Rops earned some of his considerable influence and fame from his early association with Baudelaire, who admired the artist’s early works, one of which became the frontispiece for a banned early selection from Fleurs du Mal. Rops almost slavishly incarnated Baudelaire’s infernal spiritual universe, like a sword-and-sorcery paperback cover artist who actually read the story. Rops drew priapic devils, horny priests, and an obscenely self-pleasuring St. Thérèse, but the center of his cosmos was taken up by repetitions of the femme fatale: fleshy, imperious, invariably nude, a dominating subject radiating perversity or a dominated object broken down, often on or at the foot of the cross. Unsurprisingly, the Decadent author J.K. Huysmans was a Rops fan, writing that he “celebrated the spirituality of lust which is Satanism.” Unfortunately, like so much metal iconography today, the frisson of Rops’ satanic masters and salacious nuns haven’t survived the erosion of Christian moralism, to say nothing of the Catholic imaginary. Banished from the canon of Symbolist art for his unredeemable cheese, Rops remains potent because of illustrative craft, a flair for the cartoon line of evocative caricature that looks, from this far distance, rather charming, if not innocent.
A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.
In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”
Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.
Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.
Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.
No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.
After reading Theodor Adorno’s work Thomas Mann corresponded with the philosopher, leading to their collaboration on the musicological aspects of Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Adorno wrote to Mann of his admiration for several of his books, especially The Confessions of Felix Krull, Mann in turn wrote to Adorno about his ‘fascinating reading’ of Minima Moralia, which he considered magnificent. Mann also wrote of Minima Moralia:
I have held on to your book magnetically for several days; it makes, day after day, for fascinating reading, though it can only be enjoyed in small gulps, as it is the most concentrated nourishment. It is said that the composition of the planet Sirius, which is of white colour, is made of such dense matter that a cubic inch of it would, with us, weigh a ton. This is why it has such an extraordinary strong field of gravity, similar to the one that surrounds your book. And all this in the face of the homey and inviting titles above your breathtaking figures of thought. No sooner has one said to oneself, “That’s quite enough for today!,” than along comes such a nice fairy-tale heading that one delves into a new adventure.
The most terrifying of all Magritte’s visions was of a world of utter silence in which humans and objects have turned to stone, as in some Absurdist play.
For the only consciousness which can appear to me in its own temporisation is mine, and it can do so only by renouncing all objectivity. In short the for-itself as for-itself cannot be known by the Other. The object which I apprehend under the name of the Other appears to me in a radically other form. The Other is not a for-itself as he appears to me; I do not appear to myself as I am for-the-Other. I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the Other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the Other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is for himself.
Surrounding James Joyce and his novels is a conveyor belt of critical texts purporting to help the reader decode Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Some of these are both readable and rewarding. Of the shorter texts, Eliot’s Ulysses, Order, and Myth [PDF] is valuable. Stewart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses looks good, though I have yet to do more than scan its pages.
Frank Budgen’s James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses is a major critical reference, concentrating on the biographical and human details of the text. Budgen knew Joyce well whilst he was writing Ulysses, and he uses that personal knowledge to offer insight into Joyce’s creative practice. Its style is ponderous, and it is the off-hand biographical references that particularly reward the effort, one of which I partially record here:
Joyce was a great admirer of Defoe. He possessed his complete works, and read every line of them. Of only three writers, he said, could he make this claim: Flaubert, Ben Jonson and Ibsen. Robinson Crusoe he called the English Ulysses. Joyce read to me once the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, stopping often to repeat the lines and retaste the elegant humour of each one. ”Of all English writers Chaucer is the clearest. He is as precise and slick as a Frenchman.”
The English Ulysses comment is fitting as in Ulysses, Joyce gives Leopold Bloom the line, “Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.” Three sentences that remark on fiction, realism and plot.
My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.
Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”
Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:
I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.
To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.
Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.
I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).
There are rules to Insomnia. The second rule of Insomnia is: You don’t talk about Insomnia. I made that up, but there are psychological games insomniacs play, superstitions that go with the disorder. Talking about insomnia when you are going through a period of undisturbed sleep is perilous, it might trigger that very disorder you dread. At the edges of chronic insomnia are bouts of subjective insomnia, when you are so accustomed to not sleeping that you experience sleep state misperception. In that case you sleep for normal durations but perceive that you have slept poorly. Our psychic integrity is fragile.
This morning at 2:30am I sought literary intervention for a bout of insomnia. It’s been a while since I’ve struggled with night awakening but I’m going through some changes rating way up in the thirties or forties on that Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.
Early this morning I settled down with Jacques Lacan’s framework of the imaginary and symbolic in psychic life. Lacan argues that in the territory of the symbolic, we recall our “imaginary” existence as what he terms “body-in-pieces” or a fragmented assemblage of body parts.Furthermore the “I” that a child recognises in a mirror is experienced as a fiction. Rather than having the normal soporific effect that Lacan induces, this sent me back to the shelves to Beckett and Kathy Acker, the latter on my mind after a Twitter conversation with Kate Zambreno.
These are very 2am thoughts so bear with me, but I’m thinking about the way we alternate between the “I” we perceive, the fictional “I” we create, and our fragmentary pasts that are primarily fiction. It seems that this is precisely what Acker and Beckett explore repeatedly through fictional characters and their analogous stories. Their characters, a series of autobiographical personas, are caught between a wish to confess and a need for privacy. Much of the potency of their writing lies in the tension of trying to write their way out of the work.
Where does the Blogger’s Code (you know those self-appointed men that harangue from street corners) stand on updating old posts? I’d never thought much about it, except to correct typos, until I read One Activity You Should Do On Your Blog Every Day. Then I forgot about it for a few days.
Today I’ve been reading Lev Losev’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and reflecting on the subject of genius. Losev writes:
“Genius” is not a scholarly term. Its common use is mainly emotive: “You’re a genius!” For me, “genius” is first and foremost a cognate of “genetic.” A one-in-a-million genetic makeup creates a person of unusual creative potential, willpower, and charisma. It may offend our democratic sensibilities to admit that such rare birds are so different from the rest of our common flock, but in fact they are.
That’s a definition I can accept. It lead me to search Time’s Flow Stemmed for how often, in a delirium of enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, I overuse the term. My search led me to an old post on Aristotle’s hypothesis that mastery of metaphor is a sign of genius. Revisiting led to the sacrilegious act of updating an old post, then to an act of time travel, linking from that old post to one four years later.
Brodsky, almost certainly a genius, in an essay about artistic creativity said, “The lesser commenting upon the greater has, of course, a certain humbling appeal, and at our end of the galaxy we are quite accustomed to this sort of procedure.” Brodsky’s phrase: that the lesser cannot comment upon the greater. This pinpoints my intuition about most literary criticism, that however brilliant the critic, there is always something important left out.
Clerkly Peter Quince, inept playwright of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is (loosely) the narrator of Wallace Steven’s early poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. I enjoy the poem for its “music is feeling, then, not sound.”
Music has expressive power, an ability to articulate that goes beyond language. Musicians and composers that sacrifice expressive meaning for superficial beauty might offer sensuality but can leave you frozen, the source, I suspect, of Beckett’s distaste for Bach, criticised for the ‘inexorable purposefulness’ of his music.
Attempting to describe how music can express a feeling or state of mind leads to inarticulacy, to the limit of language. Roger Scruton (I enjoy his writing on music far more than his politics) argues that concepts of pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm can only be described by recourse to metaphor:
It does not seem strained that Smetana’s music expresses the shining and silken qualities that we hear in it. Smetana’s music is not literally shining or silken. But its expressive power is revealed in its ability to compel these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. Of course, it is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable. Every metaphor both demands an explanation and also refuses it, since an explanation would change it from a metaphor to a literal truth, and thereby destroys its meaning.
In Thom Gunn’s The Occasions of Poetry I came across this paragraph, which expresses that same incoherence that Eliot was grasping toward when he wrote of ’a raid on the inarticulate’ in his exquisite East Coker:
For me the act of writing is an exploration, a reaching out, an act of trusting search for the correct incantation that will return me certain feelings whenever I want them. And of course I have never completely succeeded in finding the correct incantations.
‘Incantation’ is very good, literally ‘singing spells.’ It calls to mind those rare occasions while reading when we come across an unerring incantation, a particularly resonant sentence or phrase that enchants us forever. Gunn writes of seeking transparency, of words being the glass to his mind, as though observing an object through that glass.