Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Critical Oracle

Stephen Mitchelmore links The Reading Experience for a thoughtful look-in-the mirror on literary weblogs.

Dan Green proposes a new category of book blogs: critblog. It's a useful distinction because, as his post explains, the proliferation of literary weblogs has been led by "superficial chitchat and literary gossip" rather than critical engagement with the oracle.

A "critical engagement with the oracle."

I like that. I like that from many sides... the way I like to circle around those large, multi-figure works when I visit the Rodin Museum on the Parkway. Multi-figured, multi-dimensional. As many dimensions as there are possible points of view. Oracles are like that. You take them at their word to your peril. Better to circle around. Play with the syntax. Imagine them in all the possible dimensions that seem to make sense. And then, reconfigure them and begin to work out the patterns that don't. ..

... make sense.

Not at first.

This is what I was beginning to get at in my post with the somewhat embarrassing title, at least, the morning after... Me, an Artist?.

I had in mind then, what I often feel writing on this blog--that it is not like the writing I do working on my novel. Revising a poem. It's more a kind of performance. Done in full view. Often terrifying... because it unfolds on an empty stage in an empty theater with doors and windows open... walls and posts in the city papered with flyers announcing the event. And they come, or they don't come--for the most part, all but invisible. Like trails in a cloud chamber. I wake in a panic infused with their... your... silent judgement... imagined... but real as the word of the oracle, the word misread, the furies loosed.

I should write reviews. I should work out my thoughts on the novel I've just finished reading. Make this into a nice LitCrit blog. Safe... safe... about ideas safely sublimated.

But I don't. And I ask myself why?

... because I come here to find my oracle.

Not my "muse." But the word spoken that wakes me to myself--wakes me from myself. Even if it terrifies me. The word of the oracle... this is what I take back, take with me--away from the stage. To be opened in private... writing. Alone... but not alone, because in the word of the oracle resides the presence of all those who were or might have been there listening, judging, waiting...

Waiting for me to retreat into my solitude--no longer alone.

Every subject--even the "shallow gossip," the "chit-chat" --belongs to the performance. It's the beginning of the work itself.

Écorché vif

Isn't there a Jacque Brell song on this? Or is it someone else... something about the plains of Flanders?

When it's all finished, all over--the writing. It's no longer mine. Safe. Safely out there. Other.

But everything on this blog is work-in-progress.

When the oracle is present, still present... nothing is finished, all is in flux...

Good writing. Fine critical thought. Well wrought reviews... come later. Come after.

There is a place for that... it's our goal, our hope, what we want to achieve.

But let there be a hollow in the rocks above the sea where we can go to meet a voice capable of shaming us with our impotence, tempting us with its power.


  1. actually I think reviews are a bit boring Jacob, I'm much more interested in first hand views of the world

  2. Hey, you're hanging out in France. Ask about that Ecorche Vif thing... the song.. I may be conflating two songs. One I know... something about the flat lands of Flanders...

    Where is the memory blip coming from?

  3. Ecorché vif (lit. skinned alive) is a term meaning sensitive or tortured soul and Jaques Brel is referred to as one of these. He was a (Dutch) Belgian and there are a couple of his songs that refer to Flanders. I hope that helps

  4. I always aspire to write ideal reviews (as I see them in my favourite lit mags) but I don't think that model fits my brain, so to speak. I don't know. I am rather conventional when it's all said and done.

    I *think* I am back after a long break from all things literary (except the actual books). Got a bit too noisy there.

  5. Jacob, I think that your blog is a nice balance between book chat and critical review; being both accessible and interesting from a literary perspective. It's a resource for people minus the intimidation. I find that snobbish formal book critics have a "scorched earth approach" to literary analysis and scare more people away from books than they encourage.

    Considering the general level of education in this country everyone should be encouraged to read and to enjoy reading. If chatty Kathy or Karl author blogs encourage reading lists and book sales than two thumbs up. Regular people are the ones who keep publishing companies afloat anyways. A sister of mine who is a brainiac said, "a good thing about being me is that all of the books I want to read get remaindered in three years." lol

    I am enticing a little neighbor boy (8) to read by leaving him little Halloween story books behind the screaming tombstone by his porch. I scored a whole box of these last summer at a yard sale and am dispensing them like the book fairy. His grandmother said that the books which are easy for him to read are building up his confidence. I am thinking of what to lure him with next. This is altogether too much fun to stop after the holiday.

    I'm currently reading "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and to date love it. I am only half finished and have gotten into trouble before recommending books that take a sudden sinister or kinky twist, but so far it sparkles. It's a philosophical fable about social class and the human condition.

    Take care and hold on to your hat. The state of our country and the world is of great concern these days.

  6. Princes Haiku,

    Your comment triggered some connections... been reading Jane Jacobs Death and Life of American Cities, and starting transferring some of her observations to what I've seen over the years, from BBS forums to the multi-topic interactive discussion web sites to blog. This is worth some thought and a future post.

    Diversity and interactivity... to survive and thrive, we need both. Why I like to link science blogs, and blogs like yours and Lotusgreen's, and Laval Subjects... whose posts I really miss. Not just to have those links, but reference them... visitors from other neighborhoods are integral to what makes any one neighborhood vital. Jacobs speaks of primary function uses in the neighborhood...and that to succeed, there must be two or more, which in turn attract additional uses. Say's something about the advantages of blogs over the discussion boards they replaced, and about their limitations.

    Definitely want to give this more thought... thank you for the oracular spark!