Thursday, July 10, 2014

no distaste for the gossip of the town

At one time it was reported about the town that our little circle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness, and the rumour gained more and more strength. And yet we did nothing but indulge in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian, light-hearted liberal chatter. "The higher liberalism" and the "higher liberal," that is, a liberal without any definite aim, is only possible in Russia.

Stepan Trofimovitch, like every witty man, needed a listener, and, besides that, he needed the consciousness that he was fulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas. And finally he had to have some one to drink champagne with, and over the wine to exchange light-hearted views of a certain sort, about Russia and the "Russian spirit," about God in general, and the "Russian God" in particular, to repeat for the hundredth time the same Russian scandalous stories that every one knew and every one repeated. We had no distaste for the gossip of the town which often, indeed, led us to the most severe and loftily moral verdicts. We fell into generalising about humanity, made stern reflections on the future of Europe and mankind in general, authoritatively predicted that after C├Žsarism France would at once sink into the position of a second-rate power, and were firmly convinced that this might terribly easily and quickly come to pass. We had long ago predicted that the Pope would play the part of a simple archbishop in a united Italy, and were firmly convinced that this thousand-year-old question had, in our age of humanitarianism, industry, and railways, become a trifling matter. But, of course, "Russian higher liberalism" could not look at the question in any other way.
That's from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed (aka The Devils). It continues to make fun of the sort of Russian intellectuals Nikolai Chernyshevsky imagined in his novel What is to be Done? In fact, I'm reading this now because I opened the book up randomly, to page 288 as it happens, and my eye fell upon a mention of Chernyshevsky's novel, and a couple of long paragraphs telling jokes about it. This is a comic novel, you see, and also is written in a sort of gentle comic tone unlike the tone of any of Dostoyevesky's other novels. It's hard to believe, as I read this book, that it was actually written by old Fyodor. Where is all the frenetic rushing about? Where are the characters beating themselves up over the insoluble problems of life? Where is the violence and the gambling? True, a main character is well known to lose at cards, but he is not exactly a gambling addict, and all of his losses (and indeed all of his expenses in life) are covered by his patroness. This man with the patroness is the Stepan mentioned above, the witty man who needs a listener. Decades before the book starts, Stepan was very mildly famous/infamous as a liberal writer, but now he's outmoded and lives in the country. He made a trip to Petersburg to rejoin the liberal circles but was laughed out of the room when he announced that the poetry of Pushkin was more important than shoes for the poor. Stepan is also the father of a young man who will soon join the story and bring much havoc with him in his role as a Bazarov-type nihilist. In fact, Pyotr (Stepan's son, the nihilist) will mention Bazarov by name, and declare him an unrealistic character. What fun, Fyodor. This is a clever, quite funny book. Laugh-out-loud funny. And yet it's allegedly by Dostoyevsky. Go figure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

updates, nothing to see

Oh, Harold. I'm done with Blooms, I tell you, unless named Molly or Leopold. Though this post from Himadri hits a nail on the head pretty squarely and is worth reading. At least I laughed. I'm not done with John Cowper Powys, but I haven't decided what to read next from him, or when. I'm also going to look at some more Iris Murdoch, despite the kooky unraveling of The Sea, The Sea towards the end of the book. Maybe I'll read The Bell again. She wrote a lot of books, and we have a lot of them on the shelf. Right now I'm reading Kawabata. His works always baffle me (Japanese novels baffle me in general, including--especially?--those of Murakami) but then I miss him when he's gone, so apparently I miss being baffled in a certain way, which I find curious. I think I'll read some more Yukio Mishima when I remember to look for him. I have not yet begun to branch out into Chinese authors, or Korean authors, or representatives from a lot of other geographic/cultural areas. So much reading. Such a big world, kids.

I've been writing, as I claim, a new book based loosely on certain ideas associated with Saint Anton Chekhov. It seems to be going well enough. I think I've written something like 25,000 words of that book already, which is a startlingly high number. I still sort of feel like I'm poking around with the beginning of the thing. I'm writing the title story now. I will never write another long form epistolary story again. It's a job of work.

I've also completed another round of revisions to Mona in the Desert, an actual novel in the form of a novel. Mostly. There are two chapters hidden in the narrative that the narrator is unaware of. Of which the narrator is unaware, I mean. Mighty Reader points out that a hypothetical book designer and proof reader in the future will be annoyed with me. Sorry, hypothetical publishing professionals. My current task is to type up all of my changes from the marked-up printouts into the digital file. I hate that task, but one can't be delicate. What else? Tomorrow I'm mailing a submission to a publisher for yet another novel. We'll see.

I officially claim to Have No Idea what I'll write after I finish the draft of Antosha in Prague. No idea at all. Maybe the Antarctica thing, finally. I'll have to figure out the middle section, with the boat. Penguins might be involved. No, penguins will certainly be involved. There is a whole long penguin thing going in that book anyway. In a year someone must remind me that the idea is: the physical changes to the boat. I'll know what that means when I need to know it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Madness of King Harold

Let's suppose for a minute that Harold Bloom's "theory of poetry" is correct. Let's suppose that a young poet is creatively blocked by the awareness of, the spectre of, the influence of the great poets of the past. A young poet cannot move forward into the New because he is too busy comparing himself to his precursors, and comparing his own poems to the great precursor poems. Let's suppose that's true. Let's suppose also that the most common way a young poet breaks through this creative blockage is by imagining a flaw in the work of the great precursor, by deliberately misreading the great precursor poem(s) and then writing a poem of his own that "corrects" the "flaw" in the precursor, psychically diminishing the precursor in the eyes of the young poet, who is then able to move forward and become some future young poet's precursor. Let's say Bloom is right, and this is all true. Let's further say that my concern with craft and my lack of concern with any precursor novelists and my non-efforts in the way of modeling my work on any precursor novels is either self-delusion because artists aren't conscious of the process, or because I’m a minor talent so I don't actually know what the greatness of the precursor novelists is and I'm blind to those elements of their work which would creatively block me if I was talented enough to be properly intimidated. I can accept being a minor talent. So let's say I accept all of this, that I have no beef with Bloom's theory of poetic influence.

The problem is that I'm reading a book Bloom wrote, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he might lay out this theory. This book is a mad book, a disorganized nonlinear book whose language is vague and contradictory. The narrative chases its own tail around what is mostly an empty space where clearly-defined terms and theses ought to be. That's my problem. Bloom bezels and prolixes for page after page, saying "this is the anxiety of influence" but failing, again and again, to supply an actual this. He does not say whatever it is he is saying. He spends a lot of time spinning a metaphysical metaphorical tale about the poet as caught in the duality between the spiritual world and the empirical world, and he invokes the Muses and tells us that weak poets are Adam and strong poets are Satan (Paradise Lost as a metaphor for poetry, which is fine because I'm sure Milton's Christian metaphors were bound up with ideas about the mind and art) until Satan becomes merely a hack, an imitator of God and loses his originality. That's all a good time and Bloom's writing is breathless, breakneck, totally insane and full of fun for the reader. None of it tells us what "anxiety" or "influence" mean, though. None of it relates directly to the historical process of poetic influence, or how a poet becomes a poet. Bloom does not directly confront his subject matter in The Anxiety of Influence. I am told that he does spell out what he's really talking about in some other books, but the thing is, the book I'm reading is The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom talks around and around and makes many vague claims without demonstrating that there is any reason to believe those claims or even, frankly, making clear what his claims are. The theory that I am willing to accept, the theory I talk about in the first paragraph of this post, may be behind all the lunacy and poorly-formed argument-in-the-form-of-a-severe-poem that makes up The Anxiety of Influence, but there's no way to discover that by reading the book. The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece, and can never be sure that this meaning is actually Bloom's meaning. That is my beef with Mr Bloom, and that is why I find myself reading The Anxiety of Influence as a novel, because it makes sense if Harold Bloom is Charles Kinbote or Charles Arrowby. The book does not make sense if Harold Bloom is a respected professor and theorist.

No one, so far, has been able to point to a passage within The Anxiety of Influence where Bloom either makes his theory of poetry clear, defines his terms, or shows any reason to believe his claims. I don't dispute the theory, but I do say that Bloom has written a bubbling mess of a book that says almost nothing. It is a sparkling incoherency about poetry, built around the central claim that poetry is dying. "The death of poetry" is one of the few clear passages in the book. Unless Bloom means that as a metaphor, too. I can see why this book is so influential: a reader can fill it with whatever meaning he likes, because Bloom obfuscates, dances, babbles and whirls but he does not say.