Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

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

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

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

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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

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

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

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

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Waiting for the Barbarians

Posted by John Holbo on 04/21/05 at 11:05 AM

This is a review I've been meaning to write for a while. What has finally defeated my intertia is a sense that my theme will complement Amardeep's dual review of Hariharan and Byatt, while constituting a platform for critical response to some of Daniel Green's expressions of aesthetic purism.

My book is J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. I've never read any other Coetzee. I read it because my mother-in-law left it on a table. The sum of my critical knowledge of Coetzee derives from James Wood, "Coetzee's Disgrace: A Few Skeptical Thoughts", in The Irresponsible Self. Of course I am aware he is a Nobel Prize winner, too.

Wood says Disgrace "is a very good novel, almost too good a novel ... It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel." Twisting that, I say Waiting sometimes reads like an exam-winner whose challenge was to create  the perfect cautionary lesson in how not to compose an allegory. Perfection here requires excellence along every major axis, save the allegorical, from a novel that is essentially allegorical. (A form of solving for all the variables, if you like.) This is a snarky complaint but I don't mean it harshly. I read and enjoyed the novel for its fine points while at the same time having a strong sense of it as just plain put together wrong. It contains an error.

Wood does not agree. He says Waiting, Coetzee's "finest allegory, set in a nameless empire with resemblances to turn-of-the-century South Africa, has an Orwellian power" (p. 246). No, I think the novel is not Orwellian, at least not in the way I think is being implied here. Flipping over my Coetzee copy, more misdirection from a Bernard Levin blurb: "Mr. Coetzee knows the elusive terror of Kafka." I wouldn't know, but this novel gives me no indication it is true. 'Kafkaesque' is one of the world's great vague predicates. But this novel is not it. I say: Coetzee is conflicted as between Orwell and Kafka, if we take these two as exemplifying contrastive modes of allegorical composition. Which we may. From Coetzee we learn not to mix.

Let me work up to that by way of what I liked. The first paragraph:

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. "They protect one's eyes against the glare of the sun," he says. "You would find them useful out here in the desert. They save one from squinting all the time. One has fewer headaches. Look." He touches the corners of his eyes lightly. "No wrinkles." He replaces the glasses. It is true. He has the skin of a younger man. "At home everyone wears them."

I like the chill. It seems even more like Gene Wolfe when you find out the faintly theatrical Colonel Joss in dark glasses is a professional torturer. Coetzee does well at establishing, immediately, a sort of archetypical indefiniteness in time as well as in space. It certainly isn't the start of the 20th Century, since the narrator - our civilized although rusticated protagonist - has not only never seen sunglasses, he's never seen glasses. On the other hand, the man in dark glasses is from the feared Third Bureau, which sounds modern enough. Paper shuffling in the service of suffering. So we are on a painfully stretched line, nowhen, on the border between nameless Empire and Barbarians.

Our protagonist is the Magistrate, who has grown not discontentedly grey in the not dishonorable service of Empire, overseeing this backwater. With the arrival of Joss, his doom commences. The Barbarians are massing for war against Empire, hence Joss' presence. This, the Magistrate knows, is nonsense. He also does not approve of the senseless torture of obviously innocent old men and boys who have the ill-luck to be picked up by patrols. Eventually the untenability of his position is made clear. He cannot go through the motions of duty, while consoling himself with private pursuits - reading the classics, archealogical digs for parchment in the ruins under the dunes south of the settlement. Our magistrate is an impotent humanist - despised by simple, instrumentally-strong militarist minds; uncomprehended by the barbarians. He is ground down between the two. An unsatisfactory romance with a torture-crippled barbarian woman, a Quixotic venture into barbarian territory to return her to her people. Removed from authority and thrown in jail as a traitor. Tortured, beaten, humiliated, baited like a bear. "There is no consoling grandeur in any of this. When I wake up groaning in the night it is because I am reliving in dreams the pettiest degradations. There is no way of dying allowed me, it seems, except like a dog in a corner." He is made to dress in a women's calico smock and a terrifying mock-hanging is staged to strip him of every last vestige of dignity and humanity.

At this point let me jump back to Wood on Disgrace. I am relying on his plot summary, which I assume is accurate. The protagonist, Lurie, "feels himself to be something of an irrelevance, a traditional humanist with a love of the Romantic poets in a world of student illiteracy and snarling theory." He has an unsatisfactory romance with a student which loses him his job as a professor. He goes to live with his estranged daughter. Her house is robbed and she is gang-raped. The reveries and racially-defined fears of an impotent intellectual, set on fire then locked in a bathroom, helpless to help his daughter: "He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but French and italian will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what is left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see."

Lurie sounds more than a bit like the Magistrate: the same intellectual humanism, cut with anxious conservatism; a sympathy for the natives tinged with faintly patronizing moral superiority, now submerged in nightmare. Right down to being forced to wear the silly dress. (Its the agents of Empire who get the Magistrate, the Barbarians who get Lurie. Rock, hard place. Very uncomfortable.)

I'm not working up to a foolish complaint that Coetzee must be guilty of recycling one tale of "white liberal fatalism", as Wood puts it. Nothing wrong with reworking a large theme, so long as you do it well. Not to mention I've only read one of the novels and they are obviously pretty different. My critical point is that, as shown by his appearance in Disgrace, this character is highly culturally particular. Wood compares Disgrace to Fathers and Sons because it is a tale of intergeneration strife under highly particular cultural/historical pressures. I think no one would say Turgenev's novel is about fathers and sons in all times and places. It's about mid-19th Century Russia, just as Coetzee's novel is about late 20th Century South Africa. (This is oversimple, yes. But perhaps you see my point.)

Getting back to Waiting, it is precisely the non-archetypal quality of the nameless Magistrate's character that undermines the compositional decision to grind him between archetypally nameless Empire and Barbarians. This sort of man does not arise nowhere, at no time. There is no sense of a mythic or primordial inevitability to his appearance and destruction whenever these other two elements touch. So if he is here - and he is - then he is here for no sufficient reason, or our author is simply concealing for no good reason where and when we actually are.

But perhaps there are sound reasons for this concealment? I wouldn't know how to set about proving the negative, but let us think about Orwell and Kafka. Take Animal Farm, which takes the Soviet history in barnyard code mapping a few steps too far into pedantic completeness. But the basic decision to tell a simple, unambiguous, unmistakable allegory has a coherent philosophical motivation in Orwell's conviction that the moral truth in these cases is plain if you will only have the plain courage to see and state it plainly. Go reread "Politics and the English Language". (You don't have to agree with it, but it makes sense of this use of the tool of allegory.) 1984, which is a more likely object of comparison to Waiting, has a slightly more complex justification for its allegorical form. I think it is Orwell's view and message that Winston is, in some sense, Everyman. More specifically, in the archetypical environment of the World of Big Brother, there will be Winstons. You might think this shows the author's philosophy of personhood is unsound. Too Cartesian, or however you want to put it. But, given the philosophy, the allegorical mode makes sense as an effective vehicle. By contrast, I have no sense that Coetzee thinks that his Magistrate is Everyman, in any sense. So an Orwellian allegorical mode is unsuitable; it simply rubs itself raw, shedding the social and cultural particularity that should be here. Wood gets at this, though not by way of making this point:

Coetzee is always praised for his dignified bleakness, for the "tautness" or carefulness of grim efficiency of his prose, which is certainly good enough to embarrass the superfluous acreage of many supposedly richer stylists. But there is a point beyond which pressurized shorthand is no longer an enrichment but an impoverishment, and an unnatural containment. It is the point at which ellipsis becomes a formalism, a kind of aestheticism, in which fiction is no longer presenting complexity but is in fact converting complexity into its own too-certain language.

Wood has his examples. Mine is: the Magistrate has no business being as archetypal as Empire and Barbarian keep trying to imply he is, in the process of destroying him.

Actually, here's a nice example. Wood writes: "as a consciousness he is little more than a conduit from Coetzee's taut language, which makes Lurie too often merely the voyeur of his own weary clarities." The Magistrate, gone hunting, who finds he has lost the will to kill the prey: "My pulse does not quicken: evidently it is not important to me that the ram die."

Getting back to philosophy, rereading these paragraphs, it would seem I am applying the following test. If a novel is an attempt to convey a political perspective or philosophy, the form must suit the content, not undermine it. So you don't grade the quality of the philosophy, just the efficacy of its conveyance. That's wrong, of course, if only because it is certainly possible to have a philosophy bad enough that efficient expression does neither it, nor author nor reader, any favors. Also, because ambiguous self-undermining can be a fine thing. But I do think the rule applies in this case. Coetzee is not achieving any Orwellian ideal of clear ideas through windowglass prose, or any subtle critique of this ideal. He's just undernourishing the ideas he's got.

You might try to fight this criticism by saying actually there is more allegorical complexity in Coetzee, which carries us over to Kafka. If Kafka wrote a novel about a nameless Magistrate in a nameless settlement between Empire and Barbarians, it would be very different than Coetzee's novel. We can imagine the hermeneutic contending that might ensue. Perhaps the Barbarians are God, who has retreated so we cannot find him. Or the Barbarians are the subconscious, Empire is superego. Or the settlement is the office where Kafka works, Empire is father and Barbarians are mother. Not that these inviting, competing lines are necessarily what make Kafka good - or maybe they are, I don't know - but we can acknowledge that Kafka does give one the sense of characteristic moods (the Kafkaesque ones - you know) projected through so many dimensions: psychological, religious, metaphysical, autobiographical, social. Last but not least, there are the multiple awfulnesses of, and done to, the Kafkaesque body. [Belle chimes in: that damn apple that gets caught in Gregor's carapace; the cotton wool on rollers that daubs your back when you are being inscribed in the penal colony.] The 'elusiveness' of Kafkaesque terror - to return to Bernard Levin's blurb - is maybe the supersaturation of every possible line of allegorical reading (you can't isolate what is everywhere), plus the hideous bodyishness of it all. Coetzee's protagonists suffer nightmarishly. But then you realize that you should have saved 'nightmare' for a more precisely appropriate occasion: a Kafka scenario. Coetzee's protagonists suffer as Winston suffers. They are tortured and broken. Their lives don't consist of patent, prospective dream elements.

Kafkaesque allegorical polyvalence and body nightmare is not what Coetzee's novel gives us. And, again, it is the Magistrate's fault. We know who he is: he is a real person, not a symbol or a dream element. So he anchors Empire and Barbarian alike to his level, which is the level of political misery suitable to a doomed, impotent, white male liberal humanist of a certain sort. Those other two are not going to float off and become id and superego, or God, or Coetzee's parents, or anything of the sort.

Coetzee feints in the directions of multiple allegorical readings, but doesn't follow through. If this were a very different book, there would be an emblem of its complexities, preprepared in the book for handy use by interpreters. The Magistrate is an amateur archaeologist who digs up old bits of parchment - slips - covered with unintelligible symbols. The Magistrate is tempted to make kabbalistic combinations, which he speculates may tell him whether - long ago - another Magistrate like him grew old here in the service of Empire and was overcome by Barbarians.

There were two hundred and fifty-six slips in the bag. Is it by chance that the number is perfect? After I had first counted them and made this discovery I cleared the floor of my office and laid them out, first in one great square, then in sixteen smaller squares, then in other combinations, thinking that what I had hitherto taken to be characters in a syllabary might in fact be elements of a picture whose outline would leap at me if I struck on the right arrangement: a map of the land of the barbarians in olden times, or a representation of a lost pantion. I have even found myself [there's that weary voyeurism again] reading slips in a mirror, or tracing one on top of another, or conflating half of one with half of another.

Then, after the nightmare is underway, he is accused of using these slips to communicate in code with the enemy. A very nice, sarcastic confession-exegesis is his rebuttal, during which the reduced and humiliated Magistrate pretends to read all. It concludes:

"Now let us see what the next one says. See, there is only a single character. It is the barbarian character war, but it has other senses too. It can stand for vengeance, and, if you turn it upside down like this, it can be made to read justice. There is no knowing which sense is intended. That is a part of barbarian cunning."

"It is the same with the rest of these slips." I plunge my good hands into the chest and stir. "They form an allegory. They can be read in many orders. Further, each single slip can be read in many ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan of war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history of the last years of the Empire - the old Empire, I mean. There is no agreement among scholars about how to interpret  these relics of the ancient barbarians."

But the novel itself is nothing like the this fable of semantically slippery slips. The novel does not have multiple allegorical readings. Scenes like this seem to me only to highlight this absence, when I suspect they are supposed to defeat it by stimulating complexity.

So I say Coetzee gives us neither Orwellian simplicity nor Kafkaesque complexity, nor manages something in between. It sounds to me like Disgrace is the better novel because it is about what the man wants to write about: a particular time and place.

What this has to do with Amardeep's post I now can't remember. You tell me.

What it has to do with aesthetic purism may be this: you obviously can't depoliticize this novel. No more so that you can dechromaticize a colorful painting. Coetzee works in the medium of political concepts the way painters work in color. In comments, Daniel said he thinks "Literature is literature and life is life." This seems to me as difficult to make sense of as the notion that yellow in a painting of a lemon is very different than yellow on a real life lemon. No, yellow is yellow. (You can throw a few twists in at this point, but you come back to: yellow is yellow.) Likewise, literature and life have the same things in them. They contain the things meant by terms like 'Empire', 'Barbarian', 'white liberal fatalism'. You can play with them: you can stretch and twist and abstract That's how allegories are made, often. But if someone doesn't understand these terms, in life, then the aesthetic effects of someone's workings in this medium will be as inaccessible as the effects of color on a color-blind person. (Can a color-blind person enjoy a painting intended for those who see color? It depends, but probably. Can a person who doesn't understand politics enjoy a book that is a political allegory? It depends, but probably. But we shouldn't say: so then understanding real-life politics is not a prerequisite for understanding political art; no more so that we would say: so you don't need to see color to appreciate colorful painting.)

Disputes about aesthetic purism, such as Daniel tends to get embroiled in, tend to get thumbnailed as disputes about historicism, because the question is usually whether some backstory should be filled in, pedagogically. Political cluenessness - just to stick with a likely suspect - is something that gets more extreme the further away from ourselves we go, as a rule. Elizabethan politics is more alien than feuding Democrats and Republicans, unless you are an unusual person. But history isn't the issue. History is just contingently correlated with cluelessness, which is the issue. The issue is non-comprehension of what you are reading about. If you read a novel about feuding Democrats and Republicans, and you haven't a clue about American politics, you won't get it. The aesthetic effects of the book - jokes, or ironic commentary, or polemic, or whatever - are almost sure to be a function of understanding what is going on. If you want someone to appreciate the aesthetic effects, you teach them about politics. Just as if you want someone to experience the happy effects of a colorful painting, you direct them to look at the color. You don't lecture them about the happy effects of the color.

This seems to me like quite a trivial point, but telling. The connection with Coetzee is just this: in order to appreciate the aesthetic flaw in the novel (if I am right), you have to understand politics and human psychology. No doubt history could help. But it isn't clear a history lesson is needed, as opposed to a politics lesson or a psychology lesson. There is a conceptual problem with the political allegory in the novel. You need to understand concepts. Then you see the construction problem.

Once you see it this way, there are simpler proofs. Any implausibility in a novel can be an aesthetic flaw (if it is not somehow a virtue, which can also be the case.) But to see the flaw you need to see the implausibility. But the fact that some events in a novel are implausible is not something you notice by 'engaging with it aesthetically', although you may happen to be aesthetically engaged, and noticing may effect your aesthetic judgment. The simple proof of this is that there is no reason to suppose someone utterly aesthetically disengaged would be any less good at judging the plausibility of narrated events. (Does this make sense? Would that really happen?)

I am actually rather sympathetic to Daniel's purism, although I don't share it. Because I interpret it as not literally meant. It's argufying. (I love that Empson term and use it often for this sort of bop on the nose.)  If you think there is too much X in literary life, say that nothing X is literary! Then, if you are lucky, you'll get 10% less X, and you'll be happier. (I had this Shakespeare prof who was really good, but he insisted on an incredibly narrow sort of close reading, which he was really good at. He told us that no other sort of reading was possible. It was like someone made the best strawberry ice cream on earth, and you never thought you liked strawberry. But this stuff was good. And then the guy says: chocolate doesn't exist. It's sort of pushing your luck to try to push people that far into strawberry partisanship.)

I actually feel a bit bad criticizing Daniel, because he has been subjected to excessively harsh attacks in comments and elsewhere. When Daniel is such a good guy. Oh, well. Another day we'll sort all that out.


Comments

Could you expand on that a little?

By John Emerson on 04/21/05 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What this has to do with Amardeep’s post I now can’t remember. You tell me.

Hariharan and Byatt’s characters hunger for Truths, sort of, except the structure of their lives (or the way they are presented to the reader, or both) implicitly deny the possibility. This frisson is part of the author’s intended effect.

Similarly, a large part of Coetzee’s effect comes from the ambiguous relationship between his (perfectly mundane and contingent) protagonist and several archetypes that—rather than remaining shadowy conceptualizations like good archetypes are supposed to—seem to have direct material effect upon his world.

The basic philosophical problem shared by these works of art is the status of archetypes, or of Truths. (For the purpose of this discussion they seem to share an ontological genus.)

Getting back to Waiting, it is precisely the non-archetypal quality of the nameless Magistrate’s character that undermines the compositional decision to grind him between archetypally nameless Empire and Barbarians. ... There is no sense of a mythic or primordial inevitability to his appearance and destruction whenever these other two elements touch.

Perhaps that is the point, and no allegory is intended? Perhaps this is straight phenomenological reportage? Perhaps South African intellectuals experience archetypes as disembodied but very real and animated presences in their otherwise ordered provincial lives? One’s day is constituted by interactions with the morning newspaper, lunch at the faculty club, student essays to be graded, The Internet and Colonialism?

By pierre on 04/21/05 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting post, John. Certainly like where you’re going with it, even if I’d take Wood’s review of Disgrace with a major grain of salt.

(Believe it or not, I’m teaching Disgrace to first-year undergrads this week, and we discussed Wood’s review yesterday in class. Their response - direct quote: “I don’t think Wood really gets the novel.” Me neither.)

One thing: “The connection with Coetzee is just this: in order to appreciate the aesthetic flaw in the novel (if I am right), you have to understand politics and human psychology.”

Where you say “aesthetic flaw,” I’m more likely to say something like “etiology of the symptom.”

This is where “your” or “their” interest in judgment becomes our interest in analysis, and hopefully a sort of aesthetically inflected historicism. That’s what I do in my work, anyway… In some senses the same thing, but the ends are different…

(Perhaps more to say about the Coetzee stuff later, when I get a chance… Nice post though...)

By cultrev on 04/21/05 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Coetzee puzzles me in being a writer I should like more. His background in maths & lit studies, his experience as a programmer, his interest in linguistics etc, align with my own; but what I’ve read—Doubling the Point, The Master of Petersburg (on Dostoevsky)—has disappointed. The latter probably suffered by comparison to concurrent reading of Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm (on Bruno Shulz, or his putative heir) ... but also by contrast to what subsequent Russians did with Dusty (eg, Bely, the Author of Petersburg, does some fascinating east-meets-west parody of RussLit [particularly a good Gogol riff] in The Silver Dove, my current reading; and as a follow-on, an obligatory Nabokov reference provided). All of these aftermentioned works provide a more coherent deeper critical commentary on their source materials, as well as sharper, nay, gamier parody.

By on 04/21/05 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually agree with you about Waiting for the Barbarians, although my reasons for disliking it are different. The very fact that Coetzee “works in the medium of political concepts the way painters work in color” leaves me cold. “Political concepts” don’t have color. They’re aesthetically gray. They’re uninteresting in aesthetic terms. They’re just political. (I plead guilty to, at times, argufying. This is perhaps an example.)

Who would want to read a novel about “feuding Democrats and Republicans”?

That the Magistrate is not an “Everyman” or that the novel does not achieve “multiple allegorical readings” is a failure of imagination. You don’t need to know anything about “‘Empire’, ‘Barbarian’, ‘white liberal fatalism’” to realize this. It’s aesthetically thin. The most politically ignorant reader would sense this (perhaps this reader especially would sense it).

“Likewise, literature and life have the same things in them.”

Wrong. Life has people and events and landscapes and corner drugstores. Things. Literature has words. Good writers put together words in interesting ways. Sometimes they fool us into thinking that their books are full of “things,” but they’re not. Coetzee writes better than Orwell, but they both are under the delusion they’re writing about these “things.” (Kafka is not under this delusion. It’s why he’s a great writer.)

I really do not feel “subjected to excessively harsh attacks in comments and elsewhere.” The position I take on aesthetic issues is so unusual these days, so not where the action is, that many people seem not to believe I could actually hold them.

By Daniel Green on 04/21/05 at 06:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Literature does indeed have words. But those words are printed or written inside books, and books are things, material objects circulating in a complex marketplace. It is the interplay of these two elements that so fascinates.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 06:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know how you can discuss Waiting for the Barbarians and Kafka without also discussing <i>In the Penal Colony<i>.  That story is clearly a precursor to the novel and much of Coetzee’s other work as well. 

Your reference to God, id/ego/superego, father/mother and other such Kafka cliches is a bit of a misdirection in that respect.  The theme of the Penal Colony is how to be just, how to do justice on this earth in the context of our physical bodies that have such capacity for pain and suffering.  That lesson, in both Kafka and Coetzee, seems to involve the reversal of ruler and subject, the physical debasement of the former master. 

To me the influence of Kafka on Coetzee is overwhelming.  I don’t see much if any Orwell in Coetzee and do not see the admixture of allegorical styles.  I also don’t find very convincing your attempt to downplay the Kafka influences.

By on 04/21/05 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Blah, I have confessed my ignorance of anything that isn’t in one novel or one essay on the novel. It doesn’t surprise me that Coetzee is influenced by Kafka, but I still don’t think this one novel shows that influence. I mention “In the Penal Colony” in the post, although in brackets. I don’t deny that interpreting Kafka in all these ways I mention is a bit cliched. (You’ll notice that I don’t pretend to be the originator of any of these lines.) I don’t think these lines are totally wrong, but they aren’t necessarily compelling. It seems to me a data point that all these lines are at least tempting (perhaps delusively) whereas they aren’t tempting when we read Coetzee. “Penal colony” is like other Kafka in this regard, and not like Coetzee. I think. It would seem to me like a possible example in favor of my thesis. I actually had it in mind, for what it’s worth. All this is consistent with Coetzee being very influenced by Kafka.

By John Holbo on 04/21/05 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well said, MJ.

For one thing, people who work in book history want to understand written and printed works in a historically-situated cultural context that is not necessarily separated from questions of aesthetics.

Similarly, but not quite so beholden to history, people who work in textual studies are as interested in the material qualities of the text (what Jerome McGann calls “bibliographic codes") as they are in the words contained within or upon the text (McGann’s “linguistic codes").

The fields overlap a good bit.

The aesthetics of a beautiful book can be as much bibliographic as linguistic. I’d rather read the Gutenberg Bible (or a digital facsimile) than the ASCII edition of the same content available from Project Gutenberg.

At the same time, I believe that what is considered beautiful in 2005 may not be what was considered beautiful in 1605. As many have observed, the prevalence of digital technologies has refocused attention on the qualities of analog texts. We attend to the printed book differently than we did even just twenty years ago. I would argufy that the Gutenberg Bible is beautiful in 2005 like it has never been before.

Further argufication: aesthetics and history are inseparable.

By gzombie on 04/21/05 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The theme of the Penal Colony is how to be just, how to do justice on this earth in the context of our physical bodies that have such capacity for pain and suffering.

Are you sure it’s not about how people get too personally attached to their little gadgets?

New for ‘06—the Apple iHarrow!

By pierre on 04/21/05 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John:

Ok, but I guess I just don’t see the Orwell anywhere, and thus none of the mixture that you complain about.  You suggest that Coetzee has undernourished some political idea or philosophy, but you don’t really say what that idea is.  I would be curious to hear what you think it is, since I don’t think it is there. 

The funny thing is that Coetzee was criticized during the early part of his career for being apolitical and not taking a clear stand during the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. I agree that Coetzee’s work is not particularly political.  Instead, like Kafka, Coetzee is much more interested in exploring the moral paradoxes facing individual suffering human beings.

By on 04/21/05 at 08:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The aesthetics of a beautiful book can be as much bibliographic as linguistic.”

Perhaps. But now you’re outside the realm of literature altogether. You’re talking about design, engineering, etc. JH’s post, and my response, were about the relationship between literature and life, not about “material objects circulating in a complex marketplace.”

By Daniel Green on 04/21/05 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That complex marketplace is certainly part of life, is it not?

Re. Coetzee and politics: the only novel of his that I have read is Foe, and that was certainly political. It is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of a woman. It’s got race, gender, and class; what’s not to love? But even those of you who don’t find those subjects compelling should still read it: it plays wonderfully with eighteenth-century language, for one thing. It is the best sort of historical novel: it doesn’t sentimentalize; it treats its subjects, and its readers, with respect. And the ending is brilliant: a segue into a high-Modernist hallucination, refracted through the present. And it works.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Re. Coetzee and politics: the only novel of his that I have read is Foe, and that was certainly political. It is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of a woman. It’s got race, gender, and class; what’s not to love?

Oops.  I forgot I was talking to people who work in literature departments, where they have a different meaning of “political” than the rest of the English speaking world.  Yes, in that broader sense, Coetzee is political (as is everybody and everything) but not in the narrower sense in which most people would consider Orwell, for instance, to be particularly politcal.

By on 04/21/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The marketplace is part of life, but it’s not part of literature.

By Daniel Green on 04/21/05 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Come now, blah. You sound like a very attentive reader, of the sort that it does Coetzee and Kafka great honor to have. And I do not doubt that you may have penetrated into the essential meaning of each man’s works. But how can you say that “Coetzee’s work is not particularly political” when we are discussing a novel about barbarians and empire, written by a Nobel prize-winner, who can expect his writing to be constantly analyzed for implied commentary on his own politically unusual country of South Africa? Coetzee cannot have been unaware of the expectations created by his choice of title, characters’ occupations, and so on. Barbarians, empire and magistrates are the matter of traditional politics, even if one scoffs at class gender and all that lit stuff.

I understand John Holbo to be saying “expectations of political commentary were created for me but seem to have remained unfulfilled”. This is a legit complaint. What was Coetzee up to? Or did he just not succeed in all his intentions for the novel?

By pierre on 04/21/05 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t see how literature can be read outside the marketplace; it is certainly not written outside. Whether it is the literal marketplace of sales, or the more rarefied marketplace of critical reception, all literature is written within a marketplace of one kind or another. Even literature which turns its back is, in some respects, responding, no?

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 08:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam, you acknowledge multiple marketplaces, but I’d suggest there are categorical differences possible between marketplaces. Calling every linguistic community a “marketplace” is strictly possible but does violence to the term.

Consider William Blake. Setting aside the fact that he put something of his own personality into his work and used characteristic phrases of their day and so on, Blake had messianic ideals and felt he was speaking to the future and to God, to an eternal audience of civilization.

Maybe some of the Chinese scholar-poets might be a better example than Blake. Of course they had some readership that exhibited a reciprocal influence, but they believed explicitly in this eternal audience of civilization. How did this happen? Because they self-consciously read their predecessors from “outside the marketplace” and wanted to continue the tradition.

(Do you want to say in response that the idea of the eternal audience of civilization is historically constrained? But it’s an aesthetic mode, not an idea.)

By pierre on 04/21/05 at 09:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know if I would call every linguistic community a marketplace, but I do think that there are other sorts of payment than royalty checks. Look at us bloggers, to veer off track a little: many of us blog for hits, for links; there is a blogging economy, largely separate from, but parallel to, the money economy. Reviews form another economy, not necessarily connected to the cash economy. Even the kudos from other disaffected goth teens form an economy, of sorts, for the young suburban poet.

I don’t know enough about Blake or Chinese scholar-poets to say too much, but I think that the extremity of these examples tends to bolster my point. And I would argue that no-one (well, perhaps Blake, because he seems a little bonkers) is “outside the marketplace.” How do those scholar poets live? Feed themselves? Buy their ink stones and brushes? How do they become scholar poets in the first place?

And forgive me, but I am fuzzy about the clear separation between an aesthetic mode and an idea.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sits at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed
many titles and names of honor.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t the worthy orators come as always
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why all of a sudden this unrest
and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)

Does this poem create expectations of political commentary?  Are those expectations fulfilled? 

If we expect to find political commentary in works of literarature, our expectations will often be disappointed.

I don’t think John’s complaint is legitimate because I have no expectations of political commentary in Coetzee, just as I have none for Kafka.

By on 04/21/05 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Flipping through some other blogs and noticed that Maud Newton posts a tidbit about Coetzee’s new, as of yet unpublished novel. Here is the news story.

The novel would appear to be about disability politics.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

a reading from “his new novel, the as yet unpublished Slow Man, which explores the travails of an elderly amputee, who is trying to adapt to life after losing his leg in a traffic accident. ‘He’s the kind of man you could call an old codger,’ Coetzee informed us, ‘except that you probably have to be English to be a codger.’"

What makes you think this is about disability politics?

By on 04/21/05 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And here is an interesting post about the politics of literary recognition. Specifically, some criticisms of the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It was, um, a joke.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, but I had expectations of political commentary and my expectations were disappointed.  That’s not funny.

By on 04/21/05 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"How do those scholar poets live? Feed themselves? Buy their ink stones and brushes? How do they become scholar poets in the first place?”

What difference does any of this make? Who cares how poets fed themselves? Is this more important than what they wrote?

By Daniel Green on 04/21/05 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know enough about Blake or Chinese scholar-poets to say too much, but I think that the extremity of these examples tends to bolster my point.

Just trying to get the point across with purest examples. I’m sure even Scott Fitzgerald, writing for the entertainment of the Jazz Age audience, felt that there was an essential part of his writing which partook of the eternal, even though it was wrapped in contingent garb. Well, perhaps he didn’t; I merely want to assert that he legitimately could have done.

And I would argue that no-one (well, perhaps Blake, because he seems a little bonkers) is “outside the marketplace.” How do those scholar poets live? Feed themselves? Buy their ink stones and brushes? How do they become scholar poets in the first place?

Their emotional life is outside the marketplace. Their creative life is outside the marketplace. Their marketplace life, of course, goes on simultaneously. I am not trying to convince you this is “true” but only get you to agree you can understand how one might see things this way. Think of it as a religious conviction which you do not share, that provides for a certain type of reading. One then reads Scott Fitzgerald as if there were some component of the book that is outside the marketplace, and it is part of the reader’s task to participate in the shared humanity of civilization by apprehending that part in particular.

I’m curious what Daniel will make of this—I think we agree in principle, but he may disavow my way of getting there.

And forgive me, but I am fuzzy about the clear separation between an aesthetic mode and an idea.

I could suggest that aesthetic modes were mysteriously hardwired into the limbic system but I wouldn’t be entirely serious. Still, the pastoral reliably makes me all misty, and quadratic equations don’t. What’s up with that?

By pierre on 04/21/05 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

blah: I don’t think John’s complaint is legitimate because I have no expectations of political commentary in Coetzee, just as I have none for Kafka.

It’s true that inappropriate expectations are the most common form of misreading, but in simply dismissing the original critique, you may be underestimating Coetzee as a writer, since he may be attempting something more subtle than, or at least slightly different than, his (apparently characteristic) Kafkaesque meditations on individual morality?

By pierre on 04/21/05 at 10:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am not trying to convince you this is “true” but only get you to agree you can understand how one might see things this way. Think of it as a religious conviction which you do not share, that provides for a certain type of reading.

This is a useful way to think of it. I had been thinking along the same lines myself, though not so eloquently, during some of the shaper exchanges on this blog last week. After all, would we really all want to agree?

But in the spirit of sharing my “religious convictions” with you: it is certainly difficult to imagine, in the West in 2005, emotional or creative life outside the marketplace. Admittedly, the case seems different for those scholar-monks on their mountains or wherever they were. But I have to say, I am dubious about the ideas of a “shared humanity of civilization” or hardwired aesthetic modes. I would agree that people in all places and times seem to have an aesthetic impulse, but I think we have to learn how to read the results. Across cultures, and within our own cultures as well.

By Miriam Jones on 04/21/05 at 10:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Shorter John Holbo: it’s the buzz of implication, stupid. 

That sounds snarky too, but I likewise don’t mean it at all unkindly.  That was a wonderful post--fascinatingly and delightfully (if, um, a bit exhaustively) explained.

I share the attraction to aesthetic purism (though I’d never admit it . . . whoops) without finding it really plausible, which is why I think it might be useful to redescribe what people are getting at when they say we should engage works aesthetically.  Aren’t they really saying: pay attention! Notice what counts, don’t be distracted by insignificant stuff.  Be the reader on whom nothing is lost?  If so, that’s not at all inconsistent with what you’re saying John, is it?

By on 04/21/05 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, I go away to teach my evening seminar and…

I’m sincerely interested in reading a modern rationale for an approach to literature characterized by the “Literature is literature and life is life” viewpoint.

I wrote, “The aesthetics of a beautiful book can be as much bibliographic as linguistic.”

Daniel responded, “Perhaps. But now you’re outside the realm of literature altogether.”

Says who? Can anyone name a work of literature that does not exist as a material object? What is the argument for not paying attention to the characteristics of that object in addition to the words and images it presents?

By gzombie on 04/22/05 at 12:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A work of literature exists as words printed on a page, or now on a screen in cyberspace. The future may bring additional changes in the way those words are brought to our attention. But again: So what? Works of literature that have so far passed the test of time have been published and reprinted in hundreds and thousands of different configurations. No one who cares about these works believes that the facts of their printing have anything to do with why they have passed the test of time: They continue to be compelling reading, no matter how the words are presented. I’ve read Moby-Dick in three or four different editions. I now don’t remember a damn thing about the “material objects,” but I do remember Moby-Dick

You may of course study the “object” as much as you’d like. If you are ostensibly studying literature, however, I, for one, don’t understand why you’d want to do this.

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On what John calls the “concealment” or abstraction of the setting of Waiting for the Barbarians.

The analogue that comes to my mind immediately is Heart of Darkness, which, along with Kafka, has to be behind Barbarians. (Kafka and Conrad share a preoccupation with the rationality and irrationality of bureaucratic modernity…

It can be hard to remember sometimes, but it’s important to keep in mind that Heart of Darkness itself is geographically indistinct, or almost indistinct. Especially within Marlow’s interior narrative. Look as hard as you like, you won’t find the word “Congo” or “Belgium.” The Thames appears at the opening, but nothing else…

So the question is why? I think the most persuasive answer is Edward Said’s, in Culture and Imperialism:

“Let us return to Conrad and to what I have been referring to as the second, less imperialistically assertive possibility offered by Heart of Darkness. Recall once again that Conrad sets the story on the deck of a boat anchored in the Thames; as Marlow tells his story the sun sets, and by the end of the narrative the heart of darkness has reappeared in England; outside the group of Marlow’s listeners lies an undefined and unclear word. Conrad sometimes seems to want to fold that world into the imperial metropolitan discourse represented by Marlow, but by virtue of his own dislocated subjectivity he resists the effort and succeeds in so doing, I have always believed, largely through formal devices. Conrad’s self-consciously circular narrative forms draw attention to themselves as artificial constructions, encouraging us to sense the potential of a reality that seemed inaccessible to imperialism, just beyond its control, and that only after Conrad’s death in 1924 acquired a substantial presence.”

(Side point: another good example of what I’d call aesthetically sensitive historicism, by the way…)

In other words, the abstracted setting of the novella registers an abstract, artificiality inherent in the operation of imperialism itself. Setting mirrors form mirrors political process, in a sense the fictionality of that process.

Anyway, doesn’t the Magistrate say somewhere in Barbarians “space is space” – while nonetheless digging into the sand, looking for the buried foundations of this raw, abstract space?

On Disgrace: yes, we certain get a bit of localization in the work: Cape Town, the eastern Cape… But in this one, there’s something else missing, something that has to be there: reference to the Truth and Reconciliation commission. Why the realism on every point but this one? Surely the TRC would come up at some point, given what’s going on with Lurie, his Botha-ism… What do you think is afoot there? Just artificially erased from the record for the sake of establishing allegorical distance? Or something more complex?

By cultrev on 04/22/05 at 01:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel,

You keep building this fence around “studying literature.” Everyone else can do their theory, historicistic stuff, their raceclassgender, their bibliographical work, anything they like - but just don’t call that the study of literature.

I’d love to hear your positive definition of what the study of literature exactly is… Just so we can all be clear on what we’re not doing…

By cultrev on 04/22/05 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Cultrev:  You’ve answered your own question. It’s what’s left when you’ve exhausted your “theory, historicistic stuff, . . .raceclassgender, . . .bibliographical work.” It will still be around then. It’s what academic critics aren’t paying attention to while they do “anything they like.”

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s just not enough, Daniel. Sounds like grumpy-old-man-ism to me.

It’s whatever the damned kids aren’t doing…

Can’t reach down for a positive definition? How the hell are we supposed to do what you want us to do if you can’t even tell it what it is that we’re supposed to be doing? Other than that it’s definitely not what we’re doing now?

By cultrev on 04/22/05 at 01:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If you don’t know what it means to read a poem/story/novel/play for what it has to offer as something different than other kinds of writing, and to explore your own response to the experience, I probably can’t help you.

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 01:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, that really sounds like old-guyism. Grumpiness. “If you don’t already know, I surely can’t tell you.” I’ll try that on my students on Monday and see how they react.

But as a matter of fact I do know how and why to read literature for its difference from other modes of discourse - and so does Said in my comment above. Fictional narrative provides a map of - even a sort of performative theory of - the way narrative functions in the world. Certainly different than other kinds of writing. Even theory can only indirectly get there, can tell but not show.

And by the way, Daniel, keep in mind that the New Criticism itself was, ahem, “New.” If that’s sort of what you’re talking about - hermetically sealed work and all that. Treating the work as autonomous, without outside contacts, was an invention…

Also: it was an invention with a historical, a social-cultural context. Short form: post WWII GI Bill students, the need to process tons of literature students who weren’t born into the “literary” class, anxiety about the rise of sciences, it goes on and on…

In other words, New Criticism was a sort of technocratic response to earlier generations of biographical, bibliographical, historicist, political modes of literary analysis. Not really the trunkline of literary studies… Even Leavis was doing organic community, Olde England type stuff before Eliot and Pound got to him…

Why are you so sure that something as new as New Criticism will survive far longer than something as old as historicism?

By cultrev on 04/22/05 at 01:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"No one who cares about these works believes that the facts of their printing have anything to do with why they have passed the test of time”

This is untrue, and an example of the pithy pronouncements that don’t really take this conversation anywhere useful.

“You may of course study the ‘object’ as much as you’d like. If you are ostensibly studying literature, however, I, for one, don’t understand why you’d want to do this.”

It doesn’t appear that you’re trying to understand or that you want to.

But I’ll try my hand at argufication: If you don’t see that aesthetics and history are inextricably bound, then I can’t help you. You can ignore the relationship betweeen bibliographic and linguistic analysis, but why would you want to? No one who knows anything about literature ignores the physical form in which it appears.

This is not a very satisfying exchange, is it? Isn’t the Valve trying to “foster debate and circulation of ideas“?

By gzombie on 04/22/05 at 08:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Works of literary fiction are not material objects, right?  Of course, they are related to material objects--and to persons--in various important ways.  Contemporary philosophers (Thomasson, Lamarque, Novitz, S. Davies, D. Davies, etc.) have made a lot of progress toward clarifying thsoe relations, but there’s much left to do.

Absent resolutions of these issues, what can we say about quick and dirty appeals either to the mere distinction b/w works and material things or to the fact that works and things are related in important ways?

It seems to me that we can make some helpful observations.

One is that surely some ways in which works and things are related do not matter to the interpretation and evaluation <objects</i>--and the rights to create and distribute them--have a (real and/or metaphorical) market value matter in the interpretation and evaluation of works in ways that the aforementioned facts do not?

It won’t do to simply appeal to ways in which the market value of the works probably do influence writers and readers.  For what we need to know is why those influences ought to matter in interpretation and evaluation.

One answer here would be that identifying the influences reveals biases that hamper our own attempt to be objective when engaging in interpretation and evaluation, and also hamper otherwise talented writers from doing their best work.  So the education of writers and readers may then include warnings about those pesky influences.  But it doesn’t sound to me like that’s what the folks who are appeling to talk about the ways in which works are--via material objects (and via representations of fictional things that are members of classes whose other members are non-fictional)--closely connected to “the rest of life.”

Second,

By Zehou on 04/22/05 at 09:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not a New Critic, although I have admiration for some of their goals. I’ve written about this elsewhere (see Philosophy and Literature Vol. 27. No. 1 (2003)), so I’m not going to belabor it here. Perhaps I will explain myself further (in a more “positive” way) in future posts.

Cultrev asserts that “Fictional narrative provides a map of - even a sort of performative theory of - the way narrative functions in the world.” One could decide that this is the case (but it’s also a belief, not a fact), and it does make literature more “useful.” I think just the opposite is the case: Literature makes us constantly aware that life does not consist of “stories,” that to aestheticize life is to make it very dangerous indeed. Better to keep aesthetics in art, where it belongs.

It’s telling that to disagree with the established prejudices of the profession gets one accused of not being interested in real “debate and circulation of ideas.” Only already accepted ideas are welcome?

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps Daniel’s position and mine aren’t so close after all. Let me be presumptuous enough to answer for him, because I’m curious to see what kind of critique the following might elicit ...

A positive yet ahistoricist definition of literature could be along the lines of: literature is a set of archetypes that exist, like emotional and creative life, outside the marketplace. But paradoxically these can only be expressed indirectly via elements of the marketplace. Which means the purpose of the study of literature is learning the difference between the eternal part and the marketplace part. So all that “raceclassgender stuff” can be useful to such an ahistoricist view, once it is repurposed as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Getting back to the original topic: this is what I found interesting about Coetzee’s seemingly mishandled archetypes. I chose to find in it a representation of contemporary literature’s disturbing sense of the real presence of such archetypal elements in its world, which are so disturbing precisely because they cannot be integrated into any contemporary language. (But no doubt I am projecting. As in, “Oh, the only reason they gave him the Nobel Prize was because he’s working on one of my research ideas.")

By pierre on 04/22/05 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"It’s telling that to disagree with the established prejudices of the profession gets one accused of not being interested in real ‘debate and circulation of ideas.’ Only already accepted ideas are welcome?”

I give up.

I wrote, “I’m sincerely interested in reading a modern rationale for an approach to literature characterized by the ‘Literature is literature and life is life’ viewpoint.” You responded with dismissive snark.

“Only already accepted ideas are welcome?” No, that’s clearly not what I said. In fact, I said the exact opposite.

I’m interested in why you think the way you do (not just what you think, but why). It appears that you’re not interested in why others think differently. And that’s really too bad.

By gzombie on 04/22/05 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Isn’t the Valve trying to ‘foster debate and circulation of ideas’?”

GZombie, so long as you, CultRev, and others are willing to post such cogent replies, I’d say it’s succeeding.

It should be apparent by now that Daniel Green is not “The Valve”. In fact, The Valve isn’t even Daniel Green. (Personally, I prefer Daniel’s engagements with particular works to his general pronouncements, but he’s decided for now to restrict the former to The Reading Experience.)

As the other nonacademic aesthete in this group of authors, when we’re in those unfortunate circumstances which call for “camps”, I often argue in Daniel’s camp. However:

1) It would be absurd to argue that the history of art is the history of aesthetes, any more than the history of religion is the history of mystic hermits. (Or at least it would require arguing from a much more constricted sample size than I’d be willing to live with.) If art depended solely on aesthetes for its creation or maintenance, there’d be nothing left, and likely nothing started. There just aren’t enough of us.

2) It would be hypocritical of me to argue for purity even in critical practice. The “art” in art attracts me as an abstraction, but clearly it isn’t solely responsible for bringing the individual artifact to my attention. (Even a truffle-sniffing pig is shit out of luck without some help from terrain and weather.) And obviously when I talk about art, I’m unable to avoid political, philosophical, biographical, or autobiographical implications: human conversation does involve such things. In fact, counterintuitively, I think aesthetes are particularly prone to allegorizing and to hero narratives.

The aesthete is a corrective figure who insists on art as a corrective to non-art, a supplemental figure who insists on the importance of irreducible supplementality. Faced with the anti-hedonic explicitly social pressures of academia, our insistance may get a bit tedious. In our defense, I’ve met many humanities majors, and more than one faculty member, whose pseudo-political or pseudo-psychological pronouncements seemed to be based on an even narrower range of reading and experience than my own.

But, in our offense, I’m happy to say that they aren’t in evidence here. (Although I was a bit horrified by the number of respondents to Amardeep’s questionnaire who claimed to like no “genre”.)

By Ray Davis on 04/22/05 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Has anyone here actually toured a printing press to see how books as “material objects” are made? I have...and it’s boring. And it has no significant bearing on my comprehension, appreciation (there’s that pesky word) or engagement with Steve Erickson’s Days Between Stations (which is what I’m currently reading) other than the patently obvious fact that the book in my hand was physically made.

I worked in publishing for a number of years and hearing the CFOs and CEOs talking about objects circulating in a marketplace with complete disinterest in the intellectual content of the books was very disheartening. I really hate that “books” and “novels” have become “material objects” and “texts.” And the fact that CEOs and marxist literary critics speak the same language is also pretty telling.

I don’t think the economics of the publishing industry and book consumer culture are uninteresting or unimportant topics (or even off-limits to literary scholars); however, I do think they are somewhat peripheral to the experience of reading or studying a work of literature itself.

By on 04/22/05 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

1) It would be absurd to argue that the history of art is the history of aesthetes, any more than the history of religion is the history of mystic hermits.

An aside: this is the premise of Aldous Huxley’s history of mysticism, “The Perennial Philosophy”; that mystics do the innovating and everything else in religion is just the details involved in delivering their insights to a mass audience. I have some sympathy for this view as applied to the arts.

By pierre on 04/22/05 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should add that I do, in fact, find the history of book and media technologies interesting and relevant in their way. But I also think that, although obviously related to the art work itself, it’s also a bit of a different beast. Which is why I can sympathize with and understand Dan’s position (even if I don’t hold it to the same degree he does).

By on 04/22/05 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

All this aesthetic purism and separation between literature and life may be informed by a famously antipolitical writer (to follow on prior comment). Or, perhaps not.

They say that actions speak louder than words, but words do more than they say.

By on 04/22/05 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Three quick examples of the significance of modes of publication on texts: the three-decker format had an enormous formative influence on the Victorian novel, both in terms of format, and delivery: writers ignored the preferences of Mudie’s Circulating Library at their peril. Periodical publication reshaped the genre. The short story developed as a direct response to newer modes of publication (periodicals; magazines). One could go on. Looking further back: how can we read Pepys’s diary without taking into account the manner in which he wrote it: the cryptic shorthand, the multiple drafts? How can the dependence of so many early modern writers on patronage not have affected what, and how, they wrote?

By Miriam Jones on 04/22/05 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I’m going to continue arguing against my own inclinations. It’s more fun.

James: Yes, once we’re at the stage of “studying a work of literature”, the economics of the publishing industry have become somewhat peripheral. But the economics of reprinting, archiving, or choosing to teach particular texts over others may still come into play, and works of literature rarely start their public life as “works of literature”. Sometimes, as you say, that seems interesting and relevant to us, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we feel the need to emphasize the possibility of one “sometimes” and sometimes we feel the need to emphasize the possibility of the other. The literary impulse is distinguishable but not separable.

Pierre: “I have some sympathy for this view as applied to the arts.”

I even have some sympathy for it as applied to religion! But I doubt Huxley would’ve found much material (or many readers) for his history if he’d been solely dependent on innovative religious mystics without the support of powerseekers, charlatans, and the vast numbers of the occasionally relgiously inclined. For that matter, if Huxley himself had been consumed by holy fire, I doubt a history would’ve resulted.

By Ray Davis on 04/22/05 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam: That writers have been affected by the
external circumstances you describe is undeniable. It’s worth knowing such things. But I still maintain that they are finally tangential to the experience of reading works of literature--that is, if you are reading them for their continuing relevance and appeal in the present.

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Daniel, you may have put your finger on the crux of our disagreement: not everyone does read literature for its “continuing relevance and appeal in the present.” Maybe this is a question, to some extent, of the period one reads, but I read the literature of the 18thc for its own sake, not for mine. Hey! Maybe I am the one focused on the text for its own sake, and you are the one bringing in other considerations.

(I might put a smiley here, but John has banned them.)

By Miriam Jones on 04/22/05 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam:  If you’re reading 18th century literature for its historical interest rather than its literary interest, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do. But if you dismiss this writing’s “continuing relevance and appeal in the present,” you’re implicitly admitting it’s dead as literature.

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dead in the sense that the average reader probably wouldn’t like it? In that sense, it probably is, and lots of canonical literature along with it. But I am probably misreading you; in what sense should literature be “relevant”? Or even “appealing”? I find 18thc appealing, but it is an acquired taste, that is certain. But I would argue strenuously for the value of studying it.

By Miriam Jones on 04/22/05 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Miriam: Appealing in the sense that readers without expertise in the period could pick up, say, Restoration comedy and still find it immensely enjoyable and aesthetically accomplished (in present terms, not just the aesthetic standards of the past). I would maintain that plenty of readers would reach this conclusion, and that historicizing these plays and studying their material incarnations would be irrelevant--initially at least--to a current reader’s assesment of them on purely literary grounds.

I think that more “canonical” literature is still alive in these terms than you suggest.

By Daniel Green on 04/22/05 at 04:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Before my unfortunate experience trying to teach The Way of the World to my intro. class, I might have agreed. On the other hand, these plays are a delight to teach in upper level courses, but by then the students have some modicum of experience.

There is a reason they come to university entirely ignorant of the 18thc, while they assure me that they have “done” the Romantics and they “already took” Shakespeare.

So I would argue that some of the canon is accessible, and some is not. That students can be taught to appreciate the less accessible texts. And that aesthetic appreciation is not an instinct, but a learnt behaviour, part of culture. This acculturation may channel something fundamental about us, as humans; I would hesitate to comment. These seem personal questions, akin to religious beliefs (see the neat way I brought it back to Pierre’s comment?).

By Miriam Jones on 04/22/05 at 08:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Smileys are alright, so long as they aren’t the store-bought yellow emoticons. If you roll your own out of colons and close parens, or whatever, that’s fine

By John Holbo on 04/22/05 at 08:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sir, I have never used a smiley in my life. But maybe I had better start ...

By Miriam Jones on 04/23/05 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Damnit, Miriam, stop calling me ‘sir’. As explained in correspondence, all Valve authors are to abjure informality be addressing me always and only by my full title: ‘Herr Doktor Professor Entlüftungsventilredakteur Holbo’. Or, if need be, ‘Hahnredakteur in Korbe Holbo’;>)

By John Holbo on 04/23/05 at 01:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

8>0

A smiley. And also true.

By Miriam Jones on 04/23/05 at 02:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I could be wrong (me? wrong? nah...), but I suspect that it’s not at all irrelevant to the terms of this debate that Miriam (not me, the one with the J, although 18th c. is one of my secondary fields) and gzombie are 18th-c. specialists.  18th-c. studies have traditionally been historicist--usually old, sometimes new--because 18th-c. literary works may be among the most politically, theologically, and culturally “loaded” canonical texts around.  (Poetry in particular.) While your mileage may vary, I found when teaching 18th-c. poetry at Anonymous Research that my elite students were simply baffled by the range of references--relating to both form and content--necessary to understand the poems at a literal level.  (Of course, perhaps I was just incompetent.)

By Miriam Burstein on 04/23/05 at 06:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not in the least bit incompetent, I am certain, Miriam B., unless we both are. Which is possible, I suppose, though let’s assume not. But my experience teaching the 18thc is much the same. And in fact, the 18thc poetry course was my least favourite as an undergraduate, though here I am now. Which is why I think of it as an acquired taste, for which the students’ deadened and depraved palates need to be educated. Having been deadened and depraved once myself, I mean.

With my upper-level 18thc courses, I have found it useful to have the students do historical seminars. So one will talk about coffeehouses, another about the printing press and publishing, another about periodicals, etc. etc. Feedback has been uniformly positive. They need the context, and once they have a little, they can go on to encounter the readings and even like them.

By Miriam Jones on 04/23/05 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s Joll, not Joss...sorry to be nit picky.

By on 03/29/09 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: