Plastics and paranoia (Harold Bloom on Thomas Pynchon)

For Pynchon, ours is the age of plastics and paranoia, dominated by the System. No one is going to dispute such a conviction; reading the New York Times first thing every morning is sufficient to convince one that not even Pynchon’s imagination can match journalistic irreality. What is more startling about Pynchon is that he has found ways of representing the impulse to defy the System, even though both impulse and its representations always are defeated. In the Zone (which is our cosmos as the Gnostics saw it, the kenoma or Great Emptiness) the force of the System, of They (whom the Gnostics called Archons), is in some sense irresistible, as all overdetermination must be irresistible. Yet there is a Counterforce, hardly distinguished in its efficacy, but it never does (or can) give up. Unfortunately, its hero is the extraordinarily ordinary Tyrone Slothrop, who is a perpetual disaster, and whose ultimate fate, being “scattered” (rather in biblical sense), is accomplished by Pynchon with dismaying literalness. And yet—Slothrop, who has not inspired much affection even in Pynchon’s best critics, remains more Pynchon himself.

From Harold Bloom’s introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Views: Thomas Pynchon.

One reads for oneself and for strangers (Harold Bloom)

The terms “power” and “authority” have pragmatically opposed meanings in the realms of politics and what we still ought to call “imaginative literature.” If we have difficulty in seeing the opposition, it may be because of the intermediate realm that calls itself “spiritual.” Spiritual power and spiritual authority notoriously shade over into both politics and poetry. Thus we must distinguish the aesthetic power and authority of the Western Canon from whatever spiritual, political, or even moral consequences it may have fostered. Although reading, writing, and teaching are necessarily social acts, even teaching has its solitary aspect, a solitude only the two could share, in Wallace Stevens’s language. Gertrude Stein maintained that one wrote for oneself and for strangers, a superb recognition that I would extend into a parallel apothegm: one reads for oneself and for strangers. The Western Canon does not exist in order to augment preexisting societal elites. It is there to be read by you and by strangers, so that you and those you will never meet can encounter authentic aesthetic power and the authority of what Baudelaire (and Erich Auerbach after him) called “aesthetic dignity.” One of the ineluctable stigmata of the canonical is aesthetic dignity, which is not to be hired.

From The Western Canon by Harold Bloom.

Reading the very best writers is not going to make us better citizens (Harold Bloom)

Reviewing bad books, W. H. Auden once remarked, is bad for the character. Like all gifted moralists, Auden idealized despite himself, and he should have survived into the present age, wherein the new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very best writers-let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy-is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.

From Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.

Borges Riff/Borges Anxiety

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Art by Roman Muradov

1. Jorge Luis Borges is 115 today.

2. I’ve shared clips from my scattered readings of Borges on this blog (receiving the occasional takedown notice as well)—but I’ve never mustered the energy to try to say anything about him or describe his writing or try to situate it or analyze it or anything—

3. Because that’s what Borges does: He situates, analyzes, condenses, clarifies, expands, complicates, archives, curates, cultivates, teaches, improves literature.

4. And he does it in a way that makes following him with my own mealy mottled words seem superfluous (or maybe futile is the word I want—although I think Borges is unrelentingly positive and futile is such an ugly word).

5. I read a book of Borges’ essays this summer, a collection entitled Other Inquisitions. I read most of it in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the crisp morning air was perfect for Borges. Or for me to read Borges. It was lovely.

6. I wanted to write about Borges’ book—or, rather, and more exactly, I wanted to have written Borges’ book.

7. In one essay—I’ve put the book aside for now and can’t recall exactly which essay (maybe on FitzGerald and Omar Khayyam?); nor will I go look; if I had it out I’d only cite it, recycle it here; the book would kill this riff immediately, put a stake through its heart—Borges suggests that “A great writer creates his precursors.” — This, years, decades before Harold Bloom makes a career out of the same notion.

8. And Borges’ essays are a canon-making: His own canon–the formation and creation of his own precursors: Whitman, Kafka, DeQuincey, Carlyle, Becher, Valery, Wilde, Poe, Hawthorne…

9. The shock I experienced reading Borges’ essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. That Borges had set about to riff on Hawthorne’s Note-Books, the same note-books I’d been reading since the early spring, the same note-books that seemed and still seem so generative to me, so full of entire worlds, so rich, so much fuller and richer than Hawthorne’s novels or his stories, so full in their singularity and off-focus, these notes, these Borgesian notes. Oh and that Borges had written the essay that I wished I could write!

10. Borges, who never wrote a novel, whose entire work might be some kind of postmodern novel.

11. Borges, whose short stories often seem like pretexts to an essay he’d like to write—and here pretext is not the right word, again—-so maybe the short stories, so many of them so brilliant, act as some kind of surface text that illuminates and yet simultaneously hides an essay underneath.

12. The great joy of reading Borges: We read through Borges: Borges the librarian grants us access to so many minds. We get to share his perceptions, read over his shoulder, or maybe through his glasses—we get to glance over his annotations, his notes. But that’s not accurate—he’s so much more lucid than that scatter-shot image suggests, even when he’s at his most Borgesian, which is to say his most labyrinthine, mirrored, winding, forking, decentering and recentering, deferring, echoing, prefiguring…

13. I’ve written more than I intended to and have yet barely edged into all the thicket of anxieties that guard Borges’ oeuvre from poseurs like myself. It’s enough to know that his works exist, will exist.

The Never-Ending Torture of Unrest | Georg Büchner’s Lenz Reviewed

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (detail), Francisco Goya

Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.

Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:

The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.

Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.

And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.

The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”

Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.

The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet
The Man Made Mad by Fear, Gustave Courbet

But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.

Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.

Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.

In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.

Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.

Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:

The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.

Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.

The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden
The Last Judgment (detail), Rogier van der Weyden

What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:

Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .

Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:

The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!

The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.

Every deep reader is an Idiot Questioner (Harold Bloom)

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Harold Bloom on “The School of Resentment”

Harold Bloom on his agon with “The School of Resentment.” From his 1991 interview with The Paris Review.

INTERVIEWER

How do you account historically for the school of resentment?

BLOOM

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.

INTERVIEWER

How does one react to the school of resentment? By declaring oneself an aesthete?

BLOOM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Do you foresee any change, or improvement, in the critical fashions?

BLOOM

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.

INTERVIEWER

This movement has helped focus attention on some great novels, though. You’re an admirer, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

BLOOM

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.

INTERVIEWER

I know you find this to be true of feminist criticism.

BLOOM

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.

INTERVIEWER

Can it be valued as a form of social or political literary criticism?

BLOOM

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.

 

Unknown Pleasures (I Riff a Bit on Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way)

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1. I was an undergrad in college when I first tried to read Marcel Proust. It was one of those things I did on my own, which is another way of saying that none of his writing was ever assigned to me; neither do I recall any of his writings even appearing in any of the anthologies I was assigned in high school; neither do I recall any of his writings appearing in any of the anthologies I’ve used as a teacher.

2. My initial interest in Proust, late in high school, when the name alone seemed so damn romantic, was aroused, like most people I’ll bet, by the fact that this guy basically wrote one long book, a book that seemed to have at least three names, not counting the names of the individual books and book-length chapters in those individual books.

3. But, like I said, I didn’t try to read Proust until college when I checked out the first volume from the university library. I think it might have actually been a compendium of two or more books that make up the Recherche. Anyway, I can’t recall much, except that I slugged it out through that interminable first chapter, “Combray,” getting absolutely nothing out of it.

4. Since then I’ve read a lot about Proust and his writing, enough to perhaps understand that my first foray into Swann’s Way was probably not from the best angle. I was into decidedly different stuff then—lots of the American postmodernists, English and Irish modernists, etc.—and Proust’s modernism was totally lost on me.

5. Re: Point 4: Perhaps a better way to put it would be to borrow Harold Bloom’s notion that strong/strange writers so assimilate their readers that the readers can no longer see the strangeness/strength. I was assimilated.

6. Wandering through the used book store I frequent, I spotted Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way and snapped it up, not because of any real interest in trying Proust again but because of a fannish devotion to Davis, or the idea that Davis would make Proust accessible.

7. (A brief fantasy I had as my hand hovered over the book, before my hand touched the book:

I imagined that Davis had turned Swann’s Way into a series of her own vignettes, that she had parsed and ventriloquized Proust, that her translation would be akin to “Ten Stories from Flaubert.”

This is not the case).

8. (While I’m being parenthetical: This riff started as a “books acquired” post, a post where I take a lousy photograph to document a new book that somehow arrives at Biblioklept World Headquaters. But I read so much of Swann’s Way that the original idea riffed out into this thing. Actually, go ahead and skip Point 8, if you haven’t already. Sorry).

9. The day after buying Davis’s translation I read “Combray” over two short airline trips.

10. Or should it be Combray?—it seems like a self-contained novel.

11. The opening paragraphs of “Combray” are an amazing and strange meditation on sleeping, or rather going to sleep, filled with wonderful little digressions. They are a simultaneously alienating and inviting way to open a book.

Proust writes—

Sometimes, as Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh. Formed from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she, I imagined, was the one offering it to me. My body, which felt in hers my own warmth, would try to find itself inside her, I would wake up.

Such a lovely set of images.

I marked it and moved on without trying to figure out exactly what it might mean.

12. Other moments are more lucid, penetrating, insightful:

Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.

“Combray” is full of these wonderful, subtle moments, and it includes some of the finest passages on reading and the transformative powers and pleasures of reading that I’ve encountered.

13. The phrase “unknown pleasures” pops out early in the book—is this where Joy Division got the album name?

14. Proust seems to hit on the idea of unknown pleasures again and again, speculative pleasures, idealized pleasures.

15. Introduced to the writer Bergotte by Swann and Bloch, the young narrator muses:

One of these passages by Bergotte, the third or fourth that I had isolated from the rest, filled me with a joy that could not be compared to the joy I had discovered in the first one, a joy I felt I was experiencing  in a deeper, vaster, more unified region of myself, from which all obstacles and partitions had been removed.

The passage concludes with the narrator deciding that he has accessed the “‘ideal passage’ by Bergotte,” an idealization through which he finds his mind “enlarged.”

16. Cataloging the meditations on unknown pleasures in the book would take forever though, and I’m just riffing here.

17. (Although I do love and will thus bring up a late passage where the narrator longs to walk in the woods with “a peasant girl,” one like a “local plant” (!), through which he will access new and individual and unknown pleasures, “Obscurely awaited, immanent and hidden. . . “).

18. Stray note: Swann is described as having a “Bressant-style” haircut, which the end notes describe as “a crew cut in front and longer in the back.” Is this not known colloquially as a mullet? Am I to understand that Swann sports a Kentucky waterfall?

19. Proust’s greatest strength in “Combray” seems to be his ability to move from the physical to the metaphysical, from object to memory. And then back again.

20. An empty statement: The writing is beautiful.

21.  Still, there’s something irksome about the narrator (Marcel?): I stopped writing “mama’s boy” in the margin after the third such notation.

22. Re: Point 21: Is this why I never stuck it out with Proust? Is this why, despite acknowledging “The writing is beautiful,” I am not particularly inclined to see what happens next? (And next and next and next . . .)

23. Re: Point 22: I think here of Cormac McCarthy’s assertion in a 1992 New York Times interview that Proust is “not literature” because it doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” McCarthy’s quote may or may not be out of context (not here; here it’s in perfectly sound context. I’m talking about proper context in the interview, which is to say that he may or may not have been riffing off the cuff).

24. Okay, from the McCarthy interview:

 His list of those whom he calls the “good writers” — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner — precludes anyone who doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”

25. Maybe I bring it up because I’ve read so much of McCarthy and the heroes on his list above and find them so compelling, find the protagonists and antagonists so compelling, and while Proust’s narrator is hardly repellent, I find myself occasionally wanting to give him a wedgie.

26. (Never having had the desire to give Ishmael a wedgie, or the underground man a wedgie, or Lucas Beauchamp a wedgie, or Cornelius Suttree a wedgie).

27. Okay. The sentiment I’ve just expressed seems cruel.

28. The same sensitivity I find occasionally overbearing in the narrator is exactly what makes so many of the passages and insights in the text so extraordinary.

29. The narrator is some kind of specialized receptive organic instrument, a psyche keenly attuned to the physical world who mediates that world through emotion, memory, psychological projection—language.

30. The narrator is some kind of membrane but also a self, his articulations winding from reader to self through memory to the natural world, to its phenomena, and back through desire, thought, anticipation, idealization, all back through memory again, back to the reader again. And if tracing these articulations is exhausting, the process also undeniably yields unknown pleasures.

“Half Horse Half Alligator” — I Review Charles Olson’s Inimitable Melville Study, Call Me Ishmael

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The classical Greeks understood that literature is a form of competition. The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom folded a bit of Freudian psychology into this insight, describing the “anxiety of influence” that lurks beneath the impetus to write, the motivation to enter into an agon with the history of letters, to Oedipally assassinate—or at least assimilate—one’s literary forebears. To put this another way: What does it take to write after, say, The Odyssey? How does one answer to The Book of Job? The gall to write after Don Quixote, after Shakespeare, after Dostoevsky, after George Eliot . . .

What about Moby-Dick? What are the possibilities of even writing about Moby-Dick? (One thinks here of Ishmael’s own futile attempts to measure whales). How could Melville write after Job? After Lear? After Moby-Dick? How did Melville assimilate the texts that presented the strongest anxieties of influence in his opus? Could Melville survive the wreckage of The Pequod? These are the questions that poet-critic Charles Olson tackles—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, and always with brisk, sharp language—in Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville and Moby-Dick.

Here’s one answer to my list of questions. It comes early in Olson’s book:

The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up in Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator.

Melville took an awful licking. He was bound to. He was an original, aboriginal. A beginner. It happens that way to the dreaming men it takes to discover America . . . Melville had a way of reaching back through time until he got history pushed back so far he turned time into space. He was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia, some Inca trying to find a lost home.

We are the last “first” people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary.

Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick.

This passage illustrates Olson’s forceful, often blunt prose, the kind of language that cracks directly at Melville’s own impossible prose in Moby-Dick. I think here of the critic James Wood’s notation in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” that

The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Olson may generalize as he shows a little plumage to master Melville, cutting through huge swaths of history and making poetic leaps into strange similes, but Call Me Ishmael is ultimately keenly attenuated to detail, to the processes of Melville’s constructions at the historical, economic, psychological, religious, and, yes, literary level. Although a slim 119 pages in my 1947 City Lights edition, Call Me Ishmael nevertheless vividly conveys the sources Melville synthesized to create Moby-Dick.

The book begins with an unsourced account of the whaleship Essex, attacked and destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific in 1820, a year after Melville’s birth. Olson trusts his readers to connect The Essex to The Pequod. Unlike so much literary scholarship, Olson’s Ishmael doesn’t torture every element of the text into overwrought explications. He provides an overview of the importance of whaling-industry-as-world’s-fuel source in a chapter that reads more like a prose poem than a stuffy history book, and then, in a chapter appropriately titled “Usufruct,” offers up entries from Melville’s own journals as primary evidence of the material that led to Moby-Dick. Olson rarely sticks his nose in here, letting the reader synthesize the selections.

Olson then plumbs Moby-Dick’s literary roots, delving into Shakespeare, particularly Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. He attends to Melville’s own annotations to Shakespeare, and then points out Melville’s literary/political condensation:

As the strongest force Shakespeare caused Melville to approach tragedy in terms of the drama. As the strongest social force America caused him to approach tragedy in terms of democracy.

It was not difficult for Melville to reconcile the two. Because of his perception of America: Ahab . . .

Ahab is the FACT, the Crew the IDEA. The Crew is where what America stands for got into Moby-Dick. They’re what we imagine democracy to be. They’re Melville’s addition to tragedy as he took it from Shakespeare. He had to do more with the people than offstage shouts in a Julius Caesar. This was the difference a Declaration of Independence made.

The Shakespeare section of Call Me Ishmael marvels: Olson’s perceptive powers simultaneously enlighten and make seemingly-familiar territory dark, strange. He then moves into a discussion of post-Moby Melville, a man perhaps crushed by his own achievement—not by any financial success, no, definitely no, but the metaphysical success. Like a Moses, Melville had found the god he so desperately needed:

Melville wanted a god. Space was the First, before time, earth, man. Melville sought it: “Polar eternities” behind “Saturn’s gray chaos.” Christ, a Holy Ghost, Jehovah never satisfied him. When he knew peaces it was with a god of Prime. His dream was Daniel’s: the Ancient of Days, garment white as snow, hair like the pure wool. Space was the paradise Melville was exile of.

When made his whale he made his god. Ishmael once comes to the bones a Sperm whale pitched up on land. They are massive, and his struck with horror at the “antemosaic unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale.”

When Moby-Dick is first seen he swims a snow-hill on the sea. To Ishmael he is the white bull Jupiter swimming to Crete with ravished Europa on his horns: a prime, lovely, malignant white.

Olson agrees with an 1856 journal entry by Nathaniel Hawthorne that he cites at length: Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” In Olson’s analysis, after having found god-in-the-whale, Melville plummets into an existential crisis. He gives over to his inner-alligator, torpid, enervated, numb, but still fierce and potent and monstrous. “He denied himself in Christianity,” writes Olson, linking the downward spiral of Melville’s career and family life to this religion.

To this end, Olson is too dismissive of Melville’s later work; when he can find nothing of the “old Melville” to praise in Benito Cereno, Bartleby, or Billy Budd, it’s almost as if he’s willfully ignoring evidence that contradicts his thesis. These are marvelous books, and if they can’t win a contest against Moby-Dick, it’s worth pointing out that little of what’s been written after that book can.

And yet we can write after Melville; we can even write on Melville. The will and vitality of Olson’s forceful, intelligent prose opens a way, or at least exemplifies a way. At the same time, paradoxically, a reading of Call Me Ishmael seems to foreclose the need, if not the possibility, of reading another study of Moby-Dick. This statement is not meant to be a knock against Melville scholarship. Here’s the thing though: life is short, time is limited, and if one plans to read a book about Moby-Dick, it should be Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. It’s great, grand stuff.

Stuart Kendall’s New Translation of Gilgamesh Restores Poetic Strangeness to an Ancient Epic

Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.

Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:

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The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.

I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:

As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.

Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,

The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.

Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.

Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.

Gilgamesh is new from Contra Mundum Press. Read my interview with Stuart Kendall.

David Markson on Harold Bloom

From David Markson’s The Last Novel:

Where the synecdoche of tessera made a totality, however illusive, the metonymy of kenosis breaks this up into discontinuous fragments.

Somewhere declareth Harold Bloom.

It may be essential to Harold Bloom that his audience not know quite what he is talking about.

Commenteth Alfred Kazin — pointing out other immortal phrasings altogether.