The truth in literature

A turning point in my life came when I enrolled in AP Lit in my senior year of high school. My teacher, Mr. Ricketts, was hands-off to the point of being neglectful. He basically handed us a list of classic works of literature and encouraged us to write sample papers to practice for the AP test — as few or as many as we liked. Every week we did an exercise where people brought in exemplary sentences to try to unravel how they “worked.” Only a couple texts were explicitly assigned as a whole-class read, mainly Greek tragedies. I was in heaven, finally given explicit permission to do what I had been doing throughout junior high and high school in any case — reading and thinking about whatever I wanted.

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On the Last Line of the Odyssey

In the last book of the Odyssey, Homer has written himself into a bit of a corner. Odysseus has slaughtered an entire generation of high-class young men — the hated suitors. While the moment is doubtless cathartic, it creates political problems, as the young men’s families obviously object to their sons being mass-murdered. Civil war threatens Ithaca, until Athena intervenes, imposing a peace settlement upon the combatants. Her words are accompanied by a divine sign — lightning from her father Zeus — and yet, as the last line abruptly states, Athena brokers the treaty while “still in her guise as Mentor” (in Wilson’s translation — others are similar).

As a Great Books instructor, I have taught the Odyssey more than perhaps any book other than the Bible, and that last line never fails to land with a thud. Continue reading “On the Last Line of the Odyssey

The Work of Art in the Age of the Crisis of Reproduction

Once upon a time, the novel was a new technology. As with many new technologies, many of its earliest and most enthusiastic adopters were women, and its rapid popularisation brought along with it a new set of anxieties about gender, sexuality, and moral corruption. In his article, ‘Masturbation, Credit and the Novel During the Long Eighteenth Century‘, Thomas Laqueur argues that 18th century anxieties about excessive novel reading amongst young women – thought to undermine their ability to distinguish between reality and fiction, to produce a dangerous isolation and morbid self-absorption – must be understood in connection both to contemporary anxieties about masturbation – another morally corrupting, unreal and solitary activity – and in turn to contemporary anxieties about the financialization of capital, which – like both masturbation and novel reading – threatened to undermine the realm of material interaction, duty and exchange by offering in its place an unreal promise of endless, amoral expansion and profit.

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Fate and Fury in The Aeneid

The Aeneid is a book about fate. This is a different kind of fate from what we see in Greek mythology, which is as inexorable as it is meaningless. Here the situation is just the reverse. First, there is a clear meaning, an arc of history tending toward the Pax Romana, which will bring law, order, and eternal peace to all the world. But this fate seems strangely fragile: it requires much hands-on attention from the gods, especially at first, and ultimately the outcome is decided by the human antagonists Aeneas and Turnus after Jove makes a showy declaration of his neutrality.

There is one character who does not seem to have a fate: Dido. She is doomed, she is tragic, but her death, which is “not fated or deserved” (Fagles trans.; Latin: “nec fato, merita nec”), catches the spiritual infrastructure unawares, so that Iris has to remove her spirit from her body rather than Proserpina. This fateless status is striking because the two female goddesses whose conflict determines the course of the plot — the pro-Trojan Venus and anti-Trojan Juno — have converged on Dido, both for their own reasons. Venus is playing the long game, trying to foment enmity between the Carthaginians and the proto-Romans, while Juno sees an opportunity to ally her beloved Carthaginians with the Trojans, cutting off the independent existence of the latter. It’s as though there are too many competing fates at work here, opening up the space for Dido’s own self-destructive agency.

The conflict between two female gods ends in the suicide of their human pawn, outside the bounds of fate and merit. The fact that the chain of fate can be broken by a surplus of female agency fits with the overall pattern of the plot, where it is above all feminine rage that threatens to disrupt fate. Juno is explicitly allied with the female Furies, carrying forward Achilles’ rage in a distinctly feminine key — not only in her own person, but in the Fury with which she inspires (or possesses) the new Achilles, Turnus. The whole Latian War is narrated under the sign of the Muse of Love, another intrusion of the feminine realm into matters of geopolitics.

If we compare Dido’s unfated death with Jove’s “may the best man win” hand-washing, I begin to wonder if we are to take the entire Latian War, including its brutal outcome, as a deviation from fate. Jove declares to Juno that she can delay but not fundamentally alter fate. The war is certainly a dramatic delay, and it is one that seems gratuitous, since Latinus and his family were quite content to fulfill prophecy by marrying Lavinia off to Aeneas before Juno injected her fury.

The edifice of fate is unstable indeed if virtually the whole action of the epic of Rome’s foundation and destiny is somehow contingent, a byway on the path of fate. And lest we think that we have rejoined the stream of destiny when Aeneas finally kills Turnus, we find that fury has infected our normally impassive hero, while Turnus gets the last word with his postmortem scream of defiance — perhaps an echo of Dido’s unfated death, which left her spirit unprepared for its journey. The poem is not just about fate, then, but about the conflict of between fate and fury, with its resentful refusal to submit, to forget about the past and move into the predestined future.

Aeneas’s impulsive murder of Turnus, who was willing to surrender, is motivated by a sudden reminder of the death of Pallas — a young man whose first name doubles as an epithet for Athena (which is used in that sense in Book I). Are we to hear an echo of the Eumenides, where Athena subjects the Furies once and for all to the court of justice that supercedes the cycle of vengeance? If so, it is a botched Eumenides, where unreflective violence cuts short negotiation and deliberation and where the force of Fury remains on the loose.

The destiny of Rome is stained from the very beginning with Fury — indeed, in The Aeneid, Rome is never founded in the present-tense of the text itself. And as Fagles points out in his translator’s note, much of the poem is precisely in the present tense. The rhetorical force of this is clear — it gives the poem a certain immediacy and vividness — but I wonder if it reflects an agenda to open up the reader’s present, to restore contingency and fragility to the destiny of Rome that Augustus has supposedly founded once and for all. The Fury of a betrayed ally or a colonized subject may derail that beautiful fate once and for all, showing Rome to be less pious and dutiful than callous and cruel.

The work of literature in the age of Netflix


The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.

Honesty and Privilege

On a Pages file stored in the cloud there is a list of the books I have read going back eleven years. Since coming to Philadelphia and being confronted with an ignorance as deep as America itself, a concerted effort was made to increase the number of women and non-white men read. If this was something written concerning achievement then the numbers would be given, but this isn’t one of those bits of self-aggrandizement. Instead, any success that was made brought something else to the fore. When a white male author appeared it was the most white male author possible. Thousands of pages of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series, mostly as a way to think through the possibility of a fatherhood that is not desired personally, but one is also an other. Read in secret, in a secret house, in a city by the sea. Where no one, save one, could see. The whiteness of pure white given voice in the pink flesh of those who lack melanin. Continue reading “Honesty and Privilege”

Naming of the Trees

This is ordinarily something I’d keep to my own private haunt, Departure Delayed, but today is too special a day for my understandably minuscule following there. The 90th birthday of a man, William H. Gass, whose writing I perhaps too slavishly adore, requires eyeballs, even if they are likely set to blink and quickly flit away.

I recorded a while ago this small section I still read, perhaps too often. It’s from Omensetter’s Luck, arguably Gass’ greatest novel, and is where Henry Pimber walks into the woods and names the trees, like the first goddamned, depressed Adam, bound for a hanging high, improbably high, in the trees.

And in that spirit, I re-post it here:

Should you feel so included, other Gass-related excerpts and adorations can be found elsewhere

Oh, and yes . . . should you indulge in the vanity of Googling yourself, Mr. Gass, Happy Birthday. 

Annotated List of Notable Books I Read This Year (in no particular order)

  • Speedboat & Pitch Dark, Renata Adler

2013 was a good year for Adler. Sure, it took a couple of years and NYRB re-publications, but her two wonderful novels, Speedboat and Pitch Dark are finally being given the due they deserve. Adler’s prose is precision sharp, psychologically dense (& as a result quite real), and nothing really feels particularly dated in either book. Pitch Dark is arguably a bit better, but the bursts of Speedboat are more explosive & make it a better starting point.

  • Seiobo There Below, László Krasznahorkai

Krasznahorkai’s most recent book is, let’s be blunt, his greatest so far. And, in truth, it’s probably the greatest thing published in English this year. You think I’m exaggerating, but I am not. The man is a wizard, and he pulls off audacious, seemingly pretentious maneuvers like twenty-page sentences, such that you quickly lose sight of the audacity and find yourself instead wherever he damn well wants you. Beauty and horror never so much collide or come at odds in Krasznahorkai’s world, nor are they infused or resolved dialectically. They somehow interpenetrate the other in unbalanced, sometimes grotesque ways. Seiobo There Below repeatedly rehearses precisely how this looks, and I could not look away.

Continue reading “Annotated List of Notable Books I Read This Year (in no particular order)”

“One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.”

The Dean of Cultural Affairs called a meeting of the representatives of our two departments on the question of jurisdiction in the Space on Film course, late one morning. Seven H. B. A.s [“Hours By Appointment”] attended this, because, not having thought or published anything in twenty years, and not having, like Professor Klein, careers near the mainstream of cultural life, they do not spend their lives entirely in idleness. They quarrel. . . .

Our branch of the university is accustomed anyway to jurisdictional disputes. Drama and Cinema grew out of a workshop that existed many years ago to remedy the accents of bright city girls, who could not afford college out of town. When such programs became unfashionable, the staff chose to become two faculties: Dramatistics, and Perspectives in Media. Within a year, the Media people chose to join the newer Department of Minority Groups and Social Change — which already offered History of Broadcasting 204, 301, and Seminar, and whose course on Prostitution, Causes and Origins, was being televised. The Dramatistics people felt they could not attract students, or budget allocations, on their own. They added Film. Our department changed its name, and became what it is now. Our Drama people are trying to take over the English Department’s course Creative Writing 101; Playwriting A. The English Literature people are beleaguered on another side. For twenty years, they have had The Brothers Karamazov (translated, abridged). The Department of Russian Literature, which teaches all its courses in translation now, wants Dostoevski back.

The Drama people have designs in other fields: Ibsen and Strindberg, in particular — which seems reasonable enough, since all the texts are plays. Ibsen and Strindberg, however, belong, with Swinburne, to the Department of Germanistics and Philology. Between 1938 and 1949, all German courses were unpopular. The German Literature people simply seized Ibsen and Strindberg — and by some misunderstanding, which was noticed too late, got Swinburne as well. There were no Drama people, or any other sort of people, at that time, to compete. Chekhov, meanwhile, for reasons that, I am afraid, are clear, is taught in the Classics Department (Greek 209C). The operative principle appears to be that if any thing or person mentioned in another department could conceivably be mentioned in your own, you have at least an argument to seize the course. One night when the Women’s Studies Division gets under way, we all expect there’s going to be a coup.

— Renata Adler, Speedboat