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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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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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Monday, December 18, 2006

No Desert Island: Towards A Gutsy Aesthetics Via Nabokov

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 12/18/06 at 04:57 AM

Uh-oh. It’s that time again. Soon, every website remotely dealing with culture, plus a wide variety of magazines, will be talking up their “end of the year” lists. Regardless of your chosen demographic, this affects you: you’re listening to the year in review on NPR, or you’re reading the lists on Pitchfork. You’re reading the New York Times Notable Books for 2006, or you’re reading your own newspaper’s list of the year’s best movies. I will probably be doing all these things, and making lists of my own.

That’s why now seems like the perfect time to raise the troubling question of taste. Can we still talk sensibly about good taste and bad? Is there any way to deal with differences in taste without awkwardness or sudden outbursts of minor violence?

I will do my best to answer these questions, and to suggest why we still need to have discussions about taste. I will also propose an alternative to the uncomfortable moratorium that always seems to arise among those people who, ironically, care the most about art.

1. Lolita

[Lolita is] the record of my love affair with the English language.
-Vladimir Nabokov

It’s just that when a group like Spank Rock achieves a certain status with tastemakers, so much of its ethos remains uncontested and unclear.
-Sean Fennessey, writing for Pitchforkmedia.com

We might all be better off if Nabokov had never made that pronouncement. I, for one, have the feeling that he is laughing at us from beyond the grave. When Nabokov described his novel in purely linguistic terms, he popularized a form of aestheticism that happens to work perfectly with modern consumer markets, and trapped us within the very patterns of behavior that the novel Lolita seeks to expose and satirize.

This aestheticism offers pleasure in its purest form, based entirely on the playfulness and elegance of language. Lolita, Nabokov reassures us, is not a girl. She is an opportunity for language. She is the occasion for his love affair with English, and our love affair with the resulting book. Naturally, whenever anyone tells you about Lolita, they hasten to relate the same old story about how it initially sickened them, until they fell in love with “the language of it.” If you are particularly unlucky, they will even tack on the quote from John Updike about Nabokov writing “ecstatically.”

Lolita is a novel about a pedophile; it is about convergences between pedophilia and more normal kinds of love, and it is about the extent to which it is possible for a reader who does not share Humbert’s symptom (to borrow psychoanalytic language) to understand his obsession with Lo. It is about the diseased, tyrannical, and insane facets of consuming love.

It can also be considered from a formal perspective. On the basis of its structure and style, Lolita is meticulous, tricky, Romantic, and viciously elitist. The book delights in putting morality and passion at odds; it is riven by an almost Kantian distinction between the solipsistic experience and narration of love, and the beloved as a “thing-in-itself” who should not be appropriated as a means to enjoyment. It is constructed almost like a game, one with intentional “holes” that may signify a satiric, cynical absence of meaning in the work.

Reading through particularly well-known critical responses to Lolita, one finds, instead of these elements, a series of moralizing accounts of the novel, most of which are both convincing and anaesthetizing. For example, Martin Amis compares the relationship between Lolita and Humbert to the relationship between the people of Russia, and their oppressive Communist leaders. This is a reasonable allegorization, but it has the effect of downplaying the criticisms of American society that give the novel so much of its substance.

In Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, the novel becomes a story about “the perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.” Nafisi and her students compare themselves to the girl: “Like Lolita we tried to escape and create our own little pockets of freedom.” While this is a reasonable reading of certain events in the novel, Nafisi has nonetheless taken Humbert’s book and turned into a transparent picture of Lolita. She does not, for example, consider the possibility that Lolita’s “pockets of freedom” are available to us because they are expressions of Humbert’s conscience bringing pressure to bear on what he tells. Above all, Reading Lolita in Tehran makes free use of the frisson of scandal attaching to the text, without allowing even a trace of that scandal to survive in the proferred analysis.

Of course, the moment we turn Humbert into Stalinist Russia, or the government of Iran, or “tyranny” in general, we erase him. As Stephen Metcalf writes in an article for Slate, entitled “Is Nabokov’s Masterpiece Still Shocking?”, “submitting one’s inner life—the unique hazard of one’s personality, the camera obscura of one’s own personal store of memories—to a set of deterministic explanations was for Nabokov an indignity on par with the expropriations of the Bolsheviks.” The completely digestible reading of the novel by Nafisi coincides with an ongoing media scare over adults preying on children through the new(-ish) medium of the Internet. The result has been a lot of hype and a renewed interest in surveillance, particularly lifelong surveillance of convicted sex offenders, and the surveillance and restriction of children by parents.

This craze for surveillance is quite different from teaching children practical skills for staying safe, or with a greater investment in treatment and outpatient programs for pedophiles, who are mentally ill. The irony of Lolita‘s greatness, when Humbert is not metaphorized out of existence but remains a man, is that he uses the rhetoric of parental concern to cover his own incessant surveillance of his “daughter.” Keeping Humbert around, without de-clawing him, helps keep us from becoming him.

On the other hand, reading Lolita merely for the beauty of the language exonerates Humbert. He can do anything he likes—seduce a child, kill another person, or simply be unflaggingly nasty –- and we don’t care, so long as his words pass on to us a quantity of thrills. What is then justified, on aesthetic grounds, is the very incuriosity about Humbert that Richard Rorty finds so damnable in the character of Humbert. Even if we make Humbert’s love for Lolita into an abstraction, as Metcalf does in praising the “exquisite particularity” of each person’s experiences and psychic makeup, the novel confounds us with doubts. After all, the reason Humbert finds Quilty so irritating is that Quilty is similar to him, and thus ruins Humbert’s narcissistic enjoyment of his own condition.

Suppose one were to ask the following questions:

• What are the demands made by the novel? (In addition to freedom from tyranny, and the right to innocence, these undoubtedly include passion, exceptionality, and beauty. That is to say that they include what Humbert wants. I am not referring here to the specific symptom of pedophilia.)

• How do Humbert’s crimes satisfy a number of these demands?

• What tools does the novel provide for satisfying these demands differently, without causing harm?

This is the only way to transcend Humbert, something his crimes compel us to do, without erasing or ignoring him.

2. The Pitchfork Effect: Tolerance, Immanence, Transcendence

Humbert’s actions are outside the bounds of tolerance, but Nabokov himself was not, and there was a lot of Humbert in him. To borrow the terms I used to describe the style of Lolita, Nabokov comes across in works like Speak, Memory as “meticulous, tricky, Romantic, and viciously elitist.” Nabokov’s books celebrate this sensibility, and also make the strongest possible critiques of it. This way of creating art is also the best way of interpreting it: to recognize within the work both the elucidation of a Weltanschauung, and the limits and failings of that worldview.

In my post on Paul de Man, I wrote that “in the best satires, we are laughing at our own entanglement in stupidity, madness, and error, which is inevitable given our limitations—our finitude.” Nabokov saw the attractions of his own patrician aestheticism, and he also saw that it was madness. So with each piece of art, one should ask the same questions one asks of Lolita. That way, one reveals two things: first, the immediate necessity of the whole text, pathological or not, and the eventual possibility of transcendence, not towards perfection, but certainly towards a new set of questions.

This means, for each individual, more tolerance of persons and less of texts. My biggest problem with the spate of articles criticizing the Pitchfork site (such as this one at Crooked Timber) is that a simple desire not to be accused of bad taste underlies the other, easily disprovable argument that Pitchfork gives cynically provocative ratings. Henry at Crooked Timber is upset that Pitchfork didn’t smile on the band House of Love. I, on the other hand, like Pitchfork because it is relatively more full of strong opinions than All Music Guide or PopMatters. It is good to be provoked. The exigencies of the moment may mean being as hard on Freud as Nabokov, or being as hard on the Romantics as T.S. Eliot. This is the alternative to the uncomfortable agreement to disagree: Differences in taste ought to be preserved, but preserved as differences of problematic.

In the comments section below Henry’s post, aaron_m writes, “The problem with Pitchfork critics is that they have an adolescent relationship to music. Their musical development has remained at that self-conscious teenage faze where what you listen to defines who you are in a direct and unsophisticated way.”

The “sophisticated” alternative to this is, of course, the idea that music has no relation to who one is, which gets us back to Nabokov’s claim (also implicit in Humbert’s solipsistic narrative) that Lolita is just about a passion for language. By the same token, every piece of music is “about” our passion for music, and not about the specific emotions, lyrics, and style in the music. Dr. Dre, Antonio Vivaldi, Billie Holiday, and Radiohead all boil down to the same thing. Here is the result, as described in the original “Pitchfork effect” post by Matthew Yglesias:

A website that regularly recommended bands that turned out to suck would be a real problem. You’d waste money on albums and shows that you didn’t enjoy. But if the website merely fails to recommend albums that are, in fact, good you won’t notice. You just won’t buy them. Instead, you’ll buy other things that they do recommend. And as long as those things are non-terrible, your life will proceed just fine—you’ll still have plenty of good music to listen to and there won’t be an incentive to seek out alternative opinions.

This is a horribly boring prospect. Is one really supposed to robotically purchase a random collection of recommended albums? So, the eccentric self comes roaring back, with the following motto: “Because I like what I like, all that was bad shall be made good again.” Liberated by its own claim to bad taste, aesthetic identity becomes something fixed, to be celebrated in total obliviousness to its own insufferability. The culmination of this identity myth is the list of books, records, etc that one would want on “a desert island.” In other words, it is only in total, alienated isolation that I can be who I am, the lover of Hamlet and Rubber Soul. This perfectly mirrors the isolation of listening to an iPod; it mirrors the Babel-like divides between medievalists, Victorianists, students of cultural studies, etc. in English departments, not to mention the divides based on philosophical differences. It doubles the amount you have to buy: you have to buy the recommended stuff, because it is “objectively” good, and you have to keep up with the artists that you like “just because.”

Adam Roberts did a good job defining, in his post on Genesis, what is insufferable about the rawk stereotype, as embodied by bands like AC/DC:

But what is more stultifying than the pressure to confirm to the rawk stereotype?  You must go out and drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniels whether you like it or not.  You must party hard no matter how tired you feel.  Because, precisely, the procrustean bed that Rock has become is such that one is not allowed to be nerdy-uncool.

This is true, and very amusing. Unfortunately, every artist, and every imitative stereotype, is insufferable. Jane Austen is insufferable. Mick Jagger is insufferable. Mark Rothko is insufferable. Sylvia Plath is insufferable. Federico Fellini is insufferable. Each of them, taken as an end rather than a means, becomes ridiculously idiosyncratic and repetitive.

We need Nabokov to help us avoid both Scylla and Charybdis. If we give in to the myth of the “love affair with language,” which is also the capitalist myth of total exchangeability, then we cannot ask the text anything. We become monsters of incuriosity, to return to Rorty’s phrase, swallowing so-called “important” culture because it is about Stalin or tyranny or something. In the process, we fail to ask why Humbert should be in love with Lolita. If we compound this by re-discovering our precious identities, then we give in to the “enchanted island of time” (Humbert’s phrase), the desert island where the reading list is fixed and thought has succumbed to the unchanging complex.

Between these lies a more promising method of introspection and struggle. Let’s write end of year lists, or haphazard reflections, that celebrate the moment: its triumphs, its costs, and the horizon of its passing. Understanding those moments in each other is the beginning of real tolerance and productive disagreement.


Comments

Very interesting post, Joe.  You’re challenging the reductive idea that “Lolita is just about a passion for language”, and you make a strong case.  But mightn’t the problem here be one of emphasis?  If we say ‘Lolita is just about a passion for language’, then, yes, it paints the books is a morally irresponsible light; or as you put it:

Reading Lolita merely for the beauty of the language exonerates Humbert. He can do anything he likes—seduce a child, kill another person, or simply be unflaggingly nasty –- and we don’t care, so long as his words pass on to us a quantity of thrills.

But isn’t the point that ‘Lolita is about a passion for language’, about the way that these sorts of, or this level of, aesthetic bliss is very closely alligned to sexual bliss; that Nabokov’s stylistic pleasures are not just ‘thrills’ but specific sensual pleasures?  In other words, the book is about the way pleasure itself, something it formally and stylistically embodies, is morally duplicitous.  As Les Murray has said on more than one occasion, ‘Sex is a Nazi’.  We’d like our libido to be an equal-opportunities employer, to apply itself sensitively and with proper regard to the full humanity of the Other.  That it doesn’t is in large part precisely because the blissy pay-off overrides such commendable concerns, at least in the moment.

The real issue here, then, it seems to me is not that ‘agreeing to disagree’ is a bland solution that ignores the specific problematic of differing aesthetic response, it’s that Nabokov’s particular conception of bliss interrupts precisely the Kantian idea that aesthetic bliss is somehow removed and superior to mere animal pleasures.  An aesthete may eschew lower pleasures as vulgar whilst getting exquisite shivers up and down his spine in response to a single line of Rimbaud.  When this aesthete meets another person who gets those same shivers from listening to Abba, he may say ‘let’s agree to disagree’ but he does so from within a hierarchy of power that presupposes the vulgarity and lowness of the latter’s tastes.  (‘My tastes are certainly more refined … but chacun a son gout I suppose …’) But Humbert’s aesthetic pleasures are certainly highly refined, and are rendered in a deliberately drippingly-purple style in the book; but they are always interwoven with a form of bliss more accessible to the common homo sapiens even than Abba: shagging.  Or am I missing the point of your post?

By Adam Roberts on 12/18/06 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that there’s something interesting about the way that your post makes the (obligatory?) use of both high literary culture and pop music.  At one time, a discussion of taste would have left out one’s likes and dislikes in pop music as not applicable.

To rehash what I’ve written here recently, I think that the central critical problem of the current moment is how to deal with abundance.  The top list is one way of doing so, as is the canon, the determination to read primarily in a single genre, period, or school, the development of an evaluative taste, and so on.

The most unflappable method of dealing with abundance is the one you describe in the quote below:
“So, the eccentric self comes roaring back, with the following motto: “Because I like what I like, all that was bad shall be made good again.” Liberated by its own claim to bad taste, aesthetic identity becomes something fixed, to be celebrated in total obliviousness to its own insufferability.” If one’s sample of the universe is declared to be good no matter what it is, then the problem is solved.  But this does seem ... solipsistic, perhaps, rather than fixed.
“Understanding these moments in each other”, your conclusion, is similar to my tentative conclusion that the best method is to read primarily among one’s friends.

I’ve been thinking more about ecological analogies, since I’ve been reading Berube’s two recent books and have grown more concerned that his antifoundationalism seems to exclude what I consider to be the most important new politics of the age, the concept of limits set by brute fact on the possible range of social fact.  The problem of abundance is one that leads to a preponderance of generalist rather than specialist species.  In a certain kind of anthropogenic ecological disruption, there is food lying around everywhere, and the entities that can grab whatever is nearest, whether it is what is best suited to them or not, temporarily win out over those who can use more specialized niches.  So there is an overall decrease in the efficiency of use of the solar energy put into the system.  I think that something like that is the guilty conscience of the cultural selector, the sense that what they pick out may be good enough for them, but that there are works going unseen that should be seen, by someone.

By on 12/18/06 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

[repost] Reiterating: There are many layers of mediation to be unpacked in Lolita, problematic interlocutors interposed between Humbert and Nabokov (who is no more Humbert than he is Quilty or John Ray Jr, or, for that matter, Charlotte or Lolita).

By nnyhav on 12/18/06 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(For the Muse-less, unrestricted access to Ferger.)

By nnyhav on 12/18/06 at 10:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Excellent post.  I’m wee annoyed it beat mine “on earnesty” to the street, but that’s my fault.  A couple of responses, somewhat scattered by the loud playing of songs with the following lyrics by the people repairing my parent’s roof:

It’s so hard not to stare,
At that honky tonk badonkadonk.
Keepin’ perfect rhythm
Make ya wanna swing along
Got it goin’ on
Like Donkey Kong ...

Seems appropriate to follow the pedophilia of Lolita with the implied bestiality of Trace Adkins.  Anyhow, your response to Lolita is similar to mine to Ulysses at this point.  Given multiple readings, the language begins to acquire a certain transparency—not complete, obviously, but it becomes merely instead of cripplingly aesthetic—such that the narrative steps into the foreground.  The pathos of a man who spends the morning at a funeral, the day and night wandering to avoid thinking about the affair his wife is having, weighs on the soul.  Not that I’d ever write about that—and not that Joyce didn’t turn write next the love affair with language Nabakov claims Lolita to be—but the reason I continue to return to Ulysses while only admiring the Wake is its appeal to something as base and common as narrative.

Still, taste should inform our study, not determine it.  Reading Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity on the plane to Houston, it dawned on me that its readability comes from his dogged assertions and justifications of taste.  The same joy I get from a savage TLS review—or which gags me, as with the recent Houston Chronicle review of the Library of America’s new Philip Roth collection, about which more from me later—motivates me to continue reading Empson.  But it is not the a scholarly work, as a quick perusal of the hilarious footnotes indicates.  It could have been what we consider scholarly, as Empson certainly had the tools and learning, but it strikes this modern academic as brilliantly autodidactic, without method or the self-consciousness about it which define current scholarly work.  I say this not to indict him, as I don’t want to indulge in professional presentism, but only to point to both the power and limitations of scholarship informed by taste. 

Among working scholars, you see this most often in fields defined by single, singular figures like Joyce, Shakespeare, and Chaucer.  You also see why that may not be a bad thing: David Wallace’s work on Chaucer is a compelling read, even for non-specialists, because his passion translates into humility before Chaucer’s genius.  Instead of condescending presentist judgments about the inevitable shortcomings of someone writing 500 years ago, Wallace treats us to dizzyingly brilliant close-readings informed by his knowledge of the period and its literature.  Would that there were more scholars who let their appreciation inform their work thusly. 

Then again, there’s a fine line between that and those single-author journals which double as vanity presses for enthusiasts.  Following Empson, this may be the fault of the critic instead of the mode of criticism.  I wonder, though, whether there isn’t something to be said for making the mediocre more palatable.  After all, most of what we write will be mediocre, so there is a real incentive to raising the lowest of the bars.  (This seems like a perverse application of Yglesias’ “horribly boring prospect,” but consider the quality of our lives.  Would it be improved were to have to read even more insufferable prose?)

Now, back to work ... and to mentally composing a response to the polyglossia of Girl Talk, which sometimes sounds like eighteen radio stations bleating loudly for my attention.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/18/06 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting to me that in a post about taste Joseph never questions the *quality* of *Lolita*, and instead moves immediately to interpretation (i.e., is the novel an allegory of Stalinism or Islamofascism or whatever?). 

So real quick: Nabokov is horribly over-rated.  I put him at the top of the John Barth and Unberto Eco skool of fiction: games without feeling.  The best thing about *Speak, Memory*, for example, is that it gave birth to W.G. Sebald’s work.  *Lolita*, whatever it means, tells us little about obsession, sexuality, America, girlhood, manhood, etc.  (The best reading I’ve come across was at a conference panel I was on concerning captivity narratives; the scholar viewed *Lolita* as part of a tradition of incestual, exogamy-fearing anti-Communist art of the Cold War.)

Then there’s Pitchfork.  I like that they take music seriously, but more often, Pitchfork writers take themselves more seriously than the music.  A good review transmits the experience of the artwork, and too often, Pitchfork reviews wind up telling us little about the album under review.  In a good review, I can tell whether or not I’ll like the album even if the reviewer is trashing it.  But Pitchfork reviews often trash albums (or praise them) in order only to increase the status of the reviewer—many Pitchfork reviewers are like cannibals, mostly interested in possessing the cultural capital of the album for their own hipness. 

As far as Desert Island Discs goes, I think Joseph goes too far in his critique of individual taste.  Taste *is* personal, in the end.  We argue about taste because we want everyone to confirm our own taste (because we are, ultimately, insecure in our own taste). 

This isn’t, of course, the only reason why we argue about taste.  Sometimes it’s because we’re angry that “great music” isn’t getting the attention it deserves.  But those arguments—between, say, the Britney Spears fan and the Bach fan—occur quite rarely.  In my experience, arguments over taste involve what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences.  The Beatles or The Stones?  Punk or post-punk?  Acoustic or electric Dylan?  Radiohead before or after *Kid A*?  Both parties basically agree that great music should be treasured.  What they argue about is how to rate works within the canon, not over general inclusion in the canon.  No doubt this is, in part, due to the fact that arguments about separate canons involves category errors.  The Bach versus Britney argument isn’t about some singular phenomenon called “taste.” It’s about the purposes of music: thoughtful meditation or dancing?  If dancing is your main goal, then Bach blows, plain and simple.  And you can argue about the relative merits of dancing and meditation, but you’re no longer arguing about taste.

So what do we hope to gain by arguing about taste?  Personally, I’ve learned that I no longer hope to convince someone to change their taste.  I argue (a) to learn what a person sees in their favorite albums, books, etc., that is so loveable and (b) to teach what I see as loveable in a band, an author, etc.

For example, a few months ago on this very blog, I stood my ground in a debate over Steely Dan.  But while the debate didn’t change my taste, it did make me go out and download a few Steely Dan albums—which, viewed through the eyes of my debate interlocutors, I could suddenly enjoy for the first time.  Likewise, I’ve been having an on-going argument with a friend over disco (I love it, he hates it).  We were getting nowhere, as usual, until I gave him a lift one day while playing Bob Sinclair’s mix of Cerrone’s tracks.  He enjoyed it once I could explain what I loved about it.

In related news: what about all the bad reviews of the new Pynchon novel?  I’m refusing to read them until I finish the novel (on page 208 right now, thank you very much).  My experience with bad reviews of *Vineland* and *Mason & Dixon* is that they are generally misguided, the review of someone who just can’t get behind the Pynchon project or, even worse, the review of someone who can’t understand his work.  (I also find that the same person who gave, say, *Vineland* a bad review claims to like it once they give *M&D* a bad review, and then they like *M&D* once it’s time to give *Against the Day* a bad review.  Is it because the seven or so years between novels gives the reviewer some time to actually *think* about the novel they wrote off so quickly in the newspaper?)

By on 12/18/06 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very interesting, well-written post.  But it doesn’t change my view of taste in any way.  It seems like we’re still stuck with the Kantian problematic in “Critique of Judgment.”

On one hand--let’s follow Joe and call this “Scylla"--we can’t just have purely private standards of taste.  This, as Joe says, is desert-island-reading-list solipsism.  Taste must be social ("a judgment of taste must involve a claim to subjective universality"). 

On the other hand ("Charybdis"), we can’t just jettison subjectivity and make some claim to universalism that, in a way, makes the aesthetic object vaporize.  “Lolita is really about a love affair with language.” “Radiohead’s album is about a passion for music.” I think Joe is right to suggest that turning a novel into a political allegory can have the same effect.  For Amis and Nafisi, Lolita becomes a neatly moralistic allegory of oppression.  But then you don’t need Nabokov for this homily. 

So we’re going to sail between Scylla (solipsism) and Charybdis ("important," and ultimately vapid, culture).  All well and good.  But as we’re committed to claims for subjective universality, it seems that this inevitably involves an “agreement to disagree.” Because I can’t force my argument for Lolita’s beauty and worth upon someone else.  I don’t think Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is the best novel written in the past 25 years, but I have to be willing to engage with other art appreciators who think it is.  Sorry if I’m being thick here, but the sentence Joe has bolded is actually the sentence in his post that I find the most confusing.  “This is the alternative to the uncomfortable agreement to disagree: Differences in taste ought to be preserved, but preserved as differences of problematic.” What does this mean?  It seems to be the hinge of the post, where we learn something entirely new about judgments of taste, but I’m not sure what that is.

By on 12/18/06 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great post, Joe. True story: Last night I was relaxing with “Ada or Ardor” and I realized - I had promised I’d make a list of good music my relatives might like to buy me for X-Mas. So I put down Nabokov and hauled myself over to Pitchfork, where I poked around for a time.

By John Holbo on 12/18/06 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ada, hmmm.  I cede place to nobody in my love for Nabokov (contre Luther); but, man, even I find Ada hard going.  All icing no cake, that one.  But, you know ... Pnin, Lolita, Speak Memory, Pale Fire, Transparent Things and one or two of the Russian novels ... that ought to be enough for any genius novelist to have produced.

By Adam Roberts on 12/18/06 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> This is a horribly boring prospect. Is one really supposed to robotically purchase a random collection of recommended albums?

I do this for some meaning of the word “purchase”.  8.0 or better.  I don’t even read the reviews that closely.  It is a good way to find out about new music without doing a lot of work.  This is pretty useful if you are middle-aged with kids like me.

I agree that that paragraph of Yglesias is pretty excellent.

>[Lolita is] the record of my love affair with the English language.-Vladimir Nabokov

This is pretty clearly just an excuse.  Nabokov couldn’t exactly say “I wrote Lolita because I am attracted to prepubescent girls” which I think is closer to the truth.

By on 12/18/06 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1. During my junior year in college I took a course in Milton, not so much because I really wanted to read Milton, but because the man who taught that course, Don Cameron Allen, was renowned for his teaching prowess and he was retiring. This would be my last chance to take something from him.

I was not disappointed. He taught very well. Nor was I disappointed with Milton. To be sure, I did not much like the work, as I had anticipated. But I could see that he was a great poet and that, along with Allen’s W.C. Fields-like comic delivery, more than justified the course.

I don’t know how one learns to make that distinction—which I take to be between one’s personal preference and a more impersonal standard of quality—but I do think it can be made. Perhaps not sharply, not even the same by all people, but it can be made. (And the difference between high literary culture and pop musical culture is irrelevant to the distinction. That distinction is of a different kind.) A friend of mine said that her instructors in social work urged them to make a similar distinction, between clients with whom they felt a spontaneous liking and sympathy and their obligation to serve all clients to the best of their ability.

If the ability to make this distinction has been lost in the undergraduate literature curriculum then that is a deep and serious problem. The difficulties that we, as professional scholars, have in understanding this distinction is also a problem, but one of a different and less serious kind.

2. It seems to me that this assertion by the Troll of Joy embodies a common conception of subjectivity which is, I believe, misleading:

On the other hand ("Charybdis"), we can’t just jettison subjectivity and make some claim to universalism that, in a way, makes the aesthetic object vaporize.

This assertion assumes that unaccountable and-or idiosyncratic difference between subjects central to subjectivity. I think such difference, though apparently quite common in human populations, is incidental to subjectivity. Things are subjective in that they can be apprehended only by subjects.

Machines cannot deal with such matters. In this usage machines, by definition, are not subjective actors. I further take it that no existing computer has exhibited subjectivity. Whether any will do so in the future is an open question.

I take it that the color of objects is subjective in this sense. There is, for example, no direct relationship between the wavelengths of light reflected from a surface and the perceived color of that surface. Oddly enough, it is because the relationship between reflected wavelengths and perceived color is indirect that perceived color can be relatively constant under a wide variety of circumstances. It is also the case that, different subjects have different visual perceptual systems, they will perceive color differently—that’s what color blindness is about.

Whatever literary experience is, however it works, it can happen only in subjects. Whereas the difference among subjects with respect to color perception is relatively small, though real, the difference among subjects with respect to literary taste is relatively large. But, so what? I do note, however, that taste can and does change.

Thus, though I have problems with the Troll’s use of “subjective,” I rather agree with the bemusement over Joseph’s key assertion:

Sorry if I’m being thick here, but the sentence Joe has bolded is actually the sentence in his post that I find the most confusing.  “This is the alternative to the uncomfortable agreement to disagree: Differences in taste ought to be preserved, but preserved as differences of problematic.” What does this mean?  It seems to be the hinge of the post, where we learn something entirely new about judgments of taste, but I’m not sure what that is.

Yes, what does it mean to preserve differences as “differences of problematic” as opposed to . . . mere idiosyncratic personal difference?  Well, I do think there is a distinction to be made there, and a useful one. Certainly populations can differ in taste so that all those in group A love Lolita while all those in group B despise it, with individuals in both groups being quite able to explicate and defend their taste. This difference is in the subjective real but it is not a matter of idiosyncratic personal difference. Rather, the difference may well be systematic. We need to take a closer look at these two groups to find out what that systematic difference is.

But, I’ve said enough.

By Bill Benzon on 12/18/06 at 04:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

These are dense and interesting comments; please forgive me if I end up missing a salient detail.

Adam, the dynamics of pleasure you are talking about is a Nabokovian version of pleasure. Nabokov conceives of “refined” pleasures in a way that makes them very unstable, and likely to “topple over” into kitsch or bodily pleasure; the character of Lolita stands both for philistine culture (Lo loves pop trash) and for sexual pleasure.

All this means is that a certain kind of aestheticism loathes itself, and produces curious sorts of pleasures and irony. Pleasure as it is produced in Jane Austen, or in Montaigne, does not have the same qualities. (It is my guess that a Nabokovian is much more likely than an Emersonian to tolerate somebody else loving ABBA, because Nabokov loves to define things as muck and then wallow in them, via lust or incessant slander. Nabokov and “camp” were made for each other.)

I don’t think that we should fall for the idea, beautifully portrayed in Requiem for a Dream, that “everyone has their high,” with that being Rimbaud for some and “Mama Mia” for others. Taste is not synonymous with pleasure, and pleasure should not be abstracted from the whole experience of the world in which it arises. Just as, in the post on Bérubé’s book, I wondered about the role of abstracted “intelligence” in protecting the status quo, I wonder about the role of “pleasure” (or “entertainment") in making challenging works of art into purely passive, evanescent highs.

Scott, is there any reason to label narrative/plot as base and common? You’re doing that while still professing your love of narrative, which I share without thinking of it as base. Actually, I think it is the desire not to be base and common that produces the best readings. The other day Scott and I were talking about the band The Replacements; a critic who loves The Replacements has the job of proving that they are different in kind from Maroon 5, and they do that by producing interesting and detailed analyses. The good reading comes out of the possibility that the work is unreadable, either because it is ordinary (The Replacements), monstrous (Lolita), or obscure (Finnegans Wake). That is why we need to have antagonists, to keep things from going stale.

Rich, I agree that cultural surplus has become a major problem. You and Yglesias seem to be very much in agreement. Recently, though, I’ve begun to think that the worry over surplus is just as much of a problem. While it is possible that important works aren’t getting enough exposure, there has never been an era so hospitable to indie film, indie music, diversity of authorship, and high concept writing for television. One of my major projects as a blogger has been asking “what is being done with the work?” rather than “is the work being seen?”

Also, note that I am very critical of the identitarian moment, for the very reasons you describe: it is solipsistic, and it is also contingent in a troubling way. I happen to know Ace of Base very well because it was heavily marketed at a moment when I was discovering music. I don’t still find The Sign rewarding, though once every six months or so I listen to it for the sake of amusement and nostalgia.

I don’t write about pop music out of a feeling of obligation to hipness; I write about it out of a feeling of obligation to worthwhile, provocative artworks. It’s true that pop culture has burst onto the scene of serious academic debate; this is analogous to the moment when the novel became a subject of academic concern.

Luther, I sort of agree that Nabokov is overrated, in the sense that his definitions of refinement, pleasure, and so on tend to dominate over those of other writers of quality. But I don’t think it is productive to dismiss him; as Bill notes, he produces good readings from admirers and detractors alike. I wouldn’t know how to define “manhood” or “America” such that his irrelevance to these discourses would become immediately clear. Rather than ranking Nabokov, I want to say the following: “Nabokov’s problems do not often line up with my own, but I do consider him an excellent cartographer of a particular sensibility that others share.”

This is how I get at the question of “objective” versus “subjective” quality to which Bill refers in his discussion of Milton. Bill saw that Milton could be analyzed complexly, and accepted Milton’s place because of a direct experience of another’s interest. For my part, if I found Milton unappealing, I would want to attack his worldview while simultaneously asserting the worth of it having been articulated. D. H. Lawrence does a good job of this in late analyses of Thomas Hardy and Marcel Proust.

Returning to Luther’s comment, I have trouble seeing how the resignation you describe squares with your newfound respect for Steely Dan. It seems like the debate over taste does produce, for you, valuable new avenues of enjoyment. I don’t make assertions of value (which sometimes turn into arguments about taste) in order to have my insecurities soothed. I do so in order to be understood, and to invite a response that helps me understand another person. I do so in order to articulate social and personal enigmas, to reveal possibilities for happiness, and to order and recollect the past. A good piece of criticism is the spectacle of the critic doing all those things, and yes—as Joyce indicates through the “Humpty Dumpty” plot of the dismembered father/author in the Wake—it veers close to cannibalism.

I agree about the narcissism of small differences; I don’t care about where to draw the line with Radiohead either. (I also happen to agree that the new Pynchon is being misread all over the place, and will post about it when I’ve finished reading.)

However, the inability to resolve small differences and inability to even discuss large ones boils down to the same thing: the dominance of the solipsistic model of the inarticulate, personal absolute of pleasure. The reason people who like Bach can’t talk to people who like Britney Spears has everything to do with this absolute replacing the articulation of a response to the work. Rather than articulating, in a detailed fashion, what is appealing about the music, people just resign themselves.

You certainly can dance to Bach; that is what people did when Bach was alive. You can also listen to Britney in your room, which I guarantee you thousands of people are doing right now. If somebody is writing about Bach without granting him the wonderful vitality that made so much of his work suitable for dance, they’re doing a bad job of it. And if somebody is dancing to “Baby One More Time” without thinking about what, exactly, that song and video means, they are missing a chance to think through a fascinating piece of American culture.

The related emphases on fandom (“I’m a Bach fan”), scene (the dancefloor versus the leather-bound Chair of Contemplation), and de-contextualized “worth” all detract from the truth, which is that art has multiple uses, and good art deserves thoughtful treatment. Rather than retreating to the mechanical, pre-fabricated processes of enjoyment that separate Bach lovers from Britney lovers, but put both in the racks at Borders, we ought to be writing the best stuff we can about both artists.

Troll of Joy, I don’t think Beloved is the best novel of the last 25 years either, in any “objective” sense. Do you agree that readings of Beloved have helped some critics to articulate problems of race, memory, family, and violence? I do, and I also think a lot more good critiques of the novel could be written. For example, I like some of the criticisms Walter Benn Michaels makes of the text. The text (and the history surrounding it) is large enough to contain both.

I’ll conclude by clarifying the sentence in bold: “Differences in taste ought to be preserved, but preserved as differences of problematic.”

For most of the people I know who really love Nabokov, the problematic is this: “How do I reconcile my desire for pleasure, with my love of order, refinement, and control? Pleasure seems to dissolve all those things.”

For the people who really love Sylvia Plath, the problematic seems to be quite different: “How do I realize my desire for escape, given that at present I am owned by others in a way that I feel, in my very body?”

If neither of these sounds much like your examined life, then either you’ve discovered another version of these authors, or you’re more interested in somebody else. In any case, you can imagine how another person might have a lot invested in these questions. Hopefully there is a clear distinction between asking and trying to answer them, and simply falling in love with the continual re-statement of the question, which is the phenomenon of “being a fan” and the basis of imitation.

Listening to Steely Dan means realizing that they only thing standing between you and Being-Towards-Death are bad sneakers and a transistor radio. Listening to them means you have suddenly realized you do not actually like Pina Coladas or getting caught in the (frozen) rain. Being a fan of them means you like the music they play at the dentist’s office.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/18/06 at 08:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Ted Cohen’s essay “High and Low Thoughts on High and Low Art” (I think that’s the title, it’s the one with the concentration camp anecdote) and chapter 3 of Nehamas’s new book are relevant here, but I decline to elaborate how.

Ha!

By ben wolfson on 12/19/06 at 03:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How very Nabokovian of you, Ben.  You big high-culture tease, you.

By Adam Roberts on 12/19/06 at 04:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph’s post makes me think back to our arguments over WBM’s *The Shape of the Signifier*.  There, WBM contrasts interpretation (seen as a statement of meaning as the author’s intention) with experience (my view of a poem, your view, agree to disagree, and so on).  The former is about a subject’s belief, the latter about a subject’s identity.

I suppose I’m wondering where taste falls as a function of the subject on the interpretation/experience spectrum. 

For me, taste is often dependent on interpretation.  For example, I wasn’t a huge fan of Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories at first; I saw her as a Southern Raymond Carver.  But I taught her first collection in a survey of the American short story, and while researching the criticism on her work, I really came to appreciate the stories.  Basically, I had missed their complexity because they seemed so simple, and the critical essays I read helped me see this complexity.

But then we see how taste here comes down to certain intrinsic elements of an artwork—but also how those elements jibe with our personalities.  I think we can objectively prove the presence of complexity, say, in a work of literature.  That’s one role interpretation may play.  But how one values those intrinsic elements is very much a matter of individual identity in the sense of how we view ourselves based on how we wish to live our lives (and how we actually live our lives). 

Say I’m arguing with someone over the value of Bobbie Ann Mason.  I say her work is great because of the formal complexity of her fiction and the complexity of thought this allows her to achieve in such short, simple-seeming artworks.  But then my opponent questions the value of complexity in art.  So I say, complexity in art is good for helping us to think in new ways.  So the opponent questions the value of thinking in new ways for the sake of thinking in new ways (like when Rich questioned the value of argument for argument’s sake). 

In the end, taste comes down to personal values.  We can debate them endlessly, but there’s no way to arbitrate the vast majority of competing value claims.  Which is to say, of course we can arbitrate extreme value claims ("I think it’s good to kill other people who look at me funny") but we cannot arbitrate competing value claims within a certain wide spectrum of socially acceptable values. 

Which gets me back to WBM.  His own position is anti-foundational, and that’s part of his original point in “Against Theory.” Intention doesn’t provide a foundation for interpretation as it does for Hirsch; it simply tells us what meaning is so that we can stop theorizing about it.  But WBM has never posited that there are any grounds for arbitrating right or wrong interpretations.  He wants us to argue about interpretations and not simply agree to disagree.  But what’s the point of argument in an anti-foundational world?  The winner will be the most powerful (rhetorically, economically, politically), not the most correct.  (WBM’s own readings of literature “win” only when New Historicism “wins” in the academy.) So argument becomes war by other means, sort of like breakdancing—only breakers had fairly consistent foundations for evaluating good dancing! 

As Joseph rightly corrected me, I should have said that the contemporary fans of J. S. Bach and Britney Spears will argue less about taste and more about the purposes to which they believe music should be put.  Which is to say: I’m not sure “taste” is the word that Joseph is really interested in parsing.  Taste *is* largely personal.  But the values underlying taste are social values that can be debated.  So the classical music fan would get incredibly angry if I started popping and locking during the chamber orchestra performance, just as the Britney fan would be outraged if i plopped a comfy chair down in front of the stage and proceeded to quietly watch Britney—actually, the Britney fan would probably be more forgiving, which says a lot about classical music fans.  In any case, the debate between Britney and Bach fans will not be about the music but about how each chooses to live his/her life.  And that’s not a matter of taste. 

I’m not making any sense.

By on 12/19/06 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe, you say in response to Luther’s comments:

“… I don’t think it is productive to dismiss him [Nabokov] … Rather than ranking Nabokov, I want to say the following: ‘Nabokov’s problems do not often line up with my own, but I do consider him an excellent cartographer of a particular sensibility that others share.’”

I agree.  But isn’t that kind of dismissal exactly what Pitchfork is accused of?  Saying that “it is good to be provoked” bypasses the question of whether such provocation is productive, which I think depends not just on exhibiting “strong opinions” but on conveying a clear understanding of what the album is and why, in the reviewer’s opinion, it should be disdained.  Sometimes, Pitchfork does this; their 0.0 review of Liz Phair’s self-titled album very cogently describes Phair’s regression into wilful anti-feminism, and how that has killed her music.  Other times (and I don’t know if their record is any better or worse than other sites), I have to agree with Luther that “…too often, Pitchfork reviews wind up telling us little about the album under review.” It’s all very clever to write your review as a satirical play, or (in an extreme case) a movie of a monkey drinking its own urine, but this usually doesn’t convey anything other than the author’s conviction in his or her own dislike of the album.  If you’re a fan of a band struggling to make it in the competitive world of music (or if you’re the band itself), and a powerful music site savages an album you like, I think it’s at least reasonable to want to know why.

It’s easy to approve of scathing reviews of something that we haven’t listened to (or read); when that happens to a work of art we cherish, we usually wonder, and sometimes rightly, what all this hostility is contributing.  It’s also easy to forget that Nabokov received plenty of withering reviews; those reviews were written with the confidence that this book would never make it anywhere, and so today they are remembered only as historical footnotes.  The reviews and criticism that have lasted, both positive and negative, are those that have substance and discuss the content of the work honestly, something that even the lowliest (or most mainstream) band deserves.

By tomemos on 12/19/06 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nabokov couldn’t exactly say “I wrote Lolita because I am attracted to prepubescent girls” which I think is closer to the truth.

joeo, it seems really important to give some, any, evidence for a claim like this.  Just writing Lolita is not enough (is Bret Easton Ellis a serial killer?).  Nabokov is not Lewis Carroll, who took naked pictures of young girls; he wrote books about a number of unpleasant people, but was not any of them.  If you know of something shady from Nabokov’s past, by all means bring it up--I am prepared to eat crow on this one in pursuit of the truth--but if there was something I think it would be more common knowledge by now.

Also, is that “closer to the truth” a hedge?  Either he was attracted to them or he wasn’t, right?

By tomemos on 12/19/06 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben, Adam took the words right out of my mouth. It is helpful to know that Nehamas has a new book out; his books The Art of Living and Nietzsche: Life as Literature are huge influences on my account of what art and philosophy should “do” for individuals.

Luther, I think you do a great job laying out the issue here. There are a lot of overlaps between my critique of a cultural “identity,” and Walter Benn Michaels’s anti-identitarian politics...although here one should keep in mind the gap between the aesthetic argument I’m making, and the political one he aims for. (There’s also a difference between my ideal of the perpetual conversation here, and my ideal of argumentation in politics, articulated in my reponse to Bérubé. Both Rich and myself don’t want to see all political arguments continued indefinitely.) It’s true that there is no way to arbitrate the differences between values within a certain socially workable range, and one of my ideas is that we shouldn’t even try.

That said, there is still plenty of reason to continue to converse about differences of values. If your imaginary interlocutor wants to argue against the virtues of complexity, let her articulate that argument, as the best defenders of punk music did in the 70s. While one can call into question the value of complexity, there is no denying that complexity (and primitivist or Camusian simplicity) enable us to do qualitatively different things than their opposites. It is worth knowing why a given person values complexity, in terms of how it enables them to reckon the world, even if we don’t value it as much ourselves.

I don’t think there’s anything to fear from justified critiques of something we love; an opponent can point out the drawbacks of a certain worldview while still allowing its necessity for us in the moment. (For example, with Bach, the tendency to mechanical, repetitive compositional structures, even more so than with other Baroque composers.) As I’ve suggested above, if we go so far as to embrace those drawbacks as part of an essential and permanent idiosyncrasy, I think we make ourselves the rightful target of scorn.

The willingness to be articulate also prevents all kinds of absurd posturing. In your two comments, you have set up Britney Spears as an antipode to Bach. I understand your reasons for doing this, but keep in mind there are probably only ten to fifteen 3-minute songs by Britney that mean anything, even to most of her fans. The idea that one has to choose between the two artists is based on an unreflective construction of “fandom” in which 35 minutes of music stands its ground against Bach’s lifetime of compositions, with (at a minimum) twenty hours of music worth our consideration.

Tomemos, a couple of things. Yes, definitely, Pitchfork reviews sometimes read like fiction workshop exercises rather than informational guides to an album. I wish that weren’t the case. I also wish that record reviewers everywhere would stop using exaggerated, irrelevant metaphors to describe what they do and don’t like: “Listening to this album is like eating a bowl of yellow clouds while basking in birdsong.”

I’m completely in favor of high-content reviews, but that’s because I think those are most beneficial to readers who have no opinion either way. What fans of a band, and the band itself, want is roughly comparable to what Intelligent Design advocates want: first they want to get onto the site, then they want a “fair” bad review that makes some concessions, then they want a good review, and finally they want Album of the Year. That’s no fault of theirs, but it does make them bad witnesses on the subject of fairness.

Finally, is it slanderous to suggest that Ellis is a serial killer? I don’t have any evidence that he selects his biggest fans, and kills them in exactly the manner described in his own works of fiction, SO THEY KNOW WHAT IS COMING IN THE MOST EXQUISITE, DIABOLICAL DETAIL. At least, I don’t have any evidence yet, just a hunch...and the clock is ticking.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/19/06 at 06:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, one more thing. I understand the distinction here between dancing (pop music) and introspection or meditation (classical music), but aesthetics is a step removed from both because it is really a verbal exchange about taste. Presumably, a good aesthetics would be informed by both experiences. In addition, there is an element of presentism in identifying Bach solely with the professor’s study; that is merely the commonest way of using Bach now.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/19/06 at 07:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, taste isn’t just individual.  There are far more people who like Nabokov’s work, for example, than there would be if everyone liked some example of writing essentially at random.  Assuming that you’re willing to believe that a text has some kind of inherent characteristics that people can respond to, the question then becomes a varient of the old nature-or-nurture one about whether people tend to like certain styles inherently or because they’ve been brought up in a particular interpretive community.  I could even whip up one of those just-so evolutionary biology stories about the advantages of people liking complexity and narrativity and depictions of personality if I had to.

But a lot of it has to do with that old standard, status display, as well.  The development of a concept of individual taste for genres like pop music has to do, I think, with society in general getting wealthier, and more and more people wanting to join in the same kind of status display / competition / self-definition that only the rich used to be able to do.

But the top list is a late capitalist thing if there ever was one, right?  The urge to consume mediated through a set of false choices between very similar alternatives.  I think that they can be done right, though, if they are done more like how Joseph has descriped them—as a sort of description of a particular taste, if enough information is given to tell people the characteristics of that taste.  The top list made by committee doesn’t seem very useful, except insofar as a poll is useful.

I have a cold, and I have no idea whether this is coherent or not.  Like Luther above not being sure whether he’s making sense, I guess.

By on 12/19/06 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos

I guess I am wrong on this.  I thought there was a discussion in speak memory of Nabokov’s first love that tracks the first love portion of lolita but I can’t find any back up on this. I am staying away from Ellis just in case though.

By on 12/19/06 at 09:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe, I’m glad you expanded on the bolded line because that is definitely where you are onto something important. An example from my life comes to mind, especially given all this talk about Britney versus Bach:

After I’d been dating my high school sweetheart for a few months, we were ridiculously and completely in love, and convinced we were made for each other and would be together forever and ever-- I mean, you know, we were 17. Then one day I discovered that he didn’t like classical music, and it was deeply disturbing to me. We argued about it for a long time; it was our first real argument ever. It wasn’t just that he found it boring-- though he did-- but he eventually revealed a deep ideological opposition to it. He just couldn’t get past the fact that basically all classical music was written by privileged white guys for privileged white guys to play for other privileged white guys. The guitar, by contrast, was a democratic instrument. Bob Dylan was a poet of the people. I tried hard to get him into classical music; I played him my favorite pieces and tried to explain to him what I got out of them, but he was just not interested.

I used to consider this argument basically a failure-- I explained to him what I liked and why I liked it, and he explained to me what he didn’t like and why he didn’t like it, but my failure to convert him weighed heavy on my soul. Maybe we weren’t meant for each other after all. As you might put it, the difference between our respective problematics was too great. But your post has cast a new light on this episode-- at least we were able to talk it through, and see each at least a glimmer of where the other was coming from.

By uncomplicatedly on 12/20/06 at 03:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Uncomplicatedly gets at what I was trying to discuss earlier.  The sorts of argument we’re describing—Bach vs. Britney, classical vs. folk—are not about taste.  Taste is largely a matter of sentiment, which is what makes it fairly personal.  But these larger arguments are about our deepest—read: social—values, what too many lit critics call “political” but are in actuality much deeper and more primary than politics. 

The reason why the Bach fan and the Britney fan can’t talk isn’t because they agree to disagree or refuse to discuss taste.  Instead, it’s largely because the Bach fan looks down upon the Britney fan.  Liking-Britney is seen as a symptom of some deeper, individual failing, a lack of values.  (Just as Uncomplicatedly’s partner looked down at classical music due to his class resentment.)

This is why the argument between, say, the Nabokov fan and the Pynchon fan is different (’tho often more heated).  Here, both basically agree, and so the argument *is* about one person trying to change another’s views.  But the Britney/Bach conflict runs deeper, and is, to many people, simply incommensurable. 

Now, personally, I like Bach *and* Britney, and that’s why I chose this example in the first place.  Their musics fulfill very different needs of mine.  Britney’s hits are often sexy and fun—and I mean real corporate sexy, not fake PJ Harvey sexy (the sexyness of the smart girl who only ever had to take off her glasses).  And Britney is real office party fun, not LCD Soundsystem watching-myself-on-the-monitor fun.  (And I love Polly Jean and the LCD dudes too.) Bach, meanwhile, does for me what I think mass does for some Catholics.  It gives me a space to think about things that matter to me—something that too much fiction and poetry today doesn’t do.

By on 12/20/06 at 02:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Back to back blog comments are a bad sign, but I just wanted to send out this Guardian Online link to an article about Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris.  (It made sense in a post about taste.) If you don’t know Harris’s work, get busy.

http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1972887,00.html

By on 12/21/06 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, taste isn’t just individual. . . . Assuming that you’re willing to believe that a text has some kind of inherent characteristics that people can respond to, the question then becomes a varient of the old nature-or-nurture one about whether people tend to like certain styles inherently or because they’ve been brought up in a particular interpretive community.

Or communities, plural.

Yes, we need to get thorougly beyond an often implicit assumption that it’s either idiosynctratic individuality or complete and utter universality. Mostly, it’s neither.

A number of years ago some of Charlie Keil’s students asked a bunch of people about the music they listen to: what is it? why do you like it? when do you listen to it? And so forth. Most of the people listened to several types of music.

Uncomplicatedly gets at what I was trying to discuss earlier.  The sorts of argument we’re describing—Bach vs. Britney, classical vs. folk—are not about taste.  Taste is largely a matter of sentiment, which is what makes it fairly personal.  But these larger arguments are about our deepest—read: social—values, what too many lit critics call “political” but are in actuality much deeper and more primary than politics. 

The reason why the Bach fan and the Britney fan can’t talk isn’t because they agree to disagree or refuse to discuss taste.  Instead, it’s largely because the Bach fan looks down upon the Britney fan. 

But not merely social values. Or, perhaps, those social values are not utterly arbitrary, serving only to distinguish one community from another.

Bach’s music is more sophisticated and complex than Britney Spears’s music. It’s also more sophisticated and complex than Louis Armstrong’s music—which I know quite well, and admire a great deal. Sophistication and complexity are not the only musical virtues, but they are real. David Hays and I have written a bit about this:

The Evolution of Expressive Culture (Hays 1992)

The Evolution of Narrative and the Self (Benzon 1993)

Stages in the Evolution of Music (Benzon 1993)

Note particularly the distinction Hays makes between art and entertainment and my discussion of jazz styles in the music essay.

By Bill Benzon on 12/21/06 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This leads in some fascinating directions. Rich, despite your illness, I think your comment made plenty of sense.

uncomplicatedly, your story rings true but makes me sad. Numerous classical composers (Berlioz comes to mind) made personal and financial sacrifices for their art, and lived little or none of their lives in a position of privilege. Second, some notable composers worked to publicize folk traditions and to make them “respectable” by incorporating traditional themes into their compositions. Off the top of my head I am thinking of Bartok, Dvorak, and Vaughan Williams, but there were many others. While folk music does have a wonderful history in the United States, Dylan’s own relationship to the instrument and to progressive politics has changed many times; he is no reliable marker of political constancy or aesthetic humility.

Of course, I am speaking to the ghost of a seventeen year-old, because of the valuable honesty of your sketch. I would find that ridiculous were it not for the irrelevant considerations of “correctness” that so often infiltrate and corrupt taste. Here I am not referring to political correctness, which is a right-wing term for progressive language, but correctness in general, the social pressure to conform in one way or another (even rebellions have moments of conformism) which exert such a chilling effect on the consumption and enjoyment of art. The problematic of the work is produced from within the work, and not by arbitrary judgements about the politics of instrumentation.

Luther, it seems to me that, if anything, the balance is shifting away from a valuation of classical music as the avatar of high culture, towards a valuation of the cathartic power of pop music. Classical music is stuffy; can anyone deny that nowadays without sounding shrill? Pop music is fun. Oddly enough, the fact that you and I are both fans of both kinds of music (I’m going to expand the field a little here, beyond the overly simple binary of Britney/Bach) seems like reason for a certain amount of optimism.

Certainly our reactions to art have a strong element of sentiment. It’s possible to think through that sentiment in a moment of reflection, just as the Romantics hinted, and to rediscover within it articulate needs, memories, and hopes. Sentiment does not signal the end of inter-personal discussion; it is more like a place where discussion can begin.

Bill, I like your amendment of the reference to communities. They are plural, and I think Luther’s invocation of different communities (office or hedonic communities vs. religious communities) suggests the same thing.

I am concerned by some of the ways distinctions between simplicity and complexity might be drawn. I am more inclined to call something simple when it seems to intentionally limit itself, as teen-pop songs do by being very repetitive. (Britney’s songs, for example, have the same lyrics in the middle-eight as in the chorus, which is an undeniable disappointment.) I don’t feel that I’ve exhausted the possibilities for interpretation of phrasing, timbre, rhythm, orchestration, and lyrical content in “What A Wonderful World,” to take Armstrong’s most cliched entry in the canon. It may contain fewer notes than one of Bach’s exercises in counterpoint, but every rough pebble that Armstrong’s voice strikes, means.

One of the major projects of the avant-garde, from Mallarme to Warhol to the Stooges to Thomas Bernhard’s novels, has been proving that repetition and apparent simplicity can contain unexpected depths.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/22/06 at 04:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, it seems to me that, if anything, the balance is shifting away from a valuation of classical music as the avatar of high culture, towards a valuation of the cathartic power of pop music. Classical music is stuffy; can anyone deny that nowadays without sounding shrill? Pop music is fun.

Couldn’ve been written in 1920. In fact, in different words, it was. Often. And it was probably being said well before that. Satire of opera was one of the staples of 19th century minstresey.

I am concerned by some of the ways distinctions between simplicity and complexity might be drawn.

It has to be done in terms of the techniques involved in the art forms. Hays and I begin such specification in the articles I’ve referenced above. Such characterization will also ultimately have to be verified by empirical work of various kinds. For example, if some type of music A is, in fact, simpler than some type of music B, it should be possible to learn A more easily than B. In some cases, learning A might be a pre-requisite or a standard precursor for learning B.

Also, Hays and I distinguish between sophistication and complexity. An obvious illustration is arithmatic. The Roman notation system is less sophisticated than the Arab; as a consequence using it in calculation is more complex.

I am more inclined to call something simple when it seems to intentionally limit itself, as teen-pop songs do by being very repetitive. (Britney’s songs, for example, have the same lyrics in the middle-eight as in the chorus, which is an undeniable disappointment.) I don’t feel that I’ve exhausted the possibilities for interpretation of phrasing, timbre, rhythm, orchestration, and lyrical content in “What A Wonderful World,” to take Armstrong’s most cliched entry in the canon.

Ah, but that’s Armstrong, not the song itself. Interestingly enough, one of Armstrong’s characteristic vocal devices is to simplify the contour of a melody, even as he lifts it away from the ground beat and works “across the grain” to give it more rhythmic sophistication. (I’ve spent hours upon hours over the years learning how to do that.)

And this brings up a whole other issue: just “where” and “what” is the piece of music, anyhow? I’m pretty convinced that music, all music, exists primarily in performance, and have argued so in Beethoven’s Anvil. The idea that a piece of Western classical music exists as an ideal Platonic entity that is only approximated by any given performance is a fiction that follows easily enough from the use of notation. Notation, however, really is just a device that a musician uses to produce a performance. That’s obvious in the case of the very skeletal notation originally developed for plainsong (and which is the starting point of Western musical notation), not so obvious in the case of the sophisticated and detailed notational practice that had accumulated by the mid-19th century. But that argument goes well beyond the scope of this discussion.

By Bill Benzon on 12/22/06 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m delighted by your use of the distinction between sophistication and complexity here. The reason I’m delighted is that it gives us a head start on an explanation of why, although it may be more difficult for a piano player to learn Schumann’s “Kresleriana” than it would be to learn “Fur Elise,” it would be foolish to value the Schumann more highly.

By the same token, it is arguable that the historical and sonic sophistication of simpler rock n’ roll records exceeds that of extraordinarily complex playing by Van Halen or other rock virtuosos. Their work is hard to learn, but (often, not always) lacks the subjective correlative of pathos and clear referent.

I agree with you about the primacy of performance over the skeletal notation; I’m interested to note that this seems to be a repetition, in the arena of music, of the debate over written and spoken language in the Phaedrus and Derrida’s responses to it.

That said, in an age of recorded music, it again becomes hard to separate notation from performance. First of all, it would be hard for a modern singer to perform “What A Wonderful World” without either imitating or rejecting Armstrong’s very specific way of performing it, because the recording is as ubiquitous as the written score.

In fact, although the guitar tabs for the Beatles song “I Feel Fine” are available all over the Web, my impression of it is inseparable from the curious pop of feedback with which Lennon decided to start the song. It seems reasonable to evaluate the complexity and sophistication of the work according to the records of its performance, as well as by the shorthand notations for that performance.

I remember a moment from college, when an acquaintance of mine stood in front 100 of his fellow freshmen, and read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as if T. S. Eliot intended it to be sung by Bono. Rarely, if ever, has somebody dared to wonder about eating a peach with such vehemence.

The only comment the professor needed to make was this: “You should listen to the way Eliot reads Prufrock; it’s quite different, you know.”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/23/06 at 06:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That said, in an age of recorded music, it again becomes hard to separate notation from performance. First of all, it would be hard for a modern singer to perform “What A Wonderful World” without either imitating or rejecting Armstrong’s very specific way of performing it, because the recording is as ubiquitous as the written score.

The existence of recordings is very important, though I’m not aware of any discussions of it that I find satisfactory. As for your specific example, I went to the iTunes store and listened to 30 second samples by Renee Olstead, Celine Dion, Joey Ramone, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett & K. D. Laing, LeAnn Rimes, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sarah Brightman, and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I already own Armstrong’s version and I purchased versions by Joey Ramone, Tony Bennett & K. D. Laing, and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

At the end of his (and Laing’s) recording, Tony Bennett explicitly mentions Armstrong ("you were right Pops"); but you’d be hard-pressed to say that their recording either imitates or rejects Armstrong’s. Both Bennett and Laing are distinctive artists with their own styles. In general, Bennett owes a debt to Armstrong, but Laing probably owes a much the same debt, though at a greater distance. Quite indepently of that particular recording ("Wonderful"), Armstrong’s vocal style had a tremendous influence on popular vocal styles going back to the 1920s and 1930s when he first rose to prominence.

Then we have Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whom I never heard of before. His music is classified as “World,” which doesn’t say much. Judging by the last name and the music itself (I do think that’s a ukelele being strummed), this is some kind of Hawaiian pop style, and it’s quite delightful. He sings in a light tenor voice and combines “Wonderful World” with “Over the Rainbow.” This was a real find. Kamakawiwo’ole doesn’t imitate Armstrong, but it doesn’t mean much to say he rejects Armstrong. It’s different; he’s operating in a different stylistic tradition.

Last, but not least, Joey Ramone. I was a bit surprised to see that recording. No, he didn’t go treacle, it’s Joey Ramone singing like Joey Ramone. Certainly not an imitation of Armstrong. But a rejection of Armstrong? Well, Ramone is in a rock tradition that rejected an earlier rock tradition that was getting bloated, and that traditions in turn . . . in turn, what? Did rock originate fundamentally as a rejection of late 40s and early 50s vocal pop or did it get interpreted and marketed that way once it became nationally visible? And notice that Chuck Berry didn’t sing “Roll Over Sinatra” or “Roll Over Clooney,” he sang “Roll Over Beethoven.” In directing himself against Beethoven he was standing in a tradition that goes back to the 19th century. But Beethoven was never real competition for rock. yadda yadda yadda

Getting back to Ramone, while his style is quite different from Armstrong’s and hence his rendition “What A Wonderful World” is quite different, I’m not sure it’s very useful to characterize it as a rejection. Ramone did his recording in 2002, thus it comes after scads of other versions of the tune. If it’s a rejection of Armstrong, it’s a rejection of them too. But it’s not at all clear to me that it makes much sense to say it’s a rejection of anything. He’s just taking a piece of music that originated in one tradition and realizing it in his own, by now well-established, tradition.

So, what of imitation and rejection? I’m quite sure that imitation happens, and happens all the time. As for rejection . . . I don’t quite know. It seems to me that it’s easier to talk of rejection within a given line of development rather than between more or less different lines. But the thing about rejection, if there’s any real point to it, then it is also an affirmation of something. And that affirmation, if developed, is likely to turn into mere difference-from and become yet another quasi-autonomous style.

* * * *

Why’d I choose to purchase those three versions? Well, it seemed to me that most of the versions were more or less in the same tradition as Armstrong, mainstream vocal pop from the Tin Pan Alley songbook. There were certainly differences among those versions, different arrangements, different vocal stylings, but all pretty much the same kind of music. The Bennett-Laing version is representative of that tradition; it was, to some extent, an arbitrary decision. And fortuitous. I didn’t even realize it was a duet when I made the purchse. I thought I was just getting Tony Bennett, whom I like. I also like Willie Nelson, but have no particular opinions of the others in this group. The Ramone and Kamakawiwo’ole versions represent different musical traditions. Thus, I choose those three versions because they more or less “sampled the space.”

* * * *

Now, given the differences among these performances, what makes them all performances of the same song? That’s pretty easy: lyrics, melody, and general harmonic structure. That’s a pretty skeletal core identity, but that seems to be how popular music functions.

If we throw Western classical music into the mix . . . well, if we really want to do this—and I don’t, not here and now—we need more sophisticated conceptual tools. Same if we toss jazz into the mix. Just how do you think about those 100s of jazz tunes based on “I Got Rhythm” and those 100s of 1000s of performances derived from those 100s of tunes?

At this point I’m staring at the same situation I see when I look at literary studies: The typical terms of discussion and analysis coupled with the importance we attribute to that discussion and analysis are disproportionated to the variety, complexity, and the subtlety of the material we’re studying. We don’t know what we’re talking about except in a loose referential way: this, that, and that over there, and the other thing, etc. When it comes to describing and analyzing, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

By Bill Benzon on 12/23/06 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to amplify aspects of my previous comment. Though I didn’t check recording dates for all of them, I pretty much assume all those versions of “What a Wonderful World” were made after Armstrong’s version was featured in the soundtrack to Good Morning Vietnam, for that soundtrack is what brought Armstrong’s recording to widespread public view. I also assume that all of these recordings are more or less in consequence of that recording. But how did those recordings actually happen? How did those artists arrive at their interpretations?

Of course, I don’t really know. I’m just guessing. And what I’m guessing is that the artist, and his or her creative associates, worked from a lead sheet containing melody, lyrics, and chords. The artists then worked up a version from that lead sheet without Armstrong’s version being more than one version of the song among others - I don’t know what other versions were available at the time Armstrong’s became visible, but I assume there were some. Any artist with a reasonably stable style - however derivative or original or interesting that style may be - should be quite capable to doing that without being overly influenced by Armstrong, either to imitate or pointedly not to imitate. Thus I have no reason to believe that the versions least like Armstrong’s - Ramone’s and Kamakawiwo’ole’s - required any special effort of avoidance or opposition. They just required that the artist figure out how to render the song in their style.

But what happens in a completely oral tradition, where there is no such thing as a lead-sheet? In this case you learn a song by hearing someone else perform it. And perhaps they will also teach it to you. We can say this is imitation, but it’s not obvious to me just what that means.

I figure that such things as musical performances have an unbounded number of properties, only some of which are specified in the musical system of a given culture. This is parallel to the distinction linguists make between phonetics - the sound that is actually there in the speech stream - and phonemics - those aspects of the sound that are captured in a given language system. When one learns a song, one will imitate those properties that are specified by the musical system, but may well leave the other properties of the performance alone. Those properties are merely personal to a given performer or even idiosyncratic to a given performance.

Now consider the phenomenon of Elvis impersonators, singers who try to sing and look like The King as much as possible. I suspect, that I don’t actually know this, that they are attempting a much more detailed imitation than is typical in oral cultures. They are attempting to reproduce more aspects of the original performance than the singer in a traditional culture. In fact - and here I’m guessing again - I suspect that in a traditional culture the original performances are all mythical events that no living person has heard. Whereas in the case of Elvis impersonators, original performances are available in sound and film or video recordings.

In general, this is complicated stuff.

By Bill Benzon on 12/23/06 at 06:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your thorough and persuasive response suggests to me that there may have been a category missing from the Oedipal binary of imitation or rejection, something like “reference” or “appropriation.”

In other words, the new version in one way or another stands on the shoulders of the old version; it makes the old new in a dependent fashion, just as the success of Warhol’s Marilyns depends on our having seen Marilyn already. Reference is trompe l’oeil.

It is also a form of cannibalization, to return to a term from earlier in the thread. Think of the way that Bennett tries to merge with Armstrong through the avuncular “shout-out” in his own version.

By the same token, Kamakawiwo’ole is not exactly in the musical tradition of indigenous Hawaiian music. He is in the tradition of crossover world music, which has a very specific demographic, and which depends on the combination of familiar and sentimental elements with evocative “native” touches. It needn’t be a cynical experience for the artist, just as landscape painters aren’t necessarily cynical. Still, adding “Over The Rainbow” to the mix makes it clear that Kamakawiwo’ole is paying his respects to his audience via their knowledge of Armstrong and Garland.

Finally, Joey Ramone. This is such a beautiful example of reference, and one common among punks and proto-punks (think of Sid Vicious trying to make a comeback with “My Way,” or Jim Morrison claiming to have been influenced by Sinatra above all). One of the tenets of punk, particularly punk as the Ramones did it, was the return to earnestness via an ironically trashy sound. It was their messy, unprofessional music that made it possible to sing “Hey little girl / I wanna be your boyfriend.” By singing “What A Wonderful World,” Ramone is performing a return to the cherished innocence of vocal pop, one that is only possible through the abject punk style.

One element that interests me in the phenomenon of tribute bands and Elvis imitators is the primacy of the image and lifestyle. Elvis imitators do not usually imitate the clean-cut Southern boy of the Sun Sessions—they imitate the overweight Las Vegas spectacle. AC/DC or KISS tribute bands recreate the rawk spectacle. In every case, these bands pay tribute to the glorious confusion between product and packaging, taken as far as possible towards the hilarity of camp.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 12/23/06 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Elvis was never overweight.  The rest of us are simply too damned skinny.

By on 12/24/06 at 03:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you’re right about Elvis imitators, Joe, though I’d approach it differently. At least part of the point of imitating Elvis is to be recognized as imitating Elvis. There’s nothing distinctive about the dress of the Sun-period Elvis; it’s a period style, but not distinctively Elvis. But the sequined jump suits - that’s distinctively Elvis. As for “the hilarity of camp,” I’ve got my doubts. It may seem that way to you, but it’s not at all clear to me that that’s what the performer is up to. Here’s some remarks I made about a particular Elvis impersonator awhile ago:

A couple years ago I was at my mother’s nursing home on Thanksgiving and they’d hired an Elvis impersonator for entertainment. He had his pompadour, his karaoke rig and Elvis back-up CDs, and his white jumpsuit with the sequins and he was wonderful. He sang well, moved well, and the old folks loved him, especially the ladies when he gave them a “special” look and sang right to them. “It’s now or never . . . “

What matters in performance is whether or not you can channel the spirits and that’s an iffy business at best. Though I am not and never have been a fan, I’m sure Elvis had it, even drugged and bloated in Vegas he probably still had it, sometime. And I suspect most of the Elvis impersonators do a better act as Elvis than they could trying to find their authentic own selves. Creating your own act is tough, while borrowing a proven item is much more reliable. Yet, when someone in a tribal culture does his level best to sing the songs and tell the stories the way the ancestors did, we say he’s being authentic and true to his culture. When someone in our culture does his level best to do Elvis, we look down on it as inauthentic (when we may just mean “proletarian” in a non-revolutionary power-to-the-people way).

That particular impersonator was not aiming for camp. He was just trying to give the best performance he could. I’d guess that most Elvis impersonators are pretty much like that guy. And they know that lots of people think what they’re up to is pretty silly. But, hey, that’s life.

I suppose one can, in a cultural studies sort of way, argue that, whatever those folks think they’re doing, what they’re doing is, in fact, hilariously campy. I think that POV is so far removed from how music actually functions that I’m not inclined to take it too seriously.

Now, this link takes you to a YouTube video I recently uploaded. I’m performing a Japanese song, Kojo No Tsuki (Moon over Ruined Castle), on trumpet, without accompaniment. I did it as a tribute to the Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra of Takasago Japan. BFJO is outrageously good performing standard American big band jazz. Someone has been uploading clips of them and I’ve listened to most of them, some of them more than once. I decided to honor them with through an old jazz practice, “jazzing up” a classic, in this case, a Japanese classic.

How’d I arrive at a performance of that song? It was written in the late 19th or early 20th century by Rentaro Taki for koto.  I have reason to believe that he notated it in standard Western notation, but I’ve never seen a score. I took the melody from three performances, one by Rahsaan Roland Kirk (on flute), one by Thelonius Monk (piano, playing in a quartet), and one by someone playing Celtic harp. I’d owned the first two recordings for years, but only recently got the third (iTunes) for referenced purposes in this performance. I was after the melody. Kirk and Monk played it slightly differently so I looked to another source. I’m not quite sure what I got from that third source, but, in any event, I derived a melody from those three sources. It’s likely very close to the Japanese original - my three sources were fairly close to one another, though not the same - but I don’t really know that.

In my performance I play the melody at the beginning and the end. In between - which is most of the performance - I improvise. I play the melody “straight,” without any characteristically jazz inflections. The first improvised chorus is straight as well. Then I switch into a swing beat and start with a paraphrase of the melody and, from there, move into improvisation. I did so with the intention of returning to the melody, straight, at some point. Just when that happened, of course, was not predetermined. It happened when it happened, even surprised me it a bit when it happened.

I suppose one could say that my melody statement is a copy of copies of some original. But to do so would be to impose a metaphysics which doesn’t make much sense to me. To be sure, I took some pains to get the melody “right,” but here “rightness” means nothing more than “recognizable to a Japanese audience.” I wasn’t trying to be or sound Japanese, certainly not trying to sound like a koto, which is a stringed instrument a bit like a harp and not at all like a trumpet. I certainly wasn’t aiming for “authenticity.” I just wanted to make good music.

Back when I lived in upstate New York I played with the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, at that time consisting of a rhythm section (keys, guitar, bass, drums), plus horns (trumpet, two saxes), with the drummer as lead vocalist. We did mostly covers. For awhile we had a half-dozen or so Blues Brothers tunes at the core of our repertoire.

Why’d we play covers rather than originals? Primarily because it’s easier, but also because it’s easier to reach an audience with tunes they know.

But in doing the covers, we didn’t try for a detailed imitation of the original - which may not, in any case, have been the original “original.” For one thing, the source version may have had a different set of instruments in the horn section, which meant that we had to adapt a 4 or 5 part horn arrangement for 3 horns, or a trumpet, sax, trombone arrangement for trumpet and two saxes, etc. Or our source version may not have had horns at all, in which case we had to create horn parts (e.g. The Weight, Soul Kitchen, Phone Booth) or do without - not terribly likely because that leaves us with the problem of three guys on stage doing nothing. Further, we had a number of good to excellent soloists in the band so we often added solo sections that weren’t in the source. Nor, where the source had a guitar solo or a keyboard solo or a sax solo, did our soloist necessarily try to copy the source solo. Sometimes he did, sometimes not. And our vocalist did not try to imitate the source vocalist.

Source recordings were just that, sources. We certainly weren’t interested in detailed imitation, nor, where we changed things, were we rejecting anything. We were simply trying to make the best music we could with the resources at our disposal. Now, let’s consider those Blues Brothers covers. The Blues Brothers, of course, were themselves playing covers. Does that mean we were playing copies of copies? Damfino. Consider Sweet Home Chicago. I suppose the original is by Robert Johnson—did he write the tune or get it from someone else, does anyone know? He never recorded with an electric rhythm section and horns. Someone had to adapt that acoustic blues to the citified format. I don’t know whether the Blues Brothers were copying another horn-band arrangement of the tune or wrote the arrangement themselves. As a performer I don’t care about such things at all. As a student of musical culture I do care, but not as a way of establishing “authenticity” or “originality.” It’s just a matter of establishing “ground truth.” How’s it work?

What matters most to a performer is how things happen in performance. Some of our performances of Sweet Home were better than others. Better in what sense? It might be a matter of dropped notes here and there, of missed cues, stuff like that. But mostly it’s about energy, and just what that’s about is deeply obscure, though I offer some neural speculations in Beethoven’s Anvil. Performance quality in this situation is not a matter of fidelity to some original. Lofi and high energy is more effective than hifi and low energy.

What about dependence, appropriation, or reference? Well, we certainly depended on, appropriated, material from earlier recordings. But that’s a matter of (micro) history, of where and how we learned the material. Our real-time performance did not depend on those earlier versions in the sense that we were somehow troping or referring to those performance. It depended on what’s in our heads and bodies, now, and on the audience response. The audience certainly didn’t need to know those “originals” in order to apprehend our performance. If you did know the source recording, then you’d recognize what we’re doing and know what to expect - except for when we throw in a solo that wasn’t there, or a new horn line, etc. But we weren’t playing intertextual games. However . . . There’s an old Springsteen tune we did, Fever, and sometimes in my trumpet solo I’d toss in a line from When Johnny Comes Marching Home (or, at Christmastime, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen). That’s certainly intertextual, but the intertextuality has nothing to do with Springsteen’s original. It’s just standard jazz musician’s quoting.

By the same token, Kamakawiwo’ole is not exactly in the musical tradition of indigenous Hawaiian music. He is in the tradition of crossover world music . . .

I don’t mean to be pedantic here, but details of conceptualization do matter. I’m not sure either of these “traditions” exist. It seems to me that “world music” is just a dumping bin for music that doesn’t fit anywhere else. It certainly is not one single set of musical genealogies. My guess is that there’s more crossover music than “pure” music. Most pure music is simply music where no one remembers the crossing. Mongrelization is frequent and common and has been so for years and years. The vocal melissma that’s such a prominent part of Black gospel vocal style, for example, probably arrived in North America through two routes. Both start in the Middle East. One goes south, through West Africa, and then across the Atlantic in slave ships. The other goes north through Europe to Ireland and hence to North America.

As for indigenous Hawaiian music, what’s that? There certainly was some sort of music there before the Europeans arrived. I have no idea when music from other places began to influence Hawaiian music, but I suspect it happened before the pedal steel guitar arrived. Black face minstrelsy was observed in India in the mid-19th century. It may well have stopped off on Hawaii on the way over.

Still, adding “Over The Rainbow” to the mix makes it clear that Kamakawiwo’ole is paying his respects to his audience via their knowledge of Armstrong and Garland.

And maybe he’s just playing music he likes and thinks his audience will like. To the extent that he’s paying respects, it’s more likely to Armstrong and Garland than to his audience. Just where and how his audience became familiar with those tunes is an interesting question. My impression is that Rainbow has been more widely performed than World and so knowledge of it is less likely to be specific to knowledge of Garland.

Finally, Joey Ramone. This is such a beautiful example of reference, and one common among punks and proto-punks . . . . One of the tenets of punk, particularly punk as the Ramones did it, was the return to earnestness via an ironically trashy sound. . . . By singing “What A Wonderful World,” Ramone is performing a return to the cherished innocence of vocal pop, one that is only possible through the abject punk style.

Here I think you’ve pretty much got it, though I’d add a raised eyebrow about the notion of some “innocence of vocal pop.”

By Bill Benzon on 12/24/06 at 09:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, it’s wonderful of you to contribute here what is essentially an essay on the production and performance of music. I am sorry that my travels have prevented me from responding sooner.

Let’s look at the three categories into which, in your response, my critique disappears: liking (Kamakawiwo’ole covering Armstrong and Garland), energy (The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band), and hard work (the Elvis impersonator).

These categories do something I don’t personally favor by being antagonistic to criticism. They suggest that as long as the performer works hard, produces energetic music, and entertains his audience, nothing more really needs saying.

The reason “authenticity” is valuable in works of art is that it offers the audience the possibility of a new experience, together with a new understanding of themselves and the world. It actually does not matter whether artists are representing a true self. What matters is that the reaction they get is unrehearsed. Of course it takes hard work to get any reaction—rehearsed or not—from an audience, and of course there’s nothing criminal about the joyful experience of seeing an impersonator. There’s nothing particularly grand about it either. There’s an important difference between the mixed spirits Elvis had to channel in his performances, where he was inventing inflection, gesture, and musical approach, and the simulation of gesture expected of an impersonator.

*

Past histories of mongrelization cannot be easily imported into discussions of modern pop culture. The traditions to which you refer took place largely before mass media, and before important expansions and refinements of the art market. As a result, there was far less standardization, and fewer demographic niches, two things that have had a stultifying effect on art. Sure, Kamakawiwo’ole is mixing Hawaiian pop technique with American pop standards, but that’s to be expected. He certainly isn’t mixing Hawaiian pop with avant-garde music (say, like Can) or with industrial rock. The reasons why that would be a risky venture (as Tom Zé’s music is risky) have a lot to do with the sorts of performers and audiences that are constructed by marketing tactics.

There are lots of good reasons why a performer would want to focus on giving an energetic performance (including getting herself into the right sort of mental state), rather than on the tangled history of the music to be performed. That does not invalidate criticism pursued along the lines of history and reference. There is a difference between the intuitive state sometimes necessary to create art, and the analysis necessary to understand art.

A quick note: some of these interpretations are written from inside the head of the audience member or performer. The “innocence of vocal pop” has to do with the way punks saw pop, and early rock ‘n roll. The notion of “indigenous Hawaiian music” has to do with the exoticism a listener in Colorado would read into Kamakawiwo’ole’s flourishes on steel guitar.

Not everyone wants to be grilled about why they like something, nor are we always as articulate or comprehensive as we should be about why a particular piece of culture is appealing. The reason to get into the question of why Kamakawiwo’ole covers Garland and Armstrong in particular has to do with the limits of liking. We don’t all get pleasure out of the same performances or recordings, but we can at least try to understand, in specific terms, what a given connection with a certain audience is about. To do less than that does enable a tepid tolerance, but also produces an insuperable distance between audiences.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/04/07 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe, I’m glad you see some value in my observations, which are pretty much off the top of my head. I find your ideas and remarks interesting and provocative. And also a bit strange. We look at these things rather differently, and I’d like to say a little about that, but not quite yet.

Fact is, I started making a few comments in reply to your latest comment and they grew and grew and grew until I decided the thing to do is to start a new conversation. Somehow I’ve worked my way to what might be the beginnings of an aesthetics I’d be interested in developing at some time. We’ll see.

I’ll have the new post up later today or tomorrow. It’ll be structured as a reply to your latest remarks, complete with quotes and quibbles.

By Bill Benzon on 01/05/07 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a clear case for the use of native modicums of common sense in drawing a moral/aesthetic/analytical line between the ‘personality’ and ‘behavior’ of a character in a work of fiction and those of actual humans on a real planet in Spacetime. The former is indeed ‘free’ to be as ‘nasty’ (or not) as conceivably possible without *necessarily* raising an eyebrow on even the most ‘moral’ reader (mandarin aesthetician or not; fluctuating obscenity laws notwithstanding)...the latter group of actual real-time humans enjoy considerably less lattitude. Arbitrary? Perhaps. In light of the above(self-evident) formulation, the questions…

• How do Humbert’s crimes satisfy a number of these demands?

• What tools does the novel provide for satisfying these demands differently, without causing harm?

...are absurd. Not only has Humbert committed no ‘crime’; Humbert has never existed...he never will and never can exist. Dilemma averted*.

*the same system of thought can be applied to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ with equally liberating results.

By Steven Augustine on 01/05/07 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My response to Joe’s last set of comments is up.

By Bill Benzon on 01/06/07 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven, asserting something isn’t the same as proving it. I would love to see you explain how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre creates a problematic as complex and broadly relevant as Lolita. My guess is that, up to a point, you would succeed—slasher films are one of the most consistently productive starting points for work in cultural studies. But only up to a point.

Furthermore, your confidence in “common sense” is unjustified. Humbert’s actions are ethically wrong; they’re not wrong just because they violate common sense. Furthermore, if you’re hoping that common sense will be enough to keep all people operating in accordance with good ethical principles ("the latter group of actual real-time humans enjoy considerably less lattitude"), you’re a dreamer who dreams of tyranny over the individual.

You also use the term “common sense” to refer to the difference between realities and fictions. The difference is not, as you think, an absolute divide. If it were, it would be impossible to use any hypotheticals at all: “Not only did this spaceship not reach the moon, this spaceship has never existed outside of our computer simulation.”

If a person sets up an anonymous blog where they employ a nasty tone, are they violating decorum, or not? If Nabokov writes an autobiography entitled Speak, Memory, are we supposed to believe that only now is he really himself, and therefore accountable, whereas the rest was just fairy stories? Or does he instantly become a fictional character named “Vladimir Nabokov” the moment he starts writing that book, only to regain himself while giving a lecture? Of course there’s a difference between life and art, but the kind of difference you propose is most definitely a fiction.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/06/07 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My point is that different systems have different sets of descriptors, and some systems are so different from one another that their descriptor sets can’t possibly overlap. Machines and human beings, for example, are two types of system groups that often share descriptor sets...you can refer to a human being and to a welding robot on an auto-body assembly line both as ‘efficient’ or ‘physically beautiful’ or ‘physically powerful’...you can refer to both as ‘cost-effective’ and so on. But you couldn’t call a welding robot ‘mean’ or ‘happy’, so, the overlap stops with the Emotion descriptor set. Likewise, using the strictly human descriptor set of ‘Morality’ to describe markings of ink on paper designed to transmit fantasies into human minds is impossible. ‘Humbert’ is a fantasy construct...you may choose to evaluate the ‘morality’ of the motives (or impact) of the author in creating the fantasy, but that’s a very different thing. What about the ‘morality’ of Wile E. Coyote’s constant attempts on the life of the innocent Roadrunner? The Joker (from Batman) isn’t evil...he’s ‘evil’.

Further, I think the question of Nabokov’s possibly suspect ‘morality’ in creating Lolita misses the point that a huge chunk of a published (and famous) author’s motivation in generating certain fictional characters or situations is focused on the literary (and PR)energy the character or situation can generate...the notoriety possible and the richness of metaphor and reader response and so on.

Martin Amis has written at least twice of children in danger of sexual violation (The Information; Yellow Dog) but I doubt it means he ever wanted to fuck his kids. He knows it’s a fraught topic...there’s a wealth of energy in the scenario...and you can imagine he feels pressured to up the ante to remain au courant with the travesties of our era. Reading the ghost of pedophilia into Nabokov’s enthusiastic writing of Lolita strikes me as weirdly naive in people with so much academic (and, possibly, publishing) experience; any of us who write fiction know we’re all just strip-mining veins of ore that have been largely depleted after centuries and centuries of exploitation...the overwhelming majority of writers in history got there first. Nabokov stumbled on a rich little nugget and he knew it...his writerly instincts panned out.

I think the comfy old theory of the amorality of text holds for the reasons I cite (far) above. Characters in a work of the imagination don’t exist and therefore can’t be said to have thoughts or personalities or behaviours...how can we (reasonably, or fruitfully) use the ultimately human descriptor set of ‘Morality’ to address phantoms? Instead we use the appropriate descriptor set of Aesthetics (specifically Literary Aesthetics) to evaluate them. Humbert is no more a moral question than ‘he’ is a Newtonian one. (In my opinion.) The illusion that we can apply moral questions to ‘him’ at all is a tribute to Nabokov’s art (I’m willing to wager that issue rarely comes up regarding flatly written characters).

It only seems worth debate to me because it’s a worrying trend...the re-activation of this ‘moral’ question (popularized post-9/11 by James Wood, possibly) re: characters in fiction. It’s less an issue of Free Speech than of the health of our approach to the creation and consumption of Literature. (Again: in my opinion).

Anyway, sorry about what possibly came off as peremptory terseness in my first comment...I’m so used to keeping comments ‘short and sweet’ that in this case, initially, perhaps, I came off as half-argued and stroppy.

By Steven Augustine on 01/07/07 at 06:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To relate my argument (of the non-overlapping majesteria of ‘morals’ and ‘literary aesthetics’) specifically to Lolita:

In Herr Kugelmass’s essay No Desert Island: Towards A Gutsy Aesthetics Via Nabokov, and in subsequent comments supporting a morally prescriptive and/or descriptive function for Nabokov’s Lolita, there are striking misapprehensions about the mechanisms and responsibilities of literary fiction. Tangential to this, there are rather bold assertions about Nabokov’s psychology that even Brian Boyd has never recorded in print.

The lure of gainsaying Nabokov on matters of his own work and personal disposition towards the work is obvious, but to ‘publish’ such claims without the support of detailed textual documentation is unserious. The ‘proof’ required is in direct proportion to the ambition of the claims being made: appropriating Lolita as a morally instructive document (at best like coveting an orange peel and throwing the rest of the fruit away) and interogating Nabokov’s ‘real’ (as opposed to his stated) motives as the document’s author are both rather ambitious claims against Nabokov’s art.

Addressing a handful of the peculiarities of the Kugelmass essay:

1. “The irony of Lolita‘s greatness, when Humbert is not metaphorized out of existence but remains a man, is that he uses the rhetoric of parental concern to cover his own incessant surveillance of his ‘daughter.’ Keeping Humbert around, without de-clawing him, helps keep us from becoming him.”

A. This overstates the centrality of the riff on Humbert’s grotesque pastiche of ‘parental surveillance’ when the *primary* joke of the (for example) ‘school play’ passage is, in fact, that while Humbert struggles to keep Lolita from the clutches of ‘beastly boys’, she’s soon to have, or has already had, carnal knowledge of Humbert’s adult semi-Dopplegaenger. We know that the latter is the main joke because it moves the plot forward; the plot, in fact, hinges on this ‘joke’. Quilty Cha-Cha’s around Humbert’s Maginot line while Humbert is busy oiling the gattling gun(s).

B. In what way would keeping Humbert ‘around,’ de-clawed or otherwise, prevent ‘us’ (a cross-section of sexually ‘healthy’ adults, presumably, with a statistically realistic sprinkle of pedophiles in ‘our’ midst) from becoming a fictional, handsome, thirty-ish, hyper-articulate and full-blown pederast boasting a ‘racial salad of genes’, a heart condition and a ‘nymphet’ for a step-daughter? Or, to reformulate that: how would it be possible for any actual living (or dead) creature to become a fictional character (as opposed to being represented by or as one), more the less this specific character with ‘his’ array of specifications?

2. “To borrow the terms I used to describe the style of Lolita, Nabokov comes across in works like Speak, Memory as ‘meticulous, tricky, Romantic, and viciously elitist.’”

A. ‘Elitist’ is a subjective (and often wounded, in its disparagement) term; the phrase ‘viciously elitist’ is so subjective (how is the difference between ‘elitist’ and ‘viciously elitist’ calculated? And if it can’t be calculated, is its use justified?) that it’s a window into the soul of the adjective’s deployer… i.e., what is it in the perceived elitism that causes the author of the phrase to react so strongly?

B. Is Nabokov socially, aesthetically, genealogically or intellectually ‘elitist’? Is he all of the above? Where’s the evidence? (Sniffy remarks to the effect that he abhors ‘poshlost’ in its many forms? Sniffy judgments on Pasternak, Freud and Dostoevsky? A famous lack of politically expedient ‘false modesty’? How would any or all of these bespeak a ‘vicious elitism’ more than merely the confident expression of strong opinions and personal preferences?)

C. ‘Elitist’ is the stick that Nabokov is most often ‘interogated’ with in faux-egalitarian America (where it’s a crime to deviate from the strictures of relativism and ‘under-value’ any person, belief system, cultural tic, etc…while at the same time trumpeting the concept of ‘Number One’ to the exclusion of and contempt for lesser or even non-achievements in every conceivable realm or activity). What, in the end, does the pejorative ‘elitist’ bring to the analysis of Art (as opposed to politics)?

3. “On the other hand, reading Lolita merely for the beauty of the language exonerates Humbert. He can do anything he likes—seduce a child, kill another person, or simply be unflaggingly nasty –- and we don’t care, so long as his words pass on to us a quantity of thrills.”

Not the pathetic fallacy so much as the pathetic meta-fallacy: a tree or a mountain within the text itself is not granted human powers of feeling or expression by the author but chunks of the text itself are granted such by the author’s auditor.

4. “After all, the reason Humbert finds Quilty so irritating is that Quilty is similar to him, and thus ruins Humbert’s narcissistic enjoyment of his own condition.”

This is only half true; what makes Quilty most horrible to Humbert is the frequency (absolute) with which Quilty *bests* Humbert…from the allusively (elusively) foxy wit of his motel guest-book entries to the scene-stealing performance of his death…Sybaritic, unromantic, lotus-eating Quilty runs rings around the ploddingly earnest Humbert. Even in the matter of perversion, Quilty bests Humbert, as there is strong textual evidence that Quilty (whose affair with Lolita’s mother precedes Lolita’s birth and probable date of conception; and whose facial features are remarked upon, by Humbert, in passing, as resembling somewhat of a prototype for his nymph’s own visage) is Lo’s biological father.

5. “This is the only way to transcend Humbert, something his crimes compel us to do, without erasing or ignoring him.”

A. In what way does a fictional character require transcending? What danger (to a healthy mind) is there that a fictional character (as opposed to an author’s ideas) will jump the impermeable filter between the actual no-when, no-where of fiction-space into 4-D ‘meatspace’, where objects exist and real things happen? To erase the boundary between the two with the sophistry of questioning ‘reality’ is to render discriminations of any kind impossible; rendering any and all arguments meaningless; which is the usual reason for avoiding that gambit (itself a bit like knocking the chess board over and scattering the pieces to avoid being mated).

B. In what way can a textual construct (existing only as an image in the reader’s mind, conjured by markings on paper or screen) commit a ‘crime’? Who would this ‘crime’ be perpetrated against, if not another non-existent text-generated image? Are there civil laws governing such interactions (not between reader and text but between text construct and text construct)? If so, what are the penalties? Where is the Text Court…the Text Prisons?. Is there a Text-based Electric Chair for fictional murderers?

6. “Nabokov saw the attractions of his own patrician aestheticism, and he also saw that it was madness.”

What evidence supports this nifty bit of mind-reading? Has Nabokov, without irony, ever stated such a thing? Where’s the quote?

7. “This is a reasonable allegorization, but it has the effect of downplaying the criticisms of American society that give the novel so much of its substance.”

The novel does not criticize American society; the character apparently narrating the novel displays certain tics in expression and attitude (the novelist’s strategy in particularizing the character); an affectionate disdain for certain elements of American society of the era is a part of his presentation. The novel, not being a polemic, criticizes neither America, swingers, dentists or pederasts, et al: it presents a scenario (boasting detailed set dressing) through which a trio of main characters (chiefly) move towards a foregone (in its ‘foreward’) conclusion.

Humbert, having not written the novel, is himself powerless to focus it as a critique against, or a paean to, anything.

8. “Humbert’s actions are outside the bounds of tolerance, but Nabokov himself was not, and there was a lot of Humbert in him.”

There’s certainly a good deal of Nabokov in Humbert, being as Nabokov authored him…but only insofar as there was a lot (100%) of Nabokov in every character, and scene, and sentence he wrote…and only in so far as this is true of every author. Claiming the obverse, that there was a lot of Humbert in Nabokov, confuses the chain of causality. Humbert did not precede Nabokov…not even by the lights of the most arcane academic system of framing currently in fashion.

9. “If we give in to the myth of the “love affair with language,” which is also the capitalist myth of total exchangeability, then we cannot ask the text anything.”

A. If Nabokov himself describes Lolita as the “…record of my love affair with the English language,” it’s not a ‘myth’…it’s a possible ‘sound bite’ or an ‘alibi’ or an ‘elucidation’ depending on one’s view of Nabokov and his Lolita, but it cannot (according to the definition of the word ‘myth’) be a myth.

B. There’s no proof given in the essay to support this assertion that the “love affair with the language” so-called ‘myth’ dovetails with the second myth cited. The presumption throughout the essay seems to be that a “love affair with the language” is a reductive approach to the novel; how so? If the “love affair” involves the particulars of the text, how is this approach more reductive than appropriating the novel as a moral primer (or cautionary tale) ?

10. It’s not without interest that we consider Herr Kugelmass’s choice of a screen name in presenting this particular essay, referencing, as the pseudonym does, a fictional academic who has a metafictional love affair (of a sexual nature) with another of the most famous doomed heroines of Literary history.

“Keeping Humbert around, without de-clawing him, helps keep us from becoming him”, indeed.

By Steven Augustine on 01/08/07 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To:  ‘Steven Augustine’

My favorite ‘peculiarity’ about your rather beautifully self-indulgent comment is that you assume that ‘Joseph Kugelmass’ is a pseudonym.  You go to all the trouble of a ‘Top Ten Reasons I’m Laughing at You’ list and you can’t be bothered to follow one link?  Since you’re so concerned about the proper usage of terms and all…

By petitpoussin on 01/08/07 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, thanks, Petit, for taking the time to refute the cardinal points of my argument...it’s in the back-and-forth of reasoned debate that we learn, after all. (And I did, in fact, consider putting some kind of *wink* after the last point in my argument to make absolutely certain that nobody missed the fact that I was being playful...but I didn’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence. Mea culpa.)

By Steven Augustine on 01/09/07 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Herr Kugelmass’s choice of a screen name”

Naturally, also to the recurring protagonist of the 20th century’s most famous Czech writer.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/10/07 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First things first: I enjoy the fact that my real name overlaps with Allen’s short story, and that my first name and last initial overlaps with The Trial. (I do wish “The Kugelmass Episode” was as funny as other writings by Allen.) That said, Steven, your response to petitpoussin has all the charm of revisionism; and, as I am not German, calling me “Herr Kugelmass” is rather affected.

As for the immorality of the Coyote’s continual attempts on the Roadrunner’s life, I am frankly surprised that you would want to immediately put Nabokov’s Lolita on a plane with Looney Tunes. I happen to love Looney Tunes, but the way the allegory functions in those surreal shorts is quite different than in a long, quasi-realistic novel. It is also much more ambiguous than your comment suggests. Noted critic Alfred Matthew Yankovic, working under the pseudonym “Uncle Nutzie,” once described those same cartoons as

A sad, depressing story about a pathetic coyote who spends every waking moment in the futile persuit of a sadistic roadrunner, who mocks him and laughs at him as he is repeatedly crushed and maimed.

I think there’s a lot there.

I cannot go along with your decision to use the metaphor of “descriptor sets” for specific vocabularies within languages, since treating language as though it were a static, highly specialized collection of differentiated tinker toys has nothing to do with the fluid and overlapping ways that terms like “truth” or “beauty” or “right” are used in practice.

Instead, the “descriptor set” is merely another way of trying to enforce a distinction between the aesthetic and the real that is belied at every moment by your own accounts. Where, precisely, does the “energy” which supposedly inheres in Nabokov’s and Amis’s novels come from, if not from the relevance of victimization, sexuality, and transgression to actual life? I completely agree that we do not need to interpret Amis or Nabokov as being actual pedophiles, nor will we as individuals come to find pedophilia lurking deep within our hearts. The point is that pedophilia has something to do with the way our society currently operates, and that is worth considering.

You’re right: Nabokov’s skill at characterization is what makes us interested in Humbert’s psychology and ethics. The fact that flatly written characters do not possess verisimilitude is an argument against bad writing, not an argument against a certain way of reading Lolita.

***

Let me begin in addressing your second comment with a request from one reader to another: let’s bear in mind the medium we’re working with. I’m a full-time graduate student, and you’re undoubtedly busy with projects of your own, and the demand for ever more textual evidence resembles the demand that an author refrain from commenting on Derrida until she has read all 143 of his books. I think you’re right that some textual support should be adduced for my claims about Speak, Memory, but elsewhere the tenor of your requests for evidence makes me wonder whether such demands could be satisfied. I don’t think intellectual blogs should become superficial out of a fear of offering observations in a slightly bolder manner than is possible in academic journals. In fact, a superfluity of evidence tends to work against the entry being read at all.

Consider the aphorisms Nietzsche published in Human, All-Too-Human. They are hugely ambitious, and they rarely go beyond a couple of pages in length. Most are a few sentences or a paragraph long.

Responding to #1:

The question of which kinds of interrelation between characters are most significant is undecidable. The fact that the plot is driven forward by a particular circumstance in the novel makes that circumstance important, but it does not make it primary. Otherwise, just about every piece of description in every literary text would be reducible down to the door that opens, or the road that the characters drive. The fact that, in Invisible Man, there is an accident at the paint factory, is neither more nor less significant on a symbolic level than the process by which the paint is made.

Surely, we are all capable of comprehending relations between people (what I meant by “becoming Humbert") that have to do with other things than age or hair color. In this case, I was referring to Humbert’s obsessive jealousy, as is clear from the context. If characters actually possessed the kind of fixity on the page you describe, then children couldn’t be influenced by their parents either, since they would be physically incapable of transforming into people thirty years older...with children, no less.

Response to #2:

If you prefer the term “sniffy” to “vicious,” you’re welcome to it—both terms are more or less adequate to describing Nabokov’s sarcastic and pithy manner.

I wouldn’t bother looking for a window into my soul: that’s exactly the kind of mind-reading that makes both of us uncomfortable. It’s true that my essay betrays a certain impatience with Nabokov’s love of judgements delivered in a summary fashion. Even when Nabokov describes himself in terms of disability, as with his synaesthetically determined hatred of music, the reference which follows to his extraordinary visual sensitivity makes it perfectly obvious that he thought of himself as exceptional, permanently so.

Your response, on the other hand, demonstrates that you are in sympathy with Nabokov’s elitism. You suspect modesty of falsehood and egalitarianism of hypocrisy. You praise Nabokov’s confidence and strength of mind. Still, keep in mind that Nabokov was not merely disinclined towards Freud. Nabokov thought Freud was an idiot. For me, on the other hand, there is no meaningful difference of quality between Freud, Nabokov, and Dostoevsky. I do not subscribe to a belief in the solitary victor, though I am an American, and hardly see how you can assume falsity into all expressions of American egalitarianism.

The term “elitist” brings to the analysis of art an understanding of a value system based on strict hierarchies, emotional states like condescension, and events like the discovery of hubris. A novel like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where elitism shows up less and in very different contexts, produces very different conflicts and epiphanies.

Response to #5:

Frankly, Steven, I am surprised that you would even ask where the Text Courts and the Text Prisons are, when it is glaringly obvious that such things exist wherever information is censored. Censorship always extends to works of the imagination.

Of course, it is tempting to respond that this is precisely why the cozy theory of textual amorality is so necessary—to prevent a discussion of a text’s moral worth that leads to censorship. In actuality, what you are here calling “amorality” is really the absence of any relation between the image-world of fiction and the world of real experience, an absence which would make interpretation completely impossible, since the world of the imagination would have to exist a priori.

Questioning the subjective distinction between fiction and reality is not a sophistic gesture of banishing reality; it is as simple as pointing out that seeing a death is very painful, and seeing a death in a movie is also very painful. For example, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. uses familiar narrative conventions to tell a story about one person’s experience of the Nazi period in a way potentially much more affecting than the equally real moment of confronting a number representing those killed.

My other problem with the way you are responding to my argument is that you tend to subtract beauty from my calculus. I have no problem with Degas; I do not consider art about beauty “unserious” or “amoral” or etc. I just consider it related to the search for beauty in real life.

A rhetorical note: To compare critiques of conservative notions of “reality” to knocking the chess pieces off a board makes the grasp on reality a kind of game, and this is an unwitting cynicism much more nihilistic than thinking of literature as a way of thinking through real problems.

To be honest, the response to #6 is already there in the original essay. If what is there doesn’t satisfy you, I do hope to post again on Nabokov in the future, and perhaps there you will find the close readings you’re looking for.

Response to #7:

Actually, Humbert’s language is constantly polemical, even if he tends to substitute patronizing dismissal for proselytizing enthusiasm. To take just one solitary moment, Humbert writes of “the cubistic trash that accomplished misses then painted instead of lilacs and lambs.” Call this sort of thing affectionate disdain if that oxymoron pleases you; I find that disdain makes affection seem rather cold.

Response to #8:

This is one place where I question how much reflection and good faith is at work. While you are free to claim that novels like Pale Fire echo Charlotte as much as Humbert, there you will be arguing against the grain, with the burden of proof falling on you. The truism that every character in the novel is a fictional creation of Nabokov’s does not explain Humbert’s centrality.

Response to #9:

First of all, the definition of myth is certainly broad enough to include “a widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth” (OED). It’s true that my way of making this point assumes a certain familiarity with Marxist theories of commodity exchange, the abstracting properties of capital, and the general use of pleasure as a justification for art. That said, the thinking is straightforward enough. I would be happy to explain it in more detail if I had a better sense of why it isn’t clicking for you.

My problem with the notion of the “love affair with language” has to do with its exclusivity: that it can only be the record of this love affair with the play of words. Your attempt to caricature my point as the reduction of the novel to a set of moral strictures misses the real point of my essay. My real point was not to enforce this or that moral judgement (though I do make gestures towards possibilities of compassion and right disclosed by the novel), but rather to claim that the novel is a satire of a certain aestheticist take on the incommensurability of beauty and dream with the ethical or the real.

***

“In truth, we have no gift to set a statesman right.” But in dreams begin responsibilities.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/11/07 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph! I thoroughly appreciate the detailed response. Rather than risk the patience of the readers of this comment section, I’ll respond to your response privately...I still believe you aren’t addressing the double crux of my double argument (A. the impossibility of finding real as opposed to illusionary points of correspondence between fiction and lived life; B. the reductiveness of using Lolita as a cautionary tale...on a par with using a Saab as a nutcracker). In closing: I like the linking of the two Hums at the end of your very interesting comment!

By Steven Augustine on 01/12/07 at 03:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven, I think I speak for a number of readers of this thread when I say: don’t hold back on our account!  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the biggest risk to my patience at this point would be for you to leave (while still getting in a last word, of course) without defending or explaining your earlier comments.  I’ve seen the following scenario way too many times:

—Party A leaves one or more comments that are haughty, dismissive, and/or sarcastic;
—Party B leaves a long, thoughtful, and thorough response;
—Party A, suddenly all smiles, says “Nice comment!” and leaves it at that, as if they were a neutral observer of the thread rather than an active participant.

So I hope that’s not what we’re going to see here.  You are, in poker terms, pot-committed at this point: the fervor of your earlier comments makes absurd the idea of not wanting to be a bother now.  Unless you were merely testing Kugelmass all this time ("You have left an interesting comment and are ready to leave the temple!"), you owe us more than “I thoroughly appreciate…”

By tomemos on 01/12/07 at 01:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos:

I can’t help being of the opinion that my points are already well-presented (just as Joseph feels his are), and I reiterate at the risk of diluting/diffusing. Having said that…

(But...wait. Before this goes any further: my comments HAVE in fact been offered in a playful manner...everything from the ‘nonoverlapping majesteria’ riff to the cartoon reference to the Woody Allen reference to the ‘text-based electric chair’ and ‘Herr Kugelmass’ bits were, I assumed, pretty obviously playful. Not that I’m pleading unseriousness; just that I’d hoped to keep the exchange from seeming in any way caustic. Yes?)

I’m not pushing for anyone to agree with my main arguments, but I’d like to think that someone actually gets what they are. Surely my notion of nonoverlapping descriptor sets can’t be too esoteric to express in *this* forum?

Is it not self-evident that ‘moral’ descriptions can’t properly apply to non-living, not-even-material, objects of the imagination (i.e. fictional characters)...just as you can’t accurately describe a boulder as vengeful or greedy, say, you can’t describe Humbert as ‘immoral’ or accuse him of having committed a ‘crime’. Humbert can’t even be said to have behavioral characteristics; even if I bizarrely treat ‘him’ as a material object, his utter lack of free-will and total lack of decision-making capabilities are unassailable alibis: he can do no wrong; he can ‘do’ nothing. Therein lies the crux of the amorality-of-text position, which is exactly why it’s okay to write about all manner of things it would be ‘wrong’ to do...which is, by extention, the heart of the writer’s license to imagine/write freely. It’s an all-important distinction; without it, writers are soon to be denounced as ‘decadent’ and sent to reeducation camps in order to learn the ‘moral’ art of ‘Social Realism’. Either that, or a religious variation on same.

Habituated as we are to the illusion of printed fiction creating a scale model version of the outer world our senses perceive (and in turn incorporate into printed fiction), these models only ‘exist’ as objects of the imagination. We can externalize these objects of the imagination by transcribing them and mimicking or performing the transcription (plays, movies, musical scores, and so on) but there’s always a distance involved....a translation from the non-human, unreal to ‘our’ side of the gulf.

The object of the imagination called Humbert Humbert was mimicked and performed so pleasantly by James Mason that it’s even more tempting to ascribe passions, motives, misdeeds, etc., to ‘him’ than it was when ‘he’ was only recorded on the page. Still, no living, breathing Humbert Humbert has ever or can ever exist; his definition (’character in a book’) contradicts the possibility. (As to his ‘centrality’ to Nabokov: surely Lolita’s incidental fame is the root of that misapprehension. A different era/public/kismet and Pnin or Sebastian Knight...and so on...would be the subject of tonight’s celebrity roast).

Can we accept a hierarchy that might go (from the top down): Humans, animals, mono-cellular life, inanimate objects and objects of the imagination...with humans being the most appropriate to describe in moral terms and objects of the imagination being the least (with ‘least’ meaning ‘not at all’)? If not, why not? The burden of proof is on the counter-intuitive claim here.

It’s a difficult illusion to shake, I’m sure. But the truth remains: fictional characters aren’t real. Being unreal, two or more fictional characters can’t be said to interact. Therefore, one fictional character can’t *actually* commit a crime (or a moral offense)against another.

Part Two of my objection to Joseph’s essay centers around my exasperation with the (fittingly) Kafkaesque, seemingly never-ending tribunals of theory that authors, living and dead (more popularly dead) must endure being hauled in front of to be ‘interrogated’ (apt) about their ‘real’ (as opposed to their stated) intentions in producing the work which the tribunal seeks to deny them any (significant) authority over.

When Joseph K. refers to Nabokov’s quote (the quote to the effect that Lolita is about the author’s love affair with the English language) as a ‘myth’, it strikes me as rather presumptuous on Joseph’s part. Not to mention self-defeating, since any system of thought that render’s Nabokov’s published remarks on the matter a ‘myth’ (by *default*?) renders Joseph, in bothering to publish remarks on the remarks, equally mythomanic. Or does Joseph enjoy a special dispensation? (Something like: ‘Nabokov is hiding an unflattering personal motive; disbelieve him. But Joseph is not; believe *him*.’)

Finally (to again reiterate earlier comments of mine), I find it both troubling and naive that Nabokov should be accused of being a pedophile in an early comment in agreement with the gist of Joseph’s essay. Having no proof that Nabokov was *not* a despoiler of children in thought or deed, I’m not here to argue his innocence, I’m here to argue that inadmissability of his text as evidence. I have yet to see the ‘prosecution’ present anything other than impressionistic (mind-reading) evidence to the contrary; nor evidence in support of the assertion that the fictional Humbert Humbert is somehow useful in the *moral instruction* of his auditors.

Even if a ‘lesson’ along the lines of, ‘Never emigrate to 1940’s-era America from central Europe and contrive to find lodgings in a laughably middle-brow household boasting a pre-pubescent nymph so bewitching you take the added step of marrying her loathsome mother to assure continued contact with said nymph, for, if so, the mother may well die in a freak car accident, the nymph in your sole care as a result may attract the attention of your ever-so-maddeningly superior semi-Doppelgaenger, whom you may end up shooting with a pistol you’ve nicknamed *chum*,’...can be derived…

...I’m sure psychologists working with various penal institutions have more efficient methods for addressing your possible weakness in that direction.

Meanwhile, and *finally*, Lolita can be enjoyed most robustly (and innocently, even) as a fine example of (intentionally layered)literary art. And little else of consequence. Which is not to say that a living can’t be milked from fucking with it.

This is all merely *my opinion*, of course. The definitive version.

By Steven Augustine on 01/12/07 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the interest of being thorough, I have to risk the ‘crime’ of inelegance and tack this on:

Joseph, when you responded to point 5 of my argument, you demonstrated the extent to which, either A) I didn’t make myself clear, or B) you failed to read me closely. You wrote:

“Response to #5:

Frankly, Steven, I am surprised that you would even ask where the Text Courts and the Text Prisons are, when it is glaringly obvious that such things exist wherever information is censored. Censorship always extends to works of the imagination.”

But I stressed that the type of ‘crime’ I was arguing against the possibility of *isn’t* text-vs-human sensibility (censorship issue), but fictional character vs fictional character. I’m sure it’s there in my original comment (under point 5 of the longer response). I wrote:

“In what way can a textual construct (existing only as an image in the reader’s mind, conjured by markings on paper or screen) commit a ‘crime’? Who would this ‘crime’ be perpetrated against, if not another non-existent text-generated image? Are there civil laws governing such interactions ****(not between reader and text but between text construct and text construct)?*** If so, what are the penalties? Where is the Text Court…the Text Prisons?. Is there a Text-based Electric Chair for fictional murderers?

(key phrase marked with asterisks)

Further, Joseph, you argued:

“Questioning the subjective distinction between fiction and reality is not a sophistic gesture of banishing reality; it is as simple as pointing out that seeing a death is very painful, and seeing a death in a movie is also very painful.”

Which statement pointedly elides the important distinction between a human capacity to be affected emotionally and/or intellectually by a fiction (or a text or performance of any kind, fact-based or not)...and the possibility of a work of fiction sharing such qualities of actual existence that a character within it can be said to think, feel or truly act. Vast vast difference. Key to my argument.

There is no effective rebuttal to common sense distinctions between ‘real life’ and ‘fiction’ implicit in your example. Fiction obviously evokes (operative word) ‘real life’ rather effortlessly...which is my argument for why it seems so difficult to get the point across that the two states are easily and irrefutably distinguishable. Fiction evokes real life (strongly or weakly)without reproducing or otherwise embodying it.

I can write the sentence ‘the purple cat burst into flames’ thousands of times without causing such a thing to happen in actual Spacetime...if such a thing happens in a room where I’m typing this, we know it’s a coincidence (and that Carl Jung is on the premises). If I want a purple cat to burst into flames, I have to put a fire to one in real life...probably a crime. Writing the sentence is not a crime.

(Not yet).

What frustrated me (a little) in the beginning (and a lot, now) is the lack of close-reading at work here. If you can’t detect this in the example mentioned above (point 5 vs rebuttal 5), I’ve invested a fair amount of time typing all this for no known purpose.

By Steven Augustine on 01/12/07 at 07:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is it not self-evident that ‘moral’ descriptions can’t properly apply to non-living, not-even-material, objects of the imagination (i.e. fictional characters)...just as you can’t accurately describe a boulder as vengeful or greedy, say, you can’t describe Humbert as ‘immoral’ or accuse him of having committed a ‘crime’.

Somewhere on this blog I wrote a handful of posts about literary characters, to the point that it’s a mistake to treat them as though they were people, except living in a virtual world rather than a real one. That being the case it’s a mistake to analyze and judge their actions in the same terms we use for those of real people. I was more interested in psychological talk than moral talk, but the points seem similar. Perhaps you’re gnawing the other end of the same bone.

By Bill Benzon on 01/12/07 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Somewhere on this blog I wrote a handful of posts about literary characters, to the point that it’s a mistake to treat them as though they were people, except living in a virtual world rather than a real one. That being the case it’s a mistake to analyze and judge their actions in the same terms we use for those of real people. I was more interested in psychological talk than moral talk, but the points seem similar. Perhaps you’re gnawing the other end of the same bone.”

Clearly, Bill! I’ve been too busy in this corner of the debate, when here at all, to read much else on the blog recently.

By Steven Augustine on 01/12/07 at 07:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven,

Just so that we’re clear on our points of agreement, let me hasten to say that I do think a common sense distinction should exist between fiction and real life. There are some critics who like to think about whether fictional couples (like Bloom and Molly or Elizabeth and Darcy) live happily ever after; this holds no interest for me, since the characters never lived at all. Likewise, Harold Bloom is fond of implying that characters like Falstaff somehow “exceed” their creators, which is a logical impossibility.

You write that “there’s always a distance involved....a translation from the non-human, unreal to ‘our’ side of the gulf.” I agree, and I also want to highlight your reference to “a human capacity to be affected emotionally and/or intellectually by a fiction.” That is all I’m arguing for here: that works of fiction do “work” in the real world by affecting real human beings emotionally and intellectually.

The kind of effect that fictions (not only prose, of course, but art of all kinds) have on their audiences is, in my view, largely determined by the interpretive method of the audience. In my original post, I argued that an exclusionary paradigm of ineffable pleasure is not a very profound or attentive way of responding to art. Pleasure matters, to be sure—one of my favorite treatments of this subject is the film Sullivan’s Travels, about the value of comedy over and above laborious “message” dramas. But there is no reason to make it the only means of access to art.

In a recent discussion with Bill Benzon that forked off to become his new essay on “Rainbow Aesthetics,” he brought up oral traditions, one form of culture that brims over with what we would now probably call fictions, but which also has a recognized role in the creation and maintenance of human societies.

A quote from Claude Levi-Strauss seems to apply here:

Turning back to the Oedipus myth, we may now see what it means. The myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that mankind is autochthonous, to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman. Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool...

...for living with that problem (from Structural Anthropology, “The Structural Study of Myth"). Levi-Strauss’s concept of myth (NB: you must hold this usage apart from my earlier usage of the term), as a way of “thinking through” apparent contradictions resulting from new experiences, may help explain the kind of “effects” I think artworks can produce when they are understood to be more than entertainment.

That is, I believe, the best response I can give to the substantial portion of your argument.

My concern about “descriptor sets” has nothing to with esotericism; it has to do with metaphors that create inaccurate a priori assumptions about how we use language.

I do not ascribe thoughts and feelings to books or to boulders. I do ascribe intellectual, emotional, and ethical relevance to the kinds of interactions human beings have with art. If that interaction is always, inescapably limited to frissons of pleasure, then the interaction is a shallow one.

There are civil laws governing the interactions between fictional characters in totalitarian countries. Such laws do not exist in the United States, but that is not because the interactions between fictional characters are irrelevant to real life. Rather, it’s because there was a centuries-long struggle to achieve the right to write and publish fictions that mattered. (As for what happens within fictions, I’m not even sure what you’re arguing. Certainly Raskolnikov faces some pretty tough penalties for his imaginary crime. So does Camus’s Stranger.)

My earlier comment already addresses both your insistence on essentializing every feature of Humbert’s appearance and circumstances, and your worry that the only way to avoid Stalinist re-education camps is to insist that art is nothing but an evening’s diversion.

The fact that Nabokov wrote Lolita does not make him (necessarily) the best judge of it. I am not evaluating his “real” intentions (except to hope playfully that he is toying with us in his moments of cynical aestheticism). I am evaluating the gap between what he says about his book, and what the book actually contains.

There is no reason to associate comments posted about my essay, with my own ideas or statements. I do not think Nabokov was a pedophile, in intention or in actuality.

Correcting misperceptions does not make one a mythomaniac, and writing about art does not equate to “milking” a good living.

Your comments refer frequently to prohibitive moralizing. That is an overly harsh way of looking at the matter. I wrote that one of Lolita‘s major themes is the desire for beauty...which of course means considering what beauty is, and why it escapes us. Novels are not policemen—very often, they are new ways of imagining old and valuable searches.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/12/07 at 10:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been following this exchange with some interest, and I have to say that Steven has prompted Joseph, at the very least, to write much more effectively and less archly in his comments than in most of his original posts.

That being said, I can’t see that there’s much dispute here: beyond the dispute of a man who likes chocolate ice-cream with his wife who prefers vanilla.

Neither Stephen nor Joseph are articulating anything essential in the nature of art or literature. They are merely stating their preference. To put it cartoonishly, Stephen is a formalist, as am I. Joseph isn’t. These are just two incommensurable tastes, not a disagreement about facts. When they do make statements of facts, these are completely impossible to deny, eg.:

“you can’t accurately describe a boulder as vengeful or greedy”

“works of fiction do “work” in the real world by affecting real human beings emotionally and intellectually.”

And sure enough, each party explicitly acknowledges his agreement with these trivialities. It is equally obvious that literary characters are not real humans, with real morality, and that literary characters function in certain contexts (for many people) as real humans, with real morality. Both Steven and Joseph, being smart young chaps, know this. So “Raskolnikov faces some pretty tough penalties for his imaginary crime” is just playing with words. Steven’s taste tends towards absolutising the (real) aesthetic at the expense of the (illusory) moral--Joseph is more moderate, responding to both. Neither is right, obviously. One might suggest a worldview (political, ethical) behind each--Joseph’s position is more common among lay readers of a liberal persuasion, for instance--but this doesn’t achieve much. Everything else is just rhetoric. Take this statement of Joseph’s:

“If that interaction is always, inescapably limited to frissons of pleasure, then the interaction is a shallow one.”

This is the criticism that non-formalists (call them realists, if you like, it doesn’t matter) have made of formalists throughout history. Norman Cantor, for instance, makes this criticism of Panofsky and his lot. Matthew Arnold makes it, etc. etc. But Joseph’s words are ultimately just a rhetorical statement of taste, using loaded, pejorative (but ultimately content-free) words such as ‘frissons’ and ‘shallow’.

Nobody would want to be called ‘shallow’, of course. Except Oscar Wilde, that arch formalist, who had the guts to wear the word like a badge. Schlegel wouldn’t have minded either on some levels--he called moderation the spirit of castrated intolerance. Steven’s ontological absolutism, meanwhile, which leads him to separate art and reality in a rigorous hierarchy, echoes Plato.

Both parties here have attempted to disguise their taste by appearing common-sensical and moderate. “Well, I’m not saying x...” But tastes aren’t moderate. My dislike of mushrooms is absolute, categorical. It would be no use if I said “Well, I’m not saying *all* mushrooms are *inherently* bad”, despite the fact that all mushrooms are inherently bad to my taste-buds. The point is is that Joseph and Steven, as both acknowledge, have really reached a clear impasse--the chocolate / vanilla boundary. Anything further (on this issue) is pure rhetoric.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/13/07 at 07:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You know, Conrad, on metafilter someone claimed that by changing the nurturance of certain mushrooms, they could be used to synthesize DMT, which, if you ate one of these, could then alter you so that you would only want to eat mushrooms in the future; and, let’s not forget, there’s a well-known book of recent years whose plot turns on what could be the protagonist’s self-synthesis of that very chemical and which you, through seltene Zustände des Bewußtseins, could then reassemble the shattered glass pane of said plot.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 01/13/07 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I come upon the rhetoric of reproof and constraint, and I think: hello again, Conrad!

Let’s leave aside legislative remarks about what and how much to say, and useless phrases like “smart young chaps.”

I want to examine how you, Conrad, have structured your comment. You are trying to make your argument rhetorically rather than logically. You make appeals to authority: Wilde, Schlegel, Plato. You use the language of personal admiration to justify these appeals, describing Wilde as though he was Winston Churchill. You sneak your Augustinian distinction between the real aesthetic and the illusory moral in via parentheses.

When you refer to the “other side” of the argument, you use more obscure writers like Cantor, who is a little less well-known than Plato, or you send Matthew Arnold off to sea in a little raft of “etc. etc.”

In some ways this echoes Steven’s attempt to re-frame pleasure so that it looks like something new: it’s robust, or it’s a rich little nugget. In any case, the word frisson is a rich little nuggest, full of robust content. The word shallow is, admittedly, loaded, but the argument was made at greater length in the original post.

In any case, like Rorty trying to persuade us that the Enlightenment is “exhausted,” the most committed rhetorician at the table is you.

If Plato really believed in the same distinctions as Steven, he wouldn’t have been so concerned to regulate the kinds of music allowed in his republic. Likewise, I hope your reading of Wilde is not lacking an irony capacious enough to read beyond the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, to the events of the novel itself, or to reconcile that preface with “The Happy Prince.” The meaning of something worn proudly as a badge is least obvious.

There is a confusion in your comment between different aesthetic systems (Augustine’s versus mine) and aesthetic judgements made from inside a system. Augustine and I have been arguing (in part) about what grounds exist for making aesthetic choices. This disagreement cannot be a matter of taste because it is about taste.

It is therefore not the same as the difference between chocolate and vanilla. One should also not overstate the excitement most people feel on hearing someone declare, loudly, without scruple of conscience, “I am a committed formalist!”

*

I do, however, want to thank you for characterizing the difference in positions taken here, because that might be useful to people following the thread. There is a distinction here between my somewhat Arnoldian, educative model, and “formalism” or textualism. Augustine’s example of the burning cat is a close paraphrase of a passage in de Man about the inability of a description of light to illuminate a room.

I agree with you that specific aesthetic judgements, such as one’s feelings about fungi of changed nurturance, should not be fettered by moderation. That point was one of my reasons for raising the subject in the first place. That is also quite different from taking a reasonable approach to the philosophical problem of aesthetics.

For those interested in the formalist/textualist position, let me recommend the new blog Oublié Sur La Carte. It is written by one of the smartest readers with whom I have had the pleasure of disagreeing.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/13/07 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jay Kay: I can understand how you might have reasonably taken my remarks in the spirit of legislation, but I can assure you they were not intended as prescriptive, rather descriptive.

My point was not structured as elegantly as it might have been. I wrote it in the early hours of the morning, fuddled with tiredness, though not, at least, on the way back from IHOP. Apologies therefore for any pointless references or stylistic faults, such as the “raft of etc. etc.”, as you delightfully put it.

Please don’t label my references--whether gratuitous or not--to Plato, Wilde, Schlegel, as ‘appeals to authority’. They are merely points of historical reference. I feel no personal affinity for the thought of any of these, nor was I really making any substantive point about them. Your observation about Plato is irrelevant, for the reasons we’ve been discussing--it is perfectly legitimate to hold a fundamental ontological distinction between art and reality--between the copy and the copy of the copy--and at the same time to admit the political dangers of art. These two beliefs are well represented by the two statements I quoted from you and Steven in my first response.

I didn’t sneak the real/illusory distinction in using brackets, I stated it baldly: “It is equally obvious that literary characters are not real humans, with real morality, and that literary characters function in certain contexts (for many people) as real humans, with real morality.”. If literary characters do not have real morality, then the apparent morality must be illusory--even if it is a good illusion. Steven said the same, and even you admitted as much, though you find it a ‘relevant’ illusion.

“Augustine and I have been arguing (in part) about what grounds exist for making aesthetic choices. This disagreement cannot be a matter of taste because it is about taste. “

As it stands, the latter statement seems palpably untrue. You’d have to flesh this out a bit. The problem is that despite your ‘argument’ about what grounds exist for making aesthetic choices, you two agree on the facts. When you say that you think that an aesthetic of pure pleasure should not be the only means of approaching art, this is an accurate description--many people approach art differently. But it has no weight as prescription ("should not be"). There is no reason for Augustine to agree.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/13/07 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad, you identify yourself as a formalist in your first comment, and give the formalistic thinkers you cite the benefit of your rhetoric. That is perhaps a damaging thing to do if you want to moderate, but we aren’t in need of additional moderators. It is, obviously, perfectly reasonable to put yourself forward as a formalist.

I better understand your reason for citing Plato. I think it’s interesting to note that, for Augustine, pleasure makes it across the ontological wall between fiction and reality, but nothing else.

Under Augustine’s system, the idea that a work of art could be applicable to one’s manner of interpreting and living life is, at best, an idiotic falsehood, and at worst a slippery slope leading to repression. That is why we disagree, and why our disagreement is more than a matter of preference. It’s not merely that Augustine prefers to confine the effects of art to pleasure; for him, other forms of consumption are actually illegitimate.

Pleasure is not something abstract, attainable in its pure state; it is woven into complexes of experiences, sensations, and thoughts. I see a certain version of formalism not as the realization of literary pleasures, but as their co-optation via reductive abstractions.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/13/07 at 11:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We’ve clashed on the subject of ‘reductive abstractions’ before, so I won’t resurrect that.

Note that while my personal feelings are more in tune with Augustine than yourself, I was not criticising you and praising him. To the extent that Augustine (if indeed it is his intention) “prefers to confine the effects of art to pleasure”, that’s fine as a descriptive statement but has no weight as prescription. To say that ‘other forms of consumption are actually illegitimate’ may be expressed in absolute terms, but it has weight only as a statement of taste or preference.

My point is that if person A says “Chocolate ice-cream is better than vanilla, and that’s a statement of absolute fact”, while person B says the same of vanilla, then the issue is still one of subjective taste, even if neither acknowledges it.

The further issue about censorship etc. is not one I’m particularly interested in, and I didn’t address it in my own comments. To the extent that you disagree about the political issues, the situation is more complex and there may be a more substantive point of contention.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/14/07 at 02:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, I had to remove myself from this ‘debate’ (is it, technically, a ‘debate’ when an argument devolves into simple gainsaying?) out of boredom: I’m not being arch but sincere. However, I see you’re making pretty wild claims about my position on all this, so, in the interest of self defense:

I only claim that A) Humbert Humbert (and by extension, any character in a novel), being unreal and therefore non-human, can’t be judged in ‘moral’ terms and that, B) using Lolita as a cautionary tale or ‘moral’ primer in some way is reductive; absurd, actually; based on its specificity as a work of Art (Nabokov’s prophylactic against such ham-handed hijackings).

Subordinate points of mine include my questioning of your arrogance in presuming to know Nabokov’s reasons (and pleasures) in writing Lolita better than he did (or claimed to); and your apparent unawareness of the fact that the methods by which you “interrogate” the text in turn interrogate the texts you generate about the texts you interrogate. In other words, unless you’ve somehow taken a vaccine against generating unstable texts, you’re hoist on your own petard.

I see all too clearly, now, your inclination towards ventriloquism; you did it with Vladimir Nabokov and now you do it with me. This is a bad habit in a scholar. Further, you’d do better to concentrate on the coherence of your claims rather than laying down a defensive carpet-bombing of often distracting or irrelevant quotations. There is sometimes the sense that you regurgitate, undigested, large chunks of the curriculum...I’d rather have these bits come at me in an assimilated form from time to time.

A final quibble: you wrote, earlier: “I wrote that one of Lolita‘s major themes is the desire for beauty...” but a closer reading of Lolita reveals a major theme more accurately as the desire for beauty’s *control.* Which desire also seems to drive your particular approach to Lolita. A neat little package, that.

By Steven Augustine on 01/14/07 at 04:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven: “I only claim that A) Humbert Humbert (and by extension, any character in a novel), being unreal and therefore non-human, can’t be judged in ‘moral’ terms and that, B) using Lolita as a cautionary tale or ‘moral’ primer in some way is reductive; absurd, actually; based on its specificity as a work of Art (Nabokov’s prophylactic against such ham-handed hijackings).”

So much for nearly all of human tale-telling.  And maneuver 1 for attempts to elevate Art as something above the mere telling of tales, something different.

That whole argument seems like straw to me.  Everyone agrees that fictional characters are unreal.  By asserting this over and over again, you’re pretending that your detractors are psychotic.  But people have been judging fictional characters in moral terms, and taking moral lessons from them, since the earliest literature that we have.  That isn’t the sole function of Art, but no one is arguing for that either.

AS for “arrogance in presuming to know Nabokov’s reasons (and pleasures) in writing Lolita better than he did (or claimed to)”, it’s commonly held that authorial interpretations are not necessarily authoritative.  If they were, each author would only have to write an approved explication of each work, and interpretation would be over forevermore.  So yes, Kugelmass can contradict Nabokov.  And in turn, others can contradict Kugelmass—it’s fully obvious that his interpretations are unstable.  You were on stronger ground when you questioned whether he had adequate evidence, textual support etc. for his claims, but now you’re back to equating any contradiction of authorial interpretation with arrogance and inability to understand what one is doing.  That’s been an (annoying) theme of your comments from the start.

As to Conrad, this isn’t just a disagreement about chocolate vs vanilla.  Joseph is asserting that art has the capability to take on certain social functions that Steven is denying; therefore, Joseph is expanding the universe of art, Steven is attempting to shrink it.

By on 01/14/07 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This whole thing has gone caustic, so I probably shouldn’t even try...but here goes: without weighing in at all about the merits of Steven’s and Conrad’s position (which I have strong, predictable feelings about), it is disingenuous in the extreme to say, as Conrad does, that an intellectual difference is a matter

To use an example that, in my mind, hardly exaggerates the level of rhetoric we’ve seen here, if a fervent practitioner of a religion tells me that my ways are evil and will send me to hell, I will probably (advisedly or not) take umbrage and be inclined to defend myself.  A third party who called this a difference in taste would be missing the point entirely; the zealot is obviously being prescriptive, even if he does not literally have the power to send me to hell.  And, in this example, if the third party said, “Hey, you prefer sin and evil, he prefers a righteous living; why are you getting bent out of shape?” I would find it hard to agree with his protestations of neutrality.

By tomemos on 01/14/07 at 11:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This whole thing has gone caustic, so I probably shouldn’t even try...but here goes: without weighing in at all about the merits of Steven’s and Conrad’s position (which I have strong, predictable feelings about), it is disingenuous in the extreme to say, as Conrad does, that a preference for one thing over another is the same as the preference for one thing to the absolute exclusion of another, or that saying “It’s absurd to like chocolate ice cream” is the same as any casual discussion of taste.

To use an example that, in my mind, hardly exaggerates the level of rhetoric we’ve seen here, if a fervent practitioner of a religion tells me that my ways are evil and will send me to hell, I will probably (advisedly or not) take umbrage and be inclined to defend myself.  A third party who called this a difference in taste would be missing the point entirely; the zealot is obviously being prescriptive, even if he does not literally have the power to send me to hell.  And, in this example, if the third party said, “Hey, you prefer sin and evil, he prefers a righteous living; why are you getting bent out of shape?” I would find it hard to agree with his protestations of neutrality.

By tomemos on 01/14/07 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos, in your example, you and the religious nutnut do not share the same axioms. You could not possibly agree with any of his rational arguments, because you’re with Jehovah (say), he’s with Allah. You like chocolate, he likes vanilla. You could reasonably get annoyed at his presumption to make prescriptive statements about you. He does not have the right (or more accurately, the ability) to prescribe your actions. This is because what separates you is a matter of ‘taste’--a funny word to use in the context of religion, admittedly, but not one in discussions of literature. If you would prefer to call it ‘gut values’, then this suits me fine. The key point is that the issue relies on irreconcilable assumptions about--in this case--"What art is”.

As I said before, I don’t think Steven is any more right than Joseph. I just happen to share his tastes, which is pretty irrelevant. To the extent that Steven tries to prescribe Joseph’s belief (on this issue), I don’t think his argument has any force.

But saying that art should be appreciated morally as well as aesthetically is no more reasonable than saying that art should be appreciated only aesthetically.

For what it’s worth, on another issue broached here, I think that a good rational argument can be made (and of course was made by Wimsatt/Beardsley) that an author has no privilege of interpretation over his own work. This is, in fact, integral to any position of committed formalism.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/14/07 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad: “But saying that art should be appreciated morally as well as aesthetically is no more reasonable than saying that art should be appreciated only aesthetically.”

But literary critics should be able to have a full range of appreciations of art, shouldn’t they?  If someone wants to argue that they don’t want to read _Lolita_ morally because they don’t like that kind of reading, fine—although Steven’s assertion was much more proscriptive.  But to be unable to make this kind of reading means that you’re unable to understand a good deal of literary criticism.  It’s like being an art critic who just doesn’t get abstract art.

By on 01/14/07 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: 

1. “Everyone agrees that fictional characters are unreal.”

Obviously. The disagreement is over what ‘unreal’ means; what the ‘unreal’ can or cannot do; the extent to which elements within a system comprised of or describing the ‘unreal’ can be said to interact and so forth. If you think the matter is a foregone conclusion (or that a sentence framing the issue is a straightforward declaration of givens), you haven’t done much thinking on the matter.

2. “AS for ‘arrogance in presuming to know Nabokov’s reasons (and pleasures) in writing Lolita better than he did (or claimed to)’, it’s commonly held that authorial interpretations are not necessarily authoritative.”

The operative word in my statement is *presuming*. This means that in the absence of even the slightest amount of evidence (textual or otherwise)that Nabokov’s stated ‘explanation’ for Lolita is in conflict with itself, Joseph bases his argument on the apparent presumption that Nabokov’s statement is ‘wrong’ by default. *That* is what I take exception to; I take exception to the position when I find it delivered in the guise of a formal statement in a ‘published’ essay more stridently than if it were to make a casual appearance in an email. Why? Because I expect the writer to work out the elements of his position before staking claims against a well-known work (and its author) in public. Why is ‘well-known’ a qualifier here? Because there will be many ‘out there’ who know better. The failure to take care in this sense bespeaks unseriousness (which itself bespeaks complacency-a symptom of Blogitis, possibly).

Tomemos:

If someone can produce a quotation from me to the effect that I think fiction can *only* be ‘used’ towards aesthetic ends, I’d like to see it. I have, on the other hand, repeatedly stated that using Lolita as a ‘moral’ primer would be reductive or even absurd (I earlier compared this prescription to using a Saab as a nutcracker). Hardly a commensurate position and far from an absolutist stance. The ‘absurd’ is obviously a common occurrence.

Rich:

“So much for nearly all of human tale-telling.  And maneuver 1 for attempts to elevate Art as something above the mere telling of tales, something different.”

When you can come up with methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence between the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’; a drunk’s rambling account of a bar fight; Jackie Suzanne’s ‘The Valley of the Dolls’ and ‘Ulysses’ by Mr. Joyce, for example, I’ll consider this remark as something more substantial than a clue to your personal relationship with the concepts ‘Art’, ‘Talent’, ‘Authority’,’Celebrity’, etc.

Further, I take exception to Joseph’s apparent suggestion that ‘pleasure’ in Art cannot encompass manifold approaches to it, or that ‘pleasure’ and *depth of analysis* are mutually exclusive goals or experiences. In holding the private pleasures of reading as the most productive approach to Lolita, I merely mean to reject as invalid (and suspect)a ‘scientific’ or ‘systemitized’ or ‘standardized’ approach; *I reject these standardizing methods as applied to the idiosyncratic interior human spaces in which ‘fiction’ is actuated...I reject them as ‘mythic’ themselves.* This is not a cornerstone of either of my main positions on this comment thread; this is my personal opinion about the value of ‘pleasure’ in Art and my rejection of Joseph’s (ironically) reductive view of it.

I’m not here to champion Nabokov, or ‘rescue’ him from whatever depradations his works are vulnerable to as widely available objects: I merely believe that the particularity of Lolita(and Art in general) makes it less useful as ‘moral’ prescription/description than, say, a book of collected Dear Abby columns would be. There’s always, of course, Aesop’s Fables, The Bible, The Torah, and so on.

There’s a good reason that parables, fables and folk-tales of yore are broad-stroked in details of setting, and plain in style: they’re *designed* to deliver a ‘moral’. Does Edith Wharton present an actual ‘moral’ in House of Mirth (as opposed to structuring it with the classical mechanics of a tragedy), or does she present a portrait of richer ambiguities than a simplistic reading yields? Ambiguity is the cornerstone of Art; ambiguity tends to dilute the (Western) tradition of the instructive fable.

Lolita was *designed* to be a work of literary fiction, though you may certainly use it as a moral guide, a tool of divination, a coded map of the Reformation (before anyone takes the trouble to come down on this: *joke*), or simple pornography if you are so inclined. It’s a free country, as they say. You’re also quite free to use a butter knife as a screw-driver. Go for it.

Disagree with me all you will; I don’t care; I’m not a politician seeking votes. My only concern is that you read what I’ve actually written on the matter (word by word, if you mean to argue a point seriously) and quote me accurately: pay attention to the details of the text.

That’s all I ask here: *pay attention to the details of the text* (and I mean that in the larger sense, as well). Flatter us all with a little effort.

By Steven Augustine on 01/14/07 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that’s true at all. Steven (I presume) is perfectly well able to understand Joseph’s criticism, just as I might understand the writings of a Muslim.

Many good art critics have very decided--even prescriptive--opinions about what art is, Clement Greenberg being a good example, or John Ruskin. Ruskin’s “inability” to appreciate Whistler’s Nocturne does not make him a bad or imperceptive critic, even if you like Whistler. To make this more personal, if a teacher of mine told me to write an essay about the morality of Lolita, I would be very hard-pressed to do so. I probably could do it, but it would be an exercise I couldn’t get interested in. I don’t think this limits my ability to say interesting things about the formal aspects of Lolita, and therefore to be a good critic. The opposite case would be equally true.

Objectivity is not (for me) an ideal of criticism.

I realise my overall point might sound banal to some, but I think in the case of Joe vs. Steve that irreconcilable issues of ‘taste’ are more at work than was readily apparent.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/15/07 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven: “I’m not here to champion Nabokov, or ‘rescue’ him from whatever depradations his works are vulnerable to as widely available objects: I merely believe that the particularity of Lolita(and Art in general) makes it less useful as ‘moral’ prescription/description than, say, a book of collected Dear Abby columns would be. There’s always, of course, Aesop’s Fables, The Bible, The Torah, and so on.”

Steven, your insistence that this particularly makes Art less useful for moral readings makes you a bad reader.  You write banalities like “Lolita was *designed* to be a work of literary fiction”, as if this is incompatible with a moral reading, as if more subtle, more particularized artworks do not allow more interesting moral readings as well as more interesting formal ones. 

This inability to get it is also seen in the self-contradictions in what you write.  Take, for instance, “When you can come up with methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence between the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’; a drunk’s rambling account of a bar fight; Jackie Suzanne’s ‘The Valley of the Dolls’ and ‘Ulysses’ by Mr. Joyce, for example, I’ll consider this remark as something more substantial [...]” Why should I come up with such a methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence?  I don’t think that any such one-to-one correspondence exists.  I could well quote back to you “I merely mean to reject as invalid (and suspect)a ‘scientific’ or ‘systemitized’ or ‘standardized’ approach”—one which, by the way, I’ve seen no sign that Joseph is appealing to.

In a very limited sense Conrad is right that this is a conflict of taste.  It’s a conflict between someone who is sure that Art is Art (and yes, the stylistic reference to Objectivism is intended) and those who think that appreciations of art are necessarily plural, that appreciating _Lolita_ morally does not mean that a Dear Abby column would be more useful to you, or that you are missing its qualities as a work of art.  When you have to reach into the rhetoric bag for Dear Abby, and Conrad has to reach for the “writings of a Muslim” (note: *all* writings by *all* religious Muslims presumably have this oriental taint that makes them understandable but not appreciable), then it’s clear that it’s a matter of bad taste prescribing how people should read, as bad taste always does.

By on 01/15/07 at 08:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich:

“Why should I come up with such a methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence?  I don’t think that any such one-to-one correspondence exists.”

So you admit, then, that your sentence, “So much for nearly all of human tale-telling,” was an empty rhetorical tactic. Blah blah blah.

But:

Alright, Rich...I’m game. Go on, then...I’m clearly hampered by my inability to interpret texts with any subtlety...give us a taste. Show us how it’s done. Just a few paragraphs (from you or anyone) of a text-specific ‘moral reading’ of Lolita. Something that isn’t either thuddingly trite or evasively obscure...something...you know...*useful*. I could use a well-crafted moral infusion after a long, elitist day of Art for Art’s sake…

Let me know when you come up with something. Take as long as you need to. No hurry.

By Steven Augustine on 01/15/07 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven, I have nothing to prove to you.  You’re apparently incapable of distinguishing between a claim that high Art exists in relation to a tradition of human tale-telling (and, implicitly, that the binary that you’re setting up between the two is nowhere near as clear as you’d like to make it), and a claim that there must be a methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence between one and the other.  Your confusion only shows that you’ve missed the point.

If you want something by a serious Nabokov scholar, Brian Boyd is being discussed on the Valve at the moment.  You might want to read some of his bioculture material; perhaps that would lead you to an understanding of why wanting to read Nabokov as you do misses a large part of the text.

By on 01/15/07 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Could’ve said ‘Christian’. Really, could’ve.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/15/07 at 06:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Conrad, I was too peevish about your Muslim comment; hard for me to avoid that in this thread.  But really, ‘Christian’ would be even worse, from a viewpoint of appreciation of art.  I’m generally opposed to Christianity, but without appreciation of Christian themes, a good deal of the art of our culture is going to be closed off to you.  You’re no more going to be able to read Milton without a feel for Christianity than you’re going to be able to read _Lolita_ while imagining that the characters’ fictionality makes what Humbert is doing devoid of moral tension.  Whatever the formal qualities of the work, it removes the central engine.

By on 01/15/07 at 10:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is an obvious point, Rich. But to the true formalist, it would be just as interesting to read PL without any knowledge of Christianity--which incidentally, despite my atheism, I do have. It would take an imaginative formalist to interpret PL without any resort to Christianity, admittedly. But hey, the formalist likes imagination! I’d definitely read a book that attempted this.

One assumption behind this last statement is that if criticism rests solely on appreciation of as many original elements as possible, it becomes parasitic and merely explanatory. Criticism is much more appealing to me as an independent form of art. If Georges Perec can write a novel without using the letter e, then why can’t I write a critical account of Paradise Lost without discussing Christianity?

It should be perfectly clear that I understand that one of the elements in Lolita, as in most novels, is a moral tension, without being particularly interested in that element. The moral tension and the formal aspects are of course interrelated, but still discrete. This is why a physicist can talk about atoms and molecules without recourse to discussions of will and morality, and likewise the jurist and historian can talk about will and morality without reference to atoms and molecules. By this analogy, Stephen is a physicist, like me; Joseph is a historian.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/15/07 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks to tomemos and Rich for restoring a multiplicity of voices to this discussion, and for the intelligence of their remarks.

Conrad, I’m largely in favor of the position you’re outlining in this latest comment. Critics do take differing approaches to the same works of art, based on their own preferences and backgrounds, and it’s actually because of those differences that good books can be richly explained in all their facets. A formalist approach can reveal elements of Lolita that a reading focused on history or ethics would overlook.

There is a difference between the metaphor of two flavors of ice cream, which suggests differences of no interest, and the perspectival divides between intellectual disciplines, where in each case the scholars involved make a contribution to knowledge.

Naturally, a good historian is not working in opposition to science; she is just working alongside of it, with reference where reference is necessary (one has to understand some basic biology in order to write the history of a time affected by plague). Thus, it doesn’t make sense to have a deliberately exclusionary critical approach. A reading of Paradise Lost that actually ignores Milton’s use of the Christian mythos would probably end up distorting the text, whereas a reading that simply assumes it as a background is free to focus on a particular image or cadence that may not be traditionally Christian.

A single line or moment from a novel may be enough to inspire a whole other thought or artwork; this is a common and valuable process. It happens not to be criticism; if it shouldn’t be classified as “art,” then it is a kind of personal improvisation. Criticism is both ex post facto and explanatory, but it also reveals its author, because it never can encompass every word, every scene, every possible over-determination, every detail of form.

Having a general feel for Milton’s Christianity is not the same as paying it most attention in one’s reading; moreover, Christianity is itself a text. Approaching it through Milton, one finds here too countless exits and entrances, revisions and interpretations, and the possibility of truth in analysis despite the impossibility of the closure or completion, by analysis, of its object.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/16/07 at 01:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joe, this is a reasonable position, it’s just not mine.

“A reading of Paradise Lost that actually ignores Milton’s use of the Christian mythos would probably end up distorting the text”

Yes, and?

“It happens not to be criticism; if it shouldn’t be classified as “art,” then it is a kind of personal improvisation.”

I think this is the sort of limiting situation when conventional labels like ‘art’ and ‘criticism’ just aren’t very interesting or useful.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/16/07 at 02:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that Joseph’s last comment was wonderfully free of gratuitous citation.

The bad news: it turns out that in debating a point or two on The Valve, one runs the same basic risk as doing so anywhere else on the Internet, despite The Valve’s deservedly high reputation. The tendency to assert or defend one’s *self * in battle, as opposed to asserting or defending one’s position in a *debate*, is very much of the culture of the Internet, which is, of course (as any other gathering of large numbers of humans can be expected to be), Tribal in disposition.

Not that I (or anyone) can or should expect such a debate to be ‘untainted’ by human personality; I prefer some wit...a little panache...in the exchange. We’re not mere data banks, and I have as little interest in reading a dry, rigidly decorous exchange as I would in participating in one. On the other hand, when the Tribal dynamic overwhelms the opportunity for ideas to filter through, interact and then evolve via conflict, we’ve missed an opportunity. The intellectual Ego does better when it isn’t being trampled (or conscripted) by the Id of the Tribe.

Having no knowledge of Joseph that I haven’t gathered casually either from this debate or by perusing one of his blogs, I’d hazard a thumbnail sketch that he’s a bright and charismatic guy in search of his niche. (Whosoever among us is *not* at the moment in search of her or his niche is at least in search of a replacement niche a little higher on the cliff face). Having some charisma means having ‘friends’, and I’m pretty sure I heard from a few of Joseph’s in the course of the ‘debate’. Fine: as I say, that’s only human.

The problem I have with Tribalism in a debate is the tendency of the ‘friends’ (or partisans) to enter the fray with no other mandate than to ‘defend’ their chum from the ‘interloper’ (that would be me). In other words, bringing no clear or even committed positions (beyond the gainsaying reflex) to the debate, degrading the proceedings to the level of Zero Sum skirmish.

I ‘complain’ about this tendency because fending off the defensive maneuvers of a claque, clique, cohort, klatsch or Tribe in a debate like this means, ultimately, either straying far off the original topic, or reiterating (exhaustively) one’s original positions; there’s no time left for actually developing those original positions in the open air of sincere debate while under crypto-ad hominem attack.

Why? Because the strategies and tactics of Tribal defense are far more focused on exploiting ‘openings’ or ‘weaknesses’ in the opposition’s front, to the extreme extent that if any aren’t present (or obvious), they will need to be manufactured: enter the *misquote* or *intentional misunderstanding* and the Straw Man Army it’s good for generating (more on that later). Further, in lieu of rhetorical successes against the Interloper, a subtle aura of ‘moral’ judgment will be seen to adhere to and then harden against the Interloper’s presentation. The first example of this would be:

To:  ‘Steven Augustine’

“My favorite ‘peculiarity’ about your rather beautifully self-indulgent comment is that you assume that ‘Joseph Kugelmass’ is a pseudonym.  You go to all the trouble of a ‘Top Ten Reasons I’m Laughing at You’ list and you can’t be bothered to follow one link?  Since you’re so concerned about the proper usage of terms and all…”

This comment came from ‘PetitPoussin’, provably (loosely) a ‘friend’ of Joseph’s, and addresses a very long, extremely detailed comment I made (the second of two in a row: the first was at 1-07-07, 6:42 am, and the second at 1-08-07, 10:53 am, if you want to search these). Petit’s comment cites the fact that I had erred (in the service of a joke at the end of the comment to keep the tenor of the comment light-hearted) in presuming Joseph’s name to be pseudonymous. Fair enough. Yet it isn’t difficult to note here that the tenor of Petit’s comment is ‘angry’ (if not self-righteous), while the ‘point’ she makes is gratuitous (considering the length and reasoned detail of the comment she was commenting on). Whether ‘Joseph Kugelmass’ is Joseph’s real name or not is demonstrably immaterial to the ‘debate’. Again: it’s a tactic of skirmish but not of debate. Meanwhile, the subtext is: Steven Augustine is bad! Joseph is an innocent victim of this Interloper’s attack! 

Which glosses over the fact that Joseph can’t publish a potentially ‘controversial’ essay on a Website that features a comment forum without expecting at least the possibility of a detractor. It hasn’t escaped me that the ‘accepted’ modus is to disagree in a ‘friendly’ fashion (which usually entails agreeing, largely, or at least the offering of a mollifying compliment along with the point of disagreement), but I find that politic approach cumbersome in most cases; it’s down to varieties in personality. I’m not the mollifying type, but I do tend to stick very closely to the intellectual terms of a debate...I ‘attack’ ideas, not the people behind them. True, I characterized Joseph’s essay as ‘unserious’ and ‘shoddy’, but I presented my reasons for this; this isn’t the playground, after all; no one will go running home in tears; as long as we stick to the points of the debate, things should be fine, more or less, with or without the application of nugatory emollients.

The other side of the Tribal Defense...the deliberate misquote or misunderstanding (and the generating of a Straw Man Army) is illustrated, for me, in one of the more puzzling passages in the history of this little skirmish.

I wrote (in a comment from 1-14-07, 4.39 a.m.-the earliness of the hour due to the fact that I write from Europe, by the way; I’m not an insomniac):

“I only claim that A) Humbert Humbert (and by extension, any character in a novel), being unreal and therefore non-human, can’t be judged in ‘moral’ terms and that, B) using Lolita as a cautionary tale or ‘moral’ primer in some way is reductive; absurd, actually; based on its specificity as a work of Art (Nabokov’s prophylactic against such ham-handed hijackings).”

The response from ‘Rich Puchalsky’ to this was:

“So much for nearly all of human tale-telling.  And maneuver 1 for attempts to elevate Art as something above the mere telling of tales, something different.”

In other words, the weight of story-telling history (from the dawn of human time) was against me on this. But only, of course, if ‘nearly’ all human story-telling is the same...the same subject matter, techniques, uses, and so forth.

Trying to fit ‘nearly all of human tale-telling’ under one umbrella in order to attack my claim for the sovereign specificity of a piece of literary art strikes me as a tad unserious and, of course, dramatically tactical: I wasn’t only ‘wrong’, I was so alone in my wrongness that it was on a scale calibrated to an entire planet, and something like 30,000 years of time!

My riposte to Rich and his hyperbole was:

“When you can come up with methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence between the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’; a drunk’s rambling account of a bar fight; Jackie Suzanne’s ‘The Valley of the Dolls’ and ‘Ulysses’ by Mr. Joyce, for example, I’ll consider this remark as something more substantial than a clue to your personal relationship with the concepts ‘Art’, ‘Talent’, ‘Authority’,’Celebrity’, etc.”

In other words, how do all of these narratives line up? What generalization (beyond that humans create and/or receive them) can possibly include all of them in the aid of making a distinction?

Rich’s response, based on either a deliberate or inadvertent misunderstanding (and generating some soldiers in his Straw Man Army in any case), was:

“This inability to get it is also seen in the self-contradictions in what you write.  Take, for instance, ‘When you can come up with methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence between the fairytale ‘Rapunzel’; a drunk’s rambling account of a bar fight; Jackie Suzanne’s ‘The Valley of the Dolls’ and ‘Ulysses’ by Mr. Joyce, for example, I’ll consider this remark as something more substantial [...]’ Why should I come up with such a methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence?  I don’t think that any such one-to-one correspondence exists.  I could well quote back to you “I merely mean to reject as invalid (and suspect)a ‘scientific’ or ‘systemitized’ or ‘standardized’ approach”—one which, by the way, I’ve seen no sign that Joseph is appealing to.”

Rich later re-appropriates my trope, ‘methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence’, in a new form: 

“You’re apparently incapable of distinguishing between a claim that high Art exists in relation to a tradition of human tale-telling (and, implicitly, that the binary that you’re setting up between the two is nowhere near as clear as you’d like to make it), and a claim that there must be a methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence between one and the other.  Your confusion only shows that you’ve missed the point.”

Certainly, anyone who has made a case that a ‘methodologically sound, one-to-one correspondence’ should be sought in the various ways Rich presents would be on shakey ground. The important point being that *I personally never made such claims.*

A virtual me was conjured by Rich to fight the Straw Man Army his misreadings generated.

Not happy to merely make me ‘wrong’ against my will, Rich also invokes the emotional language of denigration, which shades very close to the ‘moral’ with its constant use of the all-purpose pejorative ‘bad’ (not, weak; poor; sloppy; slipshod; unserious; uninformed; etc., but *bad*). He writes:

1. Steven, your insistence that this particularly makes Art less useful for moral readings makes you a bad reader.
2. When you have to reach into the rhetoric bag for Dear Abby...then it’s clear that it’s a matter of bad taste prescribing how people should read, as bad taste always does.
3. You’re apparently incapable of distinguishing between a claim that high Art exists in relation to a tradition of human tale-telling...(cited above)
4. Your confusion only shows that you’ve missed the point.

And so forth.

The end result being that my reasonably well-argued points were lost in the emotional Tribal stampede to defend Joseph from the Interloper’s incursion. In the process I was painted as an Art for Art’s sake ‘Absolutist’ who means to forbid a ‘moral’ reading of the novel Lolita. I challenged my prosecutors to come up with an actual quotation from me to substantiate the charge of Absolutism but got no response on. Why? Responding to that would have been outside the prescriptions of the tactical handbook.

Wrapping my participation in this wild skirmish up, I wrote, (facetiously, but with a real point in mind):

“Alright, Rich...I’m game. Go on, then...I’m clearly hampered by my inability to interpret texts with any subtlety...give us a taste. Show us how it’s done. Just a few paragraphs (from you or anyone) of a text-specific ‘moral reading’ of Lolita. Something that isn’t either thuddingly trite or evasively obscure...something...you know...*useful*. I could use a well-crafted moral infusion after a long, elitist day of Art for Art’s sake…
Let me know when you come up with something. Take as long as you need to. No hurry.”

In other words: if it’s your commited position that a ‘moral’ reading of Lolita can reap rewards beyond the obvious (world-view confirming subjectivities), give me a rough example of an approach. If I’m so wrong and you’re so right, the hypothetical disproportions of our relationship demands the tiniest bit of evidence to confirm this, no? An excerpted example of the type of reading of Lolita that you’ve been championing might very well, in being brilliantly persuasive, clear things up.

Rich’s response (being on the level of the Tribal Battle Tactic, as opposed to in the service of supporting his claims), was easily foreseen:

“Steven, I have nothing to prove to you.”

I beg to differ here, Rich. You have rather a lot to prove to me (and ‘us’), being that your position is that I’m extremely wrong (so wrong that my actual ability to read English is in question) and you’re profoundly right (so right that ‘debating’ my position seems to exasperate you). You have quite a lot to prove, *if you were even involved in a debate at all*, as opposed to a Tribal Battle being waged against an Interloper.

Anyone (one? two? three out there?) interested in my *two chief positions* against the first part of Joseph’s essay (and what I perceive as the unseriousness of same), please scroll upwards a few hundred meters. My points are not A) Absolutist, B) Proscriptive, C) the work of a total idiot (or a bad, bad quasi-literate man).

I warn you, though, that there are some fine distinctions in the text that will require close-reading. Which, again, neatly sums up my position.

By Steven Augustine on 01/16/07 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Against my better judgment, I’d like to jump. Here’s Steven Augustine’s 2-parter:

I only claim that A) Humbert Humbert (and by extension, any character in a novel), being unreal and therefore non-human, can’t be judged in ‘moral’ terms and that, B) using Lolita as a cautionary tale or ‘moral’ primer in some way is reductive; absurd, actually; based on its specificity as a work of Art (Nabokov’s prophylactic against such ham-handed hijackings).

As it is stated, I do have problems with A, but not B. On A, I accept the unreality of characters in novels etc. (and have written a five posts on the subject, starting with Fictional Characters 1: A. C. Bradley and continuing through Fictional Characters 5: Shakespeare). These fictional characters, however, often engage in explicit moral assertion and reasoning; I see no reason why we as critics should not analyze and comment upon such reasoning. We might even want to tease out just why some actions are presented as somehow exemplary. But it seems to me that this is different from using literary works as cautionary tales or as moral primers.

The problem here is that when you get around to explicitly stating the moral maxims being illustrated, they seem rather trite. If that’s what the story is really about, why bother? Why tell this complicated story so that you can conclude: “Therefore, older men should not pursue under-age girls no matter how attractive they are.” If such a thing as a vigorous moral criticism is possible, it’s got to be doing more than such as that. What?

By Bill Benzon on 01/16/07 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I think you may have fallen victim to Steven’s straw man.  I agree with you (and therefore with Steven) that to use the book as a “moral primer"--that is, as a straightforward guide to How to Act, or as the source for a few pithy moral observations--would be absurd.  However, as I or someone probably should have pointed out earlier, no one is advocating “using” Lolita for this.  In fact, it’s worth noting that Joseph referred to “moralizing accounts of the novel” as “anaesthesizing” in the original post.  What I take Joseph (and other commenters, explicitly or implicitly) to be arguing is that Lolita is so affecting partly because it is morally applicable to us and our society.  This is not to say it provides moral answers, but it seems obvious that, like any good work of literature, it provides good moral questions.  Joseph writes, “[Lolita] is about the diseased, tyrannical, and insane facets of consuming love”; I don’t know how anyone could disagree with this, nor how anyone could deny that there is a moral element to that subject, one that applies to both the individual and to our societal values.  The idea that he, or anyone, advocated using the book as a parenting lesson or whatever is just smoke.

Steven, regarding your tirade of wounded self-righteousness: I just couldn’t bring myself to finish reading it.  I just couldn’t.  I did read enough of it to be able to say that the difference you claim between an intellectually robust, bracingly harsh critique of the argument, and a craven, uncalled-for ad hominem attack--"how dare you, sir!"--doesn’t exist, at least not on this thread.  On the internet, the argument and the personality are pretty much coterminous, and the crass way you attacked Joseph’s arguments set the tone--dismissive, insulting, and unserious (Looney Tunes? The Joker?)--which unfortunately has plagued much of the thread (my comments included) since.  You attempt to claim the high ground, but no one has talked about your mother or your screen name or anything; we’ve talked about your words, like you’ve talked about ours, and if we’ve made you mad the feeling is mutual.  After leading with your chin the way you’ve been doing, saying “come on, didn’t you know I was kidding?“ followed by, “Why does everyone keep picking on me?” is pretty feeble.

By tomemos on 01/16/07 at 02:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: tomemos is right that the content of the original post has little to do with blatant moral lessons. I thoroughly agree with you that the problems of Humbert’s actions, put in Aesopian terms, is not good criticism.

We are still waiting for Steven to add another layer of paint to his groundless obsession with the “primer.”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/16/07 at 05:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To: Steven

Re: (Re: A Tribe Called Your Quest For A Niche)

I’m sure, when you did your sleuthing, you found Rich and I disagreeing about Ender’s Game, tomemos and I disagreeing about Pan’s Labyrinth, and the post (one of the first at my own blog) I wrote responding to petitpoussin’s critique of my ideas. The nature of this thread is based on the actual content of the post and the responses to it.

There are many ways to conduct disagreements; a method based in mutual respect, without ad hominem speculation, very often does lead to friendship. I am pleased to have all kinds of interlocutors, including detractors. No-one is mollifying anyone here; you are mistaking graciousness for coddling.

Blogs are public documents, and citing bloggers or commenters with whom one disagrees is actually a sign of respect. It allows the reader to connect the response to the original statement. It is also the only possible avenue to rigor.

You are clearly not very good at signaling when you are kidding; there was no reason for petitpoussin or anyone else to take you at less than your word when you reached #10 of your 95 theses. Not only did Conrad beat you to the “Herr Kugelmass” joke in a response to my first Valve post, but the hilarious part of that joke remains shrouded in mystery.

I will be emailing you a disarmingly suave, astonishingly complex disproof of my charisma and intelligence.

I thought you were bored with this thread?! By all appearances, your ennui is presently the better angel of your nature.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/16/07 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:

1. Thanks for the serious comment.
2. Let me clarify the ‘A’ part of my above-quoted sentence. I meant for the emphasis to be on ‘judged’. In other words, while you can’t (I believe) ‘judge’ a fictional character (and treat the text, therefore, as though it has intrinsic moral qualities), you can certainly analyze the character’s author-granted behaviour using a real-world frame of reference. But it becomes a matter of decoding, rather than judgment.

If you ‘judge’ the morality of an actual human...especially a human who was committed some awful crime...don’t questions about the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and bafflement as to the motive behind the crime, and so forth, enter into it? But how can questions like this pertain to a virtual robot (programmed by Nabokov) such as Humbert? We can’t ‘judge’ Humbert any more than we can judge the figure of a soldier in Goya’s ‘Execution of the Rebels’ painting.

Re: your response to (B): well , interestingly, isn’t it a ‘morally’ fraught scenario like Lolita’s that seems to cry out for a moral analysis while, at the same time, answering most of the ‘questions’ for us *already* by being so ‘morally’ outrageous in the first place?

By Steven Augustine on 01/16/07 at 06:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven, let me, in turn, compliment you on a serious and respectful comment.  Hopefully we’ve exhausted our vitriol and are ready to get down to it.

If you ‘judge’ the morality of an actual human...especially a human who was committed some awful crime...don’t questions about the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and bafflement as to the motive behind the crime, and so forth, enter into it? But how can questions like this pertain to a virtual robot (programmed by Nabokov) such as Humbert? We can’t ‘judge’ Humbert any more than we can judge the figure of a soldier in Goya’s ‘Execution of the Rebels’ painting.

I think that painting is a very good place for us to define our differences, because I personally feel that Goya evokes a strong moral crisis in that painting, one which hinges greatly on our view--"judgment," if you like--of the soldiers.  As is often the case in visual art (partly because it’s non-verbal and partly because I’m not very good with paintings), I don’t feel I have enough information to determine the extent of Goya’s judgment--whether he was a committed pacifist, what his views on the insurrection was, etc.  (If Goya had titled the painting The Cruel Agents of Corrupt Power Executing the Innocent, there would be little question of his stance; luckily, he was not so didactic.) Nevertheless, it certainly seems to me that the contrast between the victims (helpless, terrified, dynamic) and the soldiers (armed, static, faceless), combined with the destruction surrounding the scene, is affecting, even horrifying, and must cause us to question the rightness of such things happening, and to question a system and a world in which such things happen.  As I say, I don’t believe that the painting is simply about the bad bad soldiers, because complex works of art rarely limit themselves to clear moral judgments.  (As you say, if we take Lolita to be about the simple immorality of pedophilia, then our analysis is over before it begins.) But I have to think that Goya was trying to get across something more than just a depiction of what it might have looked like on that day, or how scary it must be to be shot, or what a good painter he was to draw faces and fire so well.  I believe that that painting speaks to us about violence and the exercise of state power, and the morality of each.

It also seems to me that your repeated description of fictional characters as utterly divorced from reality is more fraught than you suggest.  For example, does your claim also apply to real people and events depicted in fiction--to Shakespeare’s history plays, for example?  Richard III is obviously meant to be recognizable to us as the historical figure of Richard III; the play is not called Richard III: If I Did It.  However, there are today still many historians and interested observers who defend Richard against history’s judgment (the hunchback, the murder of the princes), a judgment which is reflected, and to some extent created or at least sustained, by Shakespeare’s play.  It seems clear that Shakespeare, at least, judged Richard, choosing a particular interpretation of his reign and putting that on stage.  Are we, while watching the play, meant not to acknowledge and participate in Shakespeare’s judgment? Are we allowed to judge the historical character of Richard III, but not the fictional one?  Or, to choose another Spanish war painting as an example, does anyone believe that Guernica is not a moral judgment on the bombing it depicts?

I think one point of confusion has been the question of the implications of such judgment.  You seem to be worried that our analysis consists only of repeated imprecations of Humbert Humbert, or, worse yet, his author.  No one has said that Nabokov was bad for creating Humbert (well, yes, joeo implied that Nabokov was a pedophile, but neither I nor anyone else in my tribe agreed).  No one has said that he or she prefers to read books with more moral characters.  What people have said is that to read a book (or listen to an album, or examine a painting) without considering its philosophical implications is to deprive oneself of one of the richest and most important reasons to approach art.  Your multiple comparisons of Lolita to more cartoonish depictions of morality--the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, the Joker and Batman, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre--are striking, because those works are separated from Lolita precisely because they do not suggest anything to me about moral or immoral behavior, human nature, society past or present, etc.  Whereas, if I did not consider the degree to which the characters and events in Lolita challenged or affected my views of morality, character, etc.--and to which my views affected my reading--then reading Lolita would hardly be more interesting than watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

By tomemos on 01/16/07 at 07:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos:

“Your multiple comparisons of Lolita to more cartoonish depictions of morality--the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, the Joker and Batman, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre--are striking, because those works are separated from Lolita precisely because they do not suggest anything to me about moral or immoral behavior, human nature, society past or present, etc.”

I’d say to that: your response to Lolita is too subjective to qualify, say, the Lolita character in that book as slightly less (or more) fictional than Wile E. Coyote. Sure, there’s a mathematics for comparing degrees of infinities, but there’s no math worked out to rate ‘fictionality’. The attempted murder of the Road Runner is funny, yes, but, symbolically, it’s still an attempted murder...it simply doesn’t horrify me because I’m not a Roadrunner. Redraw the Road Runner into a cartoon character in striped pyjamas from Auschwitz and it’s already rather less funny...though it’s still a cartoon. Next step: the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m sure there are those who would be deeply troubled by this film and would without a doubt have a strong ‘moral’ reaction to it. Others (us?) laugh at the hyperbole evident. But it’s all subjective because the chemical reaction of ‘horror’ or ‘laughter’ is happening in the individual viewer’s *head*...not in the material itself. There are still no actual consequences within the dimension of activity on screen. Even a film of a *real murder* is not itself the scene of a bloody crime; breaking into the projection booth and unplugging the projector won’t save the victim’s life. The death is a foregone conclusion; the *filmed image* of the murderer loses any instrinsic moral value, though it retain its ability to impress our imaginations.

Next step: Lolita. My claim is that the text is amoral for all of the above reasons, though we can certainly use it in comparison to our own experiences on Earth in whatever way we choose. Some will delight in the author’s wit and skill. Some will use it to focus on (or re-visit) a feeling of disgust, fear, betrayal. Others will use it (strangely enough) as sexual titillation. But these choices aren’t built into the text...they aren’t intrinsic.

I’m arguing that text, specifically, and Art, in general, is *amoral*. I’m not saying examples of either can’t be used as tools of comparison or association. But, in Lolita’s case, as I said before, I think Lolita makes a very poor ‘moral’ probe or yardstick. It’s too blatant; in what context could Humbert ever be ‘right’? Morally, it’s not ambiguous enough to offer a fruitful field for analysis. On the level of its imagery; the poetry of its style; the strain of politics and aesthetic pronouncements and power struggles implicit: there’s enough fodder for ‘interrogation’. As a curious specimen of the novelist’s art (an especially dense and florid, English-as-a-second language Great American road novel from deposed Russian aristocracy anticipating the Cold War) it offers riches.

The irony, as I pointed out above, is that Lolita just doesn’t offer us much in the realm of ‘moral’ work to do. It’s an open-and-shut case (until such time as ‘Society’ undergoes a few *major* changes).

‘Laughter in the Dark’ is much more open to a ‘moral’ investigation (though still, in and of itself, of course...in my opinion...amoral).

By Steven Augustine on 01/16/07 at 08:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The suggestion that a moral reading of _Lolita_ would involve looking for a moral isn’t worth responding to.  tomemos, however, comes up with something more interesting with the “no one has said that Nabokov was bad for creating Humbert”.  That is true, but a bit misleading in its attempt to divert the thread from crudity.  Isn’t part of the interest of the novel the implied authorial motivation for it?  The famous critical comment about the novel being a record of Nabokov’s love affair with the romantic novel, which Nabokov amended, saying (if wiki can be trusted) that “the substitution of ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct”, suggests that the reader’s image of Nabokov’s motivation, or the author-function’s implied motivation, is important.  Why would Nabokov have chosen this relationship as the central one for his love affair with the English language?  That question can’t be answered without reference to the *content* of the relationship, as opposed to its formal qualities. To quote Joseph’s original comments, “Lolita, Nabokov reassures us, is not a girl. She is an opportunity for language. She is the occasion for his love affair with English, and our love affair with the resulting book.” But his love affair with English is in some way troubled, “pedophiliac” if you like, is it not?  Another Nabokov quote: “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.” Look at that “infinitely docile”.

A sufficiently sensitive reader can pick this up from the book, even without Nabokov’s comments.  The place I’d disagree with Joseph: “reading Lolita merely for the beauty of the language exonerates Humbert”.  But to the same extent as it exonerates Humbert, it incriminates readers and writers.  Not incrimination in the tiresome, literal sense that has been brought up in this thread, but if the novel is “about the diseased, tyrannical, and insane facets of consuming love” (to quote Joseph) again, then the reader paying sufficient attention to notice what Joseph calls the “intentional holes” in the novel also is made uncomfortable by the realization.  This discomfort is one of the points of a moral reading.

Parenthetically, blaming the author for their choice of what to write about is not universally a bad thing to do.  Take the case of hack writer Michael Crichton, who apparently decided to score off a critic by putting a pedophiliac rapist character with nearly the same name in one of his books.  The critic writes:

“I confess to having mixed feelings about my sliver of literary immortality. It’s impossible not to be grossed out on some level--particularly by the creepy image of the smoldering Crichton, alone in his darkened study, imagining in pornographic detail the rape of a small child.”

Which is not to say that Nabokov is Crichton.  But it is to say that authors, unlike characters, are not fictional, and that moral questions about the implications of their choices can also be an important part of how to read their works.

By on 01/16/07 at 10:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, Rich, but this (and the rest of the chain of your argument), is really not soundly reasoned: “But his love affair with English is in some way troubled, “pedophiliac” if you like, is it not?”

The evidence for this is in what, exactly? His verbs? His gerunds? The adverbs, right?

These revisionist and smarmy readings of Lolita are really much too popular these days; I blame an increasingly literalist (no pun intended) relationship with fiction, exacerbated by a certain approach as enforced by a life of watching television. I’ve happened across several ‘Nabokov wanted to screw little girls’ theories in the past few weeks and they’re always based on a kind of circumstantial reasoning that betrays little understanding of the writer’s goals and tactics in coming up with themes that will have resonance.

“Isn’t part of the interest of the novel the implied authorial motivation for it?” Don’t project, Rich. This is far from a universal claim.

The sentence you append to this is ridiculous: “ ‘My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.” Look at that ‘infinitely docile’.”

Indeed, Rich: look at it. What does it say? If you’d troubled yourself to read Lolita ‘closely’ (rather than the Wiki entry on it), you’d see that there’s no way to associate the term ‘infinitely docile’ with the title character. More a clue to the ins and outs of your own imagination on the topic, possibly.

Re: “...(if wiki can be trusted)...” You might want to try something like Boyd’s two volume Nabokov bio instead (That’s what I rely on when fact checking questions and comments about Nabokov).

Tomemos fended off this kind of thinking earlier in the thread, and I wrote, also:

“Further, I think the question of Nabokov’s possibly suspect ‘morality’ in creating Lolita misses the point that a huge chunk of a published (and famous) author’s motivation in generating certain fictional characters or situations is focused on the literary (and PR)energy the character or situation can generate...the notoriety possible and the richness of metaphor and reader response and so on.”

“Martin Amis has written at least twice of children in danger of sexual violation (The Information; Yellow Dog) but I doubt it means he ever wanted to fuck his kids. He knows it’s a fraught topic...there’s a wealth of energy in the scenario...and you can imagine he feels pressured to up the ante to remain au courant with the travesties of our era. Reading the ghost of pedophilia into Nabokov’s enthusiastic writing of Lolita strikes me as weirdly naive in people with so much academic (and, possibly, publishing) experience; any of us who write fiction know we’re all just strip-mining veins of ore that have been largely depleted after centuries and centuries of exploitation...the overwhelming majority of writers in history got there first. Nabokov stumbled on a rich little nugget and he knew it...his writerly instincts panned out.”

The text of Lolita is inadmissable in court, Rich...hard as that may be for you to understand. It would be admissable in Stalin-ruled Russia, red-scare-era America, or Iran (possibly) today. But, no. By your reasoning, thousands of writers are up for a revisionist prosecution on a moral’s charge. I’m not defending Nabokov, I’m defending fiction-writing.

I recognize the sentiment you embody in your argument but I hope we’re out of the jungle (as a civilization) with attitudes like that by now. A few credulous readers notwithstanding.

By Steven Augustine on 01/17/07 at 04:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is the analysis of literary texts just a free-for-all in which the critic takes the text as an occasion for demonstrating wit, wide and curious learning, moral acumen, deep wisdom, lingistic skill and so forth—depending on just which resources a given critic is able to muster—or should there be some particular discipline involved? My guess is that, given the way I’ve put the issue, most people would say “why of course, there’s discipline.” But I’m not sure the actual historical record will bear that out.

By Bill Benzon on 01/17/07 at 07:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Look at the Wilson/Nabokov feud(s). It’s never really a science (despite pretenses to the contrary); what would the experimental controls and constants be? Criticism is, in fact, inasmuch as Literature itself proves to be, “...an occasion for demonstrating wit, wide and curious learning, moral acumen, deep wisdom, lingistic skill and so forth...”. That’s the name of the game.

By Steven Augustine on 01/17/07 at 07:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, Bill: think of it this way. Published (print; book) criticism is one-way...the writer publishes, the reader reads; decorum is preserved. *This* format is closer to a panel discussion, and I’ve seen plenty of those get brawl-y.

By Steven Augustine on 01/17/07 at 08:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven: “If you’d troubled yourself to read Lolita ‘closely’ (rather than the Wiki entry on it), you’d see that there’s no way to associate the term ‘infinitely docile’ with the title character.”

Really, Steven, your ability to read is very bad.  If you devoted one tenth of the amount of effort that you spend telling others to read closely to actually reading texts yourself, you’d have seen that I was talking about Nabokov’s relationship with *the English language* as being troubled, “pedophiliac” if you will.  It’s a *metaphor*.  Have you ever heard of those?

So yes, of course if you understood at all what you’re writing about, you’d see the point of that “infinitely docile”.  Nabokov described *Russian* as being infinitely docile, Lolita/English is the refractory, second-rate brand—the pedophiliac attraction to docility subverted by a failure of complete control.

By on 01/17/07 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: Aha! I stand corrected...I *get* it now...whereas Nabokov’s relationship with his native tongue was that of a man having intercourse with a compliant tyke, *he only managed to get to third base with English*. Meanwhile, Kundera’s affair with French is closer to the evanescent releases of a voyeur...Mishima sodomized Japanese...and Calvino’s affair with Italian is best described as bestiality (with a very small dog). Interesting…

By Steven Augustine on 01/17/07 at 09:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, now the light dawns.  I was analyzing _Lolita_ as a sort of identification of the reader / writer with Humbert Humbert through close reading—when the reader is sufficiently careful to notice the gaps in the novel, this same care makes him or her compare the consuming love for words, the urge to make them “mean something”, with Humbert Humbert’s attraction towards control.  Humbert Humbert becomes a figure for Nabokov as writer, and we participate through our involvement as readers.  But of course someone who doesn’t read closely won’t get it.

By on 01/17/07 at 09:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Criticism is, in fact, inasmuch as Literature itself proves to be, “...an occasion for demonstrating wit, wide and curious learning, moral acumen, deep wisdom, lingistic skill and so forth...”. That’s the name of the game.”

Hear hear! That’s the position I’ve been defending all along.

By Conrad H. Roth on 01/17/07 at 05:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, if that’s what it’s about, Steven, the discussions such as this are mostly opportunities for the display of learning, wit, and style. One may have an opinion on whether or not or how one ought to discuss the moral issues one encounters, but that’s not of any significant epistemological or moral significance in itself. It’s just a matter of how one wishes to display one’s skills in the discussion of literary texts.

One can also imagine a discipline of literary analysis that seeks to understand how literature works in minds and in populations. That’s one of my primary interests. And I feel that that activity requires fairly rigorous rules, though I only have fleeting notions of what they are. I imagine this to be a fairly specialized intellectual discipline whose concepts and models ought to be conceptually commensurate with those in the newer psychologies, and other disciplines. In this discipline one is not going to be passing moral judgment on literary characters—they are not real people after all—but one might well be interested in how people use literary texts, or movies, or TV programs, whatever, is exploring moral issues.

By Bill Benzon on 01/17/07 at 05:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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