In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.
I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novel, narrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.
This is maybe a bad start to a review.
Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.
What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?
F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.
Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,
it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.
“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.
After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.
My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, ” No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”
The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open City—provides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.
Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For Everyone. However, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form.
Permission is new from The Dalkey Archive.
Memories! Mankind is accursed because our existence on this earth does not tolerate any well-defined and stable hierarchy, everything continually flows, spills over, moves on, everyone must be aware of and be judged by everyone else, and the opinions that the ignorant, dull, and slow-witted hold about us are no less important than the opinions of the bright, the enlightened, the refined. This is because man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul, be it even the soul of an idiot. I absolutely disagree with my fellow writers who treat the opinions of the dull-witted with an aristocratic haughtiness and declare: odi profanum vulgus. What a cheap and simplistic way of avoiding reality, what a shoddy escape into specious loftiness! I maintain, on the contrary, that the more dull and narrow-minded they are, the more urgent and compelling are their opinions, just as an ill-fitting shoe hurts us more than a well-fitting one. Oh, those judgments, the bottomless pit of people’s judgments and opinions about your wisdom, feelings, and character, about all the details of your personality—it’s a pit that opens up before the daredevil who drapes his thoughts in print and lets them loose on paper, oh, printed paper, paper, paper! And I’m not even talking about the heartfelt opinions so fondly held by our aunts, no, I mean the opinions of those other aunts—the cultural aunts, those female semi-writers and tacked-on semi-critics who make pronouncements in literary magazines. Indeed, world culture has been beset by a flock of superfluous hens patched-on, pinned-on, to literature, who have become finely tuned to spiritual values and well versed in aesthetics, frequently entertaining views and opinions of their own, who have even caught on to the notions that Oscar Wilde is passé and that Bernard Shaw is a master of paradox. Oh, they are on to the fact that they must be independent, profound, unobtrusively assertive, and filled with auntie kindliness. Auntie, auntie, auntie! Unless you have ever found yourself in the laboratory of a cultural aunt and been dissected, mute and without a groan, by her trivializing mentality that turns all life lifeless, unless you have ever seen an auntie’s critique of yourself in a newspaper, you have no concept of triviality, and auntie-triviality in particular.
Further, let us consider the opinions of men and women of the landed gentry, the opinions of schoolgirls, the narrow-minded opinions of minor office clerks, the bureaucratic opinions of high officials, the opinions of lawyers in the provinces, the hyperbolic opinions of students, the arrogant opinions of little old men, and the opinions of journalists, the opinions of social activists as well as the opinions of doctors’ wives, and, finally, the opinions of children listening to their parents’ opinions, the opinions of underling chambermaids and of cooks, the opinions of our female cousins, the opinions of schoolgirls—a whole ocean of opinions, each one defining you within someone else, and creating you in another man’s soul. It’s as if you were being born inside a thousand souls that are too tight-fitting for comfort!
From Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke.
Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission—got it in the mail on Saturday. I’d been swimming in the river, in the relentless August sun, for most of the day, and when I got home I just wanted to watch a film and drink some wine and pass out.
But I started reading. And reading. And then I looked up and and I was like fifty pages in.
Here’s publisher Dalkey Archive’s blurb:
Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgment—but what can be given in words, and what received?Permission not only updates the “epistolary novel” by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.
And here’s novelist Teju Cole’s blurb, from the back of the book (for some reason not posted at Dalkey):
Permission’s central premise (if such a work so soaked in deconstruction could be said to have a center) immediately recalled to me Jacques Derrida’s discussions of the paradox of giving:
To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity? Can my giving be unhinged from a sense of both investment and pointless expenditure?
The first few “chapters” — the narrator’s weekly missives to the unnamed artist — are thoroughly soaked in deconstruction and continental philosophy; this is a novel that cites Blanchot and Deleuze in its first twenty pages. However, the narrator promises that her book, “through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work) . . . becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.”
This promise seems true, as subsequent passages flow into personal memory, reflection—storytelling. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the narrator’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of the narrator’s first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon.
Strange and lovely stuff. More when I finish.
How do you account historically for the school of resentment?
In the universities, the most surprising and reprehensible development came some twenty years ago, around 1968, and has had a very long-range effect, one that is still percolating. Suddenly all sorts of people, faculty members at the universities, graduate and undergraduate students, began to blame the universities not just for their own palpable ills and malfeasances, but for all the ills of history and society. They were blamed, and to some extent still are, by the budding school of resentment and its precursors, as though they were not only representative of these ills but, weirdly enough, as though they had somehow helped cause these ills and, even more weirdly, quite surrealistically, as though they were somehow capable of ameliorating these ills. It’s still going on—this attempt to ascribe both culpability and apocalyptic potential to the universities. It’s really asking the universities to take the place that was once occupied by religion, philosophy, and science. These are our conceptual modes. They have all failed us. The entire history of Western culture, from Alexandrian days until now, shows that when a society’s conceptual modes fail it, then willy-nilly it becomes a literary culture. This is probably neither good nor bad, but just the way things become. And we can’t really ask literature or the representatives of a literary culture, in or out of the university, to save society. Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform. It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.
How does one react to the school of resentment? By declaring oneself an aesthete?
Well, I do that now, of course, in furious reaction to their school and to so much other pernicious nonsense that goes on. I would certainly see myself as an aesthete in the sense advocated by Ruskin, indeed to a considerable degree by Emerson, and certainly by the divine Walter and the sublime Oscar. It is a very engaged kind of mode. Literary criticism in the United States increasingly is split between very low level literary journalism and what I increasingly regard as a disaster, which is literary criticism in the academies, particularly in the younger generations. Increasingly scores and scores of graduate students have read the absurd Lacan but have never read Edmund Spenser; or have read a great deal of Foucault or Derrida but scarcely read Shakespeare or Milton. That’s obviously an absurd defeat for literary study. When I was a young man back in the fifties starting out on what was to be my career, I used to proclaim that my chosen profession seemed to consist of secular clergy or clerisy. I was thinking, of course, of the highly Anglo-Catholic New Criticism under the sponsorship or demigodness of T. S. Eliot. But I realized in latish middle age that, no better or worse, I was surrounded by a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them. The school of resentment is an extraordinary sort of mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-Marxists, so-called New Historicists, who are neither new nor historicist, and third generation deconstructors, who I believe have no relationship whatever to literary values. It’s really a very paltry kind of a phenomenon. But it is pervasive, and it seems to be waxing rather than waning. It is a very rare thing indeed to encounter one critic, academic or otherwise, not just in the English-speaking world, but also in France or Italy, who has an authentic commitment to aesthetic values, who reads for the pleasure of reading, and who values poetry or story as such, above all else. Reading has become a very curious kind of activity. It has become tendentious in the extreme. A sheer deliquescence has taken place because of this obsession with the methods or supposed method. Criticism starts—it has to start—with a real passion for reading. It can come in adolescence, even in your twenties, but you must fall in love with poems. You must fall in love with what we used to call “imaginative literature.” And when you are in love that way, with or without provocation from good teachers, you will pass on to encounter what used to be called the sublime. And as soon as you do this, you pass into the agonistic mode, even if your own nature is anything but agonistic. In the end, the spirit that makes one a fan of a particular athlete or a particular team is different only in degree, not in kind, from the spirit that teaches one to prefer one poet to another, or one novelist to another. That is to say there is some element of competition at every point in one’s experience as a reader. How could there not be? Perhaps you learn this more fully as you get older, but in the end you choose between books, or you choose between poems, the way you choose between people. You can’t become friends with every acquaintance you make, and I would not think that it is any different with what you read.
Do you foresee any change, or improvement, in the critical fashions?
I don’t believe in myths of decline or myths of progress, even as regards to the literary scene. The world does not get to be a better or a worse place; it just gets more senescent. The world gets older, without getting either better or worse and so does literature. But I do think that the drab current phenomenon that passes for literary studies in the university will finally provide its own corrective. That is to say, sooner or later, students and teachers are going to get terribly bored with all the technocratic social work going on now. There will be a return to aesthetic values and desires, or these people will simply do something else with their time. But I find a great deal of hypocrisy in what they’re doing now. It is tiresome to be encountering myths called “The Social Responsibility of the Critic” or “The Political Responsibility of the Critic.” I would rather walk into a bookstore and find a book called “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Statesman,” or “The Literary Responsibilities of the Engineer.” Criticism is not a program for social betterment, not an engine for social change. I don’t see how it possibly could be. If you look for the best instance of a socially radical critic, you find a very good one indeed in William Hazlitt. But you will not find that his social activism on the left in any way conditions his aesthetic judgments, or that he tries to make imaginative literature a machine for revolution. You would not find much difference in aesthetic response between Hazlitt and Dr. Samuel Johnson on Milton, though Dr. Johnson is very much on the right politically, and Hazlitt, of course, very much an enthusiast for the French Revolution and for English radicalism. But I can’t find much in the way of a Hazlittian or Johnsonian temperament in life and literature anywhere on the current scene. There are so many tiresomenesses going on. Everyone is so desperately afraid of being called a racist or a sexist that they connive—whether actively or passively—the almost total breakdown of standards that has taken place both in and out of the universities, where writings by blacks or Hispanics or in many cases simply women are concerned.
This movement has helped focus attention on some great novels, though. You’re an admirer, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Oh, but that is a very, very rare exception. What else is there like Invisible Man? Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has a kind of superior intensity and firm control. It’s a very fine book indeed. It surprised and delighted me when I first read it and it has sustained several rereadings since. But that and Invisible Man are the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all. Alice Walker is an extremely inadequate writer, and I think that is giving her the best of it. A book like The Color Purple is of no aesthetic interest or value whatsoever, yet it is exalted and taught in the academies. It clearly is a time in which social and cultural guilt has taken over.
I know you find this to be true of feminist criticism.
I’m very fond of feminist critics, some of whom are my close friends, but it is widely known I’m not terribly fond of feminist criticism. The true test is to find work, whether in the past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued, and thus bring it to our attention and teach us to study it more closely or more usefully. By that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds—still matter. I do not appreciate Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson any more or less than I would have appreciated them if we had no feminist literary criticism at all. And I stare at what is presented to me as feminist literary criticism and I shake my head. I regard it at best as being well-intentioned. I do not regard it as being literary criticism.
Can it be valued as a form of social or political literary criticism?
I’m not concerned with political or social criticism. If people wish to practice it, that is entirely their business. It is not mine, heavens! If it does not help me to read a work of aesthetic value then I’m not going to be interested in it at all. I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.
Book shelves series #42, forty-second Sunday of 2012
Couldn’t really get a good pic of the whole shelf, so in portions, starting with a spread of postmodernist favorites from years past. Julia Kristeva was a particular favorite of mine in grad school, but her Portable stands up well outside of, jeez, I dunno, theory and deconstruction and all that jazz; there are plenty of memoirish essays, including a wonderful piece on Paris ’68 and Tel Quel &c. Sam Kimball‘s book The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture still maintains an important place in the way I approach analyzing any kind of storytelling. Love the cover of this first American edition of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I bought for a dollar years ago at a Friends of the Library sale:
I may or may not have obtained the The Viking Portable Nietzsche through nefarious means in my sixteenth year. In any case, it’s not really the best intro (I’m partial to The Gay Science), but it’s not bad. The Plato I’ve had forever. I never finished Bloom’s The Western Canon, although I’ve returned to it many times in the past five or six years, as I’ve opened up more to his ideas. I wrote about many of the books on this shelf, including a few by Simon Critchley.
The book I’d most recommend on this section of the shelf—indeed, the entire shelf—is Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:
The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis.
Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States is an overlooked gem that should have gotten more attention than Shields’s “manifesto.” He shares a bit of Georges Perec (whose writing helped spark this project of mine):
From my review:
Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed.
I’d been wanting to read a biography of Goya for some time now. For a few years now, his art has come occupy a strange space in the back of my subconscious mind—all the pain and violence and horror of it. Maybe it’s all the Roberto Bolaño I’ve been reading. I’m convinced that if you want to understand Bolaño it helps to have Goya as a visual referent. Also, I cut up an oversized Italian collection of color prints from Goya to hang in my office, so they’re always kinda in my visual field.
Anyway, last week I went by my favorite local used bookstore to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature that they’d kindly ordered for me and went through the biographies as well to find something on Goya. There were at least half a dozen, but the recently deceased Robert Hughes’s was the most beautiful and most recent, and its opening captivated me: In the first chapter, Hughes describes how a near-fatal car crash in 1999 unlocked the Goya study that he’d been wanting to write for years. The scene unfolds as a bizarre prolonged fever dream, a horrifying narrative informed by Goya’s asylums and bullfights, with the strange layer of modern airport slathered on top.
I’ve read the first 150 pages since then. Hughes’s writing is crisp and the text is rich; Hughes builds a slow case, arguing against Goya’s reputation as a radical but also highlighting the artist’s powers of pathos (not to mention his skill, both raw and refined). Hughes had me hooked with the following paragraph, which could also stand in as a simple description of a decsonstructionist theory of identity:
Goya was in some ways the greatest of all delineators of madness, because he was unrivaled in his ability to locate it among the common presences of human life, to see it as a natural par t of man’s (and woman’s) condition, not as an intrusion of the divine or the demonic from above or below. Madness does not come from outside into a stable and virtuous normality. That, Goya knew in his excruciating sanity, was nonsense. There is no perfect stability of the human condition, only approximations of it, sometimes fragile because created by culture. Part of his creed, indeed the very core of his nature as an artist, was Terence’s “Nihil humanum a me alienum puto,” “I think nothing human alien to me.” This was part of Goya’s immense humanity, a range of sympathy, almost literally, “co-suffering,” rivaling that of Dickens or Tolstoy.
I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.
McCarthy’s new essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix” explores the idea of artist as DJ, as remixer, as synthesizer. It’s a brief, fun read—28 pages on paper the publicity materials claim, but it’s only available as an etext, so its length is hard to measure in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read it on my Kindle Fire. Then I read it again. Although publisher Vintage kindly sent me a copy, I’d argue that it’s well worth the two bucks they’re asking.
“Transmission” is playful and discursive, as befits its subject. The essay is not nearly as pretentious as its subtitle (“How Literature Works”) might suggest. McCarthy riffs on a few subjects to illustrate his thesis: Kraftwerk, the Orpheus myth (and its many, many retellings and interpretations), Rilke, Alexander Graham Bell, “Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose names starts with B,” Ulysses, Kafka, Beckett, etc. But what is his thesis? What does he want? He tells us:
My aim here, in this essay, is not to tell you something, but to make you listen: not to me, nor Beckett and Kafka, but to a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, play—in their lines, between them and around them—since each of these forms began. I want to make you listen to them, in the hope not that they’ll deliver up some hidden and decisive message, but rather that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll enable you to listen in on listening itself.
McCarthy’s concern here is to point out that nothing is original, that all creation is necessarily an act of synthesis. To read a novel is to read through the novel, to read the novelist’s sources (or, to use McCarthy’s metaphor, to listen through). McCarthy’s insights here are hardly new, of course—Ecclesiastes 1:19 gives us the idea over 2000 years ago, and surely it’s just another transmitter passing on a signal. What makes “Transmission” such a pleasure is its frankness, its clarity. Unlike so much postmodern criticism, McCarthy doesn’t trip over jargon or take flights of fancy into obscure metaphor. And even when he does get a bit flighty, he manages to clarify so many ideas of basic deconstructive theory:
This is it, in a nutshell: how writing works. The scattering, the loss; the charge coming from somewhere else, some point forever beyond reach or even designation, across a space of longing; the surge; coherence that’s only made possible by incoherence; the receiving which is replay, repetition—backward, forward, inside out or upside down, it doesn’t matter. The twentieth century’s best novelist understood this perfectly. That’s why Ulysses’s Stephen Dedalus—a writer in a gestational state of permanent becoming—paces the beach at Sandymount mutating, through their modulating repetition, air- and wave-borne phrases he’s picked up from elsewhere, his own cheeks and jaw transformed into a rubbery receiver . . .
Amazingly, the name Derrida doesn’t show up in “Transmission,” even as McCarthy gives us such a clear outline of that philosopher’s major ideas, as in the above riff’s explication of différance and iterability (with twist of Lacanian lack to boot). Or here, where McCarthy deconstructs the notion of a stable self:
All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.
So I read Derrida through McCarthy’s reading of Robbe-Grillet. This is all transmission, writing as remix, but also reading as remix.
I could go on, but I fear that I’ll simply start citing big chunks of McCarthy’s essay, which is supremely citable, wonderfully iterable. Recommended.