Defending the “Eros of difficulty”


Every schoolkid in Mexico knows her poems.

One of the grace notes in my long career was writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review when Steve Wasserman was its editor (I’ve written about him before here and here and here and here.) It was, at that time, the best book review in the country – the one that consistently offered the greatest number of “must-read” articles every single week. Here’s one of the things that made it terrific, in Steve’s own words:

In 1997, Penguin announced that it would publish a volume of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable 17th-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some 300 years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, a scandal, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her genius. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, newly translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.

I asked Octavio Paz, Mexico’s greatest living poet and critic, to contribute a lengthy essay on Sor Juana. When he agreed, I felt I had gotten something worth playing big on the front page of the Book Review. But when I showed my superiors the color proof of the cover, I was met with incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who’d been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses? Couldn’t I find something by someone living who might be better known to our many subscribers, say, the latest thriller from James Patterson?

Dispirited, I trundled up to the paper’s executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper’s longtime Mexican-American waiter, appeared to take my order, seeing the proof before me, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” “You’ve heard of her?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart.” At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I’m going to trust Alberto on this one.

After Paz’s paean appeared in the Sunday edition, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper’s readers. Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered. In the summer of 2009, four years after I left, the Tribune Company, which had bought the Times for more than $8 billion, shuttered the Review. The staff was mostly sacked.

Well, this is just one of the many reasons I loved the late, lamented L.A. Times Book Review. Steve also had the courage to publish my piece on Irma Kudrova‘s remarkable work on Marina Tsvetaeva, Death of a Poet, which had not yet been published in English (my long ago piece is here). The book was published by Overlook Press as a result of the interest. Kudrova, one of those lifelong devotees every Russian poet of any stature attracts, had access to Lubyanka prison interrogation records during the brief period they were made available to the public in pre-Putin Russia, which makes her record even more imperative.

The excerpt above is from Steve’s essay, “In Defense of Difficulty,” appearing in the The American Conservative, a notable departure for this staunchly left-wing writer who contributes regularly to Truthdig – I applaud his attempt to fight our current  ideological segregation; it’s high time people learn to actually talk to one another again, especially on issues that should concern us all. Although he has described a telling incident from his L.A. Times days, the subject of his article is not self-promotion (I can do that for him) but rather the disappearance of serious criticism in our culture: “the ideal of serious enjoyment of what isn’t instantly understood is rare in American life. It is under constant siege. It is the object of scorn from both the left and the right. The pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled. More than ever, we need a defense of the Eros of difficulty.” (Cough, cough, Geoffrey Hill, cough, cough.)


Preach it, Steve.

I know, I know… don’t the old ‘uns always crab about the times? Yes and no. There are periods where this is not true, and everyone knows it – I think people do tend to know when they’re living in a golden age. In any case, shouldn’t an argument be evaluated on its own merits, and not whether or not others have said it before? Prima facie evidence is the disappearance of the book review section he once edited. Steve gets some reinforcement from such critics as Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, who worried that “whatever advantages might accrue to consumers and the culture at large from the emergence of such behemoths as Amazon, not only would proven methods of cultural production and distribution be made obsolete, but we were in danger of being enrolled, whether we liked it or not, in an overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture that, as numerous studies have shown, renders serious reading and cultural criticism increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and sustained argument.” As Leon Wieseltier, of the recently trashed New Republic, wrote, “Writing is not typed talking.” I think, as Steve rightly points out, “A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions.”

I have often rebelled against editors who have insistently tried to excise exotic words and phrases from my copy, in favor of the well-worn, the over-familiar, even the clichéd – so Steve, who is now editor at large for Yale University Press, has me in his pocket with this one: “Sometimes it feels as if the world is divided into two classes: one very large class spurns difficulty, while the other very much smaller delights in it. There are readers who, when encountering an unfamiliar word, instead of reaching for a dictionary, choose to regard it as a sign of the author’s contempt or pretension, a deliberate refusal to speak in a language ordinary people can understand. Others, encountering the same word, happily seize on it as a chance to learn something new, to broaden their horizons. They eagerly seek a literature that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices, turns them inside out and forces them to see the world through new eyes. The second group is an endangered species … The exercise of cultural authority and artistic or literary or aesthetic discrimination is seen as evidence of snobbery, entitlement and privilege lording it over ordinary folks.”

He also describes Theodor Adorno‘s reaction to receiving his good friend Gershom Sholom‘s translation of the Zohar. (I wrote about the current effort to get that dense and esoteric masterwork into English here.)  Adorno wrote that the casual reader will only discern the general schema, “which is truly revealed only at the price of a lifetime’s commitment – nothing less.”

“The price of a lifetime’s commitment.” Nothing less. I like that. Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go find that Penguin paperback on Sor Juana.


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2 Responses to “Defending the “Eros of difficulty””

  1. Bruce Cole Says:

    Hi, jumping in late on this (but I guess I’m the first one jumping!) I am, of course, in profound agreement…but there are a few thoughts I had which might complicate the matter.
    1. I think we may have left anti-intellectualism behind (which implies that it still exists, of course) and have to deal with sheer
    un-intellectualism. Intellectual tasks, and the seriousness that should go with them, are not so much disliked as elitist as just seen as incomprehensible by increasing numbers of people. Our educational system, of course, both reflects and reinforces that as what is considered “practical” becomes the educational background of more and more people (and I’m not inclined to sneer at that, totally).
    2. The outsized respect given to scientists and “science” complicates this, too. Consider how about the only famous people (i.e., celebrities) any more doing “brain-work” are scientists (the late Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Neil degrasse Tyson). Which goes hand in hand, I think, with the vulgar scientism and bad history of the resurrected “Cosmos” series and pronouncements by Hawking and others that philosophy is dead.
    3. There is also the matter of people in academe who have all the credentials, languages, degrees, etc. who are best known, if known as all, not for their scholarship, but as ideological publicists. I am restraining myself from naming some of my “favorites” in that category, but I am sure we can all think of examples. “Example” is exactly the word for it, too – as if they were saying this is what a life of learning was really for.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Oh not so very late, Bruce – and always welcome.

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