Friday, October 30, 2009

Middle Passage

Most “atrocity” writing—the literature of slavery, the literature of the Holocaust—makes for grim reading. The aim is to excite ideas of pain and suffering, to leave the reader with memories that, like Huck Finn thinking back on the ambush of boys in a Southern feud, he is never going to get shut of. In his National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage (1990), Charles Johnson has a different aim altogether. He intends to show how experience is transfigured by writing, how peace with the past is made “by turning it into Word.” He also wants to tell a rousing good tale, because literature should not be merely sublime but also vastly entertaining.

Although a proudly black writer who holds that educated Americans should know Jean Toomer along with Sherwood Anderson, Johnson renounces the extra-literary responsibility of the black writer. “Traditionally, since the time of Richard Wright, black writers have been expected to be spokesmen for the race,” he told the Washington Post. Publishing a novel that, three years after Beloved, would invite comparisons with it, Johnson observed: “Toni Morrison didn’t really mind adopting that role either, speaking for the concerns of the race.” For his own part, though, Johnson said he finds it “very difficult to swallow the idea that one individual black or white, can speak for the experience of 30 million people”—or even Sixty Million and more. The idea, he said, is “repulsive.”[1] Indeed, he defends Ralph Ellison—the writer he admires most—against the charge of being “privativistic.” The narrow demands of collective ideology are at odds with the novel, which, according to Ellison, “at its best demands a sort of complexity of vision which politics doesn’t like.”[2]

If Johnson can be said to have anything like an ideological purpose in his third novel, it is to thwart the movement that would reduce the black experience in American to a single collective image. What is needed in African American literature, as he quotes Ellison elsewhere, is to expand the images. And whatever else it is, then, Middle Passage is a novel that achieves, in the compact space of about two hundred pages, an astonishingly complex vision of the black experience.

Rutherford Calhoun, a 22-year-old freedman in 1830 as the novel opens, shares something of his author’s feelings. The constant refrain Be a credit to the Race makes his “insides clench.” Raised by a white slaveholder, a Protestant minister who, “out of Christian guilt,” taught him more than most white men know (“Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme”), Calhoun abandons Illinois soon after he is freed and heads straight for New Orleans, “a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin.” Despite his religious background, Calhoun has a tendency “to tell preposterous lies for the hell of it” and has “always been drawn by nature to extremes.” Falling into debt, he is given a choice by the “nice girl” with whom he has become acquainted, a twenty-year-old schoolteacher from Boston who is “positively ill with eastern culture.” The choice: marriage or debtor’s prison.

Calhoun becomes a fugitive instead, signing on as a cook aboard the Republic, a slave ship bound for the Guinea coast, a “wooden sepulcher whose timbers moaned with the memory of too many runs of black gold between the New World and the Old.” (The temptation to quote Johnson’s vivid phrasing, as you can see, is nearly irresistible.) Among the ship’s investors, it will turn out, is a prominent New Orleans black. For Johnson, not even the narrative of slavery can be reduced to a single unbroken coherent paradigm.

The first mate warns Calhoun that prison is better than life aboard the Republic. The “ragtag crew” of forty men are failures on dry land, “all refugees from responsibility,” uncivilized and grunting. Only a slaver would have them, because it is the lowest of the low. The Republic’s captain is Ebenezer Falcon, a powerfully muscled dwarf whose “burning passion was the manifest destiny of the United States to Americanize the entire planet.” His mission is not merely to bring back slaves, but “whatever of value was not nailed down in the nations he visited.” He is also a philosophical apologist for slavery, which he attributes to the necessary dualism of human experience:

“Conflict,” says he, “is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into the mind like the steam-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun: They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.”[3]In time, Calhoun decides that Falcon is “more than just evil.” He is the Devil incarnate. For on this voyage, the Republic returns not merely with the pillage and booty of “war-shocked cultures,” but with an African god, a “dangerous, shape-shifting god,” who is packed in a “crate big enough to carry a bull elephant,” and stowed in the hold. “Who else,” Calhoun ponders, “could enslave gods and men alike?”

The “infernal creature” in the hold is the god of the Allmuseri, a people so old “they might have been the Ur-tribe of humanity itself.” If Falcon is the representative of philosophical dualism, they are his opposite number: “The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell.” They are driven to panic at the thought of where the Republic was taking them, “into the madness of multiplicity.” The males are double-ironed and lowered by ropes, where they “lay in a foot of salt water in a hold blacker than the belly of Jonah’s whale.” They are tightly packed, because Falconhad learned ten years ago from a one-handed French slaver named Captain Ledoux that if you arranged the Africans in two parallel rows, their backs against the lining of the ship’s belly, this left a free space at their rusty feet, and that, given the flexibility of bone and skin, could be squeezed with even more slaves if you made them squat at ninety-degree angles to one another. Flesh could conform to anything. So when they came half-dead from the depths, these eyeless contortionists emerging from a shadowy Platonic cave, they were stiff and sore and stank of their own vomit and feces. (p. 120)[4]The middle passage changes them, “subtly reshaping their souls as thoroughly as Falcon’s tight-packing had contorted their flesh.” Soon they are not Africans any longer, “yet not Americans either.” They are sufficiently Americanized, however, to come over to Falcon’s philosophical side. They learn conflict. They successfully rebel, and take over the Republic.

Johnson consciously places himself in a line with Melville, even citing Amasa Delano by name at one point. He seeks to reclaim Benito Cereno for African American fiction. Where the rebellions slaves of the San Dominick force Captain Cereno and his crew to reenact their role as enslavers in order to blunt Delano’s suspicions, the rebellious slaves of the Republic force Captain Falcon and his crew to to adopt their culture as proof of subservience:The master’s house must be dismantled. Only Allmuseri was to be spoken by the crew when in contact with the newly empowered bondmen. [The first mate] was to use maps [an Allmuseri] was preparing; he did not trust the ones Falcon had left. In addition to this, he forbade us to sing songs in English, his oppressor’s tongue, whilst we worked. He said we must learn their stories. Nurture their god. Allmuseri medicine was to be used to treat sickness and injuries. We were not, of course, to touch their women; in fact, we were to lower our eyes when they passed to show proper respect for a folk we did not understand, had abused because of that, and now must come to for a wisdom we’d ignored. (pp. 154–55)Thus Johnson parodies the “black aesthetic,” which insists that black writing must place itself in a unique black tradition with exclusive black predecessors, renouncing a literature and language that is contaminated by racism. On board the Republic what follows is a system of horrors, a “savage world,” nearly as bad as Captain Falcon’s. The evil is not destroyed; it merely shifts its shape. Cultural nationalism is not the exorcism of cultural domination, he implies, but merely its reversal.

Although the Allmuseri spare him the torments of the crew because he is black, Calhoun is repulsed by what they become. He longs for home:Nay, the States were hardly the sort of place a Negro would pine for, but pine for them I did. Even for that I was ready now after months at sea, for the strangeness and mystery of black life, even for the endless round of social obstacles and challenges and trials colored men faced every blessed day of their lives, for there were indeed triumphs, I remembered, that balanced the suffering on shore, small yet enduring things, very deep. . . . If this weird, upside-down-caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. (p. 179)The middle passage, slavery, segregation, and the daily indignities of second-class citizenship lead Calhoun, against all expectation, to affirm black experience in America. His first-person narrative—the log of the Republic—shows how it is done. Writing transmutes horror into acceptance. Calhoun returns to New Orleans, marries the schoolteacher, and raises a family. The memories of the middle passage reduce the velocity of his desires, and makes him yearn for the “vast stillness” of a remarkably full and ordinary life.

Middle Passage is both a ripping good sea yarn and a philosophical novel that must be read repeatedly to plumb its depths. It is also, not accidentally, a demonstration of how a modern novel about slavery might be done. Johnson includes exacting details of the slave trade, because he is deeply read in its primary sources, but the tradition into which he seeks to insert Middle Passage is the tradition of the American novel, which encompasses Sherwood Anderson along with Jean Toomer, Herman Melville along with Ralph Ellison.

[1] Marjorie Williams, “The Author’s Solo Passage,” Washington Post (Dec. 4, 1990): D1.

[2] Charles Johnson, “Race, Politics and Ralph Ellison,” New York Times Book Review (Feb. 5, 1995): 15.

[3] Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (New York: Atheneum, 1990), pp. 97–98. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[4] Captain Ledoux is the slave-trader in Prosper Mérimée’s Tamango (1829), a story—enormously popular in its time—about a slave revolt; reprinted in “Carmen” and Other Stories, ed. and trans. Nicholas Jotcham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 72–92. In his ship the Espérance, “[t]he blacks were arranged in two parallel lines, their backs to the vessel’s sheathing, leaving a space between the rows of feet which on other slave ships serves only as a passageway,” Mérimée writes. “Ledoux had the idea of fitting more negroes into this space, lying at right angles to the rest. In this way, his ship could hold ten more negroes than others of the same tonnage” (p. 73).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

“Sixty Million and more”

In the annals of comparative martyrology, [Toni Morrison] appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.

My commentators are unhappy with this statement, which launched my attack on Beloved. One protests that “Sixty million and more”—Morrison’s dedication—is an “accurate and probably sparing estimate of slavery-related deaths.” “If Morrison ‘suggested’ this she was not incorrect,” another said. “The real problem is that you even feel compelled to compare the two.”

But is Morrison correct? And is the compulsion to compare mine or hers?

In a volume of papers on “comparative genocide,” the historian Seymour Drescher summarizes the research on “slavery-related deaths”:

One historian has estimated that in the peak century and a half of the inter-continental forced migration from Africa (1700–1850), “twenty-one million persons were captured in Africa, seven million of whom were brought into domestic slavery [within Africa itself].” The human cost of sustaining the combined slave systems to the west, north, and east of sub-Saharan Africa between 1500 and 1900 was an estimated “four million people who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement,” plus others who died prematurely. Of the nearly 12 million in the Atlantic slave trade, around 15 percent, or up to 2 million more, died on the Atlantic voyage—the dreaded “Middle Passage”—and the first year of “seasoning.” In the Americas, the death rates dropped gradually to levels approximating those projected in Africa.[1]Nothing in the historical record, in short, suggests the figure sixty million. How did Morrison arrive at it?

As early as 1945, the figure of six million became established as the official count of European Jews murdered by the German Nazis. The figure first appeared in a New York Times report on the United Nations plan to bring war criminals to justice. The British jurist Robert Alderson Wright (known by legal scholars as Lord Wright) chaired the UN Commission on War Crimes. He charged that a “policy of race extermination was carried out ruthlessly against the Jews according to a plan which can be traced back to Hitler and those members of his Government who were in his immediate circle.” He described the gas chambers and crematoria in concentration camps like Birkenau:How many people have been done to death in these camps cannot yet be stated. It has, however, been calculated that in all about six million Jews were deliberately slaughtered in that and other ways.[2]The figure was quickly ratified. Nathan Eck, an underground fighter who later became an important Holocaust historian, told a July 1945 press conference in Chicago that “the Germans killed six or seven million Jews in their ‘murder factories,’ while starvation killed about one million.” Despite his qualifications, Eck’s claims were headlined in the Chicago Tribune: “Charges Nazis Slew 6 Million in Poland” (July 24, 1945).

By the end of the year, the figure had become a commonplace in Jewish discourse. Rabbi Louis I. Newman said in his Yom Kippur sermon that “Six million Jews have died as martyrs and their blood cries up from the ground.”[3] The American Zionist Emergency Committee, jointly chaired by rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise, in an open letter urging British prime minister Clement Attlee to open Mandate Palestine to Jewish immigration, held that “the responsibility for the extinction of six million Jews in Europe was not Hitler’s alone.”[4] The figure no longer needed to be calculated; it could be taken for granted as the premise to a different appeal altogether. Indeed, a December editorial “In Memory of Six Million Dead” in an American Jewish magazine complained of an already growing callousness toward “the tales of Nazi atrocities.”[5]

The exact number will never be known. In an Appendix to her magisterial War Against the Jews (1975), the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz estimated the total Jewish population annihilated at 5,933,900.

But in dedicating her novel to “Sixty Million or more,” Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested in being “accurate and probably sparing.” If she had been she would have written To the twenty-one million captured in Africa and sold into slavery. Or perhaps: To the four million who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement.

Instead, she appropriated the Jewish commonplace of six million and trumped it by a factor of ten. While it is obviously true that slavery was, as an anonymous commentator called it, “a historical event that predates [the Holocaust] by hundreds of years,” it follows neither that the literature of the Holocaust is not the proper “framework for assessing the success or failure of Beloved” nor that it is not the “primary tradition in which Ms. Morrison writes.”

Slavery predates the Holocaust, but Holocaust literature predates Beloved. And the very conception of slavery as “a historical event,” in my commentator’s words—a single, unbroken, coherent event—derives from Holocaust literature.

What is now called the Holocaust is the Ger­man campaign to exter­minate European Jewry, but told from the perspective of its victims. From the out­set Jewish think­ing detached the Euro­pean Jewish experience from everything else that was happen­ing in the world between the years 1939 to 1945. Experiences that were dis­parate in kind and widely removed in space and time—not only legal persecution, rounding up, ghettoization, deporta­tion, and mass murder, but also hiding, flight, exile, “passing,” rescue, mili­tary and spiritual resis­tance, cultural activity, the response of Jewish communities outside Europe, the anguish of onlook­ers, the world’s silence, survival, DP camps after the war—all came to be read as chapters of the Holocaust. Unless the Holocaust is presupposed, however, there is no connec­tion between any single fact, not even the gas chambers at Ausch­witz, and the Holo­caust.

Although the events that com­prise it occurred within history, its coherence—the combining of these manifold events into a relentless Holo­caust—does not belong to history, but to litera­ture: that is, the human effort to leave a unified account, to raise up a dominating image, of experience. The Holo­caust is not an event as such but a meaning, which ineluc­tably alters any attempt to dis­cuss the historical occurrence. What is now called the Holo­caust is the Jewish mean­ing of the his­torical event. It is an inter­pretive paradigm, a bold collec­tive effort to create meaning out of his­tory.

By the time that Toni Morrison came to write Beloved, Jewish writers had firmly implanted the paradigm in the Western literary mind. The classics of Holocaust literature had all been written and canonized. Sophie’s Choice (1979), the immediate predecessor of Morrison’s novel, belongs not to Holocaust literature but to the élite backlash against the Holocaust paradigm, which culminated in Norman Finkelstein’s attack on The Holocaust Industry (2000).

Beloved follows William Styron’s lead in revolting against the Holocaust paradigm, which includes the claims that the destruction of European Jewry was the worst that had ever happened in human history and that it was therefore unique. Where Styron faults the paradigmatic Jewish accounts for failing to make more than “fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews . . . who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps,” Morrison adopts a different strategy. She accepts the Holocaust paradigm—a coherent historical event that binds together widely divergent experiences in widely separated places at widely different times, because they are unified by the victims’ point of view—and she puts it to a similar end.

The end was described shortly after the war by a Jewish writer:Even more important is our obligation to the Jewish people to commemorate for future generations the disaster which has struck us; to record for ever, in the clearest form—by word and picture—the magnitude of the destruction and desolation which is our lot.[6]Like the Jews who succeeded in establishing the Holocaust as the paradigm of human atrocity, Morrison imposes upon herself the task, not simply to preserve slavery and the slave trade in memory, but to describe their sheer magnitude—to make them unforgettable. The aim is not knowledge alone, but also the power to excite ideas of pain and danger, to produce the strongest emotions which the mind is capable of feeling.

The adoption of the Holocaust paradigm accounts for what I pointed to as a significant flaw in Beloved—namely, Morrison’s failure to devise the fiction by which Beloved, a slave girl born in nineteenth-century Kentucky and murdered as an infant, could possibly know the horrifying details of the Middle Passage. My anonymous commentator is contemptuous: “You mean apart from writing a novel?” Yeah, that’s what I mean.

When Philip Roth introduces the incredible possibility that Amy Bellette, the fetching young woman whom Nathan Zuckerman meets at E. I. Lonoff’s house, is really Anne Frank, still alive and living under an alias, he does not rely upon the mere fact of The Ghost Writer’s being a novel to see him through. Zuckerman eavesdrops on a lovers’ conversation between Lonoff and Amy, and reflects: “Oh, if only I could have imagined the scene I’d overheard! If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life!” He proceeds immediately to the presumptuous invention of Anne Frank’s survival and postwar life in America. The next morning he can no longer think of her as Amy Bellette. Instead he finds himself “continually drawn back into the fiction that [he] had evolved about her. . . .”[7]

Morrison does nothing of the sort. Her presumptuous invention, the fiction she evolves, is treated as self-explanatory. As indeed it is—if you recognize that Beloved embodies the Holocaust paradigm, adapted to the purpose of commemorating for future generations the horror of slavery.

[1] Seymour Drescher, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust,” in Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996), pp. 66–67. Drescher cites work by Paul E. Lovejoy (he is the first historian quoted above), Patrick Manning, Philip D. Curtin, David Eltis, J. D. Fage, David Richardson, and Stephen Behrendt.

[2] Lord Wright, “That the Guilty Shall Not Escape,” New York Times (May 13, 1945): SM4.

[3] Quoted in “Day of Atonement Observed by Jews,” New York Times (Sept. 17, 1945): 8.

[4] “An Open Letter to Prime Minister Attlee” [advertisement], Chicago Tribune (Oct. 8, 1945): 14, and Los Angeles Times (Oct. 8, 1945): A2.

[5] “In Memory of Six Million Dead,” Reconstructionist 11 (December 14, 1945): 3-4.

[6] Jacob Lestschinsky, “For a Survey of the Jewish Tragedy,” Chicago Jewish Forum 4 (1945–46): 160.

[7] Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979), pp. 121, 157.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Extra-textual knowledge

In a comment to my post on difficulty, Jonathan confesses that he is puzzled by what seem to be contradictory claims that I have advanced recently about extra-textual knowledge.

In discussing the stories originally written by Raymond Carver and later mucked-up by Gordon Lish—and published in book form in the mucked-up versions—I held that the meanings of the stories were damaged or destroyed, because “semantic meaning is null” where intentionality is “composite” and where the knowledge of what mind composed what words is lacking.

But then, in praising Thom Gunn’s poem “Still Life,” I said that the poem does not achieve it enormous power “through the extra-textual knowledge that Larry Hoyt, whose struggles for breath are being described [in the poem], later died of AIDS.”

In the first case, I suggest that extra-textual knowledge is necessary if the meaning of the text is to be fully understood. In the second case, I suggest that it is not necessary. Which one is it, hotshot?

I suppose that I could weasel out of the contradiction by protesting that I was talking about the meaning of the first text and the power of the second, but I am already on record holding that the second is subordinate to the first.

The truth is that I see no contradiction. Here is what I was thinking when I said that Gunn’s poem does not require its biographical background to succeed in its emotional effect, to operate smoothly as a meaning-making machine, to work as a poem.

Despite Francine Prose’s claims for it in her new book Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, I have long suspected that The Diary of a Young Girl owes much of its power to the extra-textual knowledge—the knowledge that was not possibly available to Frank herself—that the reader is holding in his hands a ghost.

Compare Gunn’s, for example, to the following poem by Babette Deutsch:

The Look

Beneath the gay bandeau the shaven head
Showed. The eyes, huger in the wasted face,
Wandered like wild things dulled by narrow pacing.
The hand was tethered to a pain, that fed
On a spreading horror. Light revived the pain,
Reminding it how it had gorged before;
While off the brightness of the corridor
Some rooms were dark now where the dead had lain.
Talk fluttered heavily toward the neighbor bed,
In vain, moved toward the pain again, then tried
Circling some public topic, turned and eyed
The heart’s homeliest charges, and fell dead.
The living stood beside the bed and waited
For nothing in the nowhere of appall,
And smiled at her, as if there were no wall
Between them and the dying. Her fate
Stood near them with eyes larger than her own,
That would not close, not even when she slept.
Its look followed after as they lightly crept
Off, waving, leaving her alone.
The two poems belong to the same family of subject-matter. Here too, apparently, is a dying patient in a hospital (there is corridor and a “neighbor bed”). Deutsch’s is not doggerel, but compared to Gunn’s poem it is decidely inferior. It is prolix where “Still Life” is brief; its locutions are forced where Gunn’s achieves an ease of expression; it inflates its language (“the nowhere of appall”) where Gunn’s flattens it to seek a similar effect (as when a dying man’s breathing is called an “obscure knack”); it relies upon limp abstractions (“as if there was no wall/ Between them and the dying”) where Gunn’s is able to bestow haunting significance to a concrete detail like the breathing tube in the patient’s mouth.

But something else the poems have in common. They may both be samples of “atrocity” verse. Deutsch’s twenty-line poem, originally published in the April 1949 issue of Commentary, could well be about the death of a Holocaust survivor, someone who outlived the “spreading horror” and the dark rooms “where the dead had lain” only to die painfully soon after the defeat of the German Nazis.

I have no direct knowledge, but the evidence is suggestive. Deutsch was a Jewish poet publishing in a Jewish magazine—the magazine, indeed, that did more than any other to bring knowledge of the Holocaust to a wider Jewish public. A charter member of John Dewey’s Committee for Cultural Freedom, which organized in 1939 “to defend individuals and groups victimized by totalitarian practices” in Europe, she sent at least one son to fight with the U.S. Army there. Four years later she published The Welcome, a young adult novel about a young German Jewish refugee in a new school in America. And Take Them, Stranger (1944), a collection issued a year before V-E Day, included several poems on the theme of the worldwide dislocation caused by the war.

Although it cannot be established with any degree of certainty, the supposition is interesting, because it adds a dimension of meaning and power that is otherwise missing from “The Look.” Gunn’s poem, however, needs no additional dimension. In neither case, however, is the knowledge necessary for interpretation or evaluation. At most it contributes to an involuntary extra-textual shudder, which belongs rightfully to the world of pain, not poetry.

There are some texts, however, that require extra-textual knowledge if they are to make any sense at all (or if their nonsense is at least to be recognized as nonsense). It is also entirely possible that, in time, both “Still Life” and “The Look” will require extra-textual learning—footnotes or research—to restore the sense that time has robbed them of. Breathing tubes may be replaced by some other medical technology, hospitals may no longer have corridors. Even then, however, the distinction will be between extra-textual knowledge that is necessary to interpretation and evaluation—knowledge that may or may not be possible to supply—and extra-textual knowledge that merely adds gossip value.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Happy birthday to me

A Commonplace Blog is one year old. To be accurate, it was a year old on Tuesday. I can’t believe that I missed my own birthday! (“Do you always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it?” Daisy asks. “I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it.”) Too busy taking hammer and tongs to Beloved, I suppose, to break for the single-candled cake. Coincidentally, however, Tuesday was also the most heavily trafficked day in Commonplace history, as the New Yorker linked to my negative and fault-finding essay. The traffic fell off sharply as the magazine’s readers quickly got their fill of someone who places Lolita on top of the English-fiction heap and ranks Philip Roth ahead of Conrad and Faulkner.

I want to thank my loyal readers, who have stuck with me and taught me so much this past year, especially by opposing me. I am grateful as well to those who have installed A Commonplace Blog on several “best” lists. I only hope that I can be worthy of your trust, and their esteem, for at least another year.

Go, little blog!

Needless difficulty

In his interview yesterday with Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal (many thanks to Dave Lull for bringing it to my notice), Philip Roth distinguished the likes of James Patterson and Nora Roberts by saying, “They are entertainers. They aren’t writers.”

As much as I admire Roth, this is the merest snobbery. Its only value is in passing on the information that Roth feels superior to the likes of James Patterson and Nora Roberts. It provides no test, no probative mechanism, for differentiating entertainers and writers.

Here is one—though it is not universal. (It has nothing, for instance, to do with Roth.) I have only just begun Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, a historical novel about politics at the court of Henry VIII from Thomas Cromwell’s side of the story. (The novel is, among other things, a contrarian portrait of Saint Thomas More, who has been a hero to us literary types ever since Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons. Mantel wants to make the case for Cromwell instead.)

For some reason, Mantel decides never to refer to Cromwell by name in narrative voice. She uses the third-person pronoun exclusively. Cromwell is called by name only by the other characters—in dialogue.

The device is awkward and does little, as far as I can tell, beyond establishing that Martel is not an “entertainer.” The exclusive reliance upon the third person makes it impossible to forget that the novel is written, that it is a complex act of verbal artifice.

But Mantel gets nothing else from it, and she sacrifices a good deal, especially in clarity. Here, for example, is an early passage about Cromwell’s son:

Gregory is coming up thirteen. He’s at Cambridge, with his tutor. He’s sent his nephews, his sister Bet’s sons, to school with him; it’s something he is glad to do for the family.Although the passage is not opaque, the back-to-back third-person masculine pronouns cause a momentary confusion. And to what end?

This is a small but crystalline example of the needless difficulty in self-consciously “literary” writing since modernism. A better writer, less worried about being mistaken for an entertainer, would overcome the difficulty of getting her prose out of delight’s (that is, entertainment’s) way.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


In attempting to account for “the complex feeling of delight” to be had from great poetry, Wordsworth enumerated five sources in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads—“the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely. . . .”

Of these the sense of difficulty overcome has always struck me as the best argument for metrical language, the least “Romantic” of Wordsworth’s ingredients. It is axiomatic in great poetry, I am tempted to say, a distinction to be found across the board—across languages, borders, and centuries. Consider, for example, Thom Gunn’s “Still Life,” the description of a terminal hospital patient:

I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tight: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
The poem achieves its power, not through the extra-textual knowledge that Larry Hoyt, whose struggles for breath are being described here, later died of AIDS. The poem is unforgettable because the language seems so effortless, falling into place without agonizing over it, even though Gunn is trying the impossible: to capture for all time the laborious breathing, which very nearly constitutes the experience of dying. Could there be a better two-word conceit than to call a dying man’s breathing an “obscure knack,” like the ability to recite from memory every U.S. cabinet member in history? Astonishing, but finally useless. The sense of difficulty overcome—itself a metrical phrase—is what gives this eighteen-line lyric its terrible delight.

But this is not what is usually meant by difficulty in literature.

Perhaps the most familiar account of it belongs to George Steiner, who holds that a certain kind of difficulty—what he calls “ontological difficulty”—has come to be seen as a “desideratum or inescapable fatality in European literatures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” When called into question, difficulty is usually defended in these terms: “Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose” of literature. They are more than merely a desideratum, then; and they are more important than other difficulties (those that “aim to be looked up,” those that “challenge the inevitable parochialism of honest empathy,” those that “endeavor to deepen our apprehension by dislocating and goading to new life the supine energies of word and grammar”).[1] They define the modern experience, and so they are necessary to modern literature.

Latter-day champions of difficulty merely paraphrase Steiner, as when Judith Butler defends the value of difficulty by pointing to Walter Benjamin, who “makes our heads hurt. Why does he torture us so?” The conclusion is not inevitable. Must we tell Benjamin that he isno longer knowable according to the terms by which we have, conventionally, established knowability? Or is he telling us something about what truth has become for us, historically, that it has become a certain difficulty, and that if we are unwilling to be disarmed and to become, suddenly, unknowing, we assume instead a posture of dogmatism that may well sidetrack us from the evanescence, if not the ineffability, of a life?[2]If you are not willing to face up to the ontological difficulty of modern life the alternative is dogmatism, eh? That these are the only two choices is not itself a dogmatic view, naturally, but simply another stop on the slog of difficulty.

But it has not been dogmatists only—those with ready answers to the blank questions of modernity—who wonder whether writers must “torture us so” to be faithful to modern experience. In “De Descriptione Temporum,” his inaugural lecture from the chair of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis argues that the single greatest change dividing “the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott” has been the emergence of art which is “shatteringly and bewilderingly new.” This is especially true of poetry:And if once we can eliminate that critical issue and concentrate on the historical fact, then I do not see how anyone can doubt that modem poetry is not only a greater novelty than any other “new poetry” but new in a new way, almost in a new dimension. To say that all new poetry was once as difficult as ours is false; to say that any was is an equivocation. Some earlier poetry was difficult, but not in the same way. Alexandrian poetry was difficult because it presupposed a learned reader; as you became learned you found the answers to the puzzles. Skaldic poetry was unintelligible if you did not know the kenningar, but intelligible if you did. And—this is the real point—all Alexandrian men of letters and all skalds would have agreed about the answers.This is no longer the case. Poetry is no longer read, as Philip Larkin once complained; it is studied. And difficulty appeals keenly to advanced students of literature, because it gives them a machine upon which to demonstrate their agility.

As Lewis said elsewhere, the “new race of readers and critics” treats literature as an “accomplishment rather than a delight.” Literature is defined as being hard. Hence the contempt for popular books and the naïve tolerance of “dullness and difficulty in any quack or sloven who comes before them with lofty pretensions. . . .”[3]

Is it modern experience, then, which is defined by difficulty, or the professional conception of literature? I am inclined to the latter view, and not merely because more than one of the commentators to my broadside against Beloved have testified to an aversion to it. There is, I believe, a widespread loathing for the difficulties of much modernist and postmodernist writing, but out of fear of being called a dogmatist (or worse), the loathing is concealed. It is time, though, for those of us who delight in great literature to have the courage of our convictions—to stand with C. S. Lewis rather than Judith Butler. Give me the sense of difficulty overcome in Gunn’s “Still Life” to the lofty pretensions of Beloved any day.

[1] George Steiner, “On Difficulty,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (Spring 1978): 273.

[2] Judith Butler, “Values of Difficulty,” in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, ed. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 214. This volume is a belated reply, by diverse hands, to the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest, which caused much gnashing of teeth in academic quarters. My own contribution to the controversy was discussed in the volume by David Palumbo-Liu, a careful scholar who repeatedly got my name wrong, deciding finally to call me “Meyers herself.”

[3] C. S. Lewis, “High and Low Brows,” in Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 114.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The most overrated novel ever

The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved. Upon its initial publication, it was rightly passed over for the 1988 National Book Award, which went to Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story, while the National Book Critics Circle handed its fiction award instead to Philip Roth for The Counterlife. In protest, forty-eight “black critics and black writers”—their own self-description—wrote to the New York Times Book Review, “asserting [them]selves against the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which white males were preferred to Toni Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” the forty-eight declared.[1]

Not quite ten weeks later Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Everyone quoted on the record agreed that the protest and demands for recognition did not influence the prize committee’s decision—not a chance, no way, no how. Just to be sure, the Swedish Academy gave Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature four years later. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted on the front page.[2]

To her credit, Morrison disclaimed the “extra-literary responsibility” of expressing black writers’ legitimate need. That was a responsibility Beloved “was never designed for,” she said.[3] And yet the novel invited such an investment of collective hopes: “Sixty Million and more,” read its dedication. In the annals of comparative martyrology, she appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.

The novel’s epigraph, taken verbatim from the King James Version of Paul’s letter to the Romans, makes a similar appropriation:

I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Although it is not clear whether Morrison knows as much, Paul is himself appropriating the words of the prophet Hosea here: “V’amarti l’lo-ami ami-atah v’hi yomar elohai—And I will say to them that were not my people, You are my people, and they shall say, You are my God” (2.25). Originally a reassertion of God’s promise to the people of Israel that, even though they are scattered to the four corners of the earth, they will be gathered back into the land of Israel and return to their God, Hosea’s words are revolved by Paul to refer to the Christians—they will now be God’s people, who were not before—and then revolved again by Morrison to refer to the children of slaves.

In short, the forematter assigns to Beloved just exactly the sort of “extra-literary responsibility” that Morrison sought to disclaim in the New York Times. The novel is intended to be a monument, a permanent marker of memory and history; and this is the source of its failure. It is less mythic than typological; less a “story to pass on” than a dense allegory of racial suffering. Consider the last chapter in which Morrison tries to sum up the history of the people “which were not my people” by identifying them with the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter:Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has a claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.[4]
Although “she” in this passage is both Sethe’s daughter and the black race, the succession of paradoxes about “her” is effective only if the reader stays on one level of meaning at a time. Any attempt to hold them both in the mind will end in confusion. If everybody knows that the girl is called “Beloved” then the word Beloved merely needs to be halloed in order to summon her. But if everybody knows what the race is popularly called (insert ugly racial epithet here ________) then shouting out the epithet will summon not the people but only a racist projection, a bogey; that is, a ghost. The passage is written with a crossword puzzler’s ear for language. It attains neither rhythm nor sharpness, and the plays on words (lost–looking, claim–claimed) are clumsy rather than charming. As for that last sentence: try picturing it.

Yet Beloved cannot be discussed apart from Morrison’s fumbling for a distinctive rhetoric. The Swedish Academy praised her stylistic experimentation in awarding her the Nobel Prize: “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” Well, maybe. But you know the saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop delving. Here she is describing Paul D’s entrance into Sethe’s Cincinnati house. He must pass through a “pool of pulsing red light” to get in: “Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry. It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table, but he made it—dry-eyed and lucky” (p. 9). Morrison’s technique might be characterized as literalizing stock language. If you can mention a “wave of grief,” she can say that it soaks you. But then she nods or the effort of linguistic distinction proves too tiring, and so the light “surrounding the table” (was there a skylight? A pendant lamp? An angel?) is, um, “normal.” Is there a norm to indoor light?

I cannot think of a worse prose writer who is praised for her language: “What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (p. 18). But everyone agrees that Morrison is a great writer and Beloved is a great novel; there is a huge body of scholarship to enforce the agreement (as I found, there are over six hundred items in the MLA International Bibliography in whole or part on the novel). In the most recent scholarly article on it, for example, the critic singles out a “stream-of-consciousness interlude” in which Beloved recalls the transatlantic passage of Africans bound for slavery:All of it is now     it is always now     there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too     I am always crouching     the man on my face is dead     his face is not mine     his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked      (p. 210)And then three paragraphs later:We are not crouching now     we are standing but my legs are like my dead man’s eyes     I cannot fall because there is no room to     the men without skin are making loud noises     I am not dead     the bread is sea-colored     I am too hungry to eat it     the man closes my eyes     those able to die are in a pile     (p. 211)The critic then goes on to elucidate this passage, observing that the way in which Beloved speaks of “the living and the dead being piled on top of one another and fastened together by chains in the holds of slave ships graphically testifies to how the killing of the African slave involved more than the taking of her biological life. Stated simply, Black Atlantic and ‘New World’ mass internment, enslavement, and genocide were and are produced as much through the mass reproduction of living death as through the production of biologically expired bodies.”[5] Whether this conclusion deserves the jargon required to yield it is beside the point. The point is that, as Yvor Winters wrote of Edgar Allan Poe, “when a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him [or her] in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident.”[6]

Rather than taking the “stream-of-consciousness interlude” at face value, the critic might ask the obvious question: what is its place and function in the novel? How is it possible that a slave child, born in Kentucky and murdered by her mother at less than a month old (“If I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear” [p. 200]), is familiar with the experience of the Middle Passage in horrifying detail? In fiction anything is possible, but Morrison does nothing to devise the possibility. She merely introduces the “interlude” with an allusion to the biblical Song of Songs (“I am Beloved and she is mine”), which implies, I suppose, that Sethe has merged with Beloved after living with the ghost for so long. And Beloved, a victim of slavery, embodies the collective consciousness of racial suffering? And so Sethe achieves mystic oneness with the race’s memory? Or something?

The truth is that the stream-of-racial-consciousness interlude is a display piece, a verbal stunt that is connected to the rest of the novel by the thinnest of fictions—and by the ambition to leave a monument to the suffering caused by black slavery. The odd spacing and lack of punctuation, the fragmented phrases, are little more than an attempt to defamiliarize what are, to be honest, scenes and images that have been familiar since the first photographs of Hitler’s death camps were published in the United States. The dead, heaped in a pile, are nothing new. Only the typography is new.

And that, finally, is the trouble with Beloved. The central idea of the novel is arresting and memorable, although Sethe’s murder of her child may only be a variation on Sophie’s Choice, but nothing else about it is. Beloved has been called a ghost story, but it has neither of the “two ingredients most valuable in concocting a ghost story,” according to M. R. James, the genre’s best-known practitioner—it has neither atmosphere nor the “nicely managed crescendo.”[7] It has, in fact, no pace at all; it is, at best, a series of tableaux. Morrison is more interested in disrupting the chronological narrative than in telling a story. And her ghost is not really a ghost; she is the Oversoul of black folk. My guess is that, secretly, few readers believe in her reality. They claim to believe otherwise because the novel’s monumental pretensions and rhetorical self-importance—to say nothing of the overwhelming scholarly backing—suggest the presence of greatness where nothing of the sort is to be found.

[1] Robert Allen, Maya Angelou, et al., “Statement,” New York Times Book Review (January 24, 1988): 36.

[2] William Grimes, “Toni Morrison Is ’93 Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature,” New York Times (October 8, 1993): A1.

[3] Herbert Mitgang, “For Morrison, Prize Silences Gossip,” New York Times (April 1, 1988): B5.

[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved [1987] (New York: Plume, 1988), p. 274. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[5] Dennis Childs, “ ‘You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet’: Beloved, the American Chain Gang, and the Middle Passage Remix,” American Quarterly 61 (June 2009): 277.

[6] Yvor Winters, Maule’s Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism [1938], reprinted in In Defense of Reason (Chicago: Swallow, 1947), p. 234.

[7] M. R. James, Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary [1911], reprinted in Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 339.


A Baptist church in Canton, North Carolina, a town “nestled among five hills along the banks of the Pigeon River in the mountains of Western North Carolina,” has announced that it will be Burning Perversions of God’s Word on Halloween (h/t: First Thoughts). “We are burning Satan’s bibles like the NIV, RSV, NKJV, TLB, NASB, NEV, NRSV, ASV, NWT, Good News for Modern Man, The Evidence Bible, The Message Bible, The Green Bible, ect.,” the church said. “These are perversions of God’s Word the King James Bible.” The church also said, helpfully, that it will pick up bibles that anyone wishes to donate. I wonder if it would accept for public burning a Hebrew version?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Existence of the text

“As an object a book can sit around for years, resting comfortably on a library shelf, but as a text,” I wrote a decade ago, summarizing the conventional wisdom, “it does not exist at all unless it is read, interpreted, understood.” I went on to contest the conventional wisdom, arguing that literary texts place ethical demands upon their readers which are logically prior to interpretation.

The demands are also epistemological. While it is a commonplace to assert that literary texts exist only in the experience of some reader, there are, as J. V. Cunningham says, difficulties with this assertion. The most obvious one is that the experiences of different readers are different, and different too for the same reader at different readings. But what is more, the reader could not possibly mean his immediate experience of reading the text, because then he could never think or speak of the text as a whole:

We could only deal with this moment in my experience of the [text], and we would have to treat our aesthetic experiences as Rochester treated his erotic, regarding each moment as absolute: “All my past life is mine no more. . . . The present moment’s all my lot.”[1]Cunningham substitutes this theorem: the text is the experience of having experienced the text. It can only be recollected. It is, to expand the observation, “a method for discriminating between the relevant and the irrelevant in those experiences” of reading the text—different persons’, the same person’s at different times.

Much the same could be said of personal experience. I recollect the various parts of my life, and arrange them in some kind of order. In this way I construct my personality.

The difference is that the parts of my life are not the parts of your life, while the parts of a literary text are the same for both of us. Or, rather, they have to be the same if the text is to serve as a method for discriminating the relevant from irrelevant in critical response. My reading experience differs from my personal experience in this way: as Cunningham says, it is “subject to verification and correction, and hence it has an element of externality in it.” I am not trapped in my own skull.

The errors in a text, the secondhand editorial revisions of it, are not irrelevant to it. If I am responding to Hamlet I want to respond to Hamlet, and not to an actor’s flubbing of a line or the director’s cuts. The more often I read Hamlet (or attend performances of it) the more likely I am to spot flubs and cuts. The “cumulative reexperience,” Cunningham says, brings me “nearer and nearer to the norm of that experience which is ideally implicit in the work.”

But the norm consists of the principles by which a text is constructed. It is these which permit a critic to protest that a production runs roughshod over an artist’s original vision. If we are to know the principles by which a text is constructed, though, we need to know whether these include revisions by a second hand—like Gordon Lish’s mucking with some of Raymond Carver’s stories. Not to distinguish which hand is the editor’s and which is the author’s is to remain ignorant of at least some of the principles by which a text is constructed. It is to remain ignorant of the text.

[1] J. V. Cunningham, “Poetry, Structure, and Tradition,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), p. 143.

“Experience of the text”

The condition of literary texts—their mode of existence, to use a phrase from Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature—is treated by critics and theorists alike as a non-problem. Daniel Green, for example, dismisses the problem, relying upon his “experience of the text” to see him through.

The philosopher Kendall Walton says something, in passing, that shows why the experience of the text will be an unsteady foundation for judgment, unless the critic inquires into the condition of the text:

When the entirety of a work is to be attributed to a single narrator, what he says or writes is all we have to go on. We cannot run background checks on his character or verify independently what he tells us.[1]What this breezy confidence leaves out of account is the possibility of human error.

Early in Chapter 16 of his Adventures, for example, Huck Finn says that he and Jim “talked about Cairo, and wondered whether we would know it when we got to it.” Worried that they won’t, they hit upon a plan. Huck would “paddle ashore the first time a light showed, and tell them pap was behind, and was a green hand at the business, and wanted to know how far it was to Cairo.” They smoke on it, and wait. The next paragraph begins like this: “There wasn’t nothing to do, now, but to look out sharp for the town, and not pass it without seeing it.”

What became of the plan to paddle ashore? According to Walton, falling back upon the presupposition of the integral text, its precipitate disappearance is attributed to the narrator:If it is fictional that the narrator is honest, intelligent, and knowledgable, that and the fact that fictionally he asserts such and such are likely to imply that fictionally such and such is the case. If fictionally he is confused, ignorant, or a liar, these implications may not go through. (p. 360)So the plan’s disappearance might be chalked up to his unreliability as a narrator (on his own testimony, Huck tells “stretchers”), or perhaps, in the hands of an adept interpreter, it can serve as evidence of his ambivalence over helping a slave to flee—and then the implication is that Huck tricked Jim, saying one thing and doing another.

The truth is less attractive. “This nonsense was created,” Hershel Parker points out, “when Mark Twain agreed to drop, from between the two paragraphs, the raftsman episode, which contained the reason for the decision not to ask anyone else but just to watch out for the town.”[2] Despite what Walton says, in other words, a “background check” can be run—on the condition of the text.

If the “experience of the text” is all that a critic has to go on, how can he be sure that he is not experiencing a screw-up as “literary art”?

Update: He can’t.

[1] Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 359. Emphasis in original. Further reference in parentheses.

[2] Hershel Parker, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons: Literary Authority in American Fiction (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984), p. 4.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Never-Ending Journey

“The Never-Ending Journey,” my review-essay on Lionel Trilling in the September issue of Commentary, leads the New Books list at Arts & Letters Daily this morning, and is now available in full at the magazine’s web site.

Message and technique

Explaining why Madame Bovary was a scandal to French readers in 1857 but not to moderns, Kenneth Burke says that “we demand technique where they inclined to content themselves with ‘message.’ ”[1] In recent days, I have unexpectedly found myself in sympathy with Flaubert’s contemporary French readers. My strongest literary convictions have been unsettled by the evidence of Gordon Lish’s mucking with Raymond Carver’s fiction, even though Mark McGurl says in The Program Era that the “controversy surrounding Lish’s editorship” has been “considerably overblown.”[2]

I am not sure whether McGurl means that the extent of Lish’s mucking has been overblown or that the consequences for criticism are overblown, no matter how extensive Lish’s mucking. In either case, McGurl is wrong, I think. Lish’s revisions were deep and pervasive; they were sufficient, as I have argued, to damage or destroy several of Carver’s stories.

But the consequences for criticism are what really exercise me. What Lish’s mucking calls into question is the basic presupposition of literary analysis since the rise and flowering of the New Criticism—that is, the assumption that the literary text is an integer. Even deconstructionist criticism, which seeks to demonstrate the incoherence of a text, despite the author’s best efforts to submit it to his discipline, assumes that the published text, quoted against itself by them, has an integrity of intention: the incoherences they trumpet are not accidents of the publication process, but have been inserted into the text, on purpose, by an author who wants to reduce his work to a unified whole. An incoherence that results from the cross-purposes of author and editor does nothing whatever to establish or confirm the larger deconstructive claim that literary texts are unsuccessful attempts by a powerful ideology to subdue the inconvenient facts of the world.

For three generations, academic literary critics have been trained to handle the text as a woven tissue, which is all of a piece. Sometimes the assumption makes it possible for scholars to correct errors, as when J. V. Cunningham shows that Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress is not a “succession of images,” as T. S. Eliot would have it, but a logical syllogism; or when, later in the same essay, he restores Nashe’s original wording of a line in Summer’s Last Will and Testament, which Stephen Daedalus had misread in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with “trembling joy.”[3]

More often, though, the errors are taken as established fact, because literary critics are not taught to raise questions about the provenance and authority of the texts in their hands. Everything about their professional training and status encourages them to rush to interpretation. It makes no difference to them whether Raymond Carver’s stories, in the published form with which critics are familiar, are the record of Carver’s thinking or a joint product of Carver’s drafts and Lish’s revisions. The condition of the text does not alter their responsibility to interpret it, nor does it leave critics with no option but to adopt new methods. By definition, any doubts about the condition of the text are considerably overblown.

Even when they believe themselves to be discussing a text’s meaning, then, literary critics are really examining technique, the evidence of its weaving (or its unraveling, if their allegiances are deconstructionist). Although McGurl argues that The Program Era succeeded and replaced “the Pound era” in American literature, and though he points to creative writing with its “prideful attention to ‘craft’ ” as the cause, the truth is that the demand for technique—that is, craft—is what links the program era to the Pound era. Hugh Kenner, whose 1971 magnum opus gave McGurl his name for the earlier era, wrote that modernist literary texts are “self-similar” or “scaling objects,” terms derived from Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractal geometry. That is, great texts are fractals—“works with something of interest to offer at varying scales of attention.” Their larger design is reproduced in their smallest details. The whole is implied in the parts.[4]

Here is the apotheosis of technique, the prideful attention to craft. But what if literary texts (or at least a significant number of them) are not self-similar tissues of self-consistent details, but something looser, more informal, perhaps even more extemporaneous? An endeavor not to design something, but to say something? What if a novel or even a poem is not a verbal icon, but a voluble discourse? What if the most important thing about a literary work, in short, is not its technique, but its message?

At a stroke, textual errors become of deeper concern, because the problem is to make certain that you are getting the author’s message straight. At the same time, however, it becomes less pressing to settle upon an authoritative text, reflecting the author’s ultimate intention, because it is no longer the perfection of technique, the scaling of design, that is at issue—but what the author is trying to say.

The controversy over Carver’s stories has begun to convince me that literary criticism took a wrong turn some time ago, and needs to start paying less attention to texts and more attention to authors, which would mean (among other things) listening to what they have to say.

[1] Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement [1931] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 59–60.

[2] Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 446n.

[3] J. V. Cunningham, “Logic and Lyric,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), pp. 162–79.

[4] Hugh Kenner, “Self-Similarity, Fractals, Cantos,” in Historical Fictions (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), pp. 317–27.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Turning left

I have decided to become a Leftist. There really was no other choice. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

If you are publicly identified as a conservative, racist remarks will be invented for you, or homophobic views will be fabricated out of thin air, should you fail to provide the necessary evidence of your own depravity. That the accusations are false is utterly beside the question—no one will ever call foul—because, after all, the invented remarks and fabricated views are perfectly congruous with the image your opponents have of you. So much more fun to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the inventors and fabricators, who can revive McCarthyism—and from the Left this time around—without cost to themselves.

Count me in, then. I am now a proud member of the Left. Since conservatives do not attribute unstated views to those they oppose, I can write with a clear conscience from now on. Only what I actually say will be held against me. To be washed clean of all my secret unspoken racism and homophobia! I feel reborn!

I recommend that anyone else who stupidly remains on the Right, knowing he cannot even propose to make a cash investment without public outcry, join me in crossing over to the ranks of the righteous and inventive. From now on you know where to find me—on the Left.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Humbling

Philip Roth, The Humbling (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). 140 pp. $22.00.

Has Philip Roth decided that The Plot against America will be his last big ambitious novel? In the five years since it was published, he has written four small books, bidding farewell to Newark (Everyman), tying up loose ends (Exit Ghost, the last of the Zuckerman novels), and dilating on old subjects (Indignation). His latest, the twenty-sixth novel of Roth’s career, is little more than a novella—the sketch, drawn in quick strokes, of an actor who is humbled by his losses.

Sexual impotence, Roth says in The Counterlife, is “like an artist’s artistic life drying up for good.” In The Humbling, he reverses tenor and vehicle. At sixty-five, Simon Axler abruptly finds that his acting ability has deserted him; his “magic” is gone. He presses, he is wooden; no matter what the role, it feels wrong, alien. Asked to play Macbeth at the Kennedy Center, he fails appallingly; even those who do not see his performance say so. “No, they don’t even have to have been there,” Axler says, “to insult you.” Known as “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors,” he plummets into despair. His wife, a onetime ballerina, formerly Ballanchine’s favorite, leaves him; he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital for twenty-eight days. When he returns home, his agent seeks him out to tell him of an offer to play James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He believes that it’s a matter of confidence. “No, it’s a matter of falseness,” Axler replies, “sheer falseness so pervasive that all I can do is stand on the stage and tell the audience, ‘I’m a liar. And I can’t even lie well. I am a fraud.’ ”

Axler is not a method actor. As a young man of twenty-two he landed his first New York part before he had ever taken an acting class. On stage he riveted the attention; in class he was rotten. He was no good at exercises. “Everything I did well was coming out of instinct,” he says, but the famous “method” of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio (“create a reality for yourself to step into,” as Axler summarizes it) made him feel ridiculous. Pretending to drink tea from a pretend teacup, he would hear

a sly voice inside me saying, “There is no teacup.” Well, that sly voice has now taken over. No matter how I prepare and what I attempt to do, once I am on the stage there is that sly voice all the time—“There is no teacup.” . . . [I]t’s over: I can no longer make a play real for people. I can no longer make a role real for myself.It never occurs to him to become a teacher. What Axler has cannot be taught. To control it by means of reflection is to destroy it. He is like Plato’s Ion, the first link in a chain of the inspired.

The Humbling is a three-act drama. Act I chronicles the disappearance of Axler’s talent “Into Thin Air.” Act II is “The Transformation.” A forty-year-old lesbian, the daughter of friends from his youth, enters his life and becomes his lover. Named after “the strong-minded barmaid” in Playboy of the Western World, Pegeen Mike Stapleford pulls him from the slough of despond. Lithe, full-breasted, “with something of the child still in her smile,” she has recently escaped a six-year liaison with a professor at Montana State who decided “to have her breasts surgically removed and become a man.” Pegeen flees to a teaching job in Vermont, and drives across the state line into rural New York one afternoon to track Axler down. When he asks why, she says, “I wanted to see if anybody was with you.” “And when you saw?” “I thought, Why not me?”

They are together for seven months. During that time, Axler transforms Pegeen from a tomboy with cropped mannish hair and the gait of a sixteen-year-old. He buys her new jewelry, flattering new clothes, luxurious lingerie; he pays to have her hair styled by an expensive hairdresser in Manhattan, giving her a “cared-for devil-may-care air of slight dishevelment.” The transformation is so complete that Axler stops asking questions about their age difference, the gulf in their sexual histories, her parents’ reaction, their future.

He should have asked. Act III is “The Last Act.” Pegeen’s parents disapprove of the affair; they find it “wacky and ill advised”; her father suggests that Pegeen is “starstruck” by Axler’s fame, and promises to bring pressure upon her to end things. Eventually, she does just that—but not before, like Portnoy and the Monkey in Rome, the two of them pick up another woman for a night of three-way debauchery. Unlike the Monkey, she does not accuse Axler of degrading her, but two weeks later Pegeen announces that she made a mistake; a connection with Axler is not what she wants. “I wanted so much to see if I could do it,” she confesses. If for her it was an experiment in heterosexuality, for him the love affair was, she weeps, a substitute for his acting. Disgusted at the accusation, Axler tells her to go.

The truth is rather different. Axler creates a reality for Pegeen to step into, and obligingly she does. She plays Galatea to his Pygmalion, but in the end she finds, like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, that she cannot prolong the charade any longer. “I’m a slave,” Eliza cries, “for all my fine clothes.” Axler wants from Pegeen pretty much the same thing that Higgins wants from Eliza: he never thinks of anything else but making something of her. He is, to use Eliza’s words again, a bully and a cruel tyrant—or, rather, the theater is. Although Axler, admitting finally that the failure was his, feels himself “impaled” upon his own “bewildering biography,” that biography is merely a list of the dramatic roles that he has played over a theatrical career of forty-three years. It has never enabled him to become a man, but only a succession of parts. When the “magic” disappears, when he is no longer a “titan” upon the stage, as his agent describes him, he is left with himself—and it is not even puny. It is non-existent. Even his breakdown seems like “an act, a bad act.” His acting ability was not a form of knowledge, but of power. And when the power dries up, so does the man.

Except for The Breast and Our Gang, anything written by Roth is worth reading. In The Humbling, he opens up new territory. He has never before, I believe, written about acting and the theater. In I Married a Communist, Eve Frame is an actress, notoriously modeled upon ex-wife Claire Bloom, but Roth does not reflect upon acting there as he does here. Axler is a sort of anti-Roth, depending on sheer energy and bluff to perform his “magic,” while Roth is a humble tradesman, writing doggedly against the end of time. As a portrait of a man of the theater, who interprets all of life, including his own, through a theatrical lens, The Humbling is brilliant and a little frightening.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Concept of the unified text

As I observed in replying to Guy Pursey’s polite skepticism toward the parodic goof by which I pretended to make meaning out of the page breaks in Lolita, literary critics treat the text as if it were the unified product of a single mind, even when it is a composite assembly. The concept of a unified text is the unspoken presupposition behind all literary criticism.

This concept links post-1970 literary theory to the New Criticism, which it otherwise sought to take down a peg or two. Even someone like Stanley Fish, “who preach[es] the instability of the text and the unavailability of determinate meanings,” falls back on the concept. Fish holds that “the meaning of an utterance would be severely constrained, not after it was heard but in the ways in which it could, in the first place, be heard.”[1] The plurality of a text’s meaning, in other words, is a consequence of the different ways in which it could possibly be read. Plural meanings do not result from a multiplicity of sources of meaning within the text itself. The unitary text yields multiple interpretations because of its different reception in different “interpretive communities.” The text, though, remains unitary.

The problem is that literary critics accept on faith the published text that sits on the desk by their left elbow as they type up their conclusions. Uncurious about how it came to assume its current form, they treat the fact of publication as authoritative. The real author, whoever he or she is, quietly disappears from view.

Their lack of curiosity about the author’s text has repeatedly tripped critics up. Perhaps the most famous instance was when F. O. Matthiessen, discussing Melville’s working methods in American Renaissance, praises an arresting image in White-Jacket:

[H]ardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some “soiled fish of the sea.” The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.[2]The trouble was that Melville had not created the shudder. The “unexpected linking of . . . cleanliness with filth” was a compositor’s error. Melville had written “coiled fish of the sea.”

What is the moral of the story? According to Steven Mailloux, it is not quite right to say that “responsible editing is a necessary preliminary to sound criticism”; the more accurate conclusion would be that “editing is criticism”—that is, “editing is an extension of the same rhetorical activity that results in published arguments establishing a text’s literary and historical meaning. . . .”[3] But Mailloux also confuses the published text for the authoritative text. At best, the textual editor restores an text’s original unity—and to the end, of course, of establishing a new authoritative text upon its publication. The concept of a unified text remains unchanged and in charge.

There is a fundamental distinction between a textual scholar who corrects typos and a go-to-town editor like Gordon Lish, who carves an altogether new text out of the author’s pumpkin. Whether or not you agree with Mailloux’s assumption that critics and not authors establish a text’s “literary and historical meaning,” an editor like Lish establishes the published text out of which the critics, unconcerned about problems of authorship and authority, whip up interpretations.

I have been using Raymond Carver’s early story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” as my prooftext. Consider the last sentence of Carver’s original version when set alongside Lish’s edited version.

December, West Springs, Ill. (December 1966)
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)
He continued to stare, marvelling at the changes he dimly felt taking place inside him.
He turned and turned in what might have been a stupendous sleep, and he was still turning, marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him.

In disputing Lish’s editorial revisions with Kevin Neilson, who maintains that he is not troubled by them, I have repeatedly asked for an interpretation of the phrase impossible changes. He would not satisfy my request, but since then I have found one.

My own argument is that the phrase is meaningless, and for two reasons: (1.) it reflects Gordon Lish’s intention rather than Raymond Carver’s, and (2.) what the philosopher John Searle calls the “intention in action” that gives meaning to a literary utterance at the moment of composition is beyond human knowing, because there is no means of recovering the intention behind Lish’s one-word insertion. There is simply not enough evidence.

But this has not stopped critics from offering interpretations. In my first post on the problem, I cited a reading by Charles E. May that is invalidated by the critic’s ignorance of the text’s composite nature. Here is the reading that I found earlier today; it is even more strained than May’s. In American Literature, Kirk Nesset quotes the sentence as edited by Lish, and remarks: “With the repetition of the gerund, Carver suggests on the level of syntax the kinds of possibility residing in the ‘impossible,’ emphasizing that the road to recovery is part of the journey, too.”[4]

One gerund belongs to one man, the other to another—but Nesset assumes they belong to the same unified text, even though there is no authority whatever for such an assumption. Having made that assumption, though, Nesset can proceed to an interpretation of Lish’s one-word insertion impossible. The meaning arises from his own presupposition, arrived at in ignorance of the story’s textual history. The phrase impossible changes has meaning if and only if a unified text is assumed, but that assumption is, as I have shown, unwarranted and unsustainable.

Fish is right, then, that the ways in which “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” can be read are always constrained, but in post-1970 literary theory, as Foucault has said, the “system of constraint . . . will no longer be the author. . . .”[5] Questions of authorship are laughed off, but only because literary critics have invested authority in a published text whose history they are not interested in.

[1] Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 305–07.

[2] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 392.

[3] Steven Mailloux, “Reading Typos, Reading Archives,” College English (May 1999): 586.

[4] Kirk Nesset, “ ‘This Word Love’: Sexual Politics and Silence in Early Raymond Carver,” American Literature 63 (June 1991): 310.

[5] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 160.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The genius of page breaks

Under the pressure of Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland for raping an underage girl thirty-two years ago in Los Angeles, I have been reexamining Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. And I have been struck by the genius of the novel’s page breaks, which add a dimension of meaning and aesthetic power that critics have entirely overlooked until now.

Consider the masturbation scene relatively early in the novel, in which Humbert says that he had “stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor.” (I will pass over, with the greatest reluctance, the line break that inserts a hyphen in the word without, subtly undercutting the veracity of his claim. I am in quest of a gaudier grail.)

You will recall the scene. It is a Sunday morning in June. Humbert, in pajamas, is reading a magazine. Lolita enters the room, wearing a “pretty print dress.” As Humbert takes pains to observe, she “was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful. . .” (p. 57). But there the page breaks. A marvelous example of Derridean différance, the page break defers the satisfaction of knowledge and assigns meaning to the delay that must ensue while the page is being turned. Not only is Humbert’s pleasure drawn out, but so is the reader’s.

And the same holds true even when the page break falls on a verso instead of a recto page, a page that need not be turned. While Lolita is in his lap, wrestling him for the apple—for that is what she was holding, reader: a “beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple,” a detail that would have been disappointing without the page-turning delay, to say nothing of how the deferral of the biblical allusion serves the larger theme of his spiritual redemption—Humbert is “in a state of excitement bordering on insanity.” In order to bring his “masked lust” into contact with her “guileless limbs,” he diverts her attention while he “perform[s] the obscure adjustments necessary for the success of the trick” (p. 58).

The page breaks there. Humbert’s “obscure adjustments” are necessary for their own sake. They need not contribute to a larger “success.” The end-stop at the bottom of the page implies that, if the frolic had stopped there, Humbert would still have been proud of himself. The seduction of Lolita exists in discrete moments that are sufficient in themselves to constitute the heaven and hell of nympholepsy. They do not have to lead to anything greater, which is, in any event, merely the repetition of the pattern. It is this repetition—not the nympholepsy itself, but the endless recurrence of its self-imprisoning instants—that eventually dooms and destroys Humbert.

I could go on collecting and examining specimens. But consider the succession of page breaks after Humbert fetches Lolita from Camp Q and drives her to a nearby town for their first night together in a motel. Here they are, from p. 107 to p. 122, in order. I write them as a single sentence: “Having coy stranger and trouble positively driving fun its black examined the strange mo-protector tones.” The effect is astonishing. It is a foreshadowing of Quilty’s pursuit of them (it is he, after all, who is the “coy stranger”); not only does he spell “trouble” for Humbert, but he compels Lolita’s lover into “positively driving” to flee from him. Moreover, Quilty’s pursuit ends in “driving fun” from Humbert’s life, and what remains to him is “its black”—its evil—“examined.” From then on he must adopt “the strange mo-protector tones” (for he has replaced her mother, after all, as Lolita’s only parent: thus he is her “mo-protector”), the tones of a man who failed to protect her when he could and now is no longer able to.

A complete examination of the novel’s brilliant page breaks is beyond the scope of a blog post, but perhaps you begin to get the idea. Here is a dimension of art and meaning that remains to be explored more fully, and I only hope that I have made an initial contribution to the effort.

Müller wins Nobel

In a surprise decision, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the German-language Romanian novelist Herta Müller. I must admit that I was almost completely wrong in my prediction of the winner. (The only thing I got right is that a woman won.)

Müller may or may not belong to the international literary Left; from the available English-language sources, it is difficult to tell. And that is the point. (The other point I got wrong.) The most striking detail about her politics is her anti-Communism. She is famous in her native Romania for opposing the brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, at great personal cost, whom she described as second only to Stalin in his evil. She resigned from the German chapter of PEN when it merged with its counterpart in the former East Germany.

I haven’t read her, hadn’t even heard of her prior to the Nobel, but from what I have been about to find out so far, I find her a woman to admire.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Carver and authorial intention

The galleys for Carol Sklenicka’s forthcoming biography of Raymond Carver arrived yesterday. (Full disclosure: Carol and I are old friends.) After scouring the book for references to myself, I sat down to the problem that trips up anyone who takes more than a passing interest in the stories of my old teacher—namely, the problem of how much is Carver and how much is Gordon Lish, the editor who almost singlehandedly established Carver’s reputation as a “minimalist” while serving as fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1976.

When I knew him, Carver was no minimalist. The first story of his that I ever read, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”—reprinted in Short Stories from the Literary Magazines (1970), an anthology that he gave me soon after I had put myself under his tutelage—had a pleasant looseness, an ambling pace. I enjoyed the fact that it opened with background information and eased into the action rather than jumping in media res and expecting the reader to make sense of things.

According to Sklenicka, Lish “raved” about the story. The two men met in Palo Alto in 1968, and almost immediately Lish started in on it. “[I]f he had been editing that story,” Sklenicka recounts his telling Carver, “Ralph Wyman wouldn’t have stayed with his wife.” The story would have had a different ending. Carver’s first wife Maryann said, “Well, that’s just the point, Gordon. It isn’t your story. You didn’t write it.”

A decade after its original publication in Curt Johnson’s little magazine December, Lish got his hands on it. Having convinced Nabokov’s publisher McGraw-Hill, a New York house better known for textbooks and trade journals, to issue a collection of Carver’s stories, Lish buckled down to work on it. Sklenicka says that he

shap[ed] the individual stories to make a distinctive collection. In most cases, he first edited photocopies of magazine versions of the stories and then reedited on typescripts made from that first editing. Carver discussed this editing with Lish and ultimately approved it, with reservations. It appears that Carver, hampered by his alcoholism and eagerness to see the book appear, made compromises with Lish.She compares Lish to a “sound recording engineer” who might “bring up one instrument and play down another. . . .”

I am not so sure. Here, for example, is a side-by-side comparison of the opening paragraph in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” The first column is the magazine version, first drafted in 1964 and published in 1966, and the second is Lish’s version, edited in 1975 and published in 1976.

December, West Springs, Ill. (December 1966)
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)
When he was 18 and left home for the first time, in the fall, Ralph Wyman had been advised by his father, principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Weaverville and trumpet-player in the Elks Club Auxiliary Band, that life today was a serious matter; something that required strength and direction in a young person just setting out. A difficult journey, everyone knew that, but nevertheless a comprehensible one, he believed.
When he was eighteen and left home for the first time, Ralph Wyman was counseled by his father, principal of Jefferson Elementary School and trumpet soloist in the Weaverville Elks Club Auxiliary Band, that life was a very serious matter, an enterprise insisting on strength and purpose in a young person just setting out, an arduous undertaking, everyone knew that, but nevertheless a rewarding one, Ralph Wyman’s father believed and said.

To my ear, only one of Lish’s changes is an improvement (moving Weaverville from a prepositional phrase after “Jefferson Elementary School” to modify “Elks Club Auxiliary Band”). The remainder accomplish little more than to put Lish’s stamp on Carver’s prose—to rewrite the story as Lish’s own, just as Maryann Carver feared he secretly wanted to do.

The endings are nearly unrecognizable as two versions of the same story. Lish cuts about five hundred words from the third and final section. In the original version, Ralph Wyman faces an existential crisis after returning home despite learning of his wife’s infidelity:In the kitchen he laid his head down on his arms over the table. How should a man act? How should a man act? Not just now, in this situation, for today and tomorrow, but every day on this earth. He felt suddenly there was an answer, that he somehow held the answer himself and that it was very nearly out if only he could think about it a little longer. Then he heard [his children] Robert and Dorothea stirring. He sat up slowly and tried to smile as they came into the kitchen.Lish does not quite cut the heart out of this passage, but he discards the pericardium:In the kitchen he let his head down onto his arms as he sat at the table. He did not know what to do. Not just now, he thought, not just in this, not just about this, today and tomorrow, but every day on earth. Then he heard the children stirring. He sat up and tried to smile as they came into the kitchen.In her biography, Sklenicka is generous enough to cite my speculation that Carver in his fiction is “something of an Augustinian figure. At the heart of his mystery lurks an unsayable Other, who eludes all efforts at definition.” Well, at least my speculation is appropriate to Carver’s original version of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” It is entirely off the mark when Lish’s version is substituted for the original.

The heavy-handed editing of his early stories, which transformed Carver from an Augustinian to a minimalist, is a problem upon which all critics must break their teeth, although most would prefer not to. Despite the widespread kiss-off of authorial intention in literary study today—it derives from a misunderstanding of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “Intentional Fallacy” coupled with a sedulous cuddling up to Barthes’s “Death of the Author”—the concept is indispensable to textual criticism. The idea of an authoritative text, such as that recently released by the Library of America under the title Collected Stories, takes for granted that an author’s final intention is represented.

But who is the author of the official version of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” When critics praise the story’s effects, what are they praising? Lish’s editorial revisions do not build upon a cumulative sentence-by-sentence effect, because that effect was painstakingly developed by the man who wrote the story sentence by sentence. Lish swooped in to pluck at the carcass of sentences he believed that he could write better.

In an essay on Carver’s fiction, Charles E. May quotes critics who characterize “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” as a “precursor” to the later minimalist stories, because more background and “authorial guidance” are provided. “However,” he goes on, “the key to the ‘impossible changes’ that Ralph feels moving over him at the end of the story cannot be attributed to any articulable understanding he has achieved, but rather the mysterious visual image he recalls of seeing his wife on the balcony of their honeymoon house in Mexico”—that is, to a characteristic minimalist effect.[1]

Yet the phrase impossible changes is Lish’s. The original version ended with Ralph’s “marvelling at the changes he dimly felt taking place inside him.” Lish altered the last sentence. In his revised version, Ralph is “marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him.”

To what, though, does the adjective impossible refer? What knowledge would make it possible to answer this question, given that Carver’s intention in writing the original sentence has been discarded and Lish’s intention is squirreled away in four small but significant verbal alterations?

In his critical essay, May scolds other critics for focusing on the sensuality of Ralph’s wife Marian on the balcony of their honeymoon house. They should be focusing instead on Carver’s words: namely, the image reminds Ralph of “something from a film, an intensely dramatic moment into which Marian could be fitted but he could not.” Again, though, this sentence belongs to Lish and not to Carver. In the magazine version, the incident “was always a little vaguely disturbing [to Ralph] for some reason.” What becomes of May’s interpretation when it turns out that the sentence upon which it rests is not the author’s?

If the success of Carver’s story depends upon Lish’s editing, in what sense can it be described as a work of art rather than a cut-and-paste composite? Were all the finicky verbal alterations necessary? And to what extent do the many changes reflect a stable, subsuming conception? What was the attitude behind them? Do they demonstrate a remarkable intuition into the state of Carver’s mind? Or do they obscure and perhaps even bastardize his original intention? And how is anyone to know which changes Carver “ultimately approved” of, even “with reservations”?

Where, in short, is the text? Why should either be described as final and authoritative? Or is one great and the other not so much? Until questions like these are at least entertained if not fully answered, there really can be no informed discussion of Raymond Carver as an important American writer. At least I need to answer them for myself—to recognize the man who was once my friend and teacher.

[1] Charles E. May, “ ‘Do You See What I'm Saying?’ The Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of Story in the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver,” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 43–44.