The online/indie lit world is populated by a supportive and enthusiastic citizenry. An encouraging community helps when starting out. But later on, exposure to this community’s critical emissions might make you feel queasy. Or more so: suspicious. I trust very little of the praise I read online. Everyone’s connected with everyone or trying to connect with everyone. Writers spray positivity in all directions, hoping to receive it in return. Superficial adulation intended to support and promote makes me distrust it all. It corrodes the endeavor of reading and writing. Instead of successfully supporting and promoting, so-called “good literary citizenry” so often repels.
What a refreshing article. I hate “literary citizenship,” not least because it traduces the good name of citizenship by making it synonymous with corruption. Each citizen, precisely because he or she is not a subject, is responsible for the city. What could harm the city more than telling lies, embezzling funds, promoting unqualified friends and relatives, disbursing inflated currency? Of course, all of the literary back-scratching and log-rolling is nothing new, but now it’s done in the name of compassion (hence George Saunders’s advice, quoted by Klein, to “err in the direction of kindness”), which is new, and annoying.
In a sterner time and place Brigid Brophy famously observed that whenever people say, “We must not be sentimental,” you can be sure they are about to do something cruel. But in this neo-Victorian period of ours the situation has flipped, so that when I hear “compassion” I think, “The bombing starts in five minutes.”
What saves our ephemeral lives is whatever outlasts them, perpetuates our good works; kindness to the human person is loyalty to transpersonal values and institutions. That much of my Catholic-grade-school and Marxist-grad-school training stuck, I fear. For this reason, compassion cannot be the highest good. As Peter Y. Paik bracingly put it:
The problem with making compassion into the foundation of an ethic is that compassion by itself does not provide a very solid incentive to conquer one’s fears, to struggle against one’s weaknesses, or to pursue undertakings that are high in risk, low in material reward, and provide gratification that cannot be accounted for in terms of the crude calculus of sex, money, and power. Compassion leads us to feel sympathy for others, but it is of limited use in helping us to understand their grievances, ambitions, and aspirations, and is of even less value in enabling us to determine the extent to which the desires, animosities, and anxieties of the other are justified. […] Compassion by itself does not obligate us to look within ourselves, or to confront instances in which we ourselves have been blinded by rage, passion, or humiliation. Instead, it is a projection of our own softness onto others, which exempts us from engaging with the other in the terms in which he or she sees himself or herself.
And in literature it does not obligate us to hold our own work to the highest standards. There must be a Chestertonian paradox—maybe Zizek plagiarized it somewhere—about how the only way to help someone is to refuse him or her your compassion. Otherwise your benevolence ratifies their distress. To be kind is to preserve the conditions of flourishing; it has nothing to do with spreading a false and sticky pleasantness over everybody, as if to arrest the status quo in syrup.
I am reading the Purgatorio and am struck by Dante’s fealty to his poetic masters, his authentic and passionate gratitude to those who taught him the beautiful style, from Virgil to Arnaut Daniel. What could be more alien to the current scene, isolated as it is from literary history and committed as it is to the guilty-conscience false-alibi relativism of a declining social order that no longer believes in what it nevertheless continues to do to sustain its in any case diminishing authority? This is the way of late empires, I guess; all empires die, like all people. I am interested in what will live when I and my empire are gone, and I write for that surging excess of uncanny life, and not to burnish the gilded bars on the locked gate enclosing our “republic of letters.”
“Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos'—a term against resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the 'calling', 'the destined ordnance' of the poet.
Are there dimensions, specific gravities of art and literature, of our experience of and response to art and literature, which arise from the felt, indeed declared pressure on art and literature of the presence or absence (in many cases, such as Dostoevsky’s or Kafka’s, absence is a more radical possibility of presence) of God? The theological-metaphysical enactment of what is gravest and most constant in human questioning, of that which lies, or may lie, on the other side of language, gives to certain texts an indispensable vulnerability and stature. The anguished patience of such questioning comes to possess us in the Oresteia; in Sophocles’ Oedipus, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus; it presses on us, almost unbearably, in Euripides’ Bacchae. We hear it in Marco Lombardo’s voice out of the purging smoke in Purgatorio XVI; in Ivan Karamazov’s prosecution of God; in the parables of Kafka. There is a very real sense, awesome to apprehension, in which Shakespeare does know and say everything; does he know and say anything else? Or are such knowledge and such expression reserved to the singular commerce which music has with mystery?
Plato was wrong when he banished the poets. Wittgenstein misreads Shakespeare. Surely, this must be so.
And yet.”—George Steiner, “A Reading against Shakespeare”
“Most poets have given up on epic as a grand narrative… but to me the lyric has two options left, personal or impersonal truth of our emotional lives… but most of it has been done. What I seek is something more expansive, the epic frame of comic intelligence, an Aristophanean galaxy of comic parody and critique bounded and framed by the contours of ancient Epic battles of tragic heroism and the ethical judgments of the Biblical prophets… yet, within a more equitable and ironic universe of posthuman / transhuman comedy of Shakespearean plenitude…”—S. C. Hickman, "The Poetry of the 21st Century"
“Envy, lust, sensuality, deceit, and all known vices are the negative, ‘dark’ aspect of the unconscious, which can manifest itself in two ways. In the positive sense, it appears as a ‘spirit of nature’, creatively animating Man, things, and the world. It is the ‘chthonic spirit’ that has been mentioned so often in this chapter. In the negative sense, the unconscious (that same spirit) manifests itself as a spirit of evil, as a drive to destroy.”—Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, 1961 (via nickkahler)
“Someone has said that Donne wrote as if poetry had never been written before. He cultivated a rough and obscure style, just because he hated the mellifluous numbers of the conventional poet. Lenin’s hatred and contempt for the Romanoffs could not be more intense than Donne’s savage disregard for Spenser and Shakespeare.”—William Talbot Allison, Bolshevism in English Literature (via talesofpassingtime)
“What we’ll have to say at this point is that colonialism was always Deleuze’s preferred rhizome. This could, I realize, seem perplexing. His followers certainly write in denial and disbelief. “He made only occasional passing remarks about colonization,” observes one of his translators—of a philosopher who seems in fact to have written about little else. But let’s grant the Deleuzians their turmoil. From some angles, the coincidence of anarchy and colonization will be the biggest puzzle in all of rhizomatic thought. But that coincidence is, in fact, anchored in arguments that Deleuze and Guattari make and is thus not just a fluke of their rhetoric. The treatise on nomadology begins by arguing, on the authority of Pierre Clastres, that war is radically opposed to the state: War and the state are opposed principles or antitheses. You probably consider war to be one of those few activities that governments strictly reserve for themselves, but you’d be wrong. War is, properly considered, outside of the state. At first you might think that this claim, on the face of it absurd, is just one more instance of Deleuzian pataphysics, something on the order of in-Asia-there-are-no-trees. But there is actually a case to be made here, a case in some respects quite astute. The point is most clearly grasped in terms of political philosophy, for what Deleuze and Guattari have done is identify a weakness in Hobbesean accounts of sovereignty, one of whose more widely accepted claims is that states should (and do) establish a monopoly on force. But what does one ever mean by “monopoly on force”? What could one ever mean? What we usually mean is that the only members of a society who are licensed to use violence against others have been authorized to do so by government, that they tackle and clobber only in the state’s name. But as soon as we say this, we have already made a big concession, which is that the sovereign does not, in fact, possess a monopoly on force—the king or president does not sit in chamber holstering the nation’s only gun—but requires miscellaneous armed proxies and deputies: cops, sheriffs, marshals, soldiers. The monopoly on force inevitably involves the extensive sharing-out of force and is thus never a monopoly. To this argument, Deleuze and Guattari append an observation borrowed from historical sociology, to the effect that in tribal societies, war is what puts adult men in motion, preventing them from sinking back into stasis and statehood and bourgeois inertia; that’s an argument whose medievalizing versions get attached to names like Lancelot and Sir Gawain. It is during war that a nation’s citizens, armed and abroad, are least under sovereign review. This reasoning, at any rate, is what produces the distinctively Deleuzian defense of empire, since if you hold that warfare is antithetical to government, then you might be justified in arguing that colonization was not the extension of the European states; it was their antithesis and negation—in some literal and liberated sense outside of them. Anarchism is one name for a politics against the state, and it is mentioned in Capitalism and Schizophrenia basically not at all. Its other, less familiar name is empire, and it, unlike Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, appears on nearly every page.”—Christian Thorne, "Against Joy: Deleuze’s Empire," Part 3
“All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, the taste for which the human animal draws from the womb of his mother, is natural in its origins. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial and supernatural, since gods and prophets were necessary in every epoch and every nation to teach virtue to bestial humanity, and man alone would have been powerless to discover it. Evil is always done effortlessly and naturally by fate, the good is always the product of some art.”—Charles Baudelaire, “Eloge du Maquillage” (via calantheandthenightingale)
“For what is glory but the blaze of fame,
The people’s praise, if always praise unmixt?
And what the people but a herd confus’d,
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar, and well weigh’d, scarce worth the praise,
They praise and they admire they know not what;
And know not whom, but as one leads the other;
And what delight to be by such extoll’d,
To live upon their tongues and be thir talk,
Of whom to be disprais’d were no small praise?”—John Milton, Paradise Regained (via talesofpassingtime)
“To read ‘Paradise Lost’ through Keats’s eyes is to see it in part as a poem of Shakespearean characterization, but chiefly as a poem of luxuriant and opulent description, full of growth, change, ripening, delectable sweets, and golden profusion.”—Helen Vendler, qtd. by Brad Leithauser
Poor Hector. We are sorry for poor Troy. Poor Troy.
Nevertheless, my son would
Rather be a Greek. They won.
This child accepts the mystery of
Violence, as did the Greeks.
He is not repelled by the brevity
Of their mourning, nor by the
length of their delicious meals.
He moralizes, but briefly:
Helen was not worth it.
Susan Sontag, Reborn, Notebooks & Journals 1947-1963
“I think about things that might have been and never were.
The treatise on Saxon myths that Bede omitted to write.
The inconceivable work that Dante may have glimpsed
As soon as he corrected the Comedy’s last verse.
History without two afternoons: that of the hemlock, that of the Cross.
History without Helen’s face.
Man without the eyes that have granted us the moon.
Over three Gettysburg days, the victory of the South.
The love we never shared.
The vast empire the Vikings declined to found.
The globe without the wheel, or without the rose.
John Donne’s judgment of Shakespeare.
The unicorn’s other horn.
The fabled Irish bird which alights in two places at once.
The child I never had.”—Jorge Luis Borges, “Things That Might Have Been” (via slothnorentropy)
“I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.”—C.S. Lewis (via cereal-chiller)
Wendell Clausen, who belonged to the last generation of great Latin philologists, once gave us graduate students an indignant speech about the status of Roman civilization. Yes, it could be harsh, he said, but why did no one ever cite the Athenian atrocities of the Peloponnesian War to claim that they throw a shadow over Classical tragedy, when the same people assert that the Romans’ brutal reduction of Carthage in the mid-second century B.C. throws a shadow over even the greatest Roman literature?
Professor Clausen also could have taken on ably those who scoff at Roman literature as derivative, and painted the Romans as beefy jocks, grunting over the imported glories of Homer and allowing only a jingoistic, contrived imitation of him in Vergil’s Aeneid. One of the outrages of this characterization is the denigration of twentieth-century Modernism it entails. The Romans brilliantly adapted, elaborated, deepened, and individualized—they thought their way through books, in an age less dependent on public performance and alive to the possibilities urged by the Alexandrian Library in Egypt and the scholarly post-Classical Greek literature that had risen around it.
Professor Clausen also might have noted that the much-sneered-at Roman narrow-eyedness and hard-nosedness created for writers a more stable, continuous, and unified culture in which to develop their various arts. We can more confidently speak here of a single literature and trace intricate developments from generation to generation, instead of having to make abrupt jumps between cities, islands, and even continents that had much less in common. Students of Ancient Greek may delight in the variety of dialects and the only jaggedly related genres, but the benefits of rock-solid centralization gleam in—as a particularly precious example—the works of the late-first-century-B.C. Roman poet Horace.
This son of a freedman, working obscurely in the central Roman bureaucracy, came to the attention of the first Emperor Augustus through the latter’s meticulous system of conscription for literary patronage. Horace (after relatively mediocre early efforts) found, through Augustus’s cultural collaborator Maecenas, personal, material, and political support for perhaps the most sublime lyric poetry in history, which drew on Greek lyric traditions that differed greatly in quality as well as in form and subject matter. At the same time, it drew on a previous Roman generation’s sometimes awkward, sometimes touching experiments on the basis of these foreign works. Horace also evolved native Italian satirical and epistolary traditions to almost queasy aesthetic heights. Horace could exist as Horace because of that quintessential Roman skill: management.
Yet Horace, like most other Roman authors, is comparatively seldom read, studied, and taught in English.
I’ve read four—the four most obvious: Native Son, Brideshead Revisited, The Plague, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The annotations to the list suggest I must read The Wife of Martin Guerre and The Bridge on the Drina sooner rather than later. If it were my blog, I would promoteUnder the Volcanofrom “honorable mention” to the list proper; a commenter persuasively suggests The Master and Margarita also, on the grounds that it was finished in 1940, albeit not published till the ’60s.
For this reason, he writes, it would be necessary to put together as large a catalog of all categories as possible; that everything would have to be written, all of man’s knowledge and all of his words; and that only then would the pale form of a symbol emerge from reason, and from reason the many moons that are dead or pale, or obscure.
War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich — many of us have felt the influence, to the good or the ill of our own reading and writing, of Leo Tolstoy. But whose influence did Leo Tolstoy feel the most? As luck would have it, we can give you chapter and verse on this, since the novelist drew up just such a list in 1891, which would have put him at age 63. A Russian publisher had asked 2,000 professors, scholars, artists, and men of letters, public figures, and other luminaries to name the books important to them, and Tolstoy responded with this list divided into five ages of man, with their actual degree of influence (“enormous,” “v. great,” or merely “great”) noted.
“Lives that I envy: longevity, peaceful times, peaceful country, quiet fame, quiet satisfaction: Ivar Aasen, Norwegian philologist, 1813-1896, who invented a language. Down here we have too much of homo civis and too little of sapiens.”—Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister
“When I write, I do not think of the reader (because the reader is an imaginary character), and I do not think of myself (perhaps I am an imaginary character also), but I think of what I am trying to convey and I do my best not to spoil it. When I was young, I believed in expression. I had read Croce, and the reading of Croce did me no good. I wanted to express everything. I thought, for example, that if I needed a sunset I should find the exact word for a sunset—or rather the most surprising metaphor. Now I have come to the conclusion (and this conclusion may sound sad) that I no longer believe in expression: I believe only in allusion. After all, what are words? Words are symbols for shared memories. If I use a word, then you have some experience of what the word stands for. If not, the word means nothing to you. I think we can only allude, we can only try to make the reader imagine. The reader, if he is quick enough, can be satisfied with our merely hinting at something.
This makes for efficiency—and in my own case it also makes for laziness. I have been asked why I have never attempted a novel. Laziness, of course, is the first explanation. But there is another one. I have never read any novel without feeling a certain weariness. Novels include padding; I think padding may be an essential part of the novel, for all I know. Yet I have read many short stories over and over again. I find that in a short story by, for example, Henry James or Rudyard Kipling, you get quite as much complexity, and in a more pleasurable way, as you may get out of a long novel.”—Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse
The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
—Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Lynn Stuart Parramore surveys the “death and the maiden” archetype embodied by Lana del Rey’s persona as well as other recent media and art (e.g. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia):
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
I think this is probably right. Though one problem with Parramore’s adopting a Marxist perspective on our sex-and-death neo-decadence—a perspective organized by the Enlightenment’s secularization of Christian optimism, as indicated by the eschatological “late” in “late capitalism”—is that it discourages us from taking the insights of decadence seriously. Writing of terminal illness, D. G. Myers quotes Emil Cioran:
When you no longer believe in yourself, you stop producing or struggling … whereas it is the contrary which should have occurred, since it is precisely at this moment that, being free of all bonds, you are likely to grasp the truth, discern what is real and what is not.
With my apologies to Susan Sontag (and to Professor Myers) for venturing illness as a metaphor: I wonder if we can’t see social collapse as akin to individual collapse. Just as our physical decline breaks down our personal ideal self-image, opening us to all the dangers, all the wolves and marauders, that were left outside the fortifications of the ego, so social decline might similarly loosen the collective self-image. Hence, the death and the sex and the inverted/perverted religious imagery in bad economic times, in periods when institutions can’t be trusted. Female sexuality is the bearer of these tidings because it remains—until technique absolutely abolishes the womb—not only a life-affirming metonymy for birth, but also a metonymy for the mysterious pre- or proto-annihilation that precedes conception, the death before birth. This latter meaning has been ruled out of serious consideration by all official (i.e., affirmative) western ideologies—understandably including feminism, the mainstream of which is heir to the Enlightenment. While some of the big male names in this field—e.g., Baudelaire, Huysmans—did predictably display serious misogyny, many of the greatest practitioners and exegetes of decadence have been women, from Violet Paget and Kate Chopin to Camille Paglia and Elizabeth Woolridge Grant. Enlightened thought tells us that neither sexual nor spiritual power is real power, because real power grows from the barrel of a gun; the men and women of the decadence beg to differ.
If there is one judgment everyone can agree on, one topic over which the religious conservatives, the feminists, the Marxists, and the liberals can join hands, it is the evil of cultural decadence. Surely I have days when I am with them, but today is not one of those days.
I’m not arguing that we should approve of these cultural developments, by the way; I’m suggesting it might not be relevant if we do. One of those Christian-Enlightenment optimistic ideas we might reconsider is the get-out-the-vote conviction that we make history, that we make history. Maybe illness is not merely a metaphor for decadence—maybe they are both portals through which the reaper comes for us all, individuals and societies alike.
And if you don’t like it You can beat it Beat it, baby