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escaped all of graduate school in literature without ever reading from cover to cover the once-inescapable, then-outdated, and now-classic 1983 primer on literary theory by Britain’s most renowned Marxist critic.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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Anna Kavan, Ice

IceIce by Anna Kavan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonathan Lethem begins his introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of this 1967 novel, “Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book like the moon is the moon. There is only one.” Luckily, as he goes on he outgrows this meaningless blurb-babble (blurble?) and suggests Kavan’s antecedents and cognates: Poe and Kafka, Ballard’s Crash and Ishiguro’s Unconsoled, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Godard’s Alphaville, and more. This critical gesture is more important than it would otherwise be because Ice has been advertised as science fiction, whereas its tradition is actually oneiric modernism. Like medieval literature, modernist fiction has a strong tradition of dream-inspired narrative; modern writers from Poe to Ishiguro are not seeking religious wisdom in their dreams, however, but the personae and landscapes of the unconscious, the revelation of the repressed.

Such fiction tends to be more interesting when the unconscious it explores is a collective or social one rather than merely the author’s. Despite that, Kavan is a fascinating figure: born Helen Woods to an upper-class English family, she published realist novels under her married name Helen Ferguson in the 1930s; following a nervous breakdown, she took the name of one of her protagonists, Anna Kavan, and began publishing fiction in a much stranger vein (in this edition’s afterword, Kate Zambreno mentions that the “K” in Kavan “has been read for Kafka”); during World War II, she traveled around the world; she spent time in and out of institutions and moreover became addicted to heroin. Combine such a twentieth-century life with such offbeat fiction, and you will get the work explained in terms of the biography. Accordingly, Ice seems to have been freighted beyond reason with biographical interpretations—particularly focused on Kavan’s heroin addition, presumably the source of the novel’s titular apocalyptic imagery, an all-encroaching white oblivion.

But reading from Kavan’s life is even less satisfying than reading Ice as straight science fiction; the novel’s catastrophic ice age is presented as a public and political matter, a kind of nuclear winter unleashed by irresponsible scientists and superpowers, and when Kavan writes about more ostensibly private issues of obsession and control, they are portrayed through the theme of men’s sadistic sexual domination of women (and women’s masochistic complicity therein—Kavan does not seem to be an orthodox feminist). Kavan is working through issues of much broader relevance than her particular story. When critics tear right through the texture of the text to find the writer’s “real life” as if rummaging through closets and drawers, I am reminded that Nabokov associated psychoanalysis with totalitarianism—the abolition of privacy to control what the public can think and say. Even more so in the case of a writer like Kavan, who takes whatever experience was hers and devises a fable that, because its real-world referents are so unclear (no country is named in this novel, nor is any character, and no time period is specified), is virtually unlimited in its scope. Why should we be so sure this is only Helen Woods’s story? What if it is yours or mine? Scholarship has its place, but it should not become a defense against literature.

The story of Ice: a male narrator returns to his home country in quest of an “old friend” or former lover, a fragile young woman whose psyche was permanently damaged by “a sadistic mother.” The narrator claims that the woman sees herself as a perennial victim and will submit to any cruel fate, but he himself is afflicted with sadism. Ironically, given his own sadistic desires, one of the narrator’s goals is to free the woman from “the warden,” her other husband or lover, who is far more overtly domineering and cruel—and not only of her, as he is depicted variously as a kind of sheriff, general, mafioso, or warlord at various points in the tale. But the narrator frequently experiences visions of the young woman in various tortured and submissive postures, of which this is the first:

An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the the walls moving slowly toward her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the center. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.

The surrealism, the stark black-and-white imagery, the blandly descriptive and formal tone, the fetishistic and incantatory repetitions (four whites, four ices in one paragraph), the sadism, the instability of perspective (is the author condemning the narrator or identifying with him?), the unapologetic examination of cruelty without commending it—all are characteristic of the novel’s mode and style.

Ice‘s narrative has the feel of a dream or compulsive sequence of dreams, stopping and restarting as the characters re-negotiate their relationship to each other—at times, the warden allows the narrator to see the young woman; at times, she accepts him and at others rebuffs him; at times he pursues her obsessively and at other times strives to put her out of his mind. Because the narrator is constantly in motion, traveling by ship from one country to another, the narrative is never stable. Each chapter when completed, in my experience, evanesces from the mind, and the narrator himself remarks on reaching a safe port at the beginning of a late chapter:

Nothing but the nightmare had seemed real while it was going on, as if the other lost world had been dreamed or imagined. Now that world, no longer lost, was here the one solid reality.

The novel’s vagueness, then, should not be regarded as a fault or flaw but as a deliberately sought technique of disorientation. The narrator, by the way, remarks frequently that “[r]eality has always been something of an unknown quantity to me,” and also that “the unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind,” so how much of this is to be taken as real and how much a hallucination is persistently in question. As Lethem remarks, Kavan introduces visions and dream-sequences into a narrative whose grounding tone is already hallucinatory and oneiric, layering unreality upon unreality.

The unreality, however, has real meaning. Kavan is investigating the instinct for destruction—both self-destruction and the destruction of others—which is the only thing that can explain humanity’s potentially world-ending violence. Both nature and civilization are collapsing around our trio of narrator, woman, and warden: walls of ice are closing in on the world from north and south poles, cities are destroyed, refugees massacred, nuclear weapons deployed, and in the few temperate zones hysteria reigns. Their menage—and folieà trois is the microcosm of a more general catastrophe, one that could only have been written in the middle of the twentieth century, the world’s first epoch in which a secular and man-made apocalypse is possible. Hence the novel’s seeming villain, the warden, is presented as a charismatic and attractive figure with his piercing blue eyes (“his arrogant, ice-blue gaze,” clearly meant to evoke the ice), even as the young woman is doom-eager and submits to her degradation—

Something in her demanded victimization and terror, so she corrupted my dreams, led me into dark places I had no wish to explore. It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.

—and as the narrator remarks again and again on his kinship to or identity with the cruel warden—”we were like brothers, like identical twin brothers.” The point is not to “blame the victim” but to understand the capacities of the human psyche that make us all victims and victimizers, sometimes of ourselves. We are all entangled in the potential catastrophe, just as this book’s presiding consciousness is dispersed among the three characters who keep flowing into one another and losing their discrete identities—with all of them, perhaps, echoes of the “sadistic mother” named at the beginning of the story and of the author composing it.

As with even the most dreamy of dystopias, there is a moralistic streak in Ice. The narrator is some kind of naturalist who desultorily intends to research the Indris, a species of singing lemur who seem to figure as the opposite of the ice, nature as a redemptive or utopian force. When the narrator finds them in the equatorial jungle after attempting to put his obsession with the young woman behind him, he is given a vision of bliss and peace:

It seemed more as if I received a message of hope from another world; a world without violence or cruelty, in which despair was unknown. I had often dreamed of this place, where life was a thousand times more exciting and splendid than on earth.

He quickly decides that this is not for him, not for humanity at large in their present state: “But I knew that my place was here, in our world under sentence of death…I was committed to violence and must keep to my pattern.” Humanity seems to deserve its destruction at the hands of sadistic mother nature, in the narrator’s (and author’s?) opinion:

Instead of my world, there would soon be only ice, snow, stillness, death; no more violence, no war, no victims; nothing but frozen silence, absence of life. […] A frightful crime had been committed, against nature, against the universe, against life. By rejecting life, man had destroyed the immemorial order, destroyed the world; now everything was about to crash down in ruins.

Earlier, the narrator observes of the ice spreading over the world that “the sight…did not seem intended for human eyes,” suggesting with the modernist writer’s characteristic religious diffidence the vague potential of another, higher intelligence that can make sense of the mess we have made. In the meantime, we have the mysteries of fiction, our public dreaming, to ponder, and Kavan dreams them up brilliantly.

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Bloomsday Notes: Jung on Joyce

The emergence of a literature which is predominantly concerned with the exploration of both a social reality and individual consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its first clear manifestations date from about the third quarter of the seventeenth century when the collective projection represented by the Christian “worldview” gradually began to break apart. Inevitably, this occasioned a radical shift in consciousness. It compelled individuals to make sense of their own reality and identity. For the first time in history, writers began to see a much fuller social spectrum than had ever been noticed before and to explore the implications for this for the individual: i.e. to explore both a social reality and a sense of individual consciousness that are recognizably related to our own concerns at the turn of the twenty-first century.
—Terence Dawson, “Jung, literature, and literary criticism” (The Cambridge Companion to Jung)

Since I was already discussing Jung earlier this month, I thought my annual Bloomsday post might be on Jung’s own response to Joyce’s masterpiece, the 1932 essay “‘Ulysses’: A Monologue.” (I am using the version translated by R. F. C. Hull and published in volume 15 of Jung’s collected works, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature.) This essay was written, claims Jung, “only as a subjective confession” to “show how ideas that play a considerable role in my work can be applied to literary material.” The psychologist later sent the essay to Joyce with a letter of ambivalent praise; he comments about Molly’s monologue, “I suppose the devil’s grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn’t.” Two years after that, Joyce consulted Jung in the case of his own schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, whose illness Joyce saw as related to his own genius. Jung’s famous, poignant verdict, as recounted by Richard Ellmann: Joyce and his daughter were “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”

Jung’s Ulysses essay is, as Terence Dawson comments in the entry on literary criticism in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, “amongst his least successful work” and “embarrassingly vague.” Like many distinguished early readers (e.g., Virginia Woolf), Jung seems not quite to have understood what he was reading even at the superficial level. He comments, for instance, that “Joyce’s Ulysses, very much unlike his ancient namesake, is a passive, merely perceiving consciousness”—a misreading of Bloom, the novel’s most active protagonist, who stands up for himself in Kiernan’s pub and follows Stephen into Nighttown out of concern for the young man. Relatedly and more significantly, Jung misjudges the novel’s dominant tone. Disgusted by its naturalism and frustrated by its formalism, Jung seems to condemn Joyce’s effort:

This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory. As a piece of technical virtuosity it is a brilliant and hellish monster-birth.

He goes on:

If worms were gifted with literary powers they would write with the sympathetic nervous system for lack of brain. I suspect that something of this kind has happened to Joyce, that we have here a case of visceral thinking with severe restriction of cerebral activity and its confinement to the perceptual process.

And yet, he allows that his subjective annoyance by the novel must be investigated psychologically. “Yes, I admit I feel I have been made a fool of,” he says. “Irritation means: You haven’t yet seen what’s behind it.”

I propose that we follow the psychologist behind his own bad feelings rather than dismissing them as philistine or bourgeois misinterpretation. True, we now read Ulysses in a very different way from Jung’s. Our tendency is to see Ulysses as something like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a literary attempt (quixotic in several senses) to create “a positively beautiful man” in the figure of Bloom. A celebration of the everyday via its transubstantiation into art, a secularizing blow against religious idealism, a cosmopolitan manifesto against imperialism and nationalism, and a linguistic game showing that all language should (since we have to live inside it) be inhabited as playpen rather than prison, Ulysses is the Bible of the contemporary literati’s liberal irreligion, and today is its feast.

The positive reading is so dominant that the essay I examined last Bloomsday, Leo Bersani’s “Against Ulysses,” accuses Joyce’s supposedly experimental and subversive text of being essentially a work of nineteenth-century humanist realism, a continuation not even of Dostoevsky but of Jane Austen. It might be useful, then, to re-encounter the shock of the novel’s early readers, Joyce’s contemporaries, who did not take it so affirmatively. While it is easy to mock their evident dismay at being presented with defecation and masturbation and fried kidneys, their sense that a sprawling and seemingly formless profusion of sometimes obscene text was a malediction against the tradition its very title invokes might not be wholly misplaced.

And let’s not neglect our own facile misprisions: celebrating Bloomsday in bars, for example, as if the novel were not a lament over the destructiveness of Ireland’s drinking culture, as if it did not depict pubs as major sites of colonial paralysis and powerlessness, where Simon Dedalus squanders his gifts in boozy song in “Sirens” or where the violent nationalist bigots congregate in “Cyclops.” Joyce lets us know that Bloom is heroic because, among other things, he imbibes responsibly, as when he surreptitiously pours out the drinks he’s given in “Oxen of the Sun” so that he can better look after the wasted Stephen. An alcoholic’s cri de coeur, Ulysses, if written straightforwardly, might have been the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of temperance. But I digress; back to Jung.

The psychologist proceeds to ask what the novel’s hostility to the reader (signaled by its formalism) and its radical de-idealizing of reality (signaled by its naturalism), portends. One hint Jung picks up from not only the novel but also from its broad influence in the arts, discernible even in 1932, is that “medieval Catholic Ireland covers a geographical area of whose size I have been hitherto ignorant”: the punitive religious idealism and political essentialism that Joyce revolts against are not merely local Irish or Catholic matters at all. Joyce becomes the spokesman for anyone burdened under interlocking (even when supposedly opposed) repressive forces, as Joyce depicts an Ireland distorted by British imperialism, Catholic theocracy, and even the Irish nationalism that was supposed to be the antidote to these. Jung’s insight is borne out when we consider the enormous influence of Ulysses on postcolonial or minoritarian writing throughout the twentieth century, from Ellison and Roth to Walcott and Rushdie. The now-perhaps neglected negativity of the novel—its preponderant scatology, its unremitting political satire and anti-clericalism—is necessary to smash the idols inhibiting humanity.

Jung further surmises that Ulysses, rather than advocating some kind of new humanism, might rather indicate a “new cosmic consciousness,” “a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the gods nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor prejudice.” Here Jung, while acknowledging the novel’s subversion, still diverges from our affirmative reading and sees Joyce instead as aiming at a transcendence of the material, of the filth, he otherwise seems to wallow in:

Ulysses is the creator-god in Joyce, a true demiurge who has freed himself from entanglement in the physical and mental world and contemplates them with detached consciousness. […] He is the higher self who returns to his divine home after blind entanglement in samsara. In the whole book no Ulysses appears; the book itself is Ulysses, a microcosm of James Joyce, the world of the self and the self of the world in one. Ulysses can return home only when he has turned his back on the world of mind and matter. This is surely the message underlying that sixteenth day of June, 1904…

In other words, Ulysses is the apotheosis of art for art’s sake and the revelation of that concept’s spiritual meaning: the drive to pass through every aspect of experience, including the most horrid, precisely to transfigure it, objectivized and thereby successfully externalized, in the art object. It is, in the grotesque physical metaphor of Joyce’s beloved Aristotle (also used in this essay by Jung), the artist’s purgation.

On the one hand, this interpretation accords with our Bloomsday celebration because it upholds Ulysses as the ultimate manifesto of the artist’s freedom (now, and perhaps forever, under threat from all sides) to treat any material whatever, whether trivial or blasphemous or obscene or offensive. How can author and audience be purged if the emetic, to use Judge Woolsey’s word for Ulysses, is not swallowed? On the other hand, Jung’s astute grasp on the distinction between Joyce and Bloom, his assessment of exceptional author rather than quotidian character as the novel’s true home-tending soul, ill assorts with our own humanism. Bloomsday does seem to depend, for its secular justification and its festive mood, on an understanding that Ulysses is, let’s say, Middlemarch by other means. But if it is less a progressive, reformist tract in cipher and more an attempted rite whereby to lift its creator from humanity to divinity? And does not this feast day, whatever its justification, attest that the ritual fulfilled its function?

None of which means that we must dismiss Joyce as irredeemably haughty. “Elitist” is not a word that belongs in literary criticism. Another sharp early reader of Ulysses, the modernist poet Mina Loy, spoke the truth when she pronounced in her “Aphorisms on Futurism,”

LOVE of others is  the appreciation of one’s self.

MAY your egotism be so gigantic that you comprise mankind in your self-sympathy.

Joyce’s does, and in so doing, renders us all service.

Let me end where I began, with Terence Dawson’s excellent essay on the implications for literary criticism of Jung’s ideas. Dawson notes that Jung’s cultural historiography is organized around the concept of humanity’s “withdrawal of projections,” the gradual discovery of the individual psyche in all its wholeness after it has progressively ceased to beam what it wishes to reject in itself onto its environment or its fellows. First, we were nothing but projection, wholly merged with our world, dancing in stellar patterns to move the stars; then we discovered identity, differentiating collective or personal self (Greece as against Troy, Odysseus as against lesser men) from other; then we turned identity into difference by making moral distinctions between self and other (primarily in the Christian era); with literary modernity we arrive at the fourth era, wherein we still live, when we explore with great complexity, in the realist novel above all (Dawson’s essay is an extended reading of Richardson’s Pamela), the complexities of the contiguity of self and world. What is the fifth stage? Dawson comments,

The fifth stage begins when one determines to become more conscious of the nature and extent of one’s own projections. It is a path, or goal, or ideal rather than a stage in the same sense as the others; even so, it could be argued that it has a literature of its own.

He does not mention Ulysses except to mock Jung’s shallow reading of it; but Jung’s picture of Joyce as the master of negation allows us to see, as more cheerful readings do not, that Ulysses is an anatomy of illusion compiled precisely so that we may recognize illusion when we see it. Purging what makes him sick, Joyce reveals his projections, enshrines them, and frees himself of them. In that sense, Ulysses may well belong to the literature of the fifth stage, well worth celebrating, much as Molly Bloom celebrates the self-involved figure of Narcissus, expressing her wish to interfere pleasurably with its auto-communion, like readers as we intrude on Joyce’s song of himself or writers as they intrude on ours:

why arent all men like that thered be some consolation for a woman like that lovely little statue he bought I could look at him all day long curly head and his shoulders his finger up for you to listen theres real beauty and poetry for you I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock there so simple I wouldnt mind taking him in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean and white he looks with his boyish face

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C. G. Jung, Answer to Job

Answer to JobAnswer to Job by C.G. Jung

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The back cover advertises Answer to Job as “one of Jung’s most controversial works.” He wrote it toward the end of his life, in the early 1950s, and according to the introduction to the 2010 edition by Sonu Shamdasani, he composed it in a kind of fever and later considered it the only one of his works he would not wish to alter. A short, swift book, written in a dryly sardonic style, it is a plea to update Christianity, or monotheism more generally, so that it can face the dangers of the atomic age.

Answer to Job‘s thesis is that Judeo-Christian monotheism dangerously denies that God, as a concept of wholeness and totality, must contain both evil and the feminine, and that much of western religious history, from the moral protest against God’s injustice in the Book of Job to Pope Pius XII’s 1950 doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, has been an attempt to redress these imbalances in the deity.

Answer to Job also has a meta-thesis: because “[w]e cannot tell whether God and the unconscious are two different entities,” and because God as an image of wholeness is the archetype of the self, humanity has to get God right—our idea of God is in a sense our own self-concept, and now that we have the power to destroy the world, we cannot afford to be insensible to our own dark side or to the appeal of affects and values other than masculinist domination:

Since [man] has been granted an almost godlike power, he can no longer remain blind and unconscious. He must know something of God’s nature and of metaphysical processes if he is to understand himself…

Jung’s method of demonstrating these theses, which will probably not persuade either the Biblical scholar or contemporary psychologists but which should not offend the literary critic at all, is to treat the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation as a single continuous narrative, albeit composed at different historical moments by different sensibilities, that shows the development (or circular non-development) of God’s personality from the jealous and dangerous deity of the early books through the attempt at reform and atonement running from the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature through the Incarnation in the New Testament, back to the unintegrated omni-destructive force described by John of Patmos (whom Jung construes, wrongly I believe, as the John of the Gospels and Epistles).

Throughout the Bible, Jung claims, both God and His people made many attempts to reform the God-image. Job is a turning point because it is the first time God is called to moral account by a mortal man as Job continues despite his suffering to believe in God’s justice and thus, according to Jung, becomes more just than God: “a mortal man is raised by his moral behaviour above the stars in heaven, from which position of advantage he can see the back of Yahweh,” Jung writes. The Book of Job coincides, Jung further argues, with a body of Hebrew wisdom writing that describes a feminine force called Sophia, which supplements the excessively masculine deity with a feminine counterpart. Jung argues that “[p]erfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness“; so this “anamnesis of Sophia” portends the next stage in God’s development, wherein God—through the agency of a mortal but perfect woman—will incarnate himself as a man in his continuing quest for wholeness rather than unconscious self-division. In the crucifixion, we find the “answer to Job” of Jung’s title: “God experiences what it is to be a mortal man and drinks to the dregs what he made his faithful servant Job suffer.”

The elevation of Mary to the status of quasi-divinity shows that the feminine becomes more central to the God-concept, but Mary’s immaculateness, i.e., sinlessness, means that though God now at least partially includes the feminine, He still excludes the evil that is necessarily part of any whole: Mary is “the incarnation of her prototype, namely Sophia,” but because “[b]oth mother and son are not real human beings at all, but gods,” then “Yahweh’s perfectionism is carried over from the Old Testament to the New” and “the feminine principle…never prevailed against the patriarchal supremacy.”

God’s dispatch of the Holy Spirit to dwell in humanity implies that all human beings, not only Christ, should incarnate God, a “Christification” of man that will realize divinity on earth, yet, again, as long as God, however newly feminized or humanized, remains an impossible idea of perfect goodness, the evil part of the psyche remains unintegrated, which means that it will continue to be expressed in destructively unconscious ways. Hence the Bible’s concluding outburst in the wild violence and apocalypticism of Revelations, on the images and scenes of which Jung offers this mildly sarcastic clinical opinion: “Their author need not necessarily be an unbalanced psychopath.” Nevertheless, Revelations also imagines a female divinity and a new birth (the sun woman and her child): the struggle to integrate the God-concept will continue.

Accordingly, Jung concludes by praising the Catholic Church for its doctrinal enshrinement in 1950 of Mary’s Assumption, itself a response to a popular cult of the Blessed Mother including visions and revelations, which restores to the court of Heaven a figure of female divinity, a mother-bride of the deity: “The feminine, like the masculine, demands an equally personal representation.”[1] This flexibility on the part of Christian religious authority, Jung suspects, is a good sign that we might still productively revise the God-image now that, with modern technology and weaponry, we really have put on God’s power and so cannot afford fantasies of self-righteousness.

What to think of Jung’s ideas? As long as they are stated at a high level of generality, I largely agree with them. An enormous amount of trouble in the world is caused by wishing away unpleasantly intractable emotions and psychic forces or imputing them wholly to “the enemy,” in which locus they can be annihilated. Jung’s recommendation of psychic balance based on a realistic assessment of the individual and collective personality and what it cannot help but contain seems unexceptionable to me—and even timely: we may be in less danger from nuclear apocalypse than in Jung’s time, but no one can deny that American and perhaps global politics is in death spiral of self-devouring self-righteousness and hypertrophic “identities” that blame all badness on others. While there is very often real justification for blaming others for bad behavior, this cannot be accompanied by a refusal to recognize the complexity of the self or the absolutely universal capacity for evil. Keep this Jungian sentence in mind as you browse social media: “Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect are the classic symptoms of chronic virtuousness.” In this way, Jung is faithful to Freud’s Enlightenment intention for psychoanalysis: we cannot deny the irrational, but must strive to understand it so that we are not wholly controlled by it.

On the other hand, there is the New Agey side of Jung. He can, like Job’s annoying counsellors, seem a bit too optimistic about the possibility of cosmic justice. What if it is not only our psyches but the universe itself that is out of order? What if there is no containing evil? What if the psychic forces cannot be brought into an alignment that will remove the possibility of danger? What if Jung is a bit of a chivalric sexist and overrates the beneficence of what he calls “the feminine”? For my part, I was raised within mid-to-late-twentieth century Catholicism, in the atmosphere of Mariolatry that Jung praises—every spring, we schoolchildren would be lined up in the garden of the rectory to crown the Blessed Mother statue Queen of May—and it did not notably reduce the puritanical attitudes of the faith, nor did it prevent various abuses in the school or in the church at large. I actually agree with Jung that the feminine, however construed, needs to be a part of metaphysics, but I do not agree that this will make the moral difference he seems to think it will.[2]

I wonder, ultimately, about Jung’s own need for a humane monotheism. He seems to find polytheism superior in some ways (“in Greek mythology matriarchal and patriarchal elements are about equally mixed,” he observes), but believes that the human self and the God-image are too united for us not to need an idea of one God. Plenty of people throughout history and culture, though, have gotten along without this idea, have relied on multiple psychic and cosmic agencies controlled, perhaps, by a single law, but not ruled by anything that looks like a human person. This is why the Book of Job itself may in the end be more compelling (and more radical) than Jung’s answer to it, for its disturbing message out of the whirlwind is that we should not and must not assume the humanity of the universe:

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

[…]

Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.

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[1] Jung’s contemporary and fellow psychologist William Moulton Marston had a similar conviction about the necessity of female divinity to modern consciousness, which is why he created Wonder Woman, whose latest adventure is now playing at a theater near you. I saw it yesterday and found it a bland, inoffensive film, more Marvel than DC in mood and tone; but Gal Gadot’s emotionally complex performance, persuasively uniting iron will and conviction to winsomeness and compassion, does justice to the idea of bringing together traditionally masculine and feminine ideals.

[2] On the other hand, I don’t read Jung’s positing of the masculine and the feminine oppressively essentialist as it touches on actual people; here, Jung’s controversial idealism saves him, as masculinity and femininity for him are not rooted in bodies but are autonomous psychic vectors that can be imagined or incarnated in various ways. This rejection of Freud’s biological determinism is probably what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they observed in passing in A Thousand Plateaus that “Jung is in any event profounder than Freud.” For a good essay on Jung in a Deleuzean vein, see here.

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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!

D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel

The White HotelThe White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

But he would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night
Not only for the sense of wonder
It alone has to offer, but also

Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
     Us dumbly to ask them to follow;
     They are exiles who long for the future

That lies in our power…

—W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”

A recent series of odd coincidences, during which The White Hotel arose in conversation or correspondence three times in four days, inspired me to read D. M. Thomas’s sensational 1981 novel about, among other things, Freud. Freud, I recall, believed there were no such things as coincidences.

Freud also believed for a while—in the 1890s, early in his career—that the etiology of his patients’ hysterical symptoms lay in their experience of childhood abuse and molestation. (For the most part, as I understand it, he inferred such abuse from the symptoms themselves rather than being told about it by his patients, who often denied having been abused.) Due both to the sheer frequency of hysteria and neurosis, which seem to afflict almost everyone from time to time, and to the absence of evidence that such widespread abuse took place, Freud abandoned this hypothesis. He devised instead his theory that the origin of neurosis and hysteria could be found not in actual early sexual experience but rather in unconscious and repressed sexual fantasy. Later critics, particularly feminists, faulted him for this; they accused him of retreating from a bold and radical critique of pervasive sexual predation to the usual patriarchal omertà around such subjects. Sexual violence is not fantasy, but a reality, inflicted not by the unconscious but by history and society, the critics imply.

At first, I thought that this might be the argument of The White Hotel. The novel’s structure is strange and very complex, but its macroscopic narrative can be retold simply (and with unavoidable spoilers): a Ukrainian Jewish woman is analyzed by Freud due to inexplicable and disabling pains in her breast and side; Freud diagnoses her as a repressed homosexual, which she denies being; later, she dies in the Holocaust, tortured and murdered at Babi Yar, where her breast and side are particularly wounded. Her sufferings come not from repressed fantasy in her past, but from the social and political doom awaiting her in her future; her symptoms are the lacerations of history.

But the novel, when read more carefully, turns out to be a validation of Freud. Thomas does not quite praise Freud as a scientist or a physician—before the novel even begins, he refers to him in an “Author’s Note” as

discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth; and in placing this emphasis, I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.

The Viennese physician, so expert in analyzing the feints and dodges of the conscious mind, would recognize that final clause as protesting too much. No, Thomas emphasizes Freud as a writer—as proud winner of the Goethe Prize. He lovingly parodies Freud’s style in a chapter modeled on the psychoanalytic case study, and if Freud does not get the novel’s protagonist “right,” he was right to pay her psyche and her own literary production such respectful attention. Later in the novel, she writes to Freud:

I am touched, beyond words, by knowing that so much wisdom, patience and kindness were devoted to a poor, weak-spirited, deceitful young woman. I assure you it was not without fruit. Whatever understanding of myself I now possess, is due to you alone.

The White Hotel, written by a then-obscure Cornish poet, became both a bestseller and critical hit when it was published in 1981; it almost won the Booker Prize. (Martin Amis memorably parodied the reviewers’ performative fervor: “‘I walked out into the garden and could not speak’, and so on.”) It was also a source of controversy in its blending of the Holocaust with pornography, and in its borrowing, for its most intense and climactic scenes, from the testimony of a real-life survivor of Babi Yar, Dina Pronicheva. Enough time has gone by, though, to assess the novel more neutrally.

It is a twentieth-century novel in the very best sense, in that it does not take novelistic form, genre, or mode for granted. It begins with a series of letters among Freud, Ferenczi, and other psychoanalysts about an erotic document by one of Freud’s patients. There follows, in the first chapter, a fantastical pornographic poem and then a prose gloss on the poem, both detailing a singer’s sexual adventures in the titular white hotel. She romps with a young man she met on a train; she allows a priest to drink milk from her breast; she also takes a corset maker as a lover. While this is going on, the hotel is beset with catastrophes, as fire, flood, landslide, and falling cable car kill most of the guests.

In the next chapter, we shift style and genre again: now we are reading Freud’s own case study of the previous documents’ author; we learn about her troubled family background (she was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and her mother died when she was a child), her complex sexual history and failed marriage, and the psychosomatic symptoms that have bedeviled her for years. Freud eventually concludes that repressed homosexual desire is at the root of her problems.

The next chapter alters our and the novel’s perspective again; now, halfway through the book, we are privy to objective third-person narration telling us about Lisa Erdman, now named for the first time in the text (Freud had concealed her identity as “Frau Anna G.”), and her real history and experiences; her poem and its prose gloss had been a fantasy, and much of what she told Freud was not quite true, while his own interpretation was sometimes fanciful. The novel now does get behind these texts to reveal something of the truth, and yet Freud’s method of seeking for buried truths and unraveling densely knotted symbols is validated, because Lisa reveals her memory that her mother and her aunt were involved together in a sexual relation with her uncle, and that her mother and uncle died together in a hotel fire.

The subsequent chapter carries on in this objective narrative mode as Lisa moves to Kiev with her new husband and his child from a previous marriage; her husband, though, dies in Stalin’s purges, while Lisa and her son are tortured and killed by the Nazis.

A controversial concluding chapter seems to re-enter the fantastical mode of the novel’s early passages, as we encounter Lisa, and most of the other characters, including Freud, in an ambiguous afterlife, a Zion of the mind where none are excluded. Here, Lisa is allowed a redemptive re-encounter with her mother—they suckle each other—and she becomes a nurse.

During the painful sequence of Lisa’s torture and murder, the narrator occasionally departs from grimly neutral reportage and grows didactic:

The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms). Though most of them had never lived outside the Podol slum, their lives and histories were as rich and complex as Lisa Erdman-Bernstein’s. If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored a single group, even a single person.

In other words, the novel and psychoanalysis together are beneficent because they are the opposite of discourses like Nazism or Stalinism; in taking the individual as an inexhaustible absolute, literature and psychoanalysis bar the ideological way to viewing any people as disposable. Moreover, the baroque pornography of the novel’s first third, in which sexual pleasure is indeed braided with death and destruction, suggests that literature and psychoanalysis are the safest zones for our exploration of our ineradicable destructive impulses. In fantasy, we can explore rather than indulge the death drive; that way, we do not have to act it out in murder, suicide, genocide, or war. Finally, just as Lisa’s symptoms were premonitions rather than recollections, a study of our psyches may reveal the nature of the future in the present; we may even attempt to forestall the worst of our possible futures. It does not matter if Freud got it right or was “scientific”; what matters is that his method—narrative, description, interpretation, reinterpretation; myth; poetry; drama—is a way to peace.

Critics have objected to the novel’s fantastical ending on the grounds that it obscenely provides a Christian paradise for its Jewish victims. While that would be offensive, it is not what the novel is doing. I grant that some rebuke to Zionism is implied when the narrator decisively states of this Holy Land encampment that one does not have to be Jewish to be admitted; but Thomas’s fancied afterlife is not exactly paradise—it is a refugee camp—and it is a territory not of religion but of poetry. Not only the King James Bible but also Eliot (“there was rock which provided a little shade”), Yeats (“‘Sick with desire'”), and Blake (“‘Where Israel’s tents do shine by night!'”) are recalled, as are all the novel’s major refrains. In an excellent recent article, Cates Baldridge persuasively argues that the novel’s afterlife represents an allegory for literature’s redemptive capacity to imagine new possibilities; moreover, he interprets The White Hotel, despite its first half’s textual game-play, as a quintessential modernist novel that holds out the hope of an aesthetic utopia, rather than a postmodern one that mocks all visionary drive.

I wonder not only about the afterlife in but also the afterlife of the novel. Once a ubiquitous text, a major novel of its time, it seems to have faded somewhat in significance; what recent fictions, if any, might it have influenced? I suspect the final chapter may be lingering in the background of Coetzee’s Novilla, the socialist utopia/dystopia of The Childhood of Jesus, which I interpret as the ethical polity implied by the tradition of the European novel, just as Baldridge finds in Thomas’s Camp a social space embodying aesthetic ideals. And Thomas’s pornotopic modernist and Mitteleuropean hotel abraded by the catastrophes of European history must have at least partially inspired Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, a graphic novel that suggests fully as much as does Thomas’s book that war and oppression may be quelled by an aesthetic excavation of unconscious desire.

How does The White Hotel look from the vantage of the present? If now less overwhelming than it was to its early reviewers, it is still an intellectually formidable and imaginative novel. It is also very well-written in its own distinct way. The third-person passages have a fascinatingly stilted tone of translationese, as of a version from the Russian or German, that very much reminds me, as implied above, of Coetzee. The recreation of Freud’s style is very persuasive—Thomas catches the peculiar warmth and seductive wit that always comes through even in his most clinical observations—and even the pornographic poem, which could have gone badly wrong, is energetic and strikingly surreal, its stream-of-consciousness iambic slant-rhyme couplets just a cut below John Shade’s bravura neoclassicism in the annals of “fictional” poetry:

                           Asleep at last
I was the Magdalen, a figure-head,
plunging in deep seas. I was impaled
upon a swordfish and I drank the gale,
my wooden skin carved up by time, the wind
of icebergs where the northern lights begin.
The ice was soft at first, a whale who moaned
a lullaby to my corset, the thin bones,
I couldn’t tell the wind from the lament
of whales, the hump of white bergs without end.
Then gradually it was the ice itself
cut into me, for we were an ice-breaker,
a breast was sheared away, I felt forsaken,
I gave birth to a wooden embryo
its gaping lips were sucking at the snow
as it was whirled away into the storm,
now turning inside-out the blizzard tore
my womb clean out, I saw it spin into
the whiteness have you seen a flying womb.

When a man writes so extensively from within his imagination of female sexual experience, he will be accused of sexism or misogyny; but Thomas’s sensibility is so submerged in Lisa’s that this charge is not compelling in this case. As for Thomas’s collaging in of actual victim testimony: I do grasp the ethical difficulty involved, but Thomas credits his borrowing on the copyright page, and, more importantly, the novel’s whole point is to create an imaginative context in which such an experience as the testimony recounts can be received by the reader as an inner, emotional event. The perhaps disturbing implication is that it takes fiction to make life real. For better or worse, I believe this myself. But I hope that even if I did not like much of what The White Hotel has to say, I would be charmed by its weirdness; we need more weird novels!

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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!

Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham, Nameless

NamelessNameless by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

But did Grant Morrison deserve my bitchy crack about Coldplay toward the end of my review of Greg Carpenter’s British Invasion? After being too pleased with myself for its cleverness, it occurred to me that I had not read a Morrison comic all the way through after All-Star Superman, which is about a decade old and the sentimentality of which I found grating, despite its other many virtues, especially its iconicism. (I have flipped through some of his Batman material, but it seemed too complicated for a Batman story, and I say this as someone who enjoyed the hell out of New X-Men.) So I saw Nameless, a work in the undersung genre of “space horror,” and decided to read it to find out if I had indeed been unjust to Morrison’s later career.

Of the events in Nameless, one character metafictionally explains/exclaims, “It’s like the goddamn ‘Exorcist’ meets ‘Apollo 13’!” Even allowing that such a film has already been made—such that the line of dialogue should have run, “It’s like goddamn Event Horizon!”—that description aptly capture’s Nameless‘s mix of space adventure with unsettling and sometimes subliminal demonism. Unlike The Exorcist‘s ingenious and intense crypto-papist propaganda, though, Morrison’s book is not trying to make us consider a conversion or reconversion; the villain of Nameless is God, the God of monotheism, stranded in our universe as the prisoner of a long-ago galactic and interdimensional war, and accordingly psychopathic and the incitement of psychopathy in His worshippers. The graphic novel spins around a scene of murderous horror inspired by the Deity. The conceit of Nameless is something like the following: what if Lovecraft’s fiction describes not a cold mechanical materialistic universe, as it is often taken to do by the Rhode Islander’s admirers, but rather the universe as seen by traditional monotheism?

For readers keeping score in the great and largely one-sided Alan Moore vs. Grant Morrison feud, Nameless may be read as a furious riposte to Moore’s Neonomicon. In Moore’s notoriously hideous book, the weakness and squalor of humanity brings Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors into being; as in Rorschach’s famous soliloquy from Watchmen, it is us, not fate or the gods, who butchers the children and feeds them to the dogs. Nameless, by contrast, places the blame for Cthulhu—which is to say, those aspects of human experience for which Cthulhu is a metaphor—on the metaphysical forces that Moore sees as elaborations or avatars of human consciousness. “God made me do it,” says the murderous anti-hero near the book’s conclusion, and Morrison’s narrative design ensures that we read it that way. Morrison is, in a sense, both more and less humanistic than Moore, seeing humanity as kinder than the gods (or whatever universal forces the gods allegorize) but also less powerful than they are, whereas in Moore’s more traditional Romantic view, the gods are, as he says somewhere, “ourselves unfolded.”

A set of endnotes far more compelling than the actual graphic novel concludes Nameless; in them, Morrison explains the novel’s elaborate Tarot and Kaballah symbolism, its autobiographical and local Glaswegian roots, its debt to contemporary nihilistic metaphysics (Brassier and the ubiquitous Ligotti), and more. He further explains that his intention was to dramatize the passing of the Son’s Aeon to that of the Daughter—a shift in cosmic consciousness wherein the feminine principle defeats the masculine, with the latter typified by monotheism’s insane Gnostic demiurge (AKA God) and His malevolent male worshippers, to initiate an era of peace and mysticism. Is it me or are male thinkers more prone to these flights of mawkish fancy than female thinkers? Perhaps because I was educated by sometimes physically violent nuns and brought up in the suburbs where all those white Republican women (the ones we hear so much about every election year) live, I am unable to appreciate this worldview wherein girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice; and say what you will about contemporary feminism, especially in its popular or vernacular forms, but it is certainly a force devoted to extirpating the so-called feminine principle from the world, givens its advice to Lean In (i.e., project oneself phallically) and its elevation of such warmongering women (“phallic mothers,” I believe the psychoanalysts like to say) as Hillary Clinton to political authority. In short, I am not so unimaginative as to refuse to accept that there are psychic forces that might provisionally be labeled “masculine” and “feminine,” but I also think the world is far more complex than such a philosophy as Morrison’s chivalric sexism can capture.

But what about Nameless itself? Morrison claims that he wanted to write more of a poem or piece of music than a narrative, so the narrative is consequently fragmented and half hallucinated. Characters are archetypes, undeveloped, and most of the book’s plot—the aforementioned space adventure—is a red herring in the form of a dream or psychic trip that merely symbolizes the actual content of the narrative, which is the conflict between Son/Daughter or Brother/Sister leading to the defeat of the threat posed by God and the subsequent apotheosis of the eternal feminine. This fact renders the whole middle of the book somewhat extraneous to the far more fascinating nightmare lyricism of the first and last chapters; the first, in particular, offers moving narration seemingly straight from Morrison’s psyche:

Sometimes you ask yourself, what’s real and what’s not these days? Way I see it, everything’s been fucked up since 2001 anyway. Since the towers came down—since the pylons fell on Trump 18 and Malkuth was gathered up into Yesod— My mum died just up the road at the Western.

This is all much better than a disavowed Event Horizon homage, and much closer to the ambition of producing comics as poetry. But if a poem is what Morrison wanted, why even bother with characters who never do anything or come to life as they go on a conventional action-adventure quest without an actual stake? You can write this way about characters readers already accept as archetypes and about whom readers already have many thoughts and feelings—such as Superman and Batman—but not about characters we’re meeting for the first time. Is the veiled woman in this book anything at all other than Woman?

As for Chris Burnham’s art, its shagginess—evocative of ’70s horror and French SF comics—was very effective, but such ink-heavy styles often look awkward against today’s computer coloring, with its relentlessly mimetic modeling and color gradients that seem to make black-spotting appear primitive or redundant. (This excellent article applies to more than just its ostensible topic, Frank Miller.) The grotesque imagery throughout is effectively discomforting, though probably best where most subtle (somehow the image of an eel about to eat its own tail in a way suggestive of copulation is far more nauseating than the image of a man getting his face hammered off in an explosion of blood and bone).

So, all in all, Nameless is not Coldplay, but it probably capitulates too much to conventional SF/horror tropes and structures to come into its own. A book whose tacked-on didactic essay is more interesting to read than the main narrative suggests an author more interested in lecturing than dramatizing or even lyricizing. If Morrison moves even closer toward such essayism, though, I think it may be all to the good. Piling up archetypal and occult correspondences does not really make for deep characters or involving narratives, but if those concepts are involving in themselves, sans narrative, there is no reason not to explore them as such.

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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!

Brigid Brophy et al., Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do WithoutFifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brigid Brophy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to read this 1967 book after reading about it on Anthony’s blog, and now, after having it shipped from the obscure storage facility where it resides to my main library, I have. The authors—English writer Brigid Brophy; her husband, the art historian Michael Levey; and the little-known John Osborne (“Assistant Literature Director of the Arts Council in England,” says the jacket copy)—set out undo the “injustice done alike to great authors and to the public” when inferior work is passed off as great for no other reason than custom to the unsuspecting pupil. They allow “that about taste there is no absolute arbitrating,” but their 50 entries offer reasoned arguments and imply standards immanent to what they regard as the best of the tradition. Furthermore, they pronounce their efforts harmless since they do not “exercise the tyrannical power of the magistrate” who orders obscene materials destroyed. Their avowed iconoclasm is of a purely metaphorical variety. So, confining themselves to the English language—hence they include American but not translated literature (“That is why the Bible is not listed”)—and to 50 works, they set out to fulfill Eliot’s mandate for criticism (which they do not cite): “the correction of taste.”

What do Brophy et al. have against these 50 works? Moreover, can we discern any patterns in their judgments?

The strongest comprehensive argument the authors make in this various book is against revering the old merely because it is old. At the beginning of their entry on the York Mystery Plays (I have never had the pleasure myself, but I think I got the gist from Grant Morrison’s neglected graphic novel):

Yet too frequently we value the older above the newer for no better apparent reason than that it has lasted longer. This is a peculiar characteristic of the English temperament. How reverently we gaze at any Gothic cathedral: how perplexed and untempted we are by the glitter of Baroque. How stirred by Gregorian chant: how unmoved by the more sophisticated art of Handel. Yet, in the centuries between Gregorian chant and Handel, between Gothic and baroque [sic], the arts of music and architecture made tremendous leaps forward in technique and complexity. It can only be this absurd nostalgia for the remote past, this mindless yearning towards primitivism, towards the time when art was so simple it was not art, which is responsible for the modern interest in and production of the various cycles of mystery plays which flourished in medieval England.

And some of their best polemics are against writers who may possess a certain historical importance, because they were the first to invent a genre or a style, but who are nevertheless by our standards lethally dull (hence their argument that Beowulf is “a fine example of primitive non-art” canonized only to provide “some respectable pseudo-Homeric epic from which to make Northern literature evolve”).

I nodded in agreement with their mockery of the pioneering but plodding fiction of Defoe, Fielding, and Scott, fiction so verbosely narrated, so lacking in vivid imagery and drama, that it really is a godawful chore to read. (Really, couldn’t we do without the eighteenth-century novel almost in toto, with the possible exceptions of Swift and Sterne [who ought, as Joyce once noted, to have exchanged names]?)

They also assail books that are over-praised but far from their writers’ best works, such as Hamlet and The Pickwick Papers. Of the former, they intriguingly note that “the play is the prototype of western literature’s most deplorable and most formless form, autobiographical fiction,” and call for more study and performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra in lieu of the more famous tragedy (I myself might vote for Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, but I take the point).

Not only does Brophy—a secularist, humanist, and feminist—argue against the dictation of taste by custom, but she and her collaborators also despise anything that smacks of primitivism or antiquarianism. This is the basis on which they skewer authors as diverse as Spenser, Twain, and Lawrence. This book’s artistic touchstones, against which other authors are judged and found wanting, are Donne and Pope in poetry and Austen, Eliot, and James in fiction. (Readers familiar with the history of literary criticism might think they spy the shade of Dr. Leavis hovering between the lines.) In short, they favor the urbane literature of civilization as against the arts of the volk or, even worse, the arts of urbane and civilized writers who don weeds and rags to pretend to be of the volk.

(Politically, this attitude is a double-edge sword: if you apply it to your own tradition, you seem impeccably progressive, but if you apply it to someone else’s—especially a tradition that has been oppressed in some way by the West—then you appear to be a condescending imperialist. This apparent contradiction allows us to forget that the primitivist denunciation of European civilization and the white male in the name of primal values was codified in literature and philosophy by European white males.)

Brophy et al.’s anti-primitivism campaign triumphs in this book’s single best essay, a funny but judicious demolition of Wordsworth’s meretricious doggerel about the daffodils, a poem I have myself always loathed. They use “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” as a case study of Wordsworth’s work as a whole, where phony and ill-written anti-intellectual pastoralism alternates with sublime, Latinate, Miltonic rhetoric; this latter strain they view as in line with Wordsworth’s actual gift, whereas his Marie-Antoinette-playing-peasant routine they see as both risible and pernicious:

And indeed it in this poem that Wordsworth explicitly enunciates his gospel of philistinism, the great anti-thought trademark he set on English life forever after. He damns ‘intellect’ as ‘meddling,’ dismisses the leaves of books as ‘barren’….exclaims (could a town councillor voting against a grant for the symphony orchestra have done better?) ‘Enough of Science and of Art’….The tragedy of all this is that it’s untrue not only to human nature, but to Wordsworth’s poetic nature…For the talent Wordsworth mortified and martyred to a doctrinaire simplicity is that of one of English literature’s supreme rhetoricians. The reason Wordsworth writes of daffodils and clouds as though he had never really set eyes on either of them is that he is an essentially baroque artist, to whom flowers are invisible unless transmuted into precious metal and to whom clouds are merely what sweep apparitions down on the astounded beholder.

As implied by this critique, in which Wordsworth is praised or damned based on any given poem’s distance or proximity to an ideology the authors dislike, a faith that aesthetic and moral judgments can be made in tandem animates this whole book:

For, morality being a mere branch of aesthetics, no book that is morally so warped [as The Pilgrim’s Progress] can in any real sense be aesthetically satisfying.

This is a view that has more in common with Wordsworth’s dancing heart than with Donne’s brain-twisting paradoxes. That art and morals could align so neatly is the perennial dream of Platonists, priests, and politburos, but history gives no evidence in its favor. The moral premises the Homeric epics were based on are long dead, but it seems as if a new translation of the Iliad comes out every year. Someone finds it aesthetically satisfying, since, aside from historical and archaeological interest, there is really no other reason to read it.

The authors’ moral judgments lead them astray more than once, as when they derogate Wuthering Heights as “both the first and the meatiest morsel in the long, broad tradition of melodramatic daydreams concocted often by, and always to satisfy the appetites of, women wailing for their demon lovers.” While I certainly have no time for that consumerist school of feminism that celebrates whatever bilge teenage girls happen to like just because teenage girls like it, any half-sentient critic should be able to tell the difference between trashy romances and Wuthering Heights, perhaps the most perfectly constructed novel in the language and a brilliant metafictional commentary on the fate of fictional prose narrative itself as it moves from Gothic romance to social realism. Anyway, the authors must have missed the part where Heathcliff cruelly mocks Arabella for mistaking Wuthering Heights for the kind of novel Brophy et al. think it is:

‘She abandoned [her home and family] under a delusion,’ he answered; ‘picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character and acting on the false impressions she cherished.’

Jane Eyre is a safer target, of course; whatever the merits of its symbolism and style, it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the authors are very funny about the derivative nature of the Gothic elements, showing (but only after quoting a critic on the novel’s originality) that Brontë has borrowed a supernatural set-piece whole cloth from Moll Flanders. Yet the authors might have had the decency to mention that Brontë followed Jane Eyre with Villette, a masterful psychological study that is a major advance on the earlier novel—and which absolutely bears comparison with the best of Dickens and Eliot.

The inclusion of American literature was probably a mistake, as these partisans of Henry James (whom I love, by the way) have a tin ear for the main national tradition, as described by Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature:

The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them to-day.

These modern Europeans think extremity a kind of sham, and so they go on funking our great writers. A not totally implausible feminist critique of The Scarlet Letter goes off the rails when, after misjudging the narrator’s wry tone, they bizarrely pronounce Hawthorne’s historical romance “without irony”—irony might as well have been Hawthorne’s middle name! Their assault on Moby-Dick is philistinism itself:

Many novelists have tried to anticipate the critic’s task by writing both narrative and a commentary alongside it pointing out the deeper beauties, profundities, and significances of the narrative. Melville alone has supplied the commentary without supplying the narrative.

This reminds me of those one-star Amazon reviews they’re always compiling at Biblioklept: “Throughout the book, you may read one chapter with some action only to be followed by 5 or 6 chapters of tangents that are not necessary to understand the story.”

With Whitman, the limits of their standard midcentury Freudian moralism come to the fore, as they pathologize his poetry as merely an effusion from the closet, while they are scandalized at Faulkner’s cynicism and pompositiy (about the latter, they have a point; about the former, they sound merely pious). Their argument against Huckleberry Finn, a flawed novel by any standard, is more compelling (“It is a vision which can be achieved only by that ruthless dishonesty which is the birthright of every sentimentalist”) and they score a few good points on Hemingway, mentioning both his debts to Stein and his ingratitude for them, but if Hemingway was overvalued in the midcentury, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that these days it might be worthwhile to recover his virtues. (And why did they excuse Poe from their animadversions—Poe, of whom Harold Bloom commented that he was beloved in France because he benefitted from translation and would further benefit from being translated into English?)

Their distaste for religious art of all sorts is sometimes bracing—they are very funny on Bunyan—but their peremptory dispatch of Hopkins is merely insensitive (in the aesthetic, not the political, sense); read the man’s poems aloud and you won’t care what he believed. Their pronouncement against Rupert Brooke’s patriotic verse is homophobic by contemporary standards—”The moral is plain: Don’t go in for flag-waving if you’re limp-wristed”—but a serious warning against overcompensating for one’s own internalized social shame lurks under the ugly formulation (which reminded me, by the way, of Gore Vidal’s quip about George W. Bush: “Give a sissy a gun and he’ll kill everything in sight”).

We are already doing without many of the book’s targets—The Essays of Elia, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, Lorna Doone, Esther Waters, South Wind, and more. At least one of the now-rarities they scorn perhaps deserves to be revived: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh, now read only by feminist Victorianists. The Victorianisms Brophy et al. mock in it are no less glaring than are their own now obvious twentieth-century biases, and its defense of the modern epic as realist novel is seemingly in line with their own values.

Their dismissal of To the Lighthouse sums up most of this book’s themes: they judge Woolf imprecisely poetic when she should be vividly narrative, a primitivist of the commonplace mind rather than an original thinker, and a university-ready digest of better and tougher writing:

To compare the results with James or Proust would only occur to the Eng. Lit. mind, always timid before the vigour of real art and always happiest with genteel diluted versions of it. Virginia Woolf’s is a supreme example of the non-art that is at the same time inevitably (for the art v. life dichotomy is a false one) devoid of vitality.

Even those of us who believe in the possibility, however remote, of authoritative aesthetic judgment as opposed to today’s soppy populist relativism (which only lines the pockets of the money-men) will have to allow that there are more things in literature than are dreamt of in Brophy and her collaborators’ philosophy.

All in all, this book is a fascinating and entertaining curio, as much the limited product of its time it accuses some of its targets of being, but fun and briskly written. It is a minor entry in the tradition of viciously witty and plain-spoken British criticism that runs from from Hazlitt to Wilde and on through such twentieth- and twenty-first century figures as George Orwell, Rebecca West, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis.

Finally, for the curious, here is a photo of the entire table of contents:

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Art Spiegelman, Maus

The Complete Maus (Maus, #1-2)The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our life happens to be such that a child, as soon as it can run about a little and a little distinguish one thing from another, must look after itself just like an adult; the areas on which, for economic reasons, we have to live in dispersion are too wide, our enemies too numerous, the dangers lying everywhere in wait for us too incalculable—we cannot shelter our children from the struggle for existence, if we did so, it would bring them to an early grave.
—Franz Kafka, “Josephine the Singer, or, the Mouse Folk” (trans. Willa and Edwin Muir)

I was too young the first time I read Maus—around age 14. In search of the masterpieces of the comics medium, I was reading my two paperback volumes, purchased as I recall at a suburban mall Waldenbooks, at the height of interest in the Holocaust in America. It was two years after Schindler’s List, in the period when American presidents and their courtier intellectuals liked to justify their military interventions with constant reference to Hitler. Spiegelman’s subtle but decisive attack on the instrumentalization of the Holocaust was a bit over my head, though I did perceive the calculated provocation against the bourgeoisie, so characteristic of the Underground Comix which were Spiegelman’s aesthetic school, of recasting the genocide as Tom and Jerry or Krazy and Ignatz.

Despite my budding comics writer’s admiration for Spiegelman’s storytelling craft—his endless flexibility with a rough eight-panel grid; his subtle variations in panel composition so that there was none of the much-admired “cinematic” long-take effects as in the likes of Miller or Moore nor any melodramatic “camera angles”; his astounding ease at keeping the story straight even though all the characters have just about the same mouse head—the historical resonance of the style eluded me. The art grows progressively less sketchy/Crumby and more solid-lined as we move from volume one to volume two, the panels like light-streaked black windows: Spiegelman conjures up the stark medieval woodcuts of interwar Europe in a kind of pogrom-Gothic that summons the whole bloody history of Europe even as it harks back to the earliest “graphic novels,” the woodcut fictions of Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. All of this serves to bleed the cuteness from his “funny animal” cartoon, as if to say that a hypothetical George Herriman or Carl Barks of European Jewry would have had to be comics’ Kafka. The storytelling is as fresh and light as the actual art is haunted and heavy; the visuals would be the best thing about Maus if it weren’t for the writing.

No, what went over my adolescent head was precisely the Kafka of it. (Spiegelman speaks in interviews of having been influenced by the murine short story, the author’s last, from which I take my epigraph, a tale of a bathetically willful artist in a community too beset to venerate her person though it will heed her music, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.”) Perhaps the only one of those viral David Foster Wallace sentimental quotations I like is the one about Kafka’s humor (I would say “irony,” not sharing DFW’s hostility to that word):

It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke—that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.

This is the story of Maus, in two ways: first, it is the story of its narrator/author, the son struggling to record his father’s experiences in Auschwitz, and so it is the story of how the book itself comes to be; second, it is the story of the father himself, whose humanity—which is at times intolerable to those who love him, as it manifests itself as meanness, miserliness, misogyny, racism, neurosis—is inseparable from the struggle to survive genocide that has made him who he is.

In worrying endlessly over its own moral and epistemological status, Maus might appear to be just another postmodern artifact: it has everything from mise en abyme gestures ironically locating photographic truth within increasingly cartoonish fictional frames (see my the image below, when the characters read one of Spiegelman’s old memoir comics) to outright comic-strip humor, as when Art tells his wife that in real life she’d never let him talk so long without interruption—all to remind us that we are getting a representation, not a reality. Most interestingly, Spiegelman also subverts his own metaphor, when his cartoon animals interact with “real” animals, suggesting the arbitrary artifice of the Nazi race classification that this book has bitterly borrowed, and also the animality that extremes of suffering reveal human beings to share. But Spiegelman was insistent upon his book’s status as non-fiction; perhaps it is the scrupulousness of its self-questioning that justifies its claim to reality.

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Maus‘s complexity of representation is mirrored by the complexity of its represented subject: Spiegelman’s father, Vladek. He goes from a textile-salesman with film-star looks—the first chapter is called “The Sheik,” in homage to Valentino—to an inmate at Auschwitz doing everything he can to survive. And he ends up, having lost a son in the Holocaust and a wife to suicide after, a bewildered, neurotic, and angry old man in Rego Park, Queens. I have never felt that comics particularly lends itself, as a form, to characterization, which requires more words and fewer pictures; comics does better with the manipulation of icons—precisely the game of cat-and-mouse Spiegelman so seriously plays in the pictures. But through the precise capture of his verbal rhythms, so deadpan in narrating atrocities and so peevish and anguished at the slights of everyday life, Vladek becomes a character of novelistic depth. Over the course of the book, everything about him balances and nothing cancels, so that we come to love him without exactly liking him, understand him without judging him. He pitted endless resourcefulness against the greatest of tribulations; he lost his entire family, including his first son; he harries and harasses his second son; he burned his late wife’s journals; he emotionally tortures his second wife; he “talk[s] about blacks the way the Nazis talked about the Jews,” in his daughter-in-law’s appalled judgment: “he was a man, take him for all in all.”

Polemically, Spiegelman aims at a pernicious idea that has only grown in influence since the mid-1980s: that oppression gives its victim superior powers of social discernment and moral cognition. Whereas in fact Vladek’s suffering has maladapted him for social life and has continued into the second generation, sufficiently molding his son so that he, too, is construed in the book as a kind of survivor. In Metamaus, a recent volume of notes and interviews in which Spiegelman reflects on his creation, he identifies the oppression-creates-wisdom concept as a refinement of Christian martyrdom, and, as such, alien to his secular-Jewish sensibility (though the idea probably came to the contemporary cultural left via Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, as mediated by Du Bois’s “double-consciousness” and perhaps also Lukács’s “standpoint of the proletariat”). In any case, Spiegelman takes special care to show that oppression not only fails to confer moral or intellectual power, but actually saps and distorts these human powers.

And in its metafictional formalism, Maus also argues against the cult of “lived experience” (a pleonasm: if you experienced it, you lived it, by definition: but I am not naive, the term is deployed to delegitimate reflection and intellectual activity as second-order, inauthentic forms of experience, even though thought has always seemed to me to be simultaneous with acting and suffering). The concentric ring of calculated falsehoods Spiegelman erects around the truth of his father’s experience—even though he has only his father’s sometimes unreliable memory to go on—not to mention the vanished truth of what his mother went through, demonstrates that living and thinking cannot be separated, that dispute-over-truth is lodged in the heart of experience. (Academics understandably like to compare Maus to its near-contemporary novel of lingering historical oppression, Morrison’s Beloved; but Roth’s Counterlife is really much closer in theme and method, even though it treats a perhaps opposite extreme of twentieth-century Jewish life, the very different success stories of Israel and America.)

So, if you are over the age of 14, and have lived long enough to appreciate the necessity and impossibility of trying to live and think, you should read Maus. I will end with one of my favorite pages, from volume 2, in which Spiegelman speaks to his psychoanalyst about his struggles to tell his father’s story. The page—study its almost iconographic engraving-like style, and its incredibly subtle variation in staging figures within the panels—has everything and more one could ask in a comic: it begins in near-Dostoevskyean or -Mannian or -Bellovian or -Rothian dialectic, establishing the moral impossibility of even thinking about survivorship and the Holocaust, and passes through both a good Beckett quote and a good deflation of Beckett’s (or his admirers’) occasional solemnity of despair, and ends with a saving joke:

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Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent

Seduction of the InnocentSeduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I was younger—say in the late 1980s, early 1990s—the concept of free artistic expression was associated with the social and political left. The totalitarian states of international communism were discredited and second-wave feminism had clearly overreached in its anti-porn crusades; meanwhile, tirades against the objectionable character of both elite and popular culture were coming from the religious and racial right, with its crusades against alleged Satanism and against queer and black arts. I am thinking of the controversies over heavy metal, NEA funding, and “Cop Killer,” for example.

But when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to rap or heavy metal and I didn’t attend elite art exhibitions; instead I avidly read comic books. In those pre-Internet days, the folk memory of comic-book readers tended to elide the 1950s public outcry against comics—which led to their being tried in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency Hearings and to the self-imposition by the industry of the absurdly censorious comics code—with the ‘80s/‘90s posturing of the religious right (and of certain New Democrat or blue dog allies, such as Tipper Gore). I had certainly heard of Fredric Wertham by the time I was 11 or 12, but, lacking good information, I pictured him as a Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan or Bill Bennett type.

As comics have over the last generation come under increased academic jurisdiction, though, readers have noticed that Wertham was in fact far more like the type of person who would today profess comics studies: a leftist less enamored of free speech than prior generations. (See, for instance, Chris Bishop’s very engaging and informative lecture.) In the introduction to the most recent edition of Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, James E. Reibman sets the record straight: “Of course, the irony in all this is that Fredric Wertham, a traditional left-wing European intellectual and product of the Enlightenment tradition, continues to be both castigated and characterized as a reactionary.”

Seduction of the Innocent, then, is in a very different genre from the Chick-tract-type screed; it is, rather, a lament over the demise of high bourgeois culture sung by an impeccably cultured exile of that culture’s European calamity. (Wertham was brought up within the humanistic milieu of the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie.) It is more like Theodor Adorno than Jesse Helms.

When read with the above understanding, Seduction of the Innocent is an almost sympathetic book. The psychiatrist Wetham was a crusader for racial equality who opened a clinic in Harlem (named after Paul Lafargue) for indigent black youth; he collaborated with or earned the praise of Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison and Thurgood Marshall. That comics promote racial hatred was, not at all unreasonably, one of his chief complaints:

If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, “ape men,” Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features.

He also charged comics with misogyny and the promotion of sadism. While psychoanalytically informed, he rejected Freud’s pessimism about human nature; a devoted reader of Dickens, he was a Rousseauist who did not believe in innate human aggression. No death drives or wills-to-power for him. He is at his most attractive in Seduction of the Innocent when fighting the almost eugenic contempt with which the judicial system and society at large treated young criminal offenders and their parents. He saw ordinary children and their parents as preyed upon by much larger social forces, which made it difficult for them to negotiate normative social life. As aware as he was of such oppressive forces as poverty and racism, though, he became convinced that comic books—and the industry behind them, which he viewed as a rapacious and amoral capitalist force—were an autonomous vector for cultural damage. Hence, his long and rather unfocused polemic against them.

Besides racism, misogyny, and sadism, Wetham also charged comics with poor aesthetic standards in everything from printing materials to spelling; with the promotion of crime and violence; with inspiring children to undertake all sorts of dangerous acts (jumping off the roof to try to fly like Superman, etc.); with numbing children’s sensibilities so that they could not appreciate great literature and art; and with being produced by an industry that mistreated its creators, strong-armed its distributors, and bought off off “experts” and politicians (he never states outright, but carefully implies, what we now know to be true of the early comics’ mafia connections, as elaborated by Chris Bishop in the lecture linked above).

Despite Wertham’s left-wing credentials, he shared the midcentury left’s dim view of homosexuality, seeing it as a lamentable form of maladjustment brought about by a corrupt society. For this reason, he is perhaps best remembered for his actually rather perceptive, if undeniably homophobic, attack on Batman as homoerotic text (this is another reason, I believe, that he was misremembered as right-wing by the time of my adolescence):

In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship is depicted to children before they can even read. Batman and Robin, the “dynamic duo,” also known as the “daring duo,” go into action in their special uniforms. They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. They lurk not only under every bed but also behind every star in the sky. Either Batman or his young boy friend or both are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.

Unfortunately for his credibility, he was also convinced that there were subliminal images in comics art, finding women’s pudenda and the like in the cross-hatching on a well-muscled hero’s shoulder; this is bizarre, because Wertham’s perfectly correct assessment of comics’ wretched business practices should have told him that nobody got paid enough to bother with such minutia!

And Wertham, to be fair, was not much of a totalitarian censor. His proposal was to ban the sale of “crime comics” to children under 15 (though “crime” was a pretty all-encompassing generic designation to him; he thought Donald Duck was, for all practical purposes, a crime comic). He was not for any kind of outright ban—and he was at pains to emphasize that he did not advocate any restriction on what adults could purchase and read. In his defense, one might note that the comics of the time really were wild and that today we accept without objection things like rating systems, which inform consumers without much interfering with free expression. On a more personal note, I might add that I agree with his defense of the subtler pleasures and greater intellectual demands of high culture against sensationalist mass-produced pop culture—but this, for me, is on grounds of aesthetics, not ethics or politics.

It is well and good to re-assess Wertham’s book with a greater understanding of his not totally unsympathetic intellectual position, but Seduction of the Innocent is still the product of a faulty worldview. For one thing, Wertham was in a sense not socialist enough; even if we accept that cultural objects can do mental harm to vulnerable children (and this remains an “if,” as far as I know), why blame cultural objects themselves and not the structural forces that create vulnerability in the first place? Furthermore, his Rouseauist/Dickensian picture of the unsullied innocent coming into the world to be snatched from the virtuous hands of his mother by greedy capitalists peddling smut may have been a welcome correction to some elitist and racist opinions of the innate inferiority of the poor; but even so, I don’t believe it does anyone any good in the long run to deny some of the harder truths of existence. Throughout the book, Wertham complains of Superman’s Nietzschean lineage (and if he grasped the irony that superheroes were created not by Aryan fascists but by assimilationist Jewish working-class immigrants’ sons, he does not mention it):

As our work went on we established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books: violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche’s superman who said, “When you go to women, don’t forget the whip.” We also found that what seemed at first like a problem in child psychology had much wider implications. Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?

But Nietzsche is already in the nursery, as is Freud. I have no desire to let theory obliterate common sense: it is surely better not to rear children exclusively on texts and images that are poor in quality and utterly cynical about sex and violence. Still, we are born with the full panoply of human potential, including the potential for aggression, greed, hate, sadism, masochism, and all the rest; as these are ineradicable, they are best confronted. Wertham spends a lot of time attacking what I believe is, even now, a consensus position among educators and psychologists: that some fantasy violence is not terrible for children and can even be an inoculation against the real thing.

As for Nietzsche, while he certainly wrote some disturbing sentences and was obviously taken up by some worse-than-dubious admirers, one fails to learns the lessons of The Genealogy of Morals at one’s peril. Just as Wertham’s polemic against sensationalism is amazingly sensationalist (seduction! of the innocent!), so too is his moral crusade no less an exercise in power-seeking than the actions of his opponents.

While Nietzsche may slight some of our nobler drives, I accept his argument that no human pursuit, not the most artistic or the most holy or the most egalitarian, is totally free from the quest to dominate or from impulses of aggression. To deny this is to leave oneself open to dangerous delusions of righteousness. Such delusions, it seems to me, have done more damage than violent comic books or pornography. The books that have proved most corrupting have been books like the Bible, the Koran, and The Communist Manifesto; surely, more people have been slaughtered for the ideals of Rousseau than for the anti-ideals of Sade.

A final word against censorship—and censoriousness, which I also dislike. The imposition of the restrictive comics code was the end result of Wertham’s activism. And the end result of the comics code was to put EC Comics out of business. EC’s company of superb writers and artists—Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, among others—were making thoughtful, humane, literary, beautiful comics that went some way toward correcting the flaws of comics that Wertham was most reasonable in pointing out, such as their simplistic worldview, their illiteracy, their racism, their intellectual poverty, and their low artistic standards. It would take almost thirty years for the promise of EC to begin to be realized, as the code eased off, and mainstream American comics could again pursue the creation of serious artistic work.

In short, Wertham did more damage to the artists who might have been his allies than he did to the crass and mobbed-up money-men of the industry itself, who simply adjusted, as such people always do. Feel free to take this as a parable directed at the Werthamites of today.

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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!

Élisabeth Roudinesco, Lacan: In Spite of Everything

Lacan: In Spite Of EverythingLacan: In Spite Of Everything by Elisabeth Roudinesco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, what is “everything”? And second, how does le maître survive in spite of it?

“Everything” for Roudinesco includes Lacan’s often obscurantist vocabulary; his late belief in mathematics as the key to formalizing his theories of subjectivity and society; his inability to run institutions (whether school or clinic) except for cultically; his encouragement of an elitist and asocial and apolitical psychoanalytic practice; and possibly, though Roudinesco doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, his own personal appetites (for women, wine, shoes, rare editions, etc.) and his cynicism (his disbelief in love, his parvenu’s fury against his small origins in a vinegar-merchant’s family).

This is not necessarily how an Anglo-American intellectual would draw the bill of indictment against Lacan. Even those of us with far greater sympathy than your average Oxbridge empiricist for speculative thought and visionary prose may have a low tolerance for the abstraction seemingly endemic to Continental theory. Ours is a language shaped by poets who pitted the subjugated dialect of the northern tribes against a Latinity that will always strike the Anglophone ear as malignly elite, as well as somehow effete—even those Anglophones (like myself) who are “ethnically” Latin and were reared in popery. And we certainly do not want psychoanalysts delivering political pronouncements!

But it is Lacan’s speculative and social thought that Roudinesco appreciates most. She has little patience for his scientism or his avant-garde commitment to the neologism, but hails him essentially as a responsible heir to the adventure of philosophical modernity, and one who successfully managed to pass it on to the rest of us, despite the globalization of Anglo-Saxon ideology. (“Us” here means mainly the French intelligentsia; this is a very “French” book in ways I am hard pressed to define, but can nevertheless obscurely sense.)

Roudinesco honors Lacan for his defense of an “enlightened conservatism” in a century of extremes. He scorned those (fascists) who would simply restore the patriarchy that had been largely deposed in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century, even as he regarded as naive (and doomed to repeat the tyranny they wished to overthrow) those (communists and libertarians) who would put in its place the reign of absolute freedom. Lacan’s was a mission to retain Law—conceived as the symbolic, the possibility of humans making sense at all—after the passing of the paternal imago, whether God or his surrogate, the paterfamilias. This freedom-within-law can only be achieved through the endless process of using language creatively and critically—in psychoanalysis, he thought, or, as I would amend, in imaginative literature.

This book is not exactly an introduction, and I found some of it rather abstract; the discussion of Antigone, for instance, eludes me and I hope to look up the relevant Lacanian text—or maybe just Judith Butler—someday. The section on Kant and Sade is suggestive though; I gather Lacan thought them the poles of modernity, Kant-as-authoritarian-modernism and Sade-as-capitalist-postmodernity, to both of which he would counterpose psychoanalysis to act as the new rationalism in which desire could be articulated within the bounds of the always incomplete symbolic. Contra his communist disciples, the Real is not representable and the attempt to manifest it will inevitably end in the catastrophic tyranny of a naively totalizing symbolic. I think—as I said, the book is suggestive, and that is what it suggested to me.

When it is not being polemical, this book occasionally indulges an idiom I associate with Borges or Calvino: long lists of exotica, the things Lacan loved or the things he owned. An illustrated book of Lacaniana might be interesting; the Jungians get such works published, why not the Lacanians?

This is the book of a partisan, so it isn’t “objective,” nor is it a very good primer. I suspect the target audience is probably someone like me—somebody who has studied the humanities extensively and knows a bit about Lacan but would like to know more. As the target audience, I enjoyed it; I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. It made me want to seek out more of Lacan’s works. Some more-or-less Lacanians were very influential in my undergraduate education—Colin MacCabe, Valerie Krips—and their way of thinking about literature still informs my own. But I was never able to make much headway with the texts of the man himself; his followers express themselves far more lucidly than he was concerned to. Nevertheless, I am stimulated by Roudinesco to go further, especially given her political polemic. I’d hoped for better in my receding youth, but it seems to me now that if the coming catastrophes of our civilization are as bad as some foretell, an “enlightened conservatism” may be the needed remedy.

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