Tag: literature

Yes, I Am a Snob

I was born for this
I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead.
Charles Bukowski, "Consummation of Grief"

A friend of mine sent an article to me today [months ago now], requesting my feedback. He will be getting a link to this blogpost in reciprocation, and I should mention—for his benefit, primarily—that I take his solicitation of my opinion as a sort of backward compliment. It's not my input he wanted, you see. Not in the least. Rather, I suspect I stand accused of cultural snobbishness. I am supposed to see something of myself in Jonathan Jones, the maligned Guardian writer this piece from the Paris Review takes to task for delighting in the ebullient flexing of his own literary sphincter, employed in an attempt to filter out the noise of "middlebrow" culture misconstrued as genius.

I have not read the offending Jones piece, nor do I care to (this should strike you as "ironic" in a short while and, hopefully, in the spirit of the current fracas). My comments will focus only on the meta-commentary that my friend lobbed like a grenade into my inbox today. In it, Dan Piepenbring mourns Jones's hit piece on Terry Pratchett, in which the latter op-ed scribe bemoans the exaltation of Pratchett as a "literary genius". I've never read Discworld myself, Pratchett's famous and popular science fiction series; neither has Jones, which, Piepenbring says, makes Jones's a purely rhetorical, rather than reasoned, screed. Piepenbring illustrates the phenomenon with this incisive diagnosis of the exhibited cultural malady:

Granted, there’s nothing quiet about Jones’s not-reading. Not all of us, thankfully, have the gall to write a piece blasting our favorite not-reads, but all of us harbor, somewhere, a list of those toward which we feel an inexplicable animus. At the top of my list, ironically enough, is Charles Bukowski, who Jones singles out as “a voice from hell with the talent of an angel.” I have for many years now actively enjoyed not reading Charles Bukowski. I want to say with conviction that Bukowski is not so much a voice from hell as a voice from Hell-Lite™, a kind of flimsy, adolescent imitation of true misanthropy—but I have no evidence to furnish in my case against him. How could I? I’ve never read him. All I know is that I’ve listened to a tepid Modest Mouse song about him; I have spoken to a stranger at a bar who told me she’d “snort his words off the page,” if she could; and I’ve sneered at the cover of Ham on Rye in a Park Slope Barnes and Noble. If you asked me to mount a cogent defense of my antipathy, I’d have to say something pretentious like “I find his role in the culture banal.”

Leaving aside the fact that Piepenbring is undoubtedly right, and wrong, about Charles Bukowski, his comments are spot on, and hardly limited to literature. In the spirit of openness, therefore, here is a short list of selected popular media I will (probably) not consume, for my own irrational and elitist reasons.

  • Neil Gaiman
  • David Foster Wallace
    • Disclosure: I think I may have read "Consider the Lobster", and liked it.
  • The Harry Potter series of books
  • Ernest Hemingway (DGAF)
    • Disclosure: I read "Hills Like White Elephants" and enjoyed it also.
  • Mad Men
  • Jacques Lacan (I'm pretty sure about this one)
  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Marvel Universe
  • Selected Joss Whedon (minus Firefly)
  • Jack Kerouac
    • Disclosure: I've read 60 pages of On the Road and 60 pages of Dharma Bums. Not impressed.
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Bruno Latour

This is not an exhaustive list, and I reserve the right to go back on my word at any time. Notably, I've also kept off those atrocities I have imbibed yet which, despite their being atrocities — or simply not nearly as good as everyone says, e.g., Inception—people seem to regard as watershed achievements of human culture. I'm a little surprised I can't do better than this, to be honest, considering all the shit I get for being a dismissive naysayer.

Life, alas, is too short not to filter mercilessly and pre-emptively. At least, that's one way to rationalize one's own insularity.

Humans and the Humanities

In keeping with my tradition of insulting, degrading, and otherwise doubting the humanities, that slimy, little den in which I've been mired for the duration of my academic "career," I want to point my reader's attention to a post by Kenneth Anderson at The Volokh Conspiracy, especially his conclusion:

It means, for another thing, that the humanities as disciplines, while they might still (barely) be a way of teaching certain forms of reasoning, don’t provide “content” in the intellectual reproduction of commercial culture – at least, not at the fundamental level, at the level of science and applied science. They are not part of the production of new knowledge. Success and advance for society lie in the innovations of technical and applied sciences alone – and the humanities lose a place in the production of these innovations, and become relegated to the status of mere items of consumption. Literature, the arts, criticism, the essay – their social significance lies solely in their role as entertainment. Entertainment is what one does in one’s free time, for fun. It is dispensable, and the humanities, too, their raw materials and their analytic products, likewise are dispensable. We didn’t use to think this about the humanities, its products, disciplines, and academic efforts. But that’s where we are now: fantastically produced and expensive, but their deliverances no longer can claim to reveal anything very important about the world. That role has been ceded to STEM; and, well, The Rest is Noise.

I'm still uncertain, after reading the post a couple of times, whether Anderson believes there is still a place for the humanities in academia at all:  at times he appears to offer a bit of backhanded support, though it is clear he does not hold them in high regard.  He is quite right, I think, that the humanities—in my case, English—do not provide the sort of critical thinking or reasoning skills necessary for survival (or to be very useful) in an increasingly technologically and intellectually complex world.  On the other hand, I'm inclined to believe there is a nebulous and probably small benefit to cultural scholarship; what that benefit is, I can't say exactly, except to note that I'm a proponent of wide knowledge bases, whatever their nature.  As a friend of mine commonly complains to incurious people, "How could you not want more information?"

Still, the charge that our fictions, essays, and criticisms fail to provide truth in the way the STEM disciplines do is well taken, unavoidable, really.  Literature relies on anecdote instead of data, and criticism on philosophical constructs bereft of objective, usable information.  The more we learn about social systems, human behavior, and free will, the more we see in our supposedly "human" qualities a machine-like consistency in the aggregate.

Anderson:

It’s only the humanities that gave up on the search for truths about human beings in the world. The economists and the geeks of social science never gave up the search, and they (and we) seem to have concluded that the answers are located in purely technical subjects through purely technical thinking.

He is spot on here.  The implication, of course, demands that we in the humanities begin to accept and admit that we do what we do because we like it, not because it is of any intrinsic value to anyone else.  In our blind stretch for truth, to produce truth, we fell upon the illusion of it, and maybe even a few of us did so without the customary hubris of the artist dribbling out the corners of our mouths.  But make no mistake, we have slipped through the backdoor of the entertainment industry believing we were reaching for something higher.

We can learn true and marketable skills in the humanities:  communication, for instance, is of premium importance in many fields, including STEM, some of which are not known for their stable of able messengers.  If you want to help humanity as a humanities student, start there.  If not, I'm certainly not saying the humanities are worthless—not while we're all nice and comfy, anyway.

Deciding What to Like

I was rummaging through my electronic files last night, looking for inspiring crumbs—a chance thought hammered out during a spare minute, already crystalline in form and fully realized yet scribbled in some nebulous personal code I was sure at the time I would be able to decrypt upon later viewing—when I found a file called "Bullshit Criticisms.doc."  In it, I had written this:

Always fear the reader who accuses smugness or arrogance simply upon coming across a quiver of big words or inaccessible references.

Is being cerebral a bad thing in writing?  Presumably this is a Master's course and we should be aspiring to the intelligent.  If your primary criticism is that the author of whatever you're reading is smarter than you, go pick up a fucking book, or a dictionary, and get cracking.

Are the points these people want our writers to make simply arguments to reinforce the points as we already imagine them to be?  The very act of an author's teasing a hidden meaning—or even an observation that is not immediately apparent—out of a scene is scoffed at by this ilk.  That Joan Didion might have an objection to a culture immediately calls upon her the charge of elitism.  It is as if people are offended by the simple act of being challenged; even where criticisms of Didion might exist, those that are substantive are never mentioned, but stem rather from this lack of confidence, or perhaps a simple ruefulness at the mere suggestion that things may not be as they seem.

I remember the precipitating incident only vaguely, though the experience as such is not uncommon in writing and literature courses.  A student will, after having read a piece of writing, judge it based on their own personal, ideological, and emotional reactions.  Now, of course our biases inform our interpretations and opinions of literature constantly as we read; that's the way literature works:  we react (or don't) according to the impressions we've come to accept through the culmination of our experience and, using only this hard-won but uneven palette of information, like or dislike a work based on whether we think it feels true.  By true, I mean that we laugh at a joke because it feels genuinely funny, grimace at a dramatic turn because it genuinely hurts, or shrink in horror at a science fiction story because the paths to dystopia and slavery become frighteningly hard to ignore (Logan's Run, anyone?).

But the situation becomes a bit discouraging, especially during a group discussion, when a student decides a work is either good or bad because what they as a reader wanted to happen either did or didn't.  Sometimes readers want revenge and get angry when the villain escapes; sometimes they get red in the face when an author fails to subject a character to some sort of poetic or ironic comeuppance that either reinforces or disintegrates that character's primary flaw.  We want carnivores to be devoured by plants, rapists to lose their sexual organs, bigots to renounce their petty hatred.  We seem to be programmed to want these sorts of neat, little endings; we seem to want things to be easy, to watch whomever we're rooting for win out.

But, of course, life isn't easy.  The good folks don't always win.  Sometimes the bad guys win because there is a point to be made—which doesn't mean, of course, that we have to side with the rapist or the bigot (I hope none of us do), just that we shouldn't shut off our brains at the first sign of discord.

Granted, we have many lenses through which we can examine a piece of literature, and many different reasons to read as well (enjoyment, "enlightenment," perspective, etc.).  If your critique, however, can be restated to approximate in form a statement like "I didn't like it because I wanted him to die," it may be best to consider reassessing your critical methods or else finding another line of work.

To address my little found ramble again, Didion upsets some readers because she is almost unfailingly indecisive.  It's sort of her thing.  Furthermore, back in the 1970s she rubbed elbows with some pretty famous people, and, every now and then, her accounts of ritzy parties and political functions read as if written partially for the purpose of name-dropping.  Personally, I think Didion is a fantastic writer, and yes, part of my estimation stems from the fact that I can appreciate her radical uncertainty in all things—a bias-informed position on my part, to be sure.  At times she writes presuming a level of education from her readership; if I remember correctly, it was this sort of writing, in a 1970-something piece criticizing zeitgeisty anti-womanhood feminists, that rankled a few of my classmates.  Surely some of the more specific cultural and political references, namely those local to California, are lost upon my generation, and the reading required some extratextual engagement, which is to say you had to look a few things up if you wanted to understand the article.  Plus, Didion (uncharacteristically, for her) used some big, scary words.

It is well known in some circles (maybe) that, when presented with big, scary words, writing and literature students who don't already know those big, scary words tend to feel, well, inadequate.  Often this gnawing sense of inferiority leads to a lashing out, a heated, uncontrollable hatred for the writer, and comments like "I just think the writing is unclear, you know, like, she could have, like, used shorter words to get her point across," have been known to pass the lips of some otherwise reasonable people. On these occasions, most of the other students nod knowingly, and those who would love to publicly pillory the statement either buck up and look like assholes or swallow the temptation and sit there seething, perhaps scribbling down a few choice words in silent protest.

I really don't mean to be caustic.  I'm just a bit shocked at the resistance to being challenged.  Morally or politically, ideologically or intellectually, the instinct, when a person is presented with a potentially problematic viewpoint, seems to be to circle the wagons at all costs.

Do we really want everyone to write in short, pithy sentences?  Do we want the reductive "truth" or the complex amorphism?  Should we spurn literature that doesn't agree with the simplistic mottoes we've all no doubt pinned inside our jackets?  Obviously all such considerations can and should be made case by case, work by work.  And, yes, sometimes we will decide we are not willing to make certain concessions.

But consider, next time, that maybe, just maybe, if you don't like something, you weren't meant to like it.  Perhaps we'd be a bit better off if we didn't feel so comfortable all the time, if we sought what upset us rather than avoiding anything that threatens to break our little bubbles.  Furthermore, and regardless of the previous points, don't dismiss the notion that personal and intellectual growth are probably watered more by chaos than harmony.

 

The End: Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, NV (January 2007)*

This will be as useless and banal as any obituary or tribute, not only because memorializing a person's life is, in its own way, an act of barbarism, but because I am limited in what I've read of Hitchens's work to his last eight or so years' worth of essays.  I've not read God is Not Great, nor have I read Arguably.  I will, but that's not the point.  Reading one Christopher Hitchens essay should be enough for any reader to realize, without doubt, that they are drinking deep the work of a virtuoso, a true master of written English, and a wit unparalleled by any of his contemporaries.  When he died last night, the world lost perhaps its finest living prose writer.

I have always marveled at Hitchens's fearlessness.  A person can be born with intelligence, can then cultivate that intelligence with the requisite hours of reading, writing, and deep thinking; Hitchens certainly exhibited both this staggering raw intellect as well as the drive to put it to good use.  But it was his bellowing confidence in the soundness of his position that, I think, proved his most important trait.  Atheists like me will never forget his unapologetic challenges to the very concept of religion, the ferocity of his defense of reason and reality in the face of a world that mostly didn't want to hear it.  It is important to note that on the night Christopher Hitchens died, for good, without promise of Heaven or Hell, well over 6 billion people on the planet earth went to sleep that very same night believing in a god.  Such was, and is, the sheer force against the realities of our existence.

From a political standpoint, Hitchens was always challenging, and often frustrating.  As an unapologetic liberal during my college years, having bought wholesale many myths peddled by the Left that held any supporter of the Iraq War as a blithering dolt, reading Hitchens's cogent and informed (and yes, sometimes troubling)  affirmations of U.S.-led armed conflict in the Middle East spurred the first tremors of my own crisis of opinion, a radical uncertainty in all the moral shibboleths I had, up until that time, taken for granted.  I still don't agree with Hitchens on Iraq.  I never will.  But dissent is the whetstone upon which logic is honed... and hell, let's just up and throw progress in there as well.  For, to calcify ideologically to the point of surrendering to the nearest and most convenient pair of blinders is to render oneself irrelevant.  It is to die before dying.

There is little else for me to say about the man that won't be said in much more worthy fashion by those who knew him well.  His death has been picking at me since last night, though, and I've been walking around fending off small panicked waves of sadness.  The world seems a slightly emptier place without Christopher Hitchens.  To think that he will never write another word, a loathsome realization in a land that badly needs the sort of perspective Hitch dealt regularly, with seeming ease.

Yes, Hitchens is gone now, and with him goes an irreplaceable force.  It's almost surreal, really:  I always half-expected him to beat the odds, to emerge from the harrowing shroud of cancer a physical exception as well as an intellectual one, a corpus of raw and honest essays about his own flirtation with death nestled underneath his arm as a reminder of his trial instead of a self-composed requiem.  I thought he would make it.  But he didn't.  He was just a human being, after all, and our chaotic universe, unlike gods, does not bestow its favor upon any person.

Still, who can believe it when a titan falls?

UPDATE (12/17/2011): Having now reread this thing with the benefit of a little distance, I realize my third paragraph comes off as a bit fawning, and perhaps dismissive of the subject it deals with.  I thought some of Hitchens's writing on Iraq and Islam bordered on jingoism, even if I sympathized with those strains of his criticism that had more to do with atheism than with a hawkish war machine.  I feel just about as badly about Iraq now as I did six years ago, and, while I meant what I said about his opinions forcing me to reevaluate my own, I do regard his views on the war as a major chink in his armor.  He was a flawed human being—too sure of his own opinions, arrogant and dismissive, at times even unduly caustic.  Regardless, my other comments stand.  I will miss the hell out of him.

 

* Photo by ensceptico (CC-BY-2.0)

Notes from the Underground: In Which Dostoyevsky Says What I Mean

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1879

I'm a little over halfway through Notes from the Underground right now.  It's a book I've started reading a number of times without ever getting past Chapter 3, not because I disliked it—on the contrary, I thought it was brilliant from the start—but, for whatever reason, something would always manage to distract me.  (It's shameful, I know, that I've somehow passed twenty-seven years on this rock without finishing the bloody thing.)

Perhaps I was scared because his observations hit a little too close to home—remarkably close, in fact.  Reading Notes from the Underground makes me feel like a tepid facsimile:  the thoughts expressed therein, mostly in Part I, are almost exactly the same as those I've been wrangling with for the past year or so.  I am disgusted yet relieved, horrified yet overjoyed.  And while I have little else to say on the matter, there is one passage that provides such an accurate summary of my own mindset (and folly) that I feel a pressing need to post it on my blog.  (In this regard, my procrastination may have been a blessing in disguise, as the latter half of Part I probably means much more to me now than it would have a year or two ago.)

He who reveals himself too deeply does so at his own peril, and whoever reads the following paragraph will forever have a psychological trump card with which to reduce me to an infirm mass of blithering goo:

"Isn't that shameful, isn't that humiliating?" you will say, perhaps, wagging your heads contemptuously. "You thirst for life and try to settle the problems of life by a logical tangle. And how persistent, how insolent are your sallies, and at the same time what a scare you are in! You talk nonsense and are pleased with it; you say impudent things and are in continual alarm and apologising for them. You declare that you are afraid of nothing and at the same time try to ingratiate yourself in our good opinion. You declare that you are gnashing your teeth and at the same time you try to be witty so as to amuse us. You know that your witticisms are not witty, but you are evidently well satisfied with their literary value. You may, perhaps, have really suffered, but you have no respect for your own suffering. You may have sincerity, but you have no modesty; out of the pettiest vanity you expose your sincerity to publicity and ignominy. You doubtlessly mean to say something, but hide your last word through fear, because you have not the resolution to utter it, and only have a cowardly impudence. You boast of consciousness, but you are not sure of your ground, for though your mind works, yet your heart is darkened and corrupt, and you cannot have a full, genuine consciousness without a pure heart. And how intrusive you are, how you insist and grimace! Lies, lies, lies!"

That's a rough read for me.  It's not easy to admit to being a hopelessly lost, infinitely pretentious ass.  But if I have believed in one thing more or less consistently throughout my life it's that I would much rather live an ugly truth than a beautiful lie.

It seems a long-dead Russian author has already written most of the thoughts I've been trying to verbalize, my own ugly truth.  Saves me the trouble.