Not much vnlike the wondrer haue ye another figure called the doubtfull, because oftentimes we will seeme to cast perils, and make doubt of things when by a plaine manner of speech wee might affirme or deny him.

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Breyten Breytenbach, Mouroir

Over his white robe in which the wind was trapped like the wings of anxious seagulls he wore a jacket buttoned to the chin and around the head he had wrapped a turban and on his face he had a pointed beard. He thoughtfully fondled the sharpness of the hairy little sword on his chin and carefully and slowly explained to us from deep in his throat that he could, upon request, rapidly accompany us to a place where we might obtain assistance, but only the men would be allowed to come. This after all, was dictated by the customs of Islam. And concerning the women we weren’t to worry excessively for they would be safe here during our brief absence. But we had to take our shoes off. With the guide we clambered over the sandhill and sunk to our knees in the shifts and the slides of the surface. Behind the hill we saw the grey sandflats decorated with shadows of all shapes. Like more palpable shadows there were also broad drawers standing upright, half buried in the sand itself, with shiny knobs by which they could be opened upwards. The Arab with the burnt-out eyes asked us whether we wished to arrive at our destination quickly or less quickly or less slowly or slowly or in God’s own time. We said: as soon as possible, please. Rather, that was my answer, and I assume the others answered in the same way. Thus he opened the left most “drawer” and we climbed in. And with a giddy speed we tumbled down, transported by a vertical conveyer belt, until down below we were spilt head over heels on a square. In the middle of the square was a fountain. Around this square with its fountain there were the fronts of tall buildings – some were even palaces. A crowd of people with smiles wreathed around their mouths strolled up and down and then stopped to listen with cocked heads how the spouting water plunges back with a rinkle-tinkle. It was warm in that place. And it was evening because spray-lights lit up the buildings and shone through the tree of water. I think it must have been in Switzerland. A long long time ago.

Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative (Temps et Récit), 3 vols. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984-1988 (1981-1985). 

I kind of want to Cafepress myself a JE COEUR PAUL RICOEUR T-shirt. I had been wondering where was the account of nineteenth-century historiography and the novel; why no one could engage with Hayden White’s tropological theory of history without sliding into his dumb relativism; where was the reasonable account of those qualities that make narrative an indispensable counterweight to science which still took seriously the ways in which our lives are not very much like The Brothers Kamarazov. Every vein here is loaded with ore, and as with Truth and Method, which I read over the holidays, this was only a first pass through something I’ll be returning to for a long time. (I did kind of skim the twenty pages about The Magic Mountain. Hans, the magic mountain sucks! Go home!)

Peter Carey, His Illegal Self

Carey, Peter. His Illegal Self. New York: Knopf, 2008.

On the long list of things that Mr. Carey does damn well, I would give top place to children. Those who fear that the child POV was exhausted with high modernism and is now verboten and twee will be glad to meet Che, or Jay, who is rendered with fidelity in his moments of perception and emotion and transgression, who is used neither sentimentally as a miniature adult nor sadistically as a punching bag for the world’s arbitrary cruelty. Both cruelty and love in this book come as surprises, reversing themselves without warning – Carey has the genuine storyteller’s confidence, with no fear of the leaping metaphor or the unexpected lurch in time and perspective. Damn if he doesn’t know how to deploy them. This doesn’t enter the marketplace for another month or so (a friend in high places scored me a review copy), but watch the skies.

Alice Crary (ed.), Wittgenstein and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond

Crary, Alice, ed. Wittgenstein and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007.

Honoring Cora Diamond is an action I approve of, so I was happy to grab this off the new releases shelf at the library. The book probably should have been called Wittgenstein or the Moral Life – most of the essays tackle one or the other – but if you're into this kind of thing I especially recommend Juliet Floyd's subtle analysis of what's at stake in the Tractatus controversies. Hilary Putnam also interjects some considered doubts about the remarks on mathematics and David Finkelstein has a commonsense emendation of the questionable Davidson/Rorty line on animals having no thoughts. (Do not read James Conant's long and annoying parody of Johannes Climacus, which confirms his status as Diamond for Dummies.)

And then I was privileged to encounter the latter part of a long interpretive chain – John McDowell remarking on Stanley Cavell reading Diamond reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello – all of them being fine enough thinkers and writers that meaning accretes rather than attenuates in the process. It's nice when the good people cluster together. The rest was anticlimax.

Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.

I decided there was no reason to keep blogging all the Henry James business, especially when bunches of it turned out to be disappointing, but I guess this is general interest if you’re a bookish general with a Freudian slant. (On Freud: I revealed yesterday to my students that when Gregor Samsa’s father pelts him from behind with apples, it was once commonly taken to represent a symbolic rape and impregnation. They said: EW!)

But Peter Brooks’s Freud is not that Freud; he’s interested in using psychoanalysis to create a dynamic, desire-based model of narrative as a counterweight to the static ice sculptures of the structuralists. He writes and reads awfully well, but the chapters on novels themselves are still the best ones, because the thing about Freud is, no matter how much it talks like science, it is still a myth, and you can put lipstick on a pig but — Well. Anyone who loves L’Éducation Sentimentale really ought to read his chapter on L’Éducation Sentimentale.

Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Second ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983 (1961).

His quest is sympathetic, his trajectory engaging; a corrective to Percy Lubbock’s dogmatisms about ambiguity and dramatic presentation leads into–not really an attack on modern fiction, but certainly a questioning of its premises. What do we lose with all this ambiguity, with authors refusing to make clear their ethical norms? Is Stephen Dedalus a pompous ass or not? Of course Booth knows that Joyce’s answer, if you cornered him, would be a complicated version of “yes and no,” but something about that seems unfair; Booth wants the cards on the table. The oddity is his assumption that authors really are holding those kind of cards, akin to the oddity of his insistence that fiction is mediated by language but not made of language–that it is fundamentally made of character, and that the linguistic mode of apprehending character is in the final analysis somehow ancillary.

The preference for human figures over linguistic structures is also evident in the implied authors and implied audiences and undramatized narrators and so on which are such a famous part of this book. As with the special case of the Arranger in Ulysses, such theoretical entities have always struck me as versions of the luminiferous aether, but I did just run across a quote from J.M. Bernstein’s Philosophy of the Novel that at least explains the need to postulate them. In criticizing Genette’s rather different system, Bernstein says that Genette can’t imagine a non-individual subjectivity, and in a weird way that makes sense for Booth too. Given that novelistic narration does contains values that are bound up in the life of the mind, if you have a picture of the mind as self-subsistent and self-enclosed then of course you’ll wind up inventing a bunch of rei cogitantes to back up that narration. On the other, if you can accept that our attitudes toward novels can piggyback off our attitudes toward people without actually conjuring up such people, then the whole distressing crowd of specters fades away.

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

It started out strong, working in the same conceptual ballpark as After Virtue; so what happened? After his initial argument, Taylor seemed to decide that he wanted to rewrite Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, or maybe a philosophical version of Auerbach’s Mimesis; at any rate, the scope goes very wide, the examples start to bury the argument, and especially once Taylor gets into matters where I have some knowledge of my own, it starts to seem pretty cursory – all the footnotes to his Romanticism section refer to The Mirror and the Lamp by Abrams; same thing with modernism and The Romantic Image by Kermode. In sum? There is good stuff, but you have to dig; and our encyclopedic ambitions should be handled very very cautiously.

J. Ferguson, The Archimedean Author

Ferguson, J. The Archimedean Author: Roberto Bolaño, W.G. Sebald, and Narrative After Borges. San Francisco: San Francisco State University, 2007.

A consistently fascinating take on these three authors, written in hyper-compact prose – blink and you’ll miss something crucial. Which would be a shame, since there’s a lot to the argument that even if these books seem classically metafictional, the usual commonplaces about metafiction and intertextuality won’t tell us a lot about them; a more general model of bookishness (or coexistence between people and books) is needed. Ferguson wrangles some excellent local accounts out of this, in particular a justification for Sebald’s (in)famous photographs which involves separating the melancholic, obsessive narrator from the author and casting him as a latter-day Ancient Mariner. As for Bolaño, we can expect a great deal more English-language criticism in the future now that he’s being comprehensively translated; but it will have this to live up to.

Merle A. Williams and Dorothy J. Hale, more on Henry James

Williams, Merle A. Henry James and the Philosophical Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Hale, Dorothy J. Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory From Henry James to the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

What did Henry James write after all? Did he perhaps write…nothing but an irresistible opportunity to demonstrate the theories of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida at ponderous length? No, Merle A. Williams, he did not.

Hale is as intimidatingly smart in print as she is in office hours. The book is very much a second-order theoretical affair; but if you happen to like theories about theories, and are interested in the seventies dethroning of Percy Lubbock or warnings about the overeager application of Bakhtin to anything within grabbing distance, this one is yours.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

The melancholy of Berkeley.

But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

 

But pessimism, he says, is one more luxury we will have to forgo to get through these times. At the end it turns out that we are living the dark ages over again, that the barbarians are already in charge and the only hope for a coherent moral life lies in something like the Benedictine monastic model. Which is provocative but perhaps not arguable (if our moral equipment is that decayed, moral argument will have to involve some measure of bad faith). Epic morality might be nice and straightforward, but I would have made a shitty Homeric warrior, especially because the Greeks didn’t have contact lenses. On the other hand, I think I would have made an excellent monk.