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How Late it Was, How Late: Coming Home to Late Capitalism

In 20th c. Literature, Classicism, Life as Lived on April 10, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Andrew Inch, United Kingdom

Caledonia you’re calling me, now I’m going home

(Dougie MacLean, Caledonia)

Have I come back?
I am Scots, a tartan tin box
Of shortbread in a delicatessen of cheddars
(Douglas Dunn, Renfrewshire Traveller)

These reflections owe relatively little to classicism. I do hope, however, that they may help me to extract some, perhaps rather barbed, reflections on some of the paths it might have taken in recent years. In doing so I also hope to offer some more considered, though also uncomfortable, thoughts on the themes of intellectualism and leftism touched on in two recent posts by Matthew Thomas.

My reflections start from a single, prosaic fact: earlier this year I returned to Scotland, the country where I was born and raised, after ten years of self-imposed exile.

Homecoming

Serendipitously, I have chosen for the year of my homecoming, the year of Homecoming™. This amounts to a rather cynical advertising campaign on the part of the Scottish government to get tills (or maybe it would be more appropriate to say “registers”) ringing with dollars from the Scottish diaspora. The official pretext for it, however, is that it is 250 years since the birth of Robert Burns. For “our” national poet to be honoured in such a way should, of course, make Scots everywhere proud. “Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few an’ thur aw’ deid” as they’re (we’re?) supposed to like to say. And who can argue with celebrating the life of the man who a little less than 250 years ago could write the likes of this:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Burns was born into a farming family on the West Coast of Scotland, he lived hard, died young and was politically radical. No doubt there is, then, much to celebrate in his life as in his work. If nothing else the historical accident of an education system that ensured the literacy of the likes of Burns is something to be proud of.

Or then again, maybe it’s just something else to exploit.
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An Overdue Response to the Ownership Question

In 20th c. Literature, Questions for the Panel on February 8, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Editor’s Note: This is the first post by industrial midwest exile and Sympathist extraordinaire, Brian Hill.  Clocking at at a relatively brief (by Sympathies standards) 860 words, Mr. Hill’s modest and wryly self-knowing style is a nice fit for the blog.

Brian Hill, Kyoto Japan

tower_3Happy for any dead or broken branch from any type of tree to prod at what appears, at first appraisal, to be the carcass of my literary consciousness, then cause it to stir, eventually to stand on numb legs with maw gaped in a yawn complete with fingernails scratching ass; happy as I am, I will try to pull something out of…well…I shall scribble down some thoughts.

I admit that I have no thesis but only the errant desire to own some authors.  I also admit that I have become very undisciplined with my reading, favoring collections of essays, short stories, poetry over any longer form; over any novel.  And then, I only pick and choose and then let it drop again.  Fortunately for me there exists Borges and Calvino.

Borges is someone that I would like to own.  Remembering my time in Toledo reading through Cognitive Psychology journals, a geology textbook, a biology textbook, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, etc. I would find myself distracted from my studies and begin furiously trying to capture some idea that had occurred to me.  So, that when I first started reading Borges I thought: “Here is a guy who took my idea and expanded it in ways I never dreamed.”  I would like to own him, but am too often intimidated by his erudition.

A lesser known author who I do own is Albert Goldbarth, a poet and essayist who I discovered some 16 f years ago.  A Sympathy of Souls, is a collection of creative essays touching on Jewish stories and parables, family, personal experience, humor and the Goldbarth wit.  His, Heaven and Earth, A Cosmology was my first introduction to him and remains a solid sample of his poetry that combines modern scientific ideas with…poetry.  He captivated me early on and has achieved ‘Can Do No Wrong’ status.  As a sample here is “One Continuous Substance”:

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A Post-Leftist in Genre Drag: On Ownership Part I

In 20th c. Literature, Genre Fiction, Questions for the Panel on February 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

ess_ambler_1M. Standfast, Kyoto

Puritano has beaten me to the punch by offering us a highly ambitious answer to the ownership question.  He narrows down his list of masters to two, Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson, and explains why he thinks these two will outlast even such established masters such as Faulkner.  My own list is longer, and my efforts to address the ownership question will likewise be at once longer and less ambitious than Puritano’s.  Apologies in advance.

My Authors

Eric Ambler, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Anthony Powell, Paul Theroux.  For each of these writers, I have read both deeply and widely from their ouvre, and I feel on pretty strong ground when speaking about them. Interestingly, I have not read everything by any one writer; the closest would be Powell, but even here I have not read his first novel, Afternoon Men in its entirety.

My Authors To Be

The second list is perhaps more interesting; it contains writers about whom I am working toward a sense of ownership but don’t yet have the expertise on to confidently put a claim on.  These include: Peter Berger, Elizabeth Bishop, Maurice Halbwachs, Herodotus, Machiavelli, William of Occam, Edward Said, Sun Tzu.

Eric Ambler

Ambler comes first for two reasons; he is both first alphabetically and arguably the oddest inclusion.  Ambler is generally remembered, if at all, as a writer of spy novels, and those with longer memories will recall that he was in fact a forerunner of the modern spy thriller.  While it is true that the Ambler books form a bridge between the more patriotic, almost 19th century style of John Buchan (1875-1940) and the prototypically “modern” (by which of course I date myself by still meaning 20th century), disillusioned overtones of LeCarre, Ambler himself wrote very few true “spy” stories.  Instead, most of Ambler’s protagonists come in one of three varieties: i) the small time petty thief, menial, or flat-out loser who is thrust into and manages to come through a dangerous situation in which he is apparently overmatched by relying on an innate cunning and instinct for survival; ii) men of middling status who, because of hubris or a kind of arrogant naivety, get into dangerous situations in which they are very definitely overmatched; iii) a cross between i) and ii). Continue Reading

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.

Dickinson

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. Continue Reading

Against “Shock” Fiction

In 20th c. Literature on January 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm

14568293Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post reviews a very appealing article by Jonathan Dee from Harper’s in 2005. In the article, called “Ready-made rebellion: The empty tropes of transgressive fiction,” Dee outlines an unimpeachable case against the whole genre of “shock” fiction.  His argument has significantly influenced my thinking about the purpose of literature and what makes a work of fiction work, and is worth going over in some detail.

Dee calls out by name Neil LaBute, A.M. Holmes, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, and Dennis Cooper. I have never been drawn to any of these writers, save Self, but have been forced to rethink LaBute’s films (I moderately admired “In the Company of Men,” but was turned off by the deeply unsubtle “Your Friends and Neighbors”) in light of Dee’s blistering and brilliant broadside. Dee begins with the thesis that the job of good fiction “is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation.”  He argues that none of the authors here (he trains most of his fire on LaBute and his “troupe of hideous men”) achieve this–instead they write characters that do terrible things for no reason, and feel nothing. For Dee, works which consist little save a fusillade of “shocking” acts are, from from being transgressive, thought-provoking, or daringly original, actually shallow, and lazy. The shock approach excuses the authors from the hard work of creating believable characters with conflicting desires and complex sources of motivation, while allowing them to take cover behind the claim that “this is how things really are”–diffusing criticism before criticism can even get started.

Dee’s thinks that this is not how things really are, that human affairs are actually far more complex and interesting, and that the “this is how things really are” defense is a pose and an exercise in bad faith.  His essential argument is as follows: “What’s really intended to provoke us is not what they feel but everything they don’t feel {…} It’s a way of ducking what a more sophisticated writer might consider his primary artistic responsibility; namely, a credible motivation for his imaginary characters to say and do the things they say and do.” While admitting that not slipping into easy moral judgments is a good strategy for writing, Dee shows exactly why shock fiction does something far more banal: Continue Reading

On Raymond Carver’s “Fires”

In 20th c. Literature on January 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm

c10797Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Raymond Carver is not one of my very favorite writers, but his work is full of resonant nuggets of greatness that linger long after one puts him down. Fires, contains four essays, a number of poems and half a dozen or so stories. Carver has useful things to say about using common language in writing, although he arguably makes a fetish of it. The best things in the book are a handful of poems, and the one standout work seems to be “The Baker.” Other excellent poems include: “Iowa Summer,” “For Serma with Martial Vigor,” “Looking for Work,” “Cheers.” Fires also includes a lengthy poem on Bukowski where Carver appears to be recounting an evening’s worth of Bukowski’s conversation. Good stuff, but not of overwhelming interest except to Bukowski fanatics.

The essays, on his father, on writing, are very sharp. Carver’s prose, as he himself admits, tends to be lean, approaching flat, but accumulates force on that account: “If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason-if the words are in any way blurred-the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved” (“On Writing”). This is fundamentally true and great–the statement has a corollary, if the words are just right, the reader’s eyes will stick, and come back to them for a second look, even though they were taken in the first time.

Little things register. From the title story: “On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was the wrong number and I said so and hung up.” Here, decisiveness of language (“and I said so”) fused with perfect choice of noun phrase “a party named Nelson” achieve a remarkable force. Sometime his terms are loaded with meaning because Carver’s paragraphs tend to close where other writer’s would just be beginning: (his motto: “Don’t explain. Don’t complain.”): “I really don’t feel that anything happened in my life until I was twenty and married and had the kids. Then things started to happen.” Fin. What does he mean? does he mean happen, like, “that’s really happening man,” or just happen, as in, flatly events transpired. We are left to guess; the paragraph ends. Continue Reading

A Claim of Sorts on Kafka

In 20th c. Literature on January 10, 2009 at 3:58 pm

imagesDean Williams, Kyoto

I must say a lot of the modern/postmodern commentary on Kafka leaves me cold. The reason: to use an Arendtian term, we have “instrumentalized” this thinker/writer. We have made him a useful construct for our psycho/historico-social complex. We see him through the prism of post-communism, or our enduring fears of Big Brother–he was the canary in the coal mine warning of the encroaching bureacratism, corporatism, cold disembodied legalism to come–he has even entered our language, Kafkan/Kafkaesque. Now, this is certainly part of the Kafkan universe, and what makes him so achingly funny, so cruel, so important. And yet, it’s also profoundly untrue and misleading.

Kafka was not a pamphleteer, a polemicist, a theorizer, a philosopher. I think he wasn’t even a writer in the traditional sense, although he was of course marvelously sensitive to language.

Matthew mentioned Augustine, and I agree that Kakfa can more profitably be put into that select group of seers religious and/or spiritual seekers (other examples being Dickinson and Kierkegaard) who used language in a more or less public way (i.e., they wrote down what they thought and published the texts, or at least fitfully sought publication) in order to explore…what?

And here’s the key point for me: we stand on the other side of a great divide; Continue reading

Two Essays on Kakfa

In 20th c. Literature on January 6, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post discusses two essays on Kafka, a decade apart. The first, from the recently departedkafka4 David Foster Wallace is called “Laughing With Kafka,” and appeared in Harper’s from 1998; the second, “F. Kafka, Everyman,” comes from Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, written in the fall of 2008.

One of the striking things about Kafka is the degree to which people are interested in the way he lived his life; his relationship with Felice, for instance, has attracted about as much attention as the love life of deceased author can. Smith reviews Louis Begley‘s biography of Kafka, “The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kakfa: A Biographical Essay,” from which we learn that in many respects Kafka was more normal than he has sometimes been cast; he kept a 9-5 job (actually 8:30-2:30, but more on that later), worked hard, lived with his parents, liked swimming. Kafka was not a very prolific writer, but this is perhaps because he kept a full time job throughout his life, an insurance job that was surely more prosaic than it is presented in Steven Soderberg’s overlooked Kafka, in which Kafka is shadowed at the office by two malevolent and miniature “assistants.” Smith says that his writing day was oddly organized–work from 8:30 to 2:30, nap, dinner, and writing from around 11 until late. We learn that Felice tried to rationalize his schedule, but that this approach worked best for him. As a would-be writer with a full-time job myself, I find nothing strange about this schedule–in fact the late nights here seem seems like a perfectly rational solution to the problem of carving out a block in time to devote to work. Continue Reading