Thursday, January 31, 2013

50,000 words

You may have noticed I haven't been posting many full length book reviews lately. I'm hard at work on my final PhD thesis at present, and haven't time for any other reading.

Good news is that I'm now more than 50,000 words in.

Bad news is I still have about 70,000 words still to write. And a strict 100,000 word limit. I have to say, however hard it is to "kill your babies" in fiction, it's much, much harder in criticism. Ironic really, since I'm writing about Cormac McCarthy, and he kills babies in most of his novels...

Anyway, two chapters complete, one nearly complete, two done in skeleton and the most enjoyable chapter waiting to be started on. September isn't that far away....

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The future of education and libraries

Here's a bold prediction, from Nathan Hardin in The American Interest:
In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.
Now, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I think there is a great deal of truth in this. At the very least, I think universities are going to have to completely rethink their modus operandi. As it currently stands, the university system is breaking down. I live in the UK, of course, and I think our tertiary education system is more dysfunctional than the US model. As it happens, I was with a group of current undergraduates today. Their workload is astonishing. Fewer than ten contact hours per week, with more or less no checking on what they are doing outside that time. The simple truth is that they aren't working hard enough, and the days of the three year degree course will soon be over.

In a way, that's a shame. When I was an undergraduate, in the early 80s, I learned an enormous amount. Practically none of it was academic, but I still learned: I grew up, I became (sort of) an adult, I matured from a very shy, insular child into a more rounded individual. That was important for me, and I fear that the time to grow up in this way will be lost to future generations of students. But it's going to happen, so let's prepare.

In the same way, libraries must adapt and evolve. I despair of much of the crass debate going on in public library circles in the UK at present. Rose-tinted spectacle-wearing, book-fondling librarian types want to hold on to the public library network that has evolved since Victorian times, totally missing the point that the world has moved on. Libraries are not big places with books in them. They are repositories of knowledge. It seems obvious that these repositories will soon become more electronic than physical, and librarians must plan for that, not hold futile sit-ins in dead library buildings.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Enlightenment hubris

I'm spending most of my time at the moment writing my PhD thesis, much of which revolves around a rationalist defence of the Enlightenment in the face of social reactionary attacks on the hubris of Enlightenment man. These people are building straw men in order to knock them down, I argue. They create false values for the Enlightenment and then lambast the Enlightenment for failings it didn't have. Drawing on the Scots' rationalist tradition, I can work myself into a fury of righteous indignation. And so it's a bit sobering to come across this newspaper editorial from The Times in 1945:
The fundamental power of the universe, the power manifested in the sunshine that has been recognized from the remotest ages as the sustaining force of earthly life, is entrusted at last to human hands.
This refers to the exploding of the atomic bombs in Japan. It is impossible not to be repulsed by the casual indifference to human suffering that lies behind these words, and it is difficult not to read them as anything other than hubristic. Those were dark times, to be sure, and it is hard to forgive this editorial comment. That we can look on it now and be appalled is perhaps the only saving grace.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Grotesque

Sarah Gleeson-White, in a study on the southern grotesque, argues against the common interpretation of it as presenting a "gloomy vision of modernity" which acts as an allegory of the human condition as "existential alienation and angst." Her focus is specifically on Carson McCullers, highlighting a quote from her The Vision Shared, which sought to justify the grotesque school by claiming, of its authors, "I seem strange to you, but anyway I am alive." This demonstrates, Gleeson-White suggests, rather than an alienated modernity, an affirmative and transformative quality, and it is this we should be celebrating when reading the southern grotesque.

In developing her argument, Gleeson-White adopts and adapts Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualisation of the grotesque which, she feels, comes closest to articulating the celebratory nature of McCullers’ cry of "I am alive". In doing so, she rejects as incomplete those traditional interpretations, as expounded by the likes of William Van O’Connor and Millichap and Fiedler, with their allusions to "dark modernism" and "alienation, loneliness, a lack of human communication, and the failure of love." She presents instead, McCullers’ explanation of the grotesque: "The technique is briefly this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a materialistic detail."

A key focus for Bakhtin and McCullers is the body, in particular deformity and difference from conventional perceptions of beauty, even normality. Physical freaks are, of course, a signature of the grotesque, from Faulkner’s Benjy to O’Connor’s Hulga and onwards. McCullers’ novels and stories, too, are peopled by freaks – giants or dwarves, mutes, hunchbacks and cripples, self-mutilators, androgynous men-women, and so on – but, Gleeson-White argues, and I would agree totally, McCullers ultimately uses these characters as a reaction against convention and as an exploration of humanity. She suggests that: "Her novels of resistance present us with unsettled identities and so push the very boundaries of how we understand human being."

This idea of the transformative nature of grotesque freakery is interesting. For all her brilliance as a writer, for example, I cannot see it in Flannery O’Connor. Transformation, for her, is bound to redemption, and her perspective on redemption is that of a subject reconciling him or herself to the will of the master; her works are flavoured, for me, by subjugation to the supernatural and not celebration or understanding of the human.

Likewise, I look at the works of Cormac McCarthy and try to discern how they might be described as affirmative or transformative. Only his early works, of course, are considered to be truly southern but I believe that typical southern transgressiveness suffuses his later works, too. And, in his collection of freaks, from Lester Ballard and Rinthy and Culla onwards through the seven feet albino judge to the morally autistic Chigurh, he presents a set of characters who are outwith anything that could be considered normal. But is he, in Bakhtinian terms, "[disclosing] the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life"? And, moreover, is he using his grotesquery to unnerve in order to enlighten?

The answers to those questions would appear to me to be yes and possibly no, and therein lies a difficulty. Yes, McCarthy shows us a different world, most significantly in Blood Meridian and The Road. This is what mankind is capable of, he is telling us in the former, and because of that the latter he presents the road we may be leading ourselves down. It is, then, a negative view, and what positives one may take from his novels must generally be taken by this process of inversion: don’t do that, or this may be the result. Such is the approach of organised religion through the ages: behave, or else; believe, or de’il tak ye; belong, or be cast adrift. In this, then, we see echoes of Hazel Motes and Tarwater, even of Captain Ahab; we see the human relegated beneath the supernatural, and the result is obeisance to the godhead, whoever or whatever that might be. Rather than transformative, then, it is reactionary: it is promulgated on the maintenance of a primordial order rather than the advancement of humanity. Hence the answer to the second question may be no: McCarthy’s grotesquery does not wholly enlighten, but rather it can seem to cast us backwards, to limit our freedom. McCarthy so constructs his characters – indeed, they are often more archetypes than characters, with no psycho-social histories or motivations – that they are unable to project forward. It is all very well for McCarthy to warn of the dangers to human society of our inwardness, our selfishness, our self-destructive disregard for nature, because those are warnings we would do well to heed, but in presenting only the binary oppositions of annihilation and acceptance of a putative god, he is artificially defining the boundaries of the debate. His grotesques are so designed, those characterless characters, that they miss the true alternative, the human. They endure so much and experience so little. And his words, all that rhetorical portentousness, serve only to wrap a mystery around them that, in the end, overwhelms.

It is a grotesquery which doesn’t so much say "I am alive" as "I can only die".

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What do you call it?

Can anyone help with a literary term? What is it called in metafiction when the narrator deliberately steps out of the novel and reveals something that will happen to one or some of the characters outside the timeframe of the story? An example from Blood Meridian:
David Brown rode at the rear and he was leaving his brother here for what would prove forever...
Essentially, we're being taken out of the story and being privileged with information we shouldn't have, or at least not at this stage. I know there's a word for this technique but I can't remember. Can anyone help?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Steinbeck the compromise

Papers just released after 50 years indicate there was little enthusiasm for John Steinbeck's award of the Nobel Prize. He was, it seems, a compromise candidate, the best of a bad bunch.

Well, given that the "bad bunch" included Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen, it doesn't seem so bad to me.

In recent years it has been hard to fathom the ways of the Nobel Prize for Literature. At present, they seem obsessed with rewarding lesser known talents. No American appears to have a chance in this generation. And no British writer would deserve it, except Alasdair Gray, and he can barely get recognition in his native Scotland.