Named Tomorrow


“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Period Style

Over at A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers has been considering the relationship of philosophy and fiction, and what character and plot do within that relationship.  The summary of Myers’ point in the first post is that “philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible.”  All good and well, though, as I will discuss momentarily, I would open the gates to more practitioners than philosophers and novelists.

But then Myers makes a judgement I don’t quite swallow.  After pointing out that the conception of character as the seat of intelligence in fiction can hardly be used for modern fiction, Myers says this:

But what is the intellectual aspect of a fiction if not its plot? The plot is fiction’s answer to argument in philosophy: it is what connects up and advances the whole. If an argument is the setting forth of the proofs (reasons and evidence) for an assertion, then a plot is the setting forth (that is, the narration) of the events that lead to a catastrophe, the final turn that brings everything to an end.

Without getting into an unending discussion of what constitutes genre rules and whether or not they are rigid, this seems a bit tautological to me.  “Fiction is not philosophy, because it is fiction.”  On top of that, it completely bypasses what is, to me, the interesting judgement Myers has made: the difference is in the approach to possibility.

Possibility is the crux of all good writing, be it fiction or journalism, prose or poetry, and great writing is that which risks the attempt at something impossible.  It need not respect genre boundaries or requirements; it also needn’t defy them.  (Furthermore, it would be interesting to try to set out the most common forms of writing in camps of “validity” or “plausibility,” e.g.  Journalism, philosophy, criticism: validity. Fiction, poetry, hybrids: plausibility.)

Myers definition of ‘possible,’ whether valid or plausible, seems to have an implicit “has already been” before it.  It depends on a particularly conservative understanding of fiction, and it seems to me that nearly all of the interesting writings (not just fiction) of the 20th century in some way cross the lines that rigidly separate these genres, even if one can still resolutely position them in a certain camp.  We could play plinko with all the different pins stuck in history to mark where the determining genre definitions appear, (a few sets I enjoy are Robert Archambeau’s, here, Richard Poirier’s in The Renewal of Literature, and Josipovici’s in On Trust), but I think one put to effective use the difference between plausible possibility and valid possibility.  And one need not necessarily stake out those as the Realm of Fiction and the Realm of Philosophy.  Is Ann Carson’s Autiobiography of Red fiction or poetry?  Does its plot make it an argument, and thus fiction?  Is Heidegger just a failed poet?  Wallace Stevens’ poetry as often as not relies on  logic and its insufficiency to reach a logical conclusion— is that argument?

Indeed, it is precisely that one does not know the lay of the land before approaching it that makes a book experimental, and Myers’ insistence on being given the roadmap, with bright little dots that say “experimental area,” is precisely what prevents him from seeing them as interesting.  The assumed superiority of progressive, cumulative coherence, of the ‘frivolity’ of style compared to argument, etc., is exactly that— an assumption, not a fact. Useful, yes; relevant to a very large swathe of writing, yes; but the applicability of such a distinction is also very, very limited.  Just because you succeed in applying it once does not mean one ought to apply it everywhere, nor must I reject that to which it doesn’t apply or refuse to apply it where it is useful simply because it doesn’t apply in every case. (In other words— though I’ve not read the book—David Shields seems to overshoot as much as Myers. One wants only things which defy accepted expectations, the other only things which meet them.)

I’ve been wanting to say the following for a while, but haven’t really had a reason to.  It is a bit non sequitur here, but it is a perfect illustration of my point, because it involves one of today’s most important explorers of true experiment in fiction and an experimental author from the past who is quite canonized, was hailed in his time, and has never been forgotten, countering Myers’ implicit, self-defeating prerequisite for being experimental: being ignored by contemporaries and/or their descendants.  That is: Josipovici is no more a Modernist than Wallace Stevens is a Romantic.  Are these terms useful, even necessary, for reading their work, for determining the heritage from which they come, and for tracing its influence in their work? Yes. This is validity.  Are they determinate of how it should be read, or what influence their work should have in the future? No. This is plausibility.  Indeed, what often makes a writer great is their distinct relationship to a tradition which they have radically changed, but not erased.  They have pointed the way to new plausibilities; it takes time for others to explore them (minor writers) and to point to another way once that terrain is mapped (major writers).

Myers’ dependance on validity, however gussied up, pretends, like certain religions, that what we revere has not changed since its inception, centuries ago.  In a followup post, Myers sets about destroying the notion of “experimental fiction,” primarily, it seems, because “experiment” in this case does not meet the scientific requirements for one.  How telling.  One would like to point out— though I usually prefer to be playful, not dogmatic, with my OED— that the notion being implied by the use of “experimental” to describe a certain type of literature is more closely related to the assay, to experience.  It is, after all, rooted in the Latin word for “to try,” not “to succeed in a replicable manner.”  This, of course, means a willingness to fail, and most experimental writers do fail.  That is, often, what leads them to their greatness.

It is beside my point— averse to it, even— to answer this challenge, but Myers then asks anyone to name an “experimental author” who has lasted past his generation before listing a mess of names, seemingly proving his point because of the fact that I have only heard of a few of them.  My first response to this would be: The largely plotless Beckett.  Secondly, as outlined previously, the depth of Beckett’s influence had quite a long delay before surfacing, and he has been thoroughly canonized, even while his work is still non-reproducibly experimental.  His most famous work appeared in the 40s, and a quick survey of The Modern Word’s critical bibliography suggests that, while some Beckett studies began to trickle out in the 60s, the veritable torrent only began in the twenty odd years since his death.

Secondly, and more importantly, as Dan points out, Myers’ “plausibility” is little more than validity dressed up in allegory. Like Myers’ bewilderment at the use of experimental in a context other than “science experiment,” I am bewildered that Myers’ can be oblivious to the possible speciousness of plausibility, and why it ought often to be celebrated— most commonly as a reminder of how easily we are duped by the appearance of validity.  “Experimental fiction” is indeed a cryptid, as Myers suggests, and one that is quite plausible for some of us, if admittedly invalid.  What is exciting about it is precisely its aversion to taxonomic identification.  It is nevertheless fascinating for those of us not terribly worried about whether or not the book we are reading will be read in twenty or a hundred years, much less flayed and explicated by the literary scientists of the day.  What seems relevant to my experience today is much more interesting.  I may be hunting a cultic cryptid, but Myers pretends his church is not manmade as well.

To summarize the important points: Plot is not the sole proprietor of plausible possibility; plausibility is most easily and most often, but not necessarily, differentiated from validity by incorporating some form of speciousness, obvious or not; and the experimental work is not required to exclude plot, rhyme, or any other predominant, accepted aspect of its inherited form to be experimental.  The experimental is exactly that work whose forms one is not already familiar with.  In this sense, yes, it is useless as a categorical quality.  But it is also incredibly useful as a personal descriptor of a work by which others may also be inspired.  This is how the canon propagates itself, and this is how the canon grows— because of our common but not identical, thank heavens, cultural heritage.

And really, people, go read The Renewal of Literature and On Trust.


Filed under: Aesthetics, Writing

6 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    I was wondering while reading Myers’ original posts how certain European writers might fit into his scheme. Then it occurred to me that I’ve never seen him post about a novel that wasn’t originally written in English.

    Then, not for the first time, I wondered about the utility of the term novel for all the works it’s applied to. That is, maybe in order to be a novel, there indeed should be a plot?

    Speaking of Beckett, an interesting thing about his books is that he does devise a rather complicated plot, he just doesn’t narrate the plot. I found Hugh Kenner’s guide to Beckett fascinating in this regard (and many others).

    Of course, agreed on On Trust….

  2. Richard says:

    I also wanted to say, I like your point about possibility, and the more playful use of “experiment” when it comes to writing.

    I suppose it’s in this sense that you name Josipovici as an experimental writer. Have you read his Mirror of Criticism? In the last piece in that book, he writes about his dismay (perhaps dismay is too strong a word) at having been labeled a experimental writer. It seems to me he would indeed prefer “Modernist”, though no doubt not in the debased way that that term has come to be understood, but more in the way you mean “experimental”, with a deep understanding of writing as a problem, where certain forms are no longer justified, if indeed they ever were. For Myers, I gather that some of the questions raised by Josipovici are nonsensical (no justification necessary), and possibly too infected by French theories.

  3. Ste says:

    Well, thinking on it some more, perhaps the formal aspect of style is the counterpart to the theoretical aspect of plausibile possibility. So yes, there probably ought to be a plot in order for it to be considered a “novel,” but such a tactical retreat is not all that interesting. Style and possibility, as qualities whose relationship can be explored outside of a particular genre, from a particular era, of a particular heritage, from a particular vantage-point, are more interesting.

    E.g., Beckett, whose novels do indeed have sublimated plots, and are undeniably novels, but his method of presenting plot effectively minimizes it. Plot is the residue of living, and its style becomes infinitely more important than the plot itself. His use of rhythm and repetition are as much body as mind, more style than content. If you’ve read Watt, you know what I mean. It’s hilarious, but tortuous, because it’s the book where Beckett figures this out about plot and style— cf. Sam’s deciphering of Watt’s monologues and the numerous iterative passages. I was so bored shitless reading parts of Watt that I began reading it aloud to a friend to share how bored shitless I was, and before you know it, we were both laughing so hard I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The body made it interesting. Style and action, yes, but not a series of events leading to a catastrophe— unless you count my not being able to read.

    And re:Josipovici, yes, I suppose I am attempting to reclaim “experimental writing,” in a sense, and Josipovici’s thoughts on the matter, and his disdain for being called so, are certainly an influence on that. (Though I don’t remember having read The Mirror of Criticism, I know I’ve read him discussing this before.) Nevertheless, I think his disdain stems from the fact that, ideally, “experimental” would be the standard, without the pejorative sense that “experimental” currently has of being willfully obtuse and difficult.

    As far as the French influence, it’s there in Josipovici, but I’ve often thought Josipovici was too hard, for example, on Derrida for exactly the same reason Myers is too hard on writers he deems worthy of being forgotten: w/r/t fiction, Josipovici’s interest is firmly in plausible possibility, but philosophy must still be strictly a “valid/invalid” argument. However, Derrida is concerned with plausible possibility in philosophy the way Josipovici’s favorite authors are in fiction— and his style shows it, I would argue. I’ve always loved Rorty’s comment: “It is as if he really thought that the fact that, for example, the French pronunciation of “Hegel” sounds like the French word for “eagle” was supposed to be relevant for comprehending Hegel. [… But Derrida] doesn’t want to write a book about the nature of language; he wants to play with the texts which other people have thought they were writing about language.”

    Also, try to get your hands on The Renewal of Literature. It’s had as much of an influence on my thoughts about style and the forward movement of literature as Josipovici has, really, and it’s particularly interesting because of its concerns with the relationship between early American literature and its European heritage.

  4. Richard says:

    Quickly before I leave to hop on a train…

    I have read Watt. Quite randomly, I decided to read much of it aloud one day when I was home alone. (I believe I’d scanned ahead at a large block of text, several pages without paragraph breaks, and blanched at the thought of wading through it.) I found it to be a very helpful way to read Beckett.

    I have ordered a copy of The Renewal of Literature ($.01!); thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Tim Pieraccini says:

    I can third your findings re reading Beckett aloud; that’s how I managed How It Is, although I haven’t read Watt. Harold Bloom takes particular delight in Murphy, which is irrelevant except inasmuch as it allows me to say that your

    ‘Indeed, what often makes a writer great is their distinct relationship to a tradition which they have radically changed, but not erased.’

    is remarkably like his concept of creative misreading. But you probably knew that…

    Experimental writers who’ve lasted? Proust, Joyce and Woolf are too obvious, but if I’m not stretching the definition surely there’s a case for Lawrence, Musil, Dos Passos and even John Cowper Powys (though that might be stretching the definition of ‘lasting’..)

    I have a copy of The Renewal of Literature, ordered when you first recommended it to me. It’s not inconceivable that at some stage the idea of actually reading it might begin to speculate about the possibility of crossing my mind…

  6. Ste says:

    I read Anxiety of Influence a while back, so it’s probably rattling around in there somewhere; specifically, I have found the idea of apophrades useful on numerous occasions. I’d still say it’s more that I’ve cherry-picked ideas from Josipovici and Poirier (and Poirier sources most of his ideas regarding influence to Emerson). But all of them support the idea that “lasting” writers are those who change the canonical tenets given to them, and are then adopted into the canon.

    Of course, my real objection is to the idea of “lasting,” and the notion that we should be concerned about what will and will not last. Until you’re several centuries out, “lasting” can’t be particularly well-judged, I don’t think. Who reads Tasso anymore? I tend to believe Beckett’s influence will much outlast Joyce, even though Joyce’s was undoubtedly the louder voice in the last century. But whoopteedoo. The point is, we are not all readers hoping to get the jump on the next generation’s tastes. I’m more interested in finding and reading what is experientially relevant to me, now; which is partly a way of saying that I think the advice Merrill gives to writers applies to readers, as well. Your work, reading or writing, will reflect the assumptions of your time no matter what. Reading and criticism do not occur in a holy vacuum of opinionating; read and write about what interests you, and let the future deal with itself.

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