Philip Roth and Writing for One’s ‘Community’

In reviewing Claudia Roth Pierpont‘s Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, Adam Mars-Jones writes:

Letting Go…hadn’t yet been published when Roth was given a hostile reception at a symposium organised by Yeshiva University….The topic was ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’, and the idea seemed to be, if he didn’t already have such a crisis, to lay one on for him. The first question he was asked was: ‘Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?’….

There might have been places where Pietro di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete, would be grilled in fine detail about his depiction of Italian immigrants. There were certainly places where Ralph Ellison would be called out for Invisible Man’s representation of the Negro and for his views on the race question. But at Yeshiva University Philip Roth was always going to be the main dish. By accepting a Jewish university’s invitation…Roth was also implicitly accepting that he had responsibilities towards his community.

Even if the hostile questioning lasted half an hour…The profound effect it had seems to combine a rejection of the forces that held him to account and a rejection of the elements of his personality that led him to expect anything different….Roth’s idealism…was certainly transformed, not poisoned but pickled, perhaps, by the bitter juices of experience.

The immediate effect of the Yeshiva confrontation…was that Roth resolved never to write about Jews again. Of course he did, but from that point on he took pleasure in defying any party line.

Writing for a community while informed by some supposed responsibility to it feels like an impossible burden to bear. This is not because the writer (or some other artist) is a magically autonomous entity outside the realm of moral judgment; rather, it is because the supposed community is not easily defined. A ‘community’ is as nebulous an entity as ‘nation’, as problematic in the way it is invoked and used for chastisement and censure.That old slogan “no entity without identity” seems particularly apropos in this situation: Who and what are included in the community? What are its origins and extents? Who occupies its margins, who its center?

This problem of demarcation and definition immediately renders the writer’s fulfillment of his supposed ‘responsibilities’ to his ‘community’ intractable: Who should she write for? Whom should she represent? Whose voice should she articulate? Which agendas should be hers?

Those who demand responsibilities toward a community from those who write, all the while bearing the nominal identity of this supposed group, are very often a privileged group, comfortably ensconced in a dominant position. When they make their demands for fidelity, they are all too often seeking a commitment to their ideologically inflected vision of the community, their positions of privilege and power, their roles as community story-tellers.

The writer who is accused of having abdicated his responsibilities to the community has, more often than not, complicated this comfortable picture. In those cases, such accusations should be worn like badges of honor.

The Elusive Art of the Book Review

A dozen or so years ago, my first ‘official’ book reviews were published. Both of them had been commissioned–that sounds so grand!–by the APA Newsletter on Teaching PhilosophyPhilosophical Naturalism by David Papineau and What Is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers. (The always-ahead-of-the-curve APA website’s archive is incomplete and I cannot find copies of these reviews any more. Perhaps it’s just as well.) Back then, I was completing my dissertation and welcomed the opportunity to broaden my readings, develop some analytical writing skills and of course, add a few lines to my CV. My editor was happy with the reviews I sent in and suggested only exceedingly minor edits.

A year later, I wrote another review, this time of Theory and Method in the Neurosciences (Peter K. Machamer, Rick Grush, Peter McLaughlin (eds)), for the journal Metascience. My draft review was rejected by the editor: it supposedly read like a tedious listing and description of the table of contents. The editor had seized on a confusion that I still entertained about how to write a good book review: the step-by-step analysis of arguments or the broad, synoptic take. In the case of my current assignment, this confusion had been made worse by my reviewing a collection of essays rather than a unitary monograph. Suitably chastened, I revised the review to take on–hopefully–a more elevated and magisterial view. It was accepted, and I moved on.

In the intervening years, I’ve only written a few more reviews. Truth be told, I’ve not been approached too often, and I’ve not minded, as I’ve often felt myself lacking in time given my academic commitments and teaching loads at Brooklyn College. Moreover, I find myself not wanting to review philosophy books as much as novels or collections of essays; if I want to diversify my readings now, it’s in a direction away from philosophy, of which I get plenty during my teaching and academic writing. But ‘the literary market’ seems considerably harder to crack, and so I patiently wait for my first commission in this arena, and satisfy myself by writing the odd critical note here on this blog.

Still, my early experiences in writing book reviews and my subsequent reading of review essays and author-reviewer disputes in those hoary fora, the New York and London Reviews of Books, still prompts the question of what the ‘correct’ approach to writing a book review might be: the micro or the macro? (As described above. I’m leaving aside the question of whether the hilariously negative and scathing review–a la Strohminger of McGinn–serves any value whatsoever, other than confirming the popular impression of academics as highly educated squabbling children.)

The best reviews, of course, eschew the excesses of either approach: they disdain the grim plod through the minutiae of the text as well as the lofty ramble or learned filler that only glancingly or perfunctorily considers the book under review.  The former suffers on stylistic grounds and sometimes misses the forest for the trees; the latter on content, especially as it confirms its author as a blowhard.

Unsurprisingly, very few get the balance just right.

Viscusi and Queneau: The Combinatorics of Poetry

Reviewing Daniel Levin Becker‘s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (‘Anticipatory Plagiarism‘, London Review of Books, 6 December 2012) allows Paul Grimstad to take a tour through the wild and wacky world of experimental literature by way of some of the usual suspects. Most notably, Georges Perec and Oulipo (‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’; ‘workshop of potential literature’) The latter, ‘the group devoted…to inventing, analysing and sometimes applying constraints for the making of literature’ was founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau; Becker is the newest member of their now-fifty three year old collective.

It  is Queneau’s work that most interests me today. Grimstad points out that:

Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes is a set of ten sonnets, such that latent in the design are 10^14–or one hundred thousand billion–potential poems. Queneau said that if read a sonnet every minute in eight-hour shifts every working day it would take a million centuries to finish the book.

Queneau’s work finds resonance in Robert Viscusi‘s epic poem, Ellis Island, which is ‘about’ immigration, America, places in the mind and in the heart. (I have blogged about Viscusi’s work on this blog before, especially his ‘novel’ Astoria.) It exists in two forms: a stable text and a dynamic, generated, evanescent one. The former is divided into fifty-two books each containing twelve sonnets of fourteen lines each. That makes for a total of six hundred and twenty-four sonnets; from this ‘raw material’ new sonnets are generated by picking a book, a sonnet, and a line fourteen times. The result is a new sonnet, which ‘goes away’ once a new sonnet is generated. The number of possible combinations, 624^14 sonnets, is staggeringly large. (Viscusi acknowledges his explicit debt to Queneau in his introduction to the book’s two forms.)

The following is a random sonnet I generated for this post. The numerals in the left column indicate book, sonnet, and line numbers that identify the source of each line in the stable text.

38 4 1 you see soon a great narrative paisley spermatomorph on the face of the silk tie
7 3 2 lights came up in the theater
46 7 12 we need to make a great nation we said to one another
12 8 6 when the sea is death he says polish your shoes
17 6 8 play with their musical gifts when you can and expect a visitor
36 5 9 the audience enjoys it because wife and husband both end happily
21 2 3 on the way home it fell on the sidewalk and broke leaving a stain
22 5 1 each of these persons has another side as you have
19 1 6 each such routine constitutes a remaining wall of your prison
49 6 10 thus taught beato roberto and this i have in my own life repeated in brooklyn
29 7 11 i was lying on the ground trying to remember times i used to be happy among beans
45 9 7 flies to new york returns five days later finds his daughter speaking italian
6 1 3 each one endowed with an epic willpower
50 7 1 one of the main things about freedom is it’s hard to enjoy without money

The potential for serendipitous discovery of a ‘new’ poem is immense’ more to the point, for a moment, we become poets ourselves.

Note: By a lovely coincidence, George Perec wrote a novel called Ellis Island.

Writing: The Tools Change, the Neurosis Endures

Philip Hensher has written a book–The Missing Ink–on handwriting. In it, according to Jeremy Harding, he:

[T]akes the view that we impress our individuality on a page when we make signs with a pen or pencil, that our culture is reaffirmed as we persist in the practice, and that the production of handwritten texts is a rich expression of both. If handwriting disappears, he warns, ‘some other elements of civilised life may die with this art, or skill, or habit.’

Like most people I know, I write on a word processor. The quality of my writing, when it comes up for judgment, is almost always a matter of content, not form. But there was a time when the form of my written word was a subject of active external critique too: my handwriting used to be the subject of commentary, feedback, revision and sometimes, intense attempts at makeovers.

I learned cursive writing the way most students of my generation did: by filling out workbooks supplied to me by parents. I traced out, steadily and persistently, page after page of model sentences, showing them to my parents when done, and then moving on to the next assignment. Fortunately, this drudgery did not last too long. There was ample opportunity for practice with my school assignments, the finished versions of which invariably provoked comments on the handwriting on display from those who graded them.

My handwriting’s quality occupied a steady middle point between the truly excellent and the dreadful. I was dimly aware of the abyss below and the summits above; I struggled to stay out of the former but could never quite make it to the latter. Not that I tried too hard.  A steadfast devotion to the adequate seems to have been a hallmark of my academic work even back then. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t envious of those whose writing was excellent; I craved the gasps of admiration from our peers and the praise of my teachers. I just couldn’t rouse myself to do anything about it. In that sense, perhaps, my handwriting is revelatory: it often starts off strong and then trails off, its form decaying as the page progresses, thus perhaps acting as revelation of my lack of commitment to tasks undertaken but not completed.

I did mount a couple of serious attempts to change my handwriting. Most notably in the tenth grade, when struck by the pristine beauty of a classmate’s ‘printed’ style, I ditched the flowing model I was most accustomed to, and took his style on. I stuck with it for a year before finding a retreat to my original form more conducive to my sanity. The change had been too much work.

I began using a word processor late: in graduate school. The undergraduate years had consisted almost entirely of  mathematics, statistics and the occasional essay-based exam, all of which I completed with a fountain pen. Since then, my handwriting has, I think, deteriorated, a process I have attempted to rectify on a periodic basis–most notably, by using a fountain pen again–but with little success.

To get back to Hensher’s point, I do not think my ‘individuality’ has been lost by my exclusively writing on a word processor; what is most distinctive about my thoughts comes through in that medium too. But what we do lose by the effacement of handwriting is a distinctive aesthetic pleasure that comes from the beautifully handwritten page. And by taking on the possibility of revisions allowed by the word processor perhaps we do shackle ourselves to the endless draft. And yet, as Harding points out, this can scarcely be blamed on technology; the non-stop reviser of writing came well before the wordprocessor.

The tools change, the neurosis endures.

Might Same-Sex Relations Be Evolutionarily Advantageous?

A prominent fallacious argument used against same-sex marriage is the good ‘ol ‘we’re only protecting our species’ one. I referred to it in a post a while ago:

[R]oughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon.

I then went on to note the naturalistic fallacy committed by the proponents of this argument.

But there is a flip-side to this argument against same-sex relations from a supposedly evolutionary perspective. Might same-sex relations be evolutionarily advantageous? A affirmative answer to this question would not, of course, imply that same-sex relations were thereby to be understood as morally praiseworthy; that would be committing a naturalistic fallacy of its own. Rather, quite simply, it might show that contributions to evolutionary ‘success’–a poorly understood notion at best–can take many more forms than just the mere reproduction of offspring and thus defuse, in yet another fashion, the so-called ‘arguments from evolution against gay marriage.’

In reviewing Lisa Cohen‘s All We Know: Three Lives (a biography of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland), Terry Castle writes:

For same-sex desire [Cohen] implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? [From ‘You Better Not Tell Me You Forgot‘, London Review of Books, 27 September 2012]

Castle reminds us that reproductive success in producing offspring might not be the only way to understand successful ‘evolutionary adaptations’. Perhaps members of the species can, through their ‘variant expressions of human sexuality’ contribute to the ‘success’ of their species in other ways? The ‘radical mental freedom’ of the same-sex members of our species might spark an efflorescence of activities–perhaps artistic, scientific, literary, cultural–that make possible its  adaptive success in a variety of environments. (Think Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Woolf, Turing – the list goes on and on.) Indeed, these activities by: enriching our lives, making them worth living, enabling us to find meaning in this world, might even(!) facilitate the reproductive success of the species.  (Some might think, of course,  that the excessive devotion paid to Turing’s children–the modern electronic computer–does no such thing.) Viewed in this light,  the presence of species members who do not partake in opposite-sex relations–with or without producing offspring–might come to appear as a positive characteristic of the species.

Eagleton on Sex and Sexuality: Fun, and Not-So-Much (Respectively)

In yesterday’s post, I offered a couple of critical remarks in response to Stanley Fish‘s review of  Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution. Those remarks were directed at a pair of passages excerpted from Eagleton. Today’s  post features Eagleton too, but cast as reviewer, not reviewee, on everyone’s favorite topic: sex (and the considerably more serious business of sexuality).

In reviewing Hal Gladfelder’s Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (‘Grub Street Snob‘, Londong Review of Books, 13 September 2012), Eagleton writes:

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality can be serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people can be sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practice what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between’s one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis.

The contrast between sex and sexuality, between the doing and the writing about it, is of course quite acute, rather as there is one between jokes and humor and their academic analysis. In the case of sex and sexuality the problem is compounded by the fact that sex is a pretty undignified business. Rarely, if ever, as we have found out for ourselves, do its physical expressions ever match the highly stylized, graceful, in slow-motion, couplings of the screen–whether large or small-or the novel. Academic writing about sexuality has thus had to put a wrap on these rough edges and cloak itself in stately (or incomprehensible) prose. This leads to the scarcely believable situation of academic talks on sex that do not elicit as much as a single giggle from their audience. The titles of talks and papers on sexuality attempt to make up for this–Eagleton helpfully provides ‘Putting the Anus back in Coriolanus as an example and I can point to ‘Unzipping the Monster Dick: Deconstructing Ableist Penile Representations in Two Ethnic Homoerotic Magazines’–but they might be fighting a losing battle given the overwhelming likelihood that the prose on display will be turgid and uninspired. In part, this is just because this is academic writing, but here, I suspect the subject matter induces reticence even in those bold enough to venture into its precincts.

A smart academic would find a way to write racily about sexuality. I’m not about to start, but I wish someone would.

Seamus Perry on Samuel Palmer and the Laying Bare of the Artist

A quick pre-disclaimer: Pardon me for referencing the London Review of Books two days in a row, but that’s what weekend-catching-up-with-a-stack-of-unread reviews can do to you.

In reviewing Rachel Campbell-Johnson‘s Mysterious Wisdom: The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer (‘The Shoreham Gang‘, LRB, 5th April 20120), and in particular, on Palmer‘s ‘The Valley Thick with Corn,’ Seamus Perry writes:

Oddity in art can be a bravura display of brilliant perversity, like Glenn Gould taking Bach at a counterintuitive lick; but the best Palmer is odd in a much quieter and more mysterious way than that, as though serenely unaware of its own peculiarity. It is hard to imagine an art less calculating: the picture is not the emphatic expression of a personality but more the exposure of one, as though allowing an intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy to reveal itself to a public gaze; and a good part of its quiet power comes from the implicit sense of vulnerability which goes along with that sense of exposure.

Perry has captured an interesting aspect of the public, revelatory aspect of an artist’s work: how the understatement of the inevitable exposure involved in putting out an artwork for public consumption and evaluation can produce a more powerful statement.

Much great art is recognizable as an emphatic signature, a distinctive stamping or watermarking of the cultural landscape by a particular vision made manifest. There we admire the artist for having forcefully asserted a unique personality through the medium of choice; the artwork is suffused with the artist made immanent. But as Perry is right to note, what makes some great art work is that the artist can make into his work into an inadvertent confession.

This confession is unlike the tell-all revelations of modern memoirs; rather, it is a peek behind the curtain, one pulled aside for us by the artist. It is to ‘bare one’s soul’ but not because that was the explicit motivational intent; rather, in viewing the work, we realize the artist has had to pay such a price  to make it possible. This exposure is a little more bashful, a little more ‘vulnerable’; it commands respect  because we are made aware of the seeming reluctance that underwrites it.  As such too, it is less flamboyant, perhaps more modest. These features add up to a distinctive style of their own.

In producing art works of this kind artists make another kind of familiar statement about the relationship between artworks and those who make them: sometimes the artist is merely a conduit, a channel of sorts, for the expression of forces greater than him; the works make themselves available to the world through him. The exposure of his ‘intensely private kind of idiosyncrasy’ is the burden the artist bears for having turned himself over to these. Here, the artist is not lord and master but something more humble, modest, and circumscribed. Our appreciation of this visible ‘vulnerability’ then, finds its grounding in our acknowledgment of the cost exacted, our gratitude to the artist for having performed this service for us.