Those who live in the present but who harbour no doubts about the structure of authority, about the extreme dangers of our society, including the estrangement of man and nature, those whose anger does not drive them to delve into the essentials, and those whose approach to their art raises no questions, all of these must renounce their status as artists.
Masayuki Takayanagi (tr. Alan Cummings)
For a long time, the local library would give me old copies of the Times Literary Supplement. For years, I used to read it at night when I could sleep with a mixed fascination. Culture, intellectual life – all this was marvellous. But I was disturbed by the steadiness of its tone and the tranquility of its judgements. So, at least, it seemed to me then. Gradually, I saw in it an old enemy: culture itself, the old culture, whose conservatism was clear when it came to reviewing works of philosophy. My judgement was simplistic, unsubtle, but one day I took hundreds of editions of the TLS to the dump and felt lifted.
What was it I disliked? Simply that a metaphysic was not allowed to lift itself from literature. Or that the approach to literature was in some way obvious, or transparent, and that judgements could be made. But I asked myself – I still ask – whether this is because I lack something, something quality of judgement; that I am not far enough from what I read – and that, perhaps, others like me also lack. But then I also asked – and ask today – whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.
It was Lars’s quote that provoked me, and the anger in the Takayanagi quote that gave me the words and moved me to write (because anger is such a kinetic emotion). An attack on my beloved TLS! And not even on the hyper-Tory issues of early this year that seemed to be begging Rupert Murdoch not to sell them.
I think Lars is probably right if you look at any individual article in the TLS. Unlike the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, which both review books under the aegis of a particular cultural orientation set by the editors, the TLS has always been far more ecumenical. Nonfiction tends to be reviewed by experts in the field of the book under discussion, and correspondingly, the instances of axe-grinding tend to be intradisciplinary rather than cross-disciplinary. This tends to result in a greater plurality of critical apparati, since reading Philip Payne on Carl Corino’s biography of Robert Musil is a lot more enlightening and involving than reading Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop.
Except for the occasional creeping Toryism (happy, Rupert?) and an evident bias towards analytic philosophy, Lars is right to observe the lack of an emergent metaphysic and to say that the engagement tends to be on the books’ own terms. It is precisely this provincialism, which in combination with ecumenicality, allows for much more open-ended speculation. For there is an implicit set of metaphysics in each discipline and review, and to their honest credit, the TLS is open about letting the contradictions sit next to one another. Marxism sits next to neo-liberalism, post-colonialism next to the saner half of evolutionary biology, and Fredric Jameson next to Charles Taylor.
This plurality of habits of being, as it were, provides me (at least) with a constant deferral of finitude. When I read Alastair Fowler shredding Stephen Greenblatt, I don’t see a transparency but a vicious questioning, done on Fowler’s terms but nonetheless insidiously non-final. Moving on to an article comparing various parodies of Bacon, I take not the harsh judgment of Greenblatt (satisfying as it may be), but the sheer partiality of it all. It is this lesson that I take with me in life, and it’s why I hesitate to ever settle on a single field of expertise.
Authors like Beckett, Bernhard, Blanchot, Josipovici, and Davis attempt to effect an erasure of that traditional cultural baggage, that which makes us feel comfortably situtated when reading. They succeed in varying degrees (I vote for Beckett myself), but I admire their project in every way. It is not enough, however. The role of those authors and critics–”fans,” you could call them–that are obsessed with consuming, regurgitating, and mutilating culture is to remind us of the fluidity of such things: that we should not damn it but synthesize it genealogically. Joyce in Finnegans Wake, as I said in many previous entries, constitutes a pinnacle of this all-consuming methodology, but so does the TLS. They give us the evidence.
There are those who selectively pick from that evidence and fall in line; they fall under Takayanagi’s accusation. But one does not cure one’s susceptibility by avoidance alone. Engage impartially and ecumenically and your intentions will be progressive, not conservative.