Thursday, July 17, 2014

every Russian is inordinately delighted at any public scandal

In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case. It is said among us now that it is all over, that Pyotr Stepanovitch was directed by the Internationale, and Yulia Mihailovna by Pyotr Stepanovitch, while she controlled, under his rule, a rabble of all sorts. The more sober minds amongst us wonder at themselves now, and can't understand how they came to be so foolish at the time.

What constituted the turbulence of our time and what transition it was we were passing through I don't know, nor I think does anyone, unless it were some of those visitors of ours. Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way. People like Lyamshin and Telyatnikov, like Gogol's Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev, wretched little Jews with a mournful but haughty smile, guffawing foreigners, poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents, majors and colonels who ridiculed the senselessness of the service, and who would have been ready for an extra rouble to unbuckle their swords, and take jobs as railway clerks; generals who had abandoned their duties to become lawyers; advanced mediators, advancing merchants, innumerable divinity students, women who were the embodiment of the woman question--all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom? Over the club, the venerable officials, over generals with wooden legs, over the very strict and inaccessible ladies of our local society. Since even Varvara Petrovna was almost at the beck and call of this rabble, right up to the time of the catastrophe with her son, our other local Minervas may well be pardoned for their temporary aberration. Now all this is attributed, as I have mentioned already, to the Internationale. This idea has taken such root that it is given as the explanation to visitors from other parts. Only lately councillor Kubrikov, a man of sixty-two, with the Stanislav Order on his breast, came forward uninvited and confessed in a voice full of feeling that he had beyond a shadow of doubt been for fully three months under the influence of the Internationale. When with every deference for his years and services he was invited to be more definite, he stuck firmly to his original statement, though he could produce no evidence except that "he had felt it in all his feelings," so that they cross-examined him no further.

I repeat again, there was still even among us a small group who held themselves aloof from the beginning, and even locked themselves up. But what lock can stand against a law of nature? Daughters will grow up even in the most careful families, and it is essential for grown-up daughters to dance.
That's from the third part of The Devils. What a great book this is. I keep waiting for the narrative to unravel, for the book to become a disorganized mess, but 450 pages in, it's still a well-organized novel. Dostoyevsky has managed to maintain the comic tone most of the time, though of course the serious passages are becoming more bleak (while generally becoming also more touching and beautifully written). This is some book, I say. A terrible, frightening, awfully funny damned book.

I don't know how it's escaped everyone's notice that Anton Lavrentievich Govorov is clearly working for the tsar's secret police.

The quoted passage above is from Constance Garnett's translation. I'm actually reading Andrew MacAndrew's terrific 1962 translation. I love her work with Chekhov, but Garnett was not the translator Dostoyevsky needed for this book.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

no distaste for the gossip of the town

At one time it was reported about the town that our little circle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness, and the rumour gained more and more strength. And yet we did nothing but indulge in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian, light-hearted liberal chatter. "The higher liberalism" and the "higher liberal," that is, a liberal without any definite aim, is only possible in Russia.

Stepan Trofimovitch, like every witty man, needed a listener, and, besides that, he needed the consciousness that he was fulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas. And finally he had to have some one to drink champagne with, and over the wine to exchange light-hearted views of a certain sort, about Russia and the "Russian spirit," about God in general, and the "Russian God" in particular, to repeat for the hundredth time the same Russian scandalous stories that every one knew and every one repeated. We had no distaste for the gossip of the town which often, indeed, led us to the most severe and loftily moral verdicts. We fell into generalising about humanity, made stern reflections on the future of Europe and mankind in general, authoritatively predicted that after C├Žsarism France would at once sink into the position of a second-rate power, and were firmly convinced that this might terribly easily and quickly come to pass. We had long ago predicted that the Pope would play the part of a simple archbishop in a united Italy, and were firmly convinced that this thousand-year-old question had, in our age of humanitarianism, industry, and railways, become a trifling matter. But, of course, "Russian higher liberalism" could not look at the question in any other way.
That's from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed (aka The Devils). It continues to make fun of the sort of Russian intellectuals Nikolai Chernyshevsky imagined in his novel What is to be Done? In fact, I'm reading this now because I opened the book up randomly, to page 288 as it happens, and my eye fell upon a mention of Chernyshevsky's novel, and a couple of long paragraphs telling jokes about it. This is a comic novel, you see, and also is written in a sort of gentle comic tone unlike the tone of any of Dostoyevesky's other novels. It's hard to believe, as I read this book, that it was actually written by old Fyodor. Where is all the frenetic rushing about? Where are the characters beating themselves up over the insoluble problems of life? Where is the violence and the gambling? True, a main character is well known to lose at cards, but he is not exactly a gambling addict, and all of his losses (and indeed all of his expenses in life) are covered by his patroness. This man with the patroness is the Stepan mentioned above, the witty man who needs a listener. Decades before the book starts, Stepan was very mildly famous/infamous as a liberal writer, but now he's outmoded and lives in the country. He made a trip to Petersburg to rejoin the liberal circles but was laughed out of the room when he announced that the poetry of Pushkin was more important than shoes for the poor. Stepan is also the father of a young man who will soon join the story and bring much havoc with him in his role as a Bazarov-type nihilist. In fact, Pyotr (Stepan's son, the nihilist) will mention Bazarov by name, and declare him an unrealistic character. What fun, Fyodor. This is a clever, quite funny book. Laugh-out-loud funny. And yet it's allegedly by Dostoyevsky. Go figure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

updates, nothing to see

Oh, Harold. I'm done with Blooms, I tell you, unless named Molly or Leopold. Though this post from Himadri hits a nail on the head pretty squarely and is worth reading. At least I laughed. I'm not done with John Cowper Powys, but I haven't decided what to read next from him, or when. I'm also going to look at some more Iris Murdoch, despite the kooky unraveling of The Sea, The Sea towards the end of the book. Maybe I'll read The Bell again. She wrote a lot of books, and we have a lot of them on the shelf. Right now I'm reading Kawabata. His works always baffle me (Japanese novels baffle me in general, including--especially?--those of Murakami) but then I miss him when he's gone, so apparently I miss being baffled in a certain way, which I find curious. I think I'll read some more Yukio Mishima when I remember to look for him. I have not yet begun to branch out into Chinese authors, or Korean authors, or representatives from a lot of other geographic/cultural areas. So much reading. Such a big world, kids.

I've been writing, as I claim, a new book based loosely on certain ideas associated with Saint Anton Chekhov. It seems to be going well enough. I think I've written something like 25,000 words of that book already, which is a startlingly high number. I still sort of feel like I'm poking around with the beginning of the thing. I'm writing the title story now. I will never write another long form epistolary story again. It's a job of work.

I've also completed another round of revisions to Mona in the Desert, an actual novel in the form of a novel. Mostly. There are two chapters hidden in the narrative that the narrator is unaware of. Of which the narrator is unaware, I mean. Mighty Reader points out that a hypothetical book designer and proof reader in the future will be annoyed with me. Sorry, hypothetical publishing professionals. My current task is to type up all of my changes from the marked-up printouts into the digital file. I hate that task, but one can't be delicate. What else? Tomorrow I'm mailing a submission to a publisher for yet another novel. We'll see.

I officially claim to Have No Idea what I'll write after I finish the draft of Antosha in Prague. No idea at all. Maybe the Antarctica thing, finally. I'll have to figure out the middle section, with the boat. Penguins might be involved. No, penguins will certainly be involved. There is a whole long penguin thing going in that book anyway. In a year someone must remind me that the idea is: the physical changes to the boat. I'll know what that means when I need to know it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Madness of King Harold

Let's suppose for a minute that Harold Bloom's "theory of poetry" is correct. Let's suppose that a young poet is creatively blocked by the awareness of, the spectre of, the influence of the great poets of the past. A young poet cannot move forward into the New because he is too busy comparing himself to his precursors, and comparing his own poems to the great precursor poems. Let's suppose that's true. Let's suppose also that the most common way a young poet breaks through this creative blockage is by imagining a flaw in the work of the great precursor, by deliberately misreading the great precursor poem(s) and then writing a poem of his own that "corrects" the "flaw" in the precursor, psychically diminishing the precursor in the eyes of the young poet, who is then able to move forward and become some future young poet's precursor. Let's say Bloom is right, and this is all true. Let's further say that my concern with craft and my lack of concern with any precursor novelists and my non-efforts in the way of modeling my work on any precursor novels is either self-delusion because artists aren't conscious of the process, or because I’m a minor talent so I don't actually know what the greatness of the precursor novelists is and I'm blind to those elements of their work which would creatively block me if I was talented enough to be properly intimidated. I can accept being a minor talent. So let's say I accept all of this, that I have no beef with Bloom's theory of poetic influence.

The problem is that I'm reading a book Bloom wrote, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he might lay out this theory. This book is a mad book, a disorganized nonlinear book whose language is vague and contradictory. The narrative chases its own tail around what is mostly an empty space where clearly-defined terms and theses ought to be. That's my problem. Bloom bezels and prolixes for page after page, saying "this is the anxiety of influence" but failing, again and again, to supply an actual this. He does not say whatever it is he is saying. He spends a lot of time spinning a metaphysical metaphorical tale about the poet as caught in the duality between the spiritual world and the empirical world, and he invokes the Muses and tells us that weak poets are Adam and strong poets are Satan (Paradise Lost as a metaphor for poetry, which is fine because I'm sure Milton's Christian metaphors were bound up with ideas about the mind and art) until Satan becomes merely a hack, an imitator of God and loses his originality. That's all a good time and Bloom's writing is breathless, breakneck, totally insane and full of fun for the reader. None of it tells us what "anxiety" or "influence" mean, though. None of it relates directly to the historical process of poetic influence, or how a poet becomes a poet. Bloom does not directly confront his subject matter in The Anxiety of Influence. I am told that he does spell out what he's really talking about in some other books, but the thing is, the book I'm reading is The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom talks around and around and makes many vague claims without demonstrating that there is any reason to believe those claims or even, frankly, making clear what his claims are. The theory that I am willing to accept, the theory I talk about in the first paragraph of this post, may be behind all the lunacy and poorly-formed argument-in-the-form-of-a-severe-poem that makes up The Anxiety of Influence, but there's no way to discover that by reading the book. The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece, and can never be sure that this meaning is actually Bloom's meaning. That is my beef with Mr Bloom, and that is why I find myself reading The Anxiety of Influence as a novel, because it makes sense if Harold Bloom is Charles Kinbote or Charles Arrowby. The book does not make sense if Harold Bloom is a respected professor and theorist.

No one, so far, has been able to point to a passage within The Anxiety of Influence where Bloom either makes his theory of poetry clear, defines his terms, or shows any reason to believe his claims. I don't dispute the theory, but I do say that Bloom has written a bubbling mess of a book that says almost nothing. It is a sparkling incoherency about poetry, built around the central claim that poetry is dying. "The death of poetry" is one of the few clear passages in the book. Unless Bloom means that as a metaphor, too. I can see why this book is so influential: a reader can fill it with whatever meaning he likes, because Bloom obfuscates, dances, babbles and whirls but he does not say.

Monday, June 30, 2014

New clothes, no emperor

Harold Bloom proposes an antagonistic relationship between artists and art, an Oedipal struggle* between young artists and older artists, where the young/beginning artist must defeat his predecessors or be defeated. A major component of this struggle is the presumed privileging of originality by successful (Bloom's word is "strong") artists. These propositions and assumptions (found in Bloom's rollicking fantasy novel The Anxiety of Influence) tell us many interesting things about the presumed author of that novel, including the obvious influence upon Bloom of that old reactionary crackpot, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They do not, alas, tell us much at all about the poets of the real world and how they came to write poetry.

I've never managed to make it all the way through The Anxiety of Influence in any of my past attempts, the book being so clearly wrongheaded, but I have sworn to actually finish the damned thing this time through. It is, after all, pretty slender. What's wrongheaded about Dr Bloom's famous bit of fiction is this: he has noticed, being a good reader, that some good poets progress over their lives from stumbling, derivative poets to being poets who find new formal strategies. Other poets never find anything to do in the way of formal innovation. Bloom takes this observation and spins his Oedipal fantasy, creating a drama with young poet as protagonist, and influential older poet as antagonist, the father figure who must be killed in order that the young poet may become his own man. Exciting stuff.

What Bloom fails to see is that there is a much simpler explanation for this progression: the young artist must learn his craft. He is not oppressed by the spectre of the poets of the past, nor does he battle against them. In the preface to the edition I'm reading, Bloom makes a claim about Shakespeare's allusion to Marlowe in "Richard II" (where Richard looks into a mirror and asks if his was the face that once commanded thousands of men, an echo of Marlowe's "the face that launched a thousand ships"): Blooms says,"however we think Richard intends it, Shakespeare flaunts it as an emblem of his new freedom from Marlowe." There is no reason at all to believe this claim. It is more likely that Shakespeare, never shy about plagiarism, just liked the sound of it and stole it for himself. There is no reason to believe any of Bloom's claims about the poets under discussion. There is no reason for Bloom to have imagined this violent struggle between generations of artists.

Well, there are reasons, but they all have to do with Bloom's failure to become an artist on his own. He gives it away when he says that criticism "is either part of literature or it is nothing at all." His claim is that criticism is part of literature. He presents this false dichotomy, daring you to tell him that criticism might be something that is not necessarily part of literature, because Bloom wants to be an artist. In The Anxiety of Influence, we read Harold Bloom's hallucinatory struggle against the Western Canon, and nothing more.

Bloom is not, in this tiny book, talking about the creation of art. He claims to be, but he's not. Entirely missing from Bloom's discussion is the joy of creation, or in fact any kind of understanding of the creative act in action. Bloom has poets, and he has poetry, but he has nowhere really considered the poet's sense of writing a poem, what Jon Gardner calls being within "the fictional dream." Bloom gives us agony. Where is the ecstasy? Perhaps Bloom labors, struggles, claws his resentful way forward and dreams of murdering his literary predecessors. Most people who make art do not engage in this particular struggle, is my claim. There is no reason to believe that Bloom is right about any of this. There is no reason to believe that poets, writers, playwrights, spend much time or effort thinking about the poets/writers/playwrights they admire, and certainly less reason to believe these people are in any way oppressed by the past.

One of Bloom's criteria for "strong" artists is the creation of new and original work, something that moves away from the respected figures of the past. Bloom writes as a critic, an outsider to art, not as a man who creates art. There are some artists who talk ceaselessly of finding their own way, of making something unique, and these (contrary to Bloom's claim) are generally the least of our artists. A good, "strong" artist is concerned with what he is trying to do now, with what he is trying to accomplish in the present work. Artists collect tools and learn how to use them, and find new things to do with those tools as a matter of course, because the ideas one has look different every time you learn a new technique. As craft grows, so naturally does vision evolve. This is not a freeing of oneself from one's psychological fetters; it is experience and competence and acquired depth. Perhaps this is actually what Bloom means, all he means, and he's chosen to build this clumsy and amusing metaphor around it, and the "murder your fathers" stuff is all a bit of a joke. Why else would he lard his prose up with Greek terms, as if we all live in ancient Athens? He hides his commonplace observations about the growth of art behind jargon, and we all should know what that means. Nabokov would've had a good time with Mr Bloom, I think, lampooning and dissecting. Oh, wait: he already did. Nabokov wrote that splendid novel where a critic writes himself into the history of someone else's poem, remember? In Pale Fire, certainly, criticism was literature.

* In the preface to the 1997 edition, which is the edition I'm reading, Bloom states that his theory in no way invokes an Oedipal struggle. The anxiety is not in the poet, it is in the poem. What can this possibly mean? Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day, I'll talk about Bloom's actual theory of influence and the anxiety inherent in that process.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lying on the shores of The Sea, The Sea

It's not clear how unreliable the unreliable narrator of Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea is. I know he's lying to me, but he also seems to be unaware of some facts about his new home on the seaside. The old house is called "Shruff End," a name he briefly ponders and then dismisses. What Charles Arrowby doesn't seem to know is that shruff is an obsolete word meaning rubbish, or bits of trash that can be used for tinder. He bought the house from an old woman named "Mrs Chorney." chorney is Russian for "black." It's also closely-related to chyort which means "the devil." Arrowby has already let it slip, between the lines of his memoir/diary/whatever, that he's not a nice man (he refers to women as "bitches" and lets us know that he's always had plenty of women around who were happy to act as his chauffeur, which is why he's never learned to drive a car). Shruff End, the old house Arrowby has drained his savings to purchase, is not at all a nice house, which is something that Arrowby is not telling his reader. There is a damp smell and it's hideously furnished with broken-down old furniture, but really the smell isn't so bad and the furniture, you see, it's really after all quite charming and endearing in a funny way. A watch tower, or possibly an old lighthouse tower, is falling into ruin at the edge of the property and Arrowby hasn't the money to have it repaired but he'll save up for that, don't you worry. He describes the house in great detail but the place becomes more confusing and sinister the longer he talks about it, as if it's some location out of Lovecraft, where an eldrich horror lurks beneath the floorboards. We are told a great deal about the freedom Arrowby feels here in his house with its private beach overlooking a lonely bay. There is no electricity or hot water, but of course Arrowby is fine with that. He's roughed it before, you know. He is happy being alone, though he's always lived around or with people. It is difficult and dangerous to get into the water from any of the local beaches, but he'll hire someone to install a handrail to assist him getting down the rock face at his own beach. No problem at all, you see. Everything is fine, if you don't count Arrowby's clear lack of purpose in living from day to day, his complaints that nobody writes to him and there's not telephone service, and of course there was that hallucination (was it a hallucination?) on his second day, of the immense serpent made of sea water, rising up out of the bay and then dissolving away again. Arrowby supposes he has found sanctuary. He insists upon it. No, everything is perfectly lovely, alone in the decaying house at the edge of nowhere, at the edge of the sea, the sea.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

to impoison and drive to madness

Another thing had struck Sylvanus as curiously heart-piercing in this House of Ghosts, and that was the way Sex itself, the great life-urge of the world, fell away and dwindled and receded. It sank, this thing, from occupying the first place in human life to occupying the ninth or the tenth. Its results were here only too clearly ; but its living manifestations seemed minimized, sterilized, paralyzed. Anyone who has been in Bedlam will bear witness how forlornly correct Sylvanus' observation was. As a matter of fact it is curious how the illusion should ever have got about that mad people are often happy and cheerful, and merry and gay! As a matter of fact upon an insane asylum lies exactly the same kind of sick, inert, bewildered, unearthly sorrowfulness that Homer depicts as the prevailing condition of those faint spirits, who in the realm of Hades "no longer behold the sweet sun". Yes, the sadness, the dispiritedness, the inert hopelessness that is the dominant atmosphere of such a place is almost identical with that twilight kingdom where only the drinking of blood enables a mother to know her own son ! And it would seem that just as with the loss of their bodies "the noble nations of the dead" feel no longer the urge of amorous desire, so in the atmosphere of Hell's Museum considerations of excrement played a larger part than those of the heart. That terrible and startling indifference to personal appearance, to the state of one's dress for instance, that is such a noticeable characteristic of these societies of the damned is a fearful and significant hint as to how the implacable Goddess of Desire, when by her ravages she has reduced her victims to this condition, leaves them in contempt, and glides away, to impoison and drive to madness other, fairer, fresher, younger, less plague-spotted souls!
Last night I finished Weymouth Sands. Very clearly, as I closed the book, I thought Well, that was all right. It's a mad book, full of mad people who believe in a mad, violent, somehow sentient world wherein we are all driven to torture one another--the world itself torturing us, too--all for a drop of solace (which is one of the metaphors in the book, where dogs are tortured and sleep deprived so that their poor bodies will produce a hormone that acts as a sleep aid to humans, o ye gods of irony). John Cowper Powys, the author of this mad world, himself believes in this active, aware universe where emotions and thoughts and even the shadows of emotions and thoughts are like forces of nature, like wavelets that combine and grow into tsunamis, that wash over and through other people and places and things. It's all connected, all violently and sexually connected in a maelstrom of desire and deceit and ignorance. So much ignorance, so much lying to ourselves and others, and as Pykk pointed out, Powys finds this exciting and titillating. It's a mad universe in Powys, not a place I'd want to live but it was interesting to visit, to see how--sometime recently there was a conversation about this on this very blog--the landscape, the setting, becomes an actor, a character in the story, a voice and a doer-of-things. Yes, that was all right. I'll visit Powys-world again, I think.

For now, I'm in Iris Murdoch's mad and deceitful world of The Sea, The Sea. The landscape is described in detail, hard and cynical detail even when the narrator claims to admire what he sees. Charles Arrowby is going to be a pushy sort of narrator, telling his reader what to think. John Cowper Powys is a pushy narrator, elbowing his way into center stage past his characters and sets, telling us what to think, lecturing the reader. You can see how Powys made all of his characters into versions of himself or versions of the archetypes in which he believed. There were no real people in Weymouth Sands, not even--I think--the intrusive author. A good book, though. A violent dream of desire and the unsureness of selfhood.