One of the themes that speak most powerfully from Christian Wiman’s writings—poems, essays, memoirs—is that of the absence of inspiration or the absence of God. To begin with the first formulation, Wiman concedes of the texts most close to his heart that for page after page after page they will fail to inspire. For one of the most prominent Christian poets working in North America today, it might seem surprising to see how he calls the Bible, for the most part, “cold ash.” It is also in these pages—his first volume of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)—that Wiman relates his time reading Milton in Guatemala in similar terms: reading for hours on end while getting nothing in return. The poet has to be patient, as his art doesn’t care for him in the same way he cares for her.
The absence of God, the second form that this absence takes in Wiman’s writings, is a motif he takes from Simone Weil and, for the present volume, from the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. The absence of God in the contemporary world is, to Wiman, the cue par excellence for Christian faith to seize on. What presented him decisively with this cue was when, a year after he married the poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. Coming from a deeply religious family and culture, in the years following his diagnosis Wiman began to revisit the words, forms, and stories that belonged to his Christian upbringing.
This theme of the absent God and the absence of inspiration connects to a crucial stake of Wiman’s work. This is the redemptive work of the poem itself, how it absolves the poet, and releases him from ambition. The poem, it seems, mediates between the self and grace. This is evinced by Ambition and Survival, as well as Wiman’s poetry, for instance “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing (2010) which ends with the lines “that life is not the life of men / And that is where the joy came in.” Joy, grace, God—as these concepts are not subject to ambition, which means they cannot be secured by the exercise of free will. All of Wiman’s writing brings out how the poet, with his own measure of skill, his form and style, attempts to come to terms with this lasting truth. Within poetry, there is something greater at stake than poetry itself—not just an expression of Christian thinking on Wiman’s, this is an essential stake of his poetics.
Christian Wiman was known in literary circles for his poems and work as a critic, when he came into the spotlight as the editor of the renowned Poetry journal, at a time when that institution was gifted a massive financial bequest from Ruth Lilly in 2003. In fact, the present volume talks about his time working at Poetry’s Chicago offices, and it seems to hint at a running gag about Wiman’s resolution to stay with the journal for a year, maybe two or three at most, while in fact he ultimately held the job for a decade. Notwithstanding his legacy as the editor of Poetry, Wiman definitively made his name as a writer and thinker when in 2013 he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. In this book, Wiman uses poetry and theology to contemplate his mortality and his illness as he searches for the words to articulate his faith. Currently, Wiman teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.
With Wiman, absence effectively becomes conditional to whatever presence it denies. This is true for his poetics as well as his theology. In the case of poetry, Wiman often relates his discoveries in reading other poets as well as his own creative process as significantly coming from a place of intense boredom. For example, it matters to Wiman that Milton’s towering Paradise Lost is, for the most part, practically unreadable and certainly disagreeable to the contemporary reader, as it is also important to him that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, only seems to find his voice in the correspondence with his friend Eberhard Bethge. These examples are from Ambition and Survival and My Bright Abyss. Similarly, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, his latest publication, takes its cue from a particularly uninspired performance of A.R. Ammons to build its narrative arc (Ammons is also behind the book’s title) while it also tells a funny and moving story about how Wiman finds unexpected joy and insight in the work of Mary Oliver—an experience that is confirmed when they meet. In this respect, the time with Poetry journal must have been highly formative, as it equipped him with the capacity of reading poetry as a desk-based job, describing himself as ”a clerk of verse.”
The absent God is a point of theological principle to Wiman—influenced by Weil, Bonhoeffer, and other avant-garde Christian thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who take as their point of departure the image of Christ dying at the cross, crying out his abandonment. Importantly, however, Wiman speaks in this sense from experience, about this dangerous and unpredictable form of cancer that he has lived with since 2007.
He Held Radical Light displays the poetical prose familiar to readers of My Bright Abyss: Every sentence is chiseled into stone, beautiful and lasting. Although Wiman can be casual in his formulations—for example when he declares his regret with ever having put Lolita “into his brain”—his ear for the rhyme of a prose sentence, enhanced with great precision and sincerity, makes for a reading experience that is extremely rare. The transparency of the writing is so strong that it illuminates and reflects on the reader. There are also structural similarities between He Held Radical Light and My Bright Abyss, like Wiman’s fondness for telling sobering anecdotes about meeting older poets, as these play their part in preparing the young poet for a lifetime waiting on poetry. These two books are different on another level. While in My Bright Abyss, composed from standalone essays, Wiman is really writing aphorisms, He Held Radical Light consists of one single narrative thread. If the subject matter of the earlier book might have constrained Wiman to short bursts of writing, here his endurance has expanded. This dissimilarity aside, both books are difficult to revisit, to dip in to. The insights or thinking they inspire come with the flow of the writing; they are not reducible to any particular content.
Wiman’s motif of underlining the absence of inspiration invites a comparison with his younger colleague, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner. In his essay The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Lerner has argued the radical inaccessibility of poetical content, one that is waymarked and forbidden precisely by the poem itself. The true poem, to Lerner, is forever absent. Lerner is dissatisfied with the contingent form every poem has to settle on, as it will inevitably fall short of the heavenly music it refers to. In this sense, it is revealing why Lerner values Dickinson over Keats:
Personally, I have never found Keatsian euphony quite as powerful as Dickinson’s dissonance. I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord… and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres.
In Dickinson, embedded into the very score of divine music, Lerner finds an immanent division and critique of poetical form, which is something his taste for poetical authenticity demands. Lerner perceives in Keats’s work a claim to a structural integrity that, to him, is simply untrue to the experience of poetry. In a spot-on digression, Lerner illustrates the divide between poetry and world as he relates the illusion of recognition when laymen hear the names of poets. I think this is phenomenologically accurate. It is telling, then, that even Lerner locates our botched attempts at identifying unknown poets within the capacity of memory, and of soul-searching, as if even those of us whose stated position would take an indifference to poetry think of it as something close to the heart.
Wiman’s stance is remarkable because he never gives up the point of the significance of poetry, even for a world that is indifferent. And this significance depends on the balance between the presence and absence of inspiration, of God, and the question of salvation. To some, perhaps, this explains Wiman as a religious poet. Indeed, Wiman is attuned to the miracle of experiencing poetical content, not in spite of the mediocrity of poetry—as with Lerner—but thanks to its genius. However, for Wiman it is a poetical demand that the poem moves beyond itself, moves beyond artistic or creative accomplishment.
So when for a poet like Lerner there is a clean separation between the divine and profane, for Wiman the poem works as an intermediary, and can unlock eternal truths within a finite context. The existence of poetry has this religious meaning, it plays a part within the soteriological scheme of things. Soteriology means the study of salvation. As a field within systematic theology it has in recent years been taken up more and more in philosophy and political theory. For Wiman, the way he discusses soteriological questions has everything to do with the motifs I commenced this review with, the absence of God and the absence of inspiration. And this implies, crucially, how the poem itself is never enough. The poem is a means to purge the poet of their literary ambitions—not to realize them—and to help its audience navigate a way toward a truth that overrides the beauty of its language. It has to make the self see the innocence and vulnerability of the soul.
One particularly moving motif from He Held Radical Light is that of the lineage of poets, of how the experience of the older poet is not just useful to their younger colleagues but eerily similar. It is as if the poets go through the same life, or at least confront the same ethical dilemma between life and art. Wiman suggests this, and more, by weaving certain patterns into his relationships with the world of poetry: his bad starts with female poets Susan Howe and Mary Arnold—after which reconciliation follows—and the way in which older male poets mentored him, notably Donald Hall, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney. Especially within the context of such a short essay, and even when the writer concedes that perhaps every poet has a choice to make between art and life, these patterns stand out and remain puzzling. They remain puzzling as the poet’s dilemma is overshadowed by strange coincidences of fate, as the book relates an orchestrated scattering of illness striking, almost always cancer, among Wiman’s professional acquaintances. These are of more than superficial interest, and Wiman’s writing—and in this the new publication is more pronounced than its predecessor—works to save by remembering. And remember it does, if only for some time. Highly contingent and uncertain, this is how memory saves. Nothing illustrates this better than Wiman’s brief and entirely parenthesized recollection of another departed friend, halfway through the book, and his final struggle to remember a forgotten word from childhood. This restricted view on salvation, as always falling short, is the most radical idea from He Held Radical Light.
My Bright Abyss and He Held Radical Light—the change of pronoun between these titles indicates the bolder resolution of Wiman’s latest work. The new book is less personal, yet allows for more intimacy. For instance, in My Bright Abyss the poet Danielle Chapman, Wiman’s wife, was only indicated by her initial, while now she is named. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman sounds more at ease, surer of himself, as he is more generous to share his life with his readers. This readiness, by the unescapable paradox that Wiman analyses so well, of course means that he reveals less. Less personal, then, the condition of the absence of inspiration is attributed a more general pertinence, as indeed we see how the poets share their affliction, as human beings share their suffering. At the same time, the existence of the poem—lone bastion within this wasteland of boredom—holds a soteriological significance: The poem saves, yet it is not enough. Indeed, the poem can be soteriologically instrumental because it is not enough, and in Wiman’s reading every poem knows and enacts this insufficiency. This is Wiman’s explicit position, outlined halfway through the book within a brilliant discussion of Philip Larkin’s final poem “Aubade.” This is also the important difference between Wiman and Lerner: The poem’s very insufficiency is drawn into the matter of salvation. We might call it Wiman’s wager:
You must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you.
This stance goes with Wiman’s mature and sobered position of the significance of his, or any poet’s, legacy, as he gives up on the aspiration of his youth to write a poem that would “live forever.”
Can the poet chance his salvation on writing great poems, perhaps on writing a single great poem? This question animated Ambition and Survival before, it remained in the background of My Bright Abyss, and here again it takes centre stage. “Yes and no” is Wiman’s answer, just as any religious stance is flawed in a way. (As Marilynne Robinson, a writer close to Wiman’s heart, has said, ”As soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes false.”) Ultimately, the poet has to risk it all on the creative life itself and suspend their share of this finished article that would last forever. To this truth, between these two incomparably accomplished works, perhaps My Bright Abyss will still bear stronger testimony. It successor, however, certainly benefits from its eerie assemblage of poetical recurrences within the lives of poets to bring out the soteriology of remembrance.
Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.
Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.
Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.
The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.
Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.
Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it.
Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties.
Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.
Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.
Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.
The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.
Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.
Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”
But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Poetry was, and continues to be, the thorn in my literary side. For many years, verse and rhyme poked at me, guarding themselves from my attempts to understand. So I kept the world of poetry at arms length. They seemed to offer me confusion in the place of benefit.
The words iamb and trochee crashed around in my ears during my university poetry course. Even the mention of poems flooded my mind with images of Petrarchan sonnets and archaic language. When I could muster enough attention, the mechanics of poetry complicated things.
The most enjoyment I found in poetry came from Homer’s The Odyssey and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, for a lazy reader, can be read similar to novels. I was surprised then, when I came across Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Beginning their jointly published Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge and William Wordsworth wrote in their preface:
The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination
The truism ruling my mind was poetry felt too poetic; it concerned at the same time matters unimportant, or much too important for me. Reading these words, my opposition to poetry met its first challenge. According to Romantics, the good poem must extend an invitation for the reader to enter the dance. The focus is on the everyday. The only qualifier is they share the same “coloring of imagination.”
For Coleridge, imagination was an acquired taste. Following the death of his father, he found himself a schoolboy in London as a rambunctious, young child. An exceptional scholar, his schoolmates still described him as lonely and wistful.
Coleridge spent many years as a political radical. Always in the midst of action, he spent years under the noise and disturbances of London. In 1795, Coleridge met Wordsworth and in the encounter, changed his poetic style. His work reflected “situations from common life” and his tone grew more relaxed.
Leaving London, he relocated to rural life. Coleridge’s move to Nether Stowey accompanied the period of his changing tone. The young poet found refuge from the pressure of city life within the small village. He was free to experience nature—the consuming subject of Romantic poetry. The move was, in many ways, the result of his fascination with the new world presented by Wordsworth. His cottage is also where he first introduces his readers to the frost.
My excitement from the preface fueled my study of Coleridge’s poems. When I arrived at “Frost at Midnight”—I heard the verses as if they were describing my journey through the collection of poems:
The frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry came loud—and hark, again! Loud as before”
The city boy is now relating his move to the countryside. Wordsworth writes of his friend Coleridge, “thou, my Friend! Wert reared in the great City, ‘mid far other scenes,” speaking of his upbringing in London. The poet is accustomed to life in the city. He relates the process by which he grew accustomed to the natural world—expressed by the cold of the frost.
Frost is chilling and harsh, usually not associated with the realm of poetry. Still, Coleridge is a preacher of its ministry. Reading Coleridge, I understand we share the bond of allowing what is unfamiliar to captivate and overtake—I learn to lean in to the secret ministry of the frost as I wrestle with a new poem.
In spite of (and maybe because of) my initial difficulty in reading poetry, I allowed myself to be drawn in by the poems in the Lyrical Ballads. The world of poetry opened. That which was previously foreign and even distasteful became an object of pleasure.
‘Tis calm indeed! So calm, that it disturbs and vexes meditation with its strange and extreme silentness.
The cottage where he lives in Nether Stowey is new and unfamiliar. The cry of the owl seems louder than in the streets of London. There is too much time to think and there is not enough noise to fill his mind. The poet steps into life in nature, into a new setting—to find discomfort. But the discomfort doesn’t seem to bother. Rather, Coleridge celebrates the vexation and the strangeness. Central to the ministry of the frost, then, lies difficulty. The reward of intimacy with what was previously foreign can only come about through a harrowing process. This explains my affinity for the Romantics and Coleridge. My initial efforts in the realm of poetry disturbed and vexed; Coleridge offered comradery with his experience with the ministry of the frost.
My first poetic breakthrough was understanding the difference between iambic and trochaic meter. With a pen in hand, I drew dashes and dots above the lines in William Blake’s “The Lamb” to show stressed syllables. I chose a corner in the library to assure no one would see me violently mouthing “little lamb” and protruding a finger with each syllable. I shouted when, at last, I correctly identified Blake’s meter.
The practice was my frost. Uninviting and unfamiliar—the exercise somehow became a ministry. Difficulty which once challenged now intrigued. The poet wrestled with his new environment, seeking only to turn discomfort to peace. Following his example, I hurried into memorizing various rhyme schemes and mastering new poetic vocabulary. Enjambment, spondee, volta.
My feet were planted in unfamiliar terrain, only to discover a fresh vitality, and growing enjoyment of verse and rhyme.
Today, Coleridge and his poems draw from me the consent to feel—rather than to understand. His reminder is to step into new terrain—encouraging me to tackle the metaphysics of John Donne and even the disjointed work of Ezra Pound. I must dismantle the mental trap where it is so very easy to place poems, and surrender to a willingness to not understand. The invitation from “Frost at Midnight” is not to explain, but to experience.
“Frost at Midnight” is addressed to Coleridge’s son, Harley. The frost performs its secret ministry, says Coleridge, and so wonderful is this ministry that he shares it with an infant who can neither understand or respond. The ministry is communal. He calls the daring boldness out of his son as Wordsworth called it out of him.
But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Harley roams breezily through sandy shores and lakes, unfamiliar to his father, Samuel. He connects with ease to the ancient mountain, skipping the disquiet with which the poet arrived at Nether Stowey. This is where the poem become my invitation. The call, for me, is to continue wandering. My initial distrust of rhyme and meter will turn to affection; changing within me the same way Samuel entrusts his son, Harley, to nature.
“Frost at Midnight” works as an invitation, but also encourages as a benediction.
All seasons shall be sweet to thee
I find it hard not to snatch the phrase away from Harley, and stand in the way to receive the encouragement myself. Needed encouragement to be sure, for sometimes not all seasons—in my case, poetry—are sweet to me. My mind may never be able to comprehend the dense metaphors of Donne or make sense of the changing perspectives of T.S. Eliot. Still, I find company with Coleridge and his preaching of the frost’s ministry, received as a token of consolation.
Vexation and intrigue are potent when they work together. Discomfort, too, can be a strong catalyst, as it was for Coleridge in coming to terms with a new life in the countryside and a new way of writing poetry. Years later, I find myself sharing his invitation to be lulled by the unfamiliar. My reward comes in my growing connection with poetry—my highest literary hurdle. But Coleridge’s verses remind me the unmapped spaces are best for exploring. He calls it the ministry of the frost. I call it studying poetry.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland — a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky — one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon.
But that wouldn’t be true. Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders. Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont. The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life.
As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden.
But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen — and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller.
Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes. And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter. His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents. When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later.
These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants — for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.” When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.” His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery.
Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand. His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave — readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself.
But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing.
Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many. He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood? Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.”
For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual. This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory.
Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews. His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as “one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today.”
You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works — in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book.
Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight. This book is a very good place to start that process.
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 puzzling entry in an old encyclopedia, a country not to be found on any map, the subsequent search through libraries, book stores, atlases, and obscure travel memoirs, leading to the discovery of a centuries-old secret society: this is not the plot of some paperback thriller you bought in an airport. It is the outline of a classic story by Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine author with a taste for impossible libraries, unlikely literary discoveries, and esoteric history. What saves it, what keeps “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” from becoming hackneyed or pulp, is Borges’s vast learning and irrepressible erudition. He seems to have read everything, from the Eleatic aporiae and the Gnostic heresiarchs, to Chesterton’s endless volumes. His stories are often about books, about their power and danger, a subject he knew as well as anyone. So when he writes about discovering unimaginable encyclopedias, or fragments of archaic poems, and feeling like “the secret portals of heaven” had opened up over his head, we get the same feeling.
Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, the recently translated collection of lectures that Borges gave during the fall of 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, is itself an unlikely discovery. The original tapes of the lectures were lost, recorded over, or misplaced. But now, thanks to transcripts and some impressive editing by a pair of Borges scholars, it seems like the blind professor is giving his seminar on English Literature again, as if we had stumbled upon one of those eddies in the circularity of time that he loved to conjecture about. The voice we find in Professor Borges is less formal than in Borges’s essays, though much of what he spoke about in class found its way into his non-fiction. In fact, reading his essays is a better way to approach much of this material. They are more felicitously composed, while these lectures feel more extemporaneous. But the informal character of Professor Borges is also refreshing. The book is lighter reading. The lectures were meant for undergraduates, and like any good teacher, Borges tried to inspire his students with his own enthusiasm. He explained why he loved a particular passage or a poem so that they might share the feeling with him. There are dull moments, when he repeats himself or grows vague, that are hard to imagine ever finding in his prose. But there are also moments in this book when Borges’s love for his subject matter seems irresistible.
The encyclopedic Argentine taught English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires for more than 20 years, beginning in 1956. And the first thing that will surprise anyone curious about his seminar is where he starts: he spends seven of 25 classes discussing works written in Anglo-Saxon, a language that has almost nothing in common with modern English. This era is remembered mostly for the epic poem, Beowulf, though Borges’s students learned much more. He had already published several volumes of translations into Spanish, and could recite from memory lines like “Helmum behongen, hildebordum, beorthum byrnum, swa he bena wæs.” Not much literature remains from the Anglo-Saxon world, which lasted roughly from 449 to 1066, just four codices, or manuscripts of compiled poems. One of these manuscripts was found in a library in Italy in 1822, a literary discovery like those Borges often imagined in his fictions. In the preface to his Breve Antología Anglosajona (A Brief Anglo-Saxon Anthology), he described it this way, “About two hundred years ago it was discovered that English Literature contained a kind of secret chamber, akin to the subterranean gold guarded by the serpent of myth. That ancient gold was the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.”
Borges describes this esoteric literature with fluency and ease. He glosses over the historical context gracefully, for he can quote Tacitus from memory just as easily as The Venerable Bede. But his interest in the poems is literary, as he makes clear in the very first moments of his course. He wants to explain why they are beautiful, and his little descriptive touches render them more vivid. Consider this description of the 10th-century poem, The Battle of Maldon. Borges doesn’t hesitate to speak admiringly of it, or to add details and comparisons that help bring the scene to life:
The fragment begins with the words “brocen wurde,” “was broken.” And we’ll never know what was broken…Then the narration begins, but we don’t know who the subject is. We imagine it to be the earl, because he orders his men to fall out, to spur their horses on, to whip their horses so they will advance. He is obviously speaking to a group of warriors, who were probably peasants, fisherman, woodsmen, and among them are the earl’s guards. Then the earl tells them to form a line. Far off, they will see the tall boats of the Vikings, those boats with the dragon on the prow and the striped sails, and the Norwegian Vikings, who have already landed. Then there appears in the scene — because this poem is very beautiful — a young man, whom, we are told, is offan mæg, “of the family of Offa.”…And this young man is, as we can see, a young aristocrat passing through; he is not thinking about war because he has a falcon on his fist; that is, he is doing what is called falconry. But when the earl issues these orders, the young man understands that the lord will not abide cowardice, and he joins the battle. And something happens, something that is realistic and has symbolic value, something a movie director would use now. The young man realizes the situation is serious, so he lets his beloved falcon (the epitaph “beloved” is very rare in this iron poetry of the Saxons) fly off into the forest, and he joins the battle…In fact, the young man is later killed.
Professor Borges contains many similar off-the-cuff narrations. We must remember that, when he gave these lectures, his vision was already failing. He could no longer read and he was quoting from memory, without the use of notes. The reader may wish for more analysis of the poem, but Borges was trying to entice his students to fall in love with it, to go study the material for themselves. What a pleasure to listen to an expert discuss this archaic poetry in such an unacademic, captivating style, like an old raconteur.
The superstition of the mysterious double, called the doppelganger in Germany, the fetch in Scotland; the idea that history repeats itself cyclically, which Borges liked to call the eternal return, or circular time; the book (or library) as metaphor for the universe; many of Borges’s favorite topics come up in these lectures. It is tempting to say that he even reveals some of his sources, the authors who inspired concepts that seem so Borgesian to us today, but this kind of speculation is pointless. Were esoteric medieval bestiaries, which often included fantastical and legendary creatures, the inspiration for his Book of Imaginary Beings? Impossible to say and probably not worth worrying about. But one of the best things about Professor Borges is the way he draws connections between authors and ideas so freely, comparing the Anglo-Saxon description of a panther (a creature those people had never seen) with a line from T.S. Eliot that has always perplexed him, for example, or the description of a whale with a line from Paradise Lost. The links are often personal, sometimes unlikely, but they seem sincere, and you get a sense of why he liked what he liked.
Another surprising thing about Professor Borges is how much material he skips over, effectively jumping straight from the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, to Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. He lingers on Boswell’s biography, tells the story of James Macpherson and his apocryphal Ossian, gives us the highlights of the Romantic poets, and then goes straight to the 19th century. This is not a comprehensive survey of English Literature so much as a guide to Borges’s tastes, and a series of opportunities for him to be brilliant, like in this speech on James Boswell’s role as a biographer:
There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says we are not the actors in our lives, but rather the spectators…I, for example, was born on the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations, pathetic in others. And, as I have always had him in front of me, I have ended up identifying with him. According to this theory, in other words, the I would be double: there is a profound I, and this I is identified with — though separate from — the other.
Whatever Professor Borges lacks in the detail of its analyses and the grace of its prose, it makes up for with these moments of lucidity, with brilliantly drawn connections and the teacher’s own overwhelming enthusiasm. Though nowhere near as coherent and powerful as his non-fiction — if you haven’t read it yet, go right now — this book seems to offer a secret and impossible window through the years, turning us into unlikely spectators.
“Reading should be a form of happiness,” Borges said in a famous interview given in 1978. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory.” Few writers can claim to have read as much as Borges did, and there are almost no other writers whose imagination was so fixed on literature, on books, and on reading. But even though he taught at a university for decades, Borges refused to consider studying literature work; he wanted his students to enjoy reading. He chose reading for pleasure over the kind of “sad university-style reading” that emphasizes the importance of citations, references, and footnotes. We can’t help being impressed by the incredible array of books and authors Borges discusses in his fictions and his essays, but we must remember that he read them because he loved them, because when he opened up those volumes he felt the “secret portals of heaven” opening up over his head. This blind librarian, teacher, and brilliant author was a self-proclaimed literary hedonist. Punctilious professors take note.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to the Yale Open Courses program, you can watch all 26 of Amy Hungerford’s lectures on “The American Novel Since 1945.” Also from the program, I highly recommend checking out John Rogers’ series of lectures on John Milton and Paradise Lost, as well as Paul H. Fry’s “Introduction to the Theory of Literature.”
If you’ve spent any time at all in a public library in the past couple of years — (in the last decade I’ve worked at four separate libraries, both public and academic) — you’ll notice that the focus is changing. Less hushed repose and reading and more shuffling through bins for DVD cards. Less space for ruminative research and writing and more space and room given to movie nights and pre-school playtime day-care. You’ll also observe rapt gazes hovering in a field of computer screens. This is not the place to rant on libraries and their supposed decline. Or even their proposed role. No. Besides, Stephen Akey delineates this landscape much better than I ever could.
When I read Stephen Akey’s piece on Philip Larkin recently in The Millions, I knew I’d found a fellow clerk. Akey, it turned out, had a thematic, albeit totally non-personal, connection with Larkin: they were both librarians. Further, they were distressed librarians; librarians that perhaps wished not to be anymore, but still found themselves drawn to the work anyhow.
Akey had written about his time working in the New York City library system in a slim monograph aptly titled Library. This book is not new. Nor is it newish. Go back to that mystical, hazy year of 2002. Terror alerts, Beltway sniper, and No Child Left Behind. Situated? Good, because that’s when it was released.
I’d bet a large, expensive case of microbrew that not many people took notice when the book came out. Orchises Press, out of George Mason University, is run by, from what I can tell, one brave soul: Roger Lathbury (Google him; he seems like a trip: a master of the limerick). In some ways, the non-event makes sense. Subject matter: libraries. Prose style: witty and erudite, but playful. (The jacket copy describes it as “coruscating,” which means to flash or sparkle.) That is to say, not the kind of work that flies off shelves. Library is dense and light at the same time: an off-putting combination. But it works well. Probably because Akey’s tone is one molded on self-defense and self-deprecation, then flung onto a potter’s wheel that’s running off the irksome yet fatigued energies of a harried cataloger in a dizzying bureaucracy of a major public library system. For comparison, read the letters of Philip Larkin. Shit, read anything by Larkin. Their outlooks aren’t exactly the same (Akey tends toward the optimistic at least once a page, while Larkin seemed almost content within his status as fussbudget), but they’re brothers-in-arms. It’s no surprise that Akey devotes his first chapter as a pseudo-encomium to the Bard of Hull’s primary profession.
It was drones like me who kept that library running.
This is no joke. Drones are essential. I was a drone. Once, I saw a particularly haggard patron clear a shelf of all books on Buddhism and stack them on a table as if he was going to read all of them… at five to ten at night… right as the library was closing. I had just finished cleaning the main floor of its remnants. Shelving is grunt work, but interesting. It’s armchair sociology and psychology. For example, you cover the windows and set me to shelving books, and if I found more than one Lonely Planet guide to a country south of the equator, I know it’s fall going into winter. Books speak better than humans sometimes. Why do we slyly inspect others’ reading choices when sitting on the bus, train, or waiting in an airport terminal? Checking out a stack of books on family disturbances or spousal negligence? ‘Nuff said. So we think.
From time to time library pundits write columns describing catalogers as glorified clerks whose arcane and terminally boring job duties could be better performed by nonlibrarians at lower cost and higher productivity. Furthermore, catalogers are unimaginative technicians, rule-bound reactionaries, and, probably, serial masturbators.
While Akey is mostly a cataloger in this narrative, the apparent message is that certain jobs are utterly necessary (i.e., catalogers) and that those jobs are also inherently shit upon. (Think: teachers, social workers, custodial staff.) Forever and always. And did you know that non-administrators within the World of the Library are treated like pawns in a massive political chess game? It’s true. Akey’s journey from one library and department to another is picaresque, and, in its own way, heartbreaking. Not the less so because Akey is telling — importuning, really — us in each short chapter to grasp why libraries are so damn important to a functioning society. The crew of characters that make up that semi-functioning society is almost from central casting. The gregarious and learned boss who is exceedingly opinionated, the sassy ethnic women, the prig female boss, the quiet shuffling, no-faced, no-named co-workers who never fail to get Akey a gift or food every time he packs up and leaves a job only to come crawling back years later. To call the book a comedy of errors is disingenuous, but not untrue. Nor is it mock epic or straight autobiography. Even memoir is a feeble descriptor. What Library attempts, I think, is to zoom in on this gift we’ve been given: the public library. Peter Best, an old hand in one of the libraries I’ve worked at, would every day mention how Benjamin Franklin was to thank for our jobs. But what is the library lending today? And what if the library doesn’t offer it? Libraries need numbers to earn funding. Thus…
Still, if the goal is simply to fill libraries with bodies, you have to wonder if it’s worth the effort.
And yet the library is brought down to a capitalistic level. Yes, down to that level. Akey both informs and then passes judgment on the role of libraries playing on and into the more whimsical passions of the average library patron. He himself has gotten into verbal scuffles with folks who ardently believe the library is only there to supplement public fancies. Should libraries buy scads of the hottest bestseller? Or should they break themselves upon the rocks of serious scholarship? Cheeseburger in Paradise or Paradise Lost? Perhaps, somewhere in between?
To speak of “classics” or “serious” books is, of course, to invite the inevitable charges of elitism and snobbery. I believe that we call some books classics for reasons other than ideological and that we can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word “serious” means. Fortunately, the people who run public libraries are not being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of Western culture and the validity of the literary canon. What they ought to be doing, and increasingly are not, is building and maintaining collections that make information available on such questions. I’ve listened to enough complaints on the reference desk to know that there are people interested in such matters and they’re not all on the faculty at Stanford. The public library is all they’ve got.
Library ends up not as a tract of pure populism, but as a pamphlet for common sense — that more contentiously charged phrase of late. What I like about this excerpt — which was from a small essay Akey had previously published and inserted into the book — is how he courts small controversy and shies away at the same time. “[W]e can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word ‘serious’ means.” Pretty much saying that we all know what’s schlock and what’s bound to live on the shelves for decades. But this argument of highbrow and lowbrow is such a verboten subject for many. Why? Why can’t a library say that its job is to house the best of what’s existed and what’s being published, so the patrons can come and use this information at their disposal? Because, as Akey mentions, it’s not the job of the library to decide tastes and “deliver a verdict” on the canon.
When I worked at the University City Library in St. Louis, I saw the scaffolding of a society come together. Poor, rich, middle-class. Black, white, Asian, Indian, Russian, Orthodox Jews. All in one place, all doing the same thing: consuming culture in one form or another. And, I think, yes, the public library is the last bulwark against a totally ignorant and lackadaisical society. If the opportunity is there for patrons to access the material, then there’s hope. We can’t make people read Paradise Lost, but at least it’s there. That’s grand talk. I’m already assuming that friends and readers would offer the internet as an alternative to this democratic bastion of knowledge, but you don’t physically mingle with other people on the internet, and you don’t get to see real lived society in action on the internet. That’s the beauty of libraries, and that’s what I think Akey shows in his book. The best scenes are the ones where he’s dealing with the less poetic uses of a library: as a haven for those in rough neighborhoods. There’s a section toward the end where he’s sent to Red Hook to help manage a branch library. There he encounters stark racial and class differences and understands how a library can be more than just a place that houses books to be read. In a way, the books become the symbolic bulwark mention before.
I appreciate a man who finds fascination in the seemingly banal, and Akey mystifies the banal, like Borges.
What makes formulating Dewey numbers so much fun is moving point by point along a narrowing spectrum of subcategories. Thus, the call number for a book about snow (551.5784) is subsumed by the call number for frozen precipitation (551.578), which is subsumed by the call number for hydrometeorology (551.57), which is subsumed by the call number for meteorology (551.5), which is subsumed by the call number for earth sciences (550), which is subsumed by the call number for natural sciences (500). Rather elegant, don’t you think?
As I’m a devotee of the Library of Congress catalog system, I’ll say this was the first time I’ve found a more grounded respect for the Dewey numbers.
Lastly, I don’t want people to think that the book is some stalwart stand on how amazing libraries are, because Akey doesn’t hesitate to show the seedier side of them. Also, I want to say this book is laugh out loud funny. Akey reminds the reader that, as a reference librarian, you’re sort of duty-bound to answer everything to the best of your ability, no matter how foolish or queer. I’ll end with one of my favorite bits in the book:
Among reference librarians it is axiomatic that people frequently do not ask the question they really intend: What was the date of the Challenger explosion? rather than, What was the name of the black astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion? Furthermore, at least in Telephone Reference, the helpful hints provided by patrons were not to be taken on faith. “I read an article in the New York Times two years ago” might mean “I read an article in the New York Post six years ago,” and”‘Don’t bother with Bartlett’s Quotations, I’ve already checked,” meant that Bartlett’s should very much be bothered with.
“There are only three journals that matter and one of them is Conjunctions.”
— Walter Abish, author of How German Is It
Behold the man — Bradford Morrow, who spans in both biography and experience the best explorations of the teachers and writers of two centuries, the 20th and our new toddling era. Both a generous reader and writer, a community-maker in his years as founder and editor of the pioneering Conjunctions, bearing standards paradoxically rigorous, curious, and fluid, author of Giovanni’s Gift, among some other eight books, this year he came out with two new books: one, the novel The Diviner’s Tale, a genre cloverleaf, combining elements of paranormal mystery, the detective story, the confessional, and a shaggy-dog story, told by a woman whose credibility proves as convincing as Norman Rush’s similar feat of male-to-female ventriloquism in Mating. The second, the collection of short stories The Uninnocent, shows similar insight, plunging the reader again and again into some icy waters. Why? Because he pushes characters to extremes while luring us into unguessable sympathies: you, dear reader, become complicit with the metaphysical and actual body count of these stories. Who would you be under such complex circumstances? Would you dare call yourself good?
Such is the sly question in ghostly ink between Morrow’s lines. Meanwhile, his formal play (see, for instance, the highly pleasurable psychological Rubik’s cube of a story,”Mis(laid)”) is subtle; in its subtlety lies intrigue.
*And if you want more gritty specifics embracing Morrow’s upbringing and aesthetics, in addition to the interview that follows, may I direct you to the well-written biography?
** And if you want the opening of Paradise Lost, one of the undergirdings of postwar American fiction, see this:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . .
(First dot) You have tackled so many large topics in your work, and have used such varying technique, and yet your last novel, The Diviner’s Tale, as well as this most recent book of short stories, The Uninnocent, both come out of a truly American gothic sensibility. The Uninnocent bears every kind of smudged, glowing thumbprint of America gone awry: absentee fathers haunt these stories, as do grotesque physical accidents, incest, murder, subterfuge, numbing devices.
(Second dot) You have a deep connection to Willa Cather.
Can you connect these two points for your lay readers?
Brad Morrow: That’s a really intriguing question. I see several possible ways to connect those dots, although perhaps the simplest explanation for what on the surface might seem an affinity for two quite different aesthetics would be to cite Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” — as a writer my interests are wildly wide-ranging. My taste in literature, like my taste in music, and even in people, is eclectic. I’ve never been one to limit myself in my preoccupations, my affections. Which is not to say my taste is chaotic or even all that catholic. Just that for better or worse I manage a wide embrace. Besides Willa Cather, I’m completely devoted to John Donne, for instance, and Yeats. But also William Burroughs and William Gaddis. What these writers have in common, for want of a sharper word, is genius. Originality, dynamism, vision, and a gift for language that’s electric.
Two more specific vectors between the gothic and Willa Cather involve, first, her use of landscape as an active character — a trait that’s ever-present in my most gothic work — and, second, for all her reputation as a kind of pioneer realist, Cather is a modernist chronicler of all manner of violent and tragic behaviors. Her landscapes are often aggressive, uncooperative, and even fatally destructive to the humans who inhabit them. Likewise, her characters are capable of depravities that would take aback the darkest noir writer. When the cruel Wick Cutter blithely slits open the eyes of a woodpecker in A Lost Lady and enjoys watching the poor creature flop around helplessly trying to find its way back to its nest, you know you’re in the presence of a writer who understands evil. Murder, betrayal, deception, downfalls. Cather explores all these themes pretty relentlessly, though she also is a brilliant celebrant of human triumph against adversity, as well.
Another personal connection to Willa Cather, having nothing to do with the gothic, is that my mother was born and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and my grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents farmed the same rolling Nebraska lands that Cather’s family did. Most are buried there, many a stone’s throw from the graves of Cather’s family and friends. So there’s that, as well. Cather and I, generations apart, left small towns in Nebraska and Colorado to end up in New York where we each became novelists and editors. Sentimental or not, I feel she’s a kind of forebear.
EM: Again, forgive me this dyadism, two quotations:
“We were uninnocent, but the very isolation that in some ways damned us has also acted as our benefactor and protector.” — The Uninnocent
“The druggist’s was empty, its row of stools with mottled vinyl aligned kind of sad somehow before the long counter, Coke taps, pie racks, ketchup bottles, the stainless-steel malted cup — ” — “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances”
While I don’t feel this about every writer, may I venture that in your embrace of such complex and often evil characters, a lapsed idealism lives? Not that polemic pulses your fiction, but rather that some American nostalgia unites these stories. As if all might be better if we could get back to — to what? The land, perhaps, the freedom of an individual facing the vastness of the world and needing to make those insuperably huge American choices. Cather’s prairie redux! As if each character might, somewhere before the second coming or apocalypse, recognize the worth of ethics and community. Your characters are often anachronistic vigilantes, pursuing their own form of righteousness. I might be pushing it here, but the voice rising from your pages suggests that while your pariahs’ psychologies rarely bear Edenic backstories, the arcs of their stories contain a ghostly hint: some lost key lives in the backstory of the States. Discuss?
BM: I agree that many characters in these stories would like to get back to the Garden but that the path, if there ever was one, is overgrown with thorny flora and guarded by treacherous fauna. Indeed, Jack, in “All the Things That Are Wrong With Me,” tries to create his own Edenic animal garden in which the lion lies down with the lamb, but he is blinded by naïveté and an ignorance of community rules, and so is fated for a hard fall. Both narrators in “Lush” try their very best to overcome alcoholism and injury, but in the end it’s unclear if their dreams, despite their striving and hope, can finally create a haven that’s strong enough to protect them from their demons.
As for the role of America in the book, I can say simply that the stories were meant to be individual investigations rather than a political map of the patchwork quilt that is our culture. Having said that, though, it is interesting that the first story in the collection, “The Hoarder,” involves a family moving from place to place across the country, beginning in the Outer Banks on the East Coast, passing through the Midwest and pausing in the Southwest for a time, then ending up in California. The youthful collector, on his own westward journey, at first contents himself with innocent enough things to assemble — sea shells, birds’ nests, pottery shards; things he finds on beaches, in forests, and on the desert. But just as the country itself in its westward expansion, fueled by Manifest Destiny and other questionable political philosophies that hardly disguised an underlying rapacity, moved inevitably away from idealism, this boy increasingly finds himself driven to take things from others in order to feel in control of a life that’s slipping away from him.
While evil is obviously universal, various forms of evil portrayed in The Uninnocent do seem to me to be, as you suggest, distinctly American. An unstable idealism that sometimes erupts into irrevocable acts of violence or crime does reside in the hearts of many of these characters, which despite my better judgment is one of the reasons I so deeply empathize with even the worst among them. Some are naive, others psychotic, still others believe that they are doing the right thing even though the rest of the world would strongly disagree. Just as America is a young country, a number of people portrayed here struggle with maturity at a fairly tender age. Again, I’m not saying the characters in The Uninnocent are meant to be small portraits of the country itself. But all of them are in one way or another the products of America and, as William Carlos Williams put it, “The pure products of America go crazy.”
EM: How does music affect your writing?
BM: Music was crucial to my life long before I ever thought of writing, even well before I got into reading books beyond The Phantom Toll Booth or The Cat in the Hat. My mother was church organist and choir director at the First Methodist Church in Littleton, Colorado, and was an accomplished opera singer. She had me taking piano lessons before my hands could barely reach the ivories and my feet the pedals. So music is in my blood and soul. Every kind of music, I might add, from classical to jazz, rock to rap, from sea chanteys to you name it. I’ve learned a lot from Bach and Stravinsky, Debussy and Copland, Bird and Coltrane, Leadbelly and John McLaughlin, the Geto Boys and NWA. A list of all the composers and musicians who have influenced me would run into the hundreds. I doubt I could write any of the sentences that I do without that core musical background. Narrative, be it on the scale of a short paragraph or a long novel, is told in words whose origins are ultimately musical. Emerson wrote, Every word was once a poem. And I would suggest that every poem was once a musical phrase.
EM: Who was your first ideal reader?
BM: I had a professor at the University of Colorado, the late and much-missed Edward Nolan, who had an enormous impact on me and read my work with care and blazing intelligence. He got me to read Woolf and Yeats and Ezra Pound and could discuss the dynamics of a sentence or phrase with dazzling precision and nuance. But in fact I have been blessed over the years with a number of dear friends who happen also to be super sharp readers of my work, and who’ve been unafraid to suggest possible improvements to this text or that. Rarely have I felt like I’m singing alone in the dark, thanks to these gracious intimates.
EM: When I first read your response, above, I thought you had written thanks to these gracious inmates. Which made me think, since I believe you have a great panopticon view of American letters (belles lettres?) and much recent literary history — what is your view of our current literary prison? Prison or paradise? While we are a rebellious clan, is there some uniting moment which we are living through? DeLillo once famously said the novelist had great freedom, living in the margins of a dying art, yet also that terrorists had usurped our ability to form compelling narrative. Answer any part of this, or go off on your own spree.
BM: I may be overly optimistic or utterly blind, but my view of contemporary American fiction is that it is as rich as ever. Some of the best work is being written in what until recently was considered, at least among the conventional literati, genre fiction. Horror, gothic, mystery, fantasy, fabulism. There are so many stunningly original and serious writers working these fields. I have to think that anybody reading this interview would agree. Just one example, though there are many, would be Elizabeth Hand. She composes sentences of ravishing beauty. She is capable of creating metaphor systems that are so dynamic and provocative. She can turn a fictive moment that seems deeply rooted in the everyday into something that, in fact, touches upon the sublime, the miraculous. Just read her novella Cleopatra Brimstone and tell me that American fiction isn’t pulsing with life. Like I say, I could list dozens of authors here whose work I admire and follow with care and excitement. That said, I do think that much contemporary criticism is stuck in the past and that too many reviewers want those who are exploring ways to revolutionize genre to stick to the rules. I think of them as genre police. They make too many false arrests and lead potential readers astray, keep them caged away from renegades whose work they might well dig reading.
EM: Coming off your rich response: did you have an early model in your young life of generosity, whether literary or existential?
BM: A few, Edie. Ezra Pound had a huge impact on me. Poet, critic, translator, editor, promoter of others’ works, shaper of Kulchur. Even now, looking back to the Pound Era (Hugh Kenner’s phrase for those astonishing years that saw everyone from Joyce to Eliot to Williams to H.D. rise into view with novels and poems sizzling with genius), I marvel at how crucial Ezra Pound’s generosity was to modernism. So certainly Pound. Also, I was devoted to Allen Ginsberg who similarly moved outward beyond his own poetry to help other writers find their voices and audiences. Kenneth Rexroth, who introduced Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl and was at least initially godfather to the Beat movement, was my mentor when I was in my 20s. Like Pound, Kenneth was a critic and translator as well as an exceptional poet who delved deeply into the mysteries of love. His generosity toward me, a young writer 50 years his junior, was a real inspiration. Kenneth was a polymath, knew everything about everything, truly the most exquisite mind I have ever encountered, and so he too was a model. Interesting that I’m only citing poets. The most generous prose fiction writer who inspired me in my 30s was John Hawkes. His generosity toward me I try to pay forward as often as I can. Jack was constantly encouraging me and a whole host of other writers — Jeff Eugenides, Rick Moody, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, so many others. I will never forget his introducing me at Brown University when I gave my first public reading. He had a wild wit, a luminescence, that inspires me to this day.
Harold Bloom is getting old. The venerable and untiring critic has reached the age of 81, the age Dante thought would allow one to reach the perfection of mind and spirit. Bloom would be the first (and he repeats himself in this, as in all things) to admit that he falls pretty solidly short of this luminosity. The nickname he chose for himself is “Brontosaurus Bardolator Bloom” – an amiable enough monster, as he wryly remarks. He once rather charmingly referred to Leopold Bloom, the wonderfully curious and unpretentious leading man of Ulysses as his “namesake.” In this new volume of criticism, proclaimed to be his last, he rejects the idea of grandly associative names except, of course, for the fortunate few who’ve earned them: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Joyce among them, as well he might. He’s spent most of his life absorbed in their imaginations. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way Of Life is simultaneously a swan song, mash note, and fever dream.
It’s interesting to see how Bloom frets and struts his hour upon the page. To my mind, Harold Bloom is not so much the judicious patriarch or brazen egomaniac or even a vogon (as one detractor had it) as he is a grandmother – endlessly harried, fiercely loving, and relentlessly worried about the future of his brood. One could say that the bombastic Brontosaurus is really no more than the mother hen of his corner of literary history. He has been known to address his interviewers as “my child,” “my dearies,” and “my little bear.” Every photo of him I’ve ever seen displays the hollow-eyed gaze of a sort of maternal weariness, an insomnia of wondering if the lights are going out and if the house will still be standing when he finally shuffles off the mortal coil.
As for his method and his taste, it might be summed up in a bit of his critical mythology. For Bloom, especially when starting from his breakthrough 1973 essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” the issue at hand has always been the nature of literary influence. The idea is that a poet wants to begin to create though at first he feels threatened and anxious that a stronger, precursor poet has already said what he wanted to say before he had the chance to say it himself. The influence of the precursor is overwhelming in its inspiration and the poet begins to copy the voice or style or philosophy of the precursor poet, causing an anxiety over the poet’s struggle for identity, for individuality.
The agon, a word rooted in the competition between Greek tragedians, is when the poet is struggling to overthrow this contaminating power. The way this is accomplished is through a Lucretian clinamen, or unpredictable swerve from the precursors’ dominance. The result is sublimity; the rapture of a distinct, powerful, and utterly strange new voice which appears. The readers discover themselves, always themselves, as an inscrutable interiority always deepening and widening, as they read through the panoply of what Bloom unabashedly calls genius. He is fond of citing Emerson on this: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
The contention would seem to be on what authority, of course, Bloom would be able to decide that one writer has sufficiently influenced or superseded another, and on what grounds. There does not seem to be an objective answer to this, given that interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best. It doesn’t matter as much as it might, though – criticism can falter when it decides on its own that it contains the last word on any text. History is a long record on the folly of this. A plethora of meanings, an opening up of new avenues of discovery, a startling juxtaposition is plenty to grow on. Bloom, to his credit, is aware of this: “opponents accuse me of espousing an ‘aesthetic ideology,’ but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.” Subjectivity never ends.
Bloom’s position does not, and should not, mean you discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions. History can’t – and shouldn’t – be avoided in criticism, and Bloom errs in his cantankerous avoidance of historicism, but if societies do in fact write books, the minds who craft them certainly do not come to us mass produced. In his Genius: A Mosaic of A Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sort of a choice anthology of favorite poets, novelists, and playwrights), he remarks that “there were many neurotic spinsters in 19th Century Amherst, but there was only one Emily Dickinson.” It may be best for politics and cultural production as such to be considered an ingredient of the soup and not the sum total of the soup itself.
What sets him off, as he rather irritatingly tends to repeat here and elsewhere, is what he calls “The School of Resentment” – the Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Deconstructionist methods of approaching a text. His use of a Nietzschean concept is telling, both for what he accuses and how he accuses it. For Bloom, this culture theory approach trivializes the power of imagination, absurdly reducing it to circumstances of gender or class stature or ethnicity. It’s interesting how this kind of gripe has been heard before, usually from some self-righteous idiot who bemoans the lowering of America’s mental and spiritual standards while preening on Fox News or scribbling another paranoid, myopic screed for some Moral Majority book club, the better to pay off his gambling debts and mistresses. Bloom’s not a conservative, at least as far as politics go, and the distinction is worth remembering. If the new frontier for political affiliation is cultural and taste-based vindictiveness (Starbucks vs. Wal-Mart, Fox vs. CNN, The Noble Canon vs. Gangsta Rap), and it is well-argued that it was the right wing who created the mess in the first place, then it pays to see a believer in the canon remind us that despite “the war for America’s soul,” good little boys and girls are not going to be saved by reading their Bible and their Emerson to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and merrily stride towards a Manifest Destiny:
It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline…Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us…I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students.
It’s very penetratingly said that Bloom’s canon is sometimes low on non-Western voices. Bloom is pretty bombastic in what he loves and why he loves it, and he can’t go at least a page or two without pumping out another reference to Shakespeare and how the Bard’s omnivorous consciousness almost overshadows the book he’s analyzing. Bloom likes to mingle his views with those of the lords of language, and good for him. Proximity, however, is not approximation. I don’t think a writer can decide for themselves who their authentic precursor is; there’s way too much bubbling around in the stew of the creative mind to locate such an inspiration.
If an interested reader takes inventory of Bloom’s school for the ages, there are indeed plenty of Dead White Men (and Women) to be found, but there are also more than a few interestingly subversive texts to be found. I discovered Ishmael Reed’s searing Mumbo Jumbo on this recommendation and I doubt very much that it was chosen as an encroachment of European cultural hegemony. Same goes for Bloom’s “20th Century Sublime,” which includes The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the concluding ten minutes of which is hard to see as anything but hilariously anarchic satire on whatever is patriotic and pious in western history. The same could be said of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, for that matter. The list also includes Charlie Parker’s Parker’s Mood, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, and the “Byron The Light Bulb” sequence from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I mention these not to engage in academic tit-for-tat, but to emphasize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of all criticism. His indignation is incandescent. Bloom celebrates what he is moved by, what outrages and delights him, what “ravishes his heart away.”
Bardolatry, “the least religious of all religions,” is Bloom’s great love. The first half of the book is taken up with the idea of “Shakespeare the founder.” Shakespeare is the omnivorous, omniscient one: his creative capacity is boundless and subsumes everything which comes before or after it. In a previous work, Bloom even makes the provocative if dubious claim that he “invented the human.” He hasn’t changed his mind. Bloom sketches the various places where the Bard is to be found in all manner of literature, and in Bloom he is never out of sight. He often quotes Giambattista Vico’s saying that “we know only what we ourselves have made” but in the end, Shakespeare has made everything for us. Shakespeare the person is unable to be found within his created works, so thoroughly has he subsumed himself into his personalities: Iago, Lear, Othello, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ariel, just to name a few.
Bloom is obsessed with one character above all: the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the wildest, “supremely outrageous,” most coruscating intelligence to be found anywhere in the work. His special book length study on the topic is entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and it’s not unlimited for nothing. Hamlet is a character who destroys everything in his path, composing cognitive splendors of almost nihilistic intensity, he is mad but “mad north-northwest.” Bloom can’t get enough of him – he links him with Paradise Lost’s Lucifer, for one, and wonders what it would be like if he had Edmund or Iago to contend with onstage. The Dane’s instantaneous cognition and meta-cognition is enough to send Bloom awhirl. The Lucifer comparison is apt in many ways, though one gets the feeling that his Oedipal theory of poetic influence is based on such prodigious and intimidating reading (he’s said to be able to read several hundred pages an hour) that it’s exhausting to keep up. He once mentioned that his only attempt at therapy resulted in his therapist explaining that he was being paid by the hour to listen to lectures on the proper way to read Freud. If that isn’t the mark of a true literary man, I don’t know what is.
The second half of the book deals with the pervading influence of Emerson as the mind of America, and Walt Whitman as its poet. Whitman’s influence is with us as deeply as Emerson’s was with him. Who hasn’t been touched by his rhetoric? It might be fair to say that for American poetry Whitman’s own debt to Emerson is appropriate: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to boil.” Bloom tracks his vision through several of the most celebrated poets of the past 50 years, some struggling to throw off Whitman’s influence and coming into their own, some being transformed in digesting it – D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and – especially – Hart Crane. Crane has been with Bloom since he encountered his work in the Bronx Public Library, at ten years old, and has stayed with him ever since. He claims to have memorized “nearly all” of Crane’s poetry and insists upon memorizing in general as much as one can so as to possess the poems yourself. When he writes about the words which have left him in awe for seventy years, the resonance is palpable – “Perhaps his truest vista is comprised by the final four stanzas of the ‘Proem’”:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry-
Again, the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path- condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year…
O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Poor Harold has been fighting and fretting over the fate of the canon for nearly a century. I don’t think it’s quite so dire. I’ve yet to meet a passionate reader who doesn’t love any or all of his Western Canon: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett – to name merely a few – are all doing pretty well, thank you. He needn’t despair. We are still eating and drinking well of what Bloom passionately recommends. A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter. If anything, it might change the way that it matters in the larger social sphere. There is always a Whitman or an Emerson yet to emerge, even in what he grimly terms “our evening land.” Any fan of his can thank him for suggesting language and stories newer and fresher and duly more strange than a lifetime of reading could grasp. Bloom reads Wallace Stevens writing of Whitman “walking along a ruddy shore./ He is singing and chanting the things that are a part of him,/ the worlds that are and will be,/ death and day./ Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end./ His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.” If that can be enough for him (and he seems to think it might be) then may he contentedly sink into our common plot for a long, well-deserved rest. There will always be plenty of anxiety to go around.
“It’s a singing, shouting, wailing drama about the old conflict between blatant Evil and quiet Good, with the Devil driving a Cadillac. What kind of car have you got?”
So Langston Hughes described his “urban-folk-Harlem-genre-melodrama” Tambourines to Glory, first conceived as a play/musical (1956) and then re-born two years later as a novel (1958). It’s the novel I recommend—though there are a lot of folk and gospel songs in this too (“Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “When The Saints Come Marching In,” “A Rock On Which To Stand”) and it is more vivid and arresting as read and sung by Myra Lucretia Taylor for Recorded Books.
Tambourines is the story of the stolid, kind Essie Belle Johnson, and the lusty, flamboyant Laura Reed, two middle-aged women on home relief (welfare), neighbors in a low-rent apartment building in 1940s Harlem, who strike upon the idea of founding a church. Actually, it’s Laura’s idea, Laura whose motives are not exactly pure: Love of “men, wine, and something fine”–and thoughts of tambourines heaped with coins—inspire her: “This religious jive is something we can collect on,” she tells Essie. Essie, on the other hand, feels called by God through Laura to do his work—and these conflicted motives, as you might imagine, drive the plot.
With their two commanding voices—Essie’s angelic and Laura’s “deep, strong, wine-rusty, and wild”—and Laura’s glib flare for preaching (she learned at the knee of her “jack-leg preacher” uncle), and a Bible and a tambourine, they begin holding prayer meetings on a corner of Lennox Ave. And the spirit is with them: they’re good, so good that before long their church has moved into a grand old Harlem theater (with a little help from the sly, handsome “motherfouler” Buddy Lomax—Laura’s “king-size Hershey Bar”).
Some critics have called the novel’s plot thin or slight, but that’s missing the point (Paradise Lost isn’t a lesser work because its conclusion is foregone); It’s a failure to appreciate the spare, clean lines of Tambourines’ morality tale plot and how this plot allows Hughes’ tremendous gifts for poetic language and description, dialogue, and character through voice to come to the fore. This is a living book—one that summons the age of the Great Migration and Sarah Vaughan and Joe Louis. And while it’s a morality fable, its characters aren’t the flat allegorical kind: Laura especially (like Milton’s Satan) is no mere caricature. Nor is Hughes take on good and evil as easy to parse as the plot’s simplicity suggests—like Milton, Hughes offers a too dull, sedentary vision of “good”—and a too seductive vision of “evil” in the lusty Laura.
Maybe you’re young enough to remember Blue’s Clues, or old enough to have a little one hanging on the mystery-solving adventures of Steve and Blue as you read this. If, by any chance, Blue’s Clues happens to be on in the background, try this experiment: watch and see how long the camera holds on a single shot.
You will, by design, be waiting a long time. The child psychologists who helped create Blue discovered that young viewers don’t know what to do with cuts and edits; they understand them as a new scene, not the same scene shot from a different angle, and they’re soon too confused to keep up. So the Blue’s Clues camera almost always holds steady, in a series of long and deliberate takes.
On the grown-up channels, the camera can do more—but only because we’ve already learned the complicated visual grammar that makes the camera make sense. Think of the long list of visual cues we take for granted. How do we know, without struggling to process the fact, that a scene shot from three angles by three cameras is the same scene? How can we tell the difference in emotional register between a series of rapid-fire cuts and a single, slow, agonizing take? Who says that a series of short shots often indicates the passage of time? As much as we may take these conventions for granted, as natural as their emotional associations might seem to us, they make sense largely because we’ve had “practice.”
Who invented this visual grammar? A film historian might look to pioneering pictures like Battleship Potemkin or Birth of a Nation; but before there was such a thing as a movie camera, it was a writer’s job to juxtapose and jump between images—from a battlefield to Mount Olympus, from medias res to the far past, with resources limited only by imagination and the price of ink.
In college, I was lucky enough to take an English class with the novelist Reynolds Price, before he died in January—and one of his most striking arguments was that John Milton, with his instant transitions from Hell to Earth to Heaven, was one of the inventors of the cinematic jump-cut. It was a throwaway comment, but it led me to think that we ought to pay more attention to writers’ tricks of “editing”: not in the usual sense of revision, but in the cinematic sense of transitions from image to image and from scene to scene. I’ve come to believe that writers, as much as filmmakers, are responsible for our visual grammar—that their imaginary jumps, and the thematic use they’ve made of those jumps, have laid the groundwork we take for granted today whenever we watch anything more demanding than Blue’s Clues. If the camera goes somewhere special, the chances are good that a writer’s imagined camera has gone there before—and shaped not just filmmakers’ sense of what’s possible, but the expectations we bring to the screen.
We can consider the influence of the writer’s “camera” by looking at one of the most dramatic edits available: zooming out. What can a writer accomplish by playing tricks with distance and scale, sometimes pulling away from the action, leaving the characters neglected in place as the viewpoint pulls back to take in the landscape, or even the whole planet? We’ve all seen dramatic zooms used for effect—but what exactly is the effect, and have writers helped shaped it? I want to start to answer those questions by examining three important—and moving—instances of literary zooming out. I don’t claim that these three authors are responsible cinematic zooming out, but I do think they helped create a lasting set of conventions that give it its power and its emotional meanings. Zooming out relies for that power on the tension between human smallness and human dignity—on the possibility that putting us in cold, “God’s-eye-view” perspective can, against expectations, make us more important.
Let’s start, naturally enough, with Milton: the blind poet who, perhaps because he was cut off from the visual world for so long, came up with some of the most inventive and unexpected edits in poetry. Among these, the most stunning—centuries before we had cameras to take the picture or satellites to send it back—is one of the earliest images of Earth seen from space.
The place is Book II of Paradise Lost, and the scene is Chaos: not exactly outer space in our sense, but certainly the great trackless void between worlds, “a dark / Illimitable Ocean without bound, without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth / And time and place are lost.” Satan has escaped the gates of Hell and traversed this blind wilderness on his mission to infect our world; and as he reaches the border between Chaos and the created world, he pauses to take stock by the first beams of visible light.
The “camera” turns and scans the distance, leaving Satan behind. “Farr off” is Heaven with its jeweled towers—but still so enormous that we can’t tell, from this distance, whether its border is a straight line or an arc. A little further on, the light by which we and Satan see passes on to Earth:
hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr
Of smallest magnitude close by the Moon.
Later, Milton will catalogue this world’s creation in microscopic detail—but the first time he shows it to us in Paradise Lost, it is small enough to be blocked out by a finger. The sense of insignificance—next to the massive Heaven, next to Chaos—is overpowering. So is the sense of danger: the “pendant world” is literally hanging in the balance. It and all its life, which are set to be corrupted, look like a fragile toy from this distance.
And what about Satan? Though the camera seems to have pulled back from him, he’s still the closest object to our viewpoint. Next to Heaven, he is tiny, a nuisance, a perpetual underdog, but he towers over Earth—the theology of the whole poem summed up in an image. But we’ve also just seen Satan at his most courageous, a voyage through Chaos that sees Milton explicitly compare him to the Greek epic heroes. The image of him brooding over Earth from afar is one of our first introductions in the poem to Satanic glamour—a glamour that Milton will whittle down over the course of his epic, but one that reaches its seductive high point here. It’s no surprise that the image of a hovering hero watching over Earth would resurface much later in an entirely positive light—as the iconic image of Superman.
Between Earth and Satan, distance and closeness, where does Milton mean for our sympathies to lie? On one hand, “we” are “down there”: our home and (by the poem’s theology) our ancestors are on that shadowed speck, and surely we can be expected to feel some of its danger. On the other hand, “we” are also “here”: our viewpoint is not there on Earth, but alongside Satan’s, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t share some of his exhilaration at this moment. That, too, is part of Milton’s point.
Either way, it’s a moment of high drama—but what happens when a writer uses a zoom to pull away from drama, at its climactic point? What’s the point of deliberately trading conflict for calm?
Toward the end of his huge novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens gives us a long and languid zoom out by night, over London, over the English countryside, and all the way to the sea. But it’s not an exercise in scene-setting, or in picturesqueness for its own sake. It’s a calculated, and almost infuriating, distraction from one of the novel’s turning-points: the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, an attorney who has spent hundreds of pages building an elaborate scheme of blackmail, which he has almost seen through to success.
Tulkinghorn, coldly self-satisfied as usual, has just returned home after issuing a decisive ultimatum to his blackmail target. On the way in, he’s distracted by the sight of the moon—and so is the story itself, which leaves Earth and zooms into a lyrical passage tracing the progress of the moon across the sky and leaving Tulkinghorn almost forgotten below:
He looks up casually, thinking what a fine night, what a bright large moon, what multitudes of stars! A quiet night, too.
A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life. Not only is it a still night on dusty high roads and on hill-summits, whence a wide expanse of country may be seen in repose, quieter and quieter as it spreads away into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them; not only is it a still night in gardens and in woods, and on the river where the water-meadows are fresh and green, and the stream sparkles on among pleasant islands, murmuring weirs, and whispering rushes; not only does the stillness attend it as it flows where houses cluster thick, where many bridges are reflected in it, where wharves and shipping make it black and awful, where it winds from these disfigurements through marshes whose grim beacons stand like skeletons washed ashore, where it expands through the bolder region of rising grounds rich in corn-field, windmill and steeple, and where it mingles with the ever-heaving sea; not only is it a still night on the deep, and on the shore where the watcher stands to see the ship with her spread wings cross the path of light that appears to be presented to only him; but even on this stranger’s wilderness of London there is some rest….
What’s that? Who fired a gun or pistol? Where was it?
When the gun goes off in that staccato burst—“What’s that?”—we aren’t there with Tulkinghorn to take the bullet. We’re still in the folds of a lazily sweeping 206-word sentence that takes us from London to the coast and back, everything frozen and watching.
There’s far too much effort in those 206 words for them to be a plot contrivance. Yes, the identity of the murderer is supposed to be a mystery; but if that were the only consideration, Dickens only had to narrate the scene from Tulkinghorn’s perspective or keep the killer conveniently in the shadows. Dickens’s transition to the landscape is doing much more work here.
For one, it builds the shock of the murder. The long sentence takes us so far away from the action of the story, and is so full of motionless calm, that it almost lulls us into putting Tulkinghorn out of mind—until the shot, heard but not seen, snaps us instantly back. It’s a fitting end for a man who, like this impeccably controlled and cunning lawyer, considers himself untouchable. Instead, he is wrenched out of his reverie in the most violent way possible—and so, in a way, are we.
At the same time, is our surprise really as total as his? The long zoom out over the landscape is an investment in surprise, but it also seems designed to build suspense, even dread—based on a nagging sense that the landscape doesn’t belong here, is out of place for a reason we can’t identify until we hear the shots. It is, in other words, an early instance of “It’s quiet—too quiet.” In film, in fact, a long shot at a climactic moment is a cue to worry, not to relax; think of the fishing-boat murder of Fredo in The Godfather II, which is interspersed with lake scenery and shots of his brother watching the killing he ordered from a distance. Mr. Tulkinghorn’s sudden death seems like a distant ancestor of that scene.
Should any of this change our thoughts for the victim? In one sense, no: Tulkinghorn was a manipulative and double-dealing man in life—and while no one deserves a pistol-shot between the eyes, few readers have shed a tear for him. But Dickens could also deal out far more grisly and humiliating deaths: one minor character in Bleak House spontaneously combusts. Here, instead, zooming out turns the end elegiac, and if we can’t be moved to feel any injustice over a bad man’s death, maybe we can feel the injustice of a beautiful scene cut off too soon. The stillness “attends”; woods and steeples and ship seem to be waiting for something, and though they cannot possibly know what is about to happen in a London courtyard, Dickens makes us feel that they can—that the local death of a single lawyer, placed in such a wide setting, has much more than a local significance. Finally, remember that we begin the scene by following Tulkinghorn’s gaze up to the sky; his eyes don’t sweep as far as the camera, but at the moment he dies, he is looking at the same moon as we are. For us, the wide world of that 206-word sentence is cut off by a line break; for him, it is cut off permanently. Entirely hateable characters rarely die with that kind of pathos. As much as a death with dignity is possible, Dickens gives one to Tulkinghorn—and he dignifies him by zooming out.
It’s this tension between dignity and dwarfing scale that is tackled most directly by the last example I want to look at: the novel Star Maker, by the British writer Olaf Stapledon. Written in 1937, it’s not as well-known as the two other works I’ve looked at, but its influence has arguably been just as strong. It was a landmark work of serious science fiction and held up as an inspiration by writers like H.G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, and Arthur C. Clarke, and even physicists like Freeman Dyson; it is an ancestor of science fiction movies and literature that play out across star systems and galaxies. It is, in effect, one book-length, cosmic-scale zooming out: it is the story of a Londoner who finds himself leaving his body, and then floating above the Earth, and then in interstellar space. Throughout this strange novel, our narrator does nothing but observe, searching out traces of intelligence wherever he can find it; slowly he comes across and joins forces with alien minds that have become disembodied in the same way, and as this snowball of consciousness accumulates and rolls through galaxies, the book comes to be narrated by “we,” not “I.”
Immaterial and unfixed in time, they watch the histories of entire planets unfold: some are Earth-like, some utterly alien; some pass whole through the stage of “world crisis,” while some destroy themselves. Ultimately planets and galaxies build collective consciousnesses and absorb our narrator; as the end of history approaches, the universe itself becomes self-conscious and takes over the narration—“I” again. Finally, the universe comes face-to-face with the Creator—only to find that its maker is not a loving God, but something of an uncompromising artist, who discards the universe as imperfect and begins again. Across the universe, intelligence winks out, cold and entropy set in, and our original narrator wakes up on Earth again, lying on a hill.
And this is, to my mind, the most interesting part of the book. How can you go on after a vision like that—not a vision of warm, mystical comfort, but a vision of unimaginable smallness and rejection? What could the point possibly be, when you have literally seen Earth die?
The narrator gathers himself up and zooms out again—but only in imagination this time, and only as far as the circuit of his own planet. He can look at Earth now with the otherworldly objectivity of a man who has lived many lives on many alien worlds, and yet at each stop he is jarred by human suffering, by events that ought to seem trivial, but cannot: “In the stars’ view, no doubt, these creatures were mere vermin; but each to itself, and sometimes one to another, was more real than all the stars.”
His view sweeps past England to Europe, where “the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities,” to Germany and its “young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Führer,” on to Siberia, where “the iron-hard Arctic oppressed the exiles in their camps,” east to Japan, which “spilled over Asia a flood of armies and trade,” south to Africa, “where Dutch and English profit by the Negro millions…and then the Americas, where the descendants of Europe long ago mastered the descendants of Asia, through priority in the use of guns, and the arrogance that guns breed….”
Even though he has learned to think of his home with an alien’s detachment, the features that capture his attention are more than those that can be seen from space. They are the tiny events that pass across the landscape: war, trade, politics. And as the story ends, he believes, or chooses to believe, that he is watching the same crisis through which every world has to struggle, the universal story in miniature—and that everything he sees on Earth is dignified in that light. He looks down the hill to the light from his home, and up to the light from the stars, and concludes:
Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars…with its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness.
C.S. Lewis—who would go on to write his own series of science fiction novels as a rebuttal, in part, to Stapledon—was shocked enough by Star Maker’s unorthodoxies to call it “sheer devil worship.” But its conclusion, as an attempt to hold in one thought our smallness and our importance, reminds me of nothing so much as some lines Lewis would have immediately recognized, which cut between the human and the galactic scale as effortlessly as any of the passages I’ve considered here:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
King Louie, the orangutan king in The Jungle Book, did not appear in the classic stories by Rudyard Kipling. He was an invention of the 1967 Disney film, a way to shoehorn a great swing number for Louis Prima into the second act. But Kipling’s more ambivalent, less sunny thoughts on the consequences of imperial colonization, so present in the original—after all, a human being can’t grow up among animals—wiggled their way into the forefront of the Disney version. King Louie scats his way through the happy major key of the chorus, singing “I wanna be like you / walk like you, talk like you too / you see it’s true / an ape like me / can learn to be human too.” But the verses, the specifics of those human desires, sink into a minor key.
Now I’m the king of the swingers—oh, the jungle VIP.
I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what’s bothering me
I wanna be a man, man cub, and stroll right into town
And be just like the other men. I’m tired of monkey’in around.
King Louie may be a lot of fun, but those desires—to be human, to get to be powerful on a human level—leave us with a lot of doubts. Do we really think Louie could learn how to be human? And even if he could, is that something we’d want to happen?
Who gets to be human? To what end evolution? What do education, language, sophistication portend? Can an animal learn emotional maturity the way they learn circus tricks? What aspects of humanity can—and cannot—be taught? These are the questions circling the haunting story of Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Hale does not have all the answers, but that makes his story even more powerful. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Hale gives us a debut novel short on arrogance or pretention, but full of confidence and life. And if there is anything high-falutin’ to say, Hale manages to pull it off by putting it all in the mouth of Bruno, a precocious, erudite, and wildly romantic chimpanzee. In Bruno’s epic journey from the zoo to the primate lab to the human world and back again, no detail or emotion goes unnoticed. Yet, despite Bruno having the most romantic narrative voice since Humbert Humbert, he lacks that definitive trait that comes with lived-in humanity: humility. By giving us a narrator with so much passion, and so few successes in acting on it, Hale has created one of the most tragic literary heroes in recent memory.
As a baby chimp in the Lincoln Park Zoo, Bruno is already beginning to seize on the limitations of the animal world. Instead of taking to his father’s technique of crude buffoonery, Bruno begins to fall in love with the visitors to the zoo. His admiration of these humans, particularly of beautiful young women, is as seductive and ominous as Humbert’s first appreciation of supple nymphets. “I have always been secretly pining for humans,” says Bruno, “longing to someday get to slither between the legs of those dazzling sapiens sapinettes I saw clip-clocking past me all day in those high-heeled shoes that make their calves taut and thrust their beautiful bulbous asses up, up, up in the air, just a little closer to God, like a streaming buffet of delicious desserts on display for Bruno behind impenetrably thick glass, to be admired but not to be touched.” When he is brought into the primatologist labs of the University of Chicago, he is given both his name (an acronym for Behavioral Rearing into Ultroneous Noumenal Ontogenesis) and a muse upon whom he can project all his yearnings for humanity. Lydia Littlemore, the lone female researcher in the lab, becomes Bruno’s first lust object, and in mixing research with affection, Bruno’s linguistic development and emotional evolution are inextricably linked. “I went with the human. I went with love, I went with lust, I went with language. I went with Lydia.”
Most stories that culminate in human transformation use love as the final ingredient—Pinocchio’s love for Geppetto, the princess finally kissing the frog, Beauty returning the love of the beast. These are the signals that characters have earned the right to their full humanity. And for Bruno, his ascent to linguistic expression comes part and parcel with his love for Lydia. He expresses it perfectly, albeit clinically: “Prerequisite to language is the desire to communicate, and prerequisite to the desire to communicate is the acknowledgment of the existence of the consciousness outside of oneself.” Romantic love—the first moment of emotional investment in someone else’s world—is Bruno’s motivator to language, to “exchange worlds”, and how he comes to express himself through spoken language feels as much like romantic poetry as it does developmental science. Hale takes the tragedy of Bruno and Lydia’s love to its fullest extent, tackling all aspects of the nature of love, sex, and emotional connection. By way of “nightly nonversations” with a “mildly retarded autistic night-shift janitor extraordinaire,” Bruno comes to speak his own name, and Lydia is the first to hear him speak. Through Bruno, we believe Lydia recognizes his humanity, and ultimately, his compatibility with her as a romantic and sexual equal. Their first sexual encounter is one of the most suspenseful and cringe-worthy moments I’ve read in recent fiction. I prayed for them to stop, and thrilled that they gave in. And they do appear to fall in love—a deep mutual love and lust that knows no taxonomy.
Or do they? Bruno may be an engaging narrator, but he is deeply untrustworthy. This is not because he does not have passion or desire or empathy, but because everything he has learned about the world has come through the lens of his own evolution, not through the evolution of others. Hale is communicating something very sophisticated in how Bruno comes to learn to express himself, but not the world around him. For all Bruno’s marvelous engagement with the written and spoken word, he knows how limited his capacity for self-expression truly is. “Every word removes the thing it is supposed to represent from the real world. Thus, every word is a lie . . . Just when you want most to speak the truth, the ineffable nature of your subject matter clogs your mouth with lies. An unchewable wad of lies, like a mouthful of cotton balls. Words get in the way of what you want to say.” Language has unlocked his vocabulary, but not necessarily his understanding—he has learned many concrete nouns and ideas, but remarkably few adjectives. He knows how to employ metaphors, but not how to reign in his own hyperbole:
For the first time in my life, I saw the sun melt below a naked horizon, reminding me of a golden egg frying in a pan. For the first time in my life, I saw land, I saw a blue sky made giant by the absence of visual landmarks, I saw vast tracts of empty space. And it amazed me. No one had ever told me the world was this big . . . My heart filled to bursting with the excitement of all this newness, the adventure of it, all the shallow hills sloping and rising along with our rapid traversal of the land, the sky meeting the visible edges of the earth in every direction! Look! This is the world!
Some readers might think Hale of being heavy-handed, and certainly sections like the one above would lead you there. This is impassioned, often melodramatic writing—but would you imagine an ape, suddenly empowered with language yet imprisoned by a lack of dignity, speaking any other way? With his formative emotional experiences being grounded in romantic love, Bruno knows nothing but melodrama, and those brief moments of his life that are simple and calm are quickly subsumed in high tragedy. When his relationship with Lydia is exposed, the realities of the world come crashing down upon him, including his own physical reality that he is, despite all his evolution, still a chimp. Though Bruno experiences language, sex, and emotional loss, he never gets to defend himself among equals, for who are his equals?
His humanity estranges him from the wild, and his wildness estranges him from humanity—yet Bruno continues to hold onto his complexity even toward the end of his ill-fated life. “I have heard . . . that self-authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence. But why condemn the rebel angel for the fantasy of self-invention? Like Satan [in Milton’s Paradise Lost], I made myself with words. I wrote myself into the world.” We have to give Bruno—and Hale—credit for delivering a story like this through sheer force of will. As Bruno writes through dictation to a handy amanuensis, we can see how much language has come to mean to him, despite all that its acquisition has cost him. Though he goes on and on, the fact that he can do so and in such depth sets him apart from all others of his species—which is, after all, only a step away from our own. “Do I digress?” he asks in the middle of a long rhapsodic digression. “Very well, then, I digress. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Good for Bruno, and for Hale for delivering him to us—I’d rather have a monkey with multitudes than a human with platitudes any day.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1621): This is a dense, digressive, wonderfully learned, quasi-autobiographical, quasi-psychological exploded encyclopedia of all things melancholic and otherwise—a mishmash of case studies (a man who thought he was turned to glass), citations from contradictory ancient and modern authorities (c. 1620), quotations from the Bible, essays on geography and climatology, observations on the deficiencies of the Catholic Church, recommendations of study as a cure for melancholy (and then reflections on study as a cause of melancholy), a utopia. Burton described his Anatomy as: “a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, without art, invention, judgement, wit, learning, harsh, raw, rude, phantastical, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry…” Indeed, such it is, and for this intellectually dense disorder, the book can be baffling and dizzy-making (esp. if you read the NYRB edition, the most readily available, which has very close-set type and does not translate all of Burton’s Latin). Burton’s long, loose, Latinate sentences can also be rough going. But it is very much worth a try. Burton is an endearingly humble narrator who, while he calls himself an ignorant smatterer, might teach you to accept the incurable madness— melancholy— fallenness—of humankind.
Paradise Lost, John Milton (1667): With Milton, Latinate syntax is again at the heart of the difficulty: Milton reverses the normal order of words and clauses (Yoda-ish, only more complex). Milton’s blank verse epic is also long (“No one ever wished it longer,” Samuel Johnson once remarked), as well as being one of the most richly allusive works in the language–and these allusions are sometimes crucial to making sense of the dramatic action of the poem and the nature and motivations of its characters (Adam, Eve, Satan, God the Father, Jesus, assorted angels—the story of Paradise Lost is the story of the fall of man (more or less) as reported in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis). Milton drew his references from classical literature, philosophy, history, and myth, as well as contemporary (i.e. C17th) politics, theology, and religious debates, and so for those determined to get at the very marrow of Milton, Merritt Y. Hughes’ Complete Poems and Prose, the definitive scholarly edition, is the best choice for its excellent, extensive footnotes (not endnotes, which are irritating and slow reading immeasurably). However, Milton’s poetry can stand on its own: listening to Milton read aloud by a talented reader, the convoluted syntax comes to seem almost natural, and the grandeur of Milton’s blank verse shines forth. If you can’t find a Milton marathon in your neighborhood, try English classical actor Anton Lesser’s audiobook recording. Illustrated editions of the poem can also be illuminating: Gustave Doré and William Blake’s illustrations are the best (and there’s a $10 Dover edition of the Doré illustrations). As an additional warm-up, you might consider reading “Happy Birthday, Milton“, by New York Times columnist and legendary Milton scholar Stanley Fish.
A Tale of A Tub, Jonathan Swift (1684-1710): Swift may have sat across the aisle from Milton (Swift was a Church of England priest who supported the monarchy; Milton, a fervently committed dissenter who supported the English Revolution), but for the difficulty of their literary work and for the passion of their commitments to opposed theologies, they have a certain improbable correlation. The sources of difficulty in Swift’s Tale, however, are somewhat different from those of Paradise Lost. Swift’s prose style is pretty straightforward as 18th century prose styles go, though it may take a while to get used to sentences that might begin with phrases like “So that…,” occasional syntactic inversions, occasional paragraph-length sentences, and (in some editions) capitalization of common nouns (quite common in early modern English–Milton’s as well). The most marked difficulty with Swift is that the issues, persons, and events he continually alludes to were very much of his particular historical moment, an age defined by the sort of party politics and culture wars we know too well, but that are hard to get a grasp on at 300 years remove. With an edition that has decent footnotes, you should be able to orient yourself pretty well. And what’s more, the finer points of late 17th and early 18th century political squabbles are not the main event in any case: the Tale is a primarily a satire of “Modern” writing—writing produced by the (then) new class of professional writers whom many educated and aristocratic readers came to despise (akin to the way certain publications have denigrated bloggers and blogging). These Grub Streeters were paid (oh, how distasteful!) and had not necessarily gone to Oxford or Cambridge, and might not have read Aristotle or Horace, and didn’t necessarily care about the classics or classical rules of art. All of this was deeply distressing to Swift. The persona that Swift assumes in the Tale is a parody of one of the worst of these Grub Street hacks (and I’ve read them—they often are dreadful and crazy and bad—though not always). Swift’s hack is perpetually distracted and self-absorbed and, as we discover by degrees, quite probably insane.
The work that this unreliable narrator promises in the title page—A Tale of a Tub—is what seems at first a pretty straightforward allegory of the history of the Christian church and its breaking into Catholicism, Anglicanism, and dissenting Protestantism. But the hack is continually interrupting this tale to hold forth on a variety of increasingly bizarre subjects: his own ill health, his poverty, “the use and improvement of madness,” the other books he is going to write soon (“A general history of Ears,” “A Modest Defense of the Proceedings of the Rabble in all Ages”). As you near the end, it feels like the whole world is being sucked down by the ferocious energy of the satire: the Church of England, Jesus, and even Swift himself, who seems to enjoy occupying the subjectivity of his madman a bit too much. Swift claimed that the Tale was designed “to expose the Abuses and Corruptions in Learning and Religion.” That it does—but there’s very little left standing when all’s exposed. In the realm of satire, this has my vote for the greatest of them all (but I, invasive narrator that I am, must admit that I’m hardly impartial as a one-time graduate student of eighteenth-century literature).
Like more conventional forms of romance, the first great literary love of my life began with a look. Young readers of Playboy have similar experiences, I believe, with centerfolds: a precise moment – the turning of a page to reveal a face (more likely a body) that haunts the young man for the rest of his days. In bars too, at high school dances, in college dining halls, in lecture classes and seminars such infatuations begin: a single glimpse of an unknown stranger prompts the festerings of fascination and desire. My literary romance began in the pages of A Book of Days for the Literary Year, between June 22nd and June 23rd:This picture, which still hangs above my desk, is Mary McCarthy’s Vassar senior portrait and from the first moment I saw it, I was in love. She was all the things I wanted to be: a writer, beautiful and serious, but also – or so she seemed to me – bright, frank, fearless, alluring. And she was also what I was then: a bit childlike and clean-scrubbed and, perhaps, a bit mischievous (I sense that still in the shadowed corner of her mouth). I have since discovered that McCarthy’s looks were a bit sharper than this picture reveals, and became more so in her 20s and 30s. There are also some ghastly pictures of her in later life (one of her on a panel with W.H. Auden comes to mind – the two look like finalists in a World’s Least Well-Preserved Person contest, and I think I remember McCarthy to be missing a tooth in this one). But in the Vassar portrait she is stunning. I gather from the number of men who fell under her spell (Edmund Wilson, Clement Greenburg, and Philip Rahv among them) that the beauty that won me was real.Is this strange? Or inappropriate? This enthralling first look, this discovery of one of the great literary loves of my life through a visceral, physical attraction to her? My affair ended in an intellectual and aesthetic admiration of McCarthy’s bracing, clean, meticulously observed prose and her total, sometimes aggressive, frankness about sex and everything else in How I Grew, The Group, The Groves of Academe, Cast a Cold Eye, The Company She Keeps, and Intellectual Memoirs. Her bravery (or was it brazenness?) held me rapt and abject even after the original power of the Vassar picture had been diluted somewhat by other, less flattering visions of her. The most famous McCarthy line of all time is one she tossed out about Lillian Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979. McCarthy had described Hellman as a dishonest writer and Cavett pressed her, “What is dishonest about Lillian Hellman?” McCarthy responded: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (Hellman responded with a $2.5 million libel suit.) Not until I found Lord Rochester, Leopold von Sacher Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade some years later would someone seem so awe-inspiringly self-assured and terrifyingly bold in thought and word.But the question of beauty remains. Susan Sontag, whom one might have expected to rise above the average woman’s hyper-consciousness of beauty, was by her own account, one of us: “Physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.” In Paradise Lost, the newly-created, unfallen Eve is more taken with her own reflection in a lake than she is with Adam. He is, by her own account,”less fair,/ less winning… than that smooth wat’ry image” of herself. When I started reading McCarthy, I didn’t just want to be able to write like she did, I wanted to be her. I wanted to be what she had been: beautiful, dazzlingly bright and self-certain. Her books were sacred how-to guides that might transform me (however silly or sinister the ladies at jezebel.com may have found the idea of intellectual memoirs as how-to books in Anne’s post last week). But it is laughable: Jon Stewart had a joke about the increasing sexiness and femaleness of cable news anchors – a segment called “News I’d Like to F#@k” and this approach to news-watching was, regrettably, similar to the way (in my too earnest and hopeful teendom) I approached McCarthy – with a confusion of hungers – for beauty, for intellectual acuity. I cannot tell which is which sometimes. I cannot subtract the beauty of the person (beauty I admire; a beauty I covet) from the disembodied voices of the written world. The materiality of the person clings to the writing, gives the words a captivating timbre that the plodding and mousy can never achieve.I remember reading reviews of Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) and none of the reviewers seemed capable of talking about the book itself (The Secret History, Redux? – I guess, I have not read it) without first invoking Pessl’s beauty, or other reviewers’ fascination with her beauty, which was the same thing. I do not think that I am alone in my weakness – “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant” I may be – dilettantish, even (as you already know) – but not alone. Perhaps there are earnest and just readers out there who are not drawn in and repulsed so erratically as I am: people who plod dutifully and methodically through expansive reading lists of canonized authors (perhaps they go further – and read chronologically and boy-girl-boy-girl as well!), immune to the charms of such as these. But to belittle the powers of beauty and charm – and the irrational more generally – is not to escape it, and I do not try.Patricia HighsmithAnna Akhmatova, 1924.Sylvia Plath, Yorkshire, 1956, Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room.Assia Wevill, poet and second wife of Ted Hughes. She committed suicide in 1969, as Plath had before her, but killed her daughter by Hughes as well as herself.
Reading our recent graduate’s response to our book question #59 post, I’ve been thinking about taste and literature. Why is it, with bookish people especially, that taste (in books and film, and music, and other variables like visual art, food, wine, beer, architecture, interior design), is such a sensitive matter?Our reader seemed somewhat aghast at having his reading list exposed – as aghast as I might have been, some time ago, had someone inventoried in public the contents of my kitchen while I was studying for my university orals (gin, red wine, coffee, Equal, macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding, soy burritos, cigarettes, Xanax, multivitamins), or my video rental history from the summer I took my qualifying exam (Mandy Moore’s A Walk to Remember – oh, how I wept – Britney Spears’ Crossroads, Blue Crush, How High, The Skulls). Granted, my response to the culture of aesthetic oneupsmanship in which I live is to wallow in what many of my peers would call – with a slight grimace of distaste or a shiver of disquiet – mass culture. I think it’s alright, myself. Some of it. (There’s plenty of shit too.) And I think a diet of only “great books” and auteurs – Wagner, Goddard, von Trier, Proust, Marx… pick your poison… leaves one a bit milquetoast-y.I’ve read Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, subtitled “Notes from Damaged Life”, in which he, a German Marxist intellectual living, at the time, in Los Angeles, reflects with pungent horror on modern popular culture and the deceptive comforts and conveniences of modern life. Adorno’s fragmentary pensées are one of the most visceral, moving portraits of alienation you’ll ever encounter. I look at the book sparingly and seldom because its sense of horror and melancholy is infectious. It’s also insane: how could anyone so full of despair and repulsion not have shot himself four or five fragments in? The wonder of the book is that the consciousness that produced it was able to survive itself for several hundred pages. While the book moves me, it is also a cautionary tale about psychic price of absolutist snobbism.Since Milton’s epic invocation to the muse in Paradise LostOf Man’s first disobedience, and the FruitOf that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tasteBrought Death into the World, and all our woe,With loss of EdenTaste has come to mean much more to us than what we like to eat. For Milton, salvation hangs in the balance. As Denise Gigante, the author of Taste: A Literary History (and my advisor), has written, Milton’s sense of “taste is more than a physical sensation or appetite (though that is critically implicated too): it is a highly freighted philosophical concept with serious consequences for the creation of selves in society.” Eve’s eating of the apple was more than metaphor, and since her – or at least since Milton’s description of her – we have all been a little uneasy about what we consume. What if we are what we eat – and what we read? What if my watching all of the “O.C.” (not the fourth season – I do have some standards) has had moral – and mortal – effects? And has it just had its way with my aesthetic soul or my immortal one as well?An 18th century moral philosopher whom I’m quite fond of – Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury – believed that our capacity for morality is like aesthetic taste, and that beauty in nature and art is aligned with goodness. He believed that goodness is beauty of a moral sort, and that in the same way we recognize beauty in the proportions of a statue, or harmony in the colors of a painting, we recognize moral goodness in human actions. While he claimed that this faculty was innate in human beings, he hedged his bets a bit in insisting on the need for a good education. And the troubling suggestion he leaves us with is that those who aren’t properly educated in art and the classics and history, might be a little morally iffy as well.If you’re around people with babies, it’s sometimes easier to notice this conflation of food for the body and food for the mind and soul. Only organic home-made baby food, no TV, carefully selected books and toys. The underlying idea is that the care the parents take in maintaining the quality of what the baby consumes will ultimately make it a better person. Smarter, stronger, more coordinated. Sadly, David Shipler’s The Working Poor suggests that this caution is well-founded. The lack of micro-nutrients in the diets of children raised in poverty often affects cognitive development. A child who starts life malnourished can become a child who’s behind in math and reading several years later; just as a child who suffers from emotional neglect in infancy is more likely to suffer from emotional and behavioral problems in later life.I am far afield from my original point, I fear. Having meant to soothe our reader with a meditation on the universality of his anxiety about taste, I find myself in baby food, by way of Milton and Adorno. My own feeling is that the game of competitive aesthetics is a wicked one. One I have played – one I will likely play again – I cannot help myself – but an unwholesome one nonetheless. It can give an electrifying surge of self-satisfaction, when you know the good things better than anyone else. But it won’t save your soul:A now-lost friend of mine, when he visited San Francisco a few years ago, went straight for my CDs. “You’ve got some good stuff here,” he said (pointing specifically to some Cat Power and Chet Baker), and he seemed to relax once he’d seen that, taste-wise, I hadn’t “lapsed.” His attitude towards people had always seemed to suggest that the people worth knowing were exquisite objets, and I was still up to snuff. (I’m not exempting myself – It takes a snob to know a snob: Or, at least, when you’ve known one too many aesthetic moralists, you, if not become one, often develop an inner one and don’t mind praise from an outer one.) The thing that made this visit more interesting as a case study for an aesthetics vs. morals debate is that my friend had just been excruciating rude to my roommates (one of whom was letting him sleep on her couch; the other of whom had just offered him a glass of whiskey). My visitor, while my roommates were watching “Will and Grace” had described its stupidity in detail: The word “crap” was used a lot and there was a sort of sneer employed in his disquisition on its crappiness. Many people, I think, would keep their mouth shut in such a situation: So, “Will and Grace” is dreadful: these people are putting me up for the night, I can keep my opinions to myself. But he couldn’t – as though there was, in the religious sense of the word, a moral imperative to condemn the damnable.A bigger lie was never written than this: De gustibus non est disputandem.
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