Proust’s English Voice

C.K. Scott Moncrieff /  Wikimedia Commons
C.K. Scott Moncrieff / Wikimedia Commons

There have been a number of biographies recently on minor or forgotten figures of literary modernism. Sarah Barnsley’s life of American modernist Mary Barnard and James Dempsey’s account of Dial editor and publisher Scofield Thayer are but two examples. Now we have Jean Findlay’s biography of her great-great uncle, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the first English translator of Marcel Proust. Findlay’s biography is a reminder not only of how small and interconnected the world of letters was before World War II but also of the important part editors and critics played in modernism’s early successes.

Scott Moncrieff is also a fascinating character in his own right. He was a Scottish Catholic, homosexual, friend of G.K. Chesterton and columnist for Chesterton’s The New Witness, war hero, and spy in Mussolini’s Italy. He was close to polymath Edward Marsh—Churchill’s private secretary—Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and many other notable figures.

Findlay starts with a long and mostly unnecessary history of the Scott Moncrieffs and an overly detailed account, stuffed with juvenilia, of C.K.’s early years. The essentials are that he was born on September 25, 1889, to a conservative Presbyterian judge and a literary mother. He was an obedient son, and he worked hard in school, hoping to go to Oxford like his older brother, but he failed the entrance exams—twice. So instead he studied law and English, the latter under George Saintsbury, at the University of Edinburgh, where he eventually won the prestigious Patterson Bursary for Anglo-Saxon translation—an early indication of his gift for languages.

While at Edinburgh, he would occasionally take the train to London to spend time with Robert Ross, a friend of Oscar Wilde’s and executor of his estate. How Scott Moncrieff met Ross is unclear but Findlay writes that “it certainly happened when Charles was sixteen.” It was through Ross that Scott Moncrieff came into contact with London literary figures and met Wilde’s son, Vyvyan, who became a lifelong friend.

Scott Moncrieff earned his law degree in 1912 and his degree in English literature in 1914. Throughout his studies, he was active member of the army cadet force, leading a group on a Canadian tour in the summer of 1912. In March 1913 he was appointed second lieutenant in the General Reserve. When England declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Scott Moncrieff received orders to join the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) at Dumfries and was sent to join the Third Reserve Battalion at Portland. He was given command of a battery of 9.2-inch guns and 90 men.

Once we get to the war, the superfluous details in Findlay’s account fade, and the biography picks up pace as she focuses on Scott Moncrieff’s surprising accomplishments and attitudes. The picture that emerges of him during the war is of a man who enjoyed the camaraderie of military life and was a gifted and courageous leader. At the time, British officers were drawn almost entirely from the upper classes. Some of them were unflappable under fire. Others weren’t. According to Findlay and the testimony of the men who served under him, Scott Moncrieff was recklessly brave.

He would spy out German positions himself and would occasionally lead his men into battle even though officers were supposed to remain behind (to shoot deserters). One of his men remembered him in these terms: “I can see him strolling about No Man’s Land as cool as if he were on the parade ground, seeking information and the position of the enemy … . On one occasion he brought back, as a souvenir, a German sandbag.” Over the course of the war, he won a Military Cross, the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and other awards for service.

Before the war, many young men across Europe had looked forward to fighting. Not only did they see themselves following in the footsteps of the great classical warriors they had studied in school—Achilles, Odysseus, Julius Caesar—but they also believed that the war could be a sort of cleansing sacrifice that would lead to an era of great human achievement. The brutality of trench warfare turned this idealism on its head, and some of these men returned angry and disillusioned. thisissueappears

Not Scott Moncrieff. He was at Ypres and saw his fair share of slaughter, writing in one poem that he could hear “The blood of our brothers … crying from the ground.” Yet he continued to view the war as necessary and felt that poets such as Robert Bridges and Siegfried Sassoon presented an overly pessimistic picture of it in their poems.

In 1917, a British shell exploded in front of Scott Moncrieff as his unit was charging the German line. The blast shattered his leg, and while the doctors avoided amputation, he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He also contracted trench fever—a disease transmitted by lice—earlier in the war, and the infection would rear its ugly head once or twice a year. During one of his many home leaves for this fever, he began writing for The New Witness—edited by G.K. Chesterton after his brother, Cecil, who had founded the periodical, died in 1916. The paper touted distributism, defended the family, and opposed loosening divorce laws. The poet and art critic Osbert Sitwell referred to it as that “queer bastard Catholic-Socialist-ultra-Conservative paper.”

Scott Moncrieff had converted to Catholicism in France. Part of the appeal of the Roman church was aesthetic. He was awestruck by the cathedral in Rouen and the beauty of the Mass’s Latin; he had also come into contact with a number of Catholics whose humanity and kindness inspired him. Another part of the appeal was the simplicity and freedom of confession. Findlay writes that in return for his repentance, Catholicism offered Scott Moncrieff “a release” from the burden of his sin—which was often sleeping with another man—and “the gift of absolution.”

His columns and reviews for The New Witness could be long and rambling, but he enjoyed the work and came to see himself as a critic and a man of letters more than a poet. After the war, he was hired for one year as the personal secretary of Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times, before taking up a position as sub-editor of the foreign desk at the newspaper.

When Scott Moncrieff first read Proust is unclear, but he had certainly done so by 1919, when he began translating sections of it privately. By then he had already produced a translation of the epic poem Le Chanson de Roland, which was published by Chapman and Hall to rave reviews. His translation of Beowulf, published in 1921, was also reviewed positively. When Edmund Gosse heard that he was working on a translation of Proust, he wrote to Scott Moncrieff to dissuade him from such a modern work: “Not here, O son of Apollo, are haunts meant for thee.” But Scott Moncrieff was undeterred. He signed a contract with Chatto to translate the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and did much of it while he was working the night shift at The Times.

Proust’s long, complex sentences are difficult to translate. Scott Moncrieff had the added problem of working with an edition of the novel that had a number of typographical errors—such as extra or missing commas and pronouns—which further complicated his work. His newspaper experience helped. He was familiar with the sorts of errors that printers could make and was able to work around many of them, though not all.

His method of translation also helped. Like Ezra Pound and other modern translators, Scott Moncrieff opted for a translation that was the equivalent of the French but not a literal reproduction of each word in the original syntax. He would read a passage, write a quick translation in English, and read it out loud, often to a friend, revising the construction for clarity and style. This method also had the advantage of being faster than painstakingly translating each word, especially as he grew accustomed to Proust’s vocabulary and syntax.

The first volume of Proust’s masterpiece, which Scott Moncrieff titled Swann’s Way, was published in 1922 and earned favorable reviews in The Times and elsewhere. In a letter to Jacques Rivière, T.S. Eliot wrote that Scott Moncrieff was a succès éclatant—“booming success”—after the translation, and on the heels of this success he resigned from The Times and devoted himself to writing full time.

But it wouldn’t last. The previous year his brother, John, had accidentally shot himself, leaving behind a wife and two children, and Scott Moncrieff had promised to help support the family. While he often earned handsome advances for his translations, it was not enough to support himself and three others. In 1923, he was presented with the opportunity to work as a spy in Mussolini’s Italy—a job for which he was particularly well suited. Not only was he patriotic and brave but his work as a translator and journalist provided him with the perfect cover. Italy also appealed to Scott Moncrieff for other reasons. It was cheaper than England or Scotland, which made providing for his brother’s family easier. The climate was easier on his leg, and Italy’s attitude towards homosexuality was more lax than Britain’s.

His spy work consisted mostly of watching trains to monitor troop movements. He was also charged with keeping tabs on British citizens he came into contact with, to make sure they were not working for the Italian government, and with learning what he could from Italian gossip. Scott Moncrieff would end up remaining in Italy until his death in 1930, translating all seven volumes of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, several books by Stendhal, and two works by Luigi Pirandello. He entertained regular visitors from England and wrote thousands of letters, but he would never return home.

In all, Scott Moncrieff was a remarkable figure. He was a man of great talent and humility, devoting himself to a role that is often viewed as of secondary importance in the literary world. Yet without him, or with a less talented translator, it is likely that Proust would not have had the effect he did on modern literature. The story of great literature is more than just that of genius itself. For every Johnson, there must be a Boswell. For Proust, it was Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff.  

Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and edits the literary newsletter Prufrock.

“Choosing Life in the Face of Death”

Photo by Gil Roth
Photo by Gil Roth

That is the title of critic D.G. Myers’s final blog post. He passed away Friday. Patrick Kurp is organizing a Festschrift for David. I’ll post selections of remembrances and links when they are ready. In the meantime, here is my brief contribution. I didn’t know David well, but like many, I read him religiously:

If I wanted to know whether I should give a novel a shot or not, the first place I’d go was D.G. Myers’s blog. He had his blind spots—we all do—but his judgment rarely disappointed. Even if he disliked a book, his writing was such that I could tell if I might enjoy it. That’s because the focus of his posts was always the novel, the writing, never his judgment.

And he was a pleasure to read—specific, concrete, open to possibilities, but never enthralled with style for style alone. Considering Nabokov’s minutia, he asks: “How much of human life disappears into oblivion like this?” Charles Portis’s fiction, in a nutshell, is that “The difference between ‘independent thinkers’ and full-out crackpots is thin.” And on Marly Youmans’s latest novel, he wrote: “Youmans knows better than anyone that, for the peripatetic outsider, who feels as if he must keep moving, home is not without its costs.”

David wrote about fiction not to advance himself or his career, but because he loved it and because it was part of life. It’s hard to be both forceful and humble. David could.

David and I never met. We corresponded by email and kept up with each other on Twitter. I knew him mainly through his writing, and it’s a tribute to his intellect and skill that I  feel that this was almost enough.

In that final post–a transcript of a talk he gave at Congregation Torat Emet in July–David wrote: “I never wanted to be known for having a fatal disease. But you don’t get to choose your reputation any more than you get to choose your fate.”  His writing on his cancer was honest, selfless, funny, but he will be remembered for much more. He was one of our best critics. He will be missed.

Update: Patrick Kurp has posted this note from David’s sister-in-law.

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Do We Really Need More Political Poetry?

By Michiel Hendryckx [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Michiel Hendryckx [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Juan Vidal has a bee in his bonnet. Over at NPR, he writes:

For centuries, poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against injustice. They gave voice to the hardships and evils facing people everywhere. From Langston Hughes to Jack Kerouac and Federico García Lorca—so many—verse once served as a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent. There was fervor, there was anger. And it was embraced: See, there was a time when the poetry of the day carried with it the power of newspapers and radio programs. It was effective, even as it was overtly political. What has happened?

Vidal must be using “centuries” metaphorically.

I won’t say anything about Vidal’s several absurdities and general ignorance of literary history. There have been political poems for millennia, of course, but the sort of poems Vidal has in mind—those that rail “loudly against injustice” and serve primarily as “a vehicle for expressing social and political dissent”—are mostly a post-WWII phenomenon. But let me focus on something constructive.

More Vidal:

At its root, poetry is the language of protest. Whether centered on love, beauty, or the ills that plague a nation, it’s all inherently political, and it all holds up as a force in any conversation. What seems like forever ago, poetry unflinchingly opposed corruption and inequality, civil and national.

That’s an odd (though sadly common) definition of politics, isn’t it? As protest or dissent. Here’s another from Tobias Wolff:

But there’s another way of thinking about politics and writing. Go to the Greek root of the word, polis, which refers to a society, in the sense of community rather than state. When writing gives a picture of the community we live in, it’s political…And the most radical political writing of all is that which makes you aware of the reality of another human being. Self-absorbed as we are, self-imprisoned even, we don’t feel that often enough. Most of the spiritualities we’ve evolved are designed to deliver us from that lockup, and art is another way out. Good stories slip past our defenses—we all want to know what happens next—and then slow time down, and compel our interest and belief in other lives than our own, so that we feel ourselves in another presence. It’s a kind of awakening, a deliverance, it cracks our shell and opens us up to the truth and singularity of others— to their very being. Writers who can make others, even our enemies, real to us have achieved a profound political end, whether or not they would call it that.

Wolff is talking about fiction, of course, but his comments apply to poetry, too. All poetry may be political, but only in the sense that it makes us aware of others suffering and delivers us (momentarily) from our self-centeredness. One could just as easily say it’s inherently religious.

I’m not a big fan of Ginsberg, but he was more than a protest poet. Other poets, however, who have shared Vidal’s narrow definition of poetry, have written some relatively hateful, self-centered work—work quite the opposite of what Wolff describes.

Take June Jordan, whom Vidal ignores, and who was one of the most political poets (using Vidal’s definition) in the last thirty years. This is from “Kissing God Goodbye,” which she wrote to protest the controversial pro-life group Operation Rescue:

You mean to tell me on the 12th day or the 13th
that the Lord
which is to say some wiseass
got more muscle than he
can control or figure out/ some
accidental hard disc
thunderbolt/ some
big mouth
woman-hating/ super
heterosexist heterosexual
kind of a guy guy
he decided who could live and who would die?

And after he did what?
created alleyways of death
and acid rain
and infant mortality rates
and sons of gun
and something called the kitchenette
and trailer trucks to kill and carry
beautiful trees out of their natural
habitat/ Oh! Not that guy!

* * *

My name is not Adam
My name is female
my name is freedom

Whatever Operation Rescue’s tactics, is this the sort of poetry that Vidal thinks we need “now more than ever”? Rather than delivering us from self-centeredness, it feeds it. It tells us that we deserve to do what we damn well please, that our “rights” (in this case, to kill children) have been trampled.

A lot of “fervor” and “anger” here. Not so much ambiguity—one of the touchstones of art. No thanks.

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Mind Your Metaphors

"MRI Head Side." Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons
"MRI Head Side." Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a breathless article over at The Chronicle Review, Michael Chorost argues that neuroscience has confirmed Georg Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory that all language is, at root, metaphorical and that metaphors, in turn, are “shaped by the physical features of human brains and bodies.” This undermines, Chorost tells us, “the argument that human minds can reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language”:

Neuroscientists agree on what happens with literal sentences like “The player kicked the ball.” The brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described actions. This is called “simulation.” Take the sentence “Harry picked up the glass.” “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” Lakoff wrote in a paper with Vittorio Gallese, a professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, in Italy, “then you can’t understand that sentence.” Lakoff argues that the brain understands sentences not just by analyzing syntax and looking up neural dictionaries, but also by igniting its memories of kicking and picking up.

But what about metaphorical sentences like “The patient kicked the habit”? An addiction can’t literally be struck with a foot. Does the brain simulate the action of kicking anyway? Or does it somehow automatically substitute a more literal verb, such as “stopped”? This is where functional MRI can help, because it can watch to see if the brain’s motor cortex lights up in areas related to the leg and foot.

* * *

The evidence says it does. “When you read action-related metaphors,” says Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, in Italy, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues presented fMRI evidence that brains do in fact simulate metaphorical sentences that use action verbs. When reading both literal and metaphorical sentences, their subjects’ brains activated areas associated with control of action. “The understanding of sensory-motor metaphors is not abstracted away from their sensory-motor origins,” the researchers concluded.

I’m not sure I follow.

Why would the fact that metaphors are shaped by our experience mean that the ideas that metaphors evoke are determined by experience alone? Just because the part of my brain associated with the leg and foot “lights up” when the metaphor “kick the habit” is used does not mean that the idea that freedom is good (which is what that metaphor evokes) is not true in some universal, “transcendent” way. Seems to me that we need a bit more proof before we throw out all innate ideas.

It also doesn’t square with how metaphors actually work. Chorost might be right that we cannot “reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language,” but figurative language sure works in a pinch. “Tell all the truth,” Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant,” right?

Take this example from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings

In his latest (and excellent) book, Metaphor, Denis Donoghue shows how these lines both have a “local” meaning, drawn from experience and perhaps even first-hand observation. There is a visual similarity between the figure of a woman brushing her hair and the image of a violinist “playing a pianissimo passage.” Yet, Donoghue writes, “The effect of Eliot’s metaphor is to give her a new, strange life…The woman is given another life for the time being. So have I, when I read it.”

Donoghue doesn’t say what he means by “life.” The neo-Darwinian critic would no doubt point to the similarities between music and sex, making the metaphor about procreation. But it does much more than that, of course.

The lines allude to this earlier passage:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’

* * *

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

Whether the metaphor Donoghue discusses registers a difference between how different people view the same event or not, the two images combined, it seems to me, in the context of the entire poem evoke the idea that sex without love is meaningless and (though we are unwilling to admit this) boring. In short, love, not sex, is life.

But what am I to make of this metaphor if I were to follow Chorost’s recommendation that metaphors are reducible to experience and the brain? As with neo-Darwinian criticism, there seems to be only one option. Show how the view of love that Eliot expresses (in this case in the negative) developed in humans and added to the survival of the species. That, or run some brain scans on people to see if the part of the brain associated with violins blinks.

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Online Education and the Future of College

Tomasz Sienicki, Commodore 8296, via Wikimedia Commons
Tomasz Sienicki, Commodore 8296, via Wikimedia Commons

In yesterday’s Times Higher Education, Steven Ward argues that there are two models for online education at universities. One uses online lectures and focuses on competencies and leads to “a (more or less) professor-less future for higher education”:

This university is a place, or cyberplace, that takes its inspiration from the “competency-based” education being offered by the likes of Western Governors University in Utah, the online Capella University’s “FlexPath” and Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America”. The last of these, for example, a not-for-profit college, promises “to help working adults achieve a radically more affordable, more accessible college degree”. Students progress through low-cost courses by showing mastery of a set of “competencies”, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem”. Teams of administrative educrats oversee groups of low-paid “course mentors” (Western Governors’ term for teachers) who define course and programme competencies, map these competencies and guide “education pioneers” (students, in Capella newspeak) towards achievement. Testing specialists or edumetricians then step in to oversee the students’ fulfilment of these competencies on their way to a final credentialisation (aka graduation).

The other—a new venture from a Vermont-based start-up called Oplerno—is professor-centric:

This venture describes itself as “a global institution that empowers real-world practitioners, adjunct lecturers, professors, and aspiring instructors to offer affordable, accessible, high-quality education to students from all corners of the globe”, one that aims “to maximize control, value, and efficiency in higher education for students and faculty”.

Oplerno seeks to bring the Privatdozent into the electronic age by allowing professors to keep about 80 per cent of the tuition fees from their online courses and to retain complete control over the intellectual property found in their course design and presentation. Student fees will be somewhere between $500 and $1,500 (£300-£900) per student per course. Academics will develop their own courses and teach their own online classes of about 25 students. Rather than the severely underpaid roaming part-time adjunct or lecturer teaching courses at a reduced rate prescribed by the university, academics will be able to determine their own courses and set their own rate per student per course.

I think Ward is right that the competencies model, with content delivered via online lectures or presentations, is going to decrease the need for professors, no matter how much administrators promise otherwise, and may even increase the need for administrators, who already outnumber faculty at most institutions.

The federal government has endorsed the model and provided requirements that institutions must meet, which include getting approval from the Feds and regional accrediting agencies. Faculty will most likely determine what competencies should be taught and how they should be taught and evaluated, but this will also require administrative oversight and heck of a lot of data processing (not to mention coordination with national organizations, other schools, and maybe even state governments). Tech support will be needed, as well as bigger communications and marketing departments. While it might allow some schools to reduce campus support staff—residence hall monitors, counselors, janitorial staff, etc.—most non-profit schools are bad about shedding unneeded staff, and facility support staff are usually not the most expensive anyway.

So how will this make college cheaper, which is the whole point of such a model? Well, let’s take the example of the much-hyped $6,000 master’s degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech. Last year The Wall Street Journal reported:

The upfront costs to create the online lectures run between $200,000 and $300,000, but once those hard outlays have been made the cost per each additional student is minimal, said Mr. Isbell. He estimated the school would have to hire one full-time teacher for every 100 online students as opposed to one full-time teacher for every 10 or 20 students who study on campus.

Some tests will be graded by computer, others will be graded by teachers, Mr. Isbell said.

The classes will be open to anyone free of charge. But in order to earn a degree, a student must gain admission to the program. To do that, the student will need a bachelor’s degree or the work equivalent, and must pass the first two classes with a B grade or better. The entire course will cost about $6,000—less than a quarter of the normal expense.

“We are expecting thousands of people,” Mr. Isbell said. “We anticipate this will be massive.”

(Whether it has been “massive” or not, I don’t know. I did a quick search and found nothing about the program, which was supposed to start this January.)

The competencies model is not bad because it is efficient. It’s bad because it replaces direct contact with an expert in a particular field, which is one of the defining characteristics of a college education, with direct contact with an administrator. As Nathan Heller writes in his recent review of William Deresiewicz’s book, “Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew.” (Of course, it shouldn’t (and didn’t always) only do this, as Gracy Olmstead suggests.) Efficiency is a good thing but not when it ruins the thing being produced.

The alternative—Oplerno—is interesting. It’s better than the competencies-based model because it keeps students in direct contact with scholars. Oplerno is accredited to offer courses, and those courses are transferable, though students might find that some institutions won’t accept them. It is not accredited to offer degrees.

But even if Oplerno does become accredited to offer degrees, I don’t think it, or other start-ups like Minerva, will be as successful as their apologists claim. The reason is—to state the obvious—we have bodies.

Being together in the same place not only helps students acquire knowledge (some research has shown that blended courses—where students do online work but also meet regularly in a classroom—is better than online-only courses and may even be better than some on-site courses, too), but it is needed to shape minds and teach certain skills, too. After all, if you didn’t need a body to learn well, people would have replaced college going with book reading (one of the first distance-learning technologies) long ago.

I’m all for exploring options that reduce college costs, and I think online courses work for certain subjects and certain individuals—such as the upper-level writing courses I teach at HBU—but I don’t think they can replace the intensity and fullness of campus learning.

In short, if we need to offer a solution to the price of a college degree in America—and who’s to say that we do (college is expensive, yes, but that’s not a problem any more than a BMW being expensive is a problem)—it would have to address how to make campus learning more affordable. But this is something that is rarely discussed.

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Against the Anthology


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


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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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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The Turing Test Gimmick

The Verge reports that a chatbot called Eugene Goostman has passed the Turing Test. Hosted by Reading University at the Royal Society in London, the “Turing Test 2014” asked 30 people to participate in five parallel conversations by text (one with a human, one with a computer program or chatbot) for five minutes each and judge whether they were communicating with a human or not. A third of the judges identified Goostman as a human, and so it is said to have passed the test.

For those unfamiliar with the Turing Test, in 1950, Alan Turing suggested that one way to answer the question of whether machines might be able to think is to test their ability to imitate human language. He called this the “imitation game”:

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the “imitation game.” It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart front the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either “X is A and Y is B” or “X is B and Y is A”… We now ask the question, “What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, “Can machines think?”

Turing predicted that in 50 years a person would have a 70% chance of accurately guessing whether he was speaking with a person or a machine:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time it will be possible, to programme computers…to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.

So what’s the problem with Eugene Goostman’s pass?

Some have suggested that telling judges that Goostman was a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine made it easier for the program to pass. Odd responses would more likely be chalked up to the program’s supposed age, foreignness or limited English. Others have argued that Goostman was not a computer but a chatbot, that the 30% pass mark is dubious, and that the Turing Test held in London is not the same as Turing’s “imitation game.” After all, in Turing’s rules for the imitation game, he gave no time limit and suggested that passing it meant the interrogator would choose “wrongly as often when the game is played” with a computer as when it is played “between a man and a woman.”

But the real problem is that the Turing Test is meaningless. It cannot test for intelligence or consciousness. It never has, and it never will.

In Turing’s original paper, he responds to a number of possible objections to his test—one by Geoffrey Jefferson. In a 1949 speech, Jefferson argued that a machine cannot be said to think until it “can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols.” Turing argues that for Jefferson the only way to know if a computer can think “is to be the machine and to feel oneself thinking.” It follows, then, that the only way to know if another person thinks is to be that very person. “I am sure,” Turing writes, “that Professor Jefferson does not wish to adopt the extreme and solipsist point of view.” In short, we judge intelligence or consciousness in humans or other beings using external signs. Jefferson’s objection is invalid, Turing claims, and his “imitation game” stands.

But this is a rather weak reading of Jefferson’s (possible) objection. Jefferson is not suggesting that the only way to know if a machine thinks is to be that machine. Rather he is suggesting that the only way to know if a machine thinks is to observe evidence of human understanding or feeling in a machine. Until a machine is able to produce some seemingly spontaneous text or piece of music that expresses some unprogrammed idea or feeling that, on further investigation, shows both an understanding of the words used and an awareness of the feelings felt, it cannot be said to think.

Here’s the deal: Turing’s “imitation game” does not test for either of these. It does not test for evidence of understanding. It does not test for evidence of feeling. How could it when there is no theory for how consciousness could develop from metal, plastic and electricity?

The “imitation game,” rather, simply tests whether computer programmers can fool other people into thinking a program is a human. It’s a game that has become a gimmick to get funding or wildly overhyped press releases.

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Bookman Summer Reading

Over at The University Bookman, a couple of folks associated with TAC offer some summer reading suggestions. Our editor, Daniel McCarthy, will be reading R.G. Collingwood’s “elegant, brilliant little book,” The Idea of Nature, among other things. Eve Tushnet will dive into Japanese fiction, and I’ll be reading Denis Donoghue’s Metaphor (and about which I’ll have more to say later).

There are lots of other interesting suggestions.  Gregory Wolfe will be reading William Giraldi’s novel Busy Monsters and Thomas Bertonneau has his sights on a couple of medieval sagas.

Read the rest.

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Thin Skin at The New York Times

Last week, The New York Times Book Review posted Michael Kinsley’s negative but smart and entertaining review of Glenn Greenwald’s Snowden book, No Place to Hide. The review has apparently thrown readers into a tizzy—enough for The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to apologize for the review on Tuesday:

Book reviews are opinion pieces and — thanks to the principles of the First Amendment — Mr. Kinsley is certainly entitled to freely air his views. But there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example; he is called a “go-between” instead of a journalist and is described as a “self-righteous sourpuss.” (I’ve never met Mr. Greenwald, though I’ve written about his work, as Mr. Kinsley notes.)

But worse, Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well. What if his views were taken to their logical conclusion? Picture Daniel Ellsberg and perhaps the Times reporter Neil Sheehan in jail; and think of all that Americans would still be in the dark about — from the C.I.A.’s black sites to the abuses of the Vietnam War to the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the widespread spying on ordinary Americans.

Yes, as Ms. Paul rightly noted to me, it’s true that a book review is not an editorial, and the two shouldn’t be confused. And she told me that she doesn’t believe that editing should ever change a reviewer’s point of view. But surely editing ought to point out gaping holes in an argument, remove ad hominem language and question unfair characterizations; that didn’t happen here.

A Times review ought to be a fair, accurate and well-argued consideration of the merits of a book. Mr. Kinsley’s piece didn’t meet that bar.

I’ve read the review, and agree with it or not, it is not “sneering,” it is not “inaccurate,” and it does not have “gaping holes” in its argument. The paragraph that readers complained about the most was one about the sticky problem of who decides what national secrets can be released to the public:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

Here’s the context of that paragraph:

Throughout “No Place to Hide,” Greenwald quotes any person or publication taking his side in any argument. If an article or editorial in The Washington Post or The New York Times (which he says “takes direction from the U.S. government about what it should and shouldn’t publish”) endorses his view on some issue, he is sure to cite it as evidence that he is right. If Margaret Sullivan, the public editor (ombudsman, or reader representative) of The Times, agrees with him on some controversy, he is in heaven. He cites at length the results of a poll showing that more people are coming around to his notion that the government’s response to terrorism after 9/11 is more dangerous than the threat it is designed to meet.

Greenwald doesn’t seem to realize that every piece of evidence he musters demonstrating that people agree with him undermines his own argument that “the authorities” brook no dissent. No one is stopping people from criticizing the government or supporting Greenwald in any way. Nobody is preventing the nation’s leading newspaper from publishing a regular column in its own pages dissenting from company or government orthodoxy. If a majority of citizens now agree with Greenwald that dissent is being crushed in this country, and will say so openly to a stranger who rings their doorbell or their phone and says she’s a pollster, how can anyone say that dissent is being crushed? What kind of poor excuse for an authoritarian society are we building in which a Glenn Greenwald, proud enemy of conformity and government oppression, can freely promote this book in all media and sell thousands of copies at airport bookstores surrounded by Homeland Security officers?

Through all the bombast, Greenwald makes no serious effort to defend as a matter of law the leaking of official secrets to reporters. He merely asserts that “there are both formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists that are unavailable to anyone else. While it is considered generally legitimate for a journalist to publish government secrets, for example, that’s not the case for someone acting in any other capacity.”

* * *

The Snowden leaks were important — a legitimate scoop — and we might never have known about the N.S.A.’s lawbreaking if it hadn’t been for them. Most leaks from large bureaucracies are “good” leaks: no danger to national security, no harm to innocent people, information the public ought to have.

The trouble is this: Greenwald says that Snowden told him to “use your journalistic judgment to only publish those documents that the public should see and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.” Once again, this testimony proves the opposite of what Greenwald and Snowden seem to think. Snowden may be willing to trust Greenwald to make this judgment correctly — but are you? And even if you do trust Greenwald’s judgment, which on the evidence might be unwise, how can we be sure the next leaker will be so scrupulous?

If this enough for the public editor to publicly scold review editor, Pamela Paul, and apologize to The Times’s readers, The Times has thinner skin than the class of 2014.

Adam Kirsch, commenting on the review and subsequent fiasco at The New Republic, writes that Kinsley did not make any errors of fact, so Sullivan’s “correction” makes no sense: “[H]e expresses an opinion that the freedom of the press is not unlimited, that it must eventually yield to a democratic government, which after all has the legitimacy conferred by a hundred million voters. This is not an error, it is an argument, and the response to it cannot be a correction, but only another better argument, if there is one to be made.”

And instead of trying to quash Kinsley’s review in the guise of the newspaper’s supposedly “high standards,” The Times should thank Pamela Paul for featuring this debate in its pages:

What we have here, in other words, is an example of the very thing everyone complains is usually missing in public life: a substantive debate about important issues. It’s impossible to read Kinsley on Greenwald, and then Greenwald on Kinsley on Greenwald, without acknowledging that both of them have made serious and thought-provoking points. Kinsley is surely correct that the press cannot have unlimited freedom to publish any government secret. What would we say about a journalist who published American battle plans, or the location of nuclear weapons silos, or the identity of undercover agents? Just as Kinsley said, someone has to decide where to draw the curtain of secrecy, without worrying that any individual with an Internet connection can poke holes in it. Yet Greenwald is also convincing when he writes that, were we to leave such decisions entirely up to the government, we would be left in the dark about all kinds of wrongdoing that could not survive public exposure. Here is a genuine conflict of values, and the side one takes depends on one’s view of the dangers of anarchy versus the dangers of tyranny.

If there is one undeniable winner in this affair, it is The New York Times Book Review (to which, full disclosure, I am a regular contributor). Its editor, Pamela Paul, made a match of reviewer and subject that resulted not just in a witty and engaging review, but in a serious intellectual discussion, one that has taken fire beyond the pages of the Book Review itself and brought public attention to a significant issue. That’s just what book reviewing is supposed to do.

It is bizarre, then, that the Times’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Kinsley’s review as if it were some kind of journalistic malfeasance.

Not just bizarre, dumb.

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Amazon Responds to Reader Complaints in Hachette Dispute

GalleyCat reports that Amazon, which is in a pricing dispute with Hachette and has delayed delivery of Hachette titles or made them unavailable, has responded to reader complaints in a Kindle forum. On Hachette titles unavailable for pre-order:

We are currently buying less (print) inventory and “safety stock” on titles from the publisher, Hachette, than we ordinarily do, and are no longer taking pre-orders on titles whose publication dates are in the future. Instead, customers can order new titles when their publication date arrives. For titles with no stock on hand, customers can still place an order at which time we order the inventory from Hachette — availability on those titles is dependent on how long it takes Hachette to fill the orders we place. Once the inventory arrives, we ship it to the customer promptly. These changes are related to the contract and terms between Hachette and Amazon.

On the dispute:

Negotiating with suppliers for equitable terms and making stocking and assortment decisions based on those terms is one of a bookseller’s, or any retailer’s, most important jobs. Suppliers get to decide the terms under which they are willing to sell to a retailer. It’s reciprocally the right of a retailer to determine whether the terms on offer are acceptable and to stock items accordingly. A retailer can feature a supplier’s items in its advertising and promotional circulars, “stack it high” in the front of the store, keep small quantities on hand in the back aisle, or not carry the item at all, and bookstores and other retailers do these every day. When we negotiate with suppliers, we are doing so on behalf of customers. Negotiating for acceptable terms is an essential business practice that is critical to keeping service and value high for customers in the medium and long term.

And on the effect the dispute has had on Hachette authors:

We also take seriously the impact it has when, however infrequently, such a business interruption affects authors. We’ve offered to Hachette to fund 50% of an author pool – to be allocated by Hachette – to mitigate the impact of this dispute on author royalties, if Hachette funds the other 50%. We did this with the publisher Macmillan some years ago. We hope Hachette takes us up on it.

Hachette responds:

Authors, with whom we at Hachette have been partners for nearly two centuries, engage in a complex and difficult mission to communicate with readers.  In addition to royalties, they are concerned with audience, career, culture, education, art, entertainment, and connection.  By preventing its customers from connecting with these authors’ books, Amazon indicates that it considers books to be like any other consumer good.  They are not.

We will spare no effort to resume normal business relations with Amazon—which has been a great partner for years—but under terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them, at the same time that it recognizes Amazon’s importance as a retailer and innovator.


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The Art of Writing Well

F Maillaud, Remy de Gourmont, via Wikimedia Commons
F Maillaud, Remy de Gourmont, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fortnightly Review has put together a nice dossier on the French writer Remy de Gourmont, a contemporary of Alfred Jarry who influenced both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Gourmont’s most important critical work is The Problem of Style (1902)—a response to Antoine Albalat’s The Art of Writing in Twenty Lessons (1899), which, like many writing manuals, proposes to teach readers how to write well by providing annotated examples of good prose and poetry, lists of clichés to avoid, and so forth.

The context of Gourmont’s Problème is important. Albalat had argued that style is entirely the result of imitating writers of “taste”: “One should always have in front of oneself,” Albalat writes, “the great classical models. One should obsess over their thought, their form, their style…And ask, following Longinus: How would Homer have said this?”

Gourmont will have none of this:

No. This is absurd…One should ask oneself [rather]: How do I feel this, how do I see this? And ignore the Greeks, the Romans, the Classics, and the Romantics. When he is writing, a writer should not concern himself with either his masters or his style. If he sees, if he feels, if he says something, it will either be interesting or not, beautiful or mediocre, but he must take a chance. But to try and trick the ignorant or the stupid by cunningly using a few famous lines? It’s dirty work and a stupid attitude! Style is feeling, seeing thinking, and nothing more.

Albalat’s Art of Writing is, at times, overly simplistic, and Gourmont is right to skewer his advice to mindlessly imitate Homer. But Gourmont’s response also goes too far in associating style with personal experience. This obscures what writers gain by reading others and the importance of looking not only inward, but outward. As T.S. Eliot put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which is, in part, a response to Gourmont, “if the only form of tradition… consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.” But the poet “must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen…the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past.”

Furthermore, Gourmont’s emphasis on the individuality of style in one of the many selections excerpted at Fortnightly leads him to make a false distinction between two kinds of writers and readers:

The writer with an abstract style is almost always a sentimentalist, at least a sensitive. The artist-writer is hardly ever sentimental and very rarely a sensitive; that is to say, he incorporates all his sensibility in his style, and has very little left for life and the profound passions. The one takes a ready-made phrase or writes a facile phrase wherein, deceived by his own emotion, he thinks there is an emotive value; the other takes words which are merely handfuls, constructs the limbs of his work and erects a statue which whether beautiful or ugly, heavy or winged, will yet keep in its attitude some of the life which animated the hands by which it was moulded. Nevertheless the vulgar will feel more emotion from the banal phrase than from the original phrase; and this will be the counterproof: to the reader who draws his emotions from the very substance of what he reads is opposed the reader who only feels what he reads to the extent that he can apply it to his own life, to his griefs, to his hopes. He who enjoys the literary beauty of a sermon by Bossuet cannot be touched by it religiously, and he who weeps for the death of Ophelia has no aesthetic sense. These two parallel categories of writers and readers constitute the two great types of cultivated humanity. In spite of shades and over-lappings, no understanding is possible between them; they despise each other, for they do not understand each other. Their animosity extends in two wide, sometimes subterranean, streams throughout literary history.

There’s something to Gourmont’s view that abstraction, which includes jargon and clichés, and sentimentality go hand in hand. Abstract words are vague and capable of evoking an emotion that may or may not be warranted in a particular context or circumstance. Sentimentality is a feeling that is inconsonant with the event that produced it.

Gourmont is wrong, however, that readers who weep “for the death of Ophelia” have “no aesthetic sense” and that those who are touched by the beauty of a sermon can learn no dogma from it. This is silly and makes imaginative writing the domain of specialists whose interest in it is merely technical. If “for ‘the intellectual’ everything is in the manner in which the subject is treated,” as Gourmont states, God save us from intellectuals.

Throughout Problème, Gourmont refuses to distinguish between style and thought—one is the other. Again, there is something to this. Good writing, he states, is “irrefutable.” At the same time, “Nothing perishes more quickly than style unsupported by the solidity of vigorous thought.”

But, again, he goes too far when he writes that “style and thought are the same.” This wrongly elevates originality (which is almost always what Gourmont means by “style”) to a degree that in practice diminishes the importance of truth and emotion in a work of art. Gourmont could care less about truth. “Truth tyrannizes,” he writes, “doubt liberates.” But, contra Gourmont’s self-defeating praise of it, doubt has proven just as tyrannical in art and literature as any number of other false truths. Nothing, it sometimes seems, can be expressed today in certain circles with authentic feeling without the risk of being labeled simplistic or naïve.

Furthermore, Gourmont’s principles of originality and doubt are just as susceptible to being gamed as Albalat’s classical ones are. If writers who imitate Albalat’s classical style can dupe readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile by an allusion here or a turn of phrase there, they can also, following Gourmont’s creed of originality, trick readers into thinking they’ve created something worthwhile because it seems new or shocking. While Gourmont argues, as noted above, that “style unsupported by…vigorous thought” perishes quickly, the problem is as long as the thinking remains squishy, the ashes of bad writing will continue to give birth to bad writing.

Elsewhere Gourmont writes:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer’s capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated.

While this may have been necessary over a hundred years ago, it’s terrible advice for our self-absorbed, rule-breaking, originality-obsessed age.

There is no formula for writing well, no one, unchanging definition of good writing, and no such thing as pure originality. In my own limited experience, reading well has been important (reading all of Derrida—yes, all, at least at the time—nearly ruined my prose), but it probably was not as important as writing often and allowing editors and colleagues I trust to rip an essay or article to shreds. The latter is essential—at least for aspiring nonfiction writers. Writers who refuse to submit their work to others for criticism almost always remain failed writers.

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