The Unread and the Unreadable

This appeared in Guardian Books on 18 February 2013:

The Unread and the Unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books — and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

[Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images]

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” — as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age — the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry‘s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs — (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads — devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train — at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover — or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” — and hence that of modern literature — as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.

Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works “testifies to a faith in the ineffable”. This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that “for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible” and George Steiner to sense that “A book unwritten is more than a void.” For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was “one of the first entirely modern writers” because he saw literature as the “locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books”.

If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”, TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly “difficult” in order “to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning”. The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé‘s endeavour to “purify the words of the tribe”. The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett‘s ambition was to “drill one hole after another” into language “until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through”.

Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: “It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself”. Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our “clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something”.

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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(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 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.

We Are All Bartlebys

An extract from Tom McCarthy‘s “David Foster Wallace: The Last Audit,” The New York Times Sunday 14 May 2011:

…Which brings me to the second way of understanding the whole document: as a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward — properly and rigorously forward — in an age of data saturation. The Jesuit presents “the world and reality as already essentially penetrated and formed, the real world’s constituent info generated . . . now a meaningful choice lay in herding, corralling and organizing that torrential flow of info.” He could just as well be describing the task of the novelist, who, of course, is also “called to account.” It’s hard not to see in the poor pencil-pushers huddled at their desks an image of the writer — nor, given Wallace’s untimely end, to shudder when they contemplate suicide.

Lost childhood pools, by this reading, would constitute a kind of pastoral mode cached (or trashed) within the postmodern “systems” novel — which, in turn, is what the systems-within-systems I.R.S. really stands for. The issues of emotion and agency remain central, but are incorporated into a larger argument about the possibility or otherwise of these things within contemporary fiction. The data-psychic character Sylvanshine can glean trivia about anyone simply by looking at him, but is “weak or defective in the area of will.” Nor, due to endless digressions, can he complete anything. No one can; in “The Pale King,” nothing ever fully happens. That this is to a large extent a metaphor (for the novel in general, or this novel in particular) becomes glaringly obvious when we hear one unnamed character describe the play he’s writing, in which a character sits at a desk, doing nothing; after the audience has left, he will do something — what that “something” is, though, the play’s author hasn’t worked out yet. […]

…Wallace’s writing is haunted by modernism’s (very plural) legacy. One of the nicknames for the David Wallace character in “The Pale King” is “the young man carbuncular,” a moniker straight from Eliot’s “Waste Land.” Kafka’s “Castle” is explicitly invoked; and so, implicitly by the unfinished clerk-at-desk play, is the entirety of Beckett’s drama.

But there’s an older ghost haunting “The Pale King” even more, I think, one whose spectral presence combines both the political and metafictional ways of reading the book: Melville’s Bartleby, the meek and lowly copyist who cannot will himself to complete the act of copying — or, to put it another way, the writer who cannot will himself to complete the act of writing. In effect, all the I.R.S.’s clerical serfs are Bartlebys; through them, and through this book, he emerges as the melancholy impasse out of which the American novel has yet to work its way. America’s greatest writer, the author of “Moby-Dick,” spent his final 19 years as a customs officer — that is, a tax inspector. To research “The Pale King,” Wallace trained in accounting. We’re moving beyond haunting to possession here. Bartleby, of course, ends up dead, leaving a stack of undeliverable papers. This is the inheritance that Wallace earnestly, and perhaps fatally, grappled with. The outcome was as brilliant as it was sad — and the battle is the right one to engage in.

Illicit Frequencies, or All Literature is Pirated

Here is my interview with Tom McCarthy that appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 13 July 2006.

3:AM: It’s very rare, these days, to see a work of literary criticism being given such prominence. Do you agree that this is probably largely due to the fact that the main subject is not Balzac or Baudelaire — two key references here — but a comic-strip hero?

TMcC: First of all, I’m not sure I’d describe Tintin and the Secret of Literature as ‘criticism’. More as an essay. I like the idea of the essay as a primary literary form. You can trace it from David Foster Wallace through Blanchot all the way back to people like Hazlitt. But yes, the fact that it revolves around Tintin and not just Balzac and Baudelaire has certainly helped it get attention — although it wasn’t strategic to do this. I genuinely rate Hergé’s work, and wanted to read it alongside Balzac, Baudelaire, Bergson, Bachelard and all the rest, hopping from one to the other in a set of playful, serendipitous detours — which is exactly what the essay format allows.

3:AM: Your book is very much in the tradition of Barthes‘s Mythologies (an anthology which you fail to mention). I can’t remember if Barthes actually mentions Tintin anywhere, but he certainly could have done. In a way, the two figures go curiously well together: Tintin’s heyday corresponds roughly to that of Barthes and both, today, appear a little quaint. Was it Barthes who inspired this book? After all, your Tintin is primarily a semiologist who “can navigate [a key word in the McCarthy canon] the world of signs” (Tintin and the Secret of Literature p. 22), a deciphering cipher who embodies (along with Snowy?) the presence of absence — the Melvillian “whiteness of the whale” (p. 161) — but also, of course, Barthes’s “écriture blanche”.

TMcC: I do kind of mention Mythologies when I refer to wrestling and tomato tins early on in the book. I love Barthes: he’s a beautiful, generous writer. He never mentions Tintin directly as far as I know, although Derrida, another big presence (or present absence or whatever) in my book, does, glancingly, in The Post Card. Hergé read Barthes; you can see his influence very directly in the final book, Tintin and Alph-Art, in which language becomes a set of physical signs, giant letters which are held up and scrutinised by his characters.

ODETTE’S BITS

3:AM: Are you the first to draw a parallel between Sarrasine and the Tintin corpus? I haven’t read Balzac’s novel, but, from what you write, La Zambinella seems to bear a resemblance to Proust’s Odette de Crécy. Am I mistaken?

TMcC: As far as I know I am the first to draw a parallel between Tintin and Sarrasine. I re-read Barthes’s S/Z, which turns around that particular novella, initially because I wanted to write about Hergé’s total mastery of plot: the way he misdirects, doubles, occludes, jams and so on, all these devices Barthes describes so well in his take on Balzac. But as I did I realised that there were loads of points of correspondence between Sarrasine and the Tintin books. Balzac’s eponymous artist becomes obsessed by the opera singer la Zambinella, like Captain Haddock does with Bianca Castafiore; he copies her, like the sculptor Balthazar does the fetish in The Broken Ear; he’s murdered, as is Balthazar; the copy is copied and these copies are themselves copied, in both. Fundamentally, it’s about entering the realm of denatured simulation that is art. La Zambinella’s voice draws Sarrasine backstage, into a world of artifice, just as la Castafiore’s voice draws Haddock backstage and on into a world of inauthenticity. And these worlds prove fatal: the castrato la Zambinella effectively kills Sarrasine, and ultimately the not-really-pubescent Tintin effectively kills Hergé.

With Proust, I’ve got to admit I’ve never got as far as the Odette bits in the Remembrance. There are passages I find completely compelling, like the bit about how you can construct a composite memory of a house from various other houses you’ve known or read about or seen in pictures (which is more or less what my hero does in Remainder, but other bits lose me, and I put it down again for two years, then re-read as far as the house bit, then same again: a kind of incomplete repetition loop. Perhaps that’s what Old Marcel would have wanted.

ILLICIT FREQUENCIES

3:AM: Given that the literary status of the Tintin books is uncertain/debatable, isn’t it a little perverse to analyse them in order to uncover the “secret of literature”?

TMcC: Yes — and that’s why I wanted to do it. It would be easy to identify literary motifs in Faulkner or Dickens or someone. But what does it tell us when a corpus that makes no claims to being ‘literature’ displays a symbolic register as developed as Faulkner’s and characters as deep and rich as Dickens’s, not to mention themes and plots more or less identical to Sophocles’s and Shakespeare’s: the fall of the noble house, family secrets coming out into the open, the relation between host and guest gone disastrously wrong and so on? So much of the very best literature opens up illicit frequencies so that meaning can travel along channels other than the obvious or rational. The Tintin books are full of these frequencies, these channels; they even dramatise their setting up, hunting down, rumbling and relocating. And then it struck me that literature as a whole might hide its most intimate secrets in the most illicit of all zones, one tucked away ‘off-stage’, ‘aside’, below the radar of literature proper, which is of course the kind of zone that cartoons lurk in.

3:AM: Could you tell us about the cover of the book and Tintin’s absence from the illustrations inside?

TMcC: The cover is by Jochen Gerner, a French artist. I saw a book he’d done called TNT en Amérique, in which he buried the whole of Tintin in America under black ink but left a few symbols, mainly of money, divinity and violence (i.e. dollar signs, crosses and guns, all done in cartoony style) as markers for what he’d erased — all on the correct pages, corresponding to frames in the original book. So I contacted him and asked him to do the cover, and he was really into it. We looked at the main motifs in The Castafiore Emerald — the window, the piano, the cameras and spotlights that, ultimately, occlude more than they reveal — and he applied his technique (which, after Bataille, he calls ‘déformation’) to these. And in the foreground, as on Hergé’s, the tufted figure with his finger to his lips, saying ‘Shhhh!’ — what in the book I call “the condition of the secret become visible”.

To answer the second part of your question: I didn’t want images directly from the Tintin books inside my book. I was more interested in showing how these images (which I’m assuming most people who read my book will be at least slightly familiar with) mutate into and out of other ones: eighteenth-century portraits of castrato singers, stills from Buster Keaton films and, not least, ‘detourned’ versions of the Tintin books themselves. These last images break down into political activist ones, pornographic ones and ‘art’ ones: an interesting triangle.

THE BOY HAIRDRESSER

3:AM: Given your chapter devoted to “Castafiore’s Clit” (if you ever form a band, promise me that you’ll use that name) and your comments about Tintin’s androgyny, I was surprised you didn’t devote at least a few lines to the once-ubiquitous gay Tintin haircut…

TMcC: A band called Castafiore’s Clit is a great idea. Kind of Jane’s Addiction meets The Thompson Twins. Yes, it’s funny that Tintin has lent his haircut to gay culture. I found out recently that the Rocker quiff of the Fifties was taken directly from Jean Marais’s haircut in Cocteau’s Orphée, another big presence in my book.

THE SINS OF THE FATHER

3:AM: During the Second World War, Hergé had no qualms about publishing his comic strips in Le Soir, a newspaper that was under Nazi control and had clear Nazi sympathies. Interestingly enough, as you point out, Paul de Man also wrote for Le Soir. However, I was surprised that you did not make more of this coincidence. Paul de Man’s undermining of meaning and values having been reinterpreted (and partly discredited) in the light of the posthumous discovery of his youthful far-right views, should not we also be somewhat wary of Hergé’s “retroactive wiping-out of history” (p. 41), the erosion of Rastapopoulos’s “Semitic status” (pp. 44-45) or his reinvention as a “liberal leftist” (p. 46)? After all, anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism which, in your view, testify to the author’s “right-to-left trajectory” (p. 47) are common tenets on the far right as well as the far left…

TMcC: I never went with the argument that Paul de Man’s shameful youthful secret undermines all of deconstruction (is Derrida, a Jew, a secret anti-Semite too?), not least because when I was at university one of this argument’s main advocates serially harassed his female students while simultaneously espousing feminism, which for me kind of discredited anything he had to say. Yes, the anti-consumerist thing can serve a right-wing position as much as a left-wing one, and I point out in the book that Hergé kept the same villains in place throughout his career (secret cabals, men in hoods). But I think his right-to-left trajectory was a genuine one, as was Paul de Man’s. Things are connected. Fascism is a moment that the twentieth century goes through, in the arts as much as anywhere else. Think of Yeats, Spengler, Hamsun, Pound, Céline — brilliant and hugely influential writers who were fascists. Do we discount anything that’s come after them? Of course not: you trace the fallout of the disaster, how it mutates and develops. Think of Heidegger, a one-time Nazi out of whose thought the incredibly compelling ethical vision of Levinas (another Jew) has emerged. Anyway, it would be naive and liberal to want all our artists to be nice Guardian readers. Some people are arseholes. And another thing: Paul de Man doesn’t undermine meaning and value — just certain tired and reactionary notions of both.

[Just for the record: I didn’t mean to imply that Hergé’s, Céline’s or Yeats’s works should be rejected because of their political views, although I clearly gave that impression. Like Tom, I subscribe to a resolutely politically-incorrect conception of literature. My point simply concerned anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism (which the far left certainly has no monopoly over) along with the fact that certain thinkers’ seemingly-rational ideas are so obviously linked to individual history (Maurras’s deafness or Foucault’s masochism, for instance) that one should sometimes approach them with a little caution. Another issue we could have raised here is the Arendt-Heidegger relationship, but that would probably have been one serendipitous detour — to quote McCarthy — too many!]


FOUND IN TRANSLATION

3:AM: Remainder — the best novel of 2005 which, due to its republication by Alma Books, looks set to be the novel of 2006 (ironically enough, given the theme of the book) — could be described as the best French novel ever written in English by an Englishman. With Tintin and the Secret of Literature, your approach is once again resolutely French. Almost all of your major references are French (Balzac, Baudelaire, Barthes, Derrida…), and even the vocabulary you use is Gallicized (“fictive,” for instance, which is far closer to the French “fictif” than “fictional”). Where does your familiarity with French culture and the French language come from? Was it deliberate on your part to largely avoid references to British or American literature? Wouldn’t it have been interesting to give a more English perspective on Tintin since Tintinologists have a habit of being Belgian or French?

TMcC: First of all, thanks for your kind words about Remainder, and I’ll try to persuade my French publisher, Hachette Littératures, to use your “best French novel in English” line as a blurb for their edition that’s coming out next September — I couldn’t think of better praise! Yes, most of the points of reference in Tintin and the Secret of Literature are French, although Defoe, Bunyan, Behn and other Anglo early novelists get a look in — plus there’s a big digression through Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I guess I just really like French literature. The English were going really well from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, producing poets like Donne and Marvell and novels like Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, but it all went horribly wrong somewhere in the late nineteenth/early twentieth and, while the French (and Americans) embarked on the wildest adventures with thought and form — Mallarmé, Breton, Cendrars, Faulkner etc etc — we got Thomas fucking Hardy and DH fucking Lawrence. The only top-class twentieth century English writers are the ones we claim spuriously: Americans like Eliot and James, Poles like Conrad, Irishmen like Joyce and Beckett…

3:AM: At the same time, there is a sense of humour and earthiness which are very un-French, as it were. After the publication of a strange review in The Economist which presented your book as a send-up of French theory, you spoke to me of the astounding “idiocy of English empirical culture”: do you think Tintin and the Secret of Literature is going to reignite the critical Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes of the 80s and 90s?

TMcC: I think to ignite any thought at The Economist you’d need to stick a ton of semtex up their arses. That review was quite funny, though: it perfectly captured the red-faced, vein-popping fury of Little England once the values on which it bases its entire identity are ever-so-slightly “solicited”, as Derrida would say. English takes on Tintin always present Hergé as a ’satirist’ and only that: a self-sufficient, rational subject who uses words and images as tools to tell us something he knows because he’s worked it out, rationally, you see. That’s the empirical line on literature tout court: the rational expression of a self-sufficient subject — as though we weren’t constantly made and unmade within language, desire, history, symbolic networks and so on. It’s as moronic as crediting a surfer with creating the wave which carries him and allows him to ply his craft — and back into which he’s eventually going to sink.

McCARTHYISM

3:AM: You say that you were introduced to Tintin by your mother at the age of seven. That, in itself, probably says a lot about your social background — that and your early encounter with Hugo Williams (mentioned by the poet in an article he wrote in the TLS about your International Necronautical Society). In France, in the 70s, Le Journal de Tintin tended to be read in Catholic and conservative circles whereas kids from Communist families usually read a comic called Pif. What sort of social and cultural milieu were you raised in, Tom?

TMcC: I come from a liberal arts-steeped middle-class family. My mum would tell us the stories of The Odyssey and The Merchant of Venice on car journeys. My parents were left-ish but not radical. They voted Labour but I went to a private day-school from the age of twelve.

3:AM: You write that “Everybody wants to be Tintin,” but I get the feeling that that everybody applies, first and foremost, to you. You even bear a slight physical resemblance to Hergé’s hero…

TMcC: I went to a fancy dress party dressed as Tintin once…

3:AM: Susan Tomaselli rounds off her review with the claim that Tintin and the Secret of Literature made her feel like re-reading Remainder (your debut novel) rather than the Tintin books themselves. Do you see this as a success or a failure?

TMcC: Success — although she should read the Tintin books too. In a way, I used Tintin and the Secret of Literature to work through some of the themes in Remainder in a more conscious way: the relationship between trauma and repetition, for example, or the idea of inauthenticity which emerged from the de Man essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality”, which I hadn’t read when I wrote Remainder even though it could almost be describing that book. It’s great to be able to switch modes, and come at the same territory from a different angle.

WE WANTED TO BLOW UP TIME ITSELF

3:AM: Your whole oeuvre seems to be contained within this critical essay: Tintin and the Secret of Literature could thus be read as a work of internal intertextuality. First of all, there’s the importance of meridians which points to Greenwich Degree Zero, your recent artistic collaboration with Rod Dickinson…

TMcC: …when we blew up the Greenwich Observatory, or at least produced the documentation of having blown up the Observatory, completing the task of Martial Bourdin, model for Conrad’s Stevie in The Secret Agent. We wanted to blow up time itself. Funnily enough, there’s a scene in The Broken Ear where a secret agent like Stevie carries a time-bomb around and gets blown up by it because he doesn’t realise the town clocks have broken. I love the sequence in The Sound and the Fury where Quentin carries a broken clock around and rides trams in different directions in a sub-Einsteinian attempt to escape time — then dies…

WE WANTED TO BLOW UP BRIDGES

3:AM: Then you’ve got the references to Cocteau’s Orphée and, more generally, your fascination with the “transmission-reception figure” (as you put it elsewhere): “[Tintin] will also be aware, as a radio operator, that the waves which carry his transmissions will travel outwards endlessly through space. Who knows where the signals will end up, or what they will end up meaning?” (p. 91).

TMcC: If I had to select five things to put in a space capsule to show aliens what we were capable of, Orphée would be one of them. It’s the most perfect piece of art, which lays out our existence as being in relation to death, technology, transmission-reception and desire — not to mention repetition. Death, a beautiful princess (and arts patron) falls in love with Orphée so she has another poet snatched to the underworld so he can send illicit, looping radio messages to Orphée which draw him towards her, through a mirror. Cocteau based his radio messages on the ones sent to occupied France during World War Two: these short lines of poetry. Most of them meant nothing, but one in every two hundred meant — only to those who knew — ‘blow up the bridge’. A man or woman in London reads a line of poetry into a microphone and in France a bridge blows up — or not. Poetry — real poetry — should harbour that potentiality somehow.

3:AM: You talk about Alph-Art, the eponymous avant-garde movement of Hergé’s posthumous book, which is “a cover for a giant forgery operation” (p. 158). Couldn’t this also be a fitting definition of your own “semi-fictitious” avant-garde movement, the International Necronautical Society?

TMcC: The INS had its own radio transmission network, operating out of the ICA two years ago, generating messages like Cocteau’s and actually transmitting them over the radio London-wide (and, via collaborating radio stations, world-wide). It looked like a giant factory floor, with workers running everywhere carrying lines of text — lines which, having been plucked from other media sources, were kind of second-hand if not fake. The INS is itself semi-fake, as you point out. Although the fake can hide the real.

THE UNNAMEABLE

3:AM: On page 84, you explain that, according to Freud, trauma produces “a desire for repetition mixed with a need to disguise the scene being repeated”. Could you comment on this sentence with reference to your novel Remainder?

TMcC: It’s not just Freud who says this: even his most positivist counterparts concur. Under ultra-extreme stress, the part of the mind that processes raw data into the narrative thread we call ‘memory’ simply goes on strike and refuses to process. It’s called ‘dissociation’. So the data’s present, but not dealt with, and therefore keeps bobbing up and demanding to be incorporated somehow. As it can’t form part of normal memory, it plays itself out in weird ways — ones that contain elements of the original event but are also scrambled, disguised. And it will keep repeating, albeit in modulated form, until it is accommodated properly. Well, in Remainder the hero has undergone a traumatic event which he hasn’t retained as straight memory but rather as fragments of data: the sense of being about to be hit, blue lights, railings, being held above a tray or bed and so on. These induce a propensity to repeat stuff in him. Another interesting thing about post-trauma is that (to return to a motif we touched on a moment ago) it makes people feel inauthentic, fake, because everything is of a lesser magnitude of experience than the trauma-moment itself, the only ‘real’ thing. And then the subject back-projects for himself a time when he wasn’t fake, and longs for that time. That’s what my guy is doing with his re-enactments: repeating backwards to an imagined era of authenticity — but repeating, more accurately, towards the trauma-moment itself, the true, unnameable moment, the moment of truth and unnameability itself.

THE CHINK ON THE CARPET

3:AM: The re-enactments in Remainder or in your artistic work: mimesis or simulacrum?

TMcC: Aha: very good question, bang on the money. In Remainder, he wants the authentic, so he sets up a zone of mimesis, paying architects and designers to recreate his ‘remembered’ building and re-enactors to ‘be’ the lady he remembers frying liver on the floor below him, the pianist he remembers practising Rachmaninoff and so on. He wants to accede through these re-enactments to a mode of authenticity, of simply ‘being’ rather than simulating. But of course it doesn’t work: the re-enactments tend more towards the status of simulacra, what Plato defines as ‘a copy without an original’. But then, paradoxically, the most jarring and obviously inconsistent things, the ‘extra’ bits, the ones with no originals of any type at all, are what catapult him into ultra-authenticity — which, not coincidentally, is also pure violence. It’s the little chink on the carpet of his re-enacted bank heist that flips the whole re-enactment over into all-too-real-ness, when the re-enactor trips on it, or rather on its absence, and his gun goes off…


[Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy at 3:AM Magazine‘s Xmas Bash, London 2005]

THE CRACK IN THE WALL

3:AM: Barthes writes that “…the ‘realistic’ artist never places reality at the origin of his discourse, but only and always, as far back as can be traced, an already written real, a prospective code, along which we discern, as far as the eye can see, only a succession of copies” (quoted on p. 55): this is also, unwittingly, what the protagonist of Remainder does, right?

TMcC: Remainder has been read by some critics as an allegory of realism and of the realist mode of art, and this isn’t an entirely wrong reading — although if the hero had actually been an artist rather than an Everyman, some bloke, it would have been an entirely different, and inferior, book. But yes, it definitely turns around his copying, and even (as he sets about getting his re-enactors to re-enact the moments when they prepared for the previous re-enactment) his copying his moments of copying, endlessly regressive. We can try to work it out together, but ultimately I can’t give the definitive schematic meta-reading of the book any more than you — perhaps less. It was intuitive: I was looking at a crack in a wall and had a moment of dejà-vu and wished I had loads of money to re-enact this moment and there was the novel.

EVERYTHING LITERATURE SHOULD BE

3:AM: When discussing tobacco throughout the Tintin books, you explain (following Derrida) that it “goes up in smoke” but “also leaves remains, ashes, which maintain symbolic links to memory, death and inheritance. Baudelaire’s story takes off from the change left over from the two friends’ luxury expenditure: like the coin itself, it proceeds from the remainder” (p. 135). Why are remnants so important in your work?

TMcC: It’s what’s left. After the disaster, after thought, interpretation, writing itself. It’s like when Wallace Stevens says “The plum survives its poems”. Writing has to deal with this remainder, and good writing has to deal with the fact that it can never fully deal with it. Francis Ponge knows this. He writes brilliant prose poems about, for example, oranges: the texture of their cells, the way they leave goop on your hands so that even when you’ve ‘expressed’ them there’s a residue that’s not contained. If Susan Tomaselli or anyone else really want to do themselves a favour, they should re-read neither Remainder nor the Tintin books but rather Ponge’s Le Parti pris des choses (you can get it in dual text). It’s everything writing should be.

[This interview was initially posted here.]