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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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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the worst part is that i still love this ship despite some of the shippers
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It's been ages since I've read an entire book about Shakespeare, I want to read something else but I don't know what
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He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Spectacularly bitchy intro to 'Keats and Shakespeare' by John Middleton Murray, 1925.
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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What makes the Wayside books so well-written
I’ve been re-reading the Wayside series lately. They’re very well-written, and I believe one of the features that makes them so is the way the sentences and lines are broken up. Each line is brief and significant; usually one piece of important information per line. (And the lines don’t always deliver information in an intuitive order! Sachar has quite a bit of fun with this, using odd orders to set up jokes or surprises).
You can see this across the series, but I think the best part for illustrating this style comes at the end of Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger. For context, Miss Jewls has been on leave most of the book. The class is currently run by Miss Nogard, who can read minds and uses that to find ways to hurt people while seeming kind. Miss Jewls has just returned to show her baby to the class.
What follows is a very tense scene in which the baby is in grave danger. I’m putting an excerpt below the cut, along with my notes to demonstrate:
Dana was so happy she cried. She hugged Mrs. Jewls.
Escalates emotion. Mrs. Jewls' arrival with the baby was already a happy scene, and now it's more intensely happy. (Changing emotion is usually interesting, and intensifying emotion is a kind of change).
They all took turns hugging Mrs. Jewls.
Generalizes the previous; shows that all the students share Dana's joy.
Of course, there was one person who wasn't happy.
An exception, and the first hint of conflict. We’re reminded that Miss Nogard is still around and still full of malice.
“May I hold her, Mrs. Jewls?” Miss Nogard asked sweetly.
The reader knows from seeing her thoughts (and we’d never know this if not for the third-person omniscient narration!) that Miss Nogard hates children, along with everybody else. So this is a surprising, perhaps suspicious, request.
Mrs. Jewls looked at the substitute teacher.
A hesitation, a judgment. Mrs. Jewls isn't sure if she should trust Miss Nogard with the baby. We know she shouldn't, so there's a lot of suspense here.
“It's okay,” said Allison. “Miss Nogard's a real nice teacher.”
Allison detects her distrust and reassures her. Although we know that Miss Nogard is not trustworthy and certainly not nice, nobody in the story ever learns this. And the trust of the children counts for quite a lot in this series.
“Sure, go ahead,” said Mrs. Jewls. “I'm sorry for interrupting your class at a time like this.”
“Oh, that's quite alright,” said Miss Nogard, picking up Mrs. Jewls' baby. “She's just adorable.”
The pleasantries aren't very important here. But notice that the transfer of the baby, being especially momentous, is divided into two lines – one of Mrs. Jewls giving her up (a decision she wasn’t sure about until Allison spoke up), and one of Miss Nogard taking her. This could have just been “Mrs. Jewls gave Miss Nogard her baby.” But this is too important for one sentence (like if a fight scene was just “They fought!”).
The window by Sharie's desk was wide open. That's kind of dangerous, Miss Nogard realized. Someone might accidentally drop something out the window.
Since she's just taken the baby, we already have an idea in our heads as to what kind of “something” might be dropped out the window. It's a danger, and it seems like Miss Nogard is concerned about it.
She slowly moved toward it as she swayed with the baby.
This quickly recontextualizes Nogard's thoughts – she's not concerned, she's planning infanticide!
In a synopsis, all this might be summarized in a sentence - “Miss Nogard asks Mrs. Jewls to let her hold the baby, and when Mrs. Jewls agrees, she tries to kill the baby.” But, emotionally speaking, a great deal has happened over a very small timeframe (both in-story and in actual words).
When a review is not a review
When a review is not a review
In the late 80s I had a friend who was an abstract artist.
His goal was to be a successful painter. He studied art, subscribed to every important creative magazine, and lived in a granny flat that was converted into his studio most of the time.
He once explained that the purpose of a review is to ascertain what the artist’s intention was, then talk about whether they reached their…
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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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The death of J. Hillis Miller, in February, marked the end of an astonishing period in American academic literary criticism – North American really, since the dominant figure, Northrop Frye, was born in Québec and taught in Toronto.
The period might be said to start in 1947, with the publication of Frye’s first book, the Blake study Fearful Symmetry, and yielded a body of work drawing on the kind of Continental resources – Marxism and psychoanalysis but also theology, linguistics, hermeneutics, and mythopoetics – that had been accorded little place by earlier formalist approaches. Miller, the author of twenty-five books, was rare among the central figures in devoting his attention to study of the novel, from Emily Brontë to Ian McEwan. The arc of Miller’s career has been described by Fredric Jameson as ‘unclassifiable’, but in bald terms, it was the story of a pair of Francophone mentors, Georges Poulet and Jacques Derrida, who washed up in Baltimore – more specifically, the campus of Johns Hopkins, where Miller taught from 1952 until 1972. Miller welcomed their interventions and ran with them, transforming himself into a leading exponent of two critical schools, one – phenomenology – that remains more or less pegged to its post-war moment, the other – deconstruction – with wider fame and implications, and a more contested legacy.
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i wanted to write about dorian gray for my first essay in this class so that i could have my second, much longer essay purely devoted to vampires but i cant do that now and im so cut because i’m probably not going to be able to write about oscar wilde :(
The Ultimate Tragedy of Steve Rogers in the MCU
I just really wish they’d ended Steve’s arc with him finally letting go and moving on instead of having him nope out to the past to live with the very woman who explicitly told him to move on and find happiness in the current age and deal with his problems. Him going back in time sends a pretty terrible message about the grief, trauma, and recovery especially to those who related to him being ‘out of time and place.’ Instead of showing us that moving on and living a fulfilling life after loss is possible, it said that people in Steve’s situation can never be truly happy until they go back in time to what things once were and live out that perfect fantasy. That is not at all a healthy message to send and did the opposite of actually address Steve’s mental health issues. It just validated his toxic thinking patterns instead.
Steve may feel like he’s out of time and place, but he was exactly where and when he was always meant to be in their timeline (it’s not like he actually jumped forward in time and needed to return to stabilize the timeline; he was alive all those years just unconscious, essentially a coma patient). And instead of healing and growing to accept that and moving forward, he ran away from his problems to live out a fantasy. And somehow we’re supposed to see that as a ‘happy ending’ instead of the absolute tragedy it is.
Steve ultimately succumbed to his flaws because he gave up. And for those of you who say that wasn’t him giving up, it was. He could have chosen to build a life away from the fight in the present day, but he did not. He could have followed Peggy’s dying wish for him and moved on, but he did not. Steve in the MCU is a character who is entirely built upon the principle of endurance and his defining character trait is that he never gives up. Whether it’s a fight, supporting his friends, campaigning for truth and justice, or even defying death itself, Steve doesn’t give up. But, at the end of Endgame, that is exactly what he did.
Superheroes are not meant to be accurate reflections of the human condition. They can speak to it, certainly, but at the end of the day they are meant to be ideals. Larger than life examples that inspire us to be better, shoot higher. We watch them struggle in both ways that are familiar to us and ways that aren’t, we want to watch their ups and downs, but, ultimately, we want to watch them succeed. We want to watch them conquer their demons and keep moving forward no matter how many things life throws at them or how badly they fall because that’s what makes them an inspiration. As such, we hold superheroes to a higher standard than we would any other run of the mill character. Because they are meant to be better.
Steve was meant to be better. But Steve gave up. And that is the ultimate tragedy of Steve Rogers.
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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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☕️ kyoshi novels
I love them sm..,., literally read the first 1 in two days and the second 1 in a single session .. I’ve wanted 2 reread em 4 months but I don’t have the time💔I think ab kyoshi rangi kirima nyahitha & kuruk too long I go bonkers
send me ☕️ + [topic] and i’ll tell you my opinion on it!
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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Oh if you want a bad fandom take to rival that Sasha one, once in 24 hours I saw Jon be referred to by one person as a misogynist and another say he was a misandrist. Their evidence being he kept killing women (Jane, Nikola, Helen and Jude I guess? It was right after Helen) and the other was like “he hates Martin and Tim and gets on with the girls!”
fjdkslf GOD. tma fandom....... absolutely bonkers shit. like, i feel like I'M being too critical sometimes when i point out issues i had with tma, and then there's........ this.
ahaha i just remembered a freezing-cold take after helen died abt how she was being 'fridged' bcos she was a woman and her death 'furthered a man's story'... sometimes ppl just say words, huh.
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