Monday, June 30, 2014

New clothes, no emperor

Harold Bloom proposes an antagonistic relationship between artists and art, an Oedipal struggle* between young artists and older artists, where the young/beginning artist must defeat his predecessors or be defeated. A major component of this struggle is the presumed privileging of originality by successful (Bloom's word is "strong") artists. These propositions and assumptions (found in Bloom's rollicking fantasy novel The Anxiety of Influence) tell us many interesting things about the presumed author of that novel, including the obvious influence upon Bloom of that old reactionary crackpot, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They do not, alas, tell us much at all about the poets of the real world and how they came to write poetry.

I've never managed to make it all the way through The Anxiety of Influence in any of my past attempts, the book being so clearly wrongheaded, but I have sworn to actually finish the damned thing this time through. It is, after all, pretty slender. What's wrongheaded about Dr Bloom's famous bit of fiction is this: he has noticed, being a good reader, that some good poets progress over their lives from stumbling, derivative poets to being poets who find new formal strategies. Other poets never find anything to do in the way of formal innovation. Bloom takes this observation and spins his Oedipal fantasy, creating a drama with young poet as protagonist, and influential older poet as antagonist, the father figure who must be killed in order that the young poet may become his own man. Exciting stuff.

What Bloom fails to see is that there is a much simpler explanation for this progression: the young artist must learn his craft. He is not oppressed by the spectre of the poets of the past, nor does he battle against them. In the preface to the edition I'm reading, Bloom makes a claim about Shakespeare's allusion to Marlowe in "Richard II" (where Richard looks into a mirror and asks if his was the face that once commanded thousands of men, an echo of Marlowe's "the face that launched a thousand ships"): Blooms says,"however we think Richard intends it, Shakespeare flaunts it as an emblem of his new freedom from Marlowe." There is no reason at all to believe this claim. It is more likely that Shakespeare, never shy about plagiarism, just liked the sound of it and stole it for himself. There is no reason to believe any of Bloom's claims about the poets under discussion. There is no reason for Bloom to have imagined this violent struggle between generations of artists.

Well, there are reasons, but they all have to do with Bloom's failure to become an artist on his own. He gives it away when he says that criticism "is either part of literature or it is nothing at all." His claim is that criticism is part of literature. He presents this false dichotomy, daring you to tell him that criticism might be something that is not necessarily part of literature, because Bloom wants to be an artist. In The Anxiety of Influence, we read Harold Bloom's hallucinatory struggle against the Western Canon, and nothing more.

Bloom is not, in this tiny book, talking about the creation of art. He claims to be, but he's not. Entirely missing from Bloom's discussion is the joy of creation, or in fact any kind of understanding of the creative act in action. Bloom has poets, and he has poetry, but he has nowhere really considered the poet's sense of writing a poem, what Jon Gardner calls being within "the fictional dream." Bloom gives us agony. Where is the ecstasy? Perhaps Bloom labors, struggles, claws his resentful way forward and dreams of murdering his literary predecessors. Most people who make art do not engage in this particular struggle, is my claim. There is no reason to believe that Bloom is right about any of this. There is no reason to believe that poets, writers, playwrights, spend much time or effort thinking about the poets/writers/playwrights they admire, and certainly less reason to believe these people are in any way oppressed by the past.

One of Bloom's criteria for "strong" artists is the creation of new and original work, something that moves away from the respected figures of the past. Bloom writes as a critic, an outsider to art, not as a man who creates art. There are some artists who talk ceaselessly of finding their own way, of making something unique, and these (contrary to Bloom's claim) are generally the least of our artists. A good, "strong" artist is concerned with what he is trying to do now, with what he is trying to accomplish in the present work. Artists collect tools and learn how to use them, and find new things to do with those tools as a matter of course, because the ideas one has look different every time you learn a new technique. As craft grows, so naturally does vision evolve. This is not a freeing of oneself from one's psychological fetters; it is experience and competence and acquired depth. Perhaps this is actually what Bloom means, all he means, and he's chosen to build this clumsy and amusing metaphor around it, and the "murder your fathers" stuff is all a bit of a joke. Why else would he lard his prose up with Greek terms, as if we all live in ancient Athens? He hides his commonplace observations about the growth of art behind jargon, and we all should know what that means. Nabokov would've had a good time with Mr Bloom, I think, lampooning and dissecting. Oh, wait: he already did. Nabokov wrote that splendid novel where a critic writes himself into the history of someone else's poem, remember? In Pale Fire, certainly, criticism was literature.

* In the preface to the 1997 edition, which is the edition I'm reading, Bloom states that his theory in no way invokes an Oedipal struggle. The anxiety is not in the poet, it is in the poem. What can this possibly mean? Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day, I'll talk about Bloom's actual theory of influence and the anxiety inherent in that process.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lying on the shores of The Sea, The Sea

It's not clear how unreliable the unreliable narrator of Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea is. I know he's lying to me, but he also seems to be unaware of some facts about his new home on the seaside. The old house is called "Shruff End," a name he briefly ponders and then dismisses. What Charles Arrowby doesn't seem to know is that shruff is an obsolete word meaning rubbish, or bits of trash that can be used for tinder. He bought the house from an old woman named "Mrs Chorney." chorney is Russian for "black." It's also closely-related to chyort which means "the devil." Arrowby has already let it slip, between the lines of his memoir/diary/whatever, that he's not a nice man (he refers to women as "bitches" and lets us know that he's always had plenty of women around who were happy to act as his chauffeur, which is why he's never learned to drive a car). Shruff End, the old house Arrowby has drained his savings to purchase, is not at all a nice house, which is something that Arrowby is not telling his reader. There is a damp smell and it's hideously furnished with broken-down old furniture, but really the smell isn't so bad and the furniture, you see, it's really after all quite charming and endearing in a funny way. A watch tower, or possibly an old lighthouse tower, is falling into ruin at the edge of the property and Arrowby hasn't the money to have it repaired but he'll save up for that, don't you worry. He describes the house in great detail but the place becomes more confusing and sinister the longer he talks about it, as if it's some location out of Lovecraft, where an eldrich horror lurks beneath the floorboards. We are told a great deal about the freedom Arrowby feels here in his house with its private beach overlooking a lonely bay. There is no electricity or hot water, but of course Arrowby is fine with that. He's roughed it before, you know. He is happy being alone, though he's always lived around or with people. It is difficult and dangerous to get into the water from any of the local beaches, but he'll hire someone to install a handrail to assist him getting down the rock face at his own beach. No problem at all, you see. Everything is fine, if you don't count Arrowby's clear lack of purpose in living from day to day, his complaints that nobody writes to him and there's not telephone service, and of course there was that hallucination (was it a hallucination?) on his second day, of the immense serpent made of sea water, rising up out of the bay and then dissolving away again. Arrowby supposes he has found sanctuary. He insists upon it. No, everything is perfectly lovely, alone in the decaying house at the edge of nowhere, at the edge of the sea, the sea.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

to impoison and drive to madness

Another thing had struck Sylvanus as curiously heart-piercing in this House of Ghosts, and that was the way Sex itself, the great life-urge of the world, fell away and dwindled and receded. It sank, this thing, from occupying the first place in human life to occupying the ninth or the tenth. Its results were here only too clearly ; but its living manifestations seemed minimized, sterilized, paralyzed. Anyone who has been in Bedlam will bear witness how forlornly correct Sylvanus' observation was. As a matter of fact it is curious how the illusion should ever have got about that mad people are often happy and cheerful, and merry and gay! As a matter of fact upon an insane asylum lies exactly the same kind of sick, inert, bewildered, unearthly sorrowfulness that Homer depicts as the prevailing condition of those faint spirits, who in the realm of Hades "no longer behold the sweet sun". Yes, the sadness, the dispiritedness, the inert hopelessness that is the dominant atmosphere of such a place is almost identical with that twilight kingdom where only the drinking of blood enables a mother to know her own son ! And it would seem that just as with the loss of their bodies "the noble nations of the dead" feel no longer the urge of amorous desire, so in the atmosphere of Hell's Museum considerations of excrement played a larger part than those of the heart. That terrible and startling indifference to personal appearance, to the state of one's dress for instance, that is such a noticeable characteristic of these societies of the damned is a fearful and significant hint as to how the implacable Goddess of Desire, when by her ravages she has reduced her victims to this condition, leaves them in contempt, and glides away, to impoison and drive to madness other, fairer, fresher, younger, less plague-spotted souls!
Last night I finished Weymouth Sands. Very clearly, as I closed the book, I thought Well, that was all right. It's a mad book, full of mad people who believe in a mad, violent, somehow sentient world wherein we are all driven to torture one another--the world itself torturing us, too--all for a drop of solace (which is one of the metaphors in the book, where dogs are tortured and sleep deprived so that their poor bodies will produce a hormone that acts as a sleep aid to humans, o ye gods of irony). John Cowper Powys, the author of this mad world, himself believes in this active, aware universe where emotions and thoughts and even the shadows of emotions and thoughts are like forces of nature, like wavelets that combine and grow into tsunamis, that wash over and through other people and places and things. It's all connected, all violently and sexually connected in a maelstrom of desire and deceit and ignorance. So much ignorance, so much lying to ourselves and others, and as Pykk pointed out, Powys finds this exciting and titillating. It's a mad universe in Powys, not a place I'd want to live but it was interesting to visit, to see how--sometime recently there was a conversation about this on this very blog--the landscape, the setting, becomes an actor, a character in the story, a voice and a doer-of-things. Yes, that was all right. I'll visit Powys-world again, I think.

For now, I'm in Iris Murdoch's mad and deceitful world of The Sea, The Sea. The landscape is described in detail, hard and cynical detail even when the narrator claims to admire what he sees. Charles Arrowby is going to be a pushy sort of narrator, telling his reader what to think. John Cowper Powys is a pushy narrator, elbowing his way into center stage past his characters and sets, telling us what to think, lecturing the reader. You can see how Powys made all of his characters into versions of himself or versions of the archetypes in which he believed. There were no real people in Weymouth Sands, not even--I think--the intrusive author. A good book, though. A violent dream of desire and the unsureness of selfhood.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Because houses + moles = evil

Yes, I know, making fun of misspelled words is crass and déclassé. And yet.

Also, I report that not only are houses in my neighborhood being rid of moles, the writer in my mole-free house has stumbled upon the large conceptual frameworks for his work-in-progress. I am not claiming that the book will have a central theme, because I don't write those sorts of novels, but I do like to explore some linked ideas across the length of a narrative, and I wasn't aware what those ideas were until very recently. The use of symbolism in Russian literature is one of the ideas, the personal flaws of artists is another idea, etc. Saint Paul versus Christ is another idea. The usual sort of stuff, in other words. Etymologies of names, and some discussion of fishing. Shakespeare, of course.