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Monday, January 29, 2007

The Poem And The Apocalypse, Part Two: Children of Men and Frank O’Hara’s Personism

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/29/07 at 01:56 AM

This is a continuation of my first post, from yesterday, on art and the apocalypse. (Note: K-Punk has also just published a very good analysis of Children of Men, that both overlaps with and differs from mine. You can find it here.)

The best thing about Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is that we never know what causes the plague.

This brings us immediately into the realm of allegory; the causeless plague of sterility is standing for something else, something omnipresent in film’s imaginary United Kingdom.

Yesterday, I described that something as “ideological thin-slicing”: the tendency to conceive of the world as limited to a very small set of significant facts and allied persons, with the rest of the material world consigned to darkened chaos, and the rest of humanity understood to be lost or antagonistic. I noted that this kind of ideological thinking is often repetitive and “cult-like” in nature, and works by conversion rather than progressive rational argument.

In the world of Children of Men, there isn’t only one synthesis or identity of the personal and the political. There are many, and many of these are ultimately destructive. It achieves the remarkable feat of persuading us that its heroes are on a different sort of quest from the various factions they encounter, one that leads back to a habitable world, and one that upholds a diversity of artistic modes. It does so by transcending itself towards its opposite, which we might call “Personism” after Frank O’Hara.

This post does contain some spoilers. Now on with the show!


I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.
-Bob Dylan, “Talkin’ World War III Blues”

In the Britain of the future, the government maintains order and security by closing its borders, flooding public places with propaganda, and keeping watch over its citizens. The ban on immigration is the first reason, allegorically speaking, for the plague of sterility. The only pregnant woman in the world is an illegal immigrant in Britain. She risks being imprisoned in a refugee camp and killed. “Britain Stands Alone,” proclaim the public service announcements, echoing the paranoid logic of cult ideology, and the policy of paranoid states like Myanmar and North Korea.

Public life is rent by unstable allegiances to different projects, all absurd. Like a customer who keeps returning to the store, to exchange one purchase for another, the citizens move from religious belief, to allegiance to their work and government, to terrorist resistance, and no such re-alignment is surprising to anyone else. There is simply no way to exist, in the world of the film, except by identifying oneself with a sect, and these too are at odds. There are a variety of different penitential religions. There is dissension within the “resistance.” Theo’s cousin Nigel is curator of the public treasury of art. He oversees Guernica and Michelangelo’s David. When Theo asks Nigel why he is willing to work at preserving art that soon nobody will be around to appreciate, Nigel responds, “I try not to think about it.”

What Theo asks Nigel is the unanswerable question: Why go on? As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Human All-Too-Human, the “for what?” is lacking. What are all the government employees doing bothering to show up for their jobs? All of the characters have the option of killing themselves legally, with the help of a “Quietus” pill from the government. Here, at the point where the entire country verges on suicidal collapse, we find the starkest illustration of Slavoj Zizek’s thesis, from The Ticklish Subject, that the Freudian “death drive” is identical with an excessive “unruliness” of human nature outside the natural order.

This “unruliness” is founded in the free capacity of the human imagination to dismember things, favoring the part over the causally bound, imprisoning whole. Zizek calls this the “violence of imagination, of its ‘empty freedom’ which dissolves every objective link” (31). This initially takes the form of an anarchic carnival of dismembered phantasms, and is inspired by Hegel’s “night of the world.” Then, in Zizek’s critique of Hegel’s writing on sexuality, he reveals how the imagination can also foster fixed ideas:

cultural ‘sublation’ not only changes the form of satisfying natural needs, but somehow affects their very substance: in a sexual obsession like courtly love, the ultimate aim, satisfaction itself, is disconnected from its natural ground: it changes into a lethal passion that persists beyond the natural cycle of need and its satisfaction. (84)

This leads, through a discussion of Tristan and Isolde, to Zizek’s identification of the death drive with idealism in the ordinary sense of the term, what I have called ideology:

The death drive is not merely a direct nihilistic opposition to any life-asserting attachment; rather, it is the very formal structure of the reference to Nothingness that enables us to overcome the stupid self-contended life-rhythm, in order to become ‘passionately attached’ to some Cause – be it love, art, knowledge, or politics – for which we are ready to risk everything. (108)

Returning to the film, one finds passionate attachment everywhere: religious belief, the zealous performance of duty, the commitment to libertarian resistance, even the cause of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ in Nigel’s case. However, the effect of this overweening stance is death: death to immigrants, death to government soldiers, death to resistance fighters. The plague of sterility thus stands for the total devaluation of life implied by the heroic call to “risk everything,” in addition to the hermetic self-enclosure of man, partisan, and country in a world shaped by zero-sum allegiances.

Even the love of new life, the fundamental loss of which leads to the apocalypse of the film, is transformed into death when a human being who happens to be the youngest person on the planet is abstracted and magnified into a celebrity figure of Remaining Youth. This is “Baby Diego,” and just as the film begins, newsreels announce that Baby Diego has been killed by a fan who did not receive an autograph.

The difference between Kee, the only known pregnant woman on Earth, and Baby Diego, is that Kee has the help of a succession of people who know her and want nothing besides her safety. Kee is brought into a network of personal (rather than solely ideological) relationships when Theo’s ex-wife Julien entrusts her to Theo. The relationship between Julien and Theo helps persuade Theo to return, Achilles-like, to the fray. The ghost of Theo and Julien’s child makes Kee’s plight more sympathetic as well. Theo is able to call on his cousin Nigel for the visas he and Kee will need. They stay with Theo’s friend Jasper, who puts them in touch with Syd in the Army, who directs them to a group of sympathetic Eastern European refugees who later will get personally involved.

This chain of personal relationships is politically effective, and at every junction it follows the Kantian dictum of treating other people as ends rather than means. Kee is instrumentalized by the film’s antagonists: the resistance wants to make her a symbol, Jaspar’s friend Syd eventually wants to make money off her, and we can only imagine what the totalitarian government would do. Even celebrity is a form of instrumentalization; Baby Diego is the unwilling vessel of a people’s reverence for symbols of Life, and it kills him.

This is the qualitative difference between work like Children of Men, and work like the Left Behind series. In the Left Behind books, there is a community of believers that must come together to resist the Antichrist. In Children of Men, there is a fractious but real network of people with the capacity to work for political ends. The network is constituted richly, in ways going far beyond the exigencies of the plague. At one point we see Theo and Julien playing a flirtatious game from happier times. We learn that Jaspar is fond of bad jokes, and that Theo tolerates his bad jokes.

(These non-instrumental relationships, which survive and help end the crisis, also lay bare the poisonous folly of films like Armageddon and Signs, in which the apocalyptic crisis is required to restore a minister’s faith, or to convince a father to approve of his daughter’s beau. As with the Left Behind series, but on an interpersonal rather than ideological level, this is completely backwards.)

At no point are these personal relationships in Children of Men completely apolitical or non-ideological. Jaspar’s relationship with Syd is mediated by the black market for marijuana. Jaspar, Theo, and Julien all share a common political outlook. Kee’s baby does hold significance for the entire world. It is simply that totalizing ideological commitments are never the whole truth of the bond. The relationships cannot be sliced thinly.

The particularity of these relationships points toward a rich universalism. There is no limit of heritage or allegiance that such relationships obey. Kee is dark-skinned, an immigrant, and not a member of the resistance. The Eastern European refugees who help Kee and Theo don’t even have a language in common with them. The universalist vision takes place not all at once, but rather moment by moment; it happens through the absence of arbitrary, prejudicial limits on the concern we feel for others.


This concept of “richly constituted” relationships leads us to poet Frank O’Hara. In his manifesto on “Personism,” O’Hara writes that the semi-serious movement

...was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.

The poem arises out of the relationship – in particular, the love relationship – and brings it one step further along; when it is published, it still carries the traces of that afternoon and feeling. After his death, O’Hara’s poems had to be “collected” from the letters he sent to friends.

We might say that they epitomize a kind of relationship based on acquaintance, gratitude, anticipation, mockery, sympathy, curiosity, fellowship, desire – all things we see in Children of Men between the principals, all affective rather than ideological modes. Furthermore, these things are mixed up with each other, with the intrusions of the broader culture (a newspaper, a street sign), and even with the recognizable footprints of aesthetic and ethical thought.

There is no system here, however. O’Hara writes, in a manner directly foreshadowing Zizek:

But how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears).

There is also nothing about the reality to which the poem cozily refers that will stop when the poem ends. There is no way to answer the question: “Should O’Hara have written one poem more or less about Jane?” When O’Hara writes that he is after “the death of literature as we know it,” he means that he is putting a stop to the phony aesthetic universalism of Frederic Schiller’s dictum, “A book should be written for everyone and no-one.” With that, of course, Schiller has beautifully described the impersonal urgency of the polemic.

O’Hara’s Personism puts the reader in the position of producer, rather than consumer, since it is awkward to apply or imitate the content of his moment with another. One applies the form, instead. O’Hara, by defining his art in this fashion, is the willful destroyer of any celebrity based on a theory of his singularity, which would be no different from the alienating singularity of Baby Diego.

One of the appealing features of the apocalyptic fantasy is surely that a dire crisis narrows the gap between oneself, and one’s ideals. Instead of the sickening back-and-forth of idleness and rationalization, one has the efficacy of thought become action, and this is presumably the reason behind Cuaron’s winking reference to Hamlet (calling the suicide pills “Quietus”). A crisis makes heroes.

O’Hara offers us that same kind of exaltation. He defines what Martin Heidegger might call the “resoluteness” that organizes thought and puts craft to the test:

I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.... As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.

I’m not suggesting that in all circumstances one could do without polemic, and I’m certain that nobody, O’Hara included, was getting by without ideology.

All the same, we can get something out of O’Hara, and out of Cuaron’s film. In a comment to the first post, Bill Benzon noted that “thin-slicing” is the process behind most Big Ideas that emerge within the humanities. The price of this is a form of “cherry-picking,” to use Rich and Scott’s phrase, that instrumentalizes every work of art it touches along the way. We can probably imagine a different method, one which might suggest itself to us after we had a read a small group of works dozens of times, and which would be dense rather than broad in its readings. This careful attention would, of course, exclude that fashionable spinelessness—masquerading as pragmatic tolerance—which gobbles up any piece of dogmatism that is “funny” or “smart” or “genuine,” no matter what contradictions ensue.


I will end with a brief anecdote. That seems like the best way to work within O’Hara’s design. Before I wrote this post, I went back to O’Hara’s most famous poems, particularly “The Day Lady Died,” because that was the one a friend made me read, when I knew nothing about him.

For the first time (and this is totally unforgivable) I realized, by reading the footnote, that “Lady” referred to Billie Holiday. So, before I sat down to write, I listened to some of her records.

I cannot think of a better way to describe the feeling I had in between the last beat of “Without Your Love,” and the first note of “Strange Fruit,” then what O’Hara said:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldon and everyone and I stopped breathing

Of course: “Strange Fruit” is one of the most affecting “message songs” ever recorded. We do not know what song O’Hara had in mind, though. “Without Your Love” and “Strange Fruit,” undecidably together. That is the point.


Joseph, your post and Mark’s at K-Punk are extraordinary efforts—in response to what I also thought was an extraordinary film. I hadn’t yet jumped on the K-Punk bandwagon, but now I’m definitely converted.

Speaking of conversions, one thing that neither of you have addressed very much is the pretty overtly Christian flavor of the humanism in the film. The filmmakers definitely distance themselves from fundamentalist Christianity (the ‘repentance’ cult, which also seems overcome by the ‘death drive’), but it’s very hard not to read of the Birth of a Child as enabling the Redemption of the human race in anything other than Christian terms.

For someone like Zizek, perhaps, that isn’t really an issue—as I understand it, he’s embraced a kind of Christian socialist value framework in some of his books. But for me, it was the one nagging little thing that kept me from completely embracing the message of “Children of Men.”

Perhaps it’s possible to deemphasize this because the film brings in so many secular progressive/liberal themes—the totalitarian overtones of the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security, the persecution of immigrants/minorities, and the potentially devastating consequences of pollution on both the environment and on human health.

But all that couldn’t help me from feeling a little confused during the scene where Kee and Theo were walking down the street and soldiers were making the sign of the cross—as if the film’s ideology was shifting under my feet, and I was being offered something (i.e., a Communion wafer) I hadn’t actually paid for.


Incidentally, your second quote from Zizek is really pretty good—that’s an interesting way to rework the “death drive” concept to make it relevant to the critique of both overly hardened forms of ideology and various destructive/anti-social personal manias.

By Amardeep Singh on 01/29/07 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

An interesting two-parter, Joseph.  Rather than dash something off in my usual 2 seconds, I’m going to think about this one for a bit.  I’m intrigued by the O’Hara poems story; I had previously guessed that this kind of thing (poetry unpublished, poetry for friends) was a response to overproduction, in which every reader was already a producer because every reader is already a poet.  But this is a different way of thinking about it.

By on 01/29/07 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a danger in overly “personisming” Frank O’Hara’s poetry.  Sure, while some of his work in *The Collected Poems* was culled from letters, much of it was republished from real, big-boy literary publications. 

Also, the O’Hara poems we tend to see anthologized or taught are the “personism” poems: the day Lady died, or the oranges poem about his painter friend.  But much more of O’Hara’s output was dedicated to complex neo-surrealism with none of this “love letter” seeming-simplicity.

By on 01/29/07 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I’m sure you already know this but the film is based on P.D. James’s novel of the same title, which had (from what I understand - I’m going to read it soon) a more directly Christian message. Discussion of the Christian thematics would be most profitabily directed by a sense of the “repurposing” that Cuaron is up to here, if, of course, that’s the word for it.

Aside from the Christian thematics, the baby for me in the film - especially in the famous last sequence - seemed to be an echo of all of these images of dead children that have made their way to my computer screen over the past 5 years. The horror of that - what it must be like to be targeted while you’re trying to keep a kid safe. The terrible fear of seeing a child (yours or any) dead etc.

It’s a an emptyheaded response, but that’s in part the work the child did for me. Of course the ideological underpinnings demand analysis, but there’s also the raw affective usefulness of constructing the story around a child. (Maybe that’s why the Christians did?) Especially for consumption by a society that, well, has boatloads of infants’ blood on its hands.

Joseph - thanks for the valuable post. I’m going to keep thinking about it. Glad that this conversation is happening! It’s an important film, I think…

By CR on 01/29/07 at 12:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CR, your comments on affect and the image of the dead child made me think of *Pan’s Labyrinth*, another attempt to imagine the social world as having become so perverse as to be actively against life.

*Pan’s Labyrinth* is a perfect fairytale in the Benjamin sense, in which the fairytale is a folk expression of utopian longing.  The film’s fairytale-within-a-real-war conceit urges us to read Ofelia’s “fantasy world” as an allegorical response to the Spanish Civil War going on in the “real world.” Thus, Ofelia must kill the huge frog who hoards all the food and keeps the fig tree from growing; and she must steal a sacrificial knife from a monster who eats babies, all the while resisting his tantalizing dinner table spread.  And she must ultimately challenge the authority of the very tales she has identified with all her young life. 

Both *Children of Men* and *Pan’s Labyrinth* are versions of the fisher-king: a world of death and decay that needs to be rejuvenated.  Benjamin saw his Arcades Project as a dialectical fairy tale in the mold of Sleeping Beauty.  Awakening becomes regeneration.  Both films are Gnostic, but also reversals of Gnosticism: the spark of the soul deadened by the material body becomes the spark of a new, material life threatened by a toxic world.  Both films seek to negate the negative, to reclaim the power of the negative. 

(And what about the connection between *Children of Men* and Wim Wenders’ interesting but failed film, *Until the End of the World*?)

By on 01/29/07 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"that fashionable spinelessness—masquerading as pragmatic tolerance—which gobbles up any piece of dogmatism that is “funny” or “smart” or “genuine,” no matter what contradictions ensue.”

What does this mean?

By Conrad on 01/29/07 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The other side of *Children of Men* is, of course, the current fear—constantly raised by *The National Review*—that white folks aren’t reproducing at a clip that can compete with Latinos (in the US) and non-white Muslims (in the UK and Europe).  Or, the fear in *Idiocracy*, that cultured white folks in America aren’t reproducing at a clip that can compete with dumb people. 

While the film’s universalism seems to transcend these group-based conflicts, I don’t think we can understand the affect of its “last pregnant woman on earth” conceit outside these actually existing cultural fears concerning birth.

And then there’s the abortion debate.  The best ending for *Children of Men* would be for Kee to have a feminist awakening and decide that she’s not ready for the responsibility of raising a baby.  And then abort it.  (Tim Robbins would have loved that version.) (Disclaimer: I am pro-abortion.)

By on 01/29/07 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here is a link to the personism essay:


O’Hara sees the interpretation of poetry a useless activity, yet finds poetry valuable to the extent it can honestly make its way into people’s lives. 

Whitman in “Song of Myself” has a similar viewpoint:

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?

Have you practiced so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun.... there are millions of suns left,

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand.... nor look through the eyes of the dead. nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

By on 01/29/07 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “The best ending for *Children of Men* would be for Kee to have a feminist awakening and decide that she’s not ready for the responsibility of raising a baby.  And then abort it.”

Didn’t Joanna Russ already sort of do that one?  In We Who Are About To... she takes the old SF setting of the group of people who crash on a planet and have to colonize it.  In this version, one of the women decides that no she doesn’t want to go along with this idea that she has to start having sex and babies, and she kills everyone else.

By on 01/29/07 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, CR, thanks so much.

Rich, I was actually plagued by the same worries as you about artistic over-abundance, but I did have the sense that for some writers there was more to the story. So one of the sources of this post is that very anxiety, and how it relates to “the death of literature as we know it” as defined by O’Hara.

Conrad, I was referring to people inside and outside academia who try to sidestep the problem of dogmatic factions by entering every debate “on its own terms,” or “immanently,” or “according to the protocols of the text.” This produces what Scott recently called an “artificial comity,” or what I like to call a comity of errors. O’Hara talks about writing poems for other people, often out of love; he says nothing about “terms.” The kinds of conversations I have in mind are dialogues, not merely always diving into someone else’s linguistic labyrinth, and perhaps trying to talk you and them back out.

Luther, I think your caveat about O’Hara is entirely fair; he cannot be confined to the sliver we see of him here.

As for Pan’s Labyrinth, well, I have to admit that it was #2 in a list of disappointments I called “Not Believing the Hype.” However, while writing this post, I was struck by the similarity between the people who want to take advantage of Kee, and the captain in del Toro’s film, who is willing to kill his wife to save her (and his) unborn son.

The utter bleakness of the faery world to which Ofelia is delivered, and the ambiguous image of her dead body, links her fantasies to the unbearable realities of the fascist regime much too closely for comfort.

I like the fisher-king reading.

I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the use of blackness and whiteness in Children of Men, but I believe Cuaron used race to make the film maximally relevant to real immigration debates and populations in the United Kingdom.

joeo, thanks for the reference! Naturally, O’Hara thinks Whitman one of the only poets who is more fun than the movies.

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

JK: Personism makes an enlightening comparison with CoM; your reading about the difference between personal relationships and ideological committments is a helpful one. I wish you’d said a bit more about how you see this relating to “thin slicing”—perhaps this gets covered in the comments thread to your previous post, which I have only skimmed. What I understand you to be saying here is that an analysis of, say, a few books might have differently valuable insights if we were to conceive it not as a “thin slice” representative of a particular phenomenon, but as a group of texts to be inspected as ends in themselves. I’m all in favor of close reading and am myself rather suspect of generalizing gestures, but my question is, what exactly do you mean when you say you don’t want texts to be instrumentalized? I don’t think you mean “art for art’s sake;” in fact I think you mean that this kind of inspection could have plenty of relevance to life and love and even historical periods outside of the texts themselves. Otherwise why bother? The pleasure of the text is lovely, but so is a fresh strawberry.

Amardeep: CoM clearly has Christian overtones—more egregious than the scene you point to is the “manger” scene where Kee reveals her pregnancy to Theo surrounded by haystacks and cows. And can we talk about Theo’s name? Seriously now.

That said, I was sad to read that the exiting-the-building scene made you uncomfortable, because for me it was the most powerful scene in the film. The soldiers make the sign of the cross because that is their instinctual reaction to the sight of a miracle. Moments before, we witnessed the multiethnic immigrants chanting their multiethnic prayers to Kee and the baby, and that does not seem to have made you uncomforable. In this scene, it seems to me that the particulars of religion are less important than the simultaneously humbling and exalting possibility that an infant represents to this barren society. What makes that moment so powerful to me is that it shows the kind of reverence we ought to have for all life, all the time. For about three minutes, the sight of an infant can stop a war in its tracks. If only all infants could stop all wars.

By uncomplicatedly on 02/01/07 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Art for art’s sake is definitely not what I mean by dense readings; I identify that (negatively) with the unthinking work of Theo’s cousin Nigel.

I am talking about readings that do the complicated work of understanding the inter-relationships within texts, and of confronting and explaining the difficulties of these texts. The result is singular, as opposed to the threshing out of thematic similarities between texts, even when those themes may be contextualized in a decisively different manner.

For example, both Henry Green’s Living and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are ostensibly “domestic novels,” complete with a supply of liminal doorways, but a deep analysis of each would produce two very different accounts of domesticity. This is partly because within each novel, “domesticity” intersects with other enormous areas of concern, such as “madness.”

My first post, especially in the quotation from Scott about the domestic novel, suggests that a certain version of comparativism smooths out artworks by slicing them thinly, in order to make them the instruments of a pre-conceived argument.

Particularly in Modernism, there is much talk of novels that “teach you how to read them.” One way of putting the question is this: does a given piece of criticism show evidence of this process at work?

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/01/07 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Joe, for giving this a few more words of explanation. It seems that what you are describing is reading works of literature on their own terms, rather than rigging the game beforehand and choosing your horses accordingly. My discomfort with the exam structure that forces students to write headnotes before they’ve read their lists has precisely this root; it’s as though they want us to say, “In these books, I expect to find the following.” What I like about the way you describe “dense readings”—predictably, alas!—is that it entails a kind of attentive openness to the text.

By uncomplicatedly on 02/01/07 at 07:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Particularly in Modernism, there is much talk of novels that “teach you how to read them.””

“A work of art that contains theories is like an object on which the price tag has been left.”
-- Proust.

By Conrad on 02/01/07 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad: I agree with Proust in reference to works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem, in which, having escaped the evil oppressive dystopia, the main character discovers a book that may as well be called Objectivism: a Primer wherein Rand explains the philosophies that she spent the previous 150 pages allegorizing. I don’t think the quote is applicable, however, to the kind of works that JK is in fact talking about—novels like Mrs. Dalloway, which he mentioned, are difficult going until you abandon traditional notions of narrative perspective and learn, by attention to the text, the relationship that the prose is supposed to have to the thoughts of the characters. This is not “containing theories,” this is an experiment in style and an exploration of the disjointed nature of human consciousness.

By uncomplicatedly on 02/01/07 at 10:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

U, I reckon that Proust’s theory-laden Recherche itself falls repeatedly foul of his own dictum. That’s irony for you! (Or is it?) The phenomenon you describe in Rand features long in Western history, a classic example being Dante’s self-commentaries. The only solution is to read the theory as part of the fiction, ie. not to allow it a privileged status--which is exactly what Wimsatt/Beardsley did.

Proust and Dante, on the other hand, did have the advantage of being competent (and in fact brilliant) writers, something that evaded poor Ms. Woolf. I don’t think that experimentation, in the true sense of that word, makes for very good literature. The later Joyce turned his earlier experiments (eg. the opening of Portrait) into something serious and worth reading, whereas Woolf was still writing Between the Acts by the end.

Finally, I don’t think it is really possible to read works on their own terms. All games are pre-rigged. (How very pomo of me, yes.)

By Conrad on 02/01/07 at 11:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

uncomplicatedly, cheers.

Conrad, I agree that In Search of Lost Time is heavily laden with generalizations, and I also agree that statements “philosophical” in form should not be privileged over and above the rest of the work.

Even postmodern writers like Lyotard would assert that there are multiple language games at work within any society. At stake here is not some kind of “pure” language, empty and therefore capable of acquiring meaning from scratch. Rather, we are talking about the ways that writers take established traditions, established genres, and familiar ideas and combine them in challenging ways. For example, good satires reveal themselves to be satires to attentive readers, even if that reader does not know the original text.

I find it hard to account for your dismissals of Woolf; I will do you the justice of assuming that her status as “poor Ms. Woolf,” the lousy novelist, is not connected to her being female.

Nor it is easy for me to understand your complaint against experimentation; not only was Joyce experimental, Proust was a “true” experimenter as well. So were all the writers (hundreds of years earlier) who invented that curious form “the novel.”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/02/07 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad, you’ve written here on behalf of formalism before; I think that your description of Woolf as not a competent writer shows the poverty of that approach.

By on 02/02/07 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"For example, good satires reveal themselves to be satires to attentive readers, even if that reader does not know the original text.”

Good only in the sense of ‘satirically effective’, not in the sense of ‘good literature’. To claim the latter would be to make aesthetics utilitarian, and grounded in function.

As for Woolf, what is hard to account for? Is it pure coincidence that I dislike almost all female fiction-writing? (I’ll make exceptions for Shelley, Emily Bronte, Unica Zurn, and maybe a couple others.) It’s quite probable that I dislike Woolf’s work for the same reason as other female writing, though I haven’t bothered to sit down and work it out, and for all I know that is a chimera. I do try to be optimistic when I read novels by women, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.

Joyce experimented, but he did not leave his experiments in experimental form. First and foremost he was an engineer, a scientist. Just as a scientist uses experiments as means to another end, so did Joyce. When experiments become your end, you wind up with the worst parts of OuLiPo, or Irvine Welsh. Or that obnoxious middle bit in “Beloved”. Or Impressionism.

If all you mean by ‘experiment’ is ‘do something new’, then we’re talking at crass purposes.

For what it’s worth, I agree with your original points about seeking points of difficulty and difference, rather than parallels, as a foundation. That, in fact, is the absolute bedrock of classical exegesis, of which I am so fond.

By Conrad on 02/02/07 at 12:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, the circularity of your ‘argument’ is deliciously succinct.

By Conrad on 02/02/07 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment


My discomfort with the exam structure that forces students to write headnotes before they’ve read their lists has precisely this root; it’s as though they want us to say, “In these books, I expect to find the following.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  I’m focusing on history and memory, because I had to pick something, so my exam reading consists of underlining every instance of history or memory and writing “history” or “memory” in the margin.  Unsatisfying.

By tomemos on 02/02/07 at 04:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad, appreciation of literature is in part a matter of taste, in part a matter of understanding.  Judging Woolf as not a competent writer shows a failure of both.  The fact that this judgement is embedded within a formalist attack on experimentation, combined with your previous writing, indicates that formalism is most likely at fault for your failure to appreciate Woolf.

Thus formalism, at least to the extent that you advocate, is an impoverished approach, because it prevents you from appreciating certain forms of literature.  There is no iron-clad ‘argument’ that I can make that Woolf that was a good or great writer that you would accept, since her work purposefully does not have the formal qualities that you’d look for.  But, at a certain point, the consensus of critical judgement is enough.  Someone could argue that Woolf was merely competent, but arguing that she was not competent is so far removed from the judgement of people I’d trust that I think it’s reasonable to assume that the flaw is in your appreciation, especially since you presented it as a pseudo-impersonal judgement on the quality of her work, rather than a personal dislike.

The later post in which you say that you dislike almost all female fiction-writing does make it more likely that it may be a personal failing rather than one of formalism per se.  But one presumably encourages or leads to the other.

By on 02/02/07 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"it prevents you from appreciating certain forms of literature”

All outlooks prevent one from appreciating certain examples--and even certain forms--of literature. I would rather be discerning than blandly appreciate all things. And whatever it is you choose to dislike, I might turn around and say that your approach was impoverished because it prevented you from appreciating it. As it happens I do not impose my ‘approach’ on works before I read them, and sometimes I read something that forces me to refine or even re-evaluate my criteria. The approach is, therefore, ultimately a posteriori.

“the consensus of critical judgement is enough”

That’s where we differ. Back to your flock, my friend.

“a pseudo-impersonal judgement”

As you brilliantly note, all judgements are personal. Do I really have to append “I think” or “in my opinion” to my statements?

“a personal failing”

I also dislike almost all drama, almost all non-Western literature, almost all poetry, and, indeed, almost all people. You may assemble the executioners now.

By Conrad H. Roth on 02/02/07 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, Conrad, I suppose there’s not much point in accusing you of misogyny, since you just come out and say it at the beginning.  This is the sort of thing that people call “refreshing honesty”; I would too, if I weren’t so nauseated.  It does seem worth noting the degree to which your misogyny permeates your views on literature, even with male writers.  “First and foremost [Joyce] was an engineer, a scientist” - nothing so feminine as a craftsman or, say, a writer.  As for “trying to be optimistic” and occasionally finding yourself “pleasantly surprised” … well, if you’re surprised, you apparently have not internalized that attempt at optimism.  I hope that one day someone who doesn’t know you tells you that they were pleasantly surprised by your performance at a task, because then you’ll understand how insulting that is.

Can you name the “reason” that causes you to dislike Woolf along with “other female writing”?  You must have forgotten to give this in your earlier comment.  It seems important for the discussion, given that I have no idea what characteristics Woolf might share with, say, Toni Morrison, the one other female writer you bother to allude to.

I have no idea what it could possibly mean to say that Joyce did not “did not leave his experiments in experimental form.” Finnegan’s Wake seems almost an unfair example here, so I’ll just say that a literary experiment, if published, is always in experimental form.  It’s true that the best writers will give an idea of what the experiment is meant to accomplish, but this doesn’t make “Penelope” any less surprising or challenging today.  None of this has anything to do with Woolf, who was an extremely purposeful writer.

Rich, as someone who has dabbled in and admired formalism, let me assure you that not all formalists feel this way.  In fact it is very possible to appreciate Woolf’s work for purely formal, rather than historical or message-based, reasons: her masterful handling of time, her skill at defamiliarization, etc.  Conrad is showing the poverty of a categorical approach; we can’t assess his formal arguments against Woolf until he gives any.

By tomemos on 02/02/07 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think what you need, buddy, is a humour injection. You’re 100% right that I made no arguments towards my criticism of Woolf. Given this, it seems somewhat churlish of you to make it an issue. It could not possibly have been intended as knock-down critique--it was just a grump. Take it as such.

As for my ‘misogyny’, do you even know what this word means? Misanthropy might be more accurate in my case, but it hardly applies to the discussion at hand. My dislike of fiction written by women is purely an empirical phenomenon. I read a bunch of books by women, and dislike most of them. Ergo, I conclude that--assuming it was a representative sample--I don’t like books written by women. I don’t dislike them because they’re written by women [ie. and because I dislike women]. You could accuse me of that, with your suspicious little mind--and unconsciously it might well be true--but in fact you would have no real grounds for such an accusation. I am pleasantly surprised sometimes--not because I hate women, but because statistically they have a low hit-rate for me.

I was recently surprised to see some pre-Raph drawings that I liked--surprised for the same reason.

You ask me for a reason, and yet I’ve already admitted “I haven’t bothered to sit down and work it out”. Frankly, as much as it would illuminate the conversation, I don’t regard it as a particularly good use of my time. Sorry.

I am hardly showing the “poverty” of any approach; I have hardly even discussed anything to do with formalism. I have merely enunciated my taste, which happens to clash with yours. You’re just throwing words around that you don’t seem to understand. (And it should go without saying that a formalist could appreciate Virginia Woolf. Labelling me a formalist, while true, is just not very useful in this respect.)

Lastly, what is this Finnegan’s Wake you allude to? I haven’t read it, sounds like a corker. Joyce’s last masterpiece Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, was a one-year experiment augmented by 16 odd years of hard graft. Good literature needs good hard graft, and Between the Acts, to pick one example of many, just seems tossed off.

By Conrad H. Roth on 02/02/07 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad, I don’t know what you do academically, but I had the impression that you were in literary studies or English.  If so, then a statement like “Woolf is not a competent writer” is not merely a personal judgement.  It speaks to your ability to understand and teach literature.  Even if I disliked almost all poetry, I would still think that I had to be able to understand what people appreciated about it in order to write about it or to teach a poetry course.  You don’t seem to understand why people appreciate Woolf.

And interpretation of texts is generally considered to be only meaningful within a tradition.  That means that, like it or not, the consensus of critical judgement is important; you can go against it, but to casually do so to such an extreme disagree indicates that you haven’t thought about the matter as one would expect someone in literary studies to.  It’s the consensus, after all, that defines the meaning of competence as it applies to literary writing; you can have your own personal definition, but if everyone has their own personal definition for words, then communication is difficult.

As for whether a formalist could appreciate Woolf; you expressed your statements as a dislike of experimentation, so that’s pretty much all I have to go on.  It’s a dislike that I associate with the more arid aspects of formalism.

Lastly: “All outlooks prevent one from appreciating certain examples--and even certain forms--of literature. I would rather be discerning than blandly appreciate all things. And whatever it is you choose to dislike, I might turn around and say that your approach was impoverished because it prevented you from appreciating it.”

But certain outlooks prevent you from appreciating *more* examples and forms than others.  That’s why I chose the word “impoverished”—the poor person has less than the rich person.  You, for example, say that you dislike “almost all drama, almost all non-Western literature, almost all poetry”.  Whatever the reason for this dislike, I wouldn’t want it.

By on 02/02/07 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I have published on Eng. lit., but have since moved out of the field. The current state of crit is just not something that particularly interests me. I know this, because for one of my jobs I write subject analyses of articles in humanities journals, so all day long I get to read lit articles, and the vast, vast majority of them stink, and of those that don’t stink, most address concerns not my own, eg. politics or feminism. The majority of lit articles are nothing more than glorified value judgements, or lazy rehashings of fashionable theory.

I can readily understand why people like Woolf. I can even understand why people like Gilbert Sorrentino, who is a far more offensive writer. In fact the history of taste is something I’m increasingly interested in. I don’t know why you make the leap from “Conrad thinks Woolf is shit” to “Conrad literally cannot understand how anyone could like Woolf”. If you don’t like “competent”, feel free to substitute “good”. It really doesn’t matter to me.

“to casually do so indicates...”

It indicates nothing of the sort. The current consensus on Woolf is a historical contingency. All sorts of writers have been summarily dismissed and later rehabilitated, or vice versa. Part of the reason I left lit studies is that my tastes are at such odds with the Canon (or at least some parts of it… after all you can hardly get more canonical than Joyce).

My more carefully-worded later statements should make clear my feelings on experimentation. Joyce’s 16 years would have been impossible without the 1 year, but his 1 year would have been wasted without the 16 years. Dispositio as important as inventio, etc.

“Whatever the reason for this dislike, I wouldn’t want it.”

Fair enough, I can understand that. This is why I don’t read for pleasure, and why I don’t study lit any more.

By Conrad H. Roth on 02/02/07 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Conrad, it is of no benefit to anyone to tell this much about yourself on a thread about literary matters, rather than personal or inter-personal ones. Your statements about writing by women are sexist; there is no commonality between women writers even remotely comparable to the stylistic similarities of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Many readers of Woolf are less fond of Between the Acts then of her other novels; a whole life’s work is not worthless just because one effort didn’t fully succeed. Your characterization of Woolf’s writing as “tossed off” is completely at odds with her biography.

All of which reminds me that I’d like to begin moving from Joyce, Pynchon, and Nabokov, to some other writers, and am inspired now to try for some gender balance. I would hate to be lending a helping hand to male chauvinist complacence.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/03/07 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"male chauvinist complacence”

Many things may be said of me, Joseph. But I have never been, am not, and never will be, complacent.

My statements were bounded by a sceptical “quite probable”, and by an even more sceptical “for all I know that is a chimera”.

I have hardly said anything about myself. But I will say this: I am more questioning that you ever will be--you, who blogroll me purely because I have blogrolled you, rather than out of any genuine interest--you, who desire to address female writers purely so as to avoid “lending a helping hand” to chauvinists.

Everything you have done is mere gesture.

By Conrad H. Roth on 02/03/07 at 09:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Skeptical phrases weaken an argument by demonstrating an unspecific lack of confidence. They do not change its nature.

Everything you have done is mere gesture.

Ah, guilty as charged. I haven’t been able to get anywhere classifying virtual writing on the Internet according to a divide between gesture and substance.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 02/03/07 at 09:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I haven’t been able to get anywhere classifying virtual writing on the Internet according to a divide between gesture and substance.”

Said virtual writing will be more interesting when you do.

By Conrad on 02/03/07 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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