Impossible Words About Words

David Winters, “Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters” by Alec Niedenthal, HTML Giant 6 August 2012

[…] Critics are all too quick to make literature “meaningful,” freighting it with false positives. But I dream of a sort of duplex movement, where every statement made about a novel manages to put that novel out of reach of just such statements. Maybe Tantalus is my model of the ideal critic. A critic shouldn’t be much more than a tortured ghost who utters impossible words about words.

[…] Really, that book [Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla] is nothing but an attempt to make a subject visible. I guess that’s why I (slightly pretentiously) say that the novel “eradicates” itself. It tries to arrive at a state of transparency, so that something else can show through. I should note that I’m not talking about a “naive realist” transparency here — not at all. I mean something more extreme and exorbitant. It’s as if the novel advances against itself, approaching its own effacement in the face of “what happens”.

Put it this way: the novel’s prehistory is everything that is not the novel. But once this prehistory is perceived, it turns out to “be” the novel in some fundamental sense. That sounds mystifying I’m sure, but for me it really does mean something, maybe everything. Which isn’t much.

[…] “The novel” as a grand project: the idea fills me with nervous exhaustion. What I can say with confidence is that I’m less and less interested in that sort of novel. I’d rather read a book that wants to do away with itself. Deep down I closely identify with literature, but I also compulsively want to kill literature. One thing I want to do in my writing is assert the worthlessness of the novel. Not in favour of some other form, but just as a function of the worthlessness of everything.

[…] I’m not simply saying that I admire writers whose work appears to exceed or annul humanity. My point (and I’m an essentialist, in this sense) is that literature is “literary” insofar as it is, in itself, “against the world, against life,” to quote Houllebecq.

[…] Above all, I wouldn’t want to assume that art makes a “demand” which criticism must answer to. Can’t the opposite be the case? Criticism isn’t merely a mimetic, reflective activity, with art as its point of origin. Criticism’s aim is not adequation; art isn’t entitled to ask anything of it.

The implicit idea here, that criticism “owes” something to art, reflects an unexamined romanticism in our language about artists and critics. Another example would be when we worry about critics “ruining” our appreciation of artworks. Right? I find this especially interesting, since it reveals a certain fear of criticism, which I’d quite like to see critics explore and exploit. Let’s stop seeing criticism as secondary to art, as if it were something parasitical. Why can’t it be predatory? Forget fidelity to ethical imperatives: criticism can corrode and corrupt art if it wants to. Part of me longs for a literary criticism which writers would be right to be afraid of.

I’m being bombastic, but seriously, sometimes I feel like this corrosive force, this nihilistic impulse within criticism (its secret wish to destroy what it can’t create; the thwartedness at the core of it) could also conceal a utopian kernel. Perhaps a progressive criticism would wreck and redeem aesthetic experience in the same movement.

[…] As readers, the closest way we can engage with a literary work is to protect its indeterminacy; to return ourselves and it to a place that precludes complete recognition. Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.


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