Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

It's not a publication I greatly care for or regularly read, but I was struck by this article in First Things:

"The Platonic tradition in Christianity invests beauty with ontological significance, trusting it to reveal the unity and proportion of what really is. Our apprehension of beauty thus betokens a recognition of and ­submission to a reality that transcends us. And yet, if beauty can use art to express truth, art can also use beauty to create charming fabrications. As Jacques Maritain put it, art is capable of establishing "a world apart, closed, limited, absolute," an autonomous world that, at least for a moment, relieves us of the "ennui of living and willing." Instead of directing our attention beyond sensible beauty toward its supersensible source, art can fascinate us with beauty’s apparently self-sufficient presence; it can counterfeit being in lieu of revealing it... "Art is dangerous," as Iris Murdoch once put it, "chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it."

This helps explain why Western thinking about art has tended to oscillate between adulation and deep suspicion. "Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man," Dostoevsky had Mitya Karamazov declare, and the battle runs deep....

The closer one moved toward the present time, the more blatant and unabashed became the association of the artist with God. Thus Alexander Baumgarten, writing in the mid-eighteenth century, compared the poet to a god and likened his creation to "a world"... If the artist in the modern age emerges as a second god, his divinity tends to close itself off from reality in order to clear a space for art’s fabrications. As such, the artist tends to draw close to the demonic, which Kierkegaard astutely defined as freedom "shutting itself up" apart from the good. ("Myself am Hell," Milton’s Satan declares in a moment of startling self-insight.) If, as Paul Valéry put it, "the artist’s whole business is to make something out of nothing," then, unable to meet this demand, he will find himself wandering alone among the shadows cast by the world he forsook in order to salvage his freedom and creativity. ...

We do not need Nietzsche to tell us that the disintegration of the Platonic-Christian worldview, already begun in the late Middle Ages, is today a cultural given. Nor is it news that the shape of modernity—born, in large part, from man’s faith in the power of human ­reason and technology to remake the world in his own image—has made it increasingly difficult to hold the traditional view that ties beauty to being and truth, investing it with ontological significance. Modernity, the beneficiary of Descartes’ relocation of truth to the subject ( Cogito, ergo sum), implies the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere and hence the isolation of beauty from being or truth....

The twentieth-century Welsh Catholic poet David Jones.. [thought that the real threat to the arts] was the modern world’s increasing submission to technocracy, to a thoroughly instrumental view of life that had no room for what Jones called the intransitive—for the freedom and disinterestedness traditionally thought the province of religious experience, on the one hand, and aesthetic experience, on the other.

And from a rather different perspective, Zadie Smith takes up a similar theme:

"All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren't particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked...

Critiques of this form by now amount to a long tradition in and of themselves. Beginning with what Alain Robbe-Grillet called "the destitution of the old myths of 'depth,'" they blossomed out into a phenomenology skeptical of Realism's metaphysical tendencies, demanding, with Husserl, that we eschew the transcendental, the metaphorical, and go "back to the things themselves!"; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt which questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world with accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which Realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self... In an essay written half a century ago, Robbe-Grillet imagined a future for the novel in which objects would no longer "be merely the vague reflection of the hero's vague soul, the image of his torments, the shadow of his desires." He dreaded the "total and unique adjective, which attempt[s] to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things."... The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegans Wake did not fundamentally disturb Realism's course as Duchamp's urinal disturbed Realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry the trace of the real. But if literary Realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound...

The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, along which one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what's new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard. Friction, fear, and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity.

As Rorty felt, my prejudice has always been that there is no overarching intellectual framework that can reconcile 'Trotsky and the Orchids' in his example (or perhaps the diseased body of a dying prostitute and the second French empire in Zola's Nana; as Eliot put it, these things are a parable) or truth and beauty in this example. My preferences in literature and art has always tended to shun the monologic medieval world where art is for the most part subordinate to the transcendental. Conversely, I've always tended to prefer romanticism specifically for its elevation of the individual ego. Nonetheless, the principal tropes of romanticism and modern literature are heavily indebted to christianity. The role of the transcendental in Emerson or Wordsworth may not be specifically christian (hence the fact that Kerouac could write in a similar vein while casting it in buddhist terminology) but it is difficult to conceive of it without christianity. The concept of the romantic spot of time or epiphany is a moment of revelation in the christian sense whether it belongs to Wordsworth or Joyce. The romantic quest romance is prototypically a christian narrative of fall, damnation and redemption, at the very least a form of via negativa that inverts the standard christian eschatology, as in Lautreamont or Melmoth. As a picture this becomes more intermittent in the twentieth century; Derrida's concept of differance is in many respects kabbalistic, assuming an infinity of arcane meanings within a text; De Man's statement that a text possessed of all meanings is possessed of none marks an end to transcendental underpinnings to literature, leading to places like Forster's Marabar caves where all meanings seem equally valid and invalid. It only waited for the postmodernist suspicion of all meta-narratives to complete the final coup de grace. The examples of Kafka or Perec point to a conception of writing akin to Lyotard or De Man; raising the notion of hermeneutics only to dismiss it, dissolving all interpretation in the same way as the paintings in Life A User's Manual are returned to being a blank slate after the jigsaw has been reconstructed. In the case of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, the narrative is deflated to the viewpoint of a single observer (who nonetheless remains absent and never uses any personal pronoun, there by removing any element of authorial interpretation from the narration). As the narrative lacks any speculation at to the consciousness of the observed actors or as to events where the observer is absent, it is one of the most anti-metaphysical narratives written (although a repeated incident with a centipede being squashed does seem to be correlated to the putative death of one of the female protagonists in a car crash), although the refusal of access to the consciousness of the other does rather serve to emphasise the issue in a way that the realist novel does not.

In theory, this should represent a form of literature that matches my philosophical predilections. In practice, I often find the likes of Perec more devoid of jouissance than the conventional realist novel, with the reader's every response manipulated and controlled. Where Eliot or Dostoevsky wrote novels that are filled with competing, contradictory voices, this is often subdued in novels like those of Robbe-Grillet that are intended to do the opposite; Barthes claimed that "the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text," reassembling the scenes presented and represented here in any number of orders.

To borrow Takashi Murakami's term, such works tend to be characterised by their flatness, something sublunary and lacking transcendent values. It's difficult not to find the sheer untidiness or 'deconstructability' of the realist novel rather more appealing; realism is after all ultimately a form of artifice, hence contrived conventions like the omniscient narrator. I have often wondered if there's such a thing as a novel that retains the polyphonic character of the realist novel without the transcendental assumptions behind it.

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posted by Richard 8:21 PM