Literary Senescence

The New York Times, on September 11th, published an article by the critic A.O. Scott in which he bemoans what he identifies as a trend towards the adolescent in contemporary culture. The Young Adult sector, he proclaims, is on the rise in the reading and viewing habits of American adults in no small part because of the decline of certain figures of the patriarchy. The article, which borders on misogyny the way Russia borders on the Ukraine, is either derivative of or woefully unaware of a number of earlier diagnoses of the sad state of the American man– even in the classical era of the Father-Knows-Best style of patriarchy that Scott claims is passing, pop culture frequently depicted men as bumbling and immature, grown children requiring the constant attention of a woman. Stanley Cavell pointed that out long ago, in work that resembles Scott’s in some ways, except that Cavell isn’t a pretentious dilettante. Equally absent from the piece is any mention of David Foster Wallace’s 1997 diagnosis of the decline of the Great Male Narcissist, or GMN for short. The problem, of course, isn’t that Scott didn’t mention Cavell and Wallace– it’s that the piece lacks any sort of historical sense at all. He’s basically right, I think, in assaulting Mad Men’s “meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past,” but at least the show has some sense of history, however problematic. Scott, besides a few vague allusions to Huck Finn, seems to have none at all. I don’t want to talk about the article in any more depth for two reasons. Firstly, because it makes me apoplectic and secondly because all you need to know about it is that everything that is wrong below is exponentially worse in the Scott.
Christopher Beha, responding to Scott, among others, in The New Yorker, does substantially better. His essay is constructed around his recent reading of Henry James’s corpus of works, which provides him several things, most importantly a means to consider the social realities of the “eat-your-vegetable” tone that attaches to reading Serious Works of Literature.  And the essay is at its most charming and also makes it most important cultural statement, in my view, at least, when he writes that: “Occasionally, reading James stopped being fun and, when it did, I stopped reading him, sometimes for months at a time. Eventually, I came back, because so few other writers offer the particular pleasures that James does.” I don’t mean to be dismissive of the rest of the article, which makes many fine points and did much to broaden my sense of the frame of the current debate, whose lineage Beha traces through a bunch of thoroughly ignorable Slate and Salon articles and through a worthwhile James Wood piece. Rather, I think Beha’s doing something important when he describes his approach to reading James.  Vegetables taste much better when they’re not force-fed to you with stern lectures about the moral virtues of consuming them. The same should be true of literature. In general, Beha’s incredibly compelling as an advocate for James, who, I will confess, is a writer I’ve always wanted to enjoy but never have. I am tempted to try again now. And more generally, Beha is great when he writes in praise of real literacy– affable, engaging, and with a generally low pretension to erudition ratio. Beha makes you want to read widely, passionately, and constantly. There are few more positive things I can think to say about a critic. On the question of Young Adult fiction, and of the status of adulthood in contemporary culture more broadly, however I disagree with Beha fundamentally. The matters of taste that distinguish us here are, I think, finally unimportant– Beha, like James Wood, hated Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which I thought was tremendous. Their prerogative, certainly. Part of the appeal of the book, for me though is exactly what Wood and Beha seem to dislike about it– that it takes place in an admittedly simplified and contrived world whose relationship to our own is not entirely clear. The aesthetic that both Beha and Wood espouse in their response to The Goldfinch is realist to the core. When Wood writes that he, “kept on trying to imagine a different novel, stripped of its unreasonable raison d’être and its childish sweets, a more rigorous fiction entitled, perhaps, not “The Goldfinch” but just “Theo Decker,” it’s hard not to read the rigor he’s referring to as a rigorous adherence to the conventions of realist fiction, as practiced, for example, by Henry James. It is a fine preference to have. But the problem is that Wood’s article subtly conflates a realist aesthetics with literary seriousness, and Beha then doubles down by underscoring the connections between this emphatically serious aesthetic and stylistic difficulty, which his essay implies is integral to the novel’s status as a Work Of Art. When Wood writes, disparagingly, that, “the point is not the disclosure of a meaningful reality but the management of continuous artifice, a proffered tray of delicious narrative revelations,” he puts himself in one of two camps. Either he dislikes any cultural production that highlights its own artifice, and so would have little interest in, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kafka, Borges, etc. Or– and I think this more likely– Woods is simply reverting to this emphatic realism because he can’t simply say that the book wasn’t serious enough for him because it draws from literary sources that are childish and he is An Important Literary Critic. His critique, in other words, reveals him to either have incredibly narrowly defined tastes or to be falling back on a contrived tautology to justify what is, finally, a simple prejudice.
Beha is explicit here where Wood is implicit, but I think his argument function in essentially the same way: These works are childish because they do not construct a rigorous engagement with real experiences of the world, and therefore can’t function as the basis of mature reflection on it. I call bullshit. The Brothers Grimm spent their days compiling the most authoritative dictionary of the German language and revolutionizing linguistics and their evenings compiling the children’s stories their maid told them. None were realist in nature. And the Grimms were only part of a tendency towards the recovery of folk culture, and specifically folk culture for children, that animated the emergence of romanticism, which, in turn provided much of the basis for Freud’s explication of the unconscious and discovery of the crucial role of childhood in identity formation. And this is only one strand of a literary and intellectual engagement with problems of adolescence. We can trace the tradition of literary writing about and, at least in some sense, directed towards, adolescent readers back to Plato’s dialogues– The Republic, after all, begins with an old man excusing himself to let Socrates talk to the youth.  And Beha is right in pointing out that Henry James takes adolescence as his theme, too– though he repeats Scott’s error of thinking this to be a particularly American fixation. The novel of marriage was, from its inception, presented as pedagogical in nature and was frequently written with a young reader, especially female in mind. Moll Flanders, Clarissa, Pamela, Shamelaand La Princesse de Clèvesfor example, all follow this basic model. Male protagonists in the early novel are also typically youthful. Here the classical model is the picaresque, where an impish youth goes out into a bizarre and punishing world, and strange things happen as a result. These books, incidentally, hold up much better (for me, at least) than do many of the early novels featuring female protagonists, where a heavy-handed sexual morality often predominates. Lazarillo de Tormes and Simplicissimusfor example, are both absolute pleasures to read, whereas Pamela can feel like an 800 page precursor to a sexual harassment manual. Though Moll Flanders and La Princess de Clèves are both fun, too. As is Shamela, but only if you suffer through Pamela first– which is sort of like breaking your own leg so you can look forward to the cast coming off.
If literature has a long history of engaging with adolescents, literary criticism has nearly as long a history of condemning works that engage with the process of coming to maturity. It’d be easy here, very easy indeed, to insert Wood, Beha, and Scott in a long tradition of cultural reactionaries who think that the only thing worse than literary pleasure is the female orgasm, though the two are related and both lead to perdition. But we’ll grant them, instead, a bit more credit and assume that at least two out of three professional critics have read the classic treatment of adult men reading immaturely– that obscure Spanish masterwork, practically forgotten by history, Don Quixote. Quixote is the story of an aging man so possessed by reading immature tales of adventure that he’s no longer capable of distinguishing between the world of fantasy and the world of reality. He tilts at windmills and, his mind filled with childish tales of adventure, believes them to be giants. But it is only the most cursory reading of the book that would allow one to think that the proper differentiation is between adult and childish literature. The preface makes clear that this is not Cervantes’ intention. It begins with a complaint about the difficulty of writing a preface, and the narrator confesses that he’s on the verge of abandoning the project altogether, when a generous friend, whose quotations occupy the rest of the preface, emerges and makes the following suggestion:
to prove yourself a man of erudition in polite literature and cosmography, manage that the river Tagus shall be named in your story, and there you are at once with another famous annotation, setting forth—The river Tagus was so called after a King of Spain: it has its source in such and such a place and falls into the ocean, kissing the walls of the famous city of Lisbon, and it is a common belief that it has golden sands, etc. If you should have anything to do with robbers, I will give you the story of Cacus, for I have it by heart; if with loose women, there is the Bishop of Mondonedo, who will give you the loan of Lamia, Laida, and Flora, any reference to whom will bring you great credit; if with hard-hearted ones, Ovid will furnish you with Medea; if with witches or enchantresses, Homer has Calypso, and Virgil Circe; if with valiant captains, Julius Caesar himself will lend you himself in his own ‘Commentaries,’ and Plutarch will give you a thousand Alexanders. If you should deal with love, with two ounces you may know of Tuscan you can go to Leon the Hebrew, who will supply you to your heart’s content; or if you should not care to go to foreign countries you have at home Fonseca’s ‘Of the Love of God,’ in which is condensed all that you or the most imaginative mind can want on the subject. In short, all you have to do is to manage to quote these names, or refer to these stories I have mentioned, and leave it to me to insert the annotations and quotations, and I swear by all that’s good to fill your margins and use up four sheets at the end of the book.
The point, not to put it too finely, is that even the greatest works are susceptible to bad reading and, when read poorly, become empty and pleasureless symbols of cultural authority. The bumbling pedant, pulling out allusions to Ovid at every turn, is no better than the Knight-Errant. It is this tendency– the bad reading of good books– and not the reading of books intended for young audiences that we should be attacking. Beha concludes his essay by writing that,
Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.
But this is the falsest of dichotomies. Alcohol is another pleasure of adulthood, but enjoying a whisky on a Friday night doesn’t mean that you can’t want an apple juice on Monday afternoon. Indeed, you’ll end up in trouble if you insist that you’re exclusively interested in drinking “adult beverages.”  A well-rounded life should consist of a balanced relationship between the pleasures of maturity and a real engagement with the pleasures of childhood. As admirable as I find Beha’s advocacy for James, the claim that I, as a proper adult, should forego one pleasure in favor of the other only ends up reinforcing the very eat-your-vegetables quality that Beha so effectively bemoans. I’ll leave aside the fact that I think Harry Potter is a tremendous and important work of literature, and one that has a real chance of maintaining the classical status it has already begun to achieve. Instead I’ll just say this– there is no particular reason to think that there is either anything shameful about reading Harry Potter or admirable about reading Henry James. The only shame, and the only pride, should come in how you read. Read with a critical eye, Harry Potter might inform our political, social, and cultural thinking on the following: the status of predestination in a post-secular society; the desire for an extension of the performativity of language in a technological age; the replication of privilege through structures of inheritance and identity formation; the role of pedagogical theories in the construction of authoritarian regimes. The list could easily be extended and a good critic, operating with a generous spirit and an open mind, could steer readers who liked Harry Potter to works that engaged with these same questions in ways that are far from childish–towards J.L Austin or Thomas Piketty or, yes, Henry James. An adequate criticism could take the popularity of certain books designated as Young Adult literature as a diagnostic for the themes, narrative techniques, and literary styles that occupy us more broadly. An adequate criticism could insist that these works should supplement and not supplant works that put us in a childish frame of mind. Instead, we are stuck with a literary elite that can only see it as “self-defeating and a little sad” to enjoy as children enjoy. Like teenagers thumping their chests and proclaiming their sophistication, our literary elite go around congratulating themselves on their seriousness and then wonder why everyone finds them dour. Our immaturity is self-incurred, and not by those reading Harry Potter. Fantasy is a useful tool, as you can learn from Freud if J.K. Rowling isn’t a good enough source for you, so I’ll confess one of mine–that Dumbledore would point his wand towards New York and say, with a flick and a swish, Sapere Aude! 

Fun Fact about History, #1

In the 16th-century, the primary constraint of the export of gold and silver from Spanish colonies to the mainland was the shortage of labor. The indigenous workers kept dying in the mines. Later, when the flow of gold stemmed, a tradition of devaluing hard currencies– caused by the historical surplus of gold in Spain– led to economic panic, as the Spanish were trading their gold away for cheaply produced products from more industrial nations. People started to call the Spanish the Indians of Europe.

Read this book!


The Middling Hater: On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

Every book provides indications of how it should best be read. Jonathan Franzen’s recent work The Kraus Project provides a particularly singularly explicit instruction for its reception: “Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated,” Franzen writes, “so as to be able to hate it with authority.” (11) This, indeed, is a useful, even a necessary reminder to the reader that even if we hate the book in our hands, there may well be reason to keep reading– there may well be a political or aesthetic urgency vital enough to keep us in our chairs, no matter how many other things we would rather be doing with our time. I know I would never have managed to make it to the end of Franzen’s self-indulgent annotations were it not for these early words of encouragement.

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Reading Today

This is a thing I wrote a couple of weeks ago, but which I was too anxious to post until now. There will be a number of things that I wrote a while ago and was too anxious to post on this blog. Unless I’m too anxious to post them. 

I was angry at myself for getting sucked into Adam Phillips’s recent interview in the Paris Review, mostly because I’d been postponing work for far too long already when I came across it, but I was also a little dismayed by two facts. The first: that I know little about Adam Phillips except that I once delivered a paper about the fact that I think the Strachey translations are basically an abomination and misrepresent Freud in essential ways. After my talk, I was told by a very erudite scholar and psychoanalyst that the two new translations that were being prepared, lamentably, did little to rectify the issues I argued against in my talk. One was basically a gentle update of the Standard Edition, and the other was edited by a literati whose command of German was meager at best. One of these– and I couldn’t remember which when I started reading the interview– was Adam Phillips. The second: That I’m somewhat skeptical of the Paris Review at times (so nostalgically modernist; so clearly the highest part of the middle brow), and even more skeptical about the fact that I’d stumbled on this interview via, which, though amusing, is not normally, um, a source of intellectual stimulation for me. I did a little quick Googling just now and Phillips, it turns out, is both a dilettante when it comes to translation and an advocate of Strachey, so perhaps I misremembered that conversation. See the very helpful comments to this LRB essay that he published.

The interview, conducted with admirable skill by Paul Holdengräber, is bizarre at many points, but nowhere more so than in the following exchange, also cited by Kottke:


Appetite is a word that often comes up when you talk about psychoanalysis.


Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself. And these two things—


The need not to know yourself. Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

I was a child psychotherapist for most of my professional life. One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have. How much appetite they have—but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children, or has had them, or was once a young child, will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. They can go through periods where they will only have an orange peeled in a certain way. Or milk in a certain cup.

The quote struck me as a revelation, and not only because of its admirable succinctness as a way of understanding psychoanalysis’s effect on our understanding of what it means to be a human being, more normally discussed in academic circles with some overladen and unappealing jargon, and much grander ambitions (Socrates! Kant! Modernity!) than in Phillip’s account. Far more importantly, of course: It provided me with a new means of thinking about my own therapy and what it was that I was trying to accomplish there. What if the point isn’t to understand the relationship between some current inadequacy, real or perceived, in my person and the traumas of my childhood but is, instead, to simply forget that I have come to consider myself a certain kind of person, sometimes against all evidence to the contrary.

Maybe this account resonated so thoroughly with me because I’ve been struggling with my appetite, in the most immediate of ways, for a while now. I used to take pleasure in food, and have always been an adventurous eater. Of late though, I find that few foods appeal to me, and even those that do produce little pleasure and less anticipation. This along with a more general loss of interest in life’s sensual pleasures. I have little interest in the feeling of health that comes after a good workout at the moment, little pleasure in a hot shower, and I’d like to have sex again, sometimes desperately even, but then again, I find the prospect of being with a woman strangely off-putting at the moment, and have positively no interest in any of the flirtations that, in one form or another, necessarily precede sex, or at least the sort of sex I might be interested in having.

Of course I’ve tried any number of ways to understand this loss of desire, this loss of appetite: Pharmacological (my psychiatrist: “you’ll know the drugs are working when your appetite has returned”), psychoanalytic (my therapist, pointing always towards a childhood trauma: “and why do you think you feel that way?”). And then, of course, with the whole apparatus of my intellectual training: Kafka in “The Hunger Artist,” Robert Burton on the melancholy of the scholar, Balzac complaining to a woman he’d just slept with that he’d wasted a novel, Walker Percy on immanent and transcendent relationships to life. Not to mention the whole long traditions of asceticism, stoicism, and even that little, likely misleading, bit that I know about Buddhism.

Then along comes Phillips and suggests that the thing to do is just to forget it, just not to know yourself! This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve convinced myself that, though I’m a great boyfriend, I’m a lousy player, and that goes some very large way towards making that true. And Phillips basically points this out. Forget that anxiety about how bad you think you are at hitting on women, what horrible anxiety and what feelings of guilt it produces in you, and then they’ll be gone. Like it’s that simple. What an asshole! But maybe with the right therapist, or the right approach to therapy it could be. What a liberation! He expands on this, and the interview continues, after the section I quoted above to say:


[….] Another of the early analysts, a Welshman called Ernest Jones, had an idea that, interestingly, sort of disappeared. He believed that everybody’s deepest fear was loss of desire, what he called aphanisis. For him that’s the thing we’re most acutely anxious about, having no desire. People now might call it depression, but it wouldn’t be the right word for it, because he’s talking about a very powerful anxiety of living in a world in which there’s nothing and nobody one wants. But it can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration—where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker.

So then what is it that I do desire, in lieu of those sensual pleasures? At the moment it seems to be this: I want to write. I want to write very, very well, and I would also like that writing to provide me with some recognition and, just as importantly, some income. But I find writing difficult and exhausting, and though the pleasure I take in it is very real, I also find it easy to be distracted by other, more immediate pleasures. And so what have I done? I’ve either suppressed those desires entirely or generated anxieties around them to isolate myself from the possibility of their incursion on the space of my writing, a process facilitated by the fact that I’ve been smoking far too much pot recently, though I’ve also certainly managed to go through similar periods of disinterest and apathy while perfectly sober. And in point of fact, I feel just fine, generally about going through an ascetic period at the moment. I feel more productive right now than I have in years, and though that’s almost certainly largely because the long and mostly unrewarding odyssey of my graduate education is finally behind me, I also think it’s at least partially due to the fact that my life has grown very simple and uncomplicated, and I rather like it that way.

For me the precondition for being truly alright with a life stripped to the necessary, for me, would be a full return of a specific kind of appetite that I used to have in droves, but which abandoned me right around the time I started grad school: the desire to read. When I finish with my work for the day now the routine is almost invariably the same. Turn on the music, either classical or hip hop. Roll a spliff. Open Civilization 5, continue smoking and playing until bedtime. Make a frozen pizza, if you have one, at some point. Grow accustomed the fact that you will likely either burn it or let it grow cold before you eat.

How much better it would be if I closed the computer and read a book! But I tried that today and made it 11 pages into Pierre Vilar’s A History of Gold and Money: 1450-1920 when I grew excited by the following suggestion:

Perhaps it is not clear what an unshakeably stable monetary system would mean for capitalism. If it existed the heirs of a man who had invested a penny at compound interest 2,000 years ago, would long since have given up all productive activity to live off this one investment. All progress reduces the value of the objects produced, and if a single stable monetary system existed, a perpetual fall in prices would have continually discouraged produces and sellers, for whom the prospect of increases is the best stimulus.

The very structure of capitalism requires that it defeat itself, and in such simple & specific terms!  But I also grew worried that this idea was likely old hat– derived from some part of Marx’s Capital I haven’t read, or that it might discussed at great lengths in Piketty, which would mean that I would feel stupid if I referenced it in public. I also felt compelled to do some back of the envelope calculations, lest I be corrected in that way, and determined that, if the interest on a penny had been compounded annually for 2000 years and the profits were then split between descendants whose numbers double every eighty years, then the current descendants would each receive a share of 835 billion dollars. And of course that number assumes any number of things that are likely untrue– that no money was spent until now, that population rates double every eighty years on average, and that the investment paid off at 3.5%– but even if I’m off by a factor of a thousand it seems likely that none of those descendants would ever in their lives have had to lift a finger.

This, at any rate, produced a certain anxiety in me– why hadn’t I read the Piketty, or, for that matter, more Marx. I mean, when the book of the moment is a grand treatise on historical economics that everyone is talking about, why would a decidedly lay reader of economic history decide to pick up a similar book published in Barcelona in 1969? So really I had to read the Piketty. But then I remembered that I’d already– that very morning-– decided that it was urgent that I read Adam Phillips, as well as Winnicott and Ernest Jones and that I’d ordered ten books over the last few weeks, none of which I’d yet read, and all of which had seemed essential when I’d purchased them. But this urgency had since vanished, and what I wanted to be reading now was either more Vilar, in which case I’d have to read at least the Piketty, and probably also Das Kapital, which, if I was going to get anything out of it, would mean that I’d have to also find some guide. Maybe David Harvey, though I’d have to think about it. But then Adam Phillips on the loss of appetite, in which case I’d likely have to order it and it would take a week or two to get here, or else, God forbid, go to the library, where I can’t smoke and I’ll end up spending twenty Euros on five burned coffees and a soggy sandwich. But still, if not Adam Phillips, then Ernest Jones. Or Phillips, Jones, and Winnicott. But then there’s the stack of contemporary Berlin authors I’ve been wanting to get to, and all of the books that just came from Verso. And they don’t require leaving the house, and were the subject of similar excitations when I ordered them a couple weeks ago.

So I’m given to a certain wonder and a certain skepticism especially when Phillips talks about how he reads, and it seems like he very willfully takes his own advice to not know himself:

 If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect, at least on me. It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is. The Leavisite position, more or less, is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

This attitude towards reading (which is why I decided it was alright to smoke a spliff before I started the Vilar), seems so attractive, and so desirous, so reminiscent of the way I used to read before I was too well educated, but then one wonders how Phillips, if he doesn’t seek to retain information when he reads, has managed to edit the new Penguin translations of Freud, to prepare the biography he is about to publish, and to write so many, many books. For my part, I’ll smoke another spliff, and try to eat something more than the smoothie I had for lunch.