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

Writing-as-art

In the comments to the last post, Richard pointed out that my definition of ‘experimental’ isn’t quite standard. It’s a playful redefinition that encompasses authors, like Josipovici, who themselves have expressed their dislike for being called “experimental,” or like Perec, who wanted to write books which could be “devoured face down on one’s bed,” even though they are consumed just as enjoyably while upright, pencil in hand, at one’s desk.  Coincidentally, Jonathan Mayhew, at Bemsha Swing, and Dan Green, at The Reading Experience, have been doing some redefining of their own. Mayhew has been hypothesizing about poetry and music, and what it would mean if we considered that poetry is perhaps closer to music than it is to “literature as conventionally defined;” Green took Mayhew’s hypothesis and ran with it in a direction that I find incredibly pleasing.

Green’s primary point, in response to Mayhew’s separation, is that perhaps we can make the same distinction within fiction itself: there is ‘fiction-as-art,’ which would aspire to ‘music’ in the same way that poetry does, and there is ‘fiction-as-discourse,’ which depicts society through its dispersion of nuggets of cultural meaning— things like Myers’ assertion that in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence there is an “intellectual argument via plot”  that the cultural institution of marriage is a tragedy.  This was largely my point in the last post, and Green puts it much more eloquently: this type of reading, fiction as discourse on culture, is certainly valid, and there is a field of fiction where this is the perfect method of interpretation, but it is not universally applicable.

The dilemma faced here, then, is that it is the language’s motivation, not its style, form, or content, that distinguishes ‘writing-as-art’ from ‘fiction-as-discourse,’ ‘poetry-as-cultural-relic,’ etc; but such a motivation can only be discovered by active engagement with style, form, and content.  (I say ‘writing-as-art,’ per Green’s idea that, should we break fiction-as-art from fiction-as-discourse, we are free to develop a field of writing that encompasses all such “musically inclined” work, whatever form it takes, be it poetry, prose, essay, etc..)  One must, in a sense, trace back from the work to the originary impulse in order to determine its aesthetic motivation.

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Having written as far as above, I was having trouble articulating just what I meant by motivation, or what, of all possible motivations, is the one behind what I talk about when I talk about writing-as-art.  Myers’ latest missive helped me figure out.  This particular passage is where I feel most prominently the dissonance between Myers’ way of thinking and mine:

The term experimental writer must be given its unconditional release. A good novelist, whose writing is alive, seeks to pioneer an idiom—a style, a method of organization—by which he is able to complete his novel’s design according to his ideal conception of it.

“Pioneering an idiom” is all good and well, but the presumption here is that “writer” and “novelist” are one and the same. Writer and novelist, however, are not perfect synonyms. A novelist is a writer, but a writer need not be a novelist, even if she writes novels.  Which sounds absurd, at first.  But when I look at the writers who interest me, in whatever form, be it novel or poetry or essay,the ones to whom I return again and again are the Writers.  They are concerned with language and with writing, and with how language is inextricable from our lived life, and often especially with how writing is as well.  A parallel, perhaps: Myers is concerned with The Novel in the way a lot of people are concerned with Identity, and I can stomach books whose sole domain is the minority experience as much as I can books whose sole domain is character and plot.

James Merrill, when asked if he had any for young poets, once gave this advice: “There’s no need to wallow in the assumptions of your time and place, since your work will reflect them, whatever you do.”  One cannot totally dissociate art from culture, of course (nor should one want to); even art that is more concerned with aesthetics than cultural discourse must inherit and develop the aesthetic concerns of its culture.  But, for example, as a gay man, I’ve always found the popular concern with identity literature to be baffling.  I am not interested in Gay Literature; I’m interested in Literature.  (For the moment, let’s agree to just save the topics of oppression, exclusion, and canon formation for another time.)  Poets like Crane and Merrill, some of the strongest influences on my writing, all have a peculiarly homosexual bent which sublimates overt sexuality and the concerns which having a minority sexuality bring about, to allow for more universal themes of language, sexuality, communion, and society.  I may even sense an echo of this type of sublimation in writers like Stevens or Hopkins or Melville, whom certain people are always trying to claim as Gay Writers, but I need not claim them as Gay Writers to have enjoyed their work and gotten what I have out of it any more than I need to claim Melville’s novels are poetry because his prose is particularly concerned with sound and rhythm.

I may get a certain type of enjoyment out of “Voyages,” knowing it is the rare poem I could read to a boyfriend without having to subconsciously switch pronouns and alter represented genders, but what most enthralls me about “Voyages” is the language, the desperate attempt to use language to compensate for physical distance and anneal spiritual separation— even if I can acknowledge that that desperation to connect is certainly intensified by the social oppression it faced at the time.  But the same expectation of commitment goes for traditional novels. I do not put down a novel simply because it has a traditional plots and characters; I will put down a novel, however, because it only has them, or because it does not seem to be doing more than repositioning things I have seen before.  I didn’t finish Hemon’s Lazarus Project, for example, for that reason. Writers who use language like they use grocery bags, whether it be to contain identity issues or social issues, are, at best, marginally interesting to me.  (This may be why I’m ambivalent about Bolaño; his writing is excellent, but I’m just not terribly interested in what he uses it for, however much I feel like I ought to be.)  I don’t think they should be prevented from writing and publishing, and I’m certainly not attempting to prove their valuelessness, but they will probably not be getting my attention.  In the terms I toyed with before, it’s the Nantucketers I’m interested in, not the merchant sailors or the pirates.  If the merchant sailor/fiction-as-discourse is your thing, go for it— just please, please don’t expect us all to pretend with you that the Nantucketer doesn’t exist.

Filed under: Aesthetics, Writing

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aesthetics, Writing

Artless Sex | Sexless Art

I’ve been busy reading and writing for my classes (Well, not, actually… recently I’ve been watching Mad Men and pretending that I’m thinking about writing for my classes), so I’ve not had the extra energy to work up a thorough and thoughtful post here, but I’ve got some extraneous thoughts that don’t belong in my papers. I’m putting them here so I don’t keep trying to shoehorn them into the essay

I’m writing on intention in interpretation for a class on Analytic Aesthetics. Now I’m not automatically against using biographical information or an author’s stated intent as an aid to interpreting a work. I was talking about Beckett to a guy during the meet and greet week when we all first arrived here and mentioned something about Beckett’s infamous ‘subtraction’ revelation instead of Joyce’s method of addition. In the midst of this, Krapp’s Last Tape came up, which has distinct parallels to this revelation, as evinced by one of Beckett’s statements to his biographer John Knowles along the lines of “Let’s get this straight once and for all: Krapp’s revelation was on the dock during a storm, mine was in my mother’s room.” He stopped me mid-sentence, because this apparently threw doubt on my pomo-litcrit cred, and asked why I felt the need to analyze KLT biographically… I don’t remember exactly what I said, conveniently, but it was half-retreat, half-why-the-hell-not? However unnecessary it is to the enjoyment and interpretation of the play, it is nevertheless interesting to know, and the parallel says more about Beckett’s method of writing than any piece of Beckett’s writing by itself.

But I’ve been thinking about what is actually meant by ‘authorial intent,’ (though debating what is meant by ‘intent’ isn’t relevant to my paper topic, which is one of the things I’m hating about writing in an analytic style— no matter if a basic premise is flawed, I’ve got to dilly-dally around that and address a specific issue in a specific prior paper), and obviously about its relevance to interpretation. As most people familiar with the topic know, anti-intentionalists (generally treated in what I’ve read as descendants of Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ and jouissane) completely refute the relevance of authorial intent, while the intentionalists campaign that authorial intent is the sole source of a text’s meaning. But what I find puzzling is most of the intentionalists seem to have this view of the production of an artwork akin to the Catholic view of sex. There is no sex/writing without the intent to produce a child/convey a message.

In one of the essays I’m reading, Noël Carroll says that if we one day found out that Jonathan swift was an Irish-hating cannibal, we’d probably interpret ‘A Modest Proposal’ differently… Probably true. But the disjunct here is that ‘A Modest Proposal’ is conveying a message, however seriously or humorously. As we were all taught in our freshman lit classes, satire requires a target, and it may not be anything more than a negative message, but Swift is mocking something, even if exactly what the target of the satire is is up for debate. He has a specific message to convey. In this sense, it seems entirely relevant to call on Swift’s intended message to deny anyone who believes he is actually proposing people eat Irish babies, and thus, if it came to light that Swift really was an Irish-hating cannibal, it would throw a whole new light on his justifications for his suggestion. (Caveat peremptor: I haven’t read ‘AMP’ in a very long time… so the specifics may be debatable, but the overall point still stands, I assume)

Much literature, on the other hand, and especially modern and postmodern literature, seems designed specifically to problematize this transferral of intent to ‘meaning.’ Not to mention, it seems to me, that a lot of that very literature is predicated on the desire to write without having anything to say. It’s present from Kafka, but more as general existential anxiety than an explicitly writerly concern, on through the likes of Beckett and to contemporary literature, e.g. Josipovici and Vila-Matas, not to mention Langpo, flarf, and the like, where content is completely unreflective of intent. Oddly enough, this is where intent becomes entirely relevant— you kind of need to know what’s going on when you read a flarf poem, because if you’re looking for intent in the ‘brute text’ itself, you’re going to be sent on all kinds of wild goose chases. The intentionalists I’m reading for this essay, however, seem incapable of conceiving of intent in any way not relevant to Charlotte Temple.

In other words, don’t write if you’re gonna use a condom. Or oulipo. Noël Carroll and the Pope disapprove.

Filed under: Aesthetics, Beckett, Carroll

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