“She was always planning out her development, desiring her perfection, observing her progress. Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open air, and that a visit to the recesses of one’s spirit was harmless when one returned to it with a lapful of roses. But she was often reminded that there were other gardens in the world than those of her remarkable soul, and that there were moreover a great many places which were not gardens at all—only dusky pestiferous tracts, planted thick with ugliness and misery. … She often checked herself with the thought of the thousands of people who were less happy than herself—a thought which for the moment made her fine, full consciousness appear a kind of immodesty.”—The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (via jackiengo)
“A post-democratic world comprising an archipelago of capitalist city-states that culturally favor a highly self-controlled and therefore free elite with relatively Classical and/or Confucian aesthetic values has become the new normal. This reactionary-modernist Enlightenment is not dark in Her because it’s not counter-hegemonic in the film’s world. Its power frees it up to be an object of disinterested artistic representation, shorn of Dark Enlightenment’s present and rather ludicrous Gothic trappings, its pretense that poor H. P. Lovecraft wasn’t a wretched writer for morose children: call it the Pastel Enlightenment. Spike Jonze evidently wants to be for World War III what Virginia Woolf was for World War I: the elegiac lyricist of the settlement. Samantha Morton, the original voice of Samantha (and probably the best actress of her generation), was perhaps edited out of this film because her presence would have unavoidably suggested the grim truth that Michael Winterbottom’s great leftist film Code 46—and maybe Spielberg’s great liberal film Minority Report too—are also plausibly set in the Pastel Enlightenment utopia.”—
“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations.”—Leo Tolstoy Unsent letter to a fellow novelist 1865 (via speareshakes)
At Helsinki airport, loading up my iPad with free goodies to read on a ten-hour non-wifi flight, I somehow stumbled on a gem of a website called The Modernist Journals Project.
Someone at Brown University has scanned dozens of Modernist magazines (the zines of one hundred years ago) and made them available as PDFs.
I grabbed a handful using Vantaa’s free and fast public wifi (other airports — especially money-grubbing British ones — please take note) and stocked them in iBooks, for all the world like a row of brightly-coloured literary snacks.
Blast alone occupied me for most of the flight. I ended up reading the whole of the extract from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (peculiarly Jamesian and backward-looking compared with the rest of the contents).
Blast is typographically amazingly fresh. Its manifesto and keenness to bless as well as excoriate makes it read like a music zine from the post-punk period, with Wyndham Lewis standing in for Paul Morley — though occasional traces of anti-semitism from Lewis and Pound give it more of a Gary Bushell feel.
The intellectual map of one century ago is dominated by the Suffragette movement, Futurism (Lewis has drawn on its energy but finds its technological infatuations childish), negro art and music, Picasso and Cubism, Communism and World War 1. In fact, the galvanising effect of the war rather underlines a point Jonathan Meades makes in his recent Brutalism essay for BBC4: that war is the father of a lot more innovation than we care to admit.
The Crisis (“a record of the darker races”) is a magazine written by and for black people, and helps helm the Harlem Renaissance.
The elitism is sometimes quite refreshing: The Little Review is “a magazine of the arts making no compromise with the public taste”.
This was the era dominated by Pound’s injunction to “make it new”. Others magazine’s motto softens that somewhat: “The old expressions are with us always and there are always others.”
The Tyro was the magazine Wyndham Lewis concocted to follow Blast. Tyros were a new sort of man Lewis thought of as passionate yet stupid, resolute yet unfocused, without political conviction and yet full of pointless energy.
As depicted in Lewis’s paintings of the time, Tyros were men with strange angular red faces and broad-brimmed hats of black felt, looking like fin-de-siècle public intellectuals, and yet strangely rudderless without a Marx, Freud or Nietzsche to guide them.
Wheels was a journal dominated by Edith Sitwell and her eccentric siblings. Despite their aristocratic origins and Classicist leanings, the Sitwells too were in thrall to the energy of Negro culture.
One of these little magazines — Poetry — still exists and, as it happens, has just commissioned me to write an essay about my poetic influences. The deadline is in a couple of weeks.
Poetry was successful enough to attract adverts for Horlicks, “the ideal food-drink at home, fountain or office”, which it ran next to a plea from Harriet Monroe, the magazine’s founder, for invitations to give lectures. Somehow that juxtaposition tells you a lot about a poetry zine’s interestingly awkward position between amateurism and professionalism, between the market and academia.
As cultural fossil fuel for your iPad, though, these zines still pack a lot of punch. Good on Brown for scanning and uploading them.
“Probably the most famous of the Victorian feminist revisions of the Ophelia story was Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines, published in 1852. Unlike other Victorian moralizing and didactic studies of the female characters of Shakespeare’s plays, Clarke’s was specifically addressed to the wrongs of women, and especially to the sexual double standard. In a chapter on Ophelia called “The rose of Elsinore,” Clarke tells how the child Ophelia was left behind in the care of a peasant couple when Polonius was called to the court at Paris, and raised in a cottage with a foster-sister and brother, Jutha and Ulf. Jutha is seduced and betrayed by a deceitful knight, and Ophelia discovers the bodies of Jutha and her still-born child, lying “white, rigid, and still” in the deserted parlor of the cottage in the middle of the night. Ulf, a “hairy loutish boy,” likes to torture flies, to eat songbirds, and to rip the petals off roses, and he is also very eager to give little Ophelia what he calls a bear-hug. Both repelled and masochistically attracted by Ulf, Ophelia is repeatedly concerned by him as she grows up; once she escapes the hug by hitting him with a branch of wild roses; another time, he sneaks into her bedroom “in his brutish pertinacity to obtain the hug he had promised himself,” but just as he bends over her trembling body, Ophelia is saved by the reappearance of her real mother.
A few years later, back at the court, she discovers the hanged body of another friend, who has killed herself after being “victimized and deserted by the same evil seducer.” Not surprisingly, Ophelia breaks down with brain fever—a staple mental illness of Victorian fiction—and has prophetic hallucinations of a brook beneath willow trees where something bad will happen to her. The warnings of Polonius and Laertes have little to add to this history of female sexual trauma.
While the widely read and influential essays of Mary Cowden Clarke are now mocked as the epitome of naïve criticism, these Victorian studies of the girlhood of Shakespeare’s heroines are of course alive and well as psychoanalytic criticism, which has imagined its own prehistories of oedipal conflict and neurotic fixation; and I say this not to mock psychoanalytic criticism, but to suggest that Clarke’s musings on Ophelia are a pre-Freudian speculation on the traumatic sources of a female sexual identity.”—
Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism”
“Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, it states, is a novel that may ‘trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.’ Warnings have been proposed even for books long considered suitable material for high-schoolers: Last month, a Rutgers University sophomore suggested that an alert for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby say, ‘TW: suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.’”—
Here’s a fact that may or may not be interesting: I first encountered trigger warnings about a decade ago on a blog that discussed satanic ritual abuse, mind control, and other forms of elite coercion. I thought they had originated in such conversations and communities. Participants on this blog were at pains to avoid triggering not only traumatic memories in the abused but also various forms of “programming,” such as the awakening of “alters” (I have no desire to link to this material from my humble aesthete’s Tumblr, but google theta+psychic killer for a glimpse at what I’m talking about). While this blog was on the left end of the conspiracy fringe, it was sufficiently invested in moral panics over “sexually depraved elites” that I suspected it of being crypo-fundamentalist or crypto-fascist. I’m not saying that a political movement which imagines its members as omni-vulnerable subjects woven around a core of trauma has something to do with a dangerous desire for a politically pure or cleansed space, but then again I’m not saying it doesn’t. (I’m sorry for the construction of that sentence, but these are excitable times: I don’t want to be understood too hastily.)
On the matter at hand, I of course agree in principle that people should not be forced to engage with material that would jeopardize their health, but I don’t see how one could avoid just putting a blanket trigger warning on the entire corpus of study in the humanities. (I suspect if this ever enters the realm of litigation, something like that will actually be the solution.)
have any of you read Mitchell Heisman’s suicide note? sociobiology/politics and nietzsche and just about everything else. i mean it hasn’t received any accreditation by modern philosophy because killing yourself to reinforce your thesis gets construed primarily as mental instability. but i was just wondering how important it was.
I read quite a bit of it (not the whole thing, of course) when Heisman’s story first came out. I don’t claim to have even begun to master the text, but I found it very entertaining, almost a page-turner. It certainly could never have been published by a university press or anything due to its controversialism; Heisman expresses his argument in language I couldn’t quote here given prevailing norms of decency. The following is what I remember. Heisman states, if I understand him, that world politics is now defined by the fallout of the Anglo-Norman conflict in the middle ages and early modern period; democracy was born in the English Civil War in the claims to moral supremacy of an aggrieved ethnic minority (the Anglos). Then in the forms of the British Empire and its American successor this minority managed to conquer the planet, while still basing its legitimacy on the idealistic “slave morality” of its victim status. This result then ensures that all its opponents will in turn deploy the same ideological method to assert their own freedom; hence, the only way to attain the moral high ground in politics today is to claim to be oppressed. This entails, according to Heisman, refusing the claims of science, because they would seem in their bio-reductionism to lead to inegalitarian social conclusions incompatible with Anglo freedom. Heisman goes on to claim that sociobiology is the ultimate refutation of the Anglo victim-complex because it is a transvaluation thereof: a materialist determinism that frankly worships power and sees power as inhering in certain heritable traits that may in turn be directed by scientific rationality. We therefore end up with the Gordian knot of modernity: you either have to don the false idealistic mantle of inherited victim status or to claim to have inherited (material) strength to attain power and legitimacy. In neither of these options is there room for the transformative power of reason, the Romantic Enlightenment desideratum barred by both versions of organicism, that of the “oppressed nation” and that of the “genetic elite.” Heisman was facing, then, the old dialectic of enlightenment: humanity develops reason to overcome nature but in discovering laws of nature resubmits itself to that which it wanted to overcome. The only evidence for true agency would thus be agency against life itself, since the life-instinct misleads reason to betray itself by forming the untenable political alibis of left and right. Heisman’s suicide is the cutting of the knot: it affirms against the idealistic victimologists the world-making power of reason (even if only in its negative world-killing guise), while it also refutes the bio-determinism of the fascists by demonstrating that the mind may assert independence in acting against its biological self-interest.
(That’s my reconstruction of the main line of the book after reading about half of it four years ago, so it may be entirely wrong. I can see the logic above is missing a few steps. Moreover, he employs a great deal of historical detail, and includes extended comments on Judaism and the Singularity [to the effect, I guess, that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a prolepsis of the Singularity] that went a bit over my head. In any case, I just don’t have time to read all 2000 pages! As with any interpretation, it reflects my own preoccupations. But—I say self-servingly—I rarely see anyone discussing Heisman’s thesis in full, so even false publicity may accrue to its benefit.)
I admired Heisman’s work for its fearless admission that certain “intellectual” problems are not actually soluble in thought but that their solutions in practice would be humanly intolerable. (Think what trouble we’d be spared if the Marxists would get this through their heads!) As a “poet” rather than a “philosopher,” I believe the way to deal with the intransigent problem that we seem to be free and not free at the same time is to try to capture the dilemma in spirit-dilating image-music complexes by writing something like Hamlet or Mrs Dalloway rather than either attempting to treatise it away via philosophy or else committing suicide* (or some other violent action: revolution, etc.)—and I can claim a Nietzschean warrant for that view via The Birth of Tragedy at least.
Because Heisman’s is a truly disturbing book, people will go on reading it, for better or for worse.
*Woolf is of course an imperfect example here, but what can you do?
In short [Claudius] is very human. Now these are the very qualities Hamlet lacks. Hamlet is inhuman. He has seen through humanity. And this inhuman cynicism, however justifiable on the plane of causality and individual responsibility, is a deadly and venomous thing. Instinctively the creatures of earth, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, league themselves with Claudius: they are of his kind. They sever themselves from Hamlet. Laertes sternly warns Ophelia against her intimacy with Hamlet, so does Polonius. They are, in fact, all leagued against him, they are puzzled by him or fear him: he has no friend except Horatio, and Horation, after the ghost scenes, becomes a queer shadowy character who rarely gets beyond ‘E’en so, my lord’, ‘My lord—’, and such-like phrases. The other persons are firmly drawn, in the round, creatures of flesh and blood. But Hamlet is not of flesh and blood, he is a spirit of penetrating intellect and cynicism and misery, without faith in humself or anyone else, murdering his love of Ophelia, on the brink of insanity, taking delight in cruelty, torturing Claudius, wringing his mother’s heart, a poison in the midst of the healthy bustle of the court. He is a superman among men. And he is a superman because he has walked and held converse with death, and his consciousness works in terms of death and negation of cynicism. He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal. They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are strong with the strength of health—but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in their midst, meditating in graveyards, at home with death. Not till he has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the Devil…
(II. ii. 635)
It was the devil of the knowledge of death, which possesses Hamlet and drives him from misery and pain to increasing bitterness, cynicism, murder, and madness. He has indeed bought converse with his father’s spirit at the price of enduring and spreading Hell on earth. But however much we may sympathize with Ophelia, with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, the Queen, and Claudius, there is one reservation to be made. It is Hamlet who is right.”—G. Wilson Knight, “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet" (from The Wheel of Fire)
“The more Shakespeare on the infinite embrace of his worldstage proceeds to develop the extreme limits of evil and folly, to that extent … he concentrates these characters in their limitations. While doing so, however, he confers on them intelligence and imagination; and by means of the image in which they, by virtue of that intelligence, contemplate themselves objectively, as a work of art, he makes them free artists of themselves, and is fully able, through the complete virility and truth of his characterization, to awaken our interest in criminals, no less than in the most vulgar and weak-witted lubbers and fools.”—Hegel on Shakespeare (from The Western Canon, by Harold Bloom) (via pennymoons)
“His mind, lately acting without inhibitions, found significance in the small bloodless marks on her face. As if death had tried her with his teeth and found her still unripe.”—Saul Bellow, Herzog (via imsupercoolguys)
“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”—Kate Chopin, The Awakening (via Times Flow Stemmed and his reflections on Houellebecq)
“For instance, it can be argued that we shall be nearer a true understanding of Hamlet if we get close to what an Elizabethan audience might have thought it said, and the result of the research is almost certain to be a conviction that everybody since then, everywhere and practically always, has been getting it wrong; which is the conviction that prompted the inquiry in the first place.
In principle the difficulties of such an undertaking might seem a strong deterrent to all but the most subtle historians; but they have not proved so, and Miss Prosser is not the first scholar to read the mind of Hamlet's audience and author. What, in the prescribed period, did people think about revenge? What were they told to think, in the theater and out of it? If we know that, we shall know what Shakespeare intended. Leaving aside the argument about Intention, it is probably enough to say that Hamlet, as Miss Prosser knows very well, is remarkably unlike other revenge plays; that it is a play by a writer of sufficient merit to have distinguished himself from the run-of-the-mill dramatists who “gave the public what it wanted”; and that it is in many ways the strangest and most crucial of his works, a sort of Demoiselles d’ Avignon, painted and repainted, a piece of the past technically prepared for a new age, changing theater, drama, and audience as it changed itself. It would have to have been some extremely dull member of the audience who did not sense any of this, but stared stupidly through Hamlet to some diagrammatic ethical revenge play beneath. Nowhere did Shakespeare do more to disconcert his audience, and quite possibly much of the initial interest lay in wondering what in God’s name was going to happen next to the familiar story. One can, certainly, imagine a man dull enough to see only what matched his commonplace expectations, but who wants to know him?”—
“This I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”—John Steinbeck (via observando)
“Joad carefully drew the torso of a woman in the dirt, breasts, hips, pelvis. “I wasn’t never a preacher,” he said. “I never let nothin’ go by when I could catch it. An’ I never had no idears about it except that I was goddamn glad when I got one.”
“But you wasn’t a preacher,” Casy insisted. “A girl was just a girl to you. They wasn’t nothin’ to you. But to me they was holy vessels. I was savin’ their souls. An’ here with all that responsibility on me I’d just get ‘em frothin’ with the Holy Sperit, an’ then I’d take ‘em out in the grass.”
“Maybe I should of been a preacher,” said Joad. He brought out his tobacco and papers and rolled a cigarette. He lighted it and squinted through the smoke at the preacher. “I been a long time without a girl,” he said. “It’s gonna take some catchin’ up.”
Casy continued, “It worried me till I couldn’t get no sleep. Here I’d go to preachin’ and I’d say, ‘By God, this time I ain’t gonna do it.’ And right while I said it, I knowed I was.”
“You should a got a wife,” said Joad. “Preacher an’ his wife stayed at our place one time. Jehovites they was. Slep’ upstairs. Held meetin’s in our barnyard. Us kids would listen. That preacher’s missus took a god-awful poundin’ after ever’ night meetin’.”
“I’m glad you tol’ me,” said Casy. “I used to think it was jus’ me. Finally it give me such pain I quit an went off by myself an’ give her a damn good thinkin’ about.” He doubled up his legs and scratched between his dry dusty toes. “I says to myself, ‘What’s gnawin’ you? Is it the screwin’?’ An’ I says, ‘No, it’s the sin.’ An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought to be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets fingerin’ his pants buttons?’” He laid two fingers down in his palm in rhythm, as though he gently placed each word there side by side. “I says, ‘Maybe it ain’t a sin. Maybe it’s just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin’ the hell out of ourselves for nothin’.’ An’ I thought how some sisters took to beatin’ theirselves with a three-foot shag of bobwire. An’ I thought how maybe they liked to hurt themselves, an’ maybe I liked to hurt myself. Well, I was layin’ under a tree when I figured that out, and I went to sleep. And it come night, an’ it was dark when I come to. They was a coyote squawkin’ near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.’” He paused and looked up from the palm of his hand, where he had laid down the words.
Joad was grinning at him, but Joad’s eyes were sharp and interested, too. “You give her a goin’-over,” he said. “You figured her out.”
Casy spoke again, and his voice rang with pain and confusion. “I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’ An’ I says, ‘Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ thought, an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people. An’ sometimes I love ‘em fit to bust, an’ I want to make ‘em happy, so I been preachin’ somepin I thought would make ‘em happy.’ An’ then—I been talkin’ a hell of a lot. Maybe you wonder about me using bad words. Well, they ain’t bad to me no more. They’re jus’ words folks use, an’ they don’t mean nothing bad with ‘em. Anyways, I’ll tell you one more thing I thought out; an’ from a preacher it’s the most unreligious thing, and I can’t be a preacher no more because I thought it an’ I believe it.”
“What’s that?” Joad asked.
Casy looked shyly at him. “If it hits you wrong, don’t take no offense at it, will you?”
“I don’t take no offense ‘cept a bust in the nose,” said Joad. “What did you figger?”
“I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent—I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”
Joad’s eyes dropped to the ground as though he could not meet the naked honesty in the preacher’s eyes. “You can’t hold no church with idears like that,” he said.”—
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck’s birthday! I haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath in a long, long time, so I went browsing through a pirated pdf to find something other than the prophetic passages, the ones that read like Popular Front pamphlets translated from the ancient Hebrew (“and in the souls of the people there is a growing wrath” etc.). I wanted to find the pungent Steinbeck, the banned-book Steinbeck! Earlier this year I was trying to explain Steinbeck to a non-American friend, his status in most Americans’ early literary education: when you’re fourteen, you think he stands beside Shakespeare. (I imagine things have changed sufficiently nowadays that Steinbeck is at the Bard’s right hand and at his left is Toni Morrison, who is so like Steinbeck in some ways though a more consummate artist, one to admire more or less unreservedly.) I don’t know how much of the man I’d care to read at this stage of my life—though I read quite a bit of him back then, up through East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent—but The Grapes of Wrath was surely one of the great experiences of my early reading life, even if I now mistrust anyone's invocation of “the people,” whether for Right or Left purposes. And when he was just describing something, he could really write. So I love the passage above, its frankness, its earthiness, its fervor, even as it no doubt offends against certain contemporary mores. It's got that old-time American Religion—our gnosticism.
“He began to understand now sirens and sphinxes and other Greek fabulous female things. They had not been created by fancy, but out of bitter necessity of the man’s human heart to express itself.”—D. H. Lawrence, “New Eve and Old Adam” (via under-the-volcano)
“She had a desire to leave the past behind her and, as she said to herself, to begin afresh. This desire indeed was not a birth of the present occasion; it was as familiar as the sound of the rain upon the window and it had led to her beginning afresh a great many times.”—Henry James, Portrait of a Lady (via jackiengo)
“The aesthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination…The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (via z-i-g-z-a-g-221)
“The title of my book, The Beauty of a Social Problem, is from Brecht and what Brecht was talking about was the performance of Mother Courage. What he famously says is, if the actress playing Mother Courage tries to establish sympathy with the audience, to get the audience’s sympathy, it’s catastrophic. The reason it’s catastrophic, he says, is that you lose the beauty of a social problem. The idea is that the beauty of art is lost in the response of the audience, and that losing that beauty is losing the politics as well. What you want is art that, by not appealing to your sympathy, by asserting its independence, performs a kind of analytic role. In that way, the politics of the art is also the way in which the art is not political. It doesn’t imagine that the way it makes you feel is going to then produce a politics. What it imagines instead is that it is giving you a vision of the structural rather than the affective life of the world, and hence of things as they are.”—
That’s almost right, in my view, but its recrudescent nineteenth-century materialism distorts it in a familiar way, toward an overhasty cleavage of thought from emotion, when the whole problem of ethics and politics [and religion!], which only art can work through, is the fact of their unity. While I’m neither an affective-turn diehard nor a very good Spinozist, I admired Anthony Uhlmann’s Thinking in Literature and will quote it here on why you can have the cognitive benefits of art’s autonomy and affect, so you don’t have to settle for Brecht’s boastful crudity or all those photos of plastic bags WBM champions:
…we are offered subjective and objective understandings at once: we are allowed to be an alien mode while grasping the causes that bring that mode about. Yet this is not done through clear, logical relations; rather, the logic of sensation developed in art requires gaps that lead to thought in the effort to bridge the gap. In doing this, however, they imply a unity…which allows an overview that promises an understanding of an interrelation of viewpoints around a set of events.
“Mark this well, you proud men of action: You are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who often, in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”—Heinrich Heine (via observando)
“Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria. Writers may not be able to “escape from contingency,” as the new historicists used to say, but those sensitive to their prisons can transform the walls that confine them — a transformation that requires an awareness of the great poets and novelists who preceded them. Artists look backward in order to move forward. Which is why hierarchical rankings of writers are as natural as those teeming lists of great boxers, tenors, composers, and cabinetmakers. The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books.”—
The problem with those who claim not to believe in hierarchies of value is that they’re lying; they wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone to choose what book to read next (still less to design a syllabus!), if they didn’t value some things over others. This means that they’re trying to slip their own hierarchy past you as a spontaneously-occurring phenomenon—which we know, if we took anything away from all that Theory, is a pernicious practice. There is always a canon and there is always going to be a canon: the just way to proceed, if you are an artist or critic or teacher, is to be as explicit as decency will allow about your evaluative criteria.
“In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger women whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.
There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.
When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.”—
Toni Morrison, Paradise
(Happy bday to Toni Morrison. I’m inconsistent about acknowledging writer birthdays on Tumblr, but I couldn’t find the above passage, one of the great novel endings in American literature, quoted in its entirety anywhere on the Internet.)