David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: tls (page 2 of 4)

Absolute Beginners

In the TLS (August 7, 2009), Toby Litt on Raymond Carver’s influence on writing, and more specifically, writing workshops, after the revelation of Carver’s pre-Lished early drafts of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

Carver is not simply another writer we read and enjoy and put aside. Even while alive he had been turned into a literary saint. For students on creative writing courses, his is a constant presence, both in the classes themselves (where “Write what you know” and “Show don’t tell” draw huge power from his example), and in their heads as they sit at the desk (where adjectives are cut, if ever written down, simply because they are adjectives and adjectives are bad).

What it finally comes down to, though, is the idea that Raymond Carver was a writer of true, pure sentences. When creative writing students looked at their own work, they coudl ask, “How would Carver have said this?”. With the publication of Beginners, the sanctity of Carver has been undermined. The stories were anything but inevitable. Many of the qualities of style (not subject) that one would identify as Carveresque turn out to have derived from Gordon Lish’s blue pencil…Lish did not simply cut, he also altered and added–in my opinion, almost always to the benefit of the story at hand.

I would argue that Carver not only allowed the resulting stories to come out under his name, but that he propagated a view that their spareness was entirely the result of his own aesthetic of the short story. And it is this idea, that a writer should relentlessly pare away at their prose to make it pure and true, that has come to dominate how creative writing is taught. Students aren’t given David Foster Wallace or W.G. Sebald as models; that would be too dangerous. They are given early Carver. Keep it simple, stupid. No tricks. Imitate Ray. It turns out, though, that what these students were all along aspiring to imitate wasn’t Raymond Carver’s stories or even Raymond Carver himself but the quality of the Carveresque–and that quality was the creation of two men, not one.

Having read a fair bit of Lish’s fiction (apparently a rare phenomenon), there’s not a lot to suggest that Lish overtook Carver in the realm of the subject, and the watered-down Lishian style that resulted in those early Lishified Carver stories is a good deal more enjoyable than Lish at his purest.

As for the cult of Ray, I’d add to the list of cliches that old advice (supposedly from William Faulkner, although that is one hell of an irony): “Kill your darlings.” I get the sense that the cult has somewhat faded in the last decade as trendier and hipper writers have upstaged Carver, but maybe the old guard stands strong.

Jeffrey Collins on Mark Lilla

From the July 18, 2008 TLS:

Several German thinkers produced by interwar Germany cast a shadow over The Stillborn God. Lilla’s account of the varied political implications of anthropological, cosmological and Gnostic conceptions of God recalls the work of Eric Voegelin; his interest in the fecundity of Hegel’s eschatological vision that of Karl Lowith. But the most palpable unnamed influence in Lilla’s text is Carl Schmitt, the German theorist of political “decisionism” whose posthumous academic popularity has been little hampered by his Nazism. Lilla borrows Schmitt’s thesis that Hobbes first introduced a hairline split between political and religious authority that was subsequently widened by Spinoza. Schmitt also influentially deployed the term “political theology” to argue that most ideologies of the state were “secularized theological concepts”. The Stillborn God seems to deploy this conceptual apparatus, but with the intention of celebrating the liberal tradition that Schmitt reviled.

As an account of Enlightenment ideas, The Stillborn God is schematically misshapen. Categorizing canonical philosophers as friends or enemies of a “Great Separation” – at least as that notion is defined by Lilla – elides too many complexities. John Locke, for instance, did advocate a stringent “separation” of religious and political life, but he did not share the anthropologically circumscribed (and inherently atheistic) understanding of religion that supposedly undergirded Lilla’s “Great Separation”. By contrast, Hobbes and Spinoza exhibited the irreligion that Lilla requires, but they were not “separationists”. Both advocated religious establishments, theological censorship, political controls on the clergy, and minimalist religious creeds designed to valorize state power. In crafting an autonomous political logic, they sought to co-opt (rather than sequester) the social power of religion.

Lilla has domesticated Hobbes in particular, who was capable of writing: “Is not a Christian king as much a bishop now, as the heathen kings were of old?”.

And Rousseau hardly betrayed Hobbes on this point. Lilla’s narrative, astoundingly, ignores The Social Contract, where Rousseau’s account of “civil religion” pays homage to Hobbes for boldly fusing religious and political power. Likewise, there is a distinct echo of Hobbes’s “Mortall God” in Hegel’s spiritualized state.

In short, Lilla’s effort to disentangle an Anglo-American “separationist” liberalism from a German “theological” variant encounters more than a few hopeless snarls. Indeed, his polarization of these two options sets up a non shooting war of small differences.

I think this is about right, but I take the error to be one of anachronism: casting contemporary atheism back onto the earlier thinkers most amenable to it, while ignoring the issue that the secularized state that it would produce was fairly unthinkable at the time. It doesn’t make Hobbes or Rousseau any less secular, but it makes the fulcrum on which Lilla’s distinction pivots somewhat incoherent. There’s a similarity here to the deflationary readings of Hegel, which assign to Hegel a thoroughly modern atheism which does not seem capable of transcending the present epoch.

Carol Polsgrove on Ralph Ellison

Among the myriad reasons why Ralph Ellison never completed his second novel, I would propose one that Arnold Rampersad does not consider seriously in his new biography (reviewed by Morris Dickstein, May 25): the impact of Ellison’s disillusion with Communism. The agony of that disillusion comes through in a letter of August 18, 1945, to Richard Wright, which I quoted in my

2001 book, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights movement. Writing about American Communist leaders’ wartime collusion with liberals, Ellison said these party leaders were “as dangerous as Nazis”. He said, further: “If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it. If they want to be lice, then by God let them be squashed like lice.

Maybe we can’t smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell”. This was Ellison’s state of mind when he wrote Invisible Man.

After the novel came out, Ellison refused to identify its Brotherhood with the Communist Party. Indeed, in the post-war, anti-Communist years, when association with Communism could devastate American careers, Ellison did what he could to erase his tracks back to the party. Rampersad, I fear, has been taken in by Ellison’s reconstruction of his own identity: I suspect Ellison’s involvement with Communism was emotionally deeper than Rampersad suggests, and his subsequent disillusion more devastating. Once that disillusion had exploded in the creativity of Invisible Man, Ellison was left standing in the ashes from which he arose as a Cold War liberal, an identity that did not, apparently, serve him well as a novelist.

Carol Polsgrove, Letter to TLS, June 27, 2007

Invisible Man is a novel that twists its issues into complexities that go far beyond its time and place, and the ambiguities it leaves behind always read as greater to me than any possible polemic Ellison could have intended. But the furious portrayal of the Brotherhood, which seeks to turn blacks into icons of oppression for the abstract betterment of man, is not only a defense of humanism over ideological struggles, but also a classic example of individualism as Tocqueville found it in Democracy in America. But these motives are double-edged and do not lend themselves to polemics. They do lead, however, to such things as Ellison’s half-hearted support of the Vietnam War as necessary, and to a more general political paralysis. (This result is played out in Invisible Man.) Supporting Vietnam constituted an abandonment of utopian dreams and a tacit acceptance of the idea of necessary evil, for whenever one proclaims some sort of action as necessary, isn’t it always to make excuses for the evil that it will cause? I cannot imagine that Ellison felt anything like a full endorsement of American actions, but his desire for a form of living that was both creative and positive forbade him, I suspect, from sinking into a nihilism that was internally or externally destructive. At the same time, it narrowed the set of positions he could write from. In response to Irving Howe, Ellison famously said:

Howe seems to see segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black Messiah to come along and blow the cork. But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read what is going on.

In saying this, Ellision was objecting to such a strongly teleological view of black struggle in America (which Howe saw, in my opinion accurately, in Richard Wright) that recapitulated the objectifying processes of Communism. And I suspect Ellison was aware of the irony when, in the 1970s, Amiri Baraka declared race issues to be only a part of a larger class struggle and declared himself a Marxist. Baraka continues to be prolific, if not ambivalent.

Thomas Hardy and the Emotion-Sensation Connection

Hardy suffered from synaesthesia, though being Hardy he saw the days of the week in rather less Technicolor hues than others with the same condition: “Monday was colourless, and Tuesday a little less colourless”, while Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were slightly differing shades of blue.


Now, was it that he saw those particular objective colors, or that his concepts of those colors were given to more muted names than ours? Or were the concepts right, but his judgments biased in a depressive manner? Seven, can you help?


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.

Lars, Spurious

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.

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