CSL and the Menippean satire, once more

There’s probably not much point in responding to this post, with its rhetorical strategy of huffing and puffing and blowing my house down by intoning words like “nonsensical.” The best response to such stuff us almost always this.

But then there’s precedent for this, also.

So here’s the key passage, I think:

I’m not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye’s very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin’s interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis’s novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Well, see: no. It isn’t. And that’s the key point.

(By the way, I’d be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don’t understand it. He clearly hasn’t read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that’s precisely what it is, just look it up and you’ll see — doesn’t appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky’s novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon’s blog, Pooh! )

The Menippean satire is a genre that includes narrative but also includes many other things — the various “inserted genres” that Bakhtin refers to, which may be poetry, song, philosophical disputation, almost anything. And in some cases, an overarching narrative that contains very different narrative genres within, as, to take an example especially important to Lewis, when Apuleius puts the tragic myth of Cupid and Psyche in the middle of the often farcical and picaresque Satyricon.

So, to anyone passingly familiar with the genre, its marks are not just on That Hideous Strength but on much of Lewis’s fiction: the songs and debates interspersed in the narrative of The Pilgrim’s Regress; the debates — yes, again with the debates — in Perelandra, topped off by an extended theological lecture; the curious combination of satire and dream-vision in The Great Divorce; and so on. And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris’s continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim’s Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney’s Arcadia.

Lewis taught and wrote about all of these works, and if you read what he had to say about them, you’ll see that he understands that modern readers of them are likely to grow frustrated and impatient. Why? Because we live in the Age of the Novel, in which Henry James’s emphasis on “organic form” has long been sovereign (though coming under increasingly frequent challenge in recent decades). The average reader expects a story to be just that, a story, and tends to be puzzled when songs turn up or lectures or disputations go on for too long. Example: it’s amazing how agitated readers can become by the songs in The Lord of the Rings — though in that case Tolkien may be the victim of his own skill at keeping a story moving: his readers don’t want to pause. Or don’t think they do. (But I digress.)

Which leads me back to the chief point of my earlier post, which is that if we’re going to have a proper appreciation of what Lewis was up to in his fiction, we do well to realize what his models were, and how many of them involved the mixing-and-matching of genre that we see best exemplified by the Menippean satire. Sometimes Lewis’s stories seem to lose impetus or focus because he’s not the best storyteller in the world; but sometimes he’s not at that moment trying to tell a story: he’s pausing in the narrative to complicate and deepen its picture in varying ways.

I think this has almost everything to do with Frye’s comment that “the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.” One of Lewis’s most consistent purposes as a writer was to diagnose the diseases of the intellect that arise when the intellect is cut off from its proper and healthy connection to the “chest,” as he puts it in The Abolition of Man: the seat of moral discernment and judgment. Other great modern practitioners of the Menippean form seem to believe the same: I think especially of Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Walker Percy in the twentieth. The generic multiplicity and intellectual daring of the Menippean satire are, I think, under-exploited resources, especially for the Christian thinker.

posts unwritten, end-of-year edition, part 2

How interesting would it be to have a writer’s every keystroke recorded and played back? Pretty interesting, perhaps, but I don’t want it to happen to me.

Though I think Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, I somehow never got around to reading his next, Against the Day — but Dale Peck makes me think I should. I could blog my way through it right here. . . .

Carlin Romano worries, intelligently, about whether professors will retain the strength of will to assign whole books, given shortening attention spans. This here professor will, but that’s just one data point. Reading tough books can be challenging in a fun way.

More than a year ago Matthew Battles warned us against un-historical invocations of Gutenberg.
C. W. Anderson has a really cool annotated syllabus for Print Culture 101.

I think Heart of Darkness is a really bad choice for a graphic novel retelling — too much of its power lies in the magnificent narrative voice, e.g.:

I looked at him, lost in astonishment. There he was before me, in motley, as though he had absconded from a troupe of mimes, enthusiastic, fabulous. His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain — why he did not instantly disappear. ‘I went a little farther,’ he said, ‘then still a little farther — till I had gone so far that I don’t know how I’ll ever get back. Never mind. Plenty time. I can manage. You take Kurtz away quick — quick — I tell you.’ The glamour of youth enveloped his parti-coloured rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months — for years — his life hadn’t been worth a day’s purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity. I was seduced into something like admiration — like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame. It seemed to have consumed all thought of self so completely, that even while he was talking to you, you forgot that it was he — the man before your eyes — who had gone through these things. I did not envy him his devotion to Kurtz, though. He had not meditated over it. It came to him, and he accepted it with a sort of eager fatalism. I must say that to me it appeared about the most dangerous thing in every way he had come upon so far.

This can’t be represented graphically any more than a Picasso can be represented textually.

admonitory image


Via Margaret Soltan the story of a Russian controversy: images from the fiction of Dostoevsky in the Moscow subway. People seem to be particularly freaked out by the image above.The Moscow Times story Margaret links to doesn’t note it, but the guy with the pistol to his head is surely Svidrigailov, who kills himself near the end of Crime and Punishment after announcing that he is “going to America.” Svidrigailov is Raskolnikov’s doppelgänger, his evil twin, and illustrates the path Raskolnikov is headed down until his almost-too-late swerve towards Sonia, repentance, and Christianity. In short, he’s a delightfully appropriate object lesson for Russians who have sold their souls to commerce and need to recover their spiritual inheritance. I vote to keep him.

Anna and Levin

Stephen Emms thinks Tolstoy blew the ending of Anna Karenina. If you haven’t read the book, you might want to stop reading here.People sometimes say the same about the last narrative section of War and Peace: “Gee, that’s anticlimactic. Who wants to see Natasha having to change babies’ diapers and live a life of boring domesticity?” Or, as Emms says here about the end of Anna, “It’s like ending a stupendous five-course meal with a bowl of thin soup.”There are two possibilities here. The first, the one that Emms endorses, is that Tolstoy is a novelist of stupendous power and nearly godlike brilliance who, unaccountably, has no idea how to end a book. The other possibility is that Tolstoy does not simply lose his gifts when he gets near the end of a book, but rather has very good reasons for giving us endings that we certainly don’t expect and probably don’t want. Emms appears not to consider the second option.Emms notes that while Anna falls into despair and ends her life, the book’s other protagonist, Levin, somehow survives — despite suffering his own profound depression and coming very close indeed to suicide. Here too Emms can think of only one possible explanation: “On the basis of this novel, it could be argued that Tolstoy rejects female experience as domestic, limited, even lacking in spiritual insight, because the one woman who attempts to transgress these boundaries ends up committing suicide. Superiority of male vision and male mastery of narrative is evident.” Emms asks, “How can [Tolstoy] allow the last word on Anna to tumble from the pinched mouth of Vronsky’s mother” — that is, the bigoted, selfish mother of Anna’s vain and thoughtless lover — “who says witheringly: ‘Her death was the death of a bad woman, a woman without religion’?”Emms does not come out and say that he thinks that Tolstoy shares the judgment of Vronsky’s mother — surely he knows better. But I take it that he wants Tolstoy to somehow refute that judgment. But that’s not necessary: it is self-refuting. And Emms would better understand what Tolstoy is up to here if he had noticed the book’s epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” That is, “vengeance is mine — it is not yours.” Vronsky’s mother has raised her son to be utterly self-regarding, and cares nothing for the life — Anna’s life — that her son’s self-regard has destroyed. (Vronsky himself is actually not nearly as bad as his mother: he genuinely loves Anna, insofar as it is possible for someone like him to love.) The foulness of her easy contempt is palpably evident — for those with eyes to see.By telling the story in this way Tolstoy is refusing to direct his readers: he lets us form our own judgments and in that way reveal our own characters. He knows that many of us will claim the right and privilege of judging Anna, of proclaiming vengeance on her — just as Job’s “friends” do in that most mysterious of the Bible’s books. He knows that many will say, again along the lines of those who surround Job, that Levin survives because he is good and Anna dies because she is bad.But the careful reader of the book will see it very differently. What Levin has that Anna does not have is, depending on whether you are or are not religious, either luck or grace — but in either case it’s not merit. Tolstoy makes it very clear that, in his society, a man who chooses to pursue a married woman in the way that Vronsky pursues Anna will pay something of a social price, but a small one. Vronsky continues to be received in polite society. But Anna risks everything for this affair: she loses her husband, her son, her place in society. She becomes an outcast, so when her relationship with Vronsky dies, she has literally nothing left to sustain her. And this is why she takes her life.Levin has it better. His sins, which are many, do not separate him from society or from his family. Tellingly, he does not meet Anna until late in the book, when sheer circumstances make it impossible for him to fall in love with her or for her to seduce or respond to him. But had the circumstances been different . . . ? Above all, Tolstoy makes clear, when Levin is in his darkest days he has work to do: just the mechanical routine of life keeps him alive until he has his spiritual awakening. Anna, again, had nothing of the kind. Anna had nothing at all.These things happen, Tolstoy tells us. One life is torn apart, another is renewed and enriched, and we cannot — if we are wise, we dare not — judge that anyone gets what he or she deserves. Likewise, at the end of War and Peace, he forces us to see that those periods of our lives which are charged with drama, fevered by event, must be succeeded by much longer periods of ordinary everyday experience, and that the brilliant young girl will, necessarily, some day become the middle-aged matron.What Stephen Emms fails to see is that Tolstoy, who mastered the conventions of realistic fiction more fully than anyone ever has, also understood the false consolations that we so often want from fiction — and refused to give them to us. This is a mark not of incompetence or narrowness or provincial bigotry or sexism, but of the highest possible artistic genius.

“minority cult”

That’s how Alison Flood in the Guardian characterizes Philip Roth’s thoughts about the future of the novel. (The adjective is redundant, isn’t it? I mean, doesn’t “cult” — in that use of the term — imply “minority”? Also, Flood calls this Roth’s “prophesy” when she means “prophecy.” But enough picking of nits.)

Asked whether the Kindle and other e-readers might help the novel survive as a pastime with a few more adherents than Latin poetry, Roth replied, “The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen . . . Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.”
But isn’t Roth confusing the future of the book — that is, the codex — and the future of the novel? He doesn’t seem to have noted that the interesting thing about e-readers is that they are screens with novels on on them.
And I might also ask this: if the book couldn’t compete with the movie screen or the television screen, how does he explain his own very successful and very lucrative career?

the Nation's Favourite Poet

So the BBC wants you to vote for the Nation’s Favourite Poet. Or it wants some people to vote, anyway — I’m a little confused because I’m not sure what “nation” the good ol’ Beeb has in mind. England? Great Britain? The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Or perhaps something more amorphous: Albion, say, or the British Isles? The nominated poets themselves aren't much of a guide. In addition to the many who lived all their lives in England, there’s Robert Burns (a Scot), W. B. Yeats (born in Dublin), Seamus Heaney (born in Northern Ireland, but an Irish citizen), T. S. Eliot (born in St. Louis, later became a British subject), W. H. Auden (born in York, later became an American citizen). It’s all so very confusing. And it’s odd that Shakespeare is not, for these purposes, considered a poet. He was one, you know. Apparently the two qualifications for nomination are: (a) you must have lived in one or more of the British Isles for some significant chunk of your life, and (b) you must write in English. I voted for Auden, of course. So should you.

creative writing

Louis Menand's long essay in the New Yorker on Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era is, typically, superb. McGurl's book deals largely with the relationship between creative writing programs and recent American fiction. Here's an excerpt from Menand's review:

A second thing that “The Program Era” does well, and sometimes entertainingly, is to treat the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. . . . So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives.

McGurl's book has gotteb mixed reviews — it appears to be heavily jargonized — so Menand's lucid review may be a good way to get a grip on McGurl's argument.

the future of archives

At the Chronicle of Higher Education I read this:

Leslie Morris is used to handling John Updike's personal effects. For decades, Mr. Updike had been sending a steady stream of manuscripts and papers to Harvard University's Houghton Library, where Ms. Morris serves as a curator. But in late February, several weeks after the iconic writer died, some boxes arrived with unexpected contents: approximately 50 three-and-a-half and five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks — artifacts from late in the author's career when he, like many of his peers, began using a word processor. The floppies have presented a bit of a problem. While relatively modern to Mr. Updike — who rose to prominence back when publishers were still using Linotype machines — the disks are outmoded and damage-prone by today's standards. Ms. Morris, who curates modern books and manuscripts, has carefully stored them alongside his papers in a temperature-controlled room in the library "until we have a procedure here at Harvard on how to handle these materials." Harvard isn't the only university puzzling over new media from old — and not-so-old — masters. Emory University recently received four laptops, an external hard drive, and a Palm Treo personal digital assistant from Salman Rushdie. The University of Texas at Austin recently acquired a series of Zip disks and a laptop containing Norman Mailer's files.

(Zip disks! — God help us. Mailer’s technological judgment was evidently a match for his literary.) There’s something a little odd about this article, and that’s its temporal scheme: you’d think from reading this article that writers started using computers about three years ago. Five-and-a-quarter floppy disks from “late in the author’s career”? Those are probably about twenty years old, which places them roughly in the middle of Updike’s career. But the article reads like that because libraries are just now starting to get archival materials from authors in the PC age. And they’d better not set those disks aside for too long: it’s hard enough these days to find a floppy drive that reads 3.5-inch disks, much less the old five-and-a-quarters. What especially intrigues me is Salman Rushdie’s Palm Treo. Will such devices be the mainstays of future biographers? Will they spend untold hours scrolling through calendar applications to discover lunch dates and article deadlines? And what will happen if the next generations of writers buy into cloud computing and keep all their appointments in Google Calendar or 30boxes? And what if they end up using Google Docs to write their novels? I can imagine a future in which Sotheby’s and Christie’s get libraries participating in fierce bidding wars not for typescripts or notebooks or iPhones or laptops but for just this: a username and a password.