Tuesday, March 22, 2005

essential things

A sunny afternoon spent devouring the Number Two Spring Issue of n+1, which arrived today. Or maybe this weekend, as I was away in New York visiting an old friend (a tradition of shared birthday celebrations, helium balloon competition - it hardly seems to matter she is three times my senior. A nonagenarian, she has finally stopped driving, so I bring her some vintage matchbox cars. She hands me an old phonograph and several hundred LPs, mostly Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Gilbert and Sullivan, Scottish Folksongs and pre-WWII German University Songs...)

N+1 is a truly exquisite publication. For philosophical verve, unsentimental, memoir-esque fresh fiction, cultural criticism, intelligent reviews and original, unmelodramatic writing - in short, for absolute modernity without the vodka ads - one couldn't really do much better. It is also quite funny, in a deliberately non-Eggersardian manner. Responsible to the deeper questions of literature without forsaking politics. Important blog people even think so. If you only subscribe to one magazine, and remain otherwise content with the substantial online offerings of litblogs, Postmodern Culture and Contretemps then well, you are in good company. You may subscribe for the price of a decent steak here.

I hope Marco doesn't mind me reproducing some excerpts from The Intellectual Situation: A Diary (which does seem to function almost as a manifesto, of sorts):
But it looks today like the happiness doctors have won. Totalitarian states enforced happiness through love of force, worship of terror, submergence in the mass. Liberal democracy was more easygoing about it, and that proved wiser. Pills keep us cheerful; sex is healthy exercise; violent light entertainment passes the time. Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell right after 1984 appeared, in which he praised the Big Brother vision but had to say he thought his own prediction of the future would be a lot closer to the truth. Not a boot stomping on your face for all eternity, but a society in which preferring unhappiness - because you didn't want happiness by ersatz means - would be the totally unintelligible thing. We are told the terrorists hate our freedoms - but who was freer than those guys, riding around Afghanistan in pick-up trucks with Kalashnikovs? It's not our freedoms we're going to bring the peoples of the world. No, we're going to bring them our happiness...


They weren't wrong, the positivists - you didn't have to get very far into academic Idealism to see it was so much soft-boiled egg. The tragedy of analytic philosophy was the fact that it won so decisively in US philosophy departments - annihilating its traditionalist competition - at just the wrong time. It triumphed in the Sixties, when the actual convulsions of US society called for a renewed treatment of love, freedom, the other, politics, and history - "pseudo-problems" turned intensely real. It was nice to have John Searle so understanding of SDS at Berkeley, and Hilary Putnam chanting Maoist slogans at Harvard; but the kids in Paris had Foucault.

In fiction, nothing is so clear-cut...By the 1940s and 1950s, when newly professional critics ruled both the small literary journals and the universities, American greatness became a closed system. Because the critics had just solidified two different canons at the same time - an Old Testament of the American Renaissance (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman), and a New Testament of American modernism (James, Elito, Hemingway, Faulkner) - they didn't need to step outside it. It was type and antitype, the 1920s speaking to the 1850s and vice versa, accomplishing all things, and contemporary postwar writers were left out in the cold. The demands on new novelists, for a "Great American Novel" in the vein of these Gospels, became too great. The astonishing thing was that artists still occasionally delivered, as Ellison and Bellow each did once - but they were an end and not a beginning.
By the mid-'60s something crippling was happening to fiction, still quite hard to explain: articulate writers blamed the sheer craziness of American life (Roth) or the "exhaustion" of forms (Barth). There was the pressure of criticism, which could lead even a dyed-in-the-wool critic like Sontag to declare herself "Against Interpretation"; others pointed to academic writing programs and the group therapy of the workshop. In short order, 1968 arrived, and the chaotic Seventies, an era which received - in place of Germinal or Sentimental Education or The Posessed, or even The Grapes of Wrath! - Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and William Gaddis's JR...But in retrospect these books appear marginal...heroic sighs of depletion instead of inaugural hymns.


The big mistake right now would be to fail to keep faith with what theory once meant to us. You hear a great collective sigh of relief from people who don't have to read "that stuff" anymore - the ones who never read it in the first place. But who will insult these people now, expose their life as self-deception, their media as obstacles to truth, their conventional wisdom as ideology? It will be unbearable to live with such people if they aren't regularly insulted.

And all of us who spent our formative years on a critique of the sign can't only have gone into advertising. So theory will return in unexpected ways...


The author photo: Few books fail to include a headshot now; it makes it that much harder to read anything. Even book reviews run photos of the author, in a triumph of crassness that took a decade to worm its way up from local newspapers to the New York Times. The local papers had no other way to fill the columns, lacking staff reporters. What is the Times' excuse?
There ought to be nothing more irrelevant than an author's face...


The novel's anxiety to have a ready-made public makes it less and less deserving of one. The novel needs to get over the 19th century. For about a hundred years it was the dominant art form of bourgeouis civilization. Since then, as if unwilling to resign its old position, it's tried to contend with movies and TV, not to mention long nonfiction articles in the New Yorker. Now it tries to rival the stand-up routine and, in novel-memoir, the daytime talk show...Someone should tell the novel that is not and never was dying; those death-throes were just the feeling of a monopoly ending, the shortness of breath that comes with loss of market share. Let the comedians, the lip-gloss models, the movie directors, the journalists and historians be. Their work may be inferior to the novelist's, but they do it better than he does....A novelist who isn't truly alone when he writes will never provide a reader worthwhile company.

Well, I get carried away. It's tempting to quote the whole damn thing. Also contained in these 248 pages: a piece on Isaac Babel, on "Last Cigarettes" (recalling for me Josipovici), fair but devastating reviews of Roth, Agamben and Art Spiegelman, and some excellent poetry. Well you may peruse the contents for yourself.

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