Monday, October 30, 2017

On Beginning To Reread Huck Finn


Can anyone disagree with this?

I’ve just started rereading my favourite novel, which, unlike (say) Don Quixote, is an effortless pleasure to read from first word to last, and which, like Don Quixote though in different ways, is a work of world class great literature.

In fact, I note that when Huck and Twain pooh pooh “the books” Tom Sawyer cites as authority for his claims about what’s proper for “high toned” gangs of marauding murderers to do, he names Don Quixote as one such book. 

So there’s no question I’m rereading Huck Finn. The point up for disagreement is whether it’s as great as I claim. By the way, one aspect of its greatness is the magnificent evocation of Huck by means of his “voice,” voice being a metaphor for how he emerges for us as we “listen” to him by his narration. 

For example:

.... Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he WAS most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, ME. I couldn't get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn't rest; I couldn't stay still in one place. It hadn't ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn't to blame, because I didn't run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn't no use, conscience up and says, every time, "But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody." That was so—I couldn't get around that noway. That was where it pinched....

I get such a shiver of pleasure when I listen to Huck talk to me. Though different of course, but it happens that get the same shiver of pleasure when I listen to Bobby Bland sing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Brief Note On The Hound Of The Baskervilles


A brief note on an important thematic aspect of The Hound Of The Baskervilles:

When early in it , Dr. Mortimer asks Holmes and Watson, basically Holmes, for advice given the Baskervilles’ curse, it seemingly having taken the life of Sir Charles, it begins Conan Doyle’s theme of the natural, essentially cause and effect, as against the supernatural defiance of cause and effect. 

Mortimer has in fact concluded that a marauding, killing hound on the moor is supernatural. Given that judgment, and with Sir Henry arriving to take over the Baskerville estate, Mortimer at the outset of the novel principally wants to ask Holmes what he, Mortimer, ought do with Sir Henry. He doesn’t retain Holmes to resolve the mystery, which by definition aren’t resolvable, at least true ones aren’t. 

From Holmes's point of view, every set of clues points toward a logical, real- world solution. Considering the supernatural explanation, Holmes considers all natural explanations, implicitly rejecting anything else. Sherlock Holmes personifies the intellectual's faith in logic, on examining evidence and moulding them into facts to find answers.

That vindicated faith gets enhanced by elements in the novel from the Gothic tradition, which highlights the bizarre and unexplained. The mysterious hound, the dark brooding mood, the unexplained grisly deaths, the Baskervilles’ long standing family curse, even the dark mysteries hovering around Baskerville Hall add up to a Gothic mystery, which, at book’s end, succumbs to Holmes' deductions. They consist of drawing inferences from evidence formed into facts, reasoning from information to conclusions, all in vindication of the ineluctable relation between cause and effect, in  precise disaffirmation of the supernatural.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

On The March, E.L. Doctorow’s


I said that I’d finished Doctorow’s The March and didn’t love it. It’s gotten across the board good reviews. I went looking for something that said what I was feeling, being too lazy to think it through myself. I came across this. I don’t agree with it all but it gets at some of what I feel, especially this paragraph—you should forgive the repetition: 

....But I, for one, find some of these portrayals to be only a few cuts above what is to be found in Gone With the Wind and especially found the novel's conclusion--in which the feisty mulatto Pearl and the Irish infantryman Stephen Walsh ride off to a life together in New York, a life in which they will presumably overcome the obvious obstacles to such a match as existed in 1865 and after--to be patently sentimental, a transparent attempt to leave us with a little democratic idealism to leaven the story of violence and destruction.....

... The March 
by Daniel Green

It is perhaps now a little hard to comprehend just how unsettling E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime seemed at the time of its publication (1975). Not exactly a historical novel--it seems designed to question the very utility of historical "fact" in our consideration of the past--it nevertheless produces a vivid if subjective rendition of the ragtime era by juxtaposing purely fictional characters with actual historical figures who are in turn treated as if they were fictional characters. 

Considerable liberty is taken with the historical record, and the result is a novel that not only fictionalizes history but suggests that, as far as the novelist is concerned, history might just as well be fiction. Whereas much of the self-reflexive, "postmodern" fiction of the time called attention to the artifice of fiction-making in order to reinforce the separation of fiction and reality, Ragtime seemed to propose that, for the literary imagination, the two realms are really quite permeable. (Robert Coover's The Public Burning would do the same thing two years later.)

Doctorow's undercutting of the reality/fiction divide has proven to be very influential, to the point that we are no longer much taken aback when a writer injects apparent "fact" into what is otherwise called a fiction--even putative facts about the author him/herself, as in Ellis's Lunar Park or Harry Mathews's My Life in CIA, in which "Brett Easton Ellis" and "Harry Mathews" are the "fictional" protagonists. 

Nor are we particularly struck by historical fictions that are not merely set in the past or attempt to recreate periods in the past, but use historical personages as "characters." Doctorow himself went on to write other novels more or less in this mode, such as World's Fair and Billy Bathgate, but eventually he has come to seem more interested in simply re-creating the past through what are finally the usual conventions of historical fiction.

The March, Doctorow's latest novel, is cut comfortably from these conventional patterns. Although the novel presumes to depict William Tecumseh Sherman in ways that must at times extrapolate from the historical record--what was Sherman thinking at this precise moment during his infamous March to the Sea?--it is otherwise a fairly straightforward account of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas. 

Although the narrative shifts kaleidoscopically among various groups of characters participating in the march, this is ultimately just a way of giving the story a properly comprehensive sense of historical realism. All of the characters portrayed in the novel are no doubt representative of the cross-section of human types involved in this important historical event.

In his review of The March, John Freeman perhaps gets at the heart of what Doctorow is trying to accomplish: "While the details of Sherman's lethal procession are well-known today, time seems to have forgotten the human angle. Sure, property was destroyed, but how were the Union troops greeted? Did they proceed with guilt? Did they pause before burning cities to the ground? Did the recently emancipated slaves really believe this fire-breathing beast was their conductor to the Promised Land?" 

Providing the "human angle" on Sherman's march would seem to be the novel's primary goal, answering these and many other questions that can't necessarily be resolved simply by consulting the history books. It is itself an attempt to become a history book one might ultimately consult along with all the others for that "human" touch only it can offer.

And in its way, The March achieves this goal reasonably well. It's readable enough, its fragmentary form realized with the skill one would expect of a writer of Doctorow's caliber, its characters lively enough to sustain interest over the course of a novel featuring such a large cast, although not all of the characters resist becoming merely illustrative of the category--freed slave, disillusioned plantation wife, irascible Rebel soldier--their presence is meant to personify. 

Perhaps it is true, as Walter Kirn says in his review of the novel, that "When the subject is as large and old as war, the pursuit of pristine originality can thin a story down to nothing" and that "To get through such tales aesthetically unscathed is a finicky, slightly cowardly objective that works against basic honesty and passion.”

 But I, for one, find some of these portrayals to be only a few cuts above what is to be found in Gone With the Wind and especially found the novel's conclusion--in which the feisty mulatto Pearl and the Irish infantryman Stephen Walsh ride off to a life together in New York, a life in which they will presumably overcome the obvious obstacles to such a match as existed in 1865 and after--to be patently sentimental, a transparent attempt to leave us with a little democratic idealism to leaven the story of violence and destruction.

Putting aside its flaws in execution, however, I am most disappointed in The March because it does nothing to provoke me out of my indifference toward historical fiction that simply tries to "bring history to life." 

One can accept the axiom that such fiction is always finally about the present as much as the past--in The March, about the origins of our continuing racial conflicts, about recovery from a great national trauma--and still think that this novel at best rehearses platitudes but otherwise does very little to alter our understanding either of the Civil War or of the lingering issues whose lack of resolution has plagued American life since then. 

I could easily warm up to a kind of historical fiction that either upsets our established notions about historical subjects or that questions accepted practices of historical representation (as did Ragtime). Unfortunately, The March does neither. Perhaps in the long run it adds something of marginal interest to a consideration of the Doctorow oeuvre (especially by those more interested in history than in literature), but since Doctorow's sociopolitical thematic concerns are by now quite well known, the appearance of this novel seems to me, at least, mostly superfluous.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Exchange On Toxicity Of Ta-Nehesi Coates

The article:


I respect your desire not to argue the issue, Itzik, but I think you must have wanted to know what your friends think of the subject of the article, and that of Mr Williams. FWIW, I have a different take on Mr Coates. Here are my main thoughts on the subject:

I read Coates, not out of self-loathing or guilt, as Mr McLaughlin suggests, nor because I agree with every assertion or conclusion of the author, but because his writing is among the most compelling contemporary offerings on a topic of vital social interest. I think the main thrust of Mr Williams' article, connecting Coates and Spencer, falls short of being convincing. Unlike Spencer, Coates is not pimping for a system of forced racial subjugation, so the attempt to connect the two men seems far-fetched.

With the exception of a few years in the 1960's, white America has largely ignored the problem of racial injustice. One wonders why it is so. Why is it that the very public killing of unarmed black men by police, to take one issue for example, has not resulted in political focus on police reforms? 

Our indifference in the aftermath of the death of Tamir Rice was particularly telling. We held a presidential election in which this was a non-issue, and the new Attorney General has de-emphasized police oversight by the Justice Dept. - football players who peacefully protest the injustice are threatened and bullied with broad support of white Americans. 

The experience of racial injustice is never far removed from any aspect of American culture, but white America is practiced in the art of denial. It makes us uncomfortable to see it, so we do not, and we have ready defenses to stifle anyone who calls it to our attention. Though it offends our sense of Christian duty and community, we have carved out an exception for people of color, whose suffering we may ignore, or even hold against them as indicators of their less deserving nature. Their suffering is justified, or justifiable, and is not the result of our racism. This is what we tell ourselves. Tamir bleeds out in a playground because of many things, but race has nothing to do with it. 

Mr Williams would prefer that Coates not talk about race - or as he puts it, not "fetishize" race. As I read Williams, he seems to be complaining not so much about the core of Coates' writing, but with what he sees as excessive generalization and exaggerated claims that overstate the role played by race in our society. He decries what he sees as an extremism that looks a lot, to him, like the position of people like Mr Spencer. I think that's a fair criticism - Coates offers an uncompromising denunciation of a pervasive white supremacy that makes us uncomfortable and leaves us to wonder if there is not some exaggeration in the charge. But to argue about the edges of his jeremiad is to avoid the main debate. 

Coates strips away all of the pretenses and pokes a sharp stick into the wound that we have hidden from our own eyes. His is a prophetic voice, and he does not let us slide along in deluded and comfortable indifference. Perhaps he exaggerates and over-generalizes, but my sense of the main body of his work is that it is deeply insightful, artfully written, and among the most important books of recent years.


An opening comment: I think the issue Coates throws up is important in relation to his instance in particular but also beyond just him as a template for certain and growing-to-the-point of-becoming-pervasive left thinking that seems increasingly where the Ds are going, and mirroring to the Rs’ harder right turn. Hence even increasing polarization and diminution of moderate, centrist voices and politics in your country, and more and more coming to mine, and all’s the pity. McLaughlin and Williams arbitrarily are counterpart foci here only because they’re whom I’ve most recently read.

One other preliminary point, it may be McLaughlin’s view that white liberals and even centrist intellectuals fete and supplicate before Coates out of guilt but I’ve not credited him with it. Here, for whatever McLaughlin may think, it’s mine alone. And I don’t universally ascribe it.  Mine is a general but not universal characterization. I saw it most exemplified in instances of both Jeffrey Goldberg, left leaning, and David Brooks, leaning right, contorting themselves into self castigating pretzels and pulverizing their toes by so much tip toeing in gently asking if Coates would mind too much, please don’t, if they ventured to tend to begin to suggest that, well, they just might disagree with him a shade. So in a nutshell, I wouldn’t suggest that you find Coates compelling out of guilt. I’m simply astonished that you or anyone else sensible does.  

That said, let’s start by paraphrasing the exact argument Williams and McLaughlin after him make. Williams starts by contrasting two views of historical development: one derived from Hegel, later adapted by Marx, that a determinism moves through history and so a predeterminism, whether rooted in a metaphysics, or whether more limited in time and involving a narrative of inevitability given the nature of particular historical conditions specific to a time, could be centuries, and place, say America. That view, Williams argues, reduces itself to essences, something ineluctable in the nature of a given people of that given time and place: in this instance as concerns Coates, it’s whiteness, the essence of whiteness. 

In a word or a few more, the other view of history is that it is an arbitrary jumble, forces converging to make for chance created patterns when looked at retrospectively.

So Williams says:

...A similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages — they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin — white supremacy — explains everything, an all-American sonderweg....

and, Williams says, Coates is an exemplar of this view of historical inevitability.

From Coates’s, Between The World And Me:

....The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.....

Williams notes that Coates has squared by itself his inevitablist view in his recent book of essays, ...Eight Years In Power... So Coates writes:’s likely that should white supremacy fall, the means by which that happens might be unthinkable to those of us bound by present realities and politics.... 

pointing to the need for violence and some type of upheaval, as he later says, on modern analogy to the French Revolution, which among other things is infamous for its “reign of terror,” an implication I’d argue Coates raises by his analogy.

Getting closer to the heart of Williams’s core argument, he notes that for Coates Trump’s election is something like vindication, proof that the racist origins of America are alive and well and with all of you, and quite undiminished though variant in its outward modalities: racist America was at the centre of itself at its de jure founding and racist it is now at the centre of itself de facto: I take Coates to mean de facto, de jure transformation to the contrary notwithstanding. 

The de facto racism is manifest in what Coates calls irreducible white tribalism, irreducible because it insidiously infects, as Williams notes Coates asserts, muscularly sympathetic left/liberal/progressive white intellectuals like George Packer, who dare to argue against taking racialism too far, for when taken too far, Packer argues, and so do I, it becomes essentialist.  And what follows from Coates criticism of Packer is, as Coates would have it, and as his general proposition: whiteness as such is the enemy. 

And so with all this appetizing we come to the beating heart of the entree of Williams’s argument: Coates saying in bizarrely exotic prose ...Whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.... (an amulet is a small piece of jewelry worn to ward off danger; eldritch is an adjective denoting weird, sinister and ghostly)—is a mirror from the opposite angle of white supremacism like Richard Spencer’s, that whereas for Spencer that white essence is positive racial superiority, for Coates it’s negative racially immoral  inferiority. 


....Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring....

So Neil, with what you say is the thrust of Williams’s argument, you, respectfully, haven’t sufficiently understood it and in that you minimize what Williams says is at the heart of what Coates asserts. And Williams is right; he’s right because as he makes plain and clear, it actually is at the heart of what Coates asserts.

(Now that I’ve come this far, I won’t, as I was going to do, at least right now, elaborate on what McLaughlin argues, because Williams’s argument is sufficient for my polemical purposes.)

Your paragraph starting “With the exception of the sixties...”seems, again respectfully, only respectfully, both quite astride Williams’s argument and, if not simply mistaken, at a minimum easily controverted. 

From the sixties on one might observe in America a huge legal, political, financial, and cultural effort to concentrate on and ameliorate disadvantaging instances of racial injustice. So there is no need to wonder as to why something that is not so is not so. 

And to take your one example, really, it demonstrates nothing. Who is the personification of the killing of innocent unarmed black men by police or police wannabes, Michael Brown and the mythic falsity of the culture suffusing  meme “hands up don’t shoot,” the more difficult but still understandable example of Trayvon Martin, where a mixed race jury of Florida citizens acquitted Zimmerman?  

Are we to look to the insanely politicized death of Freddie Gray, where Marilyn Moseby to her discredit demagogued before the fact “no justice no peace,” that being a proximate cause of the nihilistic rioting and looting, which only hurt black citizens and back business owners? Only by the way to have all remaining charges withdrawn after losing the first few cases and having to retreat into embarrassed ignominy (but not after a photo spread in Vanity Fair.)

None of which is to say that there aren’t instances of injustice in outlier bad cops getting away with it, just as there are instances when bad actors get convicted and punished, mostly all happening in fraught, ambiguous circumstances, in which police often have to make split second decisions, and against a general backdrop of increased assassinations of police in your country. 

So do you really want to use individual cases gone wrong on which to mount a defence of Coates’s messianic thesis? Do you really want to rest on the “narrative,” a word I use here with withering scorn, of these police shootings and the action of Zimmerman as dyed in the wool American propensity of white men simply killing unarmed and innocent black men? Do you really want to say that police, all over your country, of every hue and cultural tradition, are systemic racist killers, and that, a la Coates, not only are they that, pigs, but so too are pigs the American public at large, who sustain the police and facilitate them, and of whom, says Coates, the police in their systemic racism are their agents? 

To be clear, it is one thing to have genuine differences over policy initiatives, be it the present regime’s, or it having been the last one’s, without resorting to the essentialist apocalyptic visions of Coates.

So along the way, Coates lays bare a past of undeniable American racist depredation starting with the American founding, staining it, and points out a post—emancipation of racist policies that continued de jure for about 2/3ds of the twentieth century. Certainly something to see in that but nothing new and nothing not said, and scathingly so, by many, many American writers, thinkers, commentators, and policy makers. 

So I say, contra you, Coates doesn’t strip away all the pretences. Rather in the guise presenting himself as a truth teller of terrible truths, he ends up as an simple minded apocalyptic declaimer whose aberrant conclusions undermine such point and sharpness as exist in what he points out along the way. 

I don’t think he’s a good writer; I find him an abysmally unsophisticated thinker; and I remain perplexed by the feting and celebrity he enjoys. 

Here’s the most concisely trenchant disassembling of Coates I’ve come across.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

An Exchange On The Merchant Of Venice


More on the discussion of Bloom’s Anxiety Of Influence, but which veers off into some continued back and forth on the consternating The Merchant Of Venice.


....I am not an expert on The M of V as I have a letter in the New Yorker (along with a friend) on Stephen Greenblatt's essay on The M of V in said magazine which argues that Shakespeare's humanity breaks through the anti-semitism: 
Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia

 The New Yorker Digital Edition : Jul 31, 2017
Here is our response:

....Stephen Greenblatt says ("If You Prick Us" July-10 & 17) that "what Shakespeare bequeathed to us offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit."  One mental ghetto we inhabit is the belief that great literature must be morally good for us.   It seems to me that "The Merchant of Venice" may well take the point of view toward Shylock that people do today who find that Israeli claims to being historical victims are hypocritical given their treatment of the Palestinians.  Might it not have been ludicrous to an Elizabethan audience that a man willing to kill a man by holding him to a financial contract portrays himself as a victim of inhumanity?  The greatness here would consist in portraying a bad person making himself a victim to court our sympathies, and we, today, get it wrong for obvious reasons. This seems more plausible than that a great playwright got carried away by his humanity and thus making his work incoherent (Greenblatt's word is "uncomfortable") rather than it sharing the routine prejudice against Jews in all ages....(end of letter) 

No-one worried about being anti-semitic in Sh's time and place (maybe in Holland), indeed, the idea did not exist.  So think of Shylock as the way that venture capitalists have been portrayed in movies about the 2008 stock market drop.  It is taken for granted they are selfish, inhumane minor league monsters, to be laughed at for any pretensions to humanity.  But Shakespeare can get a laugh by making his greedy Jew appeal to our better natures, just as a venture capitalist might, and get a laugh.  Philip Roth carries this kind of thing further in, I think, Operation Shylock, when he writes a brilliant rant by a settler defending his views.  Roth takes for granted that the settler is a mad fanatic but one gets sucked in.  Sh. did the same for Falstaff, failed a bit with Iago, whose defenses are pathetic (but maybe that works too).  (We don't laugh at the settler because he is a real threat and can't really enjoy his nuttiness and maybe some of the audience responded that way.  

So, once that is out of the way one judges the play as one normally would, and if one can at least imagine laughing at Shylock's defense, it's a pretty good play, but I don;'t think that your concern was about the play once we get over our our perspective.  Of course if one can't or shouldn't it's a bad play as it enhances the murderous stereotype and was popular in Nazi Germany.  The true humanist view (mine) thinks it can get a little outside being a Nazi or a pro-semite, but that may be a fantasy...


....Good letter. In fact it offers me a perspective on the play I never really sufficiently confronted, the portrayed evil in Shylock wanting to take a man’s life over a debt. 

Of course it’s not necessarily hypocritical to complain with justice about an unjust past even while treating others unjustly. It’s anomalous to be sure, situationally ironic in a bitterly bad way, but hypocritical doesn’t seem the right disparaging word. 

I can see more possible thematic coherence in the play, now facing concretely Shylock’s murderous desire, however lawful. And it mitigates my knock on the play. Yet it just still seems to me, or maybe your good point, which I just now read, hasn’t yet settled in enough, that the play is flawed in being emotionally and thematically discordant. 

Just reading the play and not trying to put myself into the being of an Elizabethan audience, I still feel the end flawed by the treatment and reducing of Shylock, as I first noted. Maybe a better ending would have been to accommodate what was magnetically and compellingly righteous in Shylock in dealing with him at the end whilst according mercy to Antonio. 

Mercy perhaps ought to have been shown Shylock while still visiting on him some consequence for his murderous desire. So I’d still argue his character got away from Shakespeare and that the form he chose, romantic comedy, marked by the merciless extirpation of a villain and the vindication of the young lovers, Jessica and the other guy, doesn’t work. 

I once tried out on myself the view that Shakespeare was subverting that form, showing Jessica as heedless and callow, but the ending celebration and its poetry are too elaborate for me to see the subversion working there. 

When I first read your letter, my first response was to move off my own view and take a more middling position, Greenblatt’s “uncomfortable.” But as I think it through to the extent I have in writing this note, I revert back to my original argument about the play as flawed, but with a more rounded and qualified view that takes seriously into account the good point you make. 

Just like Mill says, opposing arguments met and considered (hopefully here) improve one’s own...

Heather Mac Donald On Implicit Bias

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Bloom, Anxious Influence, Joseph Epstein, The Merchant Of Venice And More


For the billions and billions waiting anxiously for this, waiting to be influenced by it: 

On Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” as Joseph Epstein has it, round two. 

And then moving outward from there to The Merchant Of Venice and a few other points.

My friend, who didn’t want to comment further till he reread Bloom and  who had been defending him:

....It's worse than Epstein says.  Amazing he can get away with it.
My copy has a Preface written 24 years after and it, on the other hand, is quite good and also tricky.  

In it he pooh poohs the Greek names for the various defenses and the over-systematization, says it is not a "theory of poetry" (the sub-title) but is only about the way a few great poets respond to earlier poets, and this process only begins with Shakespeare and Marlowe, who were not in the original.  He also says that the book was an effort to counter the going theories that made literature the prisoner of power, while its effect then was just to be another theory.  

He also keeps saying (in the main text) that his theory is meant to re-invigorate close analysis of individual poems but he gives no example and it certainly doesn't do that.  

The Preface however makes good points against the reigning contextual criticism and offers a lively account of the relationship between Marlowe and Shakespeare, including a nice statement in accord with my New Yorker letter that The Merchant of Venice is a good anti-semitic work while Jew of Malta, and his argument is the same one that he makes for Sh's special place in the canon, pointed to by his silly phrase, "the invention of the human."  

What that amounts to is the "inwardness" we find only after Shakespeare and mostly in a few novels by the greatest novelists, a sense that here for the first time one has characters who are fully human, whose full humanity is made available (as it never is in actual life in my view).  

My hope is that I had read the Preface before and was thinking of that!  But I am afraid I was just defending his Shakespeare stuff, The Western Canon and an essay on pedagogy that I admire in a perverse way....

Me, in response:

....So what I’m getting from you, maybe not entirely clearly, is that the book, on your rereading, is even worse than what Epstein says and that his 1/4 century later Preface to, I presume, a then updated republication of the book rationalizes what critics complained about in it. 

Is that right? 

Is he, for instance, pooh poohing his own original pompous bs? Is he saying, after the fact, that his book meant no systematic theory of literature, anxiety of influence, but rather was confined to specific writers, when in fact he does propose a grand theory? 

What does he mean when he says he was countering theories of literature that in fact made it a prisoner of power? Does he as mean post modern theory especially Foucault’s? If he doesn’t mean that, then what does he mean? 

I take it he, as an after thought, claims that his purpose was to enliven close reading of individual texts when in fact his book does none of it. It’s hard to see logically how an assertion and elaboration of anxious influence jibes with the postscript-claimed effort to revivify close reading.  

I don’t get a clear idea of what he or you mean by the “reigning contextual criticism.” Is it a species of pomo criticism; is it the kind of criticism that the New Criticism reacted against and transformed as an academic school of criticism; or what? 

Faisal, I don’t think the M of V is a good play, depending on what “is” is, so to say, which is to say, what “good” is. 

Forgetting Marlowe, why is it good? What’s the argument for that? 

I think it’s a bad play with a massive and unredeemable thematic and emotional final let down, with the flat final celebration of, as it’s presented, routing out villainy, with the undermining of the sparks of power and complexity that shone through what was flat, dull and “tricky,” to use your word, namely the power and complexity of Shylock as a character. He in my view got away from Shakespeare, as measured by his impact in relation to his brief presence in the play. The undermining is most potent in the final making a fool of Shylock, making him abject, talking away all his estate, and have him exit stage left or right like a beaten dog,  turned servile and cowardly. 

So again, what’s the argument? If it’s the presentation of “inwardness” that comes from full characterization, then I’d disagree, not with the inwardness, but with its redemption of the overall play as good. 

 My point is this: for all the good of Bloom’s vast learnedness, a point Epstein concedes, and how with that he has made literature better understood  and accessible too for scholars, critics, teachers and lay readers like me, something I’m not in a position to assess, but I’ll take Epstein as providing a working hypothesis requiring rebuttal, to me, subject to that rebuttal, he’s just another guy talking, when he does, about specific works. That is how I encountered him when I wrote my essay on Hamlet, an unscholarly effort to be sure, consulting only cursorily no more than three or four commentators, Bloom being prominent among them and most widely consulted only because I had a few of books at hand.

He was the least helpful. 

Catherine Belsey in a few comments on Hamlet was illuminating, authoritative on the point she made— the drive to revenge as a province of Hell. 

David Horowitz, yep him, then a (graduate?) student or Chafee at Columbia, was wonderful for near to poetic analyses of Shakespeare’s vision and of Hamlet’s inner torment, beautifully wrought and written by Horowitz. 

Compared to these two, Bloom, in getting right down to the text, was competent and ordinary, with some nice analyses of some of the imagery, but botching thematic extrapolation from them and getting lost analytically in the spume of his prose. I got nothing useful from him save for starting points to take off from and to disagree with. 

I’ve found that too when I read him on other plays and others’ works...

Monday, October 9, 2017

On Harold Bloom By Joseph Epstein Including The Idea Of The Anxiety Of Influence


Anxious Influence:

I'm having some fun arguing with a friend of mine about some whys, wherefores and the quality of Harold Bloom's idea of the anxiety of influence. Our discussion takes off from what I consider an eviscerating take down of Bloom, including that idea, by Sheriff Joe, being Joseph Epstein who likes to run pomposity, pretentiousness and flabby thinking parading as something grandiose out of town.  

A mutually self deprecating limit on our discussion is that we're both at some remove from actually having read Bloom. In the spirit of that self deprecation, I'll say that "some remove" is quite liberating for comments that are written in, how to put it?, a free wheeling, casual way, with no claim to particular depth or expertise.

So I was saying....

....Talk about tricky: that’s all a lot of stuff I haven’t read and I can’t say anything really on what I haven’t read. In fact, as I say, I haven’t read Bloom’s book for an awfully long time and even then only parts of it. So in effect I now comment by way only of what I know of it by hearsay including most recently Joseph Epstein’s.

One thought I have is to ask, whatever the scope of the idea Bloom asserts, anxious influence, which I’ve taken to be a claim of an encompassing idea in literature—Epstein noting that he sees Bloom seeing it everywhere and making unsupported broad brush claims for it that rest not on evidence, says Epstein on Bloom, but rather on Bloom’s say so, or whether as you say he confines it only to specific writers where the anxiety manifests itself, why limit that claim to writers? 

Deeper than only occurring in literature, I's think anxious influence to be a human trait applicable to all endeavours from bakers to candlestick makers. And certainly since no one works at anything ex nihlo, but rather and always within a tradition, where those who reach heights do so by being exemplary within the tradition or by being exemplary in subverting the tradition and reforming it, some influence presumably anxious and haunting and some—most?—not, I still can’t see what Bloom adds theoretically to anything by harping on anxiety. 

And  if he does, as you say, confine himself to specific instances, then save for illuminating particular cases (where compelling evidence for the anxiety supports his claim,) then what does that do to any claim for him enunciating a grand theory? 

What Epstein quotes as an example of the theory at work seems both breathless, ponderous, pretentious, unsubstantiated and altogether critically unhelpful. From everything I remember and have read about Bloom’s book and his idea, my impression is that he means that idea to wear the clothes of grand theory. And again, if it’s only certain writers-specific, then its existence as a theory seems non existent. 

You say that Bloom attempts classification of anxious influence. (Like seven types of ambiguity?) But I’m unaware of any other discipline in which the modes or modalities of influence get classified. Clearly, since all art, indeed essentially everything we do in the way of work, occurs within a tradition, something dialectical is universally afoot, showing itself in varieties of ways, if only the imprint, effects, of specific works on the tradition, which is what I remember of Eliot’s famous essay.

So while I’ve seen plenty on how “tradition and individual talent” has worked out in specific cases and across a spectrum of disciplines—this kind of dialectic seems to lie at the  very heart of the history of ideas—I’ve not, again, seen either the modes or the modalities of influence taxonomized.

I don’t know what it means to say that Bloom tried to classify anxious influence on the model of or by analogy to Freud’s defence mechanisms or even how Freud classified them. But I can imagine. Yes, I can imagine that Freud classified varieties of defence mechanisms sourced on the basis of, flowing out of in recurrently describable and predictable ways, his mainframe theory. If that’s indeed something like what Bloom attempted, I can’t imagine what his classification consists of, what theory it’s rooted in, and it surviving any analytical or evidential scrutiny. Also, classification suggests to me much more than the discrete examination of particular instances; rather it suggests, perhaps necessarily, the enunciation of a grand theory. 

So if Bloom, as you say, has ideas, what are they beyond the tracing of specific instances of anxious influence, which, again, would itself only have utility in particular cases insofar as evidence supports it? 

I read long ago specific parts of Mimesis. I can’t remember its thesis. I can only remember, truth to tell, an essay on Don Quixote, the specifics of which escape me. But I do remember liking a lot what I read and only being impressed by it. That style expresses a culture—if I understand that, I’m not sure I do, but maybe I do—I don’t think I doubt. I’d only say this further on Auerbach: my impression of reaction to Mimesis is near to universal acclaim. Unlike anything I’ve ever noted about reaction to Bloom. 

 Can you say what “Bloom’s method” is? 

You may be cutting Bloom too much slack by emasculating what a theory is by saying that a theory of literature isn't right or wrong A theory to be a theory, about anything, must have within it a claim that it’s right. And it either is or isn’t. That establishing right or wrong proves somewhat indeterminate doesn’t obviate what’s fundamental to theory, that it attempts to be an accurate account--concededly provisional, its only a theory, after all, awaiting validation or falsification--of some slice of what is. 

I once read some theorizing by Ransom on the psychological basis of the New Criticism. It was impenetrable. 

Finally I’ve not read Empson’s book but I did read the sequel,  The 7 Types Of William Empson....

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Few Opening Thoughts On Rereading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It


I’m rereading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It.

I’m at the beginning.

Podhoretz says in it, written when he was 35, that he was basically unconscious, till he reflected back on it, of the distance he had traveled, as measured by the indicators of class, from his poor Jewish boy Brownsville, Brooklyn origins to his 35 year old’s arrival into the upper middle class of New York’s hothouse public, essentially Jewish, intellectual life. 

He makes that distance traveled integral to his theme: the contradiction or maybe rather tension in (then, 1965) American culture between ambitious upwards striving and the disdain for it. Upward ambitious striving, Podhoretz notes, was expected in the Brownsville, Brooklyn world he came from. Disdain for that striving, its apparent grubbiness, was the common attitude in the intellectual world he joined. 

Just a few preliminary notes for now: 

Podhoretz’s prose, while clear enough and accessible, tends to be stiff and laboured. He’s not a graceful writer. His phrasing is at times too formal, and, so, at those times awkwardly overwritten; and his sentence structure marked by his mounting subordinate  clause on subordinate clause in long processions interspersed with hyphenated asides requires some work at times to keep track of them and take them all in. 

Also I’m finding some disingenuousness in what Podhoretz says. The most glaring example I’ve so far read is this: the contradiction or maybe rather tension between his claim of a virtual unconscious arrival in the hothouse, his virtual unawareness of how far he traveled culturally and socially from where he began on one hand, and, on the other, both how self conscious he is as a literary intellectual and how utterly antipodal are the two different worlds, the one he left behind and the one he arrives at. To put it simply, I don’t believe his claim of social and cultural unawareness as he traveled along and up:

...ONE OF the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan—or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan. I have made that journey, but it is not from the experience of having made it that I know how very great the distance is, for I started on the road many years before I realized what I was doing, and by the time I did realize it I was for all practical purposes already there. At so imperceptible a pace did I travel, and with so little awareness, that I never felt footsore or out of breath or weary at the thought of how far I still had to go...

Finally for these preliminary thoughts, I remember well from my own experience as a graduate student in the late sixties and early seventies the disdain many of us felt for those, as Podhoretz notes, who strove for popular success, putting that over the supposed purity and meaningfulness, whether creative or intellectual, of what they were doing. But, Podhoretz unhelpfully complicates his theme to the point of near collapse  by saying in his own Preface:

...Success did not necessarily, or even primarily, mean money; just as often it might mean prestige or popularity. In any case, the concept always referred, as it was originally intended to do, to the possession of goods which had value in the eyes of others. These goods might also have had value in one’s own eyes, but that was a secondary consideration, if indeed it was ever considered at all. The main thing was to be esteemed, and one would no more have questioned the desirability of so pleasant an estate in life than one would have wondered about the relative merits of illness and good health...

The problem is that even on the simplest understanding of human nature we all, except maybe 113 ascetics, give or take 50 or 250, want deeply to be “esteemed.” That desire comprises no “dirty little secret” to use Podhoretz’s thematic phrase. He means in his book to expose the dirty little secret, so disdained by his community of New York intellectuals, the secret lust for “making it”:

...My second purpose in telling the story of my own career is to provide a concrete setting for a diagnosis of the curiously contradictory feelings our culture instills in us toward the ambition for success, and toward each of its various goals: money, power, fame, and social position. On the one hand, we are commanded to become successful—that is, to acquire more of these worldly goods than we began with, and to do so by our own exertions; on the other hand, it is impressed upon us by means both direct and devious that if we obey the commandment, we shall find ourselves falling victim to the radical corruption of spirit which, given the nature of what is nowadays called the “system,” the pursuit of success requires and which its attainment always bespeaks...

But what is he exposing: our desire for esteem, something, he says, that is more potent and wanted than money, goods, power, prestige, fame and social position? 

If he had excised esteem as the prime constituent of success, then his theme would have stood sturdily enough. But by subordinating the ambition for these worldly attainments to the quest for esteem, he emasculates his theme, I’d argue. 

But let’s see how it all will go as I reread on.