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.

The Nothingness Lying Behind It

David Winters, “Transparency by Marek Bieńczyk,” The Quarterly Conversation 28 (4 June 2012)

[…] Bieńczyk’s concern is with “the connections between transparency and the expressible.” The time he covers spans from Aristotle (for whom, as he quotes, “there is only transparency,” as an underlying reality) to the present, where science has superseded such notions, yet where they’re nevertheless necessary, “since the heart of man changes more slowly than the world.” An archetypally heartfelt expression comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in whose Confessions Bieńczyk discerns a desire for transparent speech; for a clear voice which would make the soul perfectly present to itself:

Rousseau believed that the heart of man could speak . . . he saw how language could become a transparent medium for the will of speech, for everything that wishes to be expressed . . . with no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood.

[…] But Bieńczyk’s literary history touches on another tradition, which unites an assortment of writers under the sign of

the shared striving for pure light in their texts, their striving for emptiness, for silence . . . their abandoning of the real, the concrete, the perceptible, the living, in favour of the motionless, the fading, the falling silent.

Such striving can be both formal and thematic — as in Beckett, for instance (whom Bieńczyk doesn’t discuss) or Barthes or Blanchot (whom he does). As a theme, it’s best represented by the Polish novelist Andrzej Stasiuk, whose books describe “landscapes with minimal human activity.” Stasiuk focuses on a world where “life has either not gotten going, or has already been extinguished.” Here transparency is, as in Aristotle, “the idea organizing the cosmos” — it sits in the background, the field on which existence occurs. But beyond this, Bieńczyk reminds us, there are writers who treat transparency in terms of textual form. This brings to mind Beckett’s letter to Axel Kaun, which likens language to “a veil one has to tear apart in order to get to . . . the nothingness lying behind it.” Bieńczyk’s lineage links several figures whose language “flirts with silence,” from Chateaubriand to Joubert. In each, he highlights an impulse he calls “negative idealism.” Yet this phrase doesn’t denote mere nihilism. Like the melancholic upward gaze, transparency here reaches beyond a quiet acceptance of the real. After all, as Bieńczyk avers, “if life has its own utopia, perhaps nothingness does too.” […]

After Literature

“Literary Melancholy: Lars Iyer Interviewed by David Winters,” 3:AM Magazine 15 November 2011

… For me, the truth about Montano’s sickness is that literature, what is called ‘literature’, has very little to do with our world. Something has happened. Something has come between us and the world of literature we admire. And that ‘something’ has to be acknowledged if literature is to avoid becoming a kind of repertoire routine, like The Nutcracker at Christmas.

… Much supposedly ambitious literary fiction seems to have similar characteristics. In attempting to distance itself from our marketized, neoliberalized, liberal-democratized world, it has become as stylized as bad high-fantasy. I want to read books that are commensurable with this world, in content and form, books that have abandoned a whole repertoire of literary gestures but which still, in some way, respond to what literature once was. I want to read books that make a problem of their inheritance, a problem of coming somehow after literature. I want to read books that register a sense of their own belatedness. … [F]or whatever reason, and we can speculate about this, it is not only a certain literary style, but literature itself, that is no longer believable.

Montano’s Malady is not a lament. It is not heavy-handed, like Austerlitz. It isn’t Solemn or Serious in a kitschy way. It is swift and light. It is funny. It belongs on our side of the great divide that separates us from figures like Kafka. But, for all that, Montano’s Malady does acknowledge this divide. It does negotiate its relationship with Modernism, with the past. It does situate itself with respect to Old Europe and the ‘narrative voice’ of Old Europe’s great writers. And it does all of this in the present, in our present.

… But, for me, Robbe-Grillet’s and Sarraute’s polemics are remarkable not only for their particular prescriptions for the novel, which remain exhilarating, but also for the very fact that they felt able to prescribe a future for the novel at all. For me, their prescriptions for a new novel can only, in the end, be so many more exhibits in the museum of literature. Their essays belong to an almost-unimaginable past in which such ideas mattered, a past which had a real stake in the future of the novel.

Sometimes, I wonder whether my making claims of this kind is a result of my literary melancholy! Shouldn’t it be possible, if one only tried hard enough, to dream of a fabulously new novel to come, of a nouveau roman newer than the nouveaux romans of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, of an eternally nouveau nouveau roman which would always belong to the future? Mightn’t there be some fiery rebirth of the Modern in some faraway place, among writers who write new manifestos in the dream of restoring a revolutionary purity to their endeavours? But I can only say that it seems to me that literature has, in some fundamental way, run its course.

… But for me, for whom literary melancholy is not a merely personal issue but a condition of writing in our time (and this is why I admire what I have read of David Markson, who thoroughly understands this point), no novel, least of all Spurious, could be a nouveau roman, and much less a nouveau nouveau roman! My novel, like all novels published today, is a roman after the roman, a novel that comes after the novel and after literature.

A Fallen Book of Prophecy

“Literary Melancholy: Lars Iyer Interviewed by David Winters,” 3:AM Magazine 15 November 2011

…Perhaps W.’s and Lars’s awareness of their failure does give them a kind of ethical wisdom. On the other hand, W.’s and Lars’s awareness of failure consists in very little more than an endless acknowledgement of their failure. They do not act, like, say, Mascolo or the Italian philosophers they admire. They might know that they have fallen short of their constitutive messianism, but they have done very little about it. If they are, considered from the perspective of the tradition of the thinkers they admire, at the beginning of wisdom, ethical and philosophical, then they do their best to ruin this beginning. W. and Lars have failed — they know that. But they will only ever fail, over and over again. Every beginning is a false beginning. This is why Spurious never settles into what we would normally understand to be a plot, instead revolving over and again around the same concerns. The novel can only take the form of an endless circling around failure. It can only take the form of spuriousness…

But that might be its success. If the characters fail, Spurious, I hope, succeeds in remaining with that failure, preserving a distance between W. and Lars, and the traditions of thought they admire. ‘Since the destruction of the Temple, the divine inspiration has been withdrawn from the prophets, and given to madmen and children’, it says in the Talmud. W. and Lars are these madmen, which is to say, fallen prophets (though not false ones, perhaps). And Spurious is a fallen book of prophecy — the only kind of such book there can now be. …