Sunday, February 28, 2010

Howard Nemerov

In honor of the ninetieth anniversary of his birth tomorrow, I offer this appreciation of Howard Nemerov, which was originally published in Commentary in November 1991, shortly after his death.

During a fifty-year career, Howard Nemerov, who died this past July, became one of the most widely honored poets in America. His Collected Poems (1977) received the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Later volumes won the Bollingen Prize and a National Medal for the Arts in Poetry. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy of American Poets, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For a year he was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and for two more years he was the nation’s Poet Laureate. Nemerov’s career was proof (if proof were needed) of the deference shown to poetry by the culture at large. His career is also a reminder, however, of the way in which such public recognition has all but replaced the actual reading of poetry. It suggests that the prizes and academies and laureateships—an institutionalized belief in poetry—may stand only as monuments to the passing of an art.

If so, Nemerov may also turn out to have been a prophet of its decline. The progress of all human experience, he implies in many of his poems, is from exploration and delight in the conditions of sheer activity to a hemmed-in, by-the-clock, practical concern. A fighter pilot in World War II, he saw this progress of experience in the history of human flight:

Remember those wingovers and loops and spins?
Forbidden. Heavy, powerful, and solemn,
Our scheduled transports keep the straight and level.
It’s not the joystick now, but the control column.
The same could be said for poetry. The central fact about poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, Nemerov believed, was its movement from sacred to institutional status. At one time poets shared with Matthew Arnold the confidence that art would be the religion of the future. Their poems were distinguished by what, quoting Thomas Mann, Nemerov called the religious attitude, by an attentiveness and obedience—looking at the world and listening to what it had to say. Today it is doubtful whether many poets themselves believe in poetry as a sacred calling. It is even doubtful whether many take it seriously—or, for that matter, read it. Poetry has become a full-time career, a technology rather than a vocation.

By the logic of irony, Nemerov’s own career conformed to the very pattern that dismayed him. Except for the war years, it passed entirely within the central institution of modern poetry, the English departments of American universities. Born in New York in 1920, Nemerov graduated in 1941 from Harvard, where he won the Bowdoin Prize for an essay on Thomas Mann. (Mann himself approvingly cited it in an afterword to a paperback edition of The Magic Mountain.) After the war, without ever intending to, Nemerov found himself committed to the academic life. He wandered into a job at Hamilton College, teaching literature to ex-GI’s no younger than he: “Teacher and pupils were of an age, about twenty-six, and generally either friends or friendly, if only on the ground of deep and base suspicions of what we had got ourselves into.”

Despite the suspicions, Nemerov stuck with it. Two years at Hamilton were followed by a decade at Bennington (where he taught alongside the critics Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman and the novelist Bernard Malamud, among others); then a brief hitch at Brandeis preceded his appointment in 1969 to the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, where he stayed on, eventually being elevated to an endowed chair.

Perhaps what redeemed Nemerov himself from the technological curse was his conviction that the teaching and making of poems were in truth two forms of the same activity. As he wrote about the painter Paul Klee:For such a man, art is an act of faith:
Prayer the study of it, as Blake says,
And praise the practice; nor does he divide
Making from teaching, or from theory.
The three are one. . . .
He could have been speaking of himself. For Nemerov poetry was a way of life—a daily regimen, a dedication to an end, an ethical ideal. In this respect, for him it was like a religion. And like a religion it placed certain duties upon him, including the duty to teach. (Also to theorize: Nemerov wrote several volumes’ worth of literary criticism.) In being an academic, Nemerov was not taking shelter in a comfortable and undemanding institution. No careerist, he simply took his career seriously.

Trying Conclusions (1991) is the fourteenth book of poems in a career that started with The Image and the Law (1947), although the selections from his work begin in the present volume with The Next Room of the Dream (1962). The Howard Nemerov Reader also contains ten poems from the earlier volumes. Together these two books are a convenient introduction to his body of writing.

Nemerov may be at his most characteristic in brief poems in which he wonders about the things of this world which are least wondered about: waiting rooms (aren’t the rooms in which we spend most of our lives the real waiting rooms, in which we wait for death?); people driving fast cars (do they realize that they themselves are sitting still?); pockets (what sense does it make to speak of a hole in a pocket? what is a pocket but a hole?); and the fall of leaves (at what signal?). When he writes autobiographically, as contemporary poets often do, he tends to write about his sons, his students, his colleagues, or his friends. In propria persona he rarely appears, and then only as someone out taking a walk, meditating perhaps on the scene. In his last poems he returns to the war or, carrying out the duties of a poet laureate, pens an ode to the U.S. Congress.

Nemerov’s poems range from four-line epigrams to leisurely essays in verse, and are normally written in decasyllabic blank verse, although he was hardly strict about it. He wrote a great deal, perhaps too much; he never shied away from trying something new, experimenting with forms and subjects; the aim was to keep writing, writing to the end. For him, perfection of the life was in the work.

It should not be surprising, then, that although Nemerov is at his most characteristic in his short poems, he is at his strongest in the longer essayistic ones in which he speculates on the theme of art. At their best, these poems are not so much well-made as they are ruminating and discursive; not so much astonishing as engaging. Although they tend to lack what Nemerov himself valued most in poetry—“the quality of decisiveness and finish, of absolute completion to which nothing need be added nor could be added”—they compensate with a quality no less essential to human conversation: the will to continue thinking. The loss is finish; the gain (now and again) is wisdom.

Nemerov wrote several of these poems to express his response to another artist: Vermeer, Frost, Brueghel, Bach and Casals, Philip Larkin. Even his moving epitaph “To D___, Dead by Her Own Hand” provokes deeper reflection when one realizes that it is about Nemerov’s younger sister Diane Arbus, the photographer who committed suicide in 1971.

When he himself died on July 5, 1991, at the age of seventy-one, Howard Nemerov took his place near the end of a line of writers for whom literature was not only a sacred calling but all-important and perhaps all-sufficient. His ideas, his activities, were almost purely literary—when he was not writing poetry, he was writing criticism or fiction. (Only about 10 percent of A Howard Nemerov Reader is given over to the poetry. The remainder is made up of eight stories, fifteen essays, and a novel, complete and unabridged.) Few literary figures at any time have been so bent upon unifying the diffuse activities of literature into a single career. Today, when the activities of literature are divided up among specialists, the type is rarer still. It is difficult to imagine a young man, an ex-fighter pilot who wishes to make a mark in the world, choosing today to devote himself to a purely literary career.

And so it may happen that Howard Nemerov will come to be remembered more as a historical curiosity, as the end of a line, than as a poet. That would be a pity. “[N]ow on your turning page,” he wrote for Robert Frost, “the lines blaze with a constant light. . . .” Nemerov's lines do not always blaze, but their light is steady and bright enough to see by.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An objective, True story

One commentator to my earlier post on unreliable narrators is also bothered by the concept, because it “implies that there’s an objective, True story to be told outside of the character’s subjective experience.” But this grievance introduces an epistemology that cannot be universally assumed in fiction. In some fiction, the chic (and progressive [—update]) negation of objective reality may be the law, but many novelists—perhaps most novelists—are guided by the principle of an “objective, True story” outside any one character’s perception.

Earlier today, for example, I came across the following passage in Don DeLillo’s new novel Point Omega. The narrator, a filmmaker named Jim Finley, is visiting defense intellectual Richard Elster at his home in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Elster was among those who plotted strategy in the Iraq War:

He told me that he had all-source clearance, or access to every sensitive sliver of military intelligence. I knew this wasn’t true. It was in his voice and face, a bitter wishfulness, and I understood of course that he was telling me things, true or not, only because I was here, we were both here, in isolation, drinking. I was his confidant by default, the young man entrusted with the details of his makeshift reality.It is precisely because Finley can test the details against an objective reality that he can describe Elster’s as “makeshift.” He even supplies the basis of his test: Elster’s “voice and face,” which betray a “bitter wishfulness.” If there is no objective, True story outside his telling, there is no way for Finley to conclude that what Elster says is not true.

The conclusion, I am beginning to think—although I am only thinking out loud, you understand—is exactly the opposite of what Wayne Booth taught us to think. The truth is that nearly all first-person narrators are reliable, because it is nearly impossible to provide access to a contrary point of view, which might call his into question. Consider what Roth must resort to in the last pages of The Dying Animal, introducing another voice to interrupt the monologue at long last.

Film provides the means that literary fiction lacks. Mike Hodges’s 1972 detective spoof Pulp opens with Michael Caine, speaking in a tough-guy voiceover, saying, “I walked outside and hailed a cab.” While the credits roll, cabs whiz past Caine, establishing from the opening shot that he is an unreliable narrator. Novelists have no such means at their disposal.

Unreliable narrators

In the Manchester Guardian, the British novelist Harry Sutton tosses off an unreliable list of the ten best unreliable narrators of all time. Only two of the ten are British, suggesting that perhaps it was not off base to assert that “American novelists have relied upon the first person, and have produced more and greater ‘I’ works, than the British.”

At all events, Sutton awards top honors to Lolita, which provokes Neil Verma to wonder whether Humbert Humbert even belongs on any such list (hat tip to Verma, by the way, for bringing the Guardian list to my attention). Sutton, whose fiction I have not read, maintains that Humbert is “intent on justifying his appalling crime,” but this is just not true.

It would be far more accurate to say that, from the beginning, Humbert is keenly aware of the need to justify his crime, because he too experiences its horror. Throughout the novel, his self-justifications are undercut by the acknowledgment of his own monstrosity. And by the end, Humbert has abandoned any pretense that sex with children is the “patrimony of poets” and “not crime’s proving ground.” He identifies the true evil—removing a voice from the chorus of children at play.

Is Humbert unreliable, then, when seeking to justify himself, but reliable when acknowledging his monstrosity and atoning for his crime? Merely by balancing Lolita atop the heap of unreliable narrators, Sutton has succeeded in calling the whole category into question.

Compare Humbert Humbert to Huck Finn, for instance. (Sutton unaccountably drops Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to tenth place, three rungs below The Catcher in the Rye, which is founded upon the sixty-seven-years earlier novel.) At a crucial moment in Twain’s novel, Huck finds himself “a-trembling” and in a “close place,” because he’d “got to decide, forever, betwixt two things,” and he “knowed it.” He must decide between committing the crime of assisting a runaway slave, which every inch of his moral sense opposes, or turning his friend Jim over to the law, against which his feelings rebel.

The difference between the two narrators is that Humbert knows that his decision “betwixt two things” is false. His self-justifications are difficult to take seriously, precisely because they are punctured by the uprising of conscience, which Humbert is honest enough to admit. They are evidence, not of his unreliability, but of his weakness, his moral failure to restrain himself.

But Huck on the other hand fully believes that his decision “betwixt two things” is a genuine moral dilemma—the law versus friendship. The reader knows better. By 1884 the Fugitive Slave Law had been dead letter for twenty years, and the moral issue of slavery had been settled. Huck’s decision is as false as Humbert’s, but while Humbert tries to persuade the reader that prohibitions on sex with children are little more than moral fashion, no reader of Twain is under any illusion that assisting a runaway slave is immoral. Huck is himself a slave to moral fashion, while Humbert is among those who would manipulate fashion to his own desired ends.

The difference between them, then, is that Humbert Humbert is a narrator who designs and shapes his own narrative, while Huck Finn is himself shaped by the narrative as he is swept along, faithfully recording what happens around him. Humbert’s “unreliability” (if it can be called that) lies in his weakness of character; Huck’s in the discrepancy between moral fashion and moral right.

It may be time to rely upon a different literary term.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bend Sinister

“Free Speech,” says the apologist for tyranny, “is an important value but it is not the ultimate value.” Vladimir Nabokov took the opposite view. In his 1964 interview with Playboy, he related that

since my youth—I was nineteen when I left Russia—my political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me.“Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art”—three varieties of the same freedom. For Nabokov, there is no more ultimate value. Bend Sinister, his second English-language novel and first written in the United States, is intended to corroborate this fact.

Written in Cambridge in 1944 (“at a particularly cloudless and vigorous period of life,” Nabokov said later), the novel was published by Henry Holt two years later upon the recommendation of Allen Tate. It is a truth rarely acknowledged that Nabokov’s career as an American novelist was midwifed by New Critics. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his first English-language novel, was recommended to New Directions by Delmore Schwartz.

Bend Sinister tells the story of philosopher Adam Krug’s resistance to the demands of a tyrannical state. Krug is world-famous; his book “the Komparatiwn Stuhdar en Sophistat tuen Pekrekh or, as the title of the American edition had it, a little more snappily, The Philosophy of Sin,” was a surprising bestseller for two years. What is perhaps of greater interest to the State, Krug was a schoolmate of Paduk, the new dictator. One of the few successful portraits of a deeply intelligent man in American fiction, Krug is something of a cross between Wittgenstein, who attended school with Adolf Hitler for two years in Linz, and Heidegger, who collaborated with Hitler in establishing a National Socialist state. Krug too is a philosopher of being and time, but a stubborn non-collaborator.

Because of his personal history with the dictator and the respect he commands in his own country and around the world, Krug is highly sought after by the State. He would serve as a powerful endorsement of Ekwilism, the ruling ideology, if only he would lend his name to the State’s designs.

The night of his wife’s death Krug is whisked away to a government house along with other prominent members of the University faculty. The University’s president, striking the familiar chords of university presidents everywhere, urges them to sign a loyalty oath. “Whatever political opinions we hold,” he says—“and during my long life I have shared most of them—it cannot be denied that a government is a government and as such cannot be expected to suffer a tactless demonstration of unprovoked dissension or indifference.” Which is how, of course, a refusal to sign the loyalty oath will be received.

The faculty dutifully signs, but Krug will not. “Legal documents excepted,” he says, “and not all of them at that, I never have signed, nor ever shall sign, anything not written by myself.” This is the heart of the case for freedom of speech: the irreplaceable good, the fugitive urgency, of individual expression. The University president appeals to Krug’s fond memories of school days with the dictator. “You are the victim of a sentimental delusion,” the philosopher answers. Krug remembers the dictator as the Toad. That’s what all the boys called him at school. “What I and the Toad hoard en fait souvenirs d’enfance [in terms of childhood memories] is the habit I had of sitting upon his face.”

The funniest parts of the book are the first chapters, in which Krug resists the petty tyranny (and stupidity) of Ekwilist soldiers by means of a voluble individualism. One band of soldiers permits him to cross a bridge, but the soldiers on the other side force him back across to obtain a signature on his pass. When he returns, the first band fails to recognize him:    “Do you live on the bridge?” asked the fat soldier.
    “No,” said Krug. “Do try to understand. C’est simple comme boujour, as Pietro would say. They sent me back because they had no evidence that you let me pass. From a formal point of view I am not on the bridge at all.”
    “He may have climbed up from a barge,” said a dubious voice.
    “No, no,” said Krug. “I not bargee-bargee. You still do not understand. I am going to put it as simply as possible. They of the solar side saw heliocentrically what you tellurians saw geocentrically, and unless these two aspects are somehow combined, I, the visualized object, must keep shuttling in the universal night.”
The comedy does not last long, although it gives out before Krug’s resistance. The Ekwilists increase the pressure on the philosopher, arresting his friends and colleagues. The dictator himself summons him to an interview. Krug demands to know why his friends have been arrested:    “All we want of you is that little part where the handle is.”
    “There is none,” cried Krug and hit his side of the table with his fist.
    “I beseech you to be careful. The walls are full of camouflaged holes, each one with a rifle which is trained upon you. Please, do not gesticulate. They are jumpy today. It’s the weather. This gray menstratum.”
    “If,” said Krug, “you cannot leave me and my friends in peace, then let them and me go abroad. It would save you a world of trouble.”
    “What is it exactly you have against my government?”
    “I am not in the least interested in your government. What I resent is your attempt to make me interested in it. Leave me alone.”
    “ ‘Alone’ is the vilest word in the lnaguage. Nobody is alone. When a cell in an organism says ‘leave me alone,’ the result is cancer.”
That last line is an excellent summary of the Ekwilism, by the way. It took a student in my class to point out that the name of Paduk’s tyrannical political doctrine is a phonetic spelling of Equalism, “a remolding of human individuals in conformity with a well-balanced pattern”—the pattern of the Average Man. As an exceptional individual, Krug is the living refutation of the Ekwilism.

Thus the State, “bloated and dangerously divine,” must get him to capitulate, or destroy him. Krug’s “handle” is found at last: his beloved eight-year-old son David (“The perfection of nonhuman creatures—birds, young dogs, moths asleep, colts—and these little mammals,” Krug reflects as he watches David sleep). The scenes between father and son are some of the most touching in English-language fiction, giving the lie to my claim that novels about fathers are almost unheard of when written from a father’s perspective. David is arrested, and Krug is prepared to do the State’s bidding: “I speak, sign, swear—anything the Government wants. But I will do all this, and more, only if my child is brought here, to this [prison] room, at once.”

By then, however, David has already died, having been tortured in a particularly grisly manner. A representative of the Ministry of Justice apologizes, and offers “the most scrumptious burial a white man’s child could dream up”; but even so, he continues, the tragedy has not changed “the relationship, the bond, the agreement” which Krug has entered into. “Individual lives are insecure,” he says; “but we guarantee the immortality of the State.” In response, Krug plunges into insanity. His freedom of thought is taken away at last—by taking away the person who matters most to him.

In an Introduction written twenty years later for a reprint edition, Nabokov sniffed that “automatic comparisons between Bend Sinister and Kafka’s creations or Orwell’s clichés would go merely to prove that the automaton could not have read either the great German writer or the mediocre English one.” I don’t share his disdain for Orwell, but in this instance Nabokov also happens to be incorrect. A comparison between his novel and Nineteen Eighty-Four establishes that Nabokov understood something about totalitarianism that escaped Orwell.

Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art are the ultimate value, because they are the last refuge of resistance to the State. It has been argued, in fact, that actual totalitarianism is an impossibility, because man always retains his freedom of thought, even in prison. Both Nabokov and Orwell set out to refute this liberal commonplace. Where Orwell imagines that the State will destroy freedom of thought through terror—Winston Smith has a cage of rats strapped to his face, and breaks—Nabokov understood that the State has a far more sinister weapon. Human freedom is destroyed through the destruction of human warmth.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Life without cheese . . .

. . . is not worth living. At National Review’s Corner blog, Andrew Stuttaford quotes Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier today. Apparently, Pawlenty dismissed critics of the tea-party movement, including the Anti-Defamation League, I guess, as a “brie-eating” elite from “Ivy League schools” who sneer at “Sam‘s Club Republicans” who “actually like shopping at places like Wal-Mart.” Stuttaford concludes that the “guy’s a phony.”

What else can you expect from the governor of a state that produces cheese like this or this? I didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school, but if eating brie makes me an élitist, then élitist I am. The worst thing about being an Orthodox Jew, in fact, is the dismaying paucity of choice in cheese. Kosher cheeses are tasteless processed lumps of hardened milk. Oh, for a good wedge of gorgonzola or even, God save me, stilton.

Cheese may be man’s greatest invention ever—easily the best thing in life, with books running a very distant second—and it is a testament to just how much God demands of an Orthodox Jew that he must give it up. A commentator accuses of claiming that “there is only one way—yours [that is, mine]—to lead a legitimately Jewish life.” But the truth is exactly the reverse. My advice is to pursue a different kind of life altogether, and enjoy to the full humanity’s astonishing riches of cheese.

Update: Cheese, of course, is what is used to catch rats.

Update, II: Kosher cheese is so God awful because most Orthodox Jews have never tasted real cheese, entertain no sinful thoughts about it, and consequently there is no market for it. One day at the supermarket, shortly after my wife and I had joined the Orthodox shul, I ran into a friend who is FFB (“frum [pious, observant] from birth”). She asked how the adjustment to Orthodoxy was going. I complained about the sudden disappearance of cheese from our lives. I said something similar to the above: “Oh, for a good wedge of gorgonzola.” I pronounced the word to rhyme with rock-’n’-roller. My friend slapped her forehead. “That’s how you say it,” she cried: “I always thought it was gorgonzola”—as if the cheese were a prehistoric Japanese monster. Living in Orthodox circles, she had never heard it pronounced. There had never been any occasion to hear it pronounced.

Update, III: In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov says that “food is our chief link with the common chaos of matter rolling about us.” It is instructive to compare this remark to something similar said by Roth. Sex, he writes in The Human Stain, is “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.” Could there be a clearer expression of the difference between these two great American novelists?

And quiet flow the links

Over at the Denver Bibliophile, Adlai Jurek studies the tragic element in Roth’s American Pastoral. He says that Nathan Zuckerman is wrong to conclude that “every man’s tragedy” is that “[n]o one is prepared to face tragedy.” No, “man’s greatest tragedy is his distorted perception, for it creates a world that does not actually exist, creating expectations that can never be met by the true world and the hidden truth of the real people in it.” This is deeply untrue to Roth, but as always, Jurek has interesting things to say, even when he himself is wrong.

Perched On the Seawall, Ron Slate reviews two new poetry anthologies—a gathering of Cuban poetry over the past six decades, and a selection of poems on breaking up, which is intended to be “non-therapeutic yet transformative.” I wouldn’t touch the latter with space-suit gloves, but Slate makes a good case that poetry is the only form of free expression (or as free as anything under Communist tyranny can be) in Cuba. “Although all publishing in Cuba is controlled by the state,” he observes, “the state’s literary powers either don’t see a significant threat in most of the new poetry or just don’t care—so long as the poet avoids open dissent and accepts censorship.“

Taking a Leap in the Dark, Richard Marcus introduces Ruby and the Stone Age Diet, the third novel by the Scottish writer Martin Millar, originally published in 1989 and reissued here by Soft Skull Press. (Despite what Marcus says, the novel is not Millar’s “most recent.” Since 1989 he has written six under his own name and eight fantasies in the Thraxas series under the name of Martin Scott.) Ruby and the Stone Age Diet is the tale of an unlikely friendship in the mode, say, of The Second Coming, but with different sympathies.

Although I am only now getting to it, you should really took a look at Brad Bigelow’s rediscovery of Irvin Faust, a marvelously inventive story writer and novelist, which is up at the Neglected Books Page. Faust is an exception to my usual disdain for short stories. His Roar Lion Roar, named a best book of the year by the New York Times in 1965, offers a glittery mosaic portrait of Manhattan in the ’sixties from the perspective of those on the fringe of the city’s life. Faust downplayed his Jewishness, saying that he did not belong in the same company as Bellow and Malamud, but he is an important neglected American Jewish writer nevertheless.

The Amateur Reader continues his investigations into Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he acknowledges is a “professional writer, a hack, although he lived at some distance from New Grub Street.” Edmund Wilson shared this estimate of Stevenson, and could never understand Nabokov’s relish for him. Reading through the appreciations for him at Wuthering Expectations, which began Monday and persevered into Tuesday and Wednesday, one begins to understand why.

Meanwhile, Tim Davis has reached Part Three of his provocative autobiographical reading of Wise Blood. Anyone who plans to teach O’Connor’s novel any time soon ought to bookmark Davis’s commentary. As usual at Novels, Stores, and More, the criticism is not a finished, magisterial pronouncement, but the adventure of an excellent mind working its way carefully through an excellent literary text. Part One in the sequence is here and Part Two, here. Highly recommended.

Persisting in his return to “white-guy-literature” after a self-imposed year-long absence, Andrew Seal glances at The Big Sleep. This follows quick looks at John Le Carré and J. G. Ballard. Apparently, Seal must ease back into the political hegemony by way of “genre fiction.” Of course, the criticism at Blographia Literaria remains stiff with jargon (“Realistic scene-dressing is the provision of quotidian details which, because of their superfluity or excessiveness, demonstrate at least the authorial intention of anchoring the action in reality”), but at least Seal has given up moral preening for a bit.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

No more anonymity

As of 12:00 noon Central time today, A Commonplace Blog will accept no more anonymous comments. They will be rejected without further consideration. If you do not have the courage to stand up publicly for your ideas and feelings, you can express them elsewhere. From the start, the author of this blog has identified himself, and has been willing to take his lumps in the naked public square. It does not seem unfair to ask the same of those who would leave comments here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Carried to Orthodoxy

On Monday, Rod Dreher neatly summarized the argument for Orthodox Judaism. Although it was supposed to wither and die in freedom’s-just-another-word-for-nothing-left-to-lose America, Orthodox Judaism has undergone a resurgence in the past half century. In 1952, just twenty-three percent of young Jews born into Orthodoxy planned to stay, but by the turn of the century, more than a third of all American Jews under the age of thirty-five identified themselves as Orthodox.

The Orthodox are still a minority. For the majority of American Jews, according to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, Judaism does not supply the “final answer,” and consequently it does not prompt “irrevocable commitments” from them. Instead, most American Jews make their religious decisions “week by week, year by year,” choosing for themselves “which rituals they will observe and how they will observe them.” Thus their only authority is the “sovereign self.”

Perhaps a better term would be the three-year-old self. Jews who pick and choose for themselves among the commandments, who refuse to handle money or watch TV on the sabbath, although they will drive themselves to synagogue and return home to cook a hot meal, remind me of my three-year-old son. When I tell him to do something, he often says, “I don’t wanna.” For him, that is a knockdown argument against obedience. The American smorgasbord Jew is pretty much the same. Asked to keep kosher or observe the laws of marital separation, he replies, “I don’t wanna.” He has no stronger reason.

Jewishness is not a personal choice, no matter how many parttime Jewish wannabes are offended by my saying so. Jewishness has an objective quality. It is a set of obligations or halakhot (ways, laws) that are determined, not by me, but by others. I may choose whether to keep kosher or to observe the laws of marital separation, but I cannot choose what is kosher or when marital separation occurs. Indeed, it is precisely this orientation away from the self and toward other people—toward the other of others, who is God—that gives Judaism its power to alter the course of real lives.

Something of the sort happened to me—and in just these terms. For years, I led a carefree life of mix-and-match Judaism. No pork, thank you, but I’ll have some of the crab salad. Shul on Saturday mornings; the nationally televised game of the week on Saturday afternoons. A personal calamity turned me back toward God, but I continued to design my own Judaism. Whatever suited me, I followed; whatever clashed with my temperament or taste, I didn’t.

Several years earlier I had become, without warning, what no single Jewish male must ever become, not, at least, if he wants any chance with Jewish girls. I had become pro-life. I can remember the exact moment at which my metamorphosis took place. Long persuaded of the pro-choice argument that a woman has a right to her own body—that a women is free to abort her fetus on the same logic by which she is free to cut her nails—I nevertheless recoiled when a Catholic friend asked why then I objected to infanticide.

At some point, I earnestly believed, a woman’s tissue becomes an autonomous human being. The former may be discarded, like a fingernail; the latter must be preserved from harm, because it is a child. But when exactly is the point at which a fingernail becomes a child? If the transformation occurs at birth, then what of the fetus in the womb just minutes before birth? Well, obviously, a “viable” fetus is a child, even before the moment of birth.

The point had to be pushed back—say, to the end of the second trimester. At the end of six months, then, a fingernail becomes a child. And on the twenty-ninth day of the fifth month? Did I really wish to hold that the miracle of humanity occurs overnight? If only to see what would follow, I answered yes. However, if the fetus is a fingernail five months and twenty-nine days after conception, but a child the next day, what about five months, twenty-nine days, and twenty-three hours after conception? Does the miracle occur in a single hour? What about five months, twenty-nine days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-nine minutes? It is acceptable to abort the fetus right then, but not in another minute?

In The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, Matthew Arnold praises what he calls

living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other—still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth (Num 22.38).My failure to draw a line between the fingernail and the child drove me against my will from the pro-choice to the pro-life side.

And several years later, when I could no longer explain to myself why I was prepared to obey God on this, but not on that, I was irresistibly carried to Orthodoxy. God is either obeyed in all things, or he is not obeyed at all. The imperious demands of a three-year-old are indulged instead.

Other Things Being Equal

For Jewish Ideas Daily, a new aggregator of Jewish things from around the web, I will be surveying the history of American Jewish fiction, one book at a time, from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the present.

The series gets going this morning with my review of Other Things Being Equal, a romance of intermarriage by Emma Wolf. Published in 1892 not by a Jewish house but by a mainstream trade publisher—A. C. McClurg of Chicago—Wolf’s was the the first novel written by an American Jew on a Jewish subject that was intended for an interreligious audience.

Wolf’s theme is that, since Jews and Christians “all dance and talk alike,” since they receive “the same schooling, speak the same language, read the same books, are surrounded by the same elements of home refinement,” there is no meaningful difference between them that prevents love and intermarriage.

What will probably strike contemporary readers the hardest is Wolf’s hostility toward traditional Jewish views on intermarriage. The editor of American Jewess, a magazine which described itself as the only one in the world “devoted to the interests of Jewish women,” clearly understood this as her novel’s claim to originality:

It is perhaps for the first time that an American writer ventures in a romance to attack the racial and religious prejudice of the Jews, trying to establish a closer social relationship between Jews and Gentiles. This is done by pure and simple motives, without violating existing faiths. Matrimony is freed from religious environments and placed plainly on social grounds. . . . Orthodoxy finally yields to the power of humanity. Without sensationalism or sentimentality the climax of the story is reached. Jewish religious scruples crumble into dust when attacked by the strong impulses of the human heart.In short, Emma Wolf’s novel offers the alibi of love for cutting Jewish ties and loyalties. And in that sense, Other Things Being Equal was not merely ahead of its time, but also spelled out the ideology for an age in which nearly half of American Jews would abandon their people through marriage.

Other titles to be reviewed in the series will be selected from this complete-as-I-can-make-it list of American Jewish fiction from 1892 to 1948.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Free speech—but not for Jews

By now, the disruption of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech by Islamist students at the University of California at Irvine earlier this month has been sufficiently covered from all corners of the American political garden. Everyone agrees that the issue is free speech. Commentary’s Max Boot said the students made a “mockery of the free speech that universities are supposed to champion.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait was reminded of the “foundational belief that free speech ought not to apply to anybody who expresses views the campus left dislikes.” At the Huffington Post, though, Salam Al Marayati dissented from the conventionally pious view, saying that the students’ actions “epitomize[d] the confrontation against institutional injustices by means of peaceful exercise of free speech, a great American tradition.”

The YouTube video is here. The comments, you will notice, are largely enthusiastic. To me, the saddest aspect of the whole affair was the ineffectual scolding from Mark P. Petracca, a political scientist at Irvine. “This is beyond embarrassing,” Professor Petracca cried. “I have been a faculty member here for twenty-six years. This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave.” Not surprisingly, the students were not persuaded to abandon their heckler’s veto.

What would have given them pause, I wonder. How about telling the truth? By shouting down a Jew, the Islamist students were merely giving a practical demonstration of what free speech would mean for ethnic and religious minorities in a state ruled by Islamists.

Update: On the Jewish Faculty Roundtable listserve list, the University of Massachusetts philosopher Joseph Levine partially justifies the disruption of Oren’s speech by saying: “Michael Oren is the official representative of a state that the protesters consider a gross violator of human rights and a practitioner of apartheid. Now, if one believes that, it isn’t completely irrational to think that disrupting this person’s speech is what one ought to do. I don’t think it is, but it’s not crazy, hateful, or irrational to think this.”

Levine is arguing against a straw man. The question is not whether the Islamist students are crazy or irrational, but whether their actions are politically repressive—whether they practice what I have elsewhere called terrorism by other means. I believe that the Islamist disruption of Oren’s speech can be so described, using Levine’s own terms. Thus Levine writes that the “protesters consider” the state of Israel to be a “gross violator of human rights and a practitioner of apartheid,” and in their own minds, then, they are justified—disrupting a speech in defense of Israel is “what one ought to do.”

By this standard, however, I am justified in disrupting any speech delivered by the representative of an entity or even a viewpoint that I myself consider, without reference to reality, inimical to human rights. Indeed, that is just exactly what the first Islamist thug bellowed at Oren: “Propaganda for murder is not free speech!” That is, Zionism (= propaganda for murder) is not free speech. And can be justifiably repressed. I define what is propaganda for murder, and I decide whether to effect its repression.

Terrorism, as I say, by other means.

Fiction’s job

Earlier in the month, Mark Athitakis speculated that fiction’s job is to be good fiction. He worried that the proposition is tautological, but it isn’t. If he had said that fiction’s job is simply to be fiction, he would have edged closer to tautology.

The insertion of the epithet gives the proposition its content. Athitakis is saying something that I too have said, again and again, although I broadened the category to haul in some examples of nonfiction too: “Literature is simply good writing—where ‘good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.”

The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects. Daniel Green blasted it as “reductive” and “dismissive.” For Green, of course, fiction’s job is “to be taken as literature”—a proposition that really is tautological.

Hoping to expand his proposition, Athitakis quotes the novelist Walter Kirn. I can’t follow very much of what Kirn is saying, although his main point seems to be that the fiction writer’s “only job” is to express “our remarkable situation.” In short, the fiction writer must be socially relevant, somehow. His subject must be “in the world,” and his treatment of it must “speak of” the predicament in which men find themselves now.

Athitakis’s original proposition, flat and unadorned, was closer to the truth, and more interesting. The fiction writer has no other job than to write well. That, as I’ve yelled before, is his moral obligation.

Nabokov said something similar, writing that Sebastian Knight “wasn’t concerned with ordinary morals; what annoyed him invariably was the second rate, not the third or N-th rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral.” The only thing that matters in fiction is whether the writer is seeking with all of the powers and resources at his disposal to write as well as he can—settling for no machine-made gods, appealing to no thematic fashions, buckling to no social demands.

But one thing more. In his book on Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton defines the “ethics of elfland,” the code that regulates fantastical other worlds where fairies glide and monsters prowl. Physical law and even moral law may not operate there, but such lands are not lawless. A different law is in force there; a higher law, even:

[A]ccording to elfin ethics all virtue is in an “if.” The note of the fairy utterance always is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow’ ”; or “You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show here an onion.” The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.Where Chesterton talks of fairy tales, though, I hear him talking of fiction. All fiction is conditional. If a man is transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect then consequences will follow by force of logic—but they will follow if and only if the writer cleaves to his first intent, his entire scheme of implications. The moment that a writer violates the conditions of his own fictional world, the world falls to ashes.

Fiction’s job is generally to be good fiction, but inter alia that entails keeping faith with the particular conditions of a particular fiction.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Antisocial teenaged narrators

Reading the galleys of a forthcoming novel about a seventeen-year-old high-school student who has problems with grownups, I was reminded just how deeply the late J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has influenced the American novel. Salinger could not have written his book without Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but every antisocial teenaged narrator since 1951 has sounded like Holden Caulfield, not Huck. At first I was surprised at how long the influence has lasted. Then it struck me. We are still closer to The Catcher in the Rye than Salinger was to Huckleberry Finn, although the time is fast approaching at which the publication dates will be equidistant from the present. For my own children, The Catcher in the Rye will be a more antique masterpiece than Huckleberry Finn was to me.

Does that mean that a third talkative adolescent, more articulate than he realizes, will soon take Holden’s place? Will Holden’s influence, like Huck’s, be reduced to the literary background of the preferred model? Will something other than a synonym for Holden’s “phoniness” be held against the adult social world?

I don’t think so. Here’s why. Just as in Holden’s time, the central experience of American adolescence is school, a milieu to which Huck was a stranger. Whatever else it was, The Catcher in the Rye was also a successful adaptation of the English school novel. Even if Pencey is a tony prep school rather than a crumbling bureaucrat-infested public school, it contains the same recognizable types of teachers and students—the bore, the pretentious windbag, the unexpected fount of wisdom, the grade grind, the tragic victim, the bore. The desks of young novelists may groan under the strain, but there are only so many variations of the school novel that can be done.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Nabokov wrote his first English-language novel—after writing eight in Russian—while living in Paris during the winter of 1938–’39. New Directions published it in 1941 upon the advice of Delmore Schwartz. Although the writer whose real life it promises to tell is said to have lived from December 1899 to January 1939, the dramatic action of the novel takes place in only the few months following his death.

Nabokov was sufficiently worried about the “fragility” of his English to ask friends to check the manuscript and galleys. And in the novel’s opening pages, he confronts the worries head on, repeating a “nasty dig” that a “celebrated old critic” aimed at Sebastian Knight after his death: “Poor Knight! he really had two periods, the first—a dull man writing broken English, the second—a broken man writing dull English.”

Whether Nabokov himself was a dull man I cannot say (I rather doubt he was an hombre interesante, in Ortega’s sense), but it is certainly not true that the English of his first English-language novel is broken. Bookish, fastidious, and slightly archaic; awkward and labored in places; never relaxed and not yet masterful. But appropriate to the subject, and at times beautifully elevated. The prose shows a gangly and knob-kneed family resemblance to the matchless style of Lolita and Ada.

But in its theme The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is as interesting as anything Nabokov ever wrote. A parody of a detective story (a genre that Nabokov claimed to detest), the novel purports to be the account of his six-years-younger brother’s search for “the real man behind the author,” the Russian-born English novelist who wrote The Prismatic Bezel, Success, The Funny Mountain, Albinos in Black, The Back of the Moon, and The Doubtful Asphodel. (Not quite forty years after Sebastian Knight’s death, the author of Success reappeared in England under the name of Martin Amis.)

The brother, who never gives his own name (“I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible,” he says), and who is greeted by Sebastian simply as V (“V stands for Victor,” says a note in the Library of America edition, helpfully passing on a false lead that Nabokov had given Andrew Field), pursues his shade from childhood memories to the French provincial hospital in which Sebastian dies. The book’s narrator learns much about his brother, “but he himself escaped me.” At one point he comes across an author’s query that Knight had placed in the newspaper:

Author writing fictitious biography requires photos of gentleman, efficient appearance, plain, steady, teetotaller, bachelors preferred. Will pay for photos childhood, youth, manhood to appear in said work.But of course our narrator never lets on that the book he is writing under the title of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight—the same book that the reader is reading—may be a “fictitious biography,” nor that some of the biographical details (“childhood, youth, manhood”) may only be masks for the author (the brother? Nabokov?) himself. However, he does points out that, as a novelist, Sebastian “had a queer habit of endowing even his most grotesque characters with this or that idea, or impression, or desire which he himself might have toyed with.”

The heart of the novel consists of four chambers: loving summaries of Sebastian’s own books, including copious quotations from them, which enable Nabokov to develop a philosophy of literature without seeming to do so; a voluble attack upon an earlier biography, The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, “slapdash and very misleading,” written by Knight’s former secretary, which gives Nabokov the chance to mock certain tendencies in literary scholarship and criticism; and the quest for the truth about his love affairs with two different women—Clare, to whom Sebastian was “sort of married” for six years, and the Russian woman for whom he left her, even though she made him miserable.

It is in the latter two parts of the book that Nabokov’s theme most clearly emerges. The narrator tracks both women down—the sound of their voices is necessary, absolutely necessary, to animate the past—but neither encounter turns out as he expects. He imagines beseeching Clare to tell him everything she can remember about his brother: “For the sake of little things which will wander away and perish if you refuse to let me have them for my book about him.” When he confronts her on the street outside her home, though, she is pregnant with another man’s child, walking slowly and heavily, and he is unable to ask her anything about Sebastian. “I knew that I was forbidden even to make myself known to her,” not for any reason having to do with his brother or his book, but “solely on account of her stately concentration.”

The Russian lover whom his brother met at an Alsatian resort is more difficult to locate. With the help of a detective whom he meets by chance on the train, he traces her to Paris—or at least a woman who could be her. She is not home when our narrator calls upon her, but Madame Lecerf, a friend who is staying with her, willingly answers his questions. She describes an affair with a “very intellectual” man whom she permitted to make love to her, because she found it “entertaining to see that kind of refined, distant, brainy fellow suddenly go on fall fours and wag his tail.” When she attempted to chuck him over, he called her all manner of names. Madame Lecerf explains what happened in the sequel:And presently he found that he could not live without her, and presently she found out that she had had quite enough of hearing him talk of his dreams, and the dreams in his dreams, and the dreams in the dreams of his dreams. Mind you, I do not condemn either. Perhaps both were right and perhaps neither—but you see, my friend was not quite the ordinary woman he thought she was—oh, she was something quite different, and she knew a bit more about life and death and people than he thought he knew. He was the kind of man, you know, who thinks all modern books are trashy, and all modern young people are fools, merely because he is much too preoccupied with his own sensations and ideas to understand those of others.Our narrator has located Sebastian’s Russian lover, of course, although it takes him a while to realize as much. He is distracted by his own sensations and ideas about Madame Lecerf—a “nice quiet, quietly moving person.” Visiting her country house, he finds her “quite attractive,” “after all quite a pretty young woman,” “decidedly a pretty woman.” For a moment he even thinks of making love to her, before abruptly figuring out who she really is. In other words, she is not quite the ordinary woman he thinks she is.

And in other words, there is a very real possibility that our narrator is Sebastian himself, or Sebastian is our narrator’s invention, for the sake of a “fictitious biography” in which he disguises a confession as something else entirely. “It always distressed me,” Sebastian wrote in his novel Lost Property, according to our narrator, “that people in restaurants never notice the animated mysteries, who bring them their food and check their overcoats and push doors open for them.” But the same may be true even for those who are intimate: they may forever remain “animated mysteries” to each other. And the greatest sin is for a man to be so preoccupied with his own sensations and ideas that he fails to understand those of others.

It is for precisely this reason that Madame Lecerf dislikes fiction: “I think writing a book about people you know is so much more honest than making a hash of them and then presenting it as your own invention!” Our narrator promises to falsify nothing about his brother, but falsifying him—making a hash of him—may be inevitable. If he is indeed a separate person. That is, an “animated mystery.”

How then is the mystery of human personality to be respected? Nabokov offers two clues. First, throughout his novel his people are curious and concerned about the smallest details of life, the “darlings of oblivion,” which are so easily lost. Perhaps the best that literature can do is to preserve them. Second, a stranger whom our narrator meets in a Paris hotel admits that he does not particularly like Sebastian Knight’s fiction: “Knight seemed to him to be constantly playing some game of his own invention, without telling his partners its rules.” Perhaps that is the key to other people, though. And the best that can be done is to puzzle out the rules.

At all events, I am conscious of having just described Nabokov’s philosophy of literature, which The Real Life of Sebastian Knight magically conjures up and then gives the “comedy of flesh.”

We can change the story!

This morning, preparing breakfast for my four children, I listened in on the PBS Kids program they were watching. Super Why! retells fairy tells and other familiar children’s stories by inserting four characters called Super Readers into them. The Super Readers encounter a narrative problem they must solve. They go about finding letters which spell out a magic word. Then they apply it to the problem. Whyatt announces, “With the power of reading we can change the story!” And by this means the Super Readers solve the problem.

Just what exactly is this supposed to teach children? That sad stories can be brightened up by changing their endings? That Oedipus can escape his fate by magically transforming Jocasta into an ingénue? That Wilson’s shot misses Gatsby, and he runs off with Daisy, who isn’t really such a bitch after all? That Bigger Thomas’s range of choices is not limited to taking a job that demeans him or going hungry, despite what Richard Wright actually says?

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for encouraging children to read. And I guess pretending that reading is a super adventure isn’t the worst of all possible approaches. But speaking sheerly as an English professor, the last thing I need is more students showing up in my classes with the attitude that Nabokov once encountered at Cornell: “Student explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages ‘so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced by the author.’ ”

What is more likely to contribute to their self-esteem, though, than the message that children can change any story to suit their childish and transitory wants? God forbid we might teach them to submit to the story.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Era of Theory

George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). 256 pp. $19.95.

Originally published in Commentary (February 1990): 68–70.

We live in an era of theory, George Steiner declares in his new book. Our current philosophies ridicule the search for fundamental truths, call into question language’s capacity to communicate meaning, deny the existence of God. And the worst of these is deconstruction. A French theory first imported into the U.S. seventeen years ago, deconstruction has it that any attempt to discover and speak the truth is predestined to undermine (or “deconstruct”) itself. In the literature departments of American universities especially, the influence of deconstruction has been unsettling. At one time literature may have been considered, in James Joyce's phrase, “the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man.” But no more. Now it is taught as the compulsive traitor of its own affirmations, the spiritless undoer of man.

But if this were all there was to it, why would anyone waste his time with literature? Such is the question Steiner poses in his new book. Almost any serious-minded attempt to answer the question, to take seriously the challenge of deconstruction, would have its appeal. The fact that Real Presences is by George Steiner, though, makes this book doubly interesting. Steiner, a longtime fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and a professor of literature at the University of Geneva, is one of the best-known and widest-ranging critics writing today, the author of books on Russian novelists, ancient and modern tragedy, the study of language, and the art of translation. He was an early commentator on Holocaust literature and remains a shamelessly highbrow critic of popular culture. Real Presences—his tenth book of criticism—has the intrinsic attractiveness of an important writer’s treatment of an important theme.

It is a theme that Steiner has been contemplating for several years. In the introduction to the 1984 Reader of his work, he wrote that more and more he finds himself trying “to discover whether and in what rational framework it is possible to have a theory and practice of understanding (hermeneutics) and a theory and practice of value judgments (aesthetics) without a theological reinsurance or underwriting.” In Real Presences, he concludes that it is not possible to have one without the other. The new book is an attempt to counter deconstruction with a kind of religious faith. Its title refers to Steiner’s belief that God’s presence is the basis and guarantee of meaning.

Since the 1870’s, Steiner says, when the French surrealist poet Stéphane Mallarmé challenged language's reference to external reality, we have lived in a crisis of meaning of which “the ‘death of God’ is a seminal but only partial articulation.” Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Freud all played their part in the deepening crisis. But it was left to deconstruction to finish the job.

According to Steiner, the new French theory is a menace in essentially three ways. It is a challenge to the consensus which has developed over time as to the greatest examples of human achievement. It is a threat to the notion of a cultural elite, upon which art and education depend. And it stands back of the current assault in American universities on the core curriculum, the “minimal requirements for literacy,” the “syllabus of the indispensable.”

But Steiner forswears any interest in expounding deconstructionist theory or engaging in anti-deconstructionist polemics. Real Presences is neither a primer nor a critical inquiry. Its intention is to clarify “the theological and metaphysical repudiations which lie at the heart of the deconstructive enterprise.” Steiner tries to show how the repudiation of meaning leads inevitably to the rejection of another person’s claims to freedom, or even to disbelief in the existence of other persons altogether. Literature, music, and art “relate us most directly to that in being which is not ours,” Steiner observes. We can find meaning in a work of art if and only if we postulate a conscious agent who has put meanings there for us to find.

On a larger scale, the repudiation of God’s presence in the world rules out all possibility of artistic creation. Man makes art, according to Steiner, in order to compete with God. Artistic creation is counter-creation. “The human maker rages at his coming after,” he writes, “at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form.” In his fury, the artist begets a rival world. Deny the existence of God, however, and you cannot explain the source of the artist’s fury. (Indeed, deconstruction is silent about the motives behind art.) Just as there can be no criticism without a work of art to criticize, so there can be no art without a Creation to contend with.

Steiner's argument is beguiling. Unfortunately, it is not likely to convince many readers, if only because in the end Steiner is less the antagonist of deconstruction than he is an unwitting spokesman for it. For one thing, he is not in the least interested in developing a coherent case against the theory. Although he insists that deconstruction ought not to be credited—it is “manifestly false to human experience,” he says, “to that of the artist as well as to that of the receiver”—he nevertheless unaccountably concludes that on its own terms “the challenge of deconstruction does seem to me irrefutable.” On what basis, then, is he to be believed? His position amounts to saying deconstruction is simultaneously true and false—a self-contradiction that can only fail to trouble someone who is uninterested in serious argument.

Sadly, Steiner is such a critic. “Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street?” he asks. Returning to the point fifty pages later, he observes that “We have seen how the sensory weight of the dream or the terrors of the fictive can blank out the cry in the street.” But asking whether is not seeing how. And Steiner seems unconcerned that he has not shown how. His book is full of speculation but devoid of sustained argument. Instead of developing a coherent case, he is fond of the enigmatic hint, the elusive implication. Deconstructionists write badly, and that, he says, is “symptomatic.” But of what? That he does not say. “Each of these areas of definition and connotation is pertinent,” he mysteriously remarks. Pertinent to what? It is not clear. “Plato’s Symposium, St. Augustine on discourse and dreams, Dante’s Vita Nuova, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Joyce on the epiphanies of desire are of the essence.” Of what, you would be hard-pressed to say. To attribute a propositional assertion to Steiner would be as indecorous as ascribing a fault to Jane Austen.

Steiner declines to press the case against deconstruction, oddly enough, because he himself appears to subscribe to a central doctrine of all postmodern theories of meaning, including deconstruction. “Talk,” he says, “can neither be verified nor falsified in any rigorous sense.” In other words, there are no fundamental truths to which one can appeal. Nor is there logic. There is only rhetoric, the effort to win adherence through sheer persuasion.

What becomes then of the appeal to religious faith? It turns out to be little more than a rhetorical ploy, by means of which the writer tries to conceal the fact that he cannot prove his case. God, for Steiner, is simply another way of talking, and a theology of “real presences” is no more true or false than deconstruction itself—merely another attempt to reconcile oneself to the era of theory.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Sex and the novel, cont.

My claim is that, since some time in the first decades of the twentieth century—after the best work of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, that is—American novelists have narrowed the idea of sex to genital friction. There is a hilarious parody of this tendency in Primitive People, Francine Prose’s 1992 novel about moneyed WASP’s in the Hudson River Valley.

Rosemary Porter has been invited to her cousin’s wedding to a Sufi homeopath. The ceremony is being held in a barn. The horses are left in their paddocks. The minister, “a round-faced young woman with a helmet of yellow hair,” introduces herself to the wedding guests as “the ninety-fifth woman to be ordained by the Congregational Church of New York.”

When the bridal couple came to see her, the minister relates, she knew at once that the marriage would succeed. “It may not be a popular thing to say nowadays,” she says. “But what made me so certain was that I could sense immediately a powerful current of sexual attraction.”

The guests freeze in embarrassment, but the minister fails to notice. The bride, she goes on, explained that the groom is “a homeopath everywhere but in bed. She said that bed was one place where he definitely does not think that less is more.”

Rosemary tries to cover her six-year-old daughter’s ears. The minister plows ahead, regardless. A barn is the perfect setting for such a wedding, she says, because it serves “to remind us of that stronger, more urgent river flowing beneath what we, perhaps foolishly, call civilization.”

The guests hold their collective breath for fear that exhaling might lead to even more revelations.

When the time comes to exchange vows, however, what really upsets the women in attendance is the bride’s promise to love, honor, and obey her new husband. They are far more outraged at the thought of “female obedience making a comeback” than at the boastful shrinking of conjugal eros to plenty of action in bed.

Literary drunks and addicts

A correspondent sends a link to a Life magazine gallery of “famous literary drunks and addicts.” All twenty-nine are famous, all right, but not always—Ayn Rand, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote—for literature.

Is it my imagination or has alcoholism passed out of vogue for contemporary writers? Perhaps creative writing has knit together a guild of writers who protect one another’s trade secrets, or perhaps professional advancement in creative writing has itself replaced the sauce, but for the life of me I cannot think of any writer under the age of sixty-five who has a reputation for public drunkenness to rival Dylan Thomas’s or John Berryman’s. Perhaps there is simply less literary gossip to go around.

Or perhaps the conception of a literary career has changed. (A “literary career”—now there’s a contradiction in terms!) Poètes maudits are no longer tolerated, let alone celebrated. Clem Anderson, R. V. Cassill’s brilliant 1961 portrait of the unruly modern writer, whose talents forgive his trespasses, could not be written today. Where writers once chose perfection of the work, and life be hanged, more recent creative writers have reversed their priorities.