13 November 2010

Worlds Apart

I was writing a comment in reply to Ray Davis on a previous post, and realized it might be better as a post than a comment.

Here's Ray's original comment:
Huh. The "problem that had long puzzled" Josipovici was precisely -- like precisely, except for some name-swapping which sharpens the point, like Joyce for Mann and Beckett for Bernhard -- what led me to start looking into science fiction in 1976. (And eventually led me here, of course.)

From what I've read of Josipovici, I suspect he arrived at different answers than myself.
My feelings are similar, and are one of the reasons that though my particular pleasures are different from Josipovici's, I'm sympathetic to his argument. Those feelings are also a reason why I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to arguments that pose science fiction (broadly defined) as the opposite of Modernism.  (Different, sure.  Opposite, nope.)  That's an interpretation that doesn't work for me because it contradicts my own reading life, which is, yes, a narcissistic (solipsistic?) approach to an argument, but hey, it's what I've got.  For me, science fiction and Modernism are complementary.

Before exploring any of these ideas, here's the relevant Josipovici passage:
I wrote [What Ever Happened to Modernism?] in the first place to try to make sense of a problem that had long puzzled me: why was it that works of literature such as the poems of T S Eliot, the stories of Kafka and Borges, the novels of Proust, Mann, Claude Simon and Thomas Bernhard seemed worlds apart from those admired by the English literary establishment (works by writers such as Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan)? The first group touched me to the core, leading me into the depths of myself even as they led me out into worlds I did not know. The latter were well-written narratives that, once I'd read them, I had no wish ever to reread. Was it my fault? Was I in some way unable to enter into the spirit of these works? Or did they belong to a kind of writing that was clearly to the taste of the English public but not to mine?
That is very much the problem (in the sense of a math problem, or a nagging anxiety that leads one to write criticism and blog posts -- a good problem, overall!) that made me a voracious reader, and it is the problem that has kept me returning to paraliteratures.

I said my interpretation of Modernism/SF is narcissistic or solipsistic, so perhaps autobiography will clarify how I find these two different modes to be complementary.

When I was, I think, about 12 years old, I discovered both science fiction and James Joyce.  I had become a devoted reader of adult books a few years before when I discovered Stephen King and somehow got permission to take Pet Sematary out of the library.  Science fiction I discovered when my mother's boss loaned me some 1986 issues of Asimov's.  Somewhere in that same time-frame, I brought a copy of Catcher in the Rye while on a visit to see family in Illinois.  My uncle saw me reading it and said, "Don't bother.  Read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."  This was crazy, brilliant advice.  Who would think to recommend Joyce to a 12 year old who could barely understand Salinger?  But children should not read appropriate books; it stunts their growth and imagination -- or, at least, it does if they're children like me.  I was the sort of young reader who found it much more interesting to delve into what I couldn't understand than what I could.  My general antipathy to YA books has been life-long -- even as a child I didn't want to read about children.  I didn't want to "relate" to stories.  I wanted escape, intellectual challenge, weirdness, terror, and beauty.

My uncle sensed this somehow, and his recommendation changed my life.  I didn't give up my appreciation for Salinger -- we've had a love/hate relationship ever since, depending on my mood -- but that first page of Portrait changed everything.  Seeing how the diction of that page then developed in the later pages was a profound lesson for me both as a reader and writer.  I went to the college library and checked out a stack of books by and about Joyce, a stack I remember being nearly as tall as I was then.  A friend of mine was working the circulation desk, and I still remember his bemused look, and his words: "You know, Matt, Finnegans Wake isn't really light weekend reading."

So true, and I didn't read a lot of Finnegans Wake then, nor have I since, nor will I ever, but I keep it around, and I love certain passages, even if the whole is too long and too abstract for my tastes.*  It wasn't so much Ulysses itself or Finnegans Wake itself that had a profound effect on me, but rather the idea of them -- and the idea of them expressed in the various critical and exegetical works on them.  The idea that fiction could be something more than just a story.  That was thrilling.

Around the same time, I also encountered T.S. Eliot's poems for the first time, especially "Prufrock".  It took me many years to get to the point of understanding the poem in any way, but the spell its words and structure cast was immediate.  I wrote pastiches of it and homages to it; I performed it as a theatre piece a couple of times, I absorbed its rhythms into much of what I wrote.  One of the first single-author collections of poetry I owned was a copy of Eliot's Complete Poems & Plays, a treasure-trove of wonders.  In high school, I wrote stanzas from "The Hollow Men" on a biology test that I thought was a stupid exercise in rote memorization (this caused consternation).

I discovered Kafka, Beckett, and Virginia Woolf in high school, and it was pure love (the first pages of Mrs. Dalloway had the same effect on me as the first pages of A Portrait of the Artist).  I didn't "understand" them in the sense of being able to pull a whole lot of literal meaning from their words, but I understood, in some other-than-words way built from their words, a Weltanschauung and an attitude toward the relationship between text and the world -- and thus experienced the touch to the core that Jospipovici speaks of.  This would only grow stronger as I learned to understand what such writers seemed to be up to, as I developed knowledge of their place in history and literature, as I gained experiences in life that created a synergistic loop between their interpretation of the world-text and my own: my reading of such writers influenced how I saw the world and its texts; my experiences of the world and its texts influenced how I responded to those writers.

And it continued on through college and to today -- Sterne, Samuel Johnson, Kleist, Büchner, Chekhov, Faulkner, Bernhard, Borges, Gertrude Stein (sometimes, in small doses: again, the abstraction), Mac Wellman, Suzan-Lori Parks, Coetzee -- not all Modernists, certainly, but the writers who (well, along with Shakespeare) blew my brain apart and put it back together again.

And alongside it all, SF.  At the same time I was learning to read the Modernists (and their predecessors and followers), I was learning to read SF.  The two experiences informed each other.  In some ways, I read Modernism as if it were SF and SF as if it were Modernism, but more than that, I read each as a kind of response to, and complexification of, reality.  It why, when in high school I discovered Philip K. Dick (when I was in high school, most of Dick's books were out of print), he instantly became among my favorite authors -- he melded, it seemed to me then, Kafka, Beckett, and SF.  (I'm not sure I'd say that now, but it was how I first read his books.)  The Jewel-Hinged Jaw was an inspiring problem for me at the same time that Finnegans Wake was, and it made me view SF as a textual experience in the same way I viewed Modernism as a textual experience.

At the time I was first reading SF, my mother, concerned for my intellectual well-being, asked a very old-school (proudly New Critical) English professor at the college, a wonderful man who remains a friend, "Is science fiction literature?"  His response: "No, it's formula fiction."  I remember exactly where we were at the time he said this: In our car, driving away from our house, about to turn onto Rte. 3 from River Road.  It was another life-changing moment, because it sent me on a quest to figure out what this "literature" thing was (another professor gave me a copy of the 3rd edition of Laurence Perrine's anthology Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, which I devoured, and which provided no good answers).  Much of my life since then has been spent trying to address, avoid, or complicate my mother's question, our friend's answer, and my own response.**

I don't know what (or how) any of this means, exactly.  Perhaps it has something to do with The Force.

I don't particularly believe in a thing called Literature, because I've never seen the word wielded in a useful way -- it is a word that people use to condemn, condescend, and marginalize that which they don't know how to appreciate.  I spend most of my reading time with the twin loves of my youth, SF and Modernism, and with the love of my recent years, African fiction; Literature has been used against each (though to a different degree with Modernism -- strangely, it's seen by most people as Literature -- indeed, the very embodiment of High Lit -- but it's also resented, and so it has moved from being marginalized as not-Literature by the Arnold Bennetts of the world to being resented as too-Literature by the sorts of folks who most detest and/or misunderstand Josipovici).

The problem remains.  And so we must keep reading and writing.

*Josipovici, p. 187: "My own 'story', as I have tried to present it here, discovering what it was as I went along, is that only an art which recognizes the pitfalls inherent in both realism and abstraction will be really alive.  That is why I warm to the novels of Perec and Bernhard more than to Finnegans Wake or the novels of Updike and Roth, to the pictures of Bacon and Hockney more than to Pollock or Tracey Emin, to the music of Birtwistle and Kurtág more than Cage or Shostakovitch."

**My response at the time was to send him a copy of Pat Murphy's story "Rachel in Love" and dare him to deny it to be literature.  He did, though I forget the details of how -- something to do with character development.  It was, however, a response that both Modernism and SF had prepared me to reject, but he was a Dickens scholar, and his idea of the ultimate fiction was the Victorian novel, a form that, to this day, I have only occasional interest in.  Josipovici, p. 67: "Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority.  There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens, and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth.  It doesn't rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Betthoven and Wordsworth.  It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing.  In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture."  (I'm wary of some of the implications embedded in that last sentence, but the rest seems right to me, and I do think there is a particular quality of confidence in the power of words as representational tools in fiction that finds a mass audience.)


  1. I was listening to a podcast the other day and in the editor of the LA Times book review section expressed amazement that in the 1970s you'd get reviewers proclaiming that some works of detective fiction could be literature.

    Not only did they make these claims but people wrote in to take issue with them.

    I laughed when I heard this because the proclamation struck me as self-evident (give me Derek Raymond over Alan Bennett any day of the week and twice on Sundays) but also because the people arguing against it must have necessarily been making sweeping generalisations.

    However, upon further reflection, a second thought hit me.

    What draws me to Delaney? What draws me to Ryman? What draws me to McDonald?

    It's the fact that they don't write like Neal Asher. They're authors who go out of their way to deconstruct and challenge the formulae that make up the genre of science fiction.

    So I think there's probably something to be said for the idea that I like literature but don't like science fiction and that the two things are distinct. However, as someone with a degree of philosophical training and respect for the idea that a word's meaning of its use, I feel compelled to point out that by this point in our evolution as a culture, 'science fiction' and 'literature' are words with such murky and ill-policed boundaries that you can argue the toss either way. It's not a question that can sensibly be resolved because nobody can agree on a definition and even if you do state your definition up front people can just dismiss it as ignoring work such-and-such.

    Which leaves us pretty much exactly where we were back in the 1970s: making sweeping generalisations with very little to show for it.

    Ho. Hum.

    I'm goad you enjoyed Josipovici as it is a text I find myself returning to over and over but it is a text that positively wallows in the kind of semantic vagueness that characterises the above debate. Depending upon how you read Josipovici he seems to be saying :

    A) Modernism is concerned with an unsolvable conflict between the need to write the truth and the impossibility of ever expressing the truth.

    B) Certain works of fiction are successfully modernist and some are not (particularly the whole gritty realism thing that I agree with him about... it's just as much an artificial stylisation as anything put down on paper by Tolkien).

    But it strikes me that A and B are mutually exclusive. If Modernism is about an unresolvable tension between two cognitive states then surely you can't have successful works of Modernist fiction? Otherwise the tension is not unresolvable.

    Reading the book I got the impression that he was going "aaiie! aaiie! One must remain silent and yet one must speak! Oh... what is to be done! Oh wait... Kafka and Borges solve the problem"


  2. It's the fact that they don't write like Neal Asher. -- yes, exactly, and that points toward another direction that I didn't explore here, which is that one of the reasons I don't buy the Literature vs. X dichotomy is that while we can speak of literatures & paraliteratures in terms of publishing practices, reader communities, academic practices, etc. (which is also very regional -- e.g., the differences between the history of SF publishing and reception in the U.S., the U.K., and any other area you want to throw in -- Eastern Europe, for instance) -- when we get at the things that actually attract me (and I assume others) as a reader -- i.e., what the texts do in my head -- then all the genre boundaries break down, because then there are the group of writers/texts that are really exciting to me and the (much larger) group of writers/texts that I don't know how to appreciate. I can feel good about myself by calling the stuff I like Literature and the stuff I don't like Not Literature, but I could also call the stuff I like Pizza and the stuff I don't like Spinach and have about the same amount of meaning.

    The thing that led me to criticism is an attempt to figure out what, if any, textual practices the stuffs I like and the stuffs I don't like share. Not having really figured it out, I keep trying. (Invoke Beckett's famous quote here.)

    I like how you delineate the limitations of Josipovici's book (and some of his other writings); I need to think about it more to be able to know if I fully agree. I certainly think one of the problems (in the not-quite-so-good sense) of his book comes from his inability to understand why anybody would like the stuff he doesn't like -- he seems to desperately want to say, "You're stupid and shallow!" to people who don't share his reading proclivities, but he also seems to know that that isn't really a very useful thing to say. I find myself responding best to his work when what he's doing is representing how he reads -- indeed, that's probably how I respond best to any critic's writing, including Delany's; Delany and I have really different evaluations of all sorts of things, and are vastly different types of readers (at a very basic level, he's tremendously visual in how he puts sentences together in his mind, and I'm tremendously not), but I keep being drawn back to his critical writings because I find it so illuminating to look at the ways he reads. I have, for instance, learned to appreciate Wordsworth to an extent I never did before as a direct result of how Josipovici writes about him. If I were a fan of Ian McEwen or Martin Amis, I doubt I'd be convinced to stop being a fan by Josipovici, but I could still, I expect, appreciate Wordsworth. Or maybe not -- maybe the reading habits and experiences that produce someone who gains pleasure from rereading McEwen, Amis, et al are different from the reading habits and experiences that produce somebody for whom Josipovici's take on Wordsworth is useful (thus, they might love Wordsworth, but Josipovici's representation of Wordsworth wouldn't make much sense to them).

    The agency of the reader ends up playing into some of this, too -- one of the reasons I'm wary of condemning ways of reading different from my own is that I've learned time and again that readers are really creative in how they understand texts and in what they gain from those texts. (If I were to develop this idea in something other than a very quick comment here, I'd try to figure a way to tie in the annotations in David Foster Wallace's teaching copies of popular novels. But I've got to run back to life at the moment...)

  3. Regarding what Jonathan M thinks Josipovici is saying:

    "A) Modernism is concerned with an unsolvable conflict between the need to write the truth and the impossibility of ever expressing the truth."

    He doesn't claim that it is unsolvable but that the author mustn't assume he, she or literature has solved it or that it remains unsolvable. In this way the work will remain alive, striving to resolve the conflict, and interrogating the apparent resolution which is inherent to the unity of the written work.

    This means one can judge success as in B). Kafka and Borges haven't solved anything but bring the distance between truth and falsehood to life (a line which alludes to Benjamin's definition of friendship: not the abolition of distance but the bringing of distance to life. Literature is our friend in this way.)

    PS Jonathan, I saw your excellent blogpost on Kiarostami using WEHTM?. You may be interested to know Josipovici is a great admirer of his films.

  4. "There is no problem with Modernism today."
    Berfrois Interviews Gabriel Josipovici