“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Bollettino

As readers of LI know, we think there�s a lot of bull in the analogies between the occupation of Iraq and anything that occurred after World War II that are put about in the media sphere, promoted by Bush�s apologists. The confused idea that Iraqi resistance is equivalent to the German resistance after the American occupation, which was expressed by Donald Rumsfeld, is peculiarly insane. Bush�s Rush Limbaugh equivalent on the Internet, Instapundit, has taken to higgledy-pigglety references to WWII, calling the bloodshed in November �The Battle of the Bulge� (which, of course, means we are fighting WWII backwards in Insta�s opinion. Soon we will be inching up the Italian peninsula, then invading North Africa, and then comes the Battle of Britain).

However, we�ve been reading a book about Japan (Japan, a reinterpretation) by Patrick Smith that richly evokes certain American policies in Iraq, and we do see analogies � or rather, continuities in the way the U.S. foreign policy establishment does business. Smith is a revisionist � disagreeing with the old school of Japanese interpreters, or as he calls them, the Chrysanthemum Club, that was headed by Edwin Reischauer, and dedicated to the proposition that Japan, after the American occupation, was another anti-communist free market democracy in the service of the free world. Smith records two stages in the early occupation. The first, which involved the writing of the Japanese constitution, was heralded by its organizer, General MacArthur, as a new and revolutionary stage in the �normalization� of Japan. Others have doubted the �newness� of the constitution, since it seemed to incorporate large parts of the older Japanese constitution of 1889 and 1890. What the MacArthur constitution did do, however, was break decisively with the military structure of Japan. This was felt as a liberation. And this was why the sense of opening was crushed when the Americans went back on their own constitutional suggestions � that is, when they started to treat Japan as, in the words of one Japanese prime minister, a huge aircraft carrier. The security treaty signed with the U.S. in 1951, and the American demand that Japan field a military or support the American one, was part of what Smith labels (from, apparently, a common Japanese phrase) the �reverse course.� The reverse course stopped the war crimes trials, for instance. The set of Japanese officials accused of war crimes were released in 1948 without trial. One of these alleged war criminals, a high official in the Imperial Japanese Empire, became a figurehead for the interlocking groups of fascists, big businessmen, criminal gangs and rightwingers and was �elected� Prime Minister in Nobusuke Kishi, who was an enthusiastic American ally.

Smith�s is a sad story, because the strangling of the democratic impulse in Japan, and the reinforcement of the corporationist capitalism that dominated the post-war scene, resulted in an increasingly rigid and unsupportable system � one that has been crumbling ever since the end of the Cold War.

There are similarities, here, to what is happening in Iraq � although the forces at play are so different that we doubt the outcome will be similar. The American scheme has been, and still seems to be, putting an exile group at the head of Iraq, radically privatizing its wealth, and then internationalizing it. To do this, the Americans seem to have believed that they could use Iraqi good will � that, indeed, Iraqis, like the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, would find such a win-win proposition so scrumptious that G.O.P. lobbyists would soon be on the hustings in Basra, collecting a majority of votes from the adoring electorate. After all, this is what happened in Mississippi.

This hasn�t happened. You might have noticed.

The pull back from the exile groups has been partial � D.C. has definitely not given up on making Chalabi its Kishi. But, most depressingly, instead of adapting to the evident unenthusiasm, indeed repulsion, for the American model of Iraq (no doubt made out of sugarcubes deep in some Pentagon cachot), the Coalition Authority and D.C. are still trying to ignore it. The latest news about the refusal of Bremer�s dictatoriate to countenance elections is a farcical proof of same. Why has Bremer opposed elections? Because there isn�t a census that would allow a clean election. Why isn�t there a census? Because Bremer opposes taking a census until after the American authorities appoint various local councils to appoint higher councils to elect an American approved government that can authorize a census that the Americans approve of. As in Japan, the American idea is to create the face of democracy, and not the reality.


Here�s a graf from the NYT story, by Joel Brinkley

Iraqi census officials devised a detailed plan to count the country's entire population next summer and prepare a voter roll that would open the way to national elections in September. But American officials say they rejected the idea, and the Iraqi Governing Council members say they never saw the plan to consider it.

Worst case scenario would be something like this: because the core of the resistance seems to be solely about power, these are the kinds of people the American privatizers might be able to deal with. The exiles on the Council are using their power to enrich themselves as much as possible, but they aren�t winning over the hearts and minds of the Iraqis � which, in the privacy of their own mansions, they probably find a laughable American obsession. So who can bring the Sunni�s over? Why not the Ba�ath infrastructure, without Saddam? It would be surprising if feelers aren�t out to them already. If a full reverse course happens, make no mistake � as one man, the pro-Bush contingent in the press will discover the genius of the solution. Slap Chalabi�s face on it and, hey presto � you got a win-win deal!

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Bollettino

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.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Bollettino

The man to whom I owe much of my education died this weekend. Hugh Kenner.

When I was thirteen, I liked to subscribe to magazines. I subscribed to Horizon magazine, which came four times a year. Horizon was a hard cover magazine with long, interesting articles. Sometimes they had pictures of art � and sometimes the art featured naked women. Thus was sealed a certain pact in my soul � art meant naked women. Hence, art must be great, since I knew that naked women were great.

But Horizon was expensive. So I subscribed to the National Review. I was raised in a very Republican household, I should say. Some say that the NR was at its best in the early sixties. I don�t know � I think it was fairly marvelous in the early seventies. I remember the book pages in particular. D. Keith Mano, an under-appreciated American novelist, wrote for the mag. So did Guy Davenport.

I still remember reading Guy Davenport�s review of Kenner�sThe Pound Era. This marked an epoch in my teenie soul. I�d never heard of Ezra Pound, or Hulme, or Ford Maddox Ford, or Wyndham Lewis. I was soon reading all those guys, as well as Kenner. I absorbed a bias in literature from Kenner as much as anybody else. I still have it. I can understand why the man wrote the best book about Pound and a book about the cartoonist who created Bugs Bunny. Kenner didn�t pay attention to the boundary between high and low � meaning he didn�t slum the low, as cultural studies people are apt to. What he saw in Bugs Bunny, or what he saw in Henry James, were the central things that made him love art � that beauty is not passive, that to know is a verb meaning to impart, that at the very center of any economy is a fundamental generosity which is not captured by any theory of enlightened self interest, but is about the self being interested, and all the real transactions are those in which you seek costs just to see what they are about. This, of course, violates the canons of left and right. St. Paul�s line: �we see now, as in a glass, darkly� has been interpreted by Leon Bloy to meant that we live, literally, backwards in this world � so that every triumphant news headline signals a diminishment of the level of civilization. Kenner would probably not agree, but he would understand the sentiment -- that you have to break into the real world. Revelation was Bloy's skeleton key -- the conviction that, as he once wrote, "intelligence is unitary" was Kenner's. I�ll miss Hugh Kenner.

This is a graf from the Guardian�s obit, by Jon Elek:


�When I met Hugh Kenner last summer, he was dressed in a stripey, light-blue suit, with a bow tie and glasses slightly askew. Even then though, the quickness and sensitivity of his mind were evident. He recited long passages from memory, and told anecdotes of Tom, Sam and Ezra. When I mentioned that I had come from London, his face registered the vivid recollection of a gone world.�

And here is a taste of that intelligence. This comes from a review of a book on the supposed centrality of anti-semitism to T.S. Eliot. Kenner, of course, rocks and rolls this idea. In the process, he rights these majestic grafs:

The Waste Land (1922) opens:

April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm,covering/ Earth in forgetful snow feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee/ With a shower of rain. We stopped in the colonnade/ And went on, in sunlight, into the Hofgarten/And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Whereas Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1390) begins,

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .

And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen all the nyght with open ye . . .

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . .

It once seemed evident that Eliot's lines weighed a twentieth-century yearning against one of five centuries earlier. Fit readers, it was understood, had Chaucer's lines somewhere in mind, and could gauge twentieth-century impatience with the long wet English spring by Chaucer's assumption that spring is a time of awakening. Also, against a slow communal pilgrimage to Canterbury, punctuated by tales, we have one eager American making off for Munich, where he meets a woman who remembers how it was to have been an Austro-Hungarian Archduke's sister. (Eliot was drawing on a memory; he had met that woman, a Countess Marie.) So, once, about a lifetime ago, The Waste Land measured one age's rituals against another, the text on the page echoing against a far earlier text that sounds in the fit reader's memory.