A Reader’s Log(orrhea), #3: With the Power of Prose Everything Is PossibleBy John Madera
June 03, 2010
Considering my ever-detouring approach to reading, I think it’s appropriate that March for me began with Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, a series of transcribed lectures conflating the telling and writing of stories with Jorge Luis Borges’s metaphor of the woods as a garden of forking paths, or, as Eco puts it:
Woods are a metaphor for the narrative text, not only for the text of fairy tales but for any narrative text. There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom….Even when there are no well-trodden paths in a wood, everyone can trace his or her own path, deciding to go to the left or to the right of a certain tree and making a choice at every tree encountered.
And this likening of woods with text can also be extended to apply to the life of a reader, well, at least my own life as a reader. One of the most pleasing things about reading is being able to veer off into all kinds of directions. I can bounce from fiction to nonfiction to poetry (and I often do), oftentimes stopping in the middle of some text, to start another.
Eco’s is the third collection of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures that I’ve read. The second was Borges’s This Craft of Verse, a collection that is as much a phenomenal display of the Argentine writer’s sparkling erudition as it is a glimpse of his demeanor, attitude, and manner; where, in contradiction to how lectures are often framed, Borges, yet again diverging from conventional forms, allows his lectures to unfold informally—without presenting arguments or straw-men to be quickly burnt up—and convincingly, as gentle provocations. But one should not be fooled by the hesitations, false starts, self-deprecating asides, and unassuming tone because there is a great deal of intellectual rigor beneath these six lectures. Reading Borges’s lectures, I’m left with the charge to surrender myself to traverse fiction’s vast landscape, succumb to its ebb and flow, its eddying currents, its whirlpool and undertow even; to recognize that the pleasure of a well-told story is elevated when fused with poetry; to find common words to express uncommon ideas, as well as to explore its inverse; and lastly, to not take vision—biological and mental—or any of the other senses, including the non-physiological, for granted.
The first collection of Norton Lectures I’d read, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, though, is more pertinent toward the discussion here as Eco not only structures the titling of his lectures to mirror Calvino’s, but begins Six Walks in the Fictional Woods with a discussion of the second of Calvino’s Memos: “‘Quickness,’ which ends with contending that “‘this apologia for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering.’” Eco takes the idea of lingering as the focus of his third lecture. But before that, he offers the first in a series of fascinating ideas about texts:
For the moment, let us note that any narrative fiction is necessarily and fatally swift because in building a world that comprises myriad events and characters, it cannot say everything about the world. It hints at it and then asks the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps. Every text, after all…is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end.
Reading this, I couldn’t help imagining a book that would never end, and what came to mind, first, was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a lifelong work-in-progress that Whitman worked on all of his life. I also thought of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, another lifework-in-progress (in fact, transition, a literary magazine, published sections of the book in serial form under the title Work in Progress) that Joyce managed to complete, I think, only by making it into the incredible ouroboric loop that it is. And I also thought back again to Borges, because such a neverending book could only exist in his Library of Babel, a library that contains books with every possible arrangement of letters, spaces, and punctuation marks, where every possible book, both comprehensible and incomprehensible, has been made.
Time and time again Eco compares the act of reading fiction to child’s play:
But any walk within fictional worlds has the same function as a child’s play. Children play with puppets, toy horses, or kites in order to get acquainted with the physical laws of the universe and with the actions that someday they will really perform. Likewise, to read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world.
This is the consoling function of narrative—the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time. And it has always been the paramount function of myth: to find a shape, a form, in the turmoil of human experience.
I’m not sure if Eco is right here, however. First, the reasons he gives for why children play are thoroughly inadequate, and implies a self-consciousness that is not apparent when I’ve observed children at play. While getting “acquainted with the physical laws of the universe and with the actions that someday they will really perform” are certainly two logical reasons why children play, the primary reason they play is because it’s fun, because it gives them pleasure. Also, while it certainly sounds comforting that reading fiction is like playing a game “by which we give sense to the immensity” of the past, present, and future, this observation, too, falls short. What does it mean to “give sense to the immensity” anyway? And is this actually what happens while we read? And is the reading of narrative simply an escape from “the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world,” that we seek it out as consolation? That the mere purpose of myth is to find “a shape, a form, in the turmoil of human experience”? I don’t see how fiction helps give sense to the vastness, the weight, the endless scope of the past, the here and now of the present, or the uncertainty of the future. And if it does, it’s certainly not a defining characteristic of what it does for me, and when it does it’s a temporary effect, at best. As for the anxiety one feels when trying to say something true about the world, I’m generally skeptical about notions regarding truth, and I’m not sure why a writer would even be thinking about saying something truthful about the world when writing, and I don’t see myself as a reader looking for some kind of statement about truth or truthful statement either, but even if what Eco suggests is true, I still don’t see how fiction provides an escape from this supposed anxiety about wanting to say something true about the world, since it oftentimes heightens, exacerbates all kinds of anxieties, fears, and doubts. In other words, narratives may cause as much anxiety as it may temporarily alleviate it. Eco echoes this likening fiction to child’s play in his last lecture, “Fiction Protocols”:
And so it is easy to understand why fiction fascinates us so. It offers us the opportunity to employ limitlessly our faculties for perceiving the world and reconstructing the past. Fiction has the same function that games have. In playing, children learn to live, because they simulate situations in which they may find themselves as adults. And it is through fiction that we adults train our ability to structure our past and present experience.
Once again, I think Eco’s observation is too simplistic. If it is true that children play solely to “simulate situations in which they may find themselves as adults,” how then do you explain when a child pretends to be the father or mother of their mother or father, this act, of course, an impossible one and to be distinguished from the act of simply mothering or fathering, which may be considered a simulation of a future possibility; or, better yet, how do you explain their imagining they are, or have met, or are playing with fairies, gods, angels, monsters, or that they have three arms, or two heads, or eyes behind them, or whatever fantastical thing they may have dreamed up? Are these simulations of things they will experience as adults? Also, what exactly does it mean to “train our ability to structure our past and present experience”? And if this were true that that’s why we read fiction, why is this its primary function? And later, Eco states that we won’t stop reading fictional stories
because it is in them that we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence. Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived. Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of our diary). Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.
These aren’t the reasons why I come to stories. I’m not looking for a formula for my existence, if by “formula” Eco means an equation of some sort, a schema in which I can understand who I am and why I am here. These questions get raised for me more often when I read philosophy than when I read fiction. Generally, I like looking at how sentences are constructed, exploring how a narrative is constructed. I’m much more interested in the technical aspects of a work, how it is formed and shaped on the page and not in the ways that it gives a shape and form to my life.
After Eco’s lectures I read William Gass, by Watson L. Holloway. In it, I found a number of observations apt about this great writer:
Fiction, in Gass’s estimation, is not utilitarian; it is not supposed to do or cause anything in particular. It just is. It exists alongside other entities. Like other postrealists Gass considers futile the attempt to make fiction reflect life. He agrees with Raymond Federman, who maintains that fiction cannot be a mirror, cannot merely reflect a reality exterior to itself. In defiance of conventional expectations, “the shape and order of fiction,” writes Federman, “will not result from an imitation of the shape and order of life, but rather from the formal circumvolutions of language as it wells from the unconscious.”
I’m not so sure that Gass would agree that these “circumvolutions of language” come from the unconscious, but Holloway’s assertion that Gass does not consider his fiction to be merely a mirror of reality, that, for Gass, “literature cannot be made to equal human experience; therefore, any empirical relationship between fiction and fact is impossible,” is spot on. And he’s correct when he says that Gass “does not want to permit the reader to go beyond the limits of the author’s language.” I thought that Holloway was especially sensitive to Gass’s notions of character. Synopsizing Gass’s theories in Fiction and the Figures of Life, Holloway writes: “A character in literature, for Gass, is the noise of a name and the resultant rhythms and meanings that are suggested by and growing out of it.” Or, as Larry McCaffrey puts it in another book I read this month: “Gass’s basic point is that characters in books are incorporeal essences and definitions which are assigned a name and whose physical characteristics are limited to the sound, pitch, and rhythm of the words out of which they are created.” And throughout the book, Holloway’s analysis concentrates on Gass’s symbolic naming of his characters, and makes a convincing case that Segren, the surname of the protagonist’s family in The Pedersen Kid, “is a disguised form of sea green or seed green”; that Pearson, the boss in “Icicles,” may be read as “Piercing”; that the name Culp, one of the characters from The Tunnel, comes “from the Latin, culpa, guilt”; and Lou, “from the French, lieu, place”; and Ruth from “rue.” These observations definitely helped to attune my understanding of Gass’s work, and set me off into reading into the names of other characters in his novels and stories.
Following Holloway’s book was my reading of Artifice Magazine, Issue One. It’s an incredibly playful journal filled with pieces that quietly draw attention to themselves as artifacts, to their artifice. In it, you’ll find texts as much marked by their rugged formal textures as for their concern with ribcages and wire-riggings; and with robots; poems with mermaids and “milkdrowned homunculi”; pieces where language is made flesh, and where a woman “is a semicolon”; texts where robots appear and inanimate objects are anthropomorphized; speculative narratives that throb along like Ben Marcus’s brainy fragments, and eccentric meditations on language like David Silverstein’s texts that explore how, in his words, “consciousness / does not live / without / language and language / is beginning to overwhelm / human / consciousness.” In a kind of merging of a famed Oulipian maneuver with Joseph Beuys’s blackboard drawings (what Rudolph Steiner called “thought-drawings”), Silverstein offers some engaging tactile texts. And his final piece, “dissociation • divagate,” resembles one of those CIA blotted out files. Silverstein’s texts are beautifully visceral eviscerations of the hegemony of the dictionary, or at least I’d like to think so. Things aren’t always what they seem within Artifice. For instance, Andrew Farkas’s noirish “Police Procedural,” an ingenious twist on the sleuth story, is literally about nothing. It’s inventive and expertly controlled, and, as with any good mystery, it ends with a surprise.
Claro’s Electric Flesh, translated by Brian Evenson, has been sitting on my shelf for awhile and since I was craving language that would fill my mouth I picked it up. It’s truly a chewy piece of fabulist fiction marked by its energetic, and yes, electric, prose:
First, he savors the gray and dense effluvium of things dead, like a tenuous sound followed by a burning echo which goes off to scorch the muffled siphon of one’s ear, then it’s a bouquet of heated wood, of strained leather, of numb metal, of blind metal, which creeps into his nostrils and runs off to awaken several neuronal clusters, which, after having followed billions of differential loops in a hundredth of a second, give instructions to certain inferior nerve endings to contract the muscles of his scrotum, releasing in exchange a rather shameful memory which quite naturally combines the defecating function with sexual stupor.
And there’s no shortage of wonderfully overwrought descriptions:
She was waiting for him, a twice-broken silhouette, a dim-witted Moloch of wood, folded a first time at the level of the pelvis, at her padded hips, into the double parallel horizontals of the forearms tensed in fists for armrests, so that the strong thighs and flattened ass form a support; then a second time, the knees gush out in the vertical descent and flow to the feet, a muscular foundation grafted rather than nailed to the floor.
Or moments marked by both detachment and droll humor:
That evening, as an exception, Howard paid homage to Bess. When the former came to lie down at her side, instead of becoming a tree trunk sunk in mud or a statue wallowing in sand, instead of playing a child switched off under the maternal lampshade, he crept toward her, deployed his fingers and her folds, buttressed against her a lot of little desiring bridges, running sawing bypassing, with each groaning debut combed flames, wove chains, brought the weight of his shoulders back on the armrests of Bess’s withered arms, pressed the box of his stomach to the suddenly burning stone of his wife, raised her thighs in two perfect right angles, and made it last, last, last, aligning the unalignable with the unaligned, wallowing in slow motion in hollows that one would have thought sealed with torpeur, making the dried froth foam up with conviction. Did Bess appreciate it? Hard to say, to grasp, so much did the noise of her breathing match that of the rubbing of the skin and the creaking of the bed.
The passage above is also a testament to Evenson’s incredibly evocative translation. Evenson finds moments of wonderful assonance like “of becoming a tree trunk sunk in mud,” and the welling oh, oh, oh of “each groaning debut combed flames, wove chains,” and even more suggestive oh, oh, oh, oh in “wallowing in slow motion in hollows. Claro’s prose creeps over the landscape of language much like Joyelle McSweeney’s, albeit with nods to William Gibson at his most nerdy, as well as Alfred Bester at his visual-tactile best (I’m thinking particularly of some of the typographical play in The Demolished Man).
Claro also provides a description of prose diametrically opposite to the one he has produced:
It was Leuchter’s prose, recognizable among thousands, because there were a thousand others like it, over a hundred thousand others copied exactly, endless reproduction of the absolute polish of dead prose, and not only dead but obsessed with the thingification of the slightest vibratory particle, not the slightly frigid language of the entomologist or of the formula jotter, but that bloodless prattle which is achieved only by sheer force of inner anaemia and patient exterior scrubbing.
There’s so much dead prose as to sicken any self-respecting reader, but there are three writers whom you can count on to deliver sentences and paragraphs overflowing with syntanctical brilliance. And those writers were the subjects of the next book I’d read in March, namely, Larry McCaffrey’s The Metafictional Muse. It proved to be another useful book toward understanding William Gass’s work as well as the work of two equally indomitable and inimitable prose stylists, namely, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover. Coover gets first billing here followed by Donald Barthelme. Most of the things I marked off in the book related to William Gass, so I’ll focus my attention on those passages here. Taking its title from one of Gass’s books of essays, the chapter “William H. Gass: The World Within the Word” finds McCaffrey offering succinct summaries of and extrapolations about the following books by Gass: Fiction and the Figures of Life, a book McCaffrey earlier described as “a study that provided nontraditionalists with a manifesto which justified their efforts in terms of carefully established literary and philosophic principles”, and in this chapter he describes as having become “a kind of Bible for contemporary innovative writers, providing a convincing theoretical justification of the nonmimetic approach many of them are pursuing. Simply speaking, this view suggests that all fictions, including those of philosophy, science, mathematics, as well as literature, are primarily meaning systems which owe the standards of their success to internal consistency and not to the way in which they mimetically represent or correspond to the outside world.” McCaffrey’s observation that Gass’s “critical essays are themselves illustrations of his desire to call attention to the sensuous qualities of language.” One need only look at Gass’s extensive use of poetic devices like alliteration, rhyme, metrical rhythms, his use of extended metaphor and analogy, to recognize how critical lyricism, sensuousness, and tactility are to the realization of his fiction. Or as McCaffrey puts it “Gass emphasizes all the qualities of words—their sound, rhythm, pace, and occasionally even their visual qualities, as well as their meanings—fully as much as a poet would.”
In his discussion of In the Heart of the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories McCaffrey offers a perfect summary of Gass’s characters. They “are driven, lonely people whose desire for contact with the living, breathing world is constantly thwarted by their fears and obsessions, by their environment, and above all, by their tendency to use art to engage reality rather than confronting it directly,” although I’d argue that it is most often specifically language, rather than a broad conception of art, that the characters use as a means of negotiating their anxiety, their conflicts, their relationship with the outside world, often weaving a web of words that they inevitably become stuck within. Moreover, as McCaffrey correctly points out, Gass uses “the interior monologue form not because he wants to recreate the way people really think under certain circumstances, but because it provides him with a formal situation which grants him considerable freedom to develop language objects of beauty and complexity.” Suffice to say that I find these monologues irresistible.
I followed this with reading another of Gass’s fifty literary pillars, namely, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I was surprised that Gass chose this play over all of the bard’s plays, that he chose this over any number of the high tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet, or Macbeth, for instance, or Romeo and Juliet, or Othello. I’d think he’d even choose Midsummer’s Night Dream before Antony and Cleopatra. And it’s especially unusual when I think how all those monologues in the great tragedies must surely have influenced Gass’s own fondness for the form. This is not to say that there aren’t some great monologues in Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s are particularly powerful and best delivered at fever pitch, I would think:
Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk? or is he on his horse?
O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse! for wot’st thou whom thou movest?
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men. He’s speaking now,
Or murmuring “Where’s my serpent of old Nile?”
For so he calls me: now I feed myself
With most delicious poison. Think on me,
That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black,
And wrinkled deep in time? Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch: and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow;
There would he anchor his aspect and die
With looking on his life.
—Act I, Scene 5
No more, but e’en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares. It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol’n our jewel. All’s but naught;
Patience is scottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that’s mad: then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death,
Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women?
What, what! good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian!
My noble girls! Ah, women, women, look,
Our lamp is spent, it’s out! Good sirs, take heart:
We’ll bury him; and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,
Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away:
This case of that huge spirit now is cold:
Ah, women, women! come; we have no friend
But resolution, and the briefest end.
—Act IV, Scene 15
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
[Kisses them. Iras falls and dies]
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.
—Act V, Scene 2
After reading and writing a review of Robert Coover’s spectacular new novel, Noir, this month, I felt like going back and reading his entire catalogue as I had just done with Gass. Alas, this is a project that will have to remain on the back burner (maybe next year?). Anyway, Noir finds Coover in high comic mode as he takes another stab at the mystery genre. One highlight, among many, is a brilliant ribald set piece about a tattooed woman that I feel like quoting in full. I had a chance to see Coover at a recent reading in New York City, and, fortunately, he read from that section in the book. It easily functions as a standalone fiction. Here’s a bit from it:
Michiko meanwhile ended up tattooed from crown to toes with layers of exotic overwritten graffiti, a veritable yakuza textbook, slang dictionary, and art gallery, a condition that served her will in her subsequent career, once the museum, which claimed ownership of her, was paid off: she was worth a C-note just for an hour of library time. All of it fading now. Losing its contours, its clarity, the colors muddying, wrinkles disturbing the continuities, obscuring the detail. Suffering the fate of all history, which is only corruptible memory. Time passes, nothing stays the same; a sad thing. A haiku somewhere on her body says as much.
I capped off my reading of Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose with reading all of the prose starting with The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination and then the “Uncollected Prose,” a selection of 49 prose pieces written by Stevens between 1897 and 1955. The prose collection includes occasional pieces, letters, journal entries, etc., and seven selections from Stevens’s notebooks, one of which, “Materia Poetica,” an arrangement of thirty-nine aphorisms, I found to be the most interesting, as it shows this careful technician in a rawer form.
Justin Nicholes, author of Ash Dogs, asked me to blurb Red Blood, Black Sky, a horror/irreal fiction anthology forthcoming from Another Sky Press. The absorbing collection includes work by J. A. Tyler, Richard Spilman, Kevin A. Christinat, Bradley Sands, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Hayley Griffin, Glen Fobister, C. A. Kerr, Myra Sherman, Blake Butler, Jonathan Schlosser, Tom Thompson, Kristian Williams, Philip Roberts, and Keith Dugger. And it was my reading of this that inspired me to read another book, namely, Powers of Horror, by Julia Kristeva, that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I’d encountered a quote from it that Brian Evenson used as an epigraph for his incredible debut story collection, Altmann’s Tongue: “…more and more incisive, precise, eschewing seduction in favor of cruelty…”
Powers of Horror is a brilliant, evocative, challenging essay on abjection, that is, something that disgusts you like rot, a corpse, any kind of filth, a feeling that affects one in both physical and symbolic ways. Kristeva’s prose glistens and while certainly often difficult, and sometimes opaque, it is also incredibly lyrical. In a section comparing abjection to sublimation, she writes:
For the sublime has no object either. When the starry sky, a vista of open seas or a stained glass window shedding purple beams fascinate me, there is a cluster of meaning, of colors, of words, of caresses, there are light touches, scents, sighs, cadences that arise, shroud me, carry me away, and sweep me beyond the things that I see, hear, or think. The “sublime” object dissolves in the raptures of a bottomless memory. It is such a memory, which, from stopping point to stopping point, remembrance to remembrance, love to love, transfers that object to the refulgent point of the dazzlement in which I stray in order to be. As soon as I perceive it, as soon as I name it, the sublime triggers—it has always already triggered—a spree of perceptions and words that expands memory boundlessly. I then forget the point of departure and find myself removed to a secondary universe, set off from the one where “I” am—delight and loss. Not at all short of but always with and through perception and words, the sublime is a something added that expands us, overstrains us, and causes us to be both here, as dejects, and there, as others and sparkling. A divergence, an impossible bounding. Everything missed, joy—fascination.
Amidst reflections on theories by Freud and Lacan, Kristeva also explores literary works by Dostoevsky, Proust (“…the delightful interlacing of Proustian sentences, which unfold my memory and that of my language’s signs down to the silent, glowing recesses of an odyssey of desire deciphered in and through the fashionable wordliness of his contemporaries.”), Joyce (“How dazzling, unending, eternal—and so weak, so insignificant, so sickly—is the rhetoric of Joycean language.), Borges, Artaud, Mallarmé (“…the stainless, serene, nostalgic beauty of Mallarmé’s always already antiquated arabesque; of Mallarmé who could convert the paroxysm of a funereal psalm into the elliptic markings of a convoluted language.), and Lautréamont, and especially Céline, who, “carrying out a rejection, without redemption, himself forfeited,…will become, body and tongue, the apogee of that moral, political, and stylistic revulsion that brands our time. A time that seems to have for a century now, gone into unending labor pains. The enchantment will have to wait for some other time, always and forever.” Redemption, for Kristeva, or at least a kind of redemptive awareness is possible through language:
Our eyes can remain open provided we recognize ourselves as always already altered by the symbolic—by language. Provided we hear in language—and not in the other nor in the other sex—the gouged-out eye, the wound, the basic incompleteness that conditions the indefinite quest of signifying concatenations.
Midway through her book Kristeva suggests that “proceeding farther still along the approaches to abjection, one would find neither narrative nor theme but a recasting of syntax and vocabulary—the violence of poetry, and silence.” Speaking of syntax, my favorite chapter in the book was “In the Beginning and Without End,” where Kristeva examines with great depth and rigor the sentences of Céline, the stylist. On Céline’s use of slang:
The vocabulary of slang, because of its strangeness, its very violence, and especially because the reader does not always understand it, is of course a radical instrument of separation, of rejection, and, at the limit, of hatred. Slang produces a semantic fuzziness, if not interruption, within the utterances that it punctuates and rhythmicizes, but above all it draws near to that emptiness of meaning at which Céline seems to aim.
And her glosses on Céline’s varying uses of the ellipsis and the exclamation point and other syntactic devices are simply breathtaking. Kudos to Leon S. Roudiez, the translator of what I’m certain was an incredibly challenging text to realize in English.
I had intended to do a full-length review of Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness, but in the end dropped the project. As an extremely personalized ars poetica less interested in drawing any conclusions as it is with probing and prodding, the text intentionally sprawls and is marked, and I would argue is ultimately marred, by its digressions and tenuous connections between thoughts and theories. Like the poetry he describes, Young’s book-length essay “demonstrates that the self is not a fixed thing, rather a movement: a collection of arrived-at and abandoned impulses and conflicting conclusions. One X over another.” This is the model he uses to structure his polemic here. The book is characterized by its contradictory ideas. For instance, Young on the one hand is envious of visual artists who “interact with [their] medium in a primal, physical way. Paint is always ready to be paint, thrown, slathered, sprayed, blotted up”; but he finds himself unable to see that poets, too, have words, sounds, graphic textures as their raw material; he asserts that “Poetry is no more a thing than fire is; rather it is a conversion that reveals itself in the instance of its occasion.” I’m really not sure what he means here, but it’s clear that poetry is not a thing, but a kind of energy (but isn’t energy a thing, too? If it isn’t, then what is it?). How does he reconcile this thought with his envy of visual artists who are engaged with the materials of their craft? He goes on to say that “Poetry mitigates just as fire does, by witnessing its own necessary recklessness and senses of the sacred, its ability to combust the ancillary, to grow and make everything itself even as it confronts us with the outcome of its conjugations, with ash, with death.” This doesn’t make any sense at all to me. Sure, Young is speaking metaphorically here. He doesn’t really mean that poetry is a form of energy like fire. Or does he? For me, poetry is words organized in certain ways, taking certain forms. It is mainly an object, and an inert one, at that. But Young attacks this conception of poetry and writes that the so-called “assault on poetry in general is based upon handling language not as a sign, but as a thing. And something handled in a way in which it wasn’t intended or should be is desecration.” For Young, Poetry is “when the animal bursts forth, inflamed. It ain’t always pretty.” Then again, “Poetry must assert itself as poetry.” But “POETRY ATROPHIES WHEN IT STRAYS TOO FAR FROM THE HUMAN PANG.” Then again, “Every poem must assert itself as poetry actively. Poetry, like any other art form is recognized through its relationship to precedents/convention.” And as “an art of words poetry depends on making these words appear materialized. SOME THINGS MUST BE MADE OPAQUE TO BE SEEN. The medium appears through the accentuation of itself as a mitigating factor (this would be better if I didn’t understand it) and as sound or design.” So, is it then possible for poetry to be both a thing and not a thing? This is, perhaps, the most plausible idea, but if this is Young’s position, he doesn’t convincingly demonstrate how this might be so.
Attempting to answer the question of what poetry is for, Young writes:
The question of utility has bugged poets for quite a while. In Western Civilization, the purpose for and of art has been on a long, strange journey to such a degree that one purpose, and sometimes seemingly the only purpose, is for art to turn against itself.” And, after describing Duchamp’s ironic dismantling of predominant notions of aesthetics, he bemoans how
Art became a travesty of context, something you trip over. The authority of the artist is self-parodic, highlighting itself as whim rather than wisdom, conceptual rather than a perfection of technique. The rearticulating of this joke has led us to a crisis of irony: art seems to function solely as a debacle of context, a suspension and suspicion of traditional modes of expertise in favor of appropriation, and endless procession of quote marks, the deconstruction of any imaginative act into a triumph of depthless allusion and arch remove. Art becomes the ruination of utility. Music, painting, poetry, performance becoming a kind of purging tantrum, its use disruptive to its own usefulness, has bequeathed us an unavoidable irony toward the possibility of any art’s sincerity; it is the rupture of elsewhere in any sense of belonging. We as poets now face the danger of a fundamental estrangement. While such irony gives powerful displacements of consciousness, of self-consciousness, it also threatens to orphan us from the primary efficacy and use of our art.
Strong words. And while I find myself in sympathy with Young’s criticism of some strands of the contemporary art world, his analysis is largely devoid of specific overarching examples, and so it’s difficult for me to give myself completely over to his argument. Why does Young seem to privilege “perfection of technique” over what he is describing as conceptual? Why are they antithetical to one another? Seems to me that perfecting a technique requires a great deal of conceptual thinking. Surely, these things can run in tandem. I think there should be allowances made for both whim and wisdom and everything else in between in the art world, and in the world in general. But then this idea of privileging technique is contradicted by his belief that poetry
is not a discipline. It is a hunger, a revolt, a drive, a mash note, a fright, a tantrum, a grief, a hoax, a debacle, an application. It is a collaboration: the bad news may be that we are never entirely in control but the good news is that we collaborate with a genius—the language! We cannot make the gods come, all we can do is sweep the steps of the temple and thus we sit down to our desks.
It’s hard to swallow such gobbledygook, especially when you find the contradiction in this passage. What Young is saying is that poetry is not discipline, it’s something else entirely, but in the end, you must still sit down at your desk: an act of discipline. But then he’ll vacillate again and write: “THE WRITING OF POETRY IS NOT A CRAFT….WE ARE MAKING BIRDS, NOT BIRDCAGES.” But Young sidesteps criticism of his dithering by subtitling his book Poetry As Assertive Force and Contradiction and by sprinkling coy asides like “I was hoping that at some point I would figure out what this book is about—maybe you are too.” (OH, HAVE I MENTIONED HOW ANNOYING YOUNG’S USE OF ALL CAPS IS, YET?)
I ended March with a rereading of Understanding William Gass, by H.L. Nix, (I’d highlighted my reading of it in my previous column) in preparation for my interview with him—a story that I hope to tell in full soon.
Isn’t “The Garden of Forking Paths” itself about, at least in part, a book that never ends? In which all narrative possibilities are explored, creating converging and diverging realities, with the story itself serving as a microcosm of such a thing?
Or were you strictly trying to think of actual works along those lines? Maybe I’m just being dense. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Plus, it’s early.
Yes, you’re right, it’s an idea that Borges spun around in his stories like “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Library of Babel”, “Book of Sand”, and yes, I was trying to imagine actual works along those lines. I think there are online realizations of the infinite book, or at least approximations of the idea.
Sounds like a busy month in the stacks. As for Antony & Cleopatra, it is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays because of how effectively it expresses the rotating vanities of almost everyone who appears. It’s a very effective parody of all the human frailties we stack up to buttress our ambitions to power, and it’s anchored by the wit of Cleopatra. She can say something seemingly tossed off (“Ha Ha! Give me to drink mandragora!”) that skewers the situation. I’ve always wanted to see it staged, but I guess most Shakespeare companies don’t regard it as highly as I do. I also think it’s one of the more literary of the plays, and maybe doesn’t possess the stage as well as it does the page.
Thanks, Oche. And I agree with your assessment of the Antony and Cleopatra. It distinguishes itself in the Bard’s oeuvre by its showcasing of a complex female character, Cleopatra, around whom everything revolves. I wonder, in fact, if this might be one reason why the play is not often staged.
Thanks, Oche. And I agree with your assessment of Antony and Cleopatra. It distinguishes itself in the Bard’s oeuvre by its showcasing of a complex female character, Cleopatra, around whom everything revolves. I wonder, in fact, if this might be one reason why the play is not often staged.
Uche, that is.
Never a worry. When you carry an Igbo name to the West, you learn not to be sensitive 🙂
I think you might be onto something. When I think of other Shakespeare plays with such strong female leads, there is MacBeth, where Lady M is just palpably vile, and just an extension of the opening scene witches, so the prejudiced can at least write her off as a witch and get on with the play. Then there is As You Like it, but though Rosalind is such a powerful character, she is written with enough of a feminine touch to be non-threatening. Cleopatra is just straight-up, no chaser power of wit and pussy and princess-born authority. It’s possible that producers worry the male ego can’t swallow that.