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’.

My Year in Reading: 2017

Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)

Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.

My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.

Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.

My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).

It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.

Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.

Literary Studies 1920 – 1970 – An Aspirational Reading List

‘Anglophone literary studies between about 1920 and 1970 are to be understood, I think, as one of the twentieth-century’s most significant and original intellectual accomplishments.’ Simon During’s argument is worth reading for anyone interested, as I am, in this most formative period of literary criticism. During lists the ‘path-breaking and exciting’ works, which establish an aspirational reading list, many which I’ve yet to read.

  1. T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (1921)
  2. Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921)
  3. J. Middleton Murry, Problems of Style (1922)
  4. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924)
  5. T.S. Eliot, Homage to John Dryden (1924)
  6. I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry (1926)
  7. John Livingstone Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1927)
  8. Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927)
  9. T.S. Eliot, For Launcelot Andrewes (1928)
  10. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930)
  11. George Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930)
  12. F.R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930)
  13. Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle (1931)
  14. Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932)
  15. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934)
  16. William Empson, Some Versions of the Pastoral (1935)
  17. Samuel Holt Monk, The Sublime (1935)
  18. Richard Blackmur, The Double Agent (1935)
  19. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935)
  20. C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936)
  21. Allen Tate, Reactionary Essays (1936)
  22. L.C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937)
  23. John Crowe Ransom, The World’s Body (1938)
  24. Yvor Winter, Maule’s Curse (1938)
  25. Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (1938)
  26. Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art (1939)
  27. Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (1939)
  28. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941)
  29. F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (1941)
  30. Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942)
  31. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1947)
  32. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (1947)
  33. Rosamond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (1947)
  34. F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948)
  35. T.S. Eliot, Notes towards a definition of Culture (1948)
  36. Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History (1948)
  37. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, The Theory of Literature (1949)
  38. Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot (1949)
  39. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950)
  40. Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride (1951)
  41. Reuben Brower, Fields of Light (1951)
  42. W.K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (1951)
  43. R.S. Crane, Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern (1952)
  44. Donald Davie, Purity of Diction (1952)
  45. F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (1952)
  46. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953)
  47. Dorothy van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (1953)
  48. Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953)
  49. John Holloway, The Victorian Sage (1953)
  50. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: technology and the pastoral ideal (1954)
  51. W.J. Harvey, Character and the Novel (1955)
  52. Allen Tate, The Man of Letters in the Modern World (1955)
  53. R.W. B. Lewis, American Adam (1955)
  54. Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957)
  55. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957)
  56. Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (1957)
  57. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
  58. Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (1957)
  59. Robert Langbaum, Poetry of Experience (1957)
  60. Yvor Winter, The Function of Criticism (1957)
  61. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (1958)
  62. Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (1958)
  63. Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (1959)
  64. Harold Bloom, Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959)
  65. Vincent Buckley, Poetry and Morality (1959)
  66. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960)
  67. Graham Hough, Image and Experience (1960)
  68. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961)
  69. S.J. Goldberg, The Classical Temper (1961)
  70. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: the Origins of a Style (1961)
  71. Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett; a critical study (1961)
  72. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961)
  73. William Empson, Milton’s God (1961)
  74. Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (1962)
  75. John Bayley, The Characters of Love (1962)
  76. Winifred Nowottny, The Language Poets Use (1962)
  77. Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier, In Defense of Reading (1962)
  78. Morse Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision (1962)
  79. D.W. Harding, Experience into Words (1963)
  80. Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin (1963)
  81. J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (1963)
  82. Christopher Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style (1963)
  83. Harry Levin, Gates of Horn (1963)
  84. Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964)
  85. C.K. Stead, The New Poetic (1964)
  86. Angus Fletcher, Allegory (1964)
  87. Barbara Hardy, The Appropriate Form (1964)
  88. Paul Fussell, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism (1965)
  89. Tony Tanner, The Reign of Wonder (1965)
  90. Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica (1966)
  91. Richard Poirer, A World Elsewhere (1966)
  92. Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966)
  93. George Steiner, Language and Silence (1967)
  94. E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (1967)
  95. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1967)
  96. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure (1968)
  97. Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (1968)
  98. Mark Schorer, The World we Imagine (1968)
  99. J. Hillis Miller, The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968)
  100. Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings (1969)
  101. Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970)
  102. Rosalie Colie, My Echoing Grove (1970)

Broadcasting Ambiguity

Sir William Empson by Fay Godwin

“Yet only writers (and certain kinds of reader) will believe they can never leave language to the side of any question.”

“Empson wants us to see literature as a kind of continuum, a viaduct from mind to mind …”

“Empson writes (in the poem “Letter I”), “I approve myself, dark spaces between stars,” and [Denis] Donoghue says, “You have to be an Ancient rather than a Modern to put yourself between that verb and that object.”

“But Empson doesn’t state the important corollary, perhaps because he thinks the judgment of a critic’s work needs to be left to that critic’s readers. The corollary is this: “if criticism can’t explain, can’t peg things out in words, it can, often magnificently, show us what there is to be looked at, prove there is a crossroad where we so far have seen only a single well-trodden track.”

“It strikes me that modern critics . . . have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to this basic fact.”

Michael Wood. On Empson (2017)