Eye kicks and allophanes: the art of literature according to George Bowering

December 12, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press

In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.

It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.

Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)

Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”

These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:

I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.

The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.

One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)

Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.

War and (the need for) remembrance

November 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Today is Remembrance Day, and it is appropriate to recall and honour those untold numbers of young Canadians who gave their lives fighting to secure the freedoms and democracy we enjoy today. It is also significant to note, as Gloria Galloway does on The Globe and Mail‘s website, that 2011 marks the first year in almost a decade that Canada is observing this day while not engaged in active combat overseas.

Galloway also points out that although Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar may have ended this year, our troops are still there, and still risking their lives. It is essential that we honour and respect their sacrifice, and that of their families and loved ones, who have given so much to this country and the world. It is also essential that we remain cognizant of the multifaceted geopolitical considerations that sent them into harm’s way in the first place.

To that end, I here reprint a double review that was first published on this site on April 2, 2008. Much has changed in the intervening years, but much, sadly, has not. Both of these books remain as relevant today as on the day they were published.

War is always muddy and ambiguous. Sometimes it is necessary. But we should always approach the subject with clarity and focus, and avoid the temptation to retreat into jingoistic sloganeering and blind patriotism.

Lest we forget the real reasons so many of our citizens have lost their lives over the course of this country’s history.


The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang; $35.00 cloth 978-0-670-06722-0, 368 pp., Viking Canada

Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire. Linda McQuaig; $34.95 cloth 978-0-385-66021-9, 304 pp., Doubleday Canada

In a recent week-long series of articles for the Globe and Mail, Graeme Smith, the young investigative reporter who blew the lid off the Afghan detainee controversy in 2007, provided a portrait of the Taliban insurgents that Canadian soldiers are battling and at whose hands many are dying in the southern Kandahar region of Afghanistan. In a two-page overview article, published on Saturday, March 22, 2008, Smith offers a snapshot of a typical Taliban soldier that flies in the face of the oft-repeated image of a Western-hating global jihadist:

He looks like an ordinary Afghan in ragged clothes. He says he’s young, 24 or 25 years old … Somebody he knows, or loves, was killed by a bomb dropped from the sky, he says. The government has tried to destroy his farm. His tribe has feuded with the government in recent years, and he feels pushed to the edge of a society that ranks among the poorest in the world.

So he lives by the gun. He cradles the weapon in his arms, saying he will follow the tradition of his ancestors who battled foreign armies. He is not only a Taliban foot soldier, he says. He belongs to the mujahedeen, the holy warriors, who fight any infidel who tries to invade Afghanistan.

What is significant about this portrait is the motivations Smith attributes to the Taliban soldiers. They are not, Smith suggests, fighting a global battle against Western decadence and cultural values, which is the line many of the hawks in governments and the media north and south of the 49th parallel like to parrot as a justification for the continued occupation of Afghanistan. Rather, they are battling a government that burns their farms and their crops – often in the name of poppy eradication – and struggling to drive foreign invaders from their soil. Smith goes on to point out that the average Taliban insurgent might recognize the foreign soldiers in his country as Canadians, but would be hard pressed to find Canada on a map.

As an explanation for the ferociousness and resilience of the continued insurgency, this line of reasoning has more traction than does the competing one that insists we as a nation are acting in self-defence and must force democratization on the Middle East before we fall victim to a global plot to destroy us.

It is a point that Linda McQuaig echoes in her provocative and angry cri de coeur, Holding the Bully’s Coat:

Isn’t this a more likely explanation for the rage that is surging through the Middle East?

If you attack your neighbour, destroy his house, trash his car, kill several members of his family and kidnap his six-year-old son, would it be logical to conclude that your neighbour is in a rage against you because he doesn’t like how you dress and what movies you watch?

More measured and less polemical than McQuaig, Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang nevertheless make much the same point in their essential book The Unexpected War. They point out that although it could be argued that al-Qaeda’s motives have a global reach (an argument that has been challenged by writers such as Gwynne Dyer and Lawrence Wright), the Afghan insurgency is localized in both its composition and its ambition. Stein and Lang point out that the conflation of al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is conceptually flawed, and that the Afghan problem needs to be considered independently:

A close look at many of the insurgencies in Muslim societies tells us that they are almost all local, inflamed by local grievances, with a local political agenda. … Very likely, connections exist between the Taliban and a resurgent al-Qaeda that appears to be organizing again on the frontier of Pakistan, where the Taliban is centred. The two certainly are in close proximity to each other, but they are not one and the same. The Taliban are local, Pashtun, rooted in southern and eastern Afghanistan and in the frontier and tribal areas of Pakistan. Their ambitions are local, while al-Qaeda’s are global.

This is an important distinction. Understanding the putative enemy in Afghanistan and the nature of his country is essential to the success of Canada’s continued involvement there, and it is coming, if at all, not a moment too soon.

In their exhaustive examination of the origins of Canada’s military mission to the violent Kandahar region in the south of Afghanistan, Stein and Lang point out the stunning lack of knowledge about the country on the part of the very government officials who sent our soldiers into battle there:

Much was ignored: Afghanistan’s history, its traditions and accomplishments, its social structure, its strengths and fault lines, its tribal and ethnic divisions, the devastation of its social and physical infrastructure after thirty years of fighting, its deeply rooted patterns of warfare, and its long history of expelling foreign armies that thought they had come to stay.

This ignorance of the region was deeply ingrained and pervasive. In December of 2003, then Defence Minister John McCallum and Ken Calder, assistant deputy minister of policy in the Department of Defence, attended a meeting with Arthur Kent, a London-based journalist who had been reporting on Afghanistan since the early ’80s. Stein and Lang write:

The guests sat silently for about an hour and listened to Kent present a picture of a highly complex, textured, layered society that seemed congenitally prone to conflict and war. And at the end of the lunch, as the guests were walking out of the restaurant, Calder turned to McCallum’s chief of staff and said anxiously, “We don’t know anything about this country.”

This is a staggering admission from one of the men who was instrumental in the decision to send our country’s troops into their largest and most dangerous combat mission since the Korean War, and it is an extension of the shortsightedness that plagued the thinking about the mission in its earliest stages.

In the autumn of 2001, when sympathy for the United States was still high following the appalling attacks on New York and Washington D.C. of September 11, 2001, Canadian officials were casting around for a way to help out our friend and neighbour to the south. One proposal, floated by then Minister of Defence Art Eggleton, was participation in an International Security Assistance Force, “a UN-mandated operation that fell somewhere between combat and peacekeeping.” Stein and Lang quote Eggleton as saying that this was “not an offensive mission, not a front-line mission. This is a stabilization mission to assist in opening corridors for humanitarian assistance.” Should full-scale combat break out, Eggleton suggested, “they’d probably be taken out.” In Eggleton’s conception, Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan would amount to an “early in, early out” commitment.

By carefully documenting how this “early in, early out” mission transformed into the current open-ended combat mission, Stein and Lang have provided a necessary document for anyone in this country who wants to understand why we are in Afghanistan and how we got there. (That is – or should be – every Canadian citizen.)

The nexus of pressure points and influences that drew our military ever deeper into a combat operation in Afghanistan is complex and varied, but in Stein and Lang’s conception it’s hard to overestimate the importance of Rick Hillier’s appointment as chief of defence staff in February 2005. It was Hillier who convinced the government of the necessity for Canada to fight what he called the “Three-Block War” combining humanitarian aid, stabilization, and combat. In so doing, Hillier spearheaded a revisioning of the Canadian Forces’ purpose away from the peacekeeping they had undertaken in the decades since the end of the Korean War and toward a more combat-oriented fighting unit.

Hillier’s political influence has resulted in influxes of federal cash to the military under the aegis of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, but Stein and Lang question the effectiveness of this military enhancement if it comes at the expense of development assistance to Afghanistan. “The international community has spent only eight percent of the total funds it committed to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2006 on development and poverty relief. The conventional wisdom is diametrically opposed: Eighty percent of the spending should go to economic, political, and social development.” They quote a 2007 report by Seema Patel and Steven Ross that reads in part, “Poverty is fuelling anger towards the central government and motivating young men to rearm and fight in the insurgency or with local illegal armed groups to earn cash.”

In a country with a 23% literacy rate, an average life expectancy of forty-three years, and a per capita income of $230, it is unsurprising that young, unemployed men with no prospects are attracted to a militia that offers cash and food for them and their families. This should be one of the clearest indications that the insurgency will not be defeated by military means alone; indeed, the military contribution may not even be the decisive factor in the long run. Rampant poverty and the lack of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals are among the motivating factors driving young Afghans to join the Taliban; removing these factors would alleviate a good deal of the motivation for these young men to take up arms in the first place. The disparity between Canada’s military spending in Afghanistan and its commitment to development aid is one key area that Stein and Lang highlight in the course of their analysis.

They also point to the relationship between Canada and the United States as a serious stumbling block in our thinking about Afghanistan. Stein and Lang reconstruct decisions that military leaders made “out of the corner of their eyes as they looked squarely at Washington” and carefully outline the series of policy errors that resulted from this misplaced focus. “What explains this obsession with the United States?” they ask.

It is this signal question that Linda McQuaig sets out to address in her book, Holding the Bully’s Coat. Unlike Stein and Lang, McQuaig is not interested in measured responses. Her new volume is an impassioned investigation into how in recent years we have abandoned the traditional “Canadian” values of peacekeeping, multilateralism, and diplomacy in favour of a military engagement in Afghanistan and a consistent bowing and scraping to a bullying administration to the south:

As the U.S. has rejected the rule of international law and become a law unto itself, Ottawa has followed in close step, ever eager to please our powerful neighbour. To this end, we have abandoned our traditional role as a leading peacekeeping nation and adopted a more militaristic, warlike stance as a junior partner in the U.S. “war on terror.” We’ve also abandoned our traditional attempt to be a fair-minded mediator and conciliator, most notably in the Middle East conflict, where, like the U.S., we’ve adopted a hardline anti-Palestinian position that will make a peaceful, just solution all the more evasive.

This is a line of argument that is certain to infuriate those pundits and commentators who insist that we need to foster ever closer ties to the United States in the name of continental security and economic prosperity (and Canadian sovereignty be damned). However, although one might cavil with McQuaig’s provocative and deliberately argumentative tone, it’s difficult to find fault with the substance of her argument. One need look no further than Stephen Harper’s assertion that Israel’s devastating 2006 bombing campaign on Lebanon was a “measured” response to the kidnapping (or capture, depending upon which side of the fence you sit on) of two Israeli soldiers to recognize that there has been a tectonic shift in Canadian foreign policy, and that that shift has brought this country much more in line with our American neighbours.

McQuaig even anticipates the knee-jerk charge of anti-Americanism by turning it on its head. Why, she rhetorically asks, are Canadians who defend our nation’s traditional values — peacekeeping, diplomacy, multilateralism — always smeared with the tag “anti-American”? Why are the people who accuse us of this not branded “anti-Canadian”? It’s a salient question for those of us who begin from the premise that peacekeeping, diplomacy, and multilateralism are virtues that are worth preserving in the Canadian psyche. No doubt there are citizens of this country who would disagree. McQuaig singles out as examples of dissenting voices the usual suspects on the right, including Tom D’Aquino, Margaret Wente, and Andrew Coyne.

Still, if McQuaig is willing to admit that there are a multiplicity of views in Canada – from Prime Minister Harper on the one side to McQuaig and, presumably, much of her target audience on the other – she seems less willing to make these distinctions about Americans, whom she tends to lump together under one blanket. Of course it’s those who control the reins of power who come in for direct attack: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; Paul Wolfowitz and his Project for a New American Century; CNN’s Lou Dobbs. But one never gets the sense that the unidentified mass of the American electorate contains a broad spectrum of opinions and imperatives, not all of which line up with that of the current administration in Washington.

George W. Bush won the 2004 election by the slimmest of margins; it’s still possible to argue that he didn’t win in 2000 at all. What this means is that a significant minority of the American public – almost 50%, in fact – disagree with the direction in which the current American administration is moving the country. The Democratic victory in the 2006 midterms and the recent admissions even on the part of some Republican members of Congress that the war in Iraq is a disaster and the American economy is a mess should testify to the deep divisions and prevalent fault lines that exist in that country.

By viewing the United States, and its entire citizenry, as a monolithic entity that is determined to project its imperial ambitions well into the new millennium, and to drag Canada along with it, McQuaig evinces a lack of nuance or subtlety every bit as dangerous as that of the people she castigates. It’s true that the focus of her book is the way in which Canada has made itself subservient to a bullying and belligerent American administration in recent years, but some acknowledgement of the tensions within the American union would seem appropriate, if only to prevent her very legitimate arguments from being dismissed as mere ravings from the dogmatic left.

Ultimately, it is this willingness to engage with all sides of the issue that renders The Unexpected War the stronger of these two books. Both provide much food for thought, much of which is unsettling, provocative, and infuriating. But by cutting through partisan rhetoric and providing a clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis of how we got here and where we might conceivably be going, Stein and Lang have given us an absolutely essential text for understanding Canada’s current engagement in one of the world’s undisputed hot spots.

Bursting the bubble

October 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Eli Pariser; $30.00 cloth 978-1-59420-300-8, 294 pp., The Penguin Press

“Personal reductionism has always been present in information systems,” writes Jaron Lanier in his 2010 jeremiad You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Lanier uses the example of personal income taxes to illustrate how governments reduce individuals to a proscribed set of statistics and identifiers for the purposes of evaluation. However, Lanier goes on to say that in this instance, it is generally understood that the totality of a person’s life is being “represented by a silly, phony set of database entries” that allow a particular transaction to occur.

The same is not true (at least, not necessarily) when we willingly reduce ourselves by creating a profile on a social networking site. In the latter case, Lanier writes, “digital reduction becomes a causal element, mediating contact between new friends.” Instead of remaining separate from our identity as individuals, the information we provide to social networking sites becomes a determining factor in whom we encounter online, due in large part to the digital algorithms that use our information to parse us into discrete categories based on interests, political affiliations, and other nodes of affinity and disaffinity.

It is this algorithmic parsing of human identity that worries Eli Pariser, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and board president of the progressive online group MoveOn.org. By monitoring our online behaviour, Pariser writes, and by following our “click signals” – the interests and associations suggested by the people we befriend on social media and the links we click when we visit search engines – sites like Facebook and Google can begin to draw a picture of who we are (or, more precisely, who their digital algorithms think we are) and target advertising and information to us accordingly. Our Facebook news feed does not show us updates from all our friends, only those with whom we interact most frequently (or those whose updates receive the most “likes” from other users). Google tailors its search results to each individual based on variables such as geographic location and previous search history. Amazon and Netflix suggest books or movies we might enjoy based on the things we have indicated enjoying in the past.

To a certain extent, as Pariser acknowledges, this kind of filtering is not new: anyone who has subscribed to a special-interest magazine or television station has his or her news tailored to a set of specific interests. What is different online is that the filtering is invisible, and done without our agreement, choice, or volition.

Pariser, a liberal, noticed that his conservative friends were disappearing from his Facebook news feed: this turned out not to be a coincidence. Facebook’s algorithm had noticed that he was more prone to click or share links from his progressive friends, and began weeding out the other updates, in which it assumed Pariser had less interest. Google and Amazon act in similar fashion, Pariser argues, creating a “filter bubble,” in which individual users are exposed only to things they already like or ideas with which they already agree. What Pariser calls the “era of personalization” is upon us, but its downside involves a narrowing of what we are exposed to and the virtual elimination of information that may be contrary, disturbing, or transgressive. While comforting and emboldening on the one hand, this kind of invisible, uncontrolled selective customization could have deleterious consequences for learning, personal growth, and even democracy itself.

While all this may sound like the ramblings of a paranoiac, Pariser builds a solid case for his arguments. Large companies like Facebook and Google – to say nothing of the brain trusts running political campaigns – have a vested interest in learning as much as they can about us, then using that knowledge to target advertising. Because what we are offered tends to reinforce ideas we already have and images of ourselves we already entertain, the filter bubble acts as a kind of Platonic consumerist marketing tool. But it also narrows our horizons and limits opportunities for the kinds of happy accidents that lead to new discoveries or creativity.

Pariser is an advocate of Karl Popper’s philosophy of falsifiability in science – the idea that science can’t prove anything, but can only disprove a faulty hypothesis – and extends that to the digital realm. If the Netflix algorithm notices a particular user watching and rating highly a series of Hugh Grant movies, instead of offering that user more romantic comedies, the algorithm should suggest Blade Runner. If the user watches Blade Runner and also rates it highly, the algorithm would then have disproved its narrow hypothesis about that particular user liking only romantic comedies; it would also allow a user who might never otherwise have watched a dystopian science fiction film the opportunity for new experience.

The overarching problem with the filter bubble is its implicit endorsement of Mark Zuckerberg’s defiant assertion, “You have one identity.” This is no more true now than it has ever been, but Pariser is adept at illustrating the way the filter bubble is capable of turning Zuckerberg’s statement into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By reinforcing entrenched beliefs, our personalized online experience disallows the kind of intellectual, moral, or philosophical challenges to our preconceived notions that result in growth and the reevaluation of prejudices. Constant reassurance that our beliefs and interests are the best ones is comforting, no doubt, but it is also dangerous in the way it allows blind spots and selective ignorance to flourish. It also ignores the fact that what makes us most essentially human is often tied up in those moments when we behave in unpredictable ways, when we disrupt the identity the filter bubble wants to fit us into. (One of Pariser’s most compelling arguments involves the way the architects of the filter bubble work to refine it so that such moments of unpredictability are mitigated or erased altogether: Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, is quoted as saying his ideal for the company is to have it “tell [users] what they should be doing next.”)

“Information systems need to have information in order to run,” writes Lanier, “but information underrepresents reality.” The filter bubble depends upon this kind of underrepresentation. Pariser’s book is valuable for pointing out that the bubble exists, and for suggesting methods to counteract its influence over our lives, both online and off.

The devil’s advocate

August 12, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

On Evil. Terry Eagleton; $16.00 paper 978-0-300-17125-9, 180 pp., Yale University Press.

English literature professor and cultural critic Terry Eagleton dedicates his brief examination of evil in our modern age to Henry Kissinger. This is the only mention of Kissinger in the book, and the implication seems to be that he serves as the embodiment of the ontological state expressed in the title. This reading is somewhat problematic, however, given Eagleton’s conception of evil as banal, nihilistic, and devoid of ideology. Hitler, Eagleton suggests, “can probably be spoken of as authentically evil.” Mao and Stalin, on the other hand, cannot, because their actions can be rationally explained by their pursuit of ideologically based goals. Unlike the Holocaust, which Eagleton casts as “a kind of monstrous acte gratuit, a genocide for the sake of genocide, an orgy of extermination apparently for the hell of it,” Mao and Stalin “massacred for a reason.” Eagleton is quick to point out that this does not absolve them from moral culpability for their atrocities, but at the same time, it excludes them from the category of evil acts.

The author distinguishes between evil, which he sees as fabulously rare in the real world, and wickedness, which is much more common. In this conception, Mao and Stalin were wicked, not evil, as were Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the two 10-year-old boys who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered two-year-old James Bulger in northern England in 1993. Venables and Thompson, “semi-socialised” children whose actions may have been explicable on the basis of both age and societal situation, should not be seen as evil. As Eagleton attests, William Golding suggested in his novel Lord of the Flies that “a bunch of unsupervised schoolboys on a desert island would slaughter each other before the week was out.” Boys will be boys, after all.

Eagleton should be commended for sloughing off the Manichean separation, much beloved by Victorians and Calvinists, of demonic and angelic; as a critic steeped in theory and nuance, this renunciation is only to be expected. And it is easy to agree that calling Venables and Thompson evil, as one of the police officers involved in the case did of Thompson (“As soon as I laid eyes on him, I knew he was evil”), is a neat way of shutting down any debate about social conditions that might contribute to nurturing youth violence.

The distinction between evil and wickedness, on the other hand, seems purely semantic, particularly as applied to figures such as Mao, Stalin, and, indeed, Kissinger. How is Kissinger evil, as Eagleton’s dedication would seem to imply, while Mao and Stalin – who were, by any metric, responsible for the deaths of exponentially more people – manage to escape such a designation? Kissinger was no less impelled by explicable, albeit despicable, ideological goals. So, for that matter, was Hitler, if one considers racial purity an explicable goal. Claiming evil for Hitler and Kissinger, while Mao and Stalin are downgraded to mere wickedness, seems passing strange. The whole category separation starts to appear like a distinction without a difference.

Again, it is important to note Eagleton’s resistance to categorical statements: his entire argument is a kind of dance, a bob and weave around various linguistic stumbling blocks. Early on (and as though anticipating the objection above), the author asserts:

The word “evil” is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist to the solar plexus. Like the idea of taste, over which there is supposedly no arguing, it is an end-stopping kind of term, one which forbids the raising of further questions. Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them. The argument of this book is that neither of these viewpoints is true.

Eagleton wants to make clear that evil exists, but not as the kind of blunt instrument many of its proponents often wield. Evil is much more subtle, and much less common, than popular culture would have us believe.

For Eagleton, the key component of evil is its meaninglessness. Evil, Eagleton suggests, is not self-interested, but disinterested; it is closely tied to the Freudian death drive, which is a kind of “death-in-life,” characterized by despair and spiritual vacuity. “Those who fall under the sway of the death drive,” Eagleton writes, “feel that ecstatic sense of liberation that springs from the thought that nothing really matters. The delight of the damned is not to give a damn.” This state of uncaring is what makes Iago the most evil of Shakespeare’s characters, in Eagleton’s opinion: he precipitates Othello’s demise, not so much out of sexual jealously as for no discernible reason at all. His hatred of Othello simply exists without cause or rationale. “Othello presents us with the spectacle of one man systematically destroying another, and for no apparent reason. Evil, it would seem, is an example of pure disinterestedness.”

This reading flies in the face of the psychoanalytic approach to the play, which tends to see Iago as Othello’s Jungian “shadow.” To the extent that Iago is a kind of projection of Othello’s darker impulses, his evil cannot be entirely disinterested. Indeed, the psychoanalytic critic Barbara A. Schapiro finds Iago caught up not so much in a Freudian death drive as in a kind of psychological splitting:

The fact is that Iago would have no power over Othello were Othello not in love; Iago’s destructiveness can best be understood, I believe, within the context of Othello’s love. Perhaps the play enacts not the psychic reality of destructiveness as an innate, irrational force, but the psychic reality of splitting. As Klein and Fairbairn have theorized, in the immature psyche, enraged, bad, destructive feelings are split off and projected in order to protect the self and its good, loved object – a primitive defense that can always be remobilized. The very purity of Desdemona’s goodness and the absoluteness of Iago’s evil support a view of the play as a dramatization of splitting. It is possible to understand Iago, in psychic terms, as representing a split-off, repudiated destructiveness within Othello himself.

“In every work of genius,” Emerson wrote, “we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” In the psychoanalytic conception, Iago would appear to be a kind of genius of evil, returning Othello’s own destructiveness to him with a kind of alienated majesty. But such a reading disallows what Eagleton feels is the central proponent of evil: “It has, or appears to have, no practical purpose. Evil is supremely pointless. Anything as humdrum as a purpose would tarnish its lethal purity.”

It is significant that Eagleton does not differ with the psychoanalysts on Iago’s essential nature. For Eagleton, he is a “great Shakespearian example of an evil which seems to lack all purpose.” Schapiro, on the other hand, accedes that Iago is evil, but doubts that his evil has its origins in what she refers to as a kind of “motiveless malignancy.” “Psychoanalysis,” Shapiro writes, “can support a view of Iago’s evil as deeply contingent and bound up in a relational history and narrative, a narrative that can indeed provide a motivational base.” This approach, Schapiro argues, allows for a conception “of Iago’s destructiveness as responsive rather than as purely instinctual. Iago’s destructiveness is inseparable from Othello’s destructiveness, and that destructiveness is a response to the intolerable vulnerability and self-endangerment that Othello’s love for Desdemona, and his status as a black man in relation to a white aristocratic woman, involves.” Whatever it is, in other words, it is not without motive.

This is significant, since it touches the heart of Eagleton’s idea of what constitutes evil. “Evil is philistine,” Eagleton writes, “kitsch-ridden, and banal.” He goes so far as to suggest that in their obsession with meaninglessness and the systematic dismantling of tropes and traditions, postmodernism and avant-garde art share commonalities with evil (he makes a better case than one might expect).

Although he rejects the notion of original sin, Eagleton’s analysis is inseparable from his Catholicism: the two figures who tower over this book are St. Augustine and (not surprisingly) Thomas Aquinas. His late-game broadside against the “dewy eyed” atheist Richard Dawkins feels grafted on, as does his attempt to explain the actions of the 9/11 terrorists as being grounded in legitimate political motives (there is an argument to be made here, but Eagleton fails to make it in any satisfying way). Eagleton writes as a believer, and this may catch readers up short should they not share the author’s assumptions. This proves a stumbling block especially in the book’s final section, in which the author’s a priori belief that god exists and his attempt to explain the nature of evil in light of this belief immediately forestalls any kind of scientific or existential objection. This tendency on the part of Eagleton the believer undercuts the attempts by Eagleton the theorist to introduce nuance and subtlety into his argument, and brings the book to a stuttering, unsatisfying close.

Go wash your fucking mouth out

April 29, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing. Peter Silverton; $19.95 paper 978-1-84627-169-4, 314 pp., Portobello Books.

It has long been a contention of mine that the vibrancy of any given language can be measured by the number and creativity of its swear words. By that metric, Russian must be one of the most robust languages going. Actually a precursor to modern Russian, the mat dialect dates back to the Middle Ages. Generally associated with the curse yob tvoyu mat’ (“fuck your mother”), the linguistic variant is derived exclusively from four obscene words: khuy (“penis”), blyad’ (“whore”), pizda (“vagina”), and yebat’ (“having sex,” or more properly, “fucking”). By adding suffixes and prefixes to these four words, speakers can alter the part of speech, tense, or gender, and can in effect carry on entire conversations. As Peter Silverton writes in his entertaining and illuminating study of dirty words, Filthy English, “A talented, inventive mat-speaker can use this protean plasticity to produce whole speeches from one basic word, improvising around and with it much the way Charlie Parker could alto sax his way with and around the briefest snatch of the most clichéd show tune.”

Silverton’s use of the word “snatch” may be innocent, although perhaps not, since the author is clearly aware of its coarser meaning. In his chapter on “Vulvas, Vaginas and Breasts,” he points out that the term is not related to vagina dentata – “the fear at the core of Freud’s theory of castration anxiety, the idea that in some (or even all) men’s imaginations is the belief that the vagina has teeth which will bite off any inserted penis” – but probably derives from the 17th-century term for a quick fuck (“i.e. something snatched”). The more polite term, “vagina,” in fact comes from the Latin word meaning “sheath.” On the masculine side, “cock” is the word for a male chicken, which is why when Mick Jagger sings about being a “little red rooster on the prowl,” you can be pretty sure it’s not barnyard animals he’s referencing. Similarly, the word “faucet” was a Puritan substitution for the more common British term for a below-stairs tap: a “stop-cock.”

If a reader finds the preceding discussion at all offensive, said reader is advised to steer well clear of Silverton’s book (and should in all probability stop reading this review right now). If, however, the history and etymology of naughty, obscene, or derogatory language is a subject of fascination, Filthy English will surely provide much to delight in. Silverton – whose parents felt they had to move out of their Hertfordshire neighbourhood after their four-year-old son bashed his thumb with a hammer and shouted, “Fuck!” – begins his investigation with the moment he feels dirty language “jumped out of the shadows it had inhabited pretty much all its previous life and began its journey toward the light.” That moment, for Silverton, occurred in December 1976, when Steve Jones, guitarist for the punk band Sex Pistols, called interviewer Bill Grundy a “dirty fucker” on a live television chat show. (Jones and his bandmates would cause a similar commotion the following year when their album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols began appearing in record store windows: the eight-letter word for “testicles” or “balls” on the album jacket provoked attempts to have the record banned in England.) From there, the author dips into the past to investigate the way sexually based swearing took over from blasphemy as the most offensive type of cursing in Western culture and surveys the linguistic landscape to address matters involving bodily function, the evolution of derogatory terms for homosexuals and ethnic minorities, and censorship.

Along the way, we learn that the Guardian, Britain’s left-leaning broadsheet, “has printed more fucks and cunts than any other paper in the world.” The latter term, which is subjected to one of Silverton’s most detailed etymological examinations, is isolated as “the most unacceptable word in the language,” even edging out “nigger.” When Chaucer had the Wife of Bath say, “Is it for ye would have my queynte alone,” the word was not so charged; by Shakespeare’s time it had begun to take on the corrosive connotations applied to it today. It was (in)famously one of the words that made D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover the subject of a landmark obscenity trial in 1960. And it was one of George Carlin’s “heavy seven,” the seven words you could never say on television (at least in 1972, when Carlin included the now-classic routine on his Class Clown album).

“Writing about this stuff and thinking about it so much, you start to see sex everywhere,” Silverton says. “Religion, too.” Indeed, one of the strains that runs throughout the book involves the Puritan influence on cleansing the English language of its perceived iniquities. But Silverton does not confine himself to sex and religion, also examining popular culture, especially music, the history of lexicography, and swearing in other languages. He matches erudition with a healthily off-colour sense of humour and provides all kinds of interesting tidbits that cast everyday terms in provocative new lights. Did you know, for example, that the word “bumf,” as in the PR material that publishers use to market their books, is derived from the English term “bum fodder,” meaning toilet paper?

New review online

January 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

For my money, Gwynne Dyer’s book The Mess They Made is one of the most perceptive, sensible reckonings with the American post-9/11 adventure in Iraq. Dyer’s dispassionate analysis of American and Islamist interests in the Middle East is a welcome relief from the overwrought and self-interested polemics many commentators resort to.

Dyer’s latest, Crawling from the Wreckage, is a collection of newspaper columns, and as such, is more diffuse in its subject matter. Despite some repetition and general bagginess, the book showcases the author’s virtually encyclopedic knowledge of international affairs, and proves once again that his analysis of trouble spots such as Iran, Kenya, and Sudan is among the best currently being produced for a general audience.

My review of Crawling from the Wreckage, which originally ran in the December 2010 issue of Quill & Quire, is now online. A taste:

Gwynne Dyer is the author of books with titles like Future: Tense and The Mess They Made, so it comes as a surprise to open his new volume and read that, in 2010, the author’s “sense of sliding out of control towards ten different kinds of disaster has gone.” Dyer admits that, from a global geopolitical perspective, “we still have a long way to go,” but “the prospects have improved considerably.”

These relatively sunny statements occur in the introduction to Dyer’s new collection of newspaper columns, written between 2004 and 2009. In what follows, Dyer spans the globe to analyze the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the economic ascendancy of China, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and many other topics. In the process, he ends up convincing his readers that his introductory statements were meant ironically.

Navigating the shallows

June 13, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr; $33.50 cloth 978-0-393-07222-8, 276 pp., W.W. Norton & Company.

In the Foreword to his 1985 polemic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, cultural critic Neil Postman quotes Aldous Huxley’s remark in Brave New World Revisited that “the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.'” Postman died in 2003, just before Web 2.0 became the apotheosis of mankind’s almost obsessive desire for distraction. According to Jesse Alpert and Nissan Hajaj, software engineers with Google, that company’s tracking statistics indicated that as of July 25, 2008 there were more than one trillion discrete URLs on the World Wide Web. The Website Domain Tools states that today there are 120,043,671 registered domain names. The social Web is flourishing, from the almost quaintly antiquated MySpace to Facebook and Twitter, to more specialized social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Goodreads. New e-mail competes for our attention with the latest YouTube video, Google alerts, and RSS feeds. The Net offers access to a kind of Borgesian library of seemingly infinite information, all of it only a click away.

This technological cornucopia comes with a price, however. In a recent New York Times article, Matt Richtel points to the downside of information glut and constantly divided attention that too much time spent online promotes: “Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.” The Net’s constant encouragement to refresh that Twitter page, to check for new e-mail, to download a song or a video, or to converse with a buddy over Skype or instant messaging is liable to have an effect on the way humans think and interact. “This,” says Richtel, “is your brain on computers.”

What is ironic about Richtel’s argument is that the online version of his article is peppered with hyperlinks, each of which prods a reader to navigate away from the piece and engage with ancillary material: an abstract about dopamine, a slide show, an interactive game that (again, ironically) tests the degree to which a person can filter out distractions. Richtel’s article is fairly long, but the links embedded within it operate counter to the impulse to immerse oneself deeply in the content; rather, they break the blocks of text into discrete units and offer potential sidetracks for a reader’s attention.

These hypertextual sidetracks may go largely unremarked or unnoticed, but they affect a reader’s experience in ways that are not entirely beneficial. In his lucid and persuasive new book, technology writer Nicholas Carr refers to a study conducted by Erping Zhu to determine the effect that hyperlinks have on a reader’s comprehension:

She had groups of people read the same piece of online writing, but she varied the number of links included in the passage. She then tested the readers’ comprehension by asking them to write a summary of what they had read and complete a multiple-choice test. She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them. That left less attention and fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading.

Elsewhere, Carr points out that although links act as the online equivalent of citations and notes in books and academic articles, they nevertheless alter our reading experience by encouraging us to disengage with a single text and jump from one text to another. “Hyperlinks,” Carr writes, “are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause.”

Of course, hyperlinks are only one of the Net’s elements of distraction, and arguably one of the most benign. Writer Cory Doctorow refers to the Internet as an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”; such an ecosystem, Carr argues, is antithetical to the kind of careful attention and deep, sustained thought that has been responsible for most of civilization’s great advances to date.

Invoking Marshall McLuhan, Carr takes issue with the tech evangelists who assume that the Internet is a morally neutral technology, insisting instead that the tools we use have the power to change us and are therefore fraught with ethical considerations. “Our conventional response to all media,” McLuhan wrote, “namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” Postman echoes McLuhan in his assertion that media technologies are inseparable from the ideology that undergirds them:

[W]hat is happening in America is not the design of an articulated ideology. No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.

Carr has assimilated that point thoroughly and argues that the ideology of the Internet, which privileges efficiency over deliberation and concentration, marks the advent of a “new intellectual ethic,” one that is actually having physiological effects on the way our brains are wired.

Beginning his book with an examination of recent advances in neuroscience, which have highlighted the plasticity of the human brain, Carr goes on to illustrate the ways in which the Internet fosters a kind of mental hyperactivity that has deleterious effects on our memory and our ability to comprehend a complex or nuanced argument. No brooding Cassandra, Carr acknowledges the power of the Net as a research tool and the extent to which it has enriched our lives, but warns, “The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains.”

The intellectual decay that the Internet promotes is tied into its mechanisms for distraction, and the concomitant tendency toward brevity, speed, and simplicity. Carr quotes digital maven Clay Shirky as saying that the demise of deep reading is not something to be mourned because it was never that great in the first place: “‘No one reads War and Peace,’ [Shirky] wrote, singling out Tolstoy’s epic as the quintessence of high literary achievement. ‘It’s too long, and not so interesting.'” The brain that has had its synapses rerouted by prolonged exposure to the rapidity and heterogeneousness of the Internet will likely agree with Shirky that Tolstoy’s novel is “too long, and not so interesting.” This is indicative, Carr asserts, of someone who lacks “the time, the interest, or the facility to inhabit a literary work,” a characterization that applies well to heavy users of digital media online.

Dedicated Netizens will no doubt take umbrage with Carr’s ideas, but he marshals a great deal of evidence to back up his assertions, and his key thesis – that the intellectual ethic of the Internet is pushing us toward a new mode of thought that is actually reflective of the technology itself, and that this may not be an entirely positive development – seems irrefutable. “McLuhan’s point,” Carr writes, “was that an honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.”

If Carr is to be faulted at all, it would be in the relative lack of prescriptive solutions to our current technological dilemma; on the final page of the book, all the author can manage to offer up is the (perhaps vain) “hope that we won’t go gently into the future our computer engineers and software programmers are scripting for us.” But The Shallows is more of a warning bell than anything else, a clarion call to remain cognizant of the way our technology shapes us and to stay vigilant so that we don’t lose more than we gain by adopting it. In arguing for the merits of quiet contemplation and serious thought as against the fragmented, distracted intellectual currency of the Internet, Carr is swimming against the prevailing cultural tide. But his plea that we not sacrifice wisdom on the altar of efficiency is one that needs to be heard. If we’re lucky, it’s not too late to turn back the tide.

Starving for substance

April 18, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. David Shields; Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95 cloth, 224 pp., 978-0-307-27353-6.

In the February 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine, Jonathan Lethem published an essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which posits that all art involves a process of borrowing, sampling, and rearranging work from other sources. Originality is a chimera and copyright is corrupt. Culture should not be considered anyone’s property, argues Lethem, but rather should be available to us all, to use and reuse as we see fit.

What makes Lethem’s essay provocative is that practically everything in it, up to and including the essay’s title, is lifted from the work of other writers. A key at the end provides notes for “the source of every line [Lethem] stole, warped, and cobbled together” – the reader learns that along the way they have read words penned by writers as diverse as Mary Shelley, Lewis Hyde, William Gibson, and David Foster Wallace. All of this appropriation goes unacknowledged in the body of Lethem’s essay, although he tips his hand in his subtitle: “A Plagiarism.”

One of Lethem’s notes reads, “Closer to home, my efforts owe a great deal to the recent essays of David Shields,” and reading Shields’s latest book, one gets the distinct impression that the debt runs in both directions. Reality Hunger is, in effect, “The Ecstasy of Influence” writ large, stretched to book-length and repurposed for our early 21st century sound bite culture. The book is made up of 618 short sections – some no longer than a single sentence – many of which have been lifted from other writers. The first acknowledgment of this comes on page 103, when Shields writes, “Most of the passages in this book are taken from other sources. Nearly every passage I’ve clipped I’ve also revised, at least a little – for the sake of compression, consistency, or whim.” (Which sounds suspiciously like Lethem’s avowal at the end of his essay: “Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly – for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it.” Whether this is a matter of unattributed appropriation, a meta-textual allusion, or merely coincidence is unclear.)

Shields provides notes at the end of his book citing the passages he has appropriated. Apparently, these notes were included at the behest of Random House’s lawyers, who felt that reproducing so much work without any attribution at all could perhaps be problematic. Shields objects to this on high-minded grounds, stating that he is trying to reclaim “a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost.” He suggests that readers who want to read the book as he intended it to be read should take a box cutter and slice out the notes. “Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read,” Shields writes, “is not a bug but a feature.” He goes on: “A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it.” Presumably, we can all be thankful that serial murder is not a major focus of the book.

So what is all this “borrowing” in aid of? Shields is an erstwhile novelist who has turned his back on the form because of his dissatisfaction with the novel’s ability to render life as it is lived in the post-postmodern days of the early 21st century: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.” He surveys our media-saturated cultural landscape and notes the layers of fabrication and artificiality – everything from James Frey’s fudging of his biographical history in A Million Little Pieces to the mediated “reality” on offer in American Idol and Survivor – and argues that what we long for is not less reality, but more:

Living as we do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the “real,” semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication – autobiographical frissons or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to write novels.

The word “seeming” in the second sentence is significant, since it stands as a testament that every act of portrayal involves a kind of factual subversion: even filmed documentaries are edited to such an extent that “reality” is mediated by the filmmaker’s vision and intention. Indeed, Shields argues that generic classifications such as fiction and non-fiction are unhelpful, because each employs aspects of its putative antithesis: “An awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. ‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” Instead, Shields argues for art that eschews “generic boundaries” and explores “generic fissures”: “Walt Whitman once said, ‘The true poem is the daily paper.’ Not, though, the daily paper as it’s published: both straight-ahead journalism and airtight art are, to me, insufficient; I want instead something teetering excitedly in between.”

Which is all well and good, but since Shields himself acknowledges the elision between fiction that employs elements of the author (which is all fiction) and non-fiction that employs elements of artistic rendering (ditto), it is unclear where precisely Shields’s difficulty lies. Is it merely the generic labels, in which case it would be relatively easy to ignore the word “novel” as applied to, say, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and assume instead that the book is fictionalized autobiography. In other words, on a meta-textual level, fiction and non-fiction already blur into each other: the “generic fissures” that Shields argues for already exist in practice, however sublimated they may be.

By dismissing the potential for novels to reflect the truth of lived existence, Shields ignores the form’s unique ability to capture emotional truth, which is something that straight documentary is frequently unable to achieve. Moreover, novels take us out of ourselves and allow access to the lived experience of others; the fact that those others are characters that sprung from the author’s imagination in no way denudes their ability to inculcate empathy in a reader. A novel imagines the world in an attempt to understand it; it is precisely this imaginative rendering that gives novels their particular force and effect.

Of course, the other property of novels is their length: they take time and concentration to appreciate, and Shields appears to want no part of either. In a chapter titled “In Praise of Brevity,” Shields praises the “short-short story” (e.g. Jane Anne Phillips’s “Sweethearts” or Amy Hempel’s “In the Animal Shelter”) for dispensing with “the furniture-moving, the table-setting typical of the longer story.”

Delivering only highlights and no downtime, the short-short seems to me to gain access to contemporary feeling states more effectively than the conventional story does. As rap, movie trailers, stand-up comedy, fast food, commercials, sound bites, phone sex, bumper stickers, email, voice mail, and Headline News all do, short-shorts cut to the chase.

Note once again Shields’s insistence that a particular form allow “access to contemporary feeling states” without a concomitant questioning of the legitimacy of those states themselves. It may be true that short-short stories allow access to the way it feels to live in a media-dominated, Internet-besotted, fast-forward culture, but it’s by no means clear that this ontological state is a good thing; novels and stories, in their langour and deliberation, offer a necessary corrective to a culture that is increasingly short of attention and impatient. “I’ve become an impatient writer and reader,” says Shields, “I seem to want the moral, psychological, philosophical news delivered now, and this (the rapid emotional-delivery system) is something that the short-short can do exceedingly well.” This demand for instant gratification is completely in tune with the dominant trends in our culture, but it also ignores our need for quiet, for contemplation, for thoughtful appreciation of nuance and ambiguity. By uncritically accepting our culture’s increasingly noisy demands for speed, brevity, and immediate satisfaction, Shields ignores what we as a society are losing in the process. (Except to the extent that he confesses to be bored by novels and long stories: “My reaction to a lot of longer stories is often Remind me again why I read this, or The point being?”) And let’s be honest: do we really want a culture that takes its points of reference from stand-up comedy, commercials, bumper stickers, and Headline News?

Note that in all of this, one theme dominates: Shields approaches art demanding that it give him what he wants, rather than allowing his view to be moulded and challenged by the art he consumes. This is perfectly in line with the pervasive strain of narcissism that runs throughout his book: “Literary intensity,” he writes, “is inseparable from self-indulgence and self-exposure.” For Shields, the best writing is the writing that cleaves closest to the persona of the writer, that allows a window into the writer’s own psyche and soul. The writing that Shields prizes is not outward looking, but inward looking, navel-gazing, and solipsistic. “The work of essayists is vital precisely because it permits and encourages self-knowledge in a way that is less indirect than fiction,” Shields writes, here quoting Phillip Lopate. “What does it mean to write about yourself?” Shields asks. “To what degree is this a solipsistic enterprise? To what degree are we all solipsists? To what degree can solipsism gain access to the world?” This series of rhetorical questions seems to me the kind of self-absorbed rumination that only an unrepentant narcissist would engage in: Shields wants art that approves and validates his own perspective, and praises art that lays bare the personality of the artist at the expense of a deep engagement with the outer world. This, too, is a perfect reflection of our culture’s current obsessions: self-exposure through social media that serves as nothing more than an echo chamber for people who love to hear themselves talk; Twittering about what one had for lunch or how long the line-up at the bank is; blogging about the party one attended or a recent break-up; posting YouTube videos of users dancing around in their bedrooms to a Britney Spears tune; or creating faux-clever mash-ups of a Barack Obama speech and a Jay-Z video.

That Shields has so thoroughly bought into the prevailing tides of modern culture is unsurprising; what is frustrating is the uncritical approach he has taken in summing up our current situation. In praising collage, mix-ups, sound bites, and snippets, he ignores the inability of all these things to tap into deep meaning or to provide a nuanced encounter with the world around us. On the subject of our modern society’s impoverished mythology, Alberto Manguel writes, “We distrust profundity, we make fun of dilatory reflection. Images of horror flick across our screens, big or small, but we don’t want them slowed down by commentary: we want to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out but not to have to sit through the rest of Lear.” Shields wants to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out without having to suffer the rest of Lear. He considers this attitude to be on the artistic avant garde. What is most worrisome about his new book is that he may indeed be right.

The intelligence of the senses

December 11, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

The Painted Word. Tom Wolfe; Picador, $15.50 paper, 106 pp., 978-0-312-42758-0.

The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal, 1941–1960. Roald Nasgaard and Ray Ellenwood; $60.00 cloth, 156 pp., 978-1-55365-356-1.

9780312427580Tom Wolfe doesn’t much like Abstract Expressionism. The movement, which swept the avant-garde New York art scene in the postwar period, borrowed from the European schools of Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism, and displaced the Social Realist style that dominated American art during the Great Depression (and that featured the kind of figurative, representative mode of which Wolfe generally approves). Like Modernism, the term Abstract Expressionism is a bit of a catch-all, an umbrella appellation used to identify a group of artists who are quite stylistically distinct: Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline among them. What they share in common, however, is a general retreat away from naturalism, from the still lives, landscapes, and figurative painting that preceded them. Even the Surrealists, who were another influence on the postwar Abstract Expressionists, often resorted to representation in their work (think of the melting clocks in Dalì’s Persistence of Memory).

But the Abstract Expressionists, says Wolfe, faced a dilemma: if they were to continue in a straight line from the geometrical abstraction practised by Piet Mondrian, how would they inject a corresponding welter of emotion (the likes of which could be felt while viewing a realist painting) into their work? Wolfe’s answer: they would take refuge in theory.

“At a certain moment,” said critic Harold Rosenberg, who, along with Clement Greenberg, was largely responsible for bringing Abstract Expressionism into the public consciousness, “the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Greenberg’s theoretical approach inculcated a new idea of painting – Action Painting – which Wolfe neatly eviscerates in the central section of his short 1975 polemic The Painted Word:

The vision that Rosenberg inspired caught the public imagination for a time (the actual public!) as well as that of more painters, professional and amateur, than one is likely to want to recall. It was of Action Painter … a Promethean artist gorged with emotion and overloaded with paint, hurling himself and his brushes at the canvas as if in hand-to-hand combat with Fate. There! … there! … there in those furious swipes of the brush on canvas, in those splatters of unchained id, one could see the artist’s emotion itself – still alive! – in the finished product.

What one could not see, and what catches Wolfe up short, is anything resembling an object from the natural world – a horse or an apple or a water lily. Pure emotion, Wolfe suggests, results in something incomprehensible unless viewed through the prism of an artistic theory developed by the aesthetic elites who peopled Tenth Avenue’s new bohemia in the late 1940s and ’50s. They understood what the Abstract Expressionists were trying to do, and they would explain it to the uncomprehending masses who, for a time, whether because of the movement’s novelty or its air of sophisticated connection with the salons of Paris or maybe – who knows? – because they actually liked what they saw, paid attention.

What they didn’t do was pay money for the paintings themselves:

In fact, the press was so attentive that Harold Rosenberg, as well as Pollack, wondered why so little Abstract Expressionism was being bought. “Considering the degree to which it is publicized and feted,” Rosenberg said, “vanguard painting is hardly bought at all.” Here Rosenberg was merely betraying the art world’s blindness toward its own strategies. He seemed to believe that there was an art public in the same sense that there was a reading public and that, consequently, there should be some sort of public demand for the latest art objects. He was doing the usual, in other words. First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light-years of subtlety and intellect – and then, having succeeded admirably, you ask with a sense of See-what-I-mean? outrage: look they don’t even buy our products! (Usually referred to as “quality art.”)

History has proven Wolfe’s analysis to be dreadfully short-sighted: in 2006, Pollock’s painting No. 5, 1948 sold for $140 million. That’s a sizable payday, which renders Wolfe’s splenetic satirical jibes somewhat stale in retrospect. Greenberg’s comment that “all profoundly original art looks ugly at first” may indeed be accurate; Wolfe discovers in this quip what he characterizes as “a kind of Turbulence Theorem”: “If a work of art of a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great.” While Wolfe clearly intends this to be deprecatory, it may be possible to argue the validity of at least the first half of the equation. (Those who are able to appreciate, say, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music might even be able to find agreement with the second half.)

Still, regardless of whether the sting of Wolfe’s satire has dated, the general premise of his book – that the American art of the postwar years was so disdainful of easy comprehension that art theory itself became an art form and its proponents (not the actual consumers of the work) became the tastemakers who decided what qualified as high artistic achievement – is a provocative one. The closer art came to the “flatness” that Wolfe suggests Greenberg prized, the more it retreated up its own fundament. The fact that Wolfe seems more approving of the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (they are, after all, at least figurative painters, even if the figure happens to be a can of Campbell’s tomato soup) than he does of Pollock or de Kooning should not surprise anyone who has read the essay “My Three Stooges,” from the 2000 collection Hooking Up, in which Wolfe is more laudatory of mediocre realists like Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis than of a sublime aesthete like Henry James.

The impassioned cri de coeur that Wolfe ascribes to Pollack – “If I’m so terrific, why ain’t I rich?” – conflates the notions of art and commerce in the same way conservatives of all stripes tend to: art, and artists, should be self-sufficient, which necessitates being accessible to a large portion of the public. Above all, artists must not alienate the public, they must give the public what it wants. Bob Dylan sneering “Play it fucking loud” over a chorus of boos at Royal Albert Hall in 1966 would not sit well with Wolfe, if one can possibly imagine him in the audience for that show (he would likely be the one shouting, “Judas!”).

But great art often arises out of precisely this kind of reaction to popular tastes, which tend to be conformist and bland. The notion that art should be disturbing confounds Wolfe; any artist who wishes to create something truly new will of necessity disturb the public’s complacency, and must therefore resign herself (in the short term, at least) to a kind of marginalization.

coverThis was not lost on the Automatistes, a group of artists, dancers, poets, and playwrights that sprung up in postwar Montreal. On August 9, 1948, the group, under the auspices of its leader, Paul-Émile Borduas, published its manifesto, entitled Refus Global (Total Refusal), which “was a call to the individual conscience, an admonition to break completely with all of society’s conventions and ‘its utilitarian spirit.'” So writes Roald Nasgaard in his comprehensive and illuminating essay “The Automatiste Revolution in Painting,” which accompanies the astonishing new volume The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941–1960.

Wolfe makes no mention of Refus Global or of the Automatistes (of whom the most internationally famous was probably Jean-Paul Riopelle), but one can only imagine the fits of high dudgeon the manifesto would drive him to. As Nasgaard summarizes:

Only when “rational effort” had been put “in its proper place” could “our passions [shape] the future spontaneously, unpredictably, compulsively.” In this better future, men and women would be free to “realize their full, individual potential according to the unpredictable, necessary order of spontaneity – in splendid anarchy.” Or as Borduas had otherwise phrased it in a letter he sent to Leduc in Paris on January 6, 1948: “Intention must be pushed into the background, along with reason. Make way for the intelligence of the senses.”

Borduas’s notion of “splendid anarchy,” building as it does on the work of the Surrealists, and in particular the ideas of André Breton, is somewhat disingenuous, given the evident underlying control that the Automatiste painters evinced in their work (the quality that puts immediate lie to the oft-repeated cavil, “My kid could paint that”). Nasgaard points out, for instance, that Riopelle’s paintings are predicated upon a “strategy of overlaying his densely packed and intensely multicoloured carpet of taches with a network of spurts and rays of paint in the form of fine lines, sometimes laid down freehand, sometimes as if drawn with a ruler.” Borduas himself was a consummate stylist, whose Les Arènes de Lutèce, for example, is “ordered … (without going geometric) with an almost Mondrianesque precision.” More theory, perhaps – but it does not take a theoretician to see these things first-hand on the canvases themselves.

“A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a canvas,” writes Wolfe of the new modern aesthetic; he, of course, sees this as a step backward from the representational art that preceded it. In Wolfe’s eyes, dispensing with representation means that art is no longer about anything other than itself. But the Automatistes rightly realized that a carefully structured synthesis of colour and form could call forth an emotional reaction every bit as powerful as a work of Social Realism. It is the deep structure that saves a work such as Riopelle’s Sans titre 1952 from being unforgivably solipsistic on the one hand or just an accretion of blobs of paint on the other, and it is this deep structure that allows for the work’s emotional resonance.

Automatism was an artistic movement, not a political one, but it is impossible to separate the Refus Global from the context in which it was written and published: that of Maurice Duplessis’s Quebec. By calling for a definitive break with accepted societal structures, the Automatistes set themselves in opposition to the dominant mood in Quebec at the time, which was conservative, authoritative, and dominated by Catholic dogma. It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that in so doing, they helped lay the groundwork for the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

It is not necessary to know any of this to appreciate the work of the Automatiste painters, which is liberally reproduced in The Automatiste Revolution. The 62 full-colour plates, featuring paintings by Borduas, Riopelle, Fernand Leduc, Pierre Gavreau, and others, provide a sumptuous overview of the movement, and Nasgaard’s essay (along with one by Ray Ellenwood, entitled “Automatisme Beyond ‘The Barracks of Plastic Arts,'” about the other disciplines that got swept up in the revolution) provides a detailed historical background that helps situate the group in the context of European and North American art at the time.

Wolfe’s disdainful antipathy toward Abstract Expressionism proves bracingly funny, even 34 years after his little polemic was first published. But The Automatiste Revolution – a visually sumptuous, intellectually challenging volume – provides a welcome corrective to his windy biliousness.

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