In short piece for The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz reflects on the holy words of a (supposedly) secular culture. These are words, Deresiewicz suggests, that are “possessed of something like magical powers, a kind of ideological open sesame.” He lists freedom, equality, and justice as examples. Of course, one could argue that some of these words have a long history in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but that criticism aside, what are some other “holy” secular words? Clunky as it is, open-mindedness is certainly one.
Following his piece on the policy at the Los Angeles Review of Books not to review first books negatively, D.G. Myers, Mark Athitakis, Joyce Carol Oates, Chris Bea, and Rohan Maitzen discussed negative reviews on Twitter yesterday—whether or not critics should write them and why. Here are some of the more interesting tweets:
D G Myers (@dg_myers): My typical reason for ignoring a book after investing the time to read it is that I have nothing to say about it; not that it’s bad.
Christopher Beha (@chrisbeha): The other problem @dg_myers mentions is that ignoring the bad and praising the good creates false picture of the whole.
Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates): Thousands of titles are published yearly. No one has a “sense of the whole.” And there is no “news”
Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates): An ideal review should present the book, with appropriate quotations, & a minimum of “opinion,” so that the reader can judge for himself.
D G Myers (@dg_myers): Ain’t a review but a report. MT @JoyceCarolOates: Ideal review presents book, with quotes, & minimum of “opinion.” Reader judges for self.
D G Myers (@dg_myers): Reading and writing require the truth; the rest is publishing. Paul J. Strassfield on false positives in reviewing: http://is.gd/djAiEm
D G Myers (@dg_myers): There are many reasons for a bad review, but only a bad critic delivers a review that is only bad.
Mark Athitakis (@mathitak): Easy fix: Every review section opens with bold type: “REMINDER: MOST BOOKS ARE GODAWFUL.”
In a short piece on novelist James Kelman’s latest work, Giles Harvey reflects on the tension between consciousness and plot in the modern novel. The object of the novelist, Harvey writes, at least since Jane Austen, has been increasingly to capture the human mind—express the odd turns and sometime unexpected destinations of consciousness:
Jane Austen’s free indirect speech, the folding of soliloquy into third-person narration (“She had no hope, nothing to deserve the name of hope, that he could have that sort of affection for herself which was now in question”), marked the first significant breakthrough. Flaubert, James, Tolstoy, and others took this technique and ran with it. In the climactic chapters of “Anna Karenina,” Anna’s mind, overwrought by the crisis of her deteriorating affair with Vronsky, seems to commandeer the narrative altogether (“How proud and happy he’ll be when he gets my note! But I’ll show him… What a terrible smell that paint has”), so that mind and narrative become hard to tell apart.
From Tolstoy to the fractured, telegraphic stream of consciousness in “Ulysses” or the smoother, more overtly stylized variety in “Mrs. Dalloway” is not far. The main difference is one of attention span. Tolstoy gives us only a few pages of full immersion in the spume of Anna’s thoughts, and they come during the book’s most dramatic episode—a time when Anna has a lot to think about. The pages of Joyce and Woolf, on the other hand, abound with brain lint, the stuff of ordinary minds on ordinary days.
But too many pages devoted to mirroring the human mind can make a novel rather tedious. Not all minds are the same, and even great ones still think about the uninteresting essentials of life most of the time. “All novels,” Harvey writes, “need to strike a balance between description of what happens to a character and what a character is thinking about as it happens. In most, for the sake of order, momentum, and intelligibility, the latter tends to be subordinate to the former.”
Kelman inverts this, subordinating plot to consciousness, and the result, Harvey argues, is unsatisfying: “Art is meaningful because it is life-like without incurring the disadvantages of actually being life—that is to say, without being boring and formless. Kelman seems unmindful, or simply uninterested, in this proposition.”
In other words, the thoughts or actions of characters become uninteresting if they are not directed, at some point, towards a purpose. This tells us an important truth about who we are, of course. We were created to live meaningful, purposeful lives.
But I wonder if it also tells us something about goal of certain modern and contemporary novelists. One might say that in the mind of God, plot is subordinated to consciousness. Time and sequence are his thoughts, and the story of humanity is derivate of the free-wheeling, “purposeless” thoughts of our divine creator. In his mind, all thoughts are interesting, engaging on their own, but our thoughts, or the thoughts of characters, like perhaps Leopold Bloom, become uninteresting when they are made to seem self-sustaining (like God’s) when, in fact, they are not. They are subordinate to God’s thought, his plot.
Prufrock, a free daily newsletter on books, art, and ideas, is curated by Micah Mattix.
Paul Miller is taking a year off from the Internet–no browsing, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter. I don’t know about you, but the idea of completely disconnecting is tempting. I sometimes wonder how much stuff I would get done if I weren’t distracted by email and Twitter. Miller, it turns out, gets quite a bit done, at least for a while. The old Adam, it turns out, cannot be so easily defeated:
As Mark points out, Gary Alan Fine finds the erasure of Paterno’s sporting accomplishments Orwellian, but such a practice is not just the stuff of dystopian fiction. At Reflection and Choice, Steven L. Jones writes:
Question: What do Joe Paterno and the Roman Emperor Nero have in common? Answer: damnatio memoriae
Damnatio Memoriae (Latin for “the condemnation of memory”) is the act of trying to erase a person from history. In the Roman world, this meant erasing the condemned man’s name from inscriptions, removing coins with his image from circulation, or defacing images and statues of him.
As you might imagine such an endeavor is extremely difficult to accomplish. Even in an age less bombarded by media than ours, it could be difficult to track down and remove every single mention of a person. People who generate great anger are normally people who have also left a lasting and far-reaching mark.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith defends Mark Regnerus’s research on gay couples and child-rearing against what Smith calls a progressive “witch hunt”:
Whoever said inquisitions and witch hunts were things of the past? A big one is going on now. The sociologist Mark Regnerus, at the University of Texas at Austin, is being smeared in the media and subjected to an inquiry by his university over allegations of scientific misconduct.
Regnerus’s offense? His article in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research reported that adult children of parents who had same-sex romantic relationships, including same-sex couples as parents, have more emotional and social problems than do adult children of heterosexual parents with intact marriages. That’s it. Regnerus published ideologically unpopular research results on the contentious matter of same-sex families. And now he is being made to pay.
Smith goes on to defend the integrity of Regnerus’s study. Good for Smith; and good for The Chronicle for its open-mindedness.
Johann Hari wonders if professional criticism is coming to an end, pushed out by armchair critics empowered by social media. If so, he suggests, we would lose a great deal.
Critics do two things according to Hari. They provide “consumer advice,” and they help audiences grasp the deeper meaning of sometimes baffling works of art or literature. The first can be done by citizen critics on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section of Amazon. The second, however, requires learning and space–something established critics are no longer getting. Magazines are cutting coverage, and where criticism is still published, it is now much shorter:
It turns out that the more scientifically knowledgeable one is, the more likely one is to doubt the risks of climate change. To find out what some scientists find of little concern, read William Happer’s “The Truth about Greenhouse Gases” in last year’s First Things.
(HT: Ben Domenech)
Alexandra Peers has a wonderful review of Michael Findlay’s new book, The Value of Art, in the Wall Street Journal:
A decade into the 21st century, no clear movement or style has emerged to mark contemporary art. No Impressionism, Modernism, Minimalism—no single description to encapsulate what has been going on. Veteran art dealer Michael Findlay, in “The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty,” says that a name has been there all along: Commercialism.
In a book that dissects the past 40 years of the business, Mr. Findlay decries the rise of art as an asset class, the circus that auctions have become and the fact that, as the prices have climbed, we’ve stopped looking at the paintings themselves. “The greatest consequence of the commoditization of art is the loss of integrity of the object because it is with the integrity of the object that all lasting, true value lies,” Mr. Findlay says. And: “One of the signs of a decaying culture is a reverence for form over content.”
Peers notes that Findlay, himself a dealer, contributed more than a little to the commercialization of art, pithily noting that reading Findlay’s critique of the commercialization of art is like reading “an antiwar treatise by Napoleon: You grant the expertise but question the repentance.”
What has happened to literary journalism that something like this gets published in a national paper? John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14—a poem on Christ’s violent attack on the self’s evil heart that brings about salvation—tells us, Roz Kaveney writes, “That the struggle to determine what we think so often takes place in liminal states.”
How does Kaveney arrive at this interpretation? Peering cunningly into the “liminal state” of the dead poet himself, she associates the “rough” meter of the poem with Donne’s “struggle” to determine what he thought. “He clearly felt that he needed to make it clear that some things are more important than strict form or rhythm. When souls are at stake, his soul in particular, what price correctness?” Clearly. And just so we’re clear: “To put it another way, as a contemporary poet, which matters more? Saying clearly what you mean to say, what you think of as important, or strict adherence to rules?” How about we drop that “strict” and say both? After all, you can’t say anything meaningful that’s formless.
Over at Books & Culture, Halee Scott reviews Craig G. Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell–a book on the importance of place in Christian theology. I won’t rehash all of her points, but this struck me:
Bartholomew notes that place has a formative influence on the lives of individuals throughout the Scriptures. Central to the Abrahamic narratives and much of the Pentateuch is the theme of journeying and the land; Abraham journeys through the wilderness to the land God promised, and the people of Israel wander through the desert after their release from Egypt. Likewise, God uses the desert as a formational place in the lives of Moses, the Israelites, and Jesus.
One implication of this, Scott notes, is that we should “care for our immediate environment, which begins with our home”:
At Public Discourse, Mark Bauerlein argues that liberalism’s relativistic individualism has ruined the novel:
Apart from the truth or politics of that statement, its consequences for the novel are certain. A good plot needs conflict, an unsettled situation whose outcome we care about. For more than two centuries, the theme of “individual vs. society” provided a ready tension for it, as in Huck Finn’s personal feelings for Jim clashing with the norms of slave society, or Edna in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening rebelling against patriarchal demands in turn-of-the-century Louisiana. The conflict worked precisely because the social side isn’t powerless and on occasion voices a legitimate criticism of the specific individual with whom we sympathize. Once all legitimacy lies on the individual side, once social institutions have no claim upon the one, tension dissipates and the novel reads like a chronicle of events in the life of _____, not a meaningful examination of human affairs in this or that setting.
I think this is correct, though I wonder if there is also something to be said about the novel being inherently individualistic and, therefore, particularly open to this overvaluing of the individual will–consider Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and any number of others. The individual is constrained in these novels, and yet that constraint is certainly less than in The Odyssey or King Lear.
Bauerlein notes that in Eugenide’s The Marriage Plot, one of the characters, Madeleine, who has struggled with the meaning of marriage and the nature of love, finds personal solace in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. So-called critical theory is often used in contemporary novels to make it seem that big ideas are being considered when they are simply being discussed. Bauerlein makes another point. Madeleine does gain some sort of insight from Barthes’ work, but it is not insight “about humanity at large.” It applies only to her and only on the basis of resonance. ”Once social institutions deteriorate,” he writes, “and people live contained by their own sole selves, relevance becomes the first measure of value.”
This is an excellent point, which makes me wonder: Where else has relevance become “the first measure of value”?
In my experience, Austen fans love her because of the detailed character portraits, the well-turned phrase, subtle plot development. etc.Russian novels tend to be novels of ideas. The dialogue is often abrupt and slightly off balance–when Russian characters are angry, the world is black; when they are happy, they are positively giddy. It’s as if they are all manic depressives. People read Russian novels–at least most of them–for the ideas represented in characters’ actions, the social commentary, the existential crises. This is all speaking very generally, of course. When I put it like this, there are a number of objections that pop into my head, but voila.
Over at Books & Culture, John Wilson offers his books of the year. I love John’s methodology: the best books are those that first come to mind after a year of reading. Here are a couple of the more interesting titles:
Apricot Jam: And Other Stories. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. + Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar. Viktor Shklovsky. Two Russian masters. Solzhenitsyn’s late stories come in pairs (“binaries,” he called them) that play off each other. A bonus story, the ninth, was translated by AIS’s son Stephen. Shklovsky’s book was published in the USSR in 1970, when he was 76, and is available (at last!) in English translation, thanks to Shushan Avagyan and the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a look at how literature works, and literature’s relation to life. Both books draw on a lifetime of memory, experience, and hard-won wisdom.
Scenes from Village Life. Amos Oz. + This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon. Linda McCullough Moore. Two collections of linked stories, the first a dark, uncanny report from Israel , the second a life in condensed form (leaving the blank spaces blank). Even better when read together. (Warning: the last story from Oz, a coda of sorts, left me nonplussed. Maybe I missed the point.)
Read the whole list here.
New Criterion art critic James Panero has curated what looks to be an interesting exhibition of portraits of injured U.S. service personnel. Too often artists use military injuries or deaths as mere fodder for the next piece of political art. That’s not the case here. The exhibit will run September 1-18.
We will be screening Walker Percy: A Documentary Film at Houston Baptist University tomorrow night. I’ll be giving a brief introduction to Percy before the film and would love to meet any fellow readers of First Things. The screening is free and open to the public. It begins at 8:30 p.m. in the Mabee Teaching Theatre on campus. Hope to see some of you there.
I’m not a big fan of purely political art, but the Pratt Institute has no problem with it—as long as it’s the right kind of politics, that is. The New Criterion’s James Panero reports:
You don’t have to be an art critic to see something tasteless going on at Pratt Institute. Since 1887, this venerable New York institution has been dedicated to educating “artists and creative professionals to be responsible contributors to society.” Yet teachers and administrators at Pratt have been nothing but irresponsible in their recent dealings with a fifth-year drawing student named Steve DeQuattro.
In today’s online article at Books & Culture, Marcus Goodyear explains a new poetry game on Twitter where poets tweet lines of poetry on a particular topic in an effort to outwit each other. The purpose, Goodyear remarks, is to remind us that poetry is fun:
In the end, Tweet Speak Poetry is more than a game, it is a philosophy of poetry as a game. The rules and resources of the game are mostly decided by the rules and resources of poetry itself. Sometimes our attempts to study poetry in university settings can take the joy out it. We forget how to play with T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and try instead to wrestle the meaning from it. If we play poetry at all, we treat the poem like an opponent, to be pummelled into submission. If we are to win, the poem must lose.
Applying game theory to poetry has helped us rediscover the fun of it—using our wits, exploring language through social media, imposing new boundaries on ourselves, and reminding ourselves that the outcome of the game is simple: more people who love poetry and write poetry.
Most of all, though, playing poetry games gives us permission to be silly again. We love T. S. Eliot, but we also love W. H. Auden. We love Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson and Julia Kasdorf and Scott Cairns and Luci Shaw, but we also love Shel Silverstein. We can’t be serious and disciplined about something if we forget how to play.
I don’t see any problem with this as a game. After all, some of Donne’s early poems and John Wilmot’s epigrams are mostly playful witticisms. However, as “a philosophy of poetry,” it is woefully inadequate.
I’ll have more to say on poetry and Twitter later this month at Public Discourse, but in the meantime: the idea that poetry is nothing but a game is to ignore, or at least minimize, the moral nature of poetry. This view of poetry often goes hand in hand with a purely materialistic view of reality that reduces the self, love, good and evil to the neuron firings of the brain. According to this view, if love, good and evil do not really exist, it is naive for the poet to write about them. What is left for the poet to do is to play word games that produce immediate pleasure via witticisms or jeux de mots. Frank O’Hara espoused this view in part when he said that it was most important for a poet to be “not boring.”
A better philosophy of poetry would explain that the pleasure poetry produces is not found in witticisms alone, but also in the truth that it expresses about who we are, or the nature of goodness or evil. Otherwise, the poem is merely technique, devoid of anything human. Yes, poetry can often function like a game (as Hans-Georg Gadamer has pointed out), but it is also much more than one.
While our culture tends to eschew religious polemics, great disagreements have produced not only some of the most awe-inspiring moments in human history, but also some of the most beautiful lines of prose. So argues Carl Truman in the latest issue of Themelios:
[P]olemic has produced some moments of great beauty in church history, and we should not let the modern cultural antipathy to religious controversy blind us to that fact. I need to be somewhat nuanced here, lest I am misunderstood, and distinguish two kinds of beauty in polemic. The first I call the polemics where, in the words of Yeats, ‘a terrible beauty is born.’ Yeats was writing about the Easter Uprising in Dublin and about the way that the cause of Irish national independence gave, in a moment of explosive violence, a terrible, frightening grandeur to men who had, up to that point, occupied mundane common-or-garden jobs.
* * *
There is another kind of polemical beauty, however, and this is of a kind that you might not even notice was polemical unless it was explained as such. Some of the most beautiful lines in church history have been penned precisely as beautiful, if quiet, polemic.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
The crisis in the humanities has “officially” arrived, Stanley Fish asserts in his October 11th piece for The New York Times. Why now? Because on October 1st, SUNY Albany decided to cut the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theatre programs from the university curriculum. The elimination of French, in particular, “was a shocker.”
Sounding ever so desperate and disoriented, Fish’s solution—though he admits it probably won’t work—is for “senior administrators” to save the humanities by explaining and defending “the core enterprise . . . to legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others.” And what is the “core enterprise” of the humanities according to Fish? To employ humanities professors, of course! Fish states that there is “something” of value in the humanities, though he is at a loss as to what that might be, and concludes with this:
I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum—that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said—but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.
Yeah, that’s probably not going to work.
In a follow-up piece, Fish gives it another shot:
Unlike poets, critical theorists sometime need a little help from computer programs to let language write them. Hence, this nifty little tool from the University of Chicago. Now everyone can write nonsensical sentences with no graduate school required!
Via: Alan Jacobs
“For a crowd is not a company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.” (From “Of Friendship,” The Essays)