Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tweeting Jane Austen: The Geograpy of Self

I've been thinking about time and space in narrative, how the arrow of time in fiction is not set in a single direction; that though we may speak of linear narratives, there are no such things; unlike life, we can always return to the first page and begin again. Nor, within the narrative itself, no matter how easy or difficult the story makes it for the reader to straighten out the path of time, is there any necessity for time to always move, as in the physical world, in a single direction: present, future, past may follow in any order. Direction, where all movement is one way, does not really apply to time. Take the word 'direction;' this is a spacial word, a metaphor at best when applied to time. I see in this a structural remnant of myth and the reenactment of its cycles in recurrent ritual, where time is merely another dimension--or better, 'direction' --on the cosmic map. Fiction--story telling of any kind, retains this mythical power to spacialize time and so impose on its representation of reality a fundamental and inescapable distortion. In primitive myths this distortion appears, at least to us--far removed from the worlds they created--as primarily metaphysical, but it is also psychological, social, relational, and it is this that remains when we have shed ourselves of the narratized metaphysics of primitive myth.

We've been reading Sense and Sensibility in my freshman class this past week. I've lost count of how many times I've read this book, but it never fails to engage me, to draw me in, to surprise me. How delicious those conversations of discovery--Elinor and Lucy Steele, the last chapter of Volume I, where Elinor learns of Lucy's engagement to Edward Ferrar, and first chapter of the next volume where, in conversation with herself, by an application of reality-testing and reason, she works her way through to a reconciliation with this painful discovery, from denial to self pity to anger to a saving compassionate understanding. Knowing the book, and knowing it well, only makes these passages the more moving. The experience is not unlike listening to an aria from an opera: the more familiar you are with every note and word, the more powerfully it wrenches the heart. Familiarity also creates room around the affect, a stillness apart from the emotion that makes peace between mind and emotion, where it's possible to think intensely and feel strongly in the same breath. Several trains of thought occurred to me as I was reflecting on what I'd read. While these threads seemed as disconnected at first as elements in a dream, like a dream, I felt a strong sense of unity, and was convinced this had to do with my reading of Austen.

One of those threads, in fact, had to do with dreams: how there is always a special component; how moving from room to room, or along a road, takes the place of--re-places--time. In reconstructing a dream I will sometimes see how, say--what happened on that beach beside the lake had to do with something long ago, where I spent my summers on the shore of Lake Michigan, and when I was in the apartment building searching for my room, this came from something more recent, and the water running through the hall was the past flooding into and eroding my present life. There is a geography of the mind, I thought, and in the architecture of dreams time is but another material element, occupying and defining space. In a dream, I thought, we move through time as from room to room and back again.

I played this against a feeling I had while reading the chapters I mentioned--an intense feeling of difference in the reality represented by Austen and my own, a difference of a kind that changes in social and political and economic conditions could not account for. I'm not sure I understand yet what I was sensing, but it has to do with the geography of self: That Austen's characters live in a different space, that while our biology may not have altered, something of the internal map by which we negotiate the narratives of our lives has. The myth has been radically revised. In particular, what is near and what is far has lost much of the meaning it seemed to hold and those distinctions, so important to Austen, between inner and outer reality is far more permeable and does not govern us as they do the people in her fiction. Or I should say--does not govern me. Her reality is not mine. There have been great changes in our physical world--and it is of this world we make for ourselves the map of Self. I suppose the conclusion I can draw from this is: the distortion created by the spacialization of time peculiar to Austen's day is not ours, and that writers can not pretend to borrow, without betraying their own place in reality, the formative distortion of another place and time.

Reading over what I've written, it all seems so obvious, hardly worth the trouble to describe. Even trivial. I also feel there is more to this thread if I keep following it. It does feel good to be writing here again after almost two weeks absence. That review--if you can call it that--of the Alice Munro story quite wore me out.
May the dog live to bark another day!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Trapped in the Myth of Self

From Will Buckingham's post on The Body Artist, HERE with a lot of the Western philosophical tradition – for DeLillo this idea of the subsiding of the self and the stories of the self, this loss of the great narrative of the self, seems to be approached with a kind of fearful foreboding. But is it such a terrible thing? After all, when we slip the bonds of the grand narrative, we may find that everything else still goes on before, that the body and mind persist, continuing to do their job, and that all we have lost is our attachment to a myth. Might it not be liberating? Here I cannot help thinking of Dōgen: ‘Unless the cold pierces through our bones once, how can we have the apricot blossoms perfuming the whole world?’
To be trapped by one’s own myth, when all is said and done, may be a pretty grim fate.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Poker Puritans and Toking

I do what we all do on our down times... link to stuff worth reading.  Here's Sean Carroll, my all time fave physisist restaurant critic and general wise guy on railroading American Pilgrims...


And do NOT miss his link to the letter Michael Phelps should have written, HERE

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Gestation...the homonuclus of thought...

Captures well the mood I've been in.. From Letters from a Librarian...  

I do have some thoughts on reading, on why... and what I seek and need... 


Friday, February 13, 2009

Sean Carroll on Charles Darwin

Sean Carroll has written a beautiful tribute to Darwin on Cosmic Variance. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Language Poetry and Anglo-American Empiricism?

A question that's been Tweeting my mind...

A review HERE of Rae Armantrout's recently released Versed ... this is Silliman to make you a believer--there is nothing vague or impressionistic when he writes about poetry, like an Ansel Adams photo--sharp focus in bright light, surgical precision--and in this post, writing about one his oldest friends, deeply moving... a review to print out a,d save... and savor. Whatever Language Poetry is or was, can see here that there are no simple catagorical answers you can apply to pin down its most accomplished practitioners.
Still... the question persists... is what they share(d) no more than an indefinite zeitqeist? I can't help but notice a relationship, and at the same time,  be relieved to see that some of the poets who represented the movement from the beginning have moved out of the grip of its strangulated nominalism... if they were ever really in its hold.

No Such Thing as Establishment Art (I try to explain myself)

There are only Establishment critics and readers.

All art is subversive!

That is not to suggest that it's possible to identify 'art' from 'not art' by determining whether or not a particular work is subversive. By subversive, I mean whatever remains antithetical to established political, social, moral, religious and intellectual structures: that which remains after reductive interpretations have been exhausted, namely, aesthetic value.

It's all too clear that there is nothing that post-capitalist technological ideology, availing itself of corporate ingenuity, can not itself subvert and put to use for its own ends. No music, no visual, literary or dramatic work that can't be packaged and sold, and put to work selling in its turn. Anything that can't be digested and put to use will be perceived (correctly) as antithetical to the mechanisms of this ideology; its existence must either be denied, or destroyed. Condemned as a means to those ends, only an ersatz caricature of aesthetic value survives, where pretence to aesthetic judgement is merely one or another measure of effectiveness.

Critical analysis doesn't need to search for and identify subversive elements in art; it's enough to understand the ideological forces that seek by every means available to capture and enslave it, and to demonstrate the possibility of encountering in a work the remnant, the aesthetic reality. While this reality remains nameless (a name is the first manacle we apply to subjugate and enslave), we can meet it and speak meaningfully of the encounter.

We need a criticism that frees us to meet the aesthetic in all its useless wonder, and to resist and expose those who betray art and artists by delivering the nascent aesthetic reality to the world rendering it fit for the tasks of corporate empire building.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some Women, by Alice Munro, Notes Toward a Critical Realism.

This is Part II of a review of Some Women, by Alice Munro
Naming the Real in Realist Fiction. Here is Part I .

Three posts on Critical Narrative analysis

No artist tolerates reality." says Nietzsche. That is true, but no artist can get along without reality. Artistic creation is a demand for unity and rejection of the world. But it rejects the world in the name of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.
Camus, The Rebel

When I first read this, I noticed an ambiguity in the English translation which I assumed would not exist in the French. As the likely pronominal antecedents (une exigence, and le monde) are of different genders, it would be clear in French that the first refers to 'artistic creation,' or rather, its 'demand,' and the next two, to 'the world.' But {this demand) rejects the world in the name of what ( the world) lacks and in the name of what (the world) sometimes is. However, I find that there is something to be said for the ambiguity and for the creative misreading it allows. If we understand 'world' and 'reality' as synonymous (as Camus apparently does here), make 'artistic creation' the subject and turn 'demand' into a verb with 'writer' as its object, we will have pregnant formulation of the problematic of realism and representation. .

Artistic creation demands of the writer
that he/she reject reality
for what it lacks
and for what it sometimes is.

To this I would add, that artistic mimesis, what we think of as 'representation,' the very possibility of artistic realism, arises out of an encounter with what reality 'lacks.' What constitutes realism--what any work of art represents ( pictorial, dramatic, literary, musical) is not 'reality,'' but its 'lack,' the artist's endeavor to complete reality, to make real what was give to Airy Nothing a Local Habitation and a Name. Which means the distinction between 'realism' and whatever name you would give to its antithesis, is false. There can be no distinction, and any criticism over-determined by the assumption that there is, will fail in its encounter with the work. With this in mind, let me turn--or return to, the story I've set out to review.
In an EARLIER POST, I wrote that writing:
is a process of negotiation with the material at hand and every act, each engagement with that material translates both material and intention. ... because the author's intentions have been in a continuous process of translation along with the writing as it evolves, what existed in the beginning, and at every point to the completion of the work, is a continuum of difference that moves both forward and back.
We can't recover the process or recreate the stages as they evolved in the continuing encounter, but I believe we can identify imprints of that encounter, evidence of the reality which shaped the elements of the writing as it emerges in its final form.

"I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am."


"I grew up, and old.

These are the first and last sentences in the story. Everything between is memory.
Is memory, the real subject, the real, of this piece of realist fiction? In between--an assemblage of what the narrator purports to remember, memory: not it's 'theme,' not its 'controlling idea,' but its real subject--that which the characters and incidents serve to--not illustrate--but to embody--the elements without which the idea would be nothing more, would remain an abstraction, an absence--sense without sensibility, substance, sensuality. There's a great deal more I'd like to say on this--on literature as concrete thought. That all literature is a literature of ideas, imaginative configurations of the world, but this will have to wait for another post.
"I can remember," the narrator continues. The second sentence--first statement of the subject and introduction to the narrative proper. What does she remember? Streets sprinkled with water in summer to hold down the dust. Girls wearing waist cinchers and crinolines, "and when there was nothing much to be done about things like polio and leukemia." How "people with leukemia went to bed, and after some weeks' or months' decline in a tragic atmosphere, they died.' A strand of memories. A series without any apparent necessary link, one to the next, until the last: leukemia and the long decline in a tragic atmosphere: this will be the setting and occasion of the narrative that follows.
She was thirteen. A summer job, her first, helping to take care of a man safely returned from the war, but now bedridden, waiting for death. This would be Young Mr. Crozier, "as he was usually called," who occupies an upstairs bedroom in a house owned by his stepmother, Old Mrs Crozier. The narrator's help is needed because YMC's wife, Sylvia teaches summer school at a college some forty miles distant. OMC is at first presented as a dour, unsympathetic and humorless woman interested in nothing but her flower garden. This impression is challenged when Roxanne Hoy enters the picture, a working class, garoulous and flirtatious woman who comes to give OMC twice weekly massages. Roxanne's invites herself to help with the care of the invalid Her airy, flirtatious self-regard seems to amuse OMC and is apparently appreciated by YMC. There are insinuations that Sylvia, by absenting herself from his bedside for her job, is less caring than a wife should be. There is also a feeling that both Roxanne and OMC are, consciously or not, insinuating themselves into the affections of YMC to the disadvantage of his wife. The denouement comes when YMC trusts the narrator with a key to his room, pledges her to silence, then locks himself in and refuses to open the door until his wife comes home. This coincides with a falling out between OMC and Roxanne, a calendar-page-turning roll out of concluding events (Sylvia takes her husband to rented cabin on a lake for his last days, OMC recovers from a stroke with yet another change in personality, and the narrator returns to where she began. She grew up, and old. By the end of the story, we recognize OMC as the germinal node of memory that initiates everything that follows. She is the tuft of snow on the pine bough whose present reality is that of the narrator, grown old, her own distorted reflection in the mirror of recollection.

All this is nicely told, the characters are admirably complex, elude being pinned down by simple explanations. There's no question that the development of incident and character in the story will return pleasure and garner the interest of the readers. Alice Munro's mastery of her chosen genre is indisputable. There's little I could add to that. Far from challenging its merit, it is the near perfection of this story (with none of the implications of the 'too perfect'), that make me feel the conventional sort of review (Plot-Character-Theme etc) is beside the point. We get it. We get all that. But it doesn't answer the question, why? Not, why--as in, how does it work? But what is the real source of our feeling of verisimilitude? This is a question that would not likely occur to someone who, in effect, lived the artifice of the story--for whom, the nature of consciousness, self-identity, or causal narrative sequence in the real world were givens, or at least, not given over to question, subject to doubt, assumptions in need of analysis and verification.

Here is where I would distinguish between mindful and somnolent habits of reading, reading to put the reader to sleep, and reading to wake the reader up. I like that Heraclitus has a good word for both. "One should not act or speak as if he were asleep." and yet, "Even sleepers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe." But for now, let me defend those who would not go through the world as sleepwalkers. I can read this--that is, what someone looking for verisimilitude would look for in the story--in my sleep. This is not a fault, but it is a limitation. A limitation, not because I care less for verisimilitude, for 'reality' in fiction, but because I need it more, need to press beyond its lack. Munro gives everything and more of what a realist critic would want, and yet falls short of waking her reader from the dream, letting them be satisfied, by failing to acknowledge, failing to draw into her work and foreground--not the artifice, but the actual shaping reality-- letting her readers get away with believing the answer (when posed by one seeking correspondence to reality), is to be found in plot, character, theme...

The amazement of 'how old I am, ' amazement which occurs through the creation of, and as an invitation to--a lifetime of memories, memories which themselves become real only as they become specific: water on a dusty summer road: a young man dying in an upper room Read this story and note how rare the direct reports of event or experience compared to the indirect (When my mother heard about this... or of a general past, unfixed in specific place and time: "Usually what he wanted was... " (what in Proust might be expressed, in the first instance by passé simple, in the second, by the imperfet) and how dependent the specific memories are on their surrounding explanations, narrativazations, contexualizations--which signal that even what is reported in direct past, such as the the quoted conversations, are themselves, not direct memories, but recreations needed to weave the fragmented, nodal memories into a causally connected sequence. How like, I thought... those tufts of snow on the pine bough-- summoning me out of the past and into the present moment.

The present moment...
"I have grown up, and old."

... and so it ends. First sentence and last. In between, an assemblage of what the narrator purports to remember, let me repeat: memory, being the real subject of the story. Not it's 'theme,' not its 'controlling idea,' but its real subject--that which the characters and incidents serve to--not illustrate--but to embody--the elements without which the idea would be nothing more, would remain an abstraction, an absence--sense without sensibility, substance, sensuality.

What Munro does, she does well. It's pointless to fault one kind of writing because it's not something else, but still--I'm troubled by this story, by how it submerges and hides the real source of its strength--as though ashamed of it: I mean the generative tension and movement of memory at work--memory playing with its figurations, leading us on, it's quick shadow changes--instead,  pretending that what matters, that the part that resembles life is the little domestic drama and the characters putting on the show, holding this out to the reader as the 'real.' But is it Munro who is at fault here? Or is it her readers--or those critics who encourage them to dream along with the music, following the words across the page like karaoke singers who already know the tune--content in their belief that in this play acting, in the "story" part of the story, they recognize themselves, are reasured (or disturbed) by noticing yet again what they already know? I don't know. But there is a kind of resignation in that last sentence, the merging of Old Mrs. Crozier into the narrator, the Old Mrs. Crozier of the story--before the stroke. In the end, Old Mrs. Crozier recovers, but the narrator is stricken. Old Mrs. Crozier has escaped story and memory, is out there now giving candy to the children whose parents she once chased out of her garden. A nice gesture. But the image here is not of life--but death in life. Old Mrs. Crozier, who resisted submission to the wishes of others, killed off in the end, only to live on as servent to everything she dispised. Is it uncharitable of me to wish there were more of Old Mrs Crozier before the stroke in the voice of the narrator, to want her to refuse her readers the sweets they crave, to want her to take up her stick and chase us out of the garden of narratized memory, to wake us to the tuft of snow hanging from the pine bough--here and now? 

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Some Women," Alice Munro. An Antithetical Review: Moving Toward a Critical Realism?

SOME WOMEN, by Alice Munro
Part I: A Search for Thoughts That Might Turn into a Review (Review to Follow)
The New Yorker: December 22 & 29, 2008,

(Links now are to the New Yorker archive, which requires free registration to view)

I was at the  Lucky 13 the other day, sitting at the bar, going over pages I'd written that afternoon, working on a glass of wine--in a quandary over how to write this review. The woman next to me had been watching me. "I understand you're working on a novel," she said. (My son is the chef here. People know me.)

"A novel," she said, (though that wasn't what I was working on at the time) I waited for the inevitable question.

"How cool! What is it about?"

"I don't know," I said. "That's why I'm writing it--to find out."

An honest answer. Well, half honest. Even if I'd finished it, I still wouldn't know how to answer. The truth is, I don't know what the question means. No wonder I'm not making any progress on this review.

What is it about? I ask myself--this story:  some women? That's what the title tells me.
If I wanted to write a conventional review, I would lay out the plot, write about character development, points of view, look for thematic ideas, see if I could come up with a central, controlling idea, place it in the context of her body of work Or I could take a more critical tack: mine it for symbolic content, apply methodologies adopted from other disciplines: psychoanalysis, sociology, linguistics; compare it to other art forms, films or music, say--or, stripping it of its aesthetic mystique, decode its implied ideological and political message. Any of these approaches might prove interesting. Interesting... but not what I want to do.

"What is the story about" is, of course, the wrong question, taken seriously only by the most unsophisticated readers and reviewers, like the woman at the bar... or is it? What if the problem lies in my assumption that demonstrating "how it works" is the real answer, when in truth, it's not an answer at all--that I'm begging the question before I've made the effort to take it seriously?

What did that woman at the bar mean when she asked me what my novel was about? Here is the novel, the short story, and over there is what it's 'about,' as though they were two different things, occupied different kinds of cognitive space, an assumption I want to resist. The meaning, what it's about, can't be someplace else, something different, something other than the story itself. Silly woman. How can I expect her to understand this?

But how do I know that's what she means? Even if she hasn't thought it through? Maybe she hasn't worked it out, but that doesn't make her question meaningless. Like literary realism. The problem isn't the expectation that fiction has something to do with reality: it's in the assumptions about the nature of reality and representation that lie behind that expectation. Let me put these two questions together, the 'what is it about' question and the 'realism' question, set aside for now what the 'about' question would mean if directed at a work of fantasy. Alice Munro doesn't write sword and sorcery fantasy. She writes realistic fiction, so if we ask of one of her stories, "what is this about," at least a part of any answers we might come up with would involve, have to do with, point to--aspects of a reality larger and other than the story itself., such that, the 'is' in 'the story is about' is not an equal sign, but an arrow. An arrow within the story pointing out. Not a one-way arrow, but an operational sign that points in two directions, away from the work (where the interpretation occurs, where the explanation is deciphered, where the reality of the fictional universe encounters and interacts with that of the reader's experience) and back into the work, where it (the story) receives its meaning through that very interaction. The critical formulation of the question, what is it about?; is not concerned with how it works, but with where the encounter takes place and what is its nature, what is the difference that it makes?

The limits of a non-critical realism, (or is it "pre-critical?) ... like that of James Wood, is that it can only compare what it finds to what it already knows. Compare and contrast, without real interaction. Here is reality. Here is its representation. How well do they comport? Statements of judgement regarding verisimilitude, because they can only be directed one way, are tautological, and as long as verification of the fictive representation is dependent on preconceived ideas of reality there is nothing to be learned--no new knowledge is generated. Aesthetic judgement, bound as it is to conceptions of representation, is likewise compromised.

I've been mulling this over for days--how was I going to review this story? Standing at the window of the station at 69th Street waiting for the bus yesterday afternoon, my eye was drawn to tufts of snow on the boughs of a pine tree. An incident came to mind from my childhood: a film or slide show--one of the lectures or presentations my aunt would take me to (was this at the Field Museum?)--I don't know. Someone in the film shook snow from the branch of a tree. The lecturer lamented his action--the idea being, as much as I can remember it, that they were there to observe, not to disturb nature. I thought about this memory the rest of the way home. How little remained of the original incident, how thoroughly overwritten. I thought of different kinds of memory, ways of recalling--how embroidered our memories with explanations, recreations of context, narratives. At some point it occurred to me, in asking myself the meaning of this spontaneous association, that I had been thinking of it as a one-way reaction: tuft of snow on the tree recalling the incident from childhood--that in losing myself in the effort to reconstruct the original impression I was ignoring the other half of the reality, as though the 'meaning' lay buried in the past and not in the present. Isn't it equally true that it was the irruption of memory here that called me into the present?  That until that moment, while I had seen it, was aware of it, I was not present to it, or it to me, but rather in the convergence of where I had come to with where I found myself , that through all the layers of difference since that childhood event--there at the window of the station before a pine bough weighed down with snow: that here, here were the elements of the encounter: the seed of memory, the layers of story--the reality of the present generated out the remembered moment and memory recalled by the present, each a creation of the other in the encounter, the encounter itself the reality.

This, I thought, is what I learned from Alice Munro's story. This is what it was "about." I know, I've told you nothing of the story itself... or have I?

To answer that, we--you and I-- will have to read Part II

Some further thoughs on aesthetics of process, HERE