Privileges of Fiction (Rita Felski, Theory Without a Capital T)

Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, like her Uses of Literature, is admirably clear and accessible but the former is aimed primarily at an academic audience. I don’t have, nor wish to acquire an insider’s perspective of recent debates in American academic cliques about the use of theory (as in poststructuralist theories – no longer given the capital T).

I do however subscribe to the importance of theory in its most general sense as offering a way of interpreting the social world, particularly its shaping around gender and class, and theory as critique, that is, as an analytical framework to understand how sociopolitical divisions are constructed and maintained in literature, visual arts, language, culture and our psychic processes.

I’m strictly a dilettante theorist unpicking what I can from reading theoretical work, and resist a fair amount because it is often difficult or deliberately obscure. Although The Limits of Critique is written for the academy, it is neither exclusive nor forbidding, and offers riches aplenty for rigorous readers of serious literature (even within the first 50 pages). I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about the book as I read on.

The following fragment interested me with its implication, if I understood correctly, that theory is informed and fashioned by literature to the same degree that Kundera contends that philosophy is shaped by literary works.

Rather than being innocent victims of suspicion, literary works are active instigators and perpetrators of it. That we have learned to read between the lines has everything to do with the devices deployed in modern works of art: unreliable narrators, conflicting viewpoints, fragmented narratives, and metafictional devices that alert readers to the ways in which words conceal rather than reveal. Reading Kafka is more than enough to make one paranoid; the texts of Beckett anticipate many of the tenets of poststructuralism. Suspicious readers are preceded and often schooled by suspicious writers. Indeed, much of what has counted as theory in recent decades riffs off, revises, and extends the classic themes of literary and artistic modernism.

 

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

The Well of the Past

… Thomas Mann brought his very important contribution: [ to these questions: what is an individual and wherein does his identity reside?] we think we act, we think we think, but it is another or others who think and act in us: that is to say, timeless habits, archetypes, which – having become myths passed on from one generation to the next – carry an enormous power and control us (says Mann) from “the well of the past.”

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. trans Linda Asher. Faber and Faber, 1995 (1993).

Mann’s contribution mentioned here by Kundera is from Joseph and his Brothers. I bought a copy today in an edition of just under 1500 pages, daunting and exciting in equal measure. It recalls the idea Mann started to develop through Hans Castorp in Magic Mountain, straying into Jungian, perhaps even Gnostic realms.

Suspending Moral Judgement

Suspending moral judgement is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice, accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac – that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it.

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. trans Linda Asher. Faber and Faber, 1995 (1993).

Whether we can ever come to a novel completely free of moral values is arguable, but it must be desirable that the attempt to suspend beliefs and values is in a reader’s interest if literature is to have the potential to change us.

Being and Becoming

People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void, of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.

Milan Kundera
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag

Rare are those artists whose incandescence stretches to both writing fiction and literary essays: Coetzee, Woolf, Kundera. Though she preferred to be thought a novelist Susan Sontag’s fiction is grandiloquent, best avoided or as she says of Antonin Artaud “rewarding to … read bits of, but who overpower and exhaust if read in large quantities.” Sontag’s form was the essay where her mastery of language, erudition and pedagogic skill achieved its apotheosis. Whatever topic, Sontag’s essays are a joy to read, an adroitness she shares with Geoff Dyer and Gabriel Josipovici.

Under the Sign of Saturn includes a diverse selection of topics. My favourite is the essay on cultural extremist Antonin Artaud, of whom I knew little before. His attempt to create “total art,” an environment that was “magical, paroxysmic, purgative, and, finally opaque” was fascinating and sadly foredoomed, but what a noble ambition. I cannot decide whether I wish to go down the Artaud rathole, tempted though I am.

Artaud offers the greatest quantity of suffering in the history of literature. So drastic and pitiable are the numerous descriptions he gives of his pain that readers, overwhelmed, may be tempted to distance themselves by remembering that Artaud was crazy.

In other essays, Sontag unforgivingly, but necessarily, refutes the attempt to whitewash Leni Riefenstahl’s history as chief Nazi propagandist film-maker, and unpicks how fascist regalia was adopted for sexual theatre. She writes brilliantly of Walter Benjamin’s attraction to astrology and subjects him to a Saturnine  analysis. There are shorter, but illuminating, pieces on Barthes and Canetti.

The latter essay spurred me to follow these essays with Canetti’s only novel Auto-da-Fé (1946).

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.

Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:

Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.

Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.

I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. – Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. Kafka and the Work’s Demand  (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel’s biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin’s two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]