Have you met a typical nonperson lately? (William H. Gass)

Have you met met a typical nonperson lately? Then say hello, now, to your neighbor. He may be male, but his facial expressions have been put on like lipstick and eyelashes. His greeting is inevitable; so is his interest in the weather. He always smiles; he speaks only in cliches; and his opinions (as bland as Cream of Wheat, as undefined, and—when sugared—just as sweet) are drearily predictable. He has nothing but good to say of people; he collects his wisdom like dung from a Digest; he likes to share his experiences with “folks,” and recite the plots of movies. He is working up this saccharine soulside manner as part of his preparation for the ministry.

These are the “good” people. “Bad” people are unreal in the same way.

Nonpersons unperson persons. They kill. For them no one is human. Like cash registers, everyone’s the same: all will go ding and their cash drawers slide out when you strike the right key.

So I don’t think that it’s the message of a work of art that gives it any lasting social value. On the contrary, insisting on this replaces the work with its interpretation, another way of robbing it of reality. How would you like to be replaced by your medical dossier, your analysts’s notes? 

–More from William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.

Derrida (2002 Documentary)

Steinbeck on Critics: “Curious Sucker Fish Who Live with Joyous Vicariousness on Other Men’s Work”

ON CRITICS

This morning I looked at the Saturday Review, read a few notices of recent books, not mine, and came up with the usual sense of horror. One should be a reviewer or better a critic, these curious sucker fish who live with joyous vicariousness on other men’s work and discipline with dreary words the thing which feeds them. I don’t say that writers should not be disciplined, but I could wish that the people who appoint themselves to do it were not quite so much of a pattern both physically and mentally.

I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic.

Time is the only critic without ambition.

Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.

From John Steinbeck’s 1969 interview in The Paris Review.

Slavoj Žižek Uses Norman Bates’s House in Psycho to Illustrate Id, Ego, and Superego (Because Why Wouldn’t He?)

In the Company of Strangers — We Review Barry McCrea’s New Book About Queer Family Ties in Dickens, Joyce, and Proust

Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—

This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of  Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.

[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.

McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”

McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.

In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.

In the Company of Strangers is new from Columbia University Press.

“An Earthly Story with a Hellish Meaning” — D.H. Lawrence on The Scarlet Letter

From D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Chapter VII, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE writes romance.

And what’s romance? Usually, a nice little tale where you have everything As You Like It, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose and it’s always daisy- time. As You Like It and Forest Lovers, etc. Morte D’Arthur.

Hawthorne obviously isn’t this kind of romanticist: though nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter, either.

But there is more to it. The Scarlet Letter isn’t a pleasant, pretty romance. It is a sort of parable, an earthly story with a hellish meaning.

All the time there is this split in the American art and art- consciousness. On the top it is as nice as pie, goody-goody and lovey-dovey. Like Hawthorne being such a blue-eyed darling, in life, and Longfellow and the rest such sucking- doves. Hawthorne’s wife said she ‘never saw him in time’, which doesn’t mean she saw him too late. But always in the ‘frail effulgence of eternity’.

Serpents they were. Look at the inner meaning of their art and see what demons they were.

You must look through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness.

That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knew disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.

Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and- produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction under- neath. Until such time as it will have to hear.

The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he’s got to do it secretly. As the growing of a dragon-fly inside a chrysalis or cocoon destroys the larva grub, secretly.

Though many a dragon-fly never gets out of the chrysalis case: dies inside. As America might.

So the secret chrysalis of The Scarlet Letter, diabolically destroying the old psyche inside.

Be good! Be good! warbles Nathaniel. Be good, and never sin! Be sure your sins will find you out..

So convincingly that his wife never saw him ‘as in time’.

Then listen to the diabolic undertone of The Scarlet Letter.

Simon Critchley on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

In his new book, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley talks about death in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (you can read Critchley’s earlier essay “Calm — On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line” here)—

So, the hero of The Thin Red Line is this character Witt. And we meet him for the first time on the beach meditating about his mother’s death, imagining that he could meet death with the same calm that his mother seemed to meet it. We then get this romantic flashback: it’s somewhere in the Midwest; he’s touching his mother’s hand; then the hand is pulled away and she’s gone. That’s the fantasy of the authentic death. And Witt, according to Malick, fulfills the fantasy: approaching death with calm — this is Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza. Interestingly, when I was looking at the sources — he’s very faithful to Jim Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line — he inserts the word ‘calm’ into the passage, it’ s not there in the novel. It might or might not be an allusion to Heidegger, where Heidegger, where Heidegger talks about anxiety as an anxiety towards death as an experience of calm, or peace: the German is Ruhe. This is a Romantic ideas of death. For Heidegger, if human beings are authentic they’re heading towards death; if they’re inauthentic they experience demise, which means that we just pass out of existence. But only animals and plants perish, and that just seems to be ridiculous. Human beings perish all the time, can perish, and there are examples like in Kafka’s Trial where one dies like a dog. Human beings die in all sorts of ways, in a permanent vegetative state or whatever.