Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2010 (page 1 of 2)

Keith Thomas on Research and Notetaking

Keith Thomas wrote, among other things, Religion and the Decline of Magic, which, like all his books, is a monstrous, almost Robert Burton-ish, tome of obscure facts carefully arranged. I found his reflections on his working methods to be touching and, I think, humble:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

Yet as I pick my way through my accumulation of handwritten material, I don’t feel depressed. The thousands of used envelopes themselves give me a good deal of nostalgic pleasure; they remind me of old friends, of institutions with which I have been associated and of the secondhand booksellers who have sent me catalogues over the years. Admittedly, they also remind me of many false starts: topics I began on, tired of or discovered were being written up by somebody else. But that is a challenge to reorder my materials as the world moves on and my interests change. In his essay ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, appended to his The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills reassuringly remarks that ‘the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added, is an index of your intellectual progress … As you rearrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination.’

Keith Thomas

Rebecca West on Sentimentality

But the sentimental artist is becoming nothing, he has ears, he has eyes, he is being intelligent, he is playing a game, he is moving certain objects according to certain rules in front of spectators. Those objects one may take as the isolated units of his material which he has passed through his imagination by an unfortunately discontinuous process. He sees that one of these objects occupies a certain position on the ground, and knows that he will score a point if he can remove it to another position; he therefore sends another of these objects rolling along to displace it. Shock…one hears that ugly sound.

Rebecca West, “That Strange Necessity”

Impossible for me not to think immediately of my beloved Musil essay Black Magic:

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationships would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts.

As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist. Consequently, his work causes intellectual short-circuiting. He appeals to Man, God, the Spirit, Goodness, Chaos; and out of such big words he squeezes his sophisticated sentences. He could not possibly do so, were he to imagine the totality of their meaning, or at least grasp their utter unimaginability. But long before his time, these words had already taken on connotations meaningful and meaningless, in books and newspapers; our Expressionist has often seen them wedged together, and the words need only be loaded with the least little bit of significance for him to perceive sparks flying between them. This, however, is only a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms.

Robert Musil

I like West’s mechanistic cause-and-effect imagery, though; it invokes the sheer cheapness of the devices employed and the effects achieved. That the slightest variation in the manipulation of these objects (and concomitant alteration in surface effect) is applauded as an innovation: this indicates the creative impoverishment of the whole culture surrounding an artistic scene, as fake innovation is taken for real innovation and real innovation is taken for flawed aberration. (Such was the case with techno sub-genres in the 1990s; the best stuff was at the fringes and mostly ignored as people leapt to anoint new scene-leaders.) This has been a noticeable downside to genre-beholden literature like mysteries and science-fiction, where the task was explicitly to conceive of new variations within a preconceived structure (does anyone remember that Columbo episode where the killer himself is murdered?), but we can be assured the same goes for literary fiction as well. There’s just more effort being made to disguise the circuitous variations as stunning advances in form and content. Good thing we have short memories….

NYC Sightings

Two friends, one reading Mason and Dixon, the other with a Trystero tattoo on his right forearm.

Blumenberg on Significance and Fiction

Significance [Bedeutsamkeit] can exceed what is aesthetically permissiblre. The Dane Oehlenschlaeger was a nonparticipant observer at the battle of Jena. He tends toward ironical distance and he knows that he can also presuppose this as Goethe’s private attitude. He writes to Goethe on September 4, 1808, from Tuebingen, about the plan of a novel and his fear that the result would unintentionally be a description of his own life; and one would not be permitted to make that even as good as it was in reality. There is no feeling, he says, more peculiar than the feeling that one must place what occurs in real life above poetry, even though the role of poetry is to represent “the ideal concentrated beauty and meaningful content of life.” This particular feeling has never been stronger for him “than when I read Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle in Weimar while the French were winning the battle at Jena and capturing the town.” It is the problem of aesthetic probability: Fiction cannot allow itself the significance that reality portrays without losing credibility.

Work on Myth, Ch. 3

“Significance” here is used in the sense coined by Dilthey: a human- and/or historically-given importance over and above anything that can be gleaned from the baseline reality of the natural world. I get more from this passage than from all the heat currently being spilled over Reality Hunger (really now, did it need such marquee reviews?). For someone like me who’s always bothered by the problem of what’s effective and what’s not in creative writing, this passage doesn’t quite give a heuristic, but it does concisely point out one crucial problem: the artist’s struggle to break free of the mundane details of the world in order to isolate what is important, while not going too far and making the work contrived and overblown. In other words, too much meaningfulness, too much significance, breeds artificiality, further from an ideal of beauty than the raw material composing it. But in times of (mutually agreed-upon) massive human change, significance smacks us in the face and the intensity of it is beyond what a writer can conjure up except by indirection (the Romantic’s technique, evoking abstract greatness out of sensory particulars). We may not know the immediate significance of a war or a crisis, but we know that it is significant and must be addressed and understood post-haste. Creativity suddenly seems secondary, while people are absorbed in the seemingly prima facie meaning of the present. (It’s not actually prima facie, but the collective delusion is very strong.) Historical fiction is one compromise used to get around this problem; another is to create really large works of art, in order to smooth over the seams of contrivance with added lesser detail. Or you can go the route of Borges and admit to the contrivance and claim to dwell in the realm of imagination rather than reality. All of these are mitigating techniques, however, not solutions.

There is something to the reality-focus idea, however. With the advent of the internet, the strangest and rarest circumstances can float to notice far more easily than in the past, when newspapers had to resort to making up stories to keep people’s interest. (What’s FML other than a vehicle for condensing and aggregating significance?) It doesn’t make imagination redundant (quite the opposite), but it does seem to be challenging a lot of fiction writers to come up with increasingly grandiose or grotesque scenarios in order to keep pace with the constant stream of significant moments now being shoved in our faces. Significance and meaning randomize rather than orient, and they do so with ultimately trivial mechanisms: crazy stories and inspiring tales, rather than wars and crises. The balance of significance in art and the world has been thrown off. Imagination gives way to mere imitation.

Blumenberg spends a lot of time in this chapter on Joyce, and though I think he’s off-base on his interpretation of Ulysses (more on this later), he does correctly point it out as a case where significance and mundanity are made to collide in constant and violent ways. I think Joyce’s ability to occupy these tensions and contradictions and produce something worth out of them is unmatched. Finnegans Wake achieves the same thing at the historical level rather than the personal, and Blumenberg is dead on there. Again, this will be dealt with in the next post.

The Mythology of Laszlo Krasznahorkai

An article of mine on László Krasznahorkai has been published at The Quarterly Conversation:

All that is transitory is but a parable.
Goethe, Faust II

This line, meant by Goethe to indicate that our worldly lives are but symbols for a greater, permanent afterlife, carries with it ambiguities that Mahler never considered when he used it rather clumsily at the climax of his Eighth Symphony. If we are all Christians, how easy to dispose of the travails of this life by casting them as imperfections of a greater, lesser-known world. But if we do not know that world, how do we construct that parable, and how do we sustain it in the face of reality’s constant resistance to conform to it? This is the question that the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai pursues in his fiction.

Continued…

David B.: The Veiled Prophet (a.k.a. The Prince)

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