Monday, August 27, 2007

Kundera again. There is Nothing that Can Make Us Clean

Milan Kundera's January 8, New Yorker piece continues to work on me...

Mary, in a Comment to the ICORN post, expressed surprise that writers were subjected to persecution...

Here in the belly of the beast, I wrote, protected by the scales, not of justice, but of the corporate serpents and the puppets who serve them: digesting the chime of their victims, we think ourselves safe from such dangers. In Egypt, in Thailand, in China, in Putin's Russia--but not here, we say, filling our gas tanks with the blood of the victims.

Artists and writers challenge power, not by becoming "political," taking up causes--but by breaking down the borders, refusing the several temptations of parochial blindness, the provincialism of the weak and marginal, and the provincialism of the powerful... I'm thinking of Kundera's New Yorker piece, Die Weltliteratur--he calls it "the provincialism of small nations," and "the provincialism of large nations." I can't resist a long quote. Kundera is citing a poll here, answering the question: "What are the books that have made France what it is?"

"Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables' came in first...

Les Miserables?

... in eleventh place is de Gaulle's war memoirs..."

And what of the eighteenth-and the nineteenth-century novel, France's glory? "the Red and the Black" stands twenty-second; "The Human Comedy" only thirty-fourth (Is that possible? "The Human Comedy," without which European literature is inconceivable!); "Dangerous Liaisons" fifieth; poor "Bouvard and Pecuchet" come trailing in last, like a couple of breathless dunces. And some masterworks do not appear at all among the hundred elect: "The Charterhouse of Parma"; Sentimental Education"...
And what about the twentieth century? Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," seventh place...

We do not see what is before our eyes, the small nations because they are in awe of the powerful, the large nations, because they are so drunk with their own importance they have given up the effort of critical thought.

To refuse the blindfolds of provincialism--this is writers and artists can do, a refusal more threatening by far than half-digested political polemic disguised as "art" or poetry or ...

It's not easy, living in the Belly of the Beast...not if you refuse to look away, to close your eyes.

We are bathed in blood and oil... there is nothing that can make us clean.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lars Spurious, in The Thought of the Outside Faucault and Blanchot, the dissolution of the "I" in literary creation.

A brief quote below. Do read the whole piece.

It is this experience that lies at the heart of Blanchot's fiction and his criticism, which, it should be remembered, broadens to encompass the plastic arts as well as the written ones (and even touches upon music). I think it is this criticism Foucault remembers when he sketches a genealogy of literary experience as the outside.

Sade and Hölderlin, for him, introduce an experience of the outside, 'the former by laying desire bare in the infinite murmur of discourse, the latter by discovering that the gods had wandered off through a rift in language as it was in the process of losing its bearings' that would be uncovered in its implications only subsequently. These contemporaries of Kant and Hegel wanted other than to interiorise the world, humanising nature and naturalising the human being, or to overcome alienation: they belonged outside the history of humanism.

The same in Nietzsche and Mallarmé at the end of the nineteenth century, ... in the discovery, respectively, that metaphysics is tied to its grammar, and with the idea that poetry demands the speaker's disappearance. And it reappears in the twentieth century with Artaud, for whom the cry and the body rends discursive language, in Bataille, who performs the rupture of subjectivity, and in Klossowski, in whose work the double, the simulacra, multiply the 'Me' into dispersal.

See also Dust and Silence, Poetics of Renunciation --a central theme in my story, A Theology of Anorexia

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Transformative Power of Apposition in Delillo's Prose

In his post on LITBLOG CO-OP, Delillo and Things that Become Other Things, Matthew Sharpe [The Jamestown Sausage Factory] gives us a fine analysis of the transformative power of apposition in Delillo's prose.

Defenders of book grammar in fiction remind me of the armed guards in those little outhouses by the driveways at the borders of Gated Communities. They stand posted to serve the interests of literature as the guards stand to serve the interests of greater humanity.

In the attacks on Delillo's prose, I perceive a deeply conservative and parochial fear of contingency, of the conditioned and relative nature of authority. His sentences tear down the hedgerows and fences that protect us from an open and unguarded encounter with the world; by freeing us from comprehension they expose us to apprehension--a form of enlightenment the conservative mind experiences as intolerable anxiety.

Here are a some quotes from his essay.

One of the qualities of DeLillo's prose I've admired since I began reading him more than a dozen years ago is its analytic rigor, the way he can use a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph to bore into the texture and meaning of contemporary life. And one of the grammatical constructions he uses repeatedly as the vehicle for his insights is apposition, which is when two nouns or noun phrases, usually adjacent to each other in a sentence, have the same referent and stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of the sentence, as in, “George W. Bush, the worst president in U.S. history, is on vacation.” Apposition allows a writer two or more passes in a row at coming up with a verbal equivalent for a given phenomenon, wherein each pass amplifies the others. The result can be a kind of verbal Cubism, a grammatical form of hopefulness in which each periphrastic utterance brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion.

A truly wacky apposition, the kind that so frustrates DeLillo's grassroots base of ardent detractors, and is exactly the sort of thing about his work that excites me, comes at the end of a paragraph about the erotic charge between Keith and his wife, Lianne, at the beginning of their acquaintance: “The rented beach house was sex, entering at night after the long stiff drive, her body feeling welded at the joints, and she'd hear the soft heave of the surf on the other side of the dunes, the thud and run, and this was the line of separation, the sound out there that marked an earthly pulse in the blood.” Well, “entering” is a dangling participle, among other grammatical infelicities, and while “thud and run” and “the sound out there” are clearly two phrases describing the same thing, how is either of them a “line of separation”? But DeLillo throughout his work has lavished attention on uses of language that aren't correct or don't quite make sense. His people make a hash of grammar-“Which, by the way, did you get my postcard?”-while he investigates everyday vernacular's routine betrayals of its own presumed sense-making efficacy-“Light-skinned black woman,” for example, or, in reference to the physical therapy Keith does for his injury from the tower, “He used the uninvolved hand to apply pressure to the involved hand.” DeLillo's people struggle valiantly with or against language as a way to get a foothold in their own chaotic lives, their insurmountable mortality, the terrifying world that is often the subject of his novels-as in this conjugation-gone-mad, the heartbreaking final written remark of an Alzheimer's patient with whom Lianne has been conducting weekly writing sessions: “Do we say goodbye, yes, going, am going, will be going, the last time go, will go.”
Moments of verbal nonsense and misapprehension are DeLillo's way of representing the mind's-even the intact mind's-logic-transcending representation of the world. An apposition that violates the strict rules of grammar and sense replaces them with intuition's urge to find equivalence in disparate things. A mid-century Italian still life of some bottles in Lianne's mother's apartment reminds Lianne of the fallen towers, and, later, of her now-deceased mother. And the novel itself uses verbal quirks to unite disparate characters in resemblance: Lianne, to stave off Alzheimer's, counts backward from one hundred by sevens; her boy, Justin, refuses to speak except in monosyllables; Hammad, a 9/11 terrorist, recites repetitive prayers; Keith and his poker buddies take deep satisfaction in saying the words “five-card stud” at the beginning of each game, though this is the only version of poker they play.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Icorn: International Cities of Refuge Network

Everyone who writes and respects literature would do well to be aware of this site.


The following from their homepage.
The International Cities of Refuge Network is an association of cities and regions around the world dedicated to the value of Freedom of Expression. Writers have consistently been targets of politically-motivated threats and persecution, and the network believes it is necessary for the international community to formulate and implement an appropriate response. ICORN aims to meet this challenge.

The ICORN Charter and Application Form
Cities of Refuge through History

"Cities of Asylum" and "Cities of Refuge" are both flexible terms, reaching back to ancient times.

* In ancient Hawaii, a person who had broken a taboo would be put to death unless he or she could first escape to a city of refuge for a purifying ceremony.
* In old Israel a city of refuge was a place where a person who had inadvertently killed someone was given asylum.
* 16th Century Geneva was a city of refuge for persecuted French and Italian reformers.
* During the Second World War, the small city of Chambon-sur-Lignon in France became a city of refuge for over 5,000 Jewish children and their families.

Cities of Refuge began, and still are, places born of compassion.
A New Network

In 1993, over 300 writers came together from around the globe to protest escalating assassinations of writers in Algeria. They called for an international act of solidarity with the persecuted writers. The International Parliament of Writers, the IPW, was established in Paris to address this issue, and in 1994 they established the International Network of Cities of Asylum (INCA). The cities in the Network provided persecuted writers with a safe, temporary residence and workplace.

35 cities had been involved in the network when, in 2004, the International Parliament of Writers disbanded due to funding difficulties. In the United States Russell Banks, who had been the president of the European network, along with other past-presidents (Wole Soyinka and Salman Rushdie) formally organized the Cities of Refuge North America. In Europe, representatives of cities formerly involved in INCA met with representatives from Norwegian PEN in February of 2005 to discuss the establishment of a new network, based in the city of Stavanger, Norway.

In late 2005 an agreement was made between International PEN and Sølvberget KF, Stavanger Cultural Centre. The Centre assumed financial responsibility during the establishment phase. The Executive Board appointed Helge Lunde as the Project Manager for ICORN, an international advisory group was formed and the new International Cities of Refuge Network, ICORN, had its first general assembly on June 9, 2006.

ICORN's Board of Directors is made up of the Stavanger Cultural Centre Executive Board Members, and the following Advisory Group was nominated and approved by the General Assembly:

* Chenjerai Hove, ICORN Guest Writer
* Kjell Olaf Jensen, Representative for Norwegian PEN
* Faith Liddell, International Literature and Arts Programming Director
* Peter Ripken, Director for the Society for the Promotion of African Asian and Latin American Literature
* Raffaella Salierno, Catalan PEN

Project Manager Helge Lunde met regularly in the following year (2006-7) with the Advisory Group to draft the statutes, which were approved by the General Assembly in 2007.

It was decided during the 2006 General Assembly that the ICORN Administration Centre would create a website that would facilitate the sharing of resources and information among ICORN members and disseminate the work of ICORN Guest Writers. The new website features a quarterly webzine to address the latter purpose.
The ICORN Charter and Application Form

The Charter (pdf files) in the following language at ICORN

* English
* French - Français
* Spanish - Español
* Italian - Italiano
* Chinese-

Friday, August 17, 2007

Narrative, Memory, Identity

I'll have to give this more thought, but what caught my attention in Ann's comments on Narrative Patterns in Fantasy was how the transition devices that carry the action (as she described them), adhere to the patterns by which memory fashions narrative, one might say--as manifest to latent content in a Freudian sense. Only here, the latent and invisible pattern is not the working out of conflicts between primal drives and assimilated repressive forces, but the organic relationship between memory and narrative.

Narrative is about memory. Not exclusively, of course, but always and without exception, as imaginative writing is (not exclusively) but always and without exception, about language.

Narratives show us how we think about memory, and perhaps more important, about the limits we impose on organic memory in order to create narrative. Think of Aristotle's rationalization for the Iliad beginning in medias res, or how Proust's exploration of involuntary memory demanded a new form of narrative for its explication--which brings to mind a third element: personal identity.

Narrative, then, is about memory and identity, not exclusively, but always and without exception.

The fantasy narratives Ann describes would seem to have made these relationships explicit in patterns of action and transition.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Narrative Patterns in Fantasy

I'm not a reader of fantasy, but the following comments from Patternings, make me wonder if I should expand my reading. Here, I can see how the conventions of the genre can work to make concrete otherwise abstract ideas about memory and identity in narrative--problems very close to me, especially in the novel I'm working on now.

I found this posted on MetaxuCafe.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels to be exercising my brain cells again, even if I am only easing my way back into my research tiny step by tiny step at the moment. The best part about it is remembering just why I called my blog ‘Patternings’ in the first place. There is nothing like a bit of brain exercise to get your mind reaching out and creating links between one aspect of your thinking world and another. And, inevitably, once you start making those links you come across ideas that give you pause for thought; ideas that you want to try out against other minds. Here is the first one, accompanied by a cry of “What do you think?”

I’ve probably never explained my research beyond saying that I’m interested in the way in which narratives are organised. But, in order to study that I need to approach it from one theoretical position or another. In my case, my chosen theory is tagmemics. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know anything about tagmemics to go on reading. If you’re a British reader you’ve probably never heard of it anyway. Trust me to choose an American based discipline that practically no one in the UK has ever come across.

What you do need to know is that yesterday I was considering the part of the theory that talks about the way in which we recognise that a unit is still the same unit even if what we are examining is two different variants of that unit. So, to give you a couple of examples, we know that A and B are different units, but that A and a are variants of the same unit. As people working within the system that uses this particular alphabet we know what are different units and what are simply variations on a theme. Another example, larger unit. If when I go to the hairdressers tomorrow I was to get Trina to dye my hair blond (don’t worry, this is an imaginary example!) I will still be the same person, the same unit. You may think I’ve gone completely insane, but you will still recognise me as a variation of the original unit, not a different person/unit.

Well, last night, I got to thinking about this in relation to the more practically based work I’m looking at. Driven by a desire to celebrate the magnificent way in which J K Rowling has organised the narrative structure of the Harry Potter series, I’ve been re-reading other fantasy series to look at what happens there. At the moment, I’m two-thirds of the way through Trudi Canavan’s novel Priestess of the White. One of the strategies Canavan uses is to move between different groups of characters, in different locations, although all in the same time frame. So, at one point I might be reading about the White in Jamire only to jump on the next line to the doings of the Siyee in Si. Eventually, I’m sure, all these characters are going to be interwoven, although at the moment, at least one thread seems very distant from the others. Now, I have no problem here. Each time I move from one location to another I am dealing with different units and when I return to a thread I’ve already visited, I have no difficulty recognising those units I’ve previously encountered as old friends. Auraya may decide to wear her hair differently, but I still recognise her as the same character I was reading about forty pages earlier.

But, (you knew there was going to be a ‘but’ didn’t you) the next series I want to consider is Katharine Kerr’s Deverry novels, starting with Daggerspell. Now, as those of you who’ve read them will know, these are rather more complex in their organisation. While they do follow the same pattern as the Canavan epic there is also a time shift to be taken into account. In the first novel we witness the character we are later to know as Nevyn, taking a wrong decision and, as a result, diverting other characters from the wyrd or fate that the Lords of Wyrd had laid down for them. As a consequence, Nevyn is fated to live on, while those same characters are reborn in other guises, until he is able to bring them to the fate originally decreed. So, as well as moving from location to location we also move from time to time. On one page we might be reading about one specific time frame only to find that on the next we are four hundred years in the future and then, fifty pages further on, back where we started.

In these different time frames the original characters take on very different forms. Brangwyn, for example, surfaces in several other female guises, Lyssa, Gweniver, Jill and once even as a man, Branoic. My dilemma is this: in tagmemic terms, are these different guises different units or variants of the same unit. All that remains the same is the soul. In almost every other way these manifestations are different. But is the constancy of the soul sufficient to claim that each is still a variation of the same unit? There’s the rub.

This, of course, is not simply a question of narrative identity, it has deep theological implications as well. And, as a tagmemisist, I recognise that any individual observer’s response to it will depend on the perspective of that observer. But every time I look at it my perspective seems to shift. So, I throw it open to the wider blogging community. What do you think? I would really love to know.

Posted by Ann on 08/16 at 12:36 PM
technorati tag Narrative Patterns

Friday, August 10, 2007

Milan Kundera, Artistic Fame

Artist's fame is the most monstrous of all, for it implies the idea of immortality. And that is a diabolical snare, because the grotesquely megalomaniaic ambition to survive one's death is inseparably bound to the artist's probity. Every novel created with real passion aspires quiet naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a medicre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional--thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious--is contemptible. This is the novelist's curse: his honesty is bound to the vile stake of his meaglomania.

Milan Kundera, What is a Novelist?, The New Yorker, Oct. 9, 2006

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Psychoanalysis, Teaching, Interpretation

Spurious on Bruce Fink's Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis.

For Lacan, the analyst's interpretations of the patient's unconscious formations should aim at providing enigmatic statements that frustrate the desire of the analysand to work them out at the conscious level. The unconscious must be engaged as it presents itself to the analysand who has been taught to abandon the notion that there can be a single, unequivocal meaning which unconscious formations reflect. As such, the analyst's interjections in the session must be polyvalent if he or she to avoid spoon-feeding the analysand, and creating a relationship of dependency, whereby he or she stands in relation to the analyst as a child to a parent, or a pupil to a teacher.

It is in this sense that Lacan calls analytic interpretation 'oracular speech'. What matters is the way the analyst's interpretations resonate (Fink's word) with the patient. The analyst will play on the sound of words - 'that word sounds like ...' and point out double entendres; scansion may be employed. This will be intermittently frustrating for the patient, but what matters each time is to find provocative ways of intervening in the session that sends the analysand back to the mystery of his or her own unconscious formations. It is essential the analyst resists standing in as an authority figure, maintain him- or herself as the abstract, formal Other to the patient in order that transference may reach the real.

The following is a comment I left on Larval Subjects--in reference to Spurious' paraphrase of Fink on Lacan.

"As such, the analyst's interjections in the session must be polyvalent if he or she to avoid spoon-feeding the analysand, and creating a relationship of dependency, whereby he or she stands in relation to the analyst as a child to a parent, or a pupil to a teacher."

When I read these words I asked myself what this might say about teaching literature--interpreting the written word, especially to first or second year students where classroom experiences have too often strung them out in an anxious tension between uncritical affective response and equally uncritical prescriptive formulas, leaving them paralyzed in a frozen block of imaginative repression? How difficult it is to break through their habit of feeding back what they think you want to hear, and how natural it sounds to substitute, teacher for analyst, and student for analysand in Spurious' paraphrase:

The analyst will play on the sound of words - 'that word sounds like ...' and point out double entendres; scansion may be employed. This will be intermittently frustrating for the patient, but what matters each time is to find provocative ways of intervening in the session that sends the analysand back to the mystery of his or her own unconscious formations.

Then what do we do with the fact that, as teachers, we cannot escape our role as authority figures? How do we integrate that into the demands made upon us by the text? Is it possible, in our teaching, to slip in and out of this role--to stand aside before the text--to encounter it with our students, freeing ourselves (and them) from being dispensers of fossilized knowledge? If, "as Fink puts it, there must be a pedagogical element in analysis...[and] the analyst is in some sense a teacher, is there an analogy for the teacher to become, in some sense, an analyst, not of the relationship of the student to their unconscious, but to the text as a manifestation of the unconscious of our culture? And what does this say of the danger of losing the poem as poem?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

In Defense of Madame Bovary... Emma, not the book

A thoughtful commentary on Madame Bovary in Tales from the Reading Room.

Here is my defense of Emma Bovary--left as comment... but do read the TfrRR piece TfrRR piece. Worth the trip.

When I first read Madame Bovary, I carried the image of Emma's peasant hands (described in her first meeting with Charles) through the whole novel. I saw those hands as she lay dying.
They were for me, emblem of everything she passionately (and foolishly) wanted to escape. And perhaps not so foolishly. She was seduced by a belief that there might be more to life than those from whom she inherited those peasant hands had known, but lacked the capacity for self-reflection, the critical faculties that might have exposed the illusions (didn’t Henry James blame Flaubert for giving Emma such a limited consciousness–and thereby leaving the reader lost in a fictive universe that would never rise above the banal capacity of her mind?).

I think James missed what Flaubert was about. Missed his design. Emma’s passion failed to gain her the redemption she sought–not because the books she had been steeped in were less “real,” less worthy of imitation than the greatest works of artistic invention (and here is Flaubert’s irony!)–but because art is not life, and imaginative redemption (I’m sure he included religion in this class) cannot be translated or imitated by life without betraying both life and art.
In my reading of Emma, far from despising her, I admire her. She is a tragic figure because she had neither the intelligence, nor education, nor the innate sense of irony that might have taught her the truth… that there is no escape, no redemption in life, but in that passion itself, given form in thought, in art, in the disciplines of mind–for no end beyond the production of intellect and imagination itself.
Emma failed, but she alone of all the characters in the book, is worthy of our respect… and of our sorrow at her failure.