Posts Tagged ‘Cervantes’

A masterpiece? Or tosh? The greats that you hate.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
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Jane’s not her thing.

She’s tried. She’s tried again and again. But she cannot love Jane Eyre. 

Author Kim Culbertson was the moderator for my onstage discussion of “literary citizenship” with David Kipen, my former editor when I was a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and afterwards literary director for the National Endowment for the Arts. The occasion was last weekend’s Sierra Poetry Festival. I have tried to love it many, many times,” she pleaded. “And I hope I make up for it by loving James Joyce and Jane Austen.”

At the opening night festivities the night before, we discussed of the books we’re ashamed we didn’t “get” or didn’t love even if we did. She also warned me of the wide literary disparities in the audience I would be addressing. Some, she said, were intimidated by “critics” – they didn’t yet have confidence in their own literary judgment.

Well, nobody should. Our tastes sharpen and deepen as we read more, think more, feel more. The book we dismissed in our twenties acquires a different meaning in our forties. Half of it is the willingness to voice your opinion, listen to challengers, argue, reread, and maybe admit that you changed your mind.

The classics obviously don’t change; we do. Hence, a few years ago I rediscovered Stendhal‘s The Red and the Black, a book that left me cold when I read it in my teens. Maybe I should even give Don Quixote another go, since I read it first during those same years. But then again, maybe not…

Revered author of a single joke?

Here’s what A.N. Wilson had to say about that august novel. I’ve been reading his biography of John Milton, but though he has incandescent praise for that bard’s epic, the Spanish author leaves him cold: “It is a one-joke book, and it goes on for hundreds of pages.”

“The joke is that a silly old man keeps mistaking events and characters around him, because inside his head, he is living in the romances of Amadis de Gaul. Great amusement is had, both by characters in the book who take delight in mocking, tricking and deriding the silly old man; and by the author, who plainly expects us to join in the sadism.”

The quote is from a recent article in The Spectator, “The Greats We Hate,” that I shared with Kim and others.

Cervantes isn’t the only one who takes a beating. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James all get their comeuppance. Take this example, from critic and satirist Craig Brown:

Which classic work do you think this comes from? ‘Her teeth were white in her brown face and her skin and her eyes were the same golden tawny brown. She had high cheek-bones, merry eyes and a straight mouth with full lips. Her hair was the golden brown of a grain field that has been burned dark in the sun but it was cut short all over her head so that it was but little longer than the fur on a beaver pelt.’ Jeffrey Archer? Jackie Collins? Lee Child? I’ll give you one more clue.

Perhaps she needed one, too.

After another 150 pages, the hero finally gets to roll in the heather with the brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired woman with the straight mouth and the hair like a beaver pelt, ‘and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves’.

Well, my lips move smally and by themselves, and I imagine yours do, too, unless you’re the dog (‘Oh, yuss!’) on the Churchill insurance ad, but it’s not something we boast about. The writer is, in fact, Ernest Hemingway, and the book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s described on the cover, by the Observer, as ‘one of the greatest novels which our troubled age will produce’ but it strikes me as soapy old tosh.

In fact the word “tosh” comes up more than once in the piece, though Jane Eyre does not. But Charlotte’s sister Emily Brontë does, with her acclaimed masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Says Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation Susannah Herbert, “the sexiness of Heathcliff is much overplayed. He needs a good bath.”

P.D. James, Susan Hill, and many others weigh in. Read the whole thing here.

René Girard: our desires are less personal than we think

Thursday, October 5th, 2017
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Praise for the opuscule! An adapted chapter of my forthcoming Evolution of Desire: A Life of RenĂ© Girard has been published separately by the fine-press publisher Wiseblood as Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of RenĂ© Girard. Well, we wrote about that already here. Here’s the news: Trevor Cribben Merrill has some kind words about it in Education & Culture, the new website launched by John Wilson, formerly the mastermind behind the now defunct Books & Culture.

An excerpt:

If I took one thing away from Haven’s little book, it was the likeness between Girard’s own creative conversion and that of the novelists he studied in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, which despite his later shift to religious anthropology may still be his most compelling and characteristic work. Deceit is at once a brilliant take on five classic writers—Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky—and a history of desire in the modern west, tracing how pathological competition sprang up on the ruins of the Old Regime’s feudal hierarchies. But it is also, if more discreetly, a book about artistic creation. Great writers, Girard argues, come to grasp that our desires are less personal than we like to believe, and that others often wield a decisive influence over us just when we think we are free. Don Quixote is aware of imitating. Much as the Christian asks “What would Jesus do?”, at every moment Quixote wonders: “What would Amadis of Gaul do?” But Dostoevsky, writing as rapidly urbanizing Russia played catch up with the West, portrays an alienated self-love that feeds on others yet can only survive by denying this. Anticipating Seinfeld by more than a century, his “underground men” get worked up over tiny slights, and rush out to give their enemies the cold shoulder.

Unconscious “triangular desire” (the metaphor accounts for the way our desires draw strength from a model or “mediator” instead of going straight from subject to object) lives or dies on our tendency to buy the “romantic lies” we feed others. We tell ourselves—and our friends—that we are going to the beach to soak up the sunshine and feel the soft caress of a sea breeze. Or that we take an interest in literature out of a detached scholarly curiosity. But it may be that the beach is so tempting because an ex-girlfriend often goes windsurfing there, and that our heavily-footnoted study of Chinua Achebe masks a craving to write prize-winning novels. Our friends see right through us, of course—but they have their own obsessions, which we treat with a condescending indulgence to equal theirs toward us.

In short, triangular desire is something one complacently or indignantly observes in others, but it must be discovered in one’s own life. This is obvious on one level, but on another it can be difficult to grasp. Maybe that’s why a persistent misunderstanding surrounds Girard’s reading of literature. Some take the mere presence of triangular desire in a work as sufficient reason to declare its author a world-class genius, on par with Proust or Dostoevsky. Articles and dissertations trumpet the triangularity of this or that writer’s fiction, as if the ability to spot envy and jealousy in the modern world, which often encourages those vices, were especially noteworthy in itself.

Read the rest here.

Postscript on Oct. 5: Looks like we got pickup from The Weekly Standard here.

“By Love Possessed”? RenĂ© Girard and John Freccero on Francesca da Rimini

Sunday, March 20th, 2011
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By literature possessed?

Patrick Hunt is off on his usual wanderings — this time he’s in London till the end of the month, but he did take time to drop me a quick note when he was  “again reminded how profound RenĂ© Girard‘s impact has been on literature – not to mention other disciplines – in this Dante essay by John Freccero on Francesca da Rimini“:

The phenomenon of mimetic desire is at the center of the work of RenĂ© Girard, one of the most powerful theorists of culture of our time. Perhaps because his early work on the novel has been overshadowed by his profound influence in anthropology, social studies and comparative religion, few students of Dante seem to know his essay of fifty years ago, dedicated to the canto of Francesca. In the briefest of terms, his point was that the desiring subject imagines, as does Francesca, that desire springs spontaneously from within, while the truth that is revealed by Dante and the greatest of novelists, is that desire is always triangular, “mediated” by the desires of the other—in this case, as in the case of Don Quixote, by a book. In a few mordant pages, Girard debunked the romantic reading of Francesca’s story, showing that it was simply a repetition of her own initial mystification. When Girard wrote, the best-selling love story of the time was entitled By Love Possessed; Girard’s title was polemic, summing up the delusion propagated by all such “romance” stories: “By Literature Possessed.” His point was that desire is essentially imitative, searching for a model, and that literature provides it with an imaginary map. Dante’s text was not complicit in “romantic” deception. On the contrary, Francesca’s last words exposed the roman as a panderer and seducer, leading the lovers to their destruction. Her story anticipated those of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Cervantes in the genre of the “anti-roman.”

Patrick added,  “I’ve heard Freccero lecture on Dante at Stanford, and only wish I’d heard Girard as well on Francesca and Canto 5 of the Inferno. I’ve written poems on this story – seemingly like everyone else! – and the tale of Francesca is nigh well eternal, as you know, and not just from Robert Browning onward. One magister’s encomium to another: from Dante to Girard to Freccero and this forthcoming book also has an excellent new essay by Robert Harrison on this same never-ending story. The haunting Ingres painting on this Dante passage is one of my absolute favorite ekphrases.”  Not to mention Tchaikovsky‘s opera.

Patrick’s own edited volume on the subject, Critical Insights:  The Inferno, will be out in September.  It includes Freccero’s essay.

Actually, I studied Dante with the world-renowned expert Freccero years and years ago — he assigned the Charles Singleton prose translation, he said, because we should never give up on learning the Italian.  I remember him emphasizing that the Paolo Malatesta, far from being the George Clooney of an earlier era, has become the voiceless lunk by Francesca’s side, and her attitude towards him is almost contemptuous.   “Amor condusee noi ad una morte.”