Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Risking Exact Metaphors

In the full throes of packing, and when I'm not doing that, I'm making plans for my fall classes. So posting could be spotty for a while. I do, however, want to mention a book of essays by Vivian Gornick, The End of the Novel of Love. Gornick hasn't been on my radar before and the only reason I encountered her is because Emily and I are packing our respective libraries (yes we are) and I saw it on the top of a pile of her books. Gornick writes literary essays on literary topics without even a whiff of academia in her prose, which nowadays makes her a rare bird. She's a tough, unsentimental feminist with the highest ambitions for writing, and when she's not making me want to seek out and read nineteenth-century novels I've never heard of (such as George Meredith's Diana of the Crosways), she's casting a cold eye on some of the very same things I find dissatisfying in contemporary fiction. For example, her essay "Tenderhearted Men" acknowledges the powerful prose of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus (the first two were very important to me ten years ago) even as it locates what I came to find grating in these authors: their nostalgia for a mode of masculinity and for a kind of clear-cut relation between men and women (the kind, that is, where the entire purpose of women is to succor the men) that's all the more oppressive for never really having existed. (This brand of sentimental masculinity is also the defining feature of the personae of James Wright and Richard Hugo, poets who I can now only value in spite of the very personae that attracted me as a young man.)

The title essay's thesis is that Love, like the defining capitalized abstractions of previous eras (God, Nature), can no longer be taken seriously as the goal toward which a novel's characters should be steered, so as to achieve transcendence. Not so long ago, the rigors of bourgeois society meant dire consequences for those who pursued love as opposed to simply settling down: to marry someone from the wrong side of the tracks, or to get divorced, meant an earthquake not just for the people involved but for society in general. Now, divorce is just a plot point, without any revelatory power. Here's Gornick:
Love... like food or air, is necessary but insufficient: it cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves. Certainly, it can no longer act as an organizing principle. Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed; when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness. Knowing this to be the larger truth, as many of us do, the idea of love as a means of illumination—in literature as in life—now comes as something of an anticlimax.
Gornick sometimes seems to imply that "the deliberate pursuit of consciousness," which I would join with her in rating as one of the highest human goals, can and should be achieved through analytics alone—I am not so sure as she seems to be that something along the line of Rimbaud's "systematic derangement of the senses" might not be a necessary tool for achieving such consciousness (I think too of Kafka's famous remark that "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us"). I also believe that love and relationships are a necessary foundation for true independence, for full living—and that this idea is not as obvious as it appears—so that there might in fact be some undisclosed social truth to be found in the novel of love and marriage. But what really grabs me about Gornick is her ability to put her finger on what most dissatisfies me about most writing:
In great novels we always feel that the writer, at the time of the writing, knows as much as anyone around can know, and is struggling to make sense of what is perceived somewhere in the nerve endings if not yet in clarified consciousness. When a novel gives us less than many of us know—and is content with what is being given—we have middlebrow writing. Such writing—however intelligent its author, however excellent its prose—is closer to the sentimental than the real. The reader senses that the work is sentimental because the metaphors are inaccurate: approximate, not exact. To get to those nerve endings a metaphor must be exact, not approximate. The exact metaphor is writer's gold.
When I read this paragraph I sat bolt upright in my seat and muttered, "Finally!" Finally someone has succinctly summarized what I find so awful and deadening about most fiction (and, increasingly, much of the poetry I read): the writers aren't giving us everything they've got, but instead labor to conceal their knowledge of what they don't know. If more is dreamt of than can be found in your philosophy and there's no Hamlet there to tell you, well, perhaps that's not the writer's fault, but in any case their minority is assured. But the writer who knows there are things he or she doesn't know, and who isn't willing to risk breaking him or herself on the reef of that unknowing—who settles for pieties or mysticism—is contemptible.

Exact metaphors: here I think Gornick's complaint is close to that of Simon DeDeo's in his blog post "the defeasible pause," which critiques one of the lazier techniques in the post-avant poet's bag of tricks. The "defeasible pause" is a (dis)juncture in a poem, a deliberate gap into which the reader's interpretive powers are meant to rush:
The defeasible pause, at first pass, means whatever you want it to mean: it means "fill in the reading", it means "work for free." It is an invitation to a kind of complicity with the author, a kind of strict liability of language in which to read a defeasible pause is to already be committed to its relevance. The language poets never used it, but perhaps they can be blamed, à la Marx, for the conceptual ground they laid for its current day prominence.
Absent a larger rhetorical strategy (such as that of the Language poets and their intention to critique the politics encoded in normative language), the defeasible pause is a mere tac-tic, a shrug, an abdication. If minor novelists sin by writing less than they know, minor poets sin by disavowing all knowledge of their own language's activities, like parents who don't know where their children are.

The test of poetry, then, like the test of fiction, comes down to something hard to quantify, something akin to sincerity. I use these Zukofskyan terms in part because Zukofsky seems like the limit case of a writer who demonstrably knows everything, or who at least has read everything, and whose work can't be valued without an estimation of the author's sincerity. If you believe, as I do, that Zukofsky's finical mania adds up to a meaningful excess—a straining up against the bounds of what's possible with the language of his time, an agon with what he doesn't know about language and life—his poetry is of immense value. But if you think him a charlatan, then there's no reason to work through his bewildering text—the whole of "A" becomes a defeasible pause, a permanent, seemingly unmotivated hesitation between syntaxes. It's similarly difficult to evaluate a poem or story—to judge whether the writer's reach is properly exceeding his or her grasp—without knowing something of the context from which it emerges. What did the writer risk? This sounds a lot like the workshop question, "What's at stake here?", but because it's centered on the writer's own spiritual education, her Bildung if you like, it's difficult to quantify without actually knowing the writer. Yet most of us have better bullshit detectors than we admit to. When we read a poem or story and it happens to be "the real thing," we recognize that. It's much harder to judge whether or not something that's not real is nonetheless the product of sincerity, or whether the writer's primary desire is to conceal his or her own ignorance.

I've hinted here that excess can be one indicator of "the real thing," the overflowing of the Real that the writer refuses to blind himself to, but is minimally protected by his ability to ride the flood, as a surfer protects himself from the wave. That's the egoless, unarmored way of writing. There must be other paths to what I'm talking about: risk, sincerity, commitment (even and especially the trickster's risk, sincerity, commitment). It's what I demand from writing, and finding it—even a shred—is enough to lure me back.

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