Friday, January 29, 2010

Sex and the novel

“[T]he very sound of the word ‘sex’ with its hissing vulgarity and the ‘ks, ks’ catcall at the end,” Nabokov’s narrator says in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, “seems so inane to me that I cannot help doubting whether there is any real idea behind the word.” Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas. It is, Roth writes in The Human Stain, “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.”

What Nabokov and Roth have in common is that both conceive sex as the sex act. Human sexuality for them, and for most novelists, is genital sexuality—“friction and shallow fun,” as Kepesh puts it in The Dying Animal. But this sense of the word sex is no more recent than the turn of the twentieth century, if the OED is to be believed. The earlier meaning (the “distinction between male and female . . . as a social or cultural phenomenon, and its manifestations or consequences”) has been permanently colored by the twentieth-century fascination with friction and fun. When Miss Paynham watches Diana Merion flirting with Percy Dacier in George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways—one of the illustrative quotations provided by the OED—she sees

a damsel castigatingly pursued by the idea of sex as the direct motive of every act of every person surrounding, her; deductively therefore that a certain form of the impelling passion, mild or terrible, or capricious, or it might be less pardonable, was unceasingly at work among the human couples up to decrepitude.One hundred and twenty-five years later it is almost impossible to read this passage without hearing sex as “sexual desire.” Meredith’s point, if the clotted prose can be thinned a little, seems to be that sexual difference, and the “impelling passion” to bridge or close or preserve or widen it, underlie all human activity.

Before the twentieth century, “sex” referred to what is now called romance, more or less. Once it was uncoupled from flirtation, courtship, seduction, marriage, pregnancy, and children—once it was narrowed to genital strife—it ceased to be an idea and became a scandal. Novelists wrote sex scenes, and the remainder of human sexual experience wasn’t even left to the imagination, because few novelists even imagined it was there. The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

Salinger’s death

J. D. Salinger’s death on Wednesday at the age of ninety-one puts an end to one of America’s strangest literary careers. John Podhoretz has a nice summary here. I said pretty much all I have to say about Salinger last July, shortly after he sued to prevent the publication of a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye.

“Perhaps there is gold to be mined in his New Hampshire home in the form of the manuscripts he was said to labor over,” Podhoretz writes. And that is the only question outstanding about Salinger. My guess is that nothing substantial or finished will turn up. Although The Catcher in the Rye is among the fifty greatest English-language novels published since 1880, Salinger never published anything else approaching it. Increasingly it looked like a freak. Although Nine Stories contained some charming stuff, and influenced some better writers who came after him, Salinger had just the one book in him. One book is sufficient for literary immortality, though—if the book is immortal. I don’t know whether Catcher is. But it has sure proved to be durable.

Update: John Podhoretz has posted a parodic obituary that appeared on Facebook.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Conservative novels

At the National Review’s staff blog, The Corner, John J. Miller has released the magazine’s list of top ten conservative novels:

  1. Allen Drury, Advise and Consent
  2. John Dos Passos, Midcentury
  3. Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet
  4. Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained
  5. Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome
  6. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
  7. Charles McCarry, Shelley’s Heart
  8. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  9. Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka
10. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

The list is admittedly bare and unadorned, since the February 8th issue of the magazine will also include a “capsule review of each,” according to Miller—and probably a defense of its inclusion.

As Dos Passos’s title suggests, only American novels published “since the 1950s”—to be more exact, since 1959, when Allen Drury’s political potboiler was first published—were considered. Even with those restrictions, the list is strangely disappointing.

Drury, Dos Passos, and Kelton deserve a place only on a list of recommended books far more extensive than this one. (Well, the late Dos Passos, at least. In his fifties he may have turned against his own youthful Leftism, but his literary talents did not keep pace with his political opinions.) Tom Wolfe, with all his stylistic gifts, is not really a novelist. And The Thanatos Syndrome is not Percy’s most interestingly conservative book.

Only three novels on NR’s top-ten list really merit their inclusion, I think: Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Shelley’s Heart, and Gilead. (Full disclosure: last year I extravagantly praised McCarry’s novel in Commentary on the occasion of its reprinting by Overlook Press. It is, in my view, a polit­ical classic which examines in complex human detail how the American Left came to exist at all, let alone to complete its long march through the institutions.) And of course here on A Commonplace Blog I categorized Bellow’s masterpiece as one of the ten best English-language novels since the death of George Eliot (an unremarked conservative novelist in her own right).

The question, of course, is what makes a novel conservative. There are nearly as many definitions of conservatism as there are conservatives. The best, because the most comprehensive, belongs to Michael Oakeshott, who says that conservatism is “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition.” It’s a habit of mind; it’s a natural inclination. It is a “propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else.” Its motto is not Faust’s dying words (“Stay with me! You are so beautiful!”); Faust is a great liberal; its motto is “Stay with me! I am so attached to you!” The conservative is thus suspicious of change. He is “not inclined to think that nothing is happening unless great changes are afoot.” What is more, he knows that change is a “threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction.” “Radical change!” moaned J. V. Cunningham, another notable conservative—“the root of human woe.”

From this angle, conservative novels would come in two leading varieties: one that enjoys a life and a world, another that grieves at their loss, its damage to people’s identity. And the most conservative American novelist of all time, then, would have to be Nabokov. Pnin combines a deep pleasure in America with the sadness of losing Russia. A good deal of Timofey Pnin’s charm (and awkwardness) derives from that combination. No expression of tragic conservatism is more poignant than Pnin’s resolution “never to remember” Mira (whom he once loved, who died in Buchenwald), “because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

Welty’s last novel The Optimist’s Daughter, written in the aftermath of her mother’s death, is another conservative novel on this understanding of conservatism. Returning home to Mississippi for her father’s funeral, Laurel McKelva Hand must confront memories of her parents as well as her husband and the happiness she lost when they died. At the end of the novel, though, she realizes that “For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”—a love she still enjoys, even after the death of those she loved. (Not incidentally, James once said that “an optimist is pretty like to be a conservative.”)

But Oakeshott’s “disposition” to enjoy the continuity of present and past is not the only meaning of conservatism, especially in America. Its essence, according to Robert Nisbet, is “the protection of the social order—family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost—from the ravishments of the centralized political state.” A book like John Williams’s Augustus, the 1973 historical novel which tells the story of the Roman republic’s descent into imperial dictatorship, neatly expresses the horror of the state, particularly since it is narrated by the emperor himself. (Williams is also the author of Stoner, another conservative novel, which is about the unshakable attachment to scholarship.)

But not just the state. The conservative also mocks the ravishment of traditional institutions by liberal elites, and perhaps more than anything, he scorns ideology—the rage to pursue an abstract ideal at the expense of the heat generated by human contact, the insistence upon knowing what is best for people, the inability to leave them alone.

The former spirit is nicely typified by The Mackerel Plaza, Peter DeVries’s hilarious send-up of liberal Protestantism with its horror of a back-sliding piety; the latter, by American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s conscience-stricken account of the New Left’s seduction by terrorism.

Roth’s novel shows that the best conservative novels are not always written by conservatives. There is, in fact, a special genre of conservative American novel that pokes fun at liberals, and some of the richest examples are written by liberals. In Wilfrid Sheed’s People Will Always Be Kind, a golden-tongued young liberal senator runs for president, although he is not sure what he will really do if he gets elected—or, for that matter, what he really believes. (President Obama was only twelve when it was published.) The Believers is a more recent example of the genre.

Finally, Walker Percy’s most fulfilling conservative novel is The Second Coming. Will Barrett has become suicidal since the events narrated in The Last Gentleman. But then he meets a girl, a former mental patient, living in an abandoned greenhouse. She is recovering from madness by learning to enjoy what is available. She finds an old wood-burning stove in the basement of a ruined house, and she teaches herself to hoist it into the greenhouse. Otherwise she is so alienated from the world, and especially its abstractions, that she can make little sense of them. Will and she become friends by educating each other. As he puts it, “I need you for hoisting and you need me for interpretation.” Only a conservative could say such a thing.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Life has come crashing down, leaving me with small energy and less to say. Will resume blogging sooner rather than later, though.

Update: I am grateful for the expressions of concern. I have not been sick. Ordinary life, and what James calls the harassment of its obligations, is what has plagued me. The house, the cars, the commute, the job, the wife—they have not given me the peace in which to collect any thoughts. Sometimes it just all catches up with you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Literary Life

Larry McMurtry, Literary Life: A Second Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009). 175 pp. $24.00.

The present volume, the middle layer of a triple-decker memoir, “is mainly about how the books came to me,” Larry McMurtry says. A self-described “midlist author,” McMurtry is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning cattle-drive saga Lonesome Dove (1985), although he has written better novels and worse—thirty in all. “Little of my work in fiction is pedestrian,” he ventures, trying to account for “the literary establishment’s long disinterest” in his work, “but, on the other hand, none of it is really great.” A contemporary of Philip Roth, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Joyce Carol Oates, he is neither a literary celebrity nor an advanced novelist with a cult following. Why then does he suppose that very many readers, most of whom have read only a few of his books—I myself have read only ten—will be particularly interested in how the books came to him?

He himself does not really care about his novels once they are written:

I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book [Horseman, Pass By, 1961], but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat. . . . I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer’s life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences,not in talking about them afterwards. Literary Life is not about the genesis of “midlist” fiction, then. What really diverts McMurtry is gossip.

Thus he confides that his friendship with Ken Kesey, formed when they were both Wallace Stegner Fellows in creative writing at Stanford in 1960, soured after Lonesome Dove captured the Pulitzer Prize. The last time that John Updike sent a letter, he chided McMurtry on the price of a “nice copy” of E. B. White’s Every Day Is Saturday that McMurtry, who doubles as a rare-book dealer, was asking—even though it was a “very good price.” Willie Morris was so upset with McMurtry’s review of The Last of the Southern Girls that he crossed to the other side of the street every time he passed McMurtry’s bookstore in Washington. Calvin Trillin ate all the sushi, “as is his habit,” at a reading at the 92nd Street Y. Susan Sontag stormed out of a PEN American Center fund-raising gala, because she was seated at a table with people who didn’t know who she was.

Not all the gossip is about writers. For several years Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, used the third floor of McMurtry’s Washington bookstore as a study. Wieseltier kept a framed portrait of the French enthusiast for violence and pornography Georges Bataille on his desk along with “scholarly papers on anesthesia and anesthesiology.” Why McMurtry encouraged the worst habits of the man who once said “Maybe I am so sick of self-importance because I am so given to it” is beyond understanding.

Wieseltier excelled at “the phenomenon of networking, as practiced at the highest level in D.C., Paris, London, and a few other capitals.” Although he claims no talent at getting to know people of any importance, McMurtry includes gossip about other such non-writers as Peter Jennings, the director Peter Bogdanovich and his best girl Cybill Shepherd, former San Antonio mayer Henry Cisneros (who “brusquely insulted” him, though he doesn’t say how), Washington hostesses Barbara Howar and Katharine Graham, and Pamela Harriman, the “greatest horizontale of her era.”

His reason becomes clear when McMurtry reveals that his “idols” include the gossip columnist Taki Theodoracopulos. He has subscribed to the Spectator, he says, while living in three different cities, “just in order to read him.” What does he admire about Taki? “I suppose because he is able to make a lot of rich strangers interesting,” he says. And, sadly, this is typical of the literary comment in his memoir. It is loose, and McMurtry has taken no effort to screw it down tight.

As a great fan of the novelist Janet Lewis, whom I have praised here and here, I was heartened to learn that McMurtry appreciates her too. “Her brilliant novella The Wife of Martin Guerre is one of the finest of American short fiction,” he says without saying more. (What does he mean by “short fiction”? Earlier in the book he had complained that writing programs are founded upon “an obviously mistaken theory, the theory being that it is easier to write something short than to write something long.” And then he goes on to suggest that short stories are a separate species of fiction, unrelated to the novel, although he does not elaborate. Is he assigning Lewis’s Wife to the former rather than the latter? With what consequences? He doesn’t say.)

McMurtry is faithful to his method. Terms of Endearment is his best novel, although he does not say why. After reading one hundred and sixty studies of the novel, he concludes that the best are F. R. Leavis’s Great Tradition, along with Leavis’s wife Queenie’s Fiction and the Reading Public, “adding, for its brilliance, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature,” which is concerned with the novel only in part. Why are these three the best? He doesn’t say. The “Scroll” edition of On the Road is better than the “tamer, shorter version that Viking tidied up and published in 1957.” Why? It is “a far richer book.” Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety are “both excellent novels, though, personally, I have a slight preference for Crossing to Safety.” Say no more!

What is gained by preserving such comments, which do not even rise to the level of a bored and disengaged interview? Beyond the need to scratch the itch to write, I mean. McMurtry recently announced that Rhino Ranch, published last August, would be his final novel. And I must say that I am not surprised. I once craved his writing so desperately that I attempted the superhuman feat of plowing through the 800-page Lonesome Dove at a single go, the same day it was published, staying up all night to do so. But I stopped reading him the very next year. Texasville (1987) was a steep falling off from his previous books, but it was even worse than that. It was slapdash and superficial, with a significance that was skin-deep. It was a candid record of McMurtry’s self-satisfaction.

After winning the Pulitzer Prize and seeing three of his novels turned into successful and critically acclaimed films (Hud, from his first novel Horseman, Pass By, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment), perhaps McMurtry had nothing left to prove. Perhaps he had settled for another kind of success after giving up on the literary establishment’s ever showing some interest in his work. Literary Life is mistitled, because it does not recall a literary life but rather the decline into literary indifference of a man who many years ago wrote some pretty decent books.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The moral act of writing

“Writing,” Patrick Kurp remarks this morning, “is a moral act (a tautology if we assume every human act possesses a moral component).”

This statement needs to be fleshed out to be exact, I am afraid. I worry about the sentence quoted by Jake Seliger a few days ago from Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound (1981): “He’s not merely a monster, he’s a great moralist too.” The moralist is a monster—of morality. He does not engage in moral reflection, but in moral legislation. He knows right and wrong clearly and in advance, because he has reduced human experience to a universal code, which admits of no exceptions. If he cooked as badly as he moralizes, his dishes would be tasteless reproductions of laboratory-tested recipes. He is under the delusion that morality, like good cooking, can be set down in black and white, and he is just the man to do so.

But this is not possibly what Kurp means. He doesn’t mean that writing is a moralizing act. A great writer is not a monster and a great moralist too. Nor does Kurp mean, I think, that writing is the labor to produce what the novelist John Gardner called, to the consternation of those who might otherwise have agreed with him, “moral fiction.” For Gardner, writing in 1978, this was a species of fiction distinguished from (and opposed to) experimental fiction or metafiction or self-conscious fiction. It is a paradox universally acknowledged that fiction can be amoral or even immoral in intention while holding itself to a chaste and persistent morality in realizing its intentions.

Writing is a moral act, because it demands complete autonomy (to be in thrall, whether to an employer or an ideology, is not to write but merely to recirculate stock phrases and received ideas), freedom from coercion of any kind, including moral fashion, and the refusal to quit until an adequate reaction to the literary situation at hand is carried off. What Michael Oakeshott said about religion applies equally well to writing. “In religion,” Oakeshott said, “we achieve goodness, not by becoming better, but by losing ourselves in God.” In writing a man achieves goodness—that is, morality—not by becoming a better man through the habit of composition, nor even less by laying down the moral law, but by losing himself in the text he is now writing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Literary mashups

A Canadian reporter has asked my opinion of literary mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Christine Rosen’s essay “Doing a Reverse Bowdler” in the December issue of Commentary is the definitive answer. Rosen concluded:

Ultimately, these mashups present a postmodern puzzle: the books themselves are an argument that we need not learn anything from books—at least not those books in the literary canon. After all, how can you write a novel of manners in an era that recognizes none? And so the canon becomes embellishment for what we really seek: easy entertainment.But why dismember Jane Austen for “easy entertainment”? And why is it doubtful that we’ll be seeing Crime and Punishment and Mummies or Remembrance of Things Mutant on bookstore shelves any time soon?

For one thing, Austen has already been swallowed up by popular culture. The spanking new mashups represent merely the latest attempt to “update” her. As of a decade ago, over sixty sequels to her novels had been published, starting in 1913 with Sybil G. Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies, and the pace has only quickened since then—with titles like Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart and Mr. Darcy’s Great Escape due to be released this year. To say nothing of the multivolume Jane Austen Mystery series or the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries. Not only has each of her six novels been filmed, starting in 1940 with MGM’s Pride and Prejudice, from a script by Aldous Huxley, but she has also been the source or inspiration for films like Clueless or The Jane Austen Book Club or From Prada to Nada, now filming, which is described as a “Latina spin on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.” And then there are the self-help books like The Jane Austen Companion to Love and Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades and Horrible Blunders. As Martin Amis observes, “Jane Austen, with her divine comedies of love, has always effortlessly renewed herself for each generation of readers”—and if she can’t quite do it on her own, assistants will be glad to step in.

In part, then, the mashups are just an aftermarket product like chrome rims or rear spoilers. But they must also appeal to new readers, who want something like a video-game version of Austen. Not that the two audiences are all that different: neither has any real desire to encounter Austen firsthand. If they were entranced by Austen rather than secondary effects like Regency manners or the self-improvement of romance, they would continue their reading, not with sequels and mashups, but with Austen’s literary heirs—and I don’t mean the authors of “chick lit.” (Her direct line of descent is through George Eliot out of Henry James to Edith Wharton.) The mashups and sequels appeal to a crowd not far different from college students who read Cliff’s Notes instead of the novels on a course list: they are the sort of person who prefers hearing about sex to having it.

Do the mashups portend anything for literature’s future? At the beginning of the year, I predicted, jokingly, that Amazon would release a Kindle that is fully compatible with Nintendo’s Wii. I am starting to think better of the joke. Some kind of “interactive” fiction is coming. But only novels with an extraliterary reputation, which have clambered off the page into a culture of received images—The Count of Monte-Cristo, perhaps, or The War of the Worlds or even Lolita, I am sorry to say—will lend themselves to future mashups with a user interface. No one who is absorbed with words will be particularly interested in creating an avatar of himself to explore the Château d’If or fight off a Martian invasion of England or accompany Humbert Humbert in chasing down Quilty.

Update, I: Misty Harris, the Canwest News Service reporter who asked about literary mashups, has told me that, earlier today, “Quirk Books announced a third mashup in its series, to be released in June: Android Karenina. (I hope you're sitting down.)”

Update, II: In a review of his You Are Not a Gadget in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds quotes Jaron Lanier on the wider provenance of the publishing phenomenon: “Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups. It is a culture of malaise.” Lanier is troubled by the slogan of online culture (“Information wants to be free”), which has the effect of devaluing original work. If longterm projects are completed and published only to be pirated and file-swapped and mashed up, how many will invest the time and effort in longterm projects?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Our national incoherence

Slavery, as Walker Percy says, is America’s original sin. The American people are a massa damnata, a “lump of sin,” which must be exorcised regularly. Thus Sen. Harry Reid’s comments from the 2008 presidential campaign, reported on Friday in Marc Ambinder’s Atlantic blog, that Barack Obama is a “ ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one’ ” has set off the well-rehearsed routine of public accusation, confession, and forgiveness. In Christian theology, “concupiscence” is the result of original sin; in America, the result is a tongue-tied incoherence. None of us knows how to talk about race. We don’t speak our minds but the moral fashion, because we are deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Sen. Reid’s comments were certainly impolitic, especially when uttered to a reporter, but why were they wrong? Both of his phrases are current in American conversation—at least when used in the publicly sanctioned ways.

Thus the term light-skinned can be used by “whites,” but only to establish that they are on the correct side of the “race question.” Just last month, in the St. Petersburg Times, Steve Persall pointed out that, “in early previews” of Disney’s new animated film The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s suitor “was noticeably light-skinned, causing pundits on both sides of the race question to doubt Disney’s dedication to diversity.” To avoid trouble, Disney darkened his complexion before the film’s release.

The month before, in the Manchester Guardian, Hadley Freeman faulted Lee Daniels’s film Precious for “its depiction of skin colour. A particularly poignant expression of Precious’ self-loathing is her hatred of her dark skin: she dreams of having ‘a light-skinned boyfriend’ and when she looks in the mirror, she fantasises that she sees a white woman.”

African Americans use the term more pointedly. In a July article on “colorism” in the Washington Post, the law professor Alice M. Thomas was quoted in rhyme: “If you are light, you are all right. If you are brown, you can stick around. If you are black, get back.” Adopting more scholarly tones, the economist Darrick Hamilton observed that, among husband-hunting black women younger than thirty, there is “a premium associated with light-skinned complexion.”

So Sen. Reid’s wrong was to use the expression light-skinned while being “white”? Or to use it in reference to an actual person instead of cartoon characters, erotic fantasies, or generalized marriage preferences? I must admit that the exact nature of his moral offense is unclear to me.

Same goes with the phrase negro dialect. It was common in philological scholarship after 1870, although it was replaced in contemporary linguistics by “black English” after 1969 and “ebonics” by the mid-seventies. It is frankly more unusual in current speech, but shows up occasionally. In his musical “Passing Strange,” for example, the singer and songwriter Mark Stewart (known on stage as Stew) remarks that his mother liked to assume “the Negro dialect” when she scolded her son about his lack of religion. In this way, according to New Yorker drama critic Hilton Als, he “send[s] up the standard American theatrical device of making black performers sound more ‘real’ by substituting ‘de’ for ‘the.’ ”

“Whites” sometimes use the phrase too, and not ironically. In reviewing a novel entitled Orange Laughter for the Washington Post in 2000, Carolyn See complained that it was “populated by familiar figures and stock situations and Negro dialect as heavy as a migraine headache.” Earlier that same year, in his New York Times column “On Language,” William Safire informed his readers that the “earliest recorded uses of uh-huh were in the late 19th century by magazine fiction writers transcribing Negro dialect, more as exclamation than affirmation.”

Americans daily receive a mixed message. On the one hand, we are urged to consider race whenever we compile a reading list or celebrate achievement (Obama is “the first African-American President,” Wayne Embry was “the first African-American general manager in the NBA,” Michael Beach was “the first African-American to play a romantic leading role in a Shakespearean play on the main stage at Juilliard”); on the other hand, we are dissuaded from talking about race by the consequences of talking about it wrongly—and by the utter incoherence of what passes for right and wrong in race talk.

It is time to dispense with race, which does not exist in any event, as a classification of any kind.

Update: Peter Beinart defends Sen. Reid by saying that, except for his use of the word Negro, which was “unplesantly retro,” “everything else about his statement is undeniably correct.”

The problem, then, would seem to be that of a name. Since race does not exist as a scientific category—geneticists have found that skin color is controlled by just one of at least 19,599 protein-coding human genes, reducing it to a genetically insignificant difference between persons—the problem of trying to distinguish and designate a group variously known as Negroes and blacks and African Americans is magnified. There is no easy solution to the problem. What do we call “African Americans” who aren’t, well, from the U.S.? The most elegant solution is to expose the problem as a non-problem. We need to stop talking about race altogether just as we have stopped relying upon phrenology to make judgments about people.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Doing both at once

The Language Log recently fielded a query about the difference between two English sentences:

(1) He was playing a violin when the visitor arrived.
(2) He was playing the violin when the visitor arrived.
Geoffrey K. Pullum replied sensibly that, while “[b]oth (1) and (2) are simply saying that he was engaged in violin-playing when the visitor arrived,” there is nevertheless a discernible difference between them:If you view violin as a count noun denoting individual objects 4-stringed objects with f-holes, then if he was playing a particular one of those objects, sentence (1) is appropriate. But you can also view violin as referring to a sort of abstract object, the species of musical instrument known by that name around the world. In that case the claim is that he was participating in a sort of worldwide fraternity of violinists by engaging in the relevant activity. No particular violin is relevant. And that makes the second sentence acceptable.This seems exactly right, even though it reminds me of Brenda’s quip in Goodbye, Columbus. When a young man goes on pretentiously about “the film,” Brenda snaps, “Which film?” In both cases, the definite article denotes a class or category, what in literary criticism would be called a genre: it is prefixed to a noncount noun, which refers to a tradition of human activity or what Pullum calls a “worldwide fraternity.” (More in a moment on why I prefer the former phrase.)

But then Pullum makes a claim that strikes me as inexact at best, false at worst. While I can only play one particular violin or watch one particular film at any one time, I stand in what he calls a “player-of [or watcher-of] relation to the whole species” whenever I play or watch. Consequently, “whenever one happens, the other one always happens as well,” he concludes, emphasizing every word.

But is that true?

Here are two similar sentences:(1) We are studying a novel this week in Myers’s class.
(2) We are studying the novel this week in Myers’s class.
Pullum would be on safe ground, in my opinion, if he were to argue that no one in my class could possibly do (2) without also doing (1). The study of the tradition of the novel is forever dependent upon the study of discrete and individual novels. But is the reverse the case? Is someone who reads a novel to kill a stretch of time—before falling asleep at night, say, or on the beach during vacation—necessarily engaging with the tradition?

Accepting Pullum’s language makes me even more skeptical. Is a middle-school student, enrolled in orchestra as an elective, who never practices and leaves his instrument at school—I have just described myself at a younger age—really “participating in a sort of worldwide fraternity of violinists” when he saws at the strings lackadaisically in class?

I don’t think so. On my view, an activity like playing the violin or studying the novel is a fusion of what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle termed repertoires and abilities. Mastery depends upon both: the ability to play a violin or study a novel is nothing without a repertoire of pieces to play or novels to read. But what is more, the ability is latent within the repertoire, much as hidden features of a video game are unlocked by beating a level of difficulty.

However, neither playing a violin nor studying a novel depends upon the ambition of mastery. I can be content to play badly—I was content to play badly—or I can finish the work in a course on the novel without accepting the premise upon which the study of the novel is founded.

What must be added to his account in order to justify Pullum’s claim that “whenever one happens, the other one always happens as well,” is deep caring. If and only if I value the activity can I possibly belong to its worldwide fraternity whenever I perform the activity. Wanting to acquire the ability is not enough. I must also want the repertoire. I must want to come into possession of it, to feel at home in it. Then and only then can it be true that I am doing (2) whenever I do (1).

The word for this fusion of ability and repertoire is tradition. Whether I belong to a worldwide fraternity is irrelevant, as long as I alone am capable of enjoying the tradition.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Moral fashions in criticism

Reflecting on the trolls who commented on a review he had written of James Cameron’s visually stunning and dramatically birdbrained new film Avatar, Jake Seliger ruefully observed that he had forwarded many of them a link to Paul Graham’s clear and instructive essay “How to Disagree.” A few months ago I myself was led to Graham, one of the best web-based essayists, by following a link provided by Seliger (thanks again, Jake!). This time I poked around his site a little further and discovered an even better essay by him on “What You Can’t Say.”

Graham points out that there are moral fashions just as there are fashions in clothing. What they have in common is that they are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” The difference is that, while you stumble upon old photographs of yourself and laugh at your bell bottoms and girl’s-length hair, you rarely do the same when you turn up old letters that you have written.

A moral fashion, on Graham’s definition, is socially acceptable speech and thought. In every age there are certain things that cannot be said; they are mistaken for wrong, when in truth they are merely unfashionable. Since a “conscious effort” is required to “see fashion in your own time,” a test for moral fashion is to examine what you have said in the past that has got you into trouble. Graham calls it “the conformist test.”

A good example from the literary world is the Publishers Weekly list of the Top Ten Books of 2009. It contained no women, which provoked an immediate uproar. Women were excluded from the list, proclaimed the Manchester Guardian, headlining the story. While Louisa Ermelino, speaking for the publishing trade journal, said that the list’s compilers “ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz,” the poet Erin Belieu replied that “when PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ ” On the contrary, what Belieu was announcing—in a code that she was incapable of overhearing—is that it is wrong to issue a book list containing no (or an insufficient number of) women. To do so, especially while claiming to ignore gender, is to violate a taboo.

I was reminded of the trouble that Patrick Kurp and I got ourselves into when we released our list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998 at the end of 2008. Andrew Seal was so offended by the “absence of women of color on the list”—to say nothing of the fact that “there are more Philip Roth books (3) on there than books by men of color”—he solemnly pledged, as a New Year’s resolution, not to read any “white-guy-literature” for twelve months.

A year later, he is proud of himself for having kept his resolution. Scott Esposito is proud of him too. What they both fail to notice is that his success establishes little beyond Seal’s literary conformism.

They (and Erin Belieu too) also fail to notice that there are moral fashions in criticism. Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in the discussion of women in literature. In 1854, the New York Times predicted that a good time was coming to women writers in the U.S.:

For here and nowhere else, are they just in the social position to give scope to all their genius. Whatever a women is or has, she is very sure of full reciprocation in these States. She always has the open ear, the awaiting heart, of the best public; and thereby her sensibilities are put exactly in such a relation to her intellect as to supply all the inspiration she can use. . . . Our prophesy is—that the most popular forms of our future literature will be written by American women. They see to-day further into the meaning of American life, character, prospects, than men do. They are nearer the heart of humanity—deeper into the spirit of the age—happier in the revealings of faith, than their rivals among men.Eighteen years later the Times continued to hold out hope for woman’s future in American literature: “She is already a great power in literature, and in the number of publications from her pen. If she goes on for the next twenty-five years as she has gone for the last twenty-five years, she will produce as many works as her alleged lord and master, man.”

And, indeed, after the turn of the century the Times found “Women Running Neck-and-Neck With Men in ‘Best Seller’ Race.” During the period of 1895 to 1902, the paper reported, only five of the twenty-eight most popular American books were written by women—Mary Johnston, who wrote two, Alice Hegan Rice, Mary Cholmondeley, and Bertha Runkle—but by 1905 the numbers had turned around: “Thirty books figured on the list for that year of the most popular works of fiction. Of these seventeen were by men and thirteen by women—a higher proportion of the latter, unassisted by male collaborators[,] than in any previous year in the history of American fiction.” The Times treated the whole thing as a friendly competition. Their increasing success “was such as to make the heart of female authors glad,” while male authors were making a comeback on the most recent bestseller list: “apparently alarmed by the encroachments of the weaker sex,” the men had “rallied together.”

A century ago, the number of women on book lists was also tabulated and compared to the number of men, and the sexes were treated as literary blocs, but the fashion was to celebrate women’s proportion rather than condemning it. That it was neither high enough nor low enough, neither right nor wrong, was invisible to almost everyone.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Dying Animal

The January issue of Commentary is out, and Philip Roth’s novella The Humbling is reviewed by Sam Sacks, editor of Open Letters Monthly. I am sick with envy. I had begged for first shot at Roth’s latest, but my reputation as an unrepentant fan, sporting face paint in Bucknell orange and blue, carrying an oversized foam hand with

spelled out on the raised index finger, made me the obvious choice to pass over. I was left with no other option but to laud the book here (“Brilliant and a little frightening”—D. G. Myers, A Commonplace Blog). Sacks is more skeptical, especially of Roth’s books since American Pastoral.

“A green rubber phallus is described with more zeal and embellishment than are any of the people,” Sacks writes in the review’s best line. Sex remains Roth’s main subject. His characters “have never renounced” it, no matter how old they get; “their terror is that it will renounce them,” Sacks says, because they know that the “libido is life’s fuel gauge.” Not perhaps an error-free account of The Humbling, something like this is surely the case with Roth’s best novel of the past dozen years. The Dying Animal (2001) is the clearest statement about Roth’s lifelong preoccupation with sex. “[P]leasure is our subject,” reports David Kepesh, the narrator and tour guide. “How to be serious over a lifetime about one’s modest, private pleasures.”

Kepesh, who back in 1972 found himself transformed into a gigantic breast in the novella The Breast before being restored five years later to his public role as The Professor of Desire, is now seventy years old. He still teaches the seminar in Practical Criticism at Columbia, still selects one girl each semester to share his bed the next, and still—with his long white hair, his wattle, and his little pot belly—still he serves as “the great propagandist for fucking.”

The quest for pleasure through miscellaneous promiscuity is at odds with marriage and family, of course, and Kepesh is their sworn enemy. They are “the standard unthinking”; he is determined “never to live in the cage again.” Married in his twenties, he fathered one child—a son, Kenny—but then he was swept up in “the sixties revolution,” the “great overturning,” which extended “orgiastic permission to the individual” and diminished “the traditional interests of the community.” In his mid-thirties, he was particularly impressed by his female students. The birth-control pill had granted them “parity” with men at last, and many of them took full advantage:They weren’t interested in replacing the old inhibitions and prohibitions and moral instruction with new forms of surveillance and new systems of control and a new set of orthodox beliefs. They knew where the pleasure was to be had, and they knew how to give over to desire without fear.Having those girls in class was too much for Kepesh. He walked out on his wife and eight-year-old child, “follow[ing] the logic of this revolution to its conclusion.” Henceforth he would cultivate the “disorder” and “liberation” of those years, because he took them “seriously” and in their “fullest meaning.”

Although he complains that his “education in genteel notions of seriousness” was a weighty obstacle to living out his own revolution, the truth is that Kepesh’s insistence upon taking pleasure and disorder seriously—setting out to study and master them, as if professionally, rather than indulging them playfully—is simply the adjustment of his fine education to different ends. He remains a literary critic; his text is now “this wild, sloppy, raucous repudiation” rather than novels translated from Russian, German, and French; but he remains dependent upon “genteel notions of seriousness.” How else to tackle his biggest problem—namely, turning “freedom into a system”?

In The Human Stain, published the previous year, Nathan Zuckerman spelled out the novelist’s credo when it comes to sex. One can’t say that sex is not an important part of life, because it always is. And why? It is “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.” The paradox is no accident: sex may “de-idealize” a man, but all the while he remains “everlastingly mindful” of the fact. There is no escaping mind—until the very end when a man is reduced, finally, to “the matter we are.” In The Dying Animal, Kepesh advances a different view of sex:[O]nly when you fuck is everything you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption—it’s the rest [of life]. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death.Except, of course, that it isn’t. Sex is in league with death, as Roth’s title, taken from Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium, makes clear: the heart of man, “sick with desire,” is “fastened to a dying animal.” Unlike Kepesh, Yeats’s “aged man” does not seek revenge on death; he longs for release from nature altogether, and from countries where the young “neglect Monuments of unageing intellect”; he prays to be gathered instead “Into the artifice of eternity.”

For Roth, sex represents the refusal to surrender to what Walker Percy calls angelism, the neurotic condition in which one fantasizes of deliverance from man’s biological destiny. For Kepesh, though, sex is itself angelic: in taking “revenge on death,” the rutting man could delude himself into believing, even if momentarily, that death shall die. But this is not Roth’s view.

In short, The Dying Animal belongs to the same literary class as Lolita, in which a moral monster arraigns himself by means of his own self-defense. The life of sexual freedom has never before had “a social spokesman or an educational system,” Kepesh says, but his attempts to fill the gap end in absurdity. The “great propagandist for fucking” calls into question all propaganda for fucking. No one could build a better case for sexual license, but Roth subtly undercuts Kepesh’s case throughout the novella.

First there is Kenny, the son whom Kepesh deserted three-and-a-half decades earlier. Although he himself has yielded to adultery—the apple did not fall far from the tree—Kenny rejects his father’s arguments for “claiming personal sovereignty” and deserting his wife and son. “You’re a hundred times worse than I thought,” he tells Kepesh. “The long white pageboy of important hair, the turkey wattle half hidden behind the fancy foulard—when will you begin to rogue your cheeks, Herr von Aschenbach? What do you think you look like? Do you have any idea?” But it is not merely that Kepesh is ridiculous, and oblivious to his own ridiculousness. He is also a sexual predator. “These girls go to college,” Kenny says to him, “and they shouldn’t be protected from you? You are the living argument for protecting them.”

Then there is the unnamed “you” to whom Kepesh addresses his confessional narrative. At one point, relating how he tries to talk an old lover out of marrying (“One stands in awe of the masochistic rigor required”), Kepesh interrupts himself: “Why, why are you laughing? What’s so hilarious?” He assumes it is his “didacticism,” his readiness to adopt the stance of a sexual educator, but in fact, the hilarity lies in the genteel seriousness of Kepesh’s sexual wildness, the ascetic discipline of his licentiousness, the strict purity of his impurity; to say nothing of his obtuseness to the human need for attachment, a pull that is stronger than sex or death.

Kepesh himself experiences the pull. Much of the novella is taken up with his account of a love affair, eight years before, with Consuela Castillo, a young woman of twenty-four, “the daughter of wealthy Cuban emigrés,” who has “the most gorgeous tits in the world.” When he loses her, he suffers for the first time in his life:This need. This derangement. Will it never stop? I don’t even know after a while what I’m desperate for. Her tits? Her soul? Her youth? Her simple mind? Maybe it’s worse than that—maybe now that I’m nearing death, I also long secretly not to be free.Or maybe death and the maiden—Kepesh helpfully refers to Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, to emphasize the point—have combined to make him aware of what he has denied himself for so long. His closest friend tries to warn him, and Kepesh knows that he is right: “He who forms a tie is lost, attachment is my enemy. . . .” In the end, though, when Consuela is diagnosed with breast cancer, he is powerless to resist her summons. She learns that her doctors have “decided to remove the entire breast,” she is alone, and she wants Kepesh with her. He gets up to go. At last the anonymous interlocutor speaks:     “Don’t.”
     “Don’t go.”
     But I must. Someone has to be with her.
     “She’ll find someone.”
     She’s in terror. I’m going.
     “Think about it. Think. Because if you go, you’re finished.
Finished as a propagandist for fucking, finished as a spokesman for “emancipated manhood,” finished as an unattached libertine. And just starting out as a man upon whom someone else might depend.

V. S. Pritchett once quipped that “The Age of Reason conceived wild nature and the noble savage to be tamer than they were.” In The Dying Animal, David Kepesh conceives the cage, the masochistic rigor of attachment, to be much weaker than it really is. And Philip Roth, in one of his best books, shows that the case for the “wholesale wrecking of the inhibitive past” ultimately cannot stand up to it.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Athitakis celebrates second

Mark Athitakis’s American Fiction Notes is celebrating its second anniversary today. Athitakis keeps the rest of the literary blogscape informed and honest. Head over and congratulate him on what he has accomplished in two short years.

Predictions 2010

An American will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. It will not be Barack Obama.

The Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics’ Circle Award will be given to three different novels. All three authors will be professors in creative writing programs. Applications to their programs will continue to decline.

Martin Amis’s twelfth novel The Pregnant Widow will be universally reviled by critics on the Left. They will not prevent it from becoming a bestseller in both the U.K. and U.S.

Philip Roth will publish Nemesis, his twenty-seventh novel, leading even more critics to scoff that he has reached the end of the line. They will be wrong. Again.

Another sex scandal will engulf another “famous” poet. No one will notice.

Borders will announce the shuttering of about a third of its retail stores and will lay off half its work force.

Amazon will unveil a Kindle that is compatible with Nintendo’s Wii gaming system.

The Modern Language Association will vote at its December convention to condemn the successful Israeli strike upon nuclear installations in Iran, which by then will have had the effect of galvanizing the Green Movement to overthrow the mullahs and create a fledgling democratic régime. The English professors won’t care.

Christopher Buckley will finish his novel satirizing a posh conservative writer who fell for a messianic left-wing presidential candidate. Two years later he will announce that he is voting to reelect Obama.