Tag Archives: London Review of Books

Christopher Ricks in the British Library

Interesting conversation with Christopher Ricks about his new, extensively annotated edition of Eliot’s poetry. The London Review of Books thought it was too annotated, but it’s good to hear his perspective.

He also gives out about post-modernism, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

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The Old Marxists and the Problem of Post-Modernity or Why Batman is better than Macbeth

batman-communist_00402992.jpgIn pursuit of a definition of modernity, an integral part of my PhD dissertation, I’ve been consulting a number of sources, particularly in the old Marxist order of Eric Hobsbawm and Frederic Jameson. My intention is, after all, to argue that the generic difference is a phenomenon dictated by the market, the growth of industrialisation, labour alienation and urbanisation. In other words, modernity coincides with a growing consciousness of ‘the mass.’ It is ironic that the dawning of the age of a mass culture, and state and private mechanisms for their governance, came into existence in a century known also for two of the greatest catastrophes of human history, the two world wars, the mass slaughter occasioned in the course of both. In The Age of Extremes, 1914–1991, Hobsbawm writes the following about that theatre of mass death, the Western front, and how

it became a machine for massacre such as had probably never before been seen in the history of warfare…The British lost a generation — half a million men under the age of thirty.

One reason for the extent of the lives lost during the wars, and for their longevity, is a phenomenon that Hobsbawm calls ‘infinite war:’

unlike earlier wars…typically waged for limited and specifiable objects, was waged for unlimited ends. In The Age of Empire, politics and economics had fused. International political rivalry was modelled on economic growth and competition, but the characteristic features of this was precisely that it had no limit…the ‘natural frontiers’ of Standard Oil, the Deutsche Bank, or the de Beers Diamond Corporation were at the end of the universe, or rather the limits of their own capacity to expand.

This policy indirectly engendered the ways in which society was constructed in their aftermath. Total war revolutionised technology, production and the management of the masses, sustaining investment at unprecedented levels which would never have been undertaken under normal circumstances. It also fundamentally changed the way in which the state managed its citizens, as the combatants were forced to learn quickly how best to distribute their resources during the war effort.

Modernism then, is a movement that is generally seen as arising in conjunction with managerial consciousness, as a reaction against it, an insistence of elite superiority at the dawn of our contemporary understanding of democracy. This was certainly the case for its foremost practitioners, or those who have come to be historicised as such in retrospect, ‘the men of 1914,’ who frequently spoke of democracy, the proletariat, and hey, the Jewish too, why not, with contempt. The first problem with this definition, aside from its erasure of modernism’s more radical and less male elements, such as Brecht, Stein and Doolittle (mostly because they perhaps lacked the resource to mythologise on the same scale as Yeats, Pound and Eliot) is how indissociable modernism is from this retrospective gaze, and the impositions of those who want to define it against post-modernism, and use their preference for modernism’s high tradition, against contemporary popular culture. I like to call this phenomenon straw modernism. (Not to be confused with IKEA or flatpack modernism, an ingenious neologism from Illocutions to define contemporary novels that half-heartedly engage with the innovations of modernist antecedents without necessarily doing anything which might run the risk of being alienating).

The first indication that Hobsbawm might be instantiating a straw modernism comes in the seventeenth chapter of his history of the twentieth century, unpromisingly entitled ‘The Avant-garde Dies — the Arts after 1950.’ In Hobsbawm’s words, the cultural sector of the late twentieth century can be defined in the following terms:

the boundary between what is and is not classifiable as ‘art’…became increasingly hazy, or even disappeared altogether…because an influential school of literary critics thought it impossible, irrelevant and undemocratic to decide whether Shakespeare’s Macbeth was better or worse than Batman.

Whatever else about this quotation, it takes a remarkable kind of mental calisthenics on Hobsbawm’s part to regard the work of Sontag, Spivak, Foucault, as primarily based in arguing the worth of Batman while shouting down Shakespeare.

And it is, furthermore, absolutely impossible and irrelevant to argue thatMacbeth is better than Batman. Do the people who make such arguments expect tenure for doing so? jfc.

Further, from Hobsbawm’s perspective, the growth of image capitalism and technological mediation in the sixties undermined modernism’s ‘progressive’ claim to ‘non-utilitarian artistic creation’ and formal innovation. A key feature of straw modernism is this supposedly ambivalent relationship with the marketplace, its superiority to and remove from more popular forms of art, which is emphasised at the expense of its fascistic contingent. This is often justified by modernism’s supposed critique of the commodity, a viewpoint which has been systematically deconstructed by Lawrence Rainey’s essay ‘The cultural economy of modernism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism.

Rainey points out that mass culture has long been a subtext within modernism, whether it forms as the agent against which it defined itself, or just plainly within it, demonstrated by substantial portions of Ulysses being drawn from light-opera or music hall performance. Jameson disingenuously justifies this by saying that Joyce or Lawrence only ‘quoted’ this sort of thing, whereas in the work of any number of (unnamed) postmodern novelists, it becomes fundamental to its very structure. Obviously the only difference is one’s viewpoint. The very term ‘modernism’ itself has its origin in Pound’s canny attempts to draw attention to his work in a crowded marketplace. F.J. Marinetti was lecturing at the same time Pound was in London, but was getting significantly more attention than Pound’s arch-medieval troubadour work by loudly proclaiming the age of the modern, and excoriating a bourgeois class for their complacency, who repaid the favour by paying money and writing gleeful articles about this provocateur. Pound, until he copped onto this game himself, was passed over. Pound became an ingenious self-promoter, and manipulator of the marketplace, encouraging publishers to include on his blurbs how much his books were capable of fetching at auction, and engaged in the tortuous negotiations with Vanity Fair for the right to publish Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land.’ The editor hadn’t read it, but accepted Pound’s assertion that cultural capital would accrue to the text in time that would make their fee worth it. By the bye, almost 20% of the issue in which it was carried was advertising.

This notion of cultural capital is key to modernism. It is a market contrivance used to bolster the consumer’s sense of their own sophistication, and belonging to a discerning élite with cultivated tastes, existing within “a profoundly ambiguous social space, simultaneously sequestered and semi-withdrawn from the larger institution of publishing, situated instead within a submarket of collecting.” By way of example, the subscription model ofUlysses run by Shakespeare and Company involved a tiered system, which involved deluxe editions of varying value, one tier would get you a signed copy, another would have custom typeface, another would have a kind of paper chosen by the author. The success of the novel, Rainey posits, was more to do with its prominence within a small market of elite book speculators than the crusaders of artistic autonomy who fought for the right of the common man to read the novel, a line too frequently taken up around discussions of the novel’s censorship.

Jameson, having taken no account of this dimension within the modernist arts, believes that post-modernism is an ahistorical cultural mode, one that will forever stymie the Hegelian trajectory of the Marxist world revolution. In the late twentieth century, the proletariat, in the wake of globalisation, are dispersed. They lack a universal consciousness, and, with the demise of the trade union, resistance, let alone the breaking the chains of the worker, seems to have been indefinitely postponed, and Jameson lays the blame at the feet of contemporary cultural thought. He joins Hobsbawm in his uncritical pile-on identity-based political resistance such as feminism, gender agitation, civil rights along racial and indigenous lines. In her Edward W. Said London lecture, Naomi Klein demonstrated how such political imaginaries are not only not a distraction from class-based agitation, but must become fundamental.

The absurdity that this is all contrasted with the modernist strain, which, if it were to be called merely reactionary would be whitewashing the matter, is clear. Let us formulate modes of resistance that work today, now, in our contemporary setting, rather than praise the artists of the past, for qualities which they did not possess.

Colm Tóibín on Easter 1916

A lecture delivered by Colm Tóibín which paints a picture of the historical background from which the vivid faces of the Easter Rising emerged; with particular focus on Padraig Pearse, his poetry, his religious beliefs and how his pedagogical theories relate to his nationalism.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n07/colm-toibin/after-i-am-hanged-my-portrait-will-be-interesting

Post-Soviet America and Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld opens in 1951, at a famous or infamous baseball game, (depending on whether you care more about the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants) where Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover sit in the stands and watch. One of the novel’s many characters, Cotter Martin, playing hooky from school in order to attend, has a blithe conversation with Bill Waterson, across racial divides, in 1951 of all times. The tone throughout is stately, smooth and as good as DeLillo gets. Is this a novel about Old America, pre the frequently articulated loss of American innocence? A great American novel about great American people in all their ordinary humanness, through which an underplayed redemption is obtained? A nostalgic paean to pre-counter-culture, old New York? Yes, and at the same time, absolutely not, there is nothing about ordinary, white bread, milquetoast America in this novel, and the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted, upsetting, Stepford-y sections in the text.

This is for the reason that DeLillo’s prose, and I mean this as praise, simply will not allow real life in:

“Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about each other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here but also there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.”

Sometimes the only response worth outlining to a quotation is, well, there it is. This is one such occasion.

But one of the many things that makes Underworld so gratifying, is, if it is straddling the Great American Baggage, it is also resisting the obvious potential response, the sort of counter-cultural, Anglo-Dutch patronymics, scattered, dispersed, yet totally connected plots and clockwork characters of Thomas Pynchon. James Wood describes Underworld as a ‘post-paranoid novel,’ and he is not suggesting, when he does so, that the novel has somehow moved beyond paranoia. One would have to be an inferior literary critic to claim that in the two-year span that produced Underworld, Infinite Jest and Mason & Dixon that the contemporary American novel was in some way done with paranoia, but he is pointing to a component of Underworld, DeLillo’s subversion of what some of his mates might be up to.

DeLillo has expressed nostalgia for the Old America of the fifties, but as was said, this is not something that Underworld expresses baldly. For many of its characters in retrospect, the Cold War was a time of certainty, one knew who the enemy was, and who you were. The good guys. When this all falls away, when Kennedy is shot, when the Zapruder film is released, when the civil rights movement exposes white supremacy, the answer is a lot less clear. Messrs Pynchon, Foster Wallace have tended to align a critique on not totally dissimilar lines along with the rise of consumerism, and these things certainly aren’t unrelated, but DeLillo has a more interesting take on the matter, and the vast, uncomprehendable quantity of waste that it produces. DeLillo’s descriptions of such things are tinged with religiosity and rather than slinging a sardonic eye the way of piled-up garbage, reaches a pitch of intense profundity, saying that we may judge our progress as a civilisation by charting our relationship with our own waste: “Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.”

Further, the character of Marvin, the collector of baseball memorabilia, and one of the owners of the famous baseball that threads itself through the novel seems to me to be a satire of Pynchon’s metaphor-for-narrative narratives: “Marvin said, ‘’Which the whole thing is interesting because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.’ Through the narration, the whole wandering epic, skimmed here, protracted there, Brian was confident that the man was slipshod only in the telling. The search itself had clearly been hard, fierce, thorough and consuming.’ Marvin’s submersion in his past, determined to trace the baseball’s origin story, and relate it to the bomb, is the real nostalgia, almost as if DeLillo is getting one over and getting past the paranoid maximalism of his peers. By investigating the effects of capital influx into post-Soviet Russia in the epilogue, and the new dispensation that exists between the two states in an age of invisible ideology, De Lillo is attending to something more vivid and fundamental.

This quotation gives some sense of one aspect of what it is that the Underworld of the title refers to, you’d have to read the book to get at all of them. It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As the novel continues, one finds oneself increasingly noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that might only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the equally mythologised magic bullet. But don’t spend all your time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this this:

“This was a statement she couldn’t make, partly out of personality but also because she could not feel the ordinary contentment of things the way she used to. She could not feel favoured or charmed.

He’d replaced her life with his leaving. The voice running through her head was not the voice she used to hear before he left…There was less of her now and more of other people. She was becoming other people. Maybe that’s why they called her Rose.”

Colm Tóibín in conversation about Elizabeth Bishop

Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books bookshop, discussing the poetry and life of Elizabeth Bishop, with reference to his book on the poet with Ruth Padel. Great readings, good insights and inappropriate laughter in the background. It has everything.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/2013/08/31/colm-toibin/colm-toibin-in-conversation

Mary Beard on Desert Island Discs

Classicist Mary Beard speaking on Desert Island Discs being great on topics such as the Puritan left, the reaction to her comments on 9/11 and sisters doing it for themselves.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00q9k51

Also, here’s a great lecture she gave for the London Review of Books on the words used to describe the way that women speak in classical literature and its significance today.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women

Ben Marcus Q & A

If you’ve never read Ben Marcus’ novel The Flame Alphabet, you may not be totally aware what words on a page are capable of doing. He gave a lecture/had a conversation about the reductiveness of the label ‘experimental’ and how his self-imposed limitations play a role in his writing.