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

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Late to the party: taking shots at Franzen on Wharton

I’ve been on a bit of an Edith Wharton kick lately, reading her and reading about her. This is how I came late to Jonathan Franzen’s essay about Wharton in the New Yorker which evoked a storm of counterblasts from the likes of Roxana Robinson  (who yields to the intense anger that Franzen’s condescending tone seems to beg for), Victoria Patterson in the LA review of books , and Autumn Whitefield-Madrono in the New Inquiry. All made good solid points, but I have some other points to make about how truly abysmal Franzen’s essay is. Though it is two years old, I figure that there is something to be gotten out of unloading on it some more, since I think the essay signals the sad level of the state of reading in America, at least among a group, like Franzen, who were in college in the theory period in the humanities and now think they are beyond all that.

Franzen begins with a truly barflyish gesture. You know that New Critical idea of the impersonality of the author? All horseshit. In addition to the author being mirrored in the work, the reader, too, wants to crowd into that mirror. What happens when we read is that we root for. We are reader fans, in other words:
“But sympathy in novels need not be simply a matter of the reader’s direct identification with a fictional character. It can also be driven by, say, my admiration of a character who is long on virtues I am short on (the moral courage of Atticus Finch, the limpid goodness of Alyosha Karamazov), or, most interestingly, by my wish to be a character who is unlike me in ways I don’t admire or even like. One of the great perplexities of fiction—and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form—is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them.” 

What it means to “root” for these people is puzzling. Certainly rooting and sympathizing are not synonyms.  How do I root for Raskolnikov, for instance? Do I hope he goes on to bigger and less messier heists?

The “root for” phrase comes from sports – we root for a team. We might even root for a player, in games like tennis. But is a character in a novel really like a tennis player or a team? No. Nor is the author like a team. Its an odd trick to identify  rooting with sympathizing. Sympathizing might seem to, well, feminine for Franzen, but rooting just won’t do. The closest it comes is the situation in which  I watch a game in which two teams that I have no interest in – no sympathy for -  are contending. Then, in my own case, I root for the game to be a good one - an elegant game. I have always been a little shocked, actually, when people who root for a particular team are happy when the opposite team makes an error, fumbles the execution of a play, or in general subverts itself. To my mind, one wants the highest level of play.
I bring some such desire to novels, this is true. And there are novels in which I can say I root for a character – thrillers for instance. But the one-time-onlyness  of such novels – the fact that I don’t re-read them – is precisely connected to the root-for incentive.  I know, even before I start a thriller or watch one, that the hero is going to survive – that is so tied into the conventions of the thriller that we read it into the very physical mass of the thriller – I knew, for instance, in Gone Girl that the wife couldn’t have been killed by the husband by the fact that, at the point at which there was some doubt, the movie still had an hour more to run. Thus, I am rooting for the game to be tough and the agent I am pushed to identify with to win.  But this experience doesn’t strike me as very pertinent to reading Crime and Punishment, or The House of Mirth, where the stakes are not so conventionally laid out, and where the trajectories of the characters may comment about the environment in which they are etched - which is much different from, say, a football game. There is no such thing as a meta football game. Football, however much it has been used as a metaphor to say something about America, is never played in such a way that it intentionally makes a statement about America. The goals, here, are set, the score is summed up in one dimension. 

Raskolnikov, or Lily Bart, are difficult to root for because they pursue their purposes with a divided consciousness.  That is, uh, the point.  Rooting, here, is a rather silly extrapolation of a fan’s – and I am very tempted to say fanboy’s – perspective.
Proceeding from these shaky premises, Franzen considers Wharton. She was rich, which somehow is a strike against her. Her marriage was unsuccessful, which was somehow her fault.  How can we like this author, then, whose mirror image we are seeking in her works.
Well, there is the fact that she was a dog.
This is crucial to Franzen’s argument. The breathless stupidity of this approach was righteously attacked by anyone with any knowledge of Wharton’s biography. And the fact that Franzen was playing “hot or not” with Edith Wharton, as Victoria Patterson points out, was a slap in the face to all female writers. These are all things I think are true.
And yet, here is where I feel something is missing. If we were talking about Toulouse Latrec, the fact that he was so short might have some relevance to his work. And we would look for contemporary accounts and photos to see that he was, indeed, short.
But Edith Wharton? Apparently, she is not Franzen’s type. But there is no, none, zippo evidence that her contemporaries thought she was a dog. To the contrary: when Wharton’s first engagement was broken off, the gossip sheet Town Topics, wrote that, “‘an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride’ caused the engagement to be broken off.”
Bingo. I mean, it isn’t enough that Franzen takes the barfly bullshitter’s approach to literature, but he also seems to have done zero research and have zero instinct for historical contextualization. The mirror here is dominated by Franzen – Edith doesn’t enter into it.
This is of importance, since Franzen’s bizarre thesis is that Wharton’s novels are the revenge of an ugly girl on beautiful girls – for instance, Lily Barton. If Wharton didn’t consider herself ugly, and if nobody else around her considered her ugly, than the thesis is basically, I, Jonathan Franzen, think she is a dog, so everybody else musta. This is like reviewing King Lear by saying I, Jonathan Franzen, am totally opposed to rule by royalty, yucko, so Shakespeare musta been too – which is why Lear’s life is such a bitch!
I think that Town Topics item is important as an indicator of the expectations of the society that is shown in The House of Mirth – it can be contrasted with Lily Bart’s flaw, which is her intelligence. All the irony, all the hinderances to “rooting” for her, come out of that intelligence and its consequences. Intelligence, here, in the sense that she actually conceives, to an extent, the social conditions that make her own striving for a wealthy husband seem both necessary and valuable even as she sees the sterility of the lives of her “set” of wealthy heirs. She’s a divided soul in the classic American sense: she wants to compromise her freedom to attain success, the enjoyment of which rests in the freedom it theoretically offers. But the pattern of sacrifices necessary to attain success offer no compromise, so that when success is attained, it is enjoyed with exactly the sterile triviality that Bart sees around her. Seeing the sterility of her set too clearly stands athwart the simple minded pursuit of her simple minded target, and not seeing that her imagined transformation of the goal, once she attains it, would demand an ability to buck the norm that she has never displayed, is exactly what makes Lily interesting and, in a sense, tortured. In the crucial chapter 6, in which Lily takes a walk with the inappropriate man, Selden. Instead of pursuing the rich heir, Gryce, Wharton makes both the duality and deficit in Bart’s vision of life clear:
“Lily dropped down on the rock, glowing with her long climb. She sat quiet, her lips parted by the stress of the ascent, her eyes wandering peacefully over the broken ranges of the landscape. Selden stretched himself on the grass at her feet, tilting his hat against the level sun-rays, and clasping his hands behind his head, which rested against the side of the rock. He had no wish to make her talk; her quick-breathing silence seemed a part of the general hush and harmony of things. In his own mind there was only a lazy sense of pleasure, veiling the sharp edges of sensation as the September haze veiled the scene at their feet. But Lily, though her attitude was as calm as his, was throbbing inwardly with a rush of thoughts. There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive's gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight.

As to why Lily Bart, or any protagonist, is handsome or beautiful, well, let me refer you to Hollywood, from 1900-2014, or to the Odyssey or the Iliad. If the writer of the gospel had attributed ugliness to Jesus, given him a hump like Richard III, history would be different today. Franzen’s idea here is not only not rooted in any sense of the author, but any sense of archetypes in literature period. This is dumbness piled on top of dumbassedness, and it makes me cringe and question again whether The Corrections was that good. I'm not, however, inclined to go back and check.   

edith wharton and kill the messenger

Early on in  The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, Edith Wharton's central protagonist, has a stab of insight about Percy Gryce, the heir she is pursuing, and his kind, such as Gwen van Osburgh, the heiress her cousin is pursuing: “ the two had the same prejudices and ideals,and the same quality of making other standards non-existent by ignoring them. This attribute was common to most of Lily’s set: they had a force of negation which eliminated everything beyond their own  range of perception.” Lily has discovered the very principle of the establishment, whereever it forms.  It is not a matter, merely, of mental blinders, since the phrase implies that something exterior has imposed its instrument – no, the force of negation works fiercely outward, and it eliminates that which is unpleasant to perceive, it erases it.
In another sphere, we can see how establishmentarian negation works in the film “Kill the Messenger,” which I saw last weekend. I knew the story, but the movie is good enough to have warmed up my indignation all over again. It is really a simple story: a newspaper writer uncovers disobliging things about the CIA without consulting and ‘understanding’ the CIA, that is, without getting helpful, swatting down hints from clubby high placed unnamed sources. This is what absolutely bothered the newspapers – the NYT, The LA Times, and the Washington Post – who lead an unusually violent lynching party against Gary Webb for his investigative reporting. The echo of that party was heard in an article by the editor of the Washington Post’s “investigative” section, a mooks named Jeff Leen. Leen re-attacked Webb, now deceased, in an article that begins:  “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America.” Leen’s article is amusingly filleted by an old AP writer, Robert Parry, who admired Webb’s work:
“Leen insists that there is a journalism dictum that “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” But Leen must know that it is not true. Many extraordinary claims, such as assertions in 2002-03 that Iraq was hiding arsenals of WMDs, were published as flat-fact without “extraordinary proof” or any real evidence at all, including by Leen’s colleagues at the Washington Post.
 A different rule actually governs American journalism – that journalists need “extraordinary proof” if a story puts the U.S. government or an “ally” in a negative light but pretty much anything goes when criticizing an “enemy.”
The last galvanic defensive response of Leen – who, with his bellycrawling attitude , will never, I think its safe to say, have any movie made about him – is in full geer in the recent attacks mounted against Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.  The nadir of course came in Michael Kinsley’s review, which proposed the idea that the government alone should decide which of its secrets it deigns to release. Kinsley’s idea, and the ideas of other poobahs in the press who have taken potshots at Snowden and Greenwald, runs on familiar lines. On the one side we have liberty, and on the other side we have security. The question then is how much liberty we can afford and still be secure.
This way of putting the question is, of course, cluelless, and at no point asks the pertinent question, which is how much security have we been ensured by our ‘security’ agencies. Take a brief glance over the past fifty years: does it seem to anyone that the CIA or the NSA have made Americans more secure?
Rather, it is the opposite. The most flamboyant instance of security failure in our recent past was the 9/11 attack. It isn’t a case here that we were unprepared because security agencies had no instruments to warn them that an attack was being mounted, the presumption that drove the passage of the Patriot Act. We have abundant evidence that this is not at all the case. We know, for instance, that the CIA knew that two of the hijackers were in the US, they knew that they were connected with the attack on the USS Cole, and they failed – they intentionally failed – to inform the FBI. A Snowden, in 2001, leaking to the press what we now know about the behavior of all the agencies that “secure” us would have prevented 9/11. The news reports that have described the failures of the ‘security’ agencies have made it seem that it was a failure of the security agencies, or individuals in them, alone. It wasn’t – the attitude in the major media that preceded the attack, as for instance the dismissal of Gary Webb’s story and the refusal to publish the CIA inspector’s report that, in essence, showed that Webb was right (something that the LA Times didn’t print a story upon until six months after it was out), made clear that the press was in bed with the intelligence establishment.
Liberty, in other words, is not the alternative to security in the US, but its pre-requisite.
Imagine for the moment that my scenario had happened, and some leaker had given both the name of the CIA agent in San Diego keeping tabs on the two members of Al qaeda and the names of those members.  I can easily envision the response of both the agencies and the poobahs in the press: this leak, they would say, endangers many secret operations and countless American lives.  And that is how it would look to them, as 9/11 would not have happened and we would have no tally of casualties to put on the side of liberty rather than bogus security.

The force of negation of the establishment is astoundingly powerful. Those who try to criticize it, to pierce its categories, to show its fundamental ignorance, are fated to be either ignored or attacked.  And since such critics must have something in them, some kink, some deprivation, that allows them to see outside   the range of perception of the establishment, the attacks will mostly succeed, as the vulnerabilities that are seized upon displace the larger and graver crimes of state. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

the state of the unculture in France

Ah, the bottomless pit of the PS! Well on their way to making all France nostalgic for the Sarkozy period. Remember how (justly) Sarkozy was mocked for mocking books like La Princesse de Clèves, which he viewed as unnecessary dejecta in the  curriculum keeping out such new masterpieces as the latest self help book from the ex ceo of General Electric, or something. This was taken to demonstrate his barbarous touch. And who doubts that President Bling was contemptuous of French culture? Yet, one thing you can say for Nicky is he actually knew the name of a book.
Fast forward to Francois Hollande’s Minister of Unculture, Fleur Pellerin, who not only could not name a single Modiano novel when asked on tv, but excused herself by saying that for the past two years, since she’s been minister, she hasn’t had time to read a book. Presumably, in her whole life before those two years, she had other excuses: she had to make a phone call, she was sleepy, books take so long, my eyes hurt, I’ve got a good buzz on from smoking this weed and don’t want to spoil it,  etc.
Well, bad enough. But this is the Hollande mini-siecle, and it isn’t enough that the Culture minister make a fool of herself on tv. Figaro invites an intellectual, one who teaches the big big  boys, supposedly, at Science Po. And he, too, seems to find reading books, heavens, something so incredibly difficult that – well, here’s the comparison he uses:
“Postuler qu'un ministre de la Culture doit être lui-même lecteur assidu de littérature, c'est aussi idiot que de supposer qu'il faudrait pratiquer régulièrement la chirurgie pour être un bon ministre de la Santé.”
Here we get the full shitty flavor of the kind of cretinism that media intellectuals exude. Reading this article, four hundred years of French culture in its various tombs collectively vomited.
One would think that if reading a novel by Modiano (who does not even have an esoteric style, like Toni Morrison – the American comparison would be Paul Auster) is like doing brain surgery, that professors of literature should be paid like brain surgeons. But that is not where the clueless illiterates in the Hollande crewe are heading France: rather the key words are cut and privatize.  The NYT published an article today about where France is heading because, apparently, there’s no money for culture – why, that would take it away from the banks! But not to worry – there are always people around who will tell you that it is positively healthy to bow down to the billionaire. They are such a loveable breed:
Some view the shifting winds as a healthy sign. Frédéric Martel, a writer who hosts a radio show on the arts and wrote a book on the funding of culture in the United States, noted that the conventional view in some quarters used to be that culture financed and organized by the state was good and culture shaped by market forces, whether Hollywood or Disneyland, was bad.
This prejudice is slowly dissipating, he said. Increasingly, France is importing the model of the nonprofit foundation bankrolled by a wealthy benefactor. Such patrons can also afford risk-taking star architects like Frank Gehry, who designed the Louis Vuitton Foundation, or Renzo Piano, who did the new quarters of the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, devoted to the history of cinema, which looks like a giant armadillo.
“There is a new way of thinking that having a billionaire create a nonprofit foundation for the arts is a very good thing and a public good,” Mr. Martel said. The notion that business can pollute the arts is changing, he added.”
A new way of thinking? And here I am, thinking that this new way of thinking was named a millenium ago. It’s called sycophancy.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

the nyt kisses its own ass again

I don't think there is any paper out there that kisses its own ass as much as the NYT. In that paper, it is awards day every day - and the awards all go to the NYT. So I find it a bit shocking to read, in a Sunday Book review of James Risen's book about the ludicrous and corrupt war on terror, the following passage" "But he makes no mention of the press. I would argue that many in the news media were at least as guilty as others in his book of stirring up public anxiety for private gain. Risen himself, and the paper for which he works, are notable exceptions."
Notable exceptions? Is this the paper that employed Judy Miller? That filled its magazine section with defenses of a new liberal imperialism? Which withheld stories that would have 'challenged the narrative" for years, and that likes to insult Edward Snowden whenever it has a chance? The paper whose Washington correspondent. Elisabeth Bumiller, said of a press conference before the Iraq invasion - one premised, of course, on a fantasy about WMD - which Bush himself joked was "scripted": BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential because…it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."
But all this goes down memory hill, and the NYT has decided that its coverage of the Iraq war was so good that, well, it just has to kiss its own ass. Just one more time! Precious, my precious...