Monday, November 24, 2008

Intellectual dishonesty at the Literary Saloon

Nothing is more intellectually dishonest than pretending to talk about books in order to unfurl a political banner.

Earlier today the Literary Saloon proudly announced a new book that will be “Exhibit A in the case against Israel.” The book is a new English translation of S. Yizhar’s 1949 novella Khirbet Khizeh. And the quotation is from a review of the book in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

To their credit, the Saloonists provide a link to Noah Efron’s review of Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck’s new English translation. To their eternal shame, however, they quote Efron only selectively for the purpose of distorting his argument.

Here is the passage they quote:

       Now, a generation later, reading the English translation, many of the same feelings return, though they are still more complicated. Once again, horror is followed by an awed pride that so self-immolating a story could ever have been considered canonical, much less remain so for almost 60 years. But then comes a dull, dyspeptic realization that Khirbet Khizeh, in English, in 2008, is a gift for anti-Israel propagandists. It will enter the growing bibliography of “ethnic cleansing” literature.
       From now on, it will be Exhibit A in the case against Israel: positive proof that from the very start, like today, Israel has violently, sometimes murderously, displaced innocent Palestinians.
       The book invites this. Khirbet Khizeh retains an immediacy that lends it straight-from-today’s-front-page relevance.
An attentive reader might ask, “What are the ‘same feelings’ to which Efron refers in the first sentence?” The Saloonists would prefer that you didn’t ask, but as long as you have:       [Yizhar’s novella] wrecked my naive confidence that, after centuries of persecutions culminating in the Holocaust, Jews with guns, by their nature, complied with high standards of morality. Yizhar was not subtle about this point. In his story, the guns Jews aim at Palestinians are German Spandaus, and the transports onto which Jews load Palestinian are called “boxcars.” The parallel Yizhar drew between Jews and Nazis was inescapable. Jews had ordered atrocities, and Jews had carried them out. I was appalled to realize this.
       In short order, the horror I felt gave way to a peculiar pride.
       If Khirbet Khizeh demonstrated that Israelis were not above exiling innocents, it also showed that we Israelis were not afraid to admit our crimes, either. We were told that beginning in 1964, the novella had been included in the list of canonical texts on the high school matriculation exam in literature. Not only, then, had one of Israel’s most esteemed writers produced a work of searing self-criticism, but a generation of teens were also forced to read it before they themselves enlisted. Unconscionable acts had been committed, I concluded, but Israelis did not lack a conscience. Long live Yiddischer rectitude.
Man, was I sorely tempted to excise the last two sentences! I don’t much appreciate Efron’s irony here. But if I did so I would be repeating the Saloonists’ error of doing violence to Efron’s thought for the purpose of installing him, against his will and intention, on my side of the political aisle.

That is what the Literary Saloon does by foreshortening his remarks. For Efron does not conclude that Khirbet Khizeh is “Exhibit A in the case against Israel.” He goes on immediately—I mean, in the very next sentence—to praise the new afterword by Professor David Shulman of Hebrew University:Shulman is right to find in Khirbet Khizeh the message: ‘We did this; We do this.’ And he is not wrong to draw the moral: ‘No more Khirbet Khizehs.’ Perhaps this is what the novella means in 2008. Perhaps this is especially what the novella means when translated into English.Efron does not end with Professor Shulman’s conclusion, but does not reject it either. In reaching his own conclusion (“this story that lends itself so smoothly to polemic . . . is, at its heart, an inversion of polemic”), Efron quotes remarks by Yizhar himself on the novella that the Saloonists might have done well to pause and reflect upon:There’s no duty or necessity whatsoever for a story about some specific events to have to symbolize something more general. . . . And what you find in a given tale is not necessarily a model for everything that happened in the history of a people or a country at a particular time.Why bother with the duty or necessity of respecting a writer’s intentions, or even the actual conclusions of a friendly critic, when all you really want is to press Israelis into the service of anti-Israeli polemic?

Literature without prefixes

Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition. What follows from this conclusion?

First of all, literature is human discourse that is distinguished, not by its historical relevance, nor by its truth or falsity, but by its good qualities. A piece of bad writing may provide evidence of the past or may even state a truth. These are not “good qualities”; they are necessary and sufficient conditions. History is defined by judging things to be evidence of the past; philosophy is defined by judging things to be true or false. From which it follows, next, that literature is not a body of poems, stories, novels, plays, memoirs, etc., but the act of judgment by which such things come to be named as literature. Literature is the worry of literary criticism.

I am not sure this really gets us very far. On this showing, literature is either anything at all that anyone at all pleases to call literature, or it is what the delegated and properly credentialed authorities call literature. That is, it is either personal preference or the history of taste. But “in the history of taste,” as Northrop Frye famously said, “there are no facts.”

Hence the turn to theory in academic literary study. The postwar confidence that literature could best be studied As Literature (to slap on the contemporary bumpersticker) had given way to a rising skepticism and confusion by the late 1960’s. If literary study is, as Yvor Winters’s student Wesley Trimpi conservatively defined it in 1970, “[t]he understanding and preservation of literary texts,” what becomes of study when no one is sure any longer what constitutes a literary text? A return to criticism—a return to the cultural work of sorting through published materials to determine what merited preservation—might have been welcome. By the late 1960’s, though, criticism had almost exclusively devolved into interpretation (Trimpi’s “understanding”). Sick of it, the poets retreated into creative writing.

Some of the best critical minds grasped the central problem. E. D. Hirsch Jr., who understood perhaps better than anyone the utter arbitrariness at the heart of literature’s mystery, wrote Validity in Interpretation (1967) to bring some order out of the confusion that academic literary interpretation had become. He characterized his book as a “contribution to general hermeneutic theory,” shifting attention from the object of critical judgment to the act. He sought to raise the discussion to the next level. But that may have been a mistake. The discussion needed to be broadened. Interpretation needed to be reassigned to a subordinate role in acquiring literary knowledge (something that Hirsch himself came to accept by the time he wrote Cultural Literacy twenty years later).

Others, like Frank Lentricchia, writing in 1970, insisted that literary study required a “whole new epistemology.” And in short order several substitutes were proposed. Ultimately, the winning view would hold that there is no interpretation without a theory of some kind—an epistemology—that is given shelter by a structure of power. The trouble was that, if such a view were true, the theory wasn’t. It was a handmaiden of power. To avoid thinking about the crux, the “whole new epistemology” became a received, top-down methodology: a new method, but merely a method, of interpretation.

So personal preference ended in the arms of authority. Still others hoped, not perhaps to solve the central problem, but at least to turn it into a historical curiosity. Already in 1969, George Watson noticed “scattered signs that the anti-historical mood of literary theory in the earlier twentieth century [was] approaching its close.” Not in any idiom that he would have recognized, however. Fredric Jameson’s slogan “Always historicize!” really meant always place the literary text in the context of power relations, with the author forever on the side of power.

Far more promising was the influence of cultural relativism, although its consequences were widely misunderstood. The prooftext had been written nearly three generations earlier by Langston Hughes: “One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet.’ ” That is, there is no such animal as a poet without an identity. Back in April, the novelist Junot Diaz dilated on the principle for Newsweek:

[T]here’s no such thing as a straight-up writer. I think when people say a straight-up writer, what they really mean is a white writer. In other words, historically there has never been this concept of a nonracialized, nongendered writer. The fact that the word “writer” has to be modified so often is because everybody knows that when people speak of writers, we tend to mean, on an unconscious level, white males.It’s not exactly true to say that “historically there has never been this concept of a nonracialized, nongendered writer.” It would be more accurate to say that, until recently, modifiers were added only to some writers because the race and sex of the majority was understood and, as such, unexpressed. The concept existed, in other words, but it was broken-backed.

And only recently has the defectiveness of the concept come to be widely accepted. Even now, though, the correction has been misprized. If there are no writers without identities it does not follow that writers’ only identities are their race and sex. Jewish writers are not Jewish writers by virtue of their race or sex. Yes, yes: go ahead and substitute ethnicity for race. But a poet of the classical tradition, as Adam Zagajewski describes Zbigniew Herbert (“He took classicism to mean: Don’t complain”), is not such by virtue of ethnicity or sex. On Zagajewski’s testimony, in fact, Herbert was a poet of the classical tradition by choice.

And perhaps that is the key. Perhaps every writer’s identity is a choice, because you choose with whom to identify yourself. (You can choose to be a Jew, after all; choose to pass as “white”; choose to write under the first name George; choose classical restraint over confessional excess.) Perhaps you see at last what I am driving at. The definition of literature has been the central problem in literary study for too long, because it has always been treated as a universalism: “All literature is P.” To teach and study literature As Literature is to teach and study under the aspect of eternity.

But there is no such thing as Universal Literature. There are only literatures, with different prefixes. We teach and study “the best that has been thought and said”; that has not changed; but it is the best that has been thought and said by African Americans, in English, in translation, belonging to such-and-such a tradition, in metrical language, written in the American South since the Second World War, by the Bloomsbury group, or whatever. What follows is not that the word literature is an intellectual error or the mystification of the will to dominate. What follows is that, like the word testament without the superaddition of “old” or “new,” the word is misleading where it is not meaningless.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Literature: the very idea

This elderly and baggy-fleshed word has caused no end of trouble. Originally, it meant grammar. Litteratura was the translation into Latin of the Greek grammatice. According to Curtius, the original culprit was Quintilian (II.1.4), who divided the study of grammar into two parts: “correct speech and the interpretation of the poets.”[1]

On this conception, the study of literature belonged to the trivium. Most English professors are annoyed when a new acquaintance, learning what they do for a living, says, “Oops, I’d better watch my grammar!” “I teach literature,” the professors growl. The chuckling and self-effacing acquaintance has the better instinct for the history of their discipline.

In traditional study of the bible, the grammatical sense is the first level—the entry level—of its fourfold interpretation. (The commonplace that the bible contained “four senses” of meaning was the starting point of biblical interpretation from Augustine through the Middle Ages.) Since the Masoretic text is not punctuated, and since Hebrew has no capital letters, the syntax had to be reconstructed in even the clearest cases.

Even now, the effort to construe the text’s grammar remains a profitable place to begin the study of the bible, especially since the received text has become so familiar to most students that they unconsciously “read” its traditional interpretation rather than its literal meaning. Literalism—not the religious doctrine, but the unsophisticated insistence upon bare grammar—is defamiliarizing.

In the medieval trivium, however, grammar did not include the study of morphology and syntax; it was what would now be called prescriptive grammar. Correct speech, in Quintilian’s phrase. Poets were interpreted and valued, then, as ethical influences. Hence the term author, since the authors were considered sources of moral authority. Medieval literary study, the province of grammarians, included the formal devices of poetry, but did not stop there.

These were the assumptions behind literary study for a very long time, as neatly expressed by Sidney:

[I]t is not ryming and versing that maketh a Poet . . . but it is that faining notable images of vertues, vices, or what els, with that delightfull teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a Poet by.Poetic form was necessary but not sufficient; models of correct (and incorrect) behavior, intended for ethical instruction, were also required.

Good form and good influence were what students of literature were taught to look for in literary texts. (“Political correctness” is a reversion to an earlier educational theory.) It was not until the Victorians that bonnes lettres yielded the field to belles lettres.

The very idea of literature once entailed literary value, and still does (if only because you and I have not world enough and time to read it all). Mischief was introduced, though, when beauty replaced good as the value of values. The problem is not with the concept of literary value, but with restricting value to beauty, which restricts the kind of writing that can exhibit it.

Literature is just the writing that arouses the impulse to preserve it and pass it on. (I call that the “canonical impulse.” Canons are inseparable from literature. To call something literature is to start a canon.) “When an inability to stay interested in Sappho lasted longer than the parchment she was copied on,” Hugh Kenner says, “the poems of Sappho were lost.” There are many reasons to keep something from being lost, however.

These many reasons cannot be contained by a list of genres, no matter how long it is extended; nor by distinguishing fiction from non-fiction (because there are whole literatures, of which Jewish literature is only one, to which this distinction is an utter stranger); nor by “privileged criteria” like sublimity or irony or artistry or “stylistic range” or “bravura performance” or anything else that can be humanly imagined (because exceptions to the rule will immediately suggest themselves).

Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

[1] E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [1948], trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 42.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Matthiessen wins National Book Award

Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which is both a middlebrow novel dressed up (or puffed up, as the case may be) to look like something more daring and a rangy topical novel, has won the National Book Award for fiction. It was the safe choice.

Update: My guess is that Matthiessen’s novel owes its success largely to being championed by Michael Dirda in the New York Review of Books. An article by Charles McGrath in the New York Times said reassuringly that Dirda “compared passages from both versions and suggested that portions of Shadow Country were substantially rewritten.” In fact, Dirda compared just one passage from Lost Man’s River to the new version in the omnibus volume. He writes:

Throughout, the revised passage is subtly punchier, more provocative, and that flat phrase about the Negro Problem has been discarded entirely. Matthiessen’s polishing and sharpening of his original text can be seen in even the smallest of details. In Lost Man’s River the truly horrific, one-armed Crockett Junior has the words “BAD COUNTRY” scrawled in red lettering on the side of his truck. In Shadow Country this has become “BAD CUNTRY.”As a description of Matthiessen’s style, this does not exactly make me hungry for more. Punchier is a journalistic term. Provocative is a blurb, almost equivalent to the fashion industry’s flirty. (I don’t get it. Does the passage provoke thought? Violence? Hatred? Or does Dirda mean “provocative” as in the more slangy “in your face”?)

Throughout his essay “An Epic of the Everglades” in the May 15th issue, Dirda relies upon this critical style of generalizing praise, heavy on the adjectives, rather than building a slow careful case for Matthiessen’s novel. Consider his conclusion:. . . Shadow Country is altogether gripping, shocking, and brilliantly told, not just a tour de force in its stylistic range, but a great American novel, as powerful a reading experience as nearly any in our literature. This magnificent, sad masterpiece about race, history, and defeated dreams can easily stand comparison with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Little wonder, too, that parts of the story of E. J. Watson call up comparisons with Dostoevsky, Conrad, and, inevitably, Faulkner. In every way, Shadow Country is a bravura performance, at once history, fiction, and myth—as well as the capstone to the career of one of the most admired and admirable writers of our time.Notice how he secures his conclusions. That Shadow Country is a “great American novel” is treated as established by assertion, which enables Dirda to refer to the novel casually in the next sentence as a “masterpiece.” (It is, however, a “magnificent, sad masterpiece. . . .” So that’s all right, then.)

Comparing Matthiessen’s novel to Invisible Man and All the King’s Men (thanks for reminding us who wrote them, Mr Dirda!) seems like it is an argument. Until you stop and ask yourself. What exactly do Invisible Man and All the King’s Men have in common? It’s like an SAT question, or a Netflix commercial. “Finish this series: Glass. Bacon.” “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle!” Matthiessen does not merely resemble Ellison and Warren, however, but Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner too. Now I know exactly how he writes! The more you examine Dirda’s conclusion, the more it becomes a Thursday-night casserole of leftover advertising slogans.

That Dirda should have given the testimonial that won the National Book Award for Matthiessen is perfectly appropriate, since both the critic and the award are marketing devices of the publishing trade.

Update, II: Just occurred to me. Is any writer ever said to “call up comparisons” with, say, Ford Madox Ford, Mary Austin, or Francis de Miomandre?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The scandal of literary prizes

The National Book Awards will be announced tomorrow night. All of us high-culture types pretend to disdain them. Perhaps not entirely without reason. If the past really is prologue the chances are good that the prize jury for the fiction award, headed by Gail Godwin, will make the wrong choice. Over the years judges have preferred the middlebrow novel dressed up to look like something more daring or the rangy topical novel which never disturbs the common opinion. Think White Noise, The Color Purple, The World According to Garp.

The most surprising selection in the history of the award was almost certainly Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, which captured the 1962 prize from Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, The Spinoza of Market Street, A New Life, and The Château by William Maxwell. So upset was Alfred A. Knopf that Maxwell had been passed over that he stomped out of the awards ceremony, even though he was also Percy’s publisher.

It is easy to forget just how surprising Percy’s award was at the time. Reporting on the spot, the Chicago Tribune described the prizewinner as “a novel which many of the critics attending the ceremonies had not heard of and few had reviewed.” Yet within two decades its author had become, according to Robert Towers, one of “the dozen or so novelists that one might name to, say, a Czechoslovakian intellectual inquiring about American fiction. . . .”

It is improbable, however, that one would have thought of Percy without the 1962 National Book Award to bring his name before a wider public. He would doubtless have kept writing—he was already hard at work on The Last Gentlemen—but without the prize he might have ended like another novelist who also published his first book in 1961 and by the time of his death had disappeared from print.

A close second in the category of surprise winners was Thornton Wilder, who took home the award in 1968 for The Eighth Day. The 70-year-old writer belonged to a different generation from those who were sweatily making love, not war, that year. Wilder had won the Pulitzer Prize forty years earlier (forty!) for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and ten years after that he wrote the play that condemned his name to be greeted with groans by anyone who had ever to sit through high-school drama—Our Town.

Wilder won out over The Confessions of Nat Turner, Why Are We in Vietnam?, The Chosen, and Joyce Carol Oates’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It is hard entirely to dislike a novel that bested such pretenders to greatness. John Updike wrote the prize citation for a jury that also included Granville Hicks and Josephine Herbst:

Through the lens of a turn-of-the-century murder mystery, Mr. Wilder surveys a world that is both vanished and coming to birth; in a clean gay prose sharp with aphoristic wit and the sense and scent of Midwestern America and Andean Chile, he take us on a chase of Providence and delivers us, exhilarated and edified, into the care of an ambiguous conclusion.(It is doubtful whether the second epithet for his prose was intended to wink knowingly at Wilder’s homosexuality. Although the term was firmly established by 1948, when Gore Vidal wrote in The City and the Pillar that the “words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste” and it was more “fashionable to say a person was ‘gay,’ ” Updike’s critical vocabulary was simultaneously old-fashioned and direct.)

More interesting is the politics of the award. Updike’s fellow judges were radicals of Wilder’s generation. Herbst (1892–1969) attended the International Conference of Revolutionary Writers at Kharkov in 1930, came home to join front committees, and wrote a trilogy of “proletarian” novels in the thirties. Hicks (1901–1982) was a Party member whose Great Tradition reinterpreted American literature to meet with Party approval. He later turned anti-Communist, but remained a man of the Left.

Wilder’s novel was deeply conservative. As Benjamin DeMott wrote in reviewing it for the New York Times Book Review, the author comes across asan admirer of decorum, self-restraint, disciplined goodness—and as an enemy of misrule, comic reversal, indulgence of personal (i.e., selfish) feeling. At a literary moment drunk on demons and disintegration, obsessed with self—self-aware saints, self-aware psychopaths, self-aware saturnalians—these values can’t be other than a bad draw.Denis Donoghue added contentment to the mix. “Mr. Wilder is so devoted to the ordinary universe,” he wrote in the New York Review, “that he is content to be its witness.”

And maybe that was the point. Wilder’s National Book Award may have been a missile guided at the literary moment and its values. Two old Leftists, assisted by a two-generations-younger man who had already hoped, in a piece written earlier in the year, to admit “political conservatives” into “the halls of fiction” in order “to relieve the present rather shrill unanimity on the left,” may have found a straightedge for rapping the knuckles of the New Left.

That would explain why nothing like Wilder’s prize was ever repeated. And why Marilynne Robinson is unlikely to win tomorrow night. Although she went out of her way to establish her fides in the reissue of The Death of Adam in 2005, openly declaring herself a liberal and courageously praising “Bush bashing,” Robinson is a novelist whose values are deeply conservative, and a bad draw.

Robinson’s Home is up against Aleksandar Hemon’s Lazarus Project (a novel, according to the citation naming it as a finalist, about “our million-year addiction to racism and fear-mongering”), Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba (about “the American executives who were driven out by Castro” and “in denial that their colonial paradise is doomed”), Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which has been consumed by controversy over whether it constitutes a new and original work), and Salvatore Scibona’s first novel The End (a historical novel set among Italian immigrants).

Home tells much the same story as the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. Two Protestant ministers are friends in the same small Iowa town, but each gets his own novel. Rather than including both perspectives in the same book, as Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury, Robinson had the interesting notion of writing companion volumes that should be read together like Grant’s and Sherman’s Memoirs or Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House and Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist.

Robinson’s people are white, Christian, native-born. If they are racists they have no occasion to show it. They are content with the ordinary universe. They aren’t cloddishly nostalgic for a lost colonial empire. They are motivated by respect for privacy complicated by the consciousness of being needed, the desire for attachment, and the knowledge that “it was as far beyond [their] power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.” The intertwining of people’s fates is the cause both of frustration and joy, but outside the confines of extraordinary universes, there is no escaping it.

A political liberal but a cultural (and religious) conservative, Robinson is a longshot to win the National Book Award. Yet she has written the best American novel of the year. And the scandal of literary prizes is that, every now and then, the best book actually wins.

Update: Here is the edition mentioned by Arvid Sponberg in the comments section. I stand by my statement that, at least in The Eighth Day, Wilder was “deeply conservative.” Not politically conservative. In his case, morally conservative. I shall say a little more on this distinction in a coming post.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The muddle of literary evaluation

It is not entirely clear what is at stake or even at issue in the recent back-and-forth between Rohan Maitzen and Daniel Green. Both of them, after all, reject evaluation as the final cause of literary criticism, and both dangle an enticing substitute.

Maitzen affirms what she calls “the ‘pedagogical’ habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures. . . .” And each literary text requires different tools, different measures. The goal is the Jamesian one of “reading a novel on its own terms”—or, in the words of The Art of Fiction (1884), “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”

As a consequence, “it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre,” Maitzen writes resignedly. “It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.” The only real alternative, she concludes, is “trying to understand how to read [a novel] so that it best fulfills its own potential.”

In replying to her, Daniel Green agrees that evaluation is not the purpose of criticism, saying that he prefers description. At least if criticism is to reach a “wider public,” which he isn’t sure that it should.

But perhaps I should let Green speak for himself. What he would like to see is “a descriptive mode of criticism that seeks to carefully elucidate the manifest qualities of a given text than by an evaluative act that in effect disclaims the reader’s own powers of judgment by rendering them unnecessary.” I am not sure why evaluative criticism renders a reader’s evaluation unnecessary, since he is being invited to evaluate the evaluation—if only in terms of its relevance, thoroughness, and coherence.

No matter. Green is concerned primarily to call into question Maitzen’s pedagogical mode (“the need to adapt literature to the academic curriculum”) and to promote a counter-allegiance to “aestheticism” (the quotation marks are his). As he explains,

[T]he act of writing a novel is inescapably an aesthetic endeavor. There would be no point, except in the crudest forms of propaganda, to write fiction in the first place if the primary goal was not to produce a work that succeeds most immediately as art.So many questions are begged in this short passage that it is difficult to know where to begin. Let me hand the mike over to Maitzen. She would probably observe that Green has plopped onto essentialism or teleology as if it were an old sofa. That is, he holds “a set notion of what makes good fiction in general”—namely, it must be art (whatever that means), not propaganda or a teaching tool.

This difference between them is illusory, however. For both of our critics advance value terms that are treated (consciously or not) as if they were objective. Each of them has (indeed, no critic could operate without) a vocabulary of favored terms that pretend to refer to real attributes of the things they deal with.

Maitzen, for example, seeks a “responsible literary criticism.” Such criticism would apply only those “measures that fit” the novel under discussion. To misjudge “the kind of novel” that a novel is, after all, is a “category mistake,” which may result in an “inappropriate reading.”

Green, by contrast, wants a criticism that is freed from “the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it.” Such criticism would recognize that every novel has its “primary requirement” (it must “engage us through ‘form and artistic strategies’ above all”) and only then its “ulterior purposes.”

Their mutual sweet tooth for pseudo-objective value shows that they agree more than they disagree. They agree there are end points and beginning points in criticism. They agree there is something called fiction. And that this is an evaluative rather than a denominational term is patent. For Green fiction is “distinguished from other modes of discourse”; for Maitzen it is so important that she devises the ultimate value test for it: it is the discursive mode for which there is no “good in general” (because as such it is good in general).

These are examples of what E. D. Hirsch Jr. once called “privileged criteria” in literary criticism. For the New Critics the criterion of privilege was irony or complexity. For Green it is artistry; for Maitzen something like textual uniqueness. This makes them, like the New Critics, practitioners of intrinsic criticism.

And in plain fact, both of them openly reject extrinsic criteria. For Maitzen there are no “particular, preconceived standard[s] of excellence”; for Green there are no direct statements about social life or “philosophical speculation[s]” in fiction that would enable it to be evaluated according to external standards such as, say, accuracy, truth, or worth-sayingness.

But the criteria are privileged because they are arbitrary. Irony or artistry or uniqueness are no more necessary to English-language novels than the convention that white gets the first move is to the game of chess. And this is why neither Maitzen nor Green is able to unmuddle the problem of literary evaluation. Where they explicitly offer evaluations (This succeeds as art! That fulfills its potential!) they say nothing very significant; where they are least aware of writing evaluatively they endorse objective values which are not the exclusive properties of literary texts, not even the ones they are discussing.

All that remains is extrinsic criticism—that is, evaluation that decides whether a novel is good or bad on the grounds of its external relationships, whether (as in Plato) it is good for the state or (as in Maitzen and Green) it is bad for the institutional practice of literary criticism.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Mirror for Witches

Everyone who reads novels as if they were his morning prayers has longtime favorites that he wants to press on his friends. I myself have too many to list here, but of all my favorites perhaps the one who most deserves to be rediscovered is Esther Forbes. Although she is remembered (if at all) for her 1943 Newbery Medal-winning Johnny Tremain, or maybe for winning the Pulitzer Prize in history the year before with Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Forbes is at her best in her second novel, A Mirror for Witches (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), which is celebrating the eightieth anniversary of its publication this year. It is the best book ever written on the witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century. That American schoolchildren learn about the period instead from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, that dreary piece of agit-prop, is a scandal.

Forbes was born on June 28, 1891, in Westborough, Massachusetts. The youngest of five children, she was a direct descendant of Samuel Adams. She was named, though, after a more obscure ancestor—a distant aunt who died, an accused witch, in the Cambridge jail. She seems to have inherited her historical and literary talents from her mother Harriette Merrifield Forbes, a local historian who wrote Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them (1927).

She was a late-starter. Graduating from junior college at twenty-one, she finally went on to the University of Wisconsin after taking four years off, but the First World War intervened, and she left Madison in 1918 without graduating. Two years later she took a job as an editor for Houghton Mifflin in Boston. Her most significant editorial accomplishment was her discovery of Rafael Sabatini, an Italian-born English historical novelist who wrote The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, and Captain Blood.

Her association with Sabatini sparked Forbes’s interest in the historical novel. In 1926, she finished O Genteel Lady!, a novel set in the literary and publishing milieu of Whittier, Emerson, and Longfellow. Two years later came A Mirror for Witches.

The relatively short 210-page novel is what E. L. Doctorow later called a “false document.” It pretends to be an authentic seventeenth-century chronicle of a witch’s life, composed by a Puritan divine only a few years after events, derived from contemporary accounts (“old wives’ tales, court records, and the diaries of certain men, from the sworn affidavits and depositions of others, from the demonologies of Mr. Cotton Mather”), exhibiting the assumptions and convictions, the characteristic turn of phrase and mind, of seventeenth-century Puritans.

The existence of witches, for example, is taken for granted. They are discussed in the idiom of theology, not science: “[W]ithout these awful presences,” the chronicler asks, “who may be sure of God?” And the remarkable thing about the novel is that Forbes never lets the mask drop; she never satisfies the modern curiosity whether the girl in question is a witch. She never even lets on that there is any other system of assumptions and convictions within which the question might be decided—the Puritans’ world is the only world to which she will admit her reader.

Many years later Forbes confided that an interest in “morbid psychology” had pushed her to write the novel. If true, though, the interest does not intrude itself. Perhaps she wanted to offer a rational explanation for one of the most surprising facts in the novel—the fact that Doll Bilby, the girl who is accused, believes herself to be a witch. She confesses to her minister that she is, and when called upon in court to recite the Lord’s Prayer she performswithout chance or mishap till she came to the last sentence, which begins, “Lead us not into temptation.” She got no further. . . . Then quickly she began and said, to the horror and consternation of all, “Ever for, glory the and, power the, kingdom the, is thine for, evil from us deliver, but temptation into not us lead—Amen.” She did not know what she had done. She looked about with assurance. . . . So was she utterly undone,because witches (it was held) recited the Lord’s Prayer backwards as an incantation.

When she is writing as a novelist, and not as a latter-day critic of her own work, Forbes isn’t worried about coming up with rational explanations. The Puritan chronicler explains that he is writing so that “we may know with a nicety what this woman was and how she lived, from whence she came, how she grew to witchcraft, how she felt, thought, and at the last how she died.”

Forbes’s purposes go deeper than her narrator’s. She also wants to know how different people respond to an accusation of witchcraft against one of their own; she wants to know how an entire community is afflicted. Men and women sort themselves, in her pages, into the differing attitudes of gleefulness, terror, erotic gain, conformism, self-righteousness, and loss of faith. The novel is exactly what Forbes calls it: a mirror in which various kinds of human beings are arrested in a true image of themselves.

A Mirror for Witches is still in print in an Academy Chicago paperback edition.

Update: After posting this, I found that Ben Kipela had put up, just seven weeks ago (while I was still living without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike), a wonderful little essay on Forbes's novel. His interest in it was aroused by Janet Lewis’s. Kipela points out that Lewis wrote on the book in David Madden’s Rediscoveries (1971), a collection of essays on neglected masterpieces.

He says in much better words what I was trying to say: “By recreating the form, atmosphere, and tone of a seventeenth-century chapbook, in which sinister events are presented as though they are literally true, the 20th-century reader is brought up short, startled with the trueness of other conceptions of life and the world.” Read the whole thing, as they say.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama and academic change

K. C. Johnson, the Brooklyn College historian whose Durham-in-Wonderland blog did so much to bring about justice in the “Duke rape case,” is hopeful that the election of Barack Obama might bring about change in academe.

Although he is a self-identified Democrat, Johnson writes that “only the most closed-minded ideologue“—most English professors, in other words—“would deny that conservatives have dominated the recent battle of ideas in higher education.”

He names several of the problems facing American universities, especially in the humanities, which have been observed by conservatives: “groupthink” (that is, the tendency to elevate consensus over the rigorous individual testing of conclusions, as if scholarship were a popular election), “the alarming decline in intellectual pluralism on today's college campuses” (or what more appropriately should be called, what I have called elsewhere, the transformation of American universities into “institutions of one-party rule”), the usurpation of merit by “diversity” in academic decisions.

Johnson does not touch upon the underlying problem, however. Namely: the loss of the university principle altogether. The current principle animating university life in America is the social principle. The contemporary university is a little society, a self-contained and self-governing body of people living together, where one behaves oneself in accord with common rules so as not to disturb or offend any other residents of the community.

Hence collegiality, an irrelevant value in scholarship, becomes a minimum standard for participation in academic society. Here is an example of what I mean. Norman Finkelstein, a man whose work I loathe, was denied tenure by DePaul University. Not, however, because his work was incompetent, derivative, or false. No, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure worried that “some might interpret parts of his scholarship as ‘deliberately hurtful’ as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions.”

Those who have built their entire lives on “accepted assumptions” will be hurt by having them criticized and challenged. And, yes, any scholar worth hiring (and promoting) will set out “deliberately” to criticize and challenge the assumptions in his field. That used to be what scholarship meant—at a bare minimum. So, yes, I suppose that Finkelstein can be described as “deliberately hurtful.” DePaul has elevated the protection of some people’s feelings over the pursuit of truth.

Where the social principle animates the university, collegiality and the concern for other people’s feelings will be minimum standards. The highest standard, then, will be sophistication. As Gerald Graff wrote in Beyond the Culture Wars (1992), brushing aside the very sort of conservative criticisms that Johnson now recognizes, “[T]he professionalized academy above all values sophistication, a fact that limits the influence of simple doctrinaire arguments”—or valid arguments, for that matter.

Sophistication is a social attainment. It is a class marker. You know the correct names, you use the correct pronunciation, you quote the correct books. You are not guileless and direct, but subtle and (if possible) ironic. Sophistication is the sworn enemy of truth, because truth can be rude and boisterous and may speak with an accent.

Until the old idea of the university as a common pursuit of truth is able to conquer the desire for sophistication and social acceptance, the university will continue to be dominated by groupthink, one-party rule, and “diversity.” And Obama’s election, I am afraid, may indicate anything but a longing for academic change.

Being left—and being left alone

Patrick Kurp, who is rapidly becoming my favorite literary blogger, has a quietly devastating post up at Anecdotal Evidence this morning, arguing that “the most precious right, though not formally articulated in the Bill of Rights, is the right to be left alone.”

Kurp quotes the late Michael Crichton in landing his hardest cross: those who “want to tell other people how to behave” harbor a “deep and secret impulse to live in a totalitarian state.”

Part of me always believed that, I guess, and shied from the conclusion. But Kurp and Crichton are right, aren’t they? What else, after all, is the impulse to correct other people’s behavior (and, especially, their speech) than an effort to impose uniformity of opinion—by social shame, if possible; by main force, if necessary.

The allure of a totalitarian regime is that it relieves me of the responsibility of individual judgment. I know in advance what to think. I am supplied with a formal apparatus for correcting my own opinions—and those of others. As Kingsley Amis put it, I get the satisfaction of “swimming with and against the stream at the same time, of being both rebel and conformist, of joining in the massed choir of half a million voices crying in the wilderness.”

Of course, Amis made it clear that this is the “wonderful and unique and paradoxical satisfaction which the Left offers. . . .” The totalitarianism of contemporary opinion is found mainly on the self-congratulatory “secular, progressive, feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist left.” For the Left has solved the problem that all totalitarian regimes face: namely, how to make uniformity of opinion attractive. The solution? To create an idealized image of the best people, and how they behave; and to offer surcease from being left alone. No one ever need be lonely if he can see himself, if only in imagination, as standing with the best people.

Forty years ago today

Well, yesterday. The rise and fall of literary reputations, about which I wrote below, provoked my wonder. What books were being praised exactly forty years ago?

In the New York Times Book Review of November 10, 1968, the following were listed as New and Recommended under fiction:

• Joyce Carol Oates, Expensive People.
• Saul Bellow, Mosby’s Memoirs.
• William Humphrey, A Time and a Place (”Two collections of excellent short stories,” the editors wrote in grouping the last two together).
• Millen Brand, Savage Sleep (“The story of the evolution of a psychiatrist, as he probes deeply into the causes of mental disorders”).
• Jerzy Kosinski, Steps. Now here is a reputation that has collapsed!

Otherwise it was a pretty measly Sunday for fiction. Richard M. Elman heartily disliked Richard Kim’s second novel The Innocent, Norma Rosen wondered whether François Sagan were “spoofing” François Sagan, Alan Lelchuk doubted that there was “finally a message from this literary put-on” that was Gerald Jay Goldberg’s first novel, and Robert Crichton concluded that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Ragazzi, a novel about the street urchins of Rome that caused controversy when it was first published in Italy, has “not very much” meaning or value “for Americans today.”

Perhaps significantly, the non-fiction recommendations from the Book Review’s editors stand up much better forty years on:

• André Malraux, Anti-Memoirs.
The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. An indispensable four-volume set.
• Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. Reprinted in 1990, this book achieved literary immortality, not only because it remains the definitive account of the Terror, but because it is a model of historical prose.
• John Berryman, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. The firstsecond volume of the Dream Songs.

Is it the case that fiction is just harder to judge at the time than non-fiction?

Update: Dave Lull has corrected me. 77 Dream Songs (1964) was the first volume in Berryman’s sequence. I ought to have checked rather than relying upon memory.

Update, II: A friend writes privately: “How awful to think the Oates plague has festered for so long.” Couldn’t’ve said it better.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Watch for falling reputations!

“In retrospect,” Frederick Crews wrote forty years ago in the Partisan Review, “it is easy to see that literary value in any given age has been glimpsed through a haze of ideology. . . .”

Rod Liddle’s retrospective on him yesterday in the Sunday Times suggests that John Updike is the latest overpraised American novelist for whom the haze has been cleared away. Liddle sets out to honor Couples (1968), which was, he says, “the first mainstream upmarket novel that really did sex. . . . Then, after Couples, the deluge. . . .”

Liddle’s historical proposition is interesting, though debatable (Mary McCarthy may have a better claim, having preceded Updike by five years with The Group.) His case for the novel’s literary merit is even more of an invitation to a quarrel (“It is an astonishing and beautiful book, perhaps Updike’s best”).

What really got me thinking, though, was Liddle’s opening question: “Has the reputation of any novelist fallen quite so far and so quickly as that of John Updike?” Well, he is not alone in having outlived his reputation, that’s for sure. James Gould Cozzens won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Guard of Honor, but the reaction of “upmarket” critics eighteen years later to By Love Possessed destroyed his literary reputation. His last book, published the same year as Couples, was widely scorned. Ironically, the harshest and most effective critic was Updike, although many of his conclusions (“Cozzens has purposely evolved a prose unique in mannered ugliness”) would come in time to apply with equal validity to the critic.

When he died ten years later Cozzens was almost completely forgotten. The New York Times did not notice his death for three months. And few now read him, even though Robert Nisbet nominated Guard of Honor, along with Lolita, for immortality (both books express “something distinctive and important about our age”).

[Autobiographical note: Cozzens’s Just and the Unjust (1942) was one of the first involved and difficult novels that I ever read. In the sixth grade, wanting to be a lawyer when I grew up, I sent off a letter to the Harvard Law School—asking for what, I can’t remember or imagine. In reply, I received a bibliography of books about the law. Included was The Just and the Unjust. I found a copy in the used bookstore next to the Golden State Theatre in downtown Riverside—a first edition, still in my library—and read it from cover to cover, all 434 pages. Whether Cozzens is to be credited or blamed for the fact that I became a literary scholar rather than a lawyer is something I’m not prepared to say.]

A good guessing game for literary bloggers would be to identify the writers whose reputations will collapse in the next forty years. My money is on Don DeLillo, although Richard Powers and Michael Chabon are close seconds.

No charter for social action

When you come right down to it, literary interpretation (whatever else it is) is an effort to preserve a text from being used as a charter for social action.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The self-evidence principle

If something seems self-evident to me—so obvious that it needs no further explanation—then I am living comfortably in the precincts of my ideology, and do not wish to be disturbed.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

On not writing about politics

It is tempting to write about politics: that is, to moralize about the outcome of popular elections. If you are a blogger you get more hits, more comments. And you have the pleasure of belonging to a social affair with leaders and causes and allies and meetings and decorations and cheers, and even a few enemies—um, opponents—“to give,” as Arnold says, “the happy sense of difficulty overcome.” To march in a parade is so much fun! To wander off by yourself is such a drag. (Dang, what is wrong with you?)

When my son asks me why it is wrong to cheat, especially when you don’t cheat and the other guy does and doesn’t get caught, I tell him that the other guy does get caught—by God. “Political talk,” Michael Oakeshott says, “is inevitably concerned with local and transitory situations,” and one wishes instead to be concerned with the ultimate and eternal. I am not at all sure that what I tell my son is true. The boy who does not cheat is placing himself at a competitive disadvantage. But perhaps he should act as if it makes a difference to eternity. Perhaps then it will. Perhaps a few of us should find something else to talk about besides the local and transitory.

Update: Patrick Kurp traces a remarkably similar attitude in Thoreau, pointing out the astonishing fact that “In [his journal’s] more than 2 million words, he never mentions Lincoln by name.” How many contemporary American writers have failed to mention Bush?

Update, II: “Read not the Times. Read the eternities.”—Thoreau, “Life Without Principles” (1863).

Isaac’s Torah

Angel Wagenstein, Isaac’s Torah, trans. Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova (New York: Handsel Books, 2008). 300 pp. $23.95.

The conventional wisdom that Jewish humor is self-mockery has caused no end of mischief. Comics like Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld have turned derision of rabbis and anxiety over circumcision into memorable skits—as if Jews secretly agreed with the creepiest antisemites, but were simply better at playing slurs for laughs. The idea, like so much else that is damaging to modern culture, can be traced back to Freud, and is founded upon the unproven assumption that humor is really a form of
hostility. According to the vulgar commonplace, joke-telling is a verbal means by which the teller distances himself from the butt of the joke.

Something like the opposite
is the case in Isaac’s Torah. The first novel by Bulgarian screenwriter Angel Wagenstein, originally published in Sofia in 2000 when he was 78, the book celebrates the “Golden Tradition” of Eastern European Jewry by collecting Jewish jokes and inventing occasions to retell them. My favorite comes early:

       Two Jews from two towns are arguing over whose rabbi is more capable of performing miracles.
       “Ours, of course, and I will prove it to you,” says the first one. “Last Shabbos our rabbi was going to synagogue when suddenly rain came pouring down from the sky. Not that the rabbi didn’t have an umbrella, but on Shabbos any kind of work is forbidden—so how can he open it? He looked up to the sky, God immediately understood, and there was a miracle, you won’t believe it: on the left side—rain, on the right side—rain, and in the middle—a dry corridor all the way down to the synagogue. What do you say to that?”
       “What I say, of course, is listen to this! Last Shabbos, our rabbi was coming home after prayer and what did he see? Lying on the road was a hundred-dollar bill! Well, how could he take it, when it’s a sin to touch money? He looked up at the sky, God immediately understood him, and there was a miracle: on the left side—Shabbos, on the right side—Shabbos, and in the middle, you won’t believe it—Thursday!”
Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, the hero of Wagenstein’s two-decade picaresque, tells jokes to reattach himself to a lost world. The book’s humor is not an expression of hostility, but of gentle and thwarted affection.

Like a little boy collecting “treasure” on a playground, a novelist succeeds in recreating a world by picking up and arranging the smallest details of that world. Wagenstein is perhaps the first Jewish novelist to understand that jokes were as indispensable to Eastern European Jewry as kosher butchers, marriage canopies, and the muddy streets of shtetlakh. The jokes vindicate the tenderness that most Jews now experience when they reflect upon the lost world. Let’s be honest. Much fiction that looks backward upon Jewish life in Eastern Europe is fatally infected with nostalgia and cheerlessness. The Holocaust throws its shadow over an entire literature.

Wagenstein undertakes the more difficult thing—writing fond comedy that includes the Holocaust. Unlike Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Vita è bella, the novel does not misrepresent the reality of the Konzentrationlagers, does not underplay the real danger and real violence and real death, does not reduce the mass of Jews caught in Hitler’s net to a faceless and nameless background, in order to get a few cheap laughs. For Isaac Blumenfeld, comedy is first of all an act of resistance, even defiance, in the service of survival.

When he is first transported to a labor camp in the Brandenburg forest, for example, Isaac is lined up with the other prisoners and addressed by the commandant (“I don’t know from racial theories,” Isaac says when he first glimpses the Nazi, “but if it’s true about the descendants of Siegfried being manly blue-eyed, blond, six-foot-six knights, then the grandmother of this nibelung had had something to do with a Hungarian Gypsy, or God forbid, with the corner grocer, Aaron Rabinovitch”).

The commandant asks the newly arrived prisoners, “Is there someone who speaks good German? Who doesn’t stutter it like a Galician Jew. . . ?” Isaac is offended. The commandant “was speaking in such a Saxonian dialect that his German was barely comprehensible,” and yet he accuses the Jews, whose Yiddish is “first cousin of the German,” of stuttering it! Isaac steps forward—“a linguistic step, so to speak, in defense of the native tongue.”

The commandant asks his name. “I almost said ‘Private Isaac Blumenfeld,’ but something grabbed at the coattails of my soul and I swallowed the answer, changing it in flight to ‘Heinrich Bjegalski, Herr Oberlieutenant!’ ” The commandant eyes him skeptically. “And you studied German?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. Isaac answers in the affirmative.

“And who, according to you, is the author of Faust?”

“Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Herr Oberlieutenant. 1749–1832.”

I have quoted this passage at length, not only to demonstrate how Wagenstein introduces comedy into the Holocaust without descending to Benigni’s clowning, but also to show how the novel’s humor operates. Isaac bests the commandant at his own game. As Ruth R. Wisse says of a similar scene in a different Holocaust novel, he proves just what the Germans most feared: that he can “infiltrate their culture so successfully he will usurp their very identity.” In doing so, however, Isaac binds himself more tightly to the Jews—makes himself more defiantly one of them—by resorting to the multilingual facility and successful acquisition of vernacular culture that their status as a despised minority in Europe had forced upon them.

The novel’s title serves a dual function—structural and thematic. Like Moses’s, Isaac’s Torah is divided into five books. Wagenstein does not belabor the parallel, but it does its job.

In the First Book, Isaac introduces himself as a tailor’s son in Kolodetz, a fictional Galician shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. Like someone else I could mention, he is taken out of his native land; he is conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army toward the end of World War I. The Second Book spans the interwar years (“I went to war as an Austro-Hungarian, and came home a Pole”), concluding with the annexation of “feudal-aristocratic Poland” to the “workers-and-peasants’ fatherland, the great Soviet Union” three weeks after the outbreak of World War II.

The Third Book chronicles Isaac’s time as a Soviet citizen, dragging himself from Kolodetz to Lvov, till June 1941 when the German Nazis occupy the area. His Fourth Book is passed in the Lagers. He is transferred from the unnamed labor camp in the Brandenburg forest to Flossenbürg, where he is liberated in April 1945 by soldiers of the U.S. Army 97th Infantry Division.

The Fifth and final book is Isaac’s Deuteronomy, the repetition of the Torah. Having survived the Nazi concentration camps, Isaac is put on trial by the Soviets after the war, found guilty of concealing his Soviet origin (he insists that he was born in Austria-Hungary, even though Kolodetz by then belongs to the Soviet Union), and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labor camp, “a traitor to the Soviet motherland and simultaneously a Nazi war criminal.” Once more from the top! he cries.

The title of Isaac’s Torah also serves a thematic purpose. As Primo Levi recounted in Se questo è un uomo, the Nazis’ prisoners told one another their stories, and even when they were forgotten they had to be told, “hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity.” They were “simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves,” Levi concluded, “stories of a new Bible?”

Holocaust literature is a new Torah. It is, in other words, the account of an event that is once and for all—an event as final as the revelation at Sinai. Because it has more than historical value, Holocaust literature aims not simply to preserve the Holocaust in memory, but to testify to its sheer magnitude—to make it unforgettable, terrifying, sublime. The aim is not knowledge alone, but also the power to excite ideas of fear and pain and danger, to produce the strongest emotions which the mind is capable of feeling.

Wagenstein’s purpose is not to record the horrors. Thus, in a remarkable passage that seems at first to owe more to Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein than to Primo Levi, he writes:And now, please, save me from memory, heavy as a hundred-ton cast-iron mold, and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! Many people before me have done it, and truly much better, too, than I would do it. The times of the first shattering discoveries have passed. . . . It became a profession to put systematically in drawers the self-admitted guilt of the repentant and the ambiguous blather of unrepentant butchers; filed away and numbered in protocols and shorthand records was the subdued weeping of the survivors, and from it, from this crying, some people erected an impressive and invisible pantheon of the Holocaust, while others built for themselves also impressive, but quite real, villas with swimming pools and two satellite dishes. Words like ‘Zyklon-B,’ ‘gas chamber,’ or ‘Final Solution’ gradually lost their original demonic unreality and became a daily ingredient of indifferent newspaper articles dedicated to commemorations and the like.The latter-day writer faces the same problem as a modern student of the Bible. How do you defamiliarize something that has become so familiar, but was originally strange beyond description? How do you restore the smoke ascending as the smoke of a furnace and the great quaking?

Wagenstein’s strategy is to place the Holocaust within the larger context of the Jewish comedy, making it merely the fourth book—the Numbers—of the Jews’ new Torah. Comedy begins in turmoil and ends in peace. Moses’s Torah ends just before the Israelites enter the promised land. Isaac’s Torah ends with him living in Vienna, “already more or less an old man,” flying away in memory to the future, “may it be good for everyone, amen.”

Richard Marcus reviews the novel here. Philip Witte reviews it here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Crichton dies at 66

Michael Crichton has died of cancer at the age of sixty-six.

A new style of political discourse

Barack Obama is our President-elect. Since I voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin, I am naturally disappointed. But speaking as a man of the Right, I want to add my voice to that of others on the Right who are saying the same: President Obama will be my president too. And on one score I hope the President-elect is right. Last night, in his victory speech, Obama promised that “change has come to America.” God willing, he can succeed where President Bush failed: namely, to “change the tone in Washington, D.C.

In a wise and beautiful column in the Washington Post this morning, Michael Gerson points out that an election victory is not merely a triumph for the majority; it is also “a transfer of legitimacy that binds the minority as well.” For the past sixteen years, the Right and Left in this country have stumbled over one another in a race to undermine the legitimacy of democratically-elected presidents. As Gerson puts it:

In the past few decades, the magic of legitimacy has seemed to fade. Opponents of President Bill Clinton turned their disagreements (and Clinton's human failures) into an assault on his power. Some turned to insane conspiracy theories, including accusations of politically motivated murder. After President Bush’s reelection, elements of the left began their own attack on his legitimacy, talking of impeachment while repeating lunatic theories about deception and criminality.The assault on legitimacy has done great damage to America. And I hope—I profoundly hope—that we on the Right can be loyal opponents to President Obama without resorting to conspiracy theories or what I described below as “foam-flecked hyperbole.”

The initial reaction on literary blogs to Obama’s victory has not been entirely encouraging. Compare the always generous Mark Sarvas (stunned with happiness at Obama’s victory, he says quietly, “Look at what this amazing country did”) to the always maledicent Michael Bérubé (who is wowed by Obama’s win, but not so much by the victories of Senators Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith or by California’s approval of a gay-marriage ban, sneeringboggling: “Dang, what is wrong with you people?”).

You can’t have it both ways. Either you celebrate an electoral victory, which means that you respect the legitimacy of the winner, or you don’t. Here is hoping that the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s decisive victory introduces a new style of political discourse on the Right.

Update: In the comments section, Michael Bérubé takes me to task for failing to mention the reelection of Sen. Ted Stevens (R–AK). “Surely there is something wrong with electing a convicted felon, no?” he says. “I mean, I thought conservatives believed in law and order and stuff.” Ha ha. If I didn’t mention Stevens it follows that, like most conservatives, I must be some sort of hypocrite.

Upon reflection, though, I am struck by Bérubé’s assumption that there is something “wrong” about Stevens’s reelection. “Wrong” in what sense? Politically speaking, Stevens is, at last count, winning reelection. Bérubé and I may lament the outcome, but it gives Stevens a certain legitimacy. (Senate rules apparently do not disqualify him from serving, although majority leader Harry Reid (D–NV) has warned that he faces expulsion.)

Clearly, then, Bérubé means that Stevens’s reelection is immoral. Moralizing about popular outcomes is precisely what has landed us in this discursive mess. Stevens’s conduct is wrong, but his election is legitimate. To speak any other way is to commit an ignoratio elenchi.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The incredible unvanishing book

At the Inside Higher Ed site, Christopher Conway of the University of Texas at Arlington laments “The Incredible Vanishing Book.”

Conway offers two pieces of evidence for his claim that “[p]aper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records”: the ebook and the decline of student reading.

To start with the first, Amazon’s wireless reading device known as the Kindle is not the only example of ebook technology that is contributing to the disappearance of the book. The availability of public-domain texts, via Project Gutenberg or the Online Library of Liberty, are shrinking the demand and need for reprint editions. And the rise of pay-per-chapter textbooks plus the increasing ease with which professors can “put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense” are imperiling the existence of classroom texts.

More on target—for the disappearance of the monstrosity known as the textbook would be a welcome development—is Conway’s claim, backed by personal experience, that college students just “are not consumers of books” and “are reading less paper than before.”

As an English professor myself, I can attest to the fact that student reading habits have changed. Although I routinely append a bibliography of secondary sources to my course syllabuses, I can count on one hand the number of students who, in eighteen years, have cited any of them in their papers.

Upon closer examination, though, it is not clear exactly what Conway is saying. As an example of what he means, he points to one of his students, “a talented and curious young man who arrives to class with an ipod plugged into his ears . . . a graduating senior who had never read a novel before my class.”

But surely there is a difference between someone who is not a “consumer of books” and someone who does not read novels—even if he reads nothing else besides. More and more, on Conway’s own evidence, you can read book-length texts in electronic form without buying them in octavo volumes bound between hard covers.

Now that I think of it, there is also a difference between classroom and after-school reading. In eighteen years on the job, I have assigned textbooks or anthologies only when teaching the history and theory of literary criticism. And then only because the texts in that class are such that no one would want to own them. I tell my students that, whatever else that may or may not get from my class, I want to give them the chance to acquire the beginnings of a library. No one keeps textbooks or those large bulky $50 anthologies in his library.

Acquiring a library, though—in Conway’s phrase, being a lifelong “consumer of books”—has always been a minority pursuit. Texts that are used, at work if not in the classroom, have always been treated as disposable. And the most important thing about them has always been their convenience, their susceptibility to being used.

As a literary scholar, I applaud the coming of ebooks, because they are far more searchable than “paper-and-binding” books. And therefore they are easier to use—for the purposes I need them for.

And as I have gotten older, the books from my younger years, when thermal or so-called “perfect” binding was widespread, are starting to fall apart. I face the choice, with each one, whether to replace it with a sewn hardback or to chuck it from my collection.

These, it strikes me, are the two categories into which books will fall for most readers: those which are needed for practical activities and those which are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction. Even college students have books that fall into the second category, even if they are Bibles. (Most of my students, who are Evangelical Protestants, instinctively grasp the importance of high-quality bookbinding when it comes to the personal Bible they choose for themselves, because they want it to last for many years.)

The Kindle or wireless reading device will be welcomed by most “consumers of books,” even those who read a lot of books, because they will reduce the physical size of home libraries. But they will not entirely replace “paper-and-binding” books, because not all books are meant only to be used.

Update: My original post was in error on the provenance of Professor Conway’s fine essay. I have corrected the first line to reflect where it was actually posted. Apologies for not more carefully distinguishing print from online publication—exactly the subject of Conway’s essay!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bush’s cultural legacy

The Guardian asked twelve leftish American writers and artists what the “cultural legacy of George W. Bush” would be.

Joyce Carol Oates scoffed at the very idea. “The ‘cultural legacy of George W. Bush’ would seem to be the punchline of a cruel joke,” she blubbered, “if there could be anything remotely funny about the Bush administration.” The other responses were just as predictable:

• “These past eight years have been about the worst that I can imagine” (Paul Auster).
• “Although all politicians tell lies, Bush has gone right round the bend as a liar. . .” (Gore Vidal).
• “[A]n administration of criminality, complicity and incompetence. . .” (Edward Albee).
• “I think the Bush administration did its best to create a vast wasteland” (Alex Gibney).
• “[T]here’s something about the brute force of this administration, and the fetishisation of brute force by this administration, which literally stands in opposition to civilisation and the arts” (Naomi Wolf).
• “Culture’s a dirty word to these people, like ‘liberal’ or ‘literate’ ” (Daniel Libeskind).

Three of them repeated, in almost the exact same words, the rumor, demonstrably untrue but apparently immune to correction, that President Bush is “a man who’s proud not to read books.”

Did it occur to none of these cultural authorities that their common style of foam-flecked hyperbole and reckless disregard for proportion and truth might just be that cultural legacy?

Update: Literary Saloon joins in, proud not to distinguish itself from the common style. “[I]t’s easy to agree with the whole lot of [anti-Bush writers in the Guardian],” because, after all, “they’re all pretty much agreed,” and apparently, then, they exempt you from having a single independent thought.

Introducing Le Clézio

Two first-rate articles on Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which will enable you to answer cocktail-party questions about him with a knowing air. In a tartly opinionated piece, Stephen Schwartz relates the selection of Le Clézio to last year’s crowning of Doris Lessing, another writer whose best work belongs to an earlier age. Richard B. Woodward supplies an overview of Le Clézio’s entire career, a neat primer that leaves you satisfied to learn about the French novelist through these two articles.