Archive for September, 2006

Unity and Disharmony in Literature

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

Since a few people have been kind enough to lament my not posting rather more, it would seem churlish not to attempt to redress this. As it happens, this piece I came across last week on Allen Ginsberg, did indeed remind me of something I wanted to write about for quite sometime now, about how the hermeneutics of meaning seem to work in very different ways for different authors.

“Ginsberg’s audacity in comparing himself to Apollinaire was matched by his knack for advertising “Howl” as an all-purpose cultural barometer. When he learned in the spring of 1956 that the New York Times had assigned the poet Richard Eberhart to write an article on the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, he sent him a long letter explicating his poem: “Howl is an ‘affirmation’ of individual experience of God, sex, drugs, absurdity etc.” In an interview with Gay Sunshine in 1974, Ginsberg remarked that “Howl” was a “coming out of the closet.” Two years later, in a volume commemorating the twentieth anniversary of “Howl,” he announced that the poem “was really about my mother.”

While the piece is acute in its judgement of some of the more embarrassing aspects of Ginsberg’s work, it does also have to be said that Ginsberg was very much the sort of poet whose work can simply accumulate the most diverse and incompatible meanings and accommodate them alongside one another. Like his mentors Blake and Whitman, Ginsberg fitted into the class of writer that draws a vast amount of heterogenous experiences and influences into their work which them remain alongside one another even as the writer elsewhere seeks to weave all into a unitary philosophy. As Whitman put it, “I contain multitudes” It is not an uncontentious aesthetic. TS Eliot once tartly observed that Blake had concoted a personal mythology from odds and ends he had found lying about the house, while DH Lawrence waspishly complained that Whitman had contained so much that he had drowned in a sea of multitudes and lost himself. Nonetheless, to my mind it does afford a particular interest to the work of these writers where unity and disunity sit alongside one another, particularly with Blake’s complex and shifting depictions of such themes as god and sexuality.

Isaiah Berlin discussed this sort of writer in The Hedgehog and the Fox where he classed Shakespeare, Balzac and Joyce as foxes (writers who celebrate diversity and the contradictory) and as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen as hedgehogs (writers who relate everything into a single vision). Inevitably, the question of how to class each writer is a difficult one; for myself I would see both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche as foxes; for all of Nietzsche’s vehement insistence of themes like the superman and the death of god, his work is nonetheless alive with so of the most fascinating contradictions (between his celebration of the will to power and his disdain for Prussian militarism and preference for French civilisation). Similarly, for all of Dostoevsky’s insistence on his christian faith, his fascination with atheism and what we would now term existentialism formed the entire basis of Mikhail Bakhtin’s account of how the novel typified a dialogic and polyphonic way of depicting reality that refused to relate everything into a single vision. Finally, characterisations of Shakespeare as an exemplar of negative capability (where the author is impersonal and hidden behind his characters) and Milton as an opposed exemplar of the egotistical sublime (where the writer does indeed subsume everything into his own vision) seem perhaps more acute than Berlin’s descriptions.

Susan Sontag, writing in Against Interpretation addressed these questions from the point of view of how critics should attempt to discuss literature and film. Sontag detested hermeneutic criticism that sought to arrive at a single key to a meaning of a work, whether that key happened to be Marxist, Christian or Freudian. Ultimately, this is a religious approach to criticism that applies the techniques of Biblical scholarship to novels and poetry and uses them to discern divine pattern and meaning, even when the impulse to interpret is secular rather than sacred.

“The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning–the latent content–beneath… It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else… Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.”

Instead, criticism should consider the formal properties of works and use them to account for how meaning is structured by them. After all, the precise manipulation of meaning and ambiguity in writers like Donne, Marvell and Hopkins is very different to the more untidy and novelistic approach of writers like Blake. On the whole, I find myself in sympathy with Sontag but am still left suspecting that the question is not that simple. By their very nature, works tend to invite interpretation. Two writers in particular exemplify this difficulty; Shakespeare and Kafka. Sontag herself cites Kafka as an example:

“The work of Kafka, for example, has been subjected to a mass ravishment by no less than three armies of interpreters. Those who read Kafka as a social allegory see case studies of the frustrations and insanity of modern bureaucracy and its ultimate issuance in the totalitarian state. Those who read Kafka as a psychoanalytic allegory see desperate revelation of Kafka’s fear of his father, his castration anxieties, his sense of his own impotence, his thralldom to his dreams. Those who read Kafka as a religious allegory explain that K. in The Castle is trying to gain access to heaven, that Joseph K. in The Trial is being judged by the inexorable and mysterious justice of God.”

The Trial always reminds me foremost of Eliot’s essay Hamlet and his Problems, from The Sacred Wood, where Eliot suggests that art expresses emotion through a suitable vessel, an objective correlative. However, in the case of HamletThe artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” With Kafka, none of the events or personae exist in relation to the reality that appears to the reader (just as the text refuses to exist in relation to either allegory or realism). As Robert Calasso noted, Kafka is not an ‘organiser’ of human experience in the manner of Proust and Joyce. In Kafka, consciousness is never more than vestigial; ‘for the last time psychology!’ is his watchword, where the central characters of his novels are rarely even fully described. Instead of action and causality being the central aspect (indeed being almost peripheral; the precise narrative voice never hints at the extremity of the events that often follow and never changes register when they occur), undifferentiated bureaucratic time is the substance of his fiction; his characters simply wait. Calasso describes this as plunging the ’sharpest Ockham’s razor into the substance of the novel,’ utilising the form of the novel in a manner completely opposed to its origins. Kafka does indeed generate vast numbers of interpretations and will doubtless continue to do so but his work simply does not respond to such efforts and any interpretation will run off him like water from a duck’s back.

Much the same does indeed apply to Shakespeare, where I have always remembered Camille Paglia’s observation that Shakespeare confronts the reader with verse that is both extraordinarily intricate and extremely hostile to the reader and to interpretation. As an author, Shakespeare is every bit as impersonal as Kafka and evry bit as absent from his own works. There is no notion of an authorial presence that provides any convenient commentary or interpretation of its own work. Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree (it is not for nothing that madness and seeming figure so strongly in so many of his plays), ensures that his characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and constantly examining and shifting their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play. There is no more clear answer to what Hamlet calls the nature of action within the play than there is to the events of The Trial. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Shakespeare and Kafka both seem to represent an extreme in terms of their impersonality and resistance to interpretation (something similar could be said to apply to Moby Dick or A Passage to India but Melville and Forster are far from being as occluded and inaccessible). There is something glacial and remote about them that will always be occasion for new interpretation and speculation while ensuring that none of them will ever account for their work. It’s difficult not to agree with John Bayley’s argument in The Uses of Division that imperfect and untidy but more knowable authors like Dickens, Blake, Nietzsche, Lawrence, Ginsberg or Forster have perhaps more to commend them. Disharmony has its own value.

Update: an itnerestingly similar post from 3quarksdaily:

“As Milosz says of him, “Gombrowicz lived in an epoch which neither quantitatively nor qualitatively brings to mind any of the previous epochs and which distinguishes itself through ubiquitous cases of ‘infection’ with mass and individual madness.” Man, as Aristotle once mentioned, needs a world, a complicated arrangement of social interactions, in order actually to be man. But that same ordering of complicated social arrangements can also be the vehicle by which human beings destroy themselves and one another.

But Gombrowicz chose flight, literally and metaphorically. From his exile in Argentina he conjured up an absurd mental universe that spins out the problems of experience in countless ‘as if’ scenarios that are so powerful exactly insofar as they make sense despite their insanity. Gombrowicz took flight into the endless malleability of human experience in order to keep a step ahead of the world as it is. That is his particular freedom. It is the freedom of Socrates as Kierkegaard describes him in The Concept of Irony, the freedom that escapes from every possible determination.

Truth be told, this version of freedom annoys Milosz. Because for Milosz, the possibility of meaning in human affairs is dependent on commitment. If nothing else, it is founded on the capacity for human beings to hold experience together even as forces from within and without work to tear it apart. “

Foucault the Neohumanist?

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

There’s been much discussion of late about this piece, arguing the case for regarding Foucault as a humanist:

“Foucault abandoned the methodological tack he had outlined in The History of Sexuality, which focused on sexuality as a means for “power/knowledge” to extend its sinister hegemony. Instead, during his later years, he turned to a more positive concept of subjectivity, centered on the “art of living” in ancient Greece and Rome. Foucault had come to believe that such pre-Christian, pagan approaches to the idea of self-cultivation represented a valuable heuristic — a means to overcome the deficiencies of modern conceptions of the self. Second, the term “power/knowledge” itself is entirely absent from his later lectures and texts — a telling indication of how radically dissatisfied Foucault had become with the limitations of his earlier approach… Foucault’s work seems to have come full circle. Under the sign of aesthetic self-realization, Foucault rehabilitates and vindicates the rights of subjectivity. As Foucault avows, his new normative ideal is “the formation and development of a practice of Self, the objective of which is the constitution of oneself as the laborer of the beauty of one’s own life.”

French critics have long pointed to the central paradox of the North American Foucault reception: that a thinker who was so fastidious about hazarding positive political prescriptions, and who viewed affirmations of identity as a trap or as a form of normalization, could be lionized as the progenitor of the “identity politics” movement of the 1980s and 1990sa movement that, as Christopher Lasch demonstrated, had abandoned the ends of public commitment in favor of a “culture of narcissism.”"

I’m not sure this is quite the great revision that it is being claimed to be; certainly, Foucault’s later work on the cares of the self does represent an overturning of his earlier wish to see the idea of the self washed away like a footprint in the sand and is perhaps accordingly the most ‘engaged’ period of his work (as evidenced for instance, in Halperin’s Saint Foucault). Instead, of his customary work on the development of biology and psychology as controlling discourses on such areas as hysteria, his later work is something altogether more unexpected. In this sense, he certainly predates Zizek’s idea that the subject, rather than being something constructed by controlling discourses, denotes a piece of freedom and a site of resistance to such discourses; as the article puts it, in that totalitarianism wishes to quash or eliminate certain conceptions of ‘man’ then it is evident that the concept is a useful one. Equally, it is true to say that Foucault was unusual in seeing how this could apply to Soviet totalitarianism, though the article does avoid mentioning his endorsement of the Iranian revolution.

Nonetheless, the difficulty I see with this is Foucault’s earlier work had deprived him of any mechanism by which his rediscovered interest in subjectivity could find any accommodation with the mechanisms of a collective society (this being precisely what Chomsky found so disturbing about Foucault in their famous debate). The examples cited in the article of Foucault’s activism are laudable but are essentially offered in lieu of any detailed account of how this realigned position could have manifested itself in his work. Questions of how the individual and society should interact are largely elided in the work of this particular Foucault, particularly since his history of sexuality is emphatically individualist. Ultimately, Foucault’s work, regardless of its precise stance, is one that is of value for its critque of society and its institutions and not for its engagement with most social or political concerns. In this sense, his work is well described by Frederic Jameson’s description of Zizek:

“Philosophy is always haunted by the dream of some foolproof self-sufficient system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. This dream is of course the after-image of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of ‘what is’. Theory, on the other hand, has no vested interests inasmuch as it never lays claim to an absolute system, a non-ideological formulation of itself and its ‘truths’; indeed, always itself complicit in the being of current language, it has only the vocation and never-finished task of undermining philosophy as such, by unravelling affirmative statements and propositions of all kinds.”