Zadie Smith, “This is How It Feels To Me”

“THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO ME” – The Guardian, October 13, 201

The byline of Zadie Smith’s piece, “Last week James Wood blasted modern fiction, calling for a return to feeling from self-conscious cleverness in the wake of the terrorist attacks,” promises a bolder and braver response than the young Smith delivers. Though she explains her point of view, she says later that this interaction shaped and changed her writing – her later novels are far more “modernist” and “realist” in tone (NW is a “London novel” in the olden sense). Here is Smith’s self-effacing beginning:

The critic James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called “hysterical realism”.It is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention. These are hysterical times; any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped – this was Wood’s point, and I’m with him on it. In fact, I have agreed with him several times before, in public and in private, but I appreciate that he feared I needed extra warning; that I might be sitting in my Kilburn bunker planning some 700-page generational saga set on an incorporated McDonald’s island north of Tonga. Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.

At least she’s funny. Here Smith begins to explore with a bit more nuance some of her issues with Wood’s critique:

The first is this: any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna. You cannot place first-time novelists with literary giants, New York hipsters with Kilburn losers, and some of the writers who got caught up with me are undeserving of the criticism. In particular, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth beast Infinite Jest was heaved in as an exemplum, but it is five years old, and is a world away from his delicate, entirely “human” short stories and essays of the past two years, which shy away from the kind of totalising theoretical and thematic arcs that Wood was gunning for. If anyone has recently learned a lesson about the particularities of human existence and their separation from social systems, it is Wallace. But even if this were not true, frankly, literature is – or should be – a broad church. Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned, I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise; the very books, in fact, which have cast such a tremendous shadow over two generations of American and English fiction.

What Smith points to again is a kind of multiplicity at the intertextual level of readership that her own novel seeks to create in a world she has written:

I read Flaubert and Nabokov for the varicoloured intimacies of life; I read Zora Neale Hurston to hear the songs of love and earth, and I read White Noise to experience, yes, a Frankfurt school comedy, in which every boy, girl, man, woman, black, white, lesbian, Jew and Muslim speaks in exactly the same way: like DeLillo.

Here she does the same move as Wood on what writers “can” and “cannot” do, which I don’t love:

We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. Which leads me to my second point: writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.

She discusses the pains of writing, the resistance to encyclopaedic knowledge, the call to arms in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for “a look to power sources.”

Except… er… it turns out that the plot is horrendously simple. It has to do with things like faith. Revenge. Poverty. God. Hatred. So what now? Does anyone want to know the networks behind those seeming simplicities, the paths that lead from September 11 back to Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and then back to Israel, back further to the second world war, back once more to the first? Does anyone care what writers think about that? Does it help? Or shall we sing of love and drawing rooms and earth and children and all that is small and furry and wounded? Must we produce what you want, anyway? I have absolutely no idea.

But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense. Bellow’s Seize the Day, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Nabokov’s Pnin – works that stubbornly speak and resonate, even in these image-led, speechless times. But it is a trick of the light that makes us suppose these books exist in soulful opposition to more recent examples of “dialectical devilry”. These books are works of high artifice, and there isn’t a decent novel in this world that isn’t; their humanity derives from their reverence for language, their precision, their intellect and, more than anything, from their humour.

It’s all laughter in the dark – the title of a Nabokov novel and still the best term for the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.

But he might see even that question as too intellectual in approach. I think Wood is hinting at an older idea that runs from Plato to the boys booming a car stereo outside my freaking window: soul is soul. It cannot be manufactured or schematised. It cannot be dragged kicking and screaming through improbable plots. It cannot be summoned by a fact or dismissed by a cliché. These are the famous claims made for “soul” and they lead with specious directness to an ancient wrestling match, invoked by Wood: the inviolability of “soul” versus the evils of self-consciousness and wise-assery, otherwise known as sophism.

Thus Wood’s advice to Smith is “be more human… I wonder what to do with that one.” This becomes the strongest part of Smith’s response – how she demonstrates the way in which these novels are working with cultural materials in exciting ways Wood does not see:

I want to defend the future possibility of some words appearing on pages that will be equal to these times and to what I feel and what you feel and what James Wood feels; that is, this fear that has got us all by the throat. He argues against silence and against intellectual obfuscation. He says: tell us how it feels. Well, we are trying. I am trying. But as DeLillo dramatised (again, in White Noise), it is difficult to discuss feelings when the TV speaks so loudly; cries so operatically; seems always, in everything, one step ahead. Yet people continue to manage this awesome trick of wrestling sentiment away from TV’s colonisation of all things soulful and human, and I would applaud all the youngish Americans – Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Moore – for their (supposedly) small but, to me, significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation – brain and heart – present in their fiction.

Even if you find them obtuse, they can rarely be accused of cliché, and that – as Amis has argued so well recently – is the place where everything dies… I truly hope they are not cowed by these renewed assaults on “clever writing”, calls for the “death of irony”, the “return of heart”. There was always a great deal of “heart”, of humanity, in these writers.

Smith seems to give a credit to American tradition, rather than accusing it of corrupting her work: “Sometimes it seems purely an American trick, this ability to draw the universe, as Carver and Fitzgerald did, into a circumscribed artificial, yet human, space.” Smith considers whether the novel itself still has value as a genre, something 9/11 has made her think about:

Most mornings I think: death of the novel? Yeah, sure, why not? The novel is not an immutable fact of human artistic life, after all, just a historically specific phenomenon that came and will go unless there are writers who have the heart, the brain and, crucially, the cojones to keep it alive.

She turns to the shorter novel (reminds me of what Woolf says about women’s writing!): “Personally, I find myself more and more struck by controlled little gasps of prose, as opposed to the baggy novel… Which seems the exact opposite of the American/ English instinct: I must cover the world in my shit immediately.” Her conclusion is uncertain and multiple, for which I am grateful. She speaks to Wood, but she is also speaking back:

Is it this reverence, this care, this suppression of ego that Wood wants to see from us? It is what I want to see from myself, but whether I will manage it is another matter. It will take sympathy – a natural instinct, a sentimental reflex – but it will also take empathy, which I still contend is largely a matter for the intellect. Your brain must be up for it, for making that necessary leap. At the moment, my brain feels like catfood. So I may never prove to be much of a writer – a real writer, the kind I like to read – but then again, maybe I will. I’m not sure how much it matters any more. But we shall see.

 

 

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David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

1995

Fiction writers like to watch, not be watched. TV is an expedient way of doing this. TV is the medicine-poison by which we watch people trained to take the pressure of millions of gazers. Even those of us who hate it – “graduate school poets” – seem to need to watch it with “weary irony” rather than “rapt credulity.”  TV has stopped pointing outside itself and become “otiose”: “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” The metafiction of the sixties came out of readerly taste, and TV just caught on later.

Self-conscious irony is where TV and fiction meet. TV undercuts sight with what’s being said, rather than presenting 2 conflicting images or sayings. Television is low because people have more in common in their low taste than their refined taste. TV can be addictive though, since it can cause problems but “offers itself as relief” for those problems. We are so trained to enjoy trite TV that we discourage variation.

Postmodernism deployed materiality and brand names differently than modernism’s “dirty realism” (Joyce). Mimesis is achieved through these objects, though older writers don’t agree or see it this way. He names Nabokov as the key shift in metafiction, Pynchon as its best example, and DeLillo as its prophet (Murray and the photographed barn he can’t get outside the problem of).

Postmodern fiction is now trying to transfigure a televisual world just as that world is invulnerable to assault. In a genre he names “hyperreal” or “image-fiction,” Wallace argues authors attempt to play out a response to TV culture in their work, rather than just its representation. If realism made the strange familiar, we now need the familiar to be made strange [hysterical realism].

Wallace says, however, that image-fiction is almost always too “surfacey” a jeer at the very surfaces it critiques. TV has robbed ironists of the ability to use irony against it. US pop culture and US serious culture have always engaged the tension of the strong individual and the warm community. Earlier TV was about community, but the individual began to win out in the 80s. TV has become a medium that not only sells us separate commodities but teaches us how to look [Raymond Williams]. Commercials and shows are made to look more alike so the former are seen less as interruption [Mad Men].

TV no longer seeks our rapt attention, but flatters us for being bored by it. TV and postmodern fiction “share roots” that go both ways, Wallace insists. TV was “a hypocritical apologist” for a lost set of values in the 60s – it invited ironic readings. But irony is impossible to pin down, so how do we rebel against “TV’s aesthetic of rebellion?” We could become reactionaries against TV, or we could separate networks and viewers from the problems of the medium. He problematizes this by describing the utopian possibilities of the internet, which are imminent. If in Pynchon and DeLillo the gloom is that the pattern does not inhere, will it be one of terrible efficiency now?

He points to Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as the edge of fiction – it has swallowed not TV, but TV’s whole objective into itself. It challenges the reader to “prove you’re consumer enough” to “absorb me.” But its “ironic genuflection” to TV is just reabsorbed into TV itself. Maybe the new rebels will rebel against “ironic watching,” Wallace suggests [the New Sincerity]. Would this be “too sincere?”

 

Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett & Mrs. Brown”

1924

Woolf likens the pursuit of writing character to the chasing of a phantom “Mr. Brown.” She says “Mr. [Arnold] Bennett” agrees with this assertion.

I will suggest that we range Edwardians and Georgians into two camps; Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy I will call the Edwardians; Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Eliot I will call the Georgians.

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that in or about December, 1910, human character changed [Roger Fry exhibit of Parisian modernism]… All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.

Woolf names “Mrs. Brown” a tidy old lady on the tram who she thinks must care for herself and “Mr. Smith” a flushed middle-aged man near her. She decides the man is rather bullying her. When he leaves,

Mrs. Brown and I were left alone together. She sat in her corner opposite, very clean,very small, rather queer, and suffering intensely. The impression she made was overwhelming. It came pouring out like a draught, like a smell of burning. What was it composed of—that overwhelming and peculiar impression? Myriads of irrelevant and incongruous ideas crowd into one’s head on such occasions; one sees the person, one sees Mrs. Brown, in the centre of all sorts of different scenes.

And then Mrs. Brown faced the dreadful revelation. She took her heroic decision. Early, before dawn, she packed her bag and carried it herself to the station. She would not let Smith touch it. She was wounded in her pride, unmoored from her anchorage; she came of gentlefolks who kept servants—but details could wait. The important thing was to realize her character, to steep oneself in her atmosphere. I had no time to explain why I felt it somewhat tragic, heroic, yet with a dash of the flighty, and fantastic, before the train stopped, and I watched her disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station. She looked very small, very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic. And I have never seen her again, and I shall never know what became of her.

The story ends without any point to it. But I have not told you this anecdote to illustrate either my own ingenuity or the pleasure of travelling from Richmond to Waterloo. What I want you to see in it is this. Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.

The English writer would make the old lady into a ‘character’; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts. Her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual Mrs. Brown to give a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul—the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finished.

But now let us examine what Mr. Bennett went on to say—he said that there was no great novelist among the Georgian writers because they cannot create characters who are real, true, and convincing. [James Wood and hysterical realism!]

Why, then, is it so hard for novelists at present to create characters which seem real, not only to Mr. Bennett, but to the world at large? Why, when October comes round, do the publishers always fail to supply us with a masterpiece? Surely one reason is that the men and women who began writing novels in 1910 or thereabouts had this great difficulty to face—that there was no English novelist living from whom they could learn their business.

Tristram Shandy or Pride and Prejudice is complete in itself; it is self-contained; it leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better. The difference perhaps is that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside. But the Edwardians (Bennet, Wells, Galsworthy) were never interested in character in itself; or in the book in itself. They were interested in something outside. Their books, then, were incomplete as books, and required that the reader should finish them, actively and practically, for himself.

Wells would find no place for a Mrs. Brown of the railway carriage in Utopia and Galsworthy would reduce her to a social stigma. Mr. Bennett would attend to her closely – too closely – with the drudgery of detail.

So it is in literature. The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to cooperate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut.

That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.

In view of these facts—with these sounds in my ears and these fancies in my brain—I am not going to deny that Mr. Bennett has some reason when he complains that our Georgian writers are unable to make us believe that our characters are real. I am forced to agree that they do not pour out three immortal masterpieces with Victorian regularity every autumn. But, instead of being gloomy, I am sanguine. For this state of things is, I think, inevitable whenever from hoar old age or callow youth the convention ceases to be a means of communication between writer and reader, and becomes instead an obstacle and an impediment. At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship. The literary convention of the time is so artificial—you have to talk about the weather and nothing but the weather throughout the entire visit— that, naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society.

Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the other. Mr. Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! [334] And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest single lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society—respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.

For these reasons, then, we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic conditon. Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Mr. Prufrock—to give Mrs. Brown some of the names she has made famous lately—is a little [335] pale and dishevelled by the time her rescuers reach her. And it is the sound of their axes that we hear—a vigorous and stimulating sound in my ears—unless of course you wish to sleep, when, in the bounty of his concern, Providence has provided a host of writers anxious and able to satisfy your needs.

It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.

But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.

J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace”

1999

In lieu of a proper post on Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’m posting an old essay comparing it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’m most interested in this novel in conversation with Conrad, especially the ethical space in which it recreates animal rights (the dogs at the shelter here) as the “brutes” to be “exterminated,” which are the human Congolese in Conrad’s novel. While I think this is a dubious equation, Coetzee also sets up a number of other interesting equivalences and valences: Lucy instead of the Intended (knowing and raped, paying a sort of debt for the land, rather than protected and pure), Petrus and Kurtz (stonelike, hard, and cruel), Marlow and Lurie’s misguided inability to “see” their surroundings (Lurie locked behind a door, Marlow’s obsession with the impenetrable flatness of the jungle), and the young woman of color able to speak where the African lover of Kurtz was silenced – so much so in Disgrace that her accusations cost Lurie his job. (Note that Melanie’s name means black, while Lucy’s means white and Petrus’ means stone.) In Coetzee, we see an anxiety about the ethics of representation play out, in which the text divides us from the subjectivity of the black characters and the female characters, leaving us only with Lurie. His divided novel (prideful downfall and twisted reconciliation) are also a sort of bizarre rewriting of Lord Jim. 

Like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . .

– H.G. Wells on Henry James, 1914

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace both explore the ability of language to represent a world of unspeakable profanity. The perverse altar of H. G. Wells’ analogy humorously satirizes the worship of what he saw as the ‘elaborate, copious emptiness’ of archetypal symbols in the Jamesian novel: the kitten, a violation of the vulnerable body; the shell, a fragility in human bonds; and the string, a senseless materialism.[1] Though intended as satire, the passage into Wells’ empty cathedral diagnoses a larger crisis in twentieth century literature, especially the literature of atrocity, in which silence and symbol are made to stand in for a language which can no longer signify by itself.

Severed from context, Wells’ simile depicts the very issues Heart of Darkness and Disgrace seek to confront: the exaltation of power and greed, the sacrifice of the vulnerable, and the loss of intimacy and connectivity, all of which constitute the unspeakable atrocities of colonized space. Language, however, cannot represent the unspeakable, and both narratives must rotate elliptically around absent centres.

In their fictive representations of the ongoing violence of colonialism, Conrad and Coetzee present a world in which symbolic silences and objects are made to carry the weight of a failed language, but any singular meaning of those symbols is simultaneously undermined by the very impassibility of the language they are meant to replace. In The Language of Silence, Leslie Kane describes the symbolism of silence as that ‘which directly, dramatically, and implicitly reflects doubt and disjunction.’[2] For Kane, the ‘freedom of silence’ lies in its tacit refusal to rigidly ‘define the ineffable’, which opens the text to a more variable reading.[3] Kane’s observation displays this symbolic ambiguity in itself; silence can be read bidirectionally as both a restriction and a liberation of expression.

The silence of the land speaks immediately and disarmingly to the protagonists of both novels. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow feels alienated from the ‘high stillness of primeval forest’, which seems like a “God-forsaken wilderness’ to him.[4] The land’s silence enacts both a passive openness to imperialist rape and, in its meanacing, encroaching density, an indictment of that violation. For Disgrace’s David Lurie, too, though his daughter’s farm should constitute a ‘refuge’ from the city, it ‘does not feel like his earth…it feels like a foreign land’, and he can hear every sound ‘lingering on the still air’.[5] If the land disarms the white interloper, it silently integrates the autochthonous African. To Marlow, the natives have ‘bone, muscle, [and] a wild vitality…that [are] as natural and true as the surf along their coast’, and unlike Marlow himself, they ‘wan[t] no excuse for being there’.[6] In Disgrace, too, Petrus’ name, meaning ‘stone’, makes him one with the land’s ‘dust and gravel’,[7] and reflects Coetzee’s assertion elsewhere that ‘the true South African landscape is of rock’.[8]

In depicting the contested spaces of colonialism as sites of violence, both novels confirm Marlow’s observation that ‘The conquest of the earth…is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much’.[9] While Disgrace and Heart of Darkness closely examine violence, they do so through intimation, denying narrative access to very events around which they purportedly centre. Though Marlow has a ‘propensity to spin yarns’ and Lurie is a professor of Communications and Romantic poetry, the narrators’ inability to articulate the atrocity of their surroundings also renders their tales, paradoxically, the absences of tales.[10]

Marlow knows that Kurtz has conducted ‘inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation’ and that his unsurpassable collection of ivory is ‘paid for …by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions’, yet words do not allow him to fully represent these horrors.[11] Divorced from his interiority, even Kurtz’s own exclamation of ‘The horror! The horror!’ offers the reader only an ambivalent echoing of his own unspeakable acts, and even Marlow is not privy to the actual moment of his death.[12] To accommodate the unspeakable, Marlow’s narrative is punctuated by pregnant pauses; he tells his listeners: ‘You can’t understand. How could you?’[13] These ‘dislocations in the narrator’s language’ are, according to Edward Said, ‘Conrad’s way of demonstrating [the] discrepancy between the orthodox and his own views of empire’.[14]

Similarly, in Disgrace, Lucy’s rape occurs while Lurie is locked in a separate room of the house, and in the moment, he can only articulate the vague fear that ‘In a minute…whatever is happening to her will be set in stone’.[15] In ‘Into the Dark Chamber’, Coetzee refers to the space of torture as

the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.[16]

Like the isolated station at the heart of the Congo, fenced in by heads on stakes, the interior space of Lucy’s bedroom becomes available for unspeakable acts. Conrad and Coetzee thus destabilize interior space by questioning it as a site of safety and intimacy, the torture chamber of Lucy’s bedroom further echoed in the object rape of Lurie’s car and his home in the city. Afterwards, Lurie can only think to himself, ‘War, atrocity: every word with which one tries to wrap up this day, the day swallows down its black throat’.[17] Cut off from the space of the rape and the details of what Lucy experiences, though, Lurie still concretely associates it with ‘stone’, managing to link the event to the rocky landscape of the farm and to Petrus as well. Lurie ‘has his own suspicions’ that Petrus, who covets his daughter’s land, has ‘engaged three strange men to teach Lucy a lesson’.[18]

In maintaining silence around the unspeakable, Marlow and Lurie inhabit a fearful proximity to the profane. Marlow says that ‘it was ordered I should never betray [Kurtz]’,[19] and Lucy tells Lurie, ‘You tell what happened to you, I tell what happened to me’.[20] Marlow is aware that in entering the Congo and in protecting Kurtz, he, too, is implicated in the project of imperialism, but Kurtz ‘had stepped over the edge, while [he] had been permitted to draw back [his] hesitating foot’.[21] Likewise, Lurie occupies an adjacent space to the men who violate his daughter, for as he struggles to describe his lecherous involvement with Melanie, he says it is ‘Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’.[22]

Female characters in the texts signify variously as well. Marlow encounters Kurtz’s Intended ‘all in black, floating towards [him] in the dusk’ as the ‘dark gleams’ of the furniture ‘sh[ine] in indistinct curves’ like ‘a somber and polished sarcophagus’.[23]  The Intended’s ghostly movements link her to the eerie portrait Kurtz paints in the wilderness, and as she stretches out her arms in grief, Marlow conflates her with Kurtz’s black mistress, seeing ‘in this gesture another one, tragic also…stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream’.[24]

In Disgrace, too, Lucy is doubled in Melanie, although in a symbolic reversal, it is not the raped white woman, but the violated ‘dark one’ who is empowered to voice her indignation.[25] Though her name means ‘light’, Lucy’s tacit acceptance of the rape as historical reparation, ‘the price one has to pay for staying on’, seems benighted.[26] Without access to her interior thoughts, however, Lucy remains ambiguously both the victim of rape and the criminal who symbolically cuts out her own tongue.

In White Writing, Coetzee notes that in South African ‘farm novel, we find women… imprisoned in the farm house…cut off from the outdoors’.[27] Through violation, Lucy is made more intimate with the land, as her body comes to echo the ‘landscape…inscribed by hand and plough’, and, invaded and planted with seed, she enters Petrus’ family in a perverse rewriting of the ‘myth in which the earth becomes wife to the husband-man’.[28] Adding to the layered meaning of the novel is Petrus’ ‘relative’ Pollux, a participant in the rape. In mythology, only one of Leda’s twin sons is the result of Zeus’ rape. In bearing this name, Pollux, without ever speaking, becomes both child of the symbolically raped land and the potential father of Lucy’s ‘child of this earth’: the product and the perpetrator of rape.[29]

The image of the silent African vacillates throughout Heart of Darkness. While Marlow pities the ‘black shadows of disease and starvation’ he finds dying under in the forest at the start of his journey, he still objectifies the vulnerable black bodies by describing them synecdochically: ‘the black bones reclined…the sunken eyes looked up…the fingers closed slowly’.[30] In a moment of unvarnished dehumanization, Marlow also describes the black fireman as ‘a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs’.[31]

In Disgrace, Petrus’ uses and omissions of language speak to the weight of racialized language in colonized space. When Lurie asks him if he is ‘the dog man’, Petrus, with a ‘broad smile’, echoes Lurie twice in assent: ‘“Yes…the dog-man…The dog-man,” he repeats, savouring the phrase’.[32]  Petrus’ ironic iteration of the term carries both its savage racist inheritance and an accurate description of his place as labourer.  In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhaba maintains that

the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.[33]

Petrus’ inversion of colonial language demonstrates a positive reclamation of language from the realm of the subaltern, but, in its doublings (‘very bad, very bad’; ‘Lucy is safe here, she is safe’), it also bears a sinister resemblance to Kurtz’s final utterance.[34] Thus Petrus intimates a dual enactment of the rightful return of colonized land and the horrific interiority of the violent colonizer.

Marlow’s problematic interpretation of the ‘savages’ as both human and beastly has a crude resonance in Disgrace in the voiceless dogs of Bev’s clinic. The euthanasia of the silent, neglected animals is a disturbing evocation of Kurtz’s barbaric footnote: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’[35] Still, this reading is countered in the novel by Bev’s pure effort ‘to lighten the load of Africa’s suffering beasts’ and in Lucy’s worldview, which recognizes that ‘There is only the life there is. Which we share with animals’.[36]

Indeed, despite their troubling equivocation, it is ultimately Marlow’s and Lurie’s tenuous and tacit intimacy with the vulnerable that fills the empty silences of the texts with the greatest promise for redemption. When Marlow’s helmsman dies, ‘his lustrous and inquiring glance envelop[s]’ Marlow, ‘but he die[s] without uttering a sound’.[37] Marlow knows that to his audience, it might seem ‘strange, this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara,’ but he and the helmsman have ‘a subtle bond’, and in his senseless death, Marlow feels ‘robbed of a belief’.[38] Facing his listeners, Marlow takes a ‘pause of profound stillness’ and finally concedes, ‘This is the worst of trying to tell’.[39] Marlow’s inexpressible sadness at the death of the helmsman reveals a faint hope for the reparation human connectivity in colonized space. Lurie, too, in a symbolic reversal of the dehumanization of imperialism, develops a bond with a dog at the clinic, anthropomorphizing him as ‘the young dog, the one who likes music’, though he agrees to ‘giv[e] him up’ in the novel’s final line.[40] As he holds the animal during its last moments of life, Lurie realizes he that he has become capable of ‘giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love’.[41] Rita Barnard reads this gesture as Lurie

accepting, perhaps helplessly, perhaps resolutely, the claims of an infinite number of other creatures with whom he has no special connection – who are neither his ‘own kind’ or nor his historical victims.[42]

To read Lurie’s final interaction with the dog in this way is to open the space of Disgrace to a positive form of reparation, in which humans are still capable of attending, carefully and lovingly, to the fragility of relationships.

At the end of Disgrace, Lucy agrees to sign the land over to Petrus and to ‘become part of his establishment’, but, she asserts, ‘the house remains mine. No one enters this house without my permission. Including [Petrus]. And I keep the kennels.’[43] Though the house has been a site of violence, it is also the sanctuary to which ultimately Lucy retreats. In reclaiming her house and taking up a continued responsibility for the vulnerable, Lucy may offer a means of approaching the novel of atrocity.

As both Disgrace and Heart of Darkness suggest, the space of the novel and the potency of its language to signify have been violated by the horrors of a world it now struggles to represent. The reader, robbed of the interiority and disclosure of traditional novelistic space, is forced to interpret the manifold intimations of silence and symbol, an act that places him or her in an uncomfortable proximity to the profanity of imagination.

Still, the uncomfortable silences and nebulous symbols of Heart of Darkness and Disgrace speak volumes about the place of greed, vulnerability, and intimacy in colonial space. In The Art of Failure, Suresh Raval contends that it is in fleshing out the omissions of Marlow’s incomplete narrative that ‘his listeners understand what Marlow, as the novitiate in his venture, could not.’[44] Heart of Darkness and Disgrace ask us to enter the profaned cathedral, to turn over the symbolic artifacts of its altar, and to struggle with their interpretation. Perhaps listening patiently to the unfolding meanings of their silences is itself a prayer against the darkness.

WORKS CITED:

Barnard, Rita, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place            (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Bhaba, Homi, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994)

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000)

— ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book            Review, 12 January 1986: 13, 35.

White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale            University Press, 1988)

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2002)

Kane, Leslie, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in            Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984)

Otten, Thomas J., A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the            Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State            University Press, 2006)

Raval, Suresh, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986)

Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley, CA:            University of California Press, 1993)

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron, African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial            Intertextuality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005)

Chrisman, Laura and Patrick Williams (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial            Theory (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)

Huggan, Graham and Stephen Watson (eds.), Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee            (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)

Jolly, Rosemary Jane, Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African            Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbrach, and J. M. Coetzee (Athens, OH:            Ohio University Press, 1996)

Levine, George (ed.), Aesthetics and Ideology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University            Press, 1994)

Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998)

Moore, Gene M. (ed.), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2004)

Penner, Dick, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York:            Greenwood Press, 1989)


[1] Wells qtd. in Thomas J. Otten, A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006) p.xv (Otten’s interpretation is paraphrased.)

[2] Leslie Kane, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984), p.15

[3] Ibid., pp.14-15

[4] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.128,114

[5] J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), pp.65,197,68

[6] Conrad, p.114

[7] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.59

[8] J.M.Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), p.167

[9] Conrad, p.107

[10] Ibid., p.105

[11] Ibid., pp.153,179

[12] Ibid., pp.179,178

[13] Ibid., p.154

[14] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), p.29

[15] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.94

[16] J.M.Coetzee, ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book Review,12 January 1986, p.13

[17] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.102

[18] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.117-18

[19] Conrad, p.172

[20] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.99

[21] Conrad, p.179

[22] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.25

[23] Conrad, pp.182-3

[24] Ibid., p.185

[25] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.18

[26] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.158

[27] Coetzee, White Writing, p.9

[28] Ibid., p.7

[29] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.216

[30] Conrad, p.119

[31] Ibid., p.140

[32] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.64

[33] Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994), p.122

[34] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.114,138

[35] Conrad, p.155

[36] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.84,74

[37] Conrad, p.151

[38] Ibid., pp.156,152

[39] Ibid., p.152

[40] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.219-220

[41] Ibid., p.219

[42] Rita Barnard, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.40

[43] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.204

[44] Suresh Raval, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p.38

Samuel Beckett, “Molloy,” “Endgame” & “Waiting for Godot”

MOLLOY, 1941/1953

Part of Beckett’s trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnameable), Molloy is split between two inner monologues, which are very similar. One is the wandering Molloy, who is living in his mother’s old room and waiting to die. He tells us he has arrived there by a long bicycle journey during which he killed a man in the woods. The second is Jacques Moran, a detective, who travels with his son Jacques to find Molloy. His son disappears and Moran returns home, where he begins using crutches (as Molloy does) and admits that “the voice told him to write the report.” The famous ending of the novel is: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining,” which is an assertion of madness, but also an meta-commentary on the capacities of fiction writing. It would be interesting to compare this to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – what the writer does and does not know, and how the reader might piece it together.

WAITING FOR GODOT, 1953

The play centers on Vladimir and Estragon, who stand waiting for a man named Godot on a road. They see Lucky (a slave “freed of expectations”) and Pozzo (whose name is a homonym for “crazy” in Italian) pass by and converse with them. If Stein foregrounds grammar in her experiments with language and repetition, Beckett works on them in speech – in the “dialogues” of his characters. Beckett’s plays engage an almost hysterical refusal of meaning and interpretation (as Estragon refuses to hear Vladimir’s dreams). A few memories persist in both plays, but the restrictive visual landscape of the sets and the flat refusal of regeneration (there are no women, or they are too old to procreate) discourage hope even as they incite the viewer to seek for ways out. It is thought to have had an especially strong influence on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, whose title characters, according to Michael Billington, “are what Vladimir and Estragon would be in Elsinore.”

ENDGAME, 1957

Similar in structure to Waiting for Godot, Endgame uses a clock, rather than a road, to encourage its viewer to seek an arc or way out that is simply unavailable to the characters. The post-atomic landscape outside the high windows of the room inhabited by Clov, a servant who cannot sit, Hamm, a man who cannot see or stand, and Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, who have no legs and live in trashcans suggest a literal “leveling of the field” after modernism that would give on to the play of postmodern literature.

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”

1981

In “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin argues that the novel flourishes on diversity, making it uniquely suited to post-industrial society. The novel can “swallow” and ape other genres without losing the integrity of its form (unlike the epic, for example). In “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin introduces his idea of heteroglossia, based on “extralinguistic” features common across languages, like perspective, evaluation, and ideology, so that language cannot be fully neutralized because it is always defined by context. The focus of this essay is the insistence that literary study must neither be “formal” nor “ideological,” but that form and content are unified in discourse. The fixation on style, cut off from the sociality of discourse, is flat and abstract and the two must be put in conversation. “The novel as a whole is a phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice” 1192. Its “structured artistic system” is made up of direct narration, stylized narration, stylized everyday forms like the letter or diary, other literary but extra-artistic forms like scientific or journalistic texts, and stylized individual speech of characters 1192. They form together “a higher stylistic unity of the work as a whole, a unity that cannot be identified with any single one of the unities subordinated to it” 1192.

“The stylistic uniqueness of the novel as a genre consists precisely in the combination of these subordinated, yet still relatively autonomous, unities (even at times comprised of different languages) into the higher unity of the work as a whole… the language of a novel is the system of its ‘languages'” 1192.

“The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions” 1192.

Because of this, critics often treat style or genre, not both, which the novel requires – the novel is often treated as ‘epic,’ and is therefore undervalued. (I wonder if James Wood’s idea of the novel isn’t as outdated as calling it an epic… the contemporary novel still adheres to most of Bakhtin’s aesthetic categories, just differently so.)

“At the time when poetry was accomplishing the task of cultural, national and political centralization of the verbal-ideological world… on the lower levels, on the stages of local fairs and at buffoon spectacles, the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth, ridiculing all ‘languages’ and dialects… all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face” 1200.

(It’s interesting to consider that he uses the word ‘face’ – also what about The Waste Land?) The problem with readings of the novel, for Bakhtin, is that they seek the same unity in diversity that languages themselves show, rather than dialogism between the text and outside world.

“No living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that is often difficult to penetrate… The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships… this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace” 1202.

“A word forms a concept of its own object in a dialogic way… It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates… oriented toward the listener and his answer” 1205.

For Bakhtin, poetic discourse is closed off to alien languages, indisputable, whereas novelistic discourse is open to them, variable.

“At any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the coexistence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given a bodily form… each… requires a methodology very different from the others” 1214.

(I wonder if you could consider The Wire as attempting to do this televisually.)

“The poet strips the word of others’ intentions, he uses only such words and forms (and only in such a way) that they lose their link with concrete intentional levels of language and their connection with specific contexts… Everything that enters the work must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts: language may remember only its life in poetic contexts” 1217.

This seems like a sort of “poetic suture” for Bakhtin. I think it is overstated, to be sure, especially given the existence of Eliot, but it is interesting to think about how this could be compared with the especially heteroglot, object-oriented worlds of the contemporary novel or TV series, which take Bakhtin’s and Kristeva’s ideas about heteroglossia to their most fecund point.

“When heteroglossia enters the novel it becomes subject to an artistic reworking. The social and historical voices populating language, all its words and all its forms, which provide language with its particular concrete conceptualizations, are organized in the novel into a structured stylistic system that expresses the differentiated socio-ideological position of the author amid the heteroglossia of his epoch” 1220.

 

Henry James, “The Ambassadors”

1901

The Ambassadors (originally serialized) describes the trip of one Lambert Strether, first to England, then to Paris, to collect Chad Newsome, the wayward son of Strether’s fiancee. In the process, he learns to “take things as they come” in the European way, becomes close friends with Maria Gostrey (who basically proposes at the end of the novel), finds himself infatuated with Mme. (Marie) de Vionnet (Chad’s lover), acknowledges that Chad is not lost but has changed for the better, disagrees with his firmly American friend Waymarsh on the value of the European experience, and forgoes his engagement to Mrs. Newsome.

The novel, told in the third person free indirect discourse typical of James, is limited to Strether’s point of view and posits his growth as a progress of perspective – of seeing. At first, Strether arrives in Europe having pre-judged the situation with Chad, and he is defined by his obsession with time and his watch. As R.W. Stallman says, “He is addicted to watching the clock lest he miss the train, and that is why he has always missed it” 377. As the novel progresses, images of sight proliferate, so that in the final key scene of his refusal of Maria Gostrey, Maria says “I see. So that as she’s different for you -” and he interrupts with “She’s the same… But I do what I didn’t before – I see her” 373. Thus his reason for leaving Mrs. Newsome is one of newfound sight, but so is his reason for refusing Maria herself – he desires “to be right,” and Maria tells him, “It isn’t so much your being right – it’s your horrible sharp eye for what makes it so” 375. In this sense, it is Strether’s very ability to discern at the end of the novel that makes him so much more attractive than the equivocating, prejudging man of someone else’s “vision” who we meet asking himself his “first question” as the novel begins 5.

Eventually, the development of hearing, and especially seeing, extends to the level of touch (tact, metaphorically) and taste (metaphorically as well). Thus, as Strether develops his “closer senses,” in Sobchack’s terms, he strangely develops the correspondingly abstract or metaphorical senses that give him the very je ne sais quoi that he is unable to discern or explain in the Europeanized Americans at the start of The Ambassadors. In his love for Marie de Vionnet, Chad explains near the novel’s close that “She has never for a moment yet bored me – never been wanting, as the cleverest women sometimes are, in tact. She has never talked about her tact” 367. He sees an echo of this in Maria Gostrey, it seems, when he wonders if anything will be “so good as this place at this moment… so good as what you make of everything you touch” 374. (The division of touch and tact reminds me a lot of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the characters rarely touch, but are obsessed with ideas of tact – as manners, but also as maneuvers.)

Marie de Vionnet and Maria Gostrey, with their similar names, seem to double for each other, as to Mme. and Mlle. de Vionnet (it takes Strether most of the book to look past his own infatuation with the mother and realize firmly that it is she, not Jeanne, with whom Chad is having an affair). Sarah and Mami Pocock also double for each other in a way. Ultimately, however, Strether is left with a sense of the singular irreplaceability of the individual – he wants his “last word of all” to Chad to be: “You’ll be a brute, you know – you’ll be guilty of the last infamy – if you ever forsake her” 364. Strether finally realizes the extent to which Marie has ‘made’ Chad into what he is – a likable and genteel man with a bright future ahead of him, who fears Chad will leave her for the cushy business job at home in America. Though it is unclear what Chad ultimately does, the novel leans, bitterly, toward the latter conclusion. E.M. Forster disliked it for this “hourglass” structure, by which Chad and Strether essentially switch places, but little else occurs.

 

Joseph Conrad, “Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus”

1897

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect” 1887.

Conrad clearly lays out problems of surface and depth here, akin to Forster’s interest in flat and round characters – these are some of the many origins of the denigration of attention to surface culture. Like Woolf, Conrad is interested in discovering what “is fundamental, what is enduring and essential… the artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal” 1887. But while the thinker “plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts,” and they speak to us in “common sense” and “always to our credulity… it is otherwise with the artist” 1887.

“Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal… to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities – like the vulnerable body within a steel armour” 1887.

“His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring – and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition… to our capacity for delight and wonder… solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn” 1887.

Why is the effort made “to present an unrestful episode in the obscure lives of a few individuals out of all the disregarded multitude of the bewildered, the simple, and the voiceless”? 1888. “There is not a place of splendour or a dark corner of the earth that does not deserve, if only a passing glance of wonder and pity” 1888.

“Fiction – if it at all aspires to be art – appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time… appeals primarily to the senses… it must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music – which is the art of arts” 1888.

“And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage” 1888.

It’s interesting that for Conrad, words are materials – surfaces worn thin that need to be… refaceted?

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see… it is everything… also, that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” 1888.

“To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task… to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mode… to show its vibration, its colour, its form… reveal the substance of its truth… [to] attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision… shall awaken in the hearts of beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity… which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world” 1889.

The writer who holds to these ideals “cannot be faithful to any one of the temporary formulas of his craft… the supreme cry of Art for Art itself, loses the exciting ring of its apparent immortality. It sounds far off. It has ceased to be a cry, and is heard only as a whisper, often incomprehensible” 1889. Art is more like witnessing the attempt of a laborer. “Art is long and life is short” (Hippocrates), and its goal is veiled in mists – it is not to unveil a secret or law, but something rarer.

“To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour… to make them pause for a look… reserved for only a very few to achieve… behold! – all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile – and the return to an eternal rest” 1889.

Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”

1970

Jauss’ essay begins with a description of the originally philological discipline of literary history in decline. It has become nothing but skeletal chronology. The question lies in this: if history cannot be regarded from “an end,” from a teleological point, how might they be articulated coherently? 7 Literary historians thus cordoned off periods of time, distinguishable not only from the critic’s own, but from surrounding periods, creating mini-end, mini-teleologies within 7. This resulted in disembodied classics severed from historical context 9.

Jauss summarizes the Marxist position (in a way that actually seems contrary to Adorno’s concept of aesthetics): “literature [and art] can no longer maintain the ‘appearance of its independence’ when one has realized that its production presupposes the material production and social praxis of human beings, that even artistic production is a part of the ‘real life process’ of the appropriation of nature… only when this ‘active life process’ is represented ‘does history stop being a collection of dead facts'” 10. Yet Marxist critics like Lukacs and Brecht have thematized  periods, genres, and history in their consideration of the realist novel’s issues of imitation and reflection (recall Lukacs calling for less description, more action) 10.

“Literature, in the fullness of its forms, allows itself to be referred back only in part and not in any exact manner to concrete conditions of the economic process” 12. Lukacs (who loves Balzac and Tolstoy, not Zola) and others do not answer the question “How can the art of a distant past survive the annihilation of its socioeconomic basis, if one denies with Lukacs any independence to the artistic form and thus also cannot explain the ongoing influence of the work of art as a profess formative of history?” 13. And how can art “take a position” if it is so defined by its historicity and material constraints? 14. The solution may be in Karl Kosik’s claim that “Each work of art has a doubled character within an indivisible unity… the expression of reality… also forms the reality that exists… precisely only in the work” 14. Thus the historical essence of the work is as reflection, but also essence and influence 15.

Jauss turns to the Formalists, who grasped this earlier, in his view. Formalism, in using the opposition of poetic and practical language as the bar with which to measure art, detaches literature from history to treat the aesthetic object independently. 16. In defamiliarization, perception is an end in itself, and ultimately the Formalists confront history by considering the relationship of artworks to one another: “the literariness of literature is conditioned not only synchronically by the opposition between poetic and practical language, but also diachronically by the opposition to the givens of the genre and the preceding form of the literary series” 17. In considering not the classical teleology but the dialectical and dynamic evolution of form (the “origin, canonization, and decay of genres”) Formalism actually did engage in a historical project 17.

Out of these two schools Jauss argues that if literary evolution exists in historical change and pragmatic history can be linked or narrativized as process, then literature and history must be relatable without violating literature as art, or making it into mere mimesis or political commentary 18. Both schools have too long ignored the “reader, listener and spectator… the audience” in favor of production (Marxism)  and presentation (Formalism) 18. Both assume an ideal reader educated to read according to specific imperatives who will spontaneously arrive at a particular reading 19.

“The perspective of the aesthetics of reception  mediates between passive reception and active understanding, experience formative of norms, and new production. If the history of literature is viewed in this way within the horizon of a dialogue between work and audience that forms a continuity, the opposition between its aesthetic and its historical aspects is also continually mediated. Thus the thread from the past appearance to the present experience of literature, which historicism had cut, is tied back together” 19.

Jauss makes the canon like the act of reading a novel – grasping and accumulating new facts (faceting),a nd then moves on to his seven theses on aesthetics of reception:

1: The removal of the prejudices of historical objectivism and the grounding of the traditional aesthetics of production and representation in an aesthetics of reception and influence 20.

2. The analysis of the literary experience of the reader avoids the threatening pitfalls of psychology if it describes the reception and the influence of a work within the objectifiable system of expectations that arises for each work in the historical moment of its appearance.. a preunderstanding of the genre… the opposition between poetic and practical language 22 (this assumes an ideal reader too, doesn’t it?).

3. The work can be evaluated along a “horizon of expectations” as to whether it breaks with form, surprises, “changes horizons” in the viewer, offers  a new “level of consciousness,” etc. for its initial audience 25

4. The initial response vs a “horizon of expectations” cures the “spirit of the age” argument and places the text in the history of its reception, questioning any stable interpretation of it 28.

5. This is not only about looking at the unfolding historical understanding of a work, but situating it among other works in a literary series (sounds like Eliot’s argument that the critic both forms and is formed by literary history and the canon) 30.

6. Linguistics, which has provided us with the “methodological interrelation of diachronic and synchronic analysis,” allows us to “overcome the diachronic perspective” by taking “a synchronic cross-section of a moment in the development, to arrange the heterogenous multiplicity of contemporaneous works in equivalent, opposing, and hierarchical structures… to discover an overarching system of relationships in the literature of a historical moment” 36. Sandwiched diachronically between other synchronic segments this could “articulate historically the change in literary structures in epoch-making moments” 36.

7. Literary history must also be seen as its own ‘special history’: “this relationship [to history] does not end with the fact that a typified, idealized, satiric, or utopian image of social existence can be found in the literature of all times… the social function of literature manifests itself… only where the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived praxis… and also has an effect on his social behavior” 39.

How new aesthetic form can instantiate moral change can be seen, for Jauss, in the example of the Madame Bovary trial. The novel’s ‘uninvolved’ narrator and free indirect discourse that “bring[s] forth a mostly inward discourse of the represented character without the signals of direct discourse… or indirect discourse… with the effect that the reader himself has to decide whether he should take the sentence for a true declaration or understand it as an opinion characteristic of this character” 42.

“The consternating effect of the formal innovations of Flaubert’s narrative style became evident in the trial: the impersonal form of narration not only compelled his readers to perceive things differently – ‘photographically exact,’ according to the judgment of the time – but at the same time thrust them into an alienating uncertainty of judgment… [no longer] the moral judgment of the represented characters that is always unequivocal and confirmed in the description – the novel was able to radicalize or to raise new questions of lived praxis” 43.

A literary work “with an unfamiliar aesthetic form can break through the expectations of its readers and at the same time confront them with a question, the solution to which remains lacking for them in the religiously or officially sanctioned morals” 44. Schiller already observed this about the theatre, but champions the “opaque reality” of new forms such as the noveau roman, where the reader is outside the situation, uninitiated, and must piece together the reality himself. In this sense, the greatest literature, for Jauss, is that which is not fixated on the representational 45.

Notes on Nabokov and Jauss from 2010:

Pale Fire also raises a lot of fascinating questions about canonization, because mixed reviews on a famous author’s new novel have kind of turned in the last ten years into Pale Fire being regarded as one of Nabokov’s really great works, up there with Lolita. Jauss 15 – The work is echoed in work-mankind interaction – spirals out the smaller, individualized concept of Iser into a more social realm, acknowledging the importance of the academy – in this case Brian Boyd – to the changing reception of a text over time. Jauss 35 – Some works hard for public at first, must mature over time through – you guessed it – rereadings, though he means this on a larger cultural front, perhaps. 43 – In Flaubert, Jauss claims, it is the very “consternating effects” of Flaubert’s style that really  make the work last – not to oversimplify his idea, but the more frustrating the work may seem, the more it may later yield.

What was for contemporary readers stylistic virtuoso – sometimes lovely, sometimes hollow, sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, becomes in Pale Fire something much more later on – it becomes regarded as a kind of blueprint for later, experimental forms of what we might now call postmodern literature. In Flaubert, we cannot stigmatize Emma because of the free indirect discourse, Jauss claims; in Pale Fire we cannot seem to hate Kinbote, either, largely because his sad, mad tale is so beautifully woven up against John Shade’s poem, and this disorienting, innovative form takes our guard down, so that as we try to craft a gestalt to order this unfamiliar “novel,” the same thing happens as with Madame Bovary – we identify with the characters more closely because we create them differently than we would in a novelistic form with which we feel very familiar.44 – New form can break through expectations of reader and confront with ? for which no sanctioned answer is available – Lo. 44 – I think Nabokov would love that the solution is the problem in RR theory – for Jauss, Nonrepresentational art seems to win out (and what is Nab but this!) and to liberate readers from prior patterns, practices and expectations.

Indeed, for the very complex and formally bizarre Pale Fire, this changed reception since the sixties is largely due to the new appreciation for the poem by Brian Boyd as a work of literature in itself, thought Boyd himself has changed his mind three times over the last twenty-five years or so about what actually happens in the book, let alone how to interpret it. This is because, in essence, Boyd is following Nabokov’s instructions by constantly revising his reading as he holds the text in his mind as a whole and reads again in an enactment of what I guess is ReReader ReResponse Theory.

Gerard Genette, “Narrative Discourse”

1972

FOREWORD: Jonathan Culler’

– Culler invested in legitimizing literary theory as practice. Widely, Genette, as a structuralist, seeks to apply demystifying structural theories of linguistics to literature (‘grammar’), claiming that lingustics: language :: poetics: literature. In gesturing towards the importance of the marginal, Culler claims for Genette a place in the ‘current’ (1977) trends of post-structuralism and excuses the very problems he begins to locate in Genette’s work.

PREFACE:

Summary: Resists the closed, more Formalist notion of ‘the text’ by insisting upon the openness of texts like Proust’s. “Like every work… elements that are universal, or at least transindividual…specific synthesis,” methodology of particular à general.

INTRODUCTION:

Narrative (Recit) – Statement: The order in which events appear textually (plot for the Formalists) – so, for example, Lolita begins with the jury, jumps back to HH’s childhood, then resumes at the point he met Lo and zigzags from there.

Story (Histoire) – Contents: Sequence in which events actually occurred (story for the Formalists) – Genette maps out specific array of temporal points in what we read.

Narration – Telling: Enunciative act itself (vs. narrative) – Genette points to this as largely ignored/understudied.

• Main focus is narrative, but acknowledges importance and relation of other two (narrative and story, narrative and narrating).

• Insists on the text’s freedom from paratexts. (but vs. Booth – less interest in reader, yet assumes a reader able to decipher structure beyond/outside historical-contextual restraints)

• The first half of the book focuses on temporality, under the subheadings of order, duration, and frequency, but Genette gestures towards the later chapters here on mood (diegesis/mimesis and fid/discourse) and perspective (focalization), so we can keep this discussion/many of the same passages on hand, even, for Thursday.

CHAPTER 1: ORDER

ANACHRONIES – arranged vs. story time – defines W. literature – allows for narrative to tergiversate, productively, it seems, for Genette. – connective, evocative – “memory-created instances” (46), referent to both character and reader, it seems? Though tacitly.

Prolepsis: (Anticipation)  fate, refs to Wix’s grandness, p. 142

Analepsis: (Flashback) not precisely a flashback, but a projection of later feelings onto the event not-yet-fully-recounted during its enunciation.

Anachrony: any discordance between temporal orders of story and narrative.

• these can all have varying reach (distance) and extent (duration), creating subtleties and subdivisions.

Mixed Analepsis: Begins before and ends at point after starting place of first narrative.

External Analepsis: Remains entirely external to the first narrative, no threat of interference.

• Interestingly, with Maisie, which presumes to begin in ultimas res, the start in present perfect tense is actually analeptic, referring (vaguely) to a time occurring before the start of the novel and ending at an uncertain point before the beginning of its diegesis. The first sentence of the novel is, then, somehow, outside of the first narrative.

– Difference between ‘pre-chapter’ and Chapter 1 in tense – implies analepsis before start of narrative via grammar. Rather than recount that which the novel starts with (Re: classical model of in ultimas res), never doubles back, exactly.

Internal Analepsis: Occurs within the temporal limits of the first narrative (threat of repetition, confusion).

–       Heterodiegetic: separate from the contents of the first narrative/catchup

–       Homodiegetic: same line of action as the first narrative

  • Recalls/Completing: returns to complete an earlier gap in narrative
  • Paralipsis: (talks with doll, to captain) sidestep completed by retrospective filling-in – a form of censorship, Genette argues – but by whom? Particularly interesting in Maisie.
    • Enigma: “At the time, I did not know…”
    • Reinterpreted: One meaning replaced by another “Marcel understands then that he had understood nothing.” 60, a dialectic of analeptic interpretation that characterizes Maisie. see quote 1, 142 again, too, and all the cases where she ‘pieces together’ motives of others.
    • Partial Analepsis: Never fully rejoined. “without ever acknowledging and signaling the moment” of suture (Wix)

• Maisie’s particular structure complicates readerly ordering of the novel. She both models the ‘putting away’ of memory and the puzzle-piecing of it back together, but also conceals herself, beyond the concealments of the narrator. Further, her lack of comprehension, as part of the novel’s psychic force, also enacts a kind of narrative force different from the Proustian one Genette outlines here.

Internal Prolepsis: again, problem of interference.

–       Heterodiegetic: Negligible.

–       Homodiegetic: Within storyline

  • Completing: Fills in ahead of time a later blank
  • Repeating: a slight doubling of a narrative to come
  • Iterative: which become, with other iterations, as Brandon will address, a replacement for summary in Proust. What about James?

–       Advance Notices: explicit, legible already, before following information.

–       Advance Mentions: simple markers without anticipation/acquire significance only later (VN rereading)

–       Snares/False Snares

External Prolepsis:  again, no threat of interference.

Double Structures: anticipated recalls, open analepses, etc.

• ex. defiance of chronology for spatial proximity, or reverse, so that narrative has temporal autonomy.

• Mrs. Wix as a connective point here – we gain advance notice of her, but she is also entangled in Genette’s later points about recall – Brandon. 238 – “Mrs. Wix had once said – it was once or 50 times…”

FROM WIKIPEDIA:

Order

Say a story is narrated as follows: the clues of a murder are discovered by a detective (event A); the circumstances of the murder are finally revealed (event B); and lastly the murderer is caught (event C).

Add corresponding numbers to the lettered events that represent their order chronologically: 1, 2, and 3.

If these events were described chronologically, they would run B1, A2, C3. Arranged in the text, however, they run A2 (discovery), B1 (flashback), C3 (resolution).

This accounts for the ‘obvious’ effects the reader will recognise, such as flashback. It also deals with the structure of narratives on a more systematic basis, accounting for flash-forward, simultaneity, as well as possible, if rarely used effects. These disarrangements on the level of order are termed ‘anachrony’.

Frequency

The separation between an event and its narration allows several possibilities.

  • An event can occur once and be narrated once (singular).
    • ‘Today I went to the shop.’
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated once (iterative).
    • ‘I used to go to the shop.’
  • An event can occur once and be narrated n times (repetitive).
    • ‘Today I went to the shop’ + ‘Today he went to the shop’ etc.
  • An event can occur n times and be narrated n times (multiple).
    • ‘I used to go to the shop’ + ‘He used to go to the shop’ + ‘I went to the shop yesterday’ etc.

Duration

The separation between an event and its narration means that there is discourse time and narrative time. These are the two main elements of duration.

  • “Five years passed”, has a lengthy narrative time, five years, but a short discourse time (it only took a second to read).
  • James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has a relatively short narrative time, twenty-four hours. Not many people, however, could read Ulysses in twenty-four hours. Thus it is safe to say it has a lengthy discourse time.

Voice

Voice is concerned with who narrates, and from where. This can be split four ways.

  • Where the narration is from
    • Intra-diegetic: inside the text. e.g. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White
    • Extra-diegetic: outside the text. e.g. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • Is the narrator a character in the story?
    • Hetero-diegetic: the narrator is not a character in the story. e.g. Homer’s The Odyssey
    • Homo-diegetic: the narrator is a character in the story. e.g. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Mood

Genette said narrative mood is dependent on the ‘distance’ and ‘perspective’ of the narrator, and like music, narrative mood has predominant patterns. It is related to voice.

Distance of the narrator changes with narrated speech, transposed speech and reported speech.

Perspective of the narrator is called focalization. Narratives can be non-focalized, internally focalized or externally focalized