When a novelist has “something to say,” they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. It means “commitment,” as used by Sartre and other fellow-travelers. They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this. Flaubert described a whole world, but he had nothing to say, in the sense that he had no message to transmit, no remedy to offer for the human condition.
But did Dostoyevsky have nothing to say? Tolstoy?
Tolstoy yes. That is why on the whole he doesn’t interest me.
Not even Anna Karenina?
Especially not Anna Karenina! Among Tolstoy’s books the one that interests me is The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan is someone who hurts himself while unhooking a curtain, and one sees his death in that gesture. As for Dostoyevsky, perhaps there is a message in his work but for me it is a kind of parasite. In Crime And Punishment, I am much more interested in the first part which is the preparation for the murder. You remember the scene where Raskolnikov is getting the axe ready? And he is fascinated by the act he has to accomplish? The last part of the book, about guilt and moral responsibility and so on, bores me profoundly.
Because you, or your characters, never feel moral responsibility or guilt?
Aren’t you lucky!
Perhaps. The book of Dostoyevsky’s that interests me most is The Possessed. It is an enigmatic novel; the main protagonist is an enigma. I read it over and over again and find it tremendous—it has a concept of reality that escapes “significance.” That may be my reading of it; someone else might apprehend it differently. I am sure Camus would have said something quite different about it.
Another writer who has had a great influence on you is Kafka. He is someone who has been interpreted in more than one way. What is his fascination for you?
He has been read as having a metaphysical and religious message—the relationship between the Jew and his God. This is the influence of Max Brod, his friend and first biographer. It doesn’t interest me in the least. I read Kafka as the revelation of a world, which is much more important than yet another meditation on the Talmud. Brod’s reading of Kafka is reductive and restrictive, as if his work could be reduced to metaphysical relations. What I find extraordinary is the actual presence of this opaque world.
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.
From Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
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.
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From Roland Barthes’s essay “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet“—
Robbe-Grillet’s purpose . . . is to establish the novel on the surface: once you can set its inner nature, its “interiority,” between parentheses, then objects in space, and the circulations of men among them, are promoted to the rank of subjects. The novel becomes man’s direct experience of what surrounds him without being able to shield himself with a psychology, a metaphysic, or a psychoanalytic method in his combat with the objective world he discovers. The novel is no longer a chthonian revelation, the book of hell, but of earth–requiring that we no longer look at the world with the eyes of a confessor, of a doctor, or of God himself (all significant hypostases of the classical novelist), but with the eyes of a man walking in his city with no other horizon than the scene before him, no other power than that of his own eyes.