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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Kabbalah to Nowhere

Posted by Sean McCann on 09/14/05 at 06:01 AM

In addition to being an impressive novelist, Coetzee looks to be a damn fine critic.  A few months ago, he reviewed in the NYRB the whole corpus of Faulkner biographies.  If memory serves, it was both a generous essay and one that took apart some of the superstitions of biography with a scalpel.

In the current issue, Coetzee brings the same discrimination to recent Whitman scholarship.  (Not on line, alas.) I don’t know that my sense of Whitman is changed by reading it, but Coetzee writes with enviable concision and lucidity.  It would be hard not to see W as an impressive personage, of course.  But in a few pages, Coetzee makes him more vivid and memorable than anything I’ve encountered in a while. 

You have to be grateful, too, that Coetzee doesn’t abuse the privilege accorded prominent literary artists when they take up criticism—i.e., the parachute drop; the few, guerrilla style expressions of sensitive judgment; the departing sneer at the pedantry of the scholastic mind.  As in his Faulkner essay, Coetzee displays a surprising familiarity with the state of academic knowledge and debate about Whitman.  Among other things, he offers a challenge, or perhaps refinement, to the prominent Foucauldian accounts of the history of sexuality that shape current discussion of Whitman’s erotics.  I have to confess that it’s too subtle for me to grasp.  (Coetzee suggests that it’s not so much that the nineteenth century didn’t conceive homosexuality in the terms the 20th century made standard, but that Victorians demonstrated a kind of “tact” in just resolving not to look too closely into some matters.) In general, he treats Whitman scholarship with seriousness and, again, generosity.  He’s certainly made me want to read M. Wynn Thomas’s new book Transatlantic Connections on the way Whitman’s attraction to and reception in the UK clarifies the significance of class and democratic politics to his sensibility.

Then, too, Coetzee has a withering way with the epigrammatic deflation.  Anyone who has wearied of watching over the years as Harold Bloom has turned his Gnostic hammer to every nail he can find will enjoy this line:

The Penguin edition [of L of G] comes with a substantial introduction by Harold Bloom.  By situtating Whitman in the context of Protestant Revivalism, Bloom illuminates the strain of testimony so strong in Whitman. . . .  It is less easy to see that calling Whitman a kabbalist unbeknownst to himself leads anywhere useful.


Comments

For the most part I agree with your assessment here, Sean, but I’ve noticed Coetze works with a bit of a boilerplate sometimes:

1.  Discuss the book.
2.  Discuss the context.
3.  Discuss what this meant for America.
4.  Discuss what this means for America.
5.  Note who wrote the introduction and opine over its usefulness.

That said, I always find his reviews make me want to read whatever books he’s writing about, which is high praise for general criticism.  (Oh, and the image of Bloom with “his Gnostic hammer” is priceless.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/14/05 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read the review of Faulknerian biography, which I remember being impressed with, but there was one moment in which Coetzee referred to Faulkner’s father as a very dull man--or something like that. I’ve always been struck by how easily critics make enormous judgments--which are usually negative--about a person’s life (e.g. he/she was a failure, a bad parent, stupid) without acknowledging the imperfection of the record. It was particularly surprising to read such an unelaborated judgment in the criticism of a novelist.

I don’t mean to suggest that all judgment is impossible, but its not an uncommon experience to think you have someone figured out only to have your understanding entirely upended. I don’t know why, in our various discourses, we don’t qualify our characterizations more.

By Tim Sullivan on 09/17/05 at 07:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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