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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Christopher Taylor is so clever in the London Review of Books

eternal english time
Tom McCarthy’s new novel is subject to one of those damnings with finicky praise in this week's London review of Books. The reviewer, Christopher Taylor, has great fun with McCarthy’s pronounced leanings towards Continental Theory. 

Of course, Taylor  doesn’t want to be taken for a complete philistine, so he won't be dragged into one of those funny controversies with the sneaky sophists from Europe. Rather, he has cleverly decided that Continental Theory is a fashion, and, to boot, a fashion of the 90s. Apparently, he runs with this motif under the delusion that he is saying something utterly original.
I think I can, with justice, call this the “English disease.” It consists of positing two temporal regimes. One regime is that of fashionable ideas. Being fashionable is of their essence. Thus, their entire worth lies in their novelty, which is a tricky temporality, socially speaking. Who wants yesterday's papers? The other temporal regime is implicit. This is the regime of common sense, of “realism” in literature, of liberal values, etc. These regimes are attached, usually, to two geo-political entities. The fashionable one is European, the common sense one is English.
The game, when it has some sophistication, allows for the fascination of the fashionable. Those cool names! Foucault, Derrida, Lacan. Instead of say Ryle, or Williams, or Searle. So, as a temptation, it is understandable that English youth might fall for it. Youth is, after all, in the modern era, the age group most associated with fashion. But just as youth grows up, so too does fashion fade. Fading, what we find is not another fashion, but instead that the mature temporal regime, that of English common sense, It has been there all along, patiently endowing value and genuineness. Common sense is never fashionable, though o so often true!
This division and the strategy I’ve sketched has existed at least since the French revolution. The English romantics, carrying Kantian ideas (and worse) from Germany to England, and revolutionary ideas (which is where the worst takes on a face and fangs) from France, were of course caught up in fashion. When Coleridge, a great copier of ideas from Schlegel and company, shook off any sympathy with the equalizers in France, he took up the idea of fashion versus the English eternal in Biographia Literaria. However, Coleridge’s geneology is a bit eccentric, especially for a Unitarian. For him, leveling philosophcal ideas of a democratic kind (cue appropriate shudders) first emerged in the English civil war, then died down, and then somehow, in that furtive, creeping way of plagues, was transmitted to France, where “the same principles, dressed in the ostentatious garb of fashionable philosophy, once more rose triumphant and effected the French revolution.” I imagine Christopher Taylor would look askance at that claim, since of course with its ostentatious garb – the garb of a pimp, a hooker, a DJ – fashionable ideas are doomed to die and be transformed into advertising for various corporations.
It would take more time – fashionable time – than I have at the moment to trace the outbreak of the “fashionable philosophy” epithet as it is variously hurled at English painters going impressionistic or English novelists infecting themselves with French ideas and some Irish ones too all along the road to good old literary realism, long may it wave, and common sense values. Taylor adds a bit of snarkiness to the package, but it is a very magisterial snarkiness, a don’s snarkiness – there’s no touch of foreigner or Oscar Wilde about it. It is good in its way. On the other hand, it does make me sigh. It is so so eighties, don’t you know.

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