaps inevitable, as the work itself draws attention to such uses, the reason why art has such an aura, and why the review pages regard literature with such uncomprehending reverence even as they abuse it, is as much to do with its adverse power, the part taken by fire, as its demonstrable uses. Criticism might reappear as a means of approaching the clearing taken by fire even as it is appropriated by reportage or self-expression.

In the same essay (from The Space of Literature), Blanchot pursues the aspects of art that define its remove from what he calls “daytime clarity”. When we know nothing of the history of a work’s creation, he says, “the work comes closest to itself”. It’s a curious phrase, as we tend to think of works of art as moving towards us in order to give. Why should it go in that direction? And what is a work’s ‘itself’ anyway? A timely explanation comes in The Magnetic Fields, newly translated by Charlotte Mandell, obstensibly by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, but written in such a way as to distance the writer from masterful agency. As the publisher describes it:

They would write for a week on every day of the week and they would write fast, as fast as possible, in complete secrecy. When the week was over, the writing would be done. No touching up.
From a page chosen as fast as possible:
Vegetable gardens are surrounded by various fences and trees of May or October which let the wind wander through. What are the dingy houses that open their shutters only to broad daylight? The major chimneys and iron doors of monotonous buildings allow shouts and the whir of machines to run freely. You still have to turn your back.
The sentences are grammatically correct and the words make sense as words, but context withdraws as the sentences proceed. There no destination for meaning. While we know the conditions of the production of The Magnetic Fields and the biographies of the authors, we cannot use them to trace a route back to daytime clarity. The work comes closest to itself then by exposing to the reader to what Blanchot calls our “bilingualism in a single language” – everyday “raw” language and “essential” language, or language in itself. The closeness of a work to itself is the appearance of that essential language, an impersonal reality that is “far more or still less than any reality” with which we are familiar. The words become their appearance and begin to become “the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes”. 

Mention of ‘elemental depths’ is enough to raise concerns about the direction this is going – those pesky fundamental questions, such as Jacob Taubes’ question about the sur in surrealism: “What meaning can this prefix have in the context of a purely profane, immanent, and materialist experience?”. This is the question of life itself I detected in volumes one and two of Knausgaard's My Struggle, whose mainstream reviews are the ideal example of criticism's alienating force. We can answer at least that it means literature’s utile correspondence to the immanent world is not enough for a satisfactory definition. 

Perhaps those of us patronised as booklovers appreciate this even as we misunderstand it. Industry influencers speak of another world opened up by a novel and celebrate the escapism it affords us, but we sense it is more than that and cannot condescend to our experience and deepest needs. Is it only an empty transcendence, local redemption, or a secularised excuse for an impossible salvation, publicly mitigated or misunderstood as gaining instrumental knowledge of the world, an empathy for others and, of course, escapism? It should be an open question.

There is much more to write about this, which I hope will emerge over the coming months.

Blanchot describes poetry as a temple from which the gods have departed. When the temple was in use, the poem named the sacred, only it was the sacred that was heard, not the poem. And yet, now that the sacred has departed and we have forgotten even that it has departed, the poem remains as the imposing obscurity of a stone ruin. The poem, the novel, the work of art, is the “abode of the gods’ absence”. In regarding the ruin as our own, the home of our own meaning, we have fallen into a narcissism that cannot recognise what Krzysztof Michalski calls revelations of eternity – "irremediable fissures or intervals … interrupting the continuity of lived time” but which are now unintelligible without the control of science and the coercion of politics. But each time we read, our meaning is exposed to the 'sur' in surrealism. Jacob Taubes answers his own question:

Poetry is the only beyond, not because it bridges 'this world' and the one 'beyond'. It is the beyond itself. The word does not bear testimony, rather it is itself transcendence.

This was clear to the San people of southern Africa whose ancient cave paintings “were not representations of spirits but the spirits themselves”. 

This is why we are alienated. 


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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