The third of three posts for Bloomsday 2021. Jejune John meets jejune Jim. 20 years and about three months ago, I wrote my first essay on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a James Joyce seminar in my first year of college, a year after reading the novel for the first time. This afternoon, I wrote another essay on it for my website. In the middle, there was a dissertation chapter—probably the weakest of the three performances for all its menacingly puffed-up command of the secondary sources, but then again essays belong to literature and dissertations do not. The present piece begins:
I still treasure the memory: a sunny spring afternoon in the year 2000, the last class of the school day, AP English. Mrs. Hannah distributed Perma-Bound school copies of the Signet Classics edition of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A few students read the back cover or paged through the volume or skipped to the end to see how many pages they were obligated to read; but the ones who sampled the novel’s first lines—
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….
—looked up from the book puzzled, and one finally exclaimed to Mrs. Hannah, “What the hell?” Later, my friend and I—he was budding painter and musician, I an aspiring writer, and we edited the school’s literature and art magazine together—agreed that this was the ideal reaction to the opening of a novel, that novelists should do their best to provoke it.
By the way, if you squint, you can a stain see toward the top left of my undergraduate essay. That’s from carrying it to class in the same book bag with a Pepsi bottle half full of rum—or was it half empty? Such were the Joycean dissipations and liquefactions of youth. Don’t worry, in my present decrepitude I take nothing stronger than coffee and melatonin, unlike our fabulous artificer, who was, alas, still drinking himself blind well into middle age.
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It is, I believe, easier to understand Joyce's achievement in this respect by looking to the Continental tradition of the novel. There the theme of intellectual vocation was much more deeply rooted and was treated with a subtlety quite foreign to the evangelical, female puritan spirit which so dominated the sentimental English novel. Perhaps Middlemarch more than any other single work shows how the innate provincialism of the English novel deprived it of a consciousness of itself as a part of a greater European culture. This is something conspicuously present in the French and, even more, in the Russian novel of the nineteenth century. One could not imagine Crime and Punishment or Le Rouge et le Noir without the idea of Europe, especially Christian Europe, as a living force in them, in their traditions, and in the minds of their creators. But Emma and Great Expectations and Middlemarch survive happily, and more modestly, apart from that idea. Not until an American, Henry James, arrived on the scene was the novel in English Europeanized, and the Irishman Joyce countered this achievement by anglicizing the European novel.
Seamus Deane, “Joyce and Stephen: The Provincial Intellectual” (Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature)
The second of three posts for Bloomsday 2021. After the example shared here recently of a critic who says “children” when he means “women,” I thought I’d provide a rather more daring passage on the same theme, that of the novel as a book for thinking adults. First, before calling this passage misogynist, we should bear in mind that it’s written from the standpoint of postcolonial Marxism, the same position from which, for instance, Spivak upbraids Jane Eyre, and that Joyce, himself a colonized subject, identified the root of both imperialism and feminism in the works of Defoe. Second, and on the other hand, this is grossly unfair to George Eliot, who was not “apart from that idea,” and what else is Middlemarch about from end to end but the tragedy of the provincial intellectual, and why else did Virginia Woolf call Middlemarch the only English novel written for grown-ups? Still, on this feast of modern literature’s most famously banned book, I thought I should publish something that would piss people off.
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The first of three posts for Bloomsday 2021. Above we have Brian Oard of Mindful Pleasures, one of the great literary blogs, performing the first pages of Ulysses on Joyce’s birthday earlier this year. Whenever they get around to adapting the Ulysses manga into an anime, they must get Brian to voice Buck Mulligan.
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So nowadays when somebody talks about a work of art being “harmful,” they nearly always do so hyperbolically and disingenuously, from a position of power and privilege, in a way that devalues and belittles people who have actually been oppressed and excluded or harmed, but in ways that isn’t fashionable to talk about, or who don’t have a megaphone to talk about it and gain lucrative social credit from making celebrated works of art about their “oppression.”
Lev Paker, “Harmful Literature: A Racial (G)Ambit”
(Aside from this useful reminder about the true nature of today’s moralism—a vicious intra-elite contest for control over declining institutions, nothing at all to do with the advertised causes—mostly I think it’s funny that this controversy is about Deborah Levy, of all people. I had a taste for Levy, and then I lost it; I’m sure I should try again; the monument to my brief infatuation is my rapturous review of her novel Swimming Home from 2013, if an essay in which I mention both Lacan and Deleuze can be called “rapturous” rather than “tortuous.”)
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While I didn’t always love Alt Lit and the New Sincerity (overlapping but not identical phenomena) the first time around, the mission statement above’s not bad, not that different from what I promote, and not as alarming as what one might have expected to emerge from the #millennialcore moment. Recalling Lectures on Literature, I take “‘fairy tales’, the Nabokovian sense” to refer to fully and transformatively imagined realist novels, like such VN favorites as Mansfield Park and Madame Bovary (“Mansfield Park is a fairy tale, but then all novels, are, in a sense, fairy tales”). Realism of content, fantasy of form—as it should be. The trouble with genre fiction is that it’s usually the reverse. But “Nabokovian” doesn’t go with “efficient and direct in style,” nor are we in a literary period of over-baroqueness that calls for the latter, as were Wordsworth (“men speaking to men”) at the beginning of the 19th century or Pound (“direct presentation of the thing”) at the beginning of the 20th. We could use more stylistic invention or grandeur today, and less loose talk. “True Fiction” is a good, timeless slogan, just the type of fiction “the true mainstream in exile” would write.
I’ll probably say something tomorrow about the circulating talk of new literary movements reprising early-to-mid 2000s culture, but for now, and for your audiovisual Monday, I was musing on possibly great elderly/geriatric Millennial literary work—besides, I mean, Portraits and Ashes!—and I thought about Joanna Newsom. Age- and generation-wise, she’s 19 days my senior. As for the philosophical consistency you’ve come to expect here, this provisional judgment doesn’t violate my anti-poptimism stricture since she’s hardly pop: I discovered her in 2005 on Steve Mitchelmore’s old blog, pre-This Space, that’s how literary she is.
She wasn’t exactly in the same scenes as those being recycled today. I would place her in the broad New Sincerity zeitgeist given the music’s and lyrics’ aching earnestness of affect and beauty of imagery, with just the faint and quite traditional glimmer of irony provided by the repurposing of old forms. But what appeals to people today about the early-to-mid 2000s is, I think, first-wave Web 2.0 and its broader cultural consequences, not the reaction against it that Newsom’s unembarrassed romanticism represents. (Among contemporary aesthetic trends, she might be more at home in #cottagecore, #fairycore, and #darkacademia, though this undersells the maturity of her vision, often disparaged or else mis-praised as naive and child-like.) Consider, too, her almost anchorite aversion to “the discourse” then and now, surprising in a contemporary artist, especially one related by blood to the Democratic Party elite.
My interest today is in her lyrics, though, as in the literally epic “Only Skin” posted above, from Ys (2006). When I say literature is not a myth or a story but a comment on a myth or story, this song is what I mean. The narrative breaches the surface every so often, but runs mostly as a shadow or ripple beneath the redolent, pungent, foaming surface of language, as closely composed as her beloved Nabokov, the way contemporary poetry often is not. Tradition resonates in this individual talent’s studio. We hear of Sisyphus; we think of Rupert Brooke and Septimus Warren Smith and Odysseus; we remember medieval ballads as well as Pale Fire; our speaker is a Nausicaa-turned-Penelope, or a kindlier Delilah, in any case maiden-into-mother with an afflicted man on her hands; there is not a hint of the present, except that we were five years into the War on Terror and this is the homefront roiled by domestic war; and we were at bourgeois feminism’s most recent nadir, so we have a powerful woman, a woman more powerful even than guns and bombs, but her power is sexual and spiritual, nurturant and life-giving, not the power of boardrooms and barracks. However we judge the ideology—why, though, must we always be judging ideologies in art?—the poetry’s sublime:
Press on me
We are restless things
Webs of seaweed are swaddling
You call upon the dusk of the
Musk of a squid:
Shot full of ink, until you sink into your crib
Rowing along, among the reeds, among the rushes
I heard your song, before my heart had time to hush it!
Smell of a stonefruit being cut and being opened
Smell of a low and of a lazy cinder smoking
And when the fire moves away
Fire moves away, son
Why would you say
I was the last one?
Scrape your knee: it is only skin
Makes the sound of violins
When I cut your hair, and leave the birds all the trimmings
I am the happiest woman among all women
As T. S. Eliot said somewhere, we know serious poetry when we read or hear it, even before we understand it—even if we don’t speak the language. So it is with the drowned vernacular of Ys.
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I forgot to include this part of Dyer’s Sons and Lovers intro earlier. As you can see, D. H. Lawrence, like Ernest Hemingway, would now be understood as transgender. Not only were feminists wrong when they tried to expunge these authors from the canon, it is in fact problematic not to read them—probably even harmful. I’m not, or not quite, joking. Major authors are not “people.” They’re palimpsests, cathedrals, chessboards, landscapes, cities, with an effectual infinity of meanings to uncover, paths to take, or moves to play.
(Embarrassingly, I have still barely read one word of Mailer. Nobody can agree where to begin is the problem. Two—not one but two!—occult-oriented Tumblrites have persuasively urged Ancient Evenings upon me; other correspondents of perhaps a more poilitical bent have been just as convincing about the merits of the quasi-nonfiction. Probably, because I like CIA conspiracies, I should just start with Harlot's Ghost, but it's so long…)
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This sudden reappearance of friend-of-the-blog Patti Smith courtesy of Geoff Dyer’s 1999 Introduction to Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, which I read after my Lawrentian rumination a few weeks ago and is now under review at my main site.
I send this passage out to anyone else who did the familial class climb out of order. If a family is trying to ascend up the ranks, an artist should be the last thing to appear in the line of descent, the autumnal sign at once of maximal yield and terminal decline. It is, if I may, as my artist-heroine in The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House says:
“My great-grandfather came as an immigrant and sold fruits and vegetables from a mule-drawn cart on city streets that hadn’t been paved yet. My grandfather worked in the steel mills. My mother went to school and became a doctor. It took three generations and three different types of hard labor to produce me and my work, and I work hard, probably harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. [...] Maybe they wouldn’t understand my work, but my work is what they wanted, whether they knew it or not. My art is what they came here to accomplish.”
But some us, like Lawrence and Dyer and myself, who were meant to be in the doctor-lawyer generation, stepped out of the line and into the artist’s out-caste status (I just missed the 50-year span where writer or scholar was a viable middle-class profession in America for anybody but the already solidly middle class). On the other hand, “writers’ lifestyles”—the dream of bohemia—is a motivation to outgrow eventually. If you want to write to serious books, “writer” can’t be an identity with its own uniforms and shibboleths and clubs that you spend more time cultivating than your ideas or your prose. Coolness is a trap, the false reward of a superficially flattering but deeply delegitimizing attention dangled in return for the acceptance of one’s marginality. Not that one isn’t marginal whether one accepts it or not, but instead of coolness, which implies the margin as a place of honor and authenticity to which one should be grateful for having been forcibly remanded, I prefer my counter-concept, a more self-respecting self-conception, of “the true mainstream in exile.”
I do remember liking Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage when I read it 15 years ago. Billed as a book about Lawrence, it’s actually a Bernhardian rant about not being able to write a book about Lawrence. A proto-autofiction or proto-autotheory from 1997, with theses more than a decade in advance of Reality Hunger or Knausgaard, it’s better for not self-consciously being part of a movement or moment. (No movements or moments!—your book should be true in general, not just true for a coterie or period. This is one contention of “the true mainstream in exile.”) I found a memorable passage on Amazon, Dyer fulminating against “theory,” which demonstrates where admiring “writers’ lifestyles” instead of writing may lead:
How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn't because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off. Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad.
Finally, as for Sons and Lovers, it is not a good novel, but it is a great one. All great novels have a daemonic and demiurgic drive to recreate the world. Good-and-great novels—like Middlemarch or The Magic Mountain or Invisible Man—combine this ambition with intricate planning and patterning and a philosophical mission. The great-but-not-good novel seems weaker or more casual or less original in its conceptual power despite its overwhelming energy and inspiration; I would include, for instance, Jane Eyre and Sister Carrie alongside Sons and Lovers. Then, to complete a four-quadrant chart, since the Internet loves those, we have good-but-not-great novels, intelligent without being world-making—the work of, say, Edith Wharton or Graham Greene or Christopher Isherwood comes to mind—and then novels that are neither good nor great, of which we need not speak.
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Social, cultural, and political developments are non-linear; I suspect these two will move in tandem. Neolib institutions, in their desire to customize a non-populist political right they think they can work with, are obviously astroturfing the tradcaths, from Obama lauding Deneen to the Atlantic publishing Vermeule to the NY Times recommending Ahmari. What does the DNC-CIA-NGO-FAANG complex like about the tradcath position? Its haughty contempt for American liberal traditions, I can only assume.
The anti-woke turn among mainstream literary authors is not only plausible but already underway, pending walkouts from aggrieved publishing staff convinced that words are violence. It will be annoying, but if it loosens even some of the unofficial restrictions on what can be written and by whom, especially in legitimating conflict with a right newly incensed against Entartete Kunst, then all to the good.
I look in every so often on the cutting edge of well-connected transgressive Zoomer writers (for example), and even I am sometimes startled by how far they’re willing to take things. Without naming names, I’m talking about elite-school writers with visible ties to prestigious indie publishers and a clear path to the mainstream if they want it. Now I am not a transgressive author—give or take the part in Quarantine where the guy’s mother gets sliced completely in half and everybody watches the video of it on PornHub—but it’s useful to have them around, guarding the perimeter of literature and absorbing censorious attack so the rest of us can practice the art in peace.
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This is the public-facing rhetorical move par excellence of the radical academic theorist: revel in your radicalism in the seminar room and peer-reviewed journals, but describe your program in the most bland, banal, who-could-possibly-object way for general audiences. Did you know that Marxism is “a refusal to take things for granted”? Why not “follow your dreams” while we’re at it? Never mind the part where “[w]e shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you,” to quote a poem of Brecht’s. You see this today, too, with the left-identitarians, thinkers who have a nihilistically extensive critique of liberal society—who posit in fact the urgent need to destroy this society—and then, when queried by the public or its representatives, will reply that it’s just about treating people fairly, dude.
But to give the formulation its due, if you truly take nothing for granted, if you never silence the critical intellect, you will in your own mind delegitimize your state and every state, the lives of your neighbors and then your very own life, and you will shoot yourself in the head, as in the aforementioned fictional case of Leo Naphta and the nonfictional one of Mitchell Heisman, possibly after you’ve shot some others à la Brecht or Naptha’s model Lukács, because the critical intellect left to its own devices will annul first the world and then itself. Which is why the profoundest thinkers, i.e., novelists and poets and playwrights, have always suggested a plunge into contact with reality to arrest deconstructive thought processes, from Hamlet to Herzog. Make art, make crafts, have sex, have a child, take a walk, take a drink, dig a garden, plant a tree, get revenge, get a cat—anything at all to remind you that the critical intellect allows itself to be annihilatingly disappointed at the world’s corruption only because it has lost touch with it, literally, and that criticism’s proper service to humanity is as guide and guardrail to action, not as universal solvent.
(Note the details of Hamlet’s example: he only had to kill one person, but deconstructive thought processes made him responsible in whole or part for at least four other deaths and made him suicidal as well; only when he resolved to “let be” could he strike his sole legitimate target, but by then the collateral damage was so great that he forfeited his own life and his country was conquered. A parable for the would-be revolutionary.)
Deconstruction at its best reminded us of these truths, as implied by the quotation from Montaigne that introduces Derrida’s epochal essay on “Structure, Sign, and Play,” but because it was premised on the very purity it set out to debunk—the centered structure organized by neat binary oppositions—it became a very purist argument for impurity. There’s always another binary to undermine over the horizon, always something else and more you could be doing to decenter; so deconstruction finally lent itself to the deranged purity spirals that have marred intellectual life recently. What deconstruction says about strong texts’ essential non-essentialism is basically right, but strong texts achieve this irreducible complexity on tides of emotion that criticism of all sorts has always been bad at capturing, making them elements of reality as well as interpretations of it.
I append all of the above to Leo Robson’s excellent essay-obituary for J. Hillis Miller, from which I draw the opening quotation. This witty catalogue is my favorite paragraph in the piece:
You might say that the effect of deconstruction, in its literary-critical mode, was to augment a presiding canon of largely B-writers (Baudelaire, Benjamin, Borges, Blanchot, etc) with a group of H-figures (Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger, Hopkins, to some degree Hawthorne and Hardy), and to replace a set of keywords beginning ‘s’ – structure, sign, signifier, signified, semiotics, the Symbolic, syntagm, Saussure – with a vocabulary based around the letter ‘d’: decentring, displacement, dislocation, discontinuity, dedoublement, dissemination, difference and deferral (Derrida’s coinage ‘différance’ being intended to encompass both). And there was also a growing role for ‘r’: Rousseau, rhetoric, Romanticism (one of de Man’s books was The Rhetoric of Romanticism), Rilke, and above all reading, a word that appeared, as noun and participle, in titles of books by de Man, Hartman, and most prominently Miller: The Ethics of Reading, Reading Narrative, Reading for Our Time, Reading Conrad.
Also this fun fact: “as late as 2012, [Miller] had never read anything by Samuel Richardson.” I am always fascinated by the gaps in brilliant scholars’ reading, and the more time I spent in academe the more I noticed how large the gaps really were. A generalist-dilettante, I try to read a little bit of everything and am consequently bad at being a completist of any one subject or author that a scholar necessarily is. I’ve read Pamela but not Clarissa; for that matter, I’ve read around in Derrida and De Man but, except for his rather psychedelic 2002 primer On Literature, not so much in the late and lamented J. Hillis Miller.
Further reading: my short story, “White Girl,” a dramatization of deconstructive thought processes in action, partially inspired by what I was seeing right here on Tumblr a little less than a decade ago.
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Nobody’s “making” authors or their risk-averse corporate publishers do anything; they’re choosing to compromise what should be non-negotiable values because they prize immediate security over principle. The proper play in this situation is the following. Authors should refuse to change one word and issue a terse and dignified statement affirming freedom of speech, complexity of literature, and autonomy of art. Publishers should immediately adjust the marketing campaign as follows: “Read the novel that has Twitter and Goodreads in a frenzy! What don’t they want you to see?” Controversy exists to help you sell your books, not to scare you into mutilating them for the sake of an opportunistic mob concealing its hunger to dominate and destroy behind one fake moral crusade after another. Never apologize, never explain.
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I have emphasized the importance of knowing what Herr Doktor Jung would call our shadow. This is why an uncensored artistic realm is so important, because art’s purely virtual or hypothetical nature lets us examine these recesses of character that other discourses forbid with their constant (understandable) appeal to reason and virtue.
So when I read in Justin E. H. Smith's most recent essay—one of its many quotable parts is quoted in my last post—that even he, as committed to freedom of art as I am, thought Roth had gone too far in Sabbath’s Theater, I asked myself, “When's the last time I actually thought an author went too far? When's the last time I thought, ‘They really shouldn't be able to publish this?’” In other words, what’s the shadow-side of my extreme civil libertarianism, my repressed and repressive desire that is the opposite of my announced wish for freedom?
It certainly wasn’t Sabbath’s Theater, which I read when I was a little amoral teenager, amused by its bawdy outrageousness and then floored by the outrageousness’s modulation into keening elegy. And I don’t remember when I’ve had a repressive reaction to a novel or even a film. It’s true that I never got past page three of Hogg or watched Salò all the way through or had much luck with Sade. I like Audition and The Painted Bird and The Night Porter, just so you don’t get the idea that I’m disqualifyingly squeamish, but I usually have a distaste for art that makes a big show of transgressiveness. Still, fiction is so totally under the sign of make-believe for me that worrying it might threaten the reader or the viewer or the public feels like a pure category mistake.
I remember once thinking to myself, “How can they publish this?!” of a nonfiction book, however, about 15 years ago: the work of a deep ecologist or anarcho-primitivist convinced that the only way to reverse imminent and permanent environmental damage was to begin destroying civilization and reversing overpopulation immediately. Civilization as such is the problem, and civilization has got to go. The author spends many words—this is a two-volume text amounting almost to 1000 pages; no, I didn’t read it all, just enough to get the gist—on the need to blow up dams and power plants. He advocates destroying only property and not killing anyone, but you can’t disrupt water sources, electricity grids, and supply chains without plunging people, especially the most disadvantaged people, into misery and peril. It’s not that I worry there’s a real eco-terrorist threat—I imagine deep ecology groups, like white nationalist groups, Islamist groups, antifa groups, etc., are at least 75% Fed; I imagine all extremism in America is an ARG for G-Men, like the city of spies in that issue of Gaiman’s run on Miracleman—but I also absolutely question the ethics of a writer’s inciting political and civil violence.
I understand that one of my most cancellable traits is my customary recoil from environmentalism. I’m for clean air and water and restraining the state and corporation from polluting—and let’s ban gain-of-function experiments while we’re at it—but, at bottom, I worry that too many of these people are dupes of Club-of-Rome mega-elites preaching alarmist Malthusian nihilism to justify culling the human herd. Even if you disagree with that inflammatory opinion, and I’m sure you do, dear reader, I hope we can converge on the position that authors shouldn't invite young readers to dynamite the nearest dam.
That, for what it’s worth, is the last time I remember thinking a writer had gone too far—so far that even I, of all people, wondered if it was responsible to publish the book. Generalizing from this case, we might say that my repressive shadow-side wants to suppress literature with a direct design on the world. Writing is for contemplation; when it becomes a summons to action, something in me cries, “Stop!”
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The previous month in the New York Times an even more overtly Zhdanovite call for a new literature, as single-minded messaging rather than as free play of the imagination, was issued by the indefatigable Viet Thanh Nguyen (also recently using his space in that newspaper to request of us that, in spite of his MacArthur Prize, we not refer to him as a “genius”, a call I have no trouble heeding). Drawing support from the Palestinian-American writer Noor Hindi’s self-explanatory poem, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”, Nguyen insists that in the post-Trump era American writers must resist the temptation to go “back” to writing about “flowers and moons” (the latter in the plural, so presumably also including non-terrestrial natural satellites), on the grounds that, as Hindi puts it, “Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.” But they surely remember having seen the moon at some point in their lives, and on one understanding of poetry its power lies, precisely, in its ability to conjure to the mind’s eye what is not there, to make worlds, to bring about poiesis. On one common understanding, moreover, it is good to call the moon to mind in this way, because the moon is one of the basic things that orients human beings in the world, that places us in the cosmos and in nature, and consoles us. But to acknowledge such a thing as the moon to be among the human goods is to commit the sin of what Zhdanov would call “decadent romanticism”, which is characteristic only of “bourgeois imperialist” literature.For my part I am not at all convinced that oppressed people do not have the “privilege” or “luxury” or “freedom” to write about nature, or to engage in romanticism; in fact I think they do have this privilege and this luxury and this freedom, and these are what makes literature so incalculably powerful: it generates worlds within worlds, which are quite often beautiful worlds within ugly ones. I am not convinced in part because much of the most powerful nature writing I know has in fact been produced by people enduring brutal political persecution, for example the Sakha national author Platon Oïunskiï, aka Bylatyan Oïuunskaï, executed in the Great Purge of 1939 under accusation of leading a “bourgeois-nationalist counterrevolutionary organization” (he was not). In spite of appearances, Nguyen’s call is not one that takes sides with the oppressed; he is not, himself, in a prison cell, and to be a recent MacArthur recipient with a regular column in the Times is to occupy a position rather closer to that of a leader of the All-Union Congress of Writers than to that of a political prisoner. To paraphrase something Perry Anderson said of Jürgen Habermas, this dude is out there racking up awards like medals on the lapel of a Brezhnevite general. It is not for Nguyen to say who longs to speak of the moon.
Justin E. H. Smith, “HR Managers of the Human Soul”
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Bringing fine art of this kind, once reserved only for the eyes of the rich, into public trust for the benefit of the people was one of modern society’s great achievements. It was an aspirational model of the public good entirely different to the one that has emerged in America since, in which the new identity politics (as distinct from genuinely multicultural appreciation of the great cultural achievements of the world) the market and the sweeping away of aesthetic hierarchy in the name of equality are all advanced. These trends in the art world suggest that process through which we brought fine art to the masses is going into reverse, as museums sell off once-bequeathed works to the international rich. The latest reason given for the sell off may be lockdown expenses but looking at the debates that have gone on inside the art museum world it suggests that both ideological and economic motivations are involved at once.
Angela Nagle, “Reprivatizing Fine Art In The Name Of Equality”
(Yes, everything that was once thought progressive is now thought reactionary, and vice versa. As Boris Groys explains, the aesthetic as a concept and the museum as an institution were revolutionary inventions intended to sunder artworks from their ideological designs on the viewer and liberate them as enlivening appeals to sensibility and intelligence rather than advertisements for theocracy or caste or whatever other practical purpose they once served.
Instead of destroying the sacral and profane objects belonging to the old regime, they defunctionalized, or in other words, aestheticized them. The French revolution turned the designs of the old regime into what we now call art, that is, into objects not for use but for pure contemplation. This violent, revolutionary act of aestheticizing the old regime created art as we know it today. Before the French revolution, there was no art—only design. After the French revolution, art emerges as the death of design.
What we now think of as the literary and philosophical canon was assembled for a similar purpose and disseminated widely to those who might never otherwise have had access to it. To quote Irving Howe, as I do in the course of explicating I. F. Stone’s working-class classicism:
One task of political consciousness was therefore to enable the masses to share in what had been salvaged from the past—the literature, art, music, thought—and thereby to reach an active relation with these. That is why many people, not just socialists but liberals, democrats, and those without political tags, kept struggling for universal education.
Now we see a de-democratization of culture guised as its expansion beyond all hierarchies. Not a building on the aesthetic, the museum, and the canon—cultural technologies devised for large-scale humane use and flexible enough to accommodate intense permutation without destruction—but the self-righteous immolation of these by actors who never liked or understood them in the first place. And isn’t it remarkable how much what they call “equity” resembles the powers-that-be holding a fire sale for moribund institutions as they hoard the real valuables for themselves?)
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A little fin-de-siècle music for your audiovisual Monday. The British music magazine Q once described Portishead’s Dummy as “music to drown yourself to,” which compelled me to run out and buy the CD back when I was 16. I draw this trip-hop dirge out of the archive because I am making the absolute last revision of my as-yet unpublished novel, The Class of 2000.
I’ve been writing and revising the work since May of 2015, which is absurd considering that I wrote Portraits and Ashes, a longer novel, in five months and revised it very little. Portraits and Ashes came to me as an overwhelming dream, whereas I slowly pieced The Class of 2000 together like a mosaic out of my memories. I wanted to write a realist novel; I wanted to write about the landscape of my youth; I wanted people to feel now what it felt like then. About 75% of what happens in The Class of 2000 happened to real people I knew in my childhood or adolescence—except that in the novel it all happens to a small cast of characters in only a few months, which creates, I hope, the air of realism at its very limit, at its burning edge.
Since the novel is set very definitively in the late ’90s, I did put a few songs in. I usually don’t do this or enjoy it when other writers do. I hesitate to put a song in the reader’s head when my prose should be the only audible music. But for a period piece, evoking the music of the era legitimately adds to the overall texture. “It’s a Fire” plays at the novel’s blazing climax.
(Why do my novels always end with everybody drowning or almost drowning, or burning, or almost burning, to death? As I replied to a similar self-interrogation about why my books and stories always feature mutilated female intellectuals—The Class of 2000 has a bisexual philosopher-witch with a below-the-knee amputation—ask Herr Doktor Jung. I just write what I see and hear in my head. As for “the responsibility of the writer,” it’s an overrated and even dangerous Soviet type of notion, no matter what kids right here on Tumblr told you back in 2013. My responsibility is to write the most fun, crazy, brilliant books I can. And why not? I assume my dreams come from the same place yours do.)
“It’s a Fire,” ironically, has lyrics more appropriate to my pandemic novella The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House:
’Cause this life is a farce
I can't breathe through this mask
Like a fool
So breathe on, little sister, breathe on
Ah, so breathe on, little sister, like a fool
Yet I feel an urgency to publish The Class of 2000 precisely as the pandemic recedes from our consciousness; I don’t want my most recent book, no matter how timeless-untimely I made it, to be ripped from last year’s headlines. Still, watching the deluge of Covid books spill out of the corporate publishers, I am gladder than you can imagine that I wrote mine to the anxious minute and published it when the feelings were still completely raw, over a year ago. And the truth about the virus gradually coming to light shames even my melodramatist’s imagination, as the sainted national physician appears more and more akin to his near-namesake, Faust. I loathed that smiling man by instinct the second I first laid eyes on him; but it’s time to move on, in literature if not in life.
The last book was hypercontemporary—I literally folded the day’s news into each chapter—but the new one asks, How did we get here, anyway? To recount that story, we have to go back to the end of history, to the lurid autumn of 1999 in an American suburb about to explode with all its concealed violence, as its visionaries look forward to a millennium of permanent peace and plenty in cyberspace. The virtual comes alive as the real goes up in a millennial conflagration.
Should I submit The Class of 2000 to a few small presses? I may. If anyone reading this wants to publish it, please get in touch (johnppistelli at gmail dot com). People do buy my books, and more people would buy them if we had an advertising budget to work with, so you wouldn’t be wasting your time. I preemptively posted the most cancellable chapter here, so you’ll want to read that before taking a chance on anything that could attract the social-media Red Guard’s annihilating attention. If not, I will, as ever, do it myself, like the aforementioned Walt Whitman before me. If it’s good enough for Walt—
Look for it in late summer or early autumn.
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Now that the “dunk” cycle has passed, I do have something to say about this viral Tweet. First, like all sublimely stupid remarks, it passes into brilliance. “Allegory of what” is a reasonable and even eloquent characterization—it would be a good title for an essay—putting in the vernacular Walter Benjamin’s famous description of Kafka’s works as Haggadah without Halachah—i.e., Talmudic illustrations of the law sans the law itself. What kind of sensibility does this offend? Well, let’s not defang the modernists—it honestly might irritate anyone. I myself have a somewhat checkered relationship with Kafka; I like him short, in aphorisms and prose-poems, and I think his masterpiece might be “A Hunger Artist,” an absolutely perfect story, which I don’t quite understand, except that it’s about me and my experiences, which I don’t understand either. The longer pieces, especially the novels, don’t have the same power, because the oneiric style feels forced and willful when extended. (I should say I’ve read a lot of Kafka but not all and never systematically, just in fits and starts between my teen years and today; my major omission is The Castle.)
Still, Dawkins’s remark also illuminates a larger phenomenon. I saw the other day a social-media inquiry, with what agenda I don’t know, about whether there was some continuity between Dawkins’s New Atheist movement and today’s wokeness. The answer is the opposite: official anti-wokeness, the Intellectual Dark Web, descends from New Atheism. But they share a sensibility, since both New Atheism and wokeness can be described, maybe unfairly but not simply in jest, as puritan sects. And what does the puritan want from a text? Governor Winthrop explains:
At Watertown there was (in the view of divers witnesses) a great combat between a mouse and a snake; and after a long fight, the mouse prevailed and killed the snake. The pastor of Boston, Mr. Wilson, a very sincere, holy man, hearing of it, gave this interpretation: That the snake was the devil; the mouse was a poor contemptible people, which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan here, and dispossess him of his Kingdom.
The interpretation is so insistent and indisputable that the allegorical surface, here nature itself, is wholly dispensable. The New Atheist and the woke want a text the opposite of Kafka’s, one whose narrative, drama, style, and imagery are so morally legible that no “wrong” interpretation is even imaginable. Hence to the New Atheist, anything that calls for interpretation is irrational, while to the woke it’s elitist or crypto-fascist. American literature is the struggle of the puritan interpretive impulse toward complex artistic expression. This often results in amputated allegories, which is why Hawthorne and Melville often sound like Kafka.
Yet I’m sure I go too far. “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” Georg Lukács rhetorically wondered—for the communist critic, the right answer was Mann, since he was (supposedly) a realist. David Mikics, reviewing a re-release of Mann’s Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (which I’ve never read), reminds us of how Mann caught the character of the totalizing puritan by semi-caricaturing Lukács himself as Naphta in The Magic Mountain. Mann showed Naphta as a Jewish-turned-Jesuit Hegelian nihilist, which is to say that all traditions harbor their own oversimplifications. They always beckon us into the purity spiral. For nonpolitical Mann, that stolid German burgher and paterfamilias always about to melt into the Mediterranean, purity’s opposite is art:
Mann knew in Reflections that individual freedom, which he identified with the writer’s talent for playing with ideas, must stand against all political demands. It is on behalf of that life-giving freedom that Mann celebrates “art’s lively ambiguity, its deep lack of commitment, its intellectual freedom ... someone who is used to creating art, never takes spiritual and intellectual things completely seriously, for his job has always been rather to treat them as material and as playthings, to represent points of view, to deal in dialectics, always letting the one who is speaking at the time be right.”
The higher playfulness that Mann espouses in these sentences from Reflections perfectly suits his dazzling, many-faceted Magic Mountain, so different from today’s prizewinning novels, which present uplifting lessons endorsed by the socially conscious author and his or her tenure committee. In Mann, each character is right when he or she speaks, and the whole revolves in crystal.
A serious way of not taking things seriously—all those italics!—but still heartening. Mikics argues for a continuity between the early Mann and the later, though the author’s career is more customarily seen as a consistent drift from right to left. Considering Mann’s middle-period novella, Mario and the Magician, which exposes fascism in a wholly fascist way, and his almost unbearably excellent late masterpiece Doctor Faustus, a novel that criticizes the daemonic work of a genius while also being the daemonic work of a genius, he may be right.
I am more interested in the irony that everything I’ve written above would have been considered looney-left academic gibberish at the peak of neoconservative hegemony and New Atheist ascendancy about 15 years ago, whereas now it is considered reactionary obscurantism. It’s no sign of virtue alone to be attacked by both the left and the right—three people can be wrong at once—but to be scorned by the puritans of all creeds for not writing stories with obvious morals probably means an author is onto something. To quote Lukács from before he joined the Party, “Art always says ‘And yet!’ to life.”
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The implications of this book-burning and the outcry it has occasioned could be untangled for hours. To make it short, though: Winterson has always laid claim to the modernist tradition. Modernists defined themselves as autonomous artists by setting themselves apart from the 19th-century realist novel and its identification with middle-class female writers, middle-class female readers, middle-class female literary modes, and middle-class female social priorities, namely, the heterosexual reproduction of the middle-class family. Modernist women, most of them not heterosexual, did this fully as much as—if not more than—the modernist men. It was Woolf, not Pound or Joyce or Lawrence, who boasted of strangling the angel in the house, which is to say, the 19th-century matriarch; and Woolf at least tried to stay on the political left, while Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and Gertrude Stein were all but fascist sympathizers, and even Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Zora Neale Hurston were shockingly right-wing by today’s standards. I don’t expect Twitter libs, with their “moral clarity,” to be able to make anything of a history so complex, but suffice to say that reading #diversebooks is going to lead us into waters as dangerous as reading the dead man’s canon—if the books are good—which is why the most forward-thinking among us have decided the whole enterprise must be replaced with children’s fables AKA YA-Disney-Marvel. Winterson’s fiery protest is certainly more in the spirit of Woolf, Stein, and Barnes—not to mention Wilde!—than are gray Skittles, anyway. And whatever one thinks of this history or of Winterson’s controversial geste, at least she has a personality. Does any contemporary writer under 40?
Further reading: essays from me on Barnes’s Nightwood, Stein’s Three Lives, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Winterson’s Art and Lies and Art Objects. The capsule literary history above is gratefully borrowed from this book, which I’ve quoted here before, written by the supervisor of my doctoral dissertation.
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It’s true that this is institutionally distant from the careers of writers who end up in Bookforum—I think (though I don’t quite know) there’s a pipeline from the would-be literary novelist’s MFA program to an agency, so in that part of the writing world there’s a lot less “mad” pitching involved—but this reality-TVification of the slush pile into social-media scrum is depressing in its own way. If you scroll through the hashtag, you’ll see that almost every pitch combines two or more previous popular works: The Handmaid’s Tale + Divergent, Ready Player One + Stranger Things, etc., though never anything very daring. When I was trying to get an agent for Portraits and Ashes, I knew one had to do this, so I described it, partly in jest, as Girls + Blindness, which isn’t even wrong exactly, only stupid.
A decline narrative about how we got here wouldn’t be too persuasive; as Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia, 70 years ago,
The stagnation of the culture industry is probably not the result of monopolization, but was a property of so-called entertainment from the first. Kitsch is composed of a structure of invariables which the philosophical lie ascribes to its solemn designs. On principle, nothing in them must change, since the whole mischief is intended to hammer into men that nothing must change.
I love the phrase “so-called entertainment”—someone will have to tell me if it’s as withering in German. Because it’s not ultimately very entertaining, is it? I always think of it, in my petit-bourgeois parvenu’s way, like this: once you move out of the suburbs and start eating real food, you can’t actually go back to the processed food you were raised on without feeling sick; you have essentially transformed yourself. Likewise, there shouldn’t be any going back after Middlemarch or Moby-Dick or The Magic Mountain, to take only the Ms. Or not much, anyway—a snack here and there, though even a candy bar or a sitcom episode gives you a headache if you’ve grown unused to it. You must change your life! And it’s not about “putting away childish things” as such—childish things have their reward—but about recognizing so much of what we were given as children to be (I borrow a favorite word of the moment I otherwise mistrust) toxic: lab-made, synthetic, designedly addictive, and finally empty, anti-nutritive.
The ease with which entertainment’s elements are recombined signify its killing inorganicism. Everything is weightless and interchangeable. Nothing matters enough to be an obsession, and obsession, anyway, is harmful, and you should probably go to therapy. TVTropes is proximally to be blame, with its meta-suggestion that every work, regardless of its truth or beauty, is an aggregate of fungible ideologemes, a corrupt crossing of myth and structuralist criticism with Marxist and identitarian critique, a simplified and standardized Jamesonianism, that has a led a whole generation to be unable to receive a work in its organic totality—and serious work has organic totality, a je ne sais quoi not reducible to the author’s calculation or the culture’s prejudice. This is what “more than the sum of its parts” means—not that there aren’t parts, not that they didn’t come from elsewhere in the tradition, but that the fire of the author’s sensibility forces a new synthesis in the crucible of the work. The ideas informing TVTropes had their problems to begin with, though, exemplary as they were of the 20th century’s expert knowingness, which the 21st century has reduced further to a snide blandeur in the pursuit of office politics even where it most wants to appear as an ideological frenzy.
In my first year of graduate school—I know you love my anecdotes of quaternary education—I wrote a seminar paper where I referred in passing to a novel’s organic quality. The professor slashed through the offending word and scrawled in the margin, “Novels are not organisms!” Most aren’t. The ones I want to read and write are.
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One more thing from the Bookforum update, this time from Christian Lorentzen’s elegy for literary irony in a time of gothic and sentimental narratives, both in our politics and in our fiction. There is, if I may, only one problem. The sentimental and the gothic are not at root children’s literature; rather, they began as women’s literature. But acknowledging this would make denouncing these modes for their puerility much more difficult, not that others haven’t given it the old college try:
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The responses to this prompt at Bookforum are worth reading. Most of the contributors blessedly nixed the “activism” idea—just become a social worker already and leave poor art alone, for Christ’s sake—and no one more forcefully than Ottessa Moshfegh:
I wish that future novelists would reject the pressure to write for the betterment of society. Art is not media. A novel is not an “afternoon special” or fodder for the Twittersphere or material for journalists to make neat generalizations about culture. A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitive industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?
I admire Ottessa Moshfegh’s presence on the literary landscape—the New Yorker profile of her from a few years back was fun, and I remember that it ruffled the smug Twitterati—so I wish I liked her actual writing more, but three quarters of Eileen, one quarter of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and a handful of short stories didn’t do much for me: gratuitously unpleasant subject matter written up in indifferent prose, I thought. A certain style of dirtbag edginess has always bored me when it was the preserve of white men or at least “white ethnic” men—Miller, Kerouac, Bukowski—and doesn’t bore me any less now that it’s not. I do appreciate, however, Moshfegh’s sharp sense that this aesthetic, among others, is only possible for anyone if writers at large stand down the shrieking moralists.
Kahan Marajan asks for “a white novelist [to] honestly address the experience of being racist, of having racist thoughts and feelings.” Honesty, however, demands this answer: we can either live in a world where such a novel can be written and published or we can live in a world where authors are “held accountable” for “harmful representations,” with “harmful” defined at the whim of aroused social media mobs and timid media monopolies, but we can’t live in both at the same time.
Among other notable responses, Merve Emre’s call for a renewed language-level avant-gardism leaves me cold—language-level avant-gardisms rarely go anywhere and usually survive, if at all, only as academic curios—and Leo Robson’s somewhat cryptically expressed denunciation of
the manner in which earlier breakthroughs in thought or social progress are now taken for granted or worse, not so much the baby thrown out with the bathwater as a garlanded (and often feminist) adult
leaves me puzzled. He might mean that earlier generations of writers now thought “problematic” were actually at the vanguard of artistic and social progress in their own time and at some cost to themselves. This is true, except that the very problem throws the idea of linear progress into question, doesn’t it? (Also, what “garlanded [and often feminist] adult” could he mean? Surely not J. K. Rowling, so I suppose it must be the author whose name concludes his entry, Joyce Carol Oates.) I am encouraged by Michelle Orange’s statement,
If I have shared Rachel Cusk’s aversion to the “fake and embarrassing” contrivances of fiction—plot, character, world-building—my aversion to that aversion is gaining ground
and by Julian Lucas’s related call for American novelists to relearn how to make a novelistic plot.
While I was reading through these responses, my finger strayed up to the Alexa toggle in my browser and I clicked out of curiosity. I’ve never known how far Alexa rankings should be trusted, but if they can be trusted, then this very Tumblr blog, Grand Hotel Abyss itself, has a larger audience than Bookforum, or at least than Bookforum’s website, for which I am thankful to you, dear reader. And I have to wonder if more mainstream institutions are not losing their market share to independent writers precisely because of corporate fiction’s flaws, as observed by the respondents to the above prompt: it is moralistic, narcissistic, plotless, and all-around unexciting. It doesn’t, per Christine Smallwood, leave its readers “shaking, sputtering, like [they] had just (barely) survived a car accident.”
I don’t know if they’ll make you “sputter” exactly, and I do hope to inspire as much thought as feeling, but I’ve been told that Portraits and Ashes and The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House have left their readers with indelible images of intensity. They also have plots, and they are not about my boring life. They are about the moral and political quandary of what means to be alive, yet they aren’t moral tracts or political activism. They will leave you free to form your own judgments of our common dilemma, which I have recreated with all the inventiveness in my power.
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