(Wo)men Without Qualities

Tim Parks, “The Chattering Mind,” The New York Review of Books (NYRblog), 29 June 2012.

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

[…] I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. […] But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.

There were plenty of forewarnings. Hamlet is the most notable. To take action would be to confirm his identity as his father’s son, his father’s avenger, but Hamlet thinks too precisely on the event, he’s too smart, and so fails to become anyone at all, either his father’s son or Ophelia’s husband. He suffers for that failure and spins out unhappy procrastination in fine poetry. In a comic vein, Tristram Shandy is another forerunner, too aware of his narrative performance to narrate anything coherent, let alone act. Both Hamlet and Tristram are characters who didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the twentieth century. We had become like them.

Prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication, this new kind of character finds his most sinister early manifestation in the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “I am a wicked man,” this nameless individual introduces himself, then reflects “but as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked. I never managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

Again, the reason for this indeterminacy is an excess of intellectual activity; so the cause for failure is also a source of self-esteem: “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” Doestoevsky’s narrator tells us, with a mixture of complacency and despair, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure — primarily a limited being.”

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic. I’ll never forget how my high school teacher gushed. Bloom may be incapable of imposing any direction on his marriage, drifting between fantasy and frustration as his wife prepares to betray, and Stephen Dedalus may be marooned in an impossible relationship with his father and jobs that give him no satisfaction, yet Ulysses is a celebration of the inexhaustible fertility of their minds as they move through the commercial flotsam and jetsam of Dublin against the vast backdrop of world literature and myth. It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes, warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life, yet in the end even the crazy, shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith gives us paragraph after paragraph of poetic prose before he throws himself to his death from a high window, something that Clarissa Dalloway will think of as an act of impulsive generosity. It’s as if the stream of consciousness had been invented to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.

The way this aesthetic consolation is constructed shifts constantly through the century. Faulkner has no time for the easy lyricism of the mind adrift on the ebb and flow of urban trivia. Now the unending voice revolves obsessively around the traumas that block any positive forward movement: past wrongs, sexual violence and betrayal, incest, the disgrace of institutionalized discrimination. Still, there is grandeur in the sheer scale and awfulness of the mind’s shipwreck, individual and collective. Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility. Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterwards.

Beckett resists and confirms the formula. He understands its perversity: pleasure taken in the performance of unhappiness: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he has the aptly named Hamm remark in the first moments of Endgame. Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

[…] I suspect our destiny is to pursue our literary sickness for years to come. It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness. “Every word,” Beckett told us “is an unnecessary stain on silence”…

The Expatriate Literary Scene in Paris

Anthony Cuthbertson, “From the Lost to the Beat to Now,” Notes From the Underground 19 November 2010

The expatriate literary scene in Paris

What Allen Ginsberg called, ‘The bewildering beauty of Paris’ has attracted writers and artists for centuries. It has been the setting of great novels and the home of great writers, and in the last hundred years has briefly been the stage for two waves of expatriate writers that changed the face of modern literature: the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. Fifty years have passed since the latter faded away, and though the expatriate literary scene has remained vibrant, no significant movement has since emerged. However, with the arrival of new soirées, literary journals, writers’ workshops and readings, as well as a fresh generation of writers flocking to Paris, a new wave may well be rolling in.

Historically, Paris has been a place of refuge for artists and writers. It has attracted political and cultural exiles fleeing the injustice and intolerance of their homelands, offering them a liberal safe haven and allowing them artistic freedom. In the 1920’s and 1950’s it became a place of escape for those left disenfranchised by the World Wars. The Génération perdue, as Gertrude Stein named them, included writers like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and later James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. They were a generation disillusioned by the horrors they had witnessed in the First World War, and who felt disaffected and betrayed by their governments back home. Pound wrote of his contemporaries, ‘(they) walked eye-deep in hell believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving came home, home to a lie’. They gathered in cafés and hung about Stein’s salon to share ideas, bottles of absinthe and write, together forming a movement that still resonates strongly today.

By the time the Second World War and the occupation of Paris came about, these writers had for the most part moved on. Although some later returned after the war (Hemingway famously ‘liberated’ rue de l’Odéon, the then site of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company), a new literary movement in the form of the Beat Generation arrived. Leading figures of the Beats, including William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, came to Paris for much the same reasons as their predecessors. They sought refuge from the strict conformist confines of McCarthy-era America and found it in Paris. In the years that have followed the departure of the Beats, Paris has remained a centre for culture and art. It continues to attract writers and artists with its history and beauty and the lively literary scene is a reflection of its magnetism.

The first stop for any would-be writer or literary pilgrim should be Shakespeare & Company. Its location may have moved over the years but the spirit and the name have remained. The current owner, George Whitman, has described it as ‘a den of poets and anarchists disguised as a bookshop’, having been sanctuary to writers of both the Lost and Beat Generations. The writers, whom George refers to as ‘tumbleweeds’, drift through the doors and find community and lodging in the poky upstairs rooms in exchange for helping out in the shop below. Supporting young writers continues to be one of the cornerstones of S&C. As well as providing a place to stay, they hold workshops, readings and even organize a literary festival every other year. They have also recently relaunched their literary magazine (The Paris Magazine), and announced the Paris Literary Prize (10,000€) for unpublished writers. In its current location on the banks of the Seine it is as much a tourist attraction as it is a bookshop, but between the piles of books still remain bunks for the next hopeful Hemingway to stay.

Beyond this pillar of the past not much remains of the old haunts of writers beyond landmarks and tourist traps. It is easy to get lost wallowing in the myth of Paris but for new writers it is essential to escape the seductive expatriate past, away from the romance of the Latin quarter and the ghosts that wander the left bank, and over to the other side of the river to where the literary scene is shifting.
Boulevard Saint Germain and its surrounds have developed from bohemian havens to bourgeois hangouts popular with tourists. The cafés once frequented by the likes of Hemingway and Joyce, such as Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots and Le Dôme, now sell souvenir memorabilia and a cup of coffee can set you back six euros.

Nowadays it is areas like Belleville and the 19th and 20th arrondissements in the east of Paris where the cost of living is the cheapest that have become the new centres of the literary scene. These parts of Paris continue to provide a conducive environment for young and aspiring writers.

Paris-based writers have often remarked that unlike other big city literary communities, Paris has an open-minded and accepting scene that encourages experimental forms and welcomes outsiders. David Barnes, the founder and compère of a spoken word poetry night in Belleville at Culture Rapide, describes Paris as “a beautiful backwater where life is slower than New York or London. It gives breathing space, distance from the anglo-metropoles that supports writing”.

He argues that the English speaking community in Paris is just the right size “to come together and do something, to provide a home and platform for, to nurture and be nourished by.” The spoken word nights that take place every week welcome anyone and everyone up on stage to read a poem, tell a story or perform a play — the only rule being ‘make the words come alive’. A collective has formed around this café with regulars comprising English speakers from around the world.

In an age where literary scenes and movements are becoming more international by way of the internet, less centred around a location and more around uniting notions and ideals, Paris has managed to retain its place as one of the world’s literary hubs. Since the turn of this century, a movement referred to as the Offbeat Generation has partly formed in Paris. They comprise of a loose collection of like-minded writers, including Lee Rourke and Booker prize nominee Tom McCarthy, who feel alienated by a mainstream publishing industry dominated by marketing. Paris is home to the founder of this movement, Andrew Gallix, whose Paris-based literary magazine 3:AM has provided the main platform for the Offbeats.

Other English language literary magazines that have formed in Paris in recent years include Double Change, Upstairs at Duroc and Platform. The most recent of these, Platform, formed around the spoken word night at Culture Rapide.

As fate would have it, this new scene that is emerging is forming beside where many of their predecessors have found their final resting place: the Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is behind these gates that you can find the graves of such literary icons as Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde.

Its legacy may be one of the great appeals of Paris, though it is the smallness and accessibility of the anglophone writing communities, combined with their supportive and inclusive atmospheres, that is currently causing such a surge in the scene. It seems now that the stories shape the city as much as the city once shaped the stories and for any aspiring writer coming to Paris it would be easy to feel intimidated by the past. For them it is perhaps best to consider again the words of Allen Ginsberg: “You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem a burden”. The scenes may be as transient as the writers, but the essence of Paris endures.

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

This appeared in Guardian Books on 8 February 2010:

In Theory: Mimetic Desire

Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world

Mediated desire … Amanda Drew as Emma and Simon Thorp as Rodolphe in Oxford Playhouse’s 2003 production of Madame Bovary. Photograph: PR

Many thanks for your insightful comments on “The Death of the Author” and interesting suggestions concerning future discussion topics — please keep them coming. All this feedback confirms the utility of a debate on the purpose of literary theory at a time when critics have all too often retreated into academia or become appendages of publishers’ marketing departments. Talented critics can do so much more than just test-drive the latest products for consumers. They can shape the zeitgeist, renew our perception of great literary works and even help authors make sense of their own worlds — a hat-trick René Girard pulled off with Deceit, Desire and the Novel.

Discovering Deceit, Desire and the Novel is like putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the world come into focus. At its heart is an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before. Girard’s premise is the Romantic myth of “divine autonomy”, according to which our desires are freely chosen expressions of our individuality. Don Quixote, for instance, aspires to a chivalric lifestyle. Nothing seems more straightforward but, besides the subject (Don Quixote) and object (chivalry), Girard highlights the vital presence of a model he calls the mediator (Amadis of Gaul in this instance). Don Quixote wants to lead the life of a knight errant because he has read the romances of Amadis of Gaul: far from being spontaneous, his desire stems from, and is mediated through, a third party. Metaphysical desire — as opposed to simple needs or appetites — is triangular, not linear. You can always trust a Frenchman to view the world as a ménage à trois.

Mediation is said to be external when the distance between subject and mediator is so great that never the twain shall meet. This is the case of Don Quixote and Amadis, or Emma Bovary and the fashionable Parisian circles she dreams of. Here, the derivative nature of desire is clearly acknowledged. The hero of external mediation “worships his model openly and declares himself his disciple”. When mediation is internal, however, the distance between subject and mediator is small enough to give rise to rivalry between the two. The mediator, who aroused desire for the object in the first place, comes to be seen as an obstacle to the fulfilment of this very desire: “the model shows his disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture”. Although now ostensibly a figure of hatred, the mediator continues to be idolised subterraneously or even subconsciously. In Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time, for instance, the Guermantes remain Mme Verdurin’s sworn enemies until the day when she marries into this family she had in fact secretly admired and envied all along.

Girard’s contention is that the need for transcendence has survived the decline of Christianity, resulting in the ersatz “inverted transcendence” of mimetic desire. The spread of this highly-contagious “ontological disease” gathers momentum in the works of Stendhal before reaching pandemic proportions in Proust and Dostoyevsky. Whereas Don Quixote is an “upside-down hero in a right-side-up world,” Julien Sorel (The Red and the Black) is a “right-side-up hero” in a topsy-turvy world. By the time we reach Dostoyevsky (Notes From the Underground, The Possessed), everything has gone awry. All these novels illustrate how internal mediation “triumphs in a universe where the differences between men are gradually erased”. The more egalitarian a society, the closer the mediator and the greater the rivalry.

In Stendhal’s worldview, there once was a golden age when the nobility’s social status was correlated with its nobility of spirit. Passion and spontaneity, which used to be the hallmarks of the true nobleman, have all but disappeared from The Red and the Black, giving way to abject vanity. After the French Revolution, it is no longer possible for the nobility to simply be: it must now justify its privileges in the eyes of “the Other”. In so doing, it becomes ignoble. The aristocrat mimics the bourgeois who mimics the aristocrat. At the level of individuals, this double mediation is a delicate balancing act in which the loser is the one who can no longer conceal his desire for the other, from the other. This revelation acts as an instant passion killer, since it shatters the illusion of “divine autonomy” that had proved so compelling. Open rejection, in turn, makes the heart of the spurned lover grow ever fonder.

Masochism — which features so prominently in both Proust and Dostoyevsky — is a by-product of the increasing proximity of the mediator; a means of enhancing his supposed divinity. The greater the obstacle he represents, the greater his divinity. Girard explains that we become masochists as soon as “we no longer choose our mediator because of the admiration which he inspires in us but because of the disgust we seem to inspire in him”. As the “ontological sickness” progresses, the desired object is increasingly forgotten — it virtually disappears in Dostoyevsky — to be replaced by the mediator. The masochist desires the obstacle which signals the divine presence of the mediator. In the same way, the Proustian snob puts up purely abstract barriers between himself and an object that is so ineffable it barely exists at all. This disappearance of the object is of no real consequence since it “loses its value in the very act of being possessed” anyway.

Writers themselves are not immune to mimetic desire. The release of a book is an “appeal to the public” which is frequently experienced as an affront to authorial pride. Aristocratic writers used to keep up appearances by claiming that they never intended their works to be printed. La Rochefoucauld even went as far as to claim that his manuscript had been stolen by a servant. The modern writer has no servants, so he makes “an anti-appeal to the public in the shape of anti-poetry, anti-novel, or anti-play. The main thing is to make the Other taste the rare, ineffable, and fresh quality of one’s scorn for him”. Sound familiar?

With Deceit, Desire and the Novel, René Girard wanted to demonstrate that the truly “great novelists reveal the imitative nature of desire” in their works. In the process, he reinterpreted some of the most important novels ever written, launched a devastating broadside against the inheritors of Romantic individualism and spawned a whole new sub-genre — mimetic theory — which has been applied to almost everything, from psychology to economics. Were it not for this brilliant debut, published in France back in 1961, incidentally, Facebook may have remained the plaything of a handful of Harvard geeks.

Peter Thiel — a venture capitalist whose mentor at Stanford was none other than Girard lui-même — soon spotted the commercial potential of a social networking site based on mimetic desire. In fact, the whole concept of viral, word-of-mouth marketing follows Girard’s principle according to which the strongest desires are those influenced by an admired third party. The gods haven’t withdrawn: they have gone online and their name is Legion. What the venerable Académicien makes of this exploitation of an “ontological disease” he has been denouncing for half a century is anyone’s guess.