Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne

Niels LyhneNiels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 1880 Danish novel was once immensely influential: it and its author were cited or praised by Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Rainer Maria Rilke. That is reason enough to read it for those interested in literary history, but it is also a superb psychological portrait of a failed artist, written in a style marked by startling imagery and precise emotional analysis (as conveyed in Tiina Nunnally’s 1990 translation published by Penguin Classics).

There are a number of historical -isms under which we could categorize Niels Lyhne. In its ruthless portrayal of middle-class life as actually lived behind the mask of bourgeois respectability, it resembles the disillusioning realism of mid-to-late 19th-century writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, and Ibsen. In its emphasis on the frail body and biological processes leading toward death, coupled with its concluding atheist rhetoric, it is a work of naturalism akin to that of Hardy, Zola, or Crane. In its plotless evocation of often morbid psychological states and in its focus on the artist as martyr to an uncomprehending society, it is a quintessential proto-modenist psychological novel like those of Dostoevsky, Huysmans, or Hamsun.

Such attempts at narrow categorization, though, would miss the larger issue: Jacobsen’s novel reflects and hastens the collapse, across a whole range of domains from geology to psychology, of prior forms of order and faith. Jacobsen, who translated Darwin into Danish and who died young (in 1885) after a long struggle with tuberculosis, tells the story of a character who tries to live, to love, and to make art when all the ideals that empowered prior generations, from Christianity in religion to Romanticism in literature, have been discredited by the ongoing revelation that a human being is only another animal.

Niels Lyhne, in keeping with a Darwinian concern for genealogy, begins with the eponymous hero’s parentage: a passionately idealistic mother and a far more prosaic businessman-farmer of a father. These two parents pull young Niels in two different directions, neither of which will be able to appease his simultaneous need to understand and to transcend reality. The author, unlike the hero, gets to have it both ways, though: he gratifies his idealism by narrating his characters’ perceptions of natural beauty and aesthetic or erotic rapture, even as, in so doing, he also provides a precise scientific description of the psyche:

Of course this was not as clear and definite in [Niels’s] childish consciousness as words can express it, but it was all there, unfinished, unborn, in a vague and intangible fetal form. It was like the strange vegetation of the lake bottom, seen through milky ice. Break up the ice or pull what is dimly alive out into the light of words, and the same thing happens—what can now be seen and grasped is, in its clarity, no longer the obscurity that it was.

The novel follows Niels from his childhood to the premature end of his life; it is organized around his major relationships, mainly with a series of idealized women along with male friends who act as de-idealizing counterweights and, sometimes, erotic rivals.

While Jacobsen’s prose often consists of the abstract notation of psychological states, he is also a writer of memorably vivid and sensory erotic scenes that convey the overwhelming sensuality of even seemingly trivial moments, as here with Niels encounters his older cousin, Edele, who comes to stay with the family shortly before her untimely death from tuberculosis, the first of many such early deaths in the story:

“Give me that over there,” she said, pointing to a red bottle lying on a crumpled handkerchief by her feet.

Niels went over to it; he was beet-red, and as he bent over those matte-white, gently curving legs and those long, narrow feet that had something of a hand’s intelligence in their finely cradled contours, he felt quite faint; when, at the same moment, the tip of one foot curled downward with a sudden movement, he was just about to collapse.

Edele’s death brings Niels to his first rebellion against God, the cruel deity who took such a young and beautiful life:

He thought with the mind of the conquered, felt with the heart of the defeated, and he understood that if what wins is good, what surrenders is not necessarily bad; and so he took sides, said that his side was better, felt that it was greater, and called the victorious force tyrannical and violent.

His next major relationship is to his an older boy named Erik, another cousin, with whom he enjoys idyllic boyhood escapades that provide a later model of intelligent, realistic play rather than just dreaming fantasy. This relationship, precisely because it is devoid of the erotic as such, proves more satisfying, even if it does not end more happily, than Niels’s relationships with women:

Of all the emotional relationships in life, is there any more delicate, more noble, and more intense than a boy’s deep and yet so totally bashful love for another boy?

When the seemingly un-artistic Erik goes to Copenhagen to pursue sculpture, Niels follows and falls in with the urban demimonde, reflecting on the pleasures and sorrows of bohemia. There he has an abortive love affair with an older and more experienced widow, Fru Boye. Though described as child-like (all Niels’s love interests are both child-like and resemble his mother in their passionate iconoclasm—obviously a case for Jacobsen’s contemporary Freud), Fru Boye speaks eloquently against the lingering Romanticism of Niels’s artist friends. She upholds instead the earthly complexity of Shakespeare:

“[G]ood God, why can’t we be natural? Oh, I know full well that courage is what’s missing. Neither artists nor poets have the courage to to acknowledge human beings for what they are—but Shakespeare did.”

Sounding like one of Ibsen’s feminist heroines, Fru Boye is also the first to tell Niels that his idealization of women, in which we might have thought Jacobsen’s lyrical prose to be complicit, is oppressive and destructive:

“[T]hat adoration, in its fanaticism, is basically tyrannical. We are forced to fit into the man’s ideal. Like Cinderella, chop off a heel and snip off a toe! Whatever in us does not match up with his ideal image has to be banished, if not by subjugation then by indifference, by systematic neglect… I call that violence against our nature.”

After Niels’s affair with Fru Boye ends with her own withdrawal to the financial and social safety of bourgeois domesticity, Niels loses his beloved mother, whose impassioned pursuit of the ideal started it all. Fittingly, she dies amid the novel’s most visionary and redemptive writing, with an intermittent vision of nature as unity:

…for that was the time when yellow-lit evening mists hid the Jura Mountains, and the lake, red as a copper mirror with golden flames scalloped by the sun-red glow, seemed to merge with the radiance of the heavens into one vast, brilliant sea of infinity, then once in a great while it was as if her longing were silenced and her soul had found the land that it sought.

Then Niels and Erik both fall in love with the same woman, a seemingly guileless teenager named Fennimore. Her choice of Erik, her regret for that choice, and her consequent disastrous relationship with Niels brings the novel to its violent emotional climax, and with this climax we realize that every relationship in this narrative will end with either the death of a disappointed rebel or the chastened return of a disappointed rebel to the fold of normative society. Or both at once, as the novel’s conclusion proves: Niels at last seemingly finds happiness with another young woman. They marry, have a child, and together espouse atheism and humanism (“There is no God and the human being is His prophet,” Niels had earlier affirmed), so much so that it shocks their neighbors. Yet at the now-familiar approach of inexorable premature death, can doubt win out over faith? The answer varies by dying character, but Niels himself ends a lonely hero of integrity confronting death in fidelity to the anti-ideal that there is no God, no transcendence, no salvation.

That summation and those excerpts should indicate why the novel proved so influential. It is a very distinguished entrant in a line of novels running from Melville’s Pierre and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Mann’s Magic Mountain, novels in which the budding hero of the bildungsroman and the nascent artist of the künstlerroman fail to develop into good citizens or great artists, crushed as they are by a cruel society and an uncaring cosmos. Niels Lyhne had its greatest impact on American literature through its influence on the half-Danish Nella Larsen, whose great novella of the Harlem Renaissance, Quicksand, extends this doleful narrative pattern by applying it to a black woman rather than to a white man, showing that the existential dilemma may be the same, but that it manifests itself differently due to social circumstance and identity.

But we should not be as careless as the Twitterati sometimes are when, in unwitting imitation of the white supremacists they claim to fight, they fling around the word “white” so much that they efface variations and hierarchies within the non-unity that was and is Europe. What made Scandinavian, Russian, and Irish literature so potent and influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like Latin American literature in the late 20th century) was precisely its coming from Europe’s periphery, from marginal or dominated nations able to look with a critical eye on both the provincial traditions they were struggling to transcend and the metropolitan modernity that often felt forced from above. Niels Lyhne participates in this modernist revolt from the European fringe, so it is no wonder the novel would inspire artists on the fringes of other polities or collectives.

Niels Lyhne is also admittedly flawed. As Jacobsen’s narrative method is mainly descriptive rather than dramatic, it often lacks tension, and its characters’ complexity tends to be abstractly asserted rather than vividly depicted. Georg Lukács, in his Theory of the Novel, faulted the book on these grounds. Lukács blames the hero’s alienation from society for the novel’s inability to portray reality in the round:

The precondition and the price of this immoderate elevation of the subject is, however, the abandonment of any claim to participate in the shaping of the outside world. […] Jacobsen’s novel of disillusionment, which expresses in wonderful lyrical images the author’s melancholy over a world ‘in which there’s so much that is senselessly exquisite’, breaks down and disintegrates completely; and the author’s attempt to find a desperate positiveness in Niels Lyhne’s heroic atheism, his courageous acceptance of his necessary loneliness, strikes us as an aid brought in from outside the actual work. This hero’s life which was meant to become a work of literature and instead is only a poor fragment, is actually transformed into a pile of débris by the form-giving process; the cruelty of disillusionment devalues the lyricism of the moods, but it cannot endow the characters and events with substance or with the gravity of existence. The novel remains a beautiful yet unreal mixture of voluptuousness and bitterness, sorrow and scorn, but not a unity; a series of images and aspects, but not a life totality.

Lukács’s judgment is not wrong exactly, but, with his characteristic Hegelian censure of the anti-social, he also misses the point, as he so often does when discussing naturalism and modernism. Niels Lyhne may not give us social reality in three dimensions, but it gives us what can be more rewarding to the individual reader: invaluable and eloquent testimony to the feelings of despair, loneliness, and nihilism that our disillusioning world so often provokes in us.


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Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism

The Meaning of Contemporary RealismThe Meaning of Contemporary Realism by Georg Lukács

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have always been attracted to the idea that art was more than about taste. Tabooed by postmodernism, which understands art and its appreciation to be wholly contingent social constructs serving various and sundry vested interests, this intuition that art could be not merely pleasing or instrumental but actually true has the allure of the illicit. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth writes contemptuously of

those who will converse with us as gravely about a taste for Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry. Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature.

The aesthetic is often attacked in the name of morality, but “morality,” in its association with moeurs and mores—local, relative, and even provincial customs—is just another way of saying “taste.” Victorian morality proscribed unpunished adultery; ours proscribes unpunished racism. Morality’s doubles in today’s critical discourse are compassion or empathy, but these are less reliable even than taste, as they are little better than moods—capricious, evanescent, blown hither and yon by every propagandist with a tearjerking photo or a few resonant phrases. Ethics and politics are higher than morals, which is to say also that principle is superior to compassion. One point of aesthetics, so Wordsworth implies above, is to bring principle (or truth) alive in the heart through passion. If art’s passionate incarnation of truth is made subject to the merely moral, is put to the test of making us feel better about each other or—what is actually being asked for in most moralistic criticism today—feel pity for our inferiors, then its actual service in bringing our human emotion into accord with the truth will be obviated. To make art about morality, no less than making it about taste, is to cleave truth from passion.

Can I really believe this? I would have to believe in some prior security for truth—God is the most popular—to believe that art could body forth reality and not someone’s or some group’s self-serving notion of what reality is. In other words, I find the above as untenable and intolerable as you do, ridden with metaphysics and implicitly imperial. But I am, as I said, attracted to it. It has for me the forbidden, almost erotic glow exhibited by many forbidden ideas, often for no better reason than because they are forbidden, and sometimes rightly so. This is the basis of my long dalliance with the literary criticism of Georg Lukács, which I was reminded of when I added the early Lukács to my personal canon; but it was not necessarily only the early Lukács that exerted a certain fascination for me. My joke in graduate school was, “Lukács is my Heidegger.” In other words, while all the other theory boys were worrying over their affinity for the Nazi philosopher, I—who found and find Heidegger disagreeable-to-incomprehensible, his vatic abstractions and woodland divagations totally at odds with my urban, novelistic sensibility—was worrying over my affinity for the Stalinist critic.

One of the ironies of the last century is that the defense of art as truth—which will scan to most younger western readers today as a conservative or reactionary position—was most ardently upheld by Marxist critics, none more than Lukács in his later work, after he had abandoned the revolutionary romanticism of his early criticism and philosophy. Without the “right-wing anti-capitalism” (Lukács’s own later term of self-reproach) of The Theory of the Novel and perhaps even History and Class Consciousness, the Western Marxism of Benjamin and Adorno would not have been possible. But Benjamin’s and Adorno’s negative dialectic, their insistence that wholeness can only be intuited through the inspection of ruins, their identification of culture as both the flower of and the justification for oppression, would be abandoned in the name of progressive and humanist optimism by the older Lukács.

If modernist Marxists like Adorno and Benjamin saw art as the photo negative of truth, the classical Marxist Lukács, in his hatred of modernism, believed art could be the photograph itself—or, to vary the metaphor and allude to the classics, “a mirror up to nature.” Communist criticism in the middle of the twentieth century inherited the traditional aesthetic canons of western civilization; liberal and fascist aesthetics, intersecting at any number of points from Nietzsche and Wilde to Sontag and de Man, were far more revolutionary in their sundering of art and truth.

The Meaning of Contemporary Realism was written in the mid-1950s. The Stalinist era had ended, and Lukács, who had been a Communist loyalist since the 1930s, finally felt free to criticize both Stalin and socialist realism as fatally out of touch with the realities of Soviet life. The purpose of the book is twofold, largely because it is addressed to both Western and Eastern audiences.

For the Westerner, Lukács arraigns literary modernism as, at best, an evasion of history or, at worst, an adjunct of fascism or nuclear war (Lukács argues in this book that the peace movement must take precedence over the struggle of the world proletariat if World War III is to be avoided; this seems to be the main reason for his overture to Western European audiences). Modernist literature, he claims, upholds a pessimistic worldview, promotes a distorted and ahistorical sense of time, champions the morbid and eccentric at the expense of the typical, and makes artistic form—rather than truth or progress—an end in itself. Whether the meaningless subjectivism of Joyce and Faulkner or the nihilistic surrealism of Kafka or Beckett, modernism enervates the historical subject just when he should be readying for historical struggle toward, first, peace, and second, communism. His case to the Eastern audience can be put more shortly: Lukács stresses that socialist realism, with its utopian fantasias of unreal Communist achievement, is no less vitiating to true progressives than is modernism; not unlike Kafka, socialist realism also puts a subjective fantasy in place of reality.

Against these dominant but decadent aesthetics of the Western and Eastern blocs, Lukács champions “critical realism”—the attempt to capture the complexity of real social life through the portrayal of socially typical protagonists engaged in dynamic struggles. That the great critical realists were bourgeois or even aristocratic—his heroes are Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mann—is no obstacle, provided the bourgeois novelist understands that socialism is the future, at least in the sense that it is the logical, even if it will not be the phenomenal, outcome of the class struggle.

Lukács’s twentieth-century canon will look absurd to the contemporary reader—to prefer Mann to Kafka is certainly arguable, but to elevate Sinclair Lewis over Joyce is, ultimately, not. Admirers of Joyce and Kafka will boggle at Lukács’s insensitivity to their political insight; admirers of Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mann will laugh at his inability to recognize their own perversity.

My question, though, is the following: are we as far from Lukács as we might think we are when turning his pages, laden as they are with a largely bygone and rebarbative jargon?

Sontag, in her brisk review of this very book when it was published in the U.S. in the early 1960s, understood the stakes well; to the review she appended this more sweepingly dismissive postscript in Against Interpretation:

What all the culture critics who descend from Hegel and Marx have been unwilling to admit is the notion of art as autonomous (not merely historically interpretable) form. And since the peculiar spirit which animates the modern movements in the arts is based on, precisely, the rediscovery of the power (including the emotional power) of the formal properties of art, these critics are poorly situated to come to sympathetic terms with modern works of art, except through their “content.” Even form is viewed by the historicist critics as a kind of content.

But we have just been informed, as I was saying, that art as autonomous form is an idea that has been abandoned and discredited. Freedom in the liberal sense—the individual’s freedom from organized social interference—is the political premise of apolitical, i.e., autonomous art.

You might say: To scrutinize aesthetic objects as political, to insist that all art is propaganda and that the personal is the political, is unavoidably to advance a totalitarian position. To politicize everything is to designate everything as subject to centralized control. (This is, among other things, what it means to “descend from Hegel and Marx,” as the left does. Reading Lukács, I am fascinated to recognize how many words are unproblematically circulated in liberal discourse today, such as “humanist” and “progressive” and “oppression,” that have their proximate origin in the lexicon of Communist propaganda.)

To this, the political critic will reply that the warrant for this anti-liberal totalization of art is clear enough: liberalism leaves so many unfree, perhaps as the condition of its own possibility, that the freedom it does provide is either a sham or the ethically unjustified enjoyment of an elite class. Lukács defines freedom very differently from the liberal:

‘[F]reedom’ [is] understood here, of course, as conscious acceptance of historical necessity—a necessity which subsumes much that is apparently arbitrary.

It follows logically from this that the purpose of art, for Lukács as for Wordsworth and Aristotle, is not to be free but to provide images of the necessity to which we are subject, so that we may accede to it. On the nature of this necessity, they differed; my point is their shared conception of the purpose of art. This is what it means for art to be about more than taste; it has to be about knowledge or faith or else a certainty of the truth that the facts portend, which makes knowledge and faith indivisible. Call it God or History, it helps you write your plot and tells you who the hero is. That art could have no purpose, no plot, no hero, was once a new idea and is now considered a superseded one. But so far, as I have said above, it has only been superseded—admittedly, at times, supremely intelligently and very movingly—by appeals to moral judgment, itself as arbitrary as autonomous aesthetic criteria.

Am I saying that contemporary political critics should shut their Rorty and open their Lukács? Only for the sake of their intellectual consistency, and not because I want to disseminate Communist ideals. For myself, reading this book was enough to glut my illicit appetite for now. I return to my defense of art’s autonomy, which is either the effect or, more radically, the cause of the individual’s autonomy—even if I too have days where my answer to Lukács’s question, “Franz Kafka or Thomas Mann?” is for the latter. (Was I the only person lured to Marxism by a preference for the classics?) One virtue of individualism, though, is that it always allows you to reply to a forced choice like that not with an answer but with a question of your own: who says I have to choose?


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A Personal Canon

tumblr_opa7lamDgA1qgqrwho1_1280A number of book bloggers are posting their personal canons. They are very fun: see here, here, and here, for instance. (It reminds me of the “literary pillars” exercise inspired by William H. Gass; see Samuel R. Delany’s here and Brian A. Oard’s beautifully comprehensive one, starting here.)

I thought to do the same, but the problem is that when it comes to imaginative literature (i.e., fiction, poetry, drama, and related) I have no personal canon, or my personal canon just is the canon. Greatest writer of the modern west? Shakespeare. Greatest English novel? Middlemarch. Greatest twentieth-century novel? Ulysses. My favorite lyric poem, I tell you no lie, is the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” My favorite living American writers really are Roth, DeLillo, and Morrison. In the last twelve months, I have made the staggering, unbelievable discovery that Mann, Pushkin, and Walcott are great writers.

Granted, I have revealing and sometimes even perverse preferences among the pantheon—these days, at least, I will take Dostoevsky over Tolstoy; I like Hawthorne, Dickinson, and James better than Melville, Whitman, and Twain; I have even lately been toying with a preference for Cather over Faulkner—but not even the slightly more outré among my well-liked books (Nightwood) or writers (Cynthia Ozick) want for general appreciation. My favorite comic book writer is Alan Moore, for the love of God!

I have never been a great hunter after literary obscurities, a comber of small-press catalogues, a seeker into the unjustly uncanonized, a devourer of rare translations from heretofore-unheralded national literatures. This undoubtedly marks me a bad person—small-minded and complacent, a Little-Englander of the soul. All the same, Emerson has a good if questionable passage on this theme in “Experience”:

[I]n popular experience, everything good is on the highway. A collector peeps into all the picture-shops of Europe, for a landscape of Poussin, a crayon-sketch of Salvator; but the Transfiguration, the Last Judgment, the Communion of St. Jerome, and what are as transcendent as these, are on the walls of the Vatican, the Uffizii, or the Louvre, where every footman may see them; to say nothing of nature’s pictures in every street, of sunsets and sunrises every day, and the sculpture of the human body never absent. A collector recently bought at public auction, in London, for one hundred and fifty-seven guineas, an autograph of Shakspeare: but for nothing a school-boy can read Hamlet, and can detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein. I think I will never read any but the commonest books, — the Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton.

Then it occurred to me that I could rescue the project of a personal canon by focusing strictly on works of non-fiction that have formed my thinking. As far as non-fiction goes, I tend to read literary criticism and theory, philosophy (not as much as I should), and, broadly speaking, political thought. Every year I resolve to read more history, biography, and science, and every year I remain as ill-informed on these subjects as a young-earth creationist. On the other hand, I make no apology for my wariness of memoir and autobiography; VIPs’ autobios are ghostwritten, and literary types who want to dilate half-imaginarily upon grief or education or illness or family life should just write novels like the rest of us. (Obvious exceptions leap to mind—please don’t think I fail to admire Frederick Douglass, to name only one—but in our memoir-glutted age I stand by my point.)

Anyway, here follows, on this endless rainy Sunday, a lightly-annotated list of some non-fictional books that have meant something to me over the years. I have slightly cheated by leaving out works that I once found persuasive but now feel myself, rightly or wrongly, to have outgrown (e.g., John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or James Wood’s The Broken Estate, to say nothing of historically local political polemics that are now in the proverbial historical dustbin where they probably belong). The following books have not so much convinced me of something, so that I can be unconvinced of it later, but have provided me with models for how to think about anything.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae. Perhaps the most controversial item on the list. I read it in my senior year of high school. While I do not agree with its every willful provocation, it articulates a thesis that remains foundational for me: there will always be a nightside to our lives, always something dark and destructive in our desires, and art (or criticism) must not neglect this truth out of some misplaced faith—Christian, liberal, or otherwise—that incorrigible humanity could ever be totally enlightened. Also, even if she does, we should not let Paglia-the-provocateur stand in the light of Paglia-the-supreme-close-reader, particularly of lyric poetry, painting, and sculpture.

Roland Barthes, S/Z. The first and in a way last piece of “French theory” to blow my mind in college. I read it in a junior seminar alongside a selection of contemporary world novels, such as The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, and True History of the Kelly Gang. Barthes’s subtleties eluded me—especially all the seeming Lacaniana about castration—and I have never revisited the book (please don’t ask me about the “five codes” Barthes posits), but its argument on behalf of a literature that requires the reader to make a writerly effort remains one of the most appealing defenses of artistic difficulty I know: “The writerly is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation, writing without style, production without product, structuration without structure.” On reflection, this strikes me as a witless antinomianism, suggestive less of modernist experimentation than of process-not-product poetry slams, but what can I say, I needed to hear it at a certain time in my reading and writing life; probably everyone does.

Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. The first and in a way last work of literary theory to blow my mind in graduate school, read in my first semester. In a sensible world, Lukács would be more controversial than Paglia. Of all literary theory’s problematic faves, he was the only one, to my knowledge, who actually ordered men to be killed (as if to demand, “Top that, Paul de Man!”). This book dates from just before the unpleasantness of his communist years, though it is clearly the work of a man at the end of his tether, trembling on the precipice of some kind of religious conversion. The dense but lyrical language of this grand little essay as it charts the historical missions and destinies of the great literary genres from epic to novel is strangely moving: Lukács wants so badly to believe in literature. In the end, he had to find something he thought larger to believe in, already implicit here: History. The rest of us are left with this book’s doleful, dead-end wisdom: “Irony, the self-surmounting of a subjectivity that has gone as far as it was possible to go, is the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God.”

John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern and Straw Dogs. A pattern: I am a latecomer to the primary sources. As I read Lukács before Hegel (and don’t ask how much Hegel), I read Gray before Schopenhauer (don’t ask etc.). With the later Lukács’s left-Hegelian faith in historical progress waning in me early in graduate school as I contemplated the ruins of Bush’s right-Hegelian America and of leftish academe, it was fortuitous for me to discover a philosophical pessimism, a conservative anti-humanism, that was very nearly humane, or at least pacific. I admired Gray’s insistence that precisely because humans were not special and were not capable of progress we should care for each other and the world—though cautiously, much more cautiously than Hegel’s stormtroopers, whether the Marxist totalitarians of the twentieth century or the twenty-first-century neocon imperialists in Mesopotamia, lest we destroy what beauty and order we have actually managed to create.

Plato, Phaedrus. I told you I come late to the primary sources! Sure, I had read the Apology and the famous parts of the Republic and even—with the late Heda Segvic, an extraordinary lecturer—the Protagoras, not to mention some of Derrida’s characteristically impenetrable Platonic commentary in Dissemination, so I knew a little about Plato (not enough; I still don’t). I took up the Phaedrus, alongside the Symposium, in this Hackett edition with its weirdly sexy cover—if you want a “sex sells” cover for your Plato on Love book, it should probably show two men in bed together—mainly because I was writing a dissertation chapter on Wilde and wanted to know more about his Platonism. I was not prepared for the infinite regress of this self-devouring dialogue, a written polemic against writing, an erotic argument against eros, a supreme demonstration of the identity of opposites on the highest level, despite its, or Socrates’s, overt advocacy for one side (idealism, chastity, speech) over the other (materialism, lust, writing). If irony is our substitute for a transcendence we can neither attain nor cease from believing in, this is its Gospel.

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of CriticismI should have read it in high school; alas, I got to it only after the Ph.D. The way my teachers talked, you’d have thought all criticism before 1968 was either naïve or vicious. Frye’s total vision of literature—as a mobile ensemble of modes, symbols, myths, and genres, like some perpetual motion sculpture of the Ptolemaic cosmos, embodying the entire life cycle of the human person and the human collective—proves that at least one body of pre-cultural-revolution criticism was at once immeasurably sophisticated and boundlessly hopeful. (A Christian, Frye saw his cyclical narrative paradoxically culminating in comedy, but this is no less arbitrary than having it culminate it tragedy, like Gray, or in irony, like the young Lukács; the question is when you stop spinning the wheel.) It is probably true that this vast system slights the complexities of any one of its constituent elements; using Frye to “read” a poem would likely end in a nightmare of insensitive reductivism. But considered as a poem—an authentic twentieth-century epic with literature as its voyaging warrior—Anatomy of Criticism is unforgettable.

Gillian Rose, Love’s Work and Mourning Becomes the Law. An unexpected conclusion, for two reasons: the first book is a memoir (read circa 2010), and the second I am reading currently. Love’s Work, Rose’s deathbed testament (she died in middle age of ovarian cancer), is a staggering meditation on how to live and think in the midst of agony and evil: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not,” she counsels, quoting St. Silouan. Mourning Becomes the Law is a collection of philosophical essays arguing against the manifold forms of despair offered by contemporary art and thought, from deconstruction to pragmatism; returning to Plato, she shows that if we had no transcendent vantage, we could not criticize the here and now in the name of any value, whether justice or love or beauty. That we can find no warrant now for such a vantage is, she implies, no excuse. She converted to Christianity in her final days.

The previous entries in this private canon perhaps gather here, now arrayed in a pattern leading to Rose: unable to avoid our dark side (per Paglia), we must labor to reinterpret it (per Barthes) in a light disclosed by the ironic apprehension that all is not as it should be (per Lukács) or is even nothing in itself (per Gray), compared to some paradisal totality (per Plato), some divine comedy (per Frye), that we can imagine but not directly experience. This is too neat a narrative though, so I provide one more entry, out of the previous temporal sequence (I read this book between the Barthes and the Lukács, at around age 24) and not so weightily metaphysical:

J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores. Nobody is supposed to outgrow anything anymore—you should love Batman at 47 as much as you did when you were 11—but I feel I am always getting too big for at least some of my prior reading; so it is with Coetzee’s novels (Disgrace excepted, I assume, though I’m too scared to go back and reread it). His early work is the highest literary expression liberal guilt has ever received, and his later work is an Eliotic cry to God, but his dryness and his spareness come to feel more and more like, if not a gimmick, then a disqualifying limitation. The dryness and spareness of his criticism, though, is a tonic for someone like me, an eager-to-impress cultural parvenu reared early on showboating critic-essayists (not only Paglia, but also Bloom, Sontag, Hitchens, and Vidal). Coetzee never showboats; he describes the work under review patiently and precisely, adding context, explicating difficulties, and carefully noting strengths and weaknesses. These essays are so free from heavy weather that, compared to the grandeur above, they scarcely seem written at all. And the last piece in this book, “What Is a Classic?”, must be one of the twentieth century’s great literary essays: it testifies that after you have charted every material determinant and political injustice underlying your experience of art, you will still be left—if the art is strong enough—with an experience of otherworldly grace, near-Platonic transcendence, and that the passing on of this experience (or its means) through education defines the classic.

Weightily metaphysical after all, and neatly narrative too: if all goes well, your personal canon becomes a public one in the end.


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