A Personal Update & A Plan

[Skip this one if you don’t want to read me writing about myself.]

Yesterday I scheduled my doctoral defense. All that stands between me and a mostly unscathed exit from the academic world is a period of weeks, a few questions, and a slip of paper. Moreover, a few days earlier I received confirmation that a plan I’d been hatching for several months was officially possible: in June I will dispossess myself of everything but the contents of a backpack and embark upon longterm travel.

For the first time in — yikes — 22 years, I won’t have the infinite academic maw into which to pour my excess intellectual energy. My smart-as-hell social circle of grad students and adjunct professors will no longer be available to listen to my ranting. My reading, thinking, and writing will no longer be spent on dissertations, academic articles, peer reviews, conference presentations, lectures, or comprehensive exams. Before long, I won’t even have my beloved university library. It’s not as if the loss of these resources marks the cessation of mental activity, however. I’ll still read, still think, still write. But what for and what about?

There’s literary journalism. It’s pretty cool that I can get paid to review books and write essays (and it’s also fiscally crucial). I’ll be doing more of that. But exchanging the indulgent yet rigorous intellectual activity of graduate school entirely for journalism would not satisfy the part of me that wanted to go to graduate school in the first place. I don’t think this is just the sunk-costs fallacy speaking, but a genuine recognition of something in my character: I need to be studying something.

There’s fiction writing. After attending Clarion West last summer, my literary aspirations have floated to the top of my list of priorities. But I know myself well enough to recognize that if I poured all my time into writing fiction, the slow and chancy progress might very well break me. Fiction writing is a slow-burning commitment. If someday I become a full time novelist, I’ll be overjoyed; but I’m not holding my breath. I put in my hours every day, send out my stories, study my craft, slowly get better. But keeping other intellectual irons in the fire while I work on fiction is my personal adaptation of the good advice, “don’t quit your day job just yet!”

What I’d like to do, in addition to literary journalism and fiction writing, is some kind of serious, scholarly, but non-academic nonfiction writing. I’d like to write books: about places and people and ideas. Literary biography, for instance. Popular intellectual history also attracts me, like Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful At the Existentialist Cafe. And I’ve been reading around in nature and travel writing, thinking, hey, I could do that!

A few weeks ago a friend asked me, “what job offer would make you give up your itinerant plans?” On reflection, I told her, only one: if somebody paid me to do nothing but write, each week, the most fascinating essay I could about anything I wanted, I’d settle right down to it. She asked: “What would you write about right now, if that were your job?” The answer immediately came to mind, and what surprised me was that I would never have considered writing about that thing under any other circumstances.

So what I plan to do, for, oh, the rest of 2018 (barring some unexpected opportunity), is to pretend I have been offered that fantasy job. To keep my intellectual muscles in shape, I’ll imagine I’m obligated to research, write, and publish, here on this blog, one high-quality, well-researched, beautifully written, and entertaining essay every week, about whatever I’m most interested in at the time. I’m hoping this will help me sort out the kind of non-journalistic, non-fiction writing I want to do.

In the meantime, if any of you want to hire me, well… You know where to find me.

[Edit: to answer a question I received immediately after posting this, yes, I still plan to post all my little 500-word posts about the 2018 reading project. Posts on Tolstoy and Flann O’Brien are in the pipeline even now.]

Review: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

[This post belongs to my 2018 reading project.]

In A Confederacy of Dunces, a highly-educated layabout is forced to look for a job, with dramatic consequences for everyone who comes into contact with him, including his alcoholic mother, a hapless police officer, a tyrannical pornographer, and a henpecked industrialist.

It’s best known for exogenous reasons: it was published and won a Pulitzer prize after it’s author committed suicide; attempts to turn it into a film seem cursed; and it captures the accent and atmosphere of New Orleans particularly well.

Ignatius Reilly, the protagonist, feels contemporary. Or his situation does: there are a lot of over-educated people around right now for whom the academic system can find no place (even though it made them the way they are, and unfitted them for non-academic life). They’re out of work, many living at home with their parents. The elbow-patch precariat, let’s call them. Half my friends seem to belong to it, and Ignatius Reilly is archetypal.

Ignatius also reminded me of G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a writer, activist, and self-caricature. Like Ignatius, he longed for the middle ages, maintained an operatic private fantasy starring himself, often devised harebrained and reactionary political schemes, displayed great quantities of verbal energy, was rotund, and sported a tremendous mustache. Ignatius quotes Chesterton once, so I suspect the resemblance is no accident.

G.K. Chesterton

A Confederacy of Dunces is satire, as its title — a quotation from Swift — portends. But I don’t think it deserves respect for the trenchancy of its mockery. As this review details, its satire implies a pretty unenlightened view of the world and relies on lots of pernicious stereotypes. Most of the humor arises from the contrast between contemptible private behavior and public pretentiousness. Characters are forever doing gross things when no one is looking, then grandstanding when someone is. What sets Ignatius Reilly apart, and makes him lovable amidst the “dunces” that surround him is that he’s publicly contemptible and privately pretentious; he grandstands in the theater of his own mind and the pages of his diary, and not just when bullying his interlocutors.

A Confederacy of Dunces characterizes through speech, then throws its characters violently against one another in conversation. Toole relies upon a very specific type of dramatic situation to create all his best scenes. This situation invariably has three parties, usually each party is a single person but sometimes one is replaced by a collective, functioning like a greek chorus. Two of the three parties in a given scene are antagonists attempting to manipulate each other with words, and the third is somehow oblivious and continually interrupts the sparring of the first two. This situation produces scenes that feel like they have dynamos in them. Unfortunately, once you notice it you can also predict how each scene will unfold.

Apparently, the novel reproduces the structure of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, which doesn’t surprise me, but doesn’t particularly interest me either.

I read A Confederacy of Dunces much faster than I expected to, and I feel like I learned something about scene construction.

2018: A Prospectus

Toward the end of 2017, I read Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously. His premise stuck with me. He decided to make a list of the books he always meant to get around to and just read them in order. Of course I have such books as well. Books that I tell myself I will get around to, sometime, before I die at any rate, or books that I once read in my overweening youth and should return to now that I might actually understand them. Driven by the memetic compulsion of this mindworm, I ended up drafting my own “list of betterment” (as Miller called his), and noticed that there were exactly 52 books on it. I’m no numerologist, but I couldn’t resist the correspondence to the weeks of the year.

So I’m going to read through my list in 2018. Some books will take only a few days, others several weeks. I’ll read lots of other stuff — lots of the kind of genre fiction I’m trying to write, for example, and plenty of books to feed my insatiable and miscellaneous research interests in surrealism, socialism, thanatology, philosophy, and history — but the backbone of my year in reading will be this list, and my central reading goal will be to complete it.

In tandem with the reading project, I’m going to seek to revivify this blog. After I finish each book I’ll reflect on it here.

To make my project sustainable, however, I need some limits. I’m a full time writer these days. I have plans in 2018 to write and send out a short story a week, to finish two novels, and to write an essay for some paying publication or other every month. I won’t allow my desire to blog about what I’m reading to take anything away from these more central writing projects. So I’m going to limit myself to 500 words about each book. I like the idea of forcing myself to cram as much reflection and thought as I can into 500 words. Such a limit is like putting a thumb half over the end of a garden hose: thoughts spray harder, truer, faster.

So there you have it: if things go as planned, you should have at least 52 blog posts from me this year. Below is my “list of betterment.”

  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
  • At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien
  • Atonement, by Ian McEwan
  • Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  • Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
  • The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa
  • The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera
  • The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  • Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
  • The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio
  • Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
  • The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
  • Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, by Søren Kierkegaard
  • Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
  • Faust, (Pts. 1 and 2), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford
  • The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
  • The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  • Journey to the End of the Night, by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
  • The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne
  • The Lord Chandos Letter, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
  • Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac
  • The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann
  • The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil
  • The Marquise of O, by Heinrich von Kleist
  • Middlemarch, by George Eliot
  • My Ántonia, by Willa Cather
  • Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre
  • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham
  • Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo
  • The Prelude, by William Wordsworth
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
  • The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth
  • The Recognitions, by William Gaddis
  • The Red and the Black, Stendhal
  • In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
  • The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu
  • Three Novels, by Samuel Beckett
  • The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce
  • Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
  • Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Waves, by Virginia Woolf

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What is it like attending Clarion West?

Today, applications open for the 2018 Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. I was lucky enough to attend in 2017, and I applied partly because I read the descriptions of previous Clarionites and recognized something I badly wanted to experience for myself. This is my contribution to that literature: this is what Clarion West was to me.

If you’re considering whether you want to apply, feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

Continue reading “What is it like attending Clarion West?”

Review: The Major Refutation, by Pierre Senges

The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (translated by Jacob Siefring) is a forged forgery falsely attributed to a real forger by a writer of fictions. Let’s pick that apart.

Antonio de Guevara existed. He was a monk and a courtier of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He was also a popular author who provoked controversy by making spurious historical claims in his books. The Major Refutation is ostensibly a long-lost manuscript of Guevara’s, in which he attempts to refute Christopher Columbus’s #FakeNews that a continent lies across the Atlantic from Europe. An afterword casts doubt on Guevera’s authorship. Many other famous or obscure persons in and after the 16th-century might plausibly have written The Major Refutation. But The Major Refutation is actually, of course, a novel by Pierre Senges. He doesn’t drop character as the editor of a long lost manuscript even once, but copyright pages don’t lie (more’s the pity), so we know that if we go ad fontes, we find Senges. Amazon, happily, has been taken in by the ruse, and lists (as of this writing) Antonio de Guevara as one of the authors of the book.

The Major Refutation is an extremely weird and many-leveled experiment, seemingly committed to a motto buried in its own pages:

The fake does not have the qualities of the true, it only appears to have them; yet, at the risk of pleading against mine own cause, I must admit that the efforts used by counterfeiters often merit far greater attention […]

I have some thoughts about all of this. But first, a glance at the surface of the thing. The opening paragraph displays all the book’s tics and tendencies in one prefigurative sentence. It’s a dedication:

To Charles I of Ghent, who is as magnificent as I am lowly and disparate, formerly by chance, now by necessity; to Charles of Ghent who is the most extraordinary and by far the most fortuitously placed ruler Europe has ever seen on its soil, from Extremadura to the basics of Flanders to the ship of the Hansa; to Charles who, like a child dropped into the lions’ den and brought up alongside his fellow creatures, converts innocence to knowledge and hastens to redress his lack of preparedness through more work and authority; to Charles who has no peer in taking the power held out to him by his ancestors, as if he were accepting no more than a slice of pineapple, and who is peerless as well in relinquishing it, or feigning to do so, within his palaces, where he vows his humble powers to the God he imagines, summons, or dismisses at will; to Charles the Burgundian who knew how to strike fear into the hearts of the Spanish before he subjugated them, giving to eternity the example of a sovereign boldly coming face to face with each of his subjects, because he knew how to appear in their eyes as both a demon and an ordinary man (and to deceive them on both accounts, but with ample guile); to Charles who knew how to trim his family tree, to never subordinate the demands of State to filial love, nor waver in judgment before complaints or appeals, including those of kith and kin — to Charles I of Ghent, the author dedicates the present book.

Still with me?

As you will have noticed, The Major Refutation is written in a relentlessly oratorical style. The sentences are long, ornate, architectural, formal, yet digressive. They are stuffed with allusions to history and literature and out-dated science. The book is a triumph of research by Senges, but you will have to choose whether to allow those allusions to pour over you like water, or to track all or some of them down. I wavered back and forth, spending half an hour on some pages, and covering a few dozen others in as many minutes.

The novel is an undertaking (to read, to have written, to have translated). I think it’s a worthy one.


I hold that a good novel is, among other things, entertaining. The Major Refutation is entertaining. But not often in the normal ways that novels are entertaining, and not, I suspect, entertaining for everyone. Character and plot are buried here to be extracted, if you dig. Gradually, one learns about Guevara’s feud with another scholar named Peter Martyr; and the text itself tells the story of its author gradually confusing himself and coming to desire something different than he did at first. But these, as I said, are narratives to be extracted from a book which is, on the surface, exactly what it looks like: a long attempt to refute the existence of the Americas. It takes work to extract those narratives, and while some find such work good fun in itself, others might be dissuaded from the whole experience by the difficulty the form presents.

There are other possible entertainments on the surface of this book besides a plot: style above all. Long luxurious sentences eventually begin to spin by like lines of poetry. Also there is humor. Mostly wit, occasionally straight comedy, as when Guevara addresses his parrot from the midst of his increasingly insane ranting.

So that’s what The Major Refutation offers as an entertainment: strange, lovely writing; humor; a story-line if you squint.


What The Major Refutation offers uniquely, because of its unusual form, is a reflection on the value of counterfeiting to truth (and of course, by extension, the value of fiction to life). Guevara’s mode of “refutation” is actually conspiracy theorizing. As consumers, lately, of even more conspiracies than usual, we recognize the form: they render an unlikely alternative conception of reality plausible by forming a web of highly detailed minor connections. — Not unlike Sherlock Holmes, buttressing his unlikely large scale deductions by a host of minor observations. If this person has noticed all these subtle details and connected them with such ingenuity, how can they be wrong on the big glaring point their subtlety subtends?

Really good conspiracy theorists have the paradoxical effect of raising the standards of evidence and the scrutiny that precedes belief: it’s the casual counterfeiters we have to fear. We have to worry about the liars who don’t care how shabby and easy to dispel their untruths are, the fabricators who rely upon the prolificity of their perversions rather than intricacy or excellence of their designs. In our time, numerous parties seem to be attempting forgery by brute force, the deployment of auotmated repetition and dissemination as a form of persuasion — not verisimilitude but virality allow the lies that surround us to sink in. In such a climate, a conspiracy theory like The Major Refutation, with its elaborate scaffolding of plausibility and research, is also a pointed reminder of the tawdry laziness of much modern propoganda.

[M]y Refutation is not strictly speaking a work of debunking , and uniquely that, but rather an invitation from one dupe to other dupes to listen to how the stories go round and repeat, to see how a counterfeit money circulates…

The actually revolutionary implication of this investigation is the power it reveals to belong to the honest dupe: that is, to the wondering person, who innocently believes a lie. That person, who, multiplied, is the great sleeping beast of society coddled and lulled by the lies of the powerful, has, ultimately, all the power:

there comes a moment when the world’s last remaining free dupe holds unto himself the conditions necessary to the survival of the imposture : and paradoxically his power is then immense if the collective delusion is to depend on his credulity.

In an interview, Senges has said that the imposture of realism in literature supports that of liberalism: the idea that the free market is a basic reality rather than something forcibly imposed and continuously maintained by force. He has also said that he forbids himself short sentences because the short sentence is peremptory whereas it ought to doubt itself.

The form of The Major Refutation mirrors its theme perfectly: a scrutiny so intense, brought to bear with specialties so hysterically refined, leads the object studied to crumble, and the investigator himself to vanish into self-doubt.

On Secret Readers

Three novels about three women whose secret lives as readers are the truth of their existence: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; and An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. In Barbery’s book, the secret reader is a middle-aged concierge in a French apartment building. Gruff and stupid as far as the lodgers are concerned, secretly she’s a connoisseur of fine literature, art, music, and film. In Bennett’s book, the secret reader is the queen, whose accidental brush with a traveling library and a bibliophilic staffmember birth her as a reader in the senescence of her reign. And in Alameddine’s book, the secret reader is a Beiruti divorcee and former bookshop owner, whose hidden, private life is devoted to translating books into classical Arabic, unbeknownst to anyone. Three novels; three secret readers. Together these books justify me in declaring a sub-genre: the sub-genre of the secret reader.

All three secret readers are middle aged or elderly women. Two suffer the obscurity of poverty, and one the obscurity of fame. (Who is more invisible as a person than the figurehead of a dead empire?) Each of these secret readers is the sort of person that our producerist, patriarchal, youth- and sex-worshipping societies would write off as unimportant and insignificant. And yet, by reason of their secret lives as readers, they are more significant, in the proper sense of the word, than a dozen vapid CEOs, celebrities, or sports icons. For the secret readers, each deed and observation signifies, pointing beyond itself to the vast and echoing chamber of cultural memory in which they live. They are significant: but are their lives, therefore, important? The three novels I’ve mentioned almost seem calculated to pose the question of the importance of the reading life in its extreme form: they will be either a reductio ad absurdam or a final vindication of the curious way that some of us, we readers, choose to pour days and weeks of our lives into a strange, still, silent activity.

The secret readers in these three novels are nothing or they are everything.

Continue reading “On Secret Readers”

5 of my favorite books

Alberta and Jacob, by Cora Sandel

Cora Sandel is the pseudonym of Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius. She was born in 1880, in Norway’s capital city, Oslo (then called Kristiana). But her family moved to Tromsø when she was 12 because of some money problems. Tromsø is the northernmost city in the world. It was a cheap place to live, and it sounds all but uninhabitable. During the winter it turns into a snowglobe, and from the end of November until the beginning of January it remains shrouded in “polar night”: the sun stays below the horizon. This climate, you will learn, if you read the first volume of Sandel’s autobiographical trilogy, feels exactly as crushing as it sounds.

Alberta and Jacob delicately balances claustrophobia and spacious illumination. It reflects its setting. Alberta, like Cora, is the daughter of an official in an extremely northern town. Her family is recently impoverished, and they wear poverty badly, with all the upward envy and downward terror that characterizes the pathologically middle class psyche. She and her brother strain against the poverty of spirit the family’s poverty of money has created. Alberta is desperately shy, and secretly she is a poet. Despite her own fragility she goes to great lengths to cover up her brother’s misdeeds, suffering tortures of suspicion from their angry, peevish mother.

A Legacy, by Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford was born in 1911, and she lived all the way until 2006. Her parents were German aristocrats. Her father died when she was 14. Subsequently she and her mother lived in Italy and France, and she studied in England. She knew Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, and she was friends with, and wrote a biography of, Alduous Huxley. She wrote in English, but her ambit was the world.

A Legacy draws upon the history of her German family and the atmosphere of pre-war German culture. It’s extraordinary and I have written about it at length elsewhere, and this passage from my review is representative of my feelings about the book:

The military, the government, the churches, the gambling houses, the art world, the press: all receive their barb. Bedford’s depiction manages to be both loving and uncompromisingly critical. Family stories and the glowing fragments of childhood memory conveyed to her a story about her forebears, set in a society that was destroyed by two world wars. She appropriates that story with cynical nostalgia. She laments what was lost but remains perfectly aware that the seeds of cataclysm had already been planted, their vicious tendrils evident to anyone who looked closely enough: anti-semitism, militarism, political polarization. The extraordinary feat of A Legacy is to be both an intimate family drama and an objective exposition of history.

A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin had an exciting but difficult life. She was born in 1936 to an Alaskan miner, but when her father went off to war she traveled south to El Paso with her mother, where she met the first drunk to enter her life, her dentist grandfather. After the war, the whole family moved to Santiago, Chile. There Lucia brushed up against high society; and her mother became an alcoholic. She came back to the states for college and… Anyway, I won’t keep narrating her life, because it’s very involved, featuring a lot of different places, multiple love affairs, children, debilitating diseases, struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and a terrible, undeserved, nearly lifelong obscurity.

She died in 2004, and in 2015 A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, a collection of her wonderful stories, was published to great acclaim by FSG. They are stories about work and life and trouble, and they’re poignantly observed and relentlessly witty. I wrote about them here.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone Beauvoir

I don’t need to tell you who Simone Beauvoir is, right? Famous existentialist and feminist; author of The Second Sex and lots of novels, some of which, like The Mandarins, are very good. But my favorite of her books is the first volume of her autobiography. All the volumes are excellent, but the first, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, is a masterpiece.

I’ve read it five times. It’s the rich history of a girl embracing her powers and achieving her freedom, but it’s pierced throughout by a counterpoint, the story of Zaza, Beauvoir’s first best friend. Zaza dies in a most allegorical fashion at the end of the book. The last line is this:

We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.

Zaza, I think, is the “dutiful daughter” in the title — not Beauvoir herself. Beauvoir’s self-revelatory efforts, in this first volume of the autobiography, are a framing technique for the story of Zaza. This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that in the first part of the second volume of the autobiographical series (The Prime of Life), Beauvoir mentions that she wrote Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in order to discharge a debt. A debt, one presumes, to Zaza.

Zaza and Simone undergo similar awakenings to books, to art, and to romance. Beauvoir makes it a point to reiterate at strategic moments — illuminated in retrospect by that shocking final line — that their taste, their ideas, their hopes, their goals for intimacy were basically identical. Despite Beauvoir’s relatively early apostasy from her Roman Catholic childhood faith and Zaza’s patient abiding in it, despite Beauvoir’s quiet rebellion against the totalitarian intrusions of her parents and Zaza’s idealization of filial piety, the double portrait is unmistakably that of moral, aesthetic, and intellectual twins. In the end, Zaza literally dies from the moral conflict between her aspiration to freedom and her religiously buttressed commitment to filial duty. Beauvoir’s personal Bildungsroman turns out to be another tragedy: Zaza’s death marks the end of Simone’s childhood. Thereafter, the value of freedom with which she had flirted as a rebellious daughter is confirmed by an intimate object lesson: the dutiful daughter, the dead one.

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald was born in 1916, into the intellectually brilliant Knox family, and she distinguished herself as a student at Oxford, after which everybody expected her take her place on the cultural scene as a serious writer. But instead she married an alcoholic soldier and had a bunch of babies, all of whom became her exclusive dependents in short order. The bulk of her her adult life was spent feverishly scraping by, and she was unable to properly launch her literary career until she was 57. But when she launched, she damn well launched. She wrote twelve books in the next twenty years, including two biographies and ten novels, as well as lots of essays and stories.

Literally everything Fitzgerald wrote is a precious literary jewel that you should track down, hoard, and delight in. (And while you’re at it, you should read Hermione Lee’s biography of her.) But my favorite is Offshore. Like several other of her first few novels, it mines the experiences of her working life (and then her last novels are historical fiction of an altogether transcendent variety). Offshore takes its material from Fitzgerald’s time living in a houseboat on the Thames. Like everything she wrote it is laconic and ravishing, psychologically astute, funny, tragic, utterly unpredictable, and composed of pointillist-precise sentences. I will never be able to write like her, but she is my constant vision of narrative near-perfection when I write stories.

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On Apophatic Criticism

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner, is an accessible introduction to a kind of literary criticism that beguiles and frightens me. I think of it as “apophatic” criticism: the literary analogue to apophatic theology. Apophatic criticism rejects facile approaches to literature, and locates its highest values in the failure of texts. But we’ll get there. First, The Hatred of Poetry.

This excellent, short book is — surprise! — about hating poetry. Paradoxically, Lerner is a good poet and a lover of poetry, who hates poetry: “I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable”. His thesis? That hating actual poems is loving the idea of poetry. To hate existing poems, or the limits of actual poetry, is to love virtual poetry, the poetry that cannot exist but seems to linger as a dream behind actual poems. With admirable dialectical tenacity, Lerner ropes in every variety of poem-hating, theoretical, emotional, and practical, to support his thesis:

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did.

All these variants of the hatred of poetry are negative testimonies to the value of true Poetry. Given the impossibility of approaching Poetry in mere poems, “great poets as different as Keats and Dickinson express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions — by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” And great critics, we might add, express their commitment to Poetry by pointing out where merely actual poems fall short and highlighting the places where great poets virtualize their own compositions.

This is what I call the apophatic criticism of poetry. Whence the word “apophatic”?

Apophatic theology is a logical development of the idea of monotheism. Back when I was any sort of Christian, I became obsessed with it for this reason. If god is not a creature, a created thing, and is, in fact, the author of existence itself, then that presents a major problem for theology, the study of god, the attempt to describe god. There appear to be only two possibilities: analogical language, saying what god is “like,” or negation, saying what god is not. All the well-known language of worship and devotion in actual religious traditions is basically analogical, the attribution of creaturely qualitites to the uncreated solely as comparisons, not as real and therefore contradictory predication. But what kind of analogy makes any sense if there is no basis for comparison? If I say Donald Trump reminds me of a badger being eaten by a smaller, hairier badger, either I mean that they, such a badger and Donald Trump, share some feature, or else I’m talking nonsense. But in the case of an analogy between the uncreated and a creature, there is no possible feature they could share. So how is analogical language anything but the purest fabulism? The other way to talk about the uncreated is through negation. Saying what the uncreated is not involves no claim, explicit or implicit, about some shared ground between the created and the uncreated. Given the danger of misattribution involved in any analogy, perhaps the negative way of theology, apophatic theology, is the most accurate way to speak about the uncreated.

It should be obvious by now why I want to borrow the word “apophatic” for the kind of criticism exemplified by Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

Now this kind of criticism can seem very austere and limiting at first. How boring would it be if poetry critics did nothing but talk about the failure of poetry? Lerner leaves himself an out at the end of his book:

[P]oems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing. They can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on. The admitted weakness in the story I’m telling about Poetry is that it doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety; it’s much better at dealing with great or horrible instances of the art. (And I didn’t pretend to know where the art beings or ends: Another essay might look at how hip-hop, or spoken word, or other creative linguistic practices take up or by-pass the contradictions I’ve been describing.) But the story is illuminating because it helps account for the persistent if mutable feeling that our moment’s poems are always already failing us — whether our moment is 380 B.C. or 731, or 1579, of 1819, or 2016.

Thus The Hatred of Poetry is an exploration, for Lerner, merely of one very important feature of the poetic experience. What would a more uncompromising apophatic criticism look like?


An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.

You may have heard of Mitchelmore from his blog This Space. Not so long ago, he made the excellent decision to turn a number of posts from that blog into a book, entitled This Space of Writing, published by Zero Press. When I found out about this book, I purchased it with glee.

I discovered Mitchelmore’s blog when I was a college student. Without going too deeply into it, I was a miserable person then: I was cooped up in a terrible university I had chosen for religious reasons, and those religious reasons were beginning to get complicated, to slip away, and I was waking up to the profound intellectual poverty of my surroundings. I felt alone in my enthusiasm for books and philosophy and history, despite a lively social life and intense involvement in all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time holed up in quiet corners, desperately reading, or looking for real live intellectual models and virtual friends on the internet. I stumbled onto This Space and encountered a way of talking about books that seemed as far above me in intellectual seriousness as I felt I was above my fellow students. Mitchelmore clearly valued books more than anyone I’d ever met. But he had some secret technique or method of approach that guided everything he said while evading all my attempts to isolate it. He’d developed a kind of discourse that seemed to turn every story into a text about reading and writing itself.

Mitchelmore’s essays have none of the fat that characterizes commercial criticism or the different kind of fat that characterizes book blogging. He writes with an intensity of focus that either sucks you in or makes you scornful. Those seem to be the two responses his blog draws: and the critical response to his book has been no different.

In a blog post called “Mehr Nichts” (it’s also included in the book), he asks at the end: “What does it mean to acknowledge the limits of writing?” And it was only after I had read Mitchelmore for many months, as a teenager, that I realized this was the question, or the kind of question, guiding his work. He prefers fiction that raises the question; and he reads all fiction, the good and the bad, with the question in mind.

Before I clued into this apophatic method, I found Mitchelmore’s writing difficult for a very specific reason: it rebuffed my desire to imitate it. I was deeply impressed by his irascibility toward other reviewers and by the way he seemed to dive into a text, causing it to disappear by becoming more intensely itself. But when I tried to read that way myself, or to discriminate between the critics and novels who offered or allowed for that way of reading and those who didn’t, I continually arrived at the “wrong” conclusions. Like Churchill, who supposedly taught himself politics while he was stationed in India by reading volumes of the debates of parliament, determining his own views and reasons about each issue, and then measuring them against the reported outcome of the actual debates, I essentially taught myself to read like an apophatic critic (or tried to) by seeing what book Mitchelmore had written about, trying to read that book as I imagined he would, and then comparing my experience to what he wrote.

It sounds more slavish than it was. I’ll write more on some other occasion about Mitchelmore, his book, and what his blog meant to me in college, because he deserves the attention, and I owe it to the role he played in my self-education. His book also requires its own post because to really show what he’s up to would require zeroing in on how he talks about specific texts, and I can sense this post will already be rather long without a digression of that kind.

In fact, that is the very the feature of an apophatic criticism that most appeals to me: despite the way it might seem abstract or predictable from an outside description, in practice it is more deeply focused on the real (or virtual?) object in front of the critic than any other form of criticism.


I approach the question of criticism from a practical standpoint. It interests me as a writer of criticism who needs a method rather than as a scholar in pursuit of the most defensible theory. From that perspective, and ignoring all the subtle distinctions of scholars, I see basically five varieties of criticism.

(1) Consumer advice. It measures a book against what it imagines readers want, and passes judgment on whether you, the consumer, ought to buy it. Is it a beach read? An aspirational read? A good read to give someone for Christmas? (The language of “reads” rather than “books” is symptomatic of consumer advice criticism.)

(2) Reader response. This kind of criticism is essentially a self-report. I liked the book or I didn’t, and this is what I liked or didn’t like about it. Nothing wrong with reader response, but it’s fundamentally autobiography, and therefore inevitably about the reader more than the book. The vast majority of book blogging is reader response.

(3) Textual-rhetorical criticism. Here the reviewer attempts to determine what the author was trying to do, and judges whether they succeeded or not, based purely on an appraisal of the text. In the hands of a perceptive and knowledgeable critic, it can be quite illuminating. It’s where you turn when you’ve been puzzled by a book and want a hand thinking about it. It can also very easily shade over either into disagreeable arrogance, when the critic ventures ex cathedra mind-reading of an author, or else into boring apologetics, when the critic reads an author’s goals out of their text without separating vision from actuality.

(4) Contextual-rhetorical criticism. This kind of criticism also attempts to judge an author’s intended act of communication and whether they achieved it, but relies upon all kind of sources (textual or not) beyond the book. Much of what I write in my formal book reviews for places like Open Letters Monthly and The Los Angeles Review of Books could be classified this way. I tend to use biographical events, intellectual history, letters, genre considerations, and so forth, in my attempt to figure out what a given book is up to. I make no pretense of ginning up the author’s vision from the text alone. Some of my favorite critics, like Fredric Jameson and Walter Benjamin, practiced this variety of criticism. Obviously it lends itself to political and materialist interpretations, but don’t let my list of critics or my own example limit the range of the method. I’d say a blog like Wuthering Expectations is contextual-rhetorical criticism too, even though the context drawn upon is primarily literary history. Obviously I love this kind of criticism. It has one serious disadvantage, though: it melts the specificity of a text into its context. The book becomes a node whose meaning arises from a conjuncture of other things. Perhaps that’s fine and we should reject the consideration of uniquely “literary” dimension of experience. (I’m not accusing the critics I mentioned of harboring that opinion; I just think it’s a practical implication of only writing contextual-rhetorical criticism.)

(5) Apophatic criticism. I’ve already described it, but to recap: it’s a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits. It searches for a specifically literary dimension of experience, and necessarily it excludes other concerns, including the rhetorical, because its interest is not in the text as an occasion for communication, but in textuality as such.

There is one other way of writing about books — which I call “book chat” — but it’s more of a style than a method, so I won’t include it among my unscientific numbered set. It’s a plummy, belletristic, gossipy way of writing. Though not a text, the extremely enjoyable podcast Backlisted is a great example of book chat. V.S. Pritchett’s reviews were often this way, too. It’s a fine way to write about books; but I’m not sure it’s properly a form of criticism at all. (Surely anything that aspires to be a form of “criticism” must involve measuring something against something.) Really what book chat resembles is fan-centered sports-writing, of the Bill Simmons variety, but without falling into mere reader response. Yes, fundamentally it’s the discourse of fans. Perhaps it bears the same relation to apophatic criticism that popular devotion bears to the apophatic theology in monotheistic religions.


An important stage in my journey to atheism and irreligion was the way station of apophatic theology. For me, deciding that the negative way of theology was the only logical and appropriate way to speak or think of the uncreated called much of the everyday business of religion into question: the side of religion involved in building a community and living a certain way seemed more and more earthly and political, while the side involving an attempt to contemplate god seemed disconnected from the earthly altogether. Ultimately the tension proved insupportable, and my religious life split and transformed into socialist politics on the one hand and philosophical and aesthetic speculation on the other. But my point here isn’t to narrate my autobiography, it’s to ask whether apophatic criticism doesn’t spell a danger to work as a critic similar to the danger apophatic theology poses to religion.

I think the escape hatch that Lerner gives himself, quoted above, is unrigorous. Having conclusively determined that actual poetry is always inadequate as Poetry, he nevertheless permits himself to discuss the actual value of “good” poetry. And I’m at a loss to understand what he means by “good poetry.” To be a good X is to possess in the highest degree the qualities that make an X an X; and that is precisely what he has decided poetry cannot do. He has argued that poems are endemically imperfect. So what he means is that poems can be good for things other than the poetic. This would be like saying a shiny spoon with a hole in it was a good spoon because you can use its shiny surface as a mirror: in fact, it’s not a good spoon, it’s a bad spoon and a good mirror.

A critic can certainly write actual criticism, valuable criticism, which asks what non-literary things literature is good for. The contextual-rhetorical criticism that I often practice, for example, can, I think, be pleasant to read, instructive, even edifying. But is it literary criticism? Shouldn’t literary criticism involve judgment as to a work’s success as literature? In that endeavor, I think, apophatic criticism has no peer. Which is why I value Steve Mitchelmore’s work so much.

My admiration presents me with a problem, though. Apophatic criticism is difficult to read, and it will never, I suspect, be particularly popular. So does that mean that the professional critic must fall short of properly literary criticism? “Success, in the sense defined by the reviewers,” writes Mitchelmore, “would be failure.”


My college fascination with Mitchelmore’s This Space ultimately lead me to his sources. To Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici, among others. In the course of reading from and around Blanchot, I lucked onto the brilliant essay “A Phenomenology of Reading,” by Georges Poulet. It’s a bizarre text that begins as an exploration of the experience of reading, ultimately settling on a description of reading as a sort of possession of one’s faculties, and then takes a sharp turn into discussing the various types of literary critic, among whom he singles out several critics contemporary to him, including Maurice Blanchot, the ur-apophatic critic.

I’ll conclude by quoting without commentary a passage from Poulet which touches directly upon apophatic criticism:

[The critic] can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power on the part of the subject, while at the same time accentuating in the object those characteristics which emphasize its infinite distance from the subject […] the maximum lucidity thereby achieved only confirms a separation instead of a union. […] I may […] separate myself so completely from what I am contemplating that the thought thus removed to a distance assumes the aspect of a being with whom I may never establish any relationship whatsoever. […] the act of reading has delivered me from egocentricity: another’s thought inhabits me or haunts me [but I] keep [my] distance and refuse to identify.

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A Glossary of Literary-Critical Cliches

The following glossary explains the true and secret functions and unintended revelations of certain common cliches used by book reviewers when they are describing books. It is lovingly compiled, since I am in fact a reviewer. I am no doubt guilty of most of these transgressions at one time or another. But it is seriously intended as a relevant tic-list. Every single one of these abominations could be avoided, and a hundred others besides, if we reviewers mustered the strength of purpose to avoid lazy evaluative abstractions. Also, I frequently get carried away in my analysis of unintended revelations, so don’t take anything too seriously.

– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.

To be updated (when I get the chance) with: elegant, luminous, lush, prescient, provocative, riveting, stunning, thrilling, transcendent, unflinching, love-child of author and author, and voice of a generation.

Feel free to contribute addenda in the comments, or to suggest other likely candidates for the glossary!

Review: The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

We project the reality of actual people much as we do the seeming reality of fictional characters.

Madame Bovary is, factually, a noun to which certain verbs are attributed. Functionally, however, she is a person whom you care for or despise, laugh at or despair of, picture in the round, treat as possessing interiority, and, perhaps, even conduct imaginary dialogues with. Likewise your own mother, in the most basic sense, is a series of impressions, conceptualized as a continuous entity, accruing, like a snowplow leaving drifts on either side, attributions of causality. You speculate that she is an outside-with-an-inside-that-seems-to-be-free-and-autonomous. Just like you. You recognize her in certain primordial ways too. I’m not denying that. But most of what you think about her is constructed by your ongoing work of fantasy. Actually, Madame Bovary can seem more real to you than your mother. When you’re tired or your mother transgresses the bounds of your fantasy by doing something unexpected, then at least Madame Bovary is coherent, neatly tucked into her narrative. This mother, though—! She practically dissipates into incomprehensibility unless you maintain her invisible dimensions.

Given the sheer effort you expend to maintain your perception of another person’s independent reality, you seize any shortcut or prefab element you can find. That’s one reason children universally adore stories: stories are prefab fantasies, enormously useful. But besides stories, we repurpose the traits, types, and projected motivations of our fantasies about one person in our fantasies about another. We form an idea of mother, and use bits of it in our idea of father, and so on. (It’s not linear like this, obviously, but circular and recursive.)

Your family, at the level of its fantasy-existence as a collection of real people constantly presumed to be carrying on their own lives outside your head, are all built from one another. This Frankenstein, this family, is nonetheless, for you, the very definition of the real, the distinct, the effortlessly independent and permanently stable surround. Your brothers and sisters and mother and father are the archetypes from which you draw the materials for all subsequent fantasies about the new, supposedly real, people who touch your consciousness.

Well, perhaps one other person adds something incontestably new: your first lover.

The first person who breaches that wall of physical distance, the wall you built up gradually from your naked and bawling babyhood, in clumsy childhood, in embarassed adolescence, in dignified adulthood. Your lover reorganizes the whole settled engine of your fantasies. This traumatizes however it happens.

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a very short novel composed of tiny sections that leap back and forth in time and from one plot line to another. It forms a mosaic whose central figures are a fictionalized version of Duras herself—as a 15 year old girl—and her first lover. This lover is the son of a rich man and he is Chinese. Marguerite, of course, was French. She ostensibly goes with him because she wants money. Her mother, a bankrupt widow, stuck in the colonial Saigon, has awoken her to the need for money. And then later Duras thinks: perhaps I did love him.

From what I’ve been able to find out, the autobiographical events from which this tale stems, however, are different in one important way: the real Duras recollected that she only slept with the lover once, due to her racist revulsion from his body.

Imaginary-Duras, though, sleeps with him for two years. She’s a school-girl in colonial Vietnam. Perhaps you know about strained imperial communities that attempt to recreate the homeland’s social world. In such a recreations, polite fictions are continually undermined by the presence of the slave, the exploited, the subjugated, the ostensibly savage. Societies like that don’t handle scandal well (consult Kipling and the early Orwell). Young story-Duras is a scandal even before she takes up with a non-European who has no intention of marrying her. She wears a man’s hat and gold lamé shoes. She has a face, she tells us, that prophecies debauchery, a grown up dissipated face on a pubescent girl’s body. A delightful fictionalization, I thought, and then I found a picture:

This is, I believe, a young Marguerite Duras

Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It aslo served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me. I knew it the same as other people, but, strangely, in advance. Just as the space existed for desire. At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face […] That was how everything started for me—with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.

For The Lover, Duras won the Prix Goncourt. To win such a major prize with barely a hundred pages: astonishing.

The story shows how one cannibalizes family members in an attempt to construct a fantasy about the lover’s independent reality. She imagines him as mother, father, brother. (“He takes her as he would his own child. He’d take his own child the same way.” Yes, admittedly creepy.) But ultimately, the lover breaches any merely borrowed fantasy. What most people take to be a recognition in later life that she actually loved the lover, and didn’t just go with him for his money, I take to be a surrender to the necessity to form fresh elements of fantasy to cope with his memory.

[I]t was when the boat uttered its first farewell, when the gangway was hauled up and the tugs had started to tow and draw the boat away from land, that she had wept. She’d wept without letting anyone see her tears, because he was Chinese and one oughtn’t to weep for that kind of lover.

What makes The Lover extraordinary, I think, is that it combines these two things: the way a first lover reorganizes the material of your fantasies about other people, and imperialism. Marguerite’s lover resists her existing stock of family fantasies not just by being a lover, but also by being Chinese. The foreignness (and perceived inferiority) of his being Chinese, however, cannot be maintained as a shadowy otherness when he is her first lover. It’s an intractable problem and their “love” does not work out—quite apart from its external obstacle which is, ironically, not her mother (who nonetheless beats her and screams at her for degrading herself with another race, even while accepting the monetary bounty that flows from her daughter’s promiscuity), but his father, who considers the girl beneath them.

At one point in the novel, Duras tosses out a little line that struck me between the eyes like a poleaxe: she says there is a “superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem.” I thought about it and she’s right: there isn’t a political solution to a personal problem. (A thing we are about to learn with searing clarity.) But what is left unsaid—and Duras usually speaks as much through what she doesn’t say as through what she does—is that personal problems might have political origins.

Take her personal problem with that first lover. It wouldn’t be a problem—or not as intractable a problem—without the fact of Imperialism.

And that of course raises the question: though there can’t be political solutions to personal problems, can there be personal solutions to political problems? Well, suppose the novel is an attempt to answer that question. I’ll leave it to you.

Review: The Immoralist, by André Gide

I think I can be forgiven hoping to find something lurid in a novel entitled The Immoralist, written by a notorious French pederast. But at first blush there’s not all that much to blush about in André Gide’s book. I closed it a bit underwhelmed, feeling as if I’d finished a competent but frankly somewhat prudish mashup of Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allen Poe. The story had, however, entered the two-chambered stomach of my mind. I chewed the cud of it for a day, and by the time I’d digested it I realized just how interesting it was.

Michel, the eponymous immoralist, is a bookish and independently wealthy young man. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Marceline. On their honeymoon he almost dies of tuberculosis. Galvanized by his escape, he decides to abandon books in favor of sensual experience: sunbathing naked, hanging out with pretty little boys, roaming about at night poaching rabbits on his own lands, that sort of thing.

Marceline doesn’t much like Michel’s new philosophy, and when she gets pregnant he seriously considers taking back up the burdens of typical bourgeois life. But then Marceline miscarries and gets tuberculosis herself. By way of a cure, Michel foolishly hustles her from place to place. He convinces both of them that carting her around the Middle East is the best way to treat her. They retrace the path of their honeymoon: for him it was a journey of convalescence, but for her, now, it’s a journey of deterioration. In a suitably gothic finale, she dies hemorrhaging, drowning in her own blood, covered in sheets of it, just about where Michel was definitively cured, in a remote desert village beyond the reach of any doctors.

Plenty is disturbing in this story, especially the fate of Marceline. But where’s the immorality? A bookworm almost dies and realizes he needs to live a little. For the most part he doesn’t hurt anybody, except by accident. It is disturbing when the narrator suggests that Michel was unmoved by the death of Marceline. But even there, apart from Michel’s poor medical theories — for which he did, actually, have some basis, since he’d been cured by the same desert that kills Marceline — he does nothing to deserve serious opprobrium, offering Marceline devoted daily care, even though he’s long since ceased to base his happiness on their love. Can you fault someone for being unable to muster an emotion, when he doesn’t allow that inner coldness to interfere with any external duties? Where’s the immorality?

I think questing for that immorality, an almost inevitable readerly task, as Gide surely realized when he chose the title, unfolds a seemingly straightforward and simple story into something more profound and challenging.

Perhaps the key to the book is a conversation that takes place about halfway through. After Michel and Marceline’s honeymoon they end up back in Paris where Michel gives some lectures. He tries to express his new philosophy of sensuality in these lectures, but nobody understands. Nobody except one former acquaintance, Ménalque, a man much further along the same path. Here’s the pertinent exchange:

Ménalque, who was walking up and down the room, absentmindedly lit a cigarette, then threw it away at once. “There is,” he continued, “a ‘sense,’ the others would say, a ‘sense’ you seem to be lacking, my dear Michel.”

“You mean a ‘moral sense,’” I said, trying to smile.

“No, just a sense of property.”

Michel doesn’t lack a moral sense; he lacks a sense of property; yet we find him in a book called L’immoraliste. This isn’t a contradiction because there’s a difference between immorality and amorality. An important difference actually, one all-too-often elided. If two people believe in different accounts of what is good, and therefore judge different actions to be right, each will perceive the other to be immoral. If one of them didn’t believe anything was good, and that there were no right actions, he would be amoral.

Michel does lack something: a sense of property. And this makes him appear immoral to people who possess that sense.

What does it mean that he lacks a sense of property?

In the remark’s immediate context, it quite literally means that he isn’t jealous of his possessions. He lets a child steal from him for the pleasure of witnessing the theft, for instance.

But in a deeper sense that Ménalque teaches him, Michel has no property because he lives entirely in the present. Don’t cling to memory, advises Ménalque. Don’t steer your craft by the north star of principle or any particular constellation of previous felicity, but follow the erratic comet of present inclination. If a friend tires you, drop them; if a former hobby bores you, neglect it; if you want something, buy it. Relinquish both the past and the future.

What becomes of property if there is no past or future? It ceases to make sense as a concept. For something to be “property” to you, you must project your possession of it into the future as a right, on the basis of some supposedly legitimating act of appropriation in the past. Perhaps you bought this banana yesterday, and therefore you consider that only you or your agents may eat or dispose of it tomorrow. (My beloved and I experience the antinomies of banana ownership on a weekly basis, as she considers her act of purchasing the bananas reason enough to deprive me of what I perceive to be my right to dispose of them when they get black and mushy.) The very coherence of the idea of property depends upon time-consciousness, depends upon our not fully inhabiting the present.

But why does Michel’s lack of a sense of property, in either the shallow or the deeper sense, make him immoral? Remember, the immoral is a comparative term, used by those with a different conception of the moral than those whom they consider immoral. We may therefore presume that Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he appears to those who differ from him in the essential way that they possess a sense of property. And indeed this is fully borne out by a second key scene in the book.

One of Michel’s tenants realizes that his landlord is poaching rabbits on his own land. He’s buying copper wire to help the son of his overseer set up illicit snares, and then he’s running around at night setting them up, taking great delight in, essentially, stealing from himself. Michel’s tenant, Charles, delivers a sermon to his landlord:

Charles’s voice grew more and more assured. He sounded almost noble. I noticed that he had shaved off his whiskers. […] “It was Monsieur who taught me last year that property involves certain responsibilities — but Monsieur seems to have forgotten. Either you take those responsibilities seriously and stop dealing with those [poachers] or else you don’t deserve to own anything.”

Michel doesn’t deserve to own anything: but what would make him deserve ownership? Presumably, the missing sense of property. The circularity of this observation delights me. It highlights the arbitrary nature of ownership itself. The will to own is itself the prime justification and qualification for ownership. And in fact isn’t that the disillusioning reality?

I think I’ve found what makes the immoralist immoral. Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he is perceived by a bourgeois who properly understands what Michel has become. What has he become? A sensualist, someone wholly absorbed by the present and therefore unwilling and unable to entertain a sense of property. That’s not so bad, though, I don’t think. In fact it’s… admirable. Not being amoral, Michel is immoral because he has detached himself from the obsession with property that festers at the heart of bourgeois morality. Earlier, before the perfection of his sensuality, he saw just how unhappy this obsession could make him:

Furniture, fabrics, engravings, everything lost all its value for me at the first blemish — things stained, things infected by disease and somehow marked by mortality. I longed to protect everything, to put it all under lock and key for myself alone. How lucky Ménalque is, I thought, owning nothing! It’s because I want to save things that I suffer.

A year ago I was briefly misdiagnosed with a heart problem and spent several weeks convinced I might die at any moment. It was among the best things that ever happened to me. Months later, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that gaze into the abyss for anything. Among its many lingering effects is a strong and existential disgust with possessions. I keep finding ways and reasons to get rid of my things. The Immoralist revealed something to me about this disgust: it’s the obverse of a newfound appreciation for immediacy, for the present. All those things, mementos of the past or collections curated and aimed at a future completion, were bifurcations of the present, so many incursions of death upon life.

The various gothic thrills and horrors of The Immoralist conceal a quietly more interesting idea: the transvaluation of values effected by a clear perception of the precious contingency of existence.