NEW

"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press


Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)



OS MITOS DA CULTURA POP: DE DANTE A DYLAN

O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.



THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE: FROM DANTE TO DYLAN

The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)

THE COWBOY AND THE DANDY: CROSSING OVER FROM ROMANTICISM TO ROCK AND ROLL (Oxford University Press, 1998)

FREUD: A COLLECTION OF CRITICAL ESSAYS (Prentice-Hall, 1981)




12/31/10

Introduction to The Moon and Sixpence

by Perry Meisel

The Moon and Sixpence. By W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Signet Classics, 1993.

Although W. Somerset Maugham's three principal novels - Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), and Cakes and Ale (1930) - have all garnered the praise they deserve, Maugham's remarkable popular success over an extraordinarily long and prolific career has also made generations of critics nervous about just how good a writer he is. Modern novelists, like modern poets, are supposed to be difficult, as T.S. Eliot once observed; if they are too readable, something must be wrong. Ever since the publication of Maugham's first novel, Liza of Lambeth, in 1897, a crisp realist account of a young woman's tragic fate in the slums of London's East End, Maugham has been eminently readable. The book's success convinced him to throw over the career in medicine for which he was to qualify only a few months later, and to take up writing full time. By 1907, he had become a hit London playwright as well as a respected young novelist. By 1908, he was famous on both sides of the Atlantic for his plays, underscoring the dramatic efficiency so central to the power and attractiveness of his fiction.
This virtue has dogged Maugham's reputation as though it were a vice, and has put Maugham's achievement as a master of the modern English novel under a shadow despite his enduring popularity and the readerly satisfaction that both his novels and his short stories continue to afford. Maugham's presumable shortcoming is his apparent failure, by contrast with James Joyce, say, or Virginia Woolf, to innovate formally or stylistically. Our understanding of twentieth-century fiction has, in the years since World War II, valued literary modernism for its antagonism toward the Victorian past and for its departures from Victorian literary conventions, chief among them the unembarrassed compulsion to tell absorbing stories. Maugham's presumable failure to innovate lies in his seeming unwillingness to check, or at least to question, this compulsion.
The Moon and Sixpence, however, shows Maugham to be not only an enormously fluent and compelling writer; it also shows the notion that Maugham is simply a plain and straightforward writer of absorbing tales to be a mistaken one. Like Joseph Conrad, a major influence and still a securely canonical modernist, Maugham is actually a complex and ironic writer of fiction who combines a storytelling ease with profound self-consciousness. The result is an artist whose work both conforms to the protocols of modernist orthodoxy and outstrips them.
Based on the life and legend of Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903), the Postimpressionist French painter who crucially influenced modern art with his shocking primitivism and daunting use of color, The Moon and Sixpence helped to inaugurate the Gauguin mythology that is the story of a willful man who scorned material comfort in life, and who fled to the South Seas in pursuit of a natural warmth and directness of feeling that found expression in his painting. The tropics, whether African, American, or Asian, had long symbolized a freedom of imaginative expressiveness in the history of Romantic aesthetics, and Gauguin came to represent this symbolism perhaps more clearly than any other single modern artist. Like Conrad, Maugham had a lifelong fascination with the South Seas, although as a writer he, like Conrad, distances himself from this mythology even as he represents it.
Maugham's novel transforms Gauguin into the fictional Charles Strickland, an English stockbroker who, one day, abandons his wife, children, and career because, as he puts it, succinctly enough, "I want to paint." Despite a history of loyalty to his family, Strickland turns out to be rude, callous, and indifferent, the very reverse of both his record of domestic devotion and the depth of feeling presumably reflected in the warm colors and natural expressiveness of his art. After a journey through the garrets of Paris and the underworld of Marseilles, Strickland eventually makes his way to Tahiti, where, poor but happy, he lives, works, and dies. The actual facts of Gauguin's life are a bit more complicated than the rather simpler ones that Maugham uses to structure Strickland's fictional biography (some of them make their way into the Parisian sequences in Of Human Bondage), although the basic outlines of the story are the same.
Like Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence reads with uncommon smoothness, even though it is structured by flashback and discontinuity. The temporal complexities of Maugham's story, together with the foregrounded, first-person narrator who gathers information about his subject belatedly, after the fact of his death, are devices Maugham surely owes to Conrad, particularly the Conrad of Heart of Darkness (1899), whose narrator, Charlie Marlow, pursues the visionary enigma of Kurtz deep into the Congo with questionable interpretative success. The Moon and Sixpence's elliptical, Conradian structure mirrors its theme.
Strickland's decisive quality as an artist is, in Maugham's own word, "simplification," although the irony is that this "simplification" is anything but simple. It is extraordinarily hard to understand. It is almost as though Maugham is poking fun at his own presumable simplicity as well as at the myth of the modern artist whose rejection of all that is conventional turns out to be obfuscating rather than clarifying. Modern art, whether Gauguin's or Maugham's own, is indeed difficult, although one need not be hit over the head with it for its subtleties to emerge. The directness that Gauguin represents mythologically is, in Maugham's rendering, actually the reverse of what it seems to be – inscrutable, oblique, without the manifest meaning it appears to offer. Rather than find and disclose a fugitive secret that will explain Strickland and his art, Maugham's narrator is faced instead with an interpretative impasse. The more he learns about Strickland, the less he knows. To the question, "What is the secret of modern artistic creation?" there is no available reply. "It is a riddle," says Maugham at the book's start, "which shares with the universe the merit of having no answer." Contrary to the very mythology he narrates, Maugham finds Strickland's, or Gauguin's, vaunted directness of purpose and expression to be utterly mysterious, altogether unobliging to analysis despite the endless temptation to engage in it. Strickland and his work are not as simple as they look.
The innovative complexities of The Moon and Sixpence are not, however, limited to temporal experimentation or the refusal to allegorize. If the novel resembles Conrad in narrative structure and tropical site, it also departs from Conrad in its suspension of sympathy for the visionary. Maugham's first-person narrator does not construe his relation to Strickland along the familiar lines of the secret sharer or double (the narrator who recognizes his own dark or repressed side by identifying with his perplexing subject), the combined technical and psychological device that Maugham borrows from Conrad and turns on its head. Unlike Conrad's Marlow, Maugham's narrator is drawn to the visionary not by sympathy but by mere curiosity, circumstantially created by the entreaties of Strickland's abandoned wife, whom he meets in London at the book's start, and, later on, by the circumstances of World War I, when he finds himself in Tahiti after Strickland has died. Even though Maugham's narrator is himself an artist (a professional writer), he does not glorify the artist's pain and suffering, as Thomas Mann does with the composer Aschenbach in Death in Venice (1912), or as Joyce does, with considerably more sarcasm, with Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). "I have nothing but horror," says Maugham in a 1917 entry in A Writer's Notebook, "for the literary cultivation of suffering which has been so fashionable of late." Despite the narrator's fascination with Strickland, there is no kinship, nor is there antagonism. There is instead a preposterously cool neutrality, made convincing by the charming avuncularity of tone that is Maugham's stylistic signature.
This charm is what makes the Maugham narrator the central force in The Moon and Sixpence, and a special voice in English fiction as a whole. Nameless in The Moon and Sixpence, this persona came to be used more and more by Maugham over the years, acquiring the name of Ashenden in many of Maugham's stories (including his famous spy stories, based on his work as a British agent during World War I) and Cakes and Ale; he even survives his incarnation as Ashenden with the publication of The Razor's Edge (1944), when he takes on Maugham's own name. Endearingly paradoxical, the Maugham narrator is sophisticated and cynical, but also affable and companionable; dry and indirect, but also vivid and straightforward. While it may appear that his exact descriptive powers in The Moon and Sixpence contrast with the lack of an explanation to the puzzle of Strickland, his unwillingness to offer allegorical answers to aesthetic, existential, or metaphysical quandaries is of a piece with his trenchant exactitude. If something cannot be described, what is its status? Maugham had little use for the ineffable, not because his sympathy for Romantic vision was nil, but because the realist in him bridled at the excessive poeticity to which the description of inward states of mind might lead. He mocks the dangers of such rhetorical self-indulgence in the opening chapters of The Moon and Sixpence, finally throwing up his hands in the face of the bad writing that results from it in order to get on with his story.
These playful tensions suggest that Maugham's unique narrative voice owes its strength to the strategic resolution of the two major and contradictory influences that determine his writing. One is the social realism of the late Victorian novelist George Gissing, which has its initial expression in Liza and Lambeth, and which, historically, is a literalization of Dickensian melodrama. The other is the late Romantic aestheticism, or "impressionism," of Walter Pater and his disciple Oscar Wilde, whose wide appeal Maugham describes at length in the autobiographical Of Human Bondage, and which has its initial expression in the novel's unpublished first version, "The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey." Pater's aestheticism stressed the sensuality of visionary apprehension, identifying the privileged moment with a state of grace. Maugham went to the same school as Pater, the King's School in Canterbury, and also studied at Heidelberg, where Pater's two sisters, one of whom later tutored the young Virginia Woolf, had completed their educations. Historically, aestheticism is an appropriation of Romantic poetic diction to prose, and, as a literary stance, bespeaks the stylistic profligacy of which Maugham was most afraid as a writer. Wilde learned to distance himself from his master Pater by scrubbing down Pater's lush rhetoric to an almost parodic concision, turning to the theater, like Maugham after him, as a means of protection from descriptive excess. Blanche Stroeve's suicide in The Moon and Sixpence even recalls Sybil Vane's suicide in Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Both deaths symbolize the protest of realist heroines, and of realism as a literary mode, against the dominion of aesthetic antiheroes, and of aestheticism as a rival and threatening literary practice. The title The Moon and Sixpence is also an expression of these antithetical strains in Maugham's imaginative temper. Its terms come from the assessment of the hero in Of Human Bondage in a review in the Times Literary Supplement ("so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet"), with "the moon" representing the visionary or aesthetic impulse and "sixpence" the commonplace wisdom that is its opposite.
The superb psychological realism of Of Human Bondage is the first genuine resolution of these contradictory influences in Maugham's career as a novelist. A masterpiece from either point of view, it allows the strengths of each of these rival modes of apprehension to supplement rather than impede one another. Paterian inwardness finds its place in the psychology of the book's autobiographical protagonist, while the external world of social realism finds its place in the environmental factors that shape his psyche. The Moon and Sixpence, like Cakes and Ale, carries this achievement to a new level as the voice of Maugham's narrator knowingly balances these contradictory approaches to life and letters alike with an ease that comes from the overt and self-conscious resolution of this conflict. Using the plain speech of the social realist, he denudes the visionary extravagance of aestheticism; using the rhetorical richness of aestheticism, he simultaneously heightens the drabness of social realism. Unlike Pater's modernist heirs Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence, all of whom seek meaning, however ironically, in visionary figures, Maugham suspects the visionary gleam even when it beckons, as it does in the riddle of the exemplary but maddening Strickland.
The result is not a rejection of aestheticism but a hollowing out of aestheticism's belief in the privilege of beauty. What remains is a graceful but severe aesthetic stance with little to enjoy but a pipe before bed and a shake of the head. It is instructive that chief among Ashenden's literary heirs are the had-boiled detectives and spies of Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, and John Le Carré, all of whom have testified to Maugham's influence, and whose heroes summarize, albeit in reduced form, the admixture of swagger and sweat that makes up Maugham's characteristic and durable narrative voice (Chandler even goes so far as to suggest Ashenden's source in Conrad's Marlow by naming his own dogged hero Philip Marlowe).
The antagonistic visions of the aesthete and the realist combine rather than compete in The Moon and Sixpence, granting the novel an astonishingly double estimate of life. The suspension of judgment that is its moral implication is likewise astonishing. Life is enormously rich, colorful, full of beauty and emotion, while, at the same time, altogether without meaning. This double vision gives Maugham his continuity with Victorian realism while also placing him among his modernist contemporaries. It also reverses our normative understanding of literary history by rendering modernism a source of affirmation and Victorian realism a source of doubt and emptiness. This formidable balance and revisionary power make Maugham distinct among English novelists, and will allow his fiction to endure.

12/27/10

When We Were Young and Surreal

by Perry Meisel

View: Parade of the Avant-Garde. An Anthology of View Magazine (1940 - 1947). Edited by Charles Henri Ford. Compiled by Catrina Neiman and Paul Nathan. Illustrated. 287 pp. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. $35.

After the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, much of the Parisian avant-garde relocated to New York. Charles Henri Ford, an American writer who in 1929 had founded an experimental literary magazine called Blues and who had then gone on to live in Paris, North Africa and other venues, decided to start View, a magazine designed to reflect New York's new international status. Whole issues were devoted to Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp; André Breton became a regular contributor. View published and assessed a polymorphous assortment of writers and artists. It had competition from the magazine VVV, which Breton founded in New York in 1942, but it was View that was most manifestly the Surrealist organ in America.
Ecumenical by virtue of its sheer open-mindedness, View paraded nearly everybody; it published Wallace Stevens' "Materia Poetica," a series of apothegms and prose meditations; portions of William Carlos Williams' "Paterson"; criticism by Kenneth Burke, Harold Rosenberg, and Meyer Shapiro; and fiction by Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, and Henry Miller.

View lasted until 1947 and published 36 issues, beginning as a six-page tabloid in 1940 and, by 1943, becoming an elegant commercial magazine notable for spectacular color covers by artists like Ernst, Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Mr. Ford has now edited an anthology of its articles, generously illustrated with a selection of cover reproductions, plates of paintings, drawings and photographs, and facsimile pages and period advertisements for jazz concerts and new books. "View: Parade of the Avant-Garde" provides a vivid and dramatic history of the movement from prewar Surrealism to postwar existentialism and, more obliquely, of the electric play between estheticism and political engagement that structured the history of criticism during these transitional years.
The magazine's contributors fall into two main groups: Mr. Ford and his circle, particularly his associate editor and designer, the critic and poet Parker Tyler; and the émigré celebrities whom Mr. Ford befriended and purveyed. While these major figures are well known, the work of Mr. Ford and his followers adds a fresh chapter to the history of American bohemia in the years before the Beats established the protocol. As critics, Charles Henri Ford, Parker Tyler, and their younger contributors shared a kind of house style that ranged from woozy to astute; they tried to balance cultivation and hipness.
A muted romance with Hollywood also runs like a thread through the volume's American contributions, and it is often at conscious odds with suspicions about commercial film's integrity as a mythology. This tension can be productive, however, especially in the case of Tyler's enormously prescient essay on The Maltese Falcon, "Every Man His Own Private Detective." Tyler, who wrote a book about Hollywood in 1944, exposes the allegorical resonance of Bogart's detective-hero, Sam Spade, by reference to Dostoyevsky.
It was, however, on the European superstars that View staked its claim to fame. Among the most impressive documents in the entire volume is Breton's superb, and unlikely, essay on Duchamp, "Lighthouse of the Bride." Like Stevens' "Materia Poetica," it gives intellectual muscle to artistic states of mind normally assumed to be spontaneous and transcendent. Breton is technical, secular, and hard-nosed, explaining Duchamp as a sieve of influences, a powerful processing machine who, like Ernst, is a "meeting place" of historical forces, a "crosspoint of . . . tendencies" organized by "negation." "Originality," writes Breton, "is in no way, as many seem to believe, a matter of instinct and intuition; to find it, one must generally seek it laboriously." Even "automatic writing," one of Surrealism's most abused legacies, becomes necromantic as a result of the specific mechanisms it unlocks, rather than despite them.
Once the war ended, View's contributors, and the issues they dealt with, began to change. Surrealism gave way to existentialism. In 1946, View published Camus and Jean Genet in English for the first time. Mr. Ford also published "The Nationalization of Literature" in English, in which Jean-Paul Sartre sets out to re-imagine the nature and role of literature after the war, trying to sort out the political from the esthetic and realizing how difficult it is to do that. Now, almost 50 years later, criticism is once again caught between the presumable antinomies of formalism and advocacy. This anthology shows just how little things have changed.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992

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12/20/10

A Dirty Young Man and How He Grew

by Perry Meisel

Henry Miller: A Life. By Robert Ferguson. Illustrated. 397 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. By Mary V. Dearborn. Illustrated. 368 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $24.95.

Somewhere between art and ideology, Henry Miller's contributions to 20th-century culture are undeniable, chief among them the free speech that we now take for granted in literature. Even before the first publication of Tropic of Cancer in France in 1934 (its notorious obscenity kept it illegal in the United States until 1961), Miller had also perfected one tradition of bohemian mythology that made poverty and exile guarantees of professional integrity. Miller's literary influence is real enough, too, principally his "irrigation" of American prose, as Norman Mailer described it in 1976, his establishment of a certain literary tone. The complaints are familiar as well: that Miller is a sexist, an anti-Semite and an antistylist, whose historical role in the liberation of sexuality and self-expression is more than offset by the virulence such a struggle inspired.
This is the centennial year of Miller's birth. The publication of two new biographies - together with the publication by Grove Weidenfeld this fall of Miller's third novel, Crazy Cock (Tropic of Cancer, his fourth novel, was the first to be published) - should provide some finer account of what we may owe to Miller's life and work. The distinction between life and work, however, is a problem in Miller's case, writing as he did in an autobiographical vein that thwarts the contrast between art and experience. This makes the biographer's job particularly difficult, a difficulty that Miller scholarship has tended to ignore because of too uncritical a sympathy for its subject. Both new biographies, however, maintain a distance from Miller, though in different ways, each one calculating the discrepancies between Miller's own narratives and an almost endless abundance of published and unpublished source material in order to sort out fact from fiction. Robert Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life is irreverent, although Mr. Ferguson sometimes borrows his sarcasm from Miller himself. "If there is one thing worse than having an artistic temperament," he quotes Miller as saying, "it is thinking you have one." With Miller, the difference between the two is never entirely clear. Mr. Ferguson, the author of a previous biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, one of Miller's own literary heroes, renders Miller as a crafty liar and buffoon, revealing traits of his personality for which he sought justification in art.

Born in 1891 to hard-working parents, Miller was a precocious child, finding relief from domestic surveillance in the streets of Brooklyn. His mother's Germanic strictness and his father's passivity provided the psychic polarities that would structure his life for almost 90 years. Mr. Ferguson is especially good at filling in the historical context of Miller's boyhood, the turn-of-the-century cultural climate that featured Teddy Roosevelt as America's rough-and-ready hero, the promoter of a cult of manly athleticism designed to respond to a medical climate that regarded masturbation as detrimental to physical health. The Portnovian Miller enrolled at City College in 1909, but Spenser's Faerie Queen did him in during his first semester. Quitting school, he began a round of dreary and menial jobs, meanwhile ogling burlesque and reading Dreiser, Jack London, Frank Norris and, of course, Whitman.
Miller was already nursing literary ambitions when he succumbed to his mother's wish that he join his father's tailoring business in Manhattan. He later talked his way into a job he actually held for five years at Western Union, supervising and streamlining its messenger service. By now Miller had married for the first time (there would be five wives in all and three children, two daughters and a son), although he was also frequenting the city's dance halls. There he met June Smith, a dime-a-dance hostess who encouraged him to be an artist and who became the subject of much of his writing. June introduced Miller to the world of Greenwich Village in 1923, a context that Henry Miller: A Life also brings to life. With a bohemian atmosphere swirling about him - and living with June in a series of cheap or borrowed lodgings - Miller began to write again. In 1922, he had written Clipped Wings, a book now rejected and forgotten. With June, however, he had the strength to complete Moloch, then Crazy Cock, although he signed them in June's name. He did so to allow her to collect money for the manuscripts from one of her numerous male patrons who believed her to be a writer and had offered to support her while she worked on a novel. These early manuscripts received harrowing responses from the friends and editors to whom Miller showed them.
With none of the books published and with no real prospects, Miller moved to Paris in 1930. June shuttled between Paris and New York. Miller blossomed. In 1931, he met Anaïs Nin. In 1934, he finished Tropic of Cancer. Mr. Ferguson less than adequately describes the nature of this presumable artistic breakthrough. Tropic of Cancer cleared the deadness from Miller's prose by using a first-person narrator skilled at bestowing visceral metaphors upon inanimate things in order to render their feel and movement; due process meant assigning machine metaphors to living things, including sex and its component parts. The result was both a freer and a more galvanizing style than that of the earlier books. Even if Miller used more, not less, poetic language to do so, this was the irrigation job on the literary sentence for which he is supposedly responsible.
Tropic of Cancer was published by the Obelisk Press in Paris in September 1934, financed by Nin with money supplied by Otto Rank, the Austrian psychoanalyst and writer. Miller's knack for self-promotion prompted him to send the book to Pound, Eliot and others, receiving their endorsements soon after the novel was printed. Tropic of Cancer and the books that followed, Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939), earned him an underground reputation, but not much cash. To raise money he began peddling his letters, watercolors, and manuscripts to friends and collectors, with greater success than his father had ever peddled suits. The "religion of instinct," as Mr. Ferguson calls Miller's doctrine of spontaneity - what Miller and his friend Alfred Perlès dubbed the New Instinctivism - had won out over his old, bad writing and given rise to a growing cluster of fans. Miller settled in Big Sur, California, after the war had driven him out of France, and moved to Los Angeles in 1963.

Mary Dearborn's version of Miller in The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller (the book's title comes from Tropic of Cancer) emphasizes more than Mr. Ferguson's biography Miller's depression in these later years, probably the result of his growing awareness of the contradictions that beset him. The man who loathed commercialism in art had always been an expert at privately merchandising both his reputation and his relics. By the same stroke, having money and real fame now bothered him, too, since he could no longer pose as the impoverished and neglected genius. Ms. Dearborn's keenness for this kind of paradox suggests the decidedly interpretive nature of her book, a considerably more exciting account of Miller's life than Mr. Ferguson's, although it fails to complete what it promises.

Ms. Dearborn's perspective on Miller's childhood is especially rich, since it is a feminist and mildly psychoanalytic one. According to her, Miller is important, not surprisingly, because he is the very paradigm of modern male sexuality in literature. Miller's mother is not just strict but downright abusive; his docile father is inclined to homosexuality. Henry becomes "conflicted" and is required to "compensate." Though sex, according to Dearborn, is often an indifferent factor in Miller's writing, Miller's later proclivity for sharing women and feeling ambivalent about it (an endless theme in his prose) signals the homoeroticism at the root of the patriarchal attitude that Miller embodies. Ms. Dearborn, the author of Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture and Love in the Promised Land: The Story of Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey, takes Miller's complicated anti-Semitism seriously, adjudging it, like his sexism, to be compensatory, a response to the takeover of his boyhood Williamsburg by the flood of immigrant Jews. Once the figure of June appears, however, her interpretive balloon sags. Ms. Dearborn cannot account for her. Henry is June's "pimp," plain and simple.
Ms. Dearborn's energy returns when she takes up Miller's literary career. She sharpens our sense of the birth of Miller's literary style in Paris, focusing on his discovery of the "conversational quality that the clanking prose of Moloch and Crazy Cock sorely needed." As a principle, the spontaneous mode - Miller's stand "against thinking," as Ms. Dearborn puts it - compensated for his increasing hatred of literature, a hatred that came originally simply from the fact that he was, as his early works show, "no good at it." Miller may still be the familiar writer-as-outlaw, but Ms. Dearborn is, mercifully, less inclined than Mr. Ferguson to take Miller's "esthetic of spontaneity," in Mr. Ferguson's phrase, with a straight face, noting, for example, his immersion in Henry James and Walter Pater, and his careful construction of a persona on the Left Bank. Miller's Instinctivism found a perfect audience in Nin. Though personally charming and soft, Miller was also lewd and raucous. Disdaining the rudeness that accompanied Miller's buffoonery, Nin also loved it, just as the compensating Miller loved Nin's "icy hauteur." What each lacked, the other supplied.
This fall's publication of Crazy Cock, which Miller finished in Paris in 1931, will show both how much and how little progress Miller made in the passage from failure to infamy. A third-person tale based on his fumbling ménage à trois with June and Jean Kronski, the lesbian artist with whom June fell in love in 1926, Crazy Cock is a peripatetic, diarylike montage of Village life whose habits of style prefigured those of the later Miller despite the difference in tone and flow. Crazy Cock is clogged, bombastic, contrived, so self-conscious that it is unconscious. Miller had not yet discovered the anti-esthetic stance of Tropic of Cancer that gave his writing jump and nerve. But the propensity for windiness and the use of flying bricks for metaphors is what makes the Miller of Crazy Cock continuous with the Miller of the Tropics. To write, Miller always required an air of the literary, and Crazy Cock supplies the blueprint.

In the retrospect of 1991, Miller is no longer unmannered; he is too mannered. This quality Miller shares with his colleague Nin, whose Diary is charming - like Miller's own writing - because of its preciosity, not despite it. Miller strains for literary effect, even in the breezy Tropics, though it is a kind of effect that he refines, including making the strain somehow ennobling, testimony to the suffering a writer endures, not so much from experience as from the burden of past literature. It is Mr. Ferguson who shows the defensive reason. Miller saw life from the start in terms of his favorite literary heroes, especially the heroes of Dostoyevsky and Hamsun. Miller was always, argues Mr. Ferguson, "identifying people he met with characters from books." Instinctivism, spontaneity, buffoonery, all were necessary to repress the active estheticism at the very heart of the real life that Miller like to contrast with "literature." Despite Miller's declarations of irony in Tropic of Capricorn, this wish to separate what cannot be separated, especially to separate art from life, is the real irony of his writing and Nin's alike. Experience was interesting to them because it reminded them of the books they read and the films they saw; they thought, however, that it was because their naturalness allowed them to live more intensely than other people did. They got their estheticism backwards. They mandated the assumption that anything that happens to you is interesting if you write it down in an energetic or poetic manner. We are still suffering the effects of that decree.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, June 23, 1991

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12/16/10

How Postmodern Is It?

by Perry Meisel

The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970. Henry M. Sayre. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press: 1989. 308 pp. $39.

Coming as it does at the end of two decades of fierce activity in criticism and the arts alike, Henry M. Sayre's comprehensive study of the American avant-garde since 1970 reveals both the advantages and the dangers of trying to identify a coherent postmodernism that has meaning as a stable historical achievement. Sayre's descriptive history ranges from painting, photography, and performance to poetry, dance, and earthworks. Propounding a notion of postmodernism that distinguishes it from modernism both polemically and in practice, Sayre's book also summarizes the presumable link between postmodernism and certain aspects of poststructuralist critical theory, particularly deconstruction.
Sayre puns on the word "object" in his title in order to undo Clement Greenberg's classical modernist notion of the work of art as an "immanent object" - as an autonomous, bounded whole that is "irrefutably present." For Sayre, the word "object" shifts back and forth between meaning an "object" like a canvas or a poem in the modernist sense, and an "object" that is simply the aim or direction for a performance-oriented, postmodern poetics. He argues that, since 1970, the work of art as a modernist object has given way to the work of art as postmodern performance - open, in-process, and polyvocal. Using as a symbol and proximate source Andy Warhol's calculated evacuation (and negative reconstitution) of almost every received modernist virtue, from the exaltation of authenticity to the sanctity of the frame, Sayre shows us that "by the late sixties . . . the object per se had become . . . dispensable," whether the autonomous painting or poem, and so, too, had the gallery, the studio, and even the personality of the artist or author. "By the seventies," concludes Sayre, "the site of presence in art had shifted from art's object to art's audience, from the textual or plastic to the experiential."
This is a familiar and largely durable argument; its descriptive strengths include its ability to link many kinds of art and artists through their share in the almost programmatic approach they appear to follow in common. The relation of performance to painting and photography is central to Sayre's account, which chronicles the shift over the last 20 years from the work of art regarded as finished product to the work of art regarded as "work site." In fact, the book's most impressive sequence is Sayre's reading of Site, a 1964 performance by Carolee Schneemann and Robert Morris that sharply exemplifies Sayre's view of what postmodernism is, and of how it entails a decidedly critical relation to past traditions in art. Sayre reads Site as a virtual essay on Manet's Olympia (1863), claiming that Manet's presumably "finished" painting suffers a series of transformations as Schneemann and Morris "re-present" the image of the courtesan Olympia by resituating it in a cluster of other activities. As Morris performs "work" around Schneemann's re-creation of the seemingly static Olympia, says Sayre, "painting is transformed into sculpture, sculpture into dance. And dance itself is transformed . . . into ordinary, vernacular movement." Incorporated into and mobilized by the dynamism of performance, Manet's passive portrait - a presumably autonomous image - is opened to a world beyond the frame.
Equally instructive from Sayre's point of view is the difference between the painting of Eric Fischl and David Salle. Salle's work, writes Sayre, is "assimilative" and, in the artist's own words, "'autonomous'" and "'self-sufficient'"; it functions as a "closed network of signs." Fischl's, by contrast, is "disseminative," "theatrical" and "performative," inviting the viewer to recognize the "potentialities of the work" rather than keeping the viewer enclosed within it. Whether or not this argument is convincing (and whether or not Sayre's use of poststructuralist terminology is entirely plausible), it reflects Sayre's belief in a programmatic historical movement from product to process. This change is evident in, for example, Jonathan Borofsky's work, which, according to Sayre, calls into question the integrity of the painting as an object by exceeding the modernist box of frame and gallery alike, disrupting the autonomy of the art object as well as the institution that perpetuates it and redoubles its structure of exclusion. In the author's view, the performance art of Laurie Anderson is similarly disruptive; set in an "undecidable terrain," Anderson's performances disorient her audience by the "calculated disjunction" between her "high tech trappings and her self-consciously bohemian pose." Postmodern performance, then, moves the goal or object of art from "mastery" to "process," from "transcending the temporal" to "falling into it."
A parallel transformation, according to Sayre, structures the history of dance, which moves from classical ballet, with its emphasis on symmetry, to modern dance, with its preference for asymmetry and disjunction, to postmodern dance, with its "vernacular, task-like" movements. In reflexive postmodern fashion, Sayre's narrative of dance history also intersects with the histories of other arts, each holding up a mirror to the other. Especially rich meal for Sayre's position are the collaborations of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham in the 1950s, which make explicit a rejection, following Brecht, of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "integrated work of art." Cunningham's insistence on "the independence, not interdependence, of each part of the dance's presentation" is emblematic of "a consciously anti-Wagnerian" art, one that emphasizes the arbitrariness of the relations between mediums that are ordinarily combined in a presumably natural way in "integrated" work such as Wagner's own.
The political object of such transformative praxis, says Sayre, quoting Craig Owens, is not "'to transcend representation,'" but "'to expose that system of power that authorizes certain representations while blocking, prohibiting and invalidating others.'" Sayre also shows that "repetition" is the active principle of postmodernism. Postmodernism is thereby pedagogical, with repetition functioning as "a teaching tool," as Sayre puts it, for re-educating audiences in what to pay attention to in works of art. (Hence the logic of Trisha Brown's remark that "dance" is a "lecture form.") "Repetition and accumulation" - whether in Brown, Anderson or Schneemann - "become a way of creating suspense and drama, the knowledge in the spectator that any sense of the whole is contingent and must inevitably be submitted to revision."
Sayre's systematic approach draws on a series of notions from poststructuralism, chief among them the disappearance of the author, the polyvalence of meaning, and the fugitive presence of both the art object and the world it purportedly represents. The philosophical analogue to the disruption of painting as an autonomous object is the deconstruction of the phenomenological stability of the object as an empirical category.
Here, however, Sayre begins to get into trouble. While an adaptation of these notions is reasonable enough for the purposes of a description of the work he surveys, Sayre's use of such poststructuralist categories is exceedingly literal; it betokens an ultimate misunderstanding of poststructuralism's methods, a misunderstanding which becomes particularly evident in Sayre's overestimation of certain of the avant-garde practices he praises, and in his inability to see that what he claims to be a historically new stance in art - i.e., its performative aspect, its emphasis on process, its undecidability - is really little more than the normative epistemological condition of all art, albeit one that postmodernism makes exceptionally overt. The largely pedagogical cast of postmodern art does indeed suggest that its deconstructive dimension is in some measure quite real. Surely Site, for example, puts Manet's Olympia into an obvious relation to historical processes of labor and gender construction that are left unstated in the Manet painting itself. This does not, however, mean that such processes are not at work in Olympia, only that they are not made explicit there.
Surely, then, Sayre's argument is really about emphasis and overtness, not about an altogether historical occurrence in which a material, "postmodern" change in the status of the art object presages something entirely new. The object, as Stanley Fish remarks of texts, has never been there in the first place, no matter the historical moment or the state of critical opinion; objects of any kind are always the construction of an interpretative community. Sayre, however, seems to think that a text must be materially disrupted for this kind of observation to be true.
Sayre's unquestioning acceptance of the tacky authenticism of the Language poets is the surest evidence that neither Warhol nor Jacques Derrida has really sunk in. While it is in some sense a graphic counterpart to postmodern performance artistry that Sayre nicely details elsewhere in his book, Language poetry, from Charles Olson to Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, and David Antin, is by no means another example of the deconstructive epistemology shared by Warhol and Derrida, even though Sayre astonishingly mentions Derrida and Ginsberg in the same breath. No two figures could be more at odds; Ginsberg's is probably the consummate instance of works based on the precise kinds of myths about language (particularly the "presence" it can supposedly embody) that Derrida deconstructs.
Such bungling points to a larger and more perplexing problem: the curious misapprehension of "theory" that Sayre, like so many teachers and critics today, equates with postmodernism. Sayre's reading of Roland Barthes in a chapter at the books' close is so deeply misconceived as to render Barthes's work almost unrecognizable; among other things, it maintains critical categories such as "subjective" and "novelistic" that Barthes himself rendered obsolete. Sayre apparently needs the literal maneuvers of the Language poets to tell him that there is no such thing as a poem already in place, and the graphic absurdities of Rothenberg's or Antin's work to assure him that a poem is a porous and unstable semiotic field. He even needs the Language poets to show him (erroneously, by the way) how to open a poem "to the contingencies of history, time and place." Yet Paul de Man's fame rests precisely on his demonstration 20 years ago in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" that it was 19th-century Romanticism which opened an irreparable and actually constitutive gap between discourse and experience. Romantic poets bespeak this play of presence and absence perhaps even more eloquently than the photograph, whose epistemological dubieties do not, by contrast, mystify Sayre at all in his discussion of, say, Cindy Sherman or William Wegman.
What Sayre should have learned from the "theory" he endorses and claims to use is that the conditions he describes as postmodern are not historically new at all; rather, they are most rewardingly viewed as an amplification of the normative conditions that attend any cultural production once it is read and studied in the light of semiotic, deconstructive and reception-oriented approaches. Sayre overvalues the historical newness of what postmodern art does because his misreading of "theory" prevents him from seeing that what "theory" describes - the instability of texts, for example, or the lack of ontological ground in any semiotic system - are difficulties that assail culture throughout history. Postmodernism is, as Sayre himself says, really an extended pedagogical strategy that makes these difficulties literal, and that thereby transforms postmodern art into a form of criticism and teaching. Since postmodernism characteristically goes out of its way to vex its own integrity as a practice, and since it offers by definition no object about which to speak directly, it must be seen, after all, as a myth. Thus a particular irony - a distinctively postmodern one, if you wish - attends any critical attempt to address postmodernism. To devise an appropriate means of negotiating this encounter requires an irony greater than any Sayre himself has achieved.

Originally published in Art in America, December, 1990.

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12/13/10

Maternal, Erotic and Playful

By Perry Meisel

Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. By Susan Rubin Suleiman. Illustrated. 276 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $27.50.

It is something of a commonplace to observe that the conjunction of three trends of thought over the last two decades - feminism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction - has produced a powerful style of American academic criticism that cannot be ignored, especially since some of its practical implications, canon-bashing and the reconstruction of liberal arts curriculums chief among them, will have real and far-reaching consequences for college education in the next century. Susan Suleiman, a professor of Romance and comparative literatures at Harvard University, is an exemplar of this kind of syncretic criticism. As its title suggests, Ms. Suleiman's new book, Subversive Intent, takes as its subject the history of the avant-garde, from Surrealism through the New Novel to post-modernism.
Well aware of the manifold ironies that attend the notion of an avant-garde tradition (how can ''subversive intent'' be a function of the continuities that foster a tradition?), Ms. Suleiman carefully deconstructs many of the paradoxes that accompany such a presumably radical enterprise. Through close examinations of the French writers Andre Breton, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Georges Bataille, she goes on to uncover a sexual-political dimension to the work of the male avant-garde that has been left unexplored.
While confined mostly to French writing, Ms. Suleiman makes forays into the contemporary American scene, using the 1960's French ''Tel Quel'' group of writers and the post-structuralism associated with it as a pivot between past and present. She concludes with an excellent bibliographical essay that details the history of the idea of post-modernism and nicely organizes the debate on that subject.
She also has a prescription in mind for a renovated avant-garde esthetic that is both feminist and post-modern: ''A double allegiance,'' Ms. Suleiman says, ''characterizes much of the best contemporary work by women: on the one hand, an allegiance to the formal experiments and some of the cultural aspirations of the historical male avant-gardes; on the other hand, an allegiance to the feminist critique of dominant sexual ideologies, including the sexual ideology of those same avant-gardes.''
Ms. Suleiman is herself a liberal or ecumenical feminist who honors both the biocentric wing of international feminist thinking, which takes the body alone as the essence of gender, and the structural wing, which views gender as a cultural construction, in order to present a united front to the outside world. While the result tends to conceal the rifts within feminism itself, it also results in a dauntingly comprehensive demonstration of the way different feminist approaches may be combined to engage a wide range of meanings from a tradition like the avant-garde.
What Ms. Suleiman is saying at any given time, however, is hard to summarize; her prose reflects the kind of fluid, feminist poetics for which she argues thematically. Feminist criticism, it appears, like feminist fiction, must be a kind of writing that refuses the straightforwardness of male writing, including its armory of values such as clarity, concision and pointedness, all of which can be interpreted as masquerades for the male lust for power, replicating the structure of male sexual pleasure.
If the male Surrealists historically suppressed the women who were allowed access to their inner circle, they also maintained a notion of woman as object in their esthetic practice, a point Ms. Suleiman makes lucid in readings of Breton's novel Nadja (1928), Max Ernst's painting The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses (1926) and Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa (1919). The same kind of ''ordinary sexism,'' as she calls it, also contaminates the work of avant-garde novelists such as Bataille and Mr. Robbe-Grillet.
Too great a focus on Mr. Robbe-Grillet's technique, she argues, requires readers to bypass the ''sado-erotic core'' of his novels, particularly Project for a Revolution in New York (1970). ''Formalist rationalization'' obscures this core by neutralizing the scenes of bondage and torture and the humiliation of women that crop up so often in the novel.
Mr. Robbe-Grillet does not deploy such sexist representation, Ms. Suleiman says, as a revolutionary strategy that disrupts sexism. She suggests that, like Bataille, he uses it to resist ''the female body, in its duplicity as asexual maternal and sexual feminine'' - the specter of woman as mother and lover at once. Using Roland Barthes's remark that ''the writer is someone who plays with his mother's body,'' Ms. Suleiman explains Mr. Robbe-Grillet's ''fury toward women'' as ''hatred of mothers,'' a reflection in turn of a ''desire to dominate - be it one's language or the body of one's mother.'' Ms. Suleiman takes this to be a ''fantasy of self-engenderment'' that corresponds to the art of the male avant-garde as a whole, which pretends to have no precursors.
A properly feminist avant-garde, by contrast, looks toward ''parody and the multiplication of narrative possibilities.'' Key are the strategies of ''parodic appropriation'' and ''revisionist mythmaking'' common to the contemporary work of Angela Carter in England and Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger in the United States. Here patriarchal ideologies like classical myth, Hollywood or advertising are reconceived rather than simply rejected.
Ms. Suleiman's favorite example of revisionary mythmaking is The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington (1976). The novel is narrated by an old woman and mother banished by her family to an old-age home. Reversing the structure of the Arthurian Grail, Carrington's parodic rewriting of myth also supplements the traditional image of Venus by adding to it her neglected historical role as ''mother.'' In Carrington's fable, Venus even turns out to own the chalice.
The figure of woman as both maternal and autonomous organizes Ms. Suleiman's entire book; it is best symbolized, she tells us, by ''the figure of the playful mother.'' Drawing on ''the maternal metaphor'' advanced by French feminism to offset the notion of ''the patriarchal mother,'' Ms. Suleiman concludes that ''a woman can be politically radical, artistically innovative, and yet a mother.''
The union of mother and play is also a solution to the Oedipus complex, whose importance Ms. Suleiman likes to underplay. While she wonders aloud whether ''the 'real' logic of Oedipus'' is ''the elimination of the mother, and a fortiori of female subjectivity,'' its logic is actually the one represented in her own positive image of the mother playing. Woman as both maternal and erotic, as Ms. Suleiman imagines her, is precisely the double image of women that the concept of the Oedipus complex requires of boys and girls alike. This is a deep and moving insight, and one that Ms. Suleiman's ecumenical approach validates despite itself. Indeed, the extent of her liberalism should not be underestimated. ''For the sake of some literal-minded readers,'' she writes in a footnote, ''I want to emphasize that I do not consider castration or sex-change operations as solutions, political or other!''

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1990

12/11/10

Sadness Starts Early

by Perry Meisel

Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. By Julia Kristeva. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. 288 pp. New York: Columbia University Press. $29.

The pioneering French feminist and semiotician Julia Kristeva, a professor of linguistics at the University of Paris, is also a practicing psychoanalyst; she is also the author, most recently, of a series of psychoanalytic studies that supplement her ground-breaking work on language, literature and gender over the past two decades.
The third in the series, Black Sun (the title comes from a poem by Nerval), is an absorbing meditation on depression and melancholia, moving from essays in psychoanalytic theory based upon the ''symptomatology'' of Ms. Kristeva's patients to rather more formal studies of depression in Holbein the Younger, Nerval, Dostoyevsky and Marguerite Duras. Leon S. Roudiez's translation is, as usual, sturdy (he has translated most of her work into English), and nearly as transparent as Ms. Kristeva's French allows.
While Ms. Kristeva's lyricism and rigor can give way to unintentional melodrama and imperfect convolution, within this miasma of style (she herself jokes about its mirroring of the mood swings in her patients) is a persuasive theory of depression that is both moving and provocative.
Though relying on the orthodox psychoanalytic tradition that begins with Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia," Ms. Kristeva makes extensive use (sometimes explicit, sometimes not) of Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan and finds depression and melancholia the same in practice if not necessarily in principle. ''While acknowledging the difference between melancholia and depression,'' the author writes, ''Freudian theory detects everywhere the same impossible mourning for the maternal object.''
Ms. Kristeva is feminist in her emphasis on ''the maternal object.'' The status of the father as both a category and an image is diminished in her scheme, and the stress shifted onto the mother and the pre-Oedipal stage, before weaning and the onset of the law of fathers and symbols. In Black Sun, depression is characterized by a denial of this normal childhood prehistory, or by what Ms. Kristeva calls ''the denial of negation.'' ''Negation'' - the usual infantile acceptance of the loss of oneness with the mother - is unconsciously refused by the depressive, who clings to a fantasy of union with the mother instead.
The maternal object, however, turns out to be no object at all, but a ''lost Thing,'' as Ms. Kristeva calls it after Lacan, never to be recovered. The ''lost Thing'' is a ''preobject,'' an archaic memory of identity with the mother before the inevitable emotional separation from her. The depression that Dostoyevsky or Marguerite Duras shares with Ms. Kristeva's patients is a ''mourning'' for ''the elusive preobject'' before separation, whose capture is impossible to achieve.
The normal child ''leaves the crib to meet the mother in the realm of representations'' - that is, a world of language and symbols. ''If I did not agree to lose mother,'' says Ms. Kristeva of successful separation and the acquisition of language that compensates for the mother's loss, ''I could neither imagine nor name her.'' The depressive, however, gets it backward: ''In order to protect mother I kill myself.'' This leads Ms. Kristeva to a paradoxical idea: ''My depression,'' she writes, ''points to my not knowing how to lose.''
Julia Kristeva has always been remarkably idiosyncratic despite her intellectual allegiances. She is now iconoclastic as well as ecumenical, endeavoring to harmonize semiotics, psychoanalysis and feminism with Christian belief, psychopharmacology and even the family. That urge to a synthesis leads her to some strained conclusions. One might object, for example, to her desire in ''Black Sun'' to equate psychoanalytic cure and Christian faith - based upon an assumption of similarity between Christ's forsakenness in his dark hour upon the Cross (particularly acute in Ms. Kristeva's reading of Holbein's ''Dead Christ'') and the depressive's emotional world. Ms. Kristeva is also original but highly unorthodox in her analysis of Christianity's avoidance of ''the desire to put the father to death,'' and the role of such repression in the genesis of melancholia.
To offer such reservations, however, without noting Ms. Kristeva's own ironic acknowledgment of the limits of her ideas would likely be to underestimate her.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1990

12/9/10

Rousseau's Quest

Jean Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. By Jean Starobinski. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. University of Chicago Press. $19.95.

Jean Starobinski's enormously influential study of Rousseau, published in French in 1957, is a welcome addition to the bibliography of European criticism available in English. One of the most celebrated achievements of what has been called the "criticism of consciousness" associated with Geneva, Starobinski's phenomenological meditation on Rousseau is based on the assumption that a writer's work is the embodiment of an authorial consciousness that precedes and exceeds its textual incarnation, an assumption in practice incompatible with neither subsequent deconstructive criticism nor traditional biography and history.
While Starobinski's analysis appears to reify a host of problematic ontological notions, his actual reading is very different. For Starobinski, Rousseau's quest for "self-awareness," a wry Starobinksi reminds us, "is intimately associated with the possibility of becoming someone else." Rousseau's famous conflicts are handled, not as struggles to be overcome, but as enabling tensions. Rousseau "was . . . contaminated by the very disease he was attacking," wishing "to set forth, in writing, a philosophy paradoxically based on the rejection of literature."
The many oxymora in Rousseau are therefore constitutive rather than contradictory: "There is," for example, "a 'natural order' in the very historical process that has estranged man from his 'natural condition'"; "the more general his protest, the more solitary he becomes"; "no words," in short, "can convey the inner conviction of innocence, while fiction proves strangely believable." The rhythm of Starobinski's rhetoric is like Rousseau's in its thick symmetry of formulations:
This new age is characterized by a crucial discovery: for the first time consciousness has a past. But this discovery, if it brings new wealth, also reveals an essential impoverishment, a lack. The temporal dimension that opens up behind the present moment is perceptible only because it is fleeing into inaccessibility. The mind turns back to an earlier world and sees that world, which once belonged to it, as lost forever. As the child's happiness slips away, the mind recognizes the boundless value of this now-forbidden joy. There is nothing left to do but create the poetic myth of a bygone era.
In such repetitive topoi Starobinski finds nothing less than "a behavioral archetype," a constant element in Rousseau's life and imagination. "He wants," in words that look forward to Jacques Derrida's later reading of Rousseau, "a presence that is also a partial absence."
Starobinski's focus, then, is neither the ideal transparency to which Rousseau aspires, nor the inevitable obstructions - language, laws, history - that disallows such unmediated vision, but the ratio between the two:
Is there, then, such a thing as a natural state? At best it is an imaginary position, midway between two extremes. There, however, movement does not cease. The "natural" self is nothing more than a fleeting image, glimpsed in passing and blurred by motion. My self is merely something that I lack, something that constantly eludes my grasp. I am always someone else, someone without a stable identity . . . . The "self" is not the unattainable position of rest but the anxiety that makes tranquillity impossible. My truth reveals itself by wresting me from the grip of what I had mistaken for a fundamental fact (which disappears the moment it is scrutinized), the "nature" wherein I had thought my "true self" was located.
We are only a step away from a deconstructive reading; the chief difference - tone aside - is that Starobinski locates Rousseau's paradoxes within a rhetoric of temporality or "duration" that is experiential rather than epistemological, existential rather than semiotic. "Signs failed to give Rousseau access to the world," writes a master of counterpunch, "but, like the waters that reflected Narcissus's own image, magically made his ego the slave of its reflection."
From a historical point of view, this highly particular structure of paradox is, argues Starobinski, new with Rousseau, and the oppositions to which it leads - between transparency and obstruction, authenticity and alienation, fullness and lack, freedom and bondage - inaugurate a revolutionary technology of both selfhood and literature. "For the first time," concludes Starobinski, "the problem of an 'existential' transcendence of literature arose outside the confines of traditional religious spirituality." Such a transcendence of literature is imagined, of course, within a decidedly literary space, not the least among the ironies that sustain Starobinski's Rousseau in what remains a parable of interpretation.

Originally published in Partisan Review 1, 1990


12/7/10

The Kingdom of Doublethink

by Perry Meisel

Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. By Stanley Fish. 613 pp. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. $37.50.

Of literary critics whose work comes to mind under the heading of ''theory,'' Stanley Fish, a professor of English and law at Duke University, has been pre-eminent as the orchestrator of a number of approaches to interpretation, chief among them reader-response criticism and deconstruction.
While no less rigorous than his earlier studies of Renaissance literature, Doing What Comes Naturally is a handy textbook for those who wish to catch up on the variety of questions to which literary criticism can usefully address itself today and to see a deconstructive method in action in various intellectual contexts, particularly in examining the similarities between questions of literature and law. Except for three of the 22 essays collected here, all have appeared in periodicals over the last decade, though they have been substantially rewritten for the present volume, especially the essay on Freud at the end of the book.
Ranging from constitutional jurisprudence to a recent chapter in the history of the reception of Paradise Lost, Mr. Fish's new work elaborates the claim he made in his influential book Is There a Text in This Class? (1980) that there is no such thing in life, law or literature as pure or immediate perception - or, for that matter, pure or immediate existence, for texts or for people.
The new book's title is intentionally ironic, since ''doing what comes naturally'' is how we usually - and unthinkingly - characterize what is really the result of one's involuntary participation in an institutional or interpretive scenario, whether as a jurist, a critic or even an athlete. ''The choices that occur to one 'naturally,' '' Mr. Fish says in his essay on the study of Milton, ''are already understood in terms of the needs of the profession'' - any profession - ''and therefore come already calculated.''
The correctives to popular misconceptions about contemporary literary criticism are wide-ranging and incisive. Mr. Fish's reading of Jacques Derrida in the essay ''With the Compliments of the Author'' nicely accommodates deconstruction to real and particular institutional situations, setting the record straight on Mr. Derrida as a proponent not of anarchic indeterminacy in interpretation but of an amplified sense of the paradoxes that ground self, world and texts.
Cool and systematic, such an approach pays off by collapsing, most dramatically, our customary belief in a categorical difference between what is subjective and objective in either interpretation or institutions. In studies of the German literary theorist Wolfgang Iser and the legal theorists Ronald Dworkin and Roberto M. Unger, and in an assessment of professional business such as scholarly publication and promotion, Mr. Fish shows how any opposition between subjective and objective, internal and external, intrinsic and extrinsic, is as a rule overridden in practice; one is never either individual or impersonal, but always both at the same time.
Mr. Fish's principal theoretical point is that ''there can be no such thing as theory.'' Less inclined to attend to the ironies of this contention than to show that it is simply true, Mr. Fish argues that since ''all knowledge is situational . . . we can never be at any distance from the knowledge we need.'' Thus he can also argue that what passes for theory has ''no consequences,'' since theory never makes a difference in practice anyway. What one ''always and already'' does (''doing what comes naturally'') is unconsciously created by interpretive assumptions that no conscious intervention can really undo. Theoretical posturing has no real effect on what we do.
The question of change preoccupies Mr. Fish (an essay is devoted to it), since his ''no consequences'' clause appears to alienate him from the possibility of action. However, he is at pains to show that change in any context is not only possible but inevitable, the normal and constant result of going about our business whatever our intentions.
Mr. Fish's chief practical aim throughout these essays is to show how the political claims of both left and right, whether in literary or legal studies, are essentially the same when it comes to epistemology. The Frankfurt School or E. D. Hirsch in literature, ''anti-foundationalism'' or ''foundationalism'' in law - such rival positions are linked by the same assumption: the belief in a transcendent truth outside the world they deplore from opposing points of view, with presumably opposed motives.
The seemingly distinct postures that separate the progressivism of ''political liberation'' from a belief in ''timeless masterpieces,'' Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno from Mr. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, the opponents of Robert Bork from his supporters, are ''finally exactly in the same position.'' Neither side will acknowledge the ironic and paradoxical situation in which it finds itself: the ''dilemma'' that ''awaits anyone who first acknowledges the essential historicity of all human endeavor but then seeks a space or a moment in which the pressure of that historicity can be escaped.'' Indeed, the political opposition between left and right, Mr. Fish says, is really a historical one between rhetoric and philosophy that is as old as Western civilization itself.
The book's centerpiece is a brief but dazzling essay entitled ''Anti-professionalism,'' a deconstruction of the distinction between professional and anti-professional biases in our culture that concludes by demonstrating that the two ''always and already'' go hand in hand. The reason is that the ethos of professionalism - the belief that the individual is master of his own destiny and can rise to the social prominence that expertise in a given field affords him - is the paradoxical product of an ideology of free choice and judgment. But that ideology runs counter to the belief in specialized, professional judgment in which it results.
''Anti-professionalism,'' Mr. Fish concludes, ''is the very center of the professional ethos, constituting by the very vigor of its opposition the true form of that which it opposes.''
Mr. Fish's belief that an unawareness of this ''doublethink'' is common to almost all thought leaves aside, however, one discipline for which this paradoxical kind of understanding is elementary: psychoanalysis. Mr. Fish devotes his final chapter to Freud, but it comes as something of a surprise given the 500 pages that precede it. A superb reader of everyone from Milton to Jurgen Habermas, Mr. Fish suddenly becomes an extraordinarily weak reader of Freud's most famous, and most literary, case history, the 1918 case of the Russian nobleman known as the Wolf Man because of his childhood dream of wolves outside his window.
The essay is entitled ''Withholding the Missing Portion.'' Freud is the best model for what he has argued for throughout his book, and yet when it comes to acknowledging this model Mr. Fish is blind to it. He misreads the measured ironies of the Wolf Man account as though their intent were somehow nefarious, particularly the deferred, retrospective construction of the ''primal scene,'' whose ''discursive'' reality Mr. Fish faults Freud for merely inventing.
This is, arguably, the special blindness that allows Mr. Fish his insights in the pages before, and betokens an anxiety of influence about psychoanalysis that likely accounts for the remarkable perspicacity he shows in interrogating any and all texts save Freudian ones. Perhaps, too, it is intended as a joke for these same reasons. It is, in any case, an oddly ironic way for a book that downplays the pleasures of irony to end.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1989

12/5/10

Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch. Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910 - 1940. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 330 pp. $29.95.

David Hayman. Re-forming the Narrative: Toward a Mechanics of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. 219 pp. $24.95

The notion of "modernism" has such residual appeal as both a normative and a historical category in literary studies that even the critical revolution represented by semiotics, deconstruction, and reception theory has left it largely intact. Despite the suspicion with which "modernism" as a special aesthetic practice and as a period designation has been treated by theoreticians such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch manage to sustain an inordinately quaint approach to their subject together with a patina of theoretical learning that abets rather than challenges the received wisdom to which they remain curiously faithful in Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910-1940. David Hayman's study of "modernism" as a particular tactical disposition of writing in Re-forming the Narrative: Toward a Mechanics of Modernist Fiction provides a genuinely insightful inventory of twentieth-century literary practice without such pretence, and with the appetite of a veteran critic who relishes his materials with a welcome straightforwardness.
Fokkema and Ibsch define "modernism" by isolating those features of writing that make up what they call "the Modernist code" from 1910 to 1940 - authorial "detachment," a "provisional" relation to values of any kind based upon an uncommon "awareness" on the part of characters in fiction and personae in poems, and a "fragmentary" style in both prose and verse that is the reflexive counterpart to such thematic postures. In chapters on securely canonized figures such as Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Gide, and Mann, we revisit the usual verities of the past half century of literary criticism, often in the guise of a fashionable theoretical vocabulary, with almost no fresh insights - "the chronology of external events is subordinated to the chronology of the stream-of-consciousness"; Joyce's Dubliners deracinates the fixity of conventional symbols; the vaunted reflexivity of "modernist" texts constitutes a "metalingual scepsis" about the very possibility of "communication" in a world torn apart by the events of the present century. Distinguishing "modernist" texts from "Expressionist," "Symbolist," and "Surrealist" texts as well as from "Realist" and "Naturalist" ones (the authors are rather pedantically bound to the validity of such categories), Fokkema and Ibsch are so vague despite their self-announced "scientific" precision that the presumable exactitude of their project is washed away by the blandness with which they pursue it. The "syntactic" and "semantic" "decodings" upon which they claim to embark are no more than catalogues of recurrent sentence structure and shared vocabularies, and their analyses of most of the novels they study little more than plot summaries.
As recompense, Fokkema and Ibsch give equal time to less familiar "modernist" writers such as Menno ter Braak and Charles Edgar du Perron, as well as the still-neglected Robert Musil. They thereby help to expand our customary sense of the bibliography of the period, at least from a European perspective, a scholarly habit that also lends their chapter on Mann, the best in the book, an especially rich account of the various intellectual and national contexts through which Mann's biographical journey took him.
Nonetheless, the series of paradoxes into which the authors' uneasy combination of fashionable terminology and conventional assumption leads them is almost endless, whether at the level of conception or in the close reading of particular works. Thus the excessive literalism of their "scientific" approach is at odds with the very "modernism" to which they address themselves, a literature of ambiguity and undecidability that, by definition, resists the kind of "decoding" by which they claim to organize texts that are bent on dismantling their own coherence. Similarly, Stephen Dedalus's development as an artist is "completed" in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even though Joyce's own development as an artist depends upon the denial of the very notion of the "complete" in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Only once do the authors actually deconstruct this recurrent structure of paradox: "the intention of performing a gratuitous action," they say à propos of Gide, "provides that action with a motive. Therefore, the very consideration of the acte gratuit would make its delivery impossible."
David Hayman's new study of "modernism," Re-forming the Narrative, is, by contrast, a lively inquiry into the "mechanics," as Hayman calls it, of the "operative functions" of "modernist" fiction from Flaubert to Joyce to the present (Robbe-Grillet, Sollers, Gass, Barth), focusing on the paradoxical procedures common to "modernist" texts at large. Although Hayman, too, is interested in isolating those features of writing that make literature "modernist," the result is considerably more instructive and elegant. "Modernism" for Hayman is "historical" only insofar as it displays "shared tactics" - the premium on disjunction and defamiliarization in the writing of the present century has numerous antecedents in the past, whether in Homer, argues Hayman, in Sterne, Sade, or Lewis Carroll.
A durable and distinguished Joycean, Hayman elaborates five principal kinds of literary strategy that are "modernist," among which "double-distancing," "impossible objectivity," "nodality," and "parataxis" are the most descriptively cogent. Less convincing is the device Hayman dubs "self-generation": here the notion that language begets itself (as, for example, in Finnegans Wake) runs counter to the book's otherwise organizing notion that "modernist" language is in perpetual and enabling dialogue with any variety of semiotic systems. Of the five "mechanics," "parataxis" is really the master trope. The other four are in one way or another instances of parataxis or, as Hayman puns, "paratactics." As a trope, parataxis enacts the modality basic to "modernist" fiction as Hayman describes it, the modality of a "rhetoric of disjunction." "Parataxis" is, says Hayman, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, " 'the placing of propositions or clauses one after another without indicating by connecting words the relations . . . between them.' " This is an enormously persuasive and and systematic way to describe the fragmentary, montage effect of so much twentieth-century writing. Paratactical "modernist" texts stage collisions, usually between absorption in story or narrative and its derailment at the level of narration. "The forced marriage of two antagonistic anaesthetic processes results in a measured and coherent flux of distance that coopts conventional middle distance." Parataxis thereby satisfies "both our urge to read a good yarn and our desire, as sophisticated readers, not to be taken in."
The paradoxical "(an)aesthesis" that Hayman describes as the principal structure and effect of "modernist" texts manifests itself most dramatically in the "empathy-antipathy on the aesthetic scale" by means of which "paradox" becomes the very "ground" of "modernist" practice as the reader is simultaneously seduced and repelled by one species of parataxis or another, whether in nascent form in Flaubert, in encyclopedic form in Joyce, or in minimalist form in Kafka, Stein, or Gass. As a result, Hayman revives one's interest in this often tedious kind of prose by specifying its organization precisely and with enthusiasm, testifying to what he calls its "enduring vitality" as a literary mode. The paratactical paradoxes that gird such writing are to be enjoyed, argues Hayman, not wished away or left unattended. Such texts "elaborate an order that is palpably unstable," implicating his own project in the exact kind of irony it describes. Hayman's "(an)aesthesis" is a perfect antidote to the scientism of Fokkema and Ibsch, leaving literary criticism continuous with the playful field that it studies.

Perry Meisel
New York University

Originally published in Modern Fiction Studies, Winter 1989