Monday, May 26, 2014

In memorium

Clearly I have been lazy about posting lately. This is a hard day for me, Memorial Day, since Rick and I always went to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, just a block away from our apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, for the day's festivities. The mayor and the local council member officiate; there are lots of vets present as well as a notable speaker who enlightens us about the occasion. The last time we went was three months before Rick was diagnosed, and I wrote a post about the event, when the Lincoln historian Harold Holzer spoke. This morning I can hear the bagpipers playing at the Monument, but I have never been able to go back on Memorial Day. Instead, let me post this lovely photo, by "Miss Francie Pants," which was posted today on one my favorite food blogs: the Pioneer Woman.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Alexander von Humboldt in Manhattan

Alexander von Humboldt in his library (Eduard Hildebrant, 1856)
There is a small but very informative exhibit at the Americas Society concerning Alexander von Humboldt's travels in the New World, from 1799 to 1804. It traces his travels as well as his influence on painters, other travelers, and independence movements in South America.

The exhibit included a painting by the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), on whom I reported in an earlier post. Rugendas was the subject of a novella by the Argentinian writer Cesar Aira, which documents the recent fascination of contemporary writers (e.g., Daniel Kehlmann) with Humboldt. Naturally I loved the portrait of Humboldt in his library.

Picture sources: Princeton U. Thematic Maps;

Friday, May 9, 2014

World literature and the "sick, sad world"

Returning to the subject of my previous post, I do agree with critics of world literature when they speak of the "entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world's cultural resources." That quote is from a review by Gloria Fisk of Emily Apter's book Against World Literature. Apter's "beef" seems to be with the idea that such anthologies assume that literature is "translatable," whereas a translation of, say, Dante's Commedia, is in no way commensurate with the original. Duh!

Apter's argument, as per the n+1 critics mentioned in the previous post, is a critique of the nexus between world literature and the economic processes of globalization. The anthologies thus obscure what Fisk calls the "extra-literary implications" of world literature, i.e., the links between "the commercial, the literary, and the curricular." Again, duh!

Paris on a Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)
These critics are belatedly proclaiming what Pascale Casanova already laid out in wonderful detail in The World Republic of Letters, in particular, that literatures existing on the margins, if they are to become commercially successful, follow the trends set by the center. Casanova discussed the way that literary reputation in the 19th century followed what had been blessed with success in Paris. (For a Frenchman, France is still the center of the world.) An example in our present time would be Salman Rushdie, who is probably more popular in the West than in India. Rushdie's subject, at least in Midnight's Children, was the effect of the processes, first unleashed in the European world, that have undermined and transformed the traditional order of society. Those processes have been market-driven. We live in a capitalist world, and it is not surprising that literary "products" are marketed the same way as other products in the marketplace. And that there is competition.

If we wish to preserve literature, to set it apart from transient market products, we must insist that the literary heritage preserves "values" that are worth preserving. Those works that we consider great are foundational to civilization. The past was never a golden age, but in the long stretch of history, certain values have been transmitted, even during the most terrible cataclysms. Their survival suggests that they are essential to the human condition and, indeed, to the continuance of civilization: love of family, sacrifice for others, courage, self-discipline, self-reliance, inner cultivation, patriotism. Aristotle summed them all up long ago, and no one has improved on them. (To judge by this world literature reader for 10th-graders, these anthologies are introducing students to these values.)

Antigone and the body of Polynices
As Marilynne Robinson writes in her recent collection of essays, "The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another." But what if such goodness is in conflict with other values? Thus, a major preoccupation of the Western literary tradition, since Sophocles and the Old Testament, has been what the Marxist critic Georg Lukács called the breach between inner and outer worlds. Antigone and Oedipus may have had fewer distractions, but the condition of the individual under advanced capitalism, despite a panoply of choices, is in essence the same. When push comes to shove, one is often still faced with choosing between incompatible alternatives, between what we love or desire and what we are required to do. The world, it seems, has always been a "sick, sad place," one in which literature and art recall us to our better selves.

And what has been the academic response to this inheritance? An attack on the literary patrimony, which has been rechristened as "patriarchy." It is not only "capitalist structures" (as Fisk writes) that inflict "violence" on the world; violence is inflicted daily on our own literary and, indeed, cultural inheritance in college classrooms.

Monday, May 5, 2014

World literature in a "sick, sad world"

"Making the Good Book Safe for Capitalists"

Anyone who has read this blog may have recognized that I stand somewhat apart from the political consensus of the culturati. I am drawn to the 17th and 18th centuries, especially the Enlightenment, because of the appeal to reason and to critical thinking. Reason and critical thinking, however, are simply categories for evaluation, tools for navigation in the modern world of change and uncertainty. In this world there are, as it were, only goods now, not the Good, no certainties to guide us. I don't hold with those philosophes or intellectuals of the 18th century who imagined that technology and science would lead to a world of consensus, one absent inequities, but we in the West at least have managed to pull off a good trick. I am also not an optimist that the rest of the world can be peacefully brought up to the standards of the West -- although I just read the other day, something I find a bit hard to believe, that the "average" Chinese now earns what the "average" American earned in the 1950s -- but the modern industrial order seems inexorably to be making the world alike in that respect. I guess this makes me a conservative.

I am continually taken aback at how many people in the literary world, people who care about literature and the arts generally, as I do, are against this ameliorating vision. Indeed, they are reflexively leftist. One of the "benefits" of getting a Ph.D. was to discover the roots of this reflexive tendency at its source, the university. Anyone who is not of this persuasion has the feeling that leftist thinking has been imbibed with the mother's milk and become naturalized. In other words, one is imprisoned in a mental paradigm that is, simply put, self-evident. No "right-thinking person" would think differently.

"Hands of Unity" by Dick Termes
I am aware that those on the Left also think that I, too, am trapped in a mental paradigm, but, in their view, my paradigm is an evil one; I, on the other hand, merely believe that they are guilty of irrational thinking. The difference between us comes down to our view of the world in which we live. To me it is not the "sick, sad" one of the editors of the online magazine n+1, who recently penned a contentious piece on world literature entitled "World Lite." There were several things in the piece I agreed with, especially the criticism of the "elite global village" of writers all speaking the same language and absorbed by the same subjects (and food), with only the softest of criticism of the economy that makes their lives so comfortable. The essay has the earnestness of undergraduates of my youth and the wide range of reading of the intellectual strivers of that same era, but it is burdened with Leftist assumptions, principally that literature should engage and transform consciousness and thus lead to healing a "sick, sad world." (Should that be "sick, fat world?)

The n+1 "critique" is very Frankfurt School, recommending a project of "opposition to prevailing tastes." The editors believe that the major international authors have thrown in the towel as far as contributing to radical change. Instead, "a smooth EU-niversality prevails." What they call "World Lite" now "has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. ... And it has a social calendar full of litrary festivals, which bring global elite into contaact with the glittering stars of World Lit." And what happens at these festivals?

"No debate; no yelling; some drinking; lots of signing of books. They are like peace conferences, though the national constituencies haven't been consulted."

As I mentioned above, the editors of n+1, like most of the Left, believes that literature should heal the world; that it does not to so appears to lead to despair, evidenced by a book by Emily Apter (with a tenured position at NYU, certainly part of the elite global village decried by n+1) entitled Against World Literature. I won't review it in this post, but it is, as Apter puts it, an "anti-capitalist critique" invoking the usual specters -- capitalism and the global economy. This critique has a long heritage, going back to Marx and pervading the 19th century, though the belief in literature's power to make the world a better place is rooted in Goethe's pronouncements. Goethe of course was cautious about what he called world literature, and his comments on Saint-Simon's followers in his letters to Carlyle and elsewhere suggest he would not have been a socialist.

I have gone on too long and will return to this topic soon. Stay tuned.

Picture sources: Brane Space; Times of Malta