Friday, November 19, 2010

Imaginary Authors?

I've been thinking about the emergence of "the author" in the 18C and wondering what might have been alternative developments to this course. A favorite author of mine, John Crowley, has been developing similar notions (in a very casual way) of a kind of shared consciousness between individuals. (Link here--Imaginary Individuals and here-- Teeming Temes and the Future of Totalitarianism.) Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash also deals with identities diffused through society. He thinks of religion and culture as memes, for him a kind of computer program, complete with viruses, that has been hardwired into humanity. An overly stable and isolated sense of self is certainly a fiction but a completely integrated consciousness, too, strikes me as rather incongruous with human experience.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Imagery of Fish in Dreiser and McCarthy

I just finished reading Theodore Dreiser's The Financier for a class on Realism and Naturalism and am surprised at how entirely swept up and moved by the novel I have been in a way I can't quite put my finger on. This was my first experience with Dreiser and I am now very curious to go back to his more influential novels: American Tragedy and Sister Carrie. The two closing sections of The Financier in particular solidified my appreciation of the novel and seemed to justify my response. Dreiser knew he had tapped into the heart of something big and those last two sections are a kind of dark revelry in his achievement. The sections called to mind the opening and closing images of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Dreiser opens with a scene from the childhood of his protagonist Frank Cowperwood during the boy's regular trips to a local aquarium. Frank was particularly fascinated with one particular tank. Everyday he would observe a lobster's slow and patient hunting of a squid. He takes the lobster as an example of a savage will that he feels is the necessary stance for anyone who wants to succeed in life. The novel ends with two even more interesting sections, one describing the black grouper's survival methods as being a key to life and morality or amorality and then a coda that peers into the future. Contrary to the blurb on the back of my cover of the book I don't think that Dreiser is making a judgement on Frank. Dreiser conveys Frank directly and with much energy and we can't help but be drawn into his drama. Dreiser is obviously in awe of his character and in many respects shared some qualities with him, particularly his sexual drive and taste in passionate and independent women. If there is to be a judgement on Frank it must come solely from the reader.

It seems curious to me that Dreiser's novel also occupies the same period as McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian and The Road are ultimately much bleaker and much less sparing of sympathy than The Financier, as harsh as that book is. Blood Meridian ends with a Prometheus like figure attempting to draw fire from the earth. In The Road the continuing theme that holds the father and son together is that they must carry the fire. The fire I think is a saving idealism, a belief in the imagination perhaps, which has been so drained that in this novel it means little more than not eating people. The message of survival in The Financier is ultimately antithetical to The Road's idealism.

All of the figures of the novel seem to have glaucoma and so occupy, it would seem, the same cosmos as that of the late Jose Saramago's Blindness (which I haven't read yet.) I've read The Road once and a half now. After finishing the film I started rereading it but since I am still in school I forced myself to put it down. I'm convinced the book is an allegory but I will need to read the book again to put together all the pieces. Outside the elements I've already discussed another allegorical element is the theme of cellars. There are three "cellar" scenes in the novel--the first is full of humans, the second was presumably an abandoned fallout shelter stockpiled with foodstuffs and enough to live on for some time, the third is a ship abandoned in the ocean. In the first scene the father ignores all the signs of danger outside the house that the son notices and so leads his son into viewing the horrors inside. In the second scene the father forces the son to take the risk again but also forces the son to abandon the shelter to continue on down south. The final scene I may need to reread. It is set in the ocean and we are given the scene, I believe just before this, where the father and son wonder if there may not be another father and son on the other side staring back at them. A very haunting and powerful thought. The father than ventures out into the ocean to mine the ship. When he returns his goods have been pillaged but his son thankfully has been left alive. The perpetrator is caught and left naked and alone despite the son's protestations.

The novel opens with the sentence, "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him." One thinks first of Dante finding himself midway through his life's journey in a dark wood. And then also of Wordsworth who needed, at times, to reach out and touch a tree in order to remind himself of the reality of the outside world. Here, at the novels opening, we don't know who the child is. But it is suggestive of not reality but hope, for a lost past or for a possible future. In the dream the father casts the language suggest that he is casting off light in the cave. The creature, when I first read the novel, I took to be some sort of sea creature, a leviathan. But on rereading it seems as though it must be some semblance of what humanity has become. The last paragraph of the book is very odd. It seems to be a return to the real world. And it is this paragraph that seems in tone so similar to the closing of Dreiser's book. It describes the sensation of holding a trout in one's hand feeling the contortions of life pressing against one. Oddly enough, Philip Roth's The Human Stain also ends with a meditation on how fish gain their strength through a certain circulation of waters.

These seem little more than coincidences. I turned to McCarthy in an attempt to better understand my fascination with Dreiser's novel. Both Dreiser and McCarthy present a similar version of reality except in Dreiser we feel compelled to submit to it while in McCarthy we hope in desperation to find some means of resisting it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Alexander Kinglake -- Eothen

Eothen and the Practical Prophet
Eothen is famed as the first “impressionistic travelogue (Jewett, 1).” Although the writing of descriptive narratives based solely on a subjective response to nature is not a new phenomenon (James Thomson’s The Seasons is one example), Kinglake is the first to adapt these techniques to travel writing. While Kinglake never gives a rigorous definition of his methods of description, his purpose is to entertain after all, one can still find scattered throughout Eothen elaborations of them. Here I limit myself to Kinglake’s art of moving between a Romantic abandonment to sensual experiences and a Victorian abstraction from those experiences, often expressed in witty asides. In the concluding section of this essay I will contrast Kinglake’s character with his depiction of Lady Hester Stanhope, whom Kinglake calls a “practical prophetess.” Stanhope will serve as a summary of Kinglake’s views on the range of influences the East can have over an English constitution.
In dealing with Kinglake’s method of description I will consequently be forced to deal with recent criticisms of his racial prejudices. In the wake of Edward Said’s critique of Kinglake in Orientalism most recent scholars have fallen in line with Said in dismissing Kinglake as “undeservedly famous and popular (Said 193).” The hope of this essay is to temper these reactions through an analysis of the complexity and humor of Kinglake’s descriptive techniques.

I. Kinglake’s Method of Description
Kinglake states in his preface that he will not present mere statistical information but “truth.” By truth he means his own subjective impressions, however erroneous they might be. He aims to convey “not those impressions which ought to have been produced upon any “well-constituted mind,” but those which were really and truly received at the time of his rambles (italic author’s own, xix).” These impressions are highly Romantic in color while being tempered by a Victorian sensibility, an attitude that John Reed finds in Victorian Will to be common for the age:
“The Victorians believed they possessed what the Romantics lacked. Inheriting strong passions, love of nature, and a yearning to escape the limitations of material life from the Romantics, they brought to these impulses a firm will and self-discipline, which, though it left them with warring selves, made them, in their own estimation, finer men. Where the Romantics dared to extend themselves indefinitely into the mysterious necessity encircling them, Victorians focused their wills upon the centers of their beings, closing off an alien circumambience (190).”
Reed compares the central literary figures of this transitional period through their use of the circle as a metaphor for man’s will in relation to necessity. The boundary that will define Kinglake’s circumference will be all those experiences that leave the ground. In other words, he tends to revel in sensual experiences while refusing to assign a transcendental source to them.
Kinglake’s subtitle to Eothen, “traces of travel brought home from the East,” gives us a clue to what he is up to. Angus Fletcher links “tracing” to description:
[description as] tracing, traversing, scribing a path or track. Tracing is connected to the geometric, as when we speak of “describing” a circle, where outline seems to imply the logical aim of setting a limit. Indeed, the symbolic power to surround may be the crux of description in the modern context, for by describing sufficiently numerous traces, we always achieve reach, enclosure, as in a logical circle (43).”
Description traces out the horizons of one’s experience. Rather than isolating an object or experience to compare it to some Platonic ideal form Kinglake’s method is to wander across an object and describe it in its environment. One perfect example is when Kinglake visits the home of the “the blessed Virgin” in Nazareth (93).
To prepare himself for the experience he recalls childhood memories of classical Italian paintings he had seen, which although now blurred with age, still express to him a sense of ideal beauty. He tells us, “they left me (for to them I am wont to trace it) a faint apprehension of beauty not compassed with lines and shadows… they touched me with a faith in loveliness transcending mortal shapes (93).” Kinglake will protest throughout Eothen against all those individuals whose thoughts stray too far from the “ground.” With that in mind we should be skeptical of his sudden flight towards transcendence. After this reflection on his rising excitement he immediately begins to rationalize it. In this case he attributes his feelings to the heat and a lack of food. “I had fasted perhaps too long, for I was fevered with the zeal of an insane devotion to the heavenly queen of Christendom. But I knew the feebleness of this gentle malady, and knew how easily my watchful reason, if ever slightly provoked, would drag me back to life (93).” When he finally confronts the place, after long preparation, he is still unable to suppress his need to kiss the stone Mary had stepped on.
Eothen charts a variety of experiences, some disappointing and some enthralling. In this particular situation we may be surprised that Kinglake succumbed to his superstition. I believe he was able to sympathize with the act of kissing the stone because of the feminine sexuality he had already imbued the place with, his sense of ideal beauty. After kissing the stone he says it was as though he had felt Mary’s “warm robe” which may be an allusion to the woman in the Gospel of Mathew 9:20 who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe (94). Kinglake will note the seductive quality of the touch of a woman’s dress again in the Cairo chapter (177). This pattern of abandon and withdrawal is followed throughout Eothen, in the remaining examples I aim to show how diverse this pattern may be.
If in the previous example he was surprised by his own enthusiasm in this next passage he is perhaps equally amazed at the same sentiment’s refusal to come. The spirit of adventure is most keen in Kinglake when he happens upon a strange discovery; those journeys he spends time planning and preparing for often end in disappointment. On Cyprus he’s determined to see what is left of the scant ruins of the Paphian temple. Since the area is almost vacant the trip is mostly an exercise of the imagination, he goes there “to speak out my resolves to the listening Jove” and, far more importantly, to walk “the leafy pathway that crisped beneath the glowing sandal of Aphrodetie (63).” His plans are dashed when a priest he had lodged with insists on accompanying him and so spoils the solitary revels he had planned for himself: “If you have no taste for research, and can’t affect to look for inscriptions, there is some awkwardness in coming to the end of a merely sentimental pilgrimage (64).” As I’ve highlighted, solitude and a means of feminizing the object are what usually allows Kinglake to become enveloped in his environment. In this case the overlooking priest inhibited an imaginative enjoyment of the scene.
I will now discuss three different areas Kinglake travels through and describe the differing impacts each has on his imagination: first, cities and Kinglake’s reaction to power; second, holy sites; and finally, scenes on the road and from nature.

II. Centers of Power: Cairo and Constantinople
For Kinglake the two largest cities he travels through are colored by the same two events: the waning power of the Sultan of Turkey, Mahmoud II, and the plague. Constantinople is “lent a mysterious and exciting… interest” due to the presence of the plague (26). “Cairo and the Plague,” he says, are two ideas he cannot dissociate (169). The plague “gave tone and a colour somber enough, but true, and well befitting the dreary monuments of past power and splendour… You go out from your queenly London… and travel on to the capital of an Eastern prince—you find but a waning power, and a faded splendour (26).” Seven years prior to Kinglake’s journey Mahmoud II had suffered a series of defeats resulting in lose of lands to the Greeks and Russians. Egyptian governor, Mohammed Ali, took advantage of the Ottoman weakness and split from her former ally, taking much of her land in the process (de Gaury, 26-27).
It is into this newly created power void that the British will ultimately step. Said finds in Kinglake a forerunner to later British colonial attitudes. For Said, Kinglake’s “Easterners are best dealt with when intimidated, and what better instrument of intimidation than a sovereign Western ego (193)?” Throughout his narrative Kinglake remarks how “Arabs” only respond to intimidation (I count eight such references). To be fair, though, it is Kinglake’s guide Dthemetri who is most often the “instrument of intimidation.” For example, when the party gets lost near the Red Sea it is Dthemetri that suggests they execute the Nazarene guide for the detour. Kinglake says, “I had no crotchet at that time against the punishment of death, but I was unused to blood, and the proposed victim looked so thoroughly capable of enjoying life… that I thought it would be hard for him to die, merely in order to give me a character for energy.” Kinglake may not be the most sympathetic of individuals but he most often prefers the stance of observer than to an “instrument of intimidation” bent on shaping his “Western ego.”
In a second instance, while in Galilee he encounters a Jewish community being violently harassed by local Muslims. He learns that the instigator is the so-called “Prophet Damoor” who has been receiving visions of the Jew’s persecution which his followers then conveniently carry out for him. Kinglake is at first resolved to petition the local governor in the Jews favor until they confront him a second time asking him to refrain. They fear that any intervention against Damoor might only further incite the Muslims to violence.
In my final example Kinglake is asked to intervene in the wedding between a young Christian girl and a wealthy Muslim sheik. He pragmatically determines that the woman, since she had already converted to Islam for the sheik and abandoned her former husband, was obviously not a good match. He also is seriously concerned for the girl’s safety if she is returned to her former husband. It is only later when Kinglake learns that Dthemetri lied under his name to have the bride returned to her community.
Donna Landry’s informative and entertaining essay “Saddle Time” unfortunately misses the mark on Kinglake by exaggerating his racial prejudices while instilling in him a malicious intent towards the East. To take one example, after citing Kinglake’s account of why he brought his own saddle and spurs she says “Best to tackle backwardness with a forward-going attitude and to ride with a forward-going English seat, spurring on one’s reluctant equine (as well as human) servants (444).” Kinglake never “spurs on” his human servants and his equipment he tells us is actually easier on his horse than the Turkish equipment. “The Ottoman horseman, raised by his saddle to a great height above the humble level of the back he bestrides, and using a very sharp bit, is able to life the crest of his nag and force him into a strangely fast shuffling walk, the orthodox pace for the journey. My comrade and I, using English saddles, could not easily keep our beasts up to this peculiar amble (14-15).” Robert Hampson’s article also weighs all of his rhetorical energy against Kinglake skewing his observations so that they only present one facet of Kinglake’s always multifaceted observations. I don’t have space to comment on all of his objections here so I will limit myself to his concluding remark: “It is abundantly clear from Kinglake’s preface that this is not a book ‘about’ the East so much as the performance of an English gentlemanly identity against the backdrop of Eastern travels (219).” Eothen is an entirely subjective account by its author’s own admission, I will only counter that an appreciation of the work is equally subjective. Reading Eothen is as much about encountering its narrator as it is about encountering the East and the enjoyment of that narrative will depend on how much we enjoy the company of its author.

III. Places of Pilgrimage
Said usefully notes that “after Napoleon, that is—the Orient was a place of pilgrimage, (168).” This pilgrimage is what M.H. Abrams characterized in Natural Supernaturalism as the Romantics attempt to save “the cardinal values of their religious heritage, by reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable (Said, 115).” Furthermore the religious heritage is, as Said qualifies, “Judeo-Christian/ Greco-Roman (168).” Kinglake’s trip, inspired by the previous travels of his friend Pollington, would be a pilgrimage to the original site of Troy (de Gaury, 21-24). While Kinglake finds in the Greek mariners figures reminiscent of Homer he finds their religious practices something aberrant:
“The Greek Church has animated the Muscovite peasant, and inspired him with hopes and ideas which, however humble, are still better than none at all; but the faith, and the forms, and the strange ecclesiastical literature which act so advantageously upon the mere clay of the Russian serf, seem to hang like lead upon the ethereal spirit of the Greek (47).”
The Orthodox Church is merely a taint upon the classical ideals that carried Kinglake on his pilgrimage. The merriment of the Greeks at sea he could sympathize with, their prostration before “a thing of wood and glass” he could not (47-68).
What is more pitiful to Kinglake than the Greek’s self-abnegation is the “calm sense of duty” that motivates the Jerusalem pilgrims where they “seemed to be not “working out,” but transacting the great business of salvation (italic author’s own, 131).” For Kinglake true piety should be engaging in something that suits one’s passion. It should not be surprising then that Kinglake is delighted to find a Scottish convert to Islam who still maintains a library of Scottish books:
…in vain men called him Effendi—in vain he swept along in Eastern robes—in vain the rival wives adorned his harem; the joy of his heart still plainly lay in this, that he had three shelves of books, and that the books were thoroughbred Scotch (171)…”
What Kinglake desires more than anything is for his passions to be grounded, to be in line with one’s own inner constitution and not some outside transcendent reality.
And yet when Kinglake first reflects on the greatness of the church at Tiberias and “The universal aptness of a religious system for all stages of civilization, and for all sorts and conditions of men, well befits its divine origins” we wonder if there is still some religious sentiment in him (104). Hardly, in the next paragraph he recounts that the most dutiful residents he encounters in this “holy city” are a congregation of fleas that have been brought along from these cosmopolitan pilgrims (105).

IV. Epiphanies on the Road
In places of pilgrimage Kinglake was most discouraged with the sense of obligation that accompanied the pilgrim’s devotion. But even on the road, where he is most free to revel in his surroundings, Kinglake still maintains a wry outlook on his elations. Here is an early example where Kinglake is smoking the chibouk:
“Already the fire (well kindled beforehand) was glowing secure in the bowl; and so, when I pressed the amber lip to mine, there was no coyness to conquer—the willing fume came up, and answered my slightest sigh, and followed softly every breath inspired, till it touched me with some faint sense and understanding of Asiatic contentment.” (6)
“Asiatic contentment! Yet hardly, perhaps, one hour before I had been wanting my bill, and ringing for waiters in a shrill and busy hotel.”
As in the previous examples, Kinglake eroticizes the situation to express his emotional elevation. Here he mocks his own pretension to “Asiatic contentment” knowing full well at any moment that he could be as impatient as any of his fellow Britons at home.
If the above attempt at immersion in “Asiatic contentment” lead to his own feelings of hypocrisy this second example makes him look like a man possessed by a demon to his fellow travelers. The passage occurs while Kinglake and his team are about to cross the river Propontis on their horses:
“But the hearing of the ripple was not enough communion—and the seeing of the blue Propontis was not to know and possess it—I must needs plunge into its depth, and quench my longing love in the palpable waves; and so when old Moostapha (defender against demons) looked round for his charge, he saw, with horror and dismay, that he for whose life his own life stood pledged was possessed of some devil who had driven him down into the sea—that the rider and the steed had vanished from earth, and that out among the waves was the gasping crest of a post-horse, and the ghostly head of the Englishman moving upon the face of the waters (23).”
I wonder if Kinglake is referring to Genesis 1:2 where “the spirit of God hovers over the waters” as Kinglake’s “ghostly head” moves “upon the face of the waters.” Kinglake expresses the comedy of a foreigner attempting to immerse himself in a foreign land. Although he lacks the language skills to communicate with his Arab party he enjoys their company saying “I felt towards them as my comrades, rather than as my servants, and took delight in breaking bread with them, and merrily passing the cup (112).” He is thankful for hot tea and tobacco to break the awkward social barriers between them.
These barriers unfortunately make Kinglake’s most moving encounters often to be those with nature. Nature though often refuses his embraces as well. In one instance he captures a female antelope and holds it in his tent for the night. He calls her his “gazelle:”
“[I] kept her in my tent all night; I did all I could to gain her affections, but the trembling beauty refused to touch food, and would not be comforted; whenever she had a seeming opportunity of escaping, she struggled with a violence so painfully disproportioned to her fine delicate limbs, that I could not go on with the cruel attempt to make her my own… Never, in all likelihood, had she seen the form of a human being… a soiree with me by candle-light! I should have been glad to know, if I could, that her heart was not broken (214).
While lying out beneath the stars during his “first bivouac” he finds himself this time uncomfortably melding with nature. He is ringed round the fire laying with his companions like the spokes of a wheel with their feet positioned towards the center. He feels awe at the immensity of space, his “boundless bed-chamber” where he might have “found sermons” which he quips would then have helped him to fall asleep (112). As he begins to grow cold in the night air he feels himself blending in with the earth:
“it seemed to me strange that I should be lying so still and passive, whilst the sharp night-breeze walked free over my cheek, and the cold damp clung to my hair, as though my face grew in the earth, and must bear with the footsteps of the wind and the falling of the dew, as meekly as the grass of the field (113).”
As these examples demonstrate Kinglake is unjustly categorized when he is criticized as merely a poor documenter of the East. Is it necessarily that bad to appreciate him as a chronicler of the general joys and travails of travel whose context happens to be the East?

V. The Practical Prophet
For my final illustration I will look at Kinglake’s judgments on Lady Hester Stanhope. Stanhope is an appropriate concluding subject because she embodies many of the things that fascinated and repelled Kinglake during his travels. He describes her as the “practical prophetess” who is both “business-like” and “long used to the exercise of her sacred calling (74).” The statement recalls comments Kinglake made about the worship of the Greeks in Cyprus and the pilgrims he encountered in Jerusalem. But here it is meant as praise, he sees her as holding herself with nobility, like a “statesman (74).” Kinglake tells us that she earned her renown amongst the Arabs during an occasion when due to her exceptional sight she was able to pick out a group of travelers on the horizon and inform the party she was with that they were not enemies. She was also known to be remarkably courageous as well as a talented mimic whose impersonations included those of Lord Byron and Alphonse de Lamartine.
Kinglake, though, was ultimately rather disappointed in his interview with Stanhope and only wrote of their conversation at length because of the interest it held amongst the English public. He says in the preface “my account of the lady goes to a length which is not justified either by the importance of the subject, or by the extent to which it interested the narrator (xxi).” Stanhope’s passion for the esoteric is the principle grievance, which he believes to be a result of her environment and a lack of outside information, “she believed these things in common with those around her; it could scarcely be otherwise (89).” Kinglake was uncomfortably aware of the difficulty of obtaining news throughout his travels in the East. While he is with the monks at Damascus he is amazed to discover of their lack of any news sources and so, unbelievably, their complete ignorance of Napoleon (97). Like the monks Stanhope exercised “abstinence from food intellectual… she never, she said, looked upon a book or a newspaper but trusted alone to the stars for her sublime knowledge (80).” Kinglake concludes that it is “the wise and watchful press” that ultimately keeps Europe by and large free from the superstitions that seem to plague the East (89).
I find the advice Kinglake offers Stanhope and the monks rather odd. Is it merely the press that could cure them of their superstitions? Kinglake has practiced his own methods of skepticism that are somewhat different than what we take to be journalism. Here, once again, Fletcher might be useful in clarifying this discrepancy. Fletcher argues that descriptive writing, like Kinglake’s can revive journalism. As he says: “the news is seriously vulnerable, suffering from epidemic infant mortality. Only descriptions yielding diurnal knowledge can undo the instant senescence of news, its grotesque aging, by converting the passing event into news that cannot die (85).” The difference between pure journalism and Kinglake’s “impressionistic travelogue” revolves around a question of immediacy. There is a wandering quality to Kinglake’s narrative that prizes the common experiences over the sensational. Such description allows for a swim in a river or a shared pipe to have the spiritual depth of the holiest relics of Jerusalem. As Kinglake says in his preface, the aim is to have a proper perspective to place those most affecting sensations at the forefront of the narrative and “the mighty ruins and monuments of bygone ages, he throws back faintly in the distance (xx).” What gets one into trouble, from Kinglake’s perspective, is to make an idol out of any of these sensations. This ultimately is not even an Eastern vice: “Even amongst the English… I have known the calculating merchant, the inquisitive traveler, and the post-captain, with his bright wakeful eye of command—I have known all these surrender themselves to the really magic-like influence of other people’s minds (90).”

de Gaury, Gerald. Traveling Gent: The Life of Alexander Kinglake (1809-1891). Routledge and
Kegan Paul: Boston, 1972.
Fletcher, Angus. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment and the
Future of the Imagination. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2004.
Hampson, Robert. “From Cornhill to Cairo: Thackeray as Travel-Writer.” Yearbook of English
Studies, Vol. 34 (2004): 214-229.
Jewett, Iran Banu Hassani. Alexander W. Kinglake. Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1981.
Kinglake, Alexander. Eothen: Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East. Longmans, Green
and Co.: New York, 1945.
Landry, Donna. “Saddle Time.” Criticism, Summer Vol. 46, No. 3 (2004): 441-458.
Reed, John. Victorian Will. Ohio University Press: Athens, 1989.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books: New York, 1994.
Varisco, Daniel Martin. Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. University of Washington
Press: Seattle, 2007.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chris Lydon interview with David Shields

I am a regular listener to Chris's program and always find much pleasure and instruction in the wide array of subjects he deals with but there are those particular interviews that I listen to and re-listen to. The last such interview was with Chris Hedges some months ago, and now this one, marvelous. I had not heard of David Shields or any of his books prior to this and am very intrigued. The conversation roamed across many mostly unfamilar contemporary authors influential to Shields including Nicholson Baker, who still hasn't quite left my head since I read the Anthologist last summer. Shields made some insightful comments on The Anthologist finding the book's romance as well as the penultimate moment at the seminar to be unconvincing, which I agree with. Where both Shields and Baker seem to be in line is in the notion that there cannot be "epics" or masterpieces in this day. The argument is rooted in the way that popular cutlure and high art are inextricably bound. I wonder at this idea, because my notion of epic can accomodate all that Shields puts on the table. I think of Northrop Frye's definition of epic as "the crisis in a writer's life" where essentially he must make a full display of his abilities to create a heterocosm out of the self. I suppose what is more at issue is not whether there is still a sublime but whether it is limited to a particular form of art. Okay, okay, I know this is getting very jumbled and incomprehensible--am I talking about epic, the sublime, what? Perhaps it is that which cannot be named. Undoubtedly the aim of this method is to accomadate change as well as the unfathomable excess of information available. This brings to mind a recent comment I read from Cormac McCarthy that he made in an interview recently. He asked whether we would still value the individual Greek plays as much as we do if they were made as frequently as films are today. We may yet starve in our own excess.

That seems to be the problem, how to deal with this excess, this nation of excess. The collage method of writing I find very interesting. It is something I have already come across in Angus Fletcher's book "A New Theory for American Poetry." What I find difficult with Fletcher's book and the little I know of Shield's is the fluidity of this idea. All art in some sense is both collage just as all art is to some degree descriptive. Shields himself seems to be able to easily parse out his "new" kind of writer from the old kind, something I'm still having more difficulty with. None the less, I love manifestos and systems for art and this book, Reality Hunger, appears to be full of them. The great Romance writer John Crowly, in his Aegypt Quartet, spoke of the "taste" of meaning. Writers, like Spenser, create large unfinished systems that, he argues probably do not need to be finished anyways. The system contains the "taste" of meaning. I'm curious if Reality Hunger too satisfies this taste.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Nicholson Baker, Part 2

Thinking more on the Anthologist after listening to a Yale online course on Milton. Learned that Milton was the first to use unrhymed blank verse in English, outside of drama. Milton's personal defense was that this scheme is used by all great epic poets: Homer and Virgil not excepted. Spenser used rhyme, of course, but was an exception and perhaps was not entirely successful as an "epic" poet from Milton's perspective--too allegorical?. This relates to my sense, as I said in a previous post, that there is a lack of elevated tone in the book to give it's meanderings weight that we might expect in heroic poetry. Camille Paglia, after writing her poetry anthology Break Blow Burn of a few years ago bemoaned the current fad for long poems (mentions Wallace Stevens as the originator of the trend with A.R. Ammons and Ashbery as key examples). Paglia, like Baker, champions the short lyric. The lyric one can see entire on a single page. The density of a short poem. I am a partisan of epics, of prophetic disjunctions--Spenser, Milton, Blake, Shelley... these are my heroes but it seems like such a mode is absent. It is cheering to know there are still champions of poetry, especially lyrical poetry but will there ever again be an age of high idealism, of epic?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Louise Eldrich, Tracks

Another mixed bag, I received this book as a gift from my brother-in-law who really enjoyed it. I remember thinking 3/4s of the way through if Fleur Pilager was going to end up being Pauline by some weird twist of the narrative simply because the back of the book claimed her to be one of the most frightening characters in modern American literature. Pauline I found to be more startling if only because she is given fully range as a character. Fleur is rather flat.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

Finished the Anthologist this afternoon at work. I was really excited about this book after having read an enthusiastic review by one of my favorite authors, John Crowley ( I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. The book, like Crowley's work, is rather mellow and moderate in tone, it's ecstasies are always moderated excstasies. But in Crowley this autumnal tone works, in Baker for me it didn't. The notion seems to be that his book, like his beloved poets, must go through much dross before poetic gold is found. The Anthologist too dwells over many elements of the mundane but these references for me rarely carried the air of potential meaning that often makes such breaks in the narrative appealing. His book is full of enjambments, which shouldn't be surprising since he tells us that he is the sort of poet he is no criticizing. His life is full of enjambments that he is attempting to put back together into some poetic order. I admire the drive towards lyricism (Shelley is my favorite poet, as it were) but neither the attempts at lyricism or the broken fragments of modernity seem to fully work here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Paul Auster's Invisible

Just listened to Auster's new novel, my initial reaction was that it was a return to the novels I love best--NY trilogy, Oracle Night. But as I winded down I felt the novel became a bit too political. I kept thinking of Roth's American Pastoral which has a similar conflict of generations and is set around the same time. I also thought of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian with Judge Holden's philosophy of war everlasting. These are two titanic novels to undertake and I feel if we compare Invisible to them it rather pales in comparison. That said the novel is very highly structured and very interesting, still piecing it together. I don't think it is his best novel to date as the Kirkus review dared to assert. Let's just say I suspend judgement for now.