Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

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
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
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

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

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.


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

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: