Friday, August 28, 2009

From eternity to here

All this week, the Amateur Reader has been examining historical mysteries. Yesterday he made me a lifelong fan by cursing The Lemur by John Banville—one of the most overrated writers, especially in his own mind—as a “completely hollow novel.” Not that I was intending on reading it anyway.

Patrick Kurp advances the name of Joseph Mitchell for inclusion in the Library of America, since (along with A. J. Liebling) he “covered the waterfront and the rest of New York like nobody else.” And since Liebling has now been “certified as Literature by inclusion in the Library of America.”

To celebrate Forgotten Book Friday, Tim Davis wholeheartedly recommends Javier Sierra’s Secret Supper, which is about a fifteenth-century plot to subvert the Church of Rome.

Nige describes Keats and Chekhov as Menschen. Does the German word have the same connotation as the Yiddish mentshn? At all events, Nige says that “Chekhov is the only great writer who can unequivocally be called a good man.” What about James, who became a British subject to demonstrate solidarity with the United Kingdom during the Great War?

Kate Sutherland reports from Sweden, where she is “dashing about looking for English translations of Swedish crime writers whose books are difficult to come by in North America.”

In the Nation, James Longenbach praises Wallace Stevens’s “music of austerity,” and shows how it influenced later American poets.

Miriam Burstein gets deliciously lost in what she calls the “loops” of Zachary Mason’s novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which pretends to be a collection of fragments by the Homerids (the poetic descendants of Homer, who survived until the fourth century BCE), plus a “faux-scholarly” introduction to the false anthology. She makes it sound like a lot of fun.

Joseph Epstein decides that the “truth quotient” of Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism is “damnably high,” even after allowing for his “ripping tirades” and “penchant for amusing over-statement.”

A day after I reviewed it, Yvonne Zipp locates That Old Cape Magic in the Russo canon, describing Jack Griffin as a “less-accident-prone version of Hank Deveraux Jr.” (Straight Man) and concluding that Russo’s “wry compassion” ought to be enough to “carry fans past some of Griffin’s navel-gazing.”

Colleen Mondor seeks out Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Hester Among the Ruins, which blew her mind. The book’s idea, she explains, is “to look at the German generation who grew up in the shadow of WWII—knowing generally what happened, but not wanting to ask their families specifically what they did.” The result is “raw and sexy,” she concludes.

The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association has announced the nominees for its 2009 awards. In the fiction category the contenders are: Ron Carlson’s Signal, Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, and T. C. Boyle’s Women.

Stephen Romei asks whether universities should provide a moral education. Are you kidding? Me? My colleagues?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Foe of persistent obscurity

Today is the one hundred and seventeenth birthday of the American idealist philosopher Brand Blanshard, author of the slim but indispensable On Philosophical Style (1954). His thesis in this seventy-page essay (originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Manchester) is that, although philosophy is a specialized intellectual activity, it examines questions which are of vital concern to everyone, and ought therefore to be written in language exacting enough for professional philosophers and yet accessible to the educated laity. When a man’s thought is incomprehensible, Blanshard held, there is something deeply wrong with it—or with the man.

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, offers a witty apothegm from the book: “Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings.”

He publishes the sentence under the title What Blanshard might have said to Derrida.

Patrick Kurp also wrote about Blanshard’s On Philosophicl Style early in his blogging career.

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). 261 pp. $25.95.

His seventh novel is Richard Russo’s first to come in at nowhere near four hundred pages. That Old Cape Magic is a departure in other respects too. It is not set in a “rust belt” town like Empire Falls or the North Bath of Nobody’s Fool where citizens no longer look forward to a secure future; it is set in the resort precincts of Cape Cod and coastal Maine. Although it contains Russo’s most stinging ridicule of professors since Straight Man, it is not an academic satire. For the first time Russo draws upon his experience as a screenwriter, but That Old Cape Magic is not a Hollywood novel either. Nor is it, as John Podhoretz described Russo’s earlier novels in the Weekly Standard, “packed with incident and plot,” and after finishing the novel, you don’t “feel as though you have gotten to know scores of people”—although perhaps you may have learned the secret that eludes Rafael Yglesias in A Happy Marriage.

That Old Cape Magic is a marriage drama. A better title might have been Two Weddings and Two Funerals, since these are the events that the narrative is built around. Jack Griffin, a 57-year-old film professor, leaves Connecticut ahead of his wife for the wedding of a family friend, hoping to pick an appropriate spot to scatter the ashes of his father’s remains. The wedding is on Cape Cod, where his parents—English professors at a state university in “the Mid-fucking-west”—summered for “one glorious month” every year while he was growing up. On the drive from Indiana they would sing Johnny Mercer’s 1942 hit with the word Cape substituting for black:

That old black magic has me in its spell
That old black magic that you weave so well
Icy fingers up
And down my spine
The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine

The same old tingle that I feel
When that elevator starts its ride
Down and down I go, round and round I go
Like a leaf thats
Caught in the tide

I should stay away but what can I do
I hear your name, and Im aflame
Aflame with
Such a burning desire
That only your kiss can put out the fire

You are the lover that Ive waited for

The mate that fate had me created for
And every time your lips meet mine

Baby down and down I go,
All around I go
In a spin, loving the spin that Im in
Under that old black magic called love

That old Cape magic, however, failed to keep Griffin’s parents together. Multiple joyless and vengeful infidelities impelled them to divorce. His drive to the Cape stirs Griffin’s memories of them, and filling in the background gives Russo the chance to indulge some of his funniest material since Straight Man. Griffin’s parents are academic snobs: “Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward?” On the Cape, hoping to find a summer house, they studied the real-estate guide even more intently than the Modern Language Association job list. But they could never find a house that satisfied them, because they sorted each into one of only two categories: Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.

After the divorce, Griffin’s mother reinvented herself as a gender-studies specialist, publishing well-placed articles on Patricia Highsmith and “two or three other gay/lesbian novelists” and dropping innuendos about her own sexuality. When the university hired a “transgendered scholar from, of all places, Utah,” she was furious at being passed over and withdrew from the life of the English department.

At her retirement dinner, after suffering through the droning remarks of other retirees, his mother rose and said: “Unlike my colleagues . . . I’ll be brief and honest. I wish I could think of something nice to say about you people and this university, I really do. But the truth we dare not utter is that ours is a distinctly second-rate institution, as are the vast majority of our students, as are we.” She is not in the same league as Audrey Litvinoff, but as Griffin admits, his mother is “divisive and quarrelsome. A bitch, really.”

Although Griffin is reluctant to acknowledge the truth, his parents are the biggest problem in his marriage. He has tried hard to distance himself from them, becoming a screenwriter and living in L.A. before returning East to teach screenwriting, but his parents’ attitudes have drained into his life, leaving him (as his wife accuses) congenitally unhappy. He too sorts experience into two categories: Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.

Perhaps the most revealing incident occured while he and his wife were visiting her family in Sacramento. A younger sister stumped them at Twenty Questions. When begged to divulge her fictional identity, she announced herself as Princess Grace of “Morocco.” Everyone else laughed, but Griffin “shook his head in disbelief, got up from the table and left the room, as if her mistake had been intentional or malicious and such bizarre mistakes could be assigned a moral value.” This is his parents’ attitude exactly: moralistic intolerance toward cultural second-raters.

Griffin’s half-conscious snobbery even begins to spread toward his wife Joy (her name is an unashamed allusion to C. S. Lewis’s autobiography). When they moved to Connecticut, they bought a large house, “rambling, inconvenient, full of character, on three acres and surrounded on three sides by woods.” It is the house that Joy has always wanted. “A professor’s house,” as she had described it on their honeymoon—another allusion. Griffin feels none of Joy’s pride or sense of accomplishment in improving the house:

It wasn’t like he’d grown weary of their good life, their good marriage. That would be serious. Though he had to admit it, despite Joy’s best efforts, he sometimes thought of the house as hers, not theirs, almost as if they’d divorced and she’d gotten it in the settlement. It was hers for the simple reason that it made her happy. She had what she wanted. Was it possible that her contentment was the true cause of his funk? Her ability to still want what she wanted so long ago? This was a failing?Yes, it is. The inability to be content with his lot, to accept the abundance of what life has brought him without the burning desire for something more or something else, is the cause of his comfortable and well-appointed unhappiness. And not only his. The popular term for this self-involved hankering is midlife crisis, a subject I have discussed before. Griffin calls it his “middle-age meltdown.”

Joy splits with him, because his condescension toward the circumstances of his own life has worn her down. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to mend [your heart],” she says tells Griffin, “because God knows I’ve tried. I’m exhausted from trying.” A lesser novelist—Richard Ford, for example—would use the separation as an occasion to explore the nuances of a sensitive man’s dissatisfactions at endless length. Russo is the better novelist, though. The comic travesty of his daughter’s wedding at a resort hotel in coastal Maine leads Griffin, like C. S. Lewis at the end of Surprised by Joy, to realize that “the old stab, the old bittersweet,” was never as important as he once thought it: “It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer,” as Lewis says.

Griffin’s mother has since died, and he carries an urn with her ashes in the trunk of his rental car alongside his father’s. After the wedding he finds a beach at last where he can scatter them, and the ocean water mingles their ashes—in death again as they were in life. Griffin climbs back into his car and abandons that old Cape magic, settling for that old black magic instead.

That Old Cape Magic may be second-rate Russo, but second-rate Russo is better than most fiction taken seriously by critics these days.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Oakeshott’s conservatism

An excellent essay on Oakeshott by Kenneth Minogue defines the “conservative temperament” as less than a political program. Highly recommended for those who wish to understand the basis of conservative thought.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Remembering Truman Capote

(Note: Benjamin Stein of the German book blog Turmsegler asked me to write something about Truman Capote on the anniversary of his death. Although a German version will follow, the original below is cross-posted to Turmsegler.)

Today is the yortsayt of Truman Capote—the twentieth-fifth anniversary of his death from “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication,” as the Los Angeles County coroner dutifully reported—although yortsayt may not be the best word to use in connection with someone who once attacked “the Jewish Mafia in American letters” which “control[s] much of the literary scene” through “Jewish-dominated” publications that “make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention.”[1]

The provocation behind Capote’s rant is not immediately clear. Commentary, the most Jewish-dominated publication of them all, hardly withheld attention from In Cold Blood, devoting twenty-two hundred words to the book in its May 1966 issue. William Phillips, the reviewer, who also happened to edit the Partisan Review, another Jewish-dominated publication, even allowed that the book was “good in its own way,” although he went on to ask—“as in the old Jewish joke—whether In Cold Blood was good for literature.”[2] Maybe Capote could not take a Jewish joke. Or maybe, as Norman Podhoretz observed, he was too embarrassed to admit that Southern writers “were always praising each other in magazines they controlled, like the Kenyon Review and the Sewanee Review.”[3]

In Cold Blood is the book Capote is remembered for, which may be for the best. By 1966 his thin talent for fiction had given out. The four book-length volumes of fiction that preceded it—Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949), The Grass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)—were distinguished by style and really little else. The portrait of the maid in his first novel, released when he was just twenty-four, owes more to Miami Mouth in Ronald Firbank’s Prancing Nigger (1924), for example, than to anything in Capote’s experience of growing up in Monroeville, Alabama:

Tall, powerful, barefoot, graceful, soundless, Missouri Fever was like a supple black cat as she paraded serenely about the kitchen, the casual flow of her walk beautifully sensuous and haughty. She was slant-eyed, and darker than the charred stove; her crooked hair stood straight on end, as if she’d seen a ghost, and her lips were thick and purple. The length of her neck was something to ponder upon, for she was almost a freak, a human giraffe, and Joel recalled photos, which he’d scissored once from the pages of a National Geographic, of curious African ladies with countless silver chokers stretching their necks to improbable heights. Though she wore no silver bands, naturally, there was a sweat-stained polka dot bandanna, wrapped around the middle of her soaring neck. “Papadaddy and me’s countin on you for our [prayer] Service,” she said, after filling two coffee cups and mannishly straddling a chair at the table. “We got our own little place backa the garden, so you scoot over later on, and we’ll have us a real good ol time.”The style is bookish only in the sense of being derived entirely from books without much contact at all with a world outside. Yet Capote rarely alludes to other books and writers; his fiction does not enter into conversation with his literary predecessors; it simply mingles with them and dines from the same table. Early critics compared his writing to Faulkner’s, probably because both were Southern and self-taught. Faulkner himself, though, saw no similarity. “The few times I tried to read Truman Capote, I had to give up,” he said. “His literature makes me nervous.”

By the time Capote wrote In Cold Blood the mannered prose had become an afterthought. Consider, for instance, the way in which he negotiates the transition from the arrest of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to their return to the seat of Finney County, Kansas, to stand trial:Among Garden City’s animals are two gray tomcats who are always together—think, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinize the engine grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travelers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds—crows, chickens, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they are surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle. Having cruised Main Street, they invariably turn the corner at Main and Grant, then lope along toward Courthouse Square, another of their hunting grounds—and a highly promising one on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 6 [1960], for the area swarmed with Finney County vehicles that had brought to town part of the crowd populating the square.Aside from the risible implausibility of this passage, it raises the question of decorum or appropriateness. As Horace might have said—or at least his nineteenth-century translator—mass murder “disdains the vulgar vehicle of comic strains.”

I do realize that the flouting of decorum is among the signature achievements of literary modernism, but the use to which Capote puts it—the effect he is after—not only suggests what is morally questionable about the technique, but also reveals his larger purpose in In Cold Blood. The purpose is to distract attention in a confusion of close-up detail. In introducing the house that is the scene of the murders, for example, Capote writes:The house—for the most part designed by Mr. Clutter, who thereby proved himself a sensible and sedate, if not notably decorative, architect—had been built in 1948 for forty thousand dollars. (The resale value was now sixty thousand dollars.) Situated at the end of a long, lanelike driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elms, the handsome white house, standing on an ample lawn of groomed Bermuda grass, impressed [the town of] Holcomb; it was a place people pointed out. As for the interior, there were spongy displays of liver-colored carpet intermittently abolishing the glare of varnished, resounding floors; an immense modernistic living-room couch covered in nubby fabric interwoven with glittery strands of silver metal; a breakfast alcove featuring a banquette upholstered in blue-and-white plastic. This sort of furnishing was what Mr. and Mrs. Clutter liked, as did the majority of their acquaintances, whose houses, by and large, were similarly furnished.The effect is similar to that of a children’s TV-show set: everything is exaggerated and garishly colored (the magnification of detail imbues the objects with garishness even when their original colors were drab). And the condescension toward the tastes of the Clutters and “the majority of their acquaintances” is barely held in check. The victims of mass murder are represented in tones more appropriate to satire.

Capote reconstructs the Clutters’ last day alive, interweaving the narrative with a step-by-step account of the murderers’ progress toward Holcomb in a black 1949 Chevrolet, carefully recording Perry Smith’s vomiting in a gas-station toilet on their last stop two-and-a-half hours away, but stops short of the killing. Only after the fact—only after the Clutters have become corpses—does Capote carry on with the reconstruction of what happened. Two hundred and eighty five pages remain: eighty-three percent of In Cold Blood. The Clutters, whose taste was so common, disappear from view.

Although Capote glances at Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective Al Dewey, his overriding interest is in the killers—especially Perry Smith, the diminutive and probably homosexual convict who was, as William Phillips bluntly put it, “the more twisted of the two.” The crime writer J. J. Maloney is convinced that, during the course of his research on the book, Capote fell in love with Smith. What is obvious from the design and language of the book is his sympathy for Smith, which Capote intends the reader to share. Although he feels no remorse for the murder, saying that “nothing about it bothers me a bit,” Smith is represented as likable despite it all. Even the man to whom he confesses that he feels nothing whatever about murdering four people acknowledges, “Yes, I like you.” He is pathetically grateful for, as he says, “Somebody who cares about me a little bit.”

After listening to county attorney Logan Green’s final address to the jury, two reporters exchange words. An unnamed “young reporter from Oklahoma” says the summation was “rabble-rousing, brutal.” Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star scoffs:     “He was just telling the truth,” Parr said. “The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”
     “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”
     “What’s unfair?”
     “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”
     “Fat chance they gave [16-year-old] Nancy Clutter.”
     “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”
     Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”
     “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”
This exchange, which most likely never occurred—it is perhaps the only time that Capote does not provide the name of someone in the book—slyly redefines the meaning of the title. Those who seek justice for the murders of the Clutters are no less willing to kill in cold blood.

Capote’s purpose in In Cold Blood is to mitigate the evil of the Clutters’ killers. The only time the word is used is in a bitter reminiscence of his early life by Perry Smith:[M]y mother put me to stay in a Catholic orphanage. The one where the Black Widows were always at me. Hitting me. Because of wetting the bed. Which is one reason I have an aversion to nuns. And God. And religion. But later on I found there are people even more evil. Because, after a couple of months, they tossed me out of the orphanage, and she [his mother] put me some place worse. A children’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army. They hated me, too. For wetting the bed. And being half-Indian. There was this one nurse, she used to call me “nigger” and say there wasn’t any difference between niggers and Indians. Oh, Jesus, was she an Evil Bastard! Incarnate!Although it is often said that Capote’s lasting contribution to literature was his invention of the “non-fiction novel,” his true legacy is to make the use of the word evil as trashy as furniture covered in nubby fabric interwoven with glittery strands of silver metal. Thirty-seven years later, when Terry Eagleton sneered that since 9/11 the word evil has become an “invitation[] to shut down thought,” he was merely standing on Capote’s shoulders.[4] The chic collaboration with evil demands that it not be called by its proper name.

[1] Interview with Playboy (1968), in Truman Capote: Conversations, ed. M. Thomas Inge (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 158.

[2] William Phillips, “But Is It Good for Literature?” Commentary (May 1966): 77–80.

[3] Norman Podhoretz, Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 145.

[4] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 223.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The rich diversity of opinion from A to B

So the New York Times holds a symposium on the question of “Torture and Academic Freedom.” The question is begged, of course, by the very title of the symposium, but never mind.

Five experts were asked by the Times to comment on the case of law professor John C. Yoo, who while serving in the Bush Justice Department wrote (in the Times’ masterfully weasly words) the “memos that critics say were used to justify the torture of terrorism suspects.” Champions of protecting the United States from terror might say they were used to a different end, but never mind.

The experts were:

• Brian Leiter, University of Chicago Law School
• Kathleen Clark, Washington University School of Law
• Cary Nelson, American Association of University Professors
• Carlos Villareal, National Lawyers Guild
• Brad Wendel, Cornell University Law School

Why these five? The answer becomes clear quickly.

Professor Leiter defends Yoo against the charge of research misconduct, but finds it necessary to add that “One may think (as I do) such views implausible, badly argued and morally odious. . . .” He closes by saying that “John Yoo has earned international moral opprobrium for his views.”

Professor Clark says that “when John Yoo served as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, he violated two of his professional obligations as a lawyer: to be candid in giving legal advice to his client, and to adequately inform his client about the state of the law.”

Professor Nelson, whose organization (the AAUP) is dedicated to protecting the academic freedom of professors like Yoo, says that “had he published his views in essays at a time when no U.S. sponsored torture was taking place, his legal opinions might have been seen as more absurd than sinister. The case is thus inescapably moral and political. Such considerations are clearly fair when deciding whether or not to hire a faculty member in the first place. You have a right not to hire someone whose views you consider reprehensible.”

Mr Villarreal holds that Yoo’s actions at Justice “led to the torture, humiliating abuse, permanent injury and even death of detainees who were never tried or convicted of anything. To protect his work in the Justice Department under the guise of ‘academic freedom’ is to protect the yelling of ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”

Professor Wendel says: “The strongest legal criticism made of Professor Yoo and other Bush administration lawyers is not based on disagreement over policy or even morality. They were not implementing unjust laws; they were actively circumventing just laws.”

This, in short, is what passes for debate at the New York Times. Not one defender of Yoo is asked to contribute. No one is consulted who might dispute Cary Nelson’s claim that universities have a right to blackball those whose views are considered reprehensible by a dominant majority. No one to observe that it is precisely this attitude which is most inimical to academic freedom and has (as Mark Bauerlein wrote recently) “left the humanities scrambling for respect on campus and left humanities professors searching for convictions and grounds.” (Nelson is, significantly, an English professor.)

Intellectuals dearly love to repeat the pseudo-Voltairean boast I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, except that they are far more interested in drawing attention to their disapproval than subordinating it to the defense of intellectual freedom. The very lack of diversity in the Times symposium demonstrates as much.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Link wars

Miriam Burstein discovers that China Mieville’s City and the City “constitutes a crash course in Foucault.”

Patrick Kurp, visiting his brother in Cleveland, has been reading his end-of-summer vacation through Tove Jansson’s Summer Book.

On his vacation, the Amateur Reader toured the Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site. No sooner had he returned home than he returned to Balzac.

Jake Seliger offers some advice to the “very very beginning writer.” I do not believe that anyone can learn to write fiction from a guidebook, but if one is needed I would recommend R. V. Cassill’s slim and intelligent Writing Fiction (1963).

Michael Gilleland wonders, along with Logan Pearsall Smith, if one shouldn’t be reading Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Szymonowicz, Krasicki, Kochanowski instead—the Polish poets one has never read a word of.

Perry Middlemiss rounds up the 2009 winners of the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards.

Litlove recalls that the English critic F. R. Leavis was a “living nightmare of hostility,” arguing with “dissenters and disciples alike. His aggression assumed titanic proportions but was often expended on the pettiest disputes,” she says. A man after my own heart. [Update: Link has been repaired. Many thanks to Dave Lull for catching the mistake.]

Neal Verma rifles Hannah Arendt’s papers at the Library of Congress. Most of her correspondents, he notes, adopted the tone of awe.

Daniel E. Pritchard reflects upon “the cardinal sin of teaching poetry”—telling a student that his interpretation is wrong. “Poetry for my students happens in a sacred grove where creativity runs naked and free and where no opinion is unworthy or fails to earn astonished praise,” he sighs.

Darby M. Dixon III reports the early news about Richard Powers’s forthcoming novel Generosity. “[I]t’s a book that’s got me all jazzed up and I think you just might a chance at enjoying it a little, yourself, too,” he says. I’ve preordered it from Amazon, Darby.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Five Books of the ’oughts

In writing about Richard Russo’s Empire Falls the other day, I described it as “easily one of the five best American novels” from the first decade of the twenty-first century. Which raises the question, naturally: what are the other four?

They are all by women:

(2.) Francine Prose, Blue Angel (2001). A send-up of creative writing—the best ever written—Prose’s tenth novel is a harrowing account of sexual slavery. Like Professor Raat of Heinrich Mann’s 1905 novel and Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film, Ted Swenson falls under the spell of a woman, but Angela Argo is not a cabaret singer; she is one of the students in his writing seminar, and his passion for her sweeps him away against his interests. Not because of Angela’s physical charms, however; she is a skinny redhead with multiple body piercings. What holds him in thrall is her novel. The distance between the most powerful literary art and what goes on in creative writing classrooms has never seemed greater.

(3.) Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World (2004). An incredibly difficult book, not in formal experimentation nor in language—for, indeed, Ozick compares self-referential fiction to idolatry—but in its meaning. Her fifth novel is as thickly layered as a page of the Talmud, and equally as elusive. In 1935, a young orphan, herself a Jew, goes to work for the Jewish family of Professor Mitwisser, the scholar of Karaism. He insists upon the definite article. The household is soon joined by James A’Bair Jr., son of the late author-illustrator James Philip A’Bair, whose series of Bear Boy books will remind more than one reader of Winnie the Pooh. As Hillel Halkin wrote in Commentary, “Heir to the Glimmering World advances slowly, its progress delayed by the mysteries that block its way and must be dismantled.” Each step of the way is fascinating in its own right, though, and written in the sort of prose that converts readers to a lifelong devotion to books. The mystery of the novel’s meaning lingers for nearly as long.

(4.) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004). Written in the form of a letter from a 76-year-old small-town Iowa preacher whose heart is failing to his six-year-old son, Robinson’s second novel traces the family’s history—but also the career of Christianity on the prairie—from the Civil War to the late ’fifties. John Ames seeks to instruct his son to become “a brave man in a brave country,” and no previous American novel had succeeded in demonstrating so clearly and convincingly the share of religion in the settling of the land. And except perhaps for Frederick Buechner’s Godric (1980), about a medieval Anglo-Saxon saint, no better account of the religious life, as it is experienced from the inside, has been written in America.

(5.) Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009). What can I add to my enthusiastic review of this terrific novel? After finishing Robert Cohen’s Amateur Barbarians and Russo’s latest, which assume it is so self-evident as to deserve no further comment that the best minds are on the Left, I remain astonished by Heller’s novel, which anatomizes the Left without ever betraying its author’s political convictions.

On literary institutions

Calling them “perhaps the most important institutions in American letters” (along with creative writing programs and their literary magazines), Michael Lukas praises writers’ conferences on the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. “Unlike the relatively tiny petri dish that is the MFA program,” he concludes, “writers’ conferences bring together writers of all stripes, ages, levels, and abilities, allowing them to interact and swap notes, to learn from the ‘masters,’ but also to learn from each other.”

To Lukas’s list, I would add the public reading. I am not sure when the reading began to emerge as an institution of American letters, but by the time I enrolled at Santa Cruz in the early ’seventies readings were “regular and well-attended events,” I wrote in a memoir—“Lawrence Ferlinghetti filled the Stevenson College dining hall, Robert Bly turned his back on the audience that had arrived early to get seats and invited everyone to reassemble at his feet on stage—and student readings, featuring five or six poets, were popular.” When I was appointed to the campus-wide committee that selected which poets were to read aloud from their work the next year, I congratulated myself on having arrived.

I hadn’t, of course. Readings belong to literature’s bureaucracy, and for me at least their effect is the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve. When I hear a hushed stagey voice on NPR, carefully enunciating each word and pausing pregnantly at each punctuation mark, I realize that I am listening to an author read from his work—and I dive for the radio knob to change the station as quickly as possible. I suspect I am not alone. The very phrases poetry reading, writers’ conference, creative writing, its snooty younger sister literary fiction, and literary magazine—even though I founded a literary magazine many years ago—make me want to turn on the television and watch a rerun of Die Hard. The most important institutions of American literary life do not serve the common good of literature, even if they advance the interests of writers of all stripes.

What few writers will acknowledge is that literature itself is an institution—a larger institution than creative writing and the literary magazines, which are merely local bureaus. Nor is literature an abstraction; it is a concrete activity, like marriage or a religious life, which demands commitment and entails obligation. An institution does not merely bring people together to interact and swap notes; it creates a sense of awe and humility in which novices learn how deeply they are beholden to earlier generations, now passed from the scene, who established the institution to which they are devoting their lives.

In his book On Thinking Institutionally, the political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that the best human institutions, which serve what “is good for us as human beings,” are characterized by long time horizons, self-sacrifice, affective stance, and respect in depth. The encouragement of respect, which is developed by thinking institutionally rather than thinking in terms of self-advancement, is especially significant. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in devoting a column to Heclo’s book, quoted second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who said upon being inducted to baseball’s Hall of Fame four years ago:

     I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you’ve done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases.
     Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do, play it right and with respect.
In literature, respect might mean a thorough knowledge of the tradition, a mania for exact phrasing (that is, an impatience with verbal approximation), a willingness to serve a larger purpose than making a name for oneself, and a decent abstention from exhibitionism (or what Philip Roth calls “reality taking a backseat to personality” or “look at me, I’m writing”).

But this would require the abandonment of literature as an outlet for self-expression and the recovery of the old, discredited view that literature is a way of saying something.

Update: Two other kinds of respect occur to me. A commitment to the institution of literature used to mean a readiness to engage in criticism. Criticism might even be understood as a communal activity—the activity of raking the heap and plucking out the best writing. But criticism is only an act of respect toward literature if it is prepared, as few critics are today, to catalogue some writing as bad.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

“Goodbye, Columbus” at fifty

Fifty years ago Philip Roth made his literary debut, or at least he published his first book. “Goodbye, Columbus is a first book,” Saul Bellow wrote famously in Commentary, “but it is not the book of a beginner.” At twenty-six Roth seemed not simply to have mastered the art of fiction, but to have bypassed the apprentice stage altogether. “Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare,” said the author of Henderson the Rain King, published the same year, “Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently.”

It is astonishing, in fact, how little Roth has changed since 1959. His characteristic concerns were all in place in his first book: his faith in fiction as a diagnostic tool for social reality, his estrangement from both Jewish tradition and its secular alternative, the modesty and other-directedness of his role as a literary intellectual. Although William Peden described it in the New York Times as a “somewhat incongruous mingling of conventional boy-meets-girl material and portrait-of-the-intellectual-as-a-young-man,” what is more remarkable, reading Goodbye, Columbus fifty years later, is how effectively Roth keeps Neil Klugman from becoming the center of attention.

In the 1969 film version, Richard Benjamin plays Neil—a hideous disfiguring casting mistake. (He also played Alexander Portnoy, three years later. What? There were no other young Jewish actors in Hollywood?) Benjamin was too nebbishy and sincere, incapable of self-concealment; Roth’s 23-year-old narrator by contrast has a nasty streak, which unnerves Brenda Patimkin:

     “I’m afraid of my nose. I had it bobbed.”
     “I had my nose fixed.”
     “What was the matter with it?”
     “It was bumpy.”
     “A lot?”
     “No,” she said, “I was pretty. Now I’m prettier. My brother’s having his fixed in the fall.”
     “Does he want to be prettier?”
     She didn’t answer and walked ahead of me again.
     “I don’t mean to sound facetious. I mean why’s he doing it?”
     “He wants to . . . unless he becomes a gym teacher . . . but he won’t,” she said. “We all look like my father.”
     “Is he having his fixed?”
     “Why are you so nasty?”
In another of Roth’s contemporaries—Stanley Elkin, say, or Bruce Jay Friedman—the rebarbative humor would have been the point. Neil, though, does his best to suppress his native wit. And that’s Roth’s point: it requires a dimming of personality to cross the borders of social class dividing Newark, with its crowded apartments in four-family homes, desperately honking traffic, and rumbling Lackawanna commuter trains, from suburban Short Hills, one hundred and eighty feet higher in altitude and thus “closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder. . . .” Neil reassures his Aunt Gladys that the Patimkins are “real Jews,” even though they live in goyishe Short Hills. “I’ll see it I’ll believe it,” she replies.

The question is whether they are real people. The wartime success of Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, cinched with a military contract (“no new barracks was complete until it had a squad of Patimkin sinks lined up in its latrine”), enabled the family to escape its Newark roots, but leaves it without any source of meaning. With the Patimkins, all is surfaces; their lives are given over to “the dissection, analysis, reconsideration, and finally, the embracing of the trivial.” When Mrs. Patimkin asks him what Temple he belongs to (perhaps the book’s only slip: as a nominally Orthodox Jew, she would have said shul), Neil tries to think of something that will convince her he is not an apostate. “Do you know Martin Buber’s work?” he asks finally. “Buber . . . Buber,” she mutters. “Is he orthodox or conservative?”

Being active in synagogue and Hadassah are the vestigial remains of Jewish tradition among those for whom being Jewish no longer means having been chosen by God to perform his commandments. “They’re goyim, my kids,” Mr. Patimkin says when Neil is able to translate a Yiddish word, “that’s how much they understand.” The saddest of them is Brenda. Although she has a taste for clothes and enjoys shopping for them in high-end stores, she is only partly a JAP. She also displays a wit that belongs to Newark rather than Short Hills. Everyone who has ever read Goodbye, Columbus recalls her most renowned quip. Asked what she has been doing all summer, she replies, “Growing a penis.” More typical of her is what she says to a friend’s fiancé who goes on pretentiously about “the film” until Brenda asks, “Which film?”

Among the other young suburban Jews of her class and generation, whose differences are microscopic, Brenda alone shines. “Money and comfort would not erase her singleness,” Neil believes—“they hadn’t yet, or had they?” In the end, though, she chooses the money and the comfort. Although she tells him that she loved him, and though she was quick to share with him “that hideous emotion” which is “the underside of love,” Brenda cannot answer Neil when, after her mother discovers her diaphragm and accuses her of ingratitude, he asks whether she believes that she has done anything wrong in sleeping with him:     “Neil, look at the reality of the thing, will you?”
     “Did you do anything wrong?”
     “Neil, they think it’s wrong. They’re my parents.”
     “But do you think it’s wrong—”
     “That doesn’t matter.”
     “It does to me, Brenda . . .”
She tells him that he just does not understand: “They’re still my parents. They did send me to the best schools, didn’t they? They have given me everything I’ve wanted, haven’t they?” Her moral vacuousness is the final verdict on her class, and evaporates his love for her. But Neil is not superior to her. He merely belongs to a different class. The difference is not microscopic, and permits him to see—and to exhibit—Brenda and her parents from all sides.

Goodbye, Columbus not only remains a virtuoso performance. It is also the best introduction to one of the five or six greatest American novelists, and a hint of the even greater work that he would produce over the next fifty years.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fourth and inches

St. Francis College, located in Brooklyn Heights, has reportedly inaugurated a fifty thousand dollar prize for the best fourth book of fiction (h/t: Mark Athitakis). The fourth book, you see, designates an important milestone in a writer’s career. “With the fourth book,” explains Arthur Phillips, who was nominated for The Song Is You, “I feel like I’m treated as a writer who has been around for a while—and who, if he is going to keep sticking around, is going to have to do something else to keep getting people’s attention.”

But honoring a writer’s fourth book is just as arbitrary as choosing the year’s best book. Athitakis compiles a short list of recent fourth books:

• Joyce Carol Oates, A Garden of Earthly Delights
• Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star
• Paul Auster, The Locked Room
• Russell Banks, Hamilton Stark
• Ha Jin, Waiting
• David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
• Michael Chabon, Werewolves in Their Youth
• Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief

Nothing particularly distinguished there. The list gets better if you include better writers:

• Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March [Update: Wrong. Henderson the Rain King was his fourth book, you maroon. Don’t you know anything?—ed.]
• Christopher Buckley, Little Green Men
• E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime
• Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show
• Bernard Malamud, A New Life
• Walker Percy, Lancelot
• Francine Prose, Animal Magnetism
• Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
• Richard Russo, Empire Falls

Indeed, at least four of those were breakthrough novels for their authors, although only Empire Falls could be incontestably described as its author’s best.

The arbitrariness is on full display, though, when you go a little farther back into literary history:

• Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
• George Eliot, Silas Marner
• Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth
• Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
• Henry James, Roderick Hudson (though the first volume of the New York Edition, it was the fourth book he published after Watch and Ward, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, and Transatlantic Sketches)
• Rudyard Kipling, The Story of the Gadsbys
• Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary
Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance

The title I have withheld till now is Jane Austen’s Emma, because it is the only exception to my general observation that the above list contains apprentice and second-rank works. Perhaps writers in the nineteenth century took longer to be around for a while. Or perhaps the idea of honoring a fourth book is a silly bid to get some attention for an otherwise obscure literary prize.

Amateur Barbarians

Robert Cohen, Amateur Barbarians (New York: Scribner, 2009). 401 pp. $27.00.

Sentence by sentence, Robert Cohen is perhaps the best prose stylist of any American novelist now writing. This award was previously bestowed upon Michael Chabon by John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, although he nearly revoked it seven years later. In my opinion, Chabon did not deserve it in the first place, not only because his thought disappears into the ooze of his sentences, but because Cohen has written the better prose—sharper, more nimble, faster-paced—all along. Where Cohen suffers by comparison, where Chabon deserves his loyal following, is in sheer inventiveness. Cohen is never quite sure what to organize his sentences around. In his anxiety, he sticks close to familiar subjects and depends upon his powers of social observation to see him through. This leads to the common mistake of describing Cohen as a satirist. But that mistake can be corrected. The bigger problem, which he himself as yet to solve, is that Cohen is confined to a particular and narrow stratum of society.

All of the characters in Amateur Barbarians sound like literary intellectuals. Even though Teddy Hastings, the protagonist, is a middle-school principal who was a math major in college (“usually holed up in the library, or washing dishes in the dining hall, or peer tutoring in the Math Center”), he is full of the insights that only a writer would come to:

• “[M]aybe that was the point of living rooms, he thought: to remind you to live.”

• “[B]ooks and marriages were well suited to each other, Teddy thought. Both were middle-class adventures: they conspired to keep you at home, sitting still, being good.”

• “Out on the streets, the postman and cable guys and housepainters and lawn-maintenance people and the other day workers made their noisy, oblivious rounds. What a waste, Teddy thought. All that effort just to travel in circles.”

• “Every man who embraces a woman becomes Adam, trembling with gratitude that he’s no longer alone. That was how Teddy felt now.”

Four decades ago Philip Roth faced the same problem. How was he to make use of a writer’s unique observations while keeping his sights on a social reality that increasingly outran his gifts of invention? After a series of disastrous semi-fantasies—Our Gang, The Breast, The Great American Novel—he hit upon a solution. A two-part solution, to be exact. He invented Nathan Zuckerman to serve as other men’s majordomo, supplying them with a voice in which literary opinions would no longer be inappropriate. And he researched their work, learning in full and fascinating detail the ways in which other men passed their days and supported their families.

Cohen sees the advantage of shifting attention from the writer’s isolated and sometimes claustrophobic life to other men’s work. After a scare with rectal cancer, a near breakdown, and a night in jail, Teddy Hastings finds himself “sick of the personal. Sick from the personal. He longed to get beyond the self, beyond all selves”—and so he heads off to Africa, retracing the steps that Wilfred Thesiger recorded in Danakil Diary, which he had been reading in the comfort of his big American house. In Harar, he watches a butcher in a blue-green skullcap hacking away at a camel with a medieval-looking scimitar:

In truth he liked nothing better than watching men at their work. The butcher’s acuity and grace, his no-nonsense authority as he set about flaying the carcass, peeling flabby flesh from blameless bone . . . all this entranced him. Teddy stood there reverent. It was as though some timeless ritual of sanctification were being enacted for his benefit. [ellipses in original]Compare this to Roth’s description of kosher butchering in last year’s Indignation:First a chain is wrapped around the rear leg—they trap it that way. But that chain is also a hoist, and quickly they hoist it up, and it hangs from its heel so that all the blood will run down to the head and the upper body. Then they’re ready to kill it. Enter shochet in skullcap. Sits in a little sort of alcove, at least at the Astor Street slaughterhouse he did, takes the head of the animal, says a bracha—a blessing—and he cuts the neck. If he does it in one slice, severs the trachea, the esophagus, and the carotids, and doesn’t touch the backbone, the animal dies instantly and is kosher; if it takes two slices or the animal is sick or disabled or the knife isn’t perfectly sharp or the backbone is merely nicked, the animal is not kosher. The shochet slits the throat from ear to ear and then lets the animal hang there until all the blood flows out. It’s as if he took a bucket of blood, as if he took several buckets, and poured them out all at once, because that’s how fast blood gushes from the arteries onto the floor, a concrete floor with a drain in it. He stands there in boots, in blood up to his ankles despite the drain—and I saw all this when I was a boy. I witnessed it many times.His father thinks it is important for Marcus Messner to witness the kosher butchering of an animal so that he might learn the first lesson of a man’s life: “that you do what you have to do.”

This is the first lesson the characters of Amateur Barbarians have forgotten. They have no work that another man could watch. In alternating chapters—the fixed form of the contemporary novel, apparently—Cohen tells the story of Teddy and his one-year replacement while he is on leave at half pay. Oren Pierce is a self-acknowledged luftmentsh (he has a limited Jewish vocabulary because he studied for a year at a Reform Jewish seminary before drifting into another field of part-time study). As he says to Teddy’s wife when offering help after her cousin suffers a stroke, “I do have some training, you know. I’ve got pretty close to a master’s in counseling.” He has pretty close to a master’s in several subjects, but has been able to complete none of them. He explains that he likes studying the stuff, hanging out in the library, arguing over the nuances of specialized texts. But actually doing the work? “No thanks,” he says. Teddy’s wife shakes her head. “I don’t see the point of all that study if it’s not for something,” she says.

As professor of English and American literatures at Middlebury College, Cohen is well-acquainted with the type. And he does a good job of capturing him in a typical pose. Indeed, the novel’s second chapter, “The Very Exquisite Melancholy of Acting Vice Principal Pierce,” is as good as the best Renaissance character essays. The trouble is that, once the character study is complete, there is little else about Oren Pierce to hold a reader’s interest. His life philosophy is a promising subject. If nothing is settled, he tells himself, “then everything was still in the air, still possible, within reach.” What happens to such a man when he is reduced to necessity?

Cohen is aware that it could happen. Teddy’s brother Philip has died of malignant melanoma the year before the events of the novel, and in his final weeks he discovers the “clarity of an absolute state, where everything has been taken from you.” But the curtailment of fictional possibility by physical necessity is Francine Prose’s subject, not Cohen’s. Cohen’s people are driven by compulsions, not the clarity of absolute states. “How complicated and strange, all these forces that guided or bypassed or thwarted a man’s will,” Oren marvels.

He drifts into an affair with Teddy’s wife, while Teddy himself, whose marriage, he knows perfectly well, is “the triumph of his life,” drifts against his will into child pornography. Given the assignment in an evening photography class to “get to know the camera” by carrying it around and “just take pictures,” he snaps his sixteen-year-old daughter sleeping in the nude. Cohen’s attempt to make the event seem unwilled is as unconvincing as Hurstwood’s theft of ten thousand dollars from Hannah and Hogg’s in Sister Carrie, and serves to underscore much the same theme. “Men are still led by instincts before they are regulated by knowledge,” Dreiser comments, and Cohen nods.

And so the characters are blown hither and yon, like waifs amid forces. Teddy is sent briefly to jail, but how does he get out? What becomes of the charge against him? Cohen neglects to say. As their affair approaches a crossroads, Teddy’s wife confesses she loves him and buys Oren a gift, asking him to open it later. What is it? We never find out. What happens to the affair in the sequel? We never learn that either. The novel dawdles to an unsatisfying close, as if Cohen ran out of energy or insight. The wit and keenness of his observations are enough to get you deeply into Amateur Barbarians before you realize that neither you nor Robert Cohen have the least idea how to find your way back out.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Quickly, while packing.

In my review of Zoë Heller’s sensational novel The Believers, I observed in passing that un-American is a “term used exclusively on the Left to pound away at the Right for imaginary sins.” (See footnote 2.)

In a coauthored editorial in USA Today this morning, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and minority leader Steny Hoyer (D–Md.) object to the “ugly campaign” of opposing President Obama’s proposed health call reform by misrepresenting it. The campaign, they say, includes the tactic of disrupting public meetings. Then they write: “These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views—but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.”

Only the Left accuses its opponents of un-American activities.

Thus my small contribution to a history of contemporary political discourse in the United States.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The desire machines

Alex Jurek lays into the conclusion of my essay yesterday on Gerald Graff’s Literature Against Itself. [Update: For some reason Jurek has deleted both his original counterpost and the reply to my refutation here.] An apologist for realism, Graff holds that reality presents man with certain “unrefusable facts,” which (in a phrase borrowed from Henry James) he “cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another.” But Jurek denies all this, arguing that “There are no facts outside of an interpretative scheme.”

Now, Graff himself easily dispatched this objection earlier in the same book: “That we cannot conceive of a fact without some interpretive paradigm does not mean that this fact can have no independent status outside the particular paradigm we happen to be testing at the moment.” (The emphasis is his. Oddly enough, I turned this passage back on Graff himself fifteen years ago in questioning his call to teach the conflicts.)

But this is not the most interesting part of his attack. “If anything is irrefutably real,” Jurek asserts, “it is that our existence as conscious beings is defined by our desires as well as our aversions. Humans are desire machines: All that most people think and do is defined by their cravings and aversions rather than true choice.”

Thus Jurek announces himself as a determinist. And thus it is not merely Graff’s “unrefusable facts” that he denies; he also denies the several defenses of freedom that I have mounted, such as here and here and here and here.

I have two questions for Jurek (or any other sociobiologist or Freudian or Marxist within earshot). If humans are desire machines (or evolutionarily adaptive machines or repression and sublimation machines or economic-class machines or what have you) is that a statement of the truth about the human condition or merely another expression of the machine’s desire (or adaptive behavior or sublimation or class)? If the latter, why should I credit it? Why should I think that it is true? If you genuinely were a machine, as Hilary Putnam points out, you would have no way to know it. Nevertheless, if your claim to be a desire machine is a statement of truth rather than an expression of desire there is then at least one human action outside the machine’s scope (namely, the machine’s unmachine-like assertion that it is a machine). And if there is one, how can you be sure there aren’t more?

More significantly, why is determinism appealing? What is it about the thought of being a desire machine that makes you want to reduce yourself to one?

The harsh style

For this Commonplace Blog’s precedent-setting two hundred and fiftieth post, I want to say a few words in defense of the harsh style.

It is the style most commonly associated with the philosopher and premier New York intellectual Sidney Hook, who has been described as a “take-no-prisoners debater whose style was deliberately confrontational“ and “deliberately provocative,” and whose “insistence that every battle be fought and every wrong righted made him a fighter.”[1] Because of this “engagé style,” Hook was “always willing to reenter the fray, to revive debates with countless political foes, and to have the final word.”[2] Although not as graceful as Orwell’s, his prose style was similar, exhibiting a “refusal to obscure his position with sodden words, turbid syntax, coy simulation of balance, or self-protective ambiguity.” His motto could have been “Have logic, will argue.”[3]

As the invocation of Orwell should suggest, the harsh style is first cousin to the plain style. They share a genetic predisposition, inherited from their ancestors the anti-Ciceronians and anti-Petrarchans, for clarity and exact statement (which are, of course, the same thing). The harsh style demands clarification, and knows there is a critical difference between clearing the air and freshening it. Where the plain stylist is content to speak definitively and to the point, the harsh stylist goes further, excoriating amiable blandness and sumptuous qualification. He is the sworn enemy of anything that menaces clarity and exact statement, whether it be accredited confusion, folk mythology, self-satisfied blunder, or political ideology.

Some other harsh stylists include:

• C. S. Lewis, who realized that polemicizing on behalf of Christianity would require that language step down from the pulpit and get into the streets.

• Gilbert Ryle, who did not merely attack philosophical error, but—to use his own word—abused it.

• Stanley Fish, whose entire career has been devoted to redefining literary criticism as a mode of argument rather than deferential appreciation or the rehearsal of pass-along certainties.

• Anyone who ever wrote for the old Partisan Review or Commentary, including—to speak only of previous generations—Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, William Barrett, Diana Trilling, Harold Rosenberg, Isaac Rosenfeld, Robert Warshow, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Midge Decter, and Norman Podhoretz.

It is no accident that so many harsh stylists are Jews. Judaism is a religion without catechism or dogma, and as a consequence, the Jewish tradition places great value upon loud-voiced and teeth-baring debate—as long as it is a makhlokhet leshem shamayim (“a dispute for the sake of heaven”). As long as a dispute is for the sake of heaven, there are no restrictions on “tone,” no code of manners, because how is it possible to be too aggressive and discourteous for the sake of heaven?

What, though, according to the rabbis, is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? “The debates of Hillel and Shammai” (Avot 5.17). In the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai are bywords for lifelong, bitter antagonists. The law nearly always follows Hillel, but the views of Shammai are fully aired. For though the law may be indispensable, without any provision for dissent it is intolerable.

Many readers find the harsh style intolerable. It seems cruel and heartless to them, or rude and uncivil, and there is no question that a style which aims at rigor and austerity, which grants no sufferance to fools, can stray into abrasiveness and truculence.

The thin line can be firmly drawn by another excursion into religious vocabulary. Orthodox Jews who are uncompromising in their observance of Jewish law are sometimes described as mahmir (“strict, stringent”), an epithet that derives from the Talmudic principle that every debate entails a mahmir and a meykel, a strict and a lenient position. Now, among Muslims the equivalent to mahmir is hamas, but in Hebrew hamas means “lawlessness.” The line that divides conscientiousness from terrorism is clear. The harsh stylist knows where it lies and takes infinite pains not to cross it, even though his critics, out of ignorance, blur the distinction.

Nevertheless, the first question to be asked of any style, as J. V. Cunningham says, is what is its vice? How does it go bad? And here the critics of the harsh style are of small assistance. Cunningham, however, who could himself adopt a harsh, combative style, is suggestive:

Hang up your weaponed wit
Who were destroyed by it.
If silence fails, then grace
Your speech with commonplace,
And studiously amaze
Your audience with his phrase.
He will commend your wit
When you abandon it.

The vice of the harsh style is not that it will lead straight to its abandonment, but rather that its very harshness will prevent it from being recognized for what it is—its weaponry will distract from its wit—and so it will not be answered in kind. It will provoke a merely social reaction, expecting clichés and mutually agreed upon empty phrases in the place of battle for the sake of what matters.

[1] Judy Katulas, Review of Young Sidney Hook by Christopher Phelps, Journal of American History 85 (1999): 1623–24.

[2] Alexander Bloom, Review of Out of Step by Sidney Hook, Journal of American History 75 (1988): 276–77.

[3] D. B. Jones, Review of Convictions by Sidney Hook, Modern Language Studies 21 (1991): 116–19.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Literature Against Itself

As English professors all over the country head back to their classrooms in a few weeks to encourage another young cohort of students to “experience” literary texts in light of the most recent progressive thought, it might be well to recall Literature Against Itself, Gerald Graff’s pioneering attack on literary theory, which was published by the University of Chicago Press exactly thirty years ago. The book was particularly “meaningful” to me. Five years after its appearance, I enrolled at Northwestern University for the single-minded purpose of studying under Graff. (By then he was working on the book that became Professing Literature. He directed my dissertation, revised and issued as The Elephants Teach, which both of us considered an extension of his work on the history of academic literary study.) Graff was forty-two when he saw Literature Against Itself into print, and though he later become known for other things—especially the entreaty to teach the conflicts—his career was defined by his early effort to spell out a coherent theoretical position for resistance to the vanguard party in literary thinking.

All of those phrases are his. Although he took pains to detach himself from conservatives who merely beat the vanguard with club-like slogans, Graff quickly found himself identified as a conservative—along with such other first-rank critics as Wayne Booth and E. D. Hirsch Jr., who had “challenged prevailing vanguard dogmas” and so might “lend authority to a constructive resistance movement.” But Booth and Hirsch were also soon dismissed as conservatives. The association galled Graff, who was a self-styled man of the Left. (Indeed, my own political conservatism made for uneasy relations between Graff and me, although he has never been anything but supportive of my academic career.) The problem was that Graff held literary thinking to be “inseparable from social and moral thinking,” but the academic Left heatedly denies that literature has any connection with morality (while the Right is not always good at remembering its connection with society). Politically, Graff belonged on the Left, while his radicalism made him unwilling to join in common cause with the Right—as a young assistant professor at Northwestern he had been a leader of the antiwar protests on campus—and so he was left without academic allies.

That quality of independent-mindedness, whatever it cost Graff personally, is what distinguished Literature Against Itself upon publication and what keeps it fresh thirty years later.

The critical landscape had altered unrecognizably since 1970, when his first book came out. Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma had originally been drafted in 1963 as a PhD thesis under Yvor Winters, the prickly and controversial champion of moral evaluation in criticism. Graff’s entire generation of literary scholars appeared with a series of ’prentice works that gave no hint of what was to come. Edward Said, his contemporary, published a study of Conrad’s autobiographical fiction in 1966. Stanley Fish, one year younger, published Surprised by Sin, a study of Milton, in 1967. Frank Lentricchia, three years younger, published The Gaiety of Language, on Yeats and Stevens, in 1968. That same year Barbara Herrnstein Smith, five years older than Graff, published Poetic Closure, a study written under J. V. Cunningham of how poems end.

By the start of the next decade, every one of them, except for Graff, had changed course. Simply to name the titles is to suggest as much: Said’s Orientalism (1978), Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse (1978), a plea for the indeterminacy of literary utterance, Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism (1980). What happened?

French structuralism emigrated to the United States: that’s what happened. In 1966, the year that is described as structuralism’s annum mirabile in France, when new books by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan made a splash in the their native waters, the Johns Hopkins University hosted an international conference devoted to “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” Barthes, Lacan, Jacques Derrida, René Girard, and a host of other illustrious guests from the continent made their first public appearances in America. Paul de Man came down from Cornell to share his reflections.

Within a few years, the symposiasts’ books were on the shelves of nearly every university bookstore in the country. Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero appeared in 1968. De Man’s Blindness and Insight, cited by Mark Bauerlein recently as the first example of criticism-as-performance in America, appeared in 1971—the same year as Foucault’s Order of Things. Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, a translation of his second book, appeared in 1973. A selection of Lacan’s Ecrits finally appeared in 1977.

These were the critics, those were the works, that constituted the vanguard in literary thinking by the late ’seventies. The biggest problem, to Graff’s mind, was that French structuralism had “come to be widely taken as a kind of ultimate refutation of philosophical and literary realism.” At least that is how the American critics who had fallen under its had taken it. And this had given rise to a moralistic streak among the vanguard. Thus they said that realism had been “discredited.” They associated it with everything that was bad and out of date: representation, the text as a determinate object, boundaries and constraints, docility, habit, truth as either correspondence or coherence, meaning as a product. On their “rhetorical scorecard,” Graff scoffs, the vanguard praised an entirely new set of goods: creation, the text as an open and indeterminate invitation, voyages into the unforeseen, risk, truth as fiction, meaning as a process.

The New Sensibility, as Graff calls it, displayed an “ambivalence toward reason.” Its repudiation of the human capacity to comprehend reality, along with a denial of the propositional nature of literature, had combined to provoke a crisis, not only in literature and literary criticism, but education and politics as well. As a man of the Left, Graff was deeply worried about its growing sway. “In exposing objective reason as a mere ideology,” he warns, “cultural radicalism leaves itself no means of legitimizing its own critique of exploitation and injustice.” The danger, in short, was not that the vanguard was Leftist, but that it was taking over and disabling the Left. “[T]he project of political demystification is to free terms from misuse by attaching them to appropriate referents,” Graff writes, “not to dissolve the very notion that language can have referents.” But the politics of anti-realism leads to resignation and something very like “the popular cynicism that regards all judgments as ‘matters of opinion’ and asks—without staying for an answer—‘who is to say’ what is real and what is not.”

The threat to reason was broader than the universe of literature, then, but the threat to literature was real enough:

That readers misinterpret literature has probably been recognized as long as literature has existed. But only recently has this human deficiency been turned into a law. And from a law it has become a recommendation—and a means of liberating oneself from humanistic bad conscience.What was a recommendation in 1979 has become routine thirty years later. Indeed, anyone who would insist that literature be interpreted faithfully is the one who would be accused of having a bad conscience today. How did we reach this pass?

According to Graff, by demoting all literature to the status of fiction. But the term fiction no longer referred merely to the action or plot of made-up narratives; it had been expanded to include “the ideas, themes, and beliefs that are embodied in the action or plot.” (The self-contradiction involved in denying the referentiality of language and then using a word to refer to more than it did previously was overlooked or ignored—not by Graff, but by the advanced thinkers under his microscope.) The consequence, as he points out, is that life and reality themselves came to be treated as fictions.

But there are certain “unrefusable facts” about life, which cannot be demoted to the status of fictions without terrible costs:The reality of the physical world, the inevitability of death, the social nature of man, the irrevocability of historical events and changes—these are facts that we cannot possibly not know, though we can argue infinitely about their significance and how we ought to understand them.On a propositional theory, literature is the argument. The new theory, though, “pretends that no such unrefusable facts exist.” The new theory would reduce all human utterance, and not just literature, to “an unaccountability that would be terrifying if its implications were taken seriously.” Luckily, after reading Literature Against Itself it is impossible to take the new theory seriously.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Hack

Wilfrid Sheed’s second novel follows the career of Bert Flax, a self-described “spiritual hack” who supports a fruitful and multiplying family (wife, five kids) on inspirational stories and uplifting poems for the Tiny Messenger and Catholic Women, from the first stirrings of religious doubt to either a spiritual breakthrough or a nervous breakdown. Better known as a leading book critic of his day—he published collections of his reviews in 1971 and 1978—Sheed wrote better novels, including perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.

But The Hack (1963) introduces the theme of doubt, leading to despair and exhaustion, to which Sheed would return again and again in his own literary career. It was, perhaps, the story of his life; and not only his. Son of the independent Catholic publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward—Sheed & Ward was founded in 1926 and acquired by Rowman & Littlefield seven years ago—Wilfrid Sheed was born in London in 1930 and came to America upon the outbreak of the Second World War, when his parents emigrated from England. “The sheer differentness of America imbued everything,” he wrote in a 1985 memoir of his parents: “the swollen frames and tires of the bicycles, the station wagons with kids hanging from the sides, the kids themselves gangly or strangely fat, slopping around in striped T-shirts and knickers, alien from head to toe. . . .” Sheed carefully cultivated his sense of differentness. Although he never repatriated himself to England, becoming a huge baseball fan as an expression of his deepest feeling for America, he consistently adopted the attitude of an Englishman, an outsider, alien from head to toe. The attitude perfectly reflected his own incapacity for believing wholeheartedly in anything except baseball and books.

The crisis of belief in The Hack commences when Bert finds himself despairing at the thought of composing his annual Christmas poem. Being asked about it “was like having a tray of ice emptied into your socks. The coldness came up from there, then the desolation and finally the slow melting squish.”

Modeled upon Sheed’s father, whose main source of income was the lecture platform (“Americans might not like to read but they certainly liked to listen,” Sheed comments drolly), Bert roves from parish to parish in suburban New Jersey, delivering lectures on “the Catholic literary revival, the Catholic intellectual revival, Catholics and TV, Catholics and decent literature, Catholics and better communications,” even the Communist-dominated media and its hostility to good Catholics. Feeling like a “complete fraud,” Bert “can’t seem to get the Christmas spirit.” His wife sympathizes: “Even inspiration becomes a grind,” she says.

Looking for something to shake him out of his increasing squishiness, Bert tries to sleep late one Sunday and skip mass. He can’t bring himself to, but afterwards he hops a bus to Manhattan to look up old friends from Bishop Mahoney High School. He tries to provoke a fight, taunting one friend who no longer attends mass regularly for his cowardly refusal to become “an honest-to-God atheist.” He taunts a mass-attending friend with criticisms of the Church: “It’s a cruel joke,” he complains, “they keep you a child until it’s too late.”

They’ve got these rules against becoming a man, you see? You mustn’t develop independent judgment, because that’s pride. You mustn’t be honest, because that doesn’t square with the old prudentia. And you mustn’t have any kind of experience, because experience is an occasion of sin.When he demands to know whether he is right, his mass-attending friend concedes that “It sometimes seems like that.” “Won’t anybody fight about this?” Bert wails. “Won’t somebody, for godsake, argue?” No one, it appears, is prepared to take religion seriously.

What Bert keeps being told instead is that he has been working too hard and does not look very well. Behind his back they whisper, “Have you read his things? They’re lovely, aren’t they?” Even his Playboy-reading friend, too sophisticated a Manhattanite to be a practicing Catholic but too lukewarm to become an atheist, agrees that he is “a very fine writer.” The compliments send him over the edge. He denies that he is the writer of the “religious stuff” they are praising. “I am not Bert Flax, I am not Bert Flax, I am not Bert Flax, I am not Bert Flax,” he repeats until he passes out and wakes in a hospital.

The attention shifts to his non-Catholic wife Betty, who keeps the household running while Bert recovers. The Hack then becomes an exception to the rule that English-language writing is largely a literature without children. Sheed’s portrait of a suburban wife and mother, with life moiling and churning at knee level (in his phrase), is precise and loving, despite the satirical edge. Betty is keenly aware of the minginess of her lower middle-class surroundings. Like Bert, she has her doubts: “There were no big scenes, no climaxes, only people being patient with each other and practical with each other—so bored they didn’t know they were bored anymore.” But unlike him she takes solace and delight in ordinary successes like a dinner well-prepared, Christmas drawing near, a black mood rolling away, and a husband getting back to work.

Except that Bert’s return to work is not a return “to Bert’s high standards”—or so says the Catholic Passenger, rejecting his Christmas poem. Bert announces to Betty that he has just about had it. He blames the Church for his years of “peddling crap” and becoming a “dedicated hack.” He collapses in tears. And so a relapse.

Betty blames the Catholic magazines, which depend upon “false sentiment” and pursue the goal of “keeping the uneducated uneducated.” Father Chubb, editor of the Catholic Passenger, tries to explain: “The Church in America is changing . . . er . . . on the campuses and so forth. All this gush he writes is out of place in the 1960’s.” The Catholic journals are changing. And then, Bert never “had the faintest idea what the Church was really about.” The subjects that got him worked up, Father Chubb says,were pretty trivial for a grown man. Seat money and dirty movies, you say, and where angels go in the winter, such childish concerns—he seems to have had no sense of the sacramental, of sacred places and things, of liturgy and initiation into mystery.Maybe so, but no one else wrote about those things for the Catholic Passenger either, Betty points out. For that matter, she cannot recall Father Chubb’s ever talking of such things before. If he really believed that Bert knew nothing about “the real Church,” he might have brought it up some years ago.

The Church arrested his spiritual and literary development by employing him in the pseudo-religious office of inspirational writing. As Betty explains, Bert “wanted to reexamine the whole thing”—the truth about a life of faith—“but he couldn’t afford to because his livelihood depended on his maintaining a certain point of view.” To acquire a sense of the sacramental or to be initiated into mystery, you cannot be a hack, who is dedicated to the concerns of mere functionaries:He wasn’t like a priest, with a real role to play and somebody looking after him. If a priest ever got into that kind of hole, his bishop would say, “That’s enough, my boy, take a rest for a while, take a small parish. Don’t worry, we’ll look after you.” But Bert was just a self-employed child-raising religion-man, and he got struck with it.Religion is serious or it is nothing, the novel concludes. And Bert, suddenly obsessed with integrity and evil, sitting motionless in a mental hospital, has either broken through the mere profession of Catholicism into the seriousness of religion, or he has suffered a breakdown, psychologically blocked from taking religion seriously by a world that prefers employment to vocation. Sheed is careful not to say.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Very queer, indeed

The post below, in a dark green sans-serif typeface, written in the spirit of mockery, may have been a mistake. I have decided not delete it, however, but to let it stand as literary evidence.

I originally wrote it because the arguments that Andrew Seal attributes to me in his latest post on Death Comes for the Archbishop are so illogical and extreme as to be beneath refutation. As a friend put it to me, something in the mode of “Swiftian satire” seemed the more appropriate response. Since some readers have objected, though, I have included both—a logical refutation and the original satire.

The logical first. Seal grants my assertion that the doctrine of celibacy is crucial to the novel, but then he goes on to put an argument into my mouth: “Myers doesn’t just insist that this sympathy with celibacy is crucial; he argues that it excludes the possibility that these two male characters were in love.”

This is a falsehood, of course. Nowhere have I said any such thing. What I would argue is that a Catholic priest’s vow of celibacy, especially on the part of a nineteenth-century priest like Latour, who was “[e]mpowered by long training” to blot himself out of his own consciousness and meditate “upon the anguish of his Lord,” excludes the possibility of same-sex attraction. I would add that love between two men does not necessary imply same-sex attraction. The connection must be argued for, and not merely—on the basis of current opinion—assumed.

Seal, however, assumes that friendship between two men and same-sex attraction are one and the same thing. If Latour and Vaillant had something more than “the camaraderie of co-workers,” they must have shared a “very queer love story.” He believes that he is being logical and intellectually scrupulous when he goes on to say that such a “love relationship” between them does not, however, necessitate “the presumption that it is sexually active or even physically expressed.” Yet somehow the relationship still deserves the epithet queer.

Now, I do not believe that all love relationships necessitate the presumption of sexual consummation either. I love my children, but I am not sexually active with them.

Somehow, though, the onus falls upon me. For me, “adding a love story is literally sacrilegious,” Seal says; “assuming that the two priests have stronger feelings than camaraderie means assuming they’re having sex, that they’re breaking their vows of celibacy.” Seal argues that the friendship between Latour and Vaillant is a same-sex attraction, but I am the one who holds that, if there is love between them, it must be sexual. Is there any basis for such an assumption?

Well, yes. And here is where it gets tricky. Bear with me: “Since Myers is very upfront about his conservative credentials, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to draw a connection between common conservative views on the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality and Myers’s interpretation of the novel.” If that connection is not out of bounds, there are no bounds. Notice that Seal does not even bother to corroborate his claim that “the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality” is a “common conservative view.” Even if it were, however—and even if Seal accepted the responsibility of providing evidence that it were—that I hold the view, simply because I hold “conservative credentials,” is valid only under the logic of McCarthyism.

Seal’s effort to connect me to “common conservative views on the ‘inherent’ promiscuity of homosexuality” is a classic attempt to assign guilt by association. Thus he thinks that, for me, a queering of the relationship between Latour and Vaillant would entail a reinterpretation of the entire novel, “because these men are now completely different characters from their normal heterosexual interpretations.” But Seal understands priestly celibacy about as well as he understands male friendship and conservative thinking—that is, not at all. The celibate priest is neither heterosexual nor homosexual; he stands outside the sexual order altogether. The possibility of sexual attraction, to whatever sex, never arises, because he has decided not to respond to other human beings in that way.

My objection to a queer reading of Death Comes for the Archbishop is not that it is “literally sacrilegious,” but that it is an ignoratio elenchi. It is beside the question. It shoots eight or nine yards left of the mark.

On one point, though, Seal is correct. I cannot bear to see Cather’s novel, or any other novel for that matter, misinterpreted. I cannot bear to see error paraded as the truth.

And now the satire as originally written. I reproduce it verbatim.

Abandoning any defense of “experiencing” Death Comes for the Archbishop as a “very queer love story,” Andrew Seal goes on offense. My interpretation of the novel is the objectionable one.

His logic goes something like this:

Love between men is good. It is queer. The men are not gay, but they love each other. So their love is queer. Two men don’t have to go bed to have a very queer love story, even if they are not gay. But Myers is a conservative. Conservatives do not like gays. What do you mean, he favors gay marriage? He is a conservative and all conservatives hate gays. They think all gays are promiscuous. No, no: the men are not gay; I just said so. Don’t interrupt me again. For a conservative like Myers, two men in love cannot stay in love unless they go to bed. But queer love can still be queer love even if the men do not go to bed, although they are not gay and though conservatives think all gays are promiscuous, which is beside the question in their case since they are not gay. (Am I making sense?) Hey, look at their pictures. Myers thinks they cannot be in love because they are ugly. What? You are more immediately struck by their ecclesiastical garb? You think I am only revealing something about myself by calling them ugly? WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP INTERRUPTING ME! Myers thinks that ugly men cannot be attracted to each other, even though they are not gay. Myers is a conservative. He would call their love story a very queer love story, which says a lot about him when you think about it. Even though the phrase is mine.

For the record, I do think that Death Comes for the Archbishop is a terrific story of a friendship. I believe that’s what non-sexual love between two men is called.