A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

This appeared in The Irish Times (Weekend Review) 8 October 2016: 10.

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

Frankfurt School lecture: Theodor Adorno in Rome. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty

A Towering Work of Staggering Scholarship

Grand Hotel Abyss is a towering work of staggering scholarship. It is so comprehensive that even its own existence falls within its purview. Stuart Jeffries, a former Guardian arts editor, reflects, in the closing pages, on the “mini-boom in popularising critical theory books” — a “perverse consequence of the global capitalist crisis” — comprising “graphic guides, dictionaries, perhaps even this book”.

It is as if his magnum opus were enacting one of the Frankfurt School’s central tenets: the absence of any external perspective from which to critique the system. “There is,” lamented Theodor Adorno, “no exit from the entanglement” — a maxim that also applies to these thinkers’ pervasive influence and, dare I say, aura. Those whom Bertolt Brecht dismissed as the “Frankfurturists” are now an integral part of our theoretical make-up, whether we agree with them or not.

Jeffries should be applauded for sticking to a broadly chronological narrative rather than experimenting with Walter Benjamin’s rather baffling “dialectical image”. His engagement with these thinkers’ ideas is, contrarily, very much in keeping with the Frankfurt School ethos.

He counters Benjamin’s technological utopianism by stating that “one could also argue the opposite” and reminds Adorno, beyond the grave, that Germany was first defeated by “Soviet totalitarianism”, not by a “more advanced form of capitalism”.

Jeffries is unafraid of giving voice to common sense — “isn’t it ludicrous to compare the Third Reich to Hollywood?” — or being didactic when needs be: apropos of Adorno’s constellation theory of knowledge he writes, “This is all quite tough stuff and, even for adepts of critical theory, hard to swallow.”

Unexpected humour
Humour (“to get dialectical for a moment”) is one of the most unexpected facets of this book devoted to hard-core German intellectuals. Benjamin’s somewhat ludicrous resemblance to Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin is remarked on, and a quotation from his Neapolitan peregrinations elicits the following gloss: “It’s hard to tell in this passage whether Walter Benjamin is being given directions or being propositioned. Either way, he seems to like it.” And Herbert Marcuse’s meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre (above) at La Coupole is recounted in hilarious detail.

His “group biography” is an intellectual saga. Readers looking for upskirt pictures of Hannah Arendt will be sorely disappointed: titillation in these rarefied climes is of a purely cerebral nature. The infamous Busenaktion of 1969, when Adorno was surrounded by three female students who “bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him”, barely raises an eyebrow. A benign, possibly enviable form of protest to be faced with, in theory, but one that proved profoundly hurtful in praxis.

Commendably, Jeffries only ever adduces private matters to highlight glaring discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. A prime example is the highly conventional lifestyle led by Marcuse, despite publishing works “indicting bourgeois repression”.

The New Left darling’s fondness for a stuffed hippo is as close as we get to tittle-tattle. Yet even this cuddly-toy fetish proves significant, highlighting how some of the last century’s finest minds were also overgrown children. Incapable of making himself a cup of coffee, Benjamin was bankrolled by his parents until “well into his thirties”. Marcuse could neither cook nor drive. Adorno is described as a “child prodigy who never grew up (because he didn’t have to)”. Few of them did, given their wealthy backgrounds and the women — conspicuous by their absence at the Institute for Social Research, to give the Frankfurt School its proper name — who waited on them at home. Practice was never the school’s forte; nor, to be fair, was it ever meant to be.

Although ostensibly Marxist, the institute was founded, at Goethe University in 1924, not to promote revolution but to analyse its failure. Focus on the ill-fated Spartacist uprising soon shifted to understanding the triumph of Nazism — which led the scholars into exile — and Germany’s postwar “psychopathology of denial”.

Capitalism had moved on since Marx. It was no longer a mere mode of production but an entire superstructure, encompassing the mass media and show business, geared towards concealing its exploitative nature. As Marcuse astutely observed, anticipating today’s ludic work environment, “the pleasure principle had absorbed the reality principle”.

Under the aegis of Max Horkheimer, who became its director in 1931, the institute took a “multidisciplinary turn” so as to embrace all aspects of this complex system, thus giving birth to critical theory. Such hybrid studies conducted “at the trough of mass culture” would indicate, contra Marx, that the proletarian revolution was not inevitable. As a result the Frankfurt School became “modern-day monks working in retreat from a world they could not change”.

Adorno and Horkheimer jettisoned the Enlightenment’s legacy, arguing that reason had become an instrument of oppression rather than emancipation (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944). They did so, in brilliantly paradoxical style, by taking “the corpse of reason” and making it “speak of the circumstances of its own death”.

In Negative Dialectics (1966) Adorno went on, quite logically, to reject Hegel and Marx’s “conception of history as moving dialectically towards a happy ending”. If the Holocaust had produced a “new categorical imperative” — that is, ensuring it never repeated itself — revolution was perhaps no longer even desirable. He sought utopia through art that was at odds with the affirmative culture that had done “little more than supply a soundtrack to mass murder”: art that could express “the truth of suffering ‘in an age of indescribable horror'” by daring to be radically negative.

It is this embrace of negativity that is so bracing to some and frustrating to others, even within the school.

During the 1960s student protests, change was deemed possible by Marcuse, who embodied a sunnier, Californian take on critical theory. The institute’s “late ethos” is likewise predicated on the feasibility of “ameliorating the conditions of capitalism and liberal democracy”.

Yet Café Marx, as it used to be called derisively, remains tainted by Georg Lukács’s quip that these representatives of the chattering classes — branded traitors by Brecht — had holed themselves up in a beautiful hotel “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”.

There is a great deal of wisdom, however, in Adorno’s suspicion of revolutionary students’ “aversion to introspection”, which he had already observed in the dark days of Nazism. “I established a theoretical model of thought,” he told an interviewer in 1969. “How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails!”

There is also a great deal of hope in his belief that “whoever thinks offers resistance”.

At its best the Frankfurt School was always a think tank — in the armoured-fighting-vehicle sense of the word.

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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.

The End of Realist Stories

This appeared in Guardian Books on 12 November 2013:

The End of Realist Stories

The limitations of mimetic storytelling are ever more apparent, but what should come next is less clear

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter's painting 'Strip' showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Real style … a woman walks in front of Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Strip’ showing at the Albertinum gallery in Dresden. Photograph: Jens Meyer/AP

Literary fiction is dead — or if not dead then finished, according to the Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted writer Lars Iyer, who argues it has become a “repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas” and suggests that novelists should spread the word that “the time for literary novels is over“. But literary fiction has always been dead, has always needed the mould-breaking writing which the Goldsmiths prize celebrates.

Ever since its birth, writers have been suspicious of the novel, reaching for the authenticity of the real — often presenting their work as memoir, à la Robinson Crusoe. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. Ashamed of its frivolity, fiction drapes itself in the gravitas of non-fiction.

If literature needs to be something more than just storytelling, then perhaps one could argue with Maurice Blanchot that it only truly becomes grown-up when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno’s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth“, but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree“.

But things were never as simple as that. The original realist novel was no straightforward attempt to describe the world; rather, an attempt to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality already present in literature of the time. For Fredric Jameson, realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance in its narrative in order to kill it off, and turn into its antithesis.

Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of the secularisation of society; a process that ran counter to the “universalising conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels sought to focus on the singular, contingent, and therefore unliterary aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomisation of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of “affects”, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told.

The realist novel was a product of this tension between telling and showing; between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the narration of a tale that has happened “once and for all”) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention frequently broke down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognisable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new conventions, sub-genres, and stereotypes, which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of fiction today. With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s idea of capitalist realism, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is fiction’s unsurpassable horizon.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its made-up nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. As Borges warns, “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete”.

The history of the novel could thus be reinterpreted as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. Don Quixote perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Emma Bovary is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing”, and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and EM Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. Similarly, the realist novel attempted to dissolve whatever smacked of literariness. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists”, and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”.

Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality“. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe”, and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. For his part, the nouveau romancier was convinced that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

The nouveau roman may not be very new any more, but there’s no shortage of writers lining up alongside Iyer to call time on the traditional novel. For David Shields, novels are “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. JM Coetzee is “sick of the well-made novel,” while Zadie Smith says she suffers from “novel-nausea”. Even the thought of fiction is enough to make Karl Ove Knausgaard “feel nauseous“.

Tim Parks is the latest to confess he shares “Shields’s changing reaction to traditional novels,” but he’s less convinced that Shields’s hunger for reality is the answer. Writers such as Beckett or Lydia Davis may have avoided the trap of the traditional novel, he argues, but “this kind of writing … seems to derive its energy by gauging its distance from the traditional novel, by expressing its disbelief and frustration with the form, and there is a limit to the pleasures, comedy and wisdom of negative energy and deconstruction”.

If the novel is dead — always already — as Iyer suggests, then it’ll take more than a dose of reality to infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing lying at our feet.

****

Here is a longer, earlier incarnation of this piece:

Fictive Realism

The Goldsmiths Prize, whose first laureate will be announced next month, was launched “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. Hopefully, it will act as an antidote to the blandness of the Booker and the spread of so-called fiction fatigue. Reports of the death of the novel have always been greatly exaggerated, of course, but David Shields clearly struck a chord with his Reality Hunger manifesto. Novels, he claimed — reprising arguments which Robbe-Grillet and John Barth had rehearsed in the 50s and 60s — are “works of nostalgic entertainment,” “antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian mode”. J. M. Coetzee declared that he, too, was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings”. Zadie Smith came down with a similar bout of “novel-nausea”. Karl Ove Knausgaard reached a stage where “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made [him] feel nauseous”. According to Lars Iyer — whose coruscating comedy, Exodus, graces the Goldsmiths shortlist — literary fiction has become “a kind of repertoire, like The Nutcracker at Christmas”. In a recent interview, he even argues that the task of the novelist today is to spread the word that that “the time for literary novels is over”.

According to Nietzsche, the terrible truth about existence was revealed but also beautified in tragedy at its Grecian best. Offered a glimpse into the abyss, the spectator was saved from the temptation to jump by the aesthetic anaesthetic. Likewise in literature, where fact is viewed, obliquely, through fiction. This tension between the Dionysian and Apollonian accounts for some authors’ ambivalence towards the narcotic of narrative: its reassuring reordering of chaos, and entertainment value. For Scheherazade, storytelling is, literally, a stay of execution. For the rest of us, it is merely a pastime; a distraction from our ultimate destruction. This, no doubt, is why so many early novels purported to be authentic documents — frequently memoirs, à la Robinson Crusoe. Ashamed of its frivolous lack of necessity, fiction draped itself in the gravitas of non-fiction. After Maurice Blanchot, one could argue, contrarily, that literature only truly emerges when it “becomes a question” hanging over the space separating it from the world. By showing its sleight of hand, the novel can live up to Adorno‘s definition of art as “magic delivered from the lie of being truth,” but it loses its innocence in the process. No longer is it possible for a serious novelist to go back to the “good old days,” when — as Gombrowicz put it — one could write “as a child might pee against a tree”.

Literature only coincides with itself when it claims to be what it is not. As soon as it acknowledges its fictive nature, the novel looks back at itself in anger; becomes its own worst enemy. The best authors, in my book, are wary of the consolations of fiction, with their whiff of prelapsarian micturation. They sense that the hocus-pocus spell cast by storytelling threatens to transform their works into bedtime stories for grown-ups. “A book that does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete,” warns Borges, in one of his most famous stories. The history of the novel could thus be construed as a product of fiction fatigue: an inner struggle between book and counterbook. In Don Quixote — arguably the first great novel — the eponymous anti-hero perceives the mundane reality he inhabits through the prism of chivalric romances, which leads him, famously, to mistake windmills for giants. Likewise Madame Bovary. Emma is a desperate housewife, whose shopping-and-fucking daydreams are fuelled by the sentimental literature she consumes, and is eventually consumed by. Leonard Bast, in Howards End, fills his head with the “husks of books” instead of the “real thing,” and ends up crushed by a bookcase.

Cervantes, Flaubert, and E. M. Forster all fought fiction with fiction, in the name of the “real thing”. As Alain Robbe-Grillet pointed out in his nouveau roman heyday, serious writers always “believe they are realists,” and “literary revolutions” are all made “in the name of realism”. Whenever a given mode of writing becomes “a vulgar recipe, an academic mannerism which its followers respect out of routine or laziness, without even questioning its necessity, then it is indeed a return to the real which constitutes the arraignment of the dead formulas and the search for new forms capable of continuing the effort”. Robbe-Grillet accused the Balzacian novel of propagating an outdated, anthropocentric worldview. Its rounded characters were an expression of triumphant bourgeois individualism; its lifelike plots mirrored readers’ “ready-made idea of reality”. Such works were designed to convey the impression of a stable, “entirely decipherable universe,” and the novelist’s task was, precisely, to do the deciphering; to unearth “the hidden soul of things”. The nouveau romancier believed, for his part, that the “discovery of reality” through literature would only continue if these “outworn forms” were jettisoned, along with “the old myths of ‘depth'” that supported them. In the new novel he called for, the presence of the world  — “neither significant nor absurd” — prevails over any attempt to project meaning on to it. Although the world is simply there in all its awesome weirdness, reality is no longer a given, but a taken; something that each novel must create anew. As a result, the primacy of substance over style is reversed. Style is what “constitutes reality” in such a novel, which ultimately “expresses nothing but itself”.

With a nod to Mark Fisher‘s “capitalist realism“, one could speak of fictive realism to describe the widespread belief that the 19th-century novel — or a variant thereof — is literature’s unsurpassable horizon. The paradox is that the original (real?) realist novel, set out to dismantle off-the-peg representations of reality, as Fredric Jameson explains in The Antinomies of Realism. The title of his latest work refers to the conflicted, agonistic nature of this literary trend. Realism only exists dialectically, when it is in contention with some opposite it harbours. Madame Bovary, for instance, carries romance within its belly in order to abort it, and turn into its antithesis.

Uncontentiously, Jameson sees the rise of realism as part of a process of secularisation of society, that ran counter to the “universalizing conceptions of life” propagated by religion. Increasingly, novels took on an Adamic quality by focusing on the singular and contingent — aspects of reality that had no prior linguistic expression. More specifically, Jameson detects a growing “autonomization of the senses” post-Balzac. Emotions — already classified (and literary) “conscious states” — were shunned in favour of affects, those nameless “bodily feelings” that could be shown, but not told. The realist novel was the result of this tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” (the telling of a tale that has happened “once and for all” in the preterite tense) and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” would be explored in increasingly experimental ways. The outcome is that “one of the two antithetical forces finally outweighs the other and assures its disintegration”. Narrative convention would frequently break down as a result of the novel’s linguistic imperialism — its quest for the “unique phenomenon which bears no recognizable name”. Gradually, however, the unnamed would get named, and the novel would beget new sub-genres and stereotypes which would have to be deconstructed in turn. Jameson contends that the one genre realism cannot dissolve is realism itself, which, in my view, speaks volumes about the state of the novel today. “A book that does not contain its counterbook”? Sounds like literary fiction to me.

A Beautiful Fuck You to Reality

David Winters, “Learning From Lish: A Roundtable on Style in Fiction” by David Winters, Greg Gerke, and Jason Lucarelli, The Literarian 14 (September 2013)

But I think some of what you’ve both said links up quite well with Lish’s thinking on “noise,” and with his valuing of “mystery” over “information.” My understanding is that Lish advises writers to work against the cacophony of contemporary culture. As he says, “it is necessary to attempt some kind of severance between ourselves and the noise that is everywhere thus.” Now, this severance could take several forms — I see it, for instance, in Gary Lutz’s refusal to specify the locations of his stories; or in his regret at having used a brand name (Coca-Cola) in one of them.

At a more elemental level, maybe writing has to cast a silence around itself. …One difference between our generation and Lish’s is that we live in a so-called “information age.” But if we are to create art, the message that arises from much of this writing is that we must make information our enemy. Right now, for instance, Jason Schwartz is one of the few writers still working out ways to do this. Schwartz’s work speaks in a style that startles the surrounding world into silence. His stories are radically self-sufficient, and in this respect they work against our age’s entropic reduction of language to data. The philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote that “art is magic, delivered from the lie of being truth.” And since we’re speaking of “tradition,” perhaps this is precisely what artworks were in prehistory — mysteries; auratic artefacts whose very existence was an affront, a beautiful ‘fuck you” to reality.

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

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This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 26 February 2008:

A Reader’s Guide to the Unwritten

Modernism’s strong, silent types not only redefined the purpose of literature – they saved on paper, too

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“Neither am I,” quipped Peter Cook, when a fellow partygoer boasted that he was working on a novel. There is far more to this bon mot than meets the eye, as George Steiner‘s My Unwritten Books illustrates. In fact, the “non genre” lies at the very heart of literary modernity. Blaise Cendrars, for instance, toyed with the idea of a bibliography of unwritten works. Marcel Bénabou went one step further by publishing a provocative volume entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books. In this manifesto of sorts, the anti-author argues that the books he has failed to write are not “pure nothingness”: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian library of phantom fictions. This is precisely what Steiner means when he states that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” But what prompts writers to withhold themselves at the conception?

Some say that everything has already been said (La Bruyère et al); others have spoken of the futility of writing in the shadow of Joyce (Sollers) or in the wake of the Holocaust (Adorno) and 9/11 (McInerney). At a more fundamental level, as Tom McCarthy recently reasserted, literature is “always premised on its own impossibility”. Kafka even went as far as to state that the “essential impossibility of writing” is the “only thing one can write about”. Or not. Taking their cue from Rousseau (“There is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist”) the proponents of the “literature of the No” (or “workless artists” as Jean-Yves Jouannais calls them) prefer to abstain rather than run the risk of compromising their perfect vision. Written books are sweet, but those unwritten are sweeter.

This sense of creative impotence stems in part from a dual historical process which deified authors while defying the very authority of their authorship. In Europe, writers and artists were called upon to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the growing secularisation of society. For a while, the alter deus stood above his handiwork, paring his fingernails, but then “I” — the “onlie begetter” — became another, the signifier dumped the signified, and it all went pear-shaped. To compound matters, the gradual relaxation of censorship laws proved that the unsayable remained as elusive as ever when everything could be said.

The realisation that, at best, writers could only hope to dress old words new and recreate what was already there led to a spate of literary eclipses. Hofmannstahl’s Lord Chandos, who renounces literature because language cannot “penetrate the innermost core of things”, epitomises this mute mutiny instigated (in real life) by Rimbaud. Wittgenstein would later insist that the most important part of his work was the one he had not written, presumably because it lay beyond his coda to the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Keeping stum and tuning in to the roar on the other side of silence was a soft option. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov — who attempts to defeat God by desiring his own humanity and therefore his own mortality and death — heralded a wave of phantom scribes. Forced to recognise that divine ex nihilo creation was beyond their grasp, writers such as Marcel Schwob came to the conclusion that the urge to destroy was also a creative urge — and perhaps the only truly human one.

Authors, of course, have always been tempted to destroy works which failed to meet their impossibly high standards (vide Virgil), but never before had auto-da-fé been so closely related to felo-de-se. The Baron of Teive (one of Pessoa‘s numerous heteronyms) destroys himself after destroying most of his manuscripts because of the impossibility of producing “superior art”. In Dadaist circles, suicide even came to be seen as a form of inverted transcendence, a rejection of the reality principle, an antidote to literary mystification as well as a fashion. “You’re just a bunch of poets and I’m on the side of death,” was Jacques Rigaut‘s parting shot to the Surrealists. Like him, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Danilo Kupus, Boris Poplavsky, Julien Torma and René Crevel all chose to make the ultimate artistic statement. The rest, of course, is silence.