The Swing is the Thing

In 20th c. Literature, Questions for the Panel on January 30, 2009 at 2:12 pm

st-dupont-fountain-pen-usb-keyDean Williams, Kyoto

This man, who was graced with light,
who was chosen by the dread God,
who approached the dark clouds of Terror—

anon. Hebrew poem (The Death of Moses)

What is the son of Adam, that you should trouble over him?
Yet you made him only a little less than a god,
You have crowned his head with glory and honour,
You have made him govern the works of your hands,
You have put everything under his feet…

Psalm (8, Penguin Classics Ed., p 11)

A Thicket-like Beginning

Readers of my earlier post on Kafka will remember my hypothesis that the works of Kafka and Dickinson owe something of their peculiar power to the spiritual pendulum swing their lives described. As they alternately struggled with, defied, and rushed toward God, they forged their odd, oddly compelling little stories and poems:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind–/ As if my Brain had split–/
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam–/But could not make them fit.
But also
Distance—is not the Realm of Fox/ Nor by Relay of Bird/
Abated—Distance is/Until thyself, Beloved.


More than once I have been tempted to call their writings afterthoughts to a life in truth dedicated to immanence, but that would be going too far. It seems clear that both took the craft of writing extremely seriously.  In the very short list of thoughts I believe I can guarantee fired off in their respective crania, one is, “I want to get better at this writing business.” They would not have worked year in and year out if it had not been important to them.  (We have more than 1700 poems by Dickinson!)

But I would distinguish their fundamental stance, what they thought they were doing when they put pen to paper, not only from all the poetasters, journeymen writers, hacks, pamphleteers and amateur scribblers like yours truly, but also from other major writers.

A Juicy Digression on Types of Writers:

I work, I play, I rest, and in the time remaining, IF a topic or “the urge” strikes me, a modest amount of magic might be afforded my compositional efforts. The work is done from a calm space, an interlude. Writing is something we would like to do, if there were but time and opportunity, if we could just get it together, and if there were only…something to write about.  This, dear reader, is the amateur or occasional writer, and peace be upon them!

The serious writer does not, cannot, write “when they have the urge.”  And they do not create from a stationary point, a lull; their work has inertia, it possesses the power of professional discipline, of having mastered an excruciating difficult art, of a healthy and goal-directed ego, and of having something to say.

Faulkner as a Great but not Timeless Writer:

Take for example, Faulkner. A summary of his great work: The South was magical, it was terrible and romantic and doomed. Whites sold out, were just, or they were unjust. Blacks endured.  That’s it, and it was more than enough to power his best novels and short stories. His weaker work, usually set in Europe and/or with military themes involving WWI, pales in comparison because competence, originality and even momentum (having something to say) will not take you to the sublime. For that, something extra is needed. In Faulkner’s case, it was all the love and rage and personal history he had bound up inside himself about the South. When he wrote about Yoknapatawpha County, the mythical setting for his Southern tales, he was the Creator soaring across the page. When he wrote about Paris or WWI, he was just a talented writer. He needed those special magical spectacles to take him, and us, there.

Kafka and Dickinson: Or, When are Words More Than Words?

Kafka and Dickinson had the lens in their heads. All the time, everywhere they looked, there was the bending, the ecstatic wrenching, perhaps resonant with the Hasidic Masters, whose souls, Elie Wiesel told us, “were on fire.” And they were consumed, devoured by their struggle.  Or rather, almost consumed, almost devoured. The small gnomic bit that remained was the work, the words. First the struggle, the battle, then, as a kind of celestial consolation prize, the work.

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea—
Forgets her own locality—
As I—toward Thee–


No struggle, no work, or at least no work worth reading. A simple, brutal calculus, its equations vaguely understood, or at least sensed by many through the ages if rarely completed so the last elegant formulae could be resolved.  Faulkner struggles, he does the work, but it is about things he understands. Kafka and Dickinson do the work and it is about things they know they have not fully apprehended.

My point, such as it is, in other words: the prose and poetry of the spinster from Amherst and the Prague Jew is as close to timeless as literature will allow, while almost all of what we read now, yes, even my beloved Faulkner will be discarded like old bus schedules, or seen as curiosities, of antiquarian interest.  The conditions and many of the themes that inspired Faulkner (racial tensions, the Civil War, the loss of the agrarian way of life) will pass out of the human realm of experience.

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning—
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection—

Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!
Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems – drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—


Kafka and Dickinson’s work is of course also popular, but the reasons for its popularity differ from the reasons for its timelessness.  The work is popular for the reasons that all great literature is favored: for its expressive power, its concise and memorable way of conveying humanity’s most enduring questions, for its sheer interest and charm. It is timeless not just because of the words, the text themselves, but the conditions of their creation.

Academic Folderol and a Risky Proposition Surprising Even to This Writer

That last sentence looks at first blush to be a post-modernist statement on intertextuality, relativism or simple contextualization: a given text must be seen in its entire historical, socioeconomic context if the meaning is to be captured; once released, the text is not “owned” by the author, etc. I cannot speak to that now, perhaps another Sympathist will wish to. My claim, tried-and-true if a bit long in the tooth, is simply that the psychological state of the author and her fundamental reasons for creating the text will influence not only its content and style but also its longevity.

Unobjectionable, yes? But allow me to daringly follow it up with a tentative hypothesis: writing that has as its motive force some element of spirituality, some cosmic seeking, has the potential to take us further than writing which does not. It will take another essay to justify that assertion, which I queasily offer in the full knowledge that my probable readers, deconstructed heathens all, are howling with laughter.  Until such an essay can be coaxed from my fitful pen, I ask my secular friends (and I count myself among the secular) to at least suspend disbelief.

A Stern Reminder

Views of Kafka which contain phrases such as “the faceless and featureless bureaucratic hell Kafka both lived in and wrote about” or “the essential anomie and agentless, eventless, soul-crushing boredom he grimly depicts” surgically remove the element of this strange, precious man’s thought they find most comprehensible, most reinforcing of their concerns and worldview and place it on the shelves of Academe for all the cognoscenti to admire. It is a reduction, it is a vivisection. Hard as it might be, in this particular case we must resist the urge to pigeonhole, to categorize. Taxonomy, necessary as it often is, cannot be allowed to stunt creation. When K. asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts, perhaps he was all too aware of how they might be misunderstood. Alas,

Publication is the Auction–
Of the Mind of Man.


In an article on Hannah Arendt in the New Yorker (thanks for the tip, Matthew) Michelle-Irene Brudny writes,”I definitely take Arendt to be less a political philosopher or a political theorist…than an author in the strong sense of the word.” And Julia Kristeva comments on her oeuvre that it is “less a body of work than an action.” Please apply to Herr K., dear reader.

My old German teacher told me K. was “reine Freude,” pure joy. How is that? Seemingly helpless protagonists bounced from cryptic waiting rooms to senseless trials, where is the joy there? It’s true K’s protagonists are thrust into very difficult situations, but I invite the reader to note two remarkable facts about these ‘helpless’ men: 1) they are very brave; and 2) they never give up. Never. Take any protagonist from a major 20th century work of literature. The setting, the fictional situation will vary, of course. But what won’t change is their uneasy mantra: “I have a problem and it is in me.” K’s characters in contrast can say to the last, “There is a problem, and it is out there. I will fight it.” It is wonderfully paradoxical that K’s work, which I have been arguing is the almost accidental result of an intensely private, spiritual journey into interiority, is basically old-fashioned, good guys against bad guys, with a minimum of psychological fuss; modern works, which I would argue often lack guts, a certain visceral integrity that can only come from being down in the mud and mire with the object of your obsession, display precisely the opposite quality, a hyper self-consciousness. I invite the average reader of this blog, who I daresay is more up on Delillo, Rushdie, and other current biggies than I am, to debate this point, even if only on the narrower topic of literary worth.

Yet Another Bold Generalization

Amateur writers choose to write (or not)–Great writers choose a topic or theme–Timeless writers can choose nothing, are compelled to do everything. As worth increases, freedom decreases!

An Obscure Passage Which, if Read Carefully Enough, Will be Found Not Lacking in Relevance to the Current Theme

Walter Pater on Botticelli:

“So just what Dante scorns as unworthy alike of heaven and hell, Botticelli accepts, that middle world in which men take no side in great conflicts, and decide no great causes, and make great refusals. He thus sets for himself the limits within which art, undisturbed by any moral ambition, does its most sincere and surest work. His interest is neither in the untempered goodness of Angelico’s saints, nor the untempered evil of Orcagna’s Inferno;  but with men and women, in their mixed and uncertain condition, always attractive, clothed sometimes by passion with a character of loveliness and energy, but saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink. His morality is all sympathy; and it is this sympathy, conveying into his work somewhat more than is usual of the true complexion of humanity, which makes him, visionary as he is, so forcible a realist.

It is this which gives to his Madonna their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for her has painted it over and over again, sometimes one might think almost mechanically, as a pastime during that dark period when his thoughts were so heavy upon him”  (1998, p. 36).

Final Thoughts

I am prepared not so much for contemplation, as for forceful expression.


My Splendors are Menagerie—
But your competeless Show—
Will entertain the Centuries—
When I am—long ago—
An Island– in dishonored Grass—
Whom none but Beetles Know—


Image Credit:

  1. Blasphemy! Mr. Hannah, I want you to march down to the bookstore and pick up Ethan Frome or another suitably lengthy Victorian classic right this instant!

  2. Of course, the plane flight is what genre fiction is for. Books on the plane operate in precisely the opposite manner from movies–almost all movies seem horrible on the plane, almost all books seem pretty good. Books on how to get rich are also a good bet. Lowbrow plane reads from my past: “Numbered Account” by Christopher Reich/ “Trump: How to Get Rich” Donald Trump (yes, yes)/ “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” Robert Kiyosaki. My advice, pick something up for $7.99 at the airport that you would usually never read. That should serve you well.

  3. So 18 months ago when last I went through the 24 hour flight to NZ, I picked up a Noam Chomsky book at the airport. It lies unfinished (why some non fiction authors are so compellingly readable and others writing about virtually the same thing aren’t is surely a subject for a post) on my bookshelf. It wasn’t a good traveling book. In fact I’m not sure what a good traveling book is. Anyone out there have any suggestions as to what I may constitute a good read on long plane journeys?

  4. As an interesting aside, in a recent workshop I saw on teaching/using literature in the classroom, the speaker showed us a ‘poem’ he had made. It consisted of a newspaper report on a presidential motorcade, but laid out in ‘poetic’ format. Read as the format suggested it did indeed become poetry – the mere layout seemed to invite the reader to look for deeper meaning behind the words.

  5. One definition I’ve heard is that anything that deals with deeper and more complex human emotions and ideas is literature, anything that attempts to make sense of the why and how we are here.
    For me Puritano leaves out half the equation – which Mr Inch picks up on at the end of his comment: “…what we look for in literature and about a search for meaning/ belief”. Half of literature is in the readers search for meaning in the words. Humans have forever looked to solve the deeper mysteries of existence, and it is this which creates the spiritual force behind a work, and which attracts people to read and interpret it as such.
    I go back to my earlier post about owning that which we recognise in ourselves. It is certainly our own history and culture that determines what we see as timeless qualities, and which leads us in the direction where we think we might find the answers to these questions. As a Kiwi, stories that speak to me as a New Zealander mean more to me than Faulkner ever could as they help me figure out my place in the world and develop my identity. On the flip side, I find Rushdie unpalatable, as I can’t inhabit the world he sees and creates. Likewise, I can watch as an interested bystander the ceremony of a presidential inauguration, or crowning of a queen, but the greeting of either onto a Marae is what gets the blood pumping.
    Dare I suggest that the more people that can relate to something, and want to try and find answers from it, is what defines what is literature and what isn’t. This may seem overly populist (and down right silly looking at what is frequently on the best sellers lists) but writers that we consider as literary also sell a lot of books – the Austers and Rushdies of this world. And after all, didn’t Shakespeare simply write for the masses?

  6. I no longer really trust my own judgement, if I ever really did, about what constitutes great literature. I’ve spent far too long now using fiction and poetry as an occasional distraction, not serious reading. Your attentiveness as a reader is impressive and shows me up.

    I am intrigued, however, by your desire for great literature, and to name its qualities within authors as an expression of a particular human experience. I’m not ready to question this absolutely – after all it was part of my own formative training too, so I will continue in ambivalent, though sceptical vein. I do also feel that I recognise something of a distinctly American humanism in this attachment though, a particular, and inescapably modernist, eagerness to understand the human condition as part of a great and timeless univeral.

    I’m really not sure of our ability to recognise ‘timeless’ or ‘universal’ values, rather I suspect we construct our own historically and culturally specific way of seeing these qualities. I don’t mean by this to lead towards that discussion of postmodern relativism which I would not entirely endorse either, though I cannot help but take us some distance in that direction. It was a thought that I couldn’t shake whilst watching the inauguration of Obama the other week. The grand neoclassicism of the occasion, the pomp and ceremony all so deliberately put together so as to construct the American nation and its power (and of course all nations do this, but the Americans have a particular talent, and maybe a particular need to take this type of modern nation building seriously).

    In terms of literature we have, of course, historically been very bad at picking what will speak to future generations and what will be forgotten. It is brave to make such predictions, I wonder if it isn’t also a certain sort of compulsion though, and whether it might not say something almost as interesting about what we look for in literature and about a search for meaning/ belief that seems a recurring motif on this site. Certainly I would enjoy reading some more reflections on this.

  7. This post goes well beyond what I thought an answer to the “ownership” question would look like, but offers a full response nonetheless. I like the way Puritano ruthlessly delineates among even his favorite writers–he loves Faulkner but is hard-headed enough to see that he won’t last. One of the points of this blog is, in some small way, to try to create “the power of professional discipline”–and some weeks into the experiment it is clear that the draw of having a public forum, coupled with the pressure to keep posts coming (lest Sympathies become fallow and static), works to some extent–but clearly overcoming inertia over the long-term is best achieved by the unremitting need to write, over and above the simple will to do so.

    For my part, I am more than willing to suspend judgment on Puritano’s claim that “writing that has as its motive force some element of spirituality (…) has the potential to take us further than writing which does not”–and await an essay on the topic. I remember some years ago after I read Ecclesiastes aloud to Puritano that he predicted for me an impending conversion. He was wrong (so far)–even profound secularists should appreciate Ecclesiastes–but if Puritano were himself ever to have a “come to Jesus” moment I would certainly like to bear witness.

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