David Winters by Andrew Gallix

This piece appeared in Bomb Magazine on 4 June 2015:

David Winters by Andrew Gallix

“It seems to me that style becomes a kind of crucible—an acid bath in which the self is broken down, producing something unique, something new.”
davidwinters

Robert Musil regretted publishing the first volumes of The Man Without Qualities due to “the fixity they imposed on his ever-evolving work.” Similar misgivings almost led David Winters to shelve his debut collection of essays, from which the above quote is lifted. In conversation, the young English critic is given to qualifying—and even disavowing—past pronouncements, always returning them, with academic precision, to their rightful contexts. He is loath to see his provisional reflections turned into eternal truths, and wary of being co-opted by some dogmatic school or other. Infinite Fictions (Zero Books, 2015) is thus a snapshot of the author’s state of thinking over the last couple of years: a work in progress frozen in time.

Spurning any fixed theoretical position, Winters strives to preserve in his own essays the indeterminacy that lies at the heart—but also on the smudged margins—of literature. Given that the novels he writes about resist summation or translation, he has developed a contrarian brand of criticism that gestures towards what radically escapes it.

The enigmatic title derives from a conversation with Gordon Lish, whose “complex and compelling philosophy of literary form” looms large in these pages. Put simply, it refers to the intuition that fiction may “open up worlds which briefly exceed the limitations of life.” However, the book as “bounded infinity” cannot be construed as “an object of absolute sanctity”: it is always more than the sum of its parts. In this spirit, Winters wonders if “the words on the page” are really “worth as much as we think” compared with the “constellation of images” evoked by Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. Apropos of Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, he goes one step further, contending that “the content of a work exceeds whatever words are read or written.” This excess—what is read into by the reader, or indeed the author—“both is and is not ‘inside’ the work.” Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story perfectly illustrates this reconfiguration of the parameters of the book by retaining “an internal relation to an idealized, unwritten other.” Winters is finely attuned to the unheard melodies of that “unwritten other” and, more generally, to the occult—allusive, subtextual, gestural—dimensions of literature. He even argues that “language is ‘literary’ whenever it interacts with its implicature.” Works of fiction are never approached as though they were written in stone, but as liminal spaces “blurred on both sides” by the writing and reading processes. In an interview with Evan Lavender-Smith, he points out that “real reading” (and I think this can be extended to real writing) “is rife with the imperfections of living.” Here, he wonders if literature is not, precisely, “this drift, these errors and excesses that are engrained in our reading experience.” These are some of the reasons why David Winters is probably the most vital critic in the English language right now. There are many others.

Andrew Gallix: Walter Pater famously declared: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” And this is certainly the case of the works you seem most attracted to. The experience of reading Christine Schutt—whose prose encrypts meaning “in rhythms and melodies”—is compared with that of “listening to music.” While Schutt should be “read reverently aloud” because her “poetic sentences speak of the things they can’t say,” we learn, in another chapter of your book, that Dawn Raffel uses this very same method, à la Flaubert, to compose sentences which “sing of the things that speech alone can’t express.” Time and again, you observe this transmutation of speech into song, whereby style merges with substance; form becomes inseparable from content. This kind of fiction—to quote Beckett on Joyce—is no longer “about something; it is that something itself.” Such novels or stories are untranslatable. They exist on their own terms, like Lish’s Peru, whose “truth lies not in its correspondence to reality, but in its consistency with itself.” You begin your piece on Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous by conceding that it is “impossible to synopsize.” This critical impasse leads you to focus as much on your “reading experience” as on the books “under review”—which brings us back to Pater. The author of The Renaissance argued that experience—not “the fruit of experience”—was an end in itself, thus initiating a redefinition of art as the experience of life. Is there some kind of lineage here?

David Winters: I’ll start with “music.” Yes, for me, cadence is everything. I’ve always been drawn to writing written, as William Gass puts it, “by the mouth, for the ear”—writing in which every phoneme counts; where prosody and acoustical patterning constitute a kind of thinking, a kind of cognition. For Pater, music collapses the opposition between subject matter and form—and so, in a sense, do the writers I write about. I’m not an uncritical disciple of Pater, but I do think the phrase “art for art’s sake” retains some residual value, insofar as it serves, in George Steiner’s words, as “a tactical slogan, a necessary rebellion against philistine didacticism and political control.” For instance, an acquaintance of mine once attacked the art I admire as a “triumph of style over substance.” I’d side with Pater in seeing such triumphs as a desirable “obliteration” of the distinction between “form and matter.” I’d follow him, too, in wanting to view the aesthetic object as extra-moral, or at least anti-ideological; an alternate world in which, as he observes in his essay on Botticelli, “men take no side in great conflicts, and decide no great causes, and make great refusals.” For me, part of the power of art lies in precisely those refusals.

Of course, what’s interesting about the passage you quote is the way in which Pater’s own writing obliterates, at a phenomenological level, the distinction between the artwork and what he calls “the moment”—a collapse that, as you say, returns us to “the experience of life.” I don’t mind admitting that I care very little about ethics or politics when it comes to art, and that criticism, for me—considered as a way of thinking through, or working with, works of art—is largely an attempt to live within and learn from that collapse. You mentioned my attraction to novels and stories that seem to resist explication. It’s true I find those kinds of texts more conducive to this experience; strangely, I feel that their closure creates an opening. For me, those works that appear the most self-enclosed—which seem to speak to themselves, like Schwartz’s, in a private language—are paradoxically the most enriching, the most alive. In a way, I feel like they’re more alive than I am. They don’t merely reflect the life I already know; they live lives of their own, and they invite me to change mine.

AG: Silence is a corollary of the quasi-alchemical process through which the words of the tribe—to reprise Mallarmé’s famous phrase—are purified into song. Let me quote a few examples from your book. Miranda Mellis’s The Spokes is “a story submerged in its own situation, such that a silence washes over it.” Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous “speaks in a style that startles the surrounding world into silence.” Dylan Nice’s stories “stage a world before which we can only fall silent.” This silence—which drowns out the white noise of the world, allowing the music of language to be heard—emanates from the radical irreducibility of such works, the self-enclosure you have just mentioned. Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novels, like many of the books reviewed here, “could only have been written the way they are written,” and are thus resistant to criticism or any discourse “other than their own.” They illustrate the “flight from interpretation” that Susan Sontag had already observed in serious art, back in the late ’60s. Precluding hermeneutics, these fictions must be accepted on their own—alienating—terms. Schwartz’s is an art “that enfolds us in incomprehension.” The “very style” of Raffel’s stories “evokes an experience of unknowing.” You also praise Gabriel Josipovici, in Hotel Andromeda, for never attempting to encase Joseph Cornell’s art in “the amber of comprehension.”

Peter Markus recently told The Brooklyn Rail that what he looks for in a book is not meaning but that “state of awe which can leave us with its own kind of silence.” This put me in mind of what you once said in another interview: “Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.” Is the role of the critic to express this amazement in front of the mystery of literature?

DW: That’s what I’ve found myself doing in some of my reviews. It’s not at all what I do in my academic work, but reviewing allows for a different form of engagement—a more instinctive response. That said, I wouldn’t want to make normative statements on the basis of my private “amazement.” I simply want to write about artworks that move me. I have little to say about the “role of the critic”—a phrase that makes me squirm with suspicion. Critics are parasites; let’s not inflate our importance. Other critics can talk about roles if they like, or try to impose them on each other. If you’re going to give yourself over to the object, a role is really the last thing you want.

You mention Peter Markus, a remarkable writer whose work I’ve been following for several years. In that interview, Markus presents us with the figure of the witch doctor—the shaman who draws a circle in the sand, and then puts his sacred objects into play. It doesn’t matter what those objects are—a feather, a stone, a skull—ultimately, all the witch doctor wants is to fixate your gaze, to captivate your attention. For some of us, that’s what art is. I’m not sure how this relates to what Mallarmé wrote, but my position would be that if art purifies the language of the tribe, it does not do so for the tribe. The kind of art I admire makes its own language. Inside that circle, all that matters is the object in motion. If you really know how to write, how to paint, how to play your instrument, what you are doing is using that motion to create a structure with an internal consistency. You’re articulating a counter-language, whose purpose is not to purify but to stupefy—something which points away from the tribe. Art is not a social act; it’s an anti-social act. To be honest, if I were an artist, my aim would be to lead the tribe off the edge of the cliff.

A more literal way of putting this would be to say that the artworks I admire—the only kind I want to write about—are not interrogatives but declaratives. This kind of artwork is not a puzzle to be solved, and its role is not to reflect your existing knowledge back at you. Incidentally, this might be why I have so little respect for writers who make a show of alluding to philosophers in their work. The work itself should form a locus of philosophical force. As Wittgenstein says, “philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition.” In that sense, there’s more philosophy in a single sentence of Jason Schwartz—in the poetry of his syntax—than there is in… Well, I won’t name names. Let’s just say that Schwartz isn’t out to make anyone feel clever. The pleasure of “getting the references” is pretty much incompatible with the experience I’ve tried to describe. I’m not interested in books that invite self-satisfied comprehension. Like any serious reader, I’m looking for the real thing. And, for my part, I only know that I’ve found it when it defeats me. In my experience, criticism is at its best when it begins from a position of defeat.

AG: A recurring theme in Infinite Fictions is the danger of conflating reading fiction with knowledge—the rejection of information in favor of the unresolved, indeterminate, and auratic. At one point, you quote Gordon Lish’s definition of the writer’s job: “not to know what you are going to find.” This, of course, is reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s famous 1987 essay, “Not-Knowing,” in which a writer is characterized as “one, who embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Barthelme goes on to claim that the “not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made.” I wonder if this kind of negative capability is not also what permits your criticism to be made. And perhaps this not-knowing could be opposed to—or at least contrasted with—the knowledge that a work of fiction itself may harbor?

DW: You’re right. Lish and Barthelme do overlap on this issue, though Lish has something more precise in mind—an improvisatory poetics of the sentence, which proceeds by means of linguistic recursion. It’s a meticulous, syntactical version of negative capability, marked by profound epistemic uncertainty and insecurity. I’ve already written about that at length, as has one of Lish’s few really astute readers, Jason Lucarelli. Of course, Lish and Barthelme are both describing the creative act, not the critical act. The only “not-knowing” at work in my writing is of a much more familiar sort—the fact that putting thoughts into words brings forth new thoughts; Forster’s “how can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Writing reviews, I tend to feel that I know nothing, and that my object knows everything. Reviewing a book like Stasiuk’s Dukla, for instance, all I’m doing is trying to cling to the contours, or the outline, of the object’s knowledge. In the last five or six years, perhaps the two books of criticism I’ve returned to the most have been Michael Wood’s Literature and the Taste of Knowledge, and, in relation to that, Peter de Bolla’s Art Matters. De Bolla brilliantly describes how questions of intention and hermeneutics give way, within the aesthetic encounter, to a more primordial problem: “the insistent murmur of great art, the nagging thought that the work holds something to itself, contains something that in the final analysis remains untouchable, unknowable.”

If I can return to the misuse of philosophy in fiction—that is, to novelists who engage in overt philosophical posturing—I suppose my disappointment stems from my feeling that great works of art only murmur their knowledge, whereas the worst ones seem to want to parade it. Back in the ’70s, Lish observed of Stanley Crawford that, reading his work, “one senses the pressure of having read all that’s to be read without trying to give evidence of erudition.” That sense of pressure is what I’m after. That’s why Wittgenstein disliked Tolstoy’s more didactic works; as he wrote in a letter to Norman Malcolm, “when Tolstoy turns his back to the reader, then he seems to me most impressive. His philosophy is most true when it’s latent in the story.” Cora Diamond’s gloss on that letter stresses the sense in which, for Wittgenstein, philosophy should be “contained in the work, but not by being spoken of, not by being told.”

I’d say it’s the same with the question of art and knowledge. Take Gerhard Richter’s painting, Betty (1988). Or Velasquez’s Las Meninas. In each case, the composition is organized in such a way that the perspectival structure forces a deviation of the spectator’s attention. That’s what a lot of the artworks I work on are doing. That’s what, say, Schwartz is doing. Like Richter’s Betty, Schwartz’s work has its back turned. Like her, his language is looking at something I can’t see; it knows something I’ll never know. It’s incredible, as a critic, to encounter an artwork like that. A work that radically alters the parameters of critical practice. Confronted with this kind of object, the task is no longer to try to uncover art’s knowledge, but rather to follow its gaze.

AG: Just as Betty, in Richter’s painting, turns her back on us, writing, in your view, says “‘no’ to the world.” Asserting “its agon against all that is,” the novel is fundamentally “at odds with the world.” You have even claimed, quoting Michel Houellebecq, that literature is literary “insofar as it is, in itself, ‘against the world, against life.’” Could you talk about this?

DW: Seeing those quotes out of context, I feel like prefacing each one with “the kind of writing I like” or “the books that interest me,” or perhaps some longer prevarication: book x happens to move me insofar as I feel, subjectively, that it possesses quality y. Always, I’m writing about my experience of being with a particular artwork, and statements like these belong only to that experience.

You’re right, though. For me, being in the presence of works of art basically means not being in the world. I guess this stems from what I’ll reluctantly call my “religious” temperament—reluctantly since, as Salinger says in Franny and Zooey, any allusions to “God” will rightly be interpreted as “the worst kind of name-dropping, and a sure sign that I’m going straight to the dogs.” To indulge in some marginally less embarrassing name-dropping, maybe it matters that when I was younger, I was obsessed with the likes of Meister Eckhart, Pseudo-Dionysius, The Cloud of Unknowing. Plotinus was important to me. Hans Jonas’s work on Gnosticism was equally important. And Beckett, of course—especially Ill Seen Ill Said, which, back then, I read as John Calder does: he calls it “the last chapter of the bible”—a kind of creation myth in reverse. I don’t read Beckett in quite the same way today, and I doubt I understood Plotinus anyway. All the same, it’d be fair to say that my personal ontology has always been a kind of Gnostic acosmism. Some things are too deep-rooted to change.

That remark about art’s “agon against all that is” comes from my review of Lish’s novel about violence and memory, Peru. The point of that review was not to make hyperbolic claims about all works of art, but rather to try to describe the way in which a particular work secures for itself a kind of “truth.” On the surface, saying that art “says no to the world” simply sounds nihilistic. But Peru only says “no” in order to make a world of its own. To be more precise, I believe that the book brings about a kind of “world-making,” in the philosopher Nelson Goodman’s sense. And I believe that the stability of the world it creates is proportional to the force with which it negates the given world. Peru, like several of the books I’ve written about, is almost like a pocket of negative entropy—a bubble in which the arrow of time is reversed. A cosmos whose inner stability is not less than, nor continuous with, that of our own. This kind of artwork isn’t unlike Tarkovsky’s “Zone”—a magic circle, inside which objects obey their own laws of motion.

So, I see the artist as almost an alter deus; a bricoleur who builds a blasphemous world. What attracts me to certain of these worlds is their ability to exert a peculiar counter-pressure; an equal and opposite force to that of what we call “reality” (this is what Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, calls art’s “opposition to mere being”). If you consider the physics of that, perhaps opposition is only part of the picture: some other requirements might include proportionality, self-similarity, self-sufficiency. Earlier, you quoted me saying that Peru’s “truth lies not in its correspondence with reality, but in its consistency with itself.” When I talk about art’s antinomian oddness or wrongness—its being “at odds with the world”—I’m describing its capacity to define its own “truth,” through cohesion, not correspondence. As Goodman puts it, “more venerable than either utility or credibility as definitive of truth is coherence, interpreted in various ways but always requiring consistency.”

AG: “The world, as Wittgenstein says, is everything that is the case. But writing is whatever is not.”

DW: I said that during a roundtable conversation on style in fiction, published in The Literarian the year before last. Rather than repeat my response to your last question, I’ll answer with another quote, drawn not from my writing, but (since we discussed Pater earlier) from Denis Donoghue’s landmark study, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. Donoghue is listing the family resemblances between different versions of aestheticism, of which Pater’s is one. These are the principles he extracts:

A work of art is an object added to the world. Its relation to the world is not that of an adjective to the noun it qualifies. The relation is more likely to be utopian than referential. Art is art because it is not nature. In an achieved work of art we find a certain light we should seek in vain upon anything real. The work does not take any civic responsibility; it does not accept the jurisdiction of metaphysics, religion, morality, politics, or any public institution.

Donoghue notes that these notions are nowadays “often derided,” but then maintains, “I don’t deride them.” Neither do I, and I would side with his desire for a critical stance that preserves the artwork from what he calls “the rough strife of ideologues.” As he puts it, “the world proceeds by force of its chiefly mundane interests; it is an exercise of power and of responding to the power of others. Meanwhile we have literature, and the best way of reading it is by putting in parentheses, for the duration of the reading, the claims the world makes upon us. There will be time for those to assert themselves.” To rephrase your quote: art makes its own time, inside those parentheses.

AG: I would like to return to the idea of absenting oneself in the presence of art—that experience of “ego-loss” you seek through reading, and once described in quasi-mystical terms as a “miraculous disappearance.” In the introduction to Infinite Fictions, you explain that reviewing allows you to explore “the space left by [your] subtraction”—a beautiful phrase I simply had to quote. Does literature provide us with an intimation of the world-in-itself, or at least the world-without-us?

DW: The question reminds me of a passage in Dukla, where Stasiuk depicts an “unpeopled” landscape, containing only inanimate objects. “This must have been what the world looked like before it was set in motion,” he writes; “like a stage set on which something was going to take place only later, or else already had.” Similar feelings are elicited by some of De Chirico’s landscapes. For me, though, the “subtraction” you mention is best captured by the art historian Joseph Koerner, describing one of Caspar David Friedrich’s rückenfiguren. Much as we discussed earlier, Friedrich’s figures stand with their backs turned to the spectator, gazing away from us, into the canvas. Confronted with one of these images, Koerner writes: “I do not stand at the threshold where the scene opens up, but at the point of exclusion, where the world stands complete without me.”

When I pick up a book, I’m in pursuit of that point of exclusion. I’m forever in flight from myself, and I find that books briefly allow me a form of forgetting. I’ve no idea whether fiction has any connection to the world “in itself.” What I mean by “subtraction” is more like a fleeting illusion of weightlessness; a sense of suspension which lasts as long as the artwork allows it. That’s the relief of reading, for me—although I think that it also applies to the act of writing. I do view creativity as a kind of vanishing act—an escape from ipseity. As an aside, perhaps this explains my distaste for personal essays, memoirs, and the like—not to mention my ambivalence about social media. In our current culture of narcissism, we might all benefit from a little ego-destruction.

AG: Absolutely! However, as you write at the outset of your book, “In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.” Please talk us through the apparent paradox of this “dual movement.”

DW: Like I said, the illusion lasts only as long as the artwork allows it. None of us ever really escape from ourselves, but we can hope for flashes of insight into what it might be like. Over the course of our lives, our fates are shaped by the choices we make; we create labyrinths in which we are cornered and caught. That’s the great intuition of Greek tragedy, of course: “Creon is not your downfall, no, you are your own.” From day to day, we don’t feel ourselves falling, just as we don’t feel the gravity beneath our feet. But what we perceive as unimpeded motion is, in the end, a plummet towards an object whose pull we cannot evade. By now, you’ll have picked up on my unease at being confronted with quotes from my writing. Well, that’s the same; hearing my speech spoken back at me feels like being trapped, left looking into the eyes of my corpse. My sense of my published writing resembles my sense of my life: a dossier of evidence I’ve clumsily compiled against myself. By contrast, I take the view that what art can do is avert my eyes from where they would otherwise come to rest. Or, to put it another way, art enables a brief deviation from the earth’s gravitational pull. Clearly, aesthetic experience is as transitory as anything else: when we read or write, or watch a film, or listen to music, the clock is still ticking. The paradox, though, is that this type of attention seems to create a time of its own—a continuum which runs against the time of the clock. An image, or mirage, of infinitude can sometimes be found in those moments, although it is bounded, and always brought back to the finite. Simply put, the dream of art ends, and then we wake up.

AG: There seems to be a tension, in your work, between the impersonal (the aforementioned desire to “escape from ipseity” into self-sufficient fictive worlds, for instance) and the personal (your interest in the “psychic life” of writing, your conception of style as “the site of intersection with life,” or refusal to isolate theory from life). How do you account for this?

DW: The apparent tension is adequately accounted for by distinguishing the ego from the id; what we think we know of ourselves from what underlies and dismantles that knowledge. Adopting a more metaphysical tone, we might even want to distinguish the “self” from the “soul.” When I mention an “intersection” between style and life, I don’t mean to define style as an extension of the writer’s ego. I’m not remotely interested in style as an assertion of the self; I’m interested in style’s capacity to undermine the self, or to uncover a secret self that even the writer might be afraid of. I believe that the best writers are utterly unraveled by their style, crucified by their style.

For instance, you and I are both longstanding readers of Gary Lutz. If you look closely at Lutz’s style—which is, by design, the only way one can look at it—maybe you’ll see the same thing I see. Lutz’s writing reflects very little of his biography; instead it exposes something of his soul. Many writers today seem intent upon putting as much of the “self” as they can into the content of their prose. Lutz, on the other hand, injects his soul into the syntax of his stories, the intervals between his syllables, the signature of his style. This kind of writing does not project or preserve the ego; it controverts and collapses the ego. With a writer of Lutz’s caliber, it seems to me that style becomes a kind of crucible—an acid bath in which the self is broken down, producing something unique, something new.

Speaking more broadly, my stance on style isn’t all that unlike Susan Sontag’s. I’d side with her in seeing art’s content as an occasion for form; “the lure which engages consciousness in formal processes of transformation.” Sontag’s mention of transformation also reminds me of Alain Badiou’s account of the golden age of French theory. For Badiou, the unifying feature of French philosophy in the 1960s was that its principal players were “bent upon finding a style of their own; a new way of creating prose.” Crucially though, their search for a style was far from simply stylistic. As Badiou says, “at stake, finally, in this invention of a new writing, is the enunciation of a new subject.” In fiction, as in philosophy, any invention of a new style enunciates a new subject-position—a particular way of being, potentially at odds with those which already exist. I wouldn’t attribute to style the political valence that Badiou might attribute to it, but I would say this: the kind of writing I admire doesn’t reproduce a person’s life; instead it suggests entirely new forms of life.

AG: You have described Diane Williams as “a writer I lack the skill to review.” What are those skills you allegedly lack?

DW: A less coy way of putting it would be to admit that I’m neurotically conscious of what the critic Cleanth Brooks called the “heresy of paraphrase”—the reduction of the experience of a poem to a statement about that experience, or an abstraction from it. Williams’s art seems to me the most accomplished, the most audacious, in its evasion of that type of explication. In a sense, it’s precisely the kind of art I’m looking for—but also, by that definition, the kind I’m most afraid to find. I’ve tried to write about it, of course, but it undoes me every time. Probably the best way to write about Williams would be to spend some time writing only about paintings, or only about music, and approach her compositions from that angle. I’m not sure the resources of literary criticism are quite adequate, in her case. That said, I believe she’ll have a new book out before too long—so, having dug myself into this hole, I hereby commit myself to writing a review.

You are now one of the foremost authorities on Gordon Lish, whose presence looms large in Infinite Fictions as well as this interview. How important is his own work compared with his impact as an editor or a creative-writing guru?

Alongside Max Perkins, Lish is one of the two most important American editors of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, I would argue that the historical significance of his teaching outweighs even that of his editing. The precise nature of that significance will take many years to become clear; half a century’s accumulated hype, rumor, and bullshit must first be washed away. My advice, on this score, would be to ignore anything that journalists, bandwagon-jumpers, or self-appointed biographers might say; the only people equipped with an accurate picture of Lish’s teaching are those who meaningfully studied with him. And by that, I don’t mean people who took a couple of classes, dropped out, and wrote magazine articles about their experience—I mean those who stayed the course and emerged to produce original work. Originality being the essential point: as I understand it, Lish intended his teaching as a ladder to be climbed and then cast aside. In the end, it’s really no different from Emerson’s dictum: “never imitate.”

As for Lish’s fiction, conventional wisdom would say that it’s less successful than that of the authors he’s influenced. I’ve read all of it now, from beginning to end and back again. Even so, I’m only just beginning to grasp it. Lish’s prose requires extraordinary attention and concentration. Actually, part of what he’s doing is revising the structure of attention—reconfiguring the reader’s gaze. I only understood that after I’d spent a great deal of time in his presence, on the page. One difficulty is that Lish is recklessly uncompromising in his struggle against conventional effects, against imitation. Certainly, there is a willful astringency to his style. Another problem is that he’s looking at his native language from a new angle—a perspective which appears to distort that language, but which paradoxically clarifies its creative capacity, its “grammar.” Above all, Lish isn’t writing with the market—or maybe even the present—in mind. In a way, his work enacts a kind of wager, a high-stakes bet that the value of art will be proportionate to its untimeliness. In fifty years’ time, will Peru finally be recognized as one of the masterpieces of modern American literature? Will Epigraph? Will Extravaganza? I don’t know, but I daresay they’ll prove more enduring than the facile efforts of Franzen and co.

AG: Significantly, your first publication was a review of Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel—a series of lectures that the French critic conducted as if he were going to compose a work of fiction. It appears that reviewing allowed you, contrarily, to proceed as if you were not going to write a novel. In that seminal review, you observe that the novel “exists in the mind of its reader less as a literary object than a wish underwritten by other wishes.” Was it this realization that allowed you to embrace criticism without being—like so many other reviewers—a frustrated novelist? Do you envisage a return to fiction at some stage?

Writing a novel is almost a universal fantasy, isn’t it? Although, for most of us, the fantasy is not really of writing a novel, but only of having written one, and of it being read. In this respect, the fantasy of the novel is partly a fantasy of communication, or recognition (the dream of finally saying all of the things you desired, but failed, to say—and thereby revealing the “real” you) and partly one of immortality, or at least remembrance (the dream of your novel “living on” after you’ve gone). The truth is that when I wrote that piece about Barthes, I was writing a novel. I knew, though, that what I was writing came closer to fantasy than reality. So, I started writing reviews in order to free myself from that fantasy. I wouldn’t rule out a return to writing fiction some time in the future, but if I did, you wouldn’t know it was me. Pseudonymity always struck me as the only appropriate mode for creative writing. I’m on the side of Pessoa, hiding The Book of Disquiet away in a trunk—not that hack Knausgaard, passing off narcissism as art. Whenever I’ve dreamt of writing a novel, I’ve dreamt of writing it with a new name.

AG: In the introduction to Infinite Fictions, you acknowledge that “to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Throwing humility overboard, could not we also argue that the aim of criticism is to see the object as it really is not—to see it as it could or should be, perhaps even as it sees itself? In fact, could not we even argue that literature is a by-product of criticism—that criticism uses fiction as its raw material to dream literature into existence?

DW: I’m rather reluctant to throw humility overboard; there’s not nearly enough of it among literary critics. This is tangential to your question, but I’d like to reiterate my opposition, which I’ve aired elsewhere, to what John Guillory has called the “fantasy of literary power.” Guillory’s phrase refers to the presupposition, revealingly common to critics, that “literary culture is the site at which the most socially important beliefs and attitudes are produced.” Just as I’m skeptical of critics who reduce texts to reflections of social conjunctures, I’m equally unconvinced by those who treat literature as a “site of resistance” to those conjunctures. As Mark McGurl has observed, such gestures tend to lend literature “a dignity of effective scale that it does not necessarily deserve.”

If we discard those fantasies, then “seeing the object” must obviously be our aim. In that case, though, the question becomes: what kind of seeing? Your own question alludes to Matthew Arnold’s call for critical objectivity in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” and to Wilde’s parodic inversion of Arnold in “The Critic as Artist.” Wilde has one of his characters claim that “to the critic, the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes.” Against Arnold’s order to “see the object as it really is,” Wilde’s character asks us to “see the object as it really is not.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I would probably agree with Pater’s more subtle modification, according to which the aim of critical appreciation is “to see one’s impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly.”

Of course, no one ever sees the object as it really is. That’s true of critics and artists alike, insofar as artistic practice is also an effort to render an object. As you know, I take the view that art’s objects are infinite. To my mind, an accomplished work of art is one that attempts to see its object from every angle—apprehending every aspect, every stratum, every extension. In their own ways, that’s what Gertrude Stein does, what Thomas Bernhard does, what Gordon Lish does. The object, however, can never be mastered, and failure is always the outcome. Critics and artists are the same, in that sense: all we can really control is the scope, the shape, the originality of our acts of failure. Like the artist, the critic confronts an impossible object—one which, as certain philosophers say, withdraws from the world around it. We look at our objects, as long as we can, but no way of looking will fix them in a final form. So, like the artist, the critic must endlessly circle the object, looking for new ways of seeing. This, by the way, is why dogmas and doctrines are the death of critical practice—to see the object from a single position isn’t to see it at all. So, for me, the goal—or perhaps the obligation—of criticism closely resembles that of art: the continuous cultivation of perception, the invention and re-invention of the gaze, and the search for new modes of attention. Earlier, you asked me about the “role of the critic.” I think this is all I’m able to say: the critic must always keep looking, and never stand still.

Of Literary Bondage

This appeared in the August 2013 issue of Numéro Cinq, with a wonderful introduction by Douglas Glover:

Of Literary Bondage

andrewgallix

How is the marchioness? Still playing Alice in Rubberland?
– Adam and the Ants, “Rubber People”

Surprising as it may seem, “The marquise went out at five” ranks among the most famous quotes in modern French literature. It could have been tossed off by some Gallic Bulwer-Lytton type, and in a manner it was, albeit a fictitious one. These hapless words were first recorded in the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, midway through a rant against what Barthes would dub the “reality effect“. André Breton recalls the time when Paul Valéry assured him he would never write a novel, adducing his aversion to opening sentences à la “marquise”. Referenced by numerous authors, from André Gide to Nathalie Sarraute through Francis Ponge, the marchioness and her teatime peregrinations, came to embody everything that was wrong with a certain brand of conventional fiction.

It was not just the insipid incipits of well-made novels that Valéry objected to. He believed that writing always betrayed the complexity of human thought. “The more one writes,” he wrote, “the less one thinks.” Valéry’s Monsieur Teste — a close cousin of Melville’s Bartleby and Musil’s Ulrich — is particularly scornful of novels and plays, in which “being is simplified even to stupidity”. Like his character, the reluctant author felt that prose was essentially prosaic — a communication tool as pedestrian as a peripatetic marquise in a potboiler. Poetry, on the other hand, was conversant with the ineffable, and could therefore be regarded as a true art form. The fact that some of the greatest novels of the last century merged prose with poetry, and that some of the greatest poets of our time (Gary Lutz) are fiction writers, seems to invalidate this dubious theory. Nonetheless, Valéry’s quip tapped into a growing sense of disillusionment with the novel, which, despite some very notable exceptions, already seemed to have ossified in its Victorian incarnation. Compared with the avant-garde movements’ attempts to bridge the gap between art and life — chief among them, Breton’s Surrealism — the novel’s “puny exploits” (Beckett) seemed risible.

Above all, Valéry objected to the arbitrary nature of such perfunctory preambles, anticipating Knausgaard‘s recent crisis of faith: “Just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”. Here, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to breaking point by the nagging feeling that the marchioness could just as well have been a duchess on a different timetable, or an alien on another planet. What is lacking, to quote Dylan Nice, is the sense of “a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of the novel. Gabriel Josipovici analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. It is this crisis of authorial authority that Valéry’s marquise throws into relief.

In Reading Writing, Julien Gracq took Valéry to task over the alleged randomness of his imaginary opening sentence. “Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem,” he argues; it just takes longer for patterns to emerge. Quite. Even at a micro-level, any minor amendment can trigger a butterfly effect. Should the marchioness morph into a princess, for instance, we might suddenly find ourselves slap bang in fairy-tale territory. Should she pop out, say, instead of simply going out, the register, and perhaps even the meaning, would be altered, and so forth. The point, however, is not whether everything counts in a novel, but whether a novel of this kind counts at all.

“The marquise went out at five” parodies all those narratives that aim for verisimilitude whilst inadvertently advertising their fictive status. In so doing, the sentence conjures up a quantum multiverse of alternatives. It haunts itself, begging to be rewritten over and over again, until all possibilities have been exhausted, and it can finally be laid to rest. The most recent example of this repetition compulsion is Jean Charlent’s Variations Valéry (2011) — a series of pastiches of 75 different authors, riffing off the famous phrase (which Claude Mauriac had cheekily used as the title of an early novel). Significantly, the marchioness made an appearance in One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s famous collection of ten sonnets (1961). Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it comes in the singular — but fittingly ludic — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Queneau thus succeeded in producing a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — which Queneau launched with François Le Lionnais, in 1960.

Queneau parted company with the Surrealists over aesthetic, as well as political, differences. He increasingly objected to their experiments in automatic writing, premised on the idea that freedom was “the absence of all control exercised by reason” (Breton). “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” countered Queneau, “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. It is, paradoxically, through the observance of rules that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

Historically, the importance of the Oulipo is to have provided an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) through the reintroduction of external constraints.

Oulipo: Freeing Literature By Tightening its Rules

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 July 2013:

Oulipo: Freeing Literature By Tightening its Rules

By imposing multiple restrictions on the processes of writing, this group of French writers seek to find what literature might be, rather than what it is

Billions of ideas ... Raymond Queneau Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Billions of ideas … Raymond Queneau Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

You might think Raymond Queneau was guilty of a little overkill when he cured a bout of writer’s block by writing One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, but this flipbook presentation of 10 sonnets did more than paper over a barren spell, it became the founding text of an experimental literary collective.

The 14 lines on each page are printed on individual strips, so that every line can be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes is at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms) — the signatures of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop (OuLiPo) launched by Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960.

The Oulipo replayed literary modernity in ludic mode. It was, inter alia, an attempt to reconcile CP Snow’s two cultures, an undertaking which was embodied by the workshop’s co-founders: Queneau was a writer fascinated by science; Le Lionnais, a scientist fascinated by writing. In their own way, they were reprising the early Romantic ambition that “all art should become science, and all science art” (Friedrich Schlegel). Despite such lofty claims, the collective adopted a very pragmatic approach to fiction, which is rather unusual in France, where literature has preserved much of its mystique and creative writing programmes are almost unheard of. According to Daniel Levin Becker, Oulipians consider “literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative“. They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice. In the early days, the emphasis was firmly on the former (i.e. “anoulipism” in Oulipospeak). When they were not scouring the great works of the past in search of proto-Oulipian procedures, the group members were busy establishing a lineage of “pre-emptive plagiarists” (Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel et al.). The invention and possible deployment of new writing constraints (“synthoulipism”) soon became the main focal point, however, and under the aegis of Georges Perec (who joined in 1967) the production of ambitious new works took centre stage.

Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. For Queneau, “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery”. Italo Calvino (who was co-opted in 1973) concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. Choosing the “right road” from the outset, instead of stumbling upon it haphazardly, is the Oulipian way: once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

As Gabriel Josipovici argues in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, modern literature was forged out of a refusal to submit to external constraints, with the novel a “new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. “Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime,” writes Josipovici. The Oulipo escapes the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) by reintroducing external constraints, which are self-imposed.

Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader is a moot point. Harry Mathews refuses to do so, while Jacques Roubaud (another mathematician) argues that the constraint(s) should be the very subject matter of any truly Oulipian work. Some constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet’s metro poems, or even Jean Lescure’s N+7 procedure. Others are far more convincing, for example, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style in which the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways. “The problem, when you see the constraint,” Perec observed, is that you no longer see anything else. It is a testament to his prodigious talent that one of the first reviewers of A Void (1969) should have failed to notice that the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language. This lipogrammatic tour de force is particularly poignant because the missing e (pronounced “eux” — “them” — in French) refers to all those (including the author’s parents) who went missing during the second world war.

For Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, the Romantic fragment “stands for itself and for that from which it has been detached,” making it both finite and (theoretically) infinite. According to Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, the Oulipian constraint serves a similar purpose: “The work which results may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint”. Exhaustion is the “necessary corollary” of potentiality, they continue. This is particularly true in the case of Perec, who, like an agoraphobic miniaturist, focuses on manageable, bite-sized chunks of reality, which he then tries to shoehorn into his books. He claimed that his ambition in Life A User’s Manual (1978) was “to exhaust not the world” but “a constituted fragment of the world”. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) — his famous exploration of the “infra-ordinary” — involved spending three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice observing what happened when nothing happened.

One could argue that the failure of the Oulipian project is Perec’s major theme. In one of the dreams in La Boutique obscure — recently translated for the first time — Perec discovers an edition of A Void in which the banned letter e keeps recurring. In Life A User’s Manual, Bartlebooth dies clutching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which turns out to be the wrong shape. The plot — based on an algorithm enabling the knight in a game of chess to touch every single square on the board once — enacts the novel’s failure (there is a missing chapter corresponding to an unvisited basement). “The Winter Journey” (which Atlas Press is bringing out in a new edition) revolves around the discovery — and subsequent loss — of a book (the eponymous Winter Journey) proving that all the great modern poets were in fact plagiarists. Also, 53 Days — about an unfinished book left by a writer who disappears — was left unfinished by Perec, when he disappeared in 1982. The most famous Oulipian — himself a crossword constructor — knew that literature was an unsolvable puzzle.

Some say that the Oulipo increasingly resembles a gathering of ageing cruciverbalists: it started off looking for “pre-emptive plagiarists” and is now largely concerned with archiving its glory days. In an age of N+7 Machines and ebooks, many of the Oulipo’s algorithm-based experiments have lost their cutting edge. The recent revival of interest, in the English-speaking world, is due to translations of works by historic Oulipians, as well as Daniel Levin Becker’s youthful transatlantic enthusiasm (he is the group’s latest recruit). Perhaps it is a measure of the movement’s success that these days some of the most interesting debates and experiments are taking place outside the narrow confines of the group. Take Multiples, for instance, which originated as a special issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell, which Portobello is bringing out here next month. It is a typically Oulipian exercise in which 12 short stories are translated by 61 novelists into 18 different languages. Each story is translated into or out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

****

Here is a longer, unedited version of the above piece:

One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Raymond Queneau‘s fabled collection of ten sonnets, appeared in 1961. Composed as an antidote to a bout of writer’s block, it came in the singular — albeit fittingly juvenile — shape of a flipbook. The fourteen lines on each page were printed on individual strips, so that every line could be replaced by the corresponding one in any of the other poems. By the author’s reckoning, it would take someone 190,258,751 years to go through all possible combinations. Rather than a mere gimmick, Queneau had produced a work that was at once complete, always in the process of becoming (with a little help from the reader) and necessary (on its own combinatorial terms). It was also the founding text of the OuLiPo — Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Potential Literature Workshop — launched by Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960.

The Oulipo replayed literary modernity in ludic mode. It was, inter alia, an attempt to reconcile C. P. Snow’s two cultures. This bold undertaking was embodied by the workshop’s co-founders: Queneau was a writer fascinated by science; Le Lionnais, a scientist fascinated by writing. In their own way, they were reprising the early Romantic ambition that “all art should become science, and all science art” (Friedrich Schlegel). Despite such lofty claims, the collective adopted a very pragmatic approach to fiction, which is rather unusual in France, where literature has preserved much of its mystique and creative writing programmes are almost unheard of. In Many Subtle Channels (2012), Daniel Levin Becker explains that Oulipians consider “literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative”. They do not profess to know what literature should be, but attempt to uncover what it could be, either in theory or practice. In the early days, the emphasis was firmly on the former (i.e. “anoulipism” in Oulipospeak). When they were not scouring the great works of the past in search of proto-Oulipian procedures, the group members were busy establishing a lineage of “pre-emptive plagiarists” (Lewis Carroll, Raymond Roussel et al.). The invention and possible deployment of new writing constraints (“synthoulipism”) soon became the main focal point, however, and under the aegis of Georges Perec (who joined in 1967) the production of ambitious new works took centre stage.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Oulipians are into literary bondage. Their fetish is predicated on the notion that writing is always constrained by something, be it simply time or language itself. The solution, in their view, is not to try, quixotically, to abolish constraints, but to acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively. “Inspiration which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery,” argued Queneau, who rejected the Surrealists’ automatic writing: “The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.” Italo Calvino (who became a member in 1973) concurred: “What Romantic terminology called genius or talent or inspiration or intuition is nothing other than finding the right road empirically”. Choosing the “right road” from the outset, instead of stumbling upon it haphazardly, is the Oulipian way: once the Apollonian structure has been circumscribed, Dionysus can work his magic. It is thus through the observance of rules — which make it possible, for instance, to eradicate linguistic automatisms — that emancipation takes place. “I set myself rules in order to be totally free,” as Perec put it, echoing Queneau’s earlier definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.

The refusal to submit to external constraints was key to the emergence of modern literature. Gabriel Josipovici brilliantly analyses this trend in What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “Genres were the sign of submission to authority and tradition, but the novel, a narrative in prose, was the new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves, hence a crisis of authorial authority. “Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime,” writes Josipovici. This is perfectly true. However, the historical importance of the Oulipo is to have found an escape from the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance). This was achieved through the reintroduction of external constraints — self-imposed this time round, in compliance with the laws of the French Republic, but within a collective framework (that of the workshop).

Whether or not constraints should be disclosed to the reader is a moot point. Harry Mathews refuses to do so, while Jacques Roubaud (another mathematician) argues that the constraint(s) should be the very subject matter of any truly Oulipian work. “The problem, when you see the constraint,” Perec observed, is that you no longer see anything else. It is a testament to his prodigious talent that one of the first reviewers of A Void (1969) should have failed to notice that the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language. Some Oulipian constraints are a trifle gimmicky, like Jacques Jouet’s metro poems, or even Jean Lescure’s famous N+7 procedure (which consists in replacing every noun in any text with the seventh following noun in a dictionary). Others are far more convincing. In Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (recently republished by New Directions) the same anecdote is retold in 99 different ways, thus proving that writing is never just writing. Perec’s aforementioned lipogrammatic tour de force is particularly poignant because the missing e (pronounced “eux” — “them” — in French) refers to all those (including the author’s parents) who went missing during the Second World War.

In The Literary Absolute, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy write that the Romantic fragment “stands for itself and for that from which it has been detached,” making it both finite and (theoretically) infinite. According to Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito, the Oulipian constraint serves a similar purpose: “The work which results may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint” (The End of Oulipo?, 2012). They go on to explain that exhaustion is the “necessary corollary” of potentiality. This is particularly true in the case of Perec, who, like an agoraphobic miniaturist, focuses on manageable, bite-sized chunks of reality which he then tries to shoehorn into his books. He claimed that his ambition in Life A User’s Manual (1978) was “to exhaust not the world” but “a constituted fragment of the world”. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) — his famous exploration of the “infra-ordinary” — involved spending three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice observing what happened when nothing happened.

One could argue that the failure of the Oulipian project is Perec’s major theme. In one of the dreams in La Boutique obscure — recently translated for the first time — Perec discovers an edition of A Void in which the banned letter e keeps recurring. In Life A User’s Manual, Bartlebooth dies clutching the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, which turns out to be the wrong shape. The plot — based on an algorithm enabling the knight in a game of chess to touch every single square on the board once — enacts the novel’s failure (there is a missing chapter corresponding to an unvisited basement). “The Winter Journey” (which Atlas Press are bringing out in a new edition) revolves around the discovery — and subsequent loss — of a book (the eponymous Winter Journey) proving that all the great modern poets were in fact plagiarists. 53 Days — about an unfinished book left by a writer who disappears — was left unfinished by Perec, when he disappeared in 1982. The most famous Oulipian — himself a crossword constructor — knew that literature was an unsolvable puzzle.

Some say that the Oulipo increasingly resembles a gathering of ageing cruciverbalists: it started off looking for “pre-emptive plagiarists” and is now largely concerned with archiving its glory days. In an age of N+7 Machines and ebooks, many of the Oulipo’s algorithm-based experiments have lost their cutting edge. The recent revival of interest in the English-speaking world is due to translations of works by historic Oulipians, as well as Daniel Levin Becker’s youthful enthusiasm (he is the group’s latest recruit). Some of the most interesting debates and experiments are taking place outside the narrow confines of the group. Take Multiples, for instance, which originated as a special issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell, that Portobello are bringing out here next month. It is a typically Oulipian exercise in which 12 short stories are translated by 61 novelists into 18 different languages. Each story weaves in and out of English several times, until something new is found in translation.

Literary Bondage

Here’s an extract from my Guardian Books piece on the oulipo that went up today:

As Gabriel Josipovici argues in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, modern literature was forged out of a refusal to submit to external constraints, with the novel a “new form in which the individual could express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition”. The flipside of this emancipation of the writer (or privatisation of writing) was, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, isolation. No longer the mouthpiece of the Muses or society, novelists could only derive legitimacy from themselves. “Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than is a return to the world of the ancien régime,” writes Josipovici. The Oulipo escapes the Romantic cul-de-sac of unfettered imagination (or its Surrealist avatar, chance) by reintroducing external constraints, which are self-imposed.

Droll, Mischievous and Wonderfully Intelligent

Douglas Glover, “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter: Fiction,” Numéro Cinq 8 June 2013

Droll, mischievous and wonderfully intelligent confection, a Modernist riposte to the vacancy (absence) of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, in which Gabriel Josipovici has a walk-on role and the protagonist images himself as Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer AND Roy Scheider in Jaws in the same instant and someone wears a Clarice Lispector frock. It all begins with a mother telling a bedtime story, yes, yes, a scene of sadistic psychic violence like none other. Brilliantly witty. Deploys many of the Modern erotic positions: sex and text, love as desire for absence, and self as ghost (we all have that sense of the self being something that haunts itself). The teaser below accurately describes love and art, or maybe not. By Andrew Gallix who edits 3AM Magazine.

Your heart still skips like a trip of jackrabbits in the Arizona desert, where we carved our names on a bench close to the abyss. But when I look at you, well, I just feel dead inside. It has to be like this and no other way; otherwise it wouldn’t be art, would it? I’m in love with Jay now: I feed him mini Milano cookies and give him snug harbor. Anyway, I was never quite all there, was I? Long before we met, I was a character in one of your stories — ‘Sweet Fanny Adams.’ Young man goes looking for girl of his dreams in order to break up straight away. ‘At last,’ he says upon meeting her, ‘I have found my sense of loss.’ See? I haven’t forgotten. I started off as fiction, and to fiction I have returned. Our relationship was only a movement towards my disappearance. I am your sense of loss: the self-effacing subject of your work…”

“Emilie…” said Valentin.

“When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak.”

Read the rest.

La influencia de la ansiedad

This article, translated by Iris Bernal, appeared in Función Lenguaje 2 (summer 2012)

La influencia de la ansiedad

“Llegamos demasiado tarde para decir algo que no se haya dicho ya” se lamentaba La Bruyère a finales del siglo XVII. El hecho de que el propio La Bruyère
llegara tarde al afirmar esto (el Eclesiasta y Terencio ya se habían adelantado a él en los siglos III y II AC) venía a demostrar su aserto. Según la precuela de Macedonio Fernández, anterior al Génesis, siempre hemos llegado demasiado tarde. Este autor imagina lo que bien podría haber sucedido cuando Dios estaba a punto de crear el universo. De pronto, una voz clama en el desierto, interrumpiendo el eterno silencio del espacio infinito, la misma que aterra a Pascal: “Todo ha sido escrito, todo ha sido dicho, todo ha sido hecho”, se lamenta. El Todopoderoso, que ya ha escuchado esto con anterioridad, sigue adelante sin darle importancia, dando sentido a la famosa ocurrencia de André Gide: “Todo está ya dicho, pero como nadie escucha, hay que volverlo a decir” (Le Traité du Narcisse, 1891). En el principio fue el verbo, y el verbo es anterior al principio mismo.

En su obra más influyente, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argumentaba que los grandes poetas románticos malinterpretaron a sus ilustres predecesores “con el fin de liberar un espacio imaginativo para sí mismos”. La figura del padre literario se asesinaba, metafóricamente hablando, a través de un proceso de “transgresión poética”. T.S. Eliot ya había expresado una idea similar a propósito de la de Philip Massinger: “Los poetas inmaduros imitan; los poetas maduros roban; los malos poetas desfiguran lo que toman, y los buenos poetas lo convierten en algo mejor, o al menos en algo diferente” (1920). Borges, discípulo de Macedonio, al cual Bloom hace referencia, compartía la misma longitud de onda (aunque en el extremo opuesto del dial) cuando exclamaba que “cada escritor crea sus propios precursores” (1951).

Según Bloom, este sentimiento de inferioridad es, más que un fenómeno característico del Renacimiento, el motor principal de la historia de la literatura: “Llegar tarde no me parece en absoluto una condición histórica, sino una situación que pertenece al hecho literario como tal”. A lo largo de los siglos, la creación literaria ha sido siempre un diálogo de dos direcciones entre el pasado y el presente (el primero subsiste en el segundo; el segundo arroja luz sobre el primero). En sus Essais (1580), Montaigne ya se quejaba de la multiplicación de exégesis parasitarias: “Es más laborioso interpretar las interpretaciones que interpretar las cosas, y hay más libros sobre libros que sobre cualquier otro tema: no hacemos más que parafrasearnos unos a otros”. George Steiner, otro crítico sincero de “el Leviatán de papel del discurso secundario”, sostiene que la forma más elevada de paráfrasis se halla en la propia literatura: “Cuando el poeta critica al poeta desde el interior del poema, la hermenéutica lee el texto viviente que Hermes, el mensajero, ha traído del reino de los muertos inmortales” (Real Presences, 1989). Esto implica que la creación literaria no trata sobre la expresión del yo, sino sobre la recepción y la transmisión. “El verdadero poeta es hablado por el lenguaje, el poeta es el médium elegido, por decirlo así, en virtud de su naturaleza osmótica, permeable, gracias a lo que Keats denomina su ‘capacidad negativa’. Antes de ser nuestro, el acto de recepción es el del artista-creador” (Grammars of Creation, 2001). Lo que llama la atención es que Steiner, cuya concepción de la literatura deriva de sus creencias religiosas, debería estar totalmente de acuerdo, en este punto, con Tom McCarthy, que viene, por decirlo de alguna manera, del otro lado de las barricadas. Para el autor de C (2010) -una novela que versa sobre la ficción como recepción y transmisión-, “el escritor es un receptor y el contenido ya está ahí. La tarea del escritor es filtrarlo, ejemplificarlo y remezclarlo; no de forma aleatoria sino de forma consciente y atenta”. Dándole la vuelta a la cronología, él considera Finnegans Wake como el código fuente de la ficción anglófona: un nuevo comienzo, más que un hiato o un punto y aparte. Por supuesto, McCarthy es un gran admirador de Maurice Blanchot, quien afirma en La Part du Feu que “la literatura, al igual que el discurso cotidiano, comienza con el final”; con lo que quiere decir la muerte (como posibilidad o imposibilidad). Si la literatura comienza con el final, concluye con el principio ya que la creación literaria, bajo su punto de vista, es una búsqueda maldita de su fuente de inspiración. Así como Orfeo no puede evitar mirar atrás para ver a Eurídice en la oscuridad del Hades (y de esta forma perderla para siempre) el escritor sacrifica su obra para permanecer fiel a su origen dionisíaco y oscuro. A la pregunta “¿dónde va la literatura?”, Blanchot nos da la siguiente respuesta: “La literatura va hacia ella misma, hacia su esencia, la cual es su desaparición” (Le Livre à Venir, 1959). El “contenido” está “ahí fuera” -siempre ahí- toda la literatura es “paráfrasis”: “¿Quién estaría interesado en un discurso nuevo y no transmitido? Lo importante no es contar, sino volverlo a contar, y en esta repetición, contarlo de nuevo como si fuera la primera vez” (L’Entretien Infini, 1969). Los escritores modernos deben “comenzar de cero en cada ocasión” mientras que sus ancestros simplemente tenían que “rellenar una forma dada” (Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?). La imposibilidad de empezar de cero (la ausencia de una “primera vez” definitiva) significa que la literatura fracasa al comenzar una y otra vez, como si se tratara de una compulsiva repetición inducida de forma traumática. En otras palabras, no cesa de acabar. La novela, dice Tom McCarthy, ha estado “viviendo su propia muerte” desde Don Quijote; la “experiencia del fracaso” es parte integral de su ADN. Si no estuviera muriendo, no estaría viva.

Escribiendo para el New York Review of Books en 1965, Frank Kermode afirmó que “el destino específico de la novela, considerada como un género, es el de estar siempre muriendo”. Y proseguía afirmando que la muerte de la novela era “el material sin el que la literatura moderna es inimaginable”. Esta cuestión de la muerte de la literatura es de hecho tan antigua como la propia literatura. Se puede rastrear hasta Juvenal y Tácito, pasando por David Shields, Samuel Richardson, y llegando a los escribas del fin-de-siècle. Para Richard B. Schwartz, el asunto empezó a torcerse en el Renacimiento tardío: “la Literatura en mayúsculas realmente murió con la aristocracia que la consumía” (After the Death of Literature, 1997). Según Steiner, el declive comenzó con la crisis lingüística que acompañó al auge de la novela. Después del siglo XVII (después de Milton), “la esfera del lenguaje” dejó de abarcar la mayor parte de la “experiencia y la realidad” (“The Retreat from the Word”, 1961). Las matemáticas se volvieron cada vez más difíciles de traducir al lenguaje; la pintura post-impresionista escapaba de toda verbalización; la lingüística y la filosofía destacaban el hecho de que las palabras se refieren a otras palabras… La proposición final del Tractatus (1921) de Wittgenstein atestigua esta intrusión de lo innombrable: “De lo que no se puede hablar, hay que callar”. Tan solo cuatro años antes, Kafka había conjeturado que quizá hubiera sido plausible escapar al canto de las Sirenas, pero no a su silencio.

Harold Bloom tiene razón: llegar tarde no es simplemente una “condición histórica”. Después de todo, ya era uno de los temas principales del Quijote. Así como señala Gabriel Josipovici, “este sentimiento de haber llegado, de algún modo, demasiado tarde, de haber perdido para siempre algo que alguna vez fue una posesión común, es una preocupación clave, la preocupación fundamental del Romanticismo” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). En contra del ambiente de deterioro de la confianza en los poderes del lenguaje -igual que el “desencanto del mundo” de Schiller se estaba volviendo más aparente, y la legitimidad del escritor, en un “tiempo destituido” (Hölderlin) de Dioses ausentes y Sirenas mudas, parecía cada vez más arbitraria- la literatura llegó a ser considerada como un “absoluto” (Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe y Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Absolu Littéraire : Théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand, 1968). Walter Benjamin describió de forma célebre el “lugar de nacimiento de la novela” como “el individuo en soledad”, un individuo aislado de la tradición que no puede reclamar ser el portavoz de la religión o la sociedad. Tan pronto como este “individuo en soledad” se elevaba al estatus de un alter deus, la tardanza esencial a toda la creatividad humana resultaba obvia. “Ninguna forma artística”, dice Steiner en Grammars of Creation (2001), “nace de la nada. Siempre viene después” y el “creador humano se enfurece ante [este] venir después, al ser, para siempre, segundo con respecto al misterio original y originador de la formación de la forma” (Real Presences, 1990). William Marx ha analizado con gran maestría cómo en Francia las desmedidas reivindicaciones para la literatura condujeron a esta decadencia prolongada. Esta evolución, de lo sublime a lo ridículo, tuvo lugar en tres etapas. A finales del siglo XVIII, la literatura se transformó en un sucedáneo de la religión. En una segunda etapa, marcada por la arrogancia, los escritores intentaron aislarse del resto de la sociedad (el arte por el arte) desencadenando de este modo un proceso de marginalización. En una última fase, la devaluación de la literatura (a los ojos del público en general) fue interiorizada por los propios escritores e incorporada a sus obras (L’Adieu à la Littérature. Histoire d’une dévalorisation XVIIIe-XXe siècles, 2005).

En sus Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik (compiladas en 1835), Hegel declaró, de manera brillante, que el arte se había transformado en “algo del pasado”. No quería decir con esto, como a menudo se ha creído, que el arte y la literatura estuviesen muertos, o incluso en decadencia, sino que no podían seguir transmitiendo de forma adecuada las más elevadas aspiraciones espirituales de la humanidad. En otras palabras, no podían seguir siendo el instrumento para expresar lo Absoluto. Influido por Hegel, Blanchot se pregunta: “¿Está el arte alcanzando su final? ¿Está pereciendo la poesía por haberse visto reflejada en sí misma, igual que aquel que muere después de contemplar a Dios?” (Le Livre à Venir). Si, como él propone en otro sitio, “la literatura surge en el momento en el que la literatura se convierte en una pregunta”, entonces la respuesta es no (La Part du Feu, 1949). Sin embargo, al transformarse en una pregunta, la literatura se transforma a su vez en su propia respuesta, por lo que ya no es capaz de sincronizarse consigo misma. Uno podría alegar que la literatura es entonces la distancia que la separa de sí misma. “Aquellos viejos tiempos”, anteriores al Génesis según Witold Gombrowicz, “cuando Rabelais escribía cómo un niño hacía pis contra el tronco de un árbol” habían acabado. “Retroceder al universo de los géneros literarios no es una opción”, ratifica Gabriel Josipovici, “como tampoco lo es un retorno al mundo del ancien régime” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?). Esta crisis de identidad se agravaba por una conciencia cada vez mayor de las limitaciones de la creación literaria. La literatura ya no sabía exactamente lo que era, pero sí sabía lo que no era, lo que ya no era capaz de hacer. “Ser moderno”, como declaró Roland Barthes, “es conocer lo que ya no es posible”. Es también anhelar esa imposibilidad, en la forma en la que Borges lo hacía en “el otro tigre, el que no está en el verso”. Tom McCarthy afirma que una novela es “algo que contiene su propia negación”, que clama contra sus propias limitaciones. Según este autor, la literatura es “un medio que sólo marcha cuando no funciona”: es “un fallo en el sistema, igual que un fallo en el ordenador”. “Fracasa otra vez. Fracasa mejor”, como decía Beckett en Worstward Ho (1983). Para Blanchot, es precisamente esta imposibilidad esencial de la literatura (su incapacidad para convertirse en una instancia del Absoluto hegeliano) lo que la preserva como posibilidad. La obra está siempre por venir.

La potencialidad, el angustioso vértigo de la libertad, es fundamental para la modernidad literaria. Pierre Menard responde a la arbitrariedad de la ficción (puesta de relieve por la libertad creativa) reescribiendo palabra por palabra Don Quijote y, de este modo, convierte la contingencia en necesidad (“Pierre Menard, autor de El Quijote”, 1939). Otra respuesta a esta cuestión es la de Henry James, que permite al lector sentir “la narración como podría haber sido” tras “la obra construida y limitada a la que él da vida” (Le Livre à Venir). Una creciente reticencia a dar vida a cualquier obra, por muy limitada que sea, se hizo sentir desde el siglo XVIII en adelante. En Sygdommen til Døden (1849), Kierkegaard observó cómo “se hace cada vez más plausible porque nada se vuelve real”. Llevando esta lógica hasta el extremo, Rousseau afirma que “No hay nada más bello que lo que no existe”, mientras que Keats resaltaba la belleza innombrable de las melodías “no escuchadas” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819). Una figura emblemática, como señala Dominique Rabaté (Vers une Littérature de l’épuisement, 1991) es el “demonio de la posibilidad” lui-même: Monsieur Teste de Valéry, que se niega a reducir el campo de posibilidades convirtiendo cualquiera de ellas en realidad. Es un claro precursor del Ulrich de Musil -el epónimo Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-42)- al cual Blanchot describe como alguien que “no dice que no a la vida sino que aún no, quien finalmente actúa como si el mundo no pudiera nunca empezar excepto al día siguiente”. Otra figura representativa es Lord Chandos, de Hofmannstahl, el cual, habiendo renunciado a la literatura porque el lenguaje no puede “penetrar en el núcleo más íntimo de las cosas”, llegó a personificar un motín mudo instigado (en la vida real) por Rimbaud (Ein Brief “Lord Chandos”, 1902). Estos escritores cada vez más reticentes, los cuales, como el Bartleby de Melville, “preferirían no hacerlo” (“Bartleby, the Scrivener”, 1853), son los que Jean-Yves Jouannais denominó “artistas sin obra” (Artistes sans oeuvres, 1997); los partidarios de lo que Enrique Vila-Matas denomina la “literatura del no” (Bartleby y compañia, 2000).

La literatura ha ido muriendo inexorablemente a lo largo del siglo XX. En 1925, José Ortega y Gasset escribió sobre el “declive” de la novela. En 1930, Walter Benjamin afirmaba que estaba en “crisis”. Theodor W. Adorno creía que no podía haber poesía después de Auschwitz. En 1959, Brion Gysin (el de los “cut-ups”) se quejaba de que la ficción llevaba un retraso de cincuenta años con respecto a la pintura. A principios de los ‘60, Alain Robbe-Grillet criticó la momificación de la novela en su encarnación del siglo XIX. En 1967, John Barth publicó “The Literature of Exhaustion”, texto en el que hablaba de “la extenuación de determinadas formas o el agotamiento de determinadas posibilidades”. Ese mismo año, Gore Vidal diagnosticó que la novela estaba exhalando su último aliento. “Debemos continuar durante mucho tiempo hablando de obras y escribiéndolas, haciendo como que no nos damos cuenta de que la iglesia está vacía y que los feligreses se han ido a otra parte, a ocuparse de otros dioses”. En 1969, Ronald Sukenick publicó una colección de relatos breves titulada The Death of the Novel. A comienzos de los ‘70, el Nuevo Periodismo de Tom Wolfe fue considerado por algunos como el futuro de la escritura creativa. La muerte de la literatura y el mundo tal y como lo conocemos hoy en día, se convirtió en un tema de actualidad entre los académicos estadounidenses a principios de los ‘90 (ver, por ejemplo, la obra de Alvin Kernan titulada con gran acierto The Death of Literature, 1992). Habitualmente, argumentaban que los Departamentos de Inglés habían sido secuestrados por los estudios culturales, la Filosofía Continental y la corrección política enloquecida (a la que Bloom ha denominado “Escuela del Resentimiento”).

Desde entonces, han ocurrido dos cosas. La novela -que fue creada con el propósito de fusionar la poesía y la filosofía (según los primeros Románticos alemanes), de contener los demás géneros e incluso, el universo entero (siguiendo la concepción de Mallarmé acerca de El Libro o el sueño de Borges de una “Biblioteca Total”)- ha sido relegada a la “ficción”, un género que aborda la creación literaria como si el siglo XX nunca hubiera existido. Al mismo tiempo, la era digital ha llevado el exceso de información (del cual ya se quejaba en su momento el Eclesiasta) a un nivel completamente nuevo. Como consecuencia de esto, David Shields cree que la novela ya no está capacitada para reflejar la compleja vitalidad de la vida moderna: él prescribe nuevas formas híbridas de escritura (Reality Hunger, 2010). El poeta estadounidense (y fundador de UbuWeb) Kenneth Goldsmith nos pide encarecidamente que dejemos de escribir del todo para centrarnos en recombinar los textos que hemos ido acumulando a lo largo de los siglos (Uncreative Writing, 2011). Trasladando el retrato que James Joyce hizo de sí mismo como “el hombre del corta y pega” a la era digital, Mark Amerika afirma que hoy en día todos somos “remezcladores”. Sin embargo, ¿qué ocurriría si, tal como se preguntaba Lewis Carroll, las combinaciones de palabras fueran limitadas y ya las hubiéramos utilizado todas?

Según Steiner, somos “agonistas”, “vamos rezagados”: “No tenemos más comienzos” (Grammars of Creation). Para nosotros, el lenguaje “está desgastado por el uso” y el “sentido de revelación, de profuso conocimiento” exhibido por los escritores del periodo Tudor, Isabelino y Jacobeo “nunca ha vuelto a ser plenamente recuperado”. En vísperas de los innombrables horrores de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, Adorno ya sentía que “los cadáveres de las palabras, palabras fantasmales” era todo lo que habíamos dejado. El lenguaje se había corrompido, irremediablemente arruinado por “el uso de la tribu” (Mallarmé). ¿Es que acaso ya no podemos seguir el mandato de Ezra Pound de “hacerlo nuevo”?

“Incluso la propia originalidad ya no es capaz de sorprendernos”, escribe Lars Iyer en un destacable ensayo publicado recientemente por The White Review. Según este novelista y catedrático de filosofía, vivimos en “una era de palabras sin precedente” pero en la cual los Novelistas Importantes han dado paso a “una legión de escribas”. La literatura tan sólo sobrevive como ficción literaria kitsch: una “parodia de estilos pasados”; “una pantomima de sí misma”. Este es un terreno que Andrew Marr ha revisitado a comienzos del siglo XXI. La novela, hoy en día, “no reivindica ampliar los límites del modo en que entendemos el mundo” y se encuentra anclada a finales del siglo XIX: “Los cientos de buenos artesanos de la novela, que aprendieron de forma laboriosa y detallada las lecciones acerca de la construcción de la trama y los personajes, dónde ser recargados y cuándo lacónicos, se han convertido en réplicas modernas de máquinas pensantes llevadas a su máximo nivel de desarrollo hace un siglo. Es como si el motor de combustión interna hubiera sido perfeccionado en 1870 y todos los coches de hoy en día fueran simples modelos victorianos con un estilo actualizado”. La conclusión a la que llegó Marr fue que la novela –tal como ocurrió anteriormente con “la sinfonía, el ballet, el arte figurativo o la cerámica esmaltada”– podría haber perdido ya su esplendor: “… las grandes obras, el tiempo de los descubrimientos, está muerto y no puede ser reabierto” (“Death of the Novel”, The Observer 27 de Mayo de 2001). En “The Literature of Exhaustion”, John Barth ya había pronosticado cómo “las ultimidades sentidas de nues- tro tiempo” (por ejemplo, el mismísimo final de la novela como “forma artística mayor”, tal como mencionaba Marr) podrían convertirse en alimento para obras futuras. En este sentido, Iyer da en el clavo. En su opinión, no estamos escribiendo las páginas finales de la literatura (su conclusión) sino más bien su “epílogo”: la nuestra es “una literatura después de la literatura”. Mientras que los poetas Románticos de Bloom se sentían “subsidiarios” frente a sus ilustres predecesores, Iyer cree que hemos llegado demasiado tarde, y punto. La literatura hoy en día ya no es “la Cuestión en sí misma, sino la Cuestión que se ha desvanecido”. La tarea del escritor es “conjurar al fantasma” de una tradición que se ha dado por vencida. De este modo, las novelas de Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke o el propio Iyer no son tanto la evidencia de un revival del nouveau roman, sino ejemplos de un nuevo tipo de ficción ontológica que explora las posibilidades perdidas del Modernismo.

Según Kathleen Fitzpatrick, la muerte de la novela ha sido utilizada por los novelistas como un ardid para garantizar su supervivencia (The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television, 2006). Nos queda comprobar si, como afirma Iyer, nos hemos adentrado en una era post-literaria, o si por el contrario, la crónica acerca de la muerte de la literatura ha sido magnificada una vez más.

Una versión reducida de este artículo fue publicada en el periódico británico The Guardian, el 10 de enero de 2012, con el título “In Theory: the Death of Literature”.










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The Death of Literature

This appeared in Guardian Books on 10 January 2012:

The Death of Literature
The fact that people have been proclaiming its passing for centuries only makes the sense of its ending more acute

[The end: headstone in Lund Cemetery, Nevada. Photograph: Deon Reynolds/Getty]

“We come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” lamented La Bruyère at the end of the 17th century. The fact that he came too late even to say this (Terence having pipped him to the post back in the 2nd century BC) merely proved his point — a point which Macedonio Fernández took one step backwards when he sketched out a prequel to Genesis. God is just about to create everything. Suddenly a voice in the wilderness pipes up, interrupting the eternal silence of infinite space that so terrified Pascal: “Everything has been written, everything has been said, everything has been done.” Rolling His eyes, the Almighty retorts (doing his best Morrissey impression) that he has heard this one before — many a time. He then presses ahead with the creation of the heavens and the earth and all the creepy-crawlies that creepeth and crawleth upon it. In the beginning was the word — and, word is, before that too.

In his most influential book, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom argued that the greatest Romantic poets misread their illustrious predecessors “so as to clear imaginative space for themselves”. The literary father figure was killed, figuratively speaking, through a process of “poetic misprision”. TS Eliot had already expressed a similar idea in 1920, when he claimed that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”. Borges (a disciple of Fernández, whom Bloom references) was on the same wavelength (but at the other end of the dial) when he claimed that “each writer creates his precursors”.

According to Bloom, this feeling of “secondariness” is not specifically a Romantic phenomenon, but rather the very engine of literary history. Down the centuries, literature has always been a two-way dialogue between past and present — the former living on in the latter; the latter casting new light upon the former. George Steiner thus contends that the highest form of literary criticism is to be found within literature itself: “In the poet’s criticism of the poet from within the poem, hermeneutics reads the living text which Hermes, the messenger, has brought from the undying dead” (Real Presences, 1989). This implies that writing is not, primarily, about self-expression, but about reception and transmission; as Winnie the Pooh once put it, with uncharacteristic menace, “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you”. What is striking here is that Steiner — steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition; scourge of Gallic theory — should be in total agreement, on this point, with novelist Tom McCarthy, who comes, as it were, from the other side of the barricades. For the author of C — a novel which is all about fiction as reception and transmission — “the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively”. Turning chronology on its head, he sees Finnegans Wake as the source code of anglophone literature — a new beginning — rather than a dead end or a full stop. The novel, says McCarthy, has been “living out its own death” ever since Don Quixote; the “experience of failure” being integral to its DNA. If it weren’t dying, the novel would not be alive.

According to Steiner, the rise of the novel was contemporaneous with a growing linguistic crisis. After the 17th century — after Milton — “the sphere of language” ceased to encompass most of “experience and reality” (“The Retreat from the Word“, 1961). Mathematics became increasingly untranslatable into words, post-Impressionist painting likewise escaped verbalisation; linguistics and philosophy highlighted the fact that words refer to other words … The final proposition in Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus (1921) bears witness to this encroachment of the unspeakable: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Four years earlier, Kafka had conjectured that it may have been possible to escape the sirens’ singing, but not their silence.

Harold Bloom is right: belatedness is not merely an “historical condition”. After all, it was already one of the major themes in Don Quixote. Yet, as Gabriel Josipovici points out, “this sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern” (What Ever Happened to Modernism?, 2010). Against the backdrop of declining confidence in the powers of language — just as Schiller‘s “disenchantment of the world” was becoming ever more apparent, and the writer’s legitimacy, in a “destitute time” (Hölderlin) of absent gods and silent sirens, seemed increasingly arbitrary — literature came to be considered as an “absolute“. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” as “the solitary individual”: an individual cut off from tradition, who could no longer claim to be the mouthpiece of society. As soon as this “solitary individual” was elevated to the status of an alter deus, the essential belatedness of human creativity became glaringly obvious. “No art form,” says Steiner, “comes out of nothing. Always, it comes after,” and the “human maker rages at [this] coming after, at being, forever, second to the original and originating mystery of the forming of form”.

As early as 1758, Samuel Richardson had wondered if the novel were not just a fad, whose time had already run out. By the 20th century, the picture looked far bleaker. Theodor Adorno felt that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In 1959, Brion Gysin complained that fiction was lagging 50 years behind painting. In the early 60s, Alain Robbe-Grillet attacked the mummification of the novel in its 19th-century incarnation. In 1967, John Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” in which he spoke of “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities”. The same year, Gore Vidal diagnosed that the novel was already in its death throes: “we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend other gods”. The death of literature, and the world as we know it, became a fashionable topic among US academics in the early 90s (see, for instance, Alvin Kernan’s aptly-titled The Death of Literature, 1992). Their argument was usually that English departments had been hijacked by cultural studies, Continental theory or political correctness gone mad (Bloom’s “School of Resentment”).

Since then, two things have happened. The novel — which was meant to fuse poetry and philosophy, to subsume all other genres and even the entire universe (following Mallarmé‘s conception of The Book or Borges’s dream of a “Total Library”) — has been reduced to “literary fiction”: a genre that approaches writing as if the 20th century had never happened. At the same time, the digital age has taken information overload to a whole new level. As a result, David Shields believes that the novel is no longer equipped to reflect the vitality and complexity of modern life (Reality Hunger, 2010). Kenneth Goldsmith — the poet to whom we owe the wonder that is UbuWeb — urges us to stop writing altogether in order to focus on recombining the texts we’ve accumulated over the centuries (Uncreative Writing, 2011). We may all be “remixologists” now, but what if (as Lewis Carroll wondered) word combinations were limited, and we had used them all up?

According to Steiner, we are “terminalists”, “latecomers”: “we have no more beginnings“. For us, language “is worn by long usage” and the “sense of discovery, of exuberant acquisition” exhibited by writers during the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods “has never been fully recaptured”. On the eve of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war, Adorno already felt that “the carcass of words, phantom words” was all we had left. Language had been corrupted; irredeemably soiled by “the usage of the tribe” (Mallarmé). Perhaps is it no longer possible for us to follow Ezra Pound‘s injunction to “make it new”.

“Even originality itself no longer has the ability to surprise us,” writes Lars Iyer in a remarkable essay recently published by The White Review. According to the author of Spurious (shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize), we live in “an unprecedented age of words”, but one in which Important Novelists have given way to “a legion of keystroke labourers”. Literature only survives as literary-fiction kitsch: a “parody of past forms”; a “pantomime of itself”. In “The Literature of Exhaustion”, Barth had envisaged how the “felt ultimacies of our time” (ie the end of the novel as “major art form”) could become the material of future works. Iyer cranks this up a notch. We are no longer writing literature’s conclusion but its “epilogue”: ours is a “literature which comes after literature”. Where Bloom’s Romantic poets felt “belated” vis-à-vis their predecessors, Iyer feels that we have come too late for literature, full stop. Literature today is thus no longer “the Thing itself, but about the vanished Thing”. The writer’s task is “to conjure the ghost” of a tradition that has given it up. By this token, the novels of Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Iyer himself are not so much evidence of a nouveau roman revival as instances of a new type of hauntological fiction which explores the lost futures of Modernism.

Given that Iyer has published two books on the work of Maurice Blanchot, one cannot but think of the French author’s answer to the question ‘Where is literature going?’: “literature is going toward itself, toward its essence, which is disappearance”. Perhaps the “Thing itself” was about “the vanished Thing” all along – but stop me, oh-oh-oh, stop me, stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.