The OF Blog: More critical quotes and a few thoughts

Saturday, February 11, 2012

More critical quotes and a few thoughts

In-between a host of other writing projects (this is beginning to turn into a full-time, albeit very low-paying job), I have been reading the five finalists for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, which will be awarded March 8.  Based on what I've sampled so far (at least 50 pages for each of them), it is going to be very difficult to judge which book is most deserving of this honor, as in different ways each of them is generating a wealth of thoughts on a variety of issues.  Below I'm going to post my highlights from four of them (I already made a dedicated post quoting from Dubravka Ugresic's Karaoke Culture) that I have saved on iBooks or my Kindle for iPad app:

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence:

A time is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted.  The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.  In this regard, few of us question the contemporary construction of copyright.  It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity.  In fact, it is neither.  Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, considered copyright a necessary evil:  He favored providing just enough incentive to create, nothing more, and thereafter allowing ideas to flow freely, as nature intended.  His conception of copyright was enshrined in the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  This was a balancing act between creators and society as a whole; second comers might do a much better job than the originator with the original idea.

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition:

If something occurs that moves me deeply – the kind of experience that might provide inspiration for a poet – my instinct is to articulate and analyze it in an essay.  I feel at home in essays.  They're what I most enjoy reading and writing.  When I left university I thought being a writer meant you wrote novels; either that or you were a critic who wrote about writers' novels.  A few years later, during what I still regard as my period of most intense intellectual development (aka, living on the dole in Brixton), I discovered Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Raymond Williams, and, crucially, Berger, and realized there was another way of being a writer, one that I might aspire to.  Like Aldous Huxley, then, I consider myself "some kind of essayist sufficiently ingenious to get away with writing a very limited kind of fiction."  The life of the long-haul novelist, moreover, has never seemed as attractive to me as one made up of all sorts of different kinds of writing, including periods of fictioning.  What could be nicer than one day to be writing a review of a novel or exhibition and the next to be going off to Moscow to write about flying a MiG-29?  Put like that, the pipe-smoking scribe with leather patches on his elbows might seem like a relic or fossil from a bygone era of literariness; on the other hand, this style of freelancing represents the contemporary embodiment of a deeply traditional idea of the man of letters.  Would it be immodest to claim that this book gives a glimpse of a not unrepresentative way of being a late-twientieth-early-twenty-first-century man of letters?

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps:  Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Dylan is not always undisciplined.  As early as Freewheelin' it was clear that he could control his material when he cared to.  But his disciplines are songwriting and acting, not poetry; his words fit the needs of music and performance, not an intrinsic pattern.  Words or rhymes that seem gratuitous in print often make good musical sense, and Dylan's voice, an extraordinary interpreter of emotion though (or more likely because) it is almost devoid of melody, makes vague lines clear.  Dylan's music is not inspired.  His melodies and arrangements are derivative, and his one technical accomplishment, a vivacious, evocative harmonica, does not approach the virtuosity of a Sonny Terry.  his strength as a musician is his formidable eclecticism combined with a talent for choosing the right music to go with a given lyric.  The result is a unity of sound and word that eludes most of his imitators.


If Dylan manages to predict the next day's [September 11, 2001] news by once again tapping into the language of millennial apocalypse, he also captures contemporary anomie (his own, ours) by inventing a narrator – or narrators, it's hard to tell – who descends into the hell, or purgatory, or limbo, of America's mysterious rural past, which seems to be located mainly in the South.  Contemplating the "earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone," "goin' where the wild roses grow," following the southern star, crossing rivers, staying in Mississippi a day too long, staying with his not-real Aunt Sally, dreaming of Rose's bed, proposing to marry his second cousin, our hero (or is it heroes?) (or antihero/antiheroes?) walks the line between love and battle, not that there's much of a difference.  Between "Don't reach for me, she said/Can't you see I'm drowning too?" and "Sugar baby, get on down the road, you ain't got no brains nohow/You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now" falls a manifesto of sorts:  "I'm not sorry for nothing I've done/I'm glad I fight, I only wish we'd won."  By the end, the topical is slowly submerged as the timeless closes over our heads.

David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:  Translation and the Meaning of Everything:

It's a well-known fact that a translation is no substitute for the original.

It's also perfectly obvious that this is wrong.  Translations are substitutes for original texts.  you use them in the place of a work written in a language you cannot read with ease.

The claim that a translation is no substitute for an original is not the only piece of folk wisdom that isn't true.  We happily utter sayings such as "crime doesn't pay" or "it never rains but it pours" or "the truth will out" that fly in the face of the evidence – Russian mafiosi basking on the French Rivieria, British drizzle, and family secrets that never get out.  Adages of this sort don't have to be true to be useful.  Typically, they serve to warn, console, or encourage other people in particular circumstances, not to establish a theory of justice, a weather forecasting system, or forensic science.  That's why saying a translation is no substitute for the original misleads only those who take it to be a well-known fact.  It's truly astounding how many people fall into the trap.

Each of these quotes capture something that I have been reflecting upon even prior to reading them.  Creativity certainly is an elusive entity.  Sometimes, I almost want to recognize that there just might be Muses out there (Cleo?  Calliope?) that serve to spark some thought that had lain dormant in my thought before the propitious time of its emergence.  Like Dyer, I have seen myself as a writer, but not of fictions (I did briefly try my hand at that, had some positive feedback, but abandoned it because my love was elsewhere).  There is something to be said for interpreting thoughts, of engaging in "love and theft" (also the title of the Dylan album Willis discusses in the second excerpt) and "stealin' a few licks" and creating something that is greater than the original.  This perhaps is a simultaneous echo and rejection of the Ugresic quote from Karaoke Culture that I posted yesterday.  Appropriations distort, they do not provide true vivaciousness to what results from this failure to internalize and adapt what was taken from another.  Translation appeals to me because here is "love and theft" at its deepest level:  transforming a text during the process of "bearing it across" from one linguistic shore to another.  Bellos is right; we substitute all the time and sometimes those substitutions appeal to us greater than the originals.  After all, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet are more memorable than the source stories from which that play is derived.  Creativity is a precious thing; no wonder societies seek to protect the cultural investment these authors have made.  Yet in that "ecstasy of influence," as Lethem titles the key essay in his eponymous non-fiction collection, there is a sense of danger, that those who try to take that sacred Promethean flame may singe themselves and others around if they cannot corral and make their own the elements so freely lifted from another's inspiration.

Over the next couple of weeks as I finish reading each of these five finalists (with likely reviews in the days leading up to the awards announcements), there will be more to consider, no doubt about that.  Hopefully these quotes and the short commentary I provided will spark some reaction within you.  Maybe you'll see things from a new perspective, go listen to a favorite artist again (as I have been with Dylan lately), or maybe you'll string some words together to create something beautiful or illustrate a vision or sing or declaim to your heart's content.  Writings like these are like manna from heaven for those of us who love to think and to move in the world about us, experiencing a wide array of emotions and events that will serve to transform us and others around us.  This is truly something to celebrate and hopefully these few paltry words at the end will help facilitate this.


rreugen said...

"he also captures contemporary anomie (his own, ours) by inventing a narrator – or narrators, it's hard to tell – who descends into the hell, or purgatory, or limbo, of America's mysterious rural past"

Maybe it's too early in the morning for me but I can't understand this quote at all. What's the connection between anomie and that kind of narrator? I

Larry said...

I interpreted as meaning that Dylan has effaced almost all trace of his Self as narrator, that he (and by extension those listeners who are so inclined) can step into almost any role because they are not bound by past associations. Everything is pliable and can be adjusted to fit temporary desires. That I think is the thrust of Willis' argument, although that too does not quite go all the way to the core of what she is talking about.

Scott Warmuth said...

It is interesting that the quote from Ellen Willis that you picked includes, "Between 'Don't reach for me, she said/Can't you see I'm drowning too?' and 'Sugar baby, get on down the road, you ain't got no brains nohow/You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now' falls a manifesto of sorts"

One should consider Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence in regards to that manifesto, in that Dylan likely nicked the key elements of those two lines from Henry Rollins.

Art To Choke Hearts & Pissing In The Gene Pool by Henry Rollins, p. 82:
I can see it in your eyes. They're wet like a dog's. You're looking for a leg to climb to keep you from drowning. Your hands reach out, clutching for something solid to hold onto. You're weak and in need. You want something to hold so you can have something to blame. Don't reach out to me. I'm drowning too.

See a Grown Man Cry: Collected Work, 1988-1991 by Henry Rollins, p. 118:
I've been gone a long time
So long that I forgot I had a face
Forgot that I had a voice that you could hear
When you tell me how much I mean to you
And you want to know how I feel
I see my silence spit in your face
I didn't mean to throw a rock into your reflection
Maybe some things are better left broken and scattered
Veiled in darkness, secret bitterness and self doubt
I should have known better
Than to start something that I couldn't finish
That I couldn't care about
That I couldn't remember starting in the first place
I don't want to know you
You went years without me
You might as well keep on going

I explored this last year in a five-part series on my blog, beginning with this post:

Larry said...

Interesting! I'm not as familiar with Rollins' work, although I remember fondly some of his videos that came on MTV when I was in college in the early 90s, but those are some interesting parallels. Thanks for sharing that :D

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