Posts Tagged ‘Stéphane Mallarmé’

Joshua Landy: “Literary texts are not cudgels but weight machines.”

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
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"Literature as Rorschach test, simulation space, participatory wrestling match" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Why read hard books? the Guardian‘s Stephen Abell asks.

Joshua Landy rushes to the rescue with equally hard answers in his new book, How to Do Things with Fictions.  Josh is nothing if not a lively thinker.  Abell writes:  “His answer, when shorn of its sometimes uncomfortably scratchy fleece of critical theory, is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity: ‘each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.'”

Frankly, I like the even more simple answer he gave me in his Stanford office, nearly two years ago: “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life.”  In fact, I think the article I wrote goes some way towards answering the questions I posed last week about defending the humanities:  “The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works ‘enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves.’ He offered ‘literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match.’ He advocated moving away from the ‘stranglehold of narrativity,’ which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to ‘a more lyrical mode of thinking.'”

The case studies from his new book range across five countries and 2,500 years: Plato‘s Gorgias and Symposium, St. Mark‘s gospel, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé, and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.  Abell writes:

Before we get to the evidence, we receive a breathless summary of various other literary theories that seek to explain the purpose of fiction. Landy is fond of lists and numbers, and posits “13 ways of looking at fiction”, which include three main schools of thought: the “exemplary” (novels as morals; read Clarissa and become a better person); the “affective” (freeing our emotions; see Kafka‘s wonderful observation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”); and the “cognitive”. Landy spends most time on the “cognitive”, subdividing it – I think – into four other sections, but basically categorising it as the view that novels are “directly educational”.

Landy’s own theory, of fiction as a thought-trainer, comes close to this notion, but he exerts himself considerably to condemn those “meaning-mongers” who insist that fictions provide the key to straightforward verities. He is also dismissive of those of us who only want to dwell on the enjoyment of being told a story, or what he calls “the glorious uselessness of fiction, its ostensible inability to yield anything beyond pleasure”.

Abell hints strongly at the end of the piece that he reads books for the plots.  But Josh Landy’s description of one case study, the Gospel of St. Mark, during a colloquium two years ago, was downright spellbinding:

Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus’ parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: “The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what’s on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train.”

The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark’s texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that “implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience.”

“To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit,” Landy said.

“Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission,” Landy said. “They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable.”

Read the rest of Abell’s interesting article here.  Or read my story here.

W.H. Auden’s prose, and why art matters

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
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If you haven’t already read it, I recommend Michael Wood‘s “I Really Mean Like” in one of last summer’s issues of the London Review of Books. He discusses The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62, edited by Edward Mendelson.

From Wood’s review:

Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

I wonder if it’s the difference between the French and the English – it’s so easy to sound hysterical in English. In French and Italian,  it doesn’t seem to matter.  Perhaps they are hysterical all the time, so it doesn’t count.

I like this:

… when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’

Forget it.

Note to self:  Go back to The Dyer’s Hand, although Auden makes one weep with envy, not least of all for his aphorisms, like this one:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

Or these: “he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’”

Can poetry matter?  Wood answers:  “Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.”

Happy 90th birthday, Richard Wilbur!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
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Birthday boy (Photo: Stathis Orphanos)

Happy birthday, Richard Wilbur, on your 90th!  Dan Rifenburgh reminded me of the poet’s birthday on Facebook a few days ago, but he didn’t know whether he’d be spending in Cummington, Massachusetts, or Key West.  Either way, he will probably not be celebrating in NYC: I remember a characteristic passage in one his books where he described a brisk walk near his home with a guest: “But my friend from New York, an excellent abstract artist, walks through our Berkshire woods smoking Gauloises and talking of Berlin. It is too bad that he cannot be where he is, enjoying the glades and closures, the climbs, the descents, the flat stretches strewn with Canada Mayflower and wintergreen…”

Richard Woodward in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal called him “our finest living poet.”  Nice to know someone else shares that opinion — I voiced the same thought some months ago here. Here’s what Woodward said:

Richard Wilbur turns 90 on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely that many Americans will stop to pay tribute to our finest living poet. Despite having earned almost every literary award this country has to offer, including a pair of Pulitzers and Bollingens, as well as the title of U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987-88, he has never enjoyed a rapt general following.

I had dinner with Dick Wilbur and his wife Charlotte oh, maybe a decade ago in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  He was as genial as his reputation had suggested, and his obvious, abiding affection for his high school sweetheart, an effervescent and gregarious matron, was charming.  I never made it out for the Key West interview I had envisioned … perhaps there’s still time.

The poet-critic Randall Jarrell said Wilbur “obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing,” but his poems, since Charlotte’s death in 2007, have become increasingly death-haunted.

It’s unusual for poets to be productive so long — conventional wisdom is that they do their best work young, and “dry up” as Thom Gunn told me — but Anterooms: New Poems and Translations, is a marvel.  One poem, “A Measuring Worm,” describes a caterpillar climbing a window screen, hunching his back as he goes:

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

Woodward notes, “His productivity, never high to begin with, has slowed with age. He finishes poems at the rate that Antonio Stradivari constructed a violin. ‘I often don’t write more than a couple of lines in a day of, let’s say, six hours of staring at the sheet of paper,’ he told the Paris Review in 1977. “Composition for me is, externally at least, scarcely distinguishable from catatonia.”

David Orr in the New York Times writes of Anterooms that “it would be tempting to say that what we have here is a scanty manuscript that will nonetheless be extravagantly praised because its author is still deeply respected and, hey, isn’t it wonderful that he’s still making a go of it at his age? Tempting, but wrong. The better work in Anterooms, however limited in quantity, is as good as anything Wilbur has ever written, and upholds certain virtues other poets would do well to acknowledge, even if they travel roads different from the relatively straight one Wilbur has followed.” He concludes:

“More than 50 years ago, Randall Jarrell claimed that as a poet, Wilbur ‘never goes too far, but he never goes far enough.’ The observation is invariably quoted whenever Wilbur gets reviewed (far be it from me to break the chain). But to write convincingly about death — and also, as Wilbur has increasingly done, about grief — isn’t a matter of ‘going’ anywhere. It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference. And while the strong, spare poems here are unlikely to strike many readers as the illustrious pronouncements of a Grand Old Man — the kind of figure Jarrell had in mind — they are wholly successful in meeting the darkest of subjects with their own quiet light. Which is, surely, a far grander thing.”

Anterooms includes some of two translations of poems by Joseph Brodsky (I still think his translations of J.B. are the best) one poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and an unpublished poem by Paul Verlaine.  Wilbur has always had a affinity for French (his verse translations of Molière are unmatched) — and so was the perfect lyricist for Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide, in the spirit of Voltaire. Composer Stephen Sondheim called Wilbur’s lyrics “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater.”  I still occasionally find myself, on a sunny day, humming —

What a day! What a day!
For an auto-da-fé!

See the Lincoln Center’s 1986 version below (or for a real treat, check out Kristin Chenoweth in Candide on youtube).

Postscript: Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence celebrates the birthday here.