Legacy Labels and Literature

It might be advisable to sit and think for a bit, instead of heading straight for the keyboard after finishing a book. But I just completed Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, and am full of excited thoughts needing further organization, clarification, and exploration. In other words, this extended lecture (given at Pomona and Harvard) has done exactly what a good book should do.

Very basically, Warren argues that African American literature was only an identifiably cohesive category when shaped by, responding to, and resisting the realities imposed by Jim Crow. The Harlem Renaissance, the New Black Aesthetic, work by contemporary authors– they’re something else, not defined by the characteristics of what he calls “instrumental or indexical expectations” (1): producing literature that simultaneously strove to bring down Jim Crow and to prove (largely to white audiences) that said literature was just as sophisticated as the best the Western world had to offer. In a post-desegregation, post-Voting Rights Act United States, the output of black authors no longer contains the “belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts.” (2)

Phillis Wheatley: not part of African American literature because “the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a literature”? (3) Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Warren isn’t trying to deny the uniqueness or worth of black American writing outside this period, nor is he denying that its authors continue to address– indeed, may not be able to avoid addressing– race in one way or another in their work. But he’s trying to grapple with the fact that literature of the period he’s discussing in some sense grounded itself in and simultaneously worked to deny the inherent existential difference of a particular group from others, or at least from the dominant others, in a given society. Once the belief in that inherent difference largely (so Warren) crumbled, what was there to make this body of literature, maybe even black American experience in general, unique?

I can’t possibly cover all the details of Warren’s argument, in which questions of intra-group class and educational hierarchies are prominent. Nor have I reached anything like a point of dis/agreement with his assertions. But in addition to the specific body of literature it addresses, I’ll argue that the book is also relevant to other so-called “minority” groups and their artistic output. What does it mean to be representative of one’s group, to have authority to speak as a member of it? How do you– either as an insider or a dominant (or not) outsider– define that population itself? To be considered authentically part of that collective, must one include in one’s writing themes and characteristics associated with it (history, stereotypes, etc.)? If Louise Erdrich suddenly started writing about life in Paris, or Amy Tan about sledding in Sweden, would people be up in arms that they weren’t authentically “Native American” or “Chinese American”– and to whom would it matter?

And because I’ve gone straight from Warren’s final page to this post, I haven’t done any research that might be able to answer the question of how the author’s argument might have changed since the book was published in 2011. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the heightened awareness among the general public of race-related police brutality and other forms of structural racism, and/or the increasing use of the phrase “New Jim Crow” (especially regarding mass incarceration), might there still be, if in altered form, an African American literature– or a need for it?

While I’m leaning towards his saying yes to the second question, I think Warren would still say no to at least the first, largely due to the recognition that 1) it’s not original, or really controversial, to claim today that racism exists, and pervasively so; and 2) that black elite writers can’t necessarily claim to be representing or speaking for the entirety of a population that has of course never been homogeneous in its tastes or opinions. As evidenced in a pointed allegation about those elite writers holding onto the idea of African American literature, Warren asserts they might write out of a “need to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers.” (4)

So, where does that leave us now? I’d be interested to hear what contemporary powerhouse writers such as Claudia Rankine or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Teju Cole or Octavia Butler– and black readers of black writers– have to say about Warren’s argument. I guess that’s my project now– and of finding out whether I could have avoided spewing out at least a few of my questions to the general public before doing my research. Off to the the forking paths, then, left to explore in the wake of a truly engaging book.

 

(1) Kenneth W. Warren, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 10.

(2) ibid., 139.

(3) ibid., 6.

(4), ibid., 139.

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The Need for (Traditional) Narrative

As previously discussed, I’m enjoying Gilbert Sorrentino’s Pack of Lies, even if the third volume in the trilogy, Misterioso, is starting to feel a bit like overkill. And much as I can get down with some well-wrought experimentation, this round of innovative boundary-busting has left me with the need for some old-fashioned verbal grounding– something with a more solid, identifiable flow. What could be more appropriate than some 19th-century horror to satisfy that craving– meaning, in this instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

Having seen and been unjustifiably scared out of my mind by multiple film versions,(1) I’m sort of amazed it’s taken me this long to read the book, prone as I am to finishing written originals before checking out their adaptations in other media. Part of it may have been due to the fear of wasting time on Romantic(-ish) cheesiness; witness copious amounts of eye-rolling, for example, at The Woman in White. Film adaptations of old tales of the supernatural, especially more contemporary ones, can often eliminate the treacly clichés of gender, honor, true religion, and so forth, found in the texts– and although it’s rare that I enjoy movies more than the books on which they were based, those freak cases usually come from the horror or sci-fi genre.(2)

Maybe it’s because I was expecting so little that I’m enjoying Dracula so much. Oh, sure, Lucy is the exasperating epitome of sweetness and light, and her tenderly spurned gentleman callers harbor suspiciously little resentment towards her chosen beau. But Stoker has arranged the many journal entries and letters that make up the novel in such a way that it really does resemble a well-ordered case study, so that the reader can almost believe the format involves no pretense. Along with the story, in other words, I’m enjoying how Stoker is telling it, seeing how he’s orchestrating and organizing what might initially have been a simple idea, so that an originally generic thought about a folk monster was transformed into a tale of many working parts. Admittedly, it’s no hyper-Dickensian world akin to that of Infinite Jest,(3) but there’s something to be said for a quality easy read.

Carl Jung was noted for talking about synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate my calling him into service for the following, but the display I came across on my way home seemed to be a perfect encapsulation of my reading Sorrentino and Stoker at the same time. I’ll end, then, by using one of the good Romantics to caption the picture I took, even though he would also probably be offended. “Look on my Works, [then,] ye Mighty, and despair!”(4)

 

 

 

(1) At this point, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production is hands-down the most terrifying of all– and that despite my easy ability to laugh at what a friend called the castle-bound vampire’s “butt hair,” as seen in the film still below.

(2) For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris blows Stanislaw Lem’s book out of the water. And whichever low-budget adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw I saw as a teenager was so delightfully creepy, I’ve been afraid to spoil that memory by reading the story itself– a probably erroneous move I think I’ll soon correct.

(3) (Best book ever– among other reasons, because how in the world did David Foster Wallace not only come up with, but also keep straight, so many brilliant, complex, enormously textured lives and entanglements?!!?)

(4) That’s from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Maybe I’m All Wrong– But Sorrentino’s All/Right

I suppose I should be more circumspect than I am about my own ignorance. For instance, it probably doesn’t sound all that sophisticated to admit that I snatched a lovely copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s trilogy, Pack of Lies, off the remainder shelf only because 1) I was aware Sorrentino was a Big, Important Name; and 2) the book is put out by Dalkey Archive, which must mean I’m supposed to be reading it for my own enculturation and cocktail-party bragging rights. I will also freely admit to the fact that, two-thirds of the way in, I often have no idea whether I’m missing something significant, whether my instinctual joy in this carefully designed mess is legitimate, or whether Sorrentino has pulled one over on a lot of literati eager to expound upon all the hues and shades of brilliance in his experiment.

There’s also probably some sense in refraining, at least before the more methodological among us, from admitting that my enjoyment of this tome is mostly grounded in sheer good feeling. Of course, that doesn’t exclude admiration of Sorrentino’s deadpan analyses of certain clichéd literary practices. I wish I could cite the entire section from which the following comes; instead, I’ll taunt you with an exemplary snippet:

Blow, an interesting, depressed person with an awareness of life in our time… packs up his personal, annotated copies of [some non-existent titles], and leaves to save a civilization worth saving from the barbaric hordes. Many of his poems are about the headstrong virility of youth and the slow, dark wisdom of age.
For a change.*

Sorrentino also manages to maintain superb variations on weird image-threads throughout the book. Right when you think you’ve forgotten, say, about lighthouses being brought in as mood descriptors, up pops a new inflection of that theme, as in “Buddy’s smile beamed like a demented lighthouse.”** If you don’t approve of the notion of inanimate objects expressing emotion, you might not share in my love of what the author’s doing here. I’ve never seen a demented lighthouse– but I get it, I totally, lovingly get it.

Then again, I’ll make a final admission about my amateurish approach to Pack of Lies: plowing through at least a couple hundred of its complex pages while flitting through eight time zones in an austere economy seat probably contributed nothing to understanding this thing “correctly.” Diving into a work that should be confronted with all one’s mental acuity, there I was grooving on this stuff through the lens of sleep deprivation and a week’s worth of inept stuttering in a language not my own. But in the end, if anything, whether the work itself or the way you read it, can make you forget about your numb derrière and the oaf in front of you who’s reclined his seat into your face– well, whatever’s going on, I’ll call that a win.

 

* Gilbert Sorrentino, Pack of Lies (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997), 306.

** ibid., 387.

Few Words

I really have nothing substantive to say in this post; both jet lag and the brain-taxing involved in communicating in my very bad Russian mean there’s not much verbal there there right now. Until I’ve emerged into the land of capable thought, here are some literary photos from Moscow.

Gogol graces his own park– and lent his name to the street where I’m staying!

DSC04360

 

I’ve also come across two likenesses of Pushkin.

DSC04371  DSC04414

And then I have to appreciate dedicating a sculpture to an “academician.”DSC04419

I Love Chris

In my supremely dorky universe, one of the best forms of joy is encountering a deliciously addictive book right after having dragged around a real literary ball-n-chain for a while. I’m happy to report that, after having conquered Mating midway through the holiday weekend, I jumped directly into Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick– and barely put it down until wrapping it up last night.

I waited a good long while to be in the right mood for what I thought I would encounter with Dick; months ago, a review had me thinking I’d be delving deeply into the inane intricacies of romance, and even though its approach sounded alluring, I didn’t feel as if I could deal with all that tension that somehow never gets beyond adolescence.

Admittedly, the narrator’s (Chris’) infatuation with a person she barely knows takes her down some weird paths. But as we go along with her, something amazing emerges, something I’m still not at all sure how to describe or even approach investigatively. Because this book turns into an exploration of what it means to be and be viewed as a woman (or maybe even just a female human body), particularly in the worlds of art and/or academia up through 1990s America. Yes, it was published twenty years ago, and no, my naive college self did not inhabit the often-risqué and -risky environments in which the narrator found herself. But in spite of the differences in concrete situations, some sort of shared, connection-inducing Thing (experience? emotion?) resulted in my feeling as if Kraus had my back, and I, retroactively, hers– that this disembodied volume of words on paper was an offering of support and understanding across a the space of a couple of decades.

Part of that affinity may lie in the fact that Dick is a (mostly) epistolary novel; fan as I am of letter-writing, the genre alone meant we were probably off to a good start. So much of this account is purely about expressing oneself to and before a beloved other– a phenomenon I’ve touched on before, especially in relation to Kafka. Some of Chris’ hints (or declarations) about why she continues this seemingly delusional exercise hit exactly at my own desires just to be heard and known by another person: “But I wanted to tell you how exhilarating it felt to step out of the truck and feel the cold dark air around Stony Creek’s four corners…”(1) Just to be able to share the littlest spark in an uneventful day, to share your wonder with someone– it’s a desire the writer acknowledged in her previous letter on the part of her husband, who, she says, “was eager to share something, so he shared her enthusiasm for the Adirondacks and two days later they bought a ten room farmhouse…”(2)

But even as she offers up her impressions to (or forces them upon) the object of her affection, unlike Kafka, Chris openly admits the sort of futility, or at least disconnect, in what she’s doing: “I’m torn between maintaining you as an entity to write to and talking with you as a person. Perhaps I’ll let it go.”(3) As she continues writing, though, and even as one bubble after another is (sometimes heartlessly) burst, Chris realizes that the image of the reader she’s (mostly) created has provided her a sort of sounding board, maybe even a source of permission, to understand herself, her history, the histories and situations of so many others in her own place/s and time/s. It’s a sort of self-knowledge and -determination that can even confront and overcome, though not without pain, the book’s brilliant ending, which scraped out my insides with its perfect cruelty.(4)

I’ve got a couple of pages’ worth of notes tucked into the book– and plan on going back to them and really trying to ferret out how Kraus did what she did, and what exactly it is that makes me feel so strongly about this novel, or extended letter, or whatever it is. It’s OK if I never solve that mystery– but chasing it around is bound to be heartening.(5)

 

(1) Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 93.

(2) Ibid., 92.

(3) Ibid., 130. It’s not clear whether “it” refers to a potential phone conversation, (the pursuit of) Dick himself, and/or the entire letter-writing project altogether.

(4) Not since the original Twin Peaks series have I witnessed a more unfair, yet beautifully apt, ending.

(5) I also haven’t seen the new series based upon Kraus’ book, and only recently found out it was in the works. My guess is it’ll be a while before I check it out; I want to let the appreciation of the original linger for a while, before I compare it to anyone else’s interpretation of it.

Hauling the Load to the End

I rarely give up on a book, even if it’s exasperated or offended me from the beginning. (For example, the mere fact that I made it all the way through the violent celebration of misogyny and colonialism otherwise known as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Mafarka the Futurist should give an indication of just how difficult it is for me to set aside a text without finishing it.) But that quirk presents a problem when I’d like nothing better than to be done with a volume that seems to be adding on an extra page for every one I read. Such is the case with Norman Rush’s Mating, an award-winning piece of fiction it feels as if I’ve been dragging around now for months.

Political cartoon from Library of Congress, on Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not that the novel is boring, or badly written; it’s neither. At first, I was surprised not to be outright digging the author’s deployment of decades’ worth of GRE vocabulary lists; after all, I love new words, and new occasions for using old ones. Maybe, though, Rush’s insertion of Latinisms and wittily-wielded academicisms is part of what’s getting to me. This whole story, or the package in which it’s delivered, is so heavy; my reading is slowed down by the weight of what seems to be the narrator coping with her insecurities via highly articulate and jaunty self-deprecation. Less an analysis of academic culture (though it is present), Mating seems sort of like Oscar Wilde went to grad school and continually had to joke about his awe and love of the whole thing by pretending to play it cool and to be less serious/intelligent/whatever than he (or in this case she) really was– while also using big words to belie the act.

I’ll admit: my irritation may be due to the fact that it’s hitting home– that I’m being faced with myself in grad school, among so very many serious people around whom I always felt like a child. Like any number of comics using their ability to get laughs as a defense mechanism, my own sarcastic dumbing-down was the only way I knew to deal with institutional egotism and senseless power games. Given, it was the wrong strategy– and that may be why I’m so frustrated with this character, crafted in the hands of a male author.

Because in spite of this nameless narrator’s pretty good overall construction as a character, Rush also tends to put gender-based generalizations into her mouth that irk me, one representative example being, “I always remember titles and authors, unlike women in general.”* This sort of thing could be a device that fits her jokey pooh-poohing of self, but it gets old incredibly quickly.

At any rate, I’ve reached the point of speeding up my reading rate, finding myself back as a high school sophomore trying to complete that week’s assignment of being X words farther along in the book I’d chosen than I’d been the week before. I’m pretty sure I have such a bad specific memory of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (See? Title and author firmly implanted in my female brain), in spite of having loved it, because that was one of the books devoured in the hall over lunch, just to be able honestly to report I’d fulfilled my word quota for the week. We did have to give a plot update as well– but had I been allowed to savor the thing, I’m confident I’d currently be able to give at least a few details about why I found it worthy of praise.**

Hence, I know I’m not exactly practicing the most responsible method of completing this book. But in addition to being sick of it, I’ll be traveling soon, and I really, really do not want to haul its literal or figurative weight onto a transatlantic flight; slow-going as getting through it is in regular life, I can only imagine it would make the fourteen hours or so of my journey feel like a week spent in a hell of canned air and cranky humanity. Fingers crossed, then, readers: I’m hell-bent on using my holiday weekend to get through this chunk of literary molasses.

 

* Normal Rush, Mating (New York: Vintage International, 1991): 91.

** I also (now) fondly recall having misread a syllabus, and after plowing through 258 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology in one evening (again: name and title solidly in place), having an infinitesimally fleeting blast of total cosmic comprehension shortly before midnight. Sort of like the world’s shortest and soberest trip, with follow-up visions of fat translucent spheres engaging each other in battles to the death for positions of mastery and servanthood.

Perverting Professional Usage

I should sit down and ponder sometime why it is that I’ll occasionally respond to grocery-store cashiers’ casual questions as if I believe in their pretense of interest. When the bearded youth asked me last week what I’d been doing with my day, it might have been his earnest look– someone so obviously as-yet unjaded by life couldn’t be totally insincere, after all– that prompted me to admit, “Finance,” followed by the qualification (I have to protect my liberal-arts cred, after all) that I never in the most implausible scenarios I’d imagined for my life ever thought I’d be saying that. Turns out (surprise, surprise) we were both frustrated writers, and I went on my way as the wordsmith of Trader Joe’s asked the next customer the same question.

But enough with the evidence of failed human connection; let’s talk this crazy numbers stuff I confessed to have been dabbling in. Much as I’ve learned about– and enjoyed– budgeting and non-profit financial management over the past few months, my eyes still assume they should glaze over when faced with a new quantitative concept or piece of loosely-defined jargon (“best practices,” anyone?) that could almost mean anything you’d like it to mean. I’m not an entirely stupid person, but even with all my fancy education and newfound fascination, this stuff can be simultaneously tricky and tedious. Hence, based solely on the technical ideas involved, I’m unsurprised that history has been filled with banking scandals, spectacular economic crashes, and difficulty in regulating the whole mess– and that’s without taking into consideration a lamentable human baseline of greed and childish competition.

The non-secular hand’s about to wreak havoc on your concepts. Guildford Cathedral, courtesy of Gordon Lawson on Wikimedia Commons.

Currently, I’m making my mostly comfortable way through a standard on institutional investment– and I’ve been pretty pleased with how straightforwardly written and clearheaded it’s been. But then I came across this gem: “Combining the tendency of a high risk premium to mean revert with the observation that the equity risk premium seems to decline secularly, justifies an assumption of U.S. equity returns of 6 percent real with standard deviation of 20 percent.”* Say what? Right: it sounds like something that came right out of the artificially constructed language in Václav Havel’s The Memorandum, and we could all get in a few chuckles about this clumsy chunk in general. But here’s what I zeroed in on: “the equity risk premium declin[ing] secularly.” Yeah, yeah, Investopedia‘s keyed me in to the fact that “secular” here just indicates “a long-term time frame,” so my snarky grin had to disappear in the face of legitimate word usage.** But student of culture and religion that I am, this phrase is loaded with rich and telling possibilities – as in, when dealing with wily securities, the best form of hedging might be prayer– or a reconsideration of just what sorts of benefits the transcendent could offer, especially upon realizing that the systems we’ve created and kid ourselves are “natural” are just as prone to error and irrationality as are the humans who crafted them.

In short, I’m having all sorts of dorkily speculative fun in moving this specialized terminology across disciplinary boundaries– and I haven’t even gotten around yet to toying with Adam Smith’s oft-cited and ofter-misunderstood concept of the “invisible hand.” You can be certain, though, that that appendage will be just as eager to wreak ill-informed havoc in my imaginary economic universe as some of its extreme fans are still doing in our current one. To asset allocation, then! Who knew it could be so creatively philosophical?

 

* David F. Swensen, Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment (New York: Free Press, 2009), 111. In case you’re wondering, the chapter in which this gets thrown down deals with asset allocation.

** Massive props to this website, which has allowed me to understand a whole welter of concepts without driving my mentor to check himself into an asylum. I’m still going to do some etymological investigation of how this particular usage came about; why use “secular” to deal with longer terms, instead of “sacred” or “immortal”? You’d think something of a secular nature would have to do with the very non-eternal– and hence, shorter-term– reality of buying and selling and borrowing.