Sunday, July 23, 2023

A loss of problems

Martin Amis' novels were among those I read when I began reading novels – one read what was being talked about on television and in newspapers. Money was the first quickly followed by each and every one that preceded it, including the journalism in The Moronic Inferno, which I may have read twice, and London Fields in the year it was published. This was when I realised that reading Amis had been time well spent; time that from then on I would no longer waste. This was forgotten and reaffirmed several years later when I borrowed copies of The Information and Experience, and it was only out of duty that I read The Zone of Interest when I wrote something about Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

The same can be said of the novels of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, and JG Ballard, the big names of Britain’s literary scene in the 1980s and 90s, and Philip Roth and John Updike of the USA’s (the exception was Saul Bellow). Why did I feel mild indifference reading their novels compared to the entirely different feeling I got reading various European novels (and Saul Bellow)? To my surprise, the names of Amis, McEwan and Ballard have appeared several times on this blog over the years, often as I seek an answer to this question. The news of Amis’ death brought those early days back to me and now, with the death of Milan Kundera whose Unbearable Lightness of Being was the catalyst of recognition, I am thinking about it again. 

I read various postmortem articles invariably focusing on Amis' style, many of which Jack Arden says in an excellent piece create "the impression that style was also more than this – something supra-personal”. I was certainly seduced by Amis’ style in Money – I remember the effect of reading the verb "sharking" on the first page (coincident no doubt with the "Martian" poetry I was reading at the time) – but evidently there wasn’t, for me, much more than style, and while I could assume this was because, as Terry Eagleton says, Amis "was the great poet of the postmodern metropolis", subject matter that sparks nothing in me, one could also say Proust was a great poet of the modern metropolis (in Sodom and Gomorrah at least), and my discovery of Proust never became a waste of time. Eagleton’s article would also suggest my lack of interest in their novels follows distaste for the liberal politics of "the Amis group" – to which he adds Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Clive James – except the writers whose work excited me did not do so for political reasons; Saul Bellow’s reactionary tendencies being evidence of that. But it’s here that Eagleton gets closer to the difference when he describes the rightward trajectory of the group: Hitchens, for example, moved from being a "practising Trotskyist at Oxford" to "dining with the architects of Western butchery in Iraq". But, he says, "the relation between politics and letters is more complex than that, as a glance at the great modernist writers would suggest":

Joseph Conrad was a deep-dyed conservative and misogynist with a virulent hatred of the political Left. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis supported the fascist cause, while W.B. Yeats, a champion of plans to stop the poor from breeding, flirted with fascism as well. D.H. Lawrence was racist, sexist, homophobic and antisemitic, while T.S. Eliot was a high Tory who championed a quasi-fascistic French movement. Yet all of these figures were radicals — radicals of the Right rather than the Left — and the fineness of their work is related to the depth and breadth of their challenge to a liberal democracy in profound crisis. Besides, there were plenty of modernist experiments on the political Left as well.

Almost all of these writers thought deeply about politics, philosophy and the shape of a whole civilisation, which is hardly true of Clive James. Some of them were powerful visionaries, which is not quite how one would describe Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan. This is one reason why their work, taken as a whole, has never been equalled in the century or so which has passed since it appeared, and certainly not by the Amis group.

While I would dispute that the work of "the great modernist writers" has not been equalled, it's understandable that it appears this way, especially if one's focus is on the Anglophone sphere, as thinking deeply here has been replaced by a condition Wittgenstein defined in his own time:

Some philosophers (or whatever you like to call them) suffer from what may be called “loss of problems”. Then everything seems quite simple to them, no deep problems seem to exist any more, the world becomes broad and flat and loses all depth, and what they write becomes immeasurably shallow and trivial. (Translated by GEM Anscombe)

One can discern this condition across the entirety of Britain's public discourse. Behold in awe and reverence the deep thought underwriting this insight from an honorary member of the Amis group:

Amis himself said he never finished either one of Kafka's novels, but then again neither did Kafka. Very witty, of course, and characteristic: George Steiner once said an Englishman's corner-of-the-mouth "come off it" would have stopped Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and Beethoven composing the Fifth Symphony. Kafka's "failure" is thereby judged in the context of literary mastery rather than in relation to anything larger; Walter Benjamin, for example, said "it is the fact that his books are incomplete which shows the true working of grace in his writings".

One may object and point out the novels of Amis and McEwan address important issues, with former's books about terrorism, Stalin's Gulag and the Shoah (although curiously not one about crimes closer to home), and the latter's narrativised punditry drawing attention from literary journalists like never before; hardly shallow and trivial. Except the larger questions have been settled, as the Pope of scientism and Cardinal Hitchens insist, which leaves the novel seeking relevance in terms of a public profile, in an absurd war on cliché – the eternal return of a goldfish in its bowl – and in ambulance-chasing pseudo-journalism.

One might characterise the form of the novel as a search for an authority for itself, with genre providing prefab solutions, so a focus on parochial animations is an inevitable development of its Humanism; it demands constant movement to keep up with the times. But the shock of Martin Amis' death should remind us of the thin ice upon which such movement proceeds. Amis described the impulse behind his 1995 novel The Information as "an hysterical overreaction to the certain knowledge that you're going to die" and Julian Barnes, said to be the Gwyn Barry of that novel, wrote a book on the same knowledge. The horror of the self before the ultimate problem is an intensification of the writer's anxiety before the blank page, hence the blossoming of autofiction in the confluence of both. 

The problem of the recognition of the death for writers was addressed by Kierkegaard in his 1848 book On Authority and Revelation, an appropriate title given the expressed impulse and subject of those two books:

Since our age … is supposed to be an age of movement, it then is not unlikely that many people's lives go on in such a way that they have premises for living but do not arrive at any conclusion – just like the age, which is an age of movement that has set the premises in motion but is also an age of movement that has not come to the conclusion. The lives of such people go on until death comes and puts an end to life, yet without, in the sense of a conclusion, bringing the end with it.     [Translated by Hong and Hong]

The revelation of death provides authority from the outside for the lack of ultimate meaning in one's life.

Such a person can, in proportion to his gifts...go on and become an author, according to his opinion of it. But this opinion is an illusion. For that matter, he may...possess extraordinary talents, exceptional knowledge, but he is not an author, even though he produces. His writing will be just like his life, material; perhaps this material will be worth its weight in gold, but it is only material. ... No, although he writes, he is not essentially an author; he can write the first part, but he cannot write the second part; or, lest there be misunderstanding, he can indeed write the first and second parts, but then he cannot write the third part – the last part he cannot write.     

What then is to be done to complete a work?

In order to find the conclusion, it is first and foremost necessary to perceive very vividly that it is lacking and thereby in turn very vividly to miss it. 

No doubt giving up on Kafka's novels is in keeping with what one aspect of what their incompletion reveals, but it also suggests an unwillingness to face the other because of what it would mean for authoring novels, and perhaps a wish for novels to face the other is why I turned away from the Amis group and why, for me at least, Kafka's fragments remain a living presence despite the increasing obscurity of his problems.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

The end of something

Thirteen years ago I posted The beginning of something to mark the fifteenth anniversary of Spike Magazine (not to be confused with Spiked Online), which I helped to found when the world wide web was forming, and to comment on the direction online literary culture had taken. By that point, the magazine was moribund and I was writing for (the unfortunately named) Ready Steady Book, which has become worse than moribund. There is no significance in the curious fact that both editors now work in businesses that specialise in underwater activities and that I used to work in one, but I would like to think there is.

When I read Ulysses for the first time, I made a list of words Joyce uses that were also used to name British submarines in the first half of the 20th century: Stoic, Spartan, Sybil, Selene. I found forty-five more. As these names indicate, ancient Greek and Roman culture was very familiar to the officer class of the empire and the names suggest a wishful continuity with mythical and martial traditions. Another submarine was called Telemachus, a word that doesn't feature in Joyce's novel despite its title. Officers would have pronounced it Tell-em-ackus, while those on the lower decks pronounced it Telly-mackus. Nowadays, the officers are likely to be more familiar with another Homer.

If such rambling is leading anywhere, it is to note the end of something. Not online literary magazines but their potential as an alternative to corporate literary coverage, as resistance to a tradition of consumerism, gossip, aesthetics and neutralisation. This may explain why they become moribund and those that remain lack any apparent vision or purpose, becoming landfills of reviews, essays, interviews, poetry and fiction "without truth or necessity", the words Blanchot used in a letter to Sartre quoted in my original post.

In the past, I have argued that it was because the form has been usurped by the same professional managerial class that took over British politics and media circa 1997. But that may be only half the story, as the form does not lend itself to a sustained approach to the unique space of writing. That is, the distinction we recognise, appear to know instinctively, between the everyday and literature, between criticism and its object, and yet which endures as a oracular presence we habitually avoid. Indeed, the culture demands that we avoid it despite relying on its aura. Hence my call for the solitary mutiny of blog writing. It's why I insist on continuing in this damned wilderness. But even book-reviewing blogs tend toward the same inherited format and clichés. With no expectation at all, I suggest adapting Lars Iyer's Dogma rules for academic papers, as set out later in the novel with the same title. So, Review Dogma:

  • No character names
  • No plot summaries
  • No quotations
  • No genre labels
  • No reference to isms
  • No comparisons
  • No moralising
  • Contra Dan Green, no dispassionate analysis
  • No keeping to at least one of these rules


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

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