Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My net worth

In a comment that I deleted because of its vitriolic irrelevance, a reader suggests that my proposal to take away the university faculty’s power of self-governance is not at all ironic, as Rand Careaga offers, but “deadly serious” and motivated by my “net worth.” “Apparently Dr. Myers thinks corporate profits and such,” the reader added, “are more important than people.” (Say what? You can see what I mean by vitriolic irrelevance. Acres of vagueness are covered by that shrug phrase “and such.”)

I plead guilty to believing unreservedly in the social good (or at least utility) of the profit motive, but the truth is that nothing I have done in my life has ever turned a profit. I don’t know about my net worth, but my 2009-’10 salary at Texas A&M University, which is a matter of public record, is closer to the median U.S. income than to the median university professor’s.

On this much the reader is correct. My proposal to end the faculty’s exclusive power to determine curriculum, set hiring priorities, and fill job openings is deadly serious. But my argument, although frankly sharing a nostalgia for the old discredited idea that the university is an institution created for the unique social purpose of seeking truth, is far more ruthlessly materialistic than my critic’s.

My argument is that a university faculty, once it redefines the university as a political system for the dissemination of radical thinking, will act to consolidate its interests and to exclude those who would sabotage its goals. For the campus Left, as Jeff Goldstein observes, “Being on the ‘right’ . . . is not considered being ‘political’ at all,” and is in fact to be “outside politics proper. . . .” Thus the exclusion of conservatives (or traditional humanists, for that matter) is entirely fair and just.

The problem, then, is the faculty’s power to redefine the university in its own image—through curriculum and hiring. When the faculty was still committed to the original idea of the university, its power posed no difficulties. That is, the unwisdom of placing exclusive power of self-governance in its hands did not become apparent until the faculty abused its power by departing from the university idea to pursue its own interests. Now that the abuse has exposed the threat from the power, the time has come to end it.

Not my net worth, but the faculty’s, is what motivates my critique.

Update: In the Wall Street Journal, an official at a “conservative think tank” that has proposed to measure faculty cost-effectiveness, is quoted as saying: “Taxpayers of the state of Texas” should get to decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.” I hate to say I told you so, but a decade and a half ago, I warned that redefining the professor’s role as one of political oppositionality would “creat[e] an opening for state reprisal.” If my proposal is not taken seriously—if the faculty does not find a way to share power with other interests—my prediction will rather quickly become a reality.

Friday, October 22, 2010

I can’t read it if I don’t notice it

Over at A Memory Theater, Adlai Jurek admits to himself that there are books he will never read. Not because he has made the conscious decision not to—he is not talking about books by Stieg Larsson or Jodi Picoult—but because his experience, training, and preconceptions (the “roles he occupies,” as he puts it, and “his general circumstance”) incline him to prefer certain books. Others never even rise to the level of notice.

For all I know, there may be literary masterpieces on the shelves of Christian inspirational fiction, but it would never occur to me to seek them out. The Jewish mentalité gives me this much of a resemblance to the strict church-state separatist: inspirational happy talk makes me want to call in the ACLU. What is not to one’s taste can be easily confused with what is offensive to decency.

There are “possible universes inherent in your choices,” Jurek says, which “result from the interpretative schemes” to which you subscribe. Your intellectual habits restrict the horizon of the possible, that is, but plenty of worlds remain open to you. I enjoy the language of modal realism, but not so much Jurek’s allusion to Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities.”

On the one hand, interpretive schemes or interpretive communities are entirely consonant with possible worlds. The philosopher David Lewis, in discussing how fiction tells truth, speaks of “the collective belief worlds of the community of [a fiction’s] origin. . . .” An interpretive community, from this angle, might be a body of people who share “belief worlds.” The Jews who share a belief that inspirationalism is fundamentally lame, for example. Worlds that are created by uplifting, go-get-’em perorations are not possible worlds among those who share such a belief.

On the other hand, Lewis and Fish conceive of belief at vastly different levels. Lewis means collective beliefs that are so deeply assumed they become tautological when reduced to speech: blue is blue and not green. The horizons of such a collective world are not amenable to change. The world is experienced as actuality.

What Fish has in mind (and Jurek too, I think) are second-order propositions about a world whose actuality is assumed and needs no defense: states that vote Republican should be called “blue states,” because blue has always been the color of conservatism. Many times these are the sorts of beliefs that serve as cultural markers; that is, they are advanced to announce one’s place within a community of the like-minded.

Despite the cognitive riches of such “interpretive schemes”—such ways of sorting opinions about the world—they are relatively trivial when compared to the collective belief world that constitutes a people’s conception of actuality. And unlike the latter, they can be dropped, exchanged, altered, ignored, forgotten, twisted, contradicted, and punted at will. A strong argument might even persuade me to pick up this title or that of Christian inspirational fiction. I’d go even farther and suggest that among the prime duties of literary criticism is to challenge the “interpretive schemes” that award some books auto-response praise and treat others as beneath notice. Especially if the interpretive community whose thinking has gone stale is one’s own.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Two years old today

A Commonplace Blog is two years old. On October 20, 2008, at 11:09 in the morning, I posted a review of Philip Roth’s Indignation to spank the blog into life. Since then I have continued to write about Roth—he is the author most frequently mentioned on the blog—and have said far too much, I am afraid, about my fondness for Jewish things and my dislike for large swatches of contemporary literature and the literary life. The other day I heard secondhand what someone had said about me. Nothing I have ever done, he said, seems calculated to advance my career. A Commonplace Blog fits that description, but if it has done little to improve my reputation, it has at least given me the chance to further my education in public. A million thanks to the readers who have stuck with me so far.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Do not miss

Miriam Burstein’s provocative reconsideration of Stanley Crawford’s brilliant 1978 novel Some Instructions to my Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage, and to my Son and Daughter, Concerning the Conduct of their Childhood. My only objection: Burstein never firmly answers the question of what, exactly, Crawford is parodying. She raises some fascinating possibilities, however, without fully exploring them.

Patrick Kurp’s meditation on a poem by the matchless Helen Pinkerton, a post written on the occasion of her teacher Yvor Winters’s one hundred and tenth birthday. My only objection: Kurp has been corresponding directly with Pinkerton, which makes me jealous.

Jonathan Franzen’s favorite fiction, which Andrew Seal conveniently lists without comment. My objection: the most interesting titles are the least known (Tom Drury’s End of Vandalism, James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, George Saunders’s In Persuasion Nation), and it would have been welcome to hear a little more about them. Also: why four books by Jane Smiley are on the list.

Restoring academic balance

Over at the National Review’s academic blog Phi Beta Cons, the political scientist Robert Weissberg offers a solution to the problem of the American university’s ominous and increasing Leftward tilt. The solution is not, he says, to institute “ideological affirmative action,” recruiting and hiring and promoting more conservative scholars “so students encounter intellectual diversity.” Aside from its other drawbacks, such a solution “mimics the Left’s subordination of truth to ideology.”

Instead, the solution could not be more simple: “hire truth-seekers,” regardless of their ideology. Over time the ideological proportions of the university will even out. And whatever imbalance remains will be unimportant, because the faculty will share a commitment that transcends ideology—what F. R. Leavis called “the common pursuit,” of truth.

While I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments, Weissberg’s proposal is shockingly naïve. And for the very reason he noticed earlier: “the Left’s subordination of truth to ideology.” The falsification and suppression of anomalous data by climate scientists who wished to sustain the case for global warming suggests that even the sciences have begun to be infected by the virus that spreads throughout the university when it is organized and run by the Left. But if the Left subordinates truth to ideology, and if the Left dominates the university (which means that it controls hiring and promotion), how will the hiring of truth-seekers ever come about, except in the fond dreams of conservatives?

The truth is that the academic system has been corrupted from top to bottom by Leftist ideology. Imagine a smart and well-read young conservative with a passion, say, for George Eliot and her contemporaries, who enrolls in a good university with the intention of majoring in English and eventually becoming a literary scholar. At first, mistakenly assuming that the university encourages intellectual diversity and dissent from consensus and the correction of error, he tries to raise objections when his professors reduce his favorite books to the hunt for red ideology. After a string of B’s, he tries to swallow his doubts and master his professors’ methodology, while nevertheless remaining true to the spirit of his favorite books. He continues to get B’s.

He is undeterred, however, especially when he scores exceptionally high on the Graduate Record Examination. So he approaches a few of his professors to ask for letters of recommendation. They gladly agree to write on his behalf, but their letters are lukewarm at best, full of subtle warnings about him at worst. Because he has cheerfully signed away his right ever to view the letters, he never learns that his professors have betrayed his trust and their profession.

Somehow, though, he is accepted by a first-rate graduate program at an elite university. The same thing that happened on the undergraduate level happens in his graduate courses. He watches with rising disgust as sycophancy is rewarded with A’s, while skepticism is regularly marked with a B. Still, he presses on. He approaches a highly regarded specialist in the nineteenth-century novel. She flatly refuses to direct his dissertation. She just has too many students right now, and even though every single one of her students is a woman, she sees no reason to make room for a man—especially one who got a B in her seminar on Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot’s Early Fiction.

Eventually the graduate director convinces a brilliant young assistant professor—the only man hired in the department in the past three years—to take on the young conservative’s dissertation. Proposal after proposal is turned down, until finally, wearily, the young conservative agrees to write on a subject suggested by the brilliant young assistant professor: Fraternal Intimacy, White Homoeroticism, and Imagined Homogeneity in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century English Novel.

Do I need to go on? By the time he finishes his dissertation and goes on the job market—he applies for jobs in queer theory and sexuality studies—the young conservative has learned either to camouflage his true convictions or to abandon them. Either way, assuming the extreme unlikelihood that he is hired and promoted, he must spend the rest of his life at odds with himself and his greatest strengths.

Weissberg’s proposal to “hire truth-seekers” is broken-backed from the outset, because it fails to account for the corruption of the system. The Left has succeeded in its long march through the institutions. There is no longer any way, I am afraid, to reform academe from within. It must be fundamentally transformed.

And to descend to practical realities. The transformation of the university must begin with the destruction of the principle that makes its corruption possible: namely, the principle of faculty governance. The only way to restore ideological balance and intellectual diversity to the American university—the only practical way to insinuate more truth-seekers into academe—is to take away the faculty’s power to determine curriculum, set hiring priorities, and fill job openings.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Philip Roth, Nemesis (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). 280 pp. $26.00.

In the front matter to his latest novel, Philip Roth groups together the four short novels that he has written since 2006—Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now this latest one—under the subsuming title “Nemeses.” Whether the novel called Nemesis is intended to be the key to the whole project, or its final addition, Roth does not say. Its publication invites a backward glance over the tetralogy, however.

The name of the mythological divinity, the goddess of vengeance, derives from the ancient Greek word for “righteous indignation,” which was Marcus Messner’s downfall. The very title of The Humbling describes what the goddess delights in doing to the proud and overbearing. The classical historian Victor Davis Hanson explains the process: “[O]verweening success and surfeit (koris) lead to hubris (gratuitous arrogance), which in turn promotes destructive behavior (atê), that at last calls you to the attention of divine Nemesis—who ensures your ruin.”

The novel called Nemesis may be the most disturbing of the series. In both Indignation and The Humbling, the protagonists invite their reversals. They themselves plant the seeds of their own destruction, even if it is the goddess in the disguise of a North Korean solider or a lesbian lover who delivers the promised end. The main character of Nemesis, by contrast, does not engage in any destructive behavior until his happiness has already been destroyed. After that, his life is stalled in the acceptance of responsibility for something over which he had no control. The proximate cause of his ruin is a baffling amoral virus.

Bucky Cantor is the playground director at Chancellor Avenue School during the summer of 1944 when a polio epidemic sweeps over the city of Newark, killing several of the boys under his supervision in the Jewish section of Weequahic. Twenty three at the time, Bucky is a powerful and athletic young man—he threw the javelin at Panzer College—although bad eyesight has kept him out of the Army and the war.

When the disease known at the time as “infantile paralysis” begins to attack Newark children, Weequahic is passed over. The first cases appear in June in the Italian section of the city. One day in July two cars pull up to the playground and a gang of teenaged Italian boys piles out. Bucky runs across to ask what they want. “We’re spreading polio,” the gang’s leader says. “We don’t want to leave you people out.” Bucky crosses his arms and plants himself between the Italians and the younger boys on the playground—one against ten. By the time the police arrive, the teenagers have amscrayed. His courage makes him a hero to the Jewish boys:

His confident, decisive manner, his weightlifter’s strength, his joining in every day to enthusiastically play ball right alongside the rest of us—all this made him a favorite of the playground regulars from the day he’d arrived as director; but after the incident with the Italians he became an outright hero, an idolized, protective, heroic older brother, particularly to those whose own older brothers were off in the war.At twenty-three, as he says later, Bucky is “stunned by so much happiness”—a job he loves, taking care of boys he inspires, engaged to a first-grade teacher at Chancellor Avenue School, who adores him. Too much happiness, as it turns out. Two boys from the playground are rapidly stricken with polio and die within days. Weequahic is ready to blame the Italian teenagers, but Bucky knows better. “Polio is polio,” he tells his fiancée tautologically—“nobody knows how it spreads. Summer comes and there it is, and there’s nothing much you can do.”

As the disease spreads its net over Weequahic, Bucky tries to offer comfort and strength to the families whose children have fallen ill, although he has no answer to their question, “Why does tragedy always strike down the people who least deserve it?” He finds himself turning against God, increasingly unable to “truckle before a cold-blooded murderer of children.” But when he phones one mother with condolences, she turns on Bucky. She accuses him of endangering her two sick boys. When he tells her that he is careful with all of the boys, she shrieks:So why do I have two paralyzed children? Both my boys! All that I’ve got! Explain that to me! You let them run around like animals up there—and you wonder why they get polio! Because of you! Because of a reckless, irresponsible idiot like you!She is hysterical, of course. “Running around like animals” has nothing to do with the transmission of polio. Bucky is distraught at the accusation; he is incapable of shrugging off a charge of irresponsibility; and so he flees to the Poconos, where he joins his fiancée at a Jewish youth camp. Within days of his arrival, an athletic young counselor with whom he had been working out contracts polio and is rushed to the local hospital. “[A]m I the one who gave it him?” Bucky asks the doctor. “Am I going to give it to others?” He is tested to determine whether he is a “healthy infected carrier,” and his spinal tap comes back positive. Within forty-eight hours he too is stricken.

Polio leaves him with a “withered left arm and useless left hand,” and damage to his left calf that “caused a dip in his gait.” He quits teaching, breaks off his engagement (“She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one”), takes a job at the post office, and lives the remainder of his life alone. Many years later, the novel’s narrator, one of the Weequahic boys who was partially paralyzed by polio but survived, asks Bucky why he has withdrawn from life. “I was the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground,” he says. “I was the playground polio carrier.” When the narrator protests that the sentence is much too harsh, Bucky shrugs. “Whatever I did, I did,” he says. “What I don’t have, I live without.” When the narrator asks about his fiancée, Bucky says that he hopes that she and “whoever she married” enjoy happiness and good health. “Let’s hope their merciful God will have blessed them with all that,” he says, “before He sticks His shiv in their back.”

Bucky blames himself for carrying the polio epidemic to Weequahic and the Poconos, but for his own defeat he blames God, “the source, the creator . . . who made the virus.” In the end, though, the question is open whether the source of his ruin is really the creator of polio, or the unrelenting self-blame from which Bucky cannot free himself. As he nears eighty, does Roth find himself turning against God? Aghast at the reckless idiotic tragedy that is human life? Or does he remain endlessly fascinated by the infinite number of ways in which man can act as his own nemesis?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

National Book Award nominees

The five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction were announced earlier today. They are: Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf), Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (McPherson), Nicole Krauss’s Great House (W. W. Norton), Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (Harper), and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (Coffee House Press).

The most striking thing about the list, of course, is the omission of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Overlooking Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad was an actual mistake.

Except for Peter Carey, who has to be rated the favorite, although he is not really an American novelist in any respect, the nominees are undistinguished. Lionel Shriver’s books are an exemplary illustration of what Nabokov meant by “topical trash.” Nicole Krauss’s diminutive goose is based on an idea that Larry McMurtry considered and rejected. The disparate and unrelated characters are connected by a piece of furniture. McMurtry’s idea was to follow a crib as it was passed from young couple to young couple. Krauss puts a desk at the center of her novel, but McMurtry knew what he was doing in never writing his book. The idea is the sort of clever-sounding device that ought never to get beyond a writer’s notebook, because it ceases to be clever and becomes mechanical fairly quickly.

For that reason, Great House will probably win the Award.

A new Athitakis

Daniel Athitakis was born yesterday, and is already glaring at his father skeptically. All fathers know that look. Congratulations, Mark, on your best blog post yet! Your readers will miss you while Daniel and his mother get the best of you for a while.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Animadversions of a reactionary

“Lifting a rock only to drop it on one's own feet” is a Chinese folk saying to describe the behavior of certain fools. The reactionaries in all countries are fools of this kind. In the final analysis, their persecution of the revolutionary people only serves to accelerate the people’s revolutions on a broader and more intense scale.

As one of “the most sordid rascals,” what is it that I really want? To hasten literature back to the day when only middle-aged white dudes were worth anything? For a Jew, that would be self-defeating, since it would mean turning the clock back to before Moses, who was a Jew before the Jews had become white. It would also mean that I would have to abandon several of my public enthusiasms.

As Richard M. Weaver once said, however, turning it back is one of the things you can do to a clock. Although I have no confidence that it can ever be restored, I mourn the lost age when her race, class, gender, and sexual orientation were not all you really needed to know about an author. I miss talking about books in terms of something other than their meaning. I would kind of like to go back to discussing authors as if they had intentions, just like their critics, which could not be happily dismissed in an effort to squeeze a more ingenious message out of them. I wish critics still had a conscience.

I am nostalgic for writers who understand that political novels must do something in addition to sneering at Bush. In fact, I wish there were a few writers (or a president, for that matter) who understood that bashing Bush, at this late date, is neither clever nor appealing. I am lonely for writers and intellectuals who actually wish to address those who disagree with them rather than assuming that only the like-minded need read them. I want to know where the writers are like the British novelist Elizabeth Taylor, who was a lifelong woman of the Left and perhaps even a Communist, although you would never know it from her novels.

I want to return to a time when writers were judged by their style, their success in bringing artistic coherence out of actuality’s confusion, their distinctiveness and distinction, even their interpretation of the human experience. But to want such a thing, I guess, is to be a “densely stupid reactionary.”

And so I must be. My critical pursuits must only serve to accelerate the descent into revolutionary illiteracy. My bad.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Nobel Prize winner

For 2010 is the great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who was laureled “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” A superb writer was recognized for his “idealistic tendency,” after all. I take back everything I’ve ever said against the Prize. All sins, except maybe Harold Pinter, are forgiven! (But I am also through with trying to predict the winners, even though I’ve managed to describe one leg of the elephant in each of the past two years.) This year’s is an entirely unexpected and richly deserved award for one of the world’s most distinguished writers, who has earned the international audience the Prize should attract to him.

Vargas Llosa’s novels include:

La ciudad y los perros (1963). The Time of the Hero, trans. Lysander KempGrove (1966).

La casa verde (1966). The Green House, trans. Gregory Rabassa (1968).

Conversacion en la catedral (1969). Conversation in the Cathedral, trans. Gregory Rabassa (1975).

Pantaleon y las visitadoras (1973). Captain Pantoja and the Special Service, trans. Ronald Christ and Gregory Kolovakos (1978).

La tia Julia y el escribidor (1977). Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, trans. Helen Lane (1982).

La guerra del fin del mundo (1981). The War of the End of the World, trans. Helen Lane (1984).

Historia de Mayta (1985). The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, trans. Alfred MacAdam (1986).

Quien mato a Palomino Molero? (1986). Who Killed Palomino Molero? trans. Alfred MacAdam (1987).

El hablador (1987). The Storyteller, trans. Helen Lane (1989).

Elogio de la madrastra (1988). In Praise of the Stepmother, trans. Helen Lane (1990).

Lituma en los Andes (1993). Death in the Andes, trans. Edith Grossman (1996).

Travesuras de la niña mala (2006). The Bad Girl, trans. Edith Grossman (2007).

Born on March 28, 1936, in Arequipa, Peru, Vargas Llosa was educated at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, which became the raw material for his first novel, The Time of the Hero, published when he was just twenty-two. It was his second novel, though, that made Vargas Llosa one of the central figures in the “boom” in South American fiction. The Green House is about a brothel in the Peruvian jungle. Appropriately, the language is lush and overgrown, and the stories thickly interwoven. Vargas Llosa pared back his style in subsequent novels, but he had made his mark.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter remains his best novel. (Biographical note: Vargas Llosa married his own aunt Julia Urquidi in 1955 and remained married to her for ten years.) The story of the love affair between the teenaged narrator and his aunt alternates with the outlandish soap-opera scripts of Mario’s boss Pedro Camacho. One of the funniest novels ever written, it is also one of the most profound meditations on the life of writing.

Like most Latin American intellectuals, Vargas Llosa started out as a Leftist, but he became progressively disgusted with Leftist intellectuals. “Although they are not accustomed to pick up a rifle or throw bombs from their studies,” he told the Washington Post, “they foment and defend the violence.” Vargas Llosa declined to romanticize the terrorism of the Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla organization in his native Peru, while remaining an implacable critic of dictatorial regimes and a strong advocate of Peru’s slow continuing democratization. He is unapologetic about the political direction of his work. “It is a moral obligation of a writer in Latin America to be involved in civic activities,” he says.

In 1991, Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru as a champion of the free market. Calling his approach “popular capitalism”—the people of Peru, he said, “are very humble people and they have all discovered how controls don’t work”—he saw those who were pushing toward freedom as the true Latin American revolutionaries. “Fidel [Castro] was once the road to progress,” Vargas Llosa said. “Now he is antediluvian, a dinosaur.” In response, pro-Cuban rebels firebombed Vargas Llosa’s campaign headquarters in Lima.

In the first round of voting, Vargas Llosa led with 31 percent, but independent candidate Alberto Fujimori took a surprisingly strong 29 percent. Even though he was a centrist, Fujimori won the backing of the defeated Leftist candidates, and despite running without an explicit platform, he overwhelmed Vargas Llosa in the runoff. The novelist wrote a memoir of his campaign experience for Granta, and then retired from electoral politics to concentrate upon literature.

Update: Commentary is making freely available “The Miami Model,” an essay by Vargas Llosa published in the magazine in 1992. John Podhoretz, the magazine’s editor, reflects upon Vargas Llosa’s award here. He describes Vargas Llosa as a “liberal in the classic sense of the word, a believer in and advocate for Western-style free speech, free markets, and free inquiry,” but “not a conservative in any sense of the word.” I defer to John’s greater political wisdom. My only quarrel is with his suggestion that Vargas Llosa cannot be a conservative, because “[h]is work is often frankly libertine. . . .”

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Should McCarthy win the Nobel?

As of this morning, Cormac McCarthy is the betting favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature. [Update: The final odds of his win, which he did not get, were three to one.]

The question is not whether he will take home the Prize, to be announced tomorrow, but whether he should. (I don’t think there is much of a chance of his winning. His reputation for violence, although it might accord with many Europeans’ image of American culture, would probably be enough to disqualify him.) Does he deserve the award?

According to its official website, the Nobel Prize in literature was originally intended, in Alfred Nobel’s bequest, to honor “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency [idealisk rigtning].” It is not clear from the context of his will what Nobel meant by “idealistic tendency.” In the nineteenth century, idealism seems usually to have been counterposed to realism, especially when discussing the arts. Wagner, for example, held that realism was ruining art: “the slaves had revolted.” Idealism signified the restoration of an ideal order, the upholding of the higher ideals (not found commonly in reality) for which men should strive.

The first Nobel Prize in literature was awarded in 1901 to Sully Prudhomme, whose poetry “gives evidence of lofty idealism.” Eight years later the Swedish fiction writer Selma Lagerlöf was also recognized for her “lofty idealism.” So too Paul Heyse the next year, Romain Rolland in 1915, Karl Adolph Gjellerup in 1917, George Bernard Shaw in 1925, and Grazia Deledda in 1926. Although Europeans might have become suspicious of the term during Hitler’s war against humanity, it was revived when the Nobel Prizes resumed after a three-year moratorium in 1944. Gabriela Mistral, Hermann Hesse, and even Bertrand Russell were praised in the name of idealism.

Although the word has not been used in a citation since 1950, its spirit haunts the Prize. Albert Camus “illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”; in Samuel Beckett, “the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”; Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s “ethical force”; Eugenio Montale “has interpreted human values under the sign of an outlook on life with no illusions”; Vicente Aleixandre “illuminates man’s condition in the cosmos”; Isaac Bashevis Singer “brings universal human conditions to life”; Jaroslav Seifert “provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man”; Camilo José Cela “forms a challenging vision of man’s vulnerability”; Octavio Paz’s “humanistic integrity”; Nadine Gordimer’s writing “has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity.”

While each on its own is little more than wind, the phrases taken together do begin to flap in an idealisk rigtning. The question that I have never been able to answer about Cormac McCarthy is whether he belongs to the same universe of thought as these phrases. In “his anguish [a man] may rage,” Holden says in Blood Meridian, “but rage at what?” The only ideals in McCarthy’s world seem to be geological shapes. “For the earth is a globe in the void and [in] truth there’s no up nor down to it,” Holden says.

But is this the final word about the human experience, according to McCarthy? Or is this where man hits bottom, from which he must rise again in a tentative but defiant expression of faith? Isn’t McCarthy’s absorption with language itself an idealistic profession, finding solace in a human creation against the void?

I confess that I have never been able to make up my mind about McCarthy, and perhaps the readers of A Commonplace Blog have some ideas. If he is merely the dazzling chronicler of man’s lack, he does not meet the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. But if the bleakness of his narrative landscapes is not the human end but the point of its necessary renewal, well, then, Cormac McCarthy deserves a Nobel Prize just as much as Samuel Beckett did.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Two lives of tradition

Reading in shul on Saturday instead of listening to the Torah, I came upon this passage in Gershom Scholem:

There is also a life of tradition that does not merely consist of the conservative preservation, the constant continuation of the spiritual and cultural possessions of a community. That, too, certainly is tradition, and education in large part depends on it. But tradition is something else as well. There are domains of it that are hidden under the debris of centuries and lie there waiting to be discovered and turned to good use. There is such a thing as renewed contact with what has been forgotten or has not yet come to the fore. There is such a thing as a treasure hunt within tradition, which creates a living relationship to which much of what is best in current Jewish self-awareness is indebted, even where it was—and is—accomplished outside the framework of orthodoxy.[1]It is a measure of how bad a Jew I am that I immediately thought of the literary tradition. Not that I was reading in shul. That’s SOP, even among some rabbis. “How did the writer think of anything but writing?” Wright Morris asked in his autobiography. Or the literary critic anything but literature? Just not in shul.

At all events, I have been making a nuisance of myself lately by arguing that novelists who spend a lifetime in writers’ workshops have narrow experience and knowledge, and it shows in their fiction. I am not against creative writing, as I keep protesting, but only the narrowness.

Scholem suggests how writers’ experience and knowledge might be broadened, without going on safari or to war. They might make contact with what has been forgotten or has not yet come to the fore. They might go on a treasure hunt within the literary tradition, searching for things that were written by someone other than their teachers or peers, things that are more than ten minutes old, things that approach the problem of bringing coherence out of personal confusion in a way that is unheard of, because nobody has read the things or set about trying to recreate a living relationship with them for long decades.

When Scholem spoke of tradition as a domain that is “hidden under the debris of centuries,” lying there “waiting to be discovered and turned to good use,” he was probably thinking of the geniza in Cairo’s Ezra Synagogue, a hiding place for documents that could not be destroyed because they contained the name of God, which was discovered in 1896. Hillel Halkin describes it well:The Cairo Geniza proved to be one of the greatest archival finds in the annals of historical research. Since almost any medieval Jewish document might begin with an invocation of God’s blessing, there was nothing a geniza could not hold. Squirreled away and forgotten for hundreds of years in the Ezra Synagogue were books of which no one had known; known books of which no copies had survived; the lost works of Jewish poets and philosophers; reams of rabbinical responsa; sacred texts and prayers with unfamiliar passages or variant readings; community records and protocols; files of personal correspondences; entire libraries of commercial documents—contracts, legal briefs, orders for merchandise, receipts for payment, bills of lading and of credit, statements of loans and investments, IOU’s, partnership agreements, the letters and replies of far-flung merchants; notes, memoranda, lists, ledgers, title deeds, and account books.[2]The Cairo Geniza changed forever how Jewish history was written, how the Jewish experience was understood. What is not widely appreciated, at least not in the Republic of Letters, is that the Internet has become a worldwide geniza. Many and huge archives, previously open only to specialists, and under practical constraints, have been made freely available. The potentiality if not the effect is the democratization of scholarship.

But it might also foment a revolution in contemporary literature. What if young fiction writers were to learn something about their art and craft, not from the latest shortlist for the National Book Award, but from, say, forgotten Renaissance texts, including character books, hunting guides, dancing manuals, religious tracts, political pamphlets, travelogues, and advice to women? Stanley G. Crawford is one writer who has plundered the literary past for solutions to the problem of writing a novel, but perhaps the obscurity of his quirky and brilliant Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine (1972) and Some Instructions to My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage and to My Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of their Childhood (1978) has discouraged other writers from trying anything similiar.

That’s a shame. The rediscovery of a living tradition, although it might require some research, which is against the religion of creative writing, might deepen and improve contemporary literature, if only by sending a few intrepid writers off in a different direction from the literary pack.

Update: Rabbi Mark Glickman, whose book about the Cairo Geniza will be released by Jewish Lights later this month, wonders in a private message (which he has given permission to quote) whether “the mountains of information now available online [are] more like the historical Genizah–messy, disorganized, and inaccessible–or are they more like a modern archive?” Only now, he points out—now that “the manuscripts are stored in climate-controlled, secure libraries”—are the contents of the Geniza fully available to scholars. But even now, over a century since it was discovered, the Geniza has never be comprehensively catalogued. Rabbi Glickman is of the opinion that the immeasurable size of the Internet, then, “makes it far more like an old genizah than an archive, which is part of what makes exploring it so much fun.”

An excellent point, nicely put. Which means that the “treasure hunt within tradition,” the rummaging around in literature’s attic, is more of an adventure than days spent in the cross-referenced and neatly arranged stacks.

[1] Gershom Scholem, “Israel and the Diaspora” (1970), trans. Walter J. Dannhauser, in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (New York: Schocken, 1976), pp. 253–54. Originally delivered as a lecture in Geneva in May 1969.

[2] Hillel Halkin, Yehuda Halevi, Jewish Encounters (New York: Schocken, 2010), p. 72.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Wright Morris, 1910–2010

On Saturday, the Lone Tree Literary Society will celebrate the centennial of novelist Wright Morris’s birth with a conference in Central City, Nebraska, where Morris was born on January 6, 1910. Otherwise the Morris centennial, which might have occasioned a revival of interest in his work, is going largely ignored in the Republic of Letters. Morris would probably have expected little else. Despite consistently high praise from critics, his thirty odd books were largely ignored during his lifetime. “I find it harder to account for readers I have than for those I don’t,” he said.

At one time Morris was ranked with Saul Bellow—two years his junior—and by some critics even ahead of him. In 1953, the year that The Adventures of Augie March was published, Morris also published a novel, his sixth—or his eighth, if two “photo-texts,” in which a prose narrative and his striking photographs face each other on alternating pages, are counted. The Deep Sleep was the longest of them, coming in at just over three hundred pages. While Bellow was reaching for a novel as large as America (Augie announced the most important things about himself in the book’s six famous opening words), Morris was more interested in scaling back and exploring the inherent limitations of fictional form:

My feeling is that we are going to need more short books. The long book involves us in the very thing we have to get away from. The short book imposes on the author a facing up to the major problems of his craft. No lists, itemizations, accumulations. In the short novel the limitations of realism become evident.The two novels were published the same month—Morris’s by Scribner, Bellow’s by Viking—but the fight was over almost before it began. The New York Times Book Review gave The Deep Sleep seven hundred words on page four; exactly a week later Augie March received page-one treatment and praise in over a thousand words. Both were nominated for the National Book Award. Augie won.

In many other ways, Morris could trade blows with Bellow and remain on his feet (Bellow later said that, for a few years, they had the best of each other). Perhaps no writer can ever hope to match Bellow’s dazzling philosophizing, but Morris was also a novelist of ideas. In Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960)—the place to start if you’ve never read Morris—a man driving home to Nebraska stops for the night at a motel from where a nuclear test can be observed. The clerk asks whether he wants to be up for the bomb. He owes it to himself, she says. After his name in the register, she writes: WAKE BEFORE BOMB.WAKE BEFORE BOMB? How did one do it? Was it even advisable? The past, whether one liked it or not, was all that one actually possessed: the green stuff, the gilt-edged securities. The present was the moment of exchange—when all might be lost. Why risk it? Why not sleep on the money in the bank? To wake before the bomb was to risk losing all to gain what might be so little—a brief moment in the present, that one moment later joined the past. Nevertheless, as the lady said, it was a wonderful sight. There was this flash, then the pillar of fire went up and up as if to heaven, and the heat and the light of that moment illuminated for a fraction the flesh and bones of the present. Did these bones live? At that moment they did. The meeting point, the melting point of the past confronting the present. Where no heat was thrown off, there was no light—where it failed to ignite the present, it was dead. The phoenix, that strange bird of ashes, rose each day from the embers where the past had died and the future was at stake. To wake before the bomb was tricky business. What if it scared you to sleep?Not incidental to this remarkable passage is its handling of a current political question. (The agitation for nuclear disarmament began in the late ’fifties. In a famous incident from 1958, Australian students managed to paint BAN THE BOMB on the deck of the U.S.S. Radford.) Morris may have begun by meditating upon nuclear fears—that is the underlying theme—but his thought develops into a variation upon the theme, which ties it to perennial human concerns and prevents it from becoming merely topical and dated. Contrast Morris’s practice to that of Jonathan Franzen, whose reflections on current politics are little more than the repetition of talking points (“Now came Bush II, the worst regime of all”; “the Bush twins and all the partying and loose morals that the Bush name con­noted”). Yet another reason Morris’s fiction is neglected: its political affiliations are not apparent at a glance.

In a late ’seventies review, Geoffrey Wolff wondered why it was that “[n]o critic has written about [Morris] for years now without mentioning the public neglect, the want of celebrity, the payoff so perversely withheld.” He concluded that Morris “has no single voice, nothing like the kind of assertive style that marks a paragraph, wherever it is found, by Stanley Elkin or Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov.” But this seems only partly correct. It is true that Morris does not have an assertive style, but then he was neither a Jew nor a political exile. On his own testimony, though, his fiction grew out of a voice, which he heard for the first time in the first words of The Works of Love (1952):In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow. West of the 98th Meridian—where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t—towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops. But in a dry climate the husk of the plant remains. The stranger might find, as if preserved in amber, something of the green life that was once lived there, and the ghosts of men who have gone on to a better place. The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place—now that it is dead—had come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied.Morris later said that his concern in his early books was “to establish the tone that would make possible all that followed.” The voice that he finally mastered in his National Book Award-winning Field of Vision (1956) was the “mystifying clue to what was yet unspoken.” It was not only his principle of discovery, the means by which he explored his raw material and found his subject, but also the moral force by which he awakened the slumbering past and brought withered towns to life. The voice is unmistakable, even singular, but does not insist upon its own primacy.

Morris never wrote about writers or literary intellectuals. His alter ego Gordon Boyd, who describes himself as a “self-unmade man,” never talks about writing and is not particularly self-aware. He is a failure, which permits Morris to poke fun at himself, and like all of Morris’s other characters, he must struggle to put together a life out of false starts, less-than-ideal circumstances, different homes in different places, and a miscellaneous inheritance.

Morris’s message is summed up by a character in Love Among the Cannibals (1957), his one popular success: “You’ve got to take what’s phony, if it’s all you’ve got, and make it real.” This is, in effect, the fundamental American experience, since the chief problem in America has always been to make a nation and a culture out of whatever was at hand and best suited to the job. “The realization that I had to create coherence,” Morris said of his own life, “conjure up my synthesis, rather than find it, came to me, as it does to most Americans, disturbingly late.”

His best novels tell how that realization affects the lives of interesting men and women, a good many of them (but not all) from the dry place of Nebraska. Not surprisingly, this is also the problem that faces every novelist in every novel he sits down to write. Small wonder Morris did not write about anguished writers and assertive intellectuals. He realized earlier rather than later that the writer’s task differs in materials, but not in kind, from that of any other man. “It is the function of genius,” Morris wrote in a review, “to make things cohere. The act of coherence is the imaginative act, the rest is scenery.”

Wright Morris died on April 25, 1998, in Mill Valley, California, where he had made his home for many years. The last of his twenty novels, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1981), won the second of his two National Book Awards. “And nowhere else in his fiction,” Larry McMurtry said in a review of it, “does emotion emerge from detail so beautifully as in this precise and vivid book.” Perhaps a new century of readers will discover one of America’s greatest talents.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Predicting the Nobel

Last year I predicted that Peruvian poet Carmen Ollé would be the 2009 Nobel laureate in literature. Romanian-born German novelist Herta Müller won instead. According to my calculations, a woman writer in Spanish was the likely choice, and a poet had not been awarded the prize since Wislawa Szymborska was recognized in 1996.

According to Ian Crouch in the New Yorker’s book blog, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer is the current betting favorite at four to one. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami trails at seven to one. The leading English-language candidates are Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, tied at eighteen to one.

I stand by my earlier prediction that a Spanish-language writer is overdue for the Nobel. Mexico’s Octavio Paz was the last award-winner from the Spanish-speaking world, in 1990, succeeding Camilo José Cela of Spain by a year. Both Paz and Cela were in their seventies when they won the prize and had written their masterpieces decades earlier.

A British oddsmaker lists the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as the leading Spanish-language candidate at odds of twenty-five to one. Vargas Llosa, however, is a man of the Right, which pretty nearly disqualifies him from consideration. [Update: Right on target, moron.—DGM] Nicaraguan liberation theologian Ernesto Cardinal [see below] and Spanish novelist Luis Goytisolo Gay are next at thirty to one.

Since the Nobel committee did its duty last year by picking a woman, they are off the hook this year. My guess is that a man will get the prize. If the winner is to be a poet from South America, though, my prediction is Juan Gelman of Argentina. He is not given any chance at all by the Ladbrokes oddsmakers, whose bottom choice is Bob Dylan at one hundred fifty to one.

Two years ago Gelman captured the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world. He has also involved himself in Left activism. He belonged to Movimiento Peronista Montonero, a political affiliation that ended in his exile to Italy in 1976. (He returned to Argentina in 1988.) He is also a Jewish writer who fits the Left’s preferred image of the Jew—a victim of the Right. His son and pregnant daughter-in-law were among the “disappeared.” After the military coup that overthrew Isabel Perón in 1976, they were taken into custody and executed. Nearly a quarter century later, Gelman tracked down his granddaughter in Uruguay. She had been given to a pro-government family.

Gelman’s poetry makes all the correct “Noises”:

those steps: are they looking for him?
that car: is it stopping at his door?
those men in the street: are they after him?
there are various noises in the night

day breaks upon those noises
nobody detains the sun
nobody detains the rooster’s crow
nobody detains the day

there will be nights and days although he won’t see them
nobody detains the revolution
nothing detains the revolution
there are various noises in the night

those steps: are they looking for him?
that car: is it stopping at his door?
those men in the street: are they after him?
there are various noises in the night

day breaks upon these noises
nobody detains the day
nobody detains the sun
nobody detains the rooster’s crow
This year the Nobel Prize in literature will go to Juan Gelman. Who will take my bet?

Update, I: M. A. Orthofer of the Literary Saloon (to which I typically do not link because of its persistent and sloppy anti-Israel bias) disagrees with my prediction, because Juan Gelman “simply doesn’t have enough of an international presence, especially compared to the other poets considered contenders.” As if Elfriede Jelinek (2004’s winner) or J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008’s) were household names. Orthofer is also convinced that my prediction is “very tongue in cheek,” and remarks that its humor might be more respectable if I spelled the name of Ernesto Cardenal Martínez correctly. I confess that I negligently copied and pasted the name from the Ladbrokes site; my library is sadly deficient in liberation theologians; not that I miss them overmuch. The only thing humorous is that anyone would consider a liberation theologian for a Nobel Prize in anything. Still, I can assure Orthofer and readers of A Commonplace Blog that my prediction is not intended to be tongue in cheek, “very” or otherwise.

Update, II: As of Tuesday morning the 5th, the Kenyan postcolonialist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a self-described literary and social activist (of the Marxist-Leninist variety), is the current betting favorite. (I can easily imagine the Nobel committee’s giving him the award, if only to bite their thumb at Dinesh D’Souza.) Cormac McCarthy has surged into second place, while Tranströmer has fallen back. Ernesto Cardinal [sic] is no better than the fifth most favored Spanish-language writer (not really, in his case). The Australian novelist Gerald Murnane has come from nowhere to surge into contention. If he were to win, and if his Nobel Prize were to create new readers of his work (like me), then the award might actually have served a purpose other than to ratify the international Left’s claim to exclusive ownership of world literature.

Update, III: Who says that literary critics have no influence? As of 5:00 EST on the afternoon of October 5th, Juan Gelman has climbed to within striking distance of the leaders in the betting, currently getting odds of fifteen to one. He now leads the early favorite Tomas Tranströmer. I almost hope he does not win, despite my prediction that he will. I don’t want that prediction to become my only claim to fame! In January, tongue planted very much in cheek, I prophesied that an American would win the Nobel Prize in literature. Go, McCarthy! Go, Roth!