“An enormously vast field lies between “God exists” and “there is no God.” The truly wise man traverses it with great difficulty. A Russian knows one or the other of these two extremes, but is not interested in the middle ground. He usually knows nothing, or very little.”—Anton Chekhov, in a diary entry from 1897 (via fyodors)
“There is only one way to stop the replication of beauty: hide it, return it to silence, to the ineffable, to aphasia, refer the referent back to the invisible, veil the sultan’s daughter, affirm the code without realizing (without compromising) its original. There is one rhetorical figure which fills this blank in the object of comparison whose existence is altogether transferred to the language of the object to which it is compared: catachresis (there is no other possible word to denote the ‘wings’ of a house or the ‘arms’ of a chair, and yet ‘wings’ and ‘arms’ are instantly, already metaphorical): a basic figure, more basic perhaps than metonymy, since it speaks around an empty object of comparison: the figure of beauty.”—Roland Barthes, S/Z (via le-desir-de-lautre)
During that period of three months when I wrote reviews, reading ten or more books a week, I made a discovery: that the interest with which I read these books had nothing to do with what I feel when I read—let’s say—Thomas Mann, the last of the writers in the old sense, who used the novel for philosophical statements about life. The point is, the function of the novel seems to be changing; it has become an outpost of journalism; we read novels for information about areas of life we don’t know—Nigeria, South Africa, the American army, a coal-mining village, coteries in Chelsea, etc. We read to find out what is going on. One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make it a novel—the quality of philosophy.
But the point is, and it is the point that obsesses me…once I say words like good/bad, strong/weak, are irrelevant, I am accepting amorality, and I do accept it the moment I start to write “a story,” “a novel,” because I simply don’t care. All I care about is that I should describe Willi and Maryrose so that a reader can feel their reality. And after twenty years of living in and around the left, which means twenty years’ preoccupation with the question of morality in art, that is all I am left with. So what I am saying is, in fact, that the human personality, that unique flame, is so sacred to me, that everything else becomes unimportant? Is that what I am saying? And if so, what does it mean?
The nightmare takes various forms, comes in sleep, or in wakefulness, and can be pictured most simply like this: There is a blindfolded man standing with his back to a brick wall. He has been tortured nearly to death. Opposite him are six men with their rifles raised ready to shoot, commanded by a seventh, who has his hand raised. When he drops his hand, the shots will ring out, and the prisoner will fall dead. But suddenly there is something unexpected—yet not altogether unexpected, for the seventh has been listening all this while in case it happens. There is an outburst of shouting and fighting in the street outside. The six men look, in query at their officer, the seventh. The officer stands waiting to see how the fighting outside will resolve itself. There is a shout: ‘We have won!’ At which the officer crosses the space to the wall, unties the bound man, and stands in his place. The man, hitherto bound, now binds the other. There is a moment, and this is the moment of horror in the nightmare, when they smile at each other: it is a brief, bitter, accepting smile. They are brothers in that smile. The smile holds a terrible truth that I want to evade. Because it cancels all creative emotion. The officer, the seventh, now stands blindfolded and waiting with his back to the wall. The former prisoner walks to the firing squad who are still standing with their weapons ready. He lifts his hand, then drops it. The shots ring out, and the body by the wall falls twitching. The six soldiers are shaken and sick; now they will go and drink to drown the memory of their murder. But the man who was bound, who is now free, smiles as they stumble away, cursing and hating him, just as they would have cursed and hated the other, now dead. And in this man’s smile at the six innocent soldiers there is a terrible understanding irony. This is the nightmare.
“Qu’est-ce que l’amour?
Le besoin de sortir de soi.
L’homme est un animal adorateur.
Adorer, c’est se sacrifier et se prostituer.
Aussi tout amour est-il prostitution.”—Charles Baudelaire, Mon coeur mis à nu (via abridurif)
“Now, apparently, many men are again feeling homesick for the herd. They devote themselves passionately to whatever there is left in them of the sheep. They want to march through life together, along the collective path, shoulder to shoulder, wool rubbing wool, and the head down. This is the reason why so many European peoples are looking for a shepherd and a sheep dog.
Hatred of liberalism comes from this and nothing else. For liberalism, before it becomes a question of this or that in politics, is a fundamental idea about life. It is believing that every human being ought to be free to fulfil his individual and non-transferable destiny.”—Jose Ortega y Gasset, "The Increasing Menace of Society"
“The Foundation of Empire is Art & Science
Remove them or Degrade them & the Empire is No More —
Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose.”—William Blake, Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses (via drakontomalloi)
(Written to be read aloud, if so be, Thanksgiving Day)
I remember here by the fire, In the flickering reds and saffrons, They came in a ramshackle tub, Pilgrims in tall hats, Pilgrims of iron jaws, Drifting by weeks on beaten seas, And the random chapters say They were glad and sang to God.
And so Since the iron-jawed men sat down And said, “Thanks, O God,” For life and soup and a little less Than a hobo handout to-day, Since gray winds blew gray patterns of sleet on Plymouth Rock, Since the iron-jawed men sang “Thanks, O God,” You and I, O Child of the West, Remember more than ever November and the hunter’s moon, November and the yellow-spotted hills.
And so In the name of the iron-jawed men I will stand up and say yes till the finish is come and gone. God of all broken hearts, empty hands, sleeping soldiers, God of all star-flung beaches of night sky, I and my love-child stand up together to-day and sing: “Thanks, O God.”
“Tepid and half-credible, these fuzzy encouragements sound ever more vain and dispirited the more they circulate. They exhort the public to appreciate the humanities, but, with the grounds so abstract and promissory, the appeal falls flat. The failure comes down to bad marketing. The defenders misconstrue their audience. They think that support for the humanities will stand on the anticipation of a job skill, a civic sense, or moral self-improvement, but these future benefits are insufficient to youths worried about debt, politicians about revenue, and employers about workplace needs. No, students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work. They may admit the moral, practical, and civic effects of humanities coursework, but that level of commitment can’t compete with other pressures such as manufacturers in a state telling the governor and college presidents that they need more grads with industrial skills. Whenever they do override those pressures, their devotion springs from an experience that lingers. People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days.
Their attachment pinpoints for the defenders a winning tactic: Underscore the object. To attract the undergraduate who focuses narrowly on career and the CEO with $10 million to give, advocates should realize, don’t wax righteous or pragmatic about the humanities as a bloc or as an instrument. Rather, show them vivid images of architecture in Washington, D.C.; recount Captain Ahab on the quarter-deck enlisting the crew in his obsession, or Dido’s reaction once she learns her beloved Aeneas has slipped away in the night, or Satan in the Garden eyeing Adam and Eve, tormented by their innocence and plotting their ruin; stage the avid sadism of Regan and Goneril or the banter of Algernon and Ernest; or run the final scene when the Tramp, just out of prison, turns to face the blind flower girl, now cured, who clasps his hand, grimaces at the sight of him, and mutters, “Yes, I now can see.” These are the materials of inspiration, and they are the highest card the humanists can play.”—Mark Bauerlein
“Music of Japan. Parsimoniously
from the water clock the drops unfold
in lazy honey or ethereal gold
that over time reiterates a weave
eternal, fragile, enigmatic, bright.
I fear that every one will be the last.
They are a yesterday come from the past.
But from what shrine, from what mountain’s slight
garden, what vigils by an unknown sea,
and from what modest melancholy, from
what lost and rediscovered afternoon
do they arrive at their far future: me?
Who knows? No matter. When I hear it play
I am. I want to be. I bleed away.”—"Music Box" by Jorge Luis Borges (via ounu)
“I am fascinated by this insatiable hunger for institutional legitimization. If pop is so fabulous, why is there this desperate need for the museological seal of approval? Isn’t it enough to be the king of your own realm? The grandiosity of the comic book artists knows no limits.”—Jed Perl
Andrew O’Hagan writes: ‘Joan Didion gave me her hand and she was so thin it felt like I was holding a butterfly’ (LRB, 7 November). A beautiful sentence, but I wondered about the simile’s plausibility. It’s been reported that Didion weighs less than eighty lbs. She’s so thin her doctors have put her on an ice cream diet to keep her mass up. A woman’s hand is said to be 0.5 per cent of her body weight. So if Didion weighs 75 lbs, her hand probably weighs about six ounces. The world’s heaviest butterfly, the female Queen Victorian Birdwing, weighs about two grams. There are about 28 grams in an ounce, and Joan Didion’s hand probably weighs about the same as holding 86 female Queen Victoria Birdwings. It would be difficult to hold them all in your hand because each one has a wingspan of 18 centimetres. The smallest butterfly in the world is the North American Pygmy Blue and you’d probably need thousands of them to tip the scales against one of Didion’s fingers. None of this is to detract from the loveliness of O’Hagan’s sentence. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. —Penny Cartwright, “Letters: The Reviewer’s Song,” London Review of Books (21 November 2013)
"everyone's competing for a love they won't receive"
Since the once-utopian Internet is, like so many utopias before it, now a police state, one we’re all condemned to live inside forever so that various agencies from employers on up can spy on us, it’s ill-advised for anyone to say what they actually think on its platforms. For this reason, my “drafts” folders on Wordpress and Tumblr tend to fill up with polemics I’ll never publish, since I’d like to remain on the good side of potential employers, potential publishers, potential readers, and whoever might eventually dig into the meta-data. One of my drafts—not dated, but written around the time of the David serious-hetersexual-guys Gilmour controversy—begins this way:
The whole David Gilmour thing coming so hard upon the Margaret Mary Vojtko thing makes me wonder if half the people-with-agendas crying their crocodile tears over the old professor would be doing so if, as is not at all impossible for a woman of her faith and generation teaching at that institution, she had espoused the cultural politics of a Dorothy L. Sayers or G. E. M. Anscombe.
As a traditional Catholic, Vojtko felt that the university wasn’t as religious as it should be. Staunchly pro-life, she was indignant when Duquesne held bioethics panels that suggested that contraception and abortion might be morally defensible. She also thought that Duquesne’s mission statement —which includes “Duquesne serves God by serving students”—was sacrilegious. Sébastien Renault, a close friend of Vojtko’s, remembers her saying, “It’s bad theology, because it doesn’t work this way. You don’t instrumentalize God. You serve God first. And the more you know him and love him and serve him, then you will serve the students.”
Renault says that although Vojtko was a devoted teacher, she became increasingly frustrated by her students, whom she came to see as self-absorbed and disrespectful. Duquesne students aren’t required to take classes on Catholic theology, and Vojtko thought religion should play a bigger role in their education. She didn’t hesitate to share her opposition to abortion, premarital sex, provocative clothing, and gay marriage with her students. She suspected some of her colleagues resented her moral principles and her “cleanness of life,” according to Renault.
I grew up in the milieu described by the article, which essentially retells the history of Pittsburgh to explain Vojtko’s life. Women just like Vojtko presided over my education from K-8, and I went to college right down the street from Duquesne; when I read the first viral story about her I was able to intuit immediately her “social type.” Therefore I found it grimly amusing when she was made a mascot of by the whole crowd around The New Inquiry and Jacobin, our new revolutionary masters in waiting, who will, it is so painfully and embarrassingly obvious, all be some kind of neocons in 25 years if not sooner. Flaubert wrote about this crew in The Sentimental Education, as I’m sure the old French professor would have known had she encountered them. (See what I mean about the Internet? Look at all the people I’ve alienated in this paragraph. All of gentrified Brooklyn, practically. Who will ever publish my novel when I’m saying shit like this? I must learn to be more like Doris Lessing; she didn’t worry about that kind of thing.)
Anyway, I spent my Pittsburgh childhood learning everything I then knew from old Catholic “white-ethnic” ladies who believed in social justice and natural law, largely immigrants’ children like myself, and then I spent my adolescence running as fast as I could in the other direction, with good reason (refer to Vojtko’s beliefs above). But all the same, where is #weareallmargaretmary or whatever now? I guess it’s nowhere, now that we know the old lady was, let’s see, a right-wing anti-capitalist Catholic bigot who didn’t use tech in the classroom and didn’t do progressive pedagogy. She was also, the article is at its greatest pains to impress upon us, a “hoarder” (she no doubt was, but you know they’ll find some pathologizing word for all of us in the end). And she was “fiercely independent,” that is, she mistrusted the gray coercive parody of charity that is the state’s social welfare arm—Orphan’s Court, like something out of a Dickens satire on the Poor Laws.
(One Catholic teaching that will, I confess, never leave me, is a wariness about capitalism and socialism both, about markets and governments. That’s what “social justice” used to mean before the term was, as the kids say, culturally-appropriated by the statists. Old Fred Jameson tells us somewhere that neoliberalism and Marxism are counterparts, a single narrative with two different protagonists in their shared disbelief in the autonomy of human decision in the face of markets and productive forces. Accordingly, I hope to see both laid in a common grave. You can’t do what both fatuously propose to do, which is, following Hegel’s theory of ethics embodied in state and civil society, to institutionalize and to routinize love. Because you can’t outsource your heart to the state or to the market, you also mustn’t take the step that both neoliberalism and Marxism recommend, which is the annihilation of the individual. I freely concede that my twenty-one-year-old self would be disgusted to read these words written by my thirty-one-year-old self, but what can I say?—"I’m kinda older than I was when I rebelled without a care. So there." Which is to say, life is more complex, people more frail, ideas more vulnerable, than what can be encompassed in a hashtag or an ideology. Anyway, what you’re reading here isn’t a political treatise, just a cri de coeur. Surely even adjunct professors and unpublished novelists in the age of big data are still allowed those.)
Now that I know her full story, that she was nearly a fascist and suicidally stubborn and quarreled with everybody, that she was a working-class immigrant family’s daughter, that she didn’t wish to let go of the past, that she wanted a kind of dignity that impersonal institutions could not in their nature provide her, I feel much closer to her, because such, in so many ways, were the people, the women especially, who reared me, who praised me, who first told me I was a writer, whom I wanted to flee. Now that they know all about her awful social views, I guess the Jacobin Twitterati can be satisfied the administrators got her away from the kids; they’d probably get up a petition to have her canned if she were still alive. Hell, they’re probably right. But still, how much history can you escape? I am an immigrant’s child too, but I’m more American than the Americans: Emerson, not Aquinas, is my philosopher. I fear though that Margaret Mary Vojtko and I, two adjunct professors living from hand to mouth with too much shit in our living quarters, longing for what’s vanished, living in the ruins of the palace within our dreams, are, however it may disturb me, on each other’s team.
Well, I’ll probably delete this later; we’ll see how many followers I lose first!
“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness…The world will thank me for not marrying you. Our children were your poems of which I was the father sowing the unrest and storm which made them possible and you the mother who brought them forth in suffering and in the highest beauty, and our children had wings…”—Maud Gonne, from a letter to W. B. Yeats, in The Gonne-Yeats Letters: 1893-1938 (via litverve)
“The difference between us is simply the opposition between two distinct ways of looking at the world, which have never succeeded in getting on together, or in making any kind of common household, since the beginning of time. They’ve borne all sorts of names, and my wife would tell you it’s the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan, but I don’t like the name; it sounds sectarian. She thinks me at any rate no better than an ancient Greek. It’s the difference between making the most of life and making the least, so that you’ll get another better one in some other time and place. Will it be a sin to make the most of that one, too, I wonder; and shall we have to be bribed off in the future state as well as in the present? Perhaps I care too much for beauty—I don’t know, I doubt if a poor devil CAN; I delight in it, I adore it, I think of it continually, I try to produce it, to reproduce it. My wife holds that we shouldn’t cultivate or enjoy it without extraordinary precautions and reserves. She’s always afraid of it, always on her guard. I don’t know what it can ever have done to her, what grudge it owes her or what resentment rides. And she’s so pretty, too, herself! Don’t you think she’s lovely? She was at any rate when we married. At that time I wasn’t aware of that difference I speak of— I thought it all came to the same thing: in the end, as they say. Well, perhaps it will in the end. I don’t know what the end will be. Moreover, I care for seeing things as they are; that’s the way I try to show them in any professed picture. But you mustn’t talk to Mrs. Ambient about things as they are. She has a mortal dread of things as they are.”—
(Deserves to be read in context: super-subtle James is at least half-satirizing the stated view. A brilliant, brilliant story, even if I only read it for the ignoble reason that the characters’ names were Miss Ambient, Mrs. Ambient, and Mark Ambient [an ambient mark, get it? he is writing], as if they were figures out of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol.)
“But sympathy we cannot have. Wisest Fate says no. If her children, weighted as they already are with sorrow, were to take on them that burden too, adding in imagination other pains to their own, buildings would cease to rise; roads would peter out into grassy tracks; there would be an end of music and of painting; one great sigh alone would rise to Heaven, and the only attitudes for men and women would be those of horror and despair. As it is, there is always some little distraction—an organ grinder at the corner of the hospital, a shop with a book or a trinket to decoy one past the prison or the workhouse, some absurdity of cat or dog to prevent one from turning the old beggar’s hieroglyphic of misery into volumes of sordid suffering; and thus the vast effort of sympathy which those barracks of pain and discipline, those dried symbols of sorrow, ask us to exert on their behalf, is uneasily shuffled off for another time. Sympathy nowadays is dispensed chiefly by the laggards and failures, women for the most part (in whom the obsolete exists so strangely side by side with anarchy and newness), who, having dropped out of the race, have time to spend upon fantastic and unprofitable excursions….
There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy, for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.”—Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill
“How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character! Fewer and fewer, as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that the readers will feel at home. Hamsun disdains such a practice. To have the hero of your work be the most intelligent person you can imagine is more a Greek than a Christian idea. The Greeks liked heroes with great strength of personalty and vigorous intelligence.”—Robert Bly, translator’s afterword to Hamsun’s Hunger (1967)
“The words ‘fudge’, ‘nonsense’, ‘oh’, ‘pooh’, ‘sentimental’, ‘superficial’, ‘stupid’, ‘very stupid’, ‘trash’ are among the many pencilled annotations dotting the pages of John Stuart Mill’s personal copies of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. They constitute something of a revelation. Imagine finding Kant’s marginalia on Hume’s philosophical writings, or George Eliot’s annotations on Jane Austen’s novels. There is an assumption among scholars that little can be said about the opinion Mill, the preeminent English thinker of his age, held of Emerson, equally preeminent in American thought. In a recent book on the political ideas of the two men, Alex Zakaras remarks that ‘it seems that Mill never read any of Emerson’s writing, so we can only speculate as to what he would have thought of it’. We now know that he at least read the Essays – which are largely responsible for Emerson’s standing as a philosopher – and had something intriguing to say about them.”—
Funny, though not much of a surprise: Emerson was Derrida to Mill’s Habermas, Žižek to his Chomsky, Paglia to his Nussbaum, etc. If it were a question only of the most practical politics or ethics, you’d want the latter in each case, I suppose, but life and art are about more than practicalities, which is why I ultimately prefer those practitioners, in Mill’s words, of “the Art of Intimately blending Sense and Nonsense.”
“I had taken my pencil and paper out again and was sitting mechanically writing 1848 in all the corners. If only one good thought would rush in, then words would come! That had happened before, I had had times when I could write out a long piece with no effort at all, and it would turn out to be first-rate besides.
I wrote 1848 twenty times, wrote it crossways and intersecting and every possible way, waiting for a usable idea to come. A swarm of vague thoughts were batting about in my brain. The mood of the approaching dusk made my despondent and sentimental. Fall was here and had already begun to put everything into a deep sleep—the flies and small creatures had received their first shock; high in trees and down near the earth you could hear the sounds of a laboring life, breathing, restless, and rustling, struggling not to die. The whole community of insects would rouse themselves one more time, poke their yellow heads out of the moss, lift their legs, put out expeditions, feeling with their long antennae, and then suddenly collapse, roll over, and turn their stomachs to the sky. Every plant had received the mark—the delicate breath of the first frost had passed over it. Grass stems held themselves stiffly up toward the sun, and the fallen leaves slipped across the ground with a sound like that of traveling silkworms. It was the hour of fall, well into the festival of what is not eternal. The roses have taken on a fever, their blood-red leaves have a strange and unnatural flush.”—Knut Hamsun, Hunger (trans. Robert Bly)
More and more I wonder if it is possible for a novel not to give me the immediate impression of being manipulated toward goals that are predictable and unquestioned.
How is it that I basically agree with Tim Parks in abstract terms and yet am bored and irritated by his boilerplate critique of “the novel” (aka “realism,” aka “humanism,” etc.)?
People (I include myself) pay too much attention to forms of culture they think themselves superior to. So people on the subway are reading trash, so middlebrow mediocrities win middlebrow and mediocre prizes? Who cares?—who, that is, except for someone who secretly wants the prizes and the subways for himself? I’m no philosopher, but I think they used to call this ressentiment.
Interesting novels have always been about the irreducible gap between narrative procedure and truth or reality. This is a concern that predates Don Quixote. Scott G. F. Bailey:
The novel is and has always been a work of art, of artifice, an abstraction of a set of ideas about the world. A novel is—and pretends to be—no more “real” than a symphony, a painting, or a dance. Novelists might talk about life and the world, but they are not creating an accurate map of life and the world. To ask the novel to accurately mirror our own lives is to ask the novelist to do something that isn’t his job. Apuleus’ Golden Ass is clearly only a glancing blow against reality. The same can be said of Shakespeare, of Chekhov, of Chaucer, of Dickens, of Tolstoy, of O’Connor, of Woolf, of Manning, of whomever you care to name. Tristram Shandy contains many truths about life, but it is not a strict depiction of reality. The same can be said of Finnegans Wake. The same can be said of The Old Man and the Sea, or Lolita, or A Visit From the Goon Squad. I will also point out tangentially that every good book is an amalgam of what the author believes to be factually true and what the author has invented. The ratio of fact to invention is no indicator of the success of the book. And every representation of the world is imaginary, because the only accurate representation of the universe is the universe itself; anything else is an abstraction, an illusion, a fantasy, a falsehood, if you will. Art is artifice. There has never been a “realist novel” that was not a fantasy. There has never been an epoch where a work of fiction was equivalent to the actual experience of life.
Every so often, the denouncers of “the novel” aka “humanism” aka “realism” remind me of the New Atheists, their skeptical plaints cloaking their furiously disappointed faith, their disappointment driving them to vast oversimplifications, as if every instance were reducible to the worst-case scenario and every idea had to be made comprehensible to those least prepared to receive it. Again and again, we see an attack on “the nineteenth century novel,” and sometimes rightly enough. But when is the last time Parks read Bleak House, one of the most formally strange novels in the language, a fractured meditation anticipating Nietzsche and and Kafka and Eliot and Foucault on the apocalyptic impossibility of humane knowledge and rational law in the Inferno of modernity? It has a sentimental scene or three, a partially redemptive ending, a “spot of ideology,” to be sure, but it’s no work of middlebrow realism.
To my mind, the “novel” is, in normative terms, the name for a field of investigation into the relation between what exists and what doesn’t, what can be imagined or said and what can’t be imagined or said. (Though I think it’s unreasonably literalistic and reductive to imagine that this investigation always has to be pursued at the level of language.) Such a conviction puts me decisively in the camp represented by Parks, the camp that admires Beckett and Bernhard. But I wish this camp spent less time on Dawkins-like denunciations of its outgroup, a libidinal investment that leads it to mistake friends for enemies and to narrow its canon unduly.
I should have stopped reading Critchley and Webster’s Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine on page 5, with this remarkable sentence:
In this view, Hamlet is a kind of anti-Oedipus: whereas the latter moves ragefully from ignorance to knowledge, and his insight requires the loss of his sight in a violent act of self-blinding, the great Dane knows the score from the get-go, but such knowledge does not seem to lead to action.
A rich text. Not only does the main clause of this sentence inexplicably sound like sports radio, its punchy double cliché lowering the tone from the highfalutin product-placement allusions to Deleuze and De Man, but we also get the emptily bombastic wordplay of “great Dane” coupled with the authors’ failure to notice that the antecedent of “the latter” is not “Oedipus”—which is what they mean—but in fact “anti-Oedipus”—which is the opposite of what they mean. Anybody can make a mistake, of course, but carelessness coupled with smugness is what really offends. Maybe they should have called it The Polonius Doctrine.
But I read it to the end; I hung on for this, condensed from pages 217-219:
…the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous [as opposed to the sublime and the beautiful] and its concomitant affect—disgust. […] Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here antiart becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s potential into the Lethean waters of the contemporary.
Ah yes, the twentieth century’s great contribution to philosophical aesthetics: when you’re in a hole—or a mass grave, as the case may be—keep digging. Never mind that this poetics of the monstrous excludes everything from the stories of Katherine Mansfield to the paintings of Cézanne, the poems of Elizabeth Bishop to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. This is the wisdom the philosopher and the psychoanalyst derive from Hamlet, along with the admittedly intriguing thesis that Ophelia, the original degenerator into water, is its true tragic hero, Shakespeare’s Antigone, because she never cedes her desire but follows it out to its conclusion in death, as a true avant-garde artist would recommend. (Their take on Gertrude, on the other hand, is not for the faint of feminist heart.)
(How, anyway, can something “degenerate into” water, even “Lethean waters”? Maybe they were thinking of ice cubes.)
This hoary style of crypto-totalitarian theory, for which violence alone is real and affects other than disgust proscribed supposedly because the world remains unjust, only ever got away with its untenable arguments because it misrepresented rival claimants who lacked its cultural cachet. So it is with Critchley and Webster’s book, in which they consolidate their advocacy of twentieth-century avant-gardism by denouncing the usual nameless “humanists”—they pretty much specify only Harold Bloom, who isn’t really a humanist. They even refer to Walter Pater in passing as a Platonist (I confess I wrote “Wrong” in the margin, even though it’s a library book).
I’m not sure why Stay, Illusion! was published, honestly, still less why it was published by Random House. In case self-promotion has anything to do with it (I say resentfully: “hitherto doth love on fortune tend”), let me suggest that you see chapter II.2 of my unpublished dissertation, Modernism’s Critique du Coeur: The Novelist as Critic, 1885-1925, and chapter 6 of my unpublished novel, Portraits and Ashes, for a thorough rejoinder to the aesthetics Critchley and Webster promote. That’s unpublished, Random House; I await your call.