Faust: Part 1 (Penguin Classics) (Pt. 1)

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Amateur Auction Theorist

The way book authors get paid these days is pretty straightforward: publishers keep careful track of how many books they sell and pay authors a royalty — agreed upon when the contract is signed — of each sale. Authors can check sales figures using resources like Bookscan or their own accountants. Royalty rates are well established throughout much of the industry. Everyone is protected by copyright. Easy peasy.

The playing field hasn’t always been so level. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed in 1797, “the publisher always knows the profit to himself and his family whereas the author is totally in the dark.” This problem of lopsided information was aggravated by the near-absence of copyright protection in the 18th and 19th century. A bestseller could be expected to spawn an abundance of pirated versions. Charles Dickens, on his first trip to the United States in 1842, complained endlessly about the pirating of his works for the U.S. market. This lack of intellectual property protection led to further conflicts of interest and opinion between authors and publishers: it was standard practice among publishers — even respectable ones — to have multiple print runs without an author’s permission, and writers sometimes tried to sell near-identical editions of the same title to multiple publishers. Because authors couldn’t trust the sales numbers if and when their publishers provided them, 19th-century book contracts were for a fixed fee rather than per-copy royalty payments.

All of this drove Goethe nuts. Like many artists, Goethe had an uneasy relationship with money in the first place. He was on the one hand disdainful of the profit motive (he once wrote to a publisher, “I look odd to myself when I pronounce the word Profit”), and yet he referred to the asymmetry of information as “the main evil” of publishing. He wanted to ensure that he got his fair share of the fruits of his labors, and to this end he employed various ruses and strategies to ensure that his more materialistically minded publishers didn’t exploit him. Among the most intriguing of these schemes was the peculiar auction he devised for the sale of the manuscript for his epic poem, Hermann and Dorothea.

Goethe wasn’t planning on awarding the manuscript to the highest bidder — the kind of auction you might picture at Sotheby’s for fine art, where the auctioneer raises the price with each bid until the sale price is reached (what’s known as an “open ascending price” or “English auction”). Instead, Goethe engineered the following mechanism, as he explained to Mr. Vieweg, his publisher, in a letter dated January 16, 1797:
I am inclined to offer Mr. Vieweg from Berlin an epic poem, Hermann and Dorothea, which will have approximately 2000 hexameters. …Concerning the royalty we will proceed as follows: I will hand over to Mr. Counsel Böttiger [Goethe’s lawyer] a sealed note which contains my demand, and I wait for what Mr. Vieweg will suggest to offer for my work. If his offer is lower than my demand, then I take my note back, unopened, and the negotiation is broken. If, however, his offer is higher, then I will not ask for more than what is written in the note to be opened by Mr. Böttiger.
What’s going on here?

German economists Benny Moldovanu and Manfred Tietzel stumbled upon Goethe’s negotiation with Vieweg and documented it in the Journal of Political Economy in 1998. According to Moldovanu and Tietzel, scholars had treated Goethe’s proposition as one of the enigmas left behind by one of history’s greatest literary figures.

But the economists argue that there’s no mystery to Goethe’s choice of mechanism. The author wanted to know how much he was worth to Vieweg (perhaps with an eye to extracting higher royalties from his publishers over the longer run), and he devised this peculiar “auction” to get Vieweg to tell him.

Here’s why Goethe’s peculiar auction gets Vieweg to tip his hand. Suppose that Veiweg estimates he can earn 2,000 talers from Hermann and Dorothea — this becomes his walk-away price. In the sales mechanism Goethe proposes, Vieweg should bid exactly 2,000 talers — his full value — for the poem. Why not offer more? Because that only makes a difference if Goethe’s sealed reserve is above 2,000 — exactly the cases where Vieweg would rather pass. And why not offer less? Imagine Vieweg bid 1,800 Talers. If the reserve is less than 1,800 Vieweg gets the manuscript either way. It only makes a difference if the reserve is between 1,800 and 2,000, in which case Vieweg misses out on acquiring a title worth 2,000 for something less than that amount (between 1,800 and 2,000).

It turned out that Goethe had stumbled into what is now known as a “Vickrey auction,” only formally described in 1961 by economist William Vickrey. The Vickrey auction (or “second price sealed bid auction”) has the peculiar characteristic that you don’t need to think about how much to bid or strategize on what others might do — there’s really no strategy at all. Instead, in a Vickrey, the best approach is to simply bid exactly how much you value an item. In fact, this particular auction type drives everything from the sale of Google ad words to bids on eBay.

Goethe certainly had some sense of what his particular genius was worth. The sealed “reserve price” he provided to his agent was 1,000 talers, about three or four times what even a popular author at the time could expect to receive for a work of that length. (By comparison, a day laborer in 1800 earned a wage of about a sixth of a taler per day.)

Why didn’t Goethe just make a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 1,000 talers, a seemingly more straightforward approach? An ultimatum of that sort would generate exactly the same fee for Goethe — 1,000 talers, if Vieweg’s valuation was above that amount — while the “negotiation would be broken” if Vieweg’s valuation was lower, just as with the sealed reserve.

But the response to take-it-or-leave-it is either yes or no. All it reveals to Goethe is whether his poems are worth more than 1,000 or less, but not how much more. Further, by revealing his walk-away price of 1,000 talers, Goethe was unnecessarily handing information to Vieweg that might be used against him in future negotiations. (Recall that Goethe told the publisher that if “his offer is lower than my demand, then I take my note back, unopened.”)

What Goethe wanted was information, a reduction in the asymmetry between him and his publisher. And that is exactly what his Vickrey auction revealed. Goethe surely realized that his best work was still ahead of him (including his most enduring work, Faust, the first part of which was published in 1808) and was already thinking ahead to future negotiations. Anticipating the new economics of the mid-20th century, he realized that where markets are concerned, information is power.

Things didn’t end well for Goethe and his second-bid auction. His agent, Herr Böttiger, sent a note to Vieweg, the publisher, ahead of the sale. “Now, tell me what can and will you pay? I put myself in your place, dear Vieweg, and feel what a spectator, who is your friend, can feel. Given what I approximately know about Goethe’s fees from Göschen, Bertuch, Cotta and Unger, let me just add one thing: you cannot bid under [1,000 talers].” One thousand talers, recall, was exactly the figure Goethe had inscribed in his sealed envelope. Based on Vieweg’s now-public sales records, Hermann and Dorothea went on to be a bestseller, earning tens of thousands of talers for Vieweg and nary a penny more for poor Goethe. You can have the best-designed mechanism, but it doesn’t do you the least bit of good if the game is rigged to begin with.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Outlawed Nobleman: Oscar Wilde’s Trial by Fiction


This month marks the 125th anniversary of The Picture of Dorian Gray’s publication. A delicious scandal from the first day it appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine up to the present, Oscar Wilde’s only novel is so good it has withstood the two deadliest kinds of critical reaction: absolute censure and total adoration. The censure began when a reviewer from the Scots Observer, admitting that Wilde had “brains, art, and style,” venomously dismissed Dorian Gray as a book written only for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.”

That reference to a then-prominent British homosexuality scandal focused the public eye on protagonist Dorian Gray’s relationship with the man who made his portrait, Basil Hallward. In the second edition, Hallward claims to have been “dominated, brain, soul, and power” by Dorian, a sentence that in the Lippincott’s text read “I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly.” The implication of a connection between the two men that went beyond the intellectual was not unjustified, and though Wilde prudently played it down in subsequent printings, the damage had been done. Ward, Lock, and Co., Lippincott’s publisher, removed the issue that contained the novel from sale because the press had cried sodomy. Passages from that version were later used to vilify Wilde during his famous indictment for “gross indecency,” a trial that withered his reputation and lead to his irretrievable exile from London.

But copies of the book lingered on the shelves of the avant-garde, and when Wilde’s society plays began gathering momentum again after his death, a lavish reprinting of the novel was not far behind. The Picture of Dorian Gray’s trajectory has been upward ever since, and it would amuse Wilde to know that it is now the public who adores him, rather than his detractors, who are committing what he called “the absolutely unpardonable crime of trying to confuse the artist with the subject-matter.” The kisses custodians from Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery routinely had to wipe from Wilde’s tomb grew so numerous that in 2011, his estate installed a seven-foot deep plate glass barrier to keep admirers at bay.

I went to the site myself in 2010, when you could still walk up and read the notes Wilde’s fans had left for him. Few referenced his work, but most cast him as a champion of LGBTQ rights. Whether or not he ever played that role, Wilde would be quick to ask what it had to do with the quality of his prose. “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” he wrote in Dorian Gray’s introduction, and the fact that it has survived his moral crucifixion as well as his sainthood is proof that the claim might be true. Think what we will of the man, the book is luminous, terrifying, wonderful.

Understandably, not all critics interested in Wilde’s sexuality are invested in his biography — there is plenty of it in his books. Apart from the impeccable apartments and the clothes, intricate tensions between Eros, art, self-interest, and violence are what make The Picture of Dorian Gray’s great scenes memorable. And the early chapter where Dorian’s portrait is first painted outstrips the rest, because while it blends melodrama and sophistication as well as any scene in William Shakespeare, it also makes the novel a test-kitchen for Wilde’s aesthetic theories.

Wilde wanted to believe that no book could be moral: that to judge art, our sense of good aesthetics (by which he meant unity of form, deep characters, and a roller-coaster plot) should suffice. When he took the stand at his own trial, he asked Victorian London to believe it too. But he took an even bigger risk by allowing the book itself to pose the question. The bravery of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that Wilde was letting his moral and aesthetic theories work out their own implications in his characters. With it, he earned his qualification as a great explorer of the dusky territory between art and ethics.

As Wilde pointed out himself, the portrait-painting scene in chapter two is a modern retelling of Faust, the make-a-deal-with-the-devil scene. Dorian Gray, an arrestingly handsome man of about 20, is having his portrait made by Hallward, one of London’s preeminent artists. In the previous chapter, Hallward begged his friend, the jaded dandy Lord Henry Wotton, not to “spoil” his newfound friendship with Dorian, a man who was bound to “dominate” the rest of his life. Hallward is right to be cautions: Lord Henry is a fast-talker whose only hobby is psychologically “vivisecting” the weaker-minded.

As Dorian mounts the dais for the last phase of Hallward’s work, Henry starts a homily for hedonism that leaves Dorian starstruck: “I believe,” Henry coos, “that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought…that the world would gain…a fresh impulse of joy.” Seeing a “curious new expression” come into Dorian’s face, Hallward meanwhile paints like mad, oblivious to Henry’s tirade, or the effect it has on Dorian, who drinks down Wotton’s vintage to the dregs: “He [Dorian] was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to have come really from himself. The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him…had touched some secret chord…”

It is these influences that lead to the famous moment several pages later when Dorian barters his soul to stay as timeless as the picture. He gets eternal youth as the result, and starts on a trajectory toward infamy and murder. But it is the portrait’s creation that is most interesting, because it occurs at precisely the moment when Dorian’s innocence, the original source of his charm and the reason for his being there, is punctured. Basil’s painting gets is pathos from capturing the instant of his friend’s unmaking, at the hands of his mentor, elevated by his own erotic longing. “I have caught the effect I wanted,” Hallward tells them, “– the half-parted lips, and the bright look in the eyes.”

Dorian’s “most wonderful expression” is the face of Eve biting the apple. Hallward is Adam, lead astray by worshipping Eve too much. Lord Henry, of course, plays the serpent, who shakes the fruit off the tree for Eve not in an act of Miltonic revenge, but out of pure puerile recklessness: I “merely shot an arrow into the air,” Henry thinks privately, “Had it hit the mark?” It had indeed, and Henry can be sure of it once Dorian points to the young face on the canvas and cries “I would give my soul for that!”

That this moment leads Dorian to a hideous downfall should interest us much, because with his hedonistic tirade, Henry was giving the young man an aesthetic exemption from the ethical; the same pass Wilde requested from his critics during his trial, and was tartly refused. In an act of literary bravery, Wilde allowed his art to cannibalize his credibility, and he paid the price, as he knew he would. “There is no such thing as an immoral work of art,” he insisted in trial as well as his novel’s preface, but he learned to be afraid of moral art critics. They were the ones who fed excerpts from Dorian Gray’s first edition to Wilde’s prosecutors, who, with the full weight of the state behind them, hammered him to dust.

The portrait-painting scene distills the creativity that laid him on the anvil: it is art being made at a moment of moral suspension. It captures a man mentally replacing goodness with beauty. And Wilde not only allowed his art to savor such moments of suspended moral judgment, he formulated his whole theory of art on a permanent suspension of it. Another way of saying this is that Wilde was far more interested in letting mankind have its way in a drama than he was in expressing cohesive opinions — or moral systems — through it. He shared this quality with other great aphorists, and with Shakespeare. It is what John Keats called “negative capability,” which a writer has when he is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” An author with negative capability can transcend his context. He can let characters have their way with the world and each other, without interceding on behalf of his own assumptions.

Though he disliked it, Wilde was not always able to avoid writing critical prose, just as he was not able to avoid going to trial. So he couched his writings in negative capability by inverting the fundamental Romantic premise: rather than seeing art as the expression of the artist’s personality a la William Wordsworth, he claimed that “art existed to conceal the artist.” Not to mention being incredibly entertaining at dinner parties, this theory allowed Wilde to free himself from the Victorian moral imperative and focus on the alternately shoddy and magnificent fireworks of the human drama, even if that meant his characters might do something the audience didn’t like. In fact he stuck to his guns even if it meant watching Henry Wotton bilk and manipulate Dorian Gray into a monster using Wilde’s very theories.

That is the last proof of his dramatic talent: it isn’t Victorian moralism which brings Dorian Gray down, but Wilde’s own counterargument to it. When Basil Hallward finally sees the hideous soul trapped in the portrait, and begs Dorian to pray for forgiveness, to have his “sins washed white as snow,” we side with Hallward, not Dorian’s petulant reply that “those words mean nothing to me now.” Dorian’s appeal to the beauty of his sins does nothing to safe him from the guilt of eventually murdering Basil, or the alienation of selfishness: he dies miserably alone, and his household feels no pity.

That Wilde allowed the novel to reach such a conclusion wasn’t pandering to his audience, it was bowing to what he knew, as a brilliant dramatist, to be a fact of human nature: that those who enshrine themselves will soon find the pedestal a prison. As the borders of Dorian’s world shrink, they are increasingly defined in lines of blood, Hallward’s among the rest. That an amoral theory of art and life could have such very real moral consequences was not a convenient conclusion for Wilde’s work to reach: it was the same one reached by his prosecutors, though they took a crude and slanderous road to get there. Wilde knew that with Dorian Gray, he’d given them the perfect ammunition; he just hoped they would be enlightened enough not to consider the lavishness of Dorian’s sin an endorsement of vice. That was his mistake — readers of tragedies have always found it hard to draw the line.

Wilde was so invested in the arts he thought he could build a defense of his honor on an aesthetic theory, but was soon reminded he was talking to a culture more like bankers then his ideal aesthete aristocrats: their fingers twitched to find the bottom line, and Dorian’s fall from grace wasn’t nearly as colorful as his flight from virtue. In the end, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor, and died, discredited and unproductive, in Paris. But it was disappointment, not disgrace, that silenced him: the reality that no one could look past Dorian and Basil’s vaguely sexualized friendship, to the unity and poise with which their story was expressed, was more of a strain on him than years of pounding rocks: he came out of his sentence a wreck, and in French brothels briefly became the man London had made him out to be.

But it was his willingness to reach inconvenient conclusions (and many progressive fans find his supposed deathbed conversion to Catholicism a very inconvenient one) that set Wilde apart: capable of transcending everything to make the characters ring true, he let The Picture of Dorian Gray take on a life of its own. Preaching art for art’s sake in his lectures and at London parties, he still let Dorian reap the obscene harvest of a life lived for art’s sake alone. Wilde’s best work lives at that moment where it bucks the status quo in the name of beauty. In that sense it is a portrait of its author, and thankfully, since its only curse was to be brilliant, it could not share his fate.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Pineapples in a Hothouse: Writing Culture in ‘Dear Committee Members’ and ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’

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In Germany, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, university curators and other supervisors struggled with the balance of power between faculties and centralized administrators. As William Clark details in his book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, private correspondence between administrators and specialists carried the most weight in promotions and hiring.

“A 1795 article in Berlinische Monatsschrift recommended that sovereigns should not consult universities corporately in formal correspondence,” writes Clark. Instead, “a sovereign should consult with a few scholars via confidential correspondence.”

Clark quotes a contemporary history professor who pointed out an eternal truth: “Although the faculties of learned academies recognize the men who most merit a vacant position, they are still seldom or never inclined to suggest the most capable fellow they know.”

The University of Göttingen would be the first to shift away from the correspondence model and inaugurate the era of “publish-or-perish.” But the letter of recommendation, that grim genre of guarded praise and veiled contempt, is still as ubiquitous as ever.

The protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s seventh book, Dear Committee Members, a professor of creative writing named Jay Fitger, is deluged by these requests. In his hands, the letter of recommendation becomes a means of expressing his wider dissatisfaction with his career and his life, only perfunctorily addressing the question of his students’ and colleagues’ “reliability,” “relevant experience,” and “preparedness.” Fitger eschews form in both senses of the word. His letters are incisive instead of workmanlike, garrulous instead of discreet.

Some of the targets of Schumacher’s piquant satire will be familiar: exploitative graduate program schemes that saddle students with debt and unrealistic expectations; automated human-resource systems; and the strained relationship between the university’s idealists (read: humanities professors) and pragmatists (read: bottom-line administrators), the latter of which will willingly trade a nationally-renowned Department of Slavic Studies for a more attractive salad bar.

But Fitger’s letters are also laced with subtle observations about the writing life. The friends he met in the “the Seminar” (which seem to be modeled on Gordon Lish’s courses at Columbia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), writers who were once poised for glory, have experienced setbacks. One novelist’s life story is Job-like, including the sudden death of a wife, but with the manuscript of his magnum opus in place of the seven children.

Schumacher hints that Fitger, a middle-aged man (who happens to be a professional writer), has come to the recognition that the choices he made as a egotistical young aspirant have poisoned his relationships with friends, mentors, and former lovers. Schumacher doesn’t allow any “all-for-the-art” grandstanding for Fitger either, whose career has nosedived since his early success. Instead, with refreshingly honesty, the letters are shot through with palpable regret. He’s still patiently, vainly, attempting to undo the damage 20 years later. A writer who long ago exhausted his own talent, he is especially invested in a shy young writer who is working on a “Bartleby-in-a-Bordello” updating of Herman Melville. The story, which unfolds tragicomically, is redemptive gesture for Fitger.

At one point, Fitger rails against an MFA program (in what is ostensibly a letter of recommendation for a prospective student) by claiming, fairly, that the program exploits the naïveté of students. He writes, “The point of this digression…is not to discourage the practice of writing: What, after all, is a writer’s life without a dose of despair,” before listing off all the “formidable” obstacles of the contemporary writers. But he finishes by saying, the writing life “despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of life worth living at all.”

Earlier this year, Eric Bennett claimed in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction that the Cold War axis of humanist academics and Pentagon spooks shaped the ideological clay feet upon which MFA programs stand: “Creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground.”

Of course, Cold War politics also shaped a much worse example of the writing life: the exceedingly horrific and efficient system of patronage and intimidation administered by the Soviet Union. The persecution of Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstam, and many other writers, journalists, and intellectuals underlines the fact that Soviet government was deeply insinuated in the art world, as sponsor as well as censor.

Finally published in 1967, 28 years after its author died, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita cleverly dovetails the persecution of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) by Pontius Pilate in ancient Palestine and the literary-bureaucratic order of 1930s Soviet Russia. In the latter plot, “Professor Woland,” a satanic figure, terrorizes a group of obsequious, craven hacks belonging to the writer’s organization, MASSOLIT, who mostly pander to the secular, brutal Stalinist regime. (For Bulgakov, those two adjectives do tandem duty.)

During their assault on literary Moscow, two demons visit the headquarters of the Soviet writer’s union, Griboyedov’s House, a stand-in for the Gorky House. During the Communist era, the House brought together writers from throughout the Soviet world to meet, teach, and write great literature.
“You know, Behemoth, I’ve heard many good and flattering things said about this house. Take a look at it, my friend! How nice to think that a veritable multitude of talent is sheltered and ripening under this roof!”

“Like pineapples in a hothouse,” said Behemoth…

“And a sweet terror clutches your heart when you think that at this very minute the author of a future Don Quixote, or Faust, or, the devil take me, Dead Souls may be ripening inside that house!”
If Bulgakov’s fictionalized account and Ismail Kadare’s fictionalized memoir Twilight of the Eastern Gods are accurate, though, the Soviet Goethes and Soviet Gogols weren’t doing much creative “ripening” in the house. Instead, they were carousing, drinking heavily, and engaging in mercenary character assassination against rivals, students, allies, supervisors, cronies, family, and friends.

Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a brilliant non-fiction treatment of Soviet literary culture during the later Leonid Brezhnev years, a non-fiction response to Bulgakov’s novel. As a promising Albanian writer, Kadare was invited to Moscow, where he met the odd mix of Party sycophants and belles-lettrists that was the Soviet intelligentsia.

Of course, the explicit goal of the House was to build a Soviet literature that would undermine nationalist culture, but the reverse-refugee program is comical. Siberian and Ukrainian writers, one Russian notes, have the real problem of enforcing literary convention on a surrealistically unconventional existence:
Can you imagine living your whole life in six-month-long days and nights, and then being required to divide your time into artificial chunks when you sit down to write? For instance, [a Ukrainian writer] couldn’t write ‘Next morning he left’ because ‘next morning’ for him meant in six months’ time.
Kadare also writes about how the literary history of the city was being distorted by the intense political scrutiny:
Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow. Even characters who lived there or were visiting always remained in some imaginary street, as I did in my dreams, and almost never turned into Gorky Street, Tverskoy Boulevard, Okhotny Road, or the environs of the Metropole Hotel…and if they did wander into it they seemed stunned: they heard nothing, and saw nothing — or, rather, they had eyes and ears only for the Kremlin and its bells.
Literary-political events unsettle the young Kadare’s mock-idyll. The first occurs in 1958: Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize, in part for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. Kadare’s own interaction with the book begins auspiciously when he finds the illegal manuscript in one of the rooms at Gorky House. Having accidentally read a few incoherent and scattered pages surreptitiously, Kadare then witnesses the full force of the Soviet media machine as it pummels its dissident and newly-minted Nobel laureate.

Forgoing political outrage, he renders the melancholy disquiet of the anti-Pasternak media blizzard evocatively. He writes:
All the same, newspapers, radio and TV carried on campaigning.

Doctor…Doctor…the wailing of the transcontinental wind made it seem as if the entire, and now almost entirely snow-covered Soviet Union was calling for a man in a white coat. Doctor…Doctor…Sometimes, at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, you could almost hear the deep-throated moaning of an invalid waiting for the arrival from who knew where of a doctor who had so far failed to turn up.
Then, as quickly as it began, the smear campaign stops: no one talks about Pasternak or the Nobel Prize again. A “spontaneous” demonstration is held, under the suspicion that the West secured the prize for Pasternak to undermine to Soviet culture. (Recently declassified CIA documents have shown that, apparently, they were right.) It is eventually decided that Pasternak will have to turn down the prize.

Sometime later, an artist from Moscow becomes infected with smallpox in Delhi, while sketching an Indian princess. Once news of the infection spreads, the Soviet government immediately quarantines the possibly infected. Muscovites rush to vaccination clinics. During the panic, the young Kadare spots a friend who had seemingly given him a cryptic warning, “for me — or rather, for my country.”

The friend demurs, then confesses that there are rumors that Russian-Albanian relations are cooling. Gorky House suddenly turns on the young, anonymous Albanian writer. They fear contagion: because of spurious rumors about faraway political machinations, his one-time mentors and colleagues quickly ostracize and marginalize Ismail Kadare, a great 20th-century novelist. If he had been embraced, his work would have inevitably been co-opted or at least compromised by his sponsor-censors.

Reading Twilight of the Eastern Gods, I thought about another writer who had the similar mixed blessing of being banished from his home country, Witold Gombrowicz. In his Diary, he offered as an archetype the great French humanist François Rabelais, “a writer who had no idea whether he was ‘historical’ or ‘ahistorical.'” (I would add “national” or “internationalist,” “reactionary” or “revolutionary.”.) The author of Gargantua and Pantaguel “had no intention of cultivating ‘absolute writing’ or of paying homage to ‘pure art,’ or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself.”

Gorky House was formative for Kadare. But being rejected by its writers was hardly an obstacle. In fact, the Soviet literary elite might have been doing Kadare a favor by disfavoring him. The concerns of that circle have proven to be parochial, venal, insular. Yet, it produced Kadare, who has managed to craft a nuanced, luminous memoir to commemorate the time when Moscow cried with “the deep-throated moaning of an invalid.”

On the Origin of Novels? Encountering Literary Darwinism

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Twenty minutes into Ridley Scott’s most recent addition to the Alien franchise, the film’s female protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace, attempts to explain to her crew why the scientific vessel Prometheus has spent four years travelling to the faraway moon of LV-223. While expounding her theory of how life on planet Earth was begun by an ancient, enigmatic species dubbed “Engineers,” the vessel’s zoologist, played by Rafe Spell, is unable to contain his skepticism: “Do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look: if you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that’s…[sardonic thumbs-up]…but how do you know?”

This scene aboard the Prometheus serves as a useful parallel to the debate which forms the backdrop to this essay. If we swap 2093 for the present, deep space for this planet’s university English departments, and the origin of humanity for the constitution of modern literary study, we have the basic features of the ongoing clash between literary Darwinism and the rest of the literary establishment. Because the accusation that literary Darwinists level at their colleagues is identical to that of Prometheus’s exasperated zoologist: one of discounting the whole of evolutionary theory, in exchange for their own inadequate and vacuous ideas.

Why should readers of The Millions care about a dispute occurring amidst the cloistered halls of English faculties? Aren’t most debates within literary academia so esoteric, so riddled with obscurantist jargon, that they bear very little relation to the actual reading of books?

Not in the case of literary Darwinism. On the contrary; this self-described “robust guerilla band” intend, eventually, to be able to tell us a number of very straightforward things: why we write, why we read, and why we write the things we write and read the things we read.

Defined simply, literary Darwinism is the practice of using the theory of evolution to understand books. Just as a Marxist critic would emphasize the appearance of class conflict, or the postcolonial critic would focus on the influence of a bygone empire, a literary Darwinist would pick up a novel and highlight the various ways in which they see evolution doing its thing. (And they invariably do see it.) Where another critic might discuss how Pride and Prejudice dramatises the search for self-understanding, or evokes the stultifying conformity of Victorian Britain, a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring.

Where a historicist critic might investigate Faust’s roots in Polish folkore, a literary Darwinist would focus on how it upholds the essential moral character of most literature. (And in turn, via its prescriptive morality, helps evolving societies to unify and thrive.)

This summarizes the two main strains of Literary Darwinism. At the crude end, is old-fashioned textual analysis, but through a Darwinian lens — as in the Pride and Prejudice example. This mostly takes the form of uncovering innate patterns of human behaviour: childbearing, the acquisition of resources, intergroup competition and cooperation, etc. Sometimes this is carried out with nuance and care, as in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer (2008). Other times, though, it can produce analysis which makes Sparknotes read like James Wood. Witness the following, from the pop-sciencey Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “Females are egg makers; males, sperm squirters. The truly important thing about Othello wasn’t the color of his skin, his age or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona, eggs.”

On the more interesting (and academic) end of things, the Literary Darwinists are interested in the adaptive function of literature; as in the Faust example. Their theories vary, from those who posit that storytelling is essentially a form of sexual display (à la Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind) to those who see it as a way of constructing a shared social identity. A few of them entertain the idea that these imaginative abilities are evolutionary by-products (also known as “spandrels”); the offshoots of other, more obviously practical cognitive developments. Most of them, though, posit that the literary imagination is a specific, evolved trait, which — like the opposable thumb, or the neocortex — enabled our Pleistocene-era descendants to better survive their environment. Thus Jonathan Gottschall declares that “fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that…allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” And Brian Boyd — whose On the Origin of Stories is probably the best single work of literary Darwinism — states that “by refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, [literature] fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound.”

Throughout all forms of their analysis, though — from crude readings of Othello to more sensitive works of scholarship — the literary Darwinists are united in epistemological stance. All of them reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model, as famously castigated in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. They are philosophical materialists, and they believe we are first and foremost biological beings hardwired for a number of behaviour patterns. Indeed, most of the literary Darwinists portray social constructionism and its intellectual products — Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, psychoanalysis — as something akin to an intellectual tragedy, and there is nothing that many of them enjoy more than mocking lit crit’s most polarizing product: capital-T Theory. Because Theory, as they (not without justification) see it, is just endlessly rococo speculation. And what the literary Darwinists want is something they see as more often reserved to the other side of campus: what Gottschall is fond of referring to as “durable knowledge.”

And this is where literary Darwinism gets interesting. Because far from being a niche academic concern, the movement, small though it is, plays into a much wider cultural tension. Carroll, Gottschall and their companions are wedded to a narrative of empiricism, positivism, quantification, and progress. They are triumphant rationalists. One can be pretty certain, for example, that as well as casting out Freud and Marx, they have little time for conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. And their aspirations are nothing if not lofty. As literary Darwinism’s most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!”

The problem, of course, is that all this comes off as an attempt to explain books. To reduce literature to sex, survival, and status. And understandably, this gets some people — particularly some book-lovers – a little riled. So we have a Guardian columnist declare that “literature is not an evolutionary join-the-dots…Such interpretations strip literature down to an impoverished universalism: a bland and neutral manuscript where ciphers of the same biological impulses and selfish genes can be repeated ad infinitum.” Similarly, writing a few weeks ago, the longtime critic of literary Darwinism William Deresiewicz rages that “Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest…It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope.”

Such accusations are nothing new, of course. The idea that scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience dates at least as far back as the Romantic poet John Keats’s remark that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.” And the entirety of continental philosophy from Hegel through to Derrida rejects the notion that the natural sciences have a monopoly on the comprehension of phenomena.

The problem, though, is that one finds it hard not to sympathize with both camps. (I’m somewhat cheapening the debate here by presenting it as a simple one-on-one, but still.) On the one hand, it really does feel reductive to talk about Jane Austen as simply complex competition for mates. Even Jonathan Gottschall himself recognizes that “fictions, fantasies, dreams…they are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or timeless warfare among selfish genes.” And his counter — “But I disagree. Science adds to wonder, it doesn’t dissolve it.” — can’t help but feel defensive and somewhat grasping, reminding one of the way Richard Dawkins constantly appeals to “wonder” as a panacea for a world he himself admits, as in River Out of Eden, is underpinned by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There’s no escaping it: to say that Anna Karenina is first and foremost about sperm and eggs feels…wrong. What’s more, the literary Darwinists can be guilty of massaging their data. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall points to the fact that Dostoyevsky didn’t have Raskolnikov “live happily ever after” as proof of the moralism inherent in literature, but Dostoevsky — a devout Orthodox Christian and fervent anti-nihilist — was an author unusually attached to ideas of moralism. How to account for Mikhail Artsybashev, who came to prominence shortly after Dostoevsky, and cited him as a great influence, but whose much-censored works celebrated hedonism, sexual licentiousness, and even group suicide?

Equally, though, literary Darwinists are honest scholars, and theirs is a genuine intellectual enquiry. An assistant professor of English writes with conviction that “the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky — to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.” Maybe so: but does such a risk mean that one simply doesn’t bother at all? Assuming one accepts the premises of evolutionary theory, including the fact that the human mind is evolved, and is serious about understanding literature (a product of that mind), is it good intellectual practice to simply ignore Darwinism altogether? Once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it’s hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion. Accusations of scientism and reductionism may or may not be warranted, but the fact remains: the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars.

The humble book-lover, perhaps, has to simply tread the line as best they can. In closing, it might be instructive to turn to the case of Ian McEwan. Within the context of this discussion, McEwan is an interesting quantity. Not only is he arguably the most famous living English novelist, with a 40-year career and a Booker Prize behind him — he is also the only literary author to feature in the aforementioned 2005 collection The Literary Animal. Within his essay — a meandering paean to biology — McEwan states that “if one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo…one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel.” Only a year or two earlier, he had told The Paris Review that he saw fiction as a way “to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”

How does McEwan reconcile these views, one starkly reductive, one loftily poetic? Can fiction still provide, when on some level one believes that all the characters are just talking bonobos?

A 2013 article which McEwan wrote for the Guardian provides answers, of a sort. Discussing phases “when faith in fiction falters,” McEwan writes that he finds himself wondering “am I really a believer? And then: was I ever?” Approaching novels, he finds that “I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief.” (Bear in mind that Darwinism requires no such suspension: it is simply true, believed-in or otherwise.) When “the god of fiction” deserts him, McEwan finds himself reaching for books on “how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved.” (These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist’s dilemma; it’s hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.)

Slowly though, in spite of all the compelling non-fiction available, something happens: “Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.” McEwan doesn’t tell us how — probably he doesn’t know — but somehow, for all of science’s explanatory power, literature can’t be explained away.
The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything   absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months — science, maths, history, law and all the rest — you can bring with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.

A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)


It’s always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you’ve been meaning to read for many years.  It’s exciting, of course, but you’re aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn’t.  Sometimes it does.  Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman’s idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades.  This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg (“The Real and Unreal City”) to “Some Notes on Modernism in New York.”  That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I’ll repeat Robert Christgau’s words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what’s most important about it is that it’s a good read.  Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it.  At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” That’s what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe’s Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it.  And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on.

The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born.  His major works were first published in the ’80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the ’90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press.  Platonov’s other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I’m happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears.  Platonov’s brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB.

Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s should read Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman’s, one of the best works of cultural history I’ve read in many years.  After I finished it, I felt as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok’s work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don’t usually get from academic history.  Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it’s hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years.  For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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