If you don’t have a purpose, pick one for yourself

The New Yorker‘s “Briefly Noted” book review section (behind a paywall, but check here if you’re curious) has a review Very Recent History that displays all the telltale signs of pointlessly plotless modern novels: adrift protagonists; problems with few or no important stakes; expecting the world to be automatically interesting, instead of you being interesting to the world; consumption for its own sake rather than for the sake of pleasure. Even the language of the review is stupid, saying that Very Recent History “serves to underscore the sense of trauma that is daily life in a late-capitalist moment.”

What? How do we know this is “a late capitalist moment?” Assuming capitalism as such dates to the 18th Century and, say, Adam Smith, and is the dominant organization of successful societies in 200 years, this is a “mid capitalist moment.” And there is little or no “sense of trauma” in “daily life” for most urban dwellers: If you want fucking trauma, try getting gassed in Syria, or AIDS in much of Africa, or live as one of hundreds of millions of people without electricity or running water in India. Get some fucking perspective people. Being laid off from a white-collar job is not the same as being shot by the regime’s uniformed thugs.

The other funny thing, as a friend mentioned in an e-mail, is that “no novelist who manages to write an entire book and get it mentioned in the major media is anything like those adrift protagonists; that’s someone with purpose.”

There’s a whole genre of these novels about people who behave stupidly in transparent ways. My favorite example is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, because it helped crystallize the problem for me, though there are many others examples. It’s also not a badly written book. These kinds of novels can actually be fabulously well-written, and have all sorts of brilliant micro observations. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children fits this designation. All those wonderful sentences about a bunch of boring fools leading unimportantly literary lives in New York. I wanted one of them to get a job as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan instead of debating about whether they should Follow Their Muse or sell out.

The Emperor’s Children is an example of the apparently growing number of people who have no direction or purpose in life and choose not to have one. Call it the Girls problem, which is not having real problems while simultaneously not trying anything and not knowing about anything.

About the TV show Girls: it has probably engendered more essays about it than viewers, but my fiancée and I watched the first couple episodes and the beginnings of a couple episodes after that, but it was too dumb to keep going: the characters were privileged morons. I wanted to climb in the TV and say, “Hey! There are real problems out there! People are starving in various places! Science is finding and doing all kinds of awesome stuff. Programs need to be written. There are sick people in hospitals and children who need education. Why don’t you all get real fucking jobs?”

I would love to see one of the girls on Girls get a job as an ER nurse or doctor. They’d learn a little about what’s fucking important. Or they could be working on democracy in Guinea. None of the characters in Girls appear to be learning how to paint, draw, write education grants, keep tropical fish, hack, solder, cook, sew… the list goes on. None seem to appreciate that SpaceX is sending rockets into space and is probably our best collective shot at visiting Mars in the next 40 years. Wow!

Whole industries are being shaken and rebuilt all around us (publishing, for example, by the colossus in Seattle).

Their collective response to this, however, is to continue to gaze lovingly at the lint gathered in their own navels, and to wonder why people aren’t beating a path to their door to offer them fame and fortune. Hell, they can’t even make the bad sex they’re sometimes having into a politically or intellectually interesting act, as someone like Catherine Millet or Toni Bentley can. They have no sense of the past. They have no sense beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of other cultures. They’re not trying to be an amazing novelist like Anne Patchett.

Elmore Leonard on what it means to write

“I’m glad I’ve always had a commercial bent. I want to make money doing this. I had no dream of going to the Iowa Writing School, or whatever it’s called, and learning to write that way. When The New Yorker guy asked me to send him a story, I said, ‘I don’t write New Yorker stories. The stories I write I can always understand.’ And I can. My stories always have a definite ending, a payoff. I think he was a little insulted.”

—Elmore Leonard, in an interview with Keith Taylor for Witness

Ian McEwan and "The Use of Poetry"

The main use poetry in “The Use of Poetry” is seduction: specifically, the seduction of the liberal artist Maisie (recalling shades of Henry James: What did Maisie know?) by the scientist Michael Beard in the late 60s. Michael learns enough Milton to impress Maisie, with her artistic tendencies, a feat that I doubt I’d have the discipline for despite being another liberal artist; they go out, Michael realizes his disdain for what seems the foppish laziness of the liberal arts, and he reinforces the inferiority complex many English majors feel in the face of hard science.

Or maybe not: when we think we see Michael’s perspective on how easy it is to read “four of the best essays on Milton,” McEwan drops this in by airmail:

Many years later, Beard told this story and his conclusions to an English professor in Hong Kong, who said, “But, Michael, you’ve missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end—the poets, I mean—and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don’t pretend that it’s easy.”

That’s the only mention of the “English professor in Hong Kong,” who appears, nameless, only long enough to correct us. He or she disappears: there is no wrapping up, no coming together of the English professor and some deeper meaning. He or she is there to tell us, and “The Use of Poetry” seems like a rebuke to the “Show, don’t tell” school of writing: it is all telling, or nearly all, and it teasingly plays with real world correspondences. “The Use of Poetry” says:

This understanding was the mental equivalent of lifting very heavy weights—not possible at first attempt. He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to grasp some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week.

A February 2009 profile of McEwan, also in the New Yorker, says:

McEwan enjoyed studying calculus—“It was like trying to lift a weight that was a little too heavy”—but he settled on literature, and showed enough promise that he was urged to apply for a scholarship at Cambridge.

Maybe McEwan fears the limits of our cognition, or his own cognition. Or maybe I am engaging the intentional fallacy. Surely the editors of The New Yorker noticed this correspondence in their earlier nonfiction piece and this later work of fiction. What, if anything, did they make of it? Were they as uncertain as me?

Finally, what to make of the title: “The Use of Poetry,” rather than “uses?” Apparently poetry has only one use, seduction, as I unfairly said in the first line of this post. But maybe it is not asking, “What is poetry used for?” but rather, “how and why is poetry used by a particular person—Michael—or people in general?” The title probably has other meanings too, like most poems, with their rascally habit of evading a single interpretation.

For some reason, I am reminded of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: both that novel and this story are highly directive, allusive, focusing on what love means in a modern context, using love to examine ideas and ideas to examine love. They both end, not with a statement or feeling of wholeness, but with a feeling of new sight but perpetual incompleteness, like that is our fate, no matter the math we learn or the poems we study. Could “The Use of Poetry” be to remind us of what we can never fully grasp, like Michael trying to understand the liberal arts, or Milton, who was in turn trying to understand us? Hard to say. But then, a lot in life is hard to say. The best we can do with it is try. Maybe with a poem.

Or a story.

EDIT: If you’re here because you’ve been assigned a paper on McEwan, you might find this post to be of great interest.

Why are so many movies awful?

The short answer: they’re ruled by marketing, not by art, feeling, or emotion, to the extent that those characteristics can’t be captured by marketing.

The longer answer comes from Tad Friend’s article in the January 19 2009 issue of The New Yorker, “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which describes how movies get made. Today, the answer is nearly identical to the question of how movies get marketed. My favorite quote is a little less than midway through:

” ‘Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,’ one studio’s president of production says. ‘So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, “This director was born to make this movie.” ‘ “

“Pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates:” it’s a great metaphor that conveys precisely how much vast corporations care about art as well as the relative power of those existing within studios. Creativity isn’t dead, even in major studios’ presidents of production, but neither is cynicism, as the article shows in too many places to enumerate. “Cynical” might be too light a word—if Julie Salamon’s ‘The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood is somewhat cynical, then nothing except perhaps nihilism describes the Hollywood marketer’s mind as portrayed by Friend.

Read the whole article for more: it never comes out and baldly states what’s obvious, as I have. This blog only occasionally strays into territory dealing with movies; this analysis of Cloverfield is my only extended treatment of one, although this post discusses movie versions of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the movies I tend to pay the most attention to are based off books; according to Friend’s article, such movies are “‘pre-awareness’ titles: movies like ‘Spider-Man’ whose stories the audience already knew from another medium […]” like virtually all that have made extraordinary amounts of money in the last decade. Movies also tend to raise a book’s profile enough to encourage me to read it when I otherwise wouldn’t; the movie version of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an example of this.

I suppose the same question regarding why so many are so bad could be applied to books too, but books are often less obvious: critics seem to have (slightly) more power, and the sheer number of books makes the bad ones easier to ignore. Call it strength in diversity. Movies are noisier, and because there are fewer of them, each one collects more attention. But because they cost so much to make, they become a numbers game; I care vastly more about aesthetic worth than opening weekends. But, at least as shown in this article, Hollywood cares about those numbers.

It shows in their product.

EDIT: Wynton Marsalis, by way of Alex Ross:


At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude that it’s hard to fathom. Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and truthful communication is supplanted by marketing.

In addition, see my comments on Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood for more on how the way movies are made affects the movies that are made.

The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel — James Wood

James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is about comedy, yes, and the meaning that stands behind comedy, and the comedy that stands behind meaning, and so on in a potentially infinite loop. Like all his work, it is also about paradox: how words can become how real, and how the interior shows the exterior and vice-versa, and others discussed below. At one point, he says, “What seems to be a fleeting triviality is actually very important—this is both Verga’s subject and his mode of writing his banalities, like those of his characters, are never unimportant.” The seemingly trivial and banal become important, and the seemingly unimportant becomes exalted and majestic. Wood asks, and makes us ask, “why?”, searching for an answer that can never be had and yet also never seems futile. It’s a neat trick—call it the paradox of criticism, to go along with the paradoxes of the novel. If what we read isn’t significant in and of itself, perhaps we imbue it with significance through the nature of our interaction with the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the character, the story. Wood does, and in the process he sees what is too often missed.

What I like about Wood is how he doesn’t feel researched—he feels organic, inevitable, so natural that most critics and academics are closer to the harsh screams of heavy metal than to Moonlight Sonata. Not even Amis’ Wagnerian bombast compares. This organic-ness can only come, I suspect, from long and deep engagement with a narrow body of reference texts—for Wood, they seem to include Flaubert, Chekhov, Henry Green, Shakespeare, and a few others—complemented by wide breadth and an extraordinary comparative faculty. Once such conditions are in place, one has the potential for great criticism. Converting potential to actuality is hard. Few accomplish it, and few have the sight to discover what is so obviously there and yet that I have so often missed. It is a puzzle almost as significant as the many paradoxes of realism and idea in the novel itself, or in any form of representational art. The simultaneous merging and yet standing outside a character, discussed in Wood’s introduction, is one such example too long to quote at length and all the more incredible for the inability of one to slice a part out; this is a pie that can’t be cut without destroying the whole. This might be part of the organic effect I tried to describe above.

In contrast to Wood, consider a section from Geoffrey Hartman’s essay called “Christopher Smart’s ‘Magnificat:’ Toward a Theory of Representation,” which I began immediately after The Irresponsible Self. Smart writes writes:

What if someone cannot be presented [from one person to another]? The sense of distance has been thrown out of balance: either the self feels defective vis-a-vis the other, or the other appears magnified, unapproachable. The someone can be a something: certain subjects may not be introduced into discourse, certain taboos restrict or delimit the kinds of words used.
I introduce the example of words early, because word commonly help present us.

The idea Smart is trying to present is a reasonably good one: the psychology of social order, or interactions among people, and the individual voice addressing itself might be limited by our thoughts (incidentally, Paul Graham writes about both in What You Can’t Say). But the metaphor isn’t a very good one: how could a person not “be presented” to another real person? If I’m in the room with someone and wish to introduce them, there isn’t some way that such a person “can’t” be presented. If the “someone” is a “something,” that makes more sense, as some forms of social convention discourage contentious topics, although it’s also worth noting that some forms, like graduate student parties, encourage superficially contentious topics. And if we’re aware of taboo topics, or make an effort to become aware of them, then we’re no longer not mentioning them to ourselves because we’re aware of them. Notice too Hartman’s use of the term “vis-a-vis,” which seems showy and ostentatious; it’s a struggle and brings his sentence to a halt. It feels like the slash of a sword instead of the stroke of a brush: forced, not inevitable. If Smart’s essay hadn’t been assigned, I might’ve discarded it after that false note in the second paragraph, but I’ve continued, and though I might buy parts of his argument, that argument as a whole is so hard to follow that I mostly want to give up the attempt.

Now, back to Wood; in “How Shakespeare’s ‘Irresponsibility’ Saved Coleridge,” he writes:

Kant offered Coleridge a way of making the self both passive and active. One the one hand, the world was phenomenal: we gather and order the phenomena of perception. Coleridge called this the faculty of understanding, and in the Biographia it becomes, roughly, the “primary imagination.” On the other hand, said Kant, the world was noumenal: there were transcendent things-in-themselves, unknowable, and this domain is grasped by the practical reason or will. This practical reason asserts itself not by argument but by command and precept; it is how we believe in God. Coleridge bent and expanded Kant’s category, stripping it of its philosophical restraint and making it something closer to free will, and at other times closer to the decisive and controlling activity of the imagination.

Seldom have I read a better concise explanation of sophisticated, important ideas with as few sampling or compression errors. The passage moves according to its own logic, graceful as a dancer and yet purposeful, an economy of precision that Orwell could envy. Ideas I hadn’t perceived as connected I suddenly do, and in that moment something happens—a sense of distant has been thrown out of balance, maybe, but if so, it’s only to be regained better and stronger than before. And if it is a sense of distance, it is the distance between Coleridge, Shakespeare, and myself. I’ll happily be thrown out of balance by someone who knows how to pick me back up.

It’s not entirely fair to hold up these two passages, each on tremendously different topics, as comparisons, and yet I think they do demonstrate the difference between the two writers and the larger difference between Wood, who works so hard for intellectual depth and engagement, and many other critics, who sacrifice the latter in phantom pursuit of the former. Wood has a nearly perfect power curve, and even where I disagree, as with Tom Wolfe, I’m still dazzled by the clarity of his thinking and writing, to the extent those can be separated.

Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide.

Eventually one must tire of reading the debates about reading and prefer to just read, or, if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t, watch T.V., or whatever—though if you don’t like reading, I’m rather puzzled that you’re at this site. Regardless, you should read this long, worthwhile, and non-polemical look at the decline of reading from Heather Harris (hat tip Books, Inq.):

One of the great pastimes of the literati, aside from complaining about the Bush administration and attending live tapings of A Prairie Home Companion, is collective hand-wringing about the sad fact that Americans no longer read. Apparently, most of us would sooner watch Rock of Love–Bret and Ambre are so not going to make it–than pick up a novel. Enter Mikita Brottman: Maryland Institute College of Art professor, Oxford scholar, author, and patron saint of the tome-averse masses in her new book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. Brottman is the latest in a long line of philosophers and writers to question reading’s value, and in this day of reading campaigns and self-important book clubs, the question of whether reading per se is a virtuous activity is timely.

I’ve been collecting examples of quotes and articles concerning the decline of reading, as the debate about whether reading is good or bad for you seems to have been rolling around since the origins of the English novel. Other required reading on reading is Steven Johnson’s Dawn of the Digital Natives, whose perspective is closer to Brottman’s than the unnamed literati of the article.

I fall into more of the rah-rah reading crowd, both for personal and societal reasons. The argument about writing and reading changing our culture resonates with me, as even people who never read have been affected by the innumerable writers and reformers of various kinds whose work extends perpetually backwards in time. In addition, as Foucault argues, power and knowledge are inherently bound, and the most efficient way to transmit knowledge seems to be reading.

Why have we dismantled most forms of racial discrimination or many of the barriers to women in the workforce or other kinds of discrimination based on things other than ability? Why do we let atheists maintain their beliefs openly? It’s largely because some people were willing to challenge the larger culture, chiefly through writing, and enough people were interested in reading to have absorbed those principles or ideas, which now come at us through a thousand outlets. I just read in Alain Badiou’s ‘Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Wo Es War): “When Nietzsche proposes to ‘break the history of the world in two’ by exploding Christian nihilism and generalizing the great Dionysian ‘yes’ to Life […]” I thought, really? Although I don’t necessarily buy the “exploding Christian nihilism” bit (what nihilism?), count me as a late convert to the Dionysian principle. Without books, it’s doubtful that I would’ve made it there, and it’s in part my own trajectory that leads me to believe, perhaps irrationally, in the transformative value of thinking about the world through reading.

To delve into personal territory, books helped me leave the social carapace that hardened when I was 10 or 11, not create it, as Brottman says happened to her. Books were a recovery from an unhappy move and from video games and helped me articulate more of a worldview and change my behavior, and while I don’t think of books as therapy, they do have some therapeutic aspects to them. To bring the level of seriousness back to an appropriate level, consider what Richard Feynman said in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: “And Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!”

Without reading, I might lack this powerful sense of social irresponsibility and instead just have accepted accepted received wisdom instead of revising received wisdom. Let this be a lesson, by the way, to the natterers, including myself, on getting young people to read—instead of pushing reading ceaselessly like whole wheat bread, maybe it’s time to forbid it, and stock copies of Henry Miller and Bret Easton Ellis in the liquor store, thereby necessitating that teenagers get their older siblings or boyfriends or whatever to buy it for them. They might pass copies of Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

Still, on a marginally more serious note, if no one reads, then who will write the challenges to cultural, legal, social, and technical problems? And who will read them? That, implicitly, is what many of hand-wringers worry about. Steven Johnson might argue, perhaps correctly, that those challenges will come from visual media, and that’s possible—but I doubt most visual media can match the depth of depth of text. I’m convinced that reading causes you to think—as Caleb Crain’s Twilight of the Books argues—differently and gives you the tools to argue against bad public policy, bureaucracies, and the like. To me, reading is linked to freedom itself, and I don’t think it’s mere correlation that the initial moves toward democracy coincided with the rise of what evidence we have for written languages, or that repressive governments fear and try to control books and knowledge. Thus, I see reading as important in the personal sphere for individual growth and in the societal sphere for correcting the excesses of organizations with power. And they’re fun—Feynman often criticized such organizations through his social irresponsibility, and has helped transmit that sense to others. Reading doesn’t have to be antisocial, and I usually find being social around people who read is more fun than being around people who don’t, simply because the readers get more and get it faster. Once again, the correlation/causation issue arises, but from my perspective, it doesn’t matter—I’ll take the reader over the non-reader, and many people not in positions of, say, government authority would probably do the same. Without falling prey to Godwin’s Law, I’ll note that many authoritarian regimes try to control knowledge and specific manifestations of knowledge, like books and professors. As a result, I see reading as both a public and private good, although one that, paradoxically, might be best inculcated in young people by trying to show it as dangerous, rather than good for you like Wheaties.

This argument might not matter, since surveys keep appearing that claim people read less and less, but like any believer, I’m still convinced of the faith’s importance. I’m not as much a proselytizer as someone who thinks others should come to it on their volition—I’m less of a Christian missionary and more of a Buddhist monk. Or maybe I’ve just got an economic interest in reading, since I spend an enormous amount of time writing. I think it’s deeper than that, although I won’t be so ridiculously grandiose as to say things like, “The future depends on it!” like a character from a bad superhero movie, I will say that reading still matters as a component of free thought and free life, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of sociability. It can be good for you but shouldn’t necessarily be pitched that way. The culture, however, will move in whatever way it does, and I suspect those in the debate will be increasingly on the margins of the culture as a whole.

EDIT: Added last paragraph on 6/11/08.

Portfolio magazine is bad news

For reasons not clear to me, I’ve been receiving issues of Portfolio magazine as though I’m a subscriber. They’ve been uniformly awful and read like a third-tier college newspaper’s take on The New Yorker. This is a public service announcement: do not buy Portfolio magazine under any circumstances or for any reason. Megan McArdle agrees:

I keep waiting for Portfolio not to be a terrible, terrible magazine, and I keep being disappointed. It’s supposed to be aimed at the high-end financier, but it reads more like it was written for women who want to date high-end financiers, and need a little cocktail party chat to keep things going until they can invite him back for some cognac.

The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The Economist are all out there. There is no reason for Portfolio to be as well.

An unusual cinematic occurrence

I saw two movies on two consecutive weekends both of which I enjoyed. It feels like years since two somewhat proximate movies that were any good have even been in theaters, let alone run on consecutive weekends. Atonement captures the spirit of Ian McEwan’s book (we’ll see if they try On Chesil Beach) and Charlie Wilson’s War manages to be fun, engaging, political, and probably not too inaccurate. It’s based on George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, a book in my Seattle Public Library queue. Not being the only person to have done this in response to the movie, I’m somewhere around 50, meaning the wait is going to take a while.

Now that I’ve mentioned movies, go read Caleb Crain’s The science of reading and its decline to make yourself wonder about the decline of the world and such:

[… T]here is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

This concerns the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent “To Read or Not to Read,” covered here by the New York Times, with more background material in a July by me. This can’t be good for the clerisy.

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