Novelist and critic Jeff Bursey’s debut work of fiction, Verbatim, was re-issued in paperback some months ago by Verbivoracious Press. It concerns the malicious goings-on in the legislature of some fictional province in Atlantic Canada, and is presented as the “verbatim” record of Hansard, the group who conduct all parliamentary reporting in many countries of the commonwealth. Jeff graciously agreed to discuss the book, and his outlook on fiction generally, for the most recent edition of the magazine RainTaxi, which went online today…check it out!
When I was in my final year of high school (back in the Pleistocene era, when Ontario still had “Grade 13”), I was fortunate to take two courses from the same teacher, a Mr. McCabe—fortunate in a number of ways, although I am only going deal with those relating to the subject matter that Mr. McCabe taught here. I had chosen to take Introductory Economics with him, and was also under obligation by the school, which was a Roman Catholic one, to take a course in Religious Education in each of the five years of high school, which in Grade 13 was actually, at least as Mr. McCabe taught it, more about what is called Social Justice than anything overtly doctrinal: it was, in effect, a course in contemporary human geography and social history viewed through the lens of the Church’s doctrine of there being a “preferential option for the poor”. So while in period one Economics class we learned about the supply and demand curve, about marginal propensities to produce and consume, etc., in period four Religion we learned about the plights of the poorest of the poor around the globe—about Haiti and Jamaica, about Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, about South Africa, just to name a few examples.
It was an eye-opening experience for me (and, I hope, for my equally-unworldly classmates), as, with all of the callow solipsism of a typical youth, I had never considered that morality might have a widely social dimension to it before; it was largely a matter, I had erroneously thought, of the individual and his or her conscience. After all hadn’t Margaret Thatcher just made it clear (well not to me, as I didn’t know of it until some years later) that there was no such thing as society, but only individuals and their families?
My own intellectual tendencies at that point were similar to those of many young males who are on track to a career in engineering: one studied the sciences because they were true and useful; they got you a job, produced goods that people both needed and valued, and were firmly rooted in reality, in the stubborn objectivity of nature, and in man’s need to master and tame nature in order to provide the aforementioned jobs and goods. The humanities were required by the education system, it seemed, either because they were stuck in the past, valuing some outmoded view of the world (values that could not be measured), or because they provided some subsidiary value to life, because one could not work all of the time: one had to pursue leisure activities, some of which should for the serious-minded engineer be of an intellectual nature, and the humanities instructed one as to how to go about doing so intelligently, at least (even if it “was all really just subjective BS, wasn’t it, in the end?”).
What united both the sciences and the humanities, though, was that they were “subjects”—units of study that seemed to have been not so much carved off from one another as to have been “born” naturally that way—discrete from each other, each with its own logic and method. Economics was surely a science, modelling the natural inclinations of human behaviour with formulas and charts, and if you mastered it, you would no doubt understand the way that markets naturally function, something which was important, I assumed, for those overseeing the running of the economy, who must be to it like doctors and dentists were to the human machine: highly skilled mechanics adept at keeping the gears of the economy turning over.
Except the evidence coming out of period four Religion seemed to put that assumption to a test, since we studied about the poorest of the poor and how their nations came to be that way, and what should and perhaps could be done about it. The evidence was there, but I did not connect it to what was being taught in period one economics until several years later—these were different worlds, right?—worlds that had no real bearing upon one another. At best, I might have achieved a momentary insight along the lines of “yeah, well our prosperity here does seem to require their poverty over there” in period four Religion and then just go happily back to imagining, in period one Economics, that the laws of supply and demand were as unimpeachably laws of human nature for Homo Economicus as the laws of gravity were for Newton mechanics in period two Physics. Everything was in its place in this Best of All Possible (Adolescent) Worlds.
The pitiless, efficient lawyer Jaggers, master of exchange value.
Wemmick at work, with his “post office box mouth”
Several years after finishing university, however, after abandoning Engineering for Physics, then Physics for English and Philosophy, I had occasion to think about Mr. McCabe and his two courses again, after having encountered the character of Wemmick in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Wemmick toils as clerk and bill collector for the successful and remorseless lawyer Jaggers.
At work, Wemmick is all business, and his enslavement to that cold, calculating, utilitarian, instrumental reason (that anything of any worth can be expressed in terms of what Yanis Varoufakis calls exchange value, in terms of what it can be bought and sold for), the ethos which rules over market society like a tyrant posing as God’s anointed proxy, is unavoidably reflected in Wemmick’s demeanor: at the office, Wemmick’s enforced inhumanity to his fellow man is portrayed by the mechanical “post office box” opening that is his mouth, a mouth completely colonized by his occupation. Nothing escapes that mouth which does not advance his employer Jaggers’ financial interests.
At home (which is an actual, miniature castle, complete with drawbridge-and-moat that effectively protect his private life from his diurnal existence), however, it is another story: here he is a jovial host to young Pip, and affectionate son to his father (“the aged P”)—a man, seemingly (if you forget the hours of the working day and the days of the working week), in full.
Wemmick’s home is his fortified castle
Smiling Wemmick cares for “the aged P”
Wemmick’s solution to the alienation endemic to life under capitalism comes at a cost, indicative of one of the contradictions inherent to market societies: each of us can only be part-time human beings, as the market forces us to alienate ourselves from those more human values whenever they come into conflict with exchange value.
For example, love, friendship, walking in nature, singing a nursery rhyme to a child or taking care of an aging parent—these are all aspects of our lives that enrich them with meaning (and which Yanis Varoufakis calls “experiential values”, as they lack or cannot be translated into monetary or “exchange” value).
Wemmick’s solution makes sense to us even as it seems completely crazy: the only way to stay partly human is to give up being fully human, to compartmentalize our lives by erecting imaginary ramparts and digging imaginary moats around our “real” lives, so as to protect them from the harsh realities of the world “out there”, of life in the metaphorical market.
That literature can reveal to us in a such strikingly nuanced, ambiguous and yet palpable way might strike some readers as unusual, as we have been trained to think of literature and political economy as subjects as incommensurable as my period one Economics and period four Religion supposedly were: we almost instinctively view art which attempts to be politically or ethically engaged in social matters as being potentially propagandistic, tendentious, as being somehow lacking in the elusive artfulness of “proper” art, art that aims not at reductive answers to complex questions, but, on the contrary, further complicates them. We expect art to offer us ambiguity, not certainty, about ethical and political matters, and political art is thus a contradiction in terms, we say.
But a closer look at Dickens’s deployment of metaphor in the case of Wemmick brings a certain kind ambiguous clarity, one that poses as many questions as it seems to answer. The metaphor of Wemmick’s split existence, reified (“thingified”) into his slit of a mouth, his homey castle of a home needing defences that a feudal lord might envy—this image opens up a way of thinking about aspects of our existence that might otherwise have gone unexamined. And far from reducing our range of thought, Dickens’s portrayal of his character expands it, makes further inquiry possible, but does not offer us propagandistic solutions to those contradictions and dilemmas. What if everyone lived like Wemmick did? What would become of ideas such as “community” and “social life”? What if Wemmick were forced to choose between these two worlds, work and home life, due to some unforeseen circumstance (such as the parent being taken ill, making Wemmick at least temporarily unable to meet his obligations to his employer)? Dickens does not presume to answer such questions. Instead, he depicts Wemmick as balanced precariously between these two worlds, successful (for the time being) at balancing the tensions between them, living with the contradiction that the “postal slit mouth” and the “castle” of a home metaphors reveal—reveal as if the novelist is a spelunker venturing into some previously unexplored cave for the very first time, and his novel is a flashlight by which we, too, may see as we follow behind him.
And so a novelist of great skill can bridge the artificial divide between the various aspects of our existence (between, say, the worlds of economics and social justice, kept apart only by a set of assumptions shared by those who might develop a high school curriculum, but which are very present on the ground of lived human reality for those who have eyes to see. Thus does Yanis Varoufakis in his book Talking To My Daughter About The Economy wisely look to literature, myth and film to attempt to capture the very contradictions , those conflicted mysteries that compose our socio-political-economic hyphenated reality—the very environment in which we live and die and which is by no means a natural one. Varoufakis teaches us with many vivid examples from the dramatic and literary arts that economics possesses a deep, almost mythical but historically determined structure, one which deserves to be dragged into the light of day so that each of us (Wemmicks all) can see for ourselves what drives it so remorselessly on, lest we otherwise might leave it all to the so-called experts, to those who claim the subject of economics as their exclusive territory, a pseudo-science which is supposedly exclusive of all moral or political concerns.
In this book, Varoufakis not only shows us how the growth of human civilization gave birth to the first systems of politically-legitimized inequality (and how ancient and feudal inequality, “societies with markets” gave way to a much different kind of world, “market society”, in which everyone is driven to, compelled to sell their labour, and in which the only real value is “exchange value”) he also takes us on a tour of several key moments that truly define the capitalist world as we now know it: the imposition of debt via the contract (with Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus); the expansion of capitalism via debt-financed industrialisation (with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein); the “black magic” of how private bankers create money out of nothing (with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath); the irrational mysteries of money and labour markets (with ean-Jacques Rousseau’s fable of “The Stag and the Hares” and the myth of king Oedipus); and the triple threat of our current economy, automation, virtual currencies and environmental degradation (with Star Trek and The Matrix).
In the end, this is a highly entertaining and informative little book, for the neophyte and initiate alike. I wish my own father had given something like this to me when I was a teen. Varoufakis ends with a juxtaposition of two ancient Greek concepts the idiotis vs Eudaimonia: idiots are those who place themselves outside of civilization by refusing to think of the common good: an idiot is literally a privateer, someone who minds only his own business, and ignores that of others. True happiness comes from understanding our true, interconnected nature, and involves an environment and an economy in which each of us can literally “flourish”, grow from tiny acorns into mighty the oak trees of our fullest potential. Varoufakis challenges his daughter to see past the conventional wisdom of those idiots whose technocratic mumbo-jumbo would prevent us from reaching toward a more democratic world, one in which eudaimonia is a possibility for everyone. I have a hunch which side his daughter Xenia (whose name’s “etymology comes from the Greek word xenos , meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’ and translates as ‘kindness to strangers’” (146) will pick. He seems like a pretty good dad.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about this book before (hopefully) purchasing it, I have provided a “digested read” or Midrash of the book over on my Longreads site.
In the new edition of 2011’s The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin updates what is sure to become a classic in the history of political thought.
You can read my much longer “digested read” or “midrash” of the book here
As I write this the populist, Trump-lite and thuggish, Boss-Hogg lookalike Premier of Ontario has invoked what is called the “Notwithstanding Clause” to overturn a judge’s overturning of a bit of legislation that sought to reduce the number of elected representatives on the Toronto city council—a bit of parochial political dirty tricks that make Doug Ford (brother to Rob Ford, the infamous late Mayor of Toronto) seem the most small-minded conservative ever. Yet he has great support from his base for attacking the courts, those “un-elected” challengers to the power of (cough cough) the supposed will of the People. Ford is in fact just playing from the conservative (that is, the “reactionary’s”) playbook, which is analysed in great depth and to superb effect in Corey Robin’s 2017 re-issue and revision of his 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (which originally stopped at Sarah Palin, who is absent from this edition (alas?)).
The perennial aim of conservatism, Corey Robin claims, is to “build a broad-based movement of elites and masses against the emancipation of the lower orders”(xi)—to build a movement of the masses in support of the aims of the elite, in other words, to get the have-nots to campaign in favour of the haves. To do this, conservatives deliberately appeal to our worst natures, to “racism, populism, violence, and a pervasive contempt for custom, convention, law, [and] institutions”. And the first part of the book, “A Primer on Reaction”, brilliantly analyses the anatomy of reaction. What is the political “right” reacting against? In a word, “emancipatory movements of the left”(xvi), movements that yearn for ever-increasing freedom for the oppressed. What does the right desire to protect? What Robin calls “the private life of power”. Conservatism above all loves submission to hierarchy, and maintains its status by giving almost everyone in that hierarchy a sense that they are superior to at least someone else. Movements of the left threaten, with their appeal to “equality”, the stability of hierarchies everywhere—not only in the political arena, but between employer and employee, between men and women, and between races and nationalities. Robin spends a lot of time on Edmund Burke here—and to great effect, as that 18C pamphleteer and philosopher embodies much of the contradictory spirit of that family which has Burke as its patriarch.
Of chief concern for Burke was the aesthetic notion of the sublime, which he opposes to the beautiful in a manner which parallels his opposition of aristocratic to democratic politics: when we encounter the sublime (in a work of art, or in nature) we are threatened with annihilation: nature is so vast, and our puny reason cannot fathom it (for starters). We stand on a precipice in the mountains and lose ourselves in awe and wonder at its mystery and majesty.
Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog (1817) Caspar David Friedrich
We come away from the experience, from this imaginary (or real) brush with death both cleansed and invigorated—and this, Burke maintains, is exactly what politics needs: strong men who live active lives of constant struggle who rule over the masses by sheer will because of an inner nobility of spirit that they (and few like them) possess, and we masses don’t.
The conservative is aware, however, that the masses seem to have history on their side, and so constructs a narrative of loss and victimhood: the conservative is one who sees a golden age in the past, and dreams of political reaction: of going back to that past, or rather of carrying what is allegedly best about that past into the present and to struggle against those political foes who would “flatten” those noble aristocratic values of the ancien regime.
There is no going back to feudalism, of course, so capitalism becomes the terrain on which that agonistic struggle for noble values is to be waged—as well as on the actual battlefield, as there runs through conservatism two streams, which tend to privilege one of the pair, subordinating the other: the political conservative values nation building and military conquest, projecting national glory on an international stage (our modern “neo-cons” of the Bush era get a look in late rin the book, but I would have liked to have seen a lot more on them, especially their indebtedness to the University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss, who is absent from this book, alas). The economic conservative, by contrast, accepts the free markets of the political liberal or (in the historical and not American sense of the word) or radical (in the British 18C sense), but sees in them something that is uniquely conservative: an arena where modern-day aristocrats (our brawny Elon Musks and Machiavellian Jeff Bezoses) can wage economic battle with each other.
Conservatives thus have a tough time with peacetime, with prosperity, and tend to look upon its pleasures as fleeting but above all as strength-sapping. Burke associates it with the Beautiful, and saw the ancien régime as giving way to lassitude and indolence. Neo-cons had the same problem with us in the 1990s: If we spend too much time shopping, what are we? This is a conundrum for all conservatives who also want to promote the virtues of the free market. For a while 9/11 seemed to promise to inject some of the old sublimity into American discourse (and provide a new enemy to struggle against), but that was a chimera, of course, as Black Friday looms larger on the shopping and cultural calendar with each passing year (good for me, it’s also right around my mom’s birthday).
A lot of this Aristocratic stuff may remind you of Nietzsche, and you’d be right for thinking so. Though he himself despised petty bourgeois businessmen and had time only for the manly capital-A Artist, the so-called “Marginalist” school of economists who followed in his wake responded partially to the idea of Adam Smith that labour was the source of economic value, but also partially to Nietzche’s culturaldiagnosis: whither God? Whither meaning? (He is dead, and we killed him…blah-blah) What will replace Him with? What shall be the foundation of capital-V Value? Nietzsche’s Answer: Art, via the Will to Power! Marginalist’s answer: Capitalism! For it is in our economic choices where our most secret heart is hiding—we may say “Save the whales!” but if we put our money out not for a whale-saving campaign, but to go see Jurassic Park XVI and slurp some slushy with a plastic straw that kills those very whales, then voilà! Behold our actual values!!
The Marginalists themselves came in several flavours:
The (Creative) Destroyer Himself
Those who followed Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950, popularizer of the term “Creative Destruction“) tended to view things from the capitalist’s end, and imagined that the Entrepreneur could continue on as a modern-day aristocrat, battling it out with his equals, but “in the office and at the counting-table” (manly yes, but I like it too! Went that 1970s soap commercial). In this domain (if nowhere else) he is a powerhouse of force and will, a Machiavellian Prince, a founder of destinies. We still have some of these myths floating about today, and Ayn Rand is largely responsible for that.
Alan Greenspan’s goddess
She never read Schumpeter as far as I know, but she read her Nietzsche, and in her novels the hero-capitalists are always thwarted unjustly by small-minded bureaucratic foes (well, that’s what I remember from grade seven, which is probably the best time to get her brand of narcissistic, kitschy fascism into & out of your system lickety-split). Did you know, though that 800,000 copies of her books were sold in the year of the economic crash, 2008, alone? Robin’s chapter on her is great fun, witty and perceptive, and argues that it was her experience of writing in Hollywood, not living under communism in Russia, that most shaped and inflated her melodramatic grandiosity. Oh, and did you know that while her family was literally starving in said Russia, as a teen she went out and treated herself to a movie? Yup. Oh, and (one of ) her lover(s) was Alan Greenspan, architect of her 2008 book-stravaganza….
Not a serf!
The problem with Schumpeter, as the other Marginalist/Austrian, Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), saw it, was that the age of the Entrepreneur was drawing to a close. The modern corporattion was sneaking Nietzsche’s hated socialistic slave mentality into capitalism via the back door, or the shipping bay. Whatever, the age of the individual-capitalist as-medieval-lord seemed drawing to a close (really?), so the smart, wilfull businessman will shift from production to the game of becoming something really Nietzschean: he will become an elite, aristo-Artist, an powerful Engineer of Human souls, the very first rank of the cultural avant-garde—a taste-setter if you will, he who will tell us what we shall and shall not desire. The capitalist as the acknowledged “cultural legislator” of mankind. His notion of what was needed for this, liberty (not for us, for the capitalist-legislator: “liberty may be neither possible nor desirable for the great majority,” he wrote). He had big fans in 1960s fascist Portugal, by the way, and Chilean dictator Pinochet’s 1980 constitution is named after Hayek’s 1961 book The Constitution of Liberty Oh, and he’s pretty much a god in certain sacrosanct think-tanks in Washington, along with that other aristo Ludwig von Mises….
Finally, Corey Robin takes us to America, where he sees a lot of the aforementioned themes repeat themselves, not as farce (OK, Rand excepted) but as tragedy. First he gives us a chapter on Barry Goldwater (1909-98), the man who lost spectacularly to JFK, but who in doing so took conservatism to an old new place: he despised the idea that it was all about free markets (though he did love them too, they had their place..), which was a classical liberal notion.
A conscience, not a heart
Goldwater figured liberals had reduced Homo Sapiens to Homo Economicus, and he would give a conscience (not a heart, that wishy-washy pansy of a thing) back to the movement, and to the working man: Goldwater widened the conservative base by telling the worker that conservatives valued the whole human being, not just the worker’s pocketbook—though he would help there, too, but by giving him tax cuts, choice, not government programs. He would set the working man free from Big Government.
But when conservatives speak of freedom/liberty, they are being disingenuous, as they have always privileged the idea of subordination, of hierarchy, of “submission”(194). Freedom is merely a “proxy for inequality”, allowed the “initiative and ambition of uncommon men” to rise to the fore. It is a means to an unfree end. According to Karl Mannheim, conservatives
often champion the group—races or nations—rather than the individual. Races and nations have unique identities, which must, in the name of freedom, be preserved. They are the modern equivalents of feudal estates. They have distinctive, and unequal, characters and functions; they enjoy different, and unequal, privileges. Freedom is the protection of those privileges, which are the outward expression of the group’s unique inner genius.Goldwater parsed this traditional conservative union of nationalism and racism, favouring the former but not, in theory, the latter, though his championing of states rights in effect argued for white racism in the south by default.
I’ll mostly skip over the chapters on Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia (an originalist interpreter of the constitution who remains greatly influential, and who valued the Burkean agon life-as-sublime-struggle ethos highly—with a postmodern twist) and the NeoCons of the Bush era (mentioned in passing earlier) to end, in Chapter 11, on Donald Trump. One has to wonder if Robin was making a subtle joke here, as “Chapter 11” is a “space” in US bankruptcy law where companies seek protection from their creditors so that they can attempt to revivify their falling fortunes through re-structuring (layoffs, etc.). One has to assume that Trump himself has been there quite a bit…Anyhow, he is depicted as a canny, formidable synthesiser of all of the aforementioned reactionary ideas, but which are also ultimately bankrupt, the empty rhetoric of the would-be fascist who in policy terms has been largely reclaimed by the mainstream pro-big business mothership. His racist dog-whistling and nativism are all there, sure, as is his unique economic populist spin, but largely his entire political career rests on his own sheer inconstancy, his willingness to never mean what he says, or mean everything he says, who knows, what does he even mean?
Corey Robin analyses Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal for clues. Shockers: what Trump is really about, it turns out, is getting attention: “Bravado” and “truthful hyperbole” are his self-chosen key words in that book, and Robin notes that they are not “a sideshow to the economy”, they are the economy (257):
“A lot of attention,” says Trump, “alone creates value.” A lot of attention—not the productivity of labor, design of the engineer, vision of the entrepreneur, risk of the investor, or genius of the advertiser—that alone creates value. At the heart of his celebration of economic combat and struggle is a dim awareness that its only justification is itself. The game is the game.
If the older economic Darwinists believed, with Trump, that the game was “glorious”, they also believed that the game’s “outcome” was, too. Trump affirms that sentiment, but also undercuts it: it is truth and lies at the same time.
“It is everything; it is nothing. It shall be all; it is naught. Rand grounded her vision of capitalism in A is A; Trump grounds his in A is not A.” Trump’s book, in the end, is a “parody of [Dante’s] journey into the hell of capitalism, but at the end of that journey nothing is revealed to us by our Virgil” “there is no secret […] It is a show about nothing” (258).
Yet he is the President of the United States, and that show has real-life consequences, some of which (says Robert Paxton) bear a resemblance, in their rhetoric of “passionate nationalism” at least, to fascism, with that “sense of grievous dishonor and shame” and the “longing for re-enchantment of the state”, that “desire for national restoration and global domination”(260). The most telling thing about that rhetoric, though, is that underneath it lies a most “economistic” political vision, one in which “Trump often sees in matters of state nothing but the transactions of the market. Money is the instrument of state power. Money is the end of state power.”. He may say that China is a “‘military threat'”, and that it is our “‘enemy'”, but in practice he is actually obsessed with trying to “‘out-negotiate the Chinese'” (261). Similarly, his main concern over Iraq was not the political, moral or human costs, but the costs in dollar terms! “It’s that ‘we should have hammered out the repayment plan with the Iraqis. . . before we launched the war.’ The Iraq War, in other words, was a bad deal (my italics). This is again similar to his own practices in the sphere of business, where he relished the “combat” of the courtroom, appearing as either “plaintiff or defendant in more than 4,000 lawsuits” (263).
How this will play to the swing voters in the rust-belt (those who voted for Obama, but not for Hilary, those who responded to the economic populism rhetoric, not to the calls to Build That Wall etc. etc.) remains to be seen. Trump said he would go after Wall Street, kick the plutocrats where it hurts, yada-yada. Mostly he has signed into law, with that great signature of his, whatever Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have put in front of him to sign. Robin’s tracking of his career as a Pinnochio playing an actor playing a demogogue-in-chief ends in very early 2017, so we’ll have to wait for the next book to find out why what’s going to happen will have happened. This Corey Robin guy is that good, folks.
If you found this review was not at all that useful, but perhaps way-too-chatty/schematic, you can read my in-depth gloss on the book (sort of a summary/exegesis, and what I like to think of as a very small-m “midrash” ), chock-a-block with quoted text, or better yet buy the book itself, read it and give it to a friend! Most folks don’t even know what the terms “conservative” and “liberal” mean anymore, and we gotta start pulling the curtains back on these wizards of Wall Street & the Beltway….
While it is a truism that every artist constructs the aesthetic by which he or she wishes to be judged, I never tire of reading books like Cercas’s The Blind Spot, as these kinds of apologia pro [scribo] vitae sua (don’t ask me if I conjugated that correctly!) give what I would like to think of (however erroneously) as real insight into what practicing writers think of the phrase (one either abhorrent to or simply ignored by most scholars) literary value. For in books like this thoroughly amicable one we may not get quite at the truth about what drives a particular artist to create in the ways that he or she does, but we do get the artist’s public, conscious version of what drive’s him or her.
For Cercas (as for Milan Kundera, to whom the first part of this book is heavily indebted), the novelist is an explorer of the human condition, and the sole moral absolute that all would-be serious authors must adhere to is to go exploring in new directions. Like Kundera, Cercas locates the Ur-novel in 17C Spain, with Don Quixote, which ushered in a century-and-a-half of transgressive, digressive, genre-blending, formal literary freedom (in northern Europe at least, if, paradoxically, not in Spain), before this freedom was curtailed in the 19C by Realism’s quest for “constructive rigour” in the interest of bringing the novel its [allegedly] longed-for “purity, status and nobility”(27).
Cercas as a young writer wanted to tap back into what Kundera calls this largely “unacknowledged legacy of Cervantes” (Art of the Novel), and what I found most interesting in the first third of this volume was how Cercas details what it wa s in Cervantes (and, later, in Borges) that made him want to write in the way that he supposedly does (I must admit that this not only is this the first book of his that I have read, but also that I often like to read an author’s essays before diving into their fiction) (also: that I am writing this here in somewhat of an imitation of Cercas’s love of the parenthetical aside, a love that I cannot help but share).
Cercas’s quest is to blend the absolute authorial freedom granted by Cervantes and Borges (specifically, the Borges of “The Approach to Al’Mutásim” and “Pierre Menard: The Author of Don Quixote”), both of whom perpetuate a kind of ingeniously generative deception:
…four centuries apart, modern narrative [cf. Cervantes] and postmodern narrative [cf. Borges] are born out of two frauds…Two paradoxical frauds besides. They weren’t trying to pass off unliterary writing as literature, but to pass off literature as unliterary writing. Which confronts us with a fundamental fact: by breaking with the literary rules of its era, all authentic literature presents itself as, or is considered to be, not literature, and its new form an absence of form. (35)
What is compelling here is that to be a literary explorer means to be always in search of a “new form”, a form which will inevitably not be recognized as such by those to whom “the literary” is a matter of working within already extant forms, and varying only the “content” that fills those forms. Literary innovation, in other words, is neither recognized by nor welcomed by the reigning literary orthodoxy. Cercas’s own novels (again, which I have not read, but now aim to!) , such as The Soldiers of Salamis and The Anatomy of A Moment themselves bring novelistic techniques to bear upon the a terrain previously controlled by academic historians, and the result was, Cercas maintains, that they were initially not recognized as novels because they were, regardless of how they were written, manifestly not fiction.
But if novels aren’t necessarily fictional, what is their sine qua non—of what, exactly, are they made? Cercas maintains (again, following, I feel, Kundera) that what makes a novel a novel is its radical ambiguity. Kundera calls it “polyphony”, for Cercas it is “the blind spot”, the paradoxical, unsolvable riddle, the defining aporia that is at the heart of the truly literary novel. If conventional (often conventionally realist) novels like to keep things understandably tidy, coherent, loose ends all tied up and questions answered, Cercas maintains that the only thing that “blind spot novels” (novels that cannot quite see what they are most in search of, novels that [loosely quoting him quoting Faulkner] light a match in the darkness so that “we can see the darkness”(83), that heretofore still undiscovered country of our souls) do is ask us still more questions (or perhaps even only a single, overwhelming question, rolling the human universe into a ball that is then tossed at us readers, who must do something with this “enigma with no [apparent] solution”), but always in the most complex way possible.
The kind of novels that do just that should come as no surprise to many of you who are in the small, but still significantly-sized club that values the literary innovators of modernism-and-after: those by Melville, Musil, Kafka, et al. For these are writers who not only seek to “make time live, to make it more intense and less trivial”(51), for any good realist novel should aspire to do at least just that, but also to:
change the reader’s way of perceiving the world; that is: they serve to change the world. The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.
To my surprise, however, Cercas then spends a sizeable chunk of this slim volume extolling the virtues of a writer who would not normally be counted among the great literary innovators of the past: Mario Vargas Llosa, whose The Time of the Hero (orig. The City and the Dogs in Spanish)— yet another book among the much-much-more-than-1002 essential reads that I have not yet read, by the way—is at first and even second glance a thoroughly realist novel.
I love reading these kinds of essays: extended reflections on novels that I haven’t read and which, though they hardly displace the actual reading of them, nevertheless allow me to vicariously participate in their reading. Nay: in their writing. For Cercas reads The Time of the Hero as if writing it, or with the attention to detail, to shifts in tone and to elegant variations of structure of an expert art conservationist, lovingly and painstakingly examining every inch of the threatened masterpiece’s canvas. I won’t get into the details, but this part of Cercas’s book was the most riveting for me, probably exploring that which I have not yet myself personally explored, the topology of this great Peruvian novelist.
But what surprises most in this reading of Vargas Llosa is how, almost as if against that author’s own intentions, his realist novel is shown to be a blind spot novel, one riven by ambiguity, by questions in search of answers that are never quite within reach—because the answers are themselves no more than questions, questions which take the form of none other than the novel itself.
Finally, Cercas closes the book with an extended appreciation of Sartre the novelist, which is another surprise, not least because Cercas himself confesses to having had, in his youth, the most profound antipathy toward that Parisian eminence. This is because of Sartre’s steadfast commitment to art that commits itself socially and politically, to artists who are engagé. The younger version of Cercas though that that French word meant having to create are that was tendentious, that gave answers instead of asked questions, that subordinated aesthetics to ethics or politics. But the mature Cercas is determined that we should look at Sartre (and, by analogy, at the nuances of any artist whom we have perhaps, in our callowness, unfairly pigeon-holed or overlooked) afresh:
Sartre’s premises are
Not at all distant from the ideas of the Russian formalists, in particular Victor Shklovsky: according to him, the mission of art consists of deautomatising reality, of making normal and familiar things that we see all the time appear strange and singular…[to] allow us to look at reality—physical reality, but also moral and political reality—as if seeing it for the first time, with all its edges, full of all its marvels and all its horror, tearing off the automatised mask of habit. “To name is to unmask”, is how Simone de Beauvoir summed up the thinking of her eternal companion Sartre, “and to unmask is to change”.(138-39)
By so disturbing our moral and political complacency, the committed novelist can be seen as being like Socrates’ gadfly, biting both the individual and the state, challenging its received wisdom—even though the contents of his or her novels is not overtly political. And irony is the novelist’s chief weapon in this war against cliché, for the univocal mask that polyvalent truth wears must always be torn asunder, to reveal the “equivocal and multiple” truths that we often find so inconvenient to consider. Thus “irony is not the opposite of seriousness, but perhaps its maximum expression”.
So, if you like these kinds of books, this is a pretty good one to add to your queue. I would just recommend reading Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Testaments Betrayed first (not to mention Sartre’s What is Literature?), as Cercas’s book is in dialogue with them, both consciously and unconsciously.
I co-wrote a song with Morroccan Singer/Composer Oualid Ekami, who performs it here. It was originally inspired by an idea/feeling that The Waterboys’ song “This Is This Sea” has haunted me with for many years, and though I was initially trying for a Leonard Cohen/Nick Cave vibe lyrically, here Oualid performs this song with a lush, romantic arrangement and vocal that seems quite appropriate in retrospect.
And click on the following link to get a pdf of the lyrics:
I have written on the intersection of capitalism and literature in the past, and I’m intrigued about his project of giving the following thinkers (some of whom are more relatively unknown than others, especially to North Americans) a public hearing. So far, having finished the introduction and skipped to the “Further Reading” pages, I must say that I find his style to be engaging, personable, and forthright. Note:I will be adding reflections on each chapter of the book as I get to them — as of right now Chapters 1 and 2 are complete and can be found below.
Chapter 1: David Harvey
Kunkel locates the essence of Harvey’s work in the capitalist tendency to overaccumulate — “the fount of all crisis”, a word Harvey defines as “surplus capital and surplus labor existing side by side with seemingly no way to put them back together.” Investors sit on piles of cash, unwilling to put it into the hands of workers they won’t risk hiring, but upon whom the economy relies as consumers.
So far Harvey is depicted as assembling stray bits of Marx into a coherent picture of how, in “normal” circumstances, fictitious capital (credit), uses the promise of tomorrow’s profits to bridge today’s gap between a economy’s ability to pay its workers and the workers’ ability to consume what the economy produces. Thus always borrowing from the future imposes the GOD (Grow or Die) imperative on the economy.
Again, these contradictions come straight from Marx, in Volume II of Capital, […]: “Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production: the laborers as buyers of commodities are important for the market. But as sellers of their own commodity—labor power—capitalist society tends to keep them down to the minimum price.”
Thus in the long run, as profits in the “real economy” become increasingly more difficult to attain, where investors are driven into non-material investments in the credit sector and workers are squeezed into accepting lower wages (and the lower buying power that comes with it), a crisis of underconsumption becomes inevitable.
And since Harvey is a geographer by training, he rescues (via the idea that property is inherently fictitious capital, since its market value = a claim on future rent income) the Marxist notion of Ground Rent by introducing a spatial element: future rents are leveraged in the present day to invest elsewhere: finance becomes a hypermobile, global jetsetter who is yet paradoxically tethered to an inert real asset back home.
This “spatio-temporal fix” to the problem of overaccumulation is often beset by “switching crises” as the “equilibrium” between “real” asset values and what they are leveraged for is distorted…
But if this appears to you as an ever-growing House of Cards waiting to fall, well, keep on waiting, since capital will just keep expanding in other ways (privatising what’s public, commodifying what is not yet a commodity, colonizing other territories either directly or by proxy [all that used to go by the name “Enclosure” of the commons. See Michael Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism for that])
Now, while capital is partying around the world at increasingly fictitious/profitable parties, we poor humans are stuck in the real economy, one beset, since 1973 or so, by the “long downturn of persistent stagnation” (a term from Robert Brenner, subject of another chapter).
And, from the 1980s to today we too were given credit (since there was a class war on wages that began with the “Volcker Shock” of deliberately driving interest rates sky high in the closing years of the Carter administration, and that continued in much more celebratory fashion during the Reagan-Thatcher years) to party with in our own, somewhat diminished fashion.
But that all ended. In 2008.
Yes, remember 2008? When I was writing my dissertation in 2005, I was living in the UK and every other TV program seemed to be about selling your English home and buying another somewhere else, particularly in Spain or eastern Europe. The housing bubble collapse was one of Harvey’s “switching crises”, and a big one. It also marked what may be a waypoint of a longer-term switching crisis, that of the handover of global supremacy to the Chinese.
(Kunkel cites Gianni Arrighi’s monumental The Long Twentieth Century on this, but the roots are in the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s theory of long-term economic history, perhaps beyond the scope of his book.)
In any event, capitalist empires last but 80-120 years or so (“long centuries”), says Arrighi, borrowing this notion of Kondratiev waves or K-waves that track the rise and fall of capitalist empires. If you Google Kondratiev or Kondratieff waves you’ll see that many of the graphs that come up seem to be driven by technological change, but Marxists like Harvey locate the cause for change in contradictions in “social property relations”, particularly in property owners’ compulsive search for ever-greater rates of profit.
Kunkel concludes this chapter by noting that Harvey proposes several hard, actual limits to the expansion of capital, most of which are ecological. He doesn’t really deal with any criticisms of Harvey’s model, and maybe we shouldn’t expect him to here. He also leaves out Harvey’s uneasy flirtation with postmodernity theory—which, post-1989, drew many a Marxist to recant their materialist beliefs entirely, drawn as they were like moths to the flame of the “Cultural Turn” (signifying that Saussure’s decades earlier “linguistic turn” had somehow initiated a completely new epoch, one in which culture/language was always already mediating/ constitutive of “material” or economic matters, among other things) that filled the intellectual void they felt was somehow created by the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But there is an important debate about the “essence” of capitalism, between Harvey and Ellen Meiksins Wood, which stretches back to another, older debate (“Dobb–Sweezy”)—
Dear Dr. Pessimist,
Don’t you find pessimism “negative”?!
–Just Sayin! in Cincinnati
Just think of me as helping you obey the first and second laws of thermodynamics. In the real world, not only is energy always conserved (as it can never be created or destroyed), but also: all natural systems (and hey check it out! you are one, too!) tend to go south as it were, towards maximum entropy, towards irreversible disorganization. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold (you know the rest).
So as I see it, my job is to cancel you and your optimism out, so that nothing of you or of what you say remains, just a perfect, eternal nullity. No loss, no gain, nothing, nothing contained in nothing—just nothing, nothing at all.
Dear Dr. Pessimist,
Whenever I’m not distracted (which is not very often if I can possibly help it, and I always find Tumblr and its ilk quite useful in that regard) I sometimes catch my self almost admitting to myself (if not to others, since that would be social, not to mention career, suicide) that, yikes! I might, perhaps, be a pessimist too(?) But really: UGH! That’s a downer, verging on an outright bummer. Which is depressing, in-and-of-itself, if you think about it. Which I don’t like to, can you help? Help!
–Fretfully-On-The-Fence in Fresno
Don’t fret, friend: it gets better, truly it does–by which I mean worse, of course! But I suspect that you already understand that, at some level. So pay no heed to the bleatings of what you call your “self”, and go on, get out there, get real, and get over it. And then get on with it: because it’s all you can do, and it won’t be for all that much longer, in the grand scheme of things.
* * *
Dear Dr. Pessimist,
Are you for real? How do you get through your day? [Continue reading “Ask the Pessimist” on my longform site!]
This poem was featured in The Guardian’s poetry workshop back in 2007, and I thought I would include it here in case their page went dark.
Here is the workshop leader’s (poet John Hartley Williams) comment:
Bleak yet cheerful. I especially enjoyed the opening two lines. It’s not at all certain whether mother is committing suicide or rashly checking on dinner and the fact that father’s ghost is “entombed in broadsheets” unleashes a satirical donkey-kick at domestic arrangements. The poem lost momentum a bit in the last stanza – a phrase like “penultimate stage of life” needs a steam-winch to heave it into position, and the mere swirl of alcohol seemed too easy a conclusion; I’d have preferred something more explosive.
Yet I still like what “penultimate stage of life” is doing in this poem: for me, the shuddering but momentary halt to the rhythm (before father downs the last gulp of the highball) that those seven syllables force upon the reader leave me wondering, even now, about what the spectral father would (or could) do next.
To see other poems in the same workshop (which, among other things, required you to “mess with” a proverb, click here.
The Guardian’s Poetry Workshop series ended its run in 2011. I still miss it.
Here’s a poem inspired by (as the title says) an inadequate postcard reproduction of an amazing painting by Marc Chagall. It is a poem that couldn’t find a home in Canadian poetry journals, but I still think it deserves a reader or two.
Lines Written On The Back of a Shitty Postcard Reproduction of Chagall’s “Souvenir de ma Jeunesse” [Poem]: Click on the thumbnail below to read!
A few other poems of mine can be found here and here.
When Jonathan Franzen’s first novel The Twenty-Seventh City had its 25th anniversary re-issue back in September of 2013, it was almost as ignored as much as it was when it was first published in 1988. While Eric Lundgren in The Millionswrote a poignant and nostalic reflection on the novel and its relationship to the city of St. Louis and Nina Martyris contributed an excellent piece on the novel’s complex portrayal of the Indian-American experience in the LARB, Paurl Segal wrote in Slate of its many failings. And that, at least as far as I could tell, was pretty much that.
The book is definitely not without its faults, but it does a lot of things very well indeed, and if you are a fan of Don Delillo or Thomas Pynchon you will recognize their influence on the book, which attempts to ‘unveil’ certain previously hidden or unacknowledged economic and sociological aspects of our lives to us. And though critics such as James Wood would decry any such attempts to go beyond the ‘proper’ scope of the novel (i.e., the investigation of the ‘soul’ of the isolated individual) as what Wood called ‘hysterical realism’, Franzen’s novel largely succeeds in its aim to get us to confront how our individuality is predicated and threatened by vectors of power and history. Lev Grossman, writing in Time Magazine, captures the ambitions of books like this superbly:
What I see now when I look at books like White Teeth and Infinite Jest and Underworld is—among many other things—an attempt to gesture at the infinite, overabundant, overwhelming complexity of reality, and the increasing force with which that complexity is borne in upon us by means electronic and otherwise (i.e. by the overabundance of blogs like this one). Those books rarely end without a suggestion that they could have gone on and on indefinitely, because the world’s narrative resources are just that inexhaustible. You rarely meet a character, even a minor one, without getting the impression that the camera could wander off with them, instead of with whoever the hero of the moment is, and the result would be as rich and interesting a novel as the one the author actually wrote. You can imagine those books as endlessly ramifying trees of story, their branches dividing and dividing until the reader gets the point, which is that they could branch and divide forever and still not capture the full complexity of the world around them.
If you don’t like these kinds of novels, don’t read them. But if you do, this one will open you up to considering, among other things, the role that capitalism plays in your life while you aren’t watching! Very few novels have attempted such a feat, and in this twenty-nine year old’s first novel, we see many of the above characteristics deployed with the maturity of a much older writer.
One final note, the following is quite a bit more academic-oriented than most of what appears on this blog (hysterical realism almost begs to be scrutinised in such a manner, though). The essay is quite long, but I’ve laboured to keep it readable as best I can!
“Leda and the Swan”, by WB Yeats, has inspired a poetic “retort” by a fictional character!
Pegeen Mike O’Flaherty, a character in my work-in-progress, The Death of the Author, is a famous Canadian novelist who was a feminist poet in the late 1960s, and who gives a lecture to an undergraduate class on the supposed failings of W.B. Yeats. Below you will find her poetic retort to “Leda and the Swan”, (“Leda Sings Nomans Pricksong”) published in her first collection –suitably (?) titled Penis Envy.
Click on the embedded picture below to get a much larger view:
“Leda and the Swan” is a masterful but disturbing sonnet about (among other things) the indifference of and masculine nature of history. If you are new to the poem, or to Yeats, an excellent analysis can be found at aterriblebeautyisborn.com, along with discussions of a number of his poems. The epigraph to Pegeen Mike’s response poem comes from Eli Faure’s floridly written History of Art.
Finally here is another poem “by” Pegeen Mike, also dating from the late 1960s and dedicated to her alleged paramour, Leonard Cohen!
I’ve long had a love affair with Leonard Cohen. And while my passion has been life-long and metaphorical, Pegeen Mike O’Flaherty, a fictional character in my work-in-progress, The Death of the Author, claims to have had a much more short-term and physical relationship with the poet, for whom she wrote this poem way back when. Dedicated to Leonard, “Game Theory” is from her now out of print first collection, Penis Envy (Kassandra Press, 1968).
Click on the thumbnail below to get a larger version of the poem!
Their cleaning lady rarelyneeded to do much to the Living Room. The Tibbs were certainly not slobs like the Mullaneys across the street, with their five half-clothed kids always mucking about and a different beater in the driveway every month. Yet neither were they as deathly fastidious as the Dobbins next door (never a light on in the place and mausoleum dustcovers atop anything that didn’t threaten to move or to breathe). No, the Tibbs family definitely kept to the Middle Way; theirs was a relaxed, inviting house, but one in which everything had—and knew—its place. The kitchen was clean and tidy, the boys’ bedrooms less so. The roles allocated to the Den, the main-floor Family Room and the basement Rec Room were self-evident, easily understood by (and accommodating to) their numerous visitors. Most dinner or overnight guests would agree, if compelled to respond to an exit poll on the subject, that the furnishings were, in the main, both comfortable and practical, neither pretentious nor vulgar, and symbolic, perhaps, of a shared—if largely unspoken—intimacy.
Such, at any rate, is what young Gerald Tibbs, 23, would later remember hearing himself telling himself. And: that though he had never felt comfortable in the Living Room, it was not something to which he had ever given much thought. Still, he warily, unconsciously kept his distance. No one else save Fluffy (the family cat, a white car-accident-Manx) ever seemed to bother or to dare to go in there. There was a badly out of tune piano upon which Gerald’s younger brother Dougie had played a singalong “Stairway to Heaven” every day for six months, but that was a few years ago now. The room, as for many of the other brown, imperturbable houses on the Crescent, was inhabited chiefly by delicate, inherited antiques, forgotten-yet-essential wedding presents and corporate gifts, such as a wall clock that Smeltco, his dad’s company, had given out at one of those innumerable rah-rah sales conventions as a promotional item. The clock was hung directly over an expensive-looking settee that Gerald could never remember having sat in, and its face depicted a dredger, whose two gigantic shovels turned out to be the hour and minute hands. Numbers had been replaced by various kinds of mineral samples, each the size of a quarter, representative but not exhaustive of the multinational’s far-reaching resource sector activities. And as the hands of the clock moved around the dial, the time piece became a perpetual depiction of “Man’s unceasing re-creation of His world, through industry” —or so the ad in last month’s Mining News went.
Opposite the clock, near the entrance to the foyer, there was a seldom-trusted mahogany-veneer weather station. The hydrometer had never worked, and the blocked thermometer’s mercury had started giving split readings years and years ago, around about the time his father won a TV for his first of several National Sales Awards and the whole family got to watch the black-and-white coverage of the first moon landing in living colour. As for the barometer, whatever its accuracy, it still functioned, and it appeared to meteorologically-obsessed Gerald as he rushed past that the gadget’s mainspring had managed to shove the corroded brass needle (overnight it must have been) from “Fair” to “Change”.
Fred J. Eaglesmith. If you don’t already know him, you should.
He is one of Canada’s very finest songwriters, with the best of his lyrics subtly evoking a muted nostalgia for a hardscrabble past–for everything that’s been lost to us, or that we’ve chosen to ignore–and a gruff fathoming of what is often locked up tight in any human heart. Here is a recent video, “Johnny Cash”:
I have written him three songs–maybe one day I’ll even send them.
Click on the thumbnails below for larger versions.
I have always been obsessed with Milan Kundera, and wanted to figure out why, so I grabbed his book The Art of the Novel, and sat down to take notes. What follows is my account of his account of why he writes the kind of books that he does.
ONE: The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes
In 1935 the philosopher Edmund Husserl diagnosed a “crisis of European humanity”(3) by which he meant the very modernity that Europe bequeathed to the rest of the world, for good or ill. This modernity was a Cartesian quest to mathematize scientific knowledge, as well as a Faustian quest for knowledge-as-power, the personification of which is a rather virile scientist who seeks to “apprehend” and “interrogate” the world much as Kundera’s own character Tomas in ULB (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) wields a scalpel, both in his role as a surgeon as well as in his epic quest to conquer the infinite variety of women in the world. And just as such men reduce women to the status of objects, modernity for Husserl “reduced the world to a mere object of the technical and mathematical investigation and put the concrete world of life, die Lebenswelt [. . .] beyond their horizon. The result is that modernity began a process of the “forgetting of being”(4), the forgetting of what it means to be human (and thus the reduction of what it means to be human to the scientifically discoverable.
But for Kundera the modern era is an ambiguous one, marked by gains as well as losses, and there is another kind of investigation, one begun by Cervantes, that took as its object that which science ignored: “the investigation of this forgotten being,” the human. It, too, seems quite masculine in Kundera’s vision, as its task is to “scrutinize man’s concrete life and protect it against the forgetting of being, to hold ‘the world of life’ under a permanent light“(5, my italics).
The novel’s forward march through time runs in parallel, then, with scientific modernity, and it is charged with the duty of discovering hitherto uncharted territories of the human (in fact, any novel that fails to do so is, for Kundera, an “immoral” one) (6). For example, with Cervantes we get the exploration of man-in-the-world, of adventure; with Richardson, exploration of the psyche, of the “inner” man; with Balzac, man’s place in history; with Tolstoy, irrational man; and with Proust and Joyce, the human sense of time.
What marks the novel’s “progress” most particularly is that it does not discover objective truths about morality, say, as science would claim objective knowledge of the material world. Rather, the novel sees ambiguity and contradiction everywhere it looks, and its sole duty is to undermine those who would seek to impose the scientific, binary, either/or way-of-knowing on the human realm–what Kundera calls “totalitarian truth”(14).
The novel’s progress is itself ambiguous, marked by contradiction, by gain as well as by loss, and Kundera sees it as running in parallel with the decline in religious certainty: when we lost the miraculous infinity of the City of God we began to look for a compensatory infinity, first in the outside world with Cervantes, and then in the depths of the human soul with Flaubert, to take two of his prime examples. Thus while Don Quixote moved freely in an external world that was “open wide”(7) to him (but with little sense of interest in his “inner self”), by the time of Madame Bovary, the horizon of the external world has shrunk, and the novel compensates us for this loss with “one of Europe’s finest illusions”, the “infinity of the soul”. In the 250 years (1605-1856) spanning these two writers, the novel’s concerns have shifted from exploring the peregrinations of the adventurer-hero (across a landscape just beginning to be haunted by the loss of the timeless religious certainties of the past) to exploring the seemingly infinite psycho-geography of a single unique human consciousness.
For Kundera, though, the 20C deprives us of even that compensatory illusion, as the past century brought us to what he calls a series of “terminal paradoxes”(13), wherein, for example, “Cartesian rationality has corroded [. . .] all values inherited from the middle ages”, but has given us nothing to take their place except expediency and instrumental value: humans, like everything else in the modern world, are devalued by the “termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art”(17). Into the vacuum produced by Cartesian doubt leaps irrationality, and voila! Rationality sees itself deposed by a tyrannical unreason, which nevertheless rules our lives with an iron fist (as seen in Kafka and Musil, e.g.).
This does not mean that this is necessarily the end of History (a là Francis Fukuyama), however—the history of the novel or of political progress. Though many, many novelists are content to repeat the discoveries that others have made before them, to peddle wares that confirm the prejudices of their readers and of a society that would like to see itself as the final telos of history, there remain avenues of progress for the novel in the under-explored precincts of its own past: we could investigate the “appeal of play”(15) in the novels of 18C writers who were sceptical of the virtue of verisimilitude—as in Sterne and Diderot; the “appeal of dream” and the limitless possibilities for the imagination to break free from the conventions of realism, as seen in a writer such as Kafka; the “appeal of thought”(16), of philosophical reflection and contemplation—a mode that is definitely a part of Kundera’s own work, but he cites Musil and Broch as exemplary practitioners; the “appeal of time”—specifically, perturbing the temporal boundaries of the individual human life, anchoring them in larger patterns of history, by way of inquiring into the possibility of a sense of “collective” or epochal time.
If these remain possibilities for the novel, the contemporary world is not interested in them, for these are matters of complexity and continuity, and the reductionist spirit of our age is one of simplicity, of ahistoricism, with the horizon of time cut off in both directions by a totalitarian sense of the present moment. In our age, the novel is no longer allowed to be “a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future), but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow”(19).
Kundera’s conclusion is a somewhat dispiriting, if intransigent one: if the novel is to go on progressing, he says, it must do so only by “discovering the undiscovered” in human life, something that is entirely at odds with a technological and technocratic understanding of progress. The novel’s progress cannot be wedded to any understanding of social progress, for the latter is univocal, while the former revels in ambiguity and celebrates contradiction. Kundera sides with the former, with “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”(20)
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
—“To An Athlete Dying Young” (A.E. Housman)
Robert Downey Junior’s character Derek Lutz (in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School (1986)) may well have been poaching, with tongue-in-cheek, from Don DeLillo’s End Zone when he quipped that “violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war,” but TC Boyle takes Lutz’s (or Delillo’s) conceit up a notch or two in “56-0”, which I jealously think is one of the most perfectly crafted stories that I have ever read. “56-0” can be found in Boyle’s Stories, but it was previously published in his 1992 collection Without a Hero, whose title is a perfectly apt controlling metaphor for the story as a whole, since, with seemingly effortless grace, Boyle has somehow managed not only to revivify one of American culture’s most clichéd of plotlines (an underdog team’s attempted, “against all odds” heroic “comeback”), but also to bring the ossified Aristotelian unities magically back to life, such that his story gains a remarkable, athletic equipoise, in which humour is locked into a dialectical deathgrip with existential gravitas. And—somehow—Boyle manages to make writing like this appear to be the most natural thing in the world.
1. Life is Football (and Football is Life)
The main character of the story is Ray Arthur Larry-Pete Fontinot, who was named by his father “after the three greatest offensive line-men in college-football history”(163), and who was thereby burdened with an ineluctable, but equally impossible destiny: to live an outsized, classically heroic life. The story opens, however, with a symbolic death, with a
[. . .] humiliation. Fifty-six to nothing. That was no mere defeat; it was a drubbing, an ass-kicking, a rape, the kind of thing the statisticians and sports nerds would snigger over as long as there were records to keep. He’d always felt bigger than life in his pads and his helmet, a hero, a titan, but you couldn’t muster much heroism lying face down in the mud at fifty-six to nothing and the other team’s third string in there.(156)
And, if he feels like he is at the end of his life and not at its beginning (at 22, he has “his whole life ahead of him, and he [feels] ready for the nursing home” after the pummelling that—quite literally—he has just endured), something in us identifies immediately with Ray Arthur Larry-Pete’s (let’s just call him R.A.L.P. from here on) predicament: if to be a hero means to be “bigger than life”, what we all feel that we are really in for is a bit of, well, life-–which amounts, more often than not, to getting our asses kicked, and more. Thus, from the outset, Boyle has signaled that this story will explore the tension between what we can imagine (and thus what stories can offer us) and what we can or must live with (Beethoven’s famous Es Muss Sein, or “It Must Be”). Our imaginations structure the stories of our lives aesthetically: meaning is a form of compensatory artifice, as Milan Kundera has suggested in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
Early in the novel that Tereza [MK’s main character] clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite novelistic to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as fictive, fabricated, and untrue to life into the word novelistic. Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. (54)
R.A.L.P. has certainly gone through a lot of distress over the past four years—his team, the Caledonia College Shuckers, have an 0-43 record, with this most recent loss clearly the worst in his career. In fact, pain, loss and humiliation have provided the only discernible pattern in this young man’s four year apprenticeship on this existential playing field, and after this most recent loss he finds himself “depressed” and “brooding about his college career, his job prospects, life after football”(160). [Wait a minute: life after football? Isn’t that an oxymoron—equivalent to life after life?] Well, if he is to be the hero of his own life, then he can only hope that his plot-line has reached its nadir, and that if his life is to be viewed “symmetrically”, if only by him, he has to get out of the basement and make something of himself—redemption, that’s what heroes seek after reaching the basement, right?
The following is a little potted something that I give to my students when we are trying to puzzle out what it means to be ‘modern’, to work towards an understanding of what historical continuity connects Hamlet to L20C works like The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I include it here as an addendum to my previous post: before you go emailing me about how historically vulgar and Olympian it is, I’d just like to say that it is a bit, yes, vulgar and Olympian, a bit of a caricature of intellectual history. But young students need to see history in such broad bush strokes to care about it at all, to feel it is relevant to their experience of the world as it feels like it stands now. I reproduce it here because, increasingly, I feel, a lot of contemporary literature has abandoned even this vestigial inkling of historical awareness. So many writers today feel as if they can safely ignore the efforts of those who have written before us, those modernists hose who have wrestled with one or another version of this narrative: Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Brecht, Borges, & etc, are now safely consigned to the dustbin of literary history, so easily forgotten in the search for the next Booker short list nominees. Writers today are free to write in any mode they choose, to write, even, as if 19C realism is in no way compromised or problematic. And yet questions of form and of form’s relation to ‘reality’ were obsessively debated by our forerunners –why are they not now?
I have no answer to that last question, but it is by no means rhetorical.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in part an inquiry into what it means to be human in a world which is making the transition from the stable certainties of medieval Christendom to the dynamism of modernity. Hamlet feels personally bound to those Feudal ties of belonging, which unite peasant, yeoman and aristocrat into one mutually supportive, but static “Great Chain of Being”, ties which also demand that he be the agent of vengeance when he sees those supposedly eternal, natural laws being trampled upon by his uncle and mother: at times, the ideological certainties (such as the Divine Right of Kings) that derive from Ptolemy’s geocentric universe seem to provoke in him both religious and filial fervour, for to avenge the memory of his father would be to strike a blow for an equally threatened cosmology, an understanding of the cosmos that has placed Mankind at its very centre, and that is shot through – from the greatest of men to the smallest of flowers – with meaning.
Yet, if Hamlet keenly feels the pull of such “ghosts” of the pre-modern past he is no less haunted by the uncertainties unleashed by the modernity in which he has been schooled, as he spends much of the play doubting the meaning of the very presuppositions which would guide his actions (if ever he could only bring himself to stop questioning and, finally, act). For Hamlet’s melancholy, while perhaps partly due to his constitution, is a by-product of modern life: if Descartes helped usher in scientific modernity by instructing us that the only way to sweep away the cobwebs of myth and tradition was to methodically doubt what we think we “know” until we arrive at that which is indubitable, he also failed to find that final primary thing that could not itself be doubted. Science itself, while building on Descartes’ method, has taught us to distrust what “seems” true, and like Horatio, require sensory proof before we believe. And though micro- and telescopes have enabled our “insight” into the “true”, physical nature of the world to straddle vast distances of space and squeeze into the tiny spaces between atoms, such intellectual tools tell us nothing about what remains about the “meaning” of modern life.
The answer most moderns usually give is that “life in the abstract may no longer have meaning, but my life has meaning for me”. We feel this way because modernity has created us as individuals, something unheard of in feudal Europe (or any other world historical culture). The very forces that gave birth to early modern science also unleashed capitalism, such that humans increasingly began to discover their identities and their lives’ meaning not in the communal relationships of village life, but in the socio-economic exchanges characterized by life in the modern city: according to the economists of the Industrial Revolution (L18C, roughly contemporaneous with the political revolutions in America and France) we are “utility-maximizing rational individuals” – Homo Economicus – calculating, solitary creatures whose primary aim in life is to increase our pleasures and minimize our pains, or, as the more stirring words of the American Declaration of Independence puts it, our primary rights and duties centre chiefly around around “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Years ago, when I was a very lost first year undergrad, I had an inspiring professor named Dr. Tim McNamara (below) who succeeded at the near-impossible: at getting a motley collection of over-worked young engineering students and military cadets to pay attention in a dreaded, required freshman English survey course. The heft of the Norton Anthology of English Literature that we lugged to class along with our Optics, Mechanics and Chemistry texts, combined with the fragility of its 1000+ onion skin pages (as well as with the impenetrable density of its type), cast an ominous pall over the room as we slouched in our chairs awaiting not Infinite Jest, but Infinite Boredom.
But Dr. McNamara won us over immediately. He did so by showing to us why (and how) Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Donne, et al. were not just some random resinous garden gnomes who somehow stubbornly insisted upon persisting in the junk-yard of history. No sir! They were, rather, living and -yes- breathing distant relatives, the kind of knowing, naughty Uncle Wise Guys who would wink at you even as they declaimed some important weighty truth about the human condition, the uncles who would “playfully” slap you in the face in one of their “pretend” boxing matches, but who would also slip a five dollar bill into your coat pocket while you were looking the other way -a gift you would only discover after the visit had long ended, after you had been shuttled back to the banal perils of quotidian reality.
There was always more than a little twinkle in Dr. McNamara’s eyes at the start of what seemed like each & every class. This was when he would intone, like a caffeinated whiskey priest, the name the writer with whom we would be grappling that day, and then pause and stare us down. These pauses were at first just a beat, but became increasingly stentorian (and proportionally hilarious to us callow engineers) as the year wore on. But we also loved what followed the pause, for each new (to us) writer who were going to spend that particular day testing ourselves against, was always, as Dr. McNamara put it, the “best”, “first” or “most” of his or her age, genre or nation. And Dr. McNamara really meant it, but there was also something else, something impishly playful, which told us that we were his nieces and nephews, and that despite our best efforts to evade him, that he’d be giving us a good slap across the face real soon.
Thirty years on, I now forget the who-was-what-and-when, but phrases like “unparalleled observer of human nature”, “greatest stylist of his generation”, and “champion of wit” linger and mutate in my imagination, forming ever-new combinations, but are always anchored by one thing: by the incredible, unforced, but mischievous ardour in his voice: it was a voice characterized above all by a sense of transport, by the enthusiasm* of one who knew the joy of discovering (and then sparring with) the Master. And Tim (as Dr. McNamara soon insisted we call him) was inviting us, just as he himself had been invited, to box. Later on I came to understand that Tim’s approach was kind of analogous to what the philosophers call Kantian aesthetic disinterest**: whether discussing his love of Shakespeare (“simply the greatest writer of all time!” -now that is one that I actually do remember) or asking us about engineering, about our own lives, about our hopes and dreams, Tim seemed, at those moments, to lack an ego: what was superlative or unique about other writers, and about other people in general, was what interested him.
Listening to his lectures you got a sense that Tim was trying, in spite of the odds, to let those writers speak to us unmediated, to gain us access to (to borrow from Milan Kundera) “the one millionth part” of them that makes them separate from the mass of humanity, of that which makes them unique, inimitable, of that which makes their art theirs and theirs alone. It’s a very modernist notion: the idea that artists must forge a unique, individual style, that artists are “at war” with clichés of all kinds, that it is human particularity that keeps us awake and alive as readers, as writers . . . and I am well aware of just how unfashionable, in academic circles at least, that idea has been in the past few decades. But what I’ll be doing here in subsequent posts is following in what my imagination chooses to remember as the footsteps of my first mentor, Dr. Tim: I’ll be looking closely at the work of some writers I admire, writers who, if they share anything at all in common, it is a fascinated, avuncular mistrust in the protean nature of a world into which they, like their characters, find themselves thrown -writers whose literary innovations are a fully human response to the increasingly inhuman competition in what Milan Kundera in a slightly different but related context called “the trap that the world has become”. If so, we can only hope that we have inherited our uncles’ and aunts’ best gambits. For we conduct our lives in a whirlwind: call it “late”, “transnational” or “neo-liberal” capitalism; call it modernity; in any case our existence is predicated upon forces of ever-accelerating centripetal movement, and it has been ever since at least the late 18C, just when the novel also started coming into its own. Ours is a world distinguished by “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”, where “all that is solid melts into air“, and where we, like the artist, are compelled to innovate, summoned by an imperative to keep pace.
But whether human nature either bends or breaks under such pressure is a question that writers of fiction are in a better position to ask than are the political or literary theorists, for, as I see it, one of the things fiction can do for us better than theory is to dunk our imaginations into a full-on sensory immersion acid bath -or, to mix my metaphors, into punching ourselves sufficiently awake that we can attempt to confront this ever-shifting “reality”. Socio-economic and cultural vectors are fired at us just as they are launched at an author’s characters from all angles, and we, readers and writers, vicariously participate in lives that can be as formed by as much as tested by them. And we scrimmage most regularly with those writers who most make us feel or think something new, something we didn’t feel or think before.
Milan Kundera actually claims that novels that fail “to uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence [are] immoral.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but I do know that novels that fail to try to tease something new out of existence – and, inextricably, out of language – are downright boring. And so in the entries that follow I will be attempting to grapple with the work of a number of late 20C writers who themselves try to Quixotically joust with the whirlwind. If my method is to read these works “as if” writing them -that is, to try to unpack them and see how they were put together- it may become apparent to some readers that I tend to favour writing that breaks from some or many of the conventions of realism: writing that might prompt an “As IF!” response from readers expecting those conventions to be followed. There has been much debate about this over the past ten years or so in the American literary press -debate centred on what James Wood called “hysterical realism” in the “sociological” fiction of the “bastard children of Charles Dickens” (writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo and even Zadie Smith). This debate had been sparked, in part, by a 1996 article Jonathan Franzen wrote in Harpers concerning the apparently bleak future for fiction: entitled “Perchance To Dream”, Franzen asked whether the experimental novel retained any cultural relevance today. I suppose that the entries in this blog will attempt to comprehend that question more fully, if mostly indirectly.
It is an old debate, however. Earlier in the past century it was one that famously centred on two heavyweights of literature: the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the Literary Critic Georg Lukacs.
It would be nice to return to that specific text sometime. But first I am going with my gut with two opening gambits: first, to some short stories by T.C. Boyle, and then to Milan Kundera’s aesthetic meditations in The Art of the Novel. But I will close this first sortie with a passage from Brecht:
Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new [. . .] If we wish to have a living and combative literature, which is fully engaged with reality and fully grasps reality, a truly popular literature, we must keep step with the rapid development of reality.
Postscript: I haven’t spoken with Dr. Tim since taking his class, but I write this as if still, in some sense, his student, with an eye looking out not so much for paternal approval as an avuncular bang on the ear.
*Enthusiasmos (Gk) – from enthous ‘possessed by a god’ – COED
**Aesthetic disinterest may seem cold and detached, but it isn’t neutral. From the indiﬀerence of the object to the disinterest of the subject – or from the former’s superﬂuous self-exhibition to the latter’s ungrounded reception – the experience of beauty is one of distance and separation. This distance is not a mere absence; it is something positively felt. When I contemplate something that I consider beautiful, I am moved precisely by that something’s separation from me, its exemption from the categories I would apply to it. This is why beauty is a lure, drawing me out of myself and teasing me out of thought. Aesthetic experience is a kind of communication without communion – Steven Saviro, “Without Criteria: Kant and Whitehead” 10.