Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.


But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.


When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

The Pleasures Of Books Never To Be Written

In ‘The Flaubert Apocrypha’ (from: Flaubert’s Parrot, Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 115-116), Julian Barnes writes:

If the sweetest moment in life is a visit to a brothel which doesn’t come off, perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a definite shape, which never needs to be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.

I cannot now find a definite citation for this claim but I distinctly remember reading the results of a study which claimed that loudly proclaiming–to all and sundry–the undertaking and commencement of some virtuous course of action correlated quite significantly with the non-completion of that work. As the theory went, when such announcements were made, they were typically greeted with cries of congratulation and adulation from friends and family, which were all too eagerly lapped up in lieu of doing the actual work. That’s where things stayed–why bother with doing the hard yards when you could have the glory, in advance, for free?

The pure mental indulgence of a fantasy for a book could be a similar ‘accomplishment’: the conjuring up of a vision of a literary masterpiece, perfectly conceived and imagined, every component of it resting in artfully arranged relationships with every other, flawlessly executed, with no blemishes present or visible. All that comes between the initial foggy gropings and the ‘final product’ is elided–it is but a short, sharp movement from the time the vision first hove into view to an indulgence and wallowing in the adulation and appreciation that greets its completion. The perfections of the initial idea are preserved through the ‘process,’ magically transmuted into an enduring ‘finished product’ with none of the vexing, terror-inducing anxiety and frustration that is its usual accomplishment.

I wonder if this is why Barnes describes the sensation made note of above as ‘the sweetest moment in writing’: for what could be more pleasurable than to contemplate the initial object of the love-gaze: the idea, the hook, the story, the thesis, the parting of the clouds to reveal the treasure–and to then lightly skip over the dirty business to lift that gaze and direct it upon that distant place where after passing through the Magic Factory it emerges, complete with cover and spine? Perhaps this sensation is animated by a recognition of the pains glimpsed but not felt; what could be sweeter than that?

Barnes alludes too,  to those works that are ‘never sullied with a definite shape,’ never ‘exposed to a less loving gaze.’ He is right, of course; these are the sweetest pleasures of all, the ‘ideas’ you hold in reserve, unwilling to let this distinctly inferior world have any truck with them whatsoever.

Note: I was reminded of this passage by an essay in the Paul Horgan collection I cited here yesterday, which includes an essay titled ‘Preface to an Unwritten Book.’ That composition was meant to substitute for a book because of its alternative offerings: ‘citations’ rather than ‘examinations in depth.’

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Foucault And Kripke On Names And Rigid Designators

In ‘What is An Author‘, Michel Foucault writes:

The author’s name is a proper name, and therefore it raises the problems common to all proper names. (Here I refer to Searle’s analyses, among others.’) Obviously, one cannot turn a proper name into a pure and simple reference. It has other than indicative functions: more than an indication, a gesture, a finger pointed at someone, it is the equivalent of a description. When one says “Aristotle,” one employs a word that is the equivalent of one, or a series, of definite descriptions, such as “the author of the Analytics,” “the founder of ontology,” and so forth. One cannot stop there, however, because a proper name does not have just one signification. When we discover that Arthur Rimbaud did not write La Chasse spirituelle, we cannot pretend that the meaning of this proper name, or that of the author, has been altered. The proper name and the author’s name are situated between the two poles of description and designation: they must have a certain link with what they name, but one that is neither entirely in the mode of designation nor in that of description; it must be a specific link. However – and it is here that the particular difficulties of the author’s name arise – the links between the proper name and the individual named and between the author’s name and what it names are not isomorphic and do not function in the same way. There are several differences.

If for example, Pierre Dupont does not have blue eyes, or was not born in Paris, or is not a doctor, the name Pierre Dupont will still always refer to the same person, such things do not modify the link of designation. The problems raised by the author’s name are much more complex, however. If I discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house we visit today, this is a modification that, obviously, will not alter the functioning of the author’s name. But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions. If we proved that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon by showing that the same author wrote both the works of Bacon and those of Shakespeare, that would be a third type of change that would entirely modify the functioning of the author’s name. The author’s name is not, therefore, just a proper name like the rest.

‘Pierre Dupont,’ therefore, is a rigid designator while ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Bacon’ are not.

I do not know whether Foucault had read Kripke at the time of the writing of the above, nor whether the rigid designator theory of proper names was already in wide currency by then (though the Wittgenstein, Searle and Strawson critique of the descriptivist theory of names certainly were). In any case, the passages above seem to suggest an intriguing connection between two theorists not widely taken to have common interests or inclinations.

Note: Michel Foucault, “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?” Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie 63, No. 3 (1969) 73-104. Originally delivered as a lecture before the Society in February 1969. The Searle reference is to his 1969 Speech Acts: An Essay in The Philosophy of Language. Kripke’s Naming and Necessity lectures were delivered in January 1970. 

Reprinted in: Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Trans. D. F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977) 113-38. 

The Author’s Offspring, the Finished Deal

A few days ago, I received my author copies of my latest book. Five paperbacks, neatly bundled up in a cardboard parcel bearing an impressive array of stamps and customs bills. I tore open the cardboard (with my bare hands, no less!) Inside, they were wrapped up in clear plastic, neatly and tightly stacked on each other. The plastic came off a little easier, and then, there they were, in my hands at long last. (I will pick up a couple of hardcover versions over the weekend from my co-author; they look extremely pretty to say the least, and have managed to surmount the aesthetic barrier raised by the provision of my photograph on the dust jacket.)

The physical affordance of a book–its look and feel, its weight and heft, its distinctive aroma of new paper and printers’ ink–are all too often commented on when people bemoan their loss in the face of the advancing juggernaut of the e-book and the handheld book reader.  I won’t get into that debate here; I’ve done so many times elsewhere.

Rather, I just want to make note of a peculiar and particular instance of the delights of the physical book, the one alluded to above, a kind of converse of the e-book phenomenon: the pleasure experienced by an author when the transformation of the electronic document into a paper-and-ink object is complete. The multiple, scattered word processor files–one for each chapter–with their standard fonts are taken over by the typesetter’s unitary object; the margins and pagination change; frontispieces appear; author biographies are inserted; the cataloging information page is added on; the copyright signs proclaim your relationship to the ‘work’; and lastly, the final piece of the puzzle, the–hopefully, tasteful and artful–covers are slapped on top and bottom (or front and back.)

Your babe is ready for its close-up but you are the one simpering.

When I look at the finished piece it’s hard to not marvel at the transformation of the once-so-familiar; those same pages, which had once made me almost nauseous during the endless copy-editing, proof-reading and revision cycles, now look decidedly more amenable to approach; they do not repel me as much as they did during those final days when the finish line seemed both proximate and agonizingly distant.

So distinct is this change that you are almost inclined to think the content might have changed too, that perhaps your writing might have even become better with all the cosmetic surgery its packaging has undergone. But there is no such relief; the writing remains resolutely the same.

And then lastly, there is the rueful acknowledgment that no matter how hard you try, blemishes creep in. For all my proof-reading I missed out on spelling errors, and readers have already sent in four corrections. Even more embarrassingly there is a ludicrous technical error late in the book. I can only blame it on exhaustion and ennui.

One copy gets given away today, complete with inscription, to a friend. The rest go on the shelves; they won’t be read by me, but perhaps someone else will step up.

What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (and Literature)

In ‘What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art‘ (New York Times, April 12, 2013), Eric R. Kandel writes:

Alois Riegl….understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture….In addition to our built-in visual processes, each of us brings to a work of art our acquired memories: we remember other works of art that we have seen. We remember scenes and people that have meaning to us and relate the work of art to those memories. In order to see what is painted on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what we might see in a painting. These insights into perception served as a bridge between the visual perception of art and the biology of the brain.

Kande’s focus in his article is on visual art, but these considerations apply equally to the printed word. Here are the passages excerpted above with very slight emendation:

Literature is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the reader  collaborate with the author in transforming two-dimensional printed words on a page into an imaginative depiction of the world, the reader interprets what he or she sees on the page canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the text….In addition to our acquired reading abilities, each of us brings to a work of literature our acquired memories: we remember other works of literature that we have seen. We remember scenes and people who have meaning to us and relate the work of literature to those memories. In order to read what is printed on a page on a page, we have to know beforehand what we might read in the text.

So, we get the collaborative theory of the reader: a literary work is brought to life by the reader, it acquires meaning in the act of reading.  This ensures that the work serves as raw material for an act of active engagement with the reader, who brings a history of reading, a corpus of memories, and thus, an inclination and disposition toward the text. The more you read, the more you bring to every subsequent act of reading; the more you engage with humans, the more varied the archetypes and templates of the human experience you have playing in your mind as you read.

The classic work then, which endures over time and acquires a new set of readers in each successive generation, becomes so because it remains reinterpretable on an ongoing basis; newer bodies of text and human histories surround it and it acquires new meanings from them.  We are still unable to analyze this phenomenon, to determine what makes a particular text receptive to such reimaginings over time; its success is the only indicator it has what it takes to acquire the status of a classic.