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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

The Post-Book

Permission

As close readers of our blog might have noticed in our recent New Book Tuesday posts, we are now distributing Dalkey Archive Press. Needless to say, we are very excited to be working with one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation. Today, we have a fascinating excerpt from a conversation in BOMB Magazine’s BOMBlog between S. D. Chrostowska, author of Permission, and Kate Zabreno. The two “discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.” You can read the interview in its entirety here.

The Post-Book
S. D. Chrostowska

… By semi-public I did not mean small presses and poetic novels. I am not arguing for writerly oblivion, for self-mortification for the sake of Literature, unless as a ritual of asceticism. The existence of this literature is, as you point out, largely funded, dependent on grants and academic support. I am not romanticizing this. And I share what I take to be your concern over the increasingly public nature of writing as encouraging automatic over-sharing and self-indulgence. I think the book industry still keeps a tight rein on this, but not for long as literary publishing continues its transition to the digital. The blog and the book each have something to offer us. The blog is great for unlacing, for defining oneself by overstepping limits normally in place or, in the way you conceive it, as a counterattack against self-censorship, against the self-discipline that leads to partial self-erasure. The idea that no one reads us does, as you say, liberate, and publicness constrains. Anonymity is not the answer because we identify with Anon too. Nor is the answer to the problems that come with publicity to be found in the handwritten diary—not, anyway, for the self-aware writer who expects his/her private work to fall into the hands of others. As the standards relax thanks to the fluidity of written communication, professionalism and relative formalization catch up with us in the permissive online environment, which is neither a womb nor a solipsistic mind.

I am trying to highlight that there is no escape from publicity if you are a dedicated writer. Giving it up is not an option. One can resist some of it, discipline oneself spiritually for being overly invested in one’s public self, distracted from core concerns. And one can certainly fight against its pernicious systemic effects. This is what I find so refreshing and valuable in your work.

Isn’t it possible for the tide to turn? For certain writers to become semi-private without feeling they are sacrificing something—ambition, praise, recognition? For writers to go underground, where it is safe to say that with the aid of modern technology their work will be preserved for those who come later when the tide turns again? For writers to embrace ephemerality, not as preparatory for the real work of writing, not as a means of working up to the world of the book, but as valid in itself? For writers—some writers at least, or for some of the time—to self-semi-publish? (more…)

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Marianne Hirsch on the MLA’s Resolution on Israel and Palestine

“When it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, discussion is curtailed before it begins. In a debate that is structured to allow only two clear-cut sides, words lose their meaning.”—Marianne Hirsch

Recent resolutions from the American Studies Association and the Modern Language Association have generated a lot of controversy as well as a lot of misunderstanding. In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marianne Hirsch, author of The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust clarifies not only the terms of the debate but what’s at stake.

In her essay, “The Sound of Silencing in American Academe,” Hirsch points out that the MLA’s recent resolution has been mischaracterized and was not a call for a boycott as some have suggested but rather “concerned restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Those restrictions are documented on the U.S. State Department website, and the resolution asked the MLA to urge the State Department to ‘contest’ them.”

Even before the discussion on the resolution at the recent MLA conference, Hirsch, who is the organization’s president, was subject to intimidation and received several e-mails and messages from American Jewish groups and others who (incorrectly) framed the MLA resolution as a boycott of Israel. These critics accused the MLA of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, even going so far as to evoke the Nazis in their criticism of the organization. As Hirsch points out, this kind of hyperbole, which comes from both supporters and critics of Israel’s policy on Palestine, does little to advance the debate. Hirsch writes:

When it comes to the topic of Israel and Palestine, discussion is curtailed before it begins. In a debate that is structured to allow only two clear-cut sides, words lose their meaning.

Hirsch argues that in such an environment, words like “boycott” become especially inflammatory and their meaning becomes distorted. It is just this type of distortion, Hirsch argues, in which an organization like the MLA can actually help to further such a political debate. In the conclusion to her essay, she explains:

Many people have questioned the MLA’s right to intervene in politics. But isn’t it precisely our linguistic expertise that could help sort out the irreconcilable meanings of words, their irresponsible deployment, and the practices of silencing that ensue?

To create the space for the difficult conversations we need to have now and in the future, we must get beyond the silences imposed in the name of academic freedom. We need our academic leaders, our university presidents, not to condemn our scholarly associations, but rather to protect our right to have and to sponsor those important conversations free from harassment campaigns and pre-emptive threats.

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Salman Rushdie on the Role of Religion in Literature and the Literary Imagination

Salman Rushdie

Below is an excerpt from an edited transcript from the public discussion Salman Rushdie had with Gauri Viswanathan. The full transcript was recently published in the new book Boundaries of Toleration, edited by Alfred Stepan and Charles Taylor as part of our series, Religion, Culture, and Public Life. You can read more of the conversation here.

Gauri Viswanthan: Let me begin by asking a simple question, not about religion and the imagination, the title of this session, but about religion as imagination. If, as could be argued, conceptualizing an unseen power inherently involves human imaginings of the divine, what does the literary imagination add? Or what work does it do that is different from the religious imagination? Do you see yourself trying to recover, through literature, the impulses of a religious imagination before it freezes into theology, before experi­ence turns into a theological, ethical construct?

Salman Rushdie: Well, the first thing to say is that all literature began as sacred literature. That is to say, the beginnings of writings are religious, that the oldest written material that we have is all the product of one or another religious experience. It’s a long time, if you look at the history of literature, before literature separates itself from that articulation of religion. So there is something profound in the origins that link them.

The other thing is that religious language has had such a powerful effect, I think, on all of us, whether we are religious or not, that there aren’t words to express some things except religious words. For instance, if you think about a word like the soul, what does that mean if you are not a religious person? I don’t believe in an afterlife or a heaven or a hell and so on, and yet I feel that when I use that word it has some meaning. What could that meaning possibly be? There isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood, that there is, as Arthur Koestler, said “a ghost in the machine.” Whether you are religious or not, you feel obliged to use language that has been shaped by religion in order to express things that may not have a religious purpose. So that’s a constant battle. But I think you are right to say that I’m not interested in devotion, and in that sense I’m not interested in writing books that express anything other than interhuman devotion, which is temporary.

Viswanathan: At the same time, I’ve read several writings of yours where you talk about both the beauty and the terror of religion, the ability of religion to inspire profound feelings of great beauty and maj­esty as well as to incite great bloodshed.

Rushdie: Yes, I was being polite.

Viswanathan: But I remember that you wrote this very evocative pas­sage—I think this was when you were in King’s College. You had gone to give a talk and you spoke about the architecture . . .

Rushdie: Yes, that’s true. You know, I grew up as a student looking out of my window at King’s College chapel, and it’s hard not to believe in the capacity of religion to create beauty when King’s College chapel is out­side your window, this exquisite thing. Then I was asked to speak there, and one of the things that I thought would never happen to me in my life is that I would deliver the sermon in King’s College chapel. There are moments when your life surprises you.

And I have to tell you, apropos of nothing, I learned from doing that why priests speak the way they do. It’s because of the echo. They said to me, “You know, it’s ninety-two feet high, it’s stone, there is no carpet, and if you speak in an ordinary speaking voice then your echo comes back at you and no one can hear a word you are saying.” And—so you have to—speak—like this. You have to say—what you have to say—in this way. And suddenly you understand how preachers do it, and it’s because of the echo. There is a metaphor lurking in there somewhere.

Viswanathan: So do you see something about aesthetics that does have that religious sensibility?

Rushdie: Yes, what I’m saying is, I think there are different ways of getting there. It’s quite clear that religion has inspired people to cre­ate things of incredible beauty and also that people of no religion have created things of incredible beauty. So there is nothing intrinsic about religion that makes it the way of getting there, but it is a way of getting there. I think it’s true that you can listen to great religious music, for example, you can look at icon painting, you can read Milton or Blake, and you can easily see the power of religious belief to create or to help to create beauty. And for me the great, the most useful thing has been the power of religion to create very strong metaphors. I’ve gone back often to what I call dead religions, what’s more commonly called mythology. But remember that the great Greek myths were once the religion of Greece, and Roman mythology was once the religion of Rome. It had all the apparatus of priests and anathemas and so on to defend it. Now that it doesn’t have that, we can simply look at it as text and, of course, you find in these stories astonishing amounts of meaning compressed into very, very small amounts of words.

When I was writing The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for example, I was studying the Orpheus myth. Now, you can express the whole story of Orpheus and Eurydice in less then one hundred words. It doesn’t really require more than five or six, what, ten sentences maybe, and yet the amount of complexity pushed into that very small story is almost inexhaustible. You have this very complex examination of the relation­ship between love, art, and death, and you can turn it this way and that way. You can say that this story tells us—shows us—the power of art inspired by love to overcome death. Or, if you are feeling more pes­simistic, it can show us the power of death to destroy love, even when love is guided by art.

There isn’t a single reading; there are many readings. That’s some­thing that living religions also have in common. There is not a single way of reading the text; there are very rich and complex ways of reading these texts. If you’re in the text business, you’re very interested to see how much power can be concentrated in how little in these ancient works. So it’s been very important for me to examine that.

(more…)

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Kenneth Goldsmith on Shia LaBoeuf

Shia LaBoeuf    Kenneth Goldsmith

“Anyone who has worked with shared and borrowed materials for a long time knows that there is a certain degree of craft involved, something LaBeouf has no clue about. Plagiarizing well is hard to do. Had he done it well, he might not have gotten the blowback that he has.”—Kenneth Goldsmith

Perhaps, it was only a matter of time before the controversy surrounding Shia LaBoeuf’s plagiarizing of Daniel Clowes would circle back to Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age.

In an e-mail interview with Bleeding Cool about his use Clowes’s work, LaBoeuf used the published words of several thinkers including Goldsmith to explain his actions. Quoting Goldsmith, LaBoeuf wrote, “It’s not plagiarism in the digital age – it’s repurposing” In light of LaBoeuf’s interview, the controversy surrounding his various apologies, including the use of both Twitter and sky writing, Nailed interviewed Goldsmith to get his take on the various issues raised by the controversy.

Goldsmith believes that the LaBoeuf scandal has been helpful in “jump-starting a conversation that needs to happen” regarding notions of authorship and originality in the digital age. He also believes that LaBoeuf’s unorthodox round of apologies and non-apologies has been interesting and productive. Goldsmith explains:

Instead of the usual rounds of apologies and promising to do better next time, he’s had a change of mind, one that says, hey, maybe what I did wasn’t so bad if I could frame it properly. So, in the aftermath, he’s scrambled to cite folks who have thought long and hard about how to view cultural materials as shared, rather than proprietary, as befits the digital age.

However, Goldsmith also believes that LaBoeuf’s methods did not work quite so well:

That said, [LaBoeuf's] plagiarizing of those materials and apologies and so forth, have been very sloppy, and as such, not tremendously convincing. Anyone who has worked with shared and borrowed materials for a long time knows that there is a certain degree of craft involved, something LaBeouf has no clue about. Plagiarizing well is hard to do. Had he done it well, he might not have gotten the blowback that he has.

(more…)

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Interview with Gaurav Desai, author of Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination

Commerce with the UniverseThe following is an interview with Gaurav Desai, author of Commerce with the Universe: Africa, India, and the Afrasian Imagination:

Question: The subtitle of your book refers to the “Afrasian” Imagination. Can you explain the term “Afrasian”?

Gaurav Desai: My book is concerned with the ways in which a number of individuals and communities that have historically traversed the Indian Ocean have imagined their lives and their interactions with communities that have been ethnically and culturally different from their own. The book, for the most part, looks at narratives of South Asians in East Africa writing in the twentieth century, but I frame their lives in the longer history of commerce across the Indian Ocean ever since antiquity.

I dedicate a chapter on Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land which itself provides a theoretical and methodological model for reading such lives contrapuntally. Here the life and travel of a twelfth century Tunisian Jewish merchant and his Indian slave Bomma gets read against more contemporary travels across the Indian Ocean. In invoking the term “Afrasian,” which, incidentally I borrow from Michael Pearson, I hope, like him, to signal an inclusive space of exchange that is not ethnocentrically delineated. My usage of the term “Afrasian” is meant not to delineate a particular ethnic community – such as South Asians in East Africa – but rather the entire nexus of individuals who have historically crossed (and continue to cross) what we have conventionally called the “Indian” Ocean. Thus, the Tunisian Jew Ben Yiju is as much of an Afrasian as the twentieth century merchant Kalidas Nanji Mehta who is also the subject of one of my chapters.

Q: In some senses, your own biography interests with the concerns of the book. Reading through your book, one gets the distinct sense of an author who is working with lived knowledge, presenting a first-hand account of the lives and texts of South Asians in Africa. Yet, you only address this in the last few paragraphs of the book.

GD: I chose not to situate my personal history upfront, since I didn’t want the book to be read as being about me. But in a way, it is true that my readings of both the fictional and autobiographical narratives by South Asians in East Africa draw on my experience as an Indian teenager moving from Bombay (now Mumbai) to East Africa (first Nairobi and then Dar es Salaam) in the early eighties. I am sure that even the texts that I chose to focus on address questions and concerns that I have privately pursued for a long time.

To give just one concrete example – one of the prevalent stereotypes that I challenge in the book is that of the Indian businessman or corporate manager as being someone completely lacking interest in literature and the arts. This stereotype has always wrung false to me since my own interest in literature and theater was most enthusiastically nurtured by my father who happened to be one of those corporate types. When I turned in the book to what some might call CEO narratives – those of Mehta, Madhvani and Manji – I was more interested in looking at the role of literature, art and the imagination in shaping their lives than in any practical wisdom that they might have to offer to aspirant CEOs. In a broader framework, I was keen on exploring the connections between the world of commerce and the imaginative world of literature in order to suggest that what many consider to be antithetical pursuits may not necessarily be so.

(more…)

Monday, January 6th, 2014

C. T. Hsia, 1921-2013

C. T. Hsia

We were very sad to learn of the death of legendary Chinese literary critic C. T. Hsia at the age of 92. Columbia University Press was fortunate to publish several of Hsia’s works including C. T. Hsia on Chinese Literature and the forthcoming The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama, which he co-edited with Wai-yee Li and George Kao.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Harvard professor and literary scholar and editor of our series Global Chinese Culture, David Der-wei Wang discussed the work and legacy of Hsia and his lasting impact on the study of modern Chinese literature. Hsia, Wang suggests, is responsible for introducing modern Chinese literature to the West and championing such writers as Qian Zhongshu, Shen Congwen, and Eileen Chang.

Hsia’s career as a scholar of modern Chinese literature was in many ways a result of Cold War politics. In the interview, Wang explains:

[Hsia] wanted to pursue a degree in English literature and was caught in the so-called Cold War cultural politics of the 1950s. This was a young man with great expectations. He loved English literature and European culture. He grew up in cosmopolitan Shanghai, then the civil war happened in China and he got stranded and couldn’t go back. And couldn’t find a good position in the U.S. at a college…

In 1951, David Rowe [a professor of political science at Yale University] hired him to compile a manual for the Korean War: “China: An Area Manual.” He got bored and left, but along the way he gathered a real knowledge of Chinese literature, something he didn’t have before that. Eventually he became more and more involved in Chinese literature studies. In the 1950s, there was no field called modern Chinese literature, so the publication of his book in 1961 [History of Modern Chinese Fiction], that was a big thing. That was a book that made him famous in the West. As a result, a discipline was established.

Hsia’s career was not without controversy. He was often criticized for his Euro-centric, anticommunist stance as well as his New Critical criteria. He also advanced the provocative and influential perspective that Chinese writers have had an “obsession with China,” sometimes to the detriment of the literature. Again, Wang explains:

[Hsia] reviewed the development of Chinese fiction to the end of the 1960s and how people were obsessed with the malaise in their own nation. They didn’t have the energy or the mind to turn their attention to anywhere outside China. And they saw China as a center of malaise and injustice. He felt it was a self-defeating attitude that cut two ways. In one way it could produce a true sense of urgency in an old empire, an old civilization. But he found all that an almost sadistic culture, and he used the term to critique Chinese modernity.

He argued, we need to look beyond China to really engage with the world, with Western civilization, even if was sick too. Kafka, Joyce and Proust would never have ghettoized the problems of their own civilization. He argued, if only Chinese writers could have the magnanimity to look beyond their own culture. Parochialism is the word he liked to use.

(more…)

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Natsume Soseki: The Merits and Flaws of -isms

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have an excerpt from our earlier Sōseki publication, the nonfiction collection The Theory of Literature. In this essay, Sōseki addresses the use of “-isms” in literature and literary theory.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

The Merits and Flaws of -isms
Natsume Sōseki

This brief essay, first published in the Asahi newspaper on July 23, 1910, constitutes one of Sōseki’s most direct responses to the literary theories of the Naturalist (shizenshugi) school of fiction, which held sway in Japanese literary circles at the time. While Naturalists advocated a confessional literature that sought to represent even the ugliest truths about human existence, Sōseki here advocates a more fluid view of literary value.

Generally what we call -isms or doctrines refer to something that a man of meticulous character has conjured up by sorting through an infinite number of facts, thereby making it easier for us to abstract them and store them neatly in the drawers of our minds. Because they are tightly bound and nicely tucked away, it is rather tedious to take them apart and tiresome to pull them out; as such, they often prove useless when needed. In this respect, most -isms are unlike the compass chariots that provide direct guidance in our daily lives and instead are mere filing cabinets created to satisfy our intellectual curiosity. They are not so much a composition as an index to one.

Simultaneously, many -isms take shape when a number of arbitrary yet similar examples are filtered through a relatively sophisticated mind and are further condensed by it. It isn’t exactly a form but more like the contours of one. It has no substance. We preserve only the contours of things and discard their substance for the same reason we carry paper money instead of coins—it is convenient for small human beings. (more…)

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

John Nathan’s Introduction to Light and Dark

Light and Dark

This week our featured book is Light and Dark: A Novel by Natsume Sōseki, translated with an introduction by John Nathan. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its author, and its translator on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. John Nathan is an internationally renowned translator and schoalar who has brought the novels of Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe to English-speaking audiences. Today, we provide his Introduction to Light and Dark, in which he puts the novel into historical and literary context.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Light and Dark!

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Philip Kitcher on beauty and love in Death in Venice

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have an excerpt from “Beauty,” the second chapter of Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses the philosophical concepts of love and beauty Thomas Mann deals with in his novella.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

Beauty
Philip Kitcher

Aschenbach, von Aschenbach, is introduced to us as one who has dedicated his art to moral education, although we do not know the extent to which he has refined the norms current in his society. His life, too, insofar as it is lived in public, moves gracefully through the bourgeois world. We might worry a little about the circumstances under which the finely chiseled prose is generated—and not just that final page and a half on the beach—the hours of dedicated and often painful struggle. Perhaps the contrast between the grace of the surface and the austere discipline behind it is itself a kind of confidence trick. The major question to Aschenbach’s successful reconciliation of the roles of ideal artist and ideal citizen is, however, posed by the embodiment of beauty in Tadzio not, in the first place, because of the direction of the longings evoked but because of the moral obfuscation to which it leads. One moved by beauty to perceive the good would not connive at the venal deceptions of the Venetian authorities.

The perception of the boy convinces—or perhaps reminds—Aschenbach that there is a kind of beauty—call it “higher beauty”—to which his prose has hitherto been inadequate. Even in the presence of that higher beauty, Aschenbach fails to capture it—and recognizes his own failure. On the evening when he waits anxiously for the Poles to return, the evening that will extort from him the self-confession of his love for the boy, that awareness is painful. “He [Tadzio] was more beautiful than it is possible to say, and Aschenbach felt, with pain as on many previous occasions, that words can only praise the beauty conveyed through the senses [die sinnliche Schönheit] but cannot fully reproduce it.” The struggles of the past decades have been so hard precisely because Aschenbach has striven to find the closest verbal approximation to higher beauty, persevering even though his efforts always disappoint (“Durchhalten!”). Tadzio’s presence is an opportunity to pursue this task, perhaps an impossible one, yet further, and the newly felt pain is not merely the result of a lover’s fears (Has the beloved left Venice?) but the realization that his words cannot match what is directly before him.

A very specific conception of the artist-educator, the Erzieher, is at work here. Art, at its greatest, is not simply the free creation of beauty but the creative response to a prior perception of higher beauty, a response that itself makes beauty accessible to those who have not had such perceptions. To play the role fully, a writer must reproduce higher beauty completely. Even though gestures and approximations may convey something, more is always demanded.
(more…)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Philip Kitcher on Luchino Visconti’s Morte a Venizia

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have a couple brief excerpts from Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses Luchino Visconti’s film version of Mann’s novella, focusing particularly on the film’s ending and on the ways that the film differs from the novella and Britten’s opera. We’ve included a couple of clips from and about Visconti’s film, as well.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

“Luchino Visconti’s film Morte a Venezia ends with Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach, hair dye and makeup streaming down his face, apparently suffering cardiac arrest on the beach–from which he is carted unceremoniously away by two attendants, The slow zoom out, with the figures becoming ever smaller and more anonymous, adds an ironic touch of Visconti’s own, a homage to Mann’s manner, even though both the ungainly configuration of the body–more like a heavy sack of fertilizer than the remains of a respected visitor–and the reduction of Aschenbach to a small speck seem quite at odds with the writer’s regained dignity in the novella’s final sentence.” — Philip Kitcher

Final scene

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Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Philip Kitcher on Benjamin Britten’s Opera

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today, we have a brief excerpt from Deaths in Venice, in which Kitcher discusses the opera, Death in Venice, by Benjamin Britten, followed by a couple of videos showing key parts of the opera.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

“Most obvious is the sensuality of the music, the opulent orchestral coloring and the lushness of some important motifs (prominent examples are the “Serenissima” and “View” themes). This musical backdrop creates a context in which Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio cannot be heard as anything other than erotic. The possibility of a disciplined artistic perception of beauty is never present: from the moment he encounters Tadzio and we hear the exotic vibraphone motif that accompanies the boy, Aschenbach must be understood to be in the grip of passions he refuses to acknowledge.” — Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice

Serenissima

Aschenbach’s Final Aria

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

Philip Kitcher on Thomas Mann and Gustav von Aschenbach

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Today we have an excerpt from “Discipline,” the first chapter of Deaths in Venice, in which Philip Kitcher looks at the works of Thomas Mann leading up to Death in Venice and discusses how Mann came to write the character of Gustav von Aschenbach.

Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Deaths in Venice!

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Book Giveaway! Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach, by Philip Kitcher

Deaths in Venice

This week our featured book is Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach by Philip Kitcher. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Deaths in Venice. To enter our Book Giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on November 1st at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, September 27th, 2013

Laura Frost on David Foster Wallace and Modernism’s Afterlife in the Age of Prosthetic Pleasure

The following is an excerpt from “Modernism’s Afterlife in the Age of Prosthetic Pleasure,” the final chapter in Laura Frost’s The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents. In the chapter Laura Frost looks at “David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, as it demonstrates how, despite postmodernism’s divergence from many of modernism’s premises, the conception of pleasure as a problem remains strong into our century.” For more on the book, you can also read an interview with Laura Frost

“For Wallace, as for many modernists, the difference between serious and commercial art turned on the distinction between an experience that is learned and earned, and a kind of ‘fun’ that comes all too easily.”—Laura Frost

Laura Frost, The Problem with PleasureOne of the major themes of Infinite Jest is addiction and pleasure disorders. A prominent narrative strand that cuts across the novel’s many plots, and whose importance is indicated by its titular role, is a mysterious film by one James Orin Incandeza, Jr. called Infinite Jest. Known as “the Entertainment” or “the samizdat,” the film is “a recorded pleasure so entertaining and diverting it is lethal” (321). Once people start viewing it, it is so mesmerizing that they obsessively watch until they die. A group of radical Quebeçois separatists want to use Infinite Jest as a terrorist weapon against Americans, who, one character remarks, “would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving” (318).

What makes “the lethal cartridge” so compelling? The brief and possibly fallacious descriptions of the film—for no one who sees it is supposed to survive that viewing—sketch a scenario in which an extraordinarily beautiful woman appears as “some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure of Death, sitting naked, cor­poreally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant . . . explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal” (788). Shot from the perspective of a child in a crib, the film shows the woman bending over the infant and uttering apologies: “I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry. I am so, so sorry” (939). The “ultimate pleasure” here is intimately connected to the maternal body and to infantile regres­sion, drawing not only from psychoanalytic discourse but also from the centuries-old association of the female body with pleasurable pas­sivity and also anxiety. The samizdat calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s asser­tion that mass culture appeals to a “desire to return to the womb.”8

Infinite Jest alludes to other pleasure technologies, such as Reich’s orgone accumulator, the Excessive Machine in Roger Vad­im’s Barbarella (1968), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). Wallace explicitly connects the Entertainment to the historical dis­course and science of pleasure. At one point, some of the characters in Infinite Jest discuss the discovery in the 1970s, by a neuroscientist named Olders, that “firing certain electrodes in certain parts of the lobes gave the brain intense feelings of pleasure” (470). These areas are called “p-terminals” (pleasure-terminals). Building on the data, Canadian scientists implanted electrodes in a rat’s brain and “found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, com­pletely fixated on the lever’s stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue” (471). The artificial stimulation of the p-terminal overrides opportunities for real carnal pleasure (“food and female rats in heat”). Wallace adds a twist to this fictionalized version of James Olds and Peter Milner’s famous rat experiments in the 1950s: when word gets out about the studies, people start lining up to volunteer for pleasure implants. “We would choose dying for this, the total pleasure of a passive goat” (474).

Wallace’s depiction of a society of individuals drowning in but not enjoying pleasure offers a culmination to Rhys’s Sasha and other early twentieth-century pleasure seekers. Rhys, Huxley, Eliot, Lawrence, and other authors merely imagine cinema audiences rendered passive and narcotized. Wallace goes further in creating a vehicle of enter­tainment that literally kills its viewers with pleasure as they neglect everything else and give themselves over to hedonism. The modernist metaphors of intoxication and hypnosis are now a deadly addiction. This is a Freudian version of Plato’s oyster, “merely a body endowed with life,” without the exercise of reason or intellect, and a pure recep­tor of pleasure. It is also the ultimate regressive fantasy, akin to the sort Huxley found so revolting in Al Jolson’s “Mammy” song, and an abandonment of the intellect….

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Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Interview with Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure

“It’s a rare work of academic literary criticism that finds a general audience. There is still a kind of snobbery—not unlike the modernists’, actually—that if it’s not ponderous, contorted, and insular, then it’s not serious. God forbid that scholarly work should be fun, stylish, and have a distinctive voice.”—Laura Frost

Laura Frost, The Problem with PleasureThe following is an interview with Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents. For more from Frost, you can also read her post “Of Muscle Cars and Modernism,” (part 1, part 2). We are also offering a FREE copy of the book!

Question: Why focus on pleasure in modernism? What exactly was the problem that modernists’ had with pleasure?

Laura Frost: If you read a lot of modern literature, you appreciate “the fascination of what’s difficult.” It’s tough going: it involves a lot of deciphering, decoding, and interpretation. This is something all scholars in the field acknowledge, but it tends to get lost or naturalized as modernist techniques become familiar to us. When you teach modern lit to undergraduates, for example, it reminds you of how challenging it is. While the students are asking, “Why is this author making things so hard for me?” you are trying to convince them that it’s interesting, consequential, and, well, fantastic. Modern critics and writers constantly invoked the concept of pleasure and difficulty to distinguish their project from other forms of culture.

Q: How would they define or defend difficulty as a pathway to pleasure?

LF: The critic Q. D. Leavis, for example, described popular fiction, cinema, dancing, newspapers, and radio as producing “cheap and easy pleasure,” while she argued that modernist fiction gives rise to pleasure that has to be struggled for and earned: pleasure that almost doesn’t even correspond with conventional definitions of pleasure. Remember, this is the period of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which explores the attractions of contorted, painful, and seemingly unpleasurable pleasure. That’s a great description of modernist readerly pleasure. The usual ways of thinking about modernism, such as the high/low or elite/popular culture divide are actually based on these distinctions about different qualities of pleasure. However, even as modernists set up these distinctions and valorize hard cognitive labor, they clearly recognized the attractions of the culture (popular novels, cinema, and so on) they put down, and they are constantly sneaking in similar techniques. So if you consider modern literature through the lens of pleasure, you get a new reading of old paradigms, a new understanding of interwar culture, and a new understanding of what it means to read and enjoy modernism.

Q: The role of technology plays an important role in your book. How did new technologies and the explosion of popular mass media shape modernists’ views of pleasure?

LF: Mechanized, automatic pleasure is something many modernists criticized as inauthentic and meaningless: “fake pleasure.” Emergent technology was thought to facilitate this effortlessness, in which machines do not so much alienate (like, say, the mechanisms in Chaplin’s Modern Times) as they make simple, somatic pleasure all too accessible.

Cinema was a key example of this ambivalence about technology and pleasure. Authors describe cinema spectatorship as intoxicating, distracting, regressive, hypnotic, and escapist, but also as disorienting, alienating, addictive, boring, or even nauseating. The circumstances of cinema going—sitting passively in the dark and watching–were thought to produce a distinctive mental and physical reaction in the viewer. The addition of sound added a new dimension: many critics of early talkies felt that there was something overwhelming about all this stimulation. The momentous transition from cinematic silence to sound in the interwar period is a recurring reference point for the authors I examine: for example, it underpins the pornographic “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; My book weaves films such as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, The Jazz Singer, the blockbuster Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik, British nature documentaries (The Secrets of Nature), Douglas Fairbanks comedies, and Felix the Cat cartoons throughout the story of modern literature as authors set up cinematic pleasure as a foil for the more deliberate, cognitive pleasures of reading.

Q: Your book ends with a discussion of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Does the modernists’ ambivalent, difficult relationship with pleasure have anything to say about our contemporary era that at times seems awash in entertainment and pleasure?

There’s a scene in the film Before Midnight (2013) where a group of characters sits around a dinner table and the talk turns to pleasure. The Julie Delpy character, Celine, brings up a classic scientific experiment about pleasure, where James Olds and Peter Milner embedded electrodes in the brains of rats, allowing them to stimulate the pleasure-centers of their brains. The rats neglected food, water, and their young in order to keep feeling good. (David Foster Wallace also writes about this experiment in Infinite Jest.) Celine’s husband, Jess (Ethan Hawke), speculates that we have become like the rats, that “we’re pleasure-obsessed, porn-addled materialists, ceding our humanity to technology at the same moment that computers are becoming sentient.” The modernist nightmare of amusement on demand has been realized, at least for those who can afford it. Leaving aside the computers and the electrodes, the discussion about virtual pleasure is not that different from the early twentieth century debates about culture. There was a widespread sense that technologies of mass culture were corrosive because they made simple, base pleasure too accessible, and that people were mindlessly consuming them.

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Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Of Modernism and Muscle Cars, Part 2 — Laura Frost

James Joyce

This is second part of Laura Frost’s essay “Of Modernism and Muscle Cars” (you can read part 1 here). Laura Frost is the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents

“Modern literature should be commemorated in all its difficulty and beauty, with all the features that make it a formidable and demanding pleasure.”—Laura Frost

We left off with the USPS “Modern Art in America” Forever™ stamp series. The experimental techniques we see in those images– abstraction, multiple perspectives, and surreal juxtapositions–have equivalents in modern literature’s fragmented language, multiple points of view, obscure allusions, and ambiguity. Both modern literature and art make enormous demands on their audiences, challenging them to embrace difficulty as a cardinal virtue and even a pleasure.

However, while visual art lends itself to mass reproduction like the images on the USPS stamps, it’s difficult to fit, say, the “Time Passes” section from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse onto a stamp. When authors are commemorated, it’s their faces, not their works, that represent them. In 2012, the USPS issued a Twentieth-Century Poets series that did just that; Woolf, Hemingway, Stein, and Joyce all graced the cover of Time while they were alive. But the portrait approach is wrong: modern writers were preoccupied with depth, interiority, and, above all, textuality: the play words on the page. A composed snapshot—say, of Virginia Woolf in a ruffled blouse–just doesn’t begin to capture the quality of her work.

It’s tough to excerpt modern literature for user-friendly purposes. Take, for example, Marks & Spencer’s “Celebrate the Best of British” merchandise this past summer. It included Union Jack-festooned plates and picnic blankets, tins of shortbread trumpeting “good wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the Birth of Their Beautiful Baby,” and a shopping tote emblazoned with a quote from A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” And shopped well? Sure, it’s cute (believe me, I wanted one), but the actual context of the quote is hardly a cheery promotion of picnics: it’s a discussion of the deprivations of women’s education. Really, a more representative quote for Woolf would be, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer”: put that on a coffee mug, M&S!

More egregiously, last April, the Bank of Ireland issued a new ten euro coin showing James Joyce’s face on one side and, on the reverse, an excerpt from the “Proteus” episode in Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach and ruminates on Aristotle, the German theologian Jakob Boehme, and perception: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read.” It was a great quotation to choose—obscure, perplexing–except the Bank got the quote wrong and inserted an extra “that.” Great hilarity ensued (“A Blooming Mistake,” “James Joyce Coin-troversy,” etc.).

Why can’t modern literature be presented as effectively as the USPS “Modern Art” series–or even its “Muscle Cars” series? Surely The Waste Land is as compelling as Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge or the 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda? But let’s not soft-pedal it. Modern literature should be commemorated in all its difficulty and beauty, with all the features that make it a formidable and demanding pleasure.

So why not a series of stamps featuring emblematic phrases from modern literature? Wouldn’t it be nice to pay your next big Visa bill with a stamp proclaiming “The horror! The horror!”? Or to send your next love letter with a sexy line from Tender Buttons, “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot” (or the more obvious, “A rose is a rose is a rose”)? True, many great modernist phrases probably wouldn’t fly with the USPS (“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say” comes to mind). But seriously, each of these fragments would ideally provoke the reader to seek out the original source: a first step toward the active pleasures of modern literature. Wouldn’t you think twice if you received a letter with one of these phrases?

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.”

“Shuttlecocks!”

“like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma”

“Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerro
nntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk”

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

“in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.”

And of course, the crowd-pleasing “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” But please, USPS, get the punctuation right.

Forever™ modernism!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Of Modernism and Muscle Cars, Part 1 — A Post by Laura Frost

Laura Frost is the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents, our featured book of the week:

“Modernism constantly puts up … resistance and, even more audaciously, it asks its viewers to value, savor, and learn to love that process of interpretive struggle.”—Laura Frost

For the dwindling demographic that still buys stamps in this age of electronic communication, the U.S. Post Office issued two notable series of Forever™ stamps this past spring: Muscle Cars and Modern Art in America (1913-1931). The first shows souped-up hot rods speeding along (“Freedom, Adventure, and Burning Rubber,” painted by Tom Fritz), and the second commemorates the centennial of the Armory Show in New York City, which introduced artists such as Brancusi, Léger, Picasso, and Braque to American audiences. One has to admire the eclecticism: muscle cars and modern art, the Dodge Charger Daytona and Duchamp.

The modern art stamps are kinetic, exuberant, and playful. Each image is a riot of colliding lines and mysterious forms. Even reproduced in miniature, they are by no means “decorative” or straightforward: rather, they present us with a host of questions. What exactly are we looking at? Why did the artist present it this way? And what are we supposed to get out of it?

Mardsen HartleyFor example, one stamp in the series, Marsden Hartley’s Painting, Number 5 (1914-1915), is a colorful conglomeration of crosses, checkerboard forms, circles and lines. Is there a subject encrypted in there? The USPS notes helpfully tell us that this is “a composite portrait” of a German soldier, but it’s presented like a collage or “puzzle pieces.” And indeed, that is exactly how modernism typically presents itself: as a puzzle to be solved by the viewer.

Duchamp, USPSOne of the most important principles of modernism is that it makes you, the viewer, work. Its abstraction, fragmentation, multiple perspectives, and surreal juxtapositions make you constantly aware of form—of how the artist renders the subject—often even more than the subject itself. Sure, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) purportedly depicts a naked body, but the treatment is the real interest, as a robot-like figure is shown moving across the canvas, as if by time-lapse photography with every frame displayed simultaneously. The traditional laws of time, space, and perspective are suspended.

And what is going on in Charles Demuth’s painting of a massive golden number five enclosing two smaller fives over a red geometric mass and a plane of grayscale rays, with the word “BILL” drifting off the upper left part of the frame? The title, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928), is not helpful unless we get the reference to a poem by modernist poet William Carlos Williams, “The Great Figure,” an ode to a speeding fire engine. This is typical: modernism expects you to sleuth out its references, jokes, symbols, and meaning.

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Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Book Giveaway! The Problem with Pleasure by Laura Frost

The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents

“Fresh, invigorating, witty and profound, her book impresses on every page…. This is criticism at its very best,” so writes Gary Day in his review of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents,

Throughout the week, we will be featuring The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents by Laura Frost. For more on the book, you can also read an excerpt from the chapter The Repudiation of Pleasure.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Problem with Pleasure to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on September 27 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

World Literature Today Interviews Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, Editors of In Translation

Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky

“Translators in the anglophone world are sometimes perceived as being on a ‘lower rung.’ The essays in our book certainly don’t subscribe to that view. Would we say that an actor is on a lower rung than the screenwriter who wrote the lines the actor delivers? Or that the literary critic is on a lower rung than the writers whose works she analyzes?”—Esther Allen

World Literature Today just published the second part of their excellent interview with Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, the editors of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means.

The interview discusses essays in the book from the likes of Haruki Murakami, Eliot Weinberger, Alice Kaplan, Forrest Gander, and David Bellos, and explores some of the issues relating to the status of translation in an increasingly globalized world where English is becoming the dominant language. Allen and Bernofsky also consider a range of issues relating to the technique of translation, including how and whether to preserve the sense of the original language, how to incorporate dialect, and the relationship that develops between author and translator. Susan Bernofsky comments on how some translators become inextricably linked to authors, for better and worse:

It wouldn’t make sense to say we’d only ever want one translator’s version of a given author (imagine if the only Thomas Mann we had was by Helen Lowe Porter and the only Chekhov by Constance Garnett). On the other hand, it can be useful to have the work of an author, particularly a contemporary one, translated consistently by a single translator. Think of William Weaver’s relationship with Italo Calvino—he translated the bulk of Calvino’s work and became his “English voice.” In time, as Calvino becomes a classic author of an earlier age, there might be room for other translations of key works of his, but I know that I for one will probably never want to read the books Weaver translated in any other translation, since I love how Calvino sounds filtered through him. And translators who work for years with an author’s books develop their own specialized vocabulary for that author’s work and particular ways of dealing with certain key stylistic traits, not to mention intertextuality between the books.

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Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Kenneth Goldsmith on The Colbert Report

Kenneth Goldsmith, author of Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, has read at the White House, been the poet laureate at the Museum of Modern Art, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and can now add to his list of accomplishments being a guest on The Colbert Report (video below).

In the interest of full disclosure, he was asked to be on the show to talk about his new book Seven American Deaths and Disasters, published by the great Brooklyn press powerHouse Books. However, the book’s transcription of radio and television accounts of such events as the Kennedy assassination, the shooting of John Lennon, and the attacks of 9/11 exemplify the kind of creative, or “uncreative” techniques, he explores in Uncreative Writing.