Posts Tagged ‘Theodor Adorno’

Neustadt finalist Dubravka Ugrešić: “Risk is a moral category.”

Sunday, May 31st, 2015
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(Photo: Zeljko Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

Not risk-aversive. (Photo: Z. Koprolcec/Wikimedia Commons)

A few days ago I wrote that my friend Daniel Medin of the American University of Paris said he was “over the moon.”

That was true, but for more reasons than we had time to say. He wrote me in the wee hours (Paris time) to say, “So much good news, I don’t even mind being up this early.” The main reason was that one of the authors in the university’s Center for Writers and Translators – László Krasznahorkai – had just won the Man Booker Prize. Here’s another: two of the writers he works at have been named as finalists for the Neustadt; one is Can Xue (M&L5), too, on the heels of taking the just-announced Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover. She was recently featured in Music and Literature, here.

The second, Dubravka Ugrešić, is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a “witch” for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.  Other contenders include Caryl Churchill (England), Carolyn Forché (United States), Aminatta Forna (Scotland/Sierra Leone), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Canada), Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico), Don Paterson (Scotland), Ghassan Zaqtan (Palestine).

The Neustadt Award, a prize offered by the University of Oklahoma’s World Literature Today, is considered the “American Nobel,” and is often a harbinger of the Swedish award. The winner will be chosen in October. Read more about it here.

Daniel is understandably chuffed. “Happiest for the recognition these authors are getting for their (brilliant, uncompromising) work,” he wrote. Daniel, who is co-editor of Music and Literature, recently interviewed the Croatian author. It’s very, very good  – and it’s online here.

A few excerpts from the interview:

DM: In your essay on Susan Sontag, you introduce the importance of “literary apprenticeship.” Could you discuss this notion at greater length?

DU: One has to earn the right to write, the right to “a voice.” I propagated an old-fashioned apprenticeship. I was a passionate reader from an early age. I studied comparative literature. I wrote about other writers. I translated them, too, from Russian to Croatian. I assembled anthologies. I edited, selected, and collected works of classical writers (Chekhov and Gogol, for example). I edited scholarly editions. I did a bit of literary history, criticism, and theory. I rediscovered some forgotten Russian writers (such as Leonid Dobychin and Konstantin Vaginov) and wrote about them. I think that the notion of a literary work ethic is extremely important, especially today when practically anybody can write, produce, and distribute his or her own work. This work ethic presupposes knowledge and a deep respect toward—and compassion for—your ancestors and contemporaries, toward your trade. It also assumes a deep awareness of what one is doing, why one is doing what one is doing, what the sense of the work is, what it brings to the cultural context, what it brings to the reader, and so on and so forth.

***

ministryDM: Could you please elaborate [on “literature as seduction”]?

DU: Yes, literature as mental, aesthetic, linguistic, emotional, intellectual, and sensual seduction. In that sense, Scheherazade is an ideal author, not solely because of her skill as a storyteller (although that too!), but for the risk that hovers above this activity. There are so many writers in this world who never ever question their trade. Fewer are prepared to confront all the dangers—and all the consequences—of their work. I experienced writing as a dangerous or double-edged activity. I was awarded the biggest prizes for literature in the former Yugoslavia (the NIN prize for fiction, for example), but only a few years later—at a time of nationalism and war—I was expelled from my cultural community and ostracized because of my writing. Instead of conforming to a changed situation, which is what the majority of people did, I took a risk. Then bore the consequences. I left my country.

museumDM: It sounds like you’re proud of that.

DU: No; I am sad because of it. I learned a lesson I would have rather avoided, namely that the majority of writers, intellectuals, artists, and thinkers will conform to any situation—whether it is war, dictatorship, communism, fascism, extermination of the “Other,” et cetera. However, going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is a moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.

***

DM: You’ve already explained why you channeled these new experiences into fiction, instead of memoir or autobiography. Yet at least half the books you’ve published in English are collections of essays, and even the novels themselves borrow often from essayistic strategies and tone. What attracts you to this particular form of writing? Were you steeped in a particular culture of essay writing, for example a Central European one?

DU: The choice of an essay came naturally to me at one point in my life. I stepped into it like into an old comfortable shoe. In that respect, the strategy of “fictionalizing” an essay and of “essayizing” fiction also came naturally. That impulse was there from the very beginning, I would say. Besides, stepping outside his “domain” is an act of artistic freedom: that’s why some excellent writers (first recognized as fiction writers and poets) also became first-rate essayists. Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kiš, and Milan Kundera come to mind.

The choice to write essays came with a radical change of my life: the outburst of nationalism (i.e. fascism, at this particular time and place) in former Yugoslavia, with the fall of the SFRY, the war, and subsequent exile. The essay was, at least for me, the most appropriate form to protest against human conformism, lies, killings, national and ethnic homogenization of the society (e.g. fascization of society), against trivialization and standardization of culture, and so on and so forth. I turned to the essay at a crucial moment, when things desperately (at least from my point of view!) needed to be explained, when I lost my familiar addressee and my familiar cultural environment.

***

Theodor W. Adorno

Heretical essays

DU: The best definition of the essay came from Theodor Adorno, who said that heresy is at its essence and core. However, we have to be careful with all these notions today: the notion of heresy included. In our contemporary society—which is highly homogenized by the global marketplace—intellectual and artistic heresy is like oxygen. Globalized culture sucks that oxygen from our mental landscape. The global marketplace pretends that it offers us a diversity of products but in fact sells us the powerful substitute of the holy ONE. Today, we get one “subversive” philosopher, one “subversive” artist, and one subversive “writer”: the global market can’t bear more than one! In other words, we get one Coca-Cola, but we believe that by consuming it we consume the whole world. Celebs are our modern prophets, whether they sell the photos of their impressive posteriors, like Kim Kardashian, or their seductive theories, like Slavoj Žižek, or millions of their books, like Haruki Murakami. I don’t have anything against Kim Kardashian or, God forbid, against the great Slavoj Žižek, or my fellow writer Haruki Murakami, but the holy ONE policy (created, ultimately, by consumers themselves) is a quite obvious sign of a society homogenizing its tastes and needs. That’s why many cultural “species” (forms, patterns, genres, practices, ideas, and cultural spaces) are disappearing. The global market standardizes our tastes, our intellectual and cultural needs. In the result, we all read one book, one Bible, one Koran, we all follow one “prophet”; we all wait in long lines to buy a new book by one writer, or in line to see the exhibition of one artist. There is a market pressure to love Him, to buy Him, and as we live in a religious world, we like to establish our modern “prophets” (in visual art, the entertainment industry, literature, film, etc.). And then we like them and respect them because everybody else likes and respects them…

 

Do yourself a favor. Read the rest here.

 

Defending the “Eros of difficulty”

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015
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Sor_Juana_Inés_de_la_Cruz_(Miguel_Cabrera)

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.)

wasserman2

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.

 

Theodor Adorno: punctuation as music

Thursday, July 24th, 2014
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Theodor W. Adorno

Serious about the semicolon

“Punctuation marks,” wrote German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, “are marks of oral delivery.” Because of that, they’re a sort of musical notation: “The comma and the period correspond to the half-cadence and the authentic cadence.” Exclamation points are “like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats.” Colons are like “dominant seventh chords.”

Open Culture notes that Adorno “is known for many things, but a light touch isn’t one of them. His work includes despairing post-fascist ethics and a study on the sociology and psychology of fascism. Those who dig deeper into his catalog may know his rigorously philosophical Negative Dialectics or dense, opaque Aesthetic Theory.  Given the seriously heavy nature of these books, you might surprised, as I was, to read the paragraph below”:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (<<> >) lick their lips. 

Read the Open Culture snippets from Adorno’s piece here – or, if you’re up to it, read the whole essay here.

A few days ago, Ben Yagoda attacked the humble and serviceable semicolon. We’re pleased to see that Adorno gave it a rousing defense. From Open Culture:

There is no mark of punctuation that Adorno rejects outright. All have their place and purpose. He does decry the modernist tendency to mostly leave them out, since “then they simply hide.” But Adorno reserves a special pride of place for the semicolon. He claims that “only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form” can understand the difference between semicolon and comma. He differentiates between the Greek and German semicolon. And he expresses alarm “that the semicolon is dying out.” This, he claims, is due to a fear of “page-long paragraphs”—the kind he often writes. It is “a fear created by the marketplace—by the consumer who does not want to tax himself.” Right, I told you, he would hate the internet, though he seems to thrive—posthumously—on Twitter.

Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

Saturday, May 19th, 2012
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Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)

“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He was not (to start again), what one had expected.

Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers.  He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.

Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:

Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”

Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered.  As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked.  Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”

Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)

Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”

“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.”  Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991),  a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.

In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

What’s fiction’s verboten subject?  Sex.  “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex.  What else?  Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”

“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,'” he said, but those of the heart as well.  In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”

Off the hook.

Paradise Lost?  That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form.  To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)

Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”

Another question: what is Amis reading?  “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”

But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels.  The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it?  In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd.  But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.

“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject.  It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”

Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said.  John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience.  Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.

Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.”  It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said.  “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”

All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”

Carl Djerassi at 88: hitting the road – with champagne, too

Saturday, October 1st, 2011
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Not slowing down ... not much, anyway (Photo: Isabella Gregor)

Stanford celebrated its 120th anniversary last Thursday in Paris, at the Hôtel de Talleyrand overlooking the Place de la Concorde.  The 18th century hotel, purchased by the U.S. after the war, was the site of the administration of the Marshall Plan.

Normally, I wouldn’t know or note such an occasion – except that the weekend gala featured champagne (always a topic of interest), but more importantly, it spotlighted noted chemist and writer Carl Djerassi, one of my correspondents.

The man known as “the father of the pill” (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?) participated on a panel, “At the Cutting Edge of Thinking.”  Following that – a champagne tasting from the latest crus of my favorite Veuve Clicquot.  The artist Kristin Eager Killion was scheduled to speak on “What are the links between Art, Sustainability and Champagne?”

Home of the Marshall Plan

That’s to the point:  the evening hosted a reading of Carl’s newest play, Insufficiency – on the subject of (you guessed it) champagne.  Or rather the chemical makeup of champagne and its bubbles, with a few digs along the way at the foibles of academic publishing, academic snobbery, and academic tenure.  A pleasant coincidence for Carl that the subject of his “play in nine scenes” matched the bubbly theme of the event.  (Karol Berger and Laurence Yansouni were slated to be the actors for the reading.)

Carl has been in the news lately, for several other reasons.  Le Monde wrote a lengthy profile last month, opening him with these words:

Sufficiency

“A shoe with a luminous red heel, bright as desire or a flash of wit, holds open the door to the living room in Carl Djerassi’s Vienna apartment. This is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in the home of an internationally renowned chemist, the author of 1,245 articles in scientific journals, and one of the world’s leading experts on steroids, who synthesized the cortisone and progesterone, thus contributing to a crucial invention for women: the contraceptive pill.”

“But Djerassi isn’t a chemist like others. Little known in France, except by his scientific peers, the naturalized American is the incarnation of the cultured man who once was the European ideal from the Renaissance to the twentieth century: scientist, musician and music lover, collector and arts patron, sports enthusiast. Finally he is a writer, the ultimate self-conquest in a workaholic who admitted that ‘the pressure of ambition can be a poison.’ He nevertheless manages, at 87 years old, a cosmopolitan existence between San Francisco, Vienna and London, at a pace that would exhaust many people in their forties.”

Les Lavoisiers (par Jacques-Louis David)

The article explains that Carl has renewed the tradition of Wednesday soirees in his apartment, as Sigmund Freud once did in his own apartment in the Berggasse (now a museum – we wrote about that here).  The controversial theme of one of Carl’s evening discussions: Can literary self-analysis replace psychoanalysis?

The evening was, of course, a pretext to bring in a reading of another of his plays, Foreplay, based on the letters of chemist Gretel Adorno, her husband, philosopher Theodore Adorno, and writer Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis.

Recent events picked up scenes from Carl’s own life:  he attended the same high school as Freud, and also fled the Nazis with his mother, arriving nearly penniless in New York City in 1939.

Kind of a classmate

Foreplay continues an earlier theme, in his play Oxygen, which described the role of women in the history of science through the prickly personality of chemist Madame Lavoisier.

It’s true that Carl is still going strong – when I saw him at the dedication of the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence last month, he had just arrived back from somewhere in Europe – London, perhaps.  He was using a cane to walk – he assured me that it was the result of a sports injury, not infirmity.

In any case, he’s off next week to the 14th century University of Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university, for an honorary doctorate, and an encore of his Insufficiency, which he will read with the president of the Humboldt Foundation.  The week after that he heads for the University of Porto, which is celebrating its 100th birthday.  The university is giving Carl an honorary doctorate, and premiering his play, Phallacy, in Portuguese.  It will be just in time for Carl’s 88th, too, on October 29.