All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.

On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.

Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it:

The textures and devices of the book are best thought of as neutralizing tactics — in line with Knausgaard’s image of life as “a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides,” where this “enclosedness” is protective, regulating. Nicholas Dames has remarked on the “immersive” quality of the world conjured by the writing; this is right only provided we understand that immersion is a kind of threat or unwelcome outlet. Instead, writing means monitoring proximity, regulating intensity, maintaining a proper scale and distance. …

The point is never understanding; it is always distance. More precisely, a safe distance. … The much remarked-upon abundance of detail in My Struggle is not revealing, not sublime, not meaning-infused. The profuse description is only another distancing mechanism, a way the author pushes off. Knausgaard’s so-called “realism” is only the senseless, resistant substance he is hacking his way through.

All of which leads Parker back to a comparison of Knausgaard’s father’s diary with Knausgaard’s own unwieldy novel. Knausgaard’s “aesthetic program,” Parker says,

demonstrates a basic objection to his father. Namely, that [his father] tried to create distance by fiat, by detachment, and by drinking. The diary is a chronicle that holds experience at arm’s length, rendering it as compact as possible. The son’s novel also creates distance, but by the opposite means: distance cannot be merely affirmed with a sneer, and drinking is only a temporary and reversible means of producing it.

We’re at a point in the publication of My Struggle when there exists, on the one hand, a broad critical consensus on the purposes of Knausgaard’s aesthetic program, and, on the other hand, a kind of critical inoculation to its effects which has led to a largely underwhelming response to Knausgaard’s fourth volume. It’s refreshing, then, to come across a re-evaluation of Knausgaard as provocative as Parker’s — an attempt to overturn the existing consensus, and to challenge the assumptions it encourages Knausgaard’s readers to make, in order to reinvigorate our capacity to appreciate the subtleties and dynamics of My Struggle.

A Prisoner

Long ago… I met a man at a party… who was celebrated because he had spent half his life in prison. He had then written a book about it which displeased the prison authorities and won a literary prize. But this man’s life was over. He was fond of saying that, since to be in prison was simply not to live, the death penalty was the only merciful verdict any jury could deliver. I remember thinking that, in effect, he had never left prison. Prison was all that was real to him; he could speak of nothing else. All his movements, even to the lighting of a cigarette, were stealthy, wherever his eyes focused on saw a wall rise up. His face, the color of his face, brought to mind darkness and dampness, I felt that if one cut him, his flesh would be the flesh of mushrooms. And he described to us in avid, nostalgic detail the barred windows, the barred doors, the judas, the guards standing at far ends of corridors, under the light. It is three tiers high inside the prison and everything is the color of gunmetal. Everything is dark and cold, except for those patches of light, where authority stands. There is on the air perpetually the memory of fists against the metal, a dull, booming tom-tom possibility, like the possibility of madness. The guards move and mutter and pace the corridors and boom dully up and down the stairs. They are in black, they carry guns, they are always afraid, they scarcely dare be kind. Three tiers down, in the prison’s center, in the prison’s great, cold heart, there is always activity: trusted prisoners wheeling things about, going in and out of the offices, ingratiating themselves with the guards for privileges of cigarettes, alcohol, and sex. The night deepens in the prison, there is muttering everywhere, and everybody knows — somehow — that death will be entering the prison courtyard early in the morning. Very early in the morning, before the trusties begin wheeling great garbage cans of food along the corridors, three men in black will come noiselessly down the corridor, one of them will turn the key in the lock. They will lay hands on someone and rush him down the corridor, first to the priest and then to a door which will open only for him, which will allow him, perhaps, one glimpse of the morning before he is thrown forward on his belly on a board and the knife falls on his neck.

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Linguistic Locations in Orbit

Maxwell Donnewald’s ‘The Indescribably Real’ has been on my mind for a few days now, ever since it went online at Full Stop. Essentially a lengthy review of Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparations for the Next Life, it pits Lish against Karl Ove Knausgaard and mounts a defense of Lish’s more conventionally realist aesthetics against certain admirers of Knausgaard who have celebrated My Struggle as an antidote to Lish’s brand of “fiction fiction, organized around characters who don’t actually exist.” What’s interesting about Donnewald’s essay, however, has less to do with the conclusions he reaches than with the path he follows in order to reach them. Donnewald basically takes William H. Gass’ stridently anti-realist, anti-humanist definition of “character” and then reads it into Preparations for the Next Life in a way that allows him to use Lish’s characters as ciphers for a narrative structure that he finds aesthetically rewarding. “A character for me,” Gass once said in conversation with John Gardner,

is any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence, say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. What we do have are subordinate locales of linguistic energy — other characters — which the words in a book flow toward and come out of.

Donnewald’s praise for Preparations hinges on Lish’s use of these “subordinate locales of linguistic energy” as modifiers for the “linguistic location[s]” otherwise known as his main characters. In order to describe and define Lish’s approach, Donnewald turns to the language of astronomy to appropriate the notion of the “barycenter”:

Representations of the solar system often depict a planet’s moons as though they twirl around their host like a ball around the center of a roulette wheel, conquered by the larger’s mass. The planet itself appears fixed in its steady arc, and all the smaller stuff just buzzes around. But this is a fiction. Hubble observations of Pluto in 2006, which led to its reclassification as a dwarf-planet, showed it wobbling with its moons around an empty space, the center of mass of a system of celestial objects in which it simply happens to be the largest. Despite its relative size, the gravitational center of Pluto’s trajectory is dislodged by its satellites outside its body. In truth, any object hosting the orbit of another is engaged in a dance like this, even in cases where the difference in mass is quite large. The earth too, entangled with the gravity of its moon, rotates around a barycenter, as it’s called in astronomy, a few thousand miles off-center. It’s just that, from here on land, it doesn’t look that way. In contrast to the epic formula of Knausgaard, where motives are exhaustively laid bare, such that characters surrounding the author are either entirely present or altogether absent in their influence, there is an oppositional manner of composing realities, in which even if a character is missing from a certain scene, as Auerbach notes, “the influence of his will and his feelings continues to operate.” In such a world, the trajectory of any one character, however prominent, never escapes being warped by the gravity of another. Even if, as in Preparation for the Next Life, these background figures are no longer alive. Just as marginalization cannot reduce them to zeroes, neither do destruction and disappearance — [Brandon] Skinner’s friend Sconyers, mortally injured in the same blast which leaves Skinner permanently disfigured, and Zou Lei’s father, whose life is mysteriously sacrificed in “a war to modernize” for the Chinese military, haunt the story constantly. And likewise, with this remainder of narrative mass looming in the background, no one ever quite manages to take charge of events. The weightless occasionally flicker into form, and so too are the main actors subject to sudden disappearance. Nothing can be traced independently, disentangled from its distorting factors. A continuous self, around which all events are organized, is impossible in this reality.

I’m not sure that this alone invests Preparations for the Next Life with as much aesthetic value as extraordinary as its admirers say it possesses, but it at least allows Donnewald to read the novel in a way that departs provocatively from those who have hailed Lish’s mastery of realism as sufficient grounds on which to celebrate his work.