Few do melancholy as well as Rufus does it. Interesting Philip Glass feel to this one.
Archive for May, 2008
Born in 1929 in New York, educated at Columbia, John Hollander is a poet and literary critic. He has written more than a dozen books of poetry, and seven books of criticism, including Rhyme’s Reason of which Harold Bloom said: “[it is] on all questions of schemes, patterns, forms, meters, rhymes of poetry in English, the indispensible authority…” and why I was so keen to interview him. According to New York Times, Hollander stresses the importance of hearing poems out loud: “A good poem satisfies the ear. It creates a story or picture that grabs you, informs you and entertains you.”
His honors include the Bollingen Prize, the Levinson Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets he is the current poet laureate of Connecticut, and has taught at many different universities, including Yale.
We met recently at the Philadelphia Book Festival. I spend most of this interview relentlessly and unsuccessfully trying to badger him into identifying, comparing and describing the differences between great and bad poems. To name names. We do get to some of the great (Rosanna Warren, Shakespeare, Browning, Swinburne, Rossetti, for example) but he will not go anywhere near the bad. Toward the end, clearly tired from the day’s activities and my uncalled for bullying, he reads a beautifully funny and thoughtful poem, based on a quote taken from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, found in his most recent collection, A draft of Light.
Please listen here:
Filtered and pilfered from here:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?- Epicurus
Where knowledge ends, religion begins. Benjamin Disraeli
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. Delos B. McKown
Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions. Blaise Pascal
Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. Friedrich Nietzsche
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Karl Marx
Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires. Sigmund Freud
A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of "humility." This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. Albert Einstein
If you gave[Jerry] Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox. Christopher Hitchens
What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. Christopher Hitchens
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. Ghandi
The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear. Jiddu Krishnamurti
All good. Epicurus forgets the importance of free will. Pascal also said that science was a cul-de-sac, a pursuit that dethrones God, elevates man to where he sees himself as Lord of creation which eventually either drives him mad, or demotes him to the merely animal.
"…this tragical Titan, who storms the heavens, and threatens to tear the world from off its hinges; who, more terrible than Aeschylus, makes our hair stand on end, and congeals our blood with horror, possessed, at the same time, the insinuating loveliness of the sweetest poetry. He plays with love like a child; and his songs are breathed out like melting sighs. He unites in his genius the utmost elevation and the utmost depth; and the most foreign, and even apparently irreconcileable properties subsist in him peaceably together. The world of spirits and nature have laid all their treasures at his feet. In strength a demi-god, in profundity of view a prophet, in all-seeing wisdom a protecting spirit of a higher order, he lowers himself to mortals, as if unconscious of his superiority: and is as open and unassuming as a child.
From the Preface to Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays
Anke Feuchtenberger was born in 1963 in East Berlin and is one of Germany’s leading comic illustrator/ artists. Her award winning work has been published in numerous books, newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and includes paintings, drawings, comics, posters, prints, costumes and puppets.
Her illustrations and comics are rendered in highly recognizable style, often featuring naked, childlike creatures with huge heads, wandering through strange, dream-like landscapes. Her haunting stories are a mixture of nightmare and fairytale. She is currently a professor of arts at the Fachhochschule für Gestaltung in Hamburg.
We met at the Blue Met International Literary Festival in Montreal recently, and talk here about babies and politics, how election posters gave her her first big break, utopia, the difference between East and West Germany, loneliness, vertical newspaper columns, her complicated comics, graphic novels, Edward Munch, Kafka, her success outside the borders of Germany, and Super Tear, her babushka superhero.
One final response to Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic from Dalhousie University Professor Rohan Maitzen (host of the excellent Novel Readings blog) who wonders how, given McDonald’s prescription for more evaluation, academics are supposed to answer the common reader’s question: "Is this book … worth my attention and my time?"
"If criticism forsakes evaluation, it also loses its connections with a wider public" (134): this loss and its roots in the history of criticism are the book’s major focus, though McDonald also considers other phenomena that have contributed to the diminished relevance of academic critics, particularly the democratization (or relativization) of criticism, or attitudes towards critical expertise, enabled by new media such as blogs or Amazon-style customer reviews. His focus on evaluation is reiterated in his prescriptive closing section, which calls for a renewed aestheticism and concludes,
"Perhaps the critic is not dead, but simply sidelined and slumbering. The first step in reviving him or her is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. ‘Judgment’ is the first meaning of kritos. If criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative." (149)
There seem to be some internal inconsistencies in McDonald’s analysis of criticism’s decline in public significance. His chief grievance with the movements he groups together as ‘cultural studies’ is that they treat literature instrumentally, as a means to other (usually political) ends. On his own account, though, most major critical movements have done some version of this, from promoting or sustaining civil society to "fill[ing] the breach left in religion’s absence" (69), and in fact the whole idea of ‘evaluation’ always has to be grounded in a set of extrinsic standards which (again on McDonald’s own account) have almost never been strictly aesthetic (if such a thing is even possible). Though McDonald believes that emphasizing aestheticism will bring about a "rapprochement between academic and non-academic criticism," and thus, apparently, between critics and general readers, aesthetic evaluation is surely
as problematic as any other kind.
Further, McDonald actually praises Virginia Woolf precisely for "enrich[ing] aesthetic formalism with political and gender consciousness" (86)–so Paterian obsession with the immediacy of the aesthetic encounter is presumably not his ideal. So what is it, exactly, that he means to invoke with his mantra of ‘evaluation’? He objects to the leveling effects of considering every cultural artifact equally worthy of critical attention ("To be concerned with everything is, ultimately, to be concerned with nothing" ), but he resists the notion of an unchanging canon ("Who would not welcome the rediscovery of unjustly forgotten women writers, or the efforts to hear the voices of the marginalized and disempowered . . . ?" ; "the criteria for admission [to the 'canon'] needed to be renovated . . . ‘quality’ is not an eternal and unchanging facility, but rather one that mutates along with the cultural evolution of a society" ).
Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what he proposes is the common reader’s key question ("Is this book … worth my attention and my time?")? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).
Still, I share McDonald’s concern about the isolation of academic expertise from today’s reading culture more generally…I think, too, that he is right to be looking at questions of judgment and how they are understood and articulated as one of the flashpoints for misunderstanding or resentment between academics and other readers. I just don’t see how his prescription to be more evaluative is an adequate response, unless (at the minimum) it is accompanied by a commitment to showing why the question "Is it of any merit?" requires substantial complication before a worthwhile answer is possible. The responsibility here is not all ours: ideally, readers would want, not to be dictated to, but to be engaged in debate worthy of the books they are considering.
The Death of the Critic: Responses (2) Rónán McDonald on the impact of blogging on literary criticism
Rónán McDonald responds to my response to his response to my review of his book (any future responders’ responses will be appear in the comments below, as will those of anyone who may have happened to have swallowed a fly)
I emphatically agree that academic standing is not required to be good critic. The history of criticism would be horribly denuded if it was. But I do think that the critic (or ‘Critic’) needs cultural authority and standing for his or her gifts to have optimum effect. I would go along with the criteria you list – the critic should be intelligent, well-read, articulate, eloquent and so on. But if critics are effectively to coax, argue, educate and edify, there cannot be a limitless number. The voices of those commentators who have the qualities you cite must be heard above those who do not. I’m not sure the Internet has yet found the mechanism to distinguish the good from the bad. Whatever the drawbacks and failings of the printed word, newspaper critics generally had training and experience in their chosen field. And were subject to editorial scrutiny.
You suggest that the ‘intelligence’ of the reader will find the best bloggers, just as the intelligent blogger will discriminate the best art and literature. But I wonder if ‘intelligence’ is always innate or prior to cultural encounter in the way this implies. I think sometimes we need someone we respect to urge us to stop, look, listen and give something a second chance. I certainly do. Intelligence and discernment in the reader/viewer is developed, in part, by good critical explication and evaluation. To think of it as being innate, something one is born with, seems to me to be much more ‘elitist’ than the idea that critics perform an important role as arbiters of taste. But I think there’s something characteristically hieratic, even disdainful, about the Eliot remark to which you allude. (‘There is no method except to be very intelligent’). Like his ‘tradition’ and his organic society, it seems criticism should not be disturbed by anything as upstart or dubiously Gallic as a theory or methodology.
I agree that bloggers can champion the new and experimental and that the internet is an extraordinarily broad church. I think the point you make about reviewers being under greater scrutiny is a very important one. The
quote from page 12 of my book was not aimed against the quality of blogging – though I can see why the context raised your hackles a bit – but rather against the inevitably curtailed cultural penetration and reach of
individual blogs at the moment (because of their size and number). This discussion might become a little obscure if we keep mentioning pages in a book that many of your readers will not have read, but a little further, on
p. 15-16, my position is a bit clearer. I’m discussing Marjorie Perloff’s notion that the solution to the shrinking newspaper coverage of poetry lies on the internet. My point is not that the internet is too amateurish or
restrictive, but rather that it is too atomised. Lovers of experimental poetry (or anime, installation art, body piercing) can go to the relevant site, but they are already won over to the form or the cause. Public critics need a wide public sphere in which to work, if they are to convince and cajole those not yet initiated into the new and unfamiliar.
But I think we are largely in agreement. I agree that the internet has shot a bolt of energy through criticism and, if I was writing my book now, I think I’d probably make more of that. Not least of its roles, as you say, is its interaction with print criticism, which seems to me a very healthy symbiosis.
The target of my book was never the Internet or the bloggers. It was rather conceived as a riposte to John Carey’s 2005 book ‘What Good are the Arts?’ (some print reviewers have picked up on the Carey angle, but not many bloggers have), a defence of literary value against relativist dismissals, and a call for evaluative criticism in the humanities. The book advocates a porousness between university criticism and the world of letters outside. But closeness of both to the blogosphere, and the many interesting voices emerging from it, might be to the benefit of all three.
Wayne White, Eastern Fuckit 2008 acrylic on offset lithograph, framed, 30 1/4 x 54 1/2 inches
The juxtaposition is jarring. Wordsworthian daffodils and clouds wave and float around pre-industrial cottages; birds chirp in the untrammelled offset lithographic landscape; bucolic calm by a wending stream. This pristine canvas peace is shattered by a bold blocked acrylic marquis; Eastern Fuckit converges on itself from opposite sides of the rectangulared countryside, creating a corridor suspended ski jump – high above the hilly paradise, packaging it for the masses – presenting it for sale, a destination – a fabricated nowhere.
Interesting exercise this. Observe first, intricate detail, at length. Then, observe again considering socio-political intent. Describe.
I agree with the main premise of your book: that avoidance of the evaluative has resulted in a demise in academia’s relevance in the larger public conversation about literature. My particular concern has to do with what you say on page 12.
Vital artistic innovations surely do benefit from a healthy critical culture, ‘one reliant on experts and specialists.’ The question though is, who are these experts, what qualifications are required in order to be one, and how healthy is our culture. I have posited elsewhere that in order to be a good critic one has to be very intelligent, very well read, and a good, entertaining writer able to express strong opinion with sound arguments. Academic standing really has nothing to do with it, other than the fact that if you don’t have any, it’s damned difficult to get state funding for any research you may wish to undertake.
You ask, would critics who introduced the often difficult Modernist literary works of the early 20th century – Wilson, Ellmann, Blackmur – have much impact in the current critical climate. And follow this directly with " If not, could we rely on the bloggers to bring the shock of the new to a wide audience?
There are two points here. Yes, I do think we could rely on some bloggers to champion the new and experimental. Bloggers do not all collectively slouch together in one direction, they run off in every which way, voicing a huge range of opinion, much higher and lower on the scale than those chanted by the chorus of capital C critics. But no, because audiences now are more fragmented than ever, I’m not sure they would reach such a large audience. It still requires the circulation of The New Yorker, The New York Times, the TLS or The Atlantic to reach big numbers of eyeballs. The point is though, that reviewers with these publications are under greater scrutiny than ever before. And this, I think, is conducive to healthy literary criticism. As is the fact that many of these critics do pay attention to blogs.
You then say "The conviction that educated taste is an elitist ruse, that one opinion is as good as another, and that we should take our lead for our cultural life solely from people like us might seem like a powerful instance of people power." (I suppose because it again is placed right next to the blogger question, by implication you are saying that this is the overwhelming opinion in the blogosphere) A situation you say that will result in a ‘dangerous attenuation of taste and conservatism of judgment.
As I say in my review, far from a leveling, conservative and stagnating force, [blogs] don’t take their lead from ‘people like us,’ they roil around with the known, the unknown, and the experimental. Just as artists improve and evolve when surrounded by Critics, so too do Critics when surrounded by attentive, audible, responsive reader/bloggers. The intelligent reader will find and appreciate the best criticism, just as the intelligent Critic will the find and champion the best art.
It doesn’t take much to launch a blog: a computer, a cable outlet, an opinion. As such they embody the democratic ideal. You however say that democracy is not good for criticism. That meritocracy is best. I gather you are talking about the enormous number of bloggers who now bog the blogosphere. There are definitely a lot of them around, but despite this, I’d say that intelligent audiences will always seek out intelligent writing and thinking. Democracy and technology now ensure that many voices will be heard. The meritorious will clearly not always be the most popular, but I do think they will stand out and be read, despite all the noise; regardless of all the dross and banality that may rumble in the background.
Frankly, other than via the marketplace, in this cauldron of competing qualities, I don’t see any other way to foster good public criticism. If academics possess the qualities inherent in a good critic, then they will be heard. We live in a democracy which I do think rewards merit. Despite the numbers, blogs do provide an exciting avenue along which new voices may travel, and good criticism may be found, celebrated and exposed. This avenue is open to all. Your critique of democracy I gather has to do with a fear that the sheer mass of mediocrity that blogs produce threatens to drown out the more educated, sophisticated voices that need to be heard in order to protect and encourage innovation. I’d suggest that when it comes to criticism at least, democracy although granting voice to all, does reward merit. Given this, I wonder what you mean by a ‘meritocracy’, and, assuming it is different from what we currently have, how such a system could be put in place?
Respond to the text Mr. Franzen.
Wyatt Mason devotes three relatively lengthy posts on his new blog at Harper’s to Jonathan Franzen’s recent encounter with James Wood at Harvard. In brief, he cites Franzen’s complaint about the current dearth of good critics doing ‘real criticism,’ and, as a solution, suggests that instead of whining about taste being indisputable, as Franzen does, authors should respond to what they consider shoddy criticism, "engage with these inferior engagements, argue for their art-not its ‘inherent goodness’ but its rigorous madeness ." (Now that Wood’s "lifeness" has been introduced, watch for all sorts of new ‘nesses,’)
As I pointed out some posts ago, the reason I would have wanted to attend the Wood/ Franzen event is specifically to have heard Franzen defend himself against Wood’s criticism of The Corrections. Instead here, according to Mason, is what we get:
"That’s why I so value what James does, and why I had unrealistically high expectations of your review of The Corrections, because so few people are doing real criticism. It’s so snarky, its so black-and-white…It’s discouraging. And so I think an absence of criticism, and the absence of intellectual content to the criticism, is the worst problem I have, the one I feel most keenly…"
"You can actually dispute facts," Franzen said, "but you can’t dispute taste. That’s the sorry condition of the artist. There’s no proving it."
It seems like he’s saying Wood didn’t provide any facts to support his criticism. He didn’t ‘appreciate’ it enough. Appreciate, meaning, as Wyatt takes time to clarify, not only to esteem, to find worth or excellence in, but also form an estimate of worth or quality, and, in so doing, to feel the full force of the thing before us.
"If a review under-appreciates not merely one’s own book but that of a peer, respond," says Mason, " Not with hurt feelings but with strong arguments that showcase the rigors of construction, of patterning, of metaphor, of the myriad deliberate choices serious writers deploy to the end of making not tasteful works but artful ones. The Corrections, for example, was not a work of taste; rather one of Art. As such, in an era in which there is less shelf space for seriousness, fiction writers must take the responsibility of reprimanding their critics for their stupidity more seriously, more regularly."
So here’s a chance for Franzen to do just that (Mason’s blog doesn’t appear to allow for comments…, and fails to request a direct response from JF):
First the main lucid, arguable points Wood makes in his generous, balanced essay on The Corrections:
- ‘Whatever the novel gets up to, the ‘culture’ can always get up to something bigger…the novel will sooner or later be outrun by its own racing material"
- "Franzen’s aesthetic solution to the social novel – the refuge of sentences – is I think the right one, or at least one of them, but his reasons for arriving at it are the wrong ones (If I’m Franzen, this imperiousness would make me see red, and certainly provide motive for stern ‘correction.’)"
- "Franzen’s solution is to write "a polemic that has a bit of everything – a bit of aesthetics, a bit of sociology, a bit of pragmatism, and a bit of autobiographical justification"
- "To be fair to The Corrections, there is also considerable grace, power, comedy and beauty; and these qualities appear most reliably when Franzen is cleaving to the human…he is at his finest when being ambitious and even theoretical about the soul. (this is reason for disappointment?)"
- "At its simplest Franzen’s often distinguished book is about family as the great determinism, ‘correction’ the doomed struggle against this…the notion that children often believe themselves to be living lives that correct those of their parents. ..family determinism tends to turn correction into repetition."
- "The novel contains clear, direct, humane and sensitively intelligent writing…the language of the implicit, the suggestive, the formal, the figurative, the musical" (this is a failure to appreciate?) Franzen errs when he leaves this path, when the clever journalist, the pocket theorist, peers through…"
- "When he becomes the cultural ironist, always a twisted adjective ahead of his characters." "Here he sounds like a hundred other smart American writers engaged in being clever." His character Gary "would never think like this, would never formulate such language"
Second, a request that Mr. Franzen provide an intelligent response to Wood’s text. In place of whining about taste, could he please answer these criticisms, contribute to the conversation, instead of sitting wet blanketed on the sideline, bemoaning its banality.