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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Perfecting of a Love

Posted by Ray Davis on 05/12/05 at 10:10 PM

Not many people share my interest in the contingency of canons and the fluidity of genres, but nearly everyone enjoys seeing bad reviews of (now) acknowledged "masterpieces". Either you get the warm satisfaction of mocking the (now) powerless for their stupidity, or you get the warm satisfaction of shared iconoclasm.

I'm not knocking the simple pleasures of the snide especially when the reviewers survive to eat and regurgitate their words, like those movie critics who slammed Psycho, within a decade had it on their Tip-Top 100 lists, and continued slamming newer misanthropic thrillers using the exact same series of tuts. (Reading the below, can you truly picture Anthony West's strictures on "good writing" having let, say, the "Cyclops" chapter of Ulysses pass?)

But the unprescient review is a multi-purpose tool. For example, it could remind bookbloggers and other suckers at journalistic teats that solid food's to be found elsewhere. With the light of conventional opinion (now) tucked under a critic's chin and nose, our characteristic blemishes stand out like our bluffing deployment of "in fact" and "the fact is", or our tendency to indict originality as a failed attempt at imitation: we grab at the first resemblance we can imagine, 'cause that's our job, and then find fault with the likeness.

And anachronistic harshness sometimes recovers some of the strangeness of the work itself, its indigestible singularity. On the scraped surface, recrystalization; through hostile eyes, a renewal of love.

Robert Musil's work reached respectability by the usual route. Rare blips of publicity during his lifetime; a small but insistent cult bringing him back into print, and then into circulation; a slow siege of the establishment and a slow capitulation, fading into decades of scattered sniping and griping.... The bumper crop of bad reviews comes mid-summer, after the cultists toss their earliest missiles, when sneers are broadened at the expense of those misguided enthusiasts, "we regret to say however" and so forth, sending the insurrection underground again till the harvest....

The most startling American response to the first translations of Musil may have been Newsweek's, June 8, 1953, where, under the heading "Confident Novelist", a confident reviewer told readers:

Actually, Musil was an almost intolerably bad writer. But he had scientific training and, as a result, became a sort of jet-powered literary no-good....

But the meatiest was Anthony West's in The New Yorker, July 25, 1953, subtitled "Out of Nowhere", where "nowhere" presumably meant the Austro-Hungarian empire. Break open the barbeque sauce:

... There is not the slightest reason for comparing it to the work of either Joyce or Proust. It belongs, in fact, to an earlier literary epoch, and it is the work of an imitator and not an innovator. "The Man Without Qualities" is modeled, not far short of plagiarism, on a group of Anatole France's novels, of which "The Wicker-Work Woman" and "The Amethyst Ring" are perhaps best known. They describe the adverntures of a M. Bergeret on the fringes of the Dreyfus case and of the secular political maneuvers of the various candidates seeking appointment to the vacant bishopric of Tourcoing.... [Other unconvincing similarities are listed.]

It was bold of Musil to attempt to tell such a large story, but in literature mere good intentions are worth nothing. The fact is that Musil was not much of a writer. The non-functioning simile, in which things that have no similarities are compared, is a sure sign of bad writing, and Musil goes as far with it as it is possible to go: [Several damning examples are given. Many more could be.]

His arrogance enabled him to botch even the almost foolproof technique he borrowed from France; he continually elbows his characters off the page, and nearly every chapter of his novel reveals a diagonal drift away from fiction into philosophic essay writing. [...] Even allowing for the translators, who are capable of devising "seated, lolling cows in the field, gazing towards the dawn," it must be said that the great Musil revival will not do, that there is no spark of of vitality in his work to keep it from its well-deserved obscurity.

And from a long way off as children say of their poor meatball that it was lost when somebody sneezed, or of science: That's so gay I see and know the image of my love.


Laurence Perrine is right: a work may be evaluated by answering the following questions: (1) does the work fulfill its central purpose, and (2) is that purpose significant?

I think what’s happening here is that readers and critics focus only on the first question.

By ralfy on 05/13/05 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laurence Perrine? Yeah, I guess he did “evaluate” that way. You need a heap of conventional opinion to do it, too. Otherwise you’d never get past the question “What are the possible purposes of the work?”

Luckily for Perrine, he always knew the purpose before he started reading—by looking at the book’s jacket, for example, or by recognizing the author’s name. And he always knew how significant that single purpose was, scale of zero to ten.

How else could one possibly enjoy literature?

By Ray Davis on 05/13/05 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Somewhere in my filing cabinet, I’ve got a wonderfully wrong-headed Victorian book review: it compares George Eliot’s merely transient appeal to Mrs. Humphry Ward’s genuine staying power.  Ooops.  Still, a useful reminder that forecasting the literary future is not necessarily a good idea.

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein on 05/13/05 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good one, Miriam, although I’ll file it away in the event of a Mary Ward revival during my lifetime.  But even more striking is a rant by John Irving made just a few years ago in which he flies into a pet over Wilde’s having dissed The Old Curiosity Shop (Dickens is a religion by Irving, ya know) and concludes that Wilde’s work will not last.

I love that “our tendency to indict originality as a failed attempt at imitation: we grab at the first resemblance we can imagine, ‘cause that’s our job, and then find fault with the likeness” --something we should all be vigilant about.  Although the story in question was uninspired, I find heuristically useful Harlan Ellison’s account of the fans who berated him for a) plagiarizing the Prometheus legend and b) getting many aspects of it wrong (like, how could Messrs. Bernstein and Sondheim have assumed their audiences were ignorant of Shakespeare and have forgotten that the lovers were Italians?).  Only problem with keeping that example in mind is the ease of stigmatizing sf geeks’ limitations as Something We’re Above.

By on 05/14/05 at 01:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not many people share my interest in the contingency of canons and the fluidity of genres...

O I do, even more because I tend to look for the obscured meanings canons have for those who announced them.

The single advantage of living in a tiny country, and using a language only used by twenty million people, is that we are forced to acknowledge the existence of broader cultures around us.

There are many bad things to say about the Netherlands, but even geographically it’s a natural meeting point of Anglosaxon culture as well as the French/Latin/Catholic and German/Middle-European cultures. And, through this I’ve noticed how narrow minded or even blind those representing a major culture are for what it might lack, and others may offer.

Reviewing Musil on language and sentences alone, especially when done through a translation, is unbelievably arrogant. 

Side note: how come English translations are always so much flatter than the originals? Or in the words of a translator I know: read like a job done for Reader’s Digest?

By ijsbrand on 05/14/05 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Or in the words of a translator I know: read like a job done for Reader’s Digest?

I don’t think that’s always the case.  Take the Muir’s old translations of Kafka.  Sure, they turned him into Dickens--not entirely inappropriate, given Kafka’s love of Dickens’ absurdities like “the circumlocution office"--but that’s preferable to Reader’s Digest.  While I agree with your translatin’ friend, the scholars I know (and am married to) who translate have a much keener eye for what’s potentially been lost in other people’s tranlsations...but I think what they’re really seeing is evidence of the decision-making process buried beneath any remotely successful translation. 

Now that I think about it, the Wilkins translation of Musil might be an interesting case to look at in more detail.  I remember people complaining that Wilkins attempted to make it read like the English translations of Kundera, who had been influenced by Musil in the German.  That’d be recursive in ways that give my headaches headaches, so I’m not going to ponder it at length, but I can’t help but wonder if Kundera’s popularity as “beach reading for intellectuals” influenced the response to Wilkins’ translation.

By A. Cephalous on 05/14/05 at 12:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a contradiction in Ray’s argument. He asks, “How else could one possibly enjoy literature?” It did not occur to him that that is one central purpose of a literary work. And by asking that question, he illustrated my point: readers often focus on Perrine’s first question and not the second.

By Ralfy on 06/17/06 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

After asking the question, “What are the possible purposes of a work?”, you may then question the significance of each purpose. You will likely end up selecting what you believe is the most important purpose, thus allowing you to answer the question, “How else could one possibly enjoy literature?”

Perhaps we can look at *Psycho* as an example. It is a very frightening movie, and it does fulfill its purpose (which is to frighten viewers). Hitchcock’s method (create suspense, don’t show everything, etc.) is notable, thus making it a “masterpiece.”

But is the purpose significant? Other than a good fright and knowledge about Hitchcock’s style of film-making, what do I gain from such?

Perrine’s two questions are important not because he wants to close off other readings of the work, and not because he thinks that works have only one meaning, but he wants readers (even those who make fun of “bad” reviews) to question their own views.

So, should *Psycho* be considered a “masterpiece” because it is a well-crafted, suspenseful film that made good use of what was then innovative techniques? Or is it is just that: a well-crafted, suspenseful film that leaves the viewer momentarily disturbed but ultimately happy after watching such an exciting film?

How important is this fear based on thrill? How different is it from, say, the fear that I experience after reading Kafka’s *Metamorphosis*?

Might this lead us to clues as to the meaning of a “masterpiece” or what makes works canonical?

By ralfy on 06/17/06 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Could anyone plz tell me where can I find the summery or atleast the meaning of the book “THE PERFECTING OF A LOVE”???  or “THE BLACKBIRD”... \


By on 11/12/07 at 01:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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