my almost-instinct almost true

today i got a tattoo. it’s been my practice the last few times i’ve gotten tattoos to write something explaining to my friends and, more importantly, to future iterations of myself why i’ve done so.

the tattoo is “what will survive of us is love,” the last line of “an arundel tomb,” the last poem in the whitsun weddings by philip larkin. here’s the poem:

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.

 

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

 

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

 

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

 

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

 

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

 

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

 

i got it for a lot of reasons, perhaps most proximate of which is that i want to remind myself, indelibly and irrefutably, to keep caring. i spend so much of my life careening back and forth from the tremulous terror of caring to the contrivance of forced indifference. (“i am always tying up/and deciding to depart.”) i prefer frenetic activity, even of the self-destructive variety, to the abject capitulation of waiting, hoping, hurting. loving well is like falling, like submitting to a force that will carry you away with it, like making a choice that negates itself by becoming an enslavement, inescapable. like turning oneself over to one’s captor. i know how it can be: how you can feel like your body is nothing but screaming. i remember reading an essay in an  english class about gawain and the green knight, about the eroticism of the scene in which gawain kneels, offers his neck up for decapitation, and waits. it’s simple, really, so simple it sounds stupid, but it’s scary to give people license to hurt you. (the green knight doesn’t end up beheading gawain, by the way. spoiler alert.) scariest of all is just to sit and wait and believe that the right people will return to you when so many of them have been mislaid, when so many have chosen to be lost in the chaos of a life. the best gift you can give someone is your unabashed fear. but of course it’s much easier to adopt defenses, which is what most of us do most of the time. that’s why i got the tattoo on the back of my neck: so that i have to trust in it and its permanence, even when i can’t see it. affection is always invisible, and for the terrified there is no sufficient proof. there is only faith.

so why this poem? first of all because i love the whitsun weddings: its show of toughness (get stewed! books are a load of crap!);  its dejected and quietly desperate hopelessness. but all of this is redeemed and vindicated by the tentative, tremulous sense of possibility encapsulated in the last line. (“sharp tender shock” indeed.) it reminds me of the zadie smith essay about joy, in which she quotes someone mourning: “it hurts as much as it is worth.” yes. we subject ourselves over and over again to the festival of anxiety  and pain that is interpersonal relations precisely because sometimes, inexplicably, there is an impossible convergence.

i like also that “an arundel tomb” resists the lure of certainty: it’s precisely because the anxiety is unrelenting, because it afflicts every attempt at love or trust or caring, because all of these things often appear to us as “almost” rather than absolute, that they’re so difficult to do. i’ve spent a lot of my time over the past few months reading and thinking about iris murdoch, who thinks that love is a kind of ‘unselfing,’ and this poem is about that too: about subordinating the egoism of a name or an explanation to the mystery of the mute stupid animal throb of loving. exchanging words, sometimes, for materials–bodies, stone. the solidity of bodies is a kind of partial certainty, if we let it be. (“our flesh surrounds us with its own decisions.”) loving well is work. accepting that someone needs something incomprehensible to you, that someone is indeed experiencing something you cannot fathom or penetrate–this is hard. trusting in bodies and sentiments you cannot see, cannot secure, is hard.

but maybe, at least almost, in this flash of transience, in the the blindingly momentary blaze that is human encounter and communion, there is the only kind of meaningful duration. why? because loving makes us infinite, because moments of pure ecstasy are outside of time? maybe. more likely because all our paltry products–the sculptures or poems or books that we gift “the endless altered people,” in part as a way of selfishly thwarting our own mortality–are relevant solely because we are bound to future human beings by love, by a phenomenon so quintessentially human that we can be sure they’ll understand it. that’s why it’s worth it to write at all. because you want to give people something. because you love them. and so this tattoo will outlive me for a while, anyway, as i hope some of my writing will, if any of it’s ever good enough. what will survive of me is love.

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As Numinous as Words

Today, roughly a month before I will depart for the first of two graduate schools at which I will study philosophy for a minimum of the next 6 years, I got a tattoo of a line from my favorite poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass. The line, “blackberry blackberry blackberry,” is supposed to remind me, powerfully and viscerally, that literature can accomplish a great deal that philosophy cannot.

I work, at least for the moment,  in epistemology, a field that often serves to dismantle the fragile edifices of human certainty. I love philosophy in large part for the courage and ruthlessness it displays in upending its own comforts, a sensibility that echoes the injunction to “kill your darlings,” which is typically (and usefully) employed by writers revising their work. But the withering doubt that calls so much of the world into such radical question has a limited scope, and the role of literature, at least in my most personal and least scholarly view, is to combat the creeping tendrils of skepticism that seep into all human relations.

It’s possible, of course, that the people who purport to love you are lying about everything; that they’re Russian spies bent on uncovering your least attractive characteristics or broadcasting your most tremulous vulnerabilities on rush-hour NPR; that they’re androids without any capacity for sentient thought at all; that they secretly hate you; that they have hoards of secret girlfriends they’re concealing from you; or, maybe worse and far more plausibly, that you’ve just totally misunderstood them. (See another one of my favorites, by Phillip Lopate.) Maybe any time anyone says anything, you’ve misunderstood it. Maybe you speak a totally private language that’s impenetrable to outsiders, but it sounds so much like English that no one will ever know that what you mean by “please pass the salt” is something else entirely. Probably not. But maybe. And wouldn’t it hurt if so, if you lived alone in your language and nobody could find you there. And isn’t it awful that if if you did and if they couldn’t, things would seem just the same as they do now.

Unfortunately, if we succumbed to this logic, unfalsifiable as it is, we’d live pretty impoverished lives. And this is why I think that writing or reading, like loving, is an act of immense faith. In order to do it, we have to believe, somewhat implausibly, despite all the good evidence to the contrary, that it’s possible for one person to come into direct and fruitful contact with another, and that words are the appropriate vehicles for traversing interpersonal interstices, and that when we speak to the people we love we’re succeeding in traversing those distances even though we can never confirm that we’re doing so.

And believe it or not we can believe these things, because sometimes a passage or phrase or a person is, irrationally, inexplicably, indubitable: its beauty, its communicability, serves as an antidote to the whole apparatus of uncertainty. Last week I read Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s beautiful meditation on this very topic. The work is fraught with anxiety because so much is at stake. If we cannot escape ourselves via poetics, via these frantic linguistic contortions, via improbable but powerful “profound experiences of art,” how can we ever escape ourselves? And if we cannot escape ourselves, how can we reach other? Perhaps stupidly, I’ve always equated what I take to be the central challenge of literature–communicability, initiating a reader fully into a foreign experience –with the central challenge of life–believing that sometimes other people understand you when you speak, and speaking although you will be frequently misunderstood in the hopes that someday you won’t be. Here’s a very long and very beautiful passage by Coetzee from Youth that gets at what I mean (one of the passages too lovely to doubt):

“Of course in his heart he knows destiny will not visit him unless he makes her do so. He has to sit down and write, that is the only way. But he cannot begin writing until the moment is right, and no matter how scrupulously he prepares himself, wiping the table clean, positioning the lamp, ruling a margin down the side of the blank page, sitting with his eyes shut, emptying his mind in readiness – in spite of all this, the words will not come to him. Or rather, many words will come, but not the right words, the sentence he will recognize at once, from its weight, from its poise and balance, as the destined one.

He hates these confrontations with the blank page, hates them to the extent of beginning to avoid them. He cannot bear the weight of despair that descends at the end of each fruitless session, the realization that again he has failed. Better not to wound oneself in this way, over and over. One might cease to be able to respond to the call when it comes, might become too weak, too abject.

He is well aware that his failure as a writer and his failure as a lover are so closely parallel that they might as well be the same thing. He is the man, the poet, the maker, the active principle, and the man is not supposed to wait for the woman’s approach. On the contrary, it is the woman who is supposed to wait for the man. The woman is the one who sleeps until aroused by the prince’s kiss; the woman is the bud that unfolds under the caress of the sun’s rays. Unless he wills himself to act, nothing will happen, in love or in art. But he does not trust the will. Just as he cannot will himself to write but must wait for the aid of some force from outside, a force that used to be called the Muse, so he cannot simply will himself to approach a woman without some intimation (from where? – from her? from within him? from above?) that she is his destiny. If he approaches a woman in any other spirit, the result is an entanglement like the wretched one with Astrid, an entanglement he was trying to escape from almost before it began.

There is another and more brutal way of saying the same thing. In fact there are hundreds of ways: he could spend the rest of his life listing them. But the most brutal way is to say that he is afraid: afraid of writing, afraid of women. He may pull faces at the poems he reads in Ambit and Agenda, but at least they are there, in print, in the world. How is he to know that the men who wrote them did not spend years squirming as fastidiously as he in front of the blank page? They squirmed, but then finally they pulled themselves together and wrote as best they could what had to be written, and mailed it out, and suffered the humiliation of rejection or the equal humiliation of seeing their effusions in cold print, in all their poverty. In the same way these men would have found an excuse, however lame, for speaking to some or other beautiful girl in the Underground, and if she turned her head away or passed a scornful remark in Italian to a friend, well, they would have found a way of suffering the rebuff in silence and the next day would have tried again with another girl. That is how it is done, that is how the world works. And one day they, these men, these poets, these lovers, would be lucky: the girl, no matter how exaltedly beautiful, would speak back, and one thing would lead to another and their lives would be transformed, both their lives, and that would be that. What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again?”

So why the Hass? For one, because I cannot doubt it. Here it is:

“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”
But also because I think it affirms literature’s, thus love’s, ability to overcome skepticism, not just aesthetically but also intellectually. First, Hass raises the possibility that to speak is to endanger or obscure the objects of our description. He acknowledges that words run the risking of memorializing what they denote by stifling or misrepresenting it, by imposing onto it shapes that can’t quite fit its particular contours. There is a possibility that our loves are private loves, personal loves, more bound up with our own mythologizing of our friends or beloveds than with our friends or lovers themselves (“it hardly had to do with her”). Certainly, Hass acknowledges, the subjective quality of experience is undeniable, sometimes so undeniable that it seems to negate all of our overtures of love or tenderness. “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances,” and between self and other is an insurmountable privacy so absolute that often it seems to nullify an attempts at its mitigation.
But note that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies” is not a statement but a supposition. Were we to accept it, to “talk this way,” everything would dissolve: all possibility of interpersonal connection, all attempts at self-exposure. And so stupidly and irrationally we believe in the symbols too affecting to doubt–the “way her hand dismantled bread,” “the thing her father said that hurt her,” these human details that touch us and mark us beyond our ability to question them. When a “body is as numinous as words,” the self coincides with its articulation: the living and the speaking of it correspond to one another, the gap between description and described collapses. These intersections of experience and expression are few and far between, but when they occur we can at least momentarily grasp each other. We can collide, find ourselves disarmed, struck by a “violent wonder” at each other’s presence.
The repetition of the word “blackberry” at the end, which both re-inscribes the its meaning and negates it, which distances sound from meaning but also renders the word strange and thick and juicy in our mouths, just like a rich blackberry,  emphasizes the paradoxical quality of language in general and literary language in particular: that words are the mechanisms of our separation but also the mechanisms of our unions, that they are all we have and that they are often not enough, and that sometimes they are not only sufficient but even, impossibly, holy. And so we keep trying and failing in the hopes that maybe someday we’ll succeed. 

Alice in Wonderland (via the LRB)

I absolutely adore this: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n14/matthew-bevis/i-can-bite-anything-i-want

I’d forgotten what a fascinating and Humbert-like figure Carroll was. He inspires such ambivalence in his readers: his prose is so charming that we can’t help but like him, his apparent perversities notwithstanding. This is one of greatest perils of aesthetics: not infrequently, they so thoroughly seduce us that they threaten to supplant a comparatively dreary morality. Beauty becomes a sort of ethical imperative. (Or so I feel each time I read Lolita–it’s impossible not to love the character who dreamt up the susurrous  phrase, “the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.) And perhaps darkness and perversity are all the more satisfying when we discover them in innocuous or, better yet, innocent places, as this piece beautifully and intelligently intimates. (It’s a pity that magazine pieces and reviews have much shorter life spans than quote/unquote Works of Literature, when so much of every issue of the LRB is so much better than so much of what’s been canonized.) See, for instance, this passage:

“Carroll is frequently drawn towards a blend of both options: the quest-object becomes an alibi for the questing subject’s yearning for adventure. When the Cheshire cat asks Alice where she’d like to get to, she replies: ‘I don’t much care where, so long as I get somewhere.’ In Through the Looking-Glass she says of the scented rushes she leans out of the boat to pick that ‘the prettiest are always further,’ and she might as well be speaking of any of her holy grails. Carroll told Ellen Terry that it was ‘hopelessly difficult’ to secure ‘even the smallest bit of happiness’ (and added that ‘the more trouble we take the more certain we are to fail’), but these difficulties are cause for a peculiar kind of hope in the Alice books: sabotaging your own satisfaction becomes a way of keeping things interesting. One sentence the intrepid, ever-beginning heroine never manages to finish starts like this: ‘Of all the unsatisfactory – (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort to have such a long word to say).’ Prolonging the unsatisfactory needn’t be experienced as a trial, especially if it’s beginning to dawn on you that satisfaction itself might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

This continual flirtation with fulfillment creates stories in which anything could happen, and yet the strange power of the books comes from the sense they give that things could only have happened exactly the way they did. Although Alice is accosted by her dream, she’s also the architect of it: doors are locked, so a key pops up, but the key fits a door she can’t squeeze through and so on. It’s as if her unconscious were both co-conspirator and counter-agent, or as if it were trying to find ways to get her to see that the two roles needn’t be thought of as opposites. She dreams in order to get into trouble, and she gets into trouble so she can escape from it, and so she can escape into new difficulties: ‘“My head’s free at last!” said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment.’ She may well be privy to a secret Carroll confided to his diary in 1855: ‘There is, I verily believe, a sensation of pain in the realisation of our highest pleasures, knowing that now they must soon be over; we had rather prolong anticipation by postponing them.’ When the Hatter tells her she can speed up time in order to miss the day’s lessons and get straight to dinner, this isn’t only good news: ‘“That would be grand, certainly,” said Alice thoughtfully, “but then – I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.”’ From this perspective, the White Queen is speaking beguiling sense as well as infuriating nonsense when she says: ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’ Alice becomes adept at finding ways to stay hungry. She’s never more gleeful than when she sneaks up on her nurse and shouts: ‘Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!’”

How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works
James Wood
247 pp. Picador. $12.60

James Wood’s How Fiction Works is one of the few books I wish I’d had the opportunity to review not because I’d like to skewer it but because I wish there were an appropriate forum for my EFFUSIONS OF ENTHUSIASM about it. It’s probably inappropriate to co-opt idle brunch or dinner conversation to proclaim in what amounts to interpersonal all-caps that THIS BOOK IS FABULOUS AND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT FOR 500 YEARS but I’m also too taken by the project to pass over it in appreciative silence. How Fiction Works was so good that it almost hurt me to read it: the experience was akin to eating a chocolate cake too rich to digest. Hence my hasty retreat to this blog, and the bit of mental digestion it affords me.

In my opinion, How Fiction Works is an exemplary work of criticism, rigorous but readable. Wood is an attentive close reader, a consummate literary historian, and a dazzlingly eloquent prose stylist. When he’s mean, his gibes are so stunningly apt and deliciously snarky that they evoke shivers of delighted schadenfreude:  John le Carré’s uninspired prose is “a clever coffin of dead conventions,” and in bad works of realism “the machinery of convention is so rusted that nothing moves.”

But Wood can “do” admiration as well as he does acerbity. He’s not aimlessly negative so much as normatively principled, and his distaste for certain works of literature is a correlate of his commitment to a positive critical platform. Unlike so many contemporary critics, he’s courageous enough to advance and defend an ambitious and substantive position. And how exquisite is his defense! Good realist prose is “full of limit and suggestion”; metaphor “is analogous to fiction, because it floats a rival reality”; detail in good description is “savagely chosen,” with “each detail almost frozen in its gel of chosenness”; before we read especially beautiful metaphors, we have been “blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.” Wood should win an award for that last phrase alone. He writes of certain sentences that their “perfection is the solution to [their] own puzzle,” and his own writing is surely one such solution. His facility with language is a rarity in a field where theoretical insight often comes at the expense of lyricism. Rarely is such a lyrical talent accompanied by such a sharp critical mind, but Wood unfailingly weds argument with perfectly turned triumphs of phrase.

I’m not sure that I have all that much that’s very insightful to say about How Fiction Works–almost all my annotations are hearts or exclamation marks (in one particularly inspired moment, a very perceptive “YES!!”)–so I suppose I’ll just conclude by recommending it highly to my imagined readership. I don’t always agree with Wood’s evaluations of particular writers or texts, nor do I agree with all of his theoretical claims, but the texture of his prose is so seductive that I don’t want to disagree with him about anything. Perhaps the best part of How Fiction Works is that it demonstrates so powerfully that criticism can constitute literature in its own right, worth reading not just for its insights but also, occasionally, for its rich linguistic caresses. (Sadly I don’t have the time to elaborate on the book’s content, because I’m on several deadlines, but it’s very smart and thought-provoking–perhaps more soon, when I finish reading the 1000000 things I need to read….)

Machado de Assis

is really great

“I pressed my silent grief to my breast and experienced a curious feeling, something that might be called the voluptuousness of misery. Voluptuousness of misery. Memorize this phrase, reader; store it away, take it out and study it from time to time, and, if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude that you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.”

Rly enjoyed Epitaph for a Small Winner–maybe I’ll write something more instructive about it soon, when I’m on fewer “real” deadlines. Until then, I recommend it.

Some Notes on “Notes on Camp”

I’ve been re-reading Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” as research for a piece I’m working on, and I think it may have some internal inconsistencies, or at least some internal ambiguities that one might construe as tensions. There’s the glimmer of something so interesting and insightful in it, but I think the essay’s best ideas remain its most under-developed. (But what do I know, I’m just an insomniac without a MacArthur Grant.)

First, though, credit where it’s due. Sontag is obviously a 100% badass genius, annnnnd “Notes on Camp” was a really ground-breaking essay–it was one of the earliest attempts, I think, to grapple with something as amorphous and evasive as an aesthetic or a cultural trend. Even today, critics often shy away from the difficult task of defining/delimiting the murky stuff of a “sensibility,” preferring to fixate on concrete signifiers of underlying social tendencies. (See, for evidence, the litany of articles on pizza apparel, Herschel backpacks, and the like.) It’s much easier to start from the ground up, asking “what do all these pizza onesies reveal about the human condition????!!!!” than to proceed from the top down with questions like “what is this slice of the human condition, anyway, and why are we drawing its perimeters here?” Sontag’s intuitive feel for the aesthetic essence of a thing, her eye for the perfectly illustrative example or turn of phrase, is remarkable. “Notes on Camp” succeeds more as characterization than analysis or diagnosis; its strength is its evocative prose, its penetrating invocation of something otherwise intangible. Sontag so beautifully concentrates what was once so scattered.

But her argument, I think, is lacking. The central contention, at least on my reading, is that Camp is the product of upper middle class boredom. Now that the elite find themselves over-saturated with the tasteless artifacts of mass culture (I think of Perec’s classic ’60s debut, Things), they need to devise a new way of (a) entertaining themselves, and (b) signifying that they are, in contra-distinction to the lower classes, possessed of discerning tastes. Their solution is to stand in a special, tongue-in-cheek relation to the gauche goods produced for mass consumption, thereby manufacturing a new kind of good taste. If objects an sich no longer hold any attraction for the aristocrat, then their attraction must become relational. Camp is a participatory project; it’s what happens when we take something overwrought and grandiose ironically rather than seriously. Camp’s constituent artifacts would be bad art–and worse, boring art–in a vacuum, but they become entertaining, maybe even elegant, as soon as we agree to take them as a joke. (It’s a bit cruel, Camp, a bit too much like laughing at someone else’s expense.)

Sontag doesn’t go here, but I will: the attitude of the viewer, on this view, seems  “metaphysically constitutive,” which is to say, it endows a particular object with its character as such. An piece of costume jewelry is one thing to us, who take it to be Campy, and another thing altogether to an ignorant audience. The 20th century aristocracy’s elevated status was thus additionally assured: where previously the underclasses could purchase the trappings of affluence, to “possess” a piece of Camp they would have to understand its sophisticated conditions of existence. They would have to first purchase a worldview.

[Tangent alert, but it surprises me that Camp is so infrequently invoked in discussion of Millennial irony–if not Camp, then something like it could probably account for upper class fascination with Kim Kardashian or, yes, pizza–but that’s besides the point.]*

“The point,” insofar as there is one, is twofold:

  1. I’m not sure I buy the notion that the aristocracy’s only recourse is to make mass culture entertaining. Why couldn’t the aristocracy revolt against the doldrums of mass tackiness by retreating even further into material extravagance? Sure, you could combat your ennui by taking an ironic liking to tacky lamps, but you could also commission a one-of-a-kind lamp that’s genuinely breathtaking. You could also combat your boredom in a million other ways, perhaps by doing something exciting and not mass-producible, like eating expensive designer mushrooms or going on a safari. (In general, experiences–trips, meals, etc- don’t seem to lend themselves to the kind of dulling that may well have transformed most objects into gawdy affairs.) Certainly there has been a proliferation of tastelessness, but tastelessness is not so ubiquitous as to be unavoidable. We needn’t repurpose a melodramatic film in order to make melodrama interesting if we can just avoid melodrama altogether. Sontag ought to explain why some of the elite chose the comparatively taxing route of transforming tastelessness into a new kind of taste when such a simple route (theoretically if not materially speaking) was available to them. (There is also probably a lot of interesting stuff to say about why some portions of upper class took one path instead of the other, and I wish someone would say it.) 
  1. Sontag’s characterization of Camp suffers from a contradiction. On the one hand, she describes Camp as artifice taken to its extremes, a sort of metaphysical emptying-out of objects: Camp is a celebration of theatricality and performance, a reduction of the world to its (often extravagant) appearances. (She goes so far as to explicitly note that characters with depth can’t be Campy.) On the other hand, she argues (more convincingly, I think) that the Camp affect hinges on the disparity between opulence of form and frivolity of content. But if form is to contradict content, there must be some content to contradict. (I also wonder if this portion of the essay isn’t at odds with “Against Interpretation,” where Sontag suggests that there is no distinction between form and content.)

I may well be reading Sontag wrong, but here are some preliminary quibbles. As ever, I invite thoughts/challenges/etc.

*Though this is kind of interesting and maybe I’ll think about it later, when it’s not 4 am. Oops, there goes tonight’s attempt to become less of a book-vampire.

Svevo Svevo Svevo

Here are some quick notes on Italo Svevo’s A Life, composed hastily in an ill-advised fit of procrastination:

All of Svevo’s work occupies the space between expectations and their brutal frustration. The greater his protagonists’ disappointments, the more poignant their plight. In every case, we laugh at the oblivious party even as we pity him: in A Life, Alfonso  stupidly imagines that city life will be more glamorous than it is bureaucratic; in A Man Grows Older, Emilio imagines his paramour is a high-minded creature commensurate to the loftiness of his love; in Zeno’s Confessions, Zeno imagines that he’s cut out for ill-defined greatness (in fact, he’s the portrait of bourgeois ordinariness); and, most obviously, in A Perfect Hoax, Mario imagines that his book is to be translated into German and met with critical acclaim, when in reality he’s doomed to remain a literary non-entity. These more general instances of frustrated expectation find their analog in more concrete distillations of the theme. Small ironies abound.

But perhaps most ironic of all is that Svevo’s works are peppered with comical instances of precisely the inverse—cases where consequences come, through strange twists of fate, to align with feigned intentions. Pretense, for Svevo, is a more powerful force than sincerity. When a character only pretends to desire a certain outcome, the outcome almost unfailingly comes about: Zeno only pretends to want to marry his wife, but the result is an exuberantly happy marriage; Zeno’s friend only pretends to want to kill himself, but the result is an accidental suicide; Mario makes some investments on the basis of false information, but they all prove profitable; Alfonso thinks he’s just pretending his mother is sick as an excuse to go on leave, but when he arrives in his hometown, he discovers that his mother is fatally ill. Svevo challenges the logic of agency by calling the assumed relationship between an action and its consequences into question. Causality we know it is inverted. The less we want something, the more likely it is to occur. The correlate, of course, is that desire becomes a barrier to its own fulfillment.

In any case, I think A Life has promise, but it ends too hastily. It’s difficult to write a good novel about someone so ploddingly inept—someone interesting precisely because of his persistent akrasia, his inability to escape the boring cycles in which he’s mired himself—because it’s difficult to end such a novel satisfactorily. A character like Alfonso is consigned to a life of monotony, and it’s hard to write a novel about monotony that is not itself monotonous. Besides, endings are antithetical to monotony: they constitute disruptions that not only break up the banality but also counteract it. Alfonso’s suicide isn’t consistent with his character, and, worse, it undermines Svevo’s efforts in the rest of the book. Alfonso’s life is tragic precisely because it’s ineluctably ordinary. To snuff him out with a bang rather than a whimper is to negate the premise that made the novel worth reading to begin with. A Life is about Alfonso’s initial  desperation and subsequent reconciliation, about his horrifying capitulation to the smallness of his life. Suicide is too dramatic–and too courageous!–by half.

It’s difficult but possible to pen a more satisfying ending to a book of this nature. Svevo’s later efforts in Zeno and A Perfect Hoax and, to a lesser extent, A Man Grows Older are successful, and works like Notes from Underground or No Exit manage to end without ever really ending, by intimating that their characters’ mental games go doggedly on and on. (I’m not a huge fan of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, but it does provide an ingenuous solution to the challenge posed by the necessity of ending a novel about unending torpor. That’s a book that really doesn’t end.) A Life is a good realist novel, but it remains a few inches short of a great one.

But! I still love Svevo with all my heart, and he more than makes up for his initial failings in his later stuff. Still very worth reading!