What I Am Reading This Week: An Introduction

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to write a series of book reviews on my blog, just as I have been posting “What I Am Listening to This Week” for over a year. My plan is to write a book review week for a hundred weeks. This is probably too ambitious, but we’ll see.

The reason I have not done this in the past was that a year ago I posted an article in which several of my friends thought I was bragging about how I had read every one of the classics written before 1900 on the BBC’s list of classic novels that everyone should read. I had a problem with their list of 20th century novels and expressed myself on that subject. In my mind, I wasn’t bragging; I was noting a fact. But intentions are not always in accord with reader reception, as I soon learned, and people took it so. So I put off charging ahead with my plan to write a weekly book review until I could sort out why anyone would want to read what I have to say on any subject whatsoever.

I continued to post my thoughts on music, because I thought that people felt safe listening to (or ignoring) my recommendations for music. This is because music has the reputation of being nothing more than a matter of taste, and this means that each individual person has the right to listen to whatever he wants and no other person can tell him that his taste is wrong. “Difference” in the context of music is simply difference. We feel no obligation to reconcile our musical tastes with one another in a social situation.

The Public Domain of Literature

But with literature, things are altogether different. We are raised to collect our individual thoughts into a collective agreement over works of literature. This makes it important in our educational system to have teachers who can guide us not only to works that are good for us, but guide us through those works to a deeper understanding, not only of ourselves , but of the larger world. It is why Toni Morrison could be heard a couple years ago on C-Span talking about the gift of authors to the world. She said (I paraphrase, sine I could not find it on the C-Span site) “Authors are the place where the culture manifests itself.” It is the place where a culture reveals itself to itself.

This is sort of like Stephen Daedelus’ speech at the end of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, where he expounds on his plan to welcome life as he goes “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Artists are those people who transform life from unconscious longing to fully realized plans for living in their “smithy of their souls.”

Literature and Its History

In what must be one of the greatest ironies in modern literature, his masterpiece Ulysses features the same Daedelus who is still walking along the Sandymount Strand (that a beach to you Americans) and who is looking for an escape from “the nightmare of history” into eternity on the beach. He achieves it, not in novel itself–for characters in novels are susceptible to death–but in literary history. And this was not inevitable. Joyce’s work has able to be salvaged in a way that works like Hart Crane’s The Bridge could not be (or at least hasn’t been).

The reason that Joyce’s work has been salvageable and Crane’s has not has to do with their take on the situation they were confronting. Crane’s work is an updating of Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (which you can find in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass)

Enotes notes:

Although he left only a small body of work, Crane is important as a lyric poet in the tradition of the romantic visionary as exemplified by such other poets as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Baudelaire, and Walt Whitman. Crane’s greatest contribution to this tradition is his epic poem The Bridge (1930), in which he attempted to delineate a mythic vision of the American experience through his primary symbol, the Brooklyn Bridge, an engineering marvel of the time that many people considered to represent the promise of America.

The reason for the praise of Joyce’s novels and the neglect of Crane’s epic poem are many:

1) Joyce’s works are more complicated than Crane’s, and more far reaching. Joyce had gone all the way back to scholastic culture in his history of language] chapter. His “smithy of the soul” is a referent to (by way of Wagner) to the Middle Ages.

2) Crane’s work was consciously modeled within the poetic tradition. This meant that, although Crane had been able to update Whitman’s transcendent theme with a transcendent theme of his own, his poem (as well as Whitman’s poem) were subject to inevitable variations in time. Something better than the Brooklyn Bridge will eventually come along and place Crane’s idea in its historical context, destroying the poem’s transcendent aspects, just as Crane had destroyed Whitman’s claims to transcendence. Just the fact that we can imagine the next generation of space-pod capsules by which we will be able to jet across the river makes this inevitable.

That does not mean that we cannot learn to appreciate Crane’s poem as an object of historical interest. Nor does it mean that people cannot get great joy out of Crane’s poem. Some people, even, will find answers to the questions that they have in their lives in The Bridge, and they will go about proselytizing about this “misunderstood and underestimated” masterpiece. But this will not change the fact that those who read Crane’s poem are not in (on?) the avant-garde, which is still held by Joyce’s novels, even after all these years. Joyce’s novels are object of immediate import. Crane’s novels have to be approached through the intermediary of history. The question I have is what exactly is the value of historical perspective?

Permanence in the Changing Face of Literature

I suppose that, as human beings, we expect to find some transcendental objects amidst the dross of the everyday present, and the poems of Hart Crane have not managed to hold up through the passage of time, whereas Joyce’s novels have. The emphasis in Crane has remained the static appeals to what were then thought transcendent ritual. Joyce, too, had originally written his novel with an appeal to the deep underlying myth of Ulysses to give it a solid foundation in something more permanent than the ordinary experiences of daytime life on a particular day in Dublin. It was as if he was saying that when viewed from the proper perspective that we all hold in ourselves some more permanent and lasting if only we knew how to “see” it there. Joyce was giving us the gift that only a genius was able to provide, the ability to see what the rest of us were blind to.

But over time, this vision of Joyce has been transformed, as well. Those scholars on the avant-garde feel that the underlying myth does not in fact point to a solid foundation for history itself has changed, and with the change in history has come the understanding that nothing is permanent, everything changes. Joyce has been reinvented as the author of a multiple-perspective universe in which there is no “right” perspective from which we can judge and so bring our quest for meaning to an end.

Joyce has been saved by his willingness to play with language and language games, as when he disembodies the narrative of the Viceroy’s procession from any of the three main characters in The Wandering Rocks chapter or when he has the men in tall white hats with the letters HELYS (hell, yes?) out of perfectly rational order:

“H. E. L. Y.’S filed before him, tallwhitehatted, past Tangier lane, plodding towards their goal.”

Joyce talks about HELYS wisdom, but that wisdom is of ordinary thing detached as it were from any deep roots in the literary (or any permanent) world.

There is no goal in the postmodern universe. Everything’s in endless play, and this is where the postmodern critic finds the balance and meaning in modern literature. So the critics have managed to save Joyce’s work by changing their emphasis from the permanent element of myth to the impermanent element of language in endless play and thus they have been able to find permanence in the very impermanence of Joyce’s fiction in ways that they could not in Crane’s The Bridge.

This stands until today as the final moment in art criticism.

Arthur Danto’s Skepticism

This skepticism is the final solution that the critic had realized when Arthur Danto, one of the most influential critics in the art world, wrote his After the End of Art. The Modern worldview had been devastated by Postmodern critics, and with good reason. Modernism tended to set firm (but as-yet-unreached) boundaries to literary criticism. Where the Moderns had announced the final triumph of criticism over art for the first time in history, the deconstructionists had found places where the processes that the Moderns were using to construct a perfect picture of literature didn’t work, and they deconstructed the accomplishments of the Modern world. But, just like the cockroaches which emerge from a nuclear attack, the critical concern with ends held on through both phases.

Arthur Danto had identified the ends of art as having a firm consistency, grounded in the individual self (an idea found not in the Renaissance at all but in the 19th century thought of Burckhardt. See The Renaissance in Historical Thought for the expression of how this process came to be in the 19th century. The processes of ends were used in all sorts of other contexts, including Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.

In his book, he credits Hans Belting with a work on art before the age of art (which Belting put in 1400 AD). Danto asks the opposite question: what about the future after art:

The era of art did not begin abruptly in 1400, nor did it end sharply either, sometime before the mid-1980s when Belting’s and my texts appeared respectively in German and in English. Neither of us, perhaps, had as clear an idea as we now might have, ten years later, of what we were trying to say, but, now that Belting has come forward with the idea of art before the beginning of art, we might think about art after the end of art, as if we were emerging from the era of art into something else the exact shape and structure of which remains to be understood.

That sort of purpose beneath the accidents of the universe was the sort of thing we were encouraged to praise when I was in graduate school. Things were out of our (or at least Arthur Danto’s) grasp, and yet they still pointed to the underlying truth of the critic’s reaction to events. Faced with an uncertain future, Danto could not say with perfect assurance what was to come, so Danto had taken to the only resources he has at hand: he draws on his view of the past—the longer his view the better. He historicizes his knowledge of the past and then attempts to move beyond it to a transcendental, and therefore unassailable, ground. From his position as a critic he then is secure from those who had not yet learned to place their knowledge in any historical context. As a result, though he and his fellow critic Belting didn’t know what the future of art would be, they knew that the future would come, and they knew it had to come through them.

This kept the academic illuminati in charge of determining tastes in the art world, though in fact they were illuminating nothing. It was a sort of deferance, an Après nous, le Déluge moment.

The Problem of Literary Criticism in a Post-9-11 World

The world after the 9-11 attacks has challenged those who thought that history was going to come to rest in a world of sheepish Last Men after America had won the Cold War. It seemed to some neoconservatives that the world would settle into a period of prolonged stasis. This would seem to have obviated the liberal’s call for revolution, and the intellectual classes quickly turned to Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order to save their revolutionary dreams.

Huntington’s thesis quickly won over Fukuyama himself, and it was made even clearer by the 9-11 attacks. We were being attacked by a civilization that was different from (and unbelievably hostile to) our American ideals.

What was not noticed, in my opinion, was the fact that this dealt a blow to the stasis of the intellectual climate in which the critic operated. The people who had attacked us were people who did not want to join our Western club. They actually believed in their God Allah, who was the only God. They actually believed in their rituals, like the one in which 70 virgins would be waiting for them after they got to the heaven of martyrs. And the Americans were infidels, creatures not worthy of sympathy and thus not worthy of salvation. There seemed to be no way forward except to blame Ronald Reagan and the George Bushes for insisting on the superiority of American culture to the rest of the world’s cultures. And when he went to war with Iraq, the liberals were outraged.

The liberal has sought to resolve the contraction in their thought by resorting to their game of placing their arms on the ground, assuring our enemies that we mean them no harm, and inviting them to participate in our good fortune. But this involves asking our enemies to lay down their arms first. But more importantly (at least in my mind, which operates on the underlying philosophy of political situations) is our demand that the people, who actually believe things like an actual God with whom they have a personal and immediate relationship with, give that up their strong belief for one in which they follow our chief intellectuals into the long view of history in which they recognize that their God is but one of many. That may be the path forward, but it involves exactly the sort of thing that the liberal left used to rage against: it is a form of noblesse oblige. We know the way forward; you ignorant natives must follow us.

In other words, the price of admission into the community of nations is to accept the weakening of exactly what they are fighting for: their right to equal status as other nations.

And this, you will remember, was my one problem with Joseph Campbell. He weakened the strong pull of ritual for a far weaker version in which one could believe in the masks of god, but not in any particular god.

My Struggle

I had dedicated my intellectual life to the solution to this problem, and I ended up feeling that the Ivory Tower, where intellectuals gather to discuss such questions, was inadequate to meet all the challenges that literature presented to the reader. I ended up struggling with Elton John’s declaration that lyrics were important, but perhaps only to the writer. Readers must look towards them for meanings that they could not find in their own lives or become members of the writing community and right there experiences for others to pick apart. Rather than looking inwards, after all, this configuration of literature managed only to point outwards to the select few. This did not (and does not) make sense to me.

However, it is in line with the new critical theory of subjectivity as the center of every writing activity. According to Brooks and Warren, we were supposed to look towards the individual author and make up his mind an autotelic—a fancy word for self-contained—work which held all its tensions together within itself.

Where do we meet others in such configuration of literature, I increasingly came to ask myself?

I was not alone. The postmodern critics were asking the same question, but their answer was different than mine. They believed that literature was not self-contained and autonomous but instead was a field in which human beings met one another in the public sphere. This is the basis reader response criticism in particular. From there they went on to restate the aesthetic assumptions James Joyce, and this is one of the reasons the James Joyce not only survives but thrives in the academy.

The problem with this approach becomes apparent when we attempt to find a stable place in literary criticism from which we can guide the process of others’ thought on literature. Literary critics seem to have settled on a ‘there is no answer’ answer to the question. Instead, people bring different and on irreconcilable points of view to the process of reading. But in many ways, the same problems spring up from the Postmodern approach to teaching literature that had sprung up from the Modern, New Critical approach. In the modern world which is governed by Understanding Poetry, we could look towards things professors read more and more deeply than we ourselves dis and we could come to understand our history through them.

In the postmodern world, we can look ourselves without having any sort of critic to guide us. This, of course, makes it difficult to tell the difference between teachers and students, and in fact makes it difficult to understand why anyone needs to read in a public setting it all.

As a result, the power of literature has become like the power of music: something we enjoy on our own in private moments but which has no power to move us other than the power we draw from ourselves. The public readind that we engage in are efforts in conciliation to “all” views with no view to (or interest in) arranging those view in any sort of hierarchy of taste. If someone wrote a, then it is worthy to be read. It’s just a matter of individual taste as to who succeed on a collective level, as Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog
succeeds, and who fails to succeed, as Susan Gratton’s I Was A Suicide-Attempter did not.

We have no battleground for sorting out our ideals into goo and bad. In a world where some people like one book and some people like another, perhaps that doesn’t matter. But in a world where some people like Marx, some like Hitler, and some like American market capitalism, the choices we make make a huge difference.

The End of the End of Inquiry

Despite the fact that this view is prevalent in the postmodern world, it doesn’t make it the end of inquiry into the role of literature in our lives. Postmodern approaches, for all their skepticism about ever reaching the of the metaphysical inquiry that modern or postmodern critics have taken as their billet, have not yet reached the end themselves. “There are,” as one of my favorite authors has written, “more things in the world than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio” (or something that).

Take Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, one of the first literary critical works to take postmodern problems seriously. Lyotard was reacting to Jurgen Habermas’ article on Enlightenment, in which he hoped to salvage the uncompleted project enlightenment. In Habermas’ mind, thinkers were giving up on the hope of creating a perfect world out of the building blocks of reason. Sure, he admitted, the Enlightenment had not taken into account all the irrational forces—forces like Freud’s unconscious, for instance—that came into play when we attempt to build a perfect world out of our individual experiences. But these were still left overs from the Enlightenment experience of attempting to build a picture of the world from the pieces left over after the scholastic experiment failed to penetrate the stars to the God behind.

Lyotard rejected Habemas’ call for moderation as having too much in common with the “bourgeois” world and its “bourgeois” values. He wanted a total revolution, one that would permanently do away with logic, which had been at the center of the aesthetic movement ever since Kant realized that reason by itself could never penetrate the metaphysical realm. Locke had known this, and he had sidestepped this by leaving certain things out of the empirical experience of reason. Kant put it back in the center of of the aesthetic experience, where it has remained ever since.

The problem with leaving logic out of the equation is that the human mind operates (according to Aristotle) by organizing the disparate experiences of the passive intellect—things as they are—by passing them through the active intellect—the organizing principle of the rational mind. Reason (again, according to Aristotle) organizes our experience into hierarchies. This is not the only way organize your mind, and clearly Lyotard doesn’t organize his this way. The fact the matter is that Lyotard is fleeing the unstable root of reason in search of—and I must say, never finding—a secure place in the world where he can judge free of contradiction by others. For, as soon as reason organizes any part of his experience, Lyotard leaves it for the higher (and presumably more stable) ground

This is what I call, loosely, the aesthetic experience of life. It is a valid perspective, but it is not the only perspective. The problem with the aesthetic experience is that leaves things out even while it’s trying to put everything in its place. And this is what drives Lyotard to the extremities (I think Derrida called them ‘the margins’). And Lyotard believes that we cannot find the center of the universe we can find by turning universe over and traveling to the margins. And I think that this is probably not possible: that we are living in a in a world in which we’ve just gotten over a generation of New Criticism, which tried to center everything in the individual and failed. And so we’ve been living for a generation with people who think that the opposite must be true: the margins hold the answer.

And yet, having examined all these solutions, questions still remain. And this is, I think, why I believe that Derrida has reached the final solution to the medieval quest to look through nature into God. We cannot really know whether we are looking at ourselves or whether we are looking at the world when we think. This was the point of the skepticism on which the modern world was built (for the source of mybelief in skepticism in the modern world, see The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle).

But this was the point of The Romance of the Rose written during the lifetime of Thomas Aquinas at the high point of the Middle Ages themselves (see here for its place on my list of my 15 Favorite Books). They knew that even then. It was forgotten during the post-Cartesian Enlightenment. But when we use reason, things like the ends of literature—but not only literature, everything—always end up thwarted.

Literature’s Obligations

My solution to the problem of aesthetics is to allow reason back into the fold, since keeping it out has merely distorted the problem of what we can know while robbing us of solid answers to the most pressing questions in our lives.

My rational approach to reading would give up the metaphysical goals and ends of reading as impossible and introduce what I call in my novel Poker Tales (it’s being edited now; should be out in the next few months) an asymmetrical process of reading. This will be hard for some literary critics to swallow, if my experience in graduate school is any indicator, but is nevertheless a reasonable approach to reading.

Through the reintroduction of reason to the center of the writing process can we restore the authority of the individual to the center of the reading process—and make better (not perfect; never perfect) readers who have read a lot of literary works and have experience reading a broad array of literary works—from those, who like a man I once knew, was proud to say that he had read only one book in his adult life (he didn’t hesitate to tell me that he didn’t like it).

If this were to happen, those who know more can guide those who know less, and that’s as it should be. But no one can no everything, as they knew in the Middle Ages, but we in the modern (and postmodern) world seem to have forgotten.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.