Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The criticism of Lessons, the lessons of criticism

I give thanks to Ryan Ruby for his review of Lessons, Ian McEwan’s latest novel. It brings to our attention that rare thing, joy of joys, a novel telling the story of a life remarkably similar to the author’s own set against the backdrop of recent history. Ruby shows how the novel is the inevitable conclusion of a path he has followed for many years as, in all but two novels McEwan has produced since The Innocent in 1990, the “subject matter has been ripped from the headlines”:

As befits a regular of the international festival circuit with the occasional byline in the Guardian opinion page, [McEwan’s] treatment of issues such as the Iraq War, climate change, euthanasia, artificial intelligence and Brexit could be described as narrativized punditry.

In the hope of killing off the genre, the final two words should enter the critical lexicon alongside James Wood’s “hysterical realism”. Both are symptoms of the loss of confidence in the novel as an art form, as something in itself, something apart. Ruby spells out brilliantly how McEwan's concern for political virtue has the side-effect of neutralising real change, which conveniently aligns him with columnists at the news organisation that has championed his work. Only Ellis Sharp has spelled this out at length before now, in a blogpost sadly deleted, but reprinted in Sharply Critical. And of course there is John Banville's review of Saturday which, despite its prominence, doesn't seem to have taught McEwan ... a lesson.

The English novel scene epitomised by what Ruby shows to be the predictabilty and complacency of Lessons is the literary equivalent of the herd of independent minds currently sporting little badges of a blue and yellow flag who felt no compunction to wear one displaying (in chronological order) the Serbian flag, the Iraqi flag, the Afghan flag, the Libyan flag, the Syrian flag, or the Yemeni flag, and certainly not the flag of a certain part of Europe that has been under bombardment since 2014. This is not to say they supported the crimes done in their name – if they knew of them – but the culture doesn't demand awareness, and certainly not action, so for reasons John Pilger explains, their unimpeachable virtue disables any practical opposition to endless war:

In the 1970s, I met one of Hitler’s leading propagandists, Leni Riefenstahl, whose epic films glorified the Nazis. We happened to be staying at the same lodge in Kenya, where she was on a photography assignment, having escaped the fate of other friends of the Fuhrer. 
She told me that the “patriotic messages” of her films were dependent not on “orders from above” but on what she called the “submissive void” of the German public. Did that include the liberal, educated bourgeoisie? I asked. “Yes, especially them,” she said.

 For his narrativised punditry, the Leni Riefenstahl of Cool Britannia:

has been rewarded with increasing extra-literary prominence. In 2000, he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the late Elizabeth Windsor; in 2016, the Daily Telegraph named him ‘the 19th most powerful person in British culture’, an honour at once dubiously conferred and comically specific.

We can assume James Kelman is nowhere on that list.


And I give thanks to Ryan Ruby for his commitment to reviewing such an uninspiring novel; a thankless task for the most part. Indeed, no thanks is often to be preferred. I've often received abusive comments or emails. Suspicion of reviewers and critics is a natural by-product of the aura of art, arising wherever anxiety reigns; Twitter being the go-to for examples:

Of course, many animals rely on parasites to maintain good health, and human life depends on bacteria living in us, so why not art? "Almost" may then be the most damning word here. And I wonder how Mr Gordon, best-selling author of 26 books "inspiring people and organizations to work with more vision, passion, positivity, and purpose", might explain how something great comes to be recognised as great. Anyway, why is he being so critical? Presumably critics should ignore him to accomplish something great.

This is not to say I don't have any problems with reviewing and criticism. The meagre output on this blog this year is the result of an overwhelming reluctance to follow the sirens that draw one inexorably toward the clichés of the form ("deals with", "tackles", "we meet"). It has become a process of "arduous vulgarization", a phrase used in What is the Purpose of Criticism?, a short essay by Blanchot from which this blog gets its name, though this is only one definition of criticism he suggests without committing to it. While I recognise my reluctance as an unwillingness to do the work, at the same time the purpose Blanchot offers helps me to recognise that it may also be a problem with the guidelines John Updike set out that otherwise dominate.

The purpose he commits to adapts Hölderlin's metaphor of the poem (made more famous by Heidegger) as a bell in the open air that becomes out of tune as it is coated by snowfall, with the snow standing for unpoetic language, which for Heidegger is the language of commentary. For Blanchot, however, criticism is the sound of the snow becoming nothing "within the heated agitation it instigates". It is this nothingness that allows the literary work to be what it is:

Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words. And as such, due to the fact that it claims modestly and obstinately to be nothing, criticism ceases being distinguished from the creative discourse of which it would be the necessary actualization or, metaphorically speaking, the epiphany.  [Translated by Stuart Kendall]

But what does "the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work" mean? As readers, we know this as the basic fascination of reading a creative work (however labelled), that which agitates a need to speak what is unspoken and make definite what is indefinite. Except we resort to descriptions of overt subject matter ("deals with", "tackles") and protagonists ("we meet"), to the language of evaluation and social utility, making Blanchot's hyperbolic abstractions appear uselessly pretentious, or at least anachronistic. The impression is backed up when at the end of the essay he asks why there are complaints that criticism no longer knows how to judge, a complaint that certainly cannot be made today, as novels are judged by their own quality of judgement; specifically, to judge for us, to reflect our virtue back at us, and so burying the experience of the unspoken and the indefinite: "It is not criticism that lazily refuses to evaluate," Blanchot says, "it is the novel or the poem that shirks evaluation because it seeks affirmation outside every value system." Criticism as it disappears thereby becomes "closely related to one of the most difficult, but most important tasks of our time", which is "preserving and ... liberating thought from the notion of value".

I'm not sure what this means, at least how to express what it means, nor how might be done today, but I give thanks for these words in which there is a profound distance from industry standards as they go in the opposite direction to the utilitarian and the technical, the journalistic and the academic; untimely would then be a more accurate characterisation. In this way it exposes itself to the space outside of time, or just an outside, to which as readers we are exposed to in creative works (however labelled); not another world in terms of a facile escapism but "the other of all worlds", in which we encounter a part of what it is to be human, that which we do not recognise, cannot recognise, refuse to recognise, or that which frightens us, and from which we flee to narrativised punditry for refuge. Perhaps instead it is the novel that has become anachronisitc.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:55 am

    It's not often that we witness a decline that is both long and precipitous but McEwan has pulled (is pulling) it off.



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

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.