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Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

The Soul of the Marionette by John GrayThe Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, John Gray (Penguin 2015)

The philosopher John Gray is an interesting mixture of conservative and liberal, like a cross between Roger Scruton and a Guardian-reader. Like Scruton, he writes well, eschews pretension and offers some good critiques of liberalism. Unfortunately, he shares something else with Scruton: he seems to know very little about human biology and genetics. I’ve never seen him suggest that culture has biological roots, for example, or hint that human beings are more than superficially different. Does he really believe that Icelanders, Somalis and Japanese are part of a single, more or less identical human race?

If he doesn’t, he’s keeping very quiet. Perhaps he’s being prudent. It wouldn’t be good for him to deny the central dogma of modern liberalism: that we’re all the same under the skin. It would distress his many fans in the Guardian-reading community, lose him his reviewing gig at the New Statesman and make it much harder for him to get books published. But something else may stop him publishing books: the passage of time. Like the Oozalum bird, he seems to be moving in ever-decreasing circles and his books are getting shorter and shorter. If he goes on like this, by 2025 he’ll be issuing postcards.

Perhaps he should already be issuing them. If The Soul of the Marionette were a postcard, this is what might be on it:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.

That’s Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” I agree with Kant, but I would say that some human timber is crookeder than others. Gray doesn’t say this. He’s got the Guardian-reading community to think of. Instead, he illustrates the imperfectability and illusions of humanity by discussing writers like Heinrich von Kleist, Bruno Schulz, Giacomo Leopardi, Philip K. Dick, Stanislav Lem, Borges, Poe and so on. We think we’re free but we aren’t. Our behaviour has mysterious roots and takes place in an often unknowable world. This emphasis on literature helps explain his appeal to Guardianistas: lit crit is much more to their taste than genetics or neurology. Gray flatters his readers’ intellects without ever discussing the concept of intellect or intelligence.

How are they relevant, after all? We’re all the same under the skin and have been for many millennia. That’s the central dogma of liberalism. In fact, we aren’t the same and big differences between human groups can evolve very quickly. If Gray recognized this, he would have even stronger reason to attack the illusions of men like George Bush, Tony Blair and the neo-conservatives, who thought that democracy could be brought to the Middle East using violence. For example, he wrote a mordantly funny “Modest Proposal” in defence of torture, which was collected in Gray’s Anatomy (2010). There’s nothing as powerful as that here, but I think the writing is better here. The ideas are often vague but always interesting and you’ll want to try the authors he discusses, if you haven’t already. All the same, I would prefer more genetics and less lit crit.

His Guardianista fans wouldn’t like more genetics, but that’s precisely why I would. Prominent among the distressed Guardianistas would be Will Self. He’s one of those thanked at the end of this book for “conversations that stirred the thoughts” that went into it. Self’s friendship with Gray, like Self’s friendship with J.G. Ballard, is a worrying sign to me. It’s also puzzling. Gray thanks Nassim Taleb at the end of the book too. How is possible for him to take both those men seriously? Taleb is a highly intelligent and interesting writer. Self is a tedious charlatan. He’s also full of liberal illusions about the unity of humanity and the benefits of mass immigration. If Gray is still writing books in 2025, I hope Self is no longer a fan of his. I certainly think the illusions of Self will have been even more starkly exposed by then.

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Lives in Writing by David LodgeLives in Writing, David Lodge (Vintage Books 2015)

I’ve never spent a wet Sunday in Hartlepool during a power-cut. Honest. You can probably say the same. However, there are various ways of approximating the experience in the comfort of your own home. You could watch some paint dry, for example. Or you could try reading this book.

In other words: Lives in Writing is deeply, will-to-live-drainingly dreary. David Lodge is a big literary name of the kind I’ve always instinctively avoided. But this is a collection of essays on writers, not one of his novels or books on literary theory, and I thought I could learn something from it. I was right: I did. I learnt that my instincts about Lodge were correct:

The name of Frank Kermode first impinged on my consciousness in 1954, when I was a second-year undergraduate reading English at University College London. In our Shakespeare course we had lectures from Winifred Nowottny, who in due course would be a colleague of Frank’s when he occupied the Lord Northcliffe chair at UCL. (“Frank Remembered – by a Kermodian”, pg. 153)

In 1961, aged twenty-six, I was in my second year as Assistant Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham University when the Head of Department, Professor Terence Spencer, decided that we ought to have a specialist in American Literature, and accordingly advertised a post for one. (“Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”, pg. 165)

Can you detect any irony in the phrase “impinged on my consciousness”? Me neither. Does your heart quicken at a title like “Malcolm Bradbury: Friend and Writer”? I hope not. But prose like that is certainly inspirational. It inspired me to create a new verb: to plodge, meaning “to write ploddingly dreary prose in the manner of David Lodge”. I don’t think much of English Literature as an academic subject and Lodge helpfully confirms some of my keyest, corest prejudices. He’s a virtuso of ennui, able to be dreary both at length and in brief. Even the titles of his books shrink the horizon and lower the sky: Language of Fiction; Modes of Modern Writing; Working with Structuralism; After Bakhtin; Write On.

Would I rather read a Will Self novel than one of those? It’s frightening that the thought even occurs to me. But I’ll say this for Lodge: he’s not as bad as Terry Eagleton or Christopher Hitchens. Those two are gasbags bloated with self-importance and self-righteousness, spectacularly, sky-swallowingly bad writers. And Lodge himself might agree. After all, he tries to let a little gas out of Eagleton in his review of After Theory (2003):

There are sentences that should never have got past the first draft on his computer screen, let alone into print, like: ‘Much of the world as we know it, despite its solid, well-uphoulstered appearance, is of recent vintage.’ (In the next sentence this uphoulstered vintage is thrown up by tidal waves.) (“Terry Eagleton’s Goodbye to All That”, pg. 131)

But he praises Eagleton too and salutes the “brilliant generation of French intellectuals” – Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, Foucault et al – who were “key figures” in the evolution of modern literary theory. So I’m pleased that he devotes a long essay to Graham Greene and mentions Evelyn Waugh only in passing. That’s the way I would have wanted it. There’s an essay about Kingsley Amis too, which is also good. Alas, William Burroughs doesn’t get plodged, but you can’t have everything. However, you can have a wet Sunday in Hartlepool, metaphorically speaking. Just try Lives in Writing.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Ink for Your PelfLiterary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton

Cigarettes and Al-QaedaHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

Reds under the Thread – Younge, Eagleton et al

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