Prufrock

Against the Anthology

Anthologies

The first Norton Anthology of American Literature was published 35 years ago this year. According to its editors at the time, it set itself the laudable goal of redressing “the long neglect of women writers” and doing “justice to the contributions of black writers to American literature.” To that end, it printed selections from the work of 29 women and 14 African-Americans, many of whom had never been included in an anthology of American literature.

The selections were viewed by some as insufficient, but it was a significant improvement on previous anthologies. The 1938 Oxford Anthology of American Literature printed the work of 12 women, but the 1952 edition of the popular Major American Writers included selections from only Emily Dickinson and the novelist Ellen Glasgow.

In subsequent editions, the Norton did further “redressing,” adding the work of Lorine Niedecker, Claude McKay, Michael S. Harper, and many other accomplished writers. But even a cursory examination of the most recent edition shows that something has also gone wrong.

At five volumes and nearly 6000 pages, the latest edition of the Norton, published in 2011, is almost twice as long as the 1979 edition. Despite this, selections from what the first edition called the “traditional masterpieces of American literature” have been greatly reduced. Walt Whitman has gone from around 70 to 30 poems. Henry David Thoreau has gone from over 200 pages to a little over 100. Herman Melville has lost nearly 100 pages, and Edgar Allen Poe has gone from 150 to 100 pages. Perhaps unsurprisingly, selections of William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have been cut in half, and William Bartram, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, and others have disappeared entirely.

Some of the extra space is used for previously neglected writers, but a fair amount is also used for speeches and essays on topics such as the plight of Native Americans, slavery and civil rights, women’s suffrage, American Exceptionalism, World War I, and terrorism. To give one example, there are roughly 230 pages in the latest Norton of non-literary texts (speeches, political essays, and autobiographies) related to the customs and life of Native Americans. This is only slightly fewer than the pages devoted to Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson combined.

Context is important in the study of literature, and many of the historical texts included in the Norton are interesting, but they can also bury the literature. Each of the five volumes in the 2011 Norton contains at least one special section on a political topic. In the accompanying teacher’s guide, while a mere five pages are devoted to using the anthology to teach “Major American Authors,” there are two chapters and over 30 pages on how to engage the issues of gender, race, war, and identity explored in the anthology. There is nothing on beauty, truth, or the pleasure of reading.

Other anthologies have followed suit over the years. While Longman’s two-volume anthology is less enamored with politics than the Norton, it nevertheless sells itself for its “contextual selections.” The Bedford too is committed to helping “students grasp the cultural, material, and social conditions in which literary works are produced.”

One of the great pleasures of reading the work of a particular period is experiencing how messy and diverse it is. In the 1950s, for example, T.S. Eliot was publishing his later plays, Allen Ginsberg was howling in California, Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Walker Percy was writing essays for America and Commonweal, J.F. Powers was publishing stories in The New Yorker, Kurt Vonnegut was writing for Collier’s, Robert Frost published Hard Not To Be King, and John Ashbery won the Yale Younger Poets Prize.

This sort of messiness goes unhighlighted in the Norton and many other anthologies. Neither Walker Percy nor J.F. Powers are included in the work, and the others are separated by an entire volume and special sections on modernism and postmodernism. While tacitly committed to diversity, the Norton offers a superficial and perhaps even irrelevant kind when it comes to literature—one determined by gender, race, and the increasingly narrow research interests of English professors more so than by style or ideas. As with all anthologies, the selections in the most recent Norton are also too excerpted or too small to give readers an overarching sense of the work of all but a few writers, much less how they might differ from others.

In 1979, the Norton editors hoped to create “a book to be read for pleasure.” Today, it is a book read for credit. It presents literature as secondary to history and as something to be sifted for proof of political theories rather than appreciated. No wonder most students leave it and the reading of great works behind when they graduate.

While the problems of college English are many and complex, getting rid of the contemporary anthology might be one way of reintroducing some life in the classroom. It might also show students how valuable and relevant great literature can be on its own.

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Ross Douthat on Conservatives and Art

Ross Douthat has weighed in on Adam Bellow’s piece on the need for more conservatives to create and support the arts—specifically literature, film and television.

He agrees with Adam Kirsch’s contention that there is no lack of conservative themes in the cream of America’s literary and cinematic crop. It’s the middling, “mass-market territory” of second-rate novels, films and television shows where conservatives are missing:

But this suggests a rather strange-sounding riposte to Kirsch’s question, posed after his elevation of writers like Foster Wallace into a kind of conservative literary pantheon. “With all these books to read and admire,” he asks, “why does Adam Bellow continue to believe that conservative writers are a persecuted minority?” Well, one might say, because there aren’t enough mediocre conservative writers and artists at work! Which could just be taken to prove Kirsch’s point that conservatives mostly just want more “simpleminded ideological dogmas” from their fiction … but actually reflects a subtler point that a culture’s biases are manifest in the mean rather than the extreme, and that the proof of conservatism’s marginalization in today’s cultural scene can be seen among its middling and mediocre participants, not among its finest talents.

That subtlety notwithstanding, though, there’s still the question of whether a project that’s too cognizant of these realities, too explicit in its desire to close the “hack gap” in the arts, won’t just end up branding conservative artists as, well, a still-lower and more painfully ideological sort of hack. I don’t know the answer, which is why I’m ultimately ambivalent about Bellow’s exhortation: I, too, would like to see far more conservative money and energy invested in the arts, but to the extent that it’s conscious of itself as a conservative investment — as opposed to an aesthetic one, which is how most writing programs and fellowships are conceived even when their politics are fundamentally liberal — it may be foredoomed to failure, or at the very least be putting a limit on the quality of the work it fosters, and a ceiling on its potential success. (Better a consciously religious investment, in part because religion has a different relationship with the aesthetic than political ideology and thought … but that’s a subject for another post.)

Douthat clearly sees the problem with Bellow’s project (at least as he presents it in The National Review), but he seems unwilling to reject it completely. He worries that any attempt to “close the ‘hack gap’,” as he calls it, will make conservatives look bad. (It will.) And he writes that a conscious “conservative investment” in the arts, “as opposed to an aesthetic one, which is how most writing programs and fellowships are conceived even when their politics are fundamentally liberal” may “be foredoomed to failure, or at the very least be putting a limit on the quality of the work it fosters, and a ceiling on its potential success.” Agreed.

But conservatives should not reject Bellow’s proposal because it will make them look bad or be unsuccessful. They should reject it because it is not conservative. It inescapably treats art or culture as a tool, or weapon, in the struggle for power. This, it seems to me, is a progressive or revolutionary conception of art.

Even Douthat falls into discussing art and culture in terms of utility or “success.” Part of this is because he’s responding to Bellow’s argument regarding just these things. But it also risks obscuring conservatives’ defense of a proper view of art.

And I’m not sure that there’s a huge difference between a religious investment in the arts (I am thinking of a Christian one here) and a conservative one—if both of these are properly understood.

Both should treat art, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, which, paradoxically, also makes it useful. Put another way, using art or literature or film to proselytize or indoctrinate empties works of their distinctive value. At the same time, works of truth and craft, created for those ends alone, are valuable to the extent that they affirm a larger context—the inescapability of making truth claims and the reality of morality and beauty, among other things—without which they would make no sense. I think.

Update 1: In the comments, Alex Wilgus says I haven’t read Douthat’s argument closely enough: “He makes the same point that you do: the best art isn’t ideologically motivated, and when you’re dedicated to really capturing something of the essence of reality, you’ll get themes that endear themselves to conservatives and liberals alike without really trying to. He’s saying that the crappier forms of art we see on TV are the ones that wear their ideological commitments on their shirtsleeves, and it’s not worth mucking about in that realm unless one really wants to balance out the sorts of assumptions shows like “New Girl” take for granted with equally hackneyed themes from the other side.”

I don’t know. Douthat certainly writes that “that to be truly great, truly lasting, a novel or any other exercise in storytelling has to transcend cliches and oversimplifications, has to capture something of the deep complexity of human affairs.” Yet the reason he rejects Bellow’s proposal in his piece (he states he’s “ambivalent” and says he agrees with other aspects of Kirsch’s critique) is that it won’t be successful.

On the art for art’s sake stuff (a phrase I didn’t use in the piece), which a couple of folks have commented on, here and on Twitter: I am not proposing aestheticism or some pursuit of pure style. As a Christian, I think that all good things reflect God’s glory and my pursuit of or engagement with art is ultimately a pursuit of or an engagement with God. At the same time, art works have a definite character that is experienced simultaneously (a character that includes a reflection of mental or physical reality). If the overarching object for the Christian in, say, cooking good food or doing good research is to love God through these activities, the more immediate one is to cook good food and do good research. So too with art. And if you don’t have the latter, it seems to me you lose the former, too.

Update 2: Douthat responds to the above with a “yes, but…”

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RAGBRAI and New Urbanism

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Last week, my eldest and I took part in RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and had a great time. We started in the western part of the state (in Rock Valley) and finished in Guttenberg on the banks of the Mississippi. It was a wonderful event. A friend of mine described it as a rolling carnival. There were food trucks in most towns, craft beer and organic coffee tents along the route, churches selling spaghetti dinners and pie, concerts every evening, and between 40 and 100 miles of cycling every day.

It was my first time to visit Iowa, and I can only compare it to what I know. It struck me as a combination of eastern Texas and Connecticut—wide open spaces peppered with small, quaint towns. In the west, many of the towns were on a single street—some developed, others all but abandoned. As we rode east, the towns became more vibrant, many of them organized around a central park or square. In between, there was corn and more corn.

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As some of you may know, The American Conservative has started a discussion on New Urbanism. In his post explaining the project (and blog), Jonathan Coppage writes that while conservatives have fought against “the breakdown of community and the family” over the years, they have mostly ignored the ways that built environment shapes attitudes and practices:

Just as an individual is embedded in a family, and a family is embedded in a community, so too a community is embedded in its neighborhood. The patterns we live in can bring us into the sort of constant, casual, incidental contact that builds bonds between neighbors, or they can silo each of our families away, leaving civil society to wither as the “place between” is filled with asphalt and strip malls. As Paul Weyrich, William S. Lind, and Andres Duany wrote in“Conservatives and the New Urbanism” in 2006, “Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.” New Urbanists aim to reinvigorate those traditional structures, like the classic Main Street with living space above the storefronts, and other homes right around the corner.

An event like RAGBRAI would have been difficult and less enjoyable if it took place on roads lined with strip malls. The small Iowa towns—particularly the ones with green spaces—were perfect for gathering for food, drinks, music, Frisbee, and conversations with other teams and participants.

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At the same time, our somewhat more family-oriented team always camped a little outside of town and rarely stayed downtown past 9:00 p.m. Why? Because it could get loud and a little rowdy.

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Coppage is right that space matters (to an extent) in shaping attitudes and practices and certain policies make for better or worse spaces. The question is not so much which space—suburbs or cities, rural or urban, strip malls or town squares—but how to develop and use the spaces we have to strengthen the family and build community.

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Politics and Literature

T.S. Eliot Photo: Burns Library, Boston College

I’ve been busy teaching summer school at HBU and trying to get into shape for a bike ride across Iowa that I’m doing with my daughter next week, so I am a bit late in responding to Adam Bellow’s essay in The National Review in which he laments the lack of conservative fiction and calls on well-heeled donors to support the coming conservative “countercultural” revolution. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, here’s the key passage:

For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.

We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.

This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.

Bellow makes some good observations. Generally speaking, conservatives have ignored the arts and popular culture over the past fifty years or so. Those in positions of power in America’s publishing houses, museums, arts centers, university MFA programs, and so forth, are overwhelming liberal. Politics is “downstream” from culture. And I’m mostly for conservatives with cash funding prizes, small presses, and so forth, so that “the cream can rise to the top,” as Bellow puts it.

It’s the overemphasis on the political value of supporting popular culture and the arts that sticks in my craw.

The general gist of Bellow’s piece, despite his remark that he is against “cause fiction,” is that conservatives should fund these things because liberals have a monopoly on culture and because popular culture and the arts are more effective at changing people’s values than straight argument.

Calling on conservatives to write fiction in order to regain power by shaping the moral imagination, as Bellow seems to claim, would, in my view, repeat the errors of the later avant-garde and progressives who came to view art as a weapon in class struggle. This attitude toward art always leads to art becoming a mere tool, a mere means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Bellow tries to distinguish between the “the original counterculture” and a counterculture that “was hijacked and turned into a vehicle for progressive politics,” but I don’t buy this.

The problem with Bellow’s approach, as Rod remarked two weeks ago, is that it would most likely lead to ideologically “pure” but bad work:

[…] art and culture should not be approached from an instrumental point of view. This is why, for example, so much contemporary Christian filmmaking is so bad: it’s designed to culminate in an altar call. It’s about sending a message, not telling a story. I’m personally aware of a conservative donor and investor who poured millions into an independent film because he thought it was wholesome, and would improve the character of its viewers. I watched the movie in a private screening, and it was terrible. A total waste of money.

Adam Kirsch makes a similar point over at Tablet and argues that Bellow’s narrow definition of conservatism causes him to miss a number of conservative novels that don’t fit his “brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia”:

 Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved. Defined in this way, conservatism is in fact a major strain in contemporary American literature. David Foster Wallace, the leading novelist of his generation, was a champion of earnestness, reverence, self-discipline, and work—never more so than in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, whose heroes are hard-working accountants. Dave Eggers made his name with a memoir about raising his younger brother after his parents died, a hip but deeply earnest hymn to family values. Zadie Smith excels at the conservatism of comedy, which resolves differences in laughter and exposes human follies with an indulgent understanding.

In Jewish American literature, too, the conservative temperament has always been central, as Jewish writers struggle to remain attached to the past even as they negotiate their place in the future. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant more or less explicitly identifies Jewishness with the values of honesty, hard work, and family loyalty, and dramatizes a willful young man’s submission to those values. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most celebrated and decorated books of the last 20 years, is also one of the most explicitly conservative; it is a long shudder of horror at the radicalism of the 1960s, and it is filled with hymns to the small businessman that any Republican could love. And of course Adam Bellow’s father, Saul, wrote one of the first and most powerful anti-Sixties novels in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, inveighing against the sexual and racial liberations of that decade, which he contrasted with the old-world moral earnestness of the Jewish Artur Sammler.

For Kirsch, Bellow fails to see that literature is “broader, deeper, and truer than political convictions…that politics must be corrected by literature, and not vice versa. If most writers are liberal, perhaps it’s because they instinctively understand this principle.”

How Kirsch divined that Bellow’s conservatism is motivated by “wounded male pride,” apparently based on Bellow’s opening anecdote alone, is beyond me, but Kirsch is right that conservatism is much more than patriotism or a defense of individual freedom, even if he also overestimates how many “conservative” works of fiction are published today (only two of the novelists he cites are actively writing; Wallace, Malamud, and Bellow are dead, of course), and even if has a rather rose-colored view of the commitment of liberal writers to art above politics. (No doubt a number of liberal writers are committed to literature first and politics second, but not all. In fact, a number who view/have viewed literature as a form of political activism are regularly published, given prizes, and generally taken seriously (though, let me add, not by Kirsch to my knowledge.) Susan Sontag’s tangled fiction won her a National Book Award, and June Jordan’s hate-filled prose-poetry did not prevent her from keeping a distinguished lectureship at Berkeley and earning a PEN award. There are also the occasional politically informed stories of Joyce Carol Oates and formal experiments of Charles Bernstein, among many others.)

I’d like to see more conservatives write good fiction and poetry, not in order to win the culture war, but in order to have better fiction and poetry. There are number of conservative positions that are true and that are often ignored in fiction and poetry today. In Rod’s article last year on conservatives and storytelling, I noted one of these: The belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership). But let me suggest a few others, culled from various thinkers (Burke, Eliot, Kirk):

-A high view of craft—that is, a combination of clarity and complexity of style that shows a knowledge and appreciation of past masters without merely repeating their successes.

-A belief in the inescapability of hierarchy (in the work of art and in society) and the importance of religion and family in informing our roles in society (as opposed to mere “power relations”).

-A belief that we are more than matter and that there is some higher, immaterial force at work in the universe.

Conservatives, of course, don’t have a monopoly on these beliefs, and not all conservatives would ascribe to them, but these are things that most conservatives over the years have supported in one way or another.

What conservatives with cash need to do is support writers, critics, literary magazines and organizations that share these values, whatever their individual political affiliation (though if they also happen to be conservative, great), as a way of reinvigorating literature, not conservatism, and whatever follows from that, follows.

After all, conservatives are supposed to be committed to certain things because they are true or good, and not simply because they are useful.

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Vernon Scannell: Boxer, Bigamist, Poet

Over at The Weekly Standard, I review a biography of the British poet Vernon Scannell–a boxer, bigamist, deserter, a man with a soft spot for children and the down-and-out, and an accomplished poet

The seeming incongruity of Vernon Scannell’s life and personality makes him one of the most intriguing figures of contemporary literature. He was a man of immense sensitivity who identified with the weak, the broken, and the cowardly of the world but, when drunk, was a terrible wife beater. He loved children and despised violence but fought in the Second World War and had a lifelong passion for boxing. He was one of the most talented poets of his generation, but he often felt out of place in literary circles and regularly doubted his talent.

He was a blue-collar poet, though this does not do justice to the range of his work, which deals with love, war, sports, childhood, and, most of all, failure—often with self-effacing humor. When he was in jail in 1974 for drunk driving, his daughter Nancy wrote to ask him what a jailbird was. Scannell wrote:

His plumage is dun,

His appetite indiscriminate.

He has no mate.

His nest is built of brick and steel;

He sings at night

A long song, sad and silent.

He cannot fly.

Read the rest if you’re so inclined.

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Religiosity and Art

Over at The Guardian, novelist Sarah Perry (After Me Comes the Flood) reflects on growing up in a Strict Baptist home in which there was no modern culture but a wide selection of classic literature:

Though we by no means resembled an Amish cult, there was an almost complete absence of contemporary culture in the house. God’s people were to be “In the world, but not of the world”, and the difference between those two little prepositions banished television and pop music, school discos and Smash Hits, cinema and nail polish, and so many other cultural signifiers I feel no nostalgia for the 80s and 90s: they had nothing to do with me.

Aside from the odd humiliation at school (asked which film star I fancied most, I remembered seeing Where Eagles Dare at an uncle’s house and said, “Clint Eastwood”) I don’t remember feeling deprived. Because beside the Pre-Raphaelite prints that were my celebrity posters, and the Debussy that was my Oasis, there were books – such books, and in such quantities! Largely content to read what would please my parents, I turned my back on modernity and lost myself to Hardy and Dickens, Brontë and Austen, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bunyan.

I memorised Tennyson, and read Homer in prose and Dante in verse; I shed half my childhood tears at The Mill on the Floss. I slept with Sherlock Holmes beside my pillow, and lay behind the sofa reading Roget. It was as though publication a century before made a book suitable – never was I told I ought not to read this or that until I was older. To my teacher’s horror my father gave me Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was still at primary school, and I was simply left to wander from Thornfield to Agincourt to the tent of sulking Achilles, making my own way.

* * *

There were ancient books too, all gilded spines and Gothic script: a ghoulish child, I loved the woodcuts in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and could tell you now precisely how Cranmer was tortured, and how his bones cracked in the flames.

Above all – committed to memory, read aloud at mealtimes and prettily framed on the dining-room wall – was the King James Bible. It was as constant as the air, and felt just as necessary, and I think I know its cadences as well as my own voice.

Read the rest.

It’s a wonderful short reflection that goes against the accepted argument that “narrow” religious beliefs and practices always starve rather than nourish the intellect and artistic sensibilities. It’s also an encouraging reminder of the benefits of memorization and recitation.

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Is Rap Poetry?

The short answer is “no,” of course. To state the obvious, things can share certain attributes and not be the same sort of thing, and asking whether rap is poetry has always struck me as a useless question. Both rap and poetry use literary devices like assonance and alliteration. Both use words. Both are spoken. But rap is a musical-verbal art and poetry is a verbal-musical-typographical one. So why make the comparison?

Well, as David Caplan points out in his intriguing Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford, 2014), it can be a way of both elevating (or highlighting, depending on your view) rap’s artistry and defending poetry against its apparent decline.

John McWhorter provides an example of this over at The Daily Beast. In “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap,” McWhorter argues that rap is poetry because:

It rhymes, often even internally. Its authors work hard on the lyrics. The subject matter is certainly artistically heightened, occasioning long-standing debates over whether the depictions of violence and misogyny in some of it are sincere. And then, that “gangsta” style is just one, and less dominant than it once was. Rap, considered as a literature rather than its top-selling hits, addresses a wide-range of topics, even including science fiction. Rap is now decades old, having evolved over time and being increasingly curated by experts. In what sense is this not a “real” anything?

The only reason it is not considered “real” poetry, McWhorter argues, channeling his inner Derrida, is that Western culture has long valued written language over speech:

The only reason rap may seem to nevertheless not be “real” poetry is a skewed take on language typical of modern, literate societies: that spoken language is merely a sloppy version of written language. “English,” under this analysis, is what’s on a page, with punctuation and fonts and whoms and such. Speech is “just talking.”

Also, rap is often profane and can seem less serious.

David Caplan’s study focuses on detailing the literary elements of hip hop and rap, which is different from claiming that rap is poetry. I don’t want to review the book here, but Caplan does make a similar point to McWhorter in his introduction. Too often, Caplan writes, “critics treat the term ‘poetry’ as if it retains a stable definition across cultures, times periods, and genres. The history of poetics, however, records much more contestation than consensus.” Caplan goes on to cite Wordsworth’s remark that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and discusses poets who have taken issue with this statement as proof that poetry’s definition is unstable.

But while what counts as poetry changes over time and differs across cultures, Caplan is too quick to suggest that poetry has no stable generic characteristics. One important one—and one that distinguishes it from both hip-hop and rap—is that the musicality and typography of poetry reside in the words themselves alone. In both formal and free verse, the musicality of a poem, whether it is created by end-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, repetition or other forms of internal rhyming, does not exist external to the poem.

In hop-hop and rap, while some musicians are more talented than others, and while rap lyrics do possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the sampled music. Caplan provides a number of examples of rap lyrics, and some are rather good, but even the best don’t stand on their own as pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they were not written to do so. They were crafted to go with external rhythm and notes. So, it seems to me, the only sense in which rap is poetry is as incomplete poetry, which doesn’t do either rap or poetry any favors.

That said, it is interesting that poetry’s decline has taken place in a culture that is “rhyme-drenched,” as Caplan rightly notes. I am not a connoisseur of rap (I listen to little beyond standard white guy favorites—Rage against the Machine, Beastie Boys, Run DMC), but I have a number of friends who have a high view of rap’s artistry. Caplan, for one, makes a strong case that there is more to hip-hop in terms of artistry than is often granted, even if I think he oversells it. There is no such thing as high or low culture. There is interesting culture and boring culture. There are works of art that show great skill and those that don’t.

So by all means, defend hip-hop or rap or poetry, but let’s avoid defending them by association. Let the songs or poems speak for themselves.

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Michon’s Miniatures

Saint Columba of Iona, photo by Vegansoldier (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Columba of Iona, photo by Vegansoldier (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

I have been reading new English translations of Pierre Michon’s prose fiction works Winter Mythologies and Abbots, and I am struck, again, by his great talent.

Michon, as one interviewer put it, is “an odd bird.” Born in 1945 and raised by his mother when his father abandoned the family two years after his birth, he studied literature at the university in Clermont-Ferrand, wrote but abandoned a thesis on Antonin Artaud, travelled around France with a theatre group for three years, and then spent ten years working small jobs around the country—a short stint in a hotel in Paris, a period teaching French—before deciding to take up writing. He moved back to his home region near Orléans, rented out a small, bleak studio on the side of the road, and wrote what would become his first book, Small Lives, a series of portraits of eight obscure or unknown figures from Michon’s life in Limousin. It was published in 1984 and won the Prix France Culture that same year.

Michon’s prose is alternatingly expansive and constrained. In Small Lives, his sentences can be long and playful. Winter Mythologies, however, is imagistic. Portraits of the lives of ancient and medieval saints and pagans are distilled down to a few poetic paragraphs. There is Saint Columba of Iona who kills for a rare Psalter, a daughter of the king of Paris who contracts leprosy, or a French bailiff who wants to write with “God’s power.”

Michon almost never invents his characters or his plots. “To invent is to clone,” he claims. “Libraries are full of ectoplasms, and I prefer ghosts. I raise the real dead—those of the archives.” He is a poet who writes in prose; a fictioneer of non-fiction.

He is also, as it turns out, an atheist who is fascinated with faith.

One of Michon’s accomplishments is his ability to put his finger on the paradox of faith without disparaging belief in God or sharing it himself. His characters, faithful to varying degrees, are often convinced of the reality of God, but regularly allow their devotion to be saddled with a desire for wealth, pleasure, or glory.

In Abbots, for example, he retells the story of Èble in ancient Gaul, who serves his bother and king, Guillaume Towhead, for many years before retiring to a remote monastery. His two besetting sins are “glory and female flesh,” and while away from court Èble finds a way to satisfying both of these. He transforms a bog next to the monastery into a field for the first—bringing order to “the Chaos and the Void”—and stealing brief moments with the wife of one of the local fishermen for the second. When Èble discovers that one of the other priests is also sleeping with the fisherman’s wife, he arranges for him to die in accident.

A less gifted writer might make Èble into a symbol of the Church’s hypocrisy. After all, he is a man who professes faith, and does indeed believe it, but who does not live according to its precepts.

But not Michon. Instead, Èble is an everyman. He shares our inescapable desire to devote ourselves to greater than ourselves and our intractable selfishness that always leaves us wanting more. After Èble has finished work on the bog, he goes to confession, not to repent of his sin, but to share his disappointment:

Èble remains silent for a long time, then he suddenly asks Hugues what glory is. He asks if it’s power. If it’s a name that echoes for centuries in the memory of men. If it’s for God alone, brilliant and brief, like the blue lighting bolt in the hut, or interminable and lost in the air, like reading, or like signing. If it’s fixed like the stars, or wayward like the sparks. If it’s pure. He asks if it can be mixed—with matter, with ambition, with the body of a living man. He asks derisively if draining twenty acres of land taken from the Chaos and the Void is glory.

For Michon, we cannot rid ourselves of our religious sentiment—no one can, including him. In an interview, he talks about going to Easter Mass with his daughter one Sunday:

I went to Easter Mass one day, and I took my daughter. She asked me: “What are you laughing at, Daddy?” I was crying! I understood what I saw there, these were robes inherited from ancient Assyria, incense thuribles that came straight from Egypt, and it was wonderful to tell myself, in this little thing here, Corpus Christi. And yet, when I returned from the Easter Mass, I re-read Ecce Homo with the same assent, the same enthusiasm.

While not believing in God per se, Michon identifies God with the beauty of language or “the Other.” “If I happen to encounter something that resembles a God, it is in those moments when I write.”

It’s an odd decision to accept the inescapability of belief in something like God, to even identify God with language (the Gospel of John refers to God as “Logos”), but refuse to believe in God because of Nietzsche.

It is also one that occasionally allows Michon, for all his nuances, to minimize evil itself. If Sylvain Maréchal is right that the person who “believes in God is obliged to believe in the devil,” then the atheist cannot, in good faith, believe in evil. The most he can believe in is pain, and Michon at times struggles with this limitation, which can move his stories towards the merely therapeutic. For example, Èble, the adulterous murderer, is welcomed into the afterlife by the welcoming image of his illegitimate daughter shortly after he dies in “the glory of the chant for the dying.” Everything, Michon seems to suggest, will be O.K.

Still, there are few contemporary writers of prose fiction that I’d rather read than Michon, and these new Yale translations are a pleasure.

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“Lost” Ayn Rand Novel To Be Published

According to Yahoo, Ayn Rand’s “lost” novel Ideal, which she wrote in 1934 (two years before We the Living), will be published in 2015 by Penguin Random House:

The Ayn Rand Institute is excited to announce the new publication of a lost Ayn Rand novel. Ayn Rand’s work Ideal, written in 1934, is scheduled for release by Penguin Random House in July of 2015 and will be paired with Rand’s play of the same name into a single volume. The introduction will be written by Rand’s designated heir, Leonard Peikoff.

“We are delighted to share this wonderful news,” said ARI executive director Yaron Brook. “How often does one get to announce the new publication of a novel by such an influential author eighty years after the book was written? It’s incredible to see that several decades after Rand’s death, her work and ideas are still fresh and alive in the culture.”

I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand, but her earlier work is generally better than her later, massive novels.  Her best piece of fiction is the novella, Anthem, which she published in 1938. So maybe Ideal won’t be so bad. Maybe it will be terrible. Let’s hope, at least, that it’s short.

HT: Jordan Bloom

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Two French Poets on God

Instead of single epigram for this weekend, here are a selection of maxims from the French atheist, philosopher, and poet Sylvain Maréchal (1750-1803) and a short poem from Victor Hugo (1802-1885).

Maxims in French Lines (In the style of Publilius Syrus’s Sententiae)
Sylvan Maréchal

IV
A father, for his son, is the first of the Gods.
Un père, pour son fils, est le premier des Dieux.

XXII
The man who believes in God is no longer free.
L’homme, qui croit en Dieu, n’est plus indépendant

XXV
Love Virtue: the rest is arbitrary
Adore la Virtu: le reste est arbitraire

XXXIV
Whoever has a friend can get by without a God
Qui possède un ami, peut se passer d’un Dieu.

L
If at least we could have Gods without priests!
Si nous pouvions au moins avoir des Dieux sans prêtres!

LXVIII
It is far less risky to doubt than to believe.
On risque beaucoup moins de douter que de croire

 

Written at the Base of a Crucifix
Victor Hugo

You who cry, come to this God, because he cries.
You who suffer, come to him, because he heals.
You who tremble, come to him, because he smiles.
You who pass, come to him, because he remains.

Vous qui pleurez, venez à ce Dieu, car il pleure.
Vous qui souffrez, venez à lui, car il guérit.
Vous qui tremblez, venez à lui, car il sourit.
Vous qui passez, venez à lui, car il demeure.

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