Our Own Religion

There is much worth contemplating in Lars Iyer’s responses to these questions on Full Stop, beyond the title: The Situation in American Writing, particularly this point, which is arguably hyperbolic but contains many truths.

As for the audience for serious American writing — I don’t know anyone who reads it, really. America seems to be everywhere; we are living in an American reality. Which makes me want to read anything but American fiction, however ignorant this sounds. I admit to having very little interest in British fiction, either. It seems to me that everything that is alive in fiction today comes via translation.

This idea that it is the omnipresence of American lifestyle that ends up subverting our appetite for American intellectual achievements is recognisable, and compelling.

This excerpt also gave me much pleasure:

You ask whether online criticism has made literature into a more or less isolated cult. Not really. I think literature itself was already becoming an isolated cult. Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s heteronym in The Book of Disquiet, writes, ‘I am today an ascetic in my own religion. A cup of coffee, a cigarette, and my dreams can easily replace the sky and its stars, work, love and even the beauty of glory. I have, so to speak, no need of stimulants. My opium I find in my soul’. When it comes to literature, many of us have their own cult, their own religion, their own literary sky and stars. But there is a sadness to this, I think. Our stars are toy stars, like the ones which glow on a child’s bedroom ceiling. We are isolated; we read on separate islands. And reading, for us, is a hobby, a pastime, and little more than that, even if it once meant much more than that.

12 thoughts on “Our Own Religion

  1. Hmm, Lars seems to have a good solid baseball and apple pie grasp of what it means to be an American. I congratulate him on his self-assurance. I agree there’s hyperbole. Less optimistic about any truths it might contain. And I’d like to know whom Lars is referring to with “us” in the final sentence. In our own small community of online bloggers, spread everywhere, our efforts are an ongoing effort to overcome isolation. Hardly a hobby horse we rock to pass time. Cheers, K

    • The truth I extracted from that overstated paragraph is that the widescale adoption, in Briain, of a modified American culture (palpable in every aspect of life), rather than a European culture, perversely gives me a greater appetite for the latter (to a great extent in the films I watch, less so in the books I opt to read, but I recognise the sentiment). I share wholeheartedly Lars Iyer’s lack of interest in British fiction, a point Josipovici made very elegantly.

        • That’s too broad a question, Kevin, because the labels (American/European) lose meaning. Highlighting the difference between, say Tarkovsky and David Lynch, is not the point. The UK, for all sorts of interesting reasons, has adopted an American lifestyle. Let’s look at my local cinema: eleven out of the twelve films showing are American; the music charts: nine out of ten bands are American; in the high street we have Starbucks, not a Parisian café. I could go on and on and pulling examples from lifestyle, linguistics, attitude etc. The greatest American export is its lifestyle/culture, this isn’t unique to Britain, that’s just the place I can talk best about.

      • I was thinking that I can relate to that paragraph. I also think that some of us are looking to read great Literature as Art and instinctively know that the voice of the majority – and this may be snobbish – is not where you find it. The predominant voice is American and the zeitgeist is American (“everything changed after 9/11” and all sorts of assertions that assume that life is made of finance and geopolitics). And the more I realize this, the more I want to read true cosmopolitans, exiles, critical thinkers from the “peripheries”.

        • That is precisely the truth I took from that paragraph. The mainstream is, for most part, intellectually bankrupt. Though there are always exceptions it is in the peripheries that reading is explorative, not merely for enjoyment. A hundred, even fifty years ago, I don’t think this was the case.

  2. Interesting! As I see it; online criticism has made literature into a less isolated sphere. It has opened a possibility to discuss and engage in literature in a rhizomatic way, defying the main trend and tendencies within the dominant anglo-american economy based hegemony.

    The ‘we’ I am sketching up here is of course a minority, those of us who read in a critical and analytical way in search of the art of literature. We might inhabit small islands instead of continents, but the communication lines between us are becoming rapidly better.

  3. By the way, that translation of Disquiet has a flaw. The first sentence should be: “I am an ascetic in my religion of myself.” (yes, it sounds clunky in Portuguese too, but there you have it). At least to me, it changes the sense drastically – it’s not his personal religion but he is its own object. It comes in the context of finding oneself a skeptic abandoning the search for truth/meaning of life/ of it all from books, science, religion and other people. Nothing is left but our own dreams as a means to reach the Infinite.

    • Thanks for the clarification, claudia; do you know which is the truer translation, Margaret Jull Costa’s or Richard Zenith’s or perhaps another?

      • I’m not familiar with any of them. I wish they could collaborate, though. Jull-Costa’s extensive experience + Zenith’s Pessoa scholarship = quality.

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