Read Adam Kirsch’s review of Robert Alter’s translation of The Wisdom Books (Job, Proverbs, and Kohelet).  That they serve as a kind of counterpoint to the world’s narrative as established elsewhere in the Bible is not a new observation, but one that Kirsch does well to point out — he points it out in the context of language — that of Alter’s translation and that of the literary merit of the texts themselves.  In terms of surface value, a line-by-line basic reading, they perhaps are contradictory.  They are even so in their broader sense — yet they are (and, more importantly, were, millenia ago) accepted as revelatory, just as were (say) the Psalms or the Torah itself.

All of these are, of course, different kinds of revelation: Torah as, in a strict sense, a legal-historical revelation; Psalms as a personal-poetic; then the wisdom books, discussing something more akin to man-in-general, but still a sort of personal-poetic revelation.  The question, however, still remains: can you have revelation that contradicts itself?  Does this revelation, as it may initially appear, contradict itself?  And then what — especially for one who, like me, is inclined to believe that truth is inherent and inhering in these books?

The seeming contradiction and its acceptance by the earlier (now ancient?) generations and its leaders points toward how we can and should (and must, at times?) read the Bible: not as a singular unswerving narrative, but as a mixture of voices, all trying to understand man and God from their position; all of which, the tradition holds, experienced revelation of some kind.  The literary truth of Job or Kohelet may seem to contradict the narrative truth of the Creation, as Kirsch notes of Alter’s translations: but this does not mean that neither is true, or that we must choose one or none.

Biblical truth is closely related to the truth we find in art and literature.  It is various and multiform but exists nevertheless.  What strengthens this truth to something beyond that which is found in art or literature is the idea of revealed truth, if one accepts it.  But the composition of the Bible — that it seems to contradict itself; that it leaves gaps and jagged edges; that the truths of the various books shout, at times, against each other and then with their opponent of a moment ago — is a kind of instruction from those who lived before us — from, in essence, the founders of the religion as a religion of a book — as to how we, millenia later, should read it.  Let the gaps and rough edges stand and try to understand them, and the whole, as they are, rather than try to sand them over into some immaculate unified whole that in the end becomes wholly uninteresting.

After all — even though Kohelet’s men and beasts are equals, unlike the man who is given dominion over beasts in Genesis, the “mere breath” that is all is merely the air which the same earlier book claims God breathed into Adam’s nostrils.  In the end, perhaps, the more interesting truths are those found in the gaps.

Reading Roth Holistically

October 13, 2010

Writing at Tablet, Eryn Loeb remarks:

And in the end, my Philip Roth binge made it hard for me to think of any one of his books as an individual work. Read together, they left behind a web of allusions and cross-references and authorial obsessions and outbursts and reflections that I’m happy to leave all tangled together in my head, letting the Nathan Zuckerman of American Pastoral touch base with his younger self from The Counterlife, having Swede Levov explain his familial knowledge of glove-making to the nameless protagonist of Everyman (who himself has some expertise in the fine jewelry trade), and letting Alex Portnoy and Goodbye, Columbus Neil Klugman swap stories—while all the female romantic interests get together to compare their own notes on this group of tortured Jewish men. Read on a bender like this, the connections between stories and characters and themes all but broadcast themselves, and I got a better sense of the man behind them than I would have had I read American Pastoral by itself, in installments the length of a subway ride.

This runs parallel to some of my feelings about Roth — more than anything, to my feelings about the Zuckerman saga.  On their own, the first trilogy are entertaining and literate, and they pose their questions sometimes and irritate you at others — and I can’t help but feel that were it not for the Zuckerman novels that followed, Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift would have preemptively made Roth’s triplet more or less unnecessary.  But that monumental, Jamesian middle cycle, as brilliant as it is on its own (and, with respect to each novel, individually) is not nearly as tremendous without having known the younger, manic Zuckerman of the previous three.  Exit Ghost, on its own, is middling; as a coda, it feels absolutely necessary.  Some day, it will force me to re-read the whole saga, in order to figure out whether there’s anything more to appreciate at its close.

Relatedly, Roth’s portraits of aging — in the later Zuckerman novels, Sabbath’s Theater, Everyman, and so on — become more vivid in mosaic.  His project strikes one as less to describe the ideal way to age and die, than to describe how these individuals do age and die, and react to that process, and set them side-by-side.  There’s commentary in it, but somehow a far more compassionate commentary than any individual novel would indicate.

Well, I guess it really depends on what you mean by “neoconservatism.”  It’s Sam Tanenhaus’ description of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, one of his choices for the best five books on American conservatism.  His list caught my attention—notably, his willingness to include fiction on his list (and fiction for its own sake, not because it gives insight into Joe McCarthy or Buckley).  I don’t have my copy of Mr. Sammler’s Planet on hand, but I can say that I like this choice very much.  Despite my wariness about the label “neoconservative” (it seems almost meaningless anymore), something of that impression struck me, too, when I read the  novel.

But the neoconservatism of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is almost accidental, and hardly that version which gave us Iraq/Iran/etc. hawks in the last decade.  There have always seemed to be two neoconservatisms: that of the 1970s and 1980s, concerned, as is Sammler (and, to various degrees, Herzog, Charlie Citrine, Chick, etc.) with the seeming decay of society—or at least its changes, and ability of the human being to adapt to changes that seem to run on their own energy; and the neoconservatism that strikes one more as Wilsonianism on steroids than anything else.  (Maybe it could be put like this: in the earlier incarnation, the demon was already inside the gates; in the present, it must be kept outside at all costs.)  I will be honest: I have never found the former, as a social critique, unappealing.

All this talk of neoconservatism and Mr. Sammler’s Planet risks pigeonholing Bellow’s work as something it was not.  He was a writer with an agenda, to be sure: but that agenda was nothing more than to describe and diagnose society as he saw it.  An old but excellent review of the novel says it well: “Saul Bellow is pre-eminently the novelist of man-in-culture, man swimming in an ocean of ideas in which he often feels near to being swamped.”  Whatever such neoconservatism there is does not come from the fear, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “that [the moral degeneracy of modernity has made] the West was too decadent to defeat Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”  Artur Sammler is a man who survived the Holocaust but not unchanged, only to discover that the world in which he now lives is not the same as that for the sake of which he struggled to survive.  The verities of his life before rupture—the verities he wanted to live for—no longer exist.  (But it is the world he has: it is, after all, Mr. Sammler’s planet.)

Rather than having its roots in anything political, the critique, at its core, is something far more Faulknerian:

I read in The Wall Street Journal about the melancholy of affluence, “Not in all the five millennia of man’s recorded history have so many been so affluent.”  Minds formed by scarcity are distorted.  The heart can’t take this sort of change.  Sometimes it just refuses to accept it.  (Humboldt’s Gift, p. 3)

The problem with modernity in Bellow’s novels is this: its curses and its blessings are essentially indistinguishable, and neither could exist with the simultaneous presence of the other.

I know he’s probably sick of everyone talking about him by now, but E.D. Kain’s recent talk about abandoning the conservative label began to remind me about a similar moment his colleague William had a few years ago (not leading, in the end, to a permanent abandoning of the word), which sent me looking through a bunch of old posts to see my responses to him, and to see what my own struggles with labels looked like then.  What William wrote then, I think, deserves being quoted again:

Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. To say “I am a conservative” or “I am a liberal” is to endorse a story. And the mainstream of the conservative movement, right now, is advancing a certain interpretation of that story.

So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don’t stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again.

You reclaim the word by reclaiming the genre.

Changing it through telling stories, through reclaiming the genre, makes it (to my ear) sound easier than it probably is.  But I don’t mind that.  It’s reassuring—it doesn’t seem impossible.

The story that needs to be rebutted is that which has come out of the weird afterlife of Buckley’s invocation to “Stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’”  While from a certain perspective it’s admirable just as was Hektor’s defense of Troy despite knowing it would inevitably fall.  Society changes; someone has to caution—someone has to lay the gadfly.  But this requires one to accept that yelling, “Stop!” is an act doomed to failure.  History will not stop because it cannot stop.

Without that realization, when the image lapses into dogma, the problem arises, as I’ve said before:

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

The story that needs to be told now, after all, is one that has already been told.  In that regard, I suppose, we’re fortunate.  It’s the story of Jack Burden’s hard-won wisdom in the beautiful closing paragraph of All the King’s Men:

We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among the trees as soundlessly as smoke.  But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

1) Did you know there was a small and brief theater of battle in New Mexico?  Neither did I.  It’s eerie, and reads almost like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s imagination—the Confederate retreat, through miles of dry desert, might well have been pulled from Blood Meridian.

2) Yes, Jackson was brilliant in the Valley Campaign, but between then and Antietam he comes across as so incompetent that one really wonders why Lee stuck by him so strongly.  If all of Foote’s anecdotes are to be believed, Stonewall had a remarkable penchant—and ability—to nap in the middle of battle.

3) The telling of Antietam is something marvelous, as terrible as the day was.  For one thing, I hadn’t realized quite how elegant Lee’s intercepted plans were—but once Foote gets into the battle itself, it’s something else.  It left me, despite knowing how it would end, breathless and exhilarated.  If you read nothing else of Foote’s, read this section.  (I may amend this by the time I’m done with the whole Narrative—but that probably won’t be for a few more months.)

4) The naval campaigns are just as interesting as the land ones.  This surprised me—but it’s on the rivers and sea that there’s a real arms race, and the inventiveness of engineers and captains on both sides is fascinating.

5) I can only hope that by the time Volume Two was published, either Foote or his editor had gotten sick of the phrase “baptism of fire.” Yes, we get it, there’s religious symbolism there.  But it’s also a cliché—or was by the time Foote was done with it.  The only reason I haven’t taken to striking it out every time I see it is because this book has somehow become my Shabbat afternoon reading.

6) Before reading, just go ahead and look up “defilade” and “enfilade” in your dictionary.

7) If Leonidas Polk weren’t so damned incompetent, the entire Western Theater might have gone significantly better for the South.  Then again, that alone wouldn’t have made up for the fact that Grant and Sherman were in the West.

8) This isn’t Shelby Foote, but it is the Civil War: these two posts on Robert E. Lee and slavery, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his guest blogger Andy Hall, respectively, are well worth reading if you’re into this kind of thing.

Reading Proust

August 31, 2010

“And on one of the longest walks we ever took from Combray there was a spot where the narrow road emerged suddenly on to an immense plain, closed at the horizon by strips of forest over which rose and stood alone the fine point of Saint-Hilaire’s steeple, but so sharpened and so pink that it seemed to be no more than sketched on the sky by the finger-nail of a painter anxious to give such a landscape, to so pure a piece of ‘nature,’ this little sign of art, this single indication of human existence.  As one drew near it and could make out the remains of the square tower, half in ruins, which still stood by its side, though without rivalling it in height, one was struck, first of all, by the tone, reddish and sombre, of its stones; and on a misty morning in autumn one would have called it, to see it rising above the violet thunder-cloud of the vineyards, a ruin of purple, the colour of the wild vine.”

Swann’s Way, “Combray,” p. 48 (2 vol. Random House ed., trans. Moncrieff)

I propose that the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of “modern” thought is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether.  In its place we have the grand projects of generalization, solemn efforts to tell our species what we are and what we are not, that were early salients of modern thought. – “On Human Nature,” p. 22

…the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. – “The Strange History of Altruism,” p. 35

The accuracy of Robinson’s claims about modern thought in these short excerpts is less important than what it tells us about her purposes in Absence of Mind—and, perhaps more importantly, in her fiction (especially the recent novels Gilead and Home).  The collected product of the subjective experience and life of the individual human mind, she writes elsewhere, is culture, literature, and art.  Elsewhere, she indicates that the exploration of the subjective experience is the purpose, and, successful, the highest calling, of the novel.  Speaking of Paul Harding’s novel, Tinkers, she writes, “It confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls.”

What does this have to do with her own fiction, particularly the joint project of Gilead and Home?  To begin, let’s explore what makes them a “joint project.”  They explore lives in the same time and place, of people who know each other, shifting the center of gravity slightly, creating different novels.  On this level, there is a similarity between her Gilead, Iowa, and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Berry’s Port William, or even Joyce’s Dublin.  Yet there’s something different: unlike Faulkner or Berry, she isn’t very concerned with the town/county as such: it’s just the place, not a character.  And unlike Joyce, there’s more than just the busy beehive weaving of human interactions bringing the stories of the various characters into novelistic collision.

Robinson, in Gilead, offers what is, quite literally “the testimony of the individual mind”: John Ames’ long letter his young son.  It is supposed to testify on his behalf, and on behalf of his life, when he is no longer alive to do so.  Home offers the testimony of the same time and place through another mind, that of Glory Boughton.  From both perspectives, there are explorations of Ames’ wife, the Rev. Boughton, and—most importantly—Jack Boughton.  Either book, alone, is successful in offering that “testimony of the individual mind,” that “illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls,” but what they do together—their joint project—is something greater than either could offer in solitude.

That is, they explore the subjectivity of that testimony.  The clearest example, perhaps is a conversation on Boughton’s porch—if for no other reason than all the central characters are present, and it is a scene in both novels.  From the beginning, we see what might be expected: minor differences in diction, remembering things from slightly different angles, telling the story to different audiences.  Yet something about Ames’ version strikes the reader as a more relaxed conversation, a bit of jousting on the porch on a pleasant evening; as depicted in Home, it seems somehow more a more earnest inquiry.

And at the end of the conversations, we see:

But your mother spoke up, which surprised us all.  She said, “What about being saved?”  She said, “If you can’t change, there don’t seem much purpose in it.”  She blushed.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“You’ve made an excellent point, dear,” Boughton said.  “I worried a long time about how the mystery of predestination could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation.  I remember thinking about that a great deal.

“No conclusions?” Jack asked.

“None that I can remember.”  Then he said, “To conclude is not in the nature of the enterprise.”

“Jack smiled at your mother as if he was looking for an ally, someone to share his frustration, but she just at very still and studied her hands.

“I should think,” he said, “that the question Mrs. Ames has raised is one you gentlemen would approach with great seriousness.  I know you have attended tent meeting only as interested observers, but— Excuse me.  I don’t believe anyone else wants to pursue this, so I’ll let it go.”

Your mother said, “I’m interested.”

Old Boughton, who was getting a little ruffled, said, “I hope the Presbyterian Church is as good a place as any to learn the blessed truths of the faith, including redemption and salvation first of all.  The Lord knows I have labored to make it so.”

“Pardon me, Father,” Jack said.  “I’ll go find Glory.  She’ll tell me how to make myself useful.  You always said that was the best way to keep out of trouble.”

“No, stay,” your mother said.  And he did.

There was an uneasy silence, so I remarked that he might find Karl Barth a help, just for the sake of conversation.

He said, “Is that what you do when some tormented soul arrives on your doorstep at midnight?  Recommend Karl Barth?”

I said, “It depends on the case,” which it does.  I have found Barth’s work to be full of comfort, as I believe I have told you elsewhere.  But in fact, I don’t recall ever recommending him to any tormented soul except my own.  That is what I mean about being put in a false position.

Your mother said, “A person can change.  Everything can change.”  Still never looking at him.

He said, “Thanks.  That’s all I wanted to know.”

So that was the end of the conversation.  We went home to supper.

Gilead, pp. 152-3

And:

Lila said, “What about being saved?”  She spoke softly and blushed deeply, looking at the hands that lay folded in her lap, but she continued.  “If you can’t change, there don’t seem much point in it.  That’s not really what I meant.”

Jack smiled.  “Of course I myself have attended tent meetings only as an interested observer.  I would not have wanted to find my salvation along some muddy riverbank in the middle of the night.  Half the crowd there to pick each other’s pocket, or to sell each other hot dogs—”

Lila said, “—Caramel corn—”

He laughed.  “—Cotton candy.  And everybody singing off key—”  They both laughed.

“—to some old accordion or something—” she said, never looking up.

“And all of them coming to Jesus.  Except myself, of course.”  Then he said, “Amazing how the world never seems any better for it all.  If I am any judge.”

“Mrs. Ames has made an excellent point,” Boughton said, his voice statesmanlike.  He sensed a wistfulness in Ames as often as he was reminded of all the unknowable life his wife had lived and would live without him.  “Yes, I worried a long time about how the mystery of predestination could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation.”

“No conclusions?”

“None that I can recall just now.”  He said, “It seems as though the conclusions are never as interesting as the questions.  I mean, they’re not what you remember.”  He closed his eyes.

Jack finally looked up at Glory, reading her look and finding in it, apparently, anxiety or irritation, because he said, “I’m sorry.  I think I have gone on with this too long.  I’ll let it go.”

Lila said, never looking up from her hands, “I’m interested.”

Jack smiled at her.  “That’s kind of you, Mrs. Ames.  But I think Glory wants to put me to work.  My father has always said the best way for me to keep out of trouble would be to make myself useful.”

“Just stay for a minute,” she said, and Jack sat back in his chair, and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself.  Then she looked up at him and said, “A person can change.  Everything can change.”

Ames took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  He felt a sort of wonder for this wife of his, in so many ways so unknown to him, and he could be suddenly moved by some glimpse he had never had before of the days of her youth or her loneliness, or of the thoughts of her soul.

Jack said, very gently, “Why thank you, Mrs. Ames.  That’s all I wanted to know.”

Home, pp. 226-8

Jack and Mrs. Ames are both revealed to be different than Ames’ version of the conversation might make it seem.  It is possible that Ames is suppressing that moment—he is afraid of Jack and his possible influence on his wife and son.  Then again, how are we to know that the narration has not simply lingered too close to the irritated Glory, and that her mind associates the strange, slightly bumpkin Mrs. Ames with such carnivals.  And the Barth?  Ames is old after all—maybe he thought he recommended Barth.

It is likely that the version of the conversation given in Home is closer to the “empirical” truth than that in Gilead, if for no other reason than Ames’ version is significantly shorter: around four pages compared to the 8.5 in Home.  And while what remains in Gilead is a chance for Ames to give some of his thoughts on predestination—and show the grace of his wife—to his son, what occurs in Home is a more tense conversation, centering on Jack’s worry that he is, in fact, destined to be evil, to be a sinner.

The accuracy of the individual testimony is clearly limited—it is, as Robinson admits, subjective.  But that much is not her entire point.  That scene—a pivotal one, certainly—is quite different in both novels: but is either novel any less true for it?  Ames remembers events one way; Glory sees them another; perhaps one or both are actively suppressing or inventing.  But if the latter is the case, they aren’t merely deceiving the reader—they’re deceiving themselves, also; the deception, the would-be-“lie”, becomes a part of their testimony.

The joint project of Home and Gilead is to explore that subjective testimony of the individual life, to highlight the subjectivity of it by juxtaposing each novel with the other, but then to refuse to dismiss or condemn that testimony as flawed or limited.  Robinson celebrates the limitations and subjectivity, because they bring us closer to the reality of the human soul.  It is, in a way, a rejoinder to the idea of a narrator so fallible that the novel cannot even be trusted on the terms it sets forth—it doesn’t matter if nothing in these novels happened as it is narrated: they are not explorations of history, but a celebration of “the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time.”

Or so wonders Alan Jacobs after pointing out a wonderful little anecdote in the history of English letters: Eliot rejected Animal Farm.  But here’s the best part — someone did!  (Well, sort of.  And I apologize for the Wikipedia citation; but I’m fairly certain I’ve read this elsewhere, as well — oh, and my generally favorable opinion of Eliot as poet and thinker should be clear by now, and I’m generally willing to take Leonard Woolf’s word for it on the matter of Eliot and anti-Semitism.)

‘One of the first and most famous protests against Eliot on the subject of anti-Semitism came in the form of a poem from the Anglo-Jewish writer and poet Emanuel Litvinoff,[48] at an inaugural poetry reading for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1951. Only a few years after the Holocaust, Eliot had republished lines originally written in the 1920s about ‘money in furs’ and the ‘protozoic slime’ of Bleistein’s ‘lustreless, protrusive eye’ in his Selected Poemsof 1948, angering Litvinoff. When the poet got up and announced his poem, entitled ‘To T. S. Eliot’, the event’s host, Sir Herbert Read, declared ‘Oh Good, Tom’s just come in’. Litvinoff proceeded in evoking to the packed but silent room his work, which ended with the lines “Let your words/tread lightly on this earth of Europe/lest my people’s bones protest”. Many members of the audience were outraged; Litvinoff said “hell broke loose” and that no one supported him. One listener, the poet Stephen Spender, claiming to be as Jewish as Litvinoff, stood and called the poem an undeserved attack on Eliot.[48]However, Litvinoff says that Eliot was heard to mutter, ‘It’s a good poem’.[49]

The real question, of course, is this: Did anyone ever tell Milton a joke and get him to laugh?  (I mean, come on, Johnny — “sage and serious Spenser”?  It’s a pun a line and sheer ridiculosity throughout!)

Every year, there’s at least one obligatory article at Northwestern profiling Roger Carlson and Bookman’s Alley.  But this article goes beyond that and profiles Evanston’s very-much-dying used/independent bookstore scene, and it’s an excellent piece for anyone interested in reading about books, bookstores, and the changing ways we buy and sell them.  (Or if you’re just feeling nostalgic.)

This, for instance, is one store that I’ll regret never having known (and that lonely sign for it was already vaguely unsettling before I knew what, exactly, it was the ghost of):

‘According to Howard Cohen, owner of Howard’s Books, Great Expectations was “the best philosophy bookstore in the United States for many years.” Whereas Barnes & Noble might carry three or four books by Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, Great Expectations would fill three or four shelves.

Once a Northwestern undergraduate and now a history professor here, Jeff Rice was the last owner of the store. He paints a romantic picture of it, a place where professors would meet, famous writers would come and go (Saul Bellow got kicked out of the store “for being an asshole”) and people would get into political arguments and shouting matches while a Cubs game played in the background.’

My eternal problem with buying books online is that you can’t really browse — at least not the same way you can in an actual book store.  And what makes an independent or used book store so much better for browsing than a chain store is the sheer variety and eclecticism of the collections: they keep the authors who don’t sign large advances alive.  (Not to mention that they’re about the only places you can find decent poetry/philosophy sections, though some chain stores do better than others on this front, normally — in my experience — depending on how close to a college they are.)

Consider: Andrew Sullivan recounts discovering Michael Oakeshott accidentally while browsing in a used book store; Paul Breslin, an English professor here who is a leading scholar on Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, discovered Walcott in a used book store in New York because there were palm trees on the cover and opened it to find poems that left him, he says, stunned; Ezra Pound was in a bookshop on the Paris strand when he stumbled onto an old edition of the Latin translation of the Odyssey that he then translated and adapted into the first of his Cantos — and, in a great “What If?” for lovers of the Modernists — he was forced to choose between it and a translation of the Iliad because he could only afford to buy one.

Though none of my used book experiences have been quite so momentous, I came across Saul Bellow’s Herzog — which is among the best postwar American novels I have read — before having read a word of his; the story is the same with Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism — both not at all what I was looking for.  And most of my books related in any way to Classical authors — in original or in translation — have come from only slightly more deliberate browsing sessions.

I guess what I’m saying is, if we didn’t have these eclectic little shops to wander in, the accidents of history (or at least of recent thought) would be that much more homogenous, and that much the worse for it.

“This verdict is a good example of a common critical error: different periods conceive differently and each must be granted its premise before one judges its conclusions, in art or any other form of expression.  This fair play does not exclude preferring the products of one age to those of another, but it does avoid blindness.”  — From Dawn To Decadence, p.  336, in defense of the Baroque.

Which is to say: to judge a work of art — particularly its successes and failures — one needs to consider the moment in which it was composed.  (I’m lenient toward As I Lay Dying because without it, The Sound and the Fury would have made the same mistakes.  Or, as an album review I once read put it, A mediocre Beatles record is a career album for most other artists.)  Even if Nabokov is right and Finnegans Wake is a disaster, there will always be that brave few who read it because it was fantastically, ground-breakingly so.  Or the importance of Aeschylus’ characterization or Flaubert’s narrative style evaporate when they’re considered in relation to the works of this century.

Doing so is, at times, remarkably similar to what Hans Robert Jauss calls for in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (I’m not going to look it up because reading German theory in translation is like being hit over the head with a two-by-four: not what’s being said, but that prose feels like its used as a weapon!), which, while decidedly not Stanley Fish and all ensuing relativistic craziness, helps lay the groundwork for him.  In fact, I’ve taken the example of Flaubert’s narrative style directly from Jauss — it’s perfect for the purpose.  Still, starting from a similar place as Fish isn’t where I generally want to find myself in theoretical discussions, since I think he is spectacularly (dangerously?) wrong about reader-response, etc.  The difference is all in the intent of that consideration.

Hence my wariness to impose modern conceptions of literary irony on Homer, or to judge those works inferior because of the lack of it.  (My reason for choosing this example will hopefully become clear in future posts — suffice it to say, it affects my understanding of that borderline undefinable Homeric epithet in the title of this blog.)

I feel like this may have been disjointed — if so, I apologize.  I’m a little out of sorts as of late, if you can’t tell.  (“Over-worked and under-paid?” a friend asked me yesterday afternoon, jokingly, to which I responded, “Yeah, and I’ve realized that’s going to described the next six, seven, eight, however many years of my life it takes before I’m done with school, too.”)