Friday, October 31, 2008

Longing for the Apocalypse

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one was the last one written, and since it was the last, it exploded into a cavalcade of diverse thoughts that I wanted to say, this being my last opportunity. It begins with some unknown German guy summarizing literature about the image of "apocalypse" in theory and slides into my first attempt to pull together a number of threads I've been thinking about lately--primitivism, intellectual influence, and literacy.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In the most revealing passage in Klaus Scherpe’s serviceable summary of Continental intellectual trends relating to the notion of “apocalypse,” Scherpe says
In Kafka’s stories the exception begins and remains the rule; an idea’s reversal is always implicit in its being thought. Kafka’s literary modernity is a state of emergency, which means that the revolutionary impulse implicit in the notions of “interruption” and the “breakthrough” propagated by Benjamin’s theory of modernity can never occur; the catastrophe can never set any energy free nor provide the stimulus for change. (Scherpe 113)
Benjamin has swallowed the notion that modernity soaks us to the core, that the “‘age of information,’ when norms are purged of meaning and time is characterized by its ‘empty’ homogeneity” (106) requires the notion of a radical break to even conceive of change. After taking both notions on board, postmodernity becomes the last shock available as, for instance, Baudrillard “proclaims a condition of the absolute absence of events.” (100) The question would seem to be: why is such an absurd conclusion taken seriously by smart people? By using Don DeLillo’s White Noise, I would like to trace a path to re-engineer the position so-called postmodern intellectuals have found themselves.

The two positions Scherpe traces have Baudrillard on one side and his “German prophet,” Gerd Bergfleth, on the other. Baudrillard, in effect, pushes the self-directed ironic masks worn by the Romantics to achieve autonomy to its outermost reaches, what he calls “objective irony.” Baudrillard sees quite rightly that a truly all-pervasive irony, when taken out of its normal state of (subjective) context-dependence and amped up into a (objective) reality-rule, becomes an indifference that ultimately denies change: “Everything has already happened.”[fn.1] (100-1) This de-dramatizes reality because by denying change/events, we’ve effectively relieved ourselves of waiting around for something to happen (so-called “drama”). Scherpe says perceptively that the German side of the equation is missing the irony of Baudrillard’s position—whereas from Baudrillard’s position we might as well drop the nukes, from Bergleth’s vantage (a “typically German version of the postmodern condition,” (123) Scherpe says humorously), we need it. Bergleth has an “intense desire for some sort of deadly seriousness” (126) in the midst of French playfulness, a “longing for death” (127) as the last place to find meaning, the true flipside of Camus’ insistence that the only pertinent philosophical question was whether to commit suicide.[fn.2] Bergfleth must re-dramatize the notion of apocalypse to regain Benjamin’s hope for change and (for what ends up resting on the ability to see differences) meaning.

If we turn to White Noise, I believe we can trace the interesting patterns that accrue to the fascination with catastrophe and apocalypse. In Chapter 14, DeLillo shows us Jack and his kids watching television, “floods, earthquakes, mudslides,” “totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death.” (DeLillo 64) The significance, and ultimately the disturbing fascination Jack sees, is that “Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.” (ibid.) The next day Jack asks Alfonse why “people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe”? (65) He replies, not only that “it’s natural, it’s normal,” (ibid.) but that “We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.” (ibid.)

I would like to unpack this section in several different ways. First, DeLillo and the postmoderns all take very seriously the effect of technology on our culture and consciousness. This point should not be underestimated, as all other points fall from there. Modern society is not only bombarded with information, but it better stores and recalls that information. If info is blandly defined as our sensory input, then it is flatly false that we get more info now than before—it is everywhere and always the same saturated state. However, the creation of technology, Prometheus bringing the Gods’ fire to us, has expanded exponentially our ability to store and retrieve information and has altered our consciousness accordingly.[fn.3]

One consequence of our ability to retrieve the past more quickly and accurately has been the increasing sense that the past is a burden. This can be seen quite clearly in the evolution of poetry. In Homeric times, oral poetry was the only form of paideia. As this transferred into prose form, written poetry shuttled into a stage of theological instruction (Dante being the great exemplar). Petrarch marked a great change in all this, as the poet turned inwards, towards his own problems, personal and otherwise. By the time of the Romantics, that shift had been solidified—poets had become so self-conscious of the past that the insular search for something new to say began in true earnest.[fn.4] Irony was instrumental in their search for new ways to shrug off the past—as a stance, it put one in a skeptical relation to the past, and as a figure, one could repeat the past while meaning something else.

The last idea to put into play is that of primitivism—the notion that the past was a glorious time, if only we could restore it. This might seem entirely counterintuitive, but as anxiety over contemporary decadence increases, such that things as time goes on are getting worse, it seems natural to suppose that things were better earlier, before they got worse. Primitivism, in a simple sense, is a typical conservative reaction—too much change is bad for the system—and is as old as recorded time.[fn.5] Primitivism takes on a new cast during the Enlightenment, suffused in the form of Rousseau. Rousseau wished to reach back to the past, as a simpler time. But Rousseau realized the almost insurmountability of this problem because the problem was society itself.[fn.6]

Thus enters the fascination with apocalypse. Bernard Yack suggests that Rousseau transmitted to the European intellectual tradition a “longing for total revolution.”[fn.7] By locating the pernicious evil in the very civilizing, socializing process, Rousseau put out of practical reach our ability to change: “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains,” he says famously in the Social Contract. As technological rates increase, the burden of the past chains us tighter and tighter to where we have been, and the more we dream of being released. For the poet, from the great masters of the past. For the political revolutionary or spiritual purist (who, in true Rousseauian spirit, end up being one and the same), from modern society. We become fascinated with catastrophe as our sense of “we’ve seen this all before” increases, and as time goes by, greater and greater catastrophes of greater magnitude are demanded to breach our attention. And as the Mountains of Time begin to blot out the Sun, we begin to pray for the Great Leveler. The turn in DeLillo, in post-apocalypse, is the same turn in Rousseau—a sudden, renewed sense of community as the TVs die away.


Works Cited

Bate, W. Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970, 1991.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1997.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1984, 1985, 1999.

Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. New York: Universal Library, 1963, 1967.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. and George Boas. Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934, 1997.

Nehamas, Alexander. The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections From Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Rice, Eugene F, Jr., with Anthony Grafton. The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970, 1994.

Scherpe, Fredric. “Dramatization and De-dramatization of ‘the End’: The Apocalyptic Consciousness of Modernity and Post-Modernity.” Cultural Critique. No. 5 (Winter 1986-7), p. 95-129.

Yack, Bernard. The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 1992.


[1] Baudrillard is right about irony because the classic notion of irony is a directed notion, from speaker to audience, author to reader. What irony does is hide the meaning of a statement. Though often thought of as a simplistic “means the contrary of what it says,” Romantic irony has more to do with the irony of Socrates, as when Alexander Nehamas argues, against the traditional “contrary” version that Gregory Vlastos stands at the far end of in Socratic studies, that irony is a “concealment”: “Irony seems to create a mask. It does not show what, if anything, is masked. It suggests depth. It does not guarantee it.” (Nehamas 67) When Baudrillard expands the ultimately faceless mask of irony to a world-condition, he seems to understandably draw the conclusion that, since 1) all depths are created by a concealing mask, 2) everything is a concealing mask, and 3) every mask pulled off finds us with another concealing mask, the very notion of a “reality” to be taken seriously and differentiatedly is suspicious and should be treated indifferently because it can/could/should/has been revealed to be a different, faceless mask (hence his concept of the simulacrum, a representation with no represented—like a signifier with no signified—which means every representation represents the same thing: nothing).

[2] While L’étranger offers a wonderful portrait of a life seemingly devoid of internally generated meaning (and hence careening towards the only thing that would stand out: death), Camus investigates in prose the question of suicide in Le mythe de sisyphe.

[3] Here I would refer to the work of Walter J. Ong and Eric A. Havelock on orality, literacy and the beginnings of Greek (Western) thought. In our Homeric, oral state the only way to store info was in memorable pieces (because they had to be personally remembered) by the instrumental use of hexametric verse, rhyme, formulas, the use of heroic figures. As Ong says,
The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought. Havelock [in Preface to Plato] shows that Plato excluded poets from his ideal republic essentially (if not quite consciously) because he found himself in a new chirographically styled noetic world in which the formula or cliché, beloved of all traditional poets, was outmoded and counterproductive. (Ong 24)
This marked the true birth of what we now think of as poetry—broadly, the attempt to write in an original way. Poetry had previously been involved in reproduction of noetic resources, but writing provided an external way to save these.
Our sense of accuracy has also increased as our technological capacities have. Writing allowed us to record thoughts. It also allowed us to record history, to record events in a more individuated way than ever before (the detailed History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides rather than the amorphously mythic Works and Days of Hesiod). The printing press registers as another significant event in the history of our consciousness. The reproduction of classic texts for the length of the Middle Ages were largely left to the hands of monastic scribes, most of whom were illiterate and were simply trying to copy as closely as possible the marks. The invention of moveable type changed everything:
Manuscripts, totally dependent on the skill, learning, and care of the scribe, had always been inaccurate and unreliable. Furthermore, this inaccuracy and unreliability were becoming increasingly great as successive generations of scribes copied the errors of their predecessors and added their own. The fundamental contribution of printing to learning was that it halted this progressive corruption and made possible the long and continuing effort to restore the great texts of the past to something approaching their original integrity. Printing gave scholars all over Europe identical texts to work on. (Rice 7)
The weight of the past has increased exponentially since that time as more and more is reproduced and preserved, not only the great and vast, but the boring and trivial. We have it all at our finger-tips.

[4] In this Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet is instrumental, as is Harold Bloom’s transformation of Bate’s more historical thesis into a theory of poetry in The Anxiety of Influence.

[5] On this see Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas’ Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. One of the many benefits is their distinguishing between various senses of “primitivism.” The sense I shall use it is as a “cultural primitivism.” Lovejoy says, “The cultural primitivist has almost invariably believed that the simpler life of which he has dreamed has been somewhere, at some time, actually lived by human beings.” (Lovejoy 8)

[6] As Lovejoy says of Rousseau’s First Discourse, “The study of the arts and sciences does not contribute à épurer les moeurs [to the purification of mores], and there it is of minimal value, and often actually harmful.” (Lovejoy 274)

[6] Yack says that the “subjective awareness of the inability to produce a desired object distinguishes a longing from a desire….”
In both longing and desire we feel the uneasiness created by the lack of a desire object. But while in desire our uneasiness focuses on the desired object, thus promoting attempts at its acquisition, in longing the awareness of our present incapacity to acquire the object diffuses our uneasiness. The energy produced by that uneasiness has no obvious outlet—thus the vague, generalized feeling of uneasiness which most of us associate with longing. … When we discover the obstacle to our satisfaction we generate a new object of desire: a world without that obstacle to our satisfaction. And if we find ourselves incapable of removing this obstacle, our desire becomes a longing which, in turn, generates the definition of new objects of desire. (Yack 5-6, italics mine)
Compare this to Scherpe’s nice little slap at Baudrillard: “the curious manner in which this form of theorizing constantly creates new objects in order to make them disappear….” (Scherpe 99) On my reading, this is exactly what is to be expected at the long, self-conscious end of Platonic theory. Nietzsche saw Hegel grasp previous generations and drain them of their power for his own, thought it a neat trick and went directly at the main offender—Plato. Heidegger saw Nietzsche invert Plato, and saw the next step as an inversion of Nietzsche. Derrida sees Heidegger and ups the inverting ante, but by now the jig is up and the game of inverting back and forth infinitely becomes increasingly boring.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Theoretical and Empirical Schizophrenia

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This continues on about Fredric Jameson's idea of "postmodernism" and formed the basis for my much expanded final. What is interesting here for fans of Pirsig is Sherman Alexie's meditations about Native Americans and the connection with madness, a very profitable intersection that hooks up nicely with Jameson, too.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Fredric Jameson, piggybacking on Jacques Lacan, “describes schizophrenia as a breakdown in the signifying chain.” (Jameson 26) Having already preemptively disposed of atomistic conceptions of language (in which meaning is generated when words are paired off with their appropriate world-chunks) by presupposing a Saussurean holism, Jameson bridges from the analogy between the psychic life of persons and the functioning of language to the meltdown of literary and historical meaning as postmodern artists set out to render life in contextless (and hence, meaningless) chunks. This movement, I should argue, requires a monumental leap from the theoretical to the empirical and using Alexie Sherman’s treatment of the past will help bring out this point.

Jameson states rightly that in the new holism the old “signified,” which used to be classically seen as a material world-chunk, is now seen to be just another signifier.[fn.1] A signifier-as-signified, however, is in a particular kind of context, one of, roughly, being-pointed-to as opposed to the usual doing-the-pointing situation of a signifier. Jameson, again rightly, calls this a “meaning-effect,” but then goes on to call this an “objective mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves.” (ibid.) This is not something a convinced holist would say. For the holist, the context-dependence of meaning does not put objectivity in jeopardy, but simply replaces a bad philosophy of language with a better one, one that redescribes the sources of objectivity accordingly.

Jameson, it would seem, is a holist, but a particular kind—a nostalgic one, wishing for the theoretical comforts of old. Schizophrenia, as stated before, is the breakdown of the signifying chain.[fn.2] Jameson’s fear of schizophrenia is the cultural realization of “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers.” (ibid.) He says this creates “an experience of pure material signifiers … a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.” (27) We might feel Jameson’s fear, which could be described “in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality,” but we might also “just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.” (27-8) The old, atomistic view of language once safe-guarded our sense that we could get back in touch with a solid reality, but—now in postmodernity—we no longer have this comfort.

What I would like to suggest is that Jameson’s argument breaks down by its very ability to compose itself as an argument.[fn.3] Put very simply—schizophrenic contextlessness cannot actually exist, for if it did, it would be just as much a “meaning-effect,” an effect of context, as any other normal-seeming, contextually generated meaning.[fn.4] Jameson cannot move from holism to a scary form of schizophrenia because holism simply describes how we are (and were) always situated, not a new situation. The only new thing in holism is the fact that we are rejecting Plato’s way describing our reality, not introducing a massively new and differently behaving and organizing reality.[fn.5]

According to Jameson’s theory, we should encounter cultural artifacts that are isolated and contextless, “randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary.” (25) The consequence of this theory is that displays of history and time should be free-floating, broken from their signifying chain. A good example of how this theory founders in practice is Alexie’s “A Drug Called Tradition.” In this section, Victor and his friends take an unnamed drug and free-float through a series of hallucinatory dreams in the recapitulation of the evening. This would seem to be a good example for Jameson’s cause: the very concept of history is called into question as the boys see pasts and presents that are clearly not what had happened or is happening. And by the end, Alexie has someone hallucinating a theory of history that ends with “We are trapped in the now.” (Alexie 22, italics his)

The ironic return of context begins with analyzing the italics in the passage. Devoid of the context of the piece, one might think Alexie was emphasizing the trap of presentness, much like Jameson’s notion of the sad, but inescapable state of postmodernism. But this is not what the italics mean. The italics are part of a consistent effort to demarcate the boundaries between hallucinative state of dream and normal state of reality. This stylistic choice, among others, is what signals to us, the readers, that we are reading something different than what is contained in the other parts (whatever the differences end up meaning on any of the many levels one could interpret them).

The point is that Alexie, as a writer, circumscribes the context with which we are to read the passages as much as the atomist supposes that the world circumscribes our words and what they mean. The hallucinatory effects in Alexie are as much “meaning-effects” as are normality. This doesn’t mean atomism is true, it simply means that context always determines meaning, including the appearance of meaninglessness or contextlessness. Jameson has confused a theoretical point about language-functioning for an empirical shift in culture, including the empirical shiftings of literary production.


Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 1993, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.


[1] This is the real meaning behind Derrida’s much parodied line “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte” (“There is nothing outside the text,” or better, “There is no outside-text”). Derrida was not staking out a new form of idealism, or denying the existence of rocks, but denying, like Wittgenstein when he denied ostensive definition, that language is (or perhaps, can be reduced to) a word-world relation. Words are words (i.e., have meaning and are not just sounds or marks on a page) because of how they hang in a web with other words.

[2] This notion can be used just as well for an atomist, but there seems to be a heightened sense of precariousness for the holist. In the atomist picture, a break in the chain can be rectified by being put back in touch with the solid, unalterable signified. On the holist picture, on the other hand, everything is a chain of signifiers, every signified can be reduced to a signifier such that a shift in signifiers alters the composition of the signified. This is the force of Jameson’s “objective mirage”: once our solid signifieds are really as ephemeral as our constantly shifting significations, we begin to really fear the loss, now irrevocable, of our grip on reality.

[3] Which should be suitably ironic, given how much fun holists-cum-deconstructionists have in showing how displays of intelligibility slide into unintelligibility, that Jameson’s display of unintelligibility should slide into intelligibility.

[4] For instance, the actual psychological state of schizophrenia could be described as signifiers losing touch with their signifieds (which seems to be the image that Jameson more relies on), but that reposes on the old atomistic view. On the holist view, schizophrenia would better be described as signification-chain-A losing touch with signification-chain-B. On this view, schizophrenics don’t behave oddly because they are acting without context, but because they are acting in the wrong context, an A-chain that would be less socially awkward if it were an AB-chain.

[5] Jameson commits this mistake when he says our “cultural production” “can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world,” but is now “in Plato’s cave.” (Jameson 25, italics mine) Plato was suggesting a metaphorics for describing our knowledge-production. The holists, like Derrida, want to reject wholesale this entire edifice, whereas Jameson seems to swallow Plato’s poison pill and imagine we were once out in the light of Plato’s Form of the Good, but we have now—in real historical time—been shuttled back down into the cave.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Modernism and After in The Art Lover

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one begins a critique of Fredric Jameson's idea of "postmodernism" that I continued in my final for the class. It also has a bit about metaphor that I hope to expand much more in the future.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


In Geyh’s functional introduction to postmodern theory, she fleshes out the notion of antifoundationalism partially by reference to Lyotard. Lyotard defines “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv, italics his). For Lyotard, the postmodern condition is basically a skeptical attitude toward “any philosophy or theory … which claims to provide a complete explanation of culture and society” (Geyh xx). In so doing, Lyotard eliminates the large, overarching foundations for situating ourselves in the world, leaving us adrift in uncertainty.

This instability is enunciated well by Jameson as he discusses the fate of the “self” at the hands of postmodernism. Jameson says that “the very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside” (Jameson 11) and that postmodernism has made it central to itself to be “committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside” (12). This obliteration of the self is largely predicted by Lewis’ identification of the irony of romanticism—all this focus on the individual personality ends up eviscerating the notion of individuals: “…the more your particular personality … obsess[es] you, … the less ‘individualist’ you will be in the ordinary political sense. … Your ‘individualism’ will be that mad one of the ‘one and only’ self, a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (Lewis 8). What we have, in some sense, is a hyper-romanticism in postmodernism, a dissolution of anything substantive to be as a self by the elimination of the traditional hard edges (of metanarratives) and the relocation of meaning-inscription within each person as they swim through the bottomless stream of time. We begin blending into each other because we are never quite sure where we end and someone else begins because we ultimately only know ourselves.

This same irony, that hyper-individualism means the end of the individual, makes itself apparent in Maso’s novel. There are seemingly an infinite number of ways of drawing this picture (an effect I cannot draw into the discussion, but a stylistic maneuver very much apart of it), so I will choose but one. Caroline, our author’s author, says very early on that “I am a lover of detail, a marker—it’s a way of keeping the world in place. … Organize. Reorganize” (Maso 12). Details are bits of the world and Caroline herself must organize these bits so that the world remains in place, stable. On pages 50 to 51, Caroline describes a game her and her father used to play: “What the Light Looked Like.” The game is played by taking in the sensation of points of light and, because of a “love of simile and metaphor” (50), then saying they look like elephants, despite the fact that they are not elephants. This is similar to the more traditional activity of looking for constellations while stargazing, an activity which provides a dominant metaphor for the book. We see individual stars, but if you organize them just right, you no longer see the individual stars, but rather Hercules or Cygnus.[fn.1]

The line to be drawn between details and metaphor and seeing constellations is the sense in which they all repose on spatial metaphors, indeed even my attempt to organize them to help one see the connection: “line to be drawn.” This effect is predicted by Jameson: “our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” (Jameson 16). Details are points of light that need to be organized into recognizable patterns, whether twin elephants or Orion’s belt. This act of organization and stability occurs in a metaphoric moment in which stars are treated—for this person’s purpose—as Hercules.

The moment of instability, however, occurs for us here in Jameson’s circle around an essential concept of postmodernism. The Maso I’ve drawn attention to has so far written along lines conducive to Jameson’s notion of the postmodern dissolution of self. The climax in my portrait occurs in a section entitled “Freud Speaks” (Maso 162-3). Caroline here dreams that she is swimming in a pool, but Freud keeps telling her, no, it really is something else.[fn.2] Freud is a prime example of both an arch-metanarrativist that Lyotard is incredulous of and a “charismatic Master” that Jameson says died with modernism.[fn.3] The figure Freud is using is metaphor: you say “pool,” but that really means “birth canal.” The troubling fact of this dream, however, is that it shows just the reverse of what Jameson has been saying about the death of the personality in postmodernism. On Freud’s account—indeed, in all metanarratives—the individual loses all substance in the face of an overarching, omnipresent gesture of transfiguration, i.e. metaphor. Freud: everything is about mom, dad, and sex. Caroline is here raging against this smoothing out of the unique detail of individuals by trying to assert her own personality in the face of Freud’s totalized, circumscribing all-knowingness.[fn.4] This doesn’t make sense, however, on Jameson’s account, because metanarratives and Masters seemed to have been what held up the self. On Lewis’s account, it makes some sense since the authoritative voice of the Master—inflicting his own navel-gazing personality on everyone else—must be what obliterates and homogenizes us: we have no voice of our own, we are just repeating the words of the Master. Except that, Lewis, and especially Eliot, were in favor of a little more authority in the face of romanticism’s love of novelty.


Works Cited

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. Postmodern American Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Maso, Carole. The Art Lover. New York: New Directions Classic, 2006, 1995, 1990.


[1] This metaphor exudes from the pores of the book. The new edition contains constellations on the cover, the sections Spring, Summer, and Fall are closed with a snippet of “Sky Watch,” the family Caroline writes about are preoccupied with stargazing. See in particular conjunction, “‘Don’t you think these first leaves look exactly like stars?’ Candace says. ‘Yes, I do,’ I say, wishing I could see more often what Candace sees” (Maso 22).

[2] The “I” in this section is a suppressed identity, but given the ebb and flow of the book, I am going to suppose unargumentatively that it is Caroline who’s dreaming.

[3] Jameson says “the prophetic elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement are remorselessly identified in the imperious gesture of the charismatic Master.” (Jameson 2)

[4] The close of the section reads (Maso 162):
He [Freud] smirks a little. He’s heard this all before.
“It really is a pool. I think it means I want to go swimming.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says.
Significant is Freud’s knowingness, his incredulity, the repetition of “I,” and the emphatic “is,” the verb “to be,” which is the prerequisite for a metaphor, and the only way to short-circuit one. (“No, it doesn’t mean love, it is just a heart.”)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Eliot, Forster, and Experience

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one is more arbitrary than most, but it has a good bit about immediate experience.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Romanticism might be too broad and overworked of a term to blanket precisely a tradition of thought or artistry, but if we close our eyes and just concentrate on the fact that, in their criticism, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis both considered themselves resurgent classicists and devalued the poetic accomplishments of Wordsworth and Blake, we might be as precise as we need to be. Eliot’s problem with the English Romantic poets was that, in Harold Bloom’s words about Wordsworth’s blessing (or curse) to modern poetry, “poems are ‘about’ nothing. Their subject is the subject herself or himself….” (Bloom, 239) Eliot’s chief remedy, which retroactively becomes his defining characteristic of what it means to be “classical,” is to reinstate a significant “other” to the poet: tradition, reality, God, what have you—“there is accordingly something outside of the artist to which he owes allegiance, a devotion to which he must surrender and sacrifice himself….” (Eliot, 13, italics mine) Eliot consistently and repeatedly uses the rhetoric of obeisance to characterize the classical attitude and irony and sarcasm to deride the romantic.

It is the turn inward, toward pure personality that has Eliot riled. In criticism and poetry, Eliot is angered by the ease of idiosyncrasies, critics and poets whose “chief task is the assertion of all the trifling differences which are his distinction….” (ibid., 13)[fn.1] Eliot uses Middleton Murry’s sharpening of the differences between classic and romantic, seizing upon the notion of an “inner voice” as suspiciously like “doing as one likes.” (ibid., 16) Murry in the end sees the same anarchy as Eliot, but asserts that we shouldn’t worry because we will all come to see the same, universal self, a notion Eliot laughs at being “an exercise far beyond the strength of our football enthusiasts.” (ibid.) This is Plato’s haughtiness from the Republic reverberating in modern elitism and it surfaces in Eliot’s suggestion to critic and poet alike to look to this vague notion of “tradition.”

If we move from this truncated discussion to Forster’s novel, we might be able to reflect further on this notion of “tradition.” Eliot’s enjoyment of Murry’s discussion, and his specific use of an antithesis between “Catholic” and the “Inner Voice,” is no accident, for Eliot has in mind, at least for the ultimate spiritual authority of Mankind, something like Divinity, an Authoritative God sitting in ultimate judgment. Forster portrays the Marabar Caves as beyond, if not exactly God, at the least any human vessel for it. In the very opening of the Caves section, Forster writes “Geology, looking further than religion…,” (Forster, 135) a very specific reference to a human institution that unfolds further: “To call them ‘uncanny’ suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit. Hinduism has scratched and plastered a few rocks, but the shrines are unfrequented, as if pilgrims, who generally seek the extraordinary, had here found too much of it.” (ibid., 136) Forster is putting the Caves beyond even the reach anthropomorphisms like “ghosts and “spirit” (both of which ultimately reach back to, or play off of, Greek and Hebrew notions of bodily life-force). Travelers to the caves are said to return “uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all.” (ibid., 137) This, in particular, is significant given the importance of “experience” in the romantic and classic pantheon of concepts, for even if the romantic wants the experience of experience itself and the classic experience of something else, both need “experience.”

Perhaps most significant of all, however, is that “Nothing, nothing attaches to them, and their reputation—for they have one—does not depend upon human speech.” (ibid.) This nullification of human speech becomes very important as we travel into the Caves. For in the Caves, the force of echo reduces all sound to singularity: “Boum.” (ibid., 163) “And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.” (ibid.) As allegory for the human situation, this impressively reduces us in the face of eternity. For Eliot’s conception of an “other” in tradition requires us to hold apart from our counterparts in the past, in something like on the analogy of a conversation. We do not talk to our selves, only listening to our own Inner Voice, we dialogue with the past, attempting to hear what the tradition has to tell us, becoming a medium for the voices of their spirits.

Forster’s reduction of the voices of time, “echoes generating echoes,” into an amorphous mass all “entirely devoid of distinction” (ibid.,163) wreaks havoc on the notion of a hearable divinity. But it also wreaks havoc on the notion that we could hear ourselves, for ultimately the Caves collapse the eternity of a Divine Authority and the immediateness of experience itself into each other: “no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind.” (ibid., 165) True infinity swallows our voice, but so too does true immediacy—too far and we have no echoed sound, too close, a singular cacophony named Noise.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, ?.

---. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956, 1936, 1932.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1952, 1924.


[1] In “The Function of Criticism” Eliot is focused more on the critic, but in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” focused more on poets, he says much the same thing. Eliot says ironically, “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors … we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.” (Adams, 761)

Friday, October 03, 2008

Lewis and Ulysses

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one begins without an introduction.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Wyndham Lewis’ critique of Joyce’s Ulysses sits in the midst of a larger cultural critique, which he obfuscates as philosophical discourse. To miss this context for Lewis’ comments is to miss the boat entirely, for otherwise Lewis’ criticisms barely pass for cogent literary criticism (at least something where the notion of “intention” is involved), and hardly at all for philosophy (a contemporary like Bertrand Russell might have been charmed by Lewis’ wit and heart, but would’ve been horrified to learn that it was to pass for using a “method” with “logical integrity” (Lewis, 109)).

The rough form of Lewis’ cultural critique is that our culture has been captured by “romance,” by which he means something that may have family resemblances with Morte d’Arthur or falling in love, but is more specifically “the apotheosis of the marvelous and the unusual.” (ibid., 11) This is technically his definition of advertisement, but the latter is simply romance in cultural action. Lewis condemns romance for a time-obsession, stemming from a Bergsonian philosophy of time, which focuses exclusively on the here and now, which paradoxically causes one to deny time because if one always focuses on the time of right now, then one will never break from their own perspective, “a sort of instinctive solipsism in practice” (ibid., 8)—like a fish, seeing the world anew, every time it blinks.

Lewis brings this ironic reversal of Bergsonian durée, where the fluid, organic life of immediate experience becomes “a series of one-day lives” (ibid., 12), to the heart of his reading of Joyce. The mechanical life of one-day lives becomes an inundation of “stuff—unorganized brute material” (ibid., 89) that takes on monumental importance with the elimination of any notion of “in the long run,” like packrats refusing to let go of anything. The self-obsession of one’s own sensations becomes Joyce’s “telling from the inside,” what James and later literary critics call “stream of consciousness” narration, but Lewis a “river of what now is rubbish.” (ibid.) And advertisement, the stamp of the fashionable, becomes Joyce’s “irishness,” the local, time-space stamp with which he marks all of his self-important refuse, a thin coating of the concrete to hide the fact that none of the stuff actually matters to Joyce.

I believe that Lewis’ argument hinges on the notion that Ulysses is the aesthetic expression of what Bergson’s philosophy looks like practically.[fn.1] He believes, in sum, that Ulysses embodies in literary expression the Bergsonian obsession with “true duration,” and so is focused on psychological trivia for the sake of trivia because there is nothing else to be for the sake of. If we begin the other way around on the notion of literary expression, however, we might ask, “If Bergsonian true duration is ineffable, how might we eff it?” As a writer, whose tool has to be linguistic, how does one write the ineffable? There have been many different answers to this fundamental question of the written word, but I would suggest that, at the least, Joyce’s “Molly soliloquy” is another type of answer, and that it is a literary representation of Bergsonian duration.

“Molly’s soliloquy” is a completely linguistic representation of consciousness and specifically the movement of time.[fn.2] Joyce was making a technical experiment and it does in a sense embody Bergson’s notion of “true duration,” and indeed Lewis can help us see it. If the main thrust of Bergson’s durée is that it is fluid and has no imposed parameters, start and stop points like the tick-tock of time, then “Molly’s soliloquy” achieves this effect by eliminating punctuation. For Bergson, the “present moment” is specifically not best conceptualized like the edge of a knife cutting through water, but is rather a little bit in the future and a little bit in the past.

The first thing to see is the truth of Lewis’ statement that “the amount of stuff … that the more active principle of drama has to wade through … slows it down to the pace at which, inevitably, the sluggish tide of the author’s bric-a-brac passes the observer….” (Lewis, 89). Time in Ulysses only moves when the reader reads the next word. Not as in “a day passed,” a phrase which stands in for a day, but rather that Molly and us are moving at roughly the same pace through time: we read it, she takes a step forward.

Further, the removal of punctuation plunges the reader into the midst of a seemingly undifferentiated sea, but on reflection, that sea carries with it implicit, felt distinctions, that of syntax. We feel the nebulous shifts in thought in “… and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all ….” (Joyce, 738) These shifts appear to us for the same reason that we know implicitly that time is moving forward, and not a static, eternally recurring fish-blink now-day: our (always fading) memory of what just happened (was just read) combined with our implicit prediction of what is about to come. Joyce upsets these grammar-produced predictions in our reading, which keeps us in closely-though-nebulously circumscribed now-situations, all based on how we feel the interconnections of the words in the act of reading them straight through. Classical thought might organize everything into a universal endgame (where knowledge of the trajectories of all the atoms would allow us to predict everything), but Bergson and Joyce want to remind us that real life will always keep us on our toes.


Works Cited

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage International, 1990, 1961, 1934.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993, 1927.


[1] This is something that Lewis does not meditate on explicitly enough, but without it, he has no connection to Bergson’s philosophy at all. His most important remarks are off-hand, and they include his parenthetical about sensations on p. 8, “which we all experience impartially, whatever our philosophy,” which is a direct slap against the whole impetus behind Bergson’s philosophy, that without his reorientation we’ll miss out on the sensation of life, the here and now, and also his remark on Joyce that having a time-god will “practically” “impose on you the same psychology.” (109, italics his even)

[2] I should like to make a distinction between “reference” and “representation,” and Joyce’s answer it is not a referential answer, but a representational one, a symbol. The difference is between “rock” and a rock (the word “rock” refers to a rock) and the Protestant reversal of transubstantiation (the bread is a symbol for Christ), between literal meanings and allegorical meanings, between pointing at the moon and fashioning something to function in place of the moon. The fundamental difference for us is that a referential answer will always break to some extent the ineffable stricture—it is always an effing encroachment. A representational answer, however, stipulates that it will replace non-words with words, rather than have words refer to non-words.