For a decade: 33 theses, reflections, quotes

In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:

  1. “The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
  2. Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
  3. Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
  4. “Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
  5. Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
  6. “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
  7. Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
  8. Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
  9. “If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
  10. There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
  11. There are also good and bad readers
  12. “I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
  13. Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
  14. Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
  15. “Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
  16. The Death of the Author is a delusion
  17. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
  18. We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
  19. “As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
  20. Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
  21. Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
  22. Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
  23. Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
  24. The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
  25. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
  26. Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
  27. More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
  28. All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
  29. Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
  30. “My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
  31. “How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
  32. I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
  33. ” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector

To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.

 

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brophy, Levey and Osborne

The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.

I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.

Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:

General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.

I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:

But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.

I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.

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

Sontag’s Diaries 1964-1980

Susan Sontag in 1972

Rain provides the excuse not to go out and be busy, but to drink tea and finish Susan Sontag’s 1964-1980 Diaries: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. Like the first volume of diaries, Reborn (2009), these entries show a different Sontag to the assured essayist. The bones of the fierce essays are here, but so also is the unvarnished emotion of Sontag’s quest for intimacy and love.

The diaries reveal tantalising outlines of works, some realised and others abandoned, and lists and opinions like these:

“New” British novelists: B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, David Plante, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Gabriel Josipovici [1976]

The great American novels of the 20th century (that is from 1920 on: post-James): Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Dos Passos’s USA, Faulkner’s Light in August [1976]

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I am a serendipitous reader, allowing chance references to lead me meanderingly from book to book, author to author. The timing of my discovery of Rebecca’s Classics Circuit was impeccable, hard on the discovery of William Faulkner’s influence on Beauvoir. Sartre said, “The technique of Simone de Beauvoir, also, was inspired by Faulkner. Without him she never would have conceived the idea, used in Le Sang des Autres, of cutting the chronological order of the story and substituting instead a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.”

Describing Faulkner and, in particular of As I Lay Dying, Beauvoir wrote:

Not only did he show great skill in deploying and harmonising multiple viewpoints, but he got inside each individual mind, setting forth its knowledge and ignorance, its moments of insincerity, its fantasies, the words it formed and the silences it kept. As a result the narrative was bathed in a chiaroscuro, which gave each event the greatest possible highlight and shadow.

The contrasts in As I Lay Dying are intriguing, foremost the language: the vernacular coexistent with the poetic. Whilst reading the viewpoint of confused child Vardaman, after a period of rambling thought interspersed with dialogue, the narrative offers:

It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components-snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is.

Faulkner is, I surmise, not expecting the reader to concede this as part of Vardaman’s stream of consciousness. So who narrates here, and on similar occasions elsewhere? I know little of Faulkner and his reading of psychology, but took it to be the voice of the unconscious, ‘it, the Id, that never shuts up’ that, ‘talks even when it is silent’.

The fifteen fragmentary viewpoints on offer in As I Lay Dying include the departed mother; not too much of a stretch that the Id has a voice. The technique is intriguing but somehow works to give us precisely that chiaroscuro of deep contrasts, between speech, thought and action.

Beauvoir finds the dark comedy in As I Lay Dying. Though disturbing, there is a surreal humour in the rag-tag Bundren family traipsing across the county to bury the decomposing, odiferous corpse of the lady of the house. We expect the set pieces, like the coffin almost being borne away on the river , before they occur, but find agony and a smidgen of humour in that inevitability. Beauvoir adds, “If objects or habits were presented to the reader in a preposterous light, the reason was that misery and want not only change man’s attitude to things but transform the very appearance of things.”

One Thing Lead to Another

In between Simone de Beauvoir and William Faulkner, I read Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music as told to Tim Lihorean. The book served my purpose, which was to provide a contextual structure for the major composers, who influenced who, etc. The content was exceptional, but the tone of the book I found excruciating. It depends on whether you enjoy Stephen Fry’s schtick. I don’t.

The subject continues to fascinate me, and like the dangers of shandy or marijuana, Stephen Fry lead to harder stuff, in the form of the wonderful The Oxford History of Western Music by controversial musicologist Richard Taruskin.

Thoughts a Third of the Way into The Prime of Life

After twelve days I am a third of the way through the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography The Prime of Life. This 1973 Penguin edition is over 600 pages of small, closely set type, but I am reading slowly, fountain pen in hand scribbling page after page of notes. I have no urge to rush.

Once again, de Beauvoir applies her considerable intellect to observing herself as a young adult. The view is microscopic and unswerving. I love the way de Beauvoir tackles self as a perpetual project.

If the bad habits which I attributed to Chantal irked me so much, that was not so much through having observed them in Simone Labourdin as because I had slipped into them myself: during the past two or three years I had more than once yielded to the temptation of embellishing my life history with false items of information. Alone in Marseille, I had more or less purged myself of this weakness, though I still reproached myself for it.

There’s gossip: Sartre and de Beauvoir enjoyed dissecting the personalities of friends and acquaintances. There’s much discussion about literature: her love of Stendhal, of Proust and Conrad, and the excited discovery of the translated works of Faulkner, Kafka and Dos Passos. de Beauvoir also explains why she chose literature over philosophical writing:

[…] I did not regard myself as a philosopher: I was well aware that the ease with which I penetrated to the heart of a [philosophical] text stemmed, precisely, from my lack of originality. In this field a genuinely creative talent is so rare that queries as to why I did not attempt to join the élite are surely otiose: it would be more useful to explain how certain individuals are capable of getting results from that conscious venture into lunacy known as a ‘philosophical system’ . . . I wanted to communicate the element of originality in my own experience. In order to do this successfully I knew it was literature towards which I must orientate myself.

As an aside I came across this wonderful blog that explores “the mind, method and masterpieces of David Markson through the marginalia found on the pages of the books in his personal library.” This snippet made me hoot with laughter:

On which Markson placed a checkmark next to a paragraph discussing the sex life of Nelson Algren:

“My introduction stops here. I knew very little about Algren’s sex life (or about my own, for that matter). I subsequently learned from Deirdre Bair’s Simone de Beauvoir (Summit, 1990) that he helped Miss de Beauvoir achieve her first orgasm. (The only person I ever helped achieve a first orgasm was good old me.) In Iowa City, Algren would refer to her as ‘Madame Yak Yak’ because she had given their relationship so much publicity.”

—-

“Nelson Algren, not Sartre, gave Simone de Beauvoir her first orgasm.”

Wrote Markson on pg. 30 of Reader’s Block, utilizing the above information.

Not only did Simone de Beauvoir not achieve her first orgasm with Sartre, but she was also taller than him, as Markson explained in Vanishing Point:

“Simone de Beauvoir was one inch taller than Sartre.” (Pg. 133).

Though there is absolutely no evidence to conclude that these facts are at all related—and how or why would they be?—am I the only one tempted to draw some sort of ridiculous conclusion?