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.


Kevin said...

Out of curiosity, what's your assessment of the literary status of Joyce's Ulysses?

The delight of difficulties overcome, oder obstacles in the form of writerly antics, etc.?


D. G. Myers said...

Who doesn’t admire Ulysses?

Kevin said...

I don't. The reasons are surely manifold — a certain tone deafness on my part, maybe a temperamental quirk, or even a hormonal antipathy. In any event, I've been on page 468 for about five years. Many people whose opinion I respect urge me to soldier one. Which I'll likely do. But I do find Ulysses a masochistic reading experience. Dreadful really.


Fran Manushkin said...

I thought you'd want to know about a brief video interview with Phillip Roth here:

shade said...

The issue for me is not difficulty per se. I'm very willing to grapple with difficult books if there is sufficient reward in doing so. I think a lot of the debate has been over whether difficulty in itself is good or bad. It's neither! Some things are inherently difficult to express, such as the fine (some would argue imaginary) gradations of feeling and sensibility with which we are faced in The Ambassadors or Proust's The Captive, but in each of these cases (especially Proust) we are rewarded for our hard work by the sense and understanding that the author has made possible for us, but that could not have been expressed in any other way.

The single most difficult thing I've ever read -- more difficult than Ulysses, Under the Volcano, The Sound and the Fury, V., Beckett's trilogy -- was Paradise Lost, for Pete's sake. My God, the syntax made my head hurt. What I thought was a noun would turn out, halfway through the 30-line sentence, to be a verb, and vice versa. But who would argue that the summit wasn't worth the trek?

Some summits, for me, aren't worth it. I've read exactly two of Pynchon's novels. V. was worth it, though it was 3-4 times the length and effort of The Crying of Lot 49, which wasn't. Pale Fire -- and every other Nabokov I've read but one -- worth it; Ada, not. (But I trust Nabokov so much that I will probably give Ada another go at some point.

People who dismiss difficulty out of hand are to me the equivalent of people who only do the New York Times crossword on Mondays and Tuesdays. On the other hand, people who worship difficulty for its own sake are people who think the highest level of human achievement is to solve the NYT puzzle on Saturdays and Sundays.

D. G. Myers said...

You muddling together two different kinds of difficulty, Shade. The difficulty of Paradise Lost is the difficulty of something that requires effort. The difficulty of the Cantos—or even, I am beginning to fear after nearly forty years of reading it, The Sound and the Fury—is the difficulty of missing referents.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I have come to suspect that missing referents explains much of the difficulty of Ada.

I'd love to hear what you mean about The Sound and the Fury. Pretty sure I understand what you mean about Pound.

shade said...

I would have thought I was muddling together a lot more than two. Maybe 7, in Empson's honor. I think perhaps what I mean by "reward" includes (but isn't exhausted by) what you mean by "referents"; in other words, referents for the linguistic difficult expressions are necessary, but not sufficient. But it also seems to me that there are referents that are nevertheless impossible to describe in a paraphrase of the words the author has chosen. Let me ask you this: in your view, are there referents for all the descriptions of shades of feeling in James or did he just "chew more than he bit off"? What about Hopkins? Must I trace through and fully understand all of his references to satisfy myself that they are there? Both of these authors seem worth study (not that I have enough time or even the tools for it) because I think the shadows I detect are shadows of something real, not just tricks of the light.

Jonathan said...

Congratulations on the anniversary!

I hope you might clarify a point for me.

You write: "The poem achieves its power, not through the extra-textual knowledge..." but rather "...because the language seems so effortless, falling into place without agonizing over it...".

Is this not, at least in part, contradictory to your earlier position regarding Carver and Lish? At the time, you seemed to assert that extra-textual knowledge was central to how we read Carver's short stories. Meaning, or power (to use your word from this post), was inextricable from such information.

I've spent the weekend mulling over this apparent contradiction, and still can't reconcile the two.

That extra-textual knowledge is necessary to assess Carver's work, but not Gunn's, puzzles me. Are you saying the evaluation of a poem rest on the power of the writing, while the evaluation of a short story depends on extra-textual considerations?

I am enjoying the direction you've been taking us lately.