David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2003 (page 1 of 2)

The Book of Franza, Ingeborg Bachmann

A painful and considered novel, not totally finished, but a door to some new possibilities for fiction. Or possibly a dead end.

Bachmann’s earlier stories collected in The Thirtieth Year were very much in a straight line from Mann and Broch. Educated men (they are almost always men) think about and discuss matters of justice and morality that their circumstances belie. They don’t bring much new to the field except for a very evocative style, and for the 50’s, the plots are archaic, relying on the sort of personal/political trauma that was being abandoned by her contemporaries. “A Step Towards Gomorrah,” an apocalyptic lesbian power struggle almost devoid of larger context, gives the most indication of where she was going, and is the best of the batch.

Her later stories, from Three Paths to the Lake, keep the style but drop the ideological orientation in favor of a more particular and partial view of damaged personalities and relationships, with gaps of information, irreparable disconnections, and hints of total breakdown. “Word by Word,” about a translator breaking from her knowledge of language and consequently from the people in her world, is so immersive in its particular affliction as to rank with any Germanic fiction I’ve read of the last 50 years.

The Book of Franza isn’t the most extreme example of her later approach (the story it’s bundled with, “Requiem for Fanny Goldman,” is far more nightmarish and histrionic), but it’s the clearest I’ve read, where she significantly ties a woman’s breakdown to mythological and historical elements. Its nihilism, however, is total; I can’t think of any redemptive moment in the story that Bachmann actually endorses. But it’s a measured nihilism, far closer to Joanna Russ than Celine, and Bachmann’s ability to articulate it while spinning the prose into a vortex of disorienting mental collapse is impressive.

The book is a companion to one of the later stories, “The Barking,” which introduced Franza and her monster of a husband, Leo. She assists him with his studies on concentration camp survivors, and he is rather terrible to her. Neither focuses on the particulars of Leo, indirectly addressing his effects on his mother (in “The Barking”) and Franza herself (in the novel). Franza’s already fled from him in the novel, and her brother Martin is taking care of her. She describes living with Leo as living with the force of destruction and terror itself. (What is seen of Leo strangely anticipates the narrator William Kohler of Wiliam Gass’s The Tunnel. Doped up on pills, having been to a sanitorium, and hardly in a functional state, she drags her brother to Egypt, where she communes with those exploited by “the whites,” wanders in the desert and, somewhat willingly, dies.

The focus on the symptoms and the victim over the causes–the narrative of the victim who is so damaged as to comprehend only slowly what has happened and what is happening–mixes uneasily with Bachmann’s parallels between Leo/Franza and the greater masses of the exploited. Franza does not have a victim complex, but she is so broken as to be unable to clearly articulate her reasons for her journey. The novel is an indictment of the traditional forms of rational discourse as being inherently fascistic, and so, as with “Word for Word” it’s the failed process of articulation itself that has to contain the significance. The result is inherently ambiguous. The linkages to the third-world and the hostile but honest forces of the desert are consciously grafted on, seemingly by Franza’s subconscious intent, but this explanation risks being too cogent given Franza’s decaying mental state.

Mark Anderson in the introduction to Three Paths to the Lake says:

Brother and sister travel to Egypt in a semi-mystical retreat from contemporary Western civilization that owes much to Robert Musil’s use of the same theme in his novel The Man Without Qualities. Invoking the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, Musil’s and Bachmann’s novels explore the themes of incest and twin personalities to gain access to a mystical “other state” beyond conventional patriarchal relation.

I don’t know much from semi-mystical retreats, but this seems pretty wide off the mark, and not just because Franza completely dominates Bachmann’s book. Musil doesn’t seem to be Bachmann’s main target, but he’s clearly in the line that Bachmann is attacking, because he is still trying to get at truth through aggressive (post-Nietzschean) discourse. Bachmann not only discounts that kind of effort, but lumps it in with the stated evils of Leo’s studies and classical European society. Franza gains a kind of immanent metaphysical knowledge at the end, but it is hardly a solution. It’s a statement against the entire process.

The Book of Franza was not finished, but what remains is one of the more honest venues for an author who got around her intellectual bent and came out very dark. The treatment has something in common with the degenerative approach of Wolfgang Koeppen, but is far more of a break with the past. It is nihilistic without being obnoxious, placing it far above E.M. Cioran and probably above Celine. Its attempts to carve out an autonomous response to the male-dominated genres which enveloped Bachmann are far more successful than Christa Wolf. What it lacks, perhaps intentionally, is coherence.

“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein, Revisited

Joseph Deumer, writing on Morris Dickstein, nicely sums up the affiliation between the new critics and the new theory crowd:

I’ve often thought, in passing, that there is a close relationship between the New Critics & the various Deconstructionists…Both schools reject claims of expressive meaning in the texts they examine in favor of a forensic hermeneutics.

I’m with him. I wonder again, though: is the new historicist approach so different? When Hamlet becomes a conduit for doctrinal medieval spats over the nature of Purgatory, as Stephen Greenblatt would have it, or when Frank Norris gets tied up into mercantilist disputes, in Walter Benn Michaels’s work, expressive meaning gives way to a dreary fatalism. The hermeneutics used in the historicists’ calculus of exploitation and oppression are less hermetic than those of new criticism and theory, but they are just as schematic. I’m inclined to see these historicist investigations as a subset of the general theoretical mindset in the last thirty years, not as their own genre.

Despite his delineation between historical and theoretical criticism (see last entry), Dickstein probably agrees. I understated the grouchiness of the article, and Dickstein’s obvious unhappiness with a lot of new historicism. He appears to be scouring the literary world for any sort of real political engagement, and grudgingly settling for new historicism’s unpleasantly impractical intersection of cultural history and class warfare.

A look back at Dickstein’s 1977 book Gates of Eden, a weird amalgam of history and literature of the 60’s, reveals a yearning–sublimated in “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding”–for a time in which literature and literary studies were both heavily invested in social change. Dickstein finds it in his experiences as a young professor in the 60’s. Unlike Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, Dickstein was involved in the new radicalism in the early part of the 60’s, long before Berkeley and Kent, and his yearning for its union of aesthetic and political involvement comes out clearly. For him, new historicism is a clearly inadequate shadow of that period.

Coming out of the 50’s, the correlation of social unrest with important-seeming books by people like Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon made it appear to some that the harmony was at hand and that the locus of change was right where it should be: in the centers of higher learning. (They were so, so wrong.)

But even Gates of Eden suggests that Dickstein found himself on the wrong side of the literary fence. His book focuses far more on literature than it does literary studies. Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, both about as “radical” as you can get in 60’s intellectuals, are cited half-disapprovingly by Dickstein: they talked the talk and exhorted students to rethink political and social foundations, but the merit of their work was its practical effects, not its theoretical basis. He lays into Marcuse for having failed to generate a neo-Marxist project, but congratulates him on having inspired countless students to challenge orthodoxy. His greatest pride, which he echoes in the article, was in being part and parcel with the activists, and in shaping their mindset and critical apparati.

Finally, it is not the product of the academic establishment that interests Dickstein, the parade of editions of 500 that are slotted into university libraries around the country and only pulled out for dissertations, but the process of the university, where established models of discourse and engagement are used to produce halfway decent human beings. At points it nearly seems as though Dickstein treats modern criticism, historicist or not, as an expedient doctrine, not of value for its intrinsic meaning, but for getting people to think more sharply, before (or while) they reorient themselves to political activism. Ironically, this is a historicist view to take of literary criticism itself, and like many historicist treatments, it denigrates the integrity of the work it considers.

“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein

Morris Dickstein writes on “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding” in a diffuse article that exemplifies the doom of the provider of an afterword to an anthology. He has to provide an authoritative, paternal perspective without being dismissive of the disparate viewpoints enclosed. The result is skeptical and non-reductionistic, both good, but confusingly equivocal. But I like Dickstein, and he makes some good points that bear blunt extraction.

He treats three main forms of modern literary criticism:

  • New criticism, the more classical approach of close reading, attempting to ferret out tropes and devices that form the shape of a work, usually in a vacuum-sealed context. (F.R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, Northrop Frye, Helen Vendler, etc.)
  • New historicism, that which roughly tries to place work in a very specific historical context, play down the individualistic nature of authorship, and show novels as products of obvious and submerged social forces. (Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Benn Michaels, Nancy Armstrong, etc.)
  • New theory, that which uses a deductive approach from some overarching framework, often political and/or Hegelian, to produce architectonic schemas to apply to work. (In my opinion this is the most varied category he uses, and can include everyone from Harold Bloom to Jacques Derrida to Tzvetan Todorov to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Michael Denning.)

The categories are debatable and overlap; Dickstein admits that. But despite his problems with new historicism, Dickstein essentially gives it a pass over what he says is the staid new criticism and the impotent new theory.

My instinct has always been to group theory and historicism closer together than any other pairing: both can be tremendously reductive and both are inclined to load the dice with an a priori political view which is then used to bludgeon authors into the needed positions. (Read David Lodge’s academic novels of the 70’s for treatments of both approaches.)

But Dickstein strongly pushes the view that it’s theory and new criticism that share a similar self-marginalization and conservatism. Theory, in his mind, was constructed as an apolitical ghetto:

Theory set out to revolutionize the academy, where it had taken refuge from an unsympathetic society. It aimed at a radical transformation of the interpretive disciplines, only to burden them with a sense of skepticism, disillusionment, and broken connections. During the backlash years of Nixonian demagoguery and Reaganite restoration, theory became catastrophe theory, a way of compensating for the sense of impotence, or of recouping failure by showing that it was inevitable, even as critics asserted their power over the text, their refusal to be dominated by its structures, themes, or rhetorical patterns. Emphasizing ideology over interpretation, literary scholarship became a way of seeing through literature, of not being taken in by it.

This is very extreme, basically positing theory as a defense mechanism, and a way of exerting academic superiority not just over texts, but over the common readers who allow themselves to be manipulated. As such, Dickstein paints theory as dishonest and petty. It is a thesis that has recently been taken up by Happy the Tutor. I don’t think it applies in all the cases he believes. Harold Bloom prostrating himself before the altar of Shakespeare and Derrida humbling himself before Poe, among others, seem to advocate an egalitarian engagement and sparring with texts. But both structuralist and the more extreme deconstructionist approaches do advocate such a strict reframing of the work under consideration as to evoke Hamilton Burger browbeating a witness.

Are they, by nature, apolitical, or even conservative? I don’t think the question has a definitive answer, but it’s hard to deny that very little of practical, political worth has come out of theory (Richard Rorty’s strained efforts included). And this willful seclusion has both a cause and effect relationship with the marginalization of the literary academic institution.

Does this match up with the anemic and unimaginative beast that Dickstein makes of classical close reading and new criticism? Partially. The myopic focus on linguistic devices over ideology, character, and authorial intent makes trudging through, for instance, Leavis’s dissection of T.S. Eliot heavy going, but Dickstein sells it short. To the extent that there is still a moral underpinning of the proposed reading, Leavis is selling more than mere lists of tropes. I disagree with Leavis, but at least it’s there. Now, you can say that Leavis isn’t a pardigmatic new critic and five pages of Cleanth Brooks would have me climbing the walls, and you’d be right, but the empiricism is similar, as is the lack of engagement with the world at large, which is the point on which Dickstein condemns them. But that doesn’t quite justify some of the harsher points Dickstein makes about theory, nor does it give much credence to the (heavily conditional) elevation of historism:

Historicist readings too often seem idiosyncratic, empirically tenuous, or merely suggestive. In addition, they are often all too predictable in their political sympathies. Eager to weigh in on the side of the insulted and the injured, they seem determined by their well-meaning political agendas. Yet compared with other ways of reading, they call upon a larger knowledge of the world, and often do more to link literature or theory to the actual flow of human life.

Here I’m skeptical. Analysing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in an exclusively feminist context is valuable, but the degree to which the interpretation crowds out all others is more blinkered than illuminating. (I’m not picking on feminist readings here: so much has been done to Hawthorne in the Puritan context that he can hardly be read for the first time. Melville survives better because his books are too big, literally and metaphorically. I do think Shelley has been done a similarly large disservice.) If the new historicists haven’t been especially good historians, they’re plugging as much a false engagement with literature as the theoreticians. But the key word is “engagement”:

The radical students I taught in the late ’60s were scarcely bent on deconstructing the residues of metaphysics in Western humanist texts. On the contrary, they responded with passion to the classics as subversive works whose humane promise remained unfulfilled. They connected with art and philosophy not because it was canonical but because it felt so fresh, so immediate — and so visionary. Blake, Dickens, Ruskin, and Lawrence seemed like their contemporaries, not the authors of musty classics. Never had the Great Books felt more relevant than when the whole direction of society was in play. The lineage of deconstruction takes us back not to the politics of the ’60s but to its ultimate betrayal and blockage.

What I come away with is Dickstein’s agenda that it’s time for critics to involve themselves in reality again, and if the new historicists are a little shallow or reductionistic, by all means condemn them, but be aware that their aims are noble and practical in the best Thomas Dewey sense. Unfortunately, I believe that this way lies social realism and dreary Upton Sinclair novels. Dickens is so absorbed in his time and place he’s his own new historian, but someone like Blake so defies a historicist reading that Dickstein’s use of him here undermines the point. While Dickstein makes a case that much theory has no place except to belittle greater authors, he basically ignores the longstanding tradition that isolation and myopia have produced in academia, which I’m not yet prepared to discount.

Dickstein makes all these criticisms and more, quite blatantly, against the new historicists, and still seems inclined to give them a break, because of the political agenda. The historians, like Dickstein did, can still serve to point would-be radicals to the ideals set forth in the classics. It’s just that by privileging the near-term practical outcome over the purity of the methodology, they are offering image over substance, much as the 60’s themselves did.

[Probably more to come on this…one afterthought is that I probably shouldn’t have used the word “political” when referring to the broader attitude of “engagement.”]

The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza

This novel is not what it appears to be. The pretty language and calm, depressed reminiscing give no idea of the grotesque violence that will end the story. Out of context, it seems pointless, but no, there is a reason to it. Krleza just waits a very long time to tip his hand.

Six years after The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza wrote On the Edge of Reason. Reason is an excursion into the tyranny of society that anticipates Camus’s The Fall: its style is lean and forcefully direct, and until the end, when it turns into a Communist polemic, it is a balanced indictment of the forces of justice in high society, and the tacit complicity of refined culture with the unseen brutality that feeds it. The Return of Philip Latinowicz is written in a drastically different style. The political and ethical content disappears, replaced by an obsessive, measured chronicling that owes much to Proust. The styles appear incompatible, not just contrary but totally independent. The answer is that Krleza is working against the style of Return even as he writes in it; the book undermines its seeming pretenses. Adopting Proust’s methods and talents, Krleza eventually uses them to mount an assault on him.

Philip is a morose, sedentary painter who returns to his provincial hometown in Croatia to search for inspiration. There is little that is actively bothering him, but there is nothing to suggest joy or involvement. The first third of the book is little more than a detailed chronicling of Philip’s senses as he wanders through the town. There are undercurrents of misery, nostalgia, and disgust, but they remain shadowed by the immanence of the description.

The detachment persists in the middle third, which is a series of detached childhood and adolescent memories with no clear direction to them. One acquaintance is followed for a while, then dropped, and another is picked up and dealt with. The lack of emphasis or acuity in the narration gives the writing a gauzy quality. It resembles Krleza’s contemporary Bruno Schulz, but while Schulz embraced a child’s view of illogical cause and effect, Krleza strips the rationality out of the text. The descriptions of childhood cruelty and classism don’t have any reaction at all associated with them, so the effect is disinterest, not pathos.

The ironic component is that a more “objective” description of the events, without Philip’s distancing tactics of attending to the smallest physical sensation, would be more traditionally provocative and more empathy-provoking. Even in translation, the style in The Return of Philip Latinowicz evokes Proust, but the goals are opposing. Proust wants to recreate the past as present through his writing; Philip is trying to remove himself from it. He thinks, in one of the rare moments that he lapses into generalization:

His idea of the infenalization of reality. This idea, doubtless a diabolical and unhealthy conception, was that in life phenomena have in fact no internal logical or rational connection! That life’s manifestations unfold and develop one beside another, simultaneously: with the sort of infernal simultaneity of the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or Bruegel…The tall, grimy steeples with dragon’s heads, whitened waterspouts and marble behinds; and the fat Carolina; the English horses, bon jour, Monsieur, the voice of a caged jay,–and everything melting like the chocolate wrapped in silver paper, everything dragging along like Joe Podravec’s coach, everything foolish and swamplike as Pannonia itself!

It’s not a new sentiment, but it’s one that is difficult to pull off in fiction that has basic demands of narrative and interest. It’s even more difficult when the author (Krleza) does not agree with it. The first two thirds of the book are a beautifully written depiction of an attitude that Krleza finds poisonous, and a great attack on apolitical modernists from the inside. I don’t know to what extent Krleza uses Philip’s style in his other work, other than that it is totally absent from On the Edge of Reason, but his disapproval of its intent and its effects makes his mastery of it rather anomalous.

It’s in the last third that the book both falls apart and explains itself. Some of the earlier characters show up and play parts in a little psycho-drama. Philip casually gets involved with Bobocka, the wife of the miserable businessman Balocanski, and strings her along without realizing it (he comes to believe she’s manipulating him). A Greek named Kyriales shows up to assault Philip and anyone in range with Cioran-like nihilism. All of this ends very badly. The shock of the violent ending doesn’t sit well with Philip’s detached observations, Kyriales’ pompous meanderings, or even the melodrama of the love triangle, but that’s the point.

Krleza was a dedicated Communist, and his aim is to strip away the harmlessness and the intimate nature of philosophically-tinged bourgeois novel and replace them with brutality, which he considers to be more honest. In his speech and manner, Kyriales is a caricature of Naphta, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, full of piss and vinegar, spewing Hobbesian and Malthusian arguments to shut out all comers. Mann treated Naphta’s views with respect; I don’t think that Krleza does. They both meet the same suicidal fate, but in The Return of Philip Latinowicz, it seems more pointless than fitting, a waste of a good brain. Likwise with Bobocka and Balocanski and Philip himself, whose defects originate in an unwillingness to confront the basic artificiality of their existences. In this respect, it is closer to Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight than to any so-called “novel of ideas.”

Krleza ends the book with blood on the floor and all that has gone before torn up and dismantled. It is shamefully satisfying, especially to those who are tired of the much-vaunted life of the mind, but deeply disturbing.

Robert Musil on Oswald Spengler

Progress itself is not something that unfolds in a single line. Every present period is simultaneously now and yet millennia old. This millepede moves on political, economic, cultural, biological, and countless other legs, each of which has a different tempo and rhythm. One can see this as a unified picture and elaborate it in terms of a single cause by always keeping to a central perspective, as Spengler does, but one can also find satisfaction in the exact opposite….

It is now perhaps possible to understand what I mean when I ask that such theories (insofar as they are not explicitly true or false) be treated as nothing more than experimental intellectual principles for forming the inner life, instead of–as always happens today–ascribing an emotional quality to theory in such a simple and clumsy way. What people refer to as intellectualism in the negative sense, the fashionable intellectual haste of our time, the withering of thoughts before they ripen, is caused in part by the fact that we seek depth with our thoughts and truth with our feelings without noticing that we have it backwards, and are often disappointed at not getting anywhere. Sweeping ideological attempts like Spengler’s are quite beautiful, but they suffer today from the fact that far too few of the inner possibilities have had the ground prepared for them. One simply explains the World War or our collapse first by this, then by that cluster of causes; but this is deceptive. Just as fraudulent as explaining a simple physical event by a chain of causes. In reality, even in the first links of the chain of causality the causes have already flowed and dissolved beyond the scope of our vision. In the physical realm we have found an accommodation (the concept of function). In the spiritual realm we are completely helpless. Intellectuality leaves us in the lurch. But not because intellect is shallow (as if everything else had not left us in the lurch as well!) but because we have not worked at it.

Robert Musil, “Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who Have Eluded the Decline of the West,” 1921

Musil is attacking Spengler’s Decline of the West, and specifically its treatment of the so-called social construction of reality, which keenly anticipates a good deal of the postmodern project that would start up three decades later. Musil also goes after Spengler’s castles-in-the-sky methodology, which also afflicted so much continental philosophy. I don’t know that Musil ever fully explained the alternative to which he alludes here, but as the gentleman of Shallot says, “Half is enough.”

(Thanks to U.O. for originally bringing this to my attention.)

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