Sunday, May 31, 2009

The long road from Alice's Restaurant to Starbucks

In a sadly comic story from 1968, Donald Barthelme presents The Police Band, whose function is to play music wherever there is a disturbance, in order to defuse the situation: ‘Our emotion stronger than their emotion,’ he explains. ‘A triumph of art over good sense.” The experiment is a failure. The band are never used. Their romantic idea is ‘not adequate to the rage currently around in the world.’ Barthelme was being uncharacteristically pessimistic in this tale: in the 1960s art did, indeed, play a role in shaping society, through a counter-culture that provoked, enraged and engaged. Ultimately, this counter-culture did not prevail but, in the act of trying, it still changed the world.

Move forward forty years and Barthelme’s words seem prophetic. ‘Rage must be met with rage,’ could act as a credo for the Bush administration. ‘We’re still here,’ say the artists, but they are otherwise mute. In a recent article, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton declared: 'I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these [cultural] matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners.’ Since September 11, 2001, the world has been in turmoil, but where has been the voice of the writer?

The felling of the Twin Towers was an event of historic magnitude but, while many novels, stories and films have appropriated that day as a setting, none has dared probe its political and cultural complexity. Even Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, the best known fictional portrayal, is essentially a psychological study of an individual’s response to being involved. When it tries to enter the head of a terrorist it is far less assured. Martin Amis, likewise, has struggled to understand the mentality of suicide bomber, Mohammed Atta. Claire Messud uses 9/11 as a concluding backdrop to a story of infidelity in a way that, no matter how well written, feels vaguely gratuitous. Jonathan Safran Foer uses it as a study of childhood grief. Jay McInerney focuses on adultery among the rich set and Ken Kalfus on marital breakdown. These stories are domestic dramas and could just as easily have been written without reference to 9/11. They add little to our understanding of events. Essentially, the world according to these writers is unchanged, comprising a tide of human activity with the familiar gamut of grief and turpitude. It is as though twenty-first century writers are able only to reflect on inner turmoil: wider political, social, cultural concerns do not impinge. Even those well-regarded films based on 9/11, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, focus on character and are almost at pains to avoid the political context.

Looking wider than 9/11, where is the literary debate on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, seven years on? It is too early for the great novels of the conflict to appear: those of the Vietnam War – Ron Kovic, Michael Herr et al – were not published until five years or so after the American withdrawal, but Vietnam was parodied and satirised in everything from Slaughterhouse-Five (about the Second World War but written during Vietnam) to films like M*A*S*H (set in Korea) and Alice’s Restaurant. Poets such as Denise Levertov and Robert Bly produced anti-war collections. In the ultimate show of outrage, anti-war protesters set fire to themselves. Demonstrations became more frequent, larger and, increasingly, more violent. Protest against the war was a major part of the counter-culture. After the Tet Offensive Robert F. Kennedy declared himself in the race for the American Presidency on an anti-war ticket. He was assassinated three months later. In all of this tumult, writers, musicians and artists were at the forefront of debate.

The Iraq and Afghan wars are now similarly divisive, but where is the literary world’s response? In 2008, one of the first books to feature the Afghan War is James Meek’s We are now beginning our descent. But, although critical of the war, rather than focusing on its politics, the novel relays the various personal crises of a war reporter. His love life features more prominently than his inner struggle with the ethics of the War on Terror. It is the emotions of the main characters which matter, not the motivations of governments. Other than this novel and some execrable and didactic poetry by the likes of Harold Pinter and Michael Rosen, the literary world – as opposed to journalism and the blogosphere – has been largely silent on the wars. Given such narrowness of focus, surely Eagleton is right to say that writers have nothing to impart?

1960s counter-culture focused on civil rights, politics, freedom, the Vietnam war and, in later years, feminism. These issues combined to form a crucible in which a generation created a response to the society in which they found themselves. It was a highly literate response: writers, as well as musicians and artists, were at the forefront, starting with the Beat writers inspired by Jack Kerouac and including eclectic and eccentric individuals as varied as Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs, Ken Kesey et al. Bob Dylan wrote songs like poems. Rod McKuen wrote poems like songs. These artists said important things. They changed events.

Twenty-first century culture has changed. The imperatives are different. The environment has become a global issue (although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from 1962, is arguably the wellspring of the movement). War remains, but otherwise our preoccupations are not the same as those of the sixties. We may be witnessing a clash of civilizations: certainly, many vested interests are trying to ensure we are, from the American Christian right to Osama Bin Laden. Religion, more than politics, is the faultline in society – from Islamic fundamentalism to neoconservative evangelism to the increasingly aggressive debate between Christians and atheists. Heated discussions are being held on these matters, ones which could change the way we live forever, but these discussions are being held in the provinces of philosophers and political commentators. While Huntington, Krauthammer and Nussbaum debate whether civilizational separatism, American hegemony or cosmopolitan utopianism is the best way to ensure global peace, while Dawkins and Cornwell argue over the validity of atheism, while Lovelock warns of the imminent demise of humankind because of environmental mismanagement of the planet, our literary writers appear trapped inside the heads of their characters. They are thinking small, they are obsessed with feelings and emotions, they appear unconcerned by the damage that is being wrought around them. It is the ultimate Oprahfication of our culture: solipsism is king and the narcissists are too busy comforting themselves to understand the dangers abroad. The question is: does this merely reflect society’s new preoccupations or are writers abdicating their responsibility to chronicle their times? What do we expect of, and need from, our writers?

Certainly, as society in general has changed, there has been a concomitant change in individuals’ outlooks. There is a marked pessimism which was not so apparent in the sixties. Those novels which do essay a broader perspective are notably gloomy: Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, for example, chronicles the travails of a post-apocalyptic community, while Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is bleaker still, depicting a nightmare world where everything has been destroyed and the few, starving survivors are pitched in deadly combat for the remaining scraps of sustenance. It is hard not to see this strand of literature as a reaction to the fear instilled in the West, and in America in particular, since the events of 9/11.

The converse response, of course, is to look backwards, and this trend can be seen, too. It is clear that the sixties still hold an almost mesmeric influence over us. In the void where writers should be covering contemporary events, they are retreating to the past. Denis Johnson has recently published a new novel on the Vietnam War. Two high-profile books published in February 2008 deal with the sixties: Hari Kunzru’s Underground man and Zachary Lazar’s Sway. Even the venerable Tom Stoppard has turned back to the sixties with Rock’n’roll.

In the meantime, political debate continues unabated. In the American primaries, John McCain declared: “I will never surrender,” on the War on Terror, promising business as usual. President Obama began bravely with his words on Guantanamo, but we wait to see if he acts . In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as Matthew Sharpe noted, ‘exercise of doubt was curtailed.’ Anyone who dared criticise was ‘thinking like terrorists.’ Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and acute observer of modern political culture, suggests America is separated from the Real world by a ‘fantasmatic screen’, the result of which is that it is unable to empathise with the rest of the world or understand the impact its behaviour has on the world. Even eight years after 9/11, those who venture into the debate, like Martin Amis, are rounded on by critics on right and left.

How has this come about? Why is there not the strong, literary counter-culture that we saw in the sixties? Partly, it is that society has changed, become more insular, less communitarian. We have the rise of the blogosphere, where everyone is an instant cultural pundit and, it seems, the whole world is writing but no-one is reading. Protest, once the initiator of mass rallies and demonstrations, is now a solitary pursuit before a computer screen.

There is, too, as Zizek notes, a modern culture of tolerance. Liberals emphasise cultural differences, which cannot be overcome but must simply be ‘tolerated.’ The corollary is clear: there is no need for dissent, everything can be accommodated. In Zizek’s terms, we are living in a ‘post-political liberal project.’ The result of this, it may be argued, is a high degree of cynicism. This is not the same cynicism that fuelled the satirists of the sixties but a duller, blunted weariness which suggests that there is no point engaging with political debate because they’ll do what they want, anyway. Where, in the sixties, this disenchantment led to an outpouring of creative anger, in the twenty-first century it seems to breed nothing more constructive than resentment.

Satire is all but dead. Consider Michel Houellebecq, one of the primary controversialists of our age. In The Possibility of an island he attacks, amongst other targets, religion in general and Islam in particular. He invents a religious movement, the Elohimites, whose raison d’etre is to ensure eternal life. This could easily be seen as the literary offspring of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism, the religion he created in Cat’s Cradle; but, if so, it is a bastardised, vulgarised child. Where Vonnegut’s novel had a warm, humanist underbelly, Houellebecq’s work is characterised by greed and narcissism and hate. Vonnegut, a survivor of the Dresden bombings, understood evil. In comparison, Houellebecq is like an excitable teenager, in thrall to it.

There is a danger, however, of painting the picture too simplistically, or of glorifying the sixties and calumniating the present day. Nothing is as straightforward as it seems. In remembering the heady liberalism of the sixties, we forget that it, too, had reactionary moments. These, as Rick Perlstein notes, have been all but airbrushed out of the history, but they happened. Equally, there is a danger of underestimating the potential power of all those bloggers quietly chronicling their impressions of the age. Their time may yet come.

What is undoubtedly missing, however, is the writer’s response. Despite Eagleton’s dismissive reproach, it is the role of the writer to reflect and to lead the cultural debate in a society. Retreating to the past or envisaging a dystopian future will not suffice. Writers must engage with the current day, with current fears and concerns. There is a rage in the world and, in the manner of Barthelme, writers should be countering it. They should be offering an alternative vision, the opportunity for debate, the prospect of choice. They should create excitement. As Vonnegut says, ‘ they should be – and biologically have to be – agents of change.’ Philip Roth wrote in 1961: ‘the actuality is continually outdoing our talents [as writers].’ He was wrong then, as a new generation of writers proved. He can still be wrong now, if writers take up the challenge

Friday, May 29, 2009

Some more views on the blood meridian (2)

More thoughts on Blood Meridian, from others and from me.

John Cant calls it an ‘intellectual exercise, almost wholly metaphorical in character’, and suggests that ‘a reading of the text thus becomes an exercise in interpreting the myth [of American exceptionalism]’. He explains further:

McCarthy deliberately sets out to give his texts mythic form and… does so in such a way as to point out the destructive consquences of structuring the consciousness of individuals by means of powerful mythologies which they are not in a position to live out. He also critiques the myth of Exceptionalism in its various forms: the “redeemer nation” of Puritan ideology; the democratic “last best hope for mankind” of the revolutionaries who created the Republic, the pioneer “civilizers of the wilderness”; imperialist America’s “manifest destiny” to bring Christianity and capitalist vitality to “lesser races” under the aegis of the expanding nation; the provider of the “more abundant life” for Europe’s “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”; and the “champion of the free world” against the “evil empire of International Communism”. Beneath all these forms of Exceptionalism lies the pastoral conception of the New Adam. A number of critics read McCarthy’s texts as elegies for a lost American Eden…although it is clear that McCarthy characterizes the modern world as a waste land in both the literal and metaphorical sense it is clear that he depicts both the rural past and the wilderness as anything but paradisal.

I can accept that thesis, although its weakness, to me, is that it focuses on negatives – what McCarthy is seeking to prove is not the case. I agree that McCarthy is subverting standard genre tropes, but the question remains: to what end? I am not sure that Cant ever quite addresses this fundamental issue. He hints at it, for example when he suggests that ‘the consistent representation in his texts of the dialectic of vitality and insignificance does mark McCarthy as a religious writer in a Godless world’, but having raised the issue he affords it insufficient attention. It is not wholly accurate, for example, to describe McCarthy’s world as godless. God may or may not present himself to the humanity of Blood Meridian, but nonetheless his spirit is inescapable. ‘He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things,’ as judge Holden tells us. And ex-priest Tobin suggests: ‘it may well be that the voice of the Almighty speaks most profoundly in such beings as lives in silence themselves…. God speaks in the least of creatures.’ These quotes suggest, not a godless world, but rather a world in which God makes no allowance for humans.

This notion is explored by Georg Guillemin, who observes that Blood Meridian is a ‘post-humanist’ work in which nature is imagined ‘beyond anthropocentric terms’. He suggests that ‘the absolute lawlessness of the characters matches the absolute wilderness of the setting’, from which he concludes that the novel is ‘pastoral’. I am unconvinced that the logic of this bears scrutiny, but Guillemin goes on to claim that ‘the pastoral intention of Blood Meridian [is] the suspension of the human claim to stewardship over nature.’ Thus, McCarthy is promoting a sense of animism: ‘The only metaphysical or ideological paradigm the author endorses is wilderness animism. Even the judge’s soliloquies represent an animistic adaptation of gnostic notions.’ I find this difficult to accept fully. While the ‘stones, trees, bones of things’ quote could certainly be argued as animistic, the god portrayed by judge Holden is not some pastoral animal spirit, attuned to the pulses of nature. On the contrary, he tells us ‘War is God.’ And, no matter that McCarthy’s characters fail to reconcile themselves to God or find redemption, God will anyway ‘foller’ them ‘always even unto the end of the road?’ Guillemin’s explication of ecopastoralism in Blood Meridian is unconvincing, a fact he seems to accept himself when he suggests ‘the text’s skepticism toward its own ecopastoral vision … may thus explain the underlying melancholy mood.’ (In passing, I can think of many ways to describe Blood Meridian, but melancholy is not one of them.) Moreover, the notion of metaphysical animism strikes me as forced. It seems to me that Guillemin has established his thesis and manhandles the text into its straitjacket, seemingly oblivious of the fact that a significant chunk of the novel’s thematic intention remains resolutely outside it. While one could accept, in McCarthy’s term, an ‘optical democracy’ in which nature and man are seen on equal terms – beyond anthropocentrism – it does not account for the remarkable violence that obtains in the novel. It is one thing to say that God does not distinguish between man and any other of his creations, but why should this then result in man’s descent into savagery, which is what happens in Blood Meridian? McCarthy, in his Mr Johnson quote from Cities of the Plain, would argue that those outlaws who arrived in the west were pre-disposed to such levels of depravity but, since this violence was not replicated elsewhere, this is a logical fallacy. McCarthy may be saying then, as Guillemin contends, that there is democracy beneath the gaze of the almighty, but he must also be saying something more, something specifically about humanity. Guillemin’s thesis overlooks this.

Bent Sørensen characterises Blood Meridian as katabatic – a mythographic representation of the descent into hell – pointing out as evidence that one of the paratextual chapter headings in the novel is ‘The Katabasis’. This, of course, extends the notion of ‘quest’ or journey that is typical of the western genre and attaches to it a religious dimension that is clearly appropriate to McCarthy’s vision. Many of McCarthy’s novels could be read in this light, most notably, of course, The Road, in which the journey is all and the destination is seemingly annihilation. Sørensen’s analysis, then, is a useful one but, again, one must ask what is the result? In most katabatic journeys, an end point is reached – Hell – and some change is effected in the character, good or bad: either he pulls clear of Hell or is sucked into it for eternity. In Blood Meridian, no-one appears to learn, or to change. The journey is all. The destination is meaningless.

One could argue that the kid demonstrates a degree of increased awareness at the end, when his reluctance to confront the ‘new kid on the block’, Elrod, is counterpointed with his earlier bloodthirstiness but, if so, what is his reward? He finds his own violent death in the jakes, at the hands of his nemesis, the judge. If Sørensen is correct and the kid has arrived at his katabatic destination, this is troubling because McCarthy is therefore telling us that even conscience cannot save you from damnation. The concept of katabasis becomes meaningless if the only destination possible is hell, and if growth through understanding is impossible. And yet this is something one could clearly take from the narrative of Blood Meridian. And so, some further analysis is required.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wounded by Percival Everett

As a big fan of Percival Everett (see reviews of Erasure, Glyph and American Desert) I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed by Wounded. Yes, it’s good. At times it’s exceptionally tense. But overall the story felt manufactured, safe, predictable. For a writer who invented the anti-novel, My Pafology, the child savant Glyph and the dead man walking Ted Street, this is a considerable surprise.

As ever with Everett, it is a novel of issues. This time, we are confronting race and homophobia (with the odd pop at religion and the government thrown in – Everett is unable to stop himself satirising on a broad canvas – in small-town, western America. As the protagonist, John Hunt, describes it, 'It’s a litle town. It’s okay. Mostly white. Indians get treated like shit. You know, America.' Hunt is a black widower who lives with his uncle Gus (an ex-con, ex-murderer, but in a safe, cuddly sort of way) in the Wyoming desert and works as a horse trainer. He has experienced racism, he says, but is casual about it. He lives an easy life, laconically deciding problems ‘aren’t his business’ or that he ‘doesn’t care’ about events. His being black isn’t an issue for him, nor is it for anyone else, or so he believes. He is, we gradually come to realise, living a blinkered existence, a typical liberal type who believes that evil is just a form of intolerance and intolerance is just a form of crankiness and that love and legislation could sweep it all away. In this fashion he meanders through his days, finally allowing himself to be seduced out of mourning for his ex-wife (six years dead) by neighbour Morgan, a fellow rancher. Events begin to unravel, however, after the brutal murder of a gay man and the arrest for the crime of Hurt’s workman, Wallace.

The murder sparks a gay rights march in the town, attended by David, the son of one of Hunt’s old college friends, and David’s partner Robert. Ugly scenes begin to unfold, involving David and Robert, and friends of Hunt on the reservation, and a family of coyotes burned out of their burrow. Meanwhile Hunt is forced to confront his own feelings about homosexuality. When Morgan asks him if David and Robert being gay bothers him, he replies: ‘“You know, that’s the thing. I don’t think it did, but I’m not sure. I don’t care at all about that stuff, but I have to admit I wasn’t completely comfortable.’

Nobody, Everett is telling us, is entirely free of prejudice. It’s a truism, of course, and could become banal in the wrong hands, but Everett is expert at this. The feelings of neo-Nazi thugs, thoughtless country bigots and thoughtful liberals are counterpointed neatly, and the answers are never as straightforward as any of those standard character-types might wish. ‘Nobody’s got the hate market cornered in this country,’ we are told.

All of this is interesting enough, and Everett is a brilliant writer, so the pace is perfect and, although there is no great mystery involved in the plot, it is still remarkably tense, a consistent page turner. So why the disappointment?

What irritates me about the novel is the contrivance, the use of all those moribund literary techniques which mark out the great ‘serious’ novel. We have an ageing, avuncular uncle who conveniently gets a fatal disease. We have a gun introduced early, with the knowledge that it is permanently kept clean, never used. Guess what happens, Mr Chekhov? We have a flashback scene in which Hurt stupidly confesses an illicit kiss to his wife with unfortunate consequences. Hey ho, it happens again with Morgan, who’d have thought it? There are wounded humans galore in the narrative, and it’s counterpointed by the wounded, three-legged coyote cub which is the sole survivor of the firebombing. Hurt even compares himself to the creature at one stage. His ex-wife was too scared to venture into the cave, but his new girlfriend encourages him to explore even deeper and, of course, they have sex there. Symbolic, huh? It’s this tedious layering of meaning, everything resonating because it chimes with something else, everything fitting neatly together so that each and every single piece of plot is there because it is significant and links to something else. I hate this kind of false, manufactured nonsense. Nothing happens because it just did – it has to happen in relation to something else. How clever we all are, making these connections.

And the characterisation becomes crude to the point of parody at times. The thoughtless father of the gay boy is so boorish it is simply incredible, and his bimbo paramour, Pammie, younger than her soon-to-be step-son, is a crude caricature. The good people – Gus and Morgan – are simply too nice. In the end, nothing feels real. This is a great pity because the ending could be very shocking, but some of the impact is dissipated by the formulaic nature of the plot and characterisation.

So, a good novel, exploring decent territory, but in the final analysis not quite enough.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

McCarthy's western migration towards a blood meridian (1)

It is tempting to see Cormac McCarthy’s mid-career migration westward as an embrace of the Western tradition and his four Western novels – Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy of All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain – as a modern, literary expression of common American myths relating to the nature of quest, to manifest destiny, to the pioneering spirit that moulded America. Certainly, many of McCarthy’s more mainstream readers – those who were seduced by the relative optimism of All The Pretty Horses – have developed a kind of starry-eyed adoration of the author and remain largely oblivious of the deep undercurrents in his work. It is, however, immediately evident that McCarthy’s Western novels, although different in tone from his earlier Southern novels, still inhabit the same uneasy metaphysical territory and whatever myths are being aired in them, they do not relate simply to the common affairs of men or the vices and failings of the inhabitants of the ‘cities of the plain’. As ever, McCarthy’s vision is broader and his target remains supernatural. But what message he is seeking to convey is typically opaque.

In some respects, McCarthy’s relocation is unsurprising. Throughout his career he has focused on outsiders, outlaws – from Sylder in The Orchard Keeper and Lester Ballard in Child of God onwards – and so it seems entirely natural that he should migrate to the wild west, that untamed landscape peopled in myth and legend by the greatest outlaws of them all. In the Border Trilogy, McCarthy’s outlaws are classic standard bearers for the traditional western, outsiders with steely resolution, with a sense of mission, even destiny, and hard, uncompromising men, unafraid of combat but possessed, deep down, of a sense of decency. John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are classic, white-hatted western heroes. Their tribulations as they cross and re-cross the wilderness of America can be viewed as archetypal rites of passage. John Grady finds love, for example, but knows it must defer to his sense of mission: this is a man’s world and, as John Wayne would say, ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.’ Similarly, Billy Parham is driven, first by a sense of animistic honour to return the wolf to its natural habitat, and then by a humanist urge to return the body of his brother to their family home. The novels are, in many ways, entirely typical of the genre.

But even here, one senses that McCarthy is using the genre for his own ends. The Border Trilogy may appear straightforward, but it does not require detailed analysis before indications to the contrary appear. McCarthy is not interested in lionising these outlaws, or in perpetuating the myths of their untamed spirit. These are not heroes. Mr Johnson, in Cities of the Plain, makes it clear:

They kept comin west and about the time they got here was about the time Sam Colt invented the sixshooter and it was the first time these people could afford a gun you could carry around in your belt. That’s all there ever was to it. It had nothin to do with the country at all. The west. They’d of been the same it dont matter where they might of wound up.

The line, ‘nothin to do with country,’ echoes John Grady Cole’s lament at the end of All The Pretty Horses, ‘I dont know what happens to country.’ All he is seeking, a sense of belonging, a sense of order, some reason for the chaos of living, is unattainable. A similar, but more prosaic, sentiment is suggested by Toadvine in Blood Meridian, when he complains, "You wouldnt think that a man would run plumb out of country out here, would ye?" Even in these vast expanses, McCarthy is telling us, man cannot escape the inevitable. Back in his native Tennessee, McCarthy’s first outlaw, Marion Sylder in The Orchard Keeper, warned us that ‘they aint no more heroes’, but it is with his western novels that McCarthy explores this claim most fully. All there are are men and the world, and the world is not about to accommodate any man, no matter how possessed he is of courage or determination.

What McCarthy is doing with these western novels, then, is turning the standard mythology on its head. He is using the conventions of the form, but simultaneously subverting them. As Sara L. Spurgeon notes, ‘[h]is voice and the frontier heroes he creates are both a continuance of the tradition of Western writing and a dark and complex counterpoint to it.’ Bent Sørensen concurs, suggesting that with Blood Meridian McCarthy is ‘demythologizing and remythologizing the American West,’ while John Cant observes that, ‘[i]n classic deconstructionist mode, McCarthy writes in mythic form in order to deconstruct American mythology.’ The question that we must address, then, is why? When one considers the extraordinary savagery of Blood Meridian, the hell of nihilistic despair which attends it, one is left to question exactly what drove Cormac McCarthy to create it. Simply ‘subverting the myth of the American west’ is insufficient as an answer. There must be more to Blood Meridian than that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rozanov, Dostoevsky and the matter of belief

V.V. Rozanov was a somewhat unusual writer and philosopher from Russia at the turn of the last century (1856-1919). Well known, particularly later in life for his peculiar, aphoristic and multi-voiced writing style and tendency to take contradictory stances, sometimes simultaneously, his legacy has probably been damaged by the more extreme views he professed on nationalism and anti-semitism, and his ideas on ‘God-in-sex’ and ancient Egyptian-inspired notions on spirituality and sexuality. Mikhailovsky, for example dubbed his work ‘philosophical pornography’ and his Uedinennoe (translated into English as Solitaria) was eventually banned because of its perceived pornographic content.

It would be wrong to dismiss him, however, because he was a fascinating, if deeply complex man. He was inconsistent, to say the least, and seemed unable to prevent himself from establishing the counter argument to any argument he himself made, or to decide which was superior. He seemed to enjoy the complexity of the argument, but not the finality of a conclusion. As Stammler notes, ‘His thought moved in antitheses, but one feels that he was not very interested in the sublation of thesis and antithesis in the final synthesis.’ Thus, trying to establish his stance can be a frustrating experience.

It is Rozanov’s views on morality that are most interesting. They are, of course, confusing, seemingly contradictory. He was an immoralist who rejected Kantian or Tolstoyian moralising, but was equally scathing, for example, of Nietzsche’s brand of immoralism. As Dimitry Khanin notes, ‘While acknowledging that he himself, regrettably, does not have a deeply entrenched moral instinct, Rozanov expresses admiration for those people who do.’ Khanin ultimately describes him as amoral, rather than immoral. This delineation allows for the contradictions in Rozanov’s thought. It also, perhaps, explains why he was more interested in the personal, the concrete, than the abstract. As Stammler explains:

Rozanov was never interested in mankind but exclusively in man as an individual with his own peculiar fate and destiny, his own peculiar problems and tribulations, with his own death and his desperate hope for a life beyond the grave.

This, in turn, also begins to explain the apparent contradictions in his thinking on religion. Rozanov was a deeply religious individual who detested Christianity. Again, his thinking is not at the abstract level, but rooted in the experience of the individual. Stammler quotes from his Izbrannoe (Selected Works) to reveal his advocacy of the individual over the collective:

"People, would you like me to tell you a stupendous truth which not a single one of the prophets told you?"
"What! What!"
"It is that private life is above everything."
"Ha-ha-ha! He-he-he! Ha-ha-ha ... !"

"I swear to you: this is more universal than even religion.... All religions will pass, but this will remain: Simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance."

Thus, his views on Christianity are complex. He said of himself, "Even though I am a piglet, God still loves me.” Behind this contradictory statement, according to Lev Shestov, is the hidden truth that Rozanov himself loved God’. And yet, he saw Christianity as ‘the enemy’. It was Christianity, Rozanov felt, that had killed God, and yet God’s love remained, and his love for God remained. Through this antithetical set of beliefs, Rozanov came to the conclusion that ‘to be a Christian means to renounce God.’ Like Kierkegaard, then, he recognised that the institutions of established religion were alien to the transcendence of the religious experience. But, unlike Nietzsche, he did not see this as evidence of the death of God. Nor did he, like Dostoevsky try to reconcile the transcendent and the human institutionalising of religion: he accepted this was impossible. Dostoevsky remained convinced that Russian Orthodoxy could best represent the universal spirit. Rozanov knew enough to realise this was not only impossible, but contradictory. Thus, the contradictory man rises above this particular contradiction. Nonetheless, as Banerjee notes:

In spite of his many attacks on Christianity and even on Christ himself (whose coming, he asserted, had made the world taste bitter), he also confessed that he needed religion and Russian Orthodoxy in particular above knowledge and above literature.

Berdiaev explains the apparent contradiction best:

Essentially, he has always loved an Orthodoxy without Christ and has always remained faithful to such a pagan Orthodoxy, which indeed is much dearer and closer, than the austhere [sic] and tragic spirit of Christ.

One can admire such dedicated freethinking. One can appreciate the consideration that has gone into the development of his stance. And yet there remains something highly dangerous about someone who is at once able to perceive the impossibility of a God and unable to accept the logical consequence of that position. It is as the naïve but decent man who gives alms to a beggar ‘because no-one else would’ without appreciating the self-fulfilling contradiction that obtains in his actions. For my part, the one thing more dangerous than a religious fundamentalist is the person who does not believe in God but simultaneously refuses to deny him. This is how we enter the charnel fields of a blood meridian, this is how we lose the humanity of humanity.

This pertains also to Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was a considerable, perhaps malign influence on Rozanov. Indeed, Maxim Gorky wrote to Rozanov, suggesting: ‘At times it seems to me that you were sired by a perverted and malicious man, Fedor Dostoevsky, and that you are fighting your own Daddy within yourself." One of Rozanov’s best known works is his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor (1891), in which he draws on the famous Christ-and-the-Inquisition interlude in The Brothers Karamazov and also on Notes from Underground, which Rozanov considered to be a key work in understanding Dostoevsky’s philisophical outlook. Rozanov’s analysis of this work suggested that its themes included a refutation of the notion that reason alone can create a natural society and thereby abolish suffering; and that suffering, rather, derives from the flaws in irrational humanity which mean we may perform, seemingly inexplicably, good or evil acts.

I would not at all argue with the irrationality of man. Human history clearly presents evidence of our good and bad deeds. It is hard, too, to deny the truth of the first point, but it is the degree to which Dostoevsky attacks these themes that it troubling. As Chamberlin pointed out, ‘Dostoevsky derived a philosophy of apocalyptic God-seeking, of impatience with lukewarmness either in good or in evil, of mystical exaltation of the Russian spirit.’ In the Underground Man he creates an essentially ridiculous character, an impossible caricature, and uses this to promulgate a message that is relentlessly negative. There is an anti-humanity to Dostoevsky, particularly in this work, that is unpleasant. It is hard to escape the idea that, in his heart, he felt contempt for mankind. This, it seems to me, is borne of his inability to renounce God. Given the choice between Hegelian reason – the ‘impossibility of a stone wall’ – and refusing to resign to natural law becauses the ideas ‘disgusts’ him, he chooses the latter. This is the way of blind faith. Absurdity. Rozanov tried to escape from such supernaturalism, but in the end his mysticism overpowered him and, although he recognised the impossibility of organised religion, he could not, quite, renounce it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Photographs and writing

An excellent post on the blog of Alex Keegan, my ex-creative writing tutor. AK holds writing residentials at his home, in which you work, work, work for three or four days solid. His whole approach is about unlocking what is inside you, letting your unconscious take the lead. He writes:

On Photo Prompts

I see this morning, a book launched, Twenty Photos, Twenty Stories where every story in the book is joined by the photograph it comes from. See here:

My story “Miguel Who Cuts Down Trees” came from a series of unconnected (but all haunting) photographs, most of which I saw at an exhibition in the V&A Museum.

At Writing Courses we regularly toss out photographs and magazines and ask all the writers to find 1-2-3 pictures that, for them, ache. Those words, for them, are important.

Dorothea Brande, in “On Writing”, once wrote how two writers seeing something will not react the same. For one the image or incident might not “connect”. For the other the image might cut to the bone, go to the soul, open up dark caverns, release memories.
Brande explains that when things “connect” like that, whether we know it or not, there is something primitive going on, possibly a repressed memory, maybe (this is me) the image connects because of tribal memory, or ghosts, or possession. Who knows (and why should we care?) What matters is we can feel the photograph SWELLING. It has power. The photograph is like a poetry prompt but probably stronger, richer, more resonant, echoing. Bleeding, pulsating.

Can anyone look at the plane hitting the tower and not get a visceral response? Can we look at the belly-swollen child, flies on her face and not feel?

Photographs, move us, great photographs move us greatly.

If you’re stuck for ideas, blocked, or worse, just “flat” search out some photographs and let them do their work on you.

Excellent advice.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kirkyard by George Mackay Brown

There was an excellent programme on George Mackay Brown on BBC4 this week (UK readers, check it on i-Player) which really brought him to life. This is a deceptively fine poem, I think. Very simple, almost naive, especially the first stanza, but it gradually reveals a depth of emotion and says something quite beautiful at the end.


A silent conquering army,
The island dead,
Column on column, each with a stone banner
Raised over his head.

A green wave full of fish
Drifted far
In wavering westering ebb-drawn shoals beyond
Sinker or star.

A labyrinth of celled
And waxen pain.
Yet I come to the honeycomb often, to sip the finished
Fragrance of men.

I don't know a lot about George Mackay Brown (or any poets, for that matter) but it seems to me this is typical of his work, in the way it conflates the living and the dead, the past and the present, and also in the way it draws in the landscape and the work - fishing - that comes out of that landscape. It clearly brings together the human and the natural.

And that last line is beautiful - the finished fragrance of men. It somehow manages to convey the finality of it all but remain uplifting.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The notion of free will in Blood Meridian

[edited and expanded from a previous post]

In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote:

For every strong and natural species of man, love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger, affirmative acts and negative acts, belong together. One is good on condition one also know how to be evil; one is evil because otherwise one would not understand how to be good.

Nietzsche, of course, is a hate-figure for many of our more Dostoevsky-leaning writers and 'preachers of death'. They caricature his thought in order to create a straw-man which they can proceed to burn with the relish of a Torquemada. They rank him alongside Darwin as the evil twin promulgators of modern, rationalist, anti-Christian dogma. The one shouts ‘God is dead’ and calls for the assumption of the superman, while the other proclaims that we are all just apes. Except, of course, neither of them said any such thing.

Nietzsche was absolutely clear that the Overman (which is a more literal translation of the German Ubermensch) was not some Darwinian improvement on our current humanity, but rather our current humanity taught to think differently, to overcome ressentiment, to find enlightenment. Those, like Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, who create Nietzschean tableaux (Wise Blood or Blood Meridian) are focusing their (and, by extension, our) ire on a false target.

And likewise, in constantly pursuing a rigidly Darwinian line, and in promulgating the notion that we are, essentially, apes, McCarthy does a disservice to Darwinian thought. When we talk of evolution as a physical process, and as a mental process and, crucially, as the process which sees the development of consciousness, we are talking of different, though necessarily inter-related concepts. McCarthy allows no such distinction. Instead, he tells us (in Blood Meridian) of the violence of ‘men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.’ Elsewhere, throughout his entire oeuvre, people are described as ‘simian’, or as ‘primates’. The corollary is clear: this is man as animal; indeed, worse than animal, because it is man as malignantly aggressive, man who kills man for no valid reason.

But this is to bastardise Darwinian thought. This is to turn it into a cartoon. This is an appeal to ridicule, a logical fallacy. RG Collingwood, writing of the new, rationalist Enlightenment understanding of our progress from barbarism to civilisation, warned of the dangers of exaggerating polarity in this way:

For a mind that has assimilated the results of this late eighteenth-century development in historical thought there can be no sharp line between civilization and barbarism; it becomes clear that any such line is only the effect of telescoping into nothing a process which has no absolute beginning and no absolute ending.

McCarthy is perpetuating the same error here for his own eschatological ends. He is contracting the evolutionary progress of millennia and ignoring, in that, the gradual development of consciousness which separates man from animals. He is telescoping into nothing the sentience of humanity. In so doing, he is promoting the godly (whoever McCarthy’s god might be), and denying that which makes us human: love, pity, hope. Now Nietzsche, of course – to return to where I began – would dismiss that latter remark as symptomatic of the cult of sentimentalism that has lessened the virtuous strength wrought by the Renaissance and left us in a weakened state: thus, I could be accused of trying to have it both ways here. I accept that argument, and so, after Nietzsche, to each of my positives I will ascribe an associated negative – hate, contempt, despair – which also combine to form the totality of human experience.

But my point is that, in the same way, Nietzsche accepts both the good and the bad of humanity, while understanding they are not polar opposites, and while refusing to accept that evil must be automatically pre-eminent. Yes, he calls on war as a means of progress; but he speaks also of love. McCarthy seems to have difficulty making a similar concession. His Blood Meridian is a place devoid of morality. It is impossible to speak, there, of good and bad, because no such judgement is permitted. All that appears to exist is the pre-ordained gnostic evil with which man is cursed, and if that is all there is there can be no prospect of overgoing, nor even of redemption, to use that loaded Christian ideal. And yet, in his 1992 interview with Richard Woodward, McCarthy says:

I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.

I think there is a tremendous irony in this because, to me, with his subjugation of the human will to the outer darkness, he is doing precisely what he cautions against. Nietzsche, who McCarthy deliberately echoes throughout Blood Meridian with the words of judge Holden, would not understand his surrender of the human will. He would dismiss McCarthy as weak and fatalistic. He would consider his obsession with suffering rather than overcoming to be poisonous and ‘life-destructive’. He would wonder what happened to beauty in McCarthy’s country. Finally, he would wonder how, in a world so dark and emotionless, someone could write something as moving and beautiful as, for example, this from Blood Meridian:

The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that that people had lived in this place and in this place died.

He would, in short, wonder at the paradox of someone like Cormac McCarthy being able to exist in Cormac McCarthy’s world.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth

With Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth creates for himself an alter ego, conflating Roth’s own experience after having written Portnoy’s Complaint and that of the fictional Zuckerman’s after the publication of his sexually explicit and scandalous novel Carnovsky. In what Robert M. Greenberg describes as metanarrative, Zuckerman Unbound, the second of the Zuckerman novels, follows Zuckerman in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Carnovsky, the result of which is that Zuckerman, a previously dry, academic author has become a national celebrity at the height of the swinging sixties, with his sex life and affairs the subject of lurid (and mostly invented) press attention. He suffers, too, at the hands of the public – ‘they had mistaken impersonation for confession’ – and is routinely approached and addressed not as Zuckerman but as Carnovsky. It is clear that Zuckerman treats his new-found success with some ambivalence: it is proof that he has achieved his goal and cast aside the hang-ups of his parents’ generation and entered mainstream American society; and yet there is a superficiality to his life, to the easy celebrity and notoriety, with which he is clearly uncomfortable. It is not an easeful existence.

The novel follows two principal strands, one largely comic and the other tragic. Amongst the hangers-on and groupies who follow Zuckerman, he is engaged by the eccentric Alvin Pepler, a garrulous man from his own home town of Newark, whom Zuckerman treats initially with forbearance, then toleration and finally amusement. Pepler has a history of celebrity himself, as the disgraced participant in a fifties television quiz scam in which the results were fixed. Pepler is a genius of general knowledge and did not want or need to participate in the scam; his subsequent treatment, in which he was outed and shamed, has left him embittered. It gradually becomes clear, to both Zuckerman and us, that Pepler is not as innocent as he seems and a criminal subplot neatly unfolds. Pepler, then – effectively a double of Zuckerman himself – represents both the highs and the lows of celebrity life.

Meanwhile, Zuckerman’s father, a stern and upright man with unbending morals, is slowly dying. Through this, and through Zuckerman’s relations with his mother, we see some of the generational tension which subsisted between post-war Jewish parents and their children, young people like Nathan Zuckerman or Alex Portnoy, who wanted to be American first and Jewish second. As his father finally succumbs, Zuckerman does the right thing, flying to be by his bedside. There, he proceeds to lecture his father on evolution and the big bang and the fact that death will bring only nothingness. His father’s final, whispered comment to his ‘apostate son’, is not clear and Nathan debates various interpretations. Finally, in an explosive argument with his brother Henry, it is revealed to be ‘bastard’. Henry continues:

You killed him, Nathan. Nobody will tell you - they're too frightened of you to say it. They think you're too famous to criticize .... But you killed him .... With that book. Of course he said 'Bastard.’

In this way, Roth begins to examine the price one pays for independence, for pursuing one’s own goals. Zuckerman has known all along, of course, that his father would never approve of his scatological satire on Jewishness, but he went ahead and published it anyway. Success may follow endeavour, but guilt is not far behind, and the concomitant of guilt, for Roth, must always be defiance. And so the wheel begins to roll, guilt and defiance, guilt and defiance. Zuckerman has achieved his literary goals. He is a success in society. Through his fame he succeeds in bedding a world-famous actress, but the very next morning she leaves him for Fidel Castro. Such is the lunacy of the world of the celebrity. And the success? The novel which brought these rewards? It has broken his father, caused a rift in his family. To what end? The novel concludes with Zuckerman going back to his old family home and retracing the steps of his childhood, but the neighbourhood is completely changed, the Jewish families replaced by black ones. “Who are you supposed to be?” someone asks him. “No one,” he replies and walks away. He has played out ‘the first momentous encounter with caste and chance, with the mystery of a destiny’. He tells himself: ‘You are no longer any man’s son. You are no longer some good woman’s husband. You are no longer your brother’s brother. And you don’t come from anywhere, any more, either.’ One suspects that Nathan Zuckerman’s uneasy passage through life will continue.

Zuckerman Unbound is, in typical Roth fashion, artfully artless. The interplay of the two plot strands works curiously, and the shift from the comic Pepler story to the extreme tension of the deathbed scene could have been bathetic, but works beautifully. This is what life is: it is not neatly ordered and predictably progressive in the way of a JM Coetzee novel. Life is not art. A. Alvarez calls Roth’s approach to plot ‘cavalier’ but that is to miss the point: that is to conflate medium and message in just the sort of way that Roth warns against in his Roth/Zuckerman and Zuckerman/Carnovsky confusions. Zuckerman Unbound gives us a character in search of happiness. As are all of us.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Backworldsman

The connection between Cormac McCarthy and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is frequently made, most often in connection with Blood Meridian. The Road, too, could be read in a Nietzschean light, and it has been suggested that its opening, when the man wakes in ‘the dark and cold’ is emblematic of the eternal return. Maybe so, but if it is, it is not Nietzsche’s eternal return that McCarthy is describing. The first thing to note about Nietzsche’s eternal return is that it isn’t necessarily meant literally. Nietzsche was much more playful than he is given credit for. The second thing to note is that, as regards the soul, Nietzsche doesn’t necessarily agree that it is a separate entity. And he doesn’t go along with the notion that – as a separate entity – it is reborn. Zarathustra tells us: ‘Only where there are tombs are there resurrections’. The first mention of soul in Thus Spake Zarathustra, linking it to God and the ‘poisoners’ who ‘speak of superearthly hope’, describes it pejoratively:

Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing: the soul wished the body meagre, ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.

This is not to say that Nietzsche does not accept the idea of the soul – he plainly does, as it reappears throughout TSZ, but he does not seek to place it on a pedestal. On the contrary:

Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of that soul!

But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched self-complacency?

Of what is this soul comprised? In Nietzschean terms it is only part of the body. Zarathustra tells us:

"Body am I, and soul"- so saith the child. And why should one not speak like children?

But the awakened one, the knowing one, saith: "Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body."

The soul, then, is a part of the individual, and could be construed as the state of overgoing wisdom. In this, there may be some connection with the idea of eternal return, in as much as this concept is key to understanding Nietzsche’s idea of the progress of man from herd to overman. For Nietzsche, eternal return is a way of reconciling oneself with the past. The overman can only be attained if one learns to love life completely, such that the idea of eternally returning to each moment bcomes acceptable. This is a troublesome concept, of course, in moral terms, because it entails final acceptance (though not approval) of events such as, say, 9/11 or a murder of a close relative and so on. People therefore tend to get stuck on the concept of eternal return here, but again I stress that I don’t think Nietzsche is being literal: it is not the event, but one’s connection with it and understanding of it that matters. It is rooted in the love of the present, the here and now. Through understanding the past, accommodating it, reconciling onself to it, removing all anger and resentment and negative emotion from our understanding of it, we allow ourselves to live more fruitfully in the present. We find redemption, in other words, because redemption comes from ourselves and our connection with the world, not from a god who, at the end of a life, graciously bestows it on the worthy. By accepting the past we affirm the present. We feel no need to prepare ourselves for the great redemption of the end. John Updike, in one of his last poems, Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth, nails this beautifully, when he writes:

To think of you brings tears less caustic
than those the thought of death brings. Perhaps
we meet our heaven at the start and not
the end of life.

Now, it may be that I am falling prey to my usual kindly, naïve humanist perspective here. Nietzsche was more definite. He said: 'To redeem the past and to transform every ‘It was’ into an ‘I willed it thus!’ – that alone do I call redemption!' Again, taking the 9/11 or murder example, it is possible to reach the point I suggest – understanding, reconciliation – without too much difficulty, but to reach the Nietzschean moment of ‘I willed it’ is more of a struggle. But he goes on: 'The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time’s desire – that is the will’s most lonely affliction.'

Now it may be that I’m misunderstanding McCarthy (very likely) or that I’m misunderstanding Nietzsche (even more likely). But it may also be, it seems to me, that McCarthy is also misunderstanding Nietzsche. The result of the Nietzschean universe created in Blood Meridian appears to be an indifference to suffering or pain or injustice. This is a simplification of Nietzsche’s views. It is, to go back to the 9/11 example, to say that one doesn’t care that it happened, which is not at all the same thing as saying one accepts that it happened.

For Nietzsche, eternal return is a life affirming belief. Thus, to transplant it into the context of The Road, where life is in the process of being annihilated, is surely to go against his thinking. So, we have a ‘long shear of light’ (or, in Blood Meridian, ‘the evening redness in the west’ or ‘reefs of bloodred cloud’ beneath a ‘red and elliptic sun’ in All The Pretty Horses) which might each be described, in Nietzschean terms, as the ‘coloured vapours before the eyes of a divinely dissatisfied one.’ In other words, the views of the backworldsmen, those ‘sick and perishing’ who:

despised the body and the earth and invented the heavenly world, and the redeeming bloodrops… From their misery they sought escape, and the stars were too remote for them. Then they sighed: “O that there were heavenly paths by which to steal into another existence and into happiness!” Then they contrived for themselves their bypaths and bloody draughts!

And so we have our bypaths. The Road begins in a cave before the time of man. In Blood Meridian we hear ‘cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.’ The Orchard Keeper’s forest ‘has about it a primordial quality, some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep’. Outer Dark’s triune ‘could have been stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time’. In Suttree, we are ‘come to a world within the world’, and in The Crossing the ancient wolves know that ‘there is no order in the world save that which death has put there’, and ‘if men drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do.’

All of these, it seems to me, could be part of ‘that "other world" ... concealed from man, that dehumanised, inhuman world, which is a celestial naught’. In other words, we are indeed in the company of one of Nietzsche’s backworldsmen, those doomsayers constantly casting portents in our way, warning, always warning, of the death to come. Zarathustra describes them thus:

Backward they always gaze toward dark ages: then, indeed, were delusion and faith something different. Raving of the reason was likeness to God, and doubt was sin.

Too well do I know those godlike ones: they insist on being believed in, and that doubt is sin. Too well, also, do I know what they themselves most believe in.

Verily, not in backworlds and redeeming blood-drops: but in the body do they also believe most; and their own body is for them the thing-in-itself.

But it is a sickly thing to them, and gladly would they get out of their skin. Therefore harken they to the preachers of death, and themselves preach backworlds.

And so, in The Road, far from experiencing an eternal return of the soul, we find ourselves placed at the very edge of destruction, preaching the death of everything. It is hard to know where the soul could reside in such a landscape. Or why it would wish to do so.

Maurice Lindsay 1918-2009

Maurice Lindsay has died. He was an important figure in Scots' culture, not least for his Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry, which is one of my favourite books and from which I've quoted on here several times. The Guardian's obituary also emphasises his role in bringing to an international readership such poets as Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, WS Graham and Norman MacCaig. For that alone, he would be remembered.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Library of The Burned Book

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment in Paris of The Library of the Burned Book.

The Bibliothek des verbrannten Buches was opened by German emigres to mark the second anniversary of the infamous book-burnings that swept Germany in 1932. The library was later renamed the German Library of Freedom, or Deutsche Freiheits-bibliothek. Another such library was established in Brooklyn. Their aim was to ensure that the barbarism attendant at the German book-burnings would not triumph. As Nikola von Merveldt explains, they became 'powerful agents of counter-memories to the fascist attempt to rewrite history. They guarded the cultural heritage of a country that had once embodied the principles of humanism and was now threatening the civilized world.'

The actual library was lost during the German occupation, but a plaque still exists to commemorate it. At a time when Italy is lurching to the right, for example proposing restrictions on gypsies and immigrants, and there are fears in the UK of the British National Party making gains in the forthcoming European elections, we would do well to remember the Library of the Burned Book and everything that it stands for.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

Earthly Possessions is, I suppose, a kind of road novel, albeit a more gentle, less testosterone driven model than the usual. As is customary with Anne Tyler, character takes precedence over plot and this is a gentle unfolding of three lives as they approach their own particular crises. It is narrated by the main character, Charlotte, a discontented woman stuck in a small town rut. Throughout her life she has made attempts to escape, only, it seems, to be foiled by fate. Her father has a heart attack on the day she is supposed to leave home to go to school. She marries the charismatic Saul, imagining he will free her from their small-town existence, only for him to be ‘called to preach’ and setting up ministry in the local church. On the first occasion she attempts to leave him, she discovers she is pregnant. This is, you imagine, a woman destined to live a small life through lack of opportunity.

However, it gradually transpires that of all the ties that bind her to the low-key, humdrum existence she so despairs of, the greatest of all is herself. This is a woman to whom things happen, but not someone who makes things happen. The novel begins with her withdrawing money from the bank as a prelude to leaving her husband. Since we know, however, that over the years she has been a serial leaver of her husband, there is no reason to suppose this attempt would have been any more successful, but for the intervention of Jake. In a desperate attempt to obtain money in order to reach Mindy, his (under-age) pregnant girlfriend, he tries to hold up the bank, but escapes with a mere $100 and Charlotte as a hostage. Together they flee towards Florida and, finally, Charlotte has escaped.

The novel then flits backwards and forwards in alternating chapters, following Jake and Charlotte as they try to find Mindy, and detailing the moments of Charlotte’s life which led her to this moment. Gradually, the two story-lines converge, and at that moment Charlotte is finally able to make a decision for herself.

This is a finely written novel, very funny and full of poignant detail. The smallness of Charlotte’s life is beautifully drawn. In her small town they live a small life, barely venturing out of doors. After her father’s heart attack, they ‘lived in a smaller and smaller area of the house, now – shutting off floors my [her] father couldn’t climb to, rooms [they] couldn’t afford to heat.’ Counting down the days until she can leave to go to school, Charlotte feels ‘locked in a calendar; time was turning out to be the most closed-in space of all’. As it becomes increasingly obvious that she lacks the confidence to make a decision on her own, you grow fond of and irritated by her in equal measure. She is something of an unreliable narrator, and the strangeness of her situation with Jake is handled deftly: it feels at all times slightly out of kilter, disconnected, as though she doesn’t even grasp what is happening. There is a dream-like quality to these sections which is very funny but still shrewdly conveys her unhappy, confused state of mind.

Overall, this is a neatly written work. Each of the characters is in a prison of their own making, and each is coming to some form of understanding. Where, with writers like Coetzee, this could descend into a morass of lumpen symbolism, Tyler skates lightly over the material and yet still manages to leave a lingering impression. A fine work.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Addie Bundren, despite dying early in a novel in which her only active participation was to watch as her son carefully crafted her coffin beneath her window, is a strikingly memorable and important character. The chapter in her voice, representing her thoughts from beyond the grave, is simply beautiful. It says much. It says it with grace. On the improbable, indeed difficult, conflation of love and her husband (Anse) she says:

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that the word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that any more than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I wold say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn’t matter.

In this she speaks for Faulkner. She speaks for his aspiration for us all – embrace love – and she speaks for his resignation that we, most of us, fail to do so. The whole of Faulkner’s career could be summed up by that one proud, sad paragraph. But the genius is that this insight comes from a character who is far from sympathetic. Addie’s overwhelming hatred of her husband affects the rest of her life, even her relationship with her children, which is ambivalent at best. Such emotional reticence, though, may have been instilled in her from a very young age. Early in the chapter, she says: ‘I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.’ She is marked by it. A young teacher, she ‘looked forward to the times when [the children] faulted’ because she could then whip them. ‘Now you are aware of me!’ she would think with each blow. Her life becomes, as her father had ordained, a waiting for death, and in the end, after bearing three children to her husband and one to the preacher Whitfield, she finds herself ready to die. Sin and salvation are just words.

In all of this, Addie Bundren is a powerfully realistic character. She puts me strongly in mind of Edna Pontellier, who is a character I’m greatly fond of, despite the ludicrousness of the ending of The Awakening. There is a grittiness about Addie that doesn’t exist in Edna, and a harshness and a blackness, but even so they could be soul sisters. Of the two, I prefer the nature of Addie’s demise, sending her hated husband on a fool’s errand to bury her body in her home town, to the melodramatic downgoing of Edna. Neither woman was destined to be happy in a world fashioned by men, but I like to think that Addie took her revenge for them both.

Mark Twain on Jane Austen

There's a highly entertaining review in the LA Times of a new collection of previously uncollected Mark Twain stories and essays. Definitely worth a read in its entirety, but I particularly liked these bits:

Twain, though an unbeliever, was one of the first American cultural observers to intuit that the country's great problem was not religion per se but a surfeit of religiosity.

I immediately picture Flannery and her peacocks...

And this, on Jane Austen, made me laugh:

Austen, Twain muses, seems to spend the first half of every book getting you to "detest" her characters and the second half convincing you to like them.

Marvellous! The great artificiality of so much writing, explained in one easy sentence.

Friday, May 01, 2009

McCarthy's Orchard Keeper as Southern novel

I've written about The Orchard Keeper before, but here I want to talk about it specifically in relation to the Southern novel. It was published in 1965 and at the time McCarthy was thought to be a Southern writer. The Orchard Keeper can be regarded as a Southern novel. It clearly represents a battle between older ways of living, in which laws were laws of nature and not civil law, and the new. It is not only graced with a rural setting but the key characters – Ather and John Wesley in particular – live outside even that rural community, in splendid isolation in the mountains. But change is coming. It is set partly in 1933, the year that prohibition was repealed, presaging change ahead: no more the twilight, edgily glamorous world of bootleggers like Sylder, renegades against the system. Officialdom is closing in on him, as they are on Ather and even John Wesley, the youngest of the characters, the hope for the future.

But while this is all true, it is not sufficient to enable one to classify The Orchard Keeper as Southern. It is Southern only to the extent that its backdrop is recognisably so. Beyond that, there is a great deal at play in this novel which moves far beyond what one might construe as Southern motivation, symbolism or sensibility. This becomes immediately obvious in the opening section, a confused, vaguely mythological-feeling passage in which three unnamed and unexplained men are removing a tree which has grown up and around an old metal fence. The dreamlike manner of this passage, with its deliberate lack of clarity, may invoke Faulkner, but it presages a degree of experimentation throughout the novel that is unusual in the traditional Southern style. While Faulkner’s use of modernist techniques was breathtaking, as Melvin J. Friedman notes:

Faulkner’s inheritors are almost all rather sober storytellers who consider plot, character, setting and theme… before anything else. There is very little, in the telling, to distinguish a story by Flannery O’Connor from a Carson McCullers story, or a Truman Capote story or, for that matter, a Chekhov or a Maupassant story. Nor has the most recent generation of Southern writers markedly changed the face of fiction.

Early critics of McCarthy overlooked the degree of experimentalism in his works, typically dismissing it as faux-Faulknerian posturing. But the swoops in point of view, the unexplained shifts in time-frame, the introduction of completely unrelated, myth-like narrative strands, the disconcerting changes in voice and register, all of these are already present in The Orchard Keeper and, as his career has progressed, they have become increasingly evident. McCarthy is certainly not, like other Southern writers, afraid of experimentation. Besides this, there are further reasons why The Orchard Keeper should be considered on its own merits and not as part of a Southern canon.

The role of family

As discussed, the role of family life in the Southern novel is of primary importance. In an ideal world – an Eden – there is perfect harmony between family, community, nature and God. Family relationships are all-important. The decline of a character may be measured by the esteem in which his or her family is held. Characters who go against family are flirting with doom. For example, in an archetypal Southern novel, Madison Jones’s The Innocent (1957), the clash between old and new is played out in a rural family and the resultant rupture is painful and irrevocable.

In The Orchard Keeper, there are no happy families. In an ironic twist, John Wesley unknowingly befriends Sylder, the man who killed his father. Sylder, in fact, becomes more of a father figure to him: his urging of John Wesley not to endanger himself by going after Sheriff Gifford is a deliberate reverse echo of John Wesley’s mother’s plea to him to ‘find the man that took away your daddy.’ Although John Wesley is clearly fond of Uncle Ather, bringing him tobacco in jail, there is no sense in the novel of family as cohesive unit. This foreshadows what will happen in McCarthy’s later Southern novels: Lester Ballard is alone, family-less and shunned by society in Child of God; Outer Dark begins with the incestuous birth of Rinthy and Culla’s child; and in Suttree, Cornelius Suttree leaves (without any specified reason) his wife and young child. The corollary is clear: family units are broken in McCarthy’s universe.

In this, he differs from the traditional Southern approach. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, the disintegration of the Compson family is indicative of the inability to find and nurture love which is at the root of all Faulkner’s work. And in As I Lay Dying, the family’s emotional inarticulacy costs all of them dearly; even the taciturn Cash, who is as close as it is possible to get to a hero in this novel, is left with a broken leg and the loss of ‘sixty odd square inches of skin’ after a concrete cast, disastrously applied by his feckless father, has to be removed from it. This, then, is family breakdown as metaphor for spiritual decline. In The Orchard Keeper, however, although the family unit is broken, the individuals prevail. The ‘fierce pull of blood’, a phrase which McCarthy quotes directly from the opening page of Faulkner’s Barn Burning, may be important, but there are other, more important relationships in McCarthy’s world.

Nature as character

Although Southern novels are typically agrarian and celebrate rural existence, by and large there is no specificity to their location. Faulkner, of course, invented Yoknapatawpha County for his fiction. Similarly, James Dickey created the Cahulawassee River for Deliverance. Flannery O’Connor’s characters could inhabit anywhere in the South. For these writers, it is the concept of the rural that matters, not the detail. McCarthy’s descriptions of place in The Orchard Keeper, however (and, indeed, in all of his works with the exception of Child of God) are detailed and exact, to the extent that Wes Morgan has precisely identified a number of key locations in McCarthy’s fiction, and given convincing arguments for the location of many more, including, from The Orchard Keeper, the spray pit and the metal tank that Ather shoots out.

McCarthy’s description and depiction of location is so specific it becomes an integral part of the novel. This is perhaps typified most by the remarkable passage relating the collapse of the Green Fly Inn. The porch of this extraordinary edifice was built on stilts among the treetops, teetering precariously over a steep drop into the valley below. McCarthy’s description of it swaying in the wind, and the insouciance of the regulars as they adjust their postures to the shifting gravity, for all the world like sailors in mid-Atlantic, is brilliantly realised. Its inevitable collapse into the ravine below is wonderfully described. The whole passage is like an extended metaphor for the precariousness of man’s relationship with nature and the impossibility of taming it. Similarly, John Wesley’s house is shared with birds and bees and woodworm. Uncle Ather, the eponymous orchard keeper, does not so much keep the place – it ‘went to ruin twenty years before’ – as exist in a symbiotic relationship with it. The mood of the novel is of some form of Gaian natural law in which man and nature co-exist, but only, ultimately, on nature’s terms. It is instructive to remember this when approaching McCarthy’s later dystopian novel, The Road, in which nature has been all but destroyed and the living residue of the world comprises a pathetic few scrapping, scrabbling relics of what once had been. The suggestion that McCarthy is preaching some form of mystical environmentalism cannot be overlooked.

The question of God

However, as one reads through McCarthy’s oeuvre, it is not environmentalism that appears to be his primary consideration, but religion. This, of course, is typically Southern: questions of faith informed Southern writing from Anderson and Faulkner through to McCarthy’s generation (and beyond) and a religious message is more often than not to be found in Southern texts. As Charles P. Roland noted: ‘Above all, southern writers dwell upon the inherent weakness and sinfulness of man. In other words, their themes are essentially religious, however secular they may appear to be.’

It is clear that religion is integral to The Orchard Keeper and that religious symbolism and imagery abounds. Elizabeth Anderson explicitly describes Ather, Sylder and John Wesley – the three generations of man – as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The first words of the murdered Rattner – an Unholy Ghost, perhaps – are ‘Go on, damn ye,’ and his last, as he is murdered by the Christly Sylder, are ‘Jesus Christ, turn me loose.’ This personification of Sylder as a Christ-figure is replicated throughout McCarthy’s work – from Suttree in Suttree, to the boy in The Road. One can see precedents for this, of course, in Southern literature, going back to Doctor Percival in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August, but the personification of good (and, more importantly, of evil) in McCarthy’s work becomes so important as his career progresses that it is clearly more than a literary device. The Orchard Keeper may be less overtly religious than later novels, but the direction of his work is already clear: McCarthy’s career is to be spent debating the metaphysical. In so doing, his sense of the religious becomes increasingly troubled and troublesome. After the publication of Blood Meridian, he would stand accused of gnosticism, antinomianism and anti-humanism, but at this early stage of his career his fundamentalist approach to religion seemed to share more in common with the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor than the typical Southern writer.