Saturday, August 29, 2015

On Dinaw Mengestu

Dear Readers,

I have been doing a bit of thinking this summer about the work of Harold Bloom and particularly his writing about the struggle between works that for him is the key to whether or not a work becomes canonical.  On reading Dinaw Mengestu's novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears--a work that Bloom would probably not consider canon-worthy overall--I have been struck how this "agonistic struggle" between various works  (Bloom's terminology) occurs in this novel, particularly through its allusions, and come to the conclusion that perhaps the canonical works Mengestu surveys are just too big to be digested.  In Bloom's terminology, Mengestu must not be (mis)reading the canon quite well enough.

First, a note about Bloom's work: I am struck now by how many women and minority works are included in his book The Western Canon: The Books and the School of the Ages (1994) than how many are excluded, as I was when I first read the work in graduate school.  My graduate program was right in seeing Bloom as old guard and a barricade against inclusion, but they were wrongheaded in dismissing his theories, for Bloom shares many of our values as proponents of literary studies.  When he is not pushed in a corner (which he seems to be) and made defensive, he can be quite a thoughtful expounder of the values of avid reading and study that many if not most of us share who have invested our lives in literary study.  And, additionally, his values can indeed be shaped to be quite useful for the kinds of recovery work many of us do of voices that have either just come on the scene (as Mengestu's) or been lost somewhere in the past.

And now a bit more about Mengestu's novel: Reading Bloom this summer has made me intensely aware of (sensitive to) allusion and what he calls "intratextual" relations (I think Julia Kristeva's term "intertextual" is as accurate and more understandable).  I will take one example of how this intertextual relationship shapes Mengestu's novel.  The title is a translation from the Italian of the last lines of Dante's Inferno, as Dante (the protagonist of the poem) leaves Hell with Virgil and walks into the light of the stars of night.  The lines themselves almost sigh with relief; I suspect that the Italian may even more sound like a sigh, as many of the translations do.  The lines are quoted by our protagonist Sepha's friend Joseph, who as an Ethiopian immigrant, has tried college as a way of legitimizing himself in America without success.  He likes, when he gets drunk, to say the two lines that contain the title.

The lines are cited in the novel twice--once when Joseph is described as saying them and then later in the protagonist's voice as he returns to stasis, sitting on the front steps of his store, at the end of the novel.  In Bloom's view, Mengestu has challenged Dante by trying to incorporate him (agonism again), and in essence I think Bloom would be partially correct.  I tend to think that what Mengestu is signifying is that Sepha, having left Ethiopia where he saw his father beaten to death before his mother and younger brother and come to America is an emergence from Hell into a kind of modern Purgatory in the streets of the city of Washington.  (There is some suggestion as well of ascending to a better level of Purgatory than the one at the very bottom, when Naomi and her mother begin a kind of gentrification of the area through their renovation of a dilapidated old mansion just across from Sepha's store, but this fails miserably and the area is in even worse shape by the end of the novel.)

Now, in Bloom's idea, Mengestu must overcome Dante in his representation to achieve canonical status, and he certainly does not do this (who could?).  Yet somehow the novel is successful in locating Sepha and Joseph's stories within the framework of traditional high literature.  By taking on Dante and alluding to him in his title and references, Mengestu reaches for something more than just the now that is the context of his novel.  He shows his awareness of the literature of the past and suggests that it still provides for us many lessons and nourishment that can continue to inform our lives and creations today.  That in and of itself is a powerful message, and perhaps the best that the novel can do.  It certainly makes it a worthwhile reading experience.  Cheers, friends!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On Sanctification

[I am in a reading phase for the next chapter of my book on Sontag; it covers her second collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will, which I am finding increasingly indebted to Jean-Paul Sartre's major philosophical works Being and Nothingness and St. Genet, so I am studying these along with Sontag's collection and a wonderful book on apophatic theology in contemporary literature by Christopher J. Knight.  So in the meantime I will be giving my thoughts to the blog to keep the writing flowing.  Enjoy, dear friends!]

I love the following quotation from Benedictine brother David Steindl-Rast that I recently found; he writes: "What is truly a part of our spiritual path is that which brings us alive.  If gardening brings us alive, that is part of our path, if it is music, if it is conversation...we must follow what brings us alive."  I realize that for me as an Anglican Christian and non-sectarian contemplative, the process Steindl-Rast addresses here is what I would label (theologically-speaking) as sanctification. If we prayerfully do that which "brings us alive," we do it in the Spirit and with gratitude; we are becoming sanctified via Christ's agency in us and He through us sanctifies the activity we are doing. It is that simple and that profound at the same time.

Reading and studying the works of May Sarton and Thomas Merton are what first taught me this valuable lesson that Steindl-Rast has reminded me of today.  Sarton believed that writing itself was a spiritual practice, especially poetry, and that we set aside the routine time of writing as a sacred and uninterrupted period of each one of our days. Sarton is completely correct, and she occasionally had to be quite gruff with people who wanted to disrupt that important time.  I tend to feel the same way; I like to keep mornings for writing and I get very upset when, especially during the semester, someone wants my Saturday mornings, which is often the only sustained time I have to write all week during term.  So if I too am gruff to keep that time sacred, I apologize but am not really sorry.

As writers and contemplatives, we have to keep our "alive" time and practices, whatever they are, sacrosanct so that the processes that restore and renew us and bring us more in line with what God wants for and through us can happen.  Yes, I am an introvert, and probably on the extreme side of that spectrum of extrovert/introvert.  Indeed, my blog probably reads strangely to those who are truly or extremely extroverts, but then again, aren't most writers who find their best fellowship with their notebooks (paper and virtual) introverts?

Which brings me to another practice which keeps me alive (apart from worship on our Sabbath, which is its sacred space and deserves another space and time to discuss more fully), and that is the time I devote to exercise.  I have learned through ill health and particularly being hospitalized twice with pancreatitis (a potentially deadly disorder) that my time at the gym exercising with my trainer has to be set aside and made a kind of sacred space as well.  I sometimes pray before or during my exercise time to sanctify that activity, although I am not always or consistently prayerful while working out at a gym.  I know that God has put people like my trainer Aaron Newman and my gym Catalyst Fitness in my life for the reason to keep me healthy in body as well as mind and soul.  For that, I am truly grateful.

Happy reading and exploring what acts bring you alive today and always!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Thoughts on Wollstonecraft & Stravinsky

Dear Readers,

Today, I find myself thinking a bit about Mary Wollstonecraft and her battles with depression, particularly after being left destitute by her lover, the painter Gilbert Imlay.  I have never been quite sure why William Godwin, her future husband, who after her death penned his infamous Memoirs of the Writer of Vindications of the Rights of Woman (1797), felt the need to go into such detail about Wollstonecraft's two suicide attempts, once in October of 1795 and once earlier.  Wollstonecraft at the time was a single and somewhat pennyless mother of an infant, alone Scandanavia at one point and not much better situated when she returned to England.  What I find even more interesting in that in that period of fall of 1795 is that Wollstonecraft began writing a series of lessons for her daughter Fanny to be used after she was gone (she describes them as directed at a motherless child).  I am beginning to consider the larger ramifications of her depression (a depression shared, not incidentally, by her protagonist in her final, incomplete novel Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman (1797)).  I wonder if Wollstonecraft's much-derided suicide attempts can be read within their historical contexts as, yes, cries for help, but also for the result that she dreamed of a kind of a utopian social equality for women that could never be realized in her time.  Perhaps her realization that it was just not going to come about for her and women in her times was just too much knowledge and insight for her to bear.

[The reflections above are not only written in relation to my own reading and rereading of Wollstonecraft, one of the authors I turn to again and again in my teaching and thinking, but also in relation to Rebecca Davis's Written Maternal Authority and Eighteenth-Century Education in Britain: Educating by the Book, which I am reviewing for the academic journal Eighteenth-Century Fiction. It is an important book and one I hope to celebrate in my review.]

I also wanted to share my response to a recent recording I received of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, performed by the Seattle Symphony under the direction of Gerard Schwartz and available on Naxos. (I had actually ordered an earlier and better recording of this work that has recently come out on LP at our local Barnes and Nobles and carelessly the cashier placed an order for this other edition.  I decided to keep it when it came in, for can you really have too many copies of a favored classical work?)  The sound quality on this recording is in dire need of assistance.  While I love the ballet (I am in general less thrilled with the "filler" work Naxos included, his Fireworks, but then again I don't like fireworks much anyhow), the softer parts are set at a recording level that is too quiet to hear them unless the volume is way up; then the louder parts become too loud.  This is a problem with some classical recordings that just does not happen in a concert hall.  With much modernist music that I like, such as that by Stravinsky and Shostakovich (my favorite modern composer; check out his symphony 13), the soft lyrical portions are achingly beautiful and, like much in life, achieved with great angst and dexterity.  It is a shame to lose them in a weakly-balanced post-production product.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

On Feminism (George Sand, Androgyny, Bisexuality, Etc.)

Dearest Readers,

I am in my office this morning, ostensibly working on my writing but more or less still reading The Benefactor and making sure all of the programs on my laptop are updated by the school, as it is technically their machine.  The quiet here is very nice today, and the weather is temperate--not too hot nor too cool, but just right.  I have the window open, the fan blowing, my shoes and socks off, and I am quite comfy.

This morning, I went to have my blood taken for my usual panel of tests before a doctor's visit.  I was talking with a phlebotomist whose family had been friends with the poet and memoirist Audre Lorde and who have found some serious misrepresentations of them and her in some of the recent work on her life.  I am wondering how one goes about interviewing and documenting these issues before those who know the truth about them are no longer alive.  Where can we publish those kind of very valuable remembrances?  What format do they take professionally for us?  The phlebotomist is willing to be interviewed and I would not mind at some point perhaps later in the summer conducting and writing this interview; I would have to brush up my reading of Lorde as I have not considered her works in a long while, although I have taught in the past in Introduction to Poetry and in my Women in Literature courses.

Currently, I am working my way through Sontag's The Benefactor as well as Elizabeth Berg's Dream Lover, which Angie gave me for my birthday, and which is based on the life of George Sand.  Sand is a fascinating and important writer, but, as with many writing and artistic women who lived extraordinary lives (such as Aphra Behn among others), the work they wrote and produced is itself overshadowed by the life. Sand had long relationships and perhaps affairs with many of the major male writers and artists of her day (e.g., Liszt, Chopin, Flaubert) and occasionally smoked a cigar and cross-dressed to travel as a man.  The couple of her novels that I have read have been thoroughly my kind of book, so she is someone I have wanted to read about and in more deeply.

Most often, however, where I come across Sand is when I teach Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote two amazing sonnets in admiration of Sand, and which offer two (separate) lines of fascinating and relevant feminist thought--one of the sonnets argues that Sand is more woman than any woman has ever been, and the other argues that Sand transcends gender categories all together.  These sonnets chart for my students and me two approaches to feminist thought:  One seeks to reconstruct masculine values by emphasizing those that are most deeply female.  I like this side of feminism best because of its potential to remake the world with those values-values of affect (empathy, an ethic of care, cooperation instead of competition, etc.), openness to change and the Other, and an ethics that responds deeply and empathically to contingency.

The other side of feminism (at least in those sonnets, and you can find this side most pronounced in the wonderful chapter 6 of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and some of the work of Carolyn Heilbrun) is an emphasis on moving beyond gender into a kind of androgynous space.  Androgyny has perchance received a bad rap, but it is not without its strong merits.  I think the Unisex movement of the sixties and seventies may have had something to do with this reputation, but that is only part of the larger picture.  Julia Kristeva in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt argues rather convincingly that androgyny's real problem is its evocation of a kind of asexuality; she suggests that bisexuality is a better and more productive model of a move beyond gender and gendered categories.  She may indeed be right.

Okay, so now it is back to The Benefactor, which also raises some of these issues as the major character is bisexual and rather open in discussing it.  Yet I am not sure of his motivations nor his self-concept here.  More about that later, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Susan Sontag's The Benefactor

Dear Readers,

Here I sit, listening to the last couple of movements of Mozart's Symphony #35, the Haffner symphony, on a rainy day with the pounding of the jackhammer as construction workers spend their second day outside of my home.  I have been reading Susan Sontag's first novel, The Benefactor (published in 1963), and find it quite good, even though most critics and many of her friends thought it wasn't her best.  I am definitely more interested in her essays than her fiction, but this novel has captured my imagination because its main character, Hippolyte, is a disenchanted intellectual who has left the academic world in pursuit of something else which he cannot define.  (For those of you who know me, don't worry--I am not planning on leaving academics.).

The novel is told in flashback so far, working through that wonderful charting of memory that the best Modernist novels do so well.  It is written from the vantage of Hippolyte as a sixty-one-year old, looking back on his twenties and the choices he made then.  He is very much someone I find sympathetic.  Listen to how he explains his disenchantment with academics even though he is an intellectual and one who quests after knowledge: "Inspired [at university] by the project of becoming learned, I enrolled in the most varied courses of lectures.  But this very thirst for inquiry, that led to investigations which subsequently preoccupied me, did not find a proper satisfaction in the divisions and faculties of the university.  Do not misunderstand me, it was not that I objected to specialization...Neither did I object to pedantry.  What I objected to was that my professors raised problems only to solve them, and brought their lectures to a conclusion with maddening punctuality." I just love that description and find it fascinating that we have changed only somewhat in our ways of teaching since then, and perhaps not quite enough.  Further, I think this description is in part autobiographical and could be applied to Sontag, who herself left academics around this date having not finished her dissertation on Simone Weill, and living much of her time after leaving in Paris.  (If Hippolyte now moves to Paris or even Europe in his twenties, I will know even more certainly that he is based on her.)

One brief note here about the use of memory--I know that in this novel, Hippolyte is going to start blurring his real life and his dream life.  I love the interplay between memory, remembrance and the present, and how faulted memory can shape present life.  Sontag has a compelling vision of the memoryscape of her central character here, as she is very well-read in Freudianism and Surrealism.  This lack of playing with memory, remembrance, and its relationship with the present is the key reason I find Stephen King's Lisey's Story an important but ultimately unsatisfactory novel; memory in that novel is just too darn clear!

The book cover of The Benefactor lists as its models Kafka, and this influence is certainly apparent.  I also see a strong influence of Vladimir Nabokov, especially his later books like Look at the Harlequins! (one of my favorites), which may date after Sontag's early novel.  Where I am in the novel Hippolyte is becoming more and more obsessed with his own mind, and particularly his developing habit of vivid and rather verbal dreaming.  (Sontag will explore the dreamworld again quite strongly in her second novel Death Kit (1967), which is also more profoundly Surrealist and, at least to me, not as successful as The Benefactor appears to be).  Yes, as critics have noted, The Benefactor has all of the hallmarks of Surrealist fiction, but even more because of Sontag's essays and background, I think we can conclude that Freud in general and his Interpretation of Dreams in particular has a lot to do with the structure of this novel's explorations.  (Of course the influence of Freud on Surrealism and the impact of Surrealism on Freud is a long and interesting history that I know too little about at present to write with any precision.)  Thus I see the early '60s in Sontag's work--both essays and fiction--as a long, drawn-out conversation with her ex-husband Philip Rieff and his apologetic approach to Freud (more about that in my book on Sontag when it comes out!).

Good fiction has a way of drawing us in, often through empathy.  (This is one of the reasons why I find most postmodern fiction unsatisfactory, as I find nothing to hold on to in relation to the characters.  Please fault me here if you choose, but my model for the best novels ever written are still Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and George Eliot's Middlemarch.)  So far in my reading of The Benefactor, I would list it as one of Sontag's better novels, alongside The Volcano Lover.  I will let you know what I think as I continue reading this fascinating early text.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

On (Teaching) English Romanticism

Dear Readers,

I have been working on my ENG 419, British Romanticism, syllabus for fall, and enjoying immensely rethinking and focusing this course which I have taught previously.  My brief description that I give to the students on the syllabus reads as follows:  "The first generation of English Romantics was faced with the cataclysm of the French Revolution and its aftermath, which meant war for Great Britain and the threat of invasion.  Yet the Revolution represented at least in name some of the very values that the British held dear (i.e., liberty, equality, and brotherhood).  We will examine this semester the works of English Romantics who are considering in deep and analytical ways the impact of the Revolution and the emergence of ideas of individualism and nationhood in the 1790s into the early nineteenth century.  We will read those who saw the French Revolution as the end of civilized behavior and the death of chivalry (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France), those who saw it as an opportunity to transform society in remarkably liberal ways (Mary Robinson, A Letter to the Women of England, Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice), those who used the period as a time for great and transformative making of art and literature (William Blake, Vala/The Four Zoas, The Book of Urizen, Milton, and Jerusalem), and those who used the ideas of the period to transform the domestic novel into something very different than what it had been (Mary Robinson, The Natural Daughter and Eliza Fenwick, Secresy; or, The Ruin on the Rock)."

The work I have become most excited about in the list is Godwin's Enquiry.  According the back blurb, this work marks the beginning of "philosophical anarchism."  I am not sure I agree with this characterization of the Enquiry, unless the one ("philosophical anarchism") shades in its definition a bit into modern libertarianism. There is still way too much generosity and care for the other in Godwin to fit fully or comfortably into the libertarian camp, though; for the versions of at least American libertarianism I know tend to be very deeply individualistic and self-obsessed, not acknowledging nor caring that we are part of the same society and that as part of that society--that social contract, to use Rousseau's phrasing--we bear some responsibility one to another. Philosophical anarchism falls into some of the same traps but its utopian spirit, which tends not to be so narcissistic, is attractive though not practicable or implementable as I see it.  Godwin seems to me to be arguing for something that still shares the interconnectedness of what will become more fully the socialist impulse (after Marx) in England in the nineteenth century than perhaps either philosophical anarchism or libertarianism.

More significantly, at least for my reading of Godwin, is his notion of literature.  Godwin is not willing nor desirous of separating the various forms of texts--literary, historical, philosophical--into categories, but sees them all adhering to one another under the notion of literature and their using/employing the literary in their makeup.  He has a very high calling for the transformative impact of literature and the literary on culture and this is a vision of his that I deeply share as well. Perhaps this is why Godwin also was invested in what can only be labelled a kind of philosophical and, at least in the care of Caleb Williams, a proto-Marxist fiction, and later with children and the production and circulation of children's books.  It will be fascinating to see what the students this fall make of this impressive man, his political/philosophical treatise, and the historical context(s) from which it emerges.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sontag, Freud, Said

[Dear Readers--This is a draft of an afterword to a chapter in my book on Susan Sontag that may or may not appear in the final version.  The chapter concerns Sontag's early relationship in her writing to the work of Sigmund Freud, and takes up as a contrast the work of Edward Said and one of his last public addresses, delivered at the London museum for Freud. Let me know your thoughts!]

  *    *   *
                As an afterword to this discussion of Sontag’s relationship to Freud and his thought, I wanted to reflect for a moment on a more productive usage of Freudian theory than Sontag offers.  Sontag is right to reject the simplifying of Freud’s ideas and their appropriation by the status quo.  Further, Sontag’s own rejection of Freud is wrapped up with her turning away from married life and the work (or even co-work) she did with ex-husband Philip Rieff (in his book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist), which did in essence reduce art to manifest and latent content, with the ability of the critic/analyst being to uncover the latent content at the expense of that on the surface and her experience of the work of art in all of its complexity.  Edward Said in his brief, late lecture Freud and the Non-European (2002) maps a more productive and continuing engagement with Freud’s ideas.  Following on the chapter in his early book Beginnings: Intention and Method (1985) that explicates Freud’s writerly method in Interpretation of Dreams, and his Modern Language Association presidential address “Humanism and Heroism” (published in PMLA in May 2000), Said has provided another path for the use of Freud in these later ages. 
            In Freud and the Non-European, Said turns to Freud’s last book Moses and Monotheism as a model for the kinds of analysis of fractured identity that has become pivotal in twenty-first century life and nationhood.  Freud’s work in general and his last work in particular become, in Said’s phrasing, “an overturner and a re-mapper of accepted or settled geographies and genealogies.”[1]  Freud’s methods and texts become a way of (re)mapping the boundaries between selves and histories; Said reflects that Freud
lends himself especially to rereading in different contexts [as all great literature does], since his work is all about how life history offers itself by recollection, research and reflection to endless structuring and restructuring, in both the individual and the collective sense.[2]
Said’s concern, as an Palestinian exile, centers on Freud's reading of his Jewish identity, which since Freud's death has become monolithic and exclusionary toward the Other in powerful and violent ways.  Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, because it sees the roots of Judaism and monotheism in Moses’s identity as a Egyptian before he becomes the leader of the Israeli contingent out of Egyptian slavery, locates the Other (in this case, the Egyptian and the origins of monotheism in relation to the worship of Aton, the sun god, under the ruler of Amenhotep IV) at the heart of the Jewish identity.  Thus Freud’s fracturing of identity in his model of psychoanalysis and his suggestion that nationalist identity is also inherently fractured and made other than itself from its very origins provide a model for accepting the other rather than rejecting it with violence. 
Said maps how this understanding of identity can actually lead to peace and peaceful coexistence between radically different individuals, groups, and nations.  Although many want to belong to identifiable and definable groups, or (in Said’s terms) want “desperately” to run in “nationalist or religious herds,” the cost of this kind of group-thinking and belonging often leads to violence toward and annihilation of the Other and a non-recognition that the Other is a part of the self.[3]  Freud provides us with another model, an “exemplification” in the work itself “of the insight that even for the most definable, the most identifiable, the most stubborn communal identity…there are inherent limits that prevent it from being fully incorporated into one, and truly one, Identity” that would subject all others to it.[4]  In this Freudian model, the narrative of history can be seen in all of its complexity, “being always that which comes after and, all too often, either overrides or represses the flaw” inherent in any seemingly unitary notion of identity.[5]  Freud in Said’s view allows us to “speak to other besieged identities”; for
identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that radical originary break or flaw which will not be repressed, because Moses was Egyptian, and therefore always outside the identity inside which so many have stood, and suffered—and later, perhaps, even triumphed.[6]
                Said presents a model for reading Freud that has some of the same liberatory effects that Sontag found in rejecting Freud to embrace the (surface of the) artwork itself.  He presents his readers with a model of identity via Freud’s late work that allows the Other to be recognized even in the most unitary nationalist and religious traditions, because the Other is always there anyway, within and without.  Divorced from Sontag’s own early Freud scholarship and not tangled in Rieff’s sympathetic and discerning apologetics for much of Freud’s thought on literature, art, and culture, at least in Rieff's earliest books, Said’s own consideration in Freud and the Non-European would have engaged Sontag’s own deeply held desires for a model of psychoanalysis that provides complexity and an open-ended, engaged, immersive thought for society in the twenty-first century.

[1] Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso, 2002), 27.
[2] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 27.
[3] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 53.
[4] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 53-54.
[5] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 54-55.
[6] Said, Freud and the Non-European, 54.