Portrait of the Reader as a Young Man

September 27, 2010

I recently finished reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for class. It’s an excellent book, though I don’t claim to understand what Joyce is trying to do. One thing I do find extremely amusing about the book, though: the reaction it elicits from people who read it.

Because the strange thing about the book is, it’s main character, Stephen Dedalus, is an artist type, and the book is mostly about his ideas about life, the universe, and everything. There’s a plot, but it’s driven almost entirely by the ideas Stephen has. He’s really the only character of importance. This means that your reaction to the book is dictated almost entirely by your reaction to the character of Stephen Dedalus. And, since Stephen is a brilliant, angsty, pretentious artist type, most people have the same reaction to him: disgust mingled with a prideful sympathy.

The disgust is easy to understand. Stephen is in many ways a terrible person. The prideful sympathy might need a little drawing out. What I mean is, most people recognize something of themselves in Stephen – the questions he is grappling with, after all, are questions everyone confronts at some point in their life, and Joyce describes Stephen’s searching in such honest terms that, whatever else we think of him, we have to believe he is really struggling with these questions.

But Joyce also presents Stephen as believing that he is alone in his struggles – he is an artist who cares more about his art than about other people and believes himself uniquely capable of forging the “conscience of his race” (whatever that means). He is convinced that no one else thinks about things the way he does. So when the reader recognizes party of himself in Stephen, he is made also to assent to this prideful part  of Stephen’s personality. Joyce brings the reader to believe himself to be, like Stephen Dedalus, unique.

But in that sentence the whole absurdity of the claim makes itself apparent. Because if every reader is like Stephen Dedalus, then the way Stephen thinks is clearly not particularly unique. And so the reader is forced to admit that he, too, is not actually unique; he is so normal, in fact, that a hundred years ago a book had already been written about the type of person he is.

And it is this self-recognition, when the reader realizes how prideful his sympathy with Stephen Dedalus is, that brings about the disgust that the reader feels towards him. Becaue the reader realizes that the main character ought not to be sympathetic, and also that the portrait drawn of the main character is as much of the reader as it is of the artist.

Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Huck Finn, or, What Makes for a Great Book?

July 20, 2010

I’m currently re-reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and am trying to understand what leads some people to call it “the great American novel.” It is a good book, certainly; entertaining, a witty satire, and not entirely devoid of morality. But I don’t see what would lead one to call it great.

My main argument against it, I suppose, that it’s not particularly complex. A book like Moby-Dick can provoke endless hours of discussion, but there doesn’t seem to be that much to discuss about Huck Finn. The central conflict (regarding whether Jim ought to be freed) is fairly simple, and it’s quite clear which side of it Twain’s on. And that’s about the only thing there is to talk about. The satire is funny, and he makes some valid points about antebellum Southern society and about how gullible people are in general, but once you say “so he’s satirizing antebellum Southern society and point out how gullible people are in general,” what more is there to say?

Does this mean that for a novel to be great it must be ambivalent, undecided, like Moby-Dick is so much of the time? I don’t think so. I think writers who are certain in their beliefs are often just as good, if not better, than writers who are eternally questioning. But confident writers still must acknowledge the other side of the argument, not just preach their own view as obviously right and anyone who disagrees with it as obviously wrong. I find that works that do this sort of glossing over usually do it because they don’t want to address the complications in their worldview. Mark Twain said the moral of Huck Finn was intended to be, “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and indeed, anyone coming away from the book probably has arrived at that conclusion. The problem is, insofar as its true, it’s obviously true (that statement is un-disagreeable-with), but it ignores the question, “what makes for a sound heart?” In doing so, it doesn’t make itself a bad book, but it makes itself not a great book.

This isn’t to detract from what is great about Huck Finn. It’s brilliantly executed; great characterization, great representation of dialects, funny when it ought to be funny, serious when it ought to be serious. Good for it. But that doesn’t make it a great work, in my mind. Certainly not “the great American novel.”

(Note: I argued a few weeks ago that this is what is wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t want to say the same thing about Huck Finn; I’m not saying it’s a bad book, or even not a good book. I think it deserves most of the acclaim it gets. I just don’t see why it’s considered among the greatest.)

Book Review: The Border Trilogy

July 14, 2010

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.

Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

June 4, 2010

I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.

Yeat’s The Tower, Auden’s Another Time

May 27, 2010

The next two books we’ve read for my 20th century poetry-by-the-book class are W.B. Yeats’ The Tower and W.H. Auden’s Another Time. These are, to say the least, very different works, but I like both of them.

Yeats’ main strength is his prosody and use of imagery. He’s one of the few poets for whom metrical variation actually means something most of the time. Just read “Leda and the Swan” out loud to see what I’m talking about. Then there’s his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which, though bizarre and confusing, are occasionally fascinating. His idea of “gyres” is, as far as I can tell, your standard cyclicism, but cyclicism is a powerful concept; that’s what gives the annunciatory poems in the center of the book (“Two Songs from a Play” through “Among School Children,” roughly) their strength. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Greek or Christian history, but he makes an interesting argument. What I like most about Yeats, though, is just the feel of certain lines; he has a certain enchanting quality. He’s a very mythical poet.

Auden, on the other hand, is extremely analytical, cerebral, even sarcastic at times. He reminds me in a lot of ways of T.H. White (what’s with all these initials?), who wrote The Once and Future King. Both gay liberal but ethically minded Englishmen who worried about the dangers of tyranny and democracy and thought love was the way to unite… yep, it fits. Unfortunately, a lot of the good qualities of Auden’s poetry make him uninteresting to talk about literarily; conversations about his poetry tend to turn into conversations about the nature of ethics. Which is, of course, kind of the point, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here. Anyway, the most well-known and probably best poem from the book is “Musee de Beaux Arts,” but other good ones are “Law like Love” and “As I walked out one evening.” I personally was interested by “Herman Melville” (for obvious reasons – for the record, I’m not sure I buy Auden’s reading of “Billy Budd,” though I’d like to) and “Roman Wall Blues,” which isn’t a complex poem, but a quite fun one.

What I find strange about all this is that though Yeats is the imagistic one and Auden the cerebral one, Auden is the one to focus on love and community and Yeats is the more egotistical one focused on his own poetic genius. I guess it isn’t that incongruous, but it seems somehow backwards.

Next up for the class (actually, started today): T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Of course, I’ve already read them (it? I’m always unsure about how to refer to plural titles like this), and it’s too long to do justice to in a reasonably-sized post, so I’ll just say now: it’s excellent, read it.

Robert Frost’s North of Boston

May 18, 2010

The first book we read for my 20th century poetry “by the book” class was Robert Frost’s “North of Boston.” I found it surprisingly excellent; Frost is quite a good writer. I do think some clarification is needed, though; in most of the poems in this volume, Frost isn’t writing lyric poetry; he’s more writing short narratives in verse form. This doesn’t mean it’s not poetry, but it’s very different from the lyrics of Shakespeare or Keats or Hopkins or Eliot, to name a few of my favorite lyricists. He’s working more with characters than images. (Note that this applies to varying degrees to the rest of his poetry; A Boy’s Will, for example, contains a great deal of lyric, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a very imagistic poem. Not that they’re distinct categories anyway, more different qualities that can be possessed to greater or lesser degrees.)

Indeed, the subtitle to North of Boston, “this book of people,” demands we approach it as a dialogue between Frost’s characters not participated in by Frost himself. We must find Frost’s meaning in the complex interplay between different speakers’ perspectives. This dialogic approach (c.f. Bakhtin for a more detailed explanation) is more characteristic of the novel or short story than of lyric poetry. For example, the second poem, “Mending Wall,” repeats twice two aphorisms through the mouths of two distinct characters: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” The naïve reader reject one of these sayings or the other or both, but Frost rejects such an easy solution; he finds each view valuable but inadequate alone, and his own view must be sought in the sum of all of them.

This dialogic informs even the arrangement of poems within the book. The last responds to the first, the second-to-last to the second, and so on, in a manner reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we leave out “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” in which Frost himself gives the keys to the book as a whole, we find seven pairs of poems and the lone, central, enigmatic “A Servant to Servants.” That poem discusses one who “was crossed in love, / Or so the story goes.” This bizarre juxtaposition of insanity and love forms the theme of the book; from there, it moves out concentrically, taking as its subject at every level the absurd yet lovely nature of our shared human condition. It focuses on original sin (“Blueberries,” “After Apple-picking”); human dignity (“The Black Cottage,” “The Code”); family life (“Home Burial,” “The Generations of Men”); societal perceptions (“A Hundred Collars,” “The Housekeeper”); poetic inspiration (“The Mountain,” “The Fear”); mortality (“The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Self-Seeker”); and humanity in nature (“Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile”).

Consider the use of dialogic in the last of these poems. Its counterpart “Mending Wall” suggests that building walls, though an act of violence against nature, is necessary to establish a community, for men define themselves by division. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker recognizes nature, by itself, as generalized and anonymous; it offers only “tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.” These trees remind us of the pine and apple in “Mending Wall,” but are different because homogenous; they represent man by himself in nature, where he is nowhere in particular, “just far from home.” The wood-pile, however, an artifact akin to the mended wall, offers to connect man to nature by distinguishing him from it, through community. On seeing a pile of wood the speaker sees that though the wood-pile was made by man out of nature, it does not sit outside of nature; “what held it though on one side was a tree / Still growing.” The later poem thus recasts imagery of the earlier one to suggest a different position – though not exactly a contradictory one. It is more that they are two halves of an answer.

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