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Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Auden, In Memory of W.B.Yeats

To this inward development of the individual corresponds a new sort of outward distinction--the modern form of glory.

In the other countries of Europe the different classes of society lived apart, each with its own medieval caste sense of honour. The poetical fame of the Troubadours and Minnesanger was peculiar to the knightly order. But in Italy social equality had appeared before the time of the tyrannies or the democracies. We there find early traces of a general society, having, as will be shown more fully later on, a common ground in Latin and Italian literature; and such a ground was needed for this new element in life to grow in. To this must be added that the Roman authors, who were not zealously studied, are filled and saturated with the conception of fame, and that their subject itself--the universal empire of Rome-- stood as a permanent ideal before the minds of Italians. From henceforth all the aspirations and achievements of the people were governed by a moral postulate, which was still unknown elsewhere in Europe. � Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

First, Harold Bloom berated the National Book Foundation for its plan to award Stephen King its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in the L.A. Times (Harold Bloom can no longer ask for the salt without first mentioning the Foucaultists, the Feminists, the Derridist, the Marxists, who have collectively kept him from his dear departed salt lo these many years; they were, of course, to blame for the whole King affair). Then, at the ceremony, Stephen King made a bland speech recommending that more attention should be paid to popular literature, and Shirley Hazzard, also getting a prize, made a speech saying no it shouldn�t. Then segments of the Internet, like the weblog Crooked Timber, registered indignation at Shirley Hazzard�s snobbishness, who they said they had never heard of anyway (and to not hear of a person is automatically disqualifying). Finally Aol Time-Warner, your media company, under its Time Magazine subsidiary, surprised us all by taking up the cudgels against elitism. Imagine. Here is a graf from Lev Grossman�s essay
�As it happens, I don't much care for Stephen King's books. Maybe I'm out of touch with my dark side, but I'd swap his oeuvre for J.K. Rowling's in a magic moment, or George R.R. Martin's for that matter. But I applaud the National Book Foundation's choice, and I hope it encourages the small but determined school of writers who are carefully, lovingly grafting the prose craft of the literary heap onto the sinewy, satisfying plots of the trashy one to produce hybrid novels that offer the pleasures of both. Writers like Donna Tartt and Alice Sebold, Neal Stephenson and Iain Banks, Jonathan Lethem and Margaret Atwood, writers whose work will most likely define--more than anything by brilliant mandarins like Wallace or Franzen--what will be known to later generations as the 21st century novel. The next literary wave will come not from above but from below, from the foil-covered, embossed-lettered paperbacks in the drugstore racks. Stay tuned. Keep reading. The revolution will not be canonized.�

Auden�s lines are beautiful, but teeter on the specious; and Grossman�s are simply platitudinous. Both, however, maintain a certain idea of posterity. Actually, two ideas: that statements about posterity aren�t empty, and that survival into posterity is a sign of intrinsic quality. The ideas are related: we can tell what posterity will notice because we represent posterity�s judgment insofar as we judge a text to be good or ill. Notice that Grossman, at the last moment, baulks from granting any of his writers the gift Auden assigns to Kipling and Claudel and Yeats � the art of writing well.

What interests us is not the controversy per se, but the assumptions behind it. Where did this particular image of posterity come from, and why is it used by the high (Auden) and the low (Grossman)?.

Notice that neither Grossman nor Auden seem to be aware that they are making a claim about history, or that such a claim can be more or less plausible. Neither investigates how their claim about posterity could be true. Of course, Auden is a poet, not a pedant, and Grossman is a hack, not a poet. Still, poets are keenly aware of the instability of reputation, and hacks have Google at their fingertips.

So, how should one go about making predictions about the endurance of written work?

Over the long term, our feeling is that the chance of a prediction being fulfilled, at least for the reasons one says it will be fulfilled, is vanishingly small. Remember, for the medievals, the important Latin poet after Virgil was Statius. Ovid or Catullus just weren�t in the running. We need a more manageable time sequence to answer that question. Over a thousand years, it becomes intractable. There needs to be at least certain structures that are generally continuous � for instance, an economic structure that is generally coherent over time, and a structure of religious belief that is also coherent over time. Even so, there are unpredictable contingencies. The Library of Alexandria burned; Franz Kafka�s manuscripts didn�t, despite his dying request. So it goes.

Given these conditions, we can still see patterns in, say, the last three hundred years. Starting in the 18th century, the literary nexus of publishers, the writers, and the audience started to take a modern shape. Writers could come from anywhere, but readers, and publishers, came mostly from the middle class. There was certainly room for the working class and the upper class, but writers that appealed to a working class audience had to eventually appeal to a middle class audience to endure. Aleida Assmann wrote an essay about this for Representations in 1996: Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory . She points out that the mythology of glory � which Burckhardt traces to Dante, and the city state culture of Italy in the fourteenth century � was, for the writer, shaped by the idea of a who would preserve it. It would be preserved by people like the friends of the poet � gentle people, highborn, with swift minds. It was an almost tactile sense of posterity, posterity with a face. But in the eighteenth century, the semantic markers shifted. Assman quotes Swift�s preface to the Tale of the Tub to show that the circle was replaced by the seller -- the face by the invisible hand, to be slightly anachronistic about it. We�ll excerpt a passage from Swift at the end of this post.

Yes, it is going to be a long post.

The new factor in the manufacture of posterity, in the twentieth century, has been the rise of educational institutions as transmitters of literature. One has to take that into account.

So here�s a concrete question. Given these circumstances, what chance does King have to be remembered to future generations? And what chance do the brilliant mandarins have?

On the evidence, gothic and horror writers have a pretty good record. At least three or four writers of gothic novels in the eighteenth century are still in print, and still found on the shelves of medium sized public libraries: I surveyed the shelves of the novels and literature section of the Austin public library, and found in print books by Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, �Monk� Lewis, and William Beckworth. In the nineteenth century, right off the bat, I thought of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan La Fanu. I didn�t see LeFanu, but the rest are there. That is just in English culture � there is also, of course, Theodore Gautier (author of the original Mummy story) and Gaston Leroux.

One thing seems common to these writers. They are famed for characters. In fact, in some cases � LeFanu and Gautier � characters considerably overshadow their authors. King has not created that kind of character. Perhaps Ann Rice has. Furthermore, King is proudest of his thousand page works. All of the above mentioned authors are famous for medium sized novels � nothing too big. In fact, Carmilla, LeFanu�s novel, is novella sized. Using that criteria, things look bad for King.

So how about the brilliant mandarins?

The natural forebears are Nineteenth novelists like George Eliot or Henry James or George Meredith. All wrote huge novels. But Eliot and James also wrote small novels. Small novels are assignable in a 101 course. Pynchon is exemplary in that respect � most readers know him not for his most �famous� book, Gravity�s Rainbow, but for the assignable Crying of Lot 49.

Posterity for a mandarin depends a lot on networking. It isn�t necessary to be part of the establishment, but it is helpful, if one is on the outs with the establishment, to create a counter-establishment. Compare, for instance, the posthumous fates of D.H. Lawrence and John Cowper Powys � both writers of big novels, both of a philosophical bent, both obsessed with sex. Powys has his fans � Steiner called the Glastonbury Romance one of the three great books of the twentieth century. But really, Powys never made a counter-establishment. He became quaint � that is, he was on the outs with the conventions of the modern novel, but he never had a following that theorized that extra-territoriality. Lawrence, however, was the establishment rebel par excellence. There�s nothing like breaking decisively with Bertrand Russell to show that 1, you are a rebel, and 2, you know Bertrand Russell.

Now, my comments so far have not been about the quality of these writers at all. In King�s case, and Ann Rice�s, I can�t comment, since I�ve never read them. I know their work only through the movies. It doesn�t really matter, though. Contra Auden, time hasn�t pardoned Claudel � he is well on the way to joining Duhamel and Jouve as a name to be found on a school. He is probably better known for oppressing his poor sister, Camille, than for his poems about China.

The American novelists I like best � Gaddis, for instance, and McCarthy � are probably not going to have a long posterity. Gaddis is like Meredith � he is eccentric enough as a writer that he attracts only a passionate few. But Meredith was able to produce one or two conventional novels � like the Ordeal of Richard Feveral. Gaddis only produced prodigies: The Recognitions, J.R. One hundred years from now, I have my doubts these novels will be much read. But that says nothing, to me, about their intrinsic quality. As for McCarthy � Cormac McCarthy is, I think, a better writer than Faulkner. To see Faulkner brilliantly pinned, see Wyndham Lewis rant about him in Men without Art. But certain books of Faulkner will, I think, endure, since Faulkner is teachable, his tangles untangleable, and his complete works collect both small and sensational -- Sanctuary -- and large and sensational -- Light in August. Perhaps McCarthy�s small novels -- The Orchard Keeper, Child of God -- might carry the burden of assignability � but the masterpieces, Suttree and Blood Meridian, are probably too impermeable to the demand for a cinematic form � for flow, resolution � to survive. Of course, this is where the educational institutions come in. Joyce seems to be the limit case for these institutions, but it could well be that McCarthy would join Faulkner on the curriculum. I wonder.

There is an enlightenment moment in the posterity imago � it consists in assuming that the world will not end. This was quite a radical thing in the thirteenth century. I wonder if it isn�t still a radical thing. I�ve recently talked to two people, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both of whom assured me that the world was going to undergo a disaster in the next one hundred years. In fact, the expectation that the world is going to end seems so deeply etched in the Western template that it might be impossible to erase. Still, we actually believe the world isn�t going to end � at least, in any apocalyptic way. We are hard core Enlightenment people here at LI.

Swift has the final word about this subject. I trust him much more than Auden. This is from the Tale of the Tub, which is prefaced with a dedication to Prince Posterity.

To affirm that our age is altogether unlearned and devoid of writers in any kind, seems to be an assertion so bold and so false, that I have been sometimes thinking the contrary may almost be proved by uncontrollable demonstration. It is true, indeed, that although their numbers be vast and their productions numerous in proportion, yet are they hurried so hastily off the scene that they escape our memory and delude our sight. When I first thought of this address, I had prepared a copious list of titles to present your Highness as an undisputed argument for what I affirm. The originals were posted fresh upon all gates and corners of streets; but returning in a very few hours to take a review, they were all torn down and fresh ones in their places. I inquired after them among readers and booksellers, but I inquired in vain; the memorial of them was lost among men, their place was no more to be found; and I was laughed to scorn for a clown and a pedant, devoid of all taste and refinement, little versed in the course of present affairs, and that knew nothing of what had passed in the best companies of court and town. So that I can only avow in general to your Highness that we do abound in learning and wit, but to fix upon particulars is a task too slippery for my slender abilities. If I should venture, in a windy day, to affirm to your Highness that there is a large cloud near the horizon in the form of a bear, another in the zenith with the head of an ass, a third to the westward with claws like a dragon; and your Highness should in a few minutes think fit to examine the truth, it is certain they would be all chanced in figure and position, new ones would arise, and all we could agree upon would be, that clouds there were, but that I was grossly mistaken in the zoography and topography of them.
But your governor, perhaps, may still insist, and put the question, What is then become of those immense bales of paper which must needs have been employed in such numbers of books? Can these also be wholly annihilated, and to of a sudden, as I pretend? What shall I say in return of so invidious an objection? It ill befits the distance between your Highness and me to send you for ocular conviction to a jakes or an oven, to the windows of a bawdyhouse, or to a sordid lanthorn. Books, like men their authors, have no more than one way of coming into the world, but there are ten thousand to go out of it and return no more.

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