The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

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.

JM Coetzee’s Slow Man

In Slow Man Coetzee almost fails, or rather he makes the reader expect him to fail, by braving deep metanarrative but drawing back from any of the expected or even easy narrative threads.

Late Coetzee is playful, Nabokovian; in Slow Man’s case bringing back Elizabeth Costello, a narrator from earlier work to explore again issues of language and sexuality through a prism of weary old age. Coetzee has a finer touch than Nabokov though; his metadiegetic game playing, in this case, succeeds precisely because he knows when to pull back from self-absorbed, self-referential fiction that devours itself.

This Slow Man, like its successor Diary of a Bad Year, which I’m reading, is literature to admire not love. There is satisfaction in narrative as an act of construction but it is less easy to enter the kind of fictional space that leads to total immersion. And perhaps that too is deliberate, a game with the reader, deploying language in a way that is slippery, that eludes truth and falsity, that renders the project more tentatively and, in its way, is more accessible to self-reflection.

I’ve spent a few hundred hours thinking about and reading Coetzee’s work. After Diary of a Bad Year I’ll read The Childhood of Jesus. Of the novels that’ll be the end for me of what exists to date. I’ve read the fictionalised autobiography and consider that trilogy Coetzee’s finest work to date, though Life and Times of Michael K holds a special place in his oeuvre. I also plan to read soon The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, his dialogue with psychologist Arabella Kurtz.

Interpretative Revelation

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Nabokov, Pale Fire (62-63)

Brian Dillon’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”

Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room is the first in Cabinet’s 24-Hour  Book series.

Dillon’s book explores the scenography and architecture of writing itself. Inspired in part by Georges Perec’s short fragment in Species of Spaces on Antonello da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his study, Dillon’s text is both a personal reflection on the theatrics of the study, the library, and the office, and a historical consideration of such writerly paraphernalia as Proust’s bed, Nabokov’s index cards, and Philip Roth’s moustache.

Cabinet is now my only magazine subscription. Apart from Cabinet my media consumption is entirely online, in one form or another. You never know what you will be reading about when Cabinet shows up. (With a subscription you also get access to the archives.) I’m not on commission here, just pushing you toward the good stuff. I used to have a dozen subscriptions to publications, not only literary journals, but found that they were sitting unread while I caught up with Twitter and my RSS feed. I get more reliable literary criticism from Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters and Michelle Bailat Jones than I got once from more mainstream publications.

Striking red cover and bold title apart, the production quality of I Am Sitting in a Room is crap. I’m not easy on my books; I scribble on them and bend their spines. In this case, the pages started to fall out before I got ten pages in.

That aside, the book is short, seventy-odd pages, and comprises Brian Dillon, who I’ve intended to read for ages, writing about writer’s routines and the places where writers go to write. Autobiographical in part, also a study of writers including  Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Joan Didion, accompanied with photographs of writer’s studies. That’s my summary, though you may prefer Cabinet’s version above.

Dillon’s keeps a blog, mostly used to cross-post pieces that have appeared in other places, and is on Twitter. I also came across this absorbing piece, drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, that Dillon wrote for Frieze, as much about the state of criticism as about taste. I’m very interested at the moment in Bourdieu for his ideas on taste, the nature of patriarchy and, intrigued by a conversation with Rim, his views on the origin and death and decadence of philosophy. Here’s a taster of Dillon’s article:

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

On this first reading of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, roughly a third of it whistled straight over my head-the seventh chapter is impenetrable without more grounding than I possess in theoretical discourse-and I don’t intend to write much about it on this occasion. This is partly because I wish to closely reread it section by section, but also because it covers so vast a terrain-encompassing several visual art forms (film and video in some depth), architecture, literature (Ballard, Berger, Brecht, Dick, Faulkner, Kafka, Norris, Robbe-Grillet, Simon), philosophy, theory, sociology and economics-that no single post could capture its depth and insight. Each chapter, and in some cases, individual paragraphs merit separate posts. Though I don’t plan that sort of undertaking I will certainly return to the book in future posts (perhaps I should begin another blog on this book alone).

Incidentally, Jameson explores in some depth the handful of writers detailed above (not a definitive listing) but strangely (to me) fails to mention Borges or Nabokov, both whose approach I consider irrefutably Postmodern. Fokkema argues in Literary History, Modernism and Postmodernism that Borges “contributed more than anyone else to the invention and acceptance” of Postmodernism. Though Jameson touches on literature he emphasises that it is the weakest art form of Postmodernism:

For some seventy years the cleverest prophets have warned us regularly that the dominant art form of the twentieth century was not literature at all-nor even painting or theatre or the symphony-but rather the one new and historically unique art invented in the contemporary period, namely film: that is to say the first distinctly mediatic art form. What is strange about this prognosis-whose unassailable validity has with time become a commonplace-is that it should have had so little practical effect.

As a framework for his treatment of Postmodernism, Jameson adopts Ernest Mandel’s interpretation of late capitalism:

[..] there have been three fundamental moments in capitalism, each one marking a dialectical expansion over the previous stage. These are market capitalism, the monopoly stage or the stage of imperialism, and our own, wrongly called postindustrial, but what might better be termed multinational capital. I have already pointed out that Mandel’s intervention in the postindustrial debate involves the proposition that late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion into hitherto uncommodified areas.

Using Mandel’s thesis, Jameson explores Postmodernism and the logic of its progression from Modernism, its historical apotheosis in the 1960s and 1970s and its implications as a cultural, intellectual and economic phenomenon. Suffice to say, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is a stunning work of intellectual pyrotechnics.

It has brought to light cavernous gaps in my reading that I plan to close in the years ahead. I’ve compiled below some plans for further reading around the themes of Postmodernity and Theory below. If you have suggestions of other titles or directions that might prove rewarding please comment and let me know. (I will write about Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism, which I also read recently).

  • Fredric Jameson – The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act
  • David Harvey – The Condition of Postmodernity
  • Edward Soja – Postmodern Geographies
  • Steven Connor – Postmodernist Culture
  • Ernest Mandel – Late Capitalism
  • Hal Foster – The Anti-Aesthetic
  • Timothy Bewes – Cynicism and Postmodernity
  • Adorno – “The Stars Down to Earth”
  • Raymond Guess – The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School
  • Verso Books’ Radical Thinkers series
  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism
  • Giovanni Arrighi – The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times
  • Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida
  • Judith Ryan – The Novel After Theory
  • Nicholas Royle – Jacques Derrida
  • Jane Gallop – The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time
  • Viktor Shklovsky – Theory of Prose
  • Adorno – Aesthetic Theory
  • From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology
  • Samir Amin – A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist
  • Wlad Godzich – The Culture of Literacy

My Late Discovery of Hitchens’ Essays

It was only after his death that I begun to read Christopher Hitchens. Unconsciously I had ignored his work, associating him with the fraternity of English bloviators that were his friends: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.

I’m reading his last book of essays Arguably and, though they are not without a familiar pomposity, quite enjoying them. As a proficient essayist Hitchens is able to interest me in subjects as diverse the early nineteenth century Barbary Wars (the first US ‘War on Terror’),  Benjamin Franklin’s wit and the death penalty.

Though only a quarter of the way through this 788 page volume I am so far hooked, not only by the diversity of subjects, but the penetrating quality of his well-researched essays. His Nabokov and Newton essays are so far my favourites. Here’s a taster of the Nabokov, a review of Lolita, which succeeds in offering me new insight into a well-loved fiction.

Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed) that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne’s poem Dolores sees a young lady (‘Our Lady of Pain”) put through rather more than young Miss Haze. Lord Byron’s many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thin soft cheek a parent’s kiss,” and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold’s absent daughter (who like Byron’s child and Nabokov’s longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert’s first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron’s first wife, Anna Isabella, who was known as “Annabella,” and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron’s ravished half-sister Augusta.

Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard

Perhaps it’s me. Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction is well-crafted. I agreed with her assertions. It is just a little like the fashion for nouvelle cuisine that was all the rage when this book was published. It leaves you hungry for more. Even this Dillard excuses in the introduction explaining that despite her critical training and competence “as a careful textual critic, I have flung this sensible approach aside in favour of enthusiasm, free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe.”

That I was to read Living by Fiction was inevitable after Amateur Reader (Tom) wrote, “Pale Fire and Ficciones, which she, like me [and me], simply assumes are essential and inescapable Tower of Babel-sized landmarks of 20th century literature, terrain-defining books.”

Dillard writes lovingly about Postmodern fiction, which she chooses to label contemporary modernist, meaning writers like Robert Coover, John Barth, Nabokov, Borges, Italo Calvino etc. After some time analysing technique and style, Dillard debates the value of art and worth of literary criticism, before proceeding to her main argument: “Does the World Have Meaning?’ Approaching this question by asking whether fiction has meaning because “it traffics in knowledge,” she concludes with uncertainty. As I do.

There are one or two terms that fail to translate from American English. The word she uses repeatedly is nonce, as in “for the nonce.” In American English this means “for the time being.” I’m glad I looked it up, much the clearer.