William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love's Labor's LostLove’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This early Shakespearean comedy, dating from the 1590s, is paradoxically slight but weighty, thin but dense. That’s no doubt partially owing to the lavish verbal resources it spends on such a simple plot. The story it tells is this: the King of Navarre invites three fellows to pledge to live in monkish isolation for three years. They will avoid all worldliness (to include any contact with women) and devote themselves to study. Almost immediately after they swear this vow, however, the Princess of France arrives on a diplomatic mission with three other young women in her train, and the four men and four women fall in love.

Shakespeare considerably complicates this basic story—with comic side characters who steal the show and with the ritualistic maskings and unmaskings by which the men of Navarre and the women of France enact their courtship—but it remains, as a drama, so simple as to feel elemental. If G. Wilson Knight found in Shakespeare’s late play, Timon of Athens, “the archetype and norm of all tragedy,” then the early Love’s Labour’s Lost (hereafter LLL) gives us the archetype and norm of comedy.

This Signet Classics edition accordingly prints archetypal critic Northrop Frye’s essay on Shakespearean comedy in the back of the book. Frye doesn’t discuss this particular play very extensively—he writes only one sentence about it—but he argues that Shakespeare’s comic drama revises prior forms to gives us an artistic recreation of an ancient ritual:

We may call this the drama of the green world, and its theme is once again the triumph of life over the waste land, the death and revival of the year impersonated by figures still human, and once divine as well.

Because the King has vowed to keep women from his court, he receives the Princess and her ladies at a park away from the castle. “The roof of this court is too high to be yours,” the Princess dryly comments, “and welcome to the wide fields too base to be mine.” In other words, the men literally go to a green world where they are transfigured from ascetics to lovers.

Given this narrative, the play’s moral is clear enough: abstraction without affect, mentation without sensation, soul without body, will not be generative. Mind must submit itself to world, man must submit himself to woman, to achieve completeness—and the female characters dominate the play, while the men seriocomically lament their enslavement to Eros. The ritual Frye describes as the radical of comedy here serves Shakespeare’s polemical end: he upbraids intellectual puritanism, confronting it with intellect’s need to marry (literally) the world from which it wrongly wishes to escape if it wants to produce fruit:

Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were temp’red with Love’s sighs.
O, then his lines would ravish savage ears
And plant in tyrants mild humility.
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive.
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world;
Else none at all in aught proves excellent.

Perhaps Shakespeare even means to chasten intellectual misogyny, since “the world” in this play is figured not only as female (à la Eve, standing for temptation) but as individual female characters who are themselves consummately intelligent, more so than their male counterparts whom they trick and chide.

At the level of archetypal narrative, the above perhaps exhausts the play’s meaning; but it doesn’t quite account for LLL‘s most noticeable quality: its linguistic extravagance (“Honorificabilitudinitatibus”). In one of its more famous lines, famous because it metatheatrically describes the verbal texture of the drama itself, a character observes, “They have been at a great feast of languages and have stol’n the scraps.”

Two minor characters, the “fantastical Spaniard” Don Armado and the pedagogue Holofernes, are intoxicated with their own capacity for verbal exuberance (and they predictably hate each other). Don Armado recapitulates the overall narrative in a more lowly comic register, falling in love with and even impregnating Jacquenetta, labeled “a country wench” in the dramatis personae, thus below his station. Here again, and on a social as well as metaphysical level, Eros brings humility to proud men. Shakespeare’s satire on his linguistic pretentiousness likewise humbles Don Armado, as when he writes a love letter to Jacquenetta:

By heaven, that thou art fair, is most infallible; true, that thou art beauteous; truth itself, that thou art lovely. More fairer than fair, beautiful than beauteous, truer than truth itself, have commiseration on thy heroical vassal! The magnanimous and most illustrate king Cophetua set eye upon the pernicious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon; and he it was that might rightly say, Veni, vidi, vici; which to annothanize in the vulgar,—O base and obscure vulgar!—videlicet, He came, saw, and overcame…

And so on, in the same arrogant, logorrheic style. Armado’s pretenses are often punctured by the wordplay of his servant, Moth, and learning is mocked in its absence through the characters of the clown Costard and the constable Anthony Dull, whose malapropisms offer inadvertent paronomasia. All the main characters, though, are full of verbal wit, often expressing itself either as bawdry—

Costard. She’s too hard for you at pricks, sir. Challenge her to bowl.

Boyet. I fear too much rubbing. Good night, my good owl.

—or, more impressively, as brain-twisting paradoxes that anticipate the 17th century’s metaphysical poetry—

Why, all delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchased, doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book,
To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile;
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.

The above lines are said by the play’s protagonist, if it can be said to have one, Berowne, described by another character as “the merry madcap lord: Not a word with him but a jest.” Berowne is the only strongly individuated figure among the major characters, and he speaks much of the play’s most consequential poetry. He understands from the beginning that the King’s monastic plan for intellectual retreat is flawed, as in the above lines, which elaborate on the paradox that too much reading will make you go blind: or, by metaphorical application, that they only way to preserve the intellect is to get out of the study.

This “madcap lord” is a comic premonition of Hamlet, saved from tragedy by his capacity to love. His frequent recourse to metaphors of sight and light (as in the above quotation about the “Promethean fire” in “women’s eyes”) offer a modified Platonism wherein we encounter the radiance of truth through erotic passion. Here, the eye as the chief sexual organ.

Another essay reprinted in the back of this Signet Classics edition is an appreciation of LLL by the late-Victorian aesthete Walter Pater. Aesthetes are drawn to the minor works of even major authors, since minor works’ circumscription allows for perfection of a kind (we last saw Pater admiring another early, minor Shakespeare play, the tragic history Richard II), whereas world-changing, world-making masterpieces almost always need the fuel of sheer bad taste (sentimentality, sloppiness, vulgarity, propaganda) if they are to storm the heavens. But Pater also praises this play’s minority for giving Shakespeare a chance to portray himself:

As happens with every true dramatist, Shakespeare is for the most part hidden behind the persons of his creation. Yet there are certain of his characters in which we feel that there is something of self-portraiture. And it is not so much in his grander, more subtle and ingenious creations that we feel this—in Hamlet and King Lear—as in those slighter and more spontaneously developed figures, who, while far from playing principal parts, are yet distinguished by a peculiar happiness and delicate ease in the drawing of them; figures which possess, above all, that winning attractiveness which there is no man but would willingly exercise, and which resemble those works of art which, though not meant to be very great or imposing, are yet wrought of the choicest material. […] Biron [Berowne], in Love’s Labour’s Lost, is perhaps the most striking member of this group. In this character, which is never quite in touch, never quite on a perfect level of understanding, with the other persons of the play, we see, perhaps, a reflex of Shakespeare himself, when he has just become able to stand aside from and estimate the first period of his poetry.

This observation explains LLL‘s besottedness with language as well as its satire of language. As Pater notes, Berowne well understands that extravagant language can mislead; Shakespeare is here as ever concerned with appearance vs. reality, not only because his lovers go masked, but because words themselves can mask, can create a false veneer on things of authentic value:

O, never will I trust to speeches penned,
Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue,
Nor never come in vizard to my friend,
Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper’s song!
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical—these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.
I do forswear them; and I here protest,
By this white glove (how white the hand, God knows!)
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes…

Yet he has no other way of telling us about the treachery of words but in words, which, whether simple or complex, are not the world. In this play especially, russet and kersey are much less in evidence than taffeta and silk, even if Shakespeare only dresses his characters in the latter so that we’ll laugh at their gaudy pretense.

In Pater’s view, then, Shakespeare is portraying through Berowne both his love for language and his mistrust of it, just as the drama at large enacts a chastening of the arrogant intellect. The green world of language is poetry, where words go less to be honest than to admit they are not: a field of pure play or, as the heroine Rosaline puts it, “gravity’s revolt to wantonness.” And just as in Hamlet, where Shakespeare puts a perfectly good definition of poetry in the mouth of a fool (i.e., Polonius’s “by indirections find directions out”), so here he has the pedantic pedagogue Holofernes praise poetry for its “odouriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention”—jerks that this esoteric ritual of mind’s wedding to world reveals as the very motions of love.


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Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin AlexanderplatzBerlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s get the literary-historical info and honorifics out of the way first: Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the monuments of the modernist novel, often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses (“quite wrongly and needlessly,” says the present translator, about which more later) for its linguistic and cultural variety show meant to present the modern city in toto. In this case, that city is Weimar Berlin on the eve of destruction, which lends the novel, laden as it already is with a sense of fatedness and doom borrowed from the Bible and Greek myth and medieval lore, a special poignance, as of a photo over which you sigh, “This is the last picture we have of him before the accident.”

Its author, Alfred Döblin, was a middle-aged writer, a psychiatrist by training, Jewish by heritage, a mover in artistically and politically radical circles. These facts inform the novel: its clinical or case-history approach to its protagonist, the street-level slang of its narrative voice, its delirious news-of-the-day, lives-of-the-city montages, and its overall mood—seedy, seen-it-all cynicism masking the earnest wish for a better world.

I can recount the plot—I’ll do it shortly—but perhaps more important than the plot, because more mysterious, is the narrator or narrative mode. Each chapter begins with a little summary (“You will see the man turn to drink and lose himself”), as does the novel as a whole, and the chapters’ subdivisions have headings that seem to mock the goings-on (“Lina takes it to the queers,” “The duel begins! It continues rainy,” “Battle is joined. We ride into hell with a great fanfare”).

We have a narrator who does seem to be distinct personality, one who moralizes over the action, who grows didactic, who often explains the novel’s point to us with a Dickensian fervor; yet this narrator also speaks in the argot of its protagonist and his class and context, Berlin’s criminal element and lumpenproletariat. If Joyce is somewhat misleadingly known as the stream-of-consciousness man, narrating from within the welter of his characters’ consciousnesses, then Döblin is certainly very different: he addresses his hero in the second person (“You swore, Franz Biberkopf, that you would keep to the straight and narrow”) rather than burying himself behind his eyes or “I,” and he splices into his narrative the news of the day, medical information, recountings of myth, popular songs, political speeches—all the news that’s fit to print, and some that isn’t.

While these techniques are not actually un-Joycean—Joyce did more than stream-of-consciousness, and Ulysses has some Döblinesque passages: in “Aeolus,” “Wandering Rocks,” the end of “Oxen of the Sun,” “Eumaeus”—I found Berlin Alexanderplatz reminiscent of certain later rather than contemporaneous novels: Naked Lunch, Gravity’s Rainbow, even Neuromancer and Trainspotting. It made me wonder how far the 1931 translation by friend-of-Joyce Eugene Jolas had traveled into the Anglosphere. This anticipatory quality must be what the present translator, Michael Hofmann, has in mind when he writes in his afterword that, “The literary name and fame of the city of Berlin, if not the idea of modern city literature altogether, are founded on the novel in your hands.”

Naïvely, I thought “modern city literature” was founded by Dickens, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Woolf. But what if the consciousness streaming in Döblin’s novel is that of the city itself rather than any one character, a sentient urban aggregate or an articulate and self-conscious street argot rather than any individual flâneur? In that case, Döblin inaugurates the great 20th-century dismissal of Romantic and realist aesthetics, with their doting regard for the sole self and psyche, in favor of a literature that explicates or enshrines systems and discourses.

But we do have a main character, a hero, and even a somewhat traditional hero’s journey: from innocence to experience: “So this was the end of Franz Biberkopf, which I wanted to describe from the moment he left Tegel prison to his end in the mental asylum Buch in the winter of 1928-9,” we read at the conclusion; the novel’s proem or “argument” proposes at the beginning:

The terrible thing that was his life acquires a purpose. A radical cure has been performed on Franz Biberkopf. […] To see and hear this will be worthwhile for many readers who, like Biberkopf, fill out a human skin, but, again, like Franz Biberkopf, happen to want more from life than a crust of bread. (Döblin’s italics)

Note the absurdist comedy even in this moralizing passage, with its implication that some readers do not “fill out a human skin.” Even so, Döblin has a message to the world about the necessity of wanting “more from life” than to subsist and consume.

Franz Biberkopf, who had fought in the Great War, did four years in Tegel prison because he murdered Ida, his girlfriend (and employee: Franz is a pimp), in a fit of jealous rage. When he gets out of jail in the novel’s opening chapter, he is so disoriented and overwhelmed by the frenzy and chaos of the modern city that he collapses and has to be restored to his senses by a pair of solicitous storytelling Jews who are the moral compass of the novel’s first quarter. This opening episode, a kind of prose-poem about urban shock and the kindness of eccentric outsiders, might almost stand on its own as modernist milestone.

Following his release, Franz vows to go straight, but he slowly gets entangled in dangerous complications. First, politics: though Franz himself is fairly apolitical, he becomes a seller for a far-right paper and falls into confrontation with the leftists who frequent the bars and target him for his fascist armband. Then he falls in with Reinhold, with “his long, bony, yellowish face”: “He felt powerfully drawn to him. […] Franz couldn’t take his eyes off him.” The strangely frightening and brutal Reinhold is the novel’s villain; while Franz isn’t a good man, Reinhold is a worse. This is a staple of crime fiction, sanitized for kiddies in the Batman/Joker pas de deux: the hero may be unsound or a reprobate, but the villain’s a psychopath. For all that, though, Franz and Reinhold are magnetized to each other.

Reinhold draws Franz back into a life of crime, first to “a booming trade in girls,” after Franz keeps taking in Reinhold’s cast-off girlfriends, and then to robbery with the Pums gang. First Franz loses his arm to Reinhold’s perfidy, and then he takes up with his old friends from his pre-prison days and goes back to pimping. But when he meets the innocent Mitzi and gets her involved with Reinhold, all manner of murder and madness ensue until the novel’s conclusion, in which a delirious Franz meets Death in the insane asylum and is reformed at last, not in the sense that he becomes a productive member of society—though he does—but because he stops living his life as if unconscious, unalive to the roiling human chaos all around him that Dr. Döblin has for 400 pages been at such pains to anatomize. Sounding like a Berlin tough, sounding significantly like the very voice of the novel, Death tells him:

‘You lost the war, sunshine. It’s all up with you. You can pack up. Put yourself in mothballs. I’ve had it with you. You can squawk and wail all you want. What a wretch. Got given a standard-issue heart and head and eyes and ears, and thinks it’s enough if he’s decent, or what he calls decent, and sees nothing and hears nothing and lives in the day and doesn’t notice a thing, try as I may. […] You weren’t born, man. You were never alive. You’re an abortion with delusions. […] The world needs different people than you, more alert, less impudent, capable of understanding how things work, not pure sugar, but sugar and shit mixed together.’

Insofar as death is exhorting us as well as Franz, what should we have been noticing over the course of the novel about “how things work”?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is morally but not politically didactic. At a political meeting, Franz even berates a representative of the official left. If Lukács in the 1920s hailed “the viewpoint of the proletariat,” Döblin gives magnificently cynical voice to “the viewpoint of the lumpenproletariat” (scorned as such by his leftist interlocutor: “He’s no comrade, and he’s no colleague neither. Because he doesn’t work. Doesn’t seem like he goes on the dole either”):

‘And I shit on your moaning and your strikes and your little people who are supposed to be organized. Self-reliance. I see to what I need. I’m self-sufficient. Amen.’


And Franz laughs and laughs. No higher being will come to our rescue, no god or emperor, no tribune to relieve us of our misery, we can only do it ourselves.

Yet this is a novel beloved by Brecht and Benjamin. It is a novel wherein a minor character laments, “It’s because we were betrayed, Franz, in 1918 and 1919, by the politicians, they killed Rosa and they killed Karl. We shoulda stuck together and made common cause.” And it is a novel wherein Franz’s faith in self-reliance is also subjected to Death’s “radical cure”:

Much misfortune comes of walking alone. If there are several of you, that is already better. You have to get used to listening to other people, because what others say concerns me. Then I see who I am and what I can take on. […] What is destiny? One thing is stronger than me. If there are two of us, it’s difficult to be stronger than me. If we are ten, still harder. And if we are a thousand and a million, then it’s very difficult.

Solidarity’s rebuke to destiny explains Döblin’s evocation of myth throughout the novel. If the Anglophone “mythic method” (as theorized by Eliot if not exactly as practiced by Joyce) contrasted archaic repletion with modern degradation, Döblin’s Berlin version works in reverse: modernity gives an advantage to Franz that Job and Orestes lacked. Humanity’s struggle with death is a historical constant, but Franz, offered (literal) asylum by his psychiatrist author, comes alive out of his danse macabre, allowed as it is to play out in inner space, despite the several murders already committed for lack of enlightenment.

Sexual science, that hallmark of Weimar modernism, may also aid beleaguered humanity. Within the first chapter we hear of “Drs. Magnus Hirschfeld and Bernhard Schapiro of the Institute for Sexual Science, Berlin.” What is this novel’s “booming trade in women,” and also its brutality toward them, all about? Anticipating later sexual science, Döblin suggests it’s about men using women to mediate their relations to other men, whom they actually desire. When an old man “urges [Franz] to get into sexual enlightenment” early in the novel (“That’s a booming industry right now”), Franz is thrown into a “great confusion,” “free to think about queers”—a motif most delicately picked up by his later fatal attraction to Reinhold. The novel does not flinch before sexual violence, and while it dubiously seems to expect us to see Franz’s abuse as hapless and Reinhold’s as heinous, Franz is not let off the hook either: “Mitzi has been murdered, no one lifted a finger for her, that’s what’s happened here.”

Not to say that the novel’s feminism is as foundational as its socialism. Döblin’s mythic personae include the Whore of Babylon, pictured as Death’s enemy. Death may redeem by reminding us to live better, but the Whore of Babylon is death-in-life, sin and sickness, and this in a novel where all the trouble is caused not by whores but by their vicious, violent masters. Why not, then, the Pimp of Babylon?

Even without that bit of masculine confusion, though, it is hard to imagine this novel being acceptable today, when the left-liberal literati has adopted the attitude toward art and society once exhibited by Satanic-panic-era suburban school-board members. Döblin gives us a mass of often disturbing material, and while he moralizes over some of it, he leaves us to make up our mind about the rest, an artistic practice now considered dangerously misleading, even, as we now say, “harmful”: the reader might get the wrong idea or be seduced by the allure of depicted anti-social behavior. Irony? Not to be risked: what if the children don’t get the joke? As Hofmann, also the translator of right-wing modernist poet Gottfried Benn, has commented:

Americans are apt to think of books as potential contaminants anyway. “My God, I’m not reading a Fascist here, am I?” A little bit the same with Pound, who was much worse [than Benn]. Of course you have it with all of the modernists: Eliot, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Joyce. But you have to read them. You have to read worse people than that. You have to read Céline. Worse people than that—I can’t think who at the moment. You can’t be bien-pensant and care about literature.

But Döblin’s own fate under fascism is worth considering here: driven into exile, his works proscribed as degenerate art. Even a novel like this, one that aims so plainly at its hero’s regeneration and our own.

About the translation: Berlin Alexanderplatz is said to be untranslatable, due to the localism of its style. How to render Berlin’s underclass sociolect into an English we can read? Hofmann largely opts for its London counterpart (yer man Franz snogs a load of bints, innit?) and does it persuasively to my Yank ear; but Hofmann is a more controversial translator-critic than that one choice would suggest. He has asserted that the translator is a writer, a literary consciousness, a poetic chooser of words, a maker, rather than a transparent medium:

I want a translation to provide an experience, and I want, as a translator, to make a difference. I concede that both aims may be felt to be somewhat unusual, even inadmissible. I can see that the idea of  me as writer leans into, or even blurs, the idea of me as translator (after all, I don’t need someone else’s book to break my silence: I am, if   you like, a ventriloquist’s ventriloquist). Translating a book is for me an alternative to or an extension (a multiplier!) of writing an essay or poem.

Like a lot of ideas that strike one as dangerous, it’s only dangerous as generally applied. You certainly wouldn’t want just anyone to think like this. And as a reader of Hofmann’s essays but not of the German language, I can say that Döblin indeed sounds like Hofmann. Luckily enough for all three of us, Hofmann’s contagious style of paradoxically jaded exuberance, its love of lexical ingenuity and its abruptness of syntax, sounds like just the thing to convey the noise, as well as the signal, of urban modernism.

The back cover of the NYRB Classics edition calls Berlin Alexanderplatz “one of the great books of the twentieth century.” I’m not sure I would have come to that judgment on my own, and maybe one does have to read it in German (though you don’t have to read The Magic Mountain in German to know it’s great). Franz is too much the everyman, the empty vessel to be filled with meaning, to carry a truly great novel, and his co-stars, even Reinhold, likewise lack the substance that a Mann (or Joyce) would confer. Such might be the price of writing a novel affirming solidarity over individuality, stressing systems over psyches.

On the other hand, maybe my idea of greatness is too bourgeois. Maybe it’s a good thing to read books that challenge and abrade, whose aesthetics and morals aren’t my own. Maybe we should consider that we have the sugar and the shit all out of proportion.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Far out to sea the water’s as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Many church steeples would have to be piled up one above the other to reach from the bottom of the sea to the surface. Right down there live the sea people.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” (trans. R. P. Keigwin)

I begin by apologizing for my insufficiencies as a critic of Doctor Faustus: it suits a novel whose narrator endlessly apologizes to the reader for his own insufficiencies. He cites his ponderous bourgeois humanism that makes him unfit to compose a compelling narrative and his difficulty in writing at all about so personal a subject as the life and death of his best friend while his country—Nazi Germany in the last years of World War II—collapses around him.

My inadequacies in this case are much less dramatic: this 1947 classic is a novel about music and about German culture, and I lack expertise, or even at times basic knowledge, about both subjects. Luckily, Doctor Faustus is also about the necessity and impossibility of modern art, about modern art’s tortured relationship to ethics, politics, and metaphysics—and I have thought a great deal about these subjects, even if not as they pertain to the particular situation of the German composer of art music in the modernist period. What follows can’t claim to be a unified essay, only a few speculative ventures occasioned by this essayistic and discursive novel of ideas.

First, some preliminary information about the novel. Its plot, what there is of it, is shortly summarized: Mann casts the novel as a biography of the great composer Adrian Leverkühn, who lived from 1885 to 1940, written by his best friend since childhood, a humanist and teacher named Serenus Zeitblom. As mentioned, Zeitblom writes the manuscript during Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, and he consequently invites us to find in his story of a German culture hero the seeds of German culture’s catastrophic destiny.

What is Leverkühn’s story? Most problematically for a novelist, an artist’s life is not often outwardly exciting and doesn’t lend itself to a page-turner; artists make art, often sedentarily and in seclusion. Leverkühn is no different: the story of the novel is the story of his intellectual development, as he grows from a late-19th-century rural boyhood in the almost medieval town of Kaisersaschern to a youthful theology student to an avant-garde composer in adulthood in the 1920s, before his madness and premature death, presumably caused by syphilis.

The several outward crises of Leverkühn’s life are erotic, and are to a striking degree surmised rather than being verified by Zeitblom (for all of Nabokov’s hatred for what he took to be Mann’s lumbering Dostoevskean overinvestment in ideological fiction, Doctor Faustus is a novel of almost Nabokovian trickiness, about which more later). As a young man, Leverkühn deliberately contracts syphilis by coupling with a prostitute named Esmerelda; later, he becomes involved in a love quadrangle with a male violinist who is his friend and presumably lover and with two women in their social circle, an entanglement that ends, in a passage of shocking melodrama for this slowest of novels, in a public murder on a streetcar.

But Leverkühn’s real life is in his art, in his artistic progress toward a method that can lead music out of its 19th-century dead-end of Romantic subjectivity without merely jeering at that emotivism through the cynical device of parody. He achieves this paradoxical emancipation from freedom by inventing a severe formal procedure (the real-life 12-tone method of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg) that allows subjective expression precisely by placing it within an objective formal grid. He and Zeitblom argue about whether or not such a method can really be described as emancipating, and they do so in resonantly political terms:

“Freedom always has a propensity for dialectical reversal. It very quickly recognizes itself in restraint, finds fulfillment in subordinating itself to law, rule, coercion, system—finds fulflliment in them, but that does not mean it ceases to be freedom.”

“In your opinion, that is,” I said with a laugh. “As far as it can see! But in reality that is no longer freedom at all, no more than a dictatorship born of revolution is still freedom.”

“Are you so sure of that?” he asked.

To devise this most modern of systems, though, Leverkühn must traffic with the premodern and the inhuman. Hence his origins in the medieval town of Kaisersaschern and his theological studies, with their focus on the omnipresence of Satanic evil. And hence his self-infliction of syphilis, that progressive illness that ascends to the brain and which was once indissolubly linked to the artistic and philosophical avant-garde.

In fact, Mann, who received a teenaged Susan Sontag in his California exile, seemed almost unable to write without deploying illness as metaphor, a metaphor above all for artists’ necessarily Nietzschean dalliance with the Dionysian forces of nature’s primordial flux if their Apollonian images are to be sufficiently vital to command and console an audience. Doctor Faustus does for syphilis what Death in Venice does for cholera and what The Magic Mountain does for TB. (By the way, the limitations of this metaphor can be shown by recent scholarship’s recision of some high-profile syphilis diagnoses: for instance and to the best of my knowledge, neither Nietzsche nor Wilde are currently thought to have had the sexually-transmitted disease, as they once were.)

At the center of the novel, Zeitblom places Leverkühn’s secret manuscript, a record of his supposed conversation with the devil, who appears variously as a pimp, a music critic, and one of Leverkühn’s former professors, who had argued, in the manner of Goethe’s Faust, that good is produced out of evil. The devil contracts with Leverkühn to produce a type of music that will overcome the Hegelian end of art, but in the midst of their conversation, he in his marvelously punning and almost Joycean discourse (here I can only praise the resourceful translation of John E. Woods) likens the flagellum of the syphilis bacterium to medieval flagellants:

The proper planets met together in the house of the Scorpion, just as Master Dürer drew it for his medicinal broadsheet, and there arrived in German lands the small delicate folk, living corkscrews, our dear guests from the Indies, the flagellants—you prick up your ears, do you not? As if I spoke of the vagabonding guild of penitents, scourging their backs for their own and all mankind’s sins. But I mean the flagellates, the imperceptible, which have flails, like our pale Venus—the spirochaeta pallida, that is the true sort. But right you are, it sounds so snugly like the high Middle Age and its flagellum haereticorum fascinariorum.

In other words, everything outside the control of reason, from premodern religion to incurable illness, is at one and conduces to art. Modernism, as Guy Davenport used to emphasize, was revival of the archaic, a valorization of whatever was trampled by the self-congratulatory progress of bourgeois western European modernity, whether it take the form of Europe’s own past cultures—pre-Christian paganism, medieval Christianity, folklore—or the cultures of Africa or Asia or, more simply, the biological substrate of consciousness that modernity presumes to shackle within the bounds of reason and moderation. The devil defines hell as nothing other than extremism, the extremism to which both modern art and politics were driven in the early 20th century:

Its essence, or if you will will, its point is that it allows its denizens only the choice between extreme cold and extreme fire that could bring granite to melt—between those two conditions they flee yowling to and fro, for within each the other ever appears a heavenly balm, but is at once, and in the most hellish sense of the word, unbearable. The extremes of it must please you.

Politically, this poses a problem, the name of which for Mann is “Germany.” Because Germany’s longstanding resistance to what Zeitblom identifies as humanism, associated variously and sometimes contradictorily with the Catholic Church, the French Revolution, Enlightenment philosophy, and neoclassical aesthetics, arguably incubated the ultramodern archaism, the techno-irrationalism—in sum, the modernism—of the Nazis.

This theme comes out in the novel’s overtly political passages, as when Zeitblom begins frequenting a salon where the assembled intellectuals of the 1920s express the coming anti-humanism. The most political of them advocates “a post- and counterrevolutionary conservatism, an assault on bourgeois liberal values from the other side, not from before, but from after,” showing that fascism/modernism is not really conservatism, is in a sense beyond those French categories of left and right, is a heedless leap into the future-past outside of reason and progress where the feeling subject is reborn in a surrender to the cold and chthonic forces of the universe.

As for sexuality, the novel’s plot, if we can call it that, narrates the break-up of the bourgeois home and the nuclear family, themselves inventions of modern western reason. Mann gathers adultery, prostitution, and queerness under the sign of syphilis to produce a sexuality counter to the bourgeois standard of domesticity. As opposed to Zeitblom’s settled family life, Leverkühn and everyone in his circle come to a bad end through sex, and it is no coincidence that Leverkühn makes his pact with the devil over the body of a syphilitic sex worker, joining the “brothel-hood,” if you will (and perhaps you won’t), of modernist masculinity, like the Joyce of “Circe” and the Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

At the novel’s conclusion, the final sign of Leverkühn’s damnation comes with the death of his little nephew, Nepomuk (nicknamed “Echo”), from cerebral meningitis, the effects of which are likened to possession. Modernism be damned, Mann (or Zeitblom) slathers on the 19th-century treacle to convince us of the little boy’s angelic loveliness and to make us mourn his death, symbolically brought on by his proximity to his evil uncle. Leverkühn had invited a disease of the brain into his own life without understanding that its like would blast the innocent, in a grim echo indeed. Echo is portrayed with such schmaltz that even Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin would blush, and not only from the feverish effects of her own highly symbolical wasting disease. Just so we don’t miss the point, we are informed several times that Echo is half Swiss: Switzerland, that country of multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, and republican Enlightenment, as against Germany’s tragic and endemic irrationalism.

So it appears that Doctor Faustus is, for all its dense and riddling disquisitions on modernism and music, a story with a very clear moral: Mann comes out for humanism, reason, moderation, and against modernism’s Faustian ambition and romance with the inhuman. On the other hand, who wants to read a tract? And does the novel not frequently raise the possibility of parody, to say nothing of irony? There is that Nabokovian trickiness I mentioned at the outset. Could so staid a narrator as Zeitblom, who is always telling us just how staid he is, just how “eerie” and “uncanny” he finds the story he is telling us, be unreliable? Yes: simply because he is always telling us we can trust him, we should suspect him.

Doctor Faustus is a novel narratively in the mode of Melville’s Moby-Dick, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: all of these books feature narrators of self-proclaimed humanism and enlightenment who tell us about the grand catastrophes of other, very different men, “ungodly god-like men,” to borrow from Melville. Yet each of these books, Doctor Faustus no less than the others, carefully shows us the secret yearning, even the erotic longing, of its stolid narrator to be more like its tragic anti-hero.

The Catholic Zeitblom, for one thing, is not without his own fascist tendencies. Despite unctuously proclaiming his philo-Semitism in the opening pages, he caricatures and even at times maligns the novel’s Jewish characters (one of whom is the aforementioned advocate for “counterrevolutionary conservatism”). Likewise he defends monarchical absolutism in an otherwise inexplicable scene wherein he speaks in favor of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another obsessed aesthete.

But more importantly than these political slips, at the end of the book, Zeitblom quietly discloses the dark secret of his own text, the very novel we’re reading, which we had taken for a meandering and even slightly dull biography. He is ostensibly describing the structure of Leverkühn’s final composition, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus:

This gigantic lamento…is, properly speaking, undynamic, lacking development and without drama, in much the same way as when a stone is cast into water the concentric circles that spread farther and farther, one around the other, are without drama and always the same. A single immense variation on lamentation…it expands in rings, each inexorably drawing the others after it: movements, grand variations, which correspond to textual units or chapters in the book and yet in and of themselves are are once again nothing but sequences of variations. (my ellipses)

But isn’t this a perfect description of Doctor Faustus? Is it not a novel with no plot, no narrative, no drama, no progress, just incident after incident, each of which, no matter how minor, contains in miniature the themes of the whole? Even when Zeitblom gives us a passage of seeming comic digression (Sterne, by the way, is one of Leverkühn’s favorite writers), he plays variations on the Faust theme. He describes the denizens of the boarding house where Leverkühn stays in Italy and is careful to tell us that of the two brothers who live there, one is an Enlightened rationalist and the other an unreasonable reactionary. Similarly, the novel’s erotic subplots, particularly those stories of the “fallen” sisters Inez and Clarissa Rodde, allegorize the tragic conflict between bourgeois moderation and Faustian extremity.

All of which is to say that neither author (Mann) nor narrator (Zeitblom) can condemn the tragic hero Leverkühn, since both have introduced his totalizing Satanic-fascist musical innovations into the art of the novel. And that is why this is a modernist novel, despite its superficial appearance of belated 19th-century realism. Leverkühn had with his final composition wanted to “revoke” the monument of Romanticism and progressivism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, converting its heroic joy into tragic sorrow. Mann similarly revokes the progressive temporality of Goethe, the organicism that allows the endless striving of Faust or of the bildungsroman, this to achieve the archaic revival in the modern novel of tragedy, with its union of irreconcilables—individual will, communal need, universal fate—in a grand calamity that makes a lamenting concord of discord. On the other hand, it takes a clear-headed, rational, i.e., humanistic, reading of the novel to discover these paradoxes; in that sense, it promotes anti-fascist habits of mind to grasp its potentially fascist form.

This novel dramatizes, among other conflicts, religion vs. magic. Religion deals in dualism: body against soul, good against evil. Magic, by contrast, posits the union of opposites, as does art.

Bourgeois humanism is for its curriculum parasitic upon nature and art—those demonic forces it tries to subdue. For this reason, Mann is not only indicting Zeitblom for hypocrisy and complicity, which would put this novel in the realm of rational polemics, but also indicting humanity’s inherent inner conflict, our competing desires for mutually exclusive forms of the good, the true, and the beautiful, which is what makes this novel a tragedy. Didn’t Mann in The Magic Mountain refer to the human being as the “lord of counterpositions”? We don’t want Hitler, and we can’t live by bourgeois reason alone. Start with that concession of confusion and contradiction, as Mann so delicately does beneath the overt argument of his superficially ideological novel, and maybe we will get somewhere.

But I don’t want to end with yet another self-flagellation of the modern artist, as if we were the only people who ought to have guilty consciences in this guilty world. For Mann insists that science is as culpable as the artistic and philosophical avant-garde in fascist irrationalism. A very minor character in the novel is Dr. Unruhe,

a philosophical paleozoologist, whose writings linked in a most ingenious fashion the study of fossils and geological strata with a vindication and scientific confirmation of materials found in ancient sagas, so that by his theory—a sublimated Darwinism, if you will—all things that an advance humanity had long since ceased to believe became true and real again.

This fusion of archaic lore with modern science is a motif of the novel. The devil compares the syphilis bacterium to Andersen’s Faustian little mermaid, for instance; like the sexually-contracted spirochete winding its way from phallus to cerebellum, she (for love) ascends from water to earth to air. Leverkühn, who late in the novel tries to drown himself and early in the novel watches his father’s scientific experiments with liquids, has a fantasy, on the cusp of his greatest artistic achievements, in which he explores the black depths of the ocean and there encounters

the mad grotesqueries, organic nature’s secret faces: predatory mouths, shameless teeth, telescopic eyes; paper nautiluses, hatchetfishes with goggles aimed upward, heteropods, and sea butterflies up to six feet long. Even things that drift passively in the current, tentacled monsters of slime… (my ellipses)

These watery passages are to my mind the most prophetic in the novel. Such tentacular and oceanic metaphors, such fears of a fascist science and of the primordial slime it discloses, seem pressing in a way that avant-garde art no longer does.

If we ourselves are (and we very may well be) on the brink of a post-bourgeois, post-humanist millennium, piloted by hypercapitalist city-states overseen by gene-editors and artificial intelligence, then the most significant writer of the 20th century will prove not to have been the humanist modernist Mann but—as Alan Moore suggests in his recent and startlingly not-un-Doctor-Faustus-like graphic novel Providence—the gothic materialist H. P. Lovecraft. But Mann is a writer of sufficiently diabolical foresight to have incorporated that unsettling possibility into this most eerie and uncanny of great novels.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

My Year in Books, 2018

springbooksLooking back, I see that I did a lot of rereading in 2018. Some of it was out of necessity (teaching), and some for pleasure. Some of it showed up in the reviews I post here, while some of it was devoted to books I’ve already written about in the last five years. I was glad to have an opportunity to write about some old favorites, like Hamlet:

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

I was also glad to revisit The Crying of Lot 49, Watchmen, and White Noise (all the action in that review is in the footnotes, an old academic trick), to update my sense of Ernest Hemingway and, especially, Gore Vidal.

In my most sustained act of re-reading, a project started in the summer of 2017, I re-immersed myself in the work of Grant Morrison, a comic-book writer I’ve been struggling with since my age was in the single digits, since I was puzzling over the grim psychosexual psychedelia of Arkham Asylum as the cheaply-bound hardcover came apart in my hands in the year 1989. Is he a genius trickster-author, a postmodern prophet, or just a charlatan with an ear for invigorating ad copy? The answer varies from project to project, I think, but the question gets at the true purpose of re-reading, which can feel like such a waste of time when there are so many unread books in the universe: we reread to measure the changes we’ve undergone.

The cliché is that a book changes each time you read it; but, honestly, the book doesn’t change (though it may fall apart). The drama of rereading is rather your encounter with your old self over the selfsame object. Cold pastoral!

I did read a number of books for the first time too, though. It’s hard to discern much of a theme in that haphazard quest for novelty. Much of my fiction reading was devoted to American writing: not only Pynchon, DeLillo, Hemingway, and Vidal, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Jenny Offill, and Lisa Halliday. Even Margaret Atwood—a Canadian novelist, no doubt, but her Handmaid’s Tale, which I finally got around to reading, is in its way an American novel.

As for American nonfiction, I was bemused by or dissatisfied with everyone from Tom Wolfe to Richard Rorty to Maggie Nelson, but Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues came like a shower to our drought-dessicated culture:

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

Likewise, I praised the bold aesthetics of William Giraldi’s American Audacity and the bolder politics of Wesley Yang’s Souls of Yellow Folk, and I also found I still admire Susan Sontag enormously, less for any one text she wrote than for the shape of her mind and life:

I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political, her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion.

These critics bring me out of American literature to the world of criticism and culture at large. I essayed on an unlikely pair of world essayists: Samuel Johnson

Johnson prescribes work as an antidote to what we would call anxiety and depression, and he insists that it is necessary to achievement. He is also canny about how we delude ourselves with busywork without actually accomplishing anything (“no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours”), and about how we propose impossible tasks for ourselves as a form of self-sabotage, excusing our failures by making them inevitable.

—and Theodor Adorno

If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come…

Speaking of Marxist critics, I explained what was wrong with Terry Eagleton, just as earlier in the year I took Adrienne Rich’s landmark collection of polemical poetry, Diving into the Wreck, as an opportunity to explain where and why I differ from the radicals promoted by academe and official activism:

While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.

Which doesn’t let liberalism off the hook, as I explain in my review of Frances Stonor Saunders’s amusing, frightening The Cultural Cold War, nor does it absolve the far right of their ideological depredations, for which see my summer post on QAnon and the literary imagination.

I offer an alternative to these reductive politics that insists instead on the irreducible complexity of great art, an inviolable density of thought and feeling upon which I suggest we model our selves and societies. This is why I wrote both “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” in January—

Bad politics and bad personal behavior may indeed be bad, but from the Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution, public efforts to purify political and moral behavior have often been just as bad if not worse. Another reason to read great books by bad people: as a reminder of what humanity is capable of and a caution against self-righteousness. We could all be bad people and not even know it.

—and “In Praise of Semicolons” in December—

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

Not to mention a comparison of Joyce to Woolf in June.

Speaking of irreducible complexity, then, I went head-to-head with a few monuments this year. Anyone who thinks there is anything like a settled “dead white male canon” that promotes some kind of conservative values should disabuse themselves by taking a look at Goethe’s Faust, especially Part Two:

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. In fact, Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.

The best novel I read this year was almost certainly Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Whatever controversies may exist over what Bellow became in his later years, this life-riot and word-riot of a bildungsroman will make you forget them:

Praising and thereby recommending heroism used to be a function of fiction. And not only in the superannuated genres of epic and romance. Certainly not only in the superhero saga, whether devised for throwaway pulp with fantastic enterprise by men of Bellow’s own background or else captured and rebroadcast as narcotizing spectacle by the multinational corporation. But rather in Bellow’s and Balzac’s own field of action, and that of Stendhal and Dickens and Tolstoy and Charlotte Brontë too: the grand old “realist” novel, not that it was ever as realistic as reputed, and never less realistic than in this book.

Let me also put in a word for another Jewish-American novel of the 1950s, one with aesthetic priorities at the opposite pole from Augie‘s: The Assistant, Bernard Malamud’s bleak, moving moral drama, a novel that deserves to be far more widely read than it is.

Speaking of moral and midcentury fiction, I finally read Iris Murdoch this year with The Bell. I was impressed and disturbed in equal measure by her theory and practice of fiction, but what a pleasure to encounter such a formidable philosophical intelligence among novelists, which is perhaps where a philosophical intelligence belongs. I suspect I will be struggling with her thought, even as I am entertained by her dazzling plots, for the rest of my reading life. Coming toward the present, I made the uneasy acquaintance of Gerald Murnane and, by contrast, easily delighted in Anna Burns’s Milkman, a contemporary novel so superb in every way that my cynical heart still can’t believe they gave it the Booker or that it made the American bestseller list.

I began with rereading, so I’ll conclude with some new discoveries. Aside from Burns, Murdoch, and Albert Murray, not to speak of Jens Peter Jacobsen or Anna Kavan, my best finds came in the field of world comics.

I didn’t have time to write about Joann Sfar and The Rabbi’s Cat, but if you think as I do that comics should be as intellectually weighty as prose fiction, as dense with disquisition and as wise with fable, then you might like it. Not for nothing did I discuss Sfar in the company of Malamud. Sfar’s fellow practitioners of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, also delighted me with four volumes of their surreal and beautiful Les Cités obscures series. From Latin America comes José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s vicious but heartfelt classic Marxist noir, Alack Sinner, which I recommend in case you feel any stirrings toward the banal blandishments of “hopepunk.” I also read some manga classics. Moto Hagio’s pioneering boys’ love masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas, allowed me to address our current heated bafflement over sexual ethics, while Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk saga Akira gave me a chance to dilate upon the 1980s as our culture’s lost golden age, both in and out of comics.

Finally, I will put in a word for a new book by an author as old to me as is his occult nemesis Grant Morrison. A little over a week ago, I finished Alan Moore’s latest graphic novel, the Lovecraftian Providence, and while I have so many criticisms of it that I don’t know where to start (nobody picks up a comic book wanting to read that much prose! two scenes of gruesome sexual violence are at least one, maybe two, too many!), I also have not been able to shake its nightmare haze, its disquieting ambiguity over the very nature and purpose of art. Just what is it that we bring into being with these readerly and writerly imaginations of ours? I look forward already to rereading it in a decade or two, to see what I and its author used to think, who we once were.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

But was I wrong, in “In Praise of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.

He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.

Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.

But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”

Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?

Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.

Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.

Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.

I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.

Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:

Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.

The second is the woman Billy will marry:

His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.

Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.

Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have depended their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.

So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.


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Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence

Providence Act 1Providence Act 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is with hesitation that I write anything about Providence. This recent three-volume graphic novel—a prequel/sequel to the earlier works, The Courtyard and Neonomicon—represents Alan Moore’s meticulously-researched and carefully-arranged synthesis of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, whereas I am only the most casual reader of Lovecraft and a mild skeptic of his new eminence in the literary canon (I attempt, in the voice of an imagined devotee, the best case I can make for Lovecraft in my review of At the Mountains of Madness). But I wrote this summer about Moore’s earliest comics opus, Miracleman, so for symmetry’s sake I will essay on his latest, Providence.

Moore is, in any case, skeptical of Lovecraft too. While a number of Providence‘s allusions no doubt wriggled tentacularly over my head, I think I got the book’s point. In this narrative, set mainly in 1919, Lovecraft is the unknowing channel used by an occult conspiracy to influence both popular and high culture so that the immemorial dream-world, vanquished at the founding of human civilization and populated with the creatures envisioned by Lovecraft (and kindred writers like Poe, Bierce, Dunsany, and Chambers), can triumph over the earth again. Not for nothing does Borges appear in its penultimate chapter: as a commenter at the Providence annotations site points out, Moore is in essence retelling “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” only with figures from Lovecraft’s life and work. 

But is it a good thing that Lovecraft’s visions triumph? The final chapter of Providence stages a philosophical debate among the characters—including real-life, living Lovecraft scholar, S. T. Joshi—about just that. As we know, Lovecraft and many of his precursors and successors, from Poe to Burroughs, held illiberal views, while our present literary culture, ostensibly including Moore, is ever-more militantly liberal. 

Moore addresses this question through Providence‘s protagonist: Robert Black. Black is a closeted gay, Jewish journalist from Milwaukee, rather than being the WASP scion Lovecraft was. He travels from New York to New England investigating signs of the aforementioned occult conspiracy. When at the narrative’s first climax he meets the man himself in the eponymous Rhode Island city, he lets Lovecraft borrow his journal, in which he’s both reported on his experiences and written down story ideas and literary criticism. Both Black’s record of what he’s seen in his travels and his theorization of the need for a new kind of fantastical literature inspire Lovecraft to write his most important works. Black, meanwhile, realizes he has been the pawn of the occult conspiracy all along, engineered as the “herald” (in fact, he writes for the New York Herald) to Lovecraft’s “redeemer”—a John the Baptist for the Cthulhu mythos’s Incarnation.

This narrative arrangement leaves us with two possible interpretations of Lovecraftian politics. On the one hand, despite Lovecraft’s own abjection of the non-white, of the queer, and of much of modernity at large, he actually owes his visions to these social forces; much of his own inventiveness must be credited to these prevailing conditions allegorized through the figure of Black (and communicated through Black’s understanding of how much “weird fiction” as theory and practice owes to the various social and artistic avant-gardes Lovecraft scorned in favor of the 18th century). 

By contrast, insofar as the Lovecraftian lifeworld, not only inhumane but inhuman, colonizes culture then its collaborators, including real and made-up marginal figures from Robert Black to Burroughs and Joshi, may have something to atone for. (Moore makes clear the grisly methods of coercion it uses, for which rape, as in so much of his work, is here again the metonym.) Perhaps we ought not to have so hastily thrown the realist novel—the “literary fiction” Black anachronistically complains about to his journal—in the historical dustbin.

Providence never quite resolves this conundrum over the worth of Lovecraft or the weird for which he serves as figurehead. When earth becomes Yuggoth at the novel’s conclusion (or perhaps, per the fictionalized Joshi, realizes that it always was Yuggoth), the violated mother of Cthulhu herself says, “I think we should learn to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.” Moore makes heavy reference to Freud on the unconscious and Jung on dreams to suggest that such a return of the repressed, such a habitation of the dreamworld, is true and inevitable. Yet it was purchased with lies and bloodlines, wrought on the bodies of prostrate women by metaphysical fascists. Can you have magic and ethics, even magic and everyday decency?

We are back in the dilemma, if dilemma it is, of From Hell: the character who speaks for Moore’s occultism is a misogynist murderer, the character who speaks for his humanism the only victim to survive. But perhaps this Yeatsian tension between spirit and humanity, between the work and the life, is preferable to the fantasies of their resolution that we were getting from Moore a little over a decade ago in the not-entirely-convincing polemics of Promethea and Lost Girls.  

Added to all the foregoing to give it an extra savor: Providence is Moore’s love-hate letter both to comics and to America (and maybe they are the same thing for him). Providence is only part-comics. The comics part is drawn in the painstaking ligne claire of Jacen Burrows, avowedly influenced by Hergé and Otomo. Burrows must have once seen that interview where Eddie Campbell called Bill Sienkiewicz a prima donna for not finishing Big Numbers, because he seems to have devoted his life to doing whatever Alan Moore tells him to do. Yet Moore gives over a third of each chapter to the prose of Robert Black’s diary—too often undistinguished prose, alas. The occult paraphernalia Black inserts is usually better, my favorite being the weekly circular for the church in Moore’s Innsmouth stand-in, written all in piscine puns beginning with a hilarious Gospel misquotation: “I will make you fishes of men.” The book itself, then, is divided between Moore’s devotion to comics and his desire to escape into literature.

Likewise, through Black’s speculations on how to write romances for the modern age, we hear Moore’s tribute to American literature: he carefully roots Lovecraft’s achievements not only in the fin-de-siècle avant-garde but in the American modernity of Poe and Hawthorne. It all made me consider for the first time in literally 30 years of reading him (I read The Killing Joke when I was six!) how odd it must be to be Alan Moore: to have spent so much of one’s career writing for and about a country you don’t live in, a country whose culture has—shades of Providence‘s Cthulhu cult—semi-colonized one’s own, even if part of one welcomed it as a liberation from one’s overly familiar everyday world. Comics, pop culture, America: Moore must love and loathe them in equal measure. No wonder he writes fiction of such tortured ambivalence, in contrast to the sometimes unwelcome certitude of the interviews he gives.

Should you read Providence? You probably have to come to it already caring about Lovecraft and Moore. You should also be willing to deal with the nastiness Moore uses to emphasize the inhumanity of his cultists. Providence isn’t as bad as Neonomicon, with its outright attack on the audience, and its most disgusting scene is partially penitent, as it represents a Moore surrogate assaulting the reader (i.e., a character placed in the reader’s point-of-view position). Still, it’s not for faint of heart. (As for the often raised question of Moore and rape: he writes about it as much as he does for the exact same reason as second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin or Adrienne Rich talked about as much as they did: both think it’s the foundation of all human hierarchy.)

Providence does contain much too much relatively lifeless prose from Black, all given in annoying cursive handwriting. I understand Moore’s goal in dividing the narrative, but I remain convinced the man who often included three strands of narrative in a single tiny panel of Watchmen could have told almost the whole story in comics form. 

Black’s characterization is also seriously flawed. Moore can’t seem to decide if he’s an aw-shucks hayseed or an experienced habitué of the queer demimonde who is au courant with the avant-garde. He’s naive when Moore needs him to be, not when Moore doesn’t; therefore, he never comes into focus as a character.

But for all that, I enjoyed Providence, particularly the time-jump audacity of its last two chapters. For personal reasons I love that the spread showing Yuggoth as it overcomes urban space takes Pittsburgh as its victim city. And the ethical debate at the end—accept sublime change, whatever form it takes; or fight for humanity and for humanism?—is one that our technological condition will never let rest. I admired Burrows’s heroic feats of drawing and Juan Rodriguez’s distinctive grayish-greenish digital palette.

Finally—a test of the most powerful works—for all its flaws, I have lingered in the disquieting mood of Providence for days after finishing it.

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 2.08.13 PM
Borges’s appearance in Providence #11

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William Giraldi, American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring

American Audacity: In Defense of Literary DaringAmerican Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring by William Giraldi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though better known as the novelist who wrote the now-Netflixed Hold the Dark, William Giraldi has over the last decade been amassing a mighty corpus of literary criticism.

Two tendencies set Giraldi’s essays apart from those of his peers. First, he pays close attention to style, his own and others’, taking pains to point out the beauties and infelicities of the writers he reviews and to flaunt his own gift for alliteration, allusion, and irony. Second, Giraldi’s attitude toward literature could not be more unfashionable, since he insists on artistic quality, visionary capacity, and moral seriousness rather than obvious political relevance or pop pleasures.

He quotes the critical giants of yesteryear (Blackmur, Trilling, Tate, Hardwick) and values the canon for its strenuous example to the living writer. While he rejects any religious mission for the writer in an essay on “the problems of the Catholic novelist,” he does insist on the novel’s spiritual telos:

A novel should indeed be groping after some form of the metaphysical, a benediction to unseen powers, the upholding of the mysterium tremendum, those insistent inklings of the numinous.

A thick collection of Giraldi’s essays, then, is especially welcome this year, when it seems we will never be freed from the reduction of all literary and cultural commentary to “fascist, Nazi, Hannah Arendt, age of Trump” etc.: in short, all politics, all the time.

This compendious collection includes learned appreciations of canonical figures (Poe, Melville), reviews of or introductions to contemporary writers (Giraldi has a particular affinity for Southern authors: see his mammoth, novella-length profile of Allan Gurganus), tributes to precursor critics (Trilling, Bloom, Epstein, Ozick), and impassioned or tart comment on contemporary phenomena from the 2013 terror attack in Boston (Giraldi’s hometown) to the Fifty Shades of Grey craze.

It also contains what must be the most judicious assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird I’ve ever come across. Today, commentators treat this novel either with treacly piety or acid cynicism, but Giraldi persuasively argues for its fine, even superlative prose and its faults of ethical construction. It is an evocative reanimation of a Southern childhood told in the voice of a sharp, sardonic adult woman who remembers what it was like to be a girl (“Harper Lee has always deserved more applause for the smooth stride of her style”); but it is also fatally marred by its passive saint of a hero who delivers airy nostrums rather than possessing moral fiber:

He has all the right motions of the principled man but none of the fervor, the fed-up disgust required to assault the toxic tropisms of an entire segment of our society, those entrenched inequalities that cause the innocent to suffer.

As that final phrase indicates, we shouldn’t let Giraldi’s love of the canon or insistence on a literature irreducible to politics give us the wrong idea about his politics. That American Audacity‘s title echoes a famous Obama slogan is perhaps no accident: despite the occasional tilt in the direction of neoconservatism (as in an appreciation of  Joseph Epstein, originally published in The New Criterion), Giraldi’s belief in the separation of transcendent art from quotidian ideology disguises no right-wing agenda. Rather, Giraldi seems to see himself as belonging to a broad liberal tradition encompassing such obviously non-conservative figures as Hazlitt, Whitman, Wilde, Baldwin.

In a great essay on the latter, Giraldi emphasizes Baldwin as a severe (Giraldian) reviewer who didn’t hesitate to damn all manner of left-wing or gay or black fiction as ill-written or propagandistic. Giraldi quotes a thesis you might not hear from Baldwin’s most ardent admirers today: “all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”

(Along these lines, the only two capital-P political statements I counted in these essays are impeccably left-of-center: one is a lament over the police killing of black citizens and the other a scorching call for gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre: “Your right to play with and profit from utensils of mass murder does not exceed our right to keep our kids alive.”)

Giraldi’s is a liberalism of the individual, backed by his belief that literature is the urgent expression not of an ideological cause or a group identity but a singular style of perceiving the world. He is not, for that reason, a pure aesthete, even though he maintains that “the right words matter.” “Right” here implies goodness as well as precision. In a judgment against Carl Van Vechten, the white impresario and bon vivant of the Harlem Renaissance, Giraldi writes:

Van Vechten’s true sin was not the crimes for which propriety would condemn him—from boozing to buggery, all that windy worship of Bacchus—but rather his blindness to the fact that beauty presupposes morality, that aestheticism is empty without ethics.

Hence the possible overkill in his denunciation of Fifty Shades of Grey, which he charges, along with other romance novels, of teaching “a scurvy lesson: enslavement to the passions is a ticket to happiness.”

These views also inform his contempt not only for popular fiction but also for contemporary academe, which I found to be about a generation out of date. While he writes with well-researched fairness about Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish in these pages, he also blames the English department’s anti-aesthetic sensibilities (and he’s perhaps more right than wrong about that, at least as far as published research goes) on “Derrida’s and de Man’s cynical rhetoric against meaning.”

But even a decade ago when I started graduate school, Derrida and de Man were as superannuated as Lionel Trilling or Irving Howe, and the only people who still quoted them were the eccentric aesthetes. Deconstruction, that last stand of Romanticism, which found the sublime in the abyssal unmeaning of the text, has been supplanted in this century by variants on a technocratic historicism of which perhaps the alleged rapist Franco Moretti, with his polemics not against meaning but against reading itself, might be taken as the figurehead. In other words, I don’t disagree with Giraldi’s literary values, only his choice of targets: he is fighting the last war.

Somewhat apologetically, Giraldi defends the distinct Americanness of his attitude toward literature and life in this book’s introduction: “America began in audacity. We’re a nation of escapees toiling toward our own authenticity.” But those who have followed Giraldi’s career as essayist may feel that the collection’s Americentricism leads to the exclusion of weighty Euro-themed pieces (on Tolstoy, Freud, Brecht) in favor of slight reviews devoted to more minor U.S. figures.

Speaking of the latter, I don’t see why Giraldi’s 2012 New York Times review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction—the essay that made his name, and made it notorious in some quarters—should have been left out of these pages. (See my review of Hold the Dark for a defense of Giraldi’s critical severity in that infamous instance.) Did Giraldi or his editors omit Ohlin to avoid controversy? If so, such a decision can’t be called audacious.

Like all enthusiasts of the canon (and I know this because I am one), Giraldi sometimes has a tendency to make of the past’s great works a single-voiced chorus shaming the present, even though he shows in other places that he knows better (as when he mocks “false golden-age nostalgia”). Yet the Victorian sages and the Victorian aesthetes were at odds, the New York Intellectuals and the New Critics were not the same—even if they tended to write better prose than we do. Likewise, I started at this parenthetical proposal:

(While Baldwin doesn’t mention Wilde anywhere in his work, you wish that he had: it’s hard to find two cutting minds more kindred than theirs.)

Wilde and Baldwin would have found one another insufferable! It’s the stuff of odd-couple comedy: imagine Baldwin pronouncing Wilde a frivolous fop, and Wilde judging Baldwin a dull sermonizer—and neither of them would even be wrong, exactly, only right according to each of their particular sensibilities. It may be in the nature of “cutting minds” not to be “kindred,” which poses a problem for the proposed marriage of art and morals.

Nevertheless, I don’t fault Giraldi for such statements, even though I may disagree with them. They are the products of wide reading, fierce intellection, and contagious enthusiasm. It’s one of the virtues of argumentative essay collections that there should be something stimulating, even or especially stimuli to thoughtful quarrels, on every page. American Audacity is a worthy candidate for the tradition it courts: that of the great public critics in English, from Johnson and Hazlitt to Bloom and Ozick.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Anna Burns, Milkman

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I did not like twentieth century books because I did not like the twentieth century,” says the narrator of Anna Burns’s Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize. In one of the novel’s many knowing ironies, the joke is that she inhabits what is in many ways a quintessentially 20th-century novel, not only due to its nameless but discernible historical setting—a Catholic enclave in Belfast during the Troubles—but also in its form and theme.

None of which is to say that Milkman is not a 21st-century masterpiece: it very much is, the best contemporary novel I’ve read in years, a book I read not only with admiration but with gratitude. But since the problems of the 20th century are still with us, their literary solutions remain relevant.

Some critics don’t think so, however. Claire Armitstead frets in the Guardian that the Man Booker panel’s selection of so “boldly experimental” a novel will displease booksellers hoping for some lighter holiday fare, while Dwight Garner in the New York Times says the novel “slogs.”

Granted, such failures of reading are foretold by Milkman‘s literate heroine, called middle sister in this novel without names (more of which later). She describes the malicious gossip about her that circulates in what she calls “our totalitarian enclave” as “fast becoming a best-seller,” making an association between sensationalistic and easy-to-read fiction with viciousness in public life, whereas she incites the neighborhood’s talk by reading the classics as she walks.

In a late scene, the citizenry conspire to deny the reality of a quiet fistfight going on in their midst:

Being a conventional audience, however, used to chronological and traditional realism, the majority began to doubt that those men, indeed, were fighting at all.

Earlier, middle sister’s French class revolts against its assigned reading, because the text describes sky as something other than simply bleu. When the teacher leads the students to the window to show them all the myriad colors of the sunset, middle sister explains their objection to such poetic perception of reality’s complexity, granularity, and beauty:

It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?

This is “the subversiveness of a sunset”: a diurnal announcement of the world’s multifariousness and our duty to acknowledge it, if only to protect ourselves from the threats we see from the corner of our eye. Choice and responsibility are key to the novel, two elements that make it both timely and untimely.

Timely for #metoo reasons, as most reviewers observe: the novel’s plot concerns the teenaged heroine’s stalking by a middle-aged paramilitary nicknamed “Milkman” (because he drives a white van). Milkman never lays a hand on middle sister and never threatens her outright; he ruins her life, however, by his insinuations and his hovering presence, and by the gossip he inspires in the community, which comes to see her as at once loose-moralled and dangerously allied in what she calls her “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district.”

Milkman is given over as much to middle sister’s reflections on what happened to her as on what happened itself. The text is a dense weave of first, second, and third thoughts crossing and re-crossing each other in a learned but vernacular voice; what emerges from this neo-modernist discursiveness is the narrator’s objection to the paranoid and patriarchal community’s denial that a kind of spiritual menace, a vampiric sucking of the soul, takes place via men’s encroachments on women, even or especially when these encroachments are not physical or visible.

She mocks male authority late in the novel for understanding only “rape” and “not rape,” whereas so much of what men do to women—the heroine is affronted not only by Milkman but also by another stalker she calls Somebody McSomebody and by her own brother-in-law—is no less an affront for not being cut-and-dried violent sexual coercion.

One reason, then, that we shouldn’t shirk our responsibilities to pay attention to the complexity of reality or of literature is that if we do we will miss subtle but devastating signs of domination and suffering. At times, the narrator even speaks a New Age language of “fixated energy,” or describes her feeling in Milkman’s presence as “the underside of an orgasm”: we cannot simply ignore what is unquantifiable. The narrator’s own journey is an inner one: she overcomes what she calls her own “jamais vu” to take responsibility for her own perceptions, just as she takes responsibility for her own complicity in the enclave’s small-mindedness.

This insistence on personal responsibility in the Troubles-era setting adds complexity—and untimeliness—to this narrative of attempted victimization and attempted resistance-through-perception. Middle sister’s enclave is totalitarian in the name of collective political struggle, and this fact casts doubt on collective political struggle as a solution to the very real problems of everyday life.

Middle sister grants that this resistance came about for undeniably valid reasons of “historical injustice” and that she too often feels the need for a buffer between her community and the British government; yet the anti-imperialist struggle has been degraded, she quotes her mother as saying, into an affair of “‘the hoodlum, the worldling, the careerist and the personal agenda,'” into mere gangsterism. Can problems caused by men with guns be solved by more men with guns?

The remedy for imperialist injustice cannot be swaggering brutal strong men and the women who love them, Burns suggests. The latter brings me to another untimely feature of Milkman: its its extension of responsibility for the political situation to women as well as men. Middle sister suggests that the cocky and often violent entitlement of what we call “toxic masculinity” is upheld in part by the moralism and backbiting of what we do not call “toxic femininity.” The novel’s satirical portrait of the paramilitaries’ female “groupies” as well as of the gossiping, hypocritical, judgmental “pious women” of the neighborhood is key to this theme.

Furthermore, when middle sister displays collective female agency in her narrative, she lauds it for its localism and aestheticism rather than for its ideological militancy. The totalitarian enclave’s small feminist group earns middle sister’s praise for their behavior during a demonstration, when they do not “harp on in a broad encyclopaedic fashion about injustice towards and trespasses against women, not just in the present day but all through the ages, using terminology such as ‘terminology,'” but rather speak “of homespun, personal, ordinary things.” Likewise, when middle sister is rescued by a phalanx of aggrieved women from the outright violence of Somebody McSomebody at the novel’s climax, she attributes their anger less to a politicized sense of female solidarity than to the fact that the violent predatory man “had no manners basically.”

Meanwhile, this is also a novel that contains a sentence all but forbidden today on forward-thinking social media: “Not all boys and men, though, were like that.” Burns goes out of her way to depict good men as well as bad women, and to depict men and women in states of moral flux, implicitly rejecting our own neo-totalitarian insistence that social structures and group identities determine or obviate individual moral choice.

In fact, the titular Milkman is juxtaposed in the novel with “real milkman,” who genuinely delivers the goods; while Milkman’s alibi for predation is that he protects the collective, for which violent ministrations he is celebrated as well as feared, real milkman’s actual everyday kindness is interpreted as eccentric lovelessness by the unobservant community. (Granted, though, the trope of milk links kindness and care, whether betrayed or genuine, with maternity and femininity.)

Milkman calls on men and women alike to refuse a life of physical and metaphysical violence. “[N]o one has the same personal history even if they have the same communal history,” middle sister observes, privileging individual experience over collective judgment. Without denying the reality of female or Irish Catholic oppression, the novel nevertheless stages a struggle that is less between men and women or between religions and nations, but between those who want to shut down individual human complexity (“my irreconcilables,” middle sister calls this inner condition) and those who do not.

All of the above is why I call Milkman a quintessential 20th-century novel. Just as I suggested that last year’s Man Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, can be profitably read in the tradition of the American novel going back to Charlotte and Wieland, so we might see Milkman in the light of classic Irish fiction, from its high-spirited Joycean satire on all deadening social structures and forms of thought to the linguistic and narrative problems of telling one’s own life story as tragicomically disclosed by Beckett.

But we might see Milkman, with its stylistic defamiliarizations and its interior monologue, in the context of modernism more broadly: of Woolf’s plea to rescue the inner life from crudely materialistic fiction, of Lawrence’s claim that only the novelist (and not the philosopher or scientist or priest) can understand the human being in the round. Even more than this, Milkman reminds me of the late-20th-century novels the Booker used to short-list or award before it went populist and American, global-local novels that were fractured allegories against all forms of oppression by writers like Lessing, Gordimer, Coetzee, Ishiguro, and Atwood, novels that are, in Kundera’s words, “investigation[s] of human life in the trap the world has become.”

Why doesn’t Anna Burns label her setting or give any of her characters names? Because names and labels calcify meaning. They are the primordial form of “sky-is-blue” common sense that allows quotidian malignancy to go unnoticed and unchecked (“‘Semtex is normal,'” a complacent character tells middle sister, revealing how evil the normal may be). Names, labels, concepts, and preconceptions may prevent us from seeing ourselves and each other as we truly are: full of desires and irreconcilables that both the state and its renouncers find too unruly to accept.

A quintessential 20th-century literary theory holds that the purpose of art is to restore experience in its fullness to us:

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”)

More than just defamiliarizing, middle sister is also consistently hilarious despite or because of the novel’s painful themes. Throughout Milkman, I literally LOLed time and again, as, just to give one instance, when middle-sister relays the telephonic customs of her paranoid and overly sensitive community:

Therefore, owing to phone etiquette, there was lots of ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Good-bye, son-in-law’, ‘Good-bye, mother-in-law’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Good-bye’, ‘Bye’, ‘Bye’ with each person’s ear still at the earpiece as they bent their body over, inching the receiver ever and ever closer on each goodbye to the rest of the phone. Eventually it would end up back on its hook with the human ear physically removed from it. There might be further insurance goodbyes even at this stage…

Her understated one-liners are good too: “‘Why?’ I accused.” The deadpan style of the novel, with its verbal and syntactical register both stylized and vernacular, gives a comic tone to the whole performance. Another quintessentially 20th-century literary theory holds that the novel is an inherently comic form destined to dissolve in laughter all the epic -isms:

The world of the epic is the national heroic past: it is a world of “beginnings” and “peak times” in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of “firsts” and bests. […] Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. (Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”)

That theorist also argues that novels are intrinsically dialogic: they dramatize ideological conflict without resolving it into propaganda. So it is in Milkman: middle sister at one point walks in on her exaggeratedly brilliant “wee sisters” (whose unlikely erudition is one of the novel’s comic glories) as they read English newspapers. Middle sister admonishes them for activities that may bring suspicion on the family, but the little girls reprove her in the name of the dialogic imagination: “‘Hush, older sisters,’ they said. ‘We’re busy. We’re trying to understand their point of view.'”

Totalitarianism, this novel’s named enemy, is not itself an ideology but a way of holding any ideology; whereas novelistic perception, especially that conveyed by experimental-comical fiction that makes us think and think again, induces contemplativeness and curiosity rather than closed-minded brutality. Think of Orwell quoting Chesterton on Dickens: “What he is out against is not this or that institution, but…’an expression on the human face.'”

Like such aforementioned practitioners as Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, and Lessing before her, Anna Burns has performed one of those periodic miraculous resuscitations of narrative prose, that perennially moribund art form. Under her hands, the novel—that “one bright book of life”—lives again.


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Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction

Literary Theory: An IntroductionLiterary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strange the books one fails to read. The very fact that you are supposed to have read certain books makes you feel like you have already read them long before you read them, so you do not in fact ever read them. There is the oft-cited scene in the campus novel I can’t remember the name of where the English Renaissance scholar confesses he’s never read Hamlet. Luckily, I have read Hamlet—about 10 or 11 times, in fact—but I somehow escaped all of graduate school in literature without ever reading from cover to cover the once-inescapable, then-outdated, and now-classic 1983 primer on literary theory by Britain’s most renowned Marxist critic.

No time like the present. So how is old Literary Theory? Like everything I’ve ever read or perused by Eagleton—save Criticism and Ideology, that execrable and impenetrable excursus into Althusserian pseudo-scientism—it is addictive, hilarious, and infuriating. The Catholic leftist Eagleton is the Chesterton of Marxism, and not only because their names scan similarly, but because he, like the author of Orthodoxy, disseminates his apologetics in a paradox-besotted style of wittily uncommon common sense. Some sample (non-consecutive) sentences:

There is something a little disturbing about [Barthes’s] self-indulgent avant-garde hedonism in a world where others lack not only books but food.

[Structuralist criticism] is rather like killing a person in order to examine more conveniently the circulation of the blood.

But [traditional socialists] had overlooked the possibility that the erotic frissons of reading, or even work confined to those labelled criminally insane, were an adequate solution, and so had the guerrilla fighters of Guatemala.

Note the rhetorical tactics on display: the visual-verbal parallel of the posited antithesis books/food in the first quotation that is meant to puncture delectation in the former with guilty awareness of the necessity announced by the latter; the dry “rather like” that introduces the extreme simile reducing structuralism to absurdity; and the guttural alliteration of guerrilla/Guatemala that drives home such insurgents’ moral and material superiority to mere sibilant perverts and aesthetes.

Eagleton wields this rhetorical arsenal to blow holes in the facade of any Romanticism or aestheticism, to roll back the entire multifarious attempt, from Shelley to Leavis to Derrida, to render the imagination, literature, or language as self-sufficient realms apart from material real-world struggle. Eagleton allows that almost all these attempts were made in protest against a reductive or exploitative world of capitalist rationality, but because they do not seek to transform this world here and now, they can only be irrationalist evasions or technocratic travesties—flowers on the chain of oppression or opiates in the place of remedies, to borrow some Marxian tropes. The book should really be subtitled not An Introduction but An Attack.

Like all polemics, Eagleton’s gets a bit repetitive. He begins with an introduction that argues against the concept of “literature.” This is a concept, he claims, with no intrinsic meaning; literature is just what a complex set of social practices designates as literature, usually because the texts so designated serve the ruling interests of society. With that demystification established, Eagleton begins his survey of literary theory.

“Literature” as we know it began in the Romantic era, when writers set poetry and art apart: they became devoted not to entertainment or moral instruction, their prior tasks, but realms of imaginative plentitude unbesmirched by the dark satanic mills of the industrial age. This aestheticism was eventually institutionalized in England and America when English displaced classics in the university curriculum as the discipline meant to humanize the educated populace, where “humanization” implies quiescence before the status quo in the name of national or cultural unity. At best, literature is compensation for what capitalism robs from us; at worst, it is the alibi of the ruling classes.

The chaos and destruction of the 20th century in Europe, meanwhile, led its thinkers on their own quest for certitude amid devastation. Hence the Cartesian need to prove that oneself and the world exist and are explicable to which phenomenology and structuralism testify. Unfortunately, these both lead in Eagleton’s view to idealism, to a vision of the mind or the structures it apprehends rotating in some Platonic space above the heads of real people who exist in social conflict and comity.

Poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, with their insistence on the fissures in both psyche and speech, are improvements on structuralism and phenomenology because of their ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of an ideology that bids us submit to our pre-established social roles; but they are finally too fixated on recondite textual matters to really shake the powers that be.

Eagleton’s strategy, then, is to explicate each theory more or less in its own terms before showing it to be a kind of belated Romantic pastoral, an imaginary solution to real problems, to use the Althusserean formulation he several times deploys. This is similar to the “immanent critique” championed by the Frankfurt School, wherein the critic shows a theory or philosophy to be unable to realize its own goals on its own terms, usually because it makes no provision for its universal and material realization. In other words, Marxism, the sole science of utopia’s actualizing, is the one true theory because, if I may use Eagleton’s own method of inversion, it is the one theory that can come true.

Eagleton thus ends his book not with a chapter on Marxism, which would, he says, imply that Marxism is just one theory among others. Rather, he ends with a call to reform the teaching of literature so that it serves, pluralistically, the ends of an equal society:

Any method or theory which will contribute to the strategic goal of human emancipation, the production of ‘better people’ through the socialist transformation of society, is acceptable.

That settles that. “Better people” is in quotation marks, by the way, because Eagleton, after inveighing for 180 pages against an ill-defined or undefined straw-man he calls “liberal humanism” concedes that liberal humanism’s partisans are in fact correct when they say that we should read literature because it “makes us better people.” The problem is that we can only become better people in a better society, so the study of literature should be politically rather than morally improving, should improve the relations of production and not just the individual soul.

How to reform literary study toward that progressive end? By replacing it with cultural studies: down with literature, except where it may prove tactically emancipatory (for instance, Eagleton says that cultural studies should be taught to underprivileged children but also concedes that “it may also be valuable to use literature to foster in them a sense of linguistic potential denied to them by their social conditions”); and up with the whole world of human discourse, from textbooks to TV, from Machiavelli to Madonna, from sati to Star Trek (I alliterate in appreciation of the master), evaluated according to its political designs on the reader/viewer.

In another bout of Chestertonian inversion, Eagleton pronounces his theory not revolutionary but reactionary (“Like all the best radical positions, then, mine is a thoroughly traditionalist one”) because it is only a return to the critical discipline that reigned in the western world from antiquity to the Augustan age and which was unjustly supplanted by Romantic aestheticism and its sequelae: the study of rhetoric.

Eagleton has appended forewords and afterwords to subsequent editions of this book; largely they rue the collapse of the political task he prophesied for cultural studies even as cultural studies itself triumphed in academe. Feminism, multiculturalism and postcolonialism, he complains, became too liberal, too focused on identity politics and not enough on class struggle. He does not notably allow this development to convince him that his theory itself, his call to abandon the very idea of the aesthetic, was wrong, though. Yet it was and remains wrong, and the fact that at least one version of it triumphed while everything else in the English department and in society at large got worse and worse should make its wrongness obvious.

The unequal distribution of the aesthetic should not be used as a warrant for its general abolition, as if to say that since the poor can’t afford healthy food, no one else should be able to eat it. The left used to believe in lifting everyone up; since the failure of its ’60s dreams, though, which Eagleton rightly identifies as the context for poststructuralist omni-skepticism, it has been so consumed with resentment and with apocalyptic visions that it has only wanted to drag everyone down to the same debased level and call that equality.

Nowhere is this leveling-down left more evident than in the progressive intelligentsia’s hatred of the very concept of art, sometimes expressed as a blasé shrug (“Who am I to judge?”) and sometimes as a militant threat (“Down with bourgeois aesthetics!”). My complaint is not that elements of popular or fringe culture are being studied in place of the classics, because some of that work is excellent and because many of the classics were themselves originally popular and fringe culture; still less is my complaint about the demotion of dead white men. Regular readers will recall that I have myself championed both Grant Morrison and Toni Morrison at great length.

But even if the most complex aesthetic objects, whatever their origins, will not make you more moral, their contemplation will make you more intelligent, your mind more subtle and multifarious. Therefore, the most complex objects are the appropriate objects of a liberal education, and not only for what they can tell us about ideology but for how they can teach us to hold any ideology in the utmost possible of humility and peace. Politics is no panacea: every modern ideology that has actually been implemented has slaughtered its way across the last two centuries, and Eagleton’s bromides about “human emancipation” have served as an alibi for communist atrocities just as liberal humanist rhetoric was the fig leaf on imperialist oppression and certain high-theory concepts have fascist origins.

I believe in separating art from politics because if there is nothing outside of politics there will be no place from which to launch a protest when politics grows murderous. The belief that politics supervenes upon aesthetics and ethics leads only to bad art and bad behavior, both beatified as somehow progressive.

Eagleton can snidely smirk all he likes about “liberal humanism” and Matthew Arnold and all the rest of the ritually desecrated names of the theory era, but the fact is that the Romantics were right: in a brutal reductionist world, we need art to show us expansive thinking and beautiful living. It is the latter two values, not lessons in political activism or commercials for the pabulum of the corporate monopolies, that we should advocate in the schools. Ironically, a Marxism that denies the claims of the aesthetic serves no one’s interests but those of the money-men.


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Katsuhiro Otomo, Akira

Akira, Vol. 1Akira, Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 1980s—the latest, the last golden age. The length and breadth of our politics, our pop culture, even our high culture, was laid down in that decade. Everyone now is either trying to overthrow it or recapture it or some incoherent combination of both, but we are all oriented toward it.

Comics has a privileged relation to the 1980s as well: traditional historicization aside, it is comics’s true golden age. The top Goodreads review of Katsuhiro Otomo’s epochal cyberpunk manga Akira puts the work in precisely that context:

The importance of ‘Akira’ is difficult to express, but it certainly rivals US contemporaries ‘Watchmen’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, and it ran far longer than either title, giving it an epic scope and grandeur that exceeds both of those seminal works. If it was a decision between: Katsuhiro Otomo, ‘Domu’ and ‘Akira’; Frank Miller, ‘Batman: Year One’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’; or Alan Moore, ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’; I’d say that Otomo created the best and most influential works of the 1980’s. That ignores some huge titles, like ‘Love and Rockets’ and ‘Maus’ and ‘Raw’ and ‘Weirdo’ and ‘Yummy Fur’ and ‘The Incal’ and ‘Les Cites Obscures’, etc… but I’ll stand by it, with all due respect.

With all due respect, as a matter of literary judgement, I simply can’t rate Akira over Watchmen or Maus or (what I’ve read of) Love and Rockets or Les Cités obscures, nor even over The Dark Knight Returns, though I concede the latter may only be my own nostalgia talking. Over The Incal‘s oppressive metaphysics, though, certainly—and over anything (save the aforementioned Mausterpiece) in the miserable R. Crumb-Chester Brown line. And, while I claim to be no manga maven, I also can’t rate it over the shōjo and josei works only that have only recently been translated, some of which preceded it and all of which are literate in a way it can only dream of being: The Heart of Thomas, Claudine, Helter Skelter.

The two crucial points being made in the quotation above, though, are that 1.) the comic-book 1980s was a decade of miracles, one when, as they used to say, “BAM! POW! comics grew up!”; and that 2.) Akira was perhaps more influential than any other work of the period—not necessarily better but more influential—on how we think and how we see, even if only as a part of the broader cyberpunk movement.

First, what is Akira‘s role in comics’ maturation process, this 2000-some page epic about eternal, evolutionary, revolutionary youth? For one thing, like Frank Miller’s own manga- and BD-inflected work of the same period—the oft-neglected Ronin is the key text here—it signals the breakdown of the international barriers: Otomo brings both a drawing style and a storytelling ethic from the west. Gone is the cuteness and the address to the audience of even some of the mature work of Tezuka; they are replaced by an immersive style of impossibly detailed drawing—a world unto itself. The characters are concerned only with one another and with their conflict rather than with us; as one critic incisively observes, Otomo’s characters look at each other.

Just as Alan Moore and Frank Miller eliminated the Stan Lee editorial voice avuncularly conscripting the reader into the fan club in favor of wordless pages or narrative captions that drop us directly into the characters’ stream of consciousness, Otomo provides only action and dialogue in a self-contained fictional cosmos. If many landmark ’80s comics have a postmodern political attitude—irreverent toward all authority, all metanarratives—many of their formal innovations ought to be classed by contrast as neo-modernist: they raise the fourth wall to seal themselves off as bounded art objects, recursive and complex—incitements to the apophenic insomnia Joyce wished to induce in the critic.

So mighty is Otomo’s storytelling craft that it paradoxically consumes attention even as it commands it, which neither Miller nor Moore, neither Jodorowsky nor Peeters, would be willing to do. In other words, you are never tempted to linger, but only to speed on. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that one of Akira‘s six 400-page chapters can be read in the same time that it takes to read one of the 32-page chapters of Watchmen: about an hour. This reflects Otomo’s absolute mastery of layout and composition; he never puts an obstacle athwart the onrush of your eye across his collapsing cityscapes. Language does not get much in the way either: vast swaths of pages, all violent action, go by with no more demanding words than onomatopoeiac sound effects, grunts and profanities from the characters, and the heroes and villains crying one another’s names.

The characters are accordingly not personalities-in-the-round but archetypes for the conveyance of story energy. The emotion of the book comes not from our devotion, necessarily, to any one figure, but rather our absorption of the affects they convey. When the hero confesses to his antagonist at the climax, “All I wanted to be was your friend,” we are moved less by the particulars of their relation than by our own knowledge of how that feels. The narrative vortex spins around these affects, not the characters who embody them.

Such anti-literacy—very much against the Anglo-American “spirit of 1986,” which saw comics strive for and often attain the density of the 20th-century novel—bears upon Akira‘s theme of energy washing away all hierarchies. I called Akira “cyberpunk” above, as everyone does, but why? There are barely any computers in the book, no hackers, no consensual hallucinations, no sojourns in the data stream. In fact, as with much ’80s pop culture, it recapitulates the fantasies and anxieties of the 1950s: military testing, nuclear explosions. Tokyo is destroyed on no less than four occasions in the course of the narrative—the final time by American bombs.

Far more in evidence is the punk sensibility. Akira is about a group of teenagers in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo who are drawn into a top-secret government conspiracy rooted in Japan’s attempt to train psychic children as super-soldiers. This has unleashed forces beyond any one agency’s control. The work as a whole dramatizes our small cast of characters in confrontation with the social and psychological transformations brought about by the vast psychic abilities of the titular Akira and of the novel’s overall anti-hero, Tetsuo.

What allies Akira to cyberpunk is its dominant attitude of political cynicism, a refusal of allegiance to state and society. In the book, the state collapses under the assault of forces it cannot tame or rationalize, and power is whatever can be won by rival gangs in the jungle of the city. While other cyberpunk texts place more stress on the role of the corporation in such a decomposed postmodern polity, Akira nevertheless gives us the basic lineaments of what has perhaps excessively been called neoliberalism.

Otomo’s metaphysics, too, uphold energy against the institutions. At the climax of the final chapter, one of the uncannily aged psychic children who haunt the text explains to one of its protagonists that the most powerful psychics, Akira and Tetsuo, are only channeling and expressing a kind of universal life force:

MIYAKO: Say rather, it is the world of the spirit…freed from the shackles of the flesh.


MIYAKO: Life in all its countless evolutions. Do you not think evolution too vast and grand…to be mere environmental adaptation?


MIYAKO: Akira may have wanted to alter the course of human evolution…

KANEDA: What for?! Isn’t evolution programmed?!

MIYAKO: Cannot the human spirit choose its own currents?

KANEDA: You mean humanity wanted to evolve again?

MIYAKO: The results…are for your children to see.

The line about escaping the prison of the flesh evokes cyberpunk’s gnostic motif as well as its glam-despair over the neoliberal dystopia. The book’s message is that energy, passing through youth, transforms society whether anyone likes it or not. In that case, the appurtenances of literature, or of a more formalist—in the sense of defamiliarizing—approach to comics storytelling à la Alan Moore, could only get in the way, like the old lumbering Cold War nation-state with its secrets and bureaucracies.

From Marvel Comics’s colorized version of Akira, issue #38, via readcomiconline.to

After the world-spirit strips off the flesh of our anti-hero and his nation—and there is much Cronenbergian body horror in Akira too: evolution figured grotesquely as bulbous, venous carcinogenesis—there is a chance to rebuild. As the punkest theorists of the high theory era warned, deterritorialization will be accompanied by reterritorialization. Though our surviving heroes leave the letter “A” for their sign, it stands for Akira—power—not anarchy. They throw the Americans out of Japan, reconstitute the sovereign nation, and ride through a cityscape restoring itself around them in one of the best endings of a graphic novel I can remember, its implicit nationalism aside.

Akira cannot exactly be read—only withstood. A work singularly obsessed with the ruins of modernity is one of the popular monuments of an age we have lost or are losing; it showed us images that allow us to see the present already under the sign of apocalypse. That it is the Futurist manifesto of comics modernism makes it an object all the more fascinating in our fallen present.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!