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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

Shapely Religion: On Maso and Markson

Is there a common concern in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Carole Maso’s AVA that goes beyond the superficial? Each is a long series of short fragments, only occasionally more than one sentence long. The relationship of each fragment to those surrounding it is constantly made ambiguous, leaning sometimes towards clearly ironic disjunction, other times towards hesitant continuity, such that, while reading, you are continually kept on your toes.  There is a downside of having to stay on ones toes all the time, though: the format swings between addictively compelling and unendurably frustrating. Markson starts with a curiousity-sparking mystery written in a language that dissects itself one razor-thin layer at a time, and Maso’s sentences are hypnotically pleasing to read as the images and phrases snowball into scenes and characters, but by the end of both books, I had been ready for them to be over for at least a few dozen pages.  Even so, I found them both interesting and, well… thought-provoking, as you may see if you continue reading.  That’s the short version.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Markson, Maso

Quick update

This blog is two and a half years old now, and what I’ve put here has been quite… hit or miss, I think, during that time. I started it back in 2007, near the end of my senior year of undergraduate, because I intended to take a year off before ‘pursuing’ an MA (how they flee, those degrees), and had been warned by numerous people, professors and graduate students alike, that it is very easy to stop writing without a grade looming, making the transition back to writing for school very difficult.  As such, posts have ranged from practice just putting thoughts into sentences (“(and thoughts are nothing if they never pass through the windowpane of a sentence)” – Roubaud) to trying to work out what has interested me in a book, or to put that interest into a vaguely academic-ese language in the hopes of future use for school, a language which I never had the energy or a strong enough desire to sustain (let’s just say a PhD is highly unlikely). Having finished with academia for as far as I can project, I hope to scrub a bit of that encrusted language off— it did not suit me in the first place, I don’t think.  All to say, I intend to get less nose-half-heartedly-to-the-grindstone-because-what-else-does-a-BA-in-English-do.  I’m sure I will still turn up with the occasional over-long post that hangs together only by the loosest threads (I just started The Loop, after all), but since my reading is no longer determined primarily by a syllabus, what I am reading and what I want to write about will, I hope, converge more often— and will thankfully not be hijacked by “How can I turn this thing I want to write about into the subject of a paper I don’t particularly care to write?”

Onwards, then.  I picked up a nice selection of books with Christmas gift cards, mostly novels by contemporary authors I’ve never read, and have also been trying to finish up the books I picked up in the Dalkey Archive summer sale a few months ago as well as the various used books I’ve grabbed since moving back from England.  Two books that I began and could not get into were Harry Mathews’ The Conversions and Kobo Abe’s The Box Man. The Abe I will probably give another chance; I’m almost certain it didn’t take only because I started it in the middle of holiday travelling, with all its attendant distractions and interruptions— intercoms and babies and flight attendants and noisy seatmates.  The Mathews… we’ll see. It’s his first novel and, based on the two chapters I read, seems to suffer from all the worst tendencies Oulipian constraints can produce: extreme esotericism that might be amusing given the right mood, but is completely nonsensical without the intentionally hidden key (e.g. I learned from an essay surveying Mathews’ work  that the host’s first words to the narrator, “The cheek of our Bea!” is in fact the narrator mishearing the title of a song— “The Sheik of Araby”— being sung by another character, Bea).

Aside from those hiccups, though, I’ve been reading some excellent books.  Around Thanksgiving I stumbled across D. H. Lawrence’s “St. Mawr” and “The Man Who Died,” the first of which I’d been curious about after reading Richard Poirier’s rave in A World Elsewhere, where he calls it one of the finest novellas ever written.  While I don’t know that I’d go that far, I did enjoy both novellas and am very interested in reading more Lawrence.  The scene where Mrs. Witt defends the horse’s life against the Dean and his wife’s insistence that it be put down was the most unexpectedly funny piece of writing I’ve come across in a while. I had not been led to believe Lawrence had a comedic bone in his writing hand, just vitriol and passion.  Either way, these felt like a good place to start with Lawrence, though not substantial enough for me to say much about him, considering the volume of the rest of his work. I’m unsure about which of his novels to go to, though, so any suggestions would be welcome.

The other books I’ve read recently I want to cover a bit more than cursorily, though.  Maso’s Ava and Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, two books by Aira, Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity, and the first Handke book I’ve read should get some words here in the coming weeks. I start a new job this week, and knowing that work I don’t want to do usually inspires me to do work I do want to do, I intend to be back with those relatively soon.

Filed under: Books, Meta

Plato and the Whale

Moby Dick is not written as cryptography but as mystery.  The agitations of voice, the playfulness through which symbols emerge and then dissolve, the mixtures of incantatory, Biblical, polite, and vernacular language in this and other American books— these are what demand our attention altogether more than do ideas or themes extracted by critics in the interest of tidying up what is mysterious or confused.”  — Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere, p. 36

“Skepticism of this kind [the authors’ regarding the symbolist tendencies of their central characters], however, need not and does not modify the grandeurs of description in which Melville and Lawrence like to indulge.  The admiration of the writers in both cases goes not to the possible accuracy of a symbolist perspective, but only to the heroic nobility of incentive behind it, its creative responsiveness to the things of this world.” – p. 43

Elsewhere, Poirier says that in the works he is discussing, the reader must ‘submit to a discipline, imposed by the difficulties in the writing, that will develop in us a consciousness rarely called forth…,’ and that, ‘in Emerson’s view, writing is valuable for the stimulations offered locally, by particular moments of the reading experience, and not for any retrospective consideration of the whole.’

After watching Phillip Hoare’s BBC documentary, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, I wanted to read the book, and after reading Poirier, I actually took it down and began to do so.  It’s been slow going, but not because of any difficulty in maintaining interest, really.  I even found fascinating, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, the dreaded ‘Cetology’ chapter, which two friends had warned me was the First Test of Commitment.  No, I’ve been reading it slowly simply because there’s no rush.  Which is new to me.  I’m normally eager to get through a book so I can move on to the next one, or I’m worried that I’ll forget some crucial image or idea and something important will be lost on me in the latter sections of a book.  Proust may have been a remedy for that— it is impossible to remember it all, so you remember what you remember and forget what you forget, and its length seems to be intended to bring about that necessarily cherry-picked memory.  But I think Phillip Roth’s recent comment, that if you take more than two weeks you haven’t really read the novel, is illuminating here, because it strikes me as particularly inadequate.  In most books, there are pivotal scenes supported by groundwork: character background, establishment shots, tension-building, etc.  There is a lot of padding, necessary or not, and it can obscure the significant passages, images, and events, such that if you take more than two weeks you will probably have forgotten something crucial and had something unimportant emphasized by the recession of what surrounds it.  Moby Dick seems different.  That’s not to say Melville doesn’t engage in groundwork— the first sentence is famous, after all— but I feel as if I can wander in Moby Dick, that Melville isn’t trying to direct which moments will provide that ‘local stimulation,’ and is willing to let just about any provide it.  There isn’t the imperative to get it all in quickly, so the stimuli combine to the full effect.  (And on top of that, if you are reading for a culminating effect, you’ve several hundred pages of meticulous anti-climax to get through first.) I’ll read a few chapters, then not pick it up for a day or two, but I still find myself mulling over certain passages and scenes, particular images or phrases. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Melville, Poirier, Writing

A Working Definition: On Roubaud and Poirier

I suspect my fascination with etymologies is rooted in the two semesters of Latin I took in high school.  I don’t remember a lick of it, but I have remembered how to break words down and root out the bits that can (maybe) tell you something on their own, which might get you by if you find yourself in a jam (the jam, at the time, being standardized tests).  I am by no means a linguist; I’ve no formal experience with the inheritances of words.  They’re a playground, a rabbit hole.  I admittedly enjoy how irresponsibly I follow their transformations, considering how the parts of a word have made up that word, and how they mislead, how easily a word’s present form can overwrite its past and still arrive at the same understanding for all the wrong reasons, and how then each root word leads you to suspect it is the root of another.  Suffuse: suf-, alternate of sub-, meaning under, beneath, up to; but ‘fuse.’  I think: parallel to infusion, but, while infuse has pleasant connotations, suffuse casts a glance towards submission, willing or unwilling.  It walks a fine line between terror and bliss, between a hot shower after a hard day and waterboarding.  Of course, this is trumping things up quite a bit, akin to exploring the significance of two plus two equalling four by means of numerology.  ‘Suffuse’ means, simply, ‘to pour liquid over a surface,’ though pour is misleading.  One Established Dictionary says ‘overspread,’ instead of pour, even as it says the root Latin word is ‘to pour.’  (Unexpectedly, ‘fountain’ has nothing to do with fundere, the Latin root.)  Or: one would expect ‘sect’ to follow from the root ‘to cut.’  A sect, one could assume, is a small group separated from— by an incision, a de-cision— but still part of a larger group.  But ‘sect’ comes from ‘secta’ for ‘following.’

‘Do your work, and I shall know you,’ [Emerson] says in ‘Self-Reliance’.  ‘Work’ is a way to confront the essential facts of existence and to discover in doing so the power of human desire which turns facts into mythologies and mythologies into facts.  – Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 94

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, the thing that keeps me going through Roubaud’s not always fun to read The Great Fire of London, is the dissonance of reading in the present tense.  We often consider grammatical tense and the effect it has on what is being narrated.  But rarely do we consider the tense of the activity of writing, except in such rare circumstances when it becomes so problematic, by the author’s intention or not, that we cannot help but notice it.  There is a bifurcation between experiencing self and writing self.  How an author handles such a dilemma, in an individual work or in their general method, I find to be one of the most interesting moves an author can make (can, because many do not). Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Poirier, Roubaud, Writing

from Roubaud’s “The Great Fire of London”

§136 Something that would be a project (a future), a project for existence

In a project for existence— it doesn’t matter which— only a single, pragmatic answer exists to the overall “what’s-the-point?”: time passes.  Every project, particularly a formal project of writing, like mine today, which has outlived all its value (I ascribed the Project value, thus opposing it to the what’s-the-point), takes up time, structures it, erases its empty pockets.  Each hour determines another, pushes it along, consumes and nullifies it.

If I myself seek (and I don’t, really) some sort of organized answer to the overall what’s-the-point today, I only come up with skepticism; I declare myself a skeptic in the classical style of Sextus Empiricus; I seek an ataractic calm in reading and “suspended judgement.”

From a philosophical point of view, my skepticism is essentialy shallow; I don’t seek the philosophical possibility of living skeptically, but simply (a lid on the kettle of appalling thoughts) some kind of protection for an affirmation: belief in nothing so as to not have death be my only belief.

This is a voluntarist attitude, whose corollary is a strategy for life that I’ve practice spontaneously, unreflectively, and unsystematically for a long while; I’ll dub it avoidism.  I avoid time by means of tasks—counting; describing, and searching for sonnets in libraries; this work at hand, pushing along and then recopying these black lines.  I avoid the world and its remains: I don’t answer letters, nor the telephone; I walk, I keep to myself, I keep my activity to a minimum.

It is true that in all this I am neither really “consistent” nor absolute.  Perhaps such is not possible without rapidly falling into the conclusions of a total what’s-the-point, but along another path, through a sort of death by starvation.  But precisely in this probable inconsistency (I don’t really subject it to questioning) lies the possibility for my current skeptical existence.  I practice a modest skepticism; I don’t allow myself to be dragged into the pitfall of passionately denying my contradictions.

This “avoidist” version of skepticism (which I acknowledge can only prompt an irritated shrug from a philosopher…), my own version of skepticism is, finally, rather close to what Coleridge recommended to fiction readers in his famous expression: “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I find this position eminently skeptical: entering into the novel (and more generally, placing yourself before the poem, the work of art) in such a frame of mind means (and the use of the word suspension, as in the skeptic principle of “suspension of judgment,” seems characteristic) living out my reading in the same exact terms as I live my daily life: by willingly suspending my belief, by deciding momentarily, and for a limited time, to believe in nothing at all.  The skeptical world is a world of the incredible that can be entered only in brief fragments odf demarcated time, in which the impossibility of accepting that things and worlds exist will be suspended between parentheses.  And the world of a novel is penetrated similarly; the world of the great novels imposes its force of conviction, not in its capacity as an exact replica or the revelation of a world that might be our own, but because by immersing ourselves withini t we gradualy yield our consent to the fact—though with an inner conviction that we remain masters of this choice—that every life is on the whole improbable.

Filed under: Quotes, Roubaud

Manipulating Storytellers, Pt. 3: Synecdoche, NY

Part one and two. [Where major spoilers start in the following is noted.]

In a fascinating interview with Wired magazine, Kaufman and his interviewer discuss how conceits provide a framework for his movies. Adaptation has the recursive loop of the events on screen affecting the written screen-play of the events on screen; Eternal Sunshine requires the viewer to deduce, even in scenes not blatantly presented as such, that the majority of the movie is Joel’s memory. But Synecdoche, says Kaufman, “doesn’t turn out [to be] anything other than what you’re watching.” There is the conceit of the title, of course, but there is no resolution of the conceit to tie the story off or justify its peculiarities. Knowing I’d seen it, a friend asked when Hazel’s house was first shown, “Okay, that house is actually on fire, right?” Then later, “Her house is still on fire, right?

Synecdoche is a sly movie. To start, everything from the soundtrack to the color palette appears to be standard quirky indie-movie fare: it opens with a sort-of-lighthearted but faintly macabre catchy song, muted colors, and the story of an artist struggling to realize a great work. It lets you get comfortable with your expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Analysis, Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 2)

(Forewarning: spoilers for just about all of Kaufman’s movies follow, except Synecdoche.)

As I hinted at the end of the last post, the reason Kaufman’s movies appeals to me more than von Trier’s is their openness to both the fact that we manipulate the things about which we tell stories and the fact that we are in turn manipulated by them. von Trier focuses on the human relationship of manipulator and manipulated, and though he is obviously concerned with the repercussions (Dogville) or lack thereof (Dancer), he is only secondarily concerned with how that relationship originated or its reflexive properties. Hence, Grace simply moves from persecuted to persecutor like a chess piece moving spaces, a feat that succeeds due to the overtly allegorical tone of the film, with its historical names, bare set, and chapter titles.

Looking back, the theme of reflexive manipulation becomes apparent in nascent form through most of Kaufman’s movies. There’s the tragic version in Being John Malkovich, when Craig ends up trapped in his wife’s child after attempting to reenter Malkovich, and the comic version in Eternal Sunshine, when Joel and Clementine decide to pursue their relationship despite the knowledge that it hurt them both tremendously the first time around— an ending still potentially tragic, or at best bitter-sweetly comic. (Interestingly, neither were the original endings in the draft scripts, which Kaufman rewrote at the director’s request. The original script for Malkovich goes crazy in the end, revealing that Lester, through a pact with Satan, becomes the literal puppet overlord of the world by controlling Malkovich [and I do mean literally: the final shot pans up the filaments attached to Craig’s arms as he tricks Lotte out of her Eden-like safe-haven from Lester’s control]; Eternal Sunshine ended with Clementine returning as an old women to Merzwiak’s clinic, oblivious that this is her fifth erasure of Joel, an ending still hinted at in the loop over which the credits roll.)

In Adaptation, this theme gets its first full treatment, though it is still subordinate to Kaufman’s most prominent theme of the inextricability of reality and fiction from each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

Manipulating Storytellers: von Trier and Kaufman (Pt. 1)

Caden Cotard unintentionally upsets his daughter, while “just trying to explain plumbing,” when he says that it’s nothing to be afraid of, that’s it’s everywhere. She responds with a shocked, “Every single where?!” It’s a fear that seems to prevail in Synecdoche, NY, both in its main character, forever expanding his project, and its viewers, trying to keep track of everything. The movie is indeed monstrous in its scope. It takes you over. One friend commented that it’s one of the only movies he’s seen that puts you in the mood to watch it, whereas most movies you’re “in the mood for” before you decide to watch them. Another friend reacted negatively to such extreme manipulation, essentially criticizing it as not playing fair— it forces you to have an empathetic reaction to a character he felt to be so blind to his own absurdity and selfishness that he doesn’t merit empathy. Another thought it interesting but severely bloated, that Kaufman didn’t have a handle on what he was trying to do and so had to continually introduce new characters and subplots just to keep it afloat. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Film, Kaufman, Synecdoche, von Trier

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