The Aesthetic versus the Philosophical

It’s a little hard to take seriously the philosophy of a man who could write a story as bad as “The Wall.” I’m pretty much on Sartre’s side & have been since I was seventeen, but “The Wall,” which I hadn’t read since my first youthful enthusiasm for existentialism, amounts to little more than a philosophical shaggy dog story. I picked up Sartre’s fiction again recently because of my more general reading in the European Philosophical Novel from Then to Now, as you might say if you were making up a course. I realize that the story is supposed to shock the reader with the dark comedy of an absurd world, but the irony falls absolutely flat at the ending. The most delicious irony in the story is the setting, wherein a hospital is reconfigured as a prison for anti-fascists awaiting execution. Hospitals & prisons have much in common, from an institutional perspective, of course, however different their fundamental missions, one of healing, one of punishment. Looked at through the lens of irony, though, both hospitals and prisons are designed to confine those sentenced to death. But the graveyard gambit at the end of “The Wall” is not much more than a piece of sophomoric stage business. Sartre’s short essays are probably his best writing. Among the Existentialists, Camus never said too much, writing with great economy in all the genres he undertook, while Sartre almost always ran on & on. Even a short story like “The Wall” is too long by half for the effect it wants to produce.

As a poet I find it hard to take seriously any philosophical doctrine presented is clumsy or unconvincing language. (Sartre of course wrote effective fiction elsewhere, as in the novel Nausea, so the story being discussed here is perhaps nothing but an aberration.) Despite the aesthetic failures of this story, I remain of Sartre’s party, mostly because it offers a materialist like me the opportunity to exercise a certain amount of self-making within the overpowering historical and material forces that shape so much of human existence.

Certain Things Lyric Poetry Can Do

Rick asks in a comment to the previous post what I think of this poem by Kimberly Johnson. When I read it yesterday I hadn’t seen any of the comments appended since then by readers at Slate. I have to say that the commentary is some of the best and most intelligent about poetry I’ve run across recently on the internet. Not that I spend that much time reading about poetry online–lots of reasons for that, but mostly I got burned out on special pleading (including my own) in the early days of poetry on the web.

I like Kimberly Johnson’s poem because it does with economy & grace one of the things that lyric poetry is especially good at: turning the world inside out for a moment, perceptually, sometimes morally. Lyric moments in longer works such as novels and movies can also do this. One of the people commenting at Slate mentions the movie Patton, which certainly has such moment; so does Apocalypse Now, which makes war look beautiful and exciting, only to then turn the world inside out on the viewer, turning the beauty back into horror. Johnson’s poem does something similar on a small scale.

The problem with the lyric form — and with this poem — is that an ending is required. I don’t think “Catapult” ends very satisfactorily, what with it’s gesture toward the sacred. The beautiful is not always sacred, though lyric poets often pretend it is. I think I would have put a period after “earth” and let it go at that.

A Certain Kind of European Novel. . .

. . . has been drawing my attention lately. Beginning with Hesse’s Steppenwolf, I’ve made a chain of association: Sartre’s Nausea, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, Woolf’s Orlando, and finally, Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Call them novels of the self in history. I hadn’t read Steppenwolf since I was eighteen, when I remember absolutely and distinctly not getting it, except that it ends with a drug trip. Reading Hesse’s novel again now, about a man trying to survive turning fifty, rang true in every sense for me — philosophically and psychologically — as I try to survive turning sixty in a few months. (Sixty is the new fifty — perhaps literally, given extended life expectancies.) Like poor Harry Haller, I seem to be going through a process of reevaluating everything — imaginatively reliving parts of my past in order to make them come out right, recasting my own fiction. I dreamed a couple of weeks ago that I had decided to give up my teaching job in order to “do my MFA over again” because “I didn’t get it right the first time.” And last night I had a dream — satire, I hope! — in which I gave my my university professorship in order to go to work in industry selling frozen food, with Dana Gioia as my boss! Well, he did and does sell frozen food, first literally and now figuratively. There is that wonderful scene near the end of Steppenwolf in which Pablo shows Harry how to rearrange the pieces of his personality on a chessboard, playing with alternatives that nevertheless remain thematically related. That’s what the last couple of years of my life feel like. A lot like Harry Haller.

So now I have begun the Rilke novel, which I started years ago but never finished — I know this because I can see my marks in the margins — but not much of it registered with me. “The main thing is to live,” writes Brigge near the beginning. Yes.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Because I use the theme of childhood & Innocence / Experience in my freshman writing course, I’m always on the lookout for fiction dealing with those subjects. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room came up recently as a recommendation on Amazon, based, I think, on my purchasing history. I’d read a glowing review in the NY Times, so I ordered the book with the idea that it might work in my class. When it came I read the first twenty pages or so, then set it aside when I got busy grading, thinking that the story ran a serious risk of falling into an inevitable form of  sentimentality, given the subject and the point of view.

The story involves a young woman kidnapped and used for sex by an anonymous man who keeps her locked in a garden shed behind his suburban house that he has converted into the self-contained Room of the novel’s title, which is in fact a very effective prison. The young woman is 19 when she is kidnapped and within a couple of years becomes pregnant and bears a son. The tricky and audacious thing about the novel is that it is told in the first-person point of view of this boy when he is five years old. There are plenty of novels in the voices of children, but five years old is pushing against the downward limit of verbal ability for a narrator; still, Donoghue manages the difficulties with a kind of intelligence and grace one wouldn’t think possible, given the narrative situation she has set up for herself.

The narrator’s name is Jack and he is surely a verbally gifted child, but not so gifted as to seem implausible even to a reader (such as me) skeptical of this particular technical choice. The story develops in such a way that Jack’s verbal gifts seem natural: he spends a great deal of time talking to his mother and reading his five books and they also play a game called Parrot in which they watch TV and then the mother hits the mute button, Jack’s task in this game being to parrot back the whole previous sentence he has just heard whether he understands the words or not. They then discuss the words and their meaning. This game is only mentioned once or twice, but in the huge silence that is their lives (the room is soundproofed) language takes on a nearly magical importance. Continue readingRoom by Emma Donoghue”

Hurry Down Sunshine

I’ve been reading a lot of books about mental illness, the brain, & madness over the last few months in preparation for teaching a course with my colleague Stephen Casper, a historian, called The Literature and History of Madness. I’ve been reading mostly in the “popular” rather than the scholarly literature, which I will get to soon enough. Most recently, I’ve finished Michael Greenberg’s memoir of his daughter’s crack-up, Hurry Down Sunshine. One is not likely to read a less sentimental and more clear-eyed account of psychosis than this. Told with great sympathy for all involved, especially Sally, Greenberg’s daughter, the story is presented without a trace of sensationalism; but what I found most intriguing about Greenberg’s account is his exploration — almost entirely in asides and very brief digressions — of the the paradox of psychosis: that it is born of the basic human need to make sense of the world, often through language, but that when this drive goes wrong, when it seeks totality, madness results. (I still remember my friend B.A. lying on the couch in my Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle in 1975 listening to the radio because it was telling him the meaning of life & how everything made sense.) Greenberg’s daughter Sally, though “learning disabled” is a verbally brilliant teenager, who ultimately gets tangled up in her own twists & turns of language & meaning. There is a moment near the end of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which is the ur-text of modern American psychosis, in which the wise psychotherapist who has drawn her patient out of hell vehemently insists that there is no connection between madness and imagination, psychosis & creativity; but if there is no necessary connection, there is a borderland across which the two entities regard each other, that’s clear. It is a borderland into which Greenberg’s sensitive account shines a narrow beam of light, revealing a few salient features of the place, which is perhaps all we can ask.

Intermezzi

I continue my desert studies at William Vollmann University, but I took some time away from the VU campus to read a couple of short books, each of which deals with one’s relation to the Other (though in very different ways), which is also Vollmann’s great theme. Last week, I finished reading my first Slavoj Zizek book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, having avoided Zizek up to now because he seemed both too prolific and too trendy. Right after finishing the Zizek, I read Susan Sontag’s long essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. In approaching Sontag over the years, I have often found myself repelled by the coldness of her style & her tendency to argue by assertion. Despite my doubts, both these short books accomplished for me what theory / criticism ought to do — that is, both essays helped me sharpen my own thinking and sense of the world.

The first half of First as Tragedy, Then as Farce presents a flyover of post-9/11 politics & culture in the West — it is what I think would have been called a work of political economy before that term went out of fashion with the rise of economics as a science. Zizek is a fluent, even sprightly, writer who can explain difficult concepts clearly and whose point of view can thus come to feel completely natural to the reader, who, if I am at all typical, adopts the author’s assumptions as if they were his own. This is a very effective rhetoric, if that’s what it is — style as rhetoric — but the reader must be on guard so as to not be swept away on a current of enthusiasm, which, admittedly, can be a pleasant experience, especially with a maestro as charismatic as Zizek.

Two big concepts emerge from Zizek’s essay, which is conveniently divided into two parts: 1. An analysis of the ways in which neo-liberalism & late capitalism effectively subvert & incorporate insurgent political movements. Zizek is particularly interested in the way that movements on the political left suffer this fate, but it would be interesting to see how he’d think about the so-called Tea Party movements on the American right, which will almost certainly be absorbed by the neo-liberal Republican Party. The genius of neo-liberalism is its ability to absorb insurgencies & naturalize them, making them safe for domestic consumption, as it were. 2. A thesis about Human Nature in which the capital letters are appropriate. Zizek sets himself up as a champion of “communism” as a mode of life that depends on the assumption that there is a core set of human values that unites all people across any supposed cultural divides. In this, he directly opposes the position of Theory in all its manifestations over the last thirty years, which has held that human nature is a variable construct. In my view, Zizek’s second thesis consists of a great deal of wishful thinking, but perhaps that is because I have been ensnared by theory. In any case, I have a student who, along with a bunch of Dickens and Tolstoy, has just read The Fountainhead this summer: I have recommended Zizek’s book as an antidote.

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others came along at just the right moment for me. I have been reading William Vollmann’s big book Imperial, about the California county where my mother was born & where I spent a lot of time growing up & looking, too, at the separate volume Vollmann published, under the same title, of his photographs of people and places in Imperial County. Sontag’s book is an attempt to understand the usefulness of images — photographic images in particular. In this late essay, Sontag revises and even reverses her earlier (more aesthetic?) view of photography as a technology of distancing & comes to an understanding of the photograph – particularly the war photograph — as a necessary, if never sufficient, moral document. The second half of this book strikes me as the epitome of what an intellectual discourse looks like: full of passion & doubt.