Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Middlemarch: A Brief Note on Chapter 42

Just finished Book 4 and am galloping like a tortoise into Book 5.

I keep being struck by how whenever the narrative spotlight shines on Dorothea and Casaubon, Chapter 42, for instance, Eliot authorially combusts, especially in her poetical and psychological penetration into Casuabon and his immiserated relationship with his wife. For examples of both from Ch 42:

....And Mr. Casaubon's immediate desire was not for divine communion and light divested of earthly conditions; his passionate longings (me, he has just gotten Lydgate's prognosis on the possible anytime suddenness of his death), poor man, clung low and mist-like in very shady places...

....But she hesitated, fearing to offend him by obtruding herself; for her ardour continually repulsed, served with her intense memory, to heighten her dread, as thwarted energy subsides into a shudder; and she wandered slowly round the nearer clump of trees until she saw him advancing. Then she went toward him, and might have represented a heaven-sent angel coming with a promise that the short remaining hours should yet be filled with that faithful love which clings the closest to a comprehended grief. His glance in reply to her was so chill that she felt her timidity increased; yet she turned and passed her arm through his.

Mr. Casaubon kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.

There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this unresponsive hardness inflicted on her...

In his rejection of her, and she has as ardently giving and compassionately sympathetic nature that is starved for just a morsel of reciprocity in feeling as exists in literature, Dorothea is moved to her greatest resentful anger at Casaubon, his Lilliputian vindictiveness slaughtering her ardent compassion, and finally waits for him to go to bed, after they have both been alone, she in her boudoir too upset to take dinner, him in his library continuing his burrowing work, so she can tell him how angry and ill treated she feels.

And yet, and yet:

...'Dorothea!' he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. ' We're you waiting for me?'

'Yes, I did not like to disturb you.'

'Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not extend your life by watching.'

When the quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea's ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband's, and they went along the broad corridor together...

And there it is: what must be one of the most moving, sad making in fact and subtly complex scenes in what is is one of the greatest works of world literature.

Words cannot tell how deeply this concluding scene of Book 4 resonates with me.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Note On Ozick On Stach On Kafka

A conceptually troubled but basically illuminating review by Cynthia Ozick on V 1 of a massive biography of Kafka, and then my comment on it:

.....I find that Ozick's initial hyperventilated prose is of a piece with her hyperventilated and confused initially stated thesis: that after all the oceans of ink spilled over Kafka, biography and her review of biography--"secondary exhalation"--are justified by the need to rescue Kafka from twin vulgarities of "Kafkaesque" and "transcendent: the first a gross distortion of his work at one with the degeneration of the imagination of anyone saying it; the second a thin and abstract attenuation of the concrete reality and hard particulars of Kafka's life, times, and his specific being.

Her complaint about "Kafkaesque" is too precious by half. The word has simply entered the culture as a free standing descriptor suggesting something like "having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality and the denatured, impossible tangle of bureaucratic mazes." (There's a whole funny riff on Jesse's using it without understanding it in Breaking Bad.) That descriptor clearly has roots in Kalfka's fictional worlds and isn't a bad *very general* approximation of them. But, really, what person reading, Kafka and thinking and writing seriously about him will resort to, or be imprisoned by, "Kafkaesque?" Why, nobody, I'd argue, which measures the precious silliness of Ozick's complaint on this score. Simply put, she makes no case for the descriptor's "...reductiveness posing as revelation."

In Ozick's second complaint, "transcendence," equally exaggerated, Ozick confuses art and life. She wants to disabuse us, for example, and as an example she uses, of Updike's interpretive argument from transcendence. She quotes him:

....Kafka, however unmistakable the ethnic source of his ‘liveliness’ and alienation, avoided Jewish parochialism, and his allegories of pained awareness take upon themselves the entire European—that is to say, predominantly Christian—malaise....

And herein precisely lies her massive category error: Updike is talking about Kafka's fiction, "his *allegories* of pained awareness." (My asterisks) Ozick is talking about Kafka's life. Just as the descriptor "Kafkasesque" is of no use or interest to anyone seriously reading, thinking about, writing about Kafka, so to that same person, there is, I'm confident, no confusion about the allegoric and nightmarish fantastical nature of Kafka's fictional worlds, surreal, disembodied, and the specifics of his own, life times and being. Reinforcing her error is her own thankfulness and acknowledgement that Stach isn't a literary critic. He's faithful to wanting to mine accurately and deeply from the depths of Kafka's lived life and his times.

For Ozick to be consistent with her thesis, and in opposition to her complaint about, for example, Updike here, she would have needed to make case how all those specifics figure concretely and thematically in his work. Mission impossible, I'd think. And she doesn't touch that.

But here's a huge saving grace, IMO: once she gets into offering her reviewer's synopsizing reprise of Stach's first volume and leaves her ponderous, overheated and wrongheaded theorizing behind, her prose settles down becomes plainer and richer in its eloquent and accessible concreteness. That part of her review, the travel through Kafka's life, is illuminatingly excellent. 

Last note: the thread comments complaining that Ozick's writing need in some measure approximate the quality and entertainment of Kafka's own writing are absurd. And, as noted, once Ozick settles into the meat of her review, her prose needs no defending. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Note On Chapter 29, Book 3 Of Middlemarch

Chapter 29 of Middlemarch is another really high point in the psychological dissection of Casaubon as a shrivelled up, insecure, highly self conscious egoist, his self consciousness of his abiding failures feeding his shrinking-of-self insecurity and in the dissection of his marriage to Dorothea and in the contrasting presentation of her increasingly expansive sympathetic nature.

In that it's a complement to the magnificent Chapter 20.

It seems to me Eliot comes most novelistically alive so far in depicting Casaubon in his marriage to Dorothea.

The narrator's phrasing about him soars in its aphoristic brilliance, such as for example;

...his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying...

This is narrative telling, not showing, though there's showing aplenty too, and the telling, not showing, works brilliantly well, making a cliche out of the admonition to writers "Show don't tell."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Note On Chapter 20, Book 2 Of Middlemarch

I had read the first few brilliant pages of the magnificent Chapter Twenty, near to the end of Book 2 of Middlemarch, when a friend asked me: that when she (Dorothea) realizes what he (Casaubon) is? Or he does? Or both?...

I answered:

....No, it's when they're on their "honeymoon" and reality displaces her imaginings during the courtship, when she's left alone a lot, when she feels everything closing in on her rather than her life opening up, when her sobbing is a function of just a dimly realized understanding of how bleak their married life is, not yet fully knowing what he's like. That is amazing in its rendering as is how Rome is past and present and its impact on her as a provincial girl uneducated and unprepared for it, unable to receive it, too deep of sensibility to be unaffected by it. All enriched by the narrator's own explanations and idiosyncratic comments.

It's something baby...

Having read all of Chapter 20, I wrote him an amending note:

....I wrote the below email to this one only after reading the first few stunning pages of Chapter 20.

I just finished it and have to amend my answer. She does, it's shown in second two thirds of the Chapter, begin to understand, not fully yet, Casaubon's desiccation and his defensive rejection of her as her passionate emotional fullness and capacity to give of herself show him up to himself, a suspicion he tries to suppress, of what a hollowed out man of the scholastic margins he is, a man of utter marginalia. As the Chapter moves on, our inclination to revile him for so cruelly and coldly rejecting all her imprecations to be part of his "great labour," which she now begins to harbour doubts about, with more realization than she cares to admit to herself, moves to pity as we see how pitiable his pedantic lifelessness is and how he harbours a deeply conflicted consciousness of it. Her passion scares him into himself; he is his own isolated castle the moat of which is broad and deep to fend off the charging forward army of her doubts about him. If there's a greater literary account of the complex and terrible psychology of trouble in paradise stemming from youthful idealistic passion, ardency in a word, showing up a dithering lifeless, polite lack of it, of people having such mistaken conceptions of each other in these ways, I'd be surprised. I've never read anything like it.

A few other things:

It would be worthwhile to write some literary criticism on this Chapter. It deserves some loving treatment.

A subtext, a kind of subtextual elephant in its room, I'd think, is that they're presumably fucking.

It's fascinating to compare the callow, impulsive, opinionated Miss Brooke, Dodo if you will, irritatingly self righteous, somewhat intolerantly so, with the chastened Mrs. Casaubon, or Dorothea as he formally calls her, and work out all the differences in her as battered by the stifling reality of him and being trapped in marriage to him and the simultaneous impact on her of the grandeur and falling off from it that is Rome.

Suffice it to say, IMO, within the mountain range of this great novel, Chapter 20 is an early Everest like peak....

Thoughts On Thoughts On Leonard Cohen

Some thoughts on thoughts on Leonard Cohen followed by an my amazing unlocking the mystery of his "Famous Blue Raincoat:

Cohen in his relatively youthful---30ish---persona of sensitive, suffering, alienated, truth telling artist as seer was a mixture of straight up bullshit, itself inextricable from his complicated real belief in it, and of calculated poseur as a means of commercially making it as that kind of artist. (The present day Cohen is too worldly and wis/ze(ned) to touch that self congratulation.) 

A problem with this well written engaging extract is that it buys into the silliness of Cohen as seer, of any artist as prophet:

....But Cohen was no longer there. He was in his small white house in the Greek island of Hydra, playing his guitar outside his favorite taverna, dreaming up a new way to tell his stories, training to become a prophet...

On that ground, the romanticization of the artist, Cohen's, and Leibowitz's---channeling him rather than putting in some critical distance---account of A.M. Klein's progression to his break down is altogether too pat and is patronizing:

...A.M. Klein, a brilliant poet who, squeezed by necessity, had become a speechwriter for Samuel Bronfman—the omnipotently wealthy owner of the Seagram Distillery—before suffering a breakdown, attempting to take his own life, and retreating to his home, never to resurface...

....he (Klein) spoke with too much responsibility, he was too much a champion of the cause, too much the theorist of the Jewish party line. … And sometimes his nostalgia for a warm, rich past becomes more than nostalgia, becomes, rather, an impossible longing, an absolute and ruthless longing for the presence of the divine, for the evidence of holiness. Then he is alone and I believe him. Then there is no room for the ‘we’ and if I want to join him, if, even, I want to greet him, I must make my own loneliness."...

....Klein, he continued....fell victim to a Jewish community where honor had migrated “from the scholar to the manufacturer where it hardened into arrogant self defense. Bronze plaques bearing names like Bronfman and Beutel were fastened to modern buildings, replacing humbler buildings established by men who loved books in which there were no plaques at all...

When Cohen says he must "make his own loneliness," he's saying he must create his own holiness. When he says this he continues the confounding mix in him of poseur and some measure of belief in his own bullshit, (with the confoundment perhaps resolved by the nonsense of the notion of Cohen questing after his own holiness.) This silliness informs the simplistic account of Klein driven to breakdown and attempted suicide due to his forsaking the holiness/loneliness of the prophet for his community sustaining role as priest. Why anyone, especially the brilliant, tormented Klein, public man, lawyer, artist, breaks down, attempts suicide, becomes a recluse, will self evidently defy such jejune characterization.

In line with that romantic reductiveness are, at least, two other things that Leibowitz uncritically adopts from Cohen: one,  the utter dismissal of the mainstream Jewish community of the time as a conventional mediocrity hiding in its religion cowardly to evade hard, biting truth:

...The chase, then, is a lonely sport, and the community, observing the prophet, becomes suspicious. Most people would rather visit lifeless and antiquated things in air-conditioned museums than seek thrills in steaming swamps, running the risk of getting bitten by something wild...;

and Cohen's view of himself as aborning seer, ready to be a lonely, holy truth teller bringing biting prophecy to the shirking, shrinking away masses:

....To do it properly, he noted, he would have to go into exile. He would also have to stay stoic as his fellow Jews labeled him a traitor for daring to think up other possibilities for spiritual life—possibilities, like love and sex and drugs and song, for which there was little room in the synagogue. He was ready....

Really though, what Cohen, who was and is nothing more than a very smart, good writer, was ready for was fame, fortune and celebrity, with his pose buoying and blowing up his not inconsiderable talent.

Take, finally, as a microcosm of one big aspect of all this--real talent in combination with errant silliness--his great and haunting song Famous Blue Raincoat:

...And Jane came by with a lock of your hair 
She said that you gave it to her 
That night that you planned to go clear 
Did you ever go clear?...

Going clear refers to Scientology, one of our abiding absurdities, and the question ending the quatrain presupposes the possibility of going clear and therefore a belief in that possibility. And voila holiness a la that younger Leonard Cohen that Leibowtiz here writes about. 

Now as to mystery solved:

It all comes down to one word in answer to: why is the blue rain coat famous?

It all comes down to this one word: DANDRUFF--(capitalized for emphasis.)

Consider the textual evidence:

"... and Jane came by with a *lock of your hair*

She said you gave it to her

That night you planned to go *clear*... (i.e. no dandruff)

And you treated my woman to a *flake* of your life..."

Clearly, any number of years of higher education in English Literature have not gone to waste.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Read Literature, The Best Way To

A piece on why read literature and the best way to, followed by my comment.

Actually, the tease is in the area of the wiggly argument here, as I read that argument, but not right on the money. One piece of it, covered by the tease, is that the cliche that we are made better persons by reading, better as in morally better, is, in the tease's language, "blather." But that point seems to fade away along the way after getting some concrete attention:

....But a serious, non-circular opposition case has been made, if not against reading, then against the idea that the western canon is morally improving or good for the soul....the debate was finally settled in the public sphere, where the cultural warriors, keen to alter reputations and revise the agenda, were greeted with indifference or derision....

Myself, I hold we're not bettered by reading but we're better off for it, enriched rather than improved.

The main argument concerns itself more fully with the best way to read. Two different approaches contrast. One is the dreariness of reading out of some sense of obligation or career necessity, coupled with seeing it, rationalizing it?, as more enhanced than lived life itself:

....Carey confesses to feeling guilty that as an undergraduate he could read all day, while “out in the real world” (there it is again) people were “slogging away.” But it doesn’t seem all that different from his life in the non-real world: “I secured a copy from Hammersmith Public Library … and slogged through all sixteen thousand lines of it. It was unspeakably boring” (Layamon’s Brut). “I slogged through it of course, because my aim was to learn, not to have fun” (Johnson’s Lives of the Poets)....

...... Carey notes that people like him often prefer reading things to seeing them—typically, his example comes not from his own life but from a poem by Wordsworth—and reflects: “So living your truest life in books may deaden the real world for you as well as enliven it.” But how, judging by this account, does reading enliven things?....

The other approach is, simply stated, as a "...first hand mode of experience..." in which reading is an "unhermetic" facet of exuberant, wanted, lively experience:

....The library had been a place for studying,” Mead writes, of her rather jollier time at Oxford, “but it had also been a place for everything else; seeing friends, watching strangers, flirting and falling in love. Life happened in the library.”...

That's nice and is instanced by Rebecca Mead's book "The Road To Middlemarch," in which her spaced apart rereadings of the novel are so integral to her evolving sense of her own life. I get that in relation to the two approaches to reading. As a sophomore, reading Middlemarch was a labour of labour, dutiful necessity and a terrible slog. Now, inspired by a broadcast conversation with Mead and two others,  (, I'm rereading it just as a matter purely wanting to, for my own pleasure and contemplation, slowly, thinking about various parts, marvelling at Eliot's powerful intelligence, psychological acuity and mature vision all as carried forward by her poetic,  trenchant prose, trying to work out its meaning as I go. For example:

....“Rosamond played admirably. Her master at Mrs. Lemon's school ...was one of those excellent musicians here and there to be found in our provinces, worthy to compare with many a noted Kapellmeister ... Rosamond, with the executant's instinct, had seized his manner of playing, and gave forth his large rendering of noble music with the precision of an echo.”....( Chapter 16)

"...with the precision of an echo": what an evocative metaphor fused with psychological insight!

I don't know why I've written all this. Just felt like it, I guess.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ozick On Malamud

Wonderful words: from a review essay by Cynthia Ozick on collected works of the wonderful Bernard Malamud:

....When the ambient culture changes, having moved toward the brittleness of wisecrack and indifference, and the living writer is no longer present, it can happen that a veil of forgetfulness falls over the work. And then comes a literary crisis: the recognition that a matchless civilizational note has been muffled. A new generation, mostly unacquainted with the risks of uncompromising and hard-edged compassion, deserves Malamud even more than the one that made up his contemporary readership. The idea of a writer who is intent on judging the world — hotly but quietly, and aslant, and through the subversions of tragic paradox — is nowadays generally absent: who is daring enough not to be cold-eyed?...
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