NEW

"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press


Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)



OS MITOS DA CULTURA POP: DE DANTE A DYLAN

O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.



THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE: FROM DANTE TO DYLAN

The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)

THE COWBOY AND THE DANDY: CROSSING OVER FROM ROMANTICISM TO ROCK AND ROLL (Oxford University Press, 1998)

FREUD: A COLLECTION OF CRITICAL ESSAYS (Prentice-Hall, 1981)




8/31/10

Phoebe Snow Shows Off

by Perry Meisel

Although Phoebe Snow is one of our most gifted and distinctive singer/songwriters, her career has never been an unqualified musical success. Singers with far fewer technical endowments have made far more of their gifts, while Snow's equals have produced at least occasional classics as songwriters - "Both Sides Now," for instance. And yet the hopes she aroused among everyone from ex-folkies to jazzies to funkophiles testified not only to the range of her talents but also to the range of musical contexts that lay within her grasp. To cap her appeal, of course, was a voice whose timbre and attack were more like a ragged, bleeding tenor saxophone's than that of any woman singer since Ellen McIlwaine, Snow's closest analogue in tone just as (yes) Neil Young is nearest to her in inflection.
No cynic when Snow's career began in 1974, I didn't lose my enthusiasm until the release of her third disc late in 1976, It Looks Like Snow, but the reasons for my loss of faith turn out to apply to every one of her records. Though she masks it well, Snow is at heart a show-off. Snow's overconfidence in the huff, the purr, and the throaty scrawl etched haphazardly - and usually superfluously - at the end of a phrase or in place of a strategic turn-around trashes her potential for drama in ballad, swing, and funk alike.
Even more telltale is that the style and quality of her peculiar articulation don't really change much from groove to groove. This is fine if you're Coltrane, where a new kind of logic proves its worth by working out no matter the rhythm under it, but in Snow's case the phrasing is often wholly unrelated to the groove in question. Much as Joni Mitchell submits herself to the standards of the poet and loses, so Snow is defeated by the standards of orthodox jazz and r&b. Despite what sometimes seems a reasonable attempt (like Betty Carter's, perhaps) to figure out a whole new approach to singing, Snow never gives herself a chance to be as honest and adventurous as her graduate-hippie persona might lead us to believe. She doesn't nestle fully into any groove at all, and on ballads the lack of dramatic tension is positively exasperating. Particularly disappointing are the flat-out jazz tunes, where Snow is often capable of hip phrasing, but almost never for more than a moment at a time.
Fortunately, though, Snow seems to have settled in a good deal on her newest album, Against the Grain, arguably her best even though its strengths are confined almost entirely to the second side. Here Snow suddenly appears more at home than usual in her various grooves, and manages to wrench genuine tension and emotion from each one. Even more impressive than "Oh, L.A." (distance and desire) and "Married Man" (forbidden fun) is Patti Austin's "In My Life," which ripens with the emotional generosity that is the converse of formal restraint - the soaring punctuations at the end of verses following naturally from the unhurried composure of the phrasing that precedes them, the pregnant pauses and split-second delays kicking her voice sky-high by intelligence rather than by effort.
Such saving coherence, though, is still forced to co-exist with the usual disproportion of pyrotechnics and feeling elsewhere on the album. The cover of "Do Right Woman," a tough enough order in any case, leaves you wondering what the point is - the opening of the first chorus sees Snow lose whatever drama the song may pack as she drops into neutral register to state the principal melodic theme; she tears off the closing "tomorrow" as absent-mindedly as you might tear a phone number off a pad. On a cover of "He's Not Just Another Man," the arrangement builds but the intensity of Snow's voice does not; at tune's end there's a virtuoso screech that signifies climax instead of enacting it.
The same problems beset Snow in concert at Queens College December 12, largely nullifying whatever fresh hope the new album had kindled. Aggravated by a three-month tour, Snow was long on effect and short on substance. At first the band seemed to percolate, while Snow's voice, remarkably guttural and jazz-rooted live, seared both mind and membranes as it rose from the electric swell. But subtle tempo problems soon infected the sound with a central unsteadiness, which was magnified by Snow's shaky acoustic guitar (unlike most old folkies, she's more flash than funk when it comes to picking). Both these instrumental uncertainties were symptomatic of a greater spiritual (or maybe just intellectual) one, what a friend who came along called "skidding." Often pearls by themselves, Snow's phrases on ballads and bouncers alike followed one another with no particular dramatic order. No trajectory was established, no pressure created; there was no inexorable driving force either in the narrative flow of her voice or from the band.
Particularly ironic and especially symptomatic was the virtuoso blitz at the end of a free-form blues thing between Snow and pianist Dean Krauss early in the show. Sheer effect rushing in after a very credible and emotional display of soulful restraint was not only superfluous but downright mindless and tacky. This is a dangerous and upsetting thing to see a gifted performer do, and particularly upsetting when weighed against the few near-triumphs scattered through the hour-and-a-half set, notably a thumping cover of McCartney's "Be With You," a swinging "No Regrets" that featured some tempting glimpses of Snow's genuine jazz abilities, and a deep-rooted version of "Let the Good Times Roll" towards evening's end. Let's hope some rest will allow Phoebe Snow to consider her gifts more thoughtfully. She is no longer a novice at her trade.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 25 1978

8/30/10

Bryan Ferry's Hesitant Soul

by Perry Meisel

If "lipstick and leather" are a "sign of the times," as Bryan Ferry says they are on his new album, The Bride Stripped Bare, they are also a sign of the two impulses that have been struggling for supremacy in his music since his solo career began in 1973, three years before he dismantled Roxy Music for good. Effete machismo or some paradox like it is probably the best way to characterize this queer and tense personal drama - the quivering, pleading singer/persona and his labor against a current of thick and thundering rhythms from a band that exalts and oppresses him at the same time. If it sounds like just a dressed-up instance of British rock and roll at its most fundamental (Page squeezes Plant and Plant squeals), in Ferry's case the mouth-and-metal dichotomy gets redefined in what is an exemplary but dark success in the familiar story of the shagetz and the blues.
The new album is a first for Ferry in a couple of ways. It is the first time he has recorded with American session musicians (chief among them here guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Rick Marotta), and also the first time the production is collaborative rather than Ferry's alone. And yet it hasn't changed a thing in the definitive Ferry sound. That raw depth with luster superadded is there on all the thumping rockers - "Sign of the Times," "What Goes On," "Can't Let Go" - and on three more sterling Ferry covers, this time "Hold On (I'm Coming)," "That's How Strong My Love Is," and "Take Me to the River." What the entrance of the (usually) dread sessionman to Ferry's Art Rock suggests - especially with no substantial change in the nature and texture of the sound - is that the feeling that Ferry is an ironist and trivializer of rock and roll is only half the story. At least one part of Ferry believes so implicitly in the Big Beat and in wisecracking guitars that he has enlisted mainline members of the session establishment to help him maintain it.
If British rock used to enact the battle of human singer and technological band - the battle of organic self against repressive culture - Ferry has moved the argument further along so that it now enacts the plight of singer struggling with the rock medium itself. Here a belated Ferry hesitates in terror before the tradition, turning pale in classic Decadent literary fashion, taking upon himself the exhaustion of the entire medium in what is already a late stage in its chronologically tiny history as an art. With the classic and anonymous rhythms (hence the same sound with a different band) rising beneath him on "Can't Let Go," "Sign of the Times," and all the soul numbers, Ferry is obliged to commit himself to the full rigors of the form, to a musical landscape conventionally epic in scope, and one that demands the strength of an Otis Redding - notably on "That's How Strong My Love Is" - to fill it properly. And though languour, Decadence, shortness of breath, a tendency to whine are Ferry's defensive reactions to this impossible demand, they also turn out to be his stylistic resources.
On the melodic level, hesitation becomes a kind of disciplined foreplay written into the very structure of Ferry's own songs. Hooks most commonly come on the bridge rather than the chorus, and the verses are often musical interrogations of the possible chord sequences that can follow from the first one sounded in a given song ("Sign of the Times," "Island Earth"). It's as though the arrangements are designed to monitor the available harmonic permutations and look for combinations never voiced before. This is also Wachtel's active discipline as a guitarist, and he solos on the jazzman's principle of turning chords and licks inside out for new orderings of their old materials.
Ferry's loony ambition as a musician has always been clearest when he becomes a cover artist - he is probably the most imaginative one in the business. Like the movie director filming a novel, Ferry knows his only bet is to recast the original phrasing of the stone classics he habitually chooses to do and make the song acceptable to his own voice. If he funkified "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on Bryan Ferry, he tightens and darkens "Hold On (I'm Coming)" on The Bride Stripped Bare. Genealogically, this is a Buddy Holly/Elvis take on soulin'; the seemingly drab, almost flabby Guy Lombardo quiver in the vocals has a sobbing logic all its own. Al Green's "Take Me to the River" already has that kind of sobbing built in. On the album's ultimate self-challenge, "That's How Strong My Love Is," the taut and discreet ejaculations of feelings and the decidedly unsyncopated phrasing on the chorus keep Ferry secure from the awesome gusts of the band, which come to represent the blast of Otis himself from the past. It is a coy strategy - building the threat into the sound and then dancing to avoid it. Such defensive power may be the only kind of power still available in a medium that daily grows denser as a system and more diffuse as a phenomenon.

Originally published in The Village Voice, December 4, 1978

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8/29/10

Decentering Heart of Darkness

by Perry Meisel

All references and citations from Heart of Darkness are from the Youth collection, Volume XVI of the Complete Works, Kent Edition (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925).

Conrad's Heart of Darkness creates the terms of its appeal by challenging us to specify the meaning Marlow tries to find in the character of Kurtz. Those readers who write about what they discover in Marlow's tracks pursue what Marlow himself says he is unable to disclose: the substance, the essence, the details of what it is that Kurtz has done, and what it is that he represents.
Answers to the enigma usually reveal a common predisposition among the novel's critics to assign highly concrete meanings to the tale, often of a psychological kind, and to take the multiplicity of clues provided by the narrative as indices of a significance to be found beyond the margins of the text. Stephen A. Reid, for example, is unhappy with the "unspeakable" nature of Kurtz's "lust and brutality" and claims that "it is necessary, psychologically, that Kurtz's rites have a particular content and a particular purpose." 1 Reid's determination to ground the text in specificity, and in psychology, leads him to replace Conrad's silence about the exact nature of Kurtz's behavior with Frazer's account of primitive customs in The Golden Bough. Leo Gurko is less specific, but equally insistent on a ground to the narrative, which is, in his words, "held aloft by the flame of external nature rooted at the bottom of the story."2
Albert J. Guerard's classic interpretation of the novel as "a journey within the self" offers a more flexible view of the tale, and helps to generate the views of our first two critics. Still, there is in Guerard a similar desire for specificity, and, of course, for psychology, despite his insistence on the necessity of the "unspeakable" in Conrad's story. For Guerard, Kurtz's admittedly "unspoken" conduct succeeds in becoming the token of a struggle with the instincts: "[W]hen the external restraints of society and work are removed," says Guerard, "we must meet the challenge and temptation of savage reversion."3
Guerard's assumption that African culture is without "society" is necessary, of course, if his psychological symbolism is to hold. After all, if the novel's landscape is to be read as the terrain of the id, then its native inhabitants have to be cast as primitives. Guerard's assumptions thereby conflict with subsequent contentions in anthropology that there are no such qualitative differences as he supposes between European and "savage" cultures,4 as well as with Conrad's own attempt to call such differences into question within the tale itself. Although the cannibal crewmen aboard Marlow's riverboat display, to his own surprise, a greater restraint than the novel's rapacious Europeans (104-105), and even though Kurtz's "savage" woman stages a "stately" ballet of farewell for her departing lover (135-136), Guerard nonetheless insists on his primitivism in order to ground the tale's meaning in the psychological categories he discerns in Conrad's text.
The consequences of such a method are to be found in the problematic texture of the critical language it produces. What Guerard means by "the evil of vacancy" to which the "hollow" Kurtz "succumbs"5 is a little difficult to tell in the light of his first argument. Surely "the temptation of savage reversion" carries with it some fecundity, some fullness of instinct which Guerard's insistence on hollowness and vacancy, like Conrad's own, seems to call into question. Indeed, Guerard falls into these same rhetorical contradictions time and again in his reading of the novel. "Marlow's temptation," he writes, "is made concrete through his exposure to Kurtz,"6 despite his remark later on that Conrad is always "deferring what we most want to know and see."7 Similarly, the novel symbolizes "the night journey into the unconscious, and confrontation of an entity within the self,"8 even though Kurtz's vanishing act late in the story means, according to Guerard, that "a part of [Marlow, too] has vanished."9 This is critical language divided against itself, stipulating the presence of meaning on the one hand, while noting the withdrawal of its ground on the other.
I suggest that Guerard's contradictions derive from undue assumptions about Conrad's text, and that his reading, like those of our other two critics, falls prey to the same epistemological temptations that Marlow is forced to overcome by the end of the tale. Indeed, it is Conrad's radical understanding of how language itself creates and controls the kind of knowledge we have that constitutes Marlow's deepest realization, one which he finds, in Conrad's words, "altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul" (141). It is, moreover, Marlow's crisis in knowledge that allows us to see why Kurtz's "vacancy" in the story is in fact necessary and inevitable, and that tends to supplant our critics' psychological terror with a horror even more difficult to face.
It is Conrad's epistemology that I wish to pursue here, and I shall take as my focus Marlow's key conclusion about Kurtz, one based upon the evidence of the shrunken heads displayed before the Inner Station:
They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him - some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. (131)
Marlow takes the heads as evidence for Kurtz's lack of restraint ("showed"). Like the novel's critics, Marlow draws his conclusion by taking such evidence as a token of what is not really present. Such inference leads to conclusions about absence in another sense, too. What is present through the evidence is precisely Kurtz's absence of morality - "that there was something wanting in him." Kurtz has such a lack because he seems to be a lustful creature, full of desire - that is, "wanting," like Bellow's Henderson, in another sense. Indeed, "wanting" taken as the presence of desire depends upon "wanting" taken as the absence of gratification.
So in the middle of Marlow's assertive claim we find ourselves back to the kind of riddles that baffle him elsewhere in the novel. What Kurtz has depends on what he has not; what he has not depends on what he has. We seem trapped in a play of language at the very moment of Marlow's attempt to disclose some discovery about Kurtz, whose own name (meaning "short" in German) replays this same play.
This mutually interdependent relation between the two senses of "wanting" or of "short," suggests that meaning is a lateral event within language. Our critics, however, appear to share a view of language which, by contrast, presupposes some kind of direct, or symbolic, link between words and things, not only in Conrad, but also, for Guerard at least, in Freud.
It is Freud, however, who draws our attention to language as an oppositional, or lateral, mechanism as early as 1910, well before the notion receives its official introduction into linguistics proper with the publication in 1916 of Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale, and only eleven years after the publication of Heart of Darkness itself. In his brief essay on Karl Abel's 1884 pamphlet, "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words," Freud discovers an "astonishing"10 philological explanation for contradictions in the language of dreams, and delights in its transformation by Abel into a synchronic rule about the mechanism of meaning in language as a whole. "Our concepts," writes Freud, "owe their existence to comparisons."11 Citing from Abel's pamphlet, Freud provides us with the following account of why language and its conceptions constitute a relational or differential structure:
"If it were always light we should not be able to distinguish light from dark, and consequently we should not be able to have either the concept of light or the word for it . . . " "It is clear that everything on this planet is relative and has an independent existence only in so far as it is differentiated in respect of its relations to other things . . ." "Since every concept is in this way the twin of its contrary, how could it be first thought of and how could it be communicated to other people who were trying to conceive it, other than by being measured against its contrary . . . ?" "Since the concept of strength could not be formed except as a contrary to weakness, the word denoting 'strong' contained a simultaneous recollection of 'weak,' as the thing by means of which it first came into existence. In reality this word denoted neither 'strong' nor 'weak,' but the relation and difference between the two, which created both of them equally . . . ."12
The implications of Freud's and Abel's view of meaning as an "antithetical" formation are latent in Saussure as well, and all three suggest that signification takes place in a sphere apart from those states of the world to which it refers. If language means by virtue of differential or oppositional relations within the system it constitutes, then meaning is the product of internal resonances within the system, rather than the effect of actual links between the system and real states of the world. Instead of a distance to be lamented and overcome, however, this distance between language and the world is a given since it is the signature of language - of culture - itself.
Thus it is the conditions of human usage as a whole that stipulate the kind of problem that Marlow confronts in the next section of the sentence we have been examining:
. . . some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found . . .
It is the possibility of finding "some . . . matter," in the sense of substance, that Marlow claims "could not be found," even in its effect of producing nothing concrete to go by in the case of Kurtz. Of course, the differential meaning of "wanting" has already suggested what Marlow here makes explicit: that language - the inevitable medium of his interpretation of Kurtz - is in no position to discover the "matter" which Marlow, like all interpreters, wishes to assign to the elusive object of his quest. Because language is a differential or lateral phenomenon, it is not, after all, in a subject/object, or surface/depth, relation to the states of the word its signs appear to designate.13
But lest this recessive quality of "matter" seem merely fanciful, let us turn for a moment to the very start of the tale, where it is precisely these difficulties that Conrad discusses in broad terms. Marlow's parable of the Roman official who came to Britain long ago is, of course, a caution he brings to bear on his own notions about the centrality of the Congo. To the Roman, Britain is the periphery of a circle whose center is Rome. And yet now, centuries later, Britain is itself the center of another circle whose periphery includes African colonies. By implication, the Congo will perforce comprise the center of still another, newer circle, and so on, ad infinitum. The model, in other words, is epistemological as well as political. Every discovery of a center or an origin is subject to a decentering,14 or, to put it another way, every disclosure of a ground is subject to the recession of that ground.15 Conrad's formulation helps to explain, and may even govern, the problem of Marlow's quest for Kurtz, and the forever recessive object, or center, that Kurtz comprises.
It is just this shift or recession of centers that makes up the drama of Marlow's search. Pursuing Kurtz to the Central Station, Marlow finds that there is still another center, the Inner Station. And having found Kurtz there, Marlow still finds the essential Kurtz to escape him again, since the object of his quest is a "shadow" (134), "unsteady . . . pale, indistinct, like a vapour" (142). All Marlow has to work with is "a voice" (135), "discoursing" (143) - nothing, that is, but language. In this way, Kurtz has, in the Saussurean implications the text seems to affirm, "kicked himself loose of the earth" (144). In fact, Kurtz has "kicked the very earth to pieces" (144). As a piece of language, Kurtz is "wanting" the "earth" or "matter" that Marlow wishes him to comprise, so as to make him an object concrete enough to seize upon. But because the recessive Kurtz is a mere series of contradictory, differential utterances (kurtz, for example, is twice described as "long," 134, 142), his ground - his objecthood - cannot be located. "There was nothing either above or below him," says Marlow, "and I knew it . . . I . . . did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air" (144).
What is true of Marlow's search for Kurtz is true also of Marlow's very presence in the Congo. Notice, for example, that the "insoluble problem" (126) of the harlequin, "covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, and yellow" (122), resembles the map Marlow has seen in Brussels, with its "blue, a little green, smears of orange, and . . . a purple patch" (55). No wonder the harlequin's "aspect" reminds Marlow of "something funny [he] had seen somewhere" (122). Here at the real site to which the map's representations refer, Marlow finds simply another version of the (same) representation. That is, the grounded reality of what the map represents recedes from Marlow even as he stands upon it, turning as it does into a representation of itself much in the same way that Kurtz, too, is (only) language or representation.
This recession of presence, this decentering, is in evidence throughout the novel, and constitutes the books' active epistemological principle. In fact, it accords precisely with the famous definition of meaning attributed to Marlow at the start of the tale:
. . . the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. (48)
Conrad's anonymous narrator discards the notion of meaning as a core or "kernel" without reservation, setting up instead a more problematic definition that plays upon the meanings of "spectral illumination." "Spectral" signifies "prismatic" and "phantom-like" at once, thereby defining meaning as without substance (as in the sense of "specter"), multiple and prismatic (in the sense of "spectrum"), and at a distance from an original source of illumination ("moonshine").
All of these requirements are met, of course, in the tale itself, and, indeed, in our own Saussurean view of language, though they are by no means met in the tales our critics tell. What is more, it is precisely these requirements that Marlow meets again at the close of the sentence we have been examining:
. . . some . . . matter which . . . could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.
Just as there is no "kernel" inside, so there is nothing to "be found under" Kurtz's "eloquence." The reason has nothing to do, of course, with Kurtz's being any more of liar than anyone else, but with the inescapable conditions of "meaning" itself. The "matter" of Kurtz's meaning escapes Marlow not because this wishful essence is difficult to locate or, as the psychological critics might argue, because it must remain repressed, but because it simply does not exist. The geology of surface/depth meaning must give away, in Marlow's understanding as well as in our own, to a lateral or surface topography - a map perhaps - of differential relations within a system of representations or signs.
Conrad, of course, is concerned with representations throughout the text. Even in our focus sentence, Kurtz's eloquence is figured implicitly as a fabric or raiment ("under" makes "eloquence" a covering of some kind), while elsewhere in the text it is described as "folds of eloquence" (147) similar to the "diaphanous folds" (46) of the narrator's own discourse. Like the book's images of maps, documents, dress, ciphers, and so on, the numerous images of fabric constitute representations of representations, each one suggesting a weave or a network of relations much like the one presented by the text itself. These are Conrad's alternative and interchangeable metaphors for the structure of language that we, like Marlow, interpret in the pursuit of discovery.
I suggest, then, that the horror that assails Marlow has to do with the impossibility of disclosing a central core, an essence, even a ground to what Kurtz has done and what he is. There is no central thread in the weave of the evidences that constitute his character, much less no deep center to his existence as a surface of signs. So when our critics puzzle over Kurtz's absence when Marlow finds him gone from his cabin, we may offer the alternative conclusion that Kurtz's absence is itself a sign for his meaning, one which is "short" or "wanting."
Hence Marlow's puzzlement at Kurtz's absence takes on a direct and precise meaning within our present perspective:
I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I didn't believe them at first - the thing seemed so impossible. The fact is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering was - how shall I define it? - the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly. This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise an alarm. (141)
Marlow's "fright" and "terror" are responses to the "sheer blank" and "pure abstract[ion]" of Kurtz's self-evident absence, even though - or rather, because - it is "unconnected with any distinct shape," especially the "physical." Thus the promise of presence, no matter in how terrible a form - "a sudden onslaught or massacre, or something of the kind" - is "positively welcome" and pacifying to Marlow's "altogether monstrous" realization that presence itself is a fiction.
Marlow, however, plays little tricks on himself to instill a sense of ground in the absence he sees in presence, where there is "nothing underfoot" (150). When the harlequin, for example, tells him that the text he thinks is cipher is really Russian, Marlow feels a momentary relief, as though Russian were a more natural, or grounded, code than cipher. Indeed, Marlow grants such a reassuring, and fictive, priority to Russian much as he prefers to accent the plain sense of a word like "degradation" (144) in order to make Kurtz apprehensible to him. Like "wanting" or like "short," after all, "degradation" - which seems only to mean besotted or dirty, with all its echoes of soil and ground - has a second layer of meaning, too. This alternative signified suggests the sense of "not even 'spectral,' " that is, "gradation" that has been neutralized (de-graded) or decomposed, so that even the prismatic grades of light promised by the narrator's "spectral" definition of meaning early in the tale are absent in Kurtz's radical case. Thus Marlow is quite literal when he says, "I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low" (144), since Conrad finally drains Kurtz of all distinguishing, differential, nameable qualities, rendering him the "blank" (52, 141) that affrights Marlow most of all.
Now perhaps we can be more precise about why Heart of Darkness is Marlow's story. It is the narrative of a consciousness at odds with itself in an exemplary way. Marlow's tension is a lateral one, between two notions of the world - one present, one absent; "wanting" or kurtz in both senses - with two grammars or vocabularies to match. Indeed, this is the unspoken tension we have seen in Guerard's critical language, too, with its oscillation between contradictory rhetorics, an oscillation that now appears to be a response to the self-divided discourse of the narrative itself.
I should point out, of course, how my own reading of the text falls into a myth of presence of its own. My contention, for example, that Marlow's conflict is one "between two notions of the world with grammars to match" suggests that there are extra-linguistic ideas, ideas which exist independently of the language through which, by which - the nature of language prevents me from not blundering - they are expressed. I simply cannot make any kind of statement that will not assume the independent existence of things or ideas apart from language. "Language," says Jacques Derrida, "bears within itself the necessity of its own critique."17 Moreover, some of the terms I have employed in my own critical language - "key," for example, or "layer" - contradict the very deconstruction and decentering of presence and depth that I have attempted to show at work in the novel.
So the problematic meaning of Marlow's quest finally issues from Conrad's concern with the problematics of all meaning in Heart of Darkness. Rather than a psychological work, Heart of Darkness is a text that interrogates the epistemological status of the language in which it inheres. From this point of view, Conrad's novel joins the tradition from which our present deconstructive moment in criticism also derives. As Derrida himself has made plain, we are dealing with nothing less than a departure from classic Cartesian thinking, in which the time-honored assumptions we make about the status of language and the world are subject to the kind of deconstruction announced by Nietzsche and extended by him, and by figures like Pater and Freud, into our own moment of criticism. We are left with nothing less than a critique of our normal stipulation that being is presence, and, within the sphere of criticism, with a critique of our belief that literary texts entertain a subject/object relation to states of the world and to their own meanings. Even to the extent that we may wish to encounter our psychological critics on the ground of Freud, Freud's work constitutes a pre-eminent critique of presence in its own right, insistent as it is on the linguistic or representational status of dreams in particular and of mental functioning in general. And like Conrad, Freud's writing also constitutes a network of discourse in ironic relation to its own discoveries.
Heart of Darkness and its meaning, then, do not stand apart from one another in a subject/object relation the way our critics, in their various ways, like to assume. Even the story's title is a paradox or riddle designed to tempt its interpreters rather than to locate for us a heart or center that does not exist. It is not Guerard's "psychic need" or "literary tact"19 - nor is it Guetti's "alinguistic" truth - that keeps the details of Kurtz's experiences or their meaning at a remove from us in the story. Instead, it is the meaning of the story that keeps Kurtz's meaning absent, and, indeed, that makes of absence the ground of presence itself.

New York University

Notes

1. Stephen A. Reid, "The 'Unspeakable Rites' in Heart of Darkness." Modern Fiction Studies, 9 (Winter 1963 - 1964), 351.
2. Leo Gurko, Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 151.
3. Albert J. Guerard. Conrad the Novelist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 36.
4. See Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966; Paris: Librairie Plon, 1962).
5. Guerard, p. 36.
6. Guerard, p. 39.
7. Guerard, p. 41.
8. Guerard, p. 39.
9. Guerard, p. 41.
10. Sigmund Freud. "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953 - 1966), XI, 156.
11. Freud, XI, 157.
12. Freud, XI, 157-158.
13. James Guetti has also shown that Marlow "admits that it is impossible" to "look beneath the surface," although his reasons for why "language . . . fails to discover the meaning of Kurtz and of experience" are simply that "the reality of experience lies beyond language" and that "the essentials of experience remain . . . alingusitic"; see " 'Heart of Darkness' and the Failure of the Imagination," Sewanee Review, 83 (Summer 1965), 498, 500, 501, 502.
14. See Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), pp. 247 - 265.
15. It is interesting to note that Freud himself discovered the same kind of decentering when he searched in vain for the primal scene of seduction during his researches in the 1890s; see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 31-32.
16. Mario D'Avanzo has also noticed the similarity between the harlequin's motley and the map in Brussels, but finds in both only a recurrent "symbol" for "disorder"; see "Conrad's Motley as an Organizing Metaphor," College Language Association Journal, 9 (March 1966), 289-291.
17. Derrida, p. 254.
18. See, for example, "Differance," in Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, and other essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 148ff.
19. Guerard, p. 40.

Originally published in Modern Language Studies, Volume VIII, Number 3, Fall 1978

8/27/10

True Minds

by Perry Meisel

Review of George Spater and Ian Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).

For a concise introduction to the lives of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, there are few books more useful and engaging than this new and semi-official portrait by George Spater and Ian Parsons. For a discussion of why the Woolfs continue to merit our interest, however, there are few books more incapable of answering even the basic questions.
Such a rift between biography and analysis has been endemic to the Woolf revival as a whole over the last five years or so, and while it may raise primary questions about the role of literature in our culture, its plainer result has been to demonstrate how little any real critical intelligence has been mobilized to situate Woolf in the history of writing and the history of ideas. Biography for its own sake has been the rule rather than the exception, and it is the particular failing of this new portrait to maintain the distinction at the cost of letting Virginia Woolf's art slip away once again.
Thus A Marriage of True Minds is of peripheral interest to serious students of Woolf the writer, although as a modest historical aside it is an enjoyable enough diversion and, for latecomers to the Revival, a handy summary of both Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia and Leonard's own five-volume autobiography.
The authors make no real attempt to hide the derivative nature of their portrait, nor do they claim undue importance for the pockets of new source material made available here for the first time. There is, for example, an astonishing paragraph of Virginia's precocious prose at age ten, a detailed account of the Woolfs' household habits and expenses in their later years, and a series of factual corrections relating to some suggestive errors in Leonard's autobiography.
Within this personal sphere it is Leonard who looms increasingly provocative and enigmatic the more we learn about Virginia herself, and it is to the authors' credit that they respond with a close, if guarded, account of both Leonard's origins and the world of the Apostles, the secret society of which he was a member during his years at Cambridge with the original male figures of what was later to be called "Old Bloomsbury."
Most of the book's fresh source material is from the newly-classified Leonard Wooolf archive at the University of Sussex, and most of it is used to fashion a Leonard different in some respects from the self-assured sceptic who emerges in the autobiography. Key among these new documents is an absorbing exchange of letters between Leonard and Lytton Strachey during the former's lonely seven years as an imperial administrator in Ceylon. Here the imperturbable Leonard admits to chronic despair, contemplating suicide as he reports his unsatisfying adventures to Lytton with a zeal usually reserved for the list-keeping and cataloguing that obsessed him throughout his life (one is amazed to learn, for example, that for years Leonard even kept meticulous records of his lawn-bowling with Virginia). In addition, these letters show that Leonard's courtship of Virginia was instigated and fueled by the homosexual Strachey soon after his own engagement to her had foundered - ironically enough, given our present knowledge of Virginia's frigidity - on their apparent sexual incompatibility.
Although the Leonard-Lytton correspondence offers little in the way of a radically new understanding of the characters involved, it nonetheless helps the authors to clarify the puzzling nature of the Woolfs' marriage from the point of view of its emotional complexion. If Leonard's succeeded in drawing himself as a stoic in his autobiography, Spater and Parsons have managed to humanize him instead by focusing on the stormy emotions that had to be repressed once it became clear to him that Virginia's demand for love was not to be matched by any ability on her part to return affection to a husband who clearly needed it. That Virginia was appallingly difficult to live with is a fact hard to ignore, and in addition to providing us with more indications of the extent to which she was snob, Spater and Parsons also present evidence that at times suggests she may even have taunted Leonard about his Jewishness ("I make him pay for his unfortunate mistake in being born a Jew," she wrote in 1923, "by discharging the whole business of life") - all this, of course, despite her reputation as a libertarian and socialist. Why Leonard loved and admired her, though, is clear from a remarkable passage cited by the authors from his unpublished diary: "She is one of possibly three women," he writes, "who know that dung is merely dung, death death & semen semen. She is the most Olympian of the Olympians. And that is why perhaps she seems to take life too hardly. She does not really know the feeling - which alone saves the brain & the body - that after all nothing matters."
It is, moreover, to everyone's benefit that Virginia's mental breakdowns are underplayed throughout the book, largely because they mark only sporadic intervals in a life devoted entirely to work. It is the work, however, that is the authors' downfall, since whenever they address it they prove themselves entirely out of their depth. Throughout the portrait Virginia's art is either reduced to autobiography or quickly summarized in terms like these: "People who insist on a 'story' in the novels they read are sometimes disappointed by Mrs. Dalloway. For Mrs. Dalloway is devoted to further speculation on the continuing theme What is life? What is love?"
What is especially lacking is some attempt to come to terms with the intellectual forces at work in a marriage often occasioned by very little else. Spater and Parsons are content to compile facts without so much as a word about what the Woolfs talked and thought about or what influences operated on them as they worked. Even an account of Leonard's effect on Virginia's thinking is beyond the book's ken. There are more than a few untold stories far greater in significance than what the Woolfs ate for breakfast, chief among them the translation of Freud supervised by Leonard and Lytton's brother James Strachey. For such topics, however, the authors have no real appetite, and their book is the poorer for it. Despite the Woolfs' inherent charms, a purely personal treatment is hardly enough to do them justice.

Originally published in Salmagundi No. 42., Summer-Fall 1978

"Rules and Regulations"

by Perry Meisel

THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE by Philip Roth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Pp. 263. $8.95, hb.

The profile under which we read and understand our writers largely determines how we evaluate them, and the profile under which we have habitually read the fiction of Philip Roth - as confessional or psychological, as an exploration of the self - has lately required us to see less and less progress in the development of his career. As though it were the progress of a therapy or a cure we had in mind, we have for years expected Roth's tortured heroes to break through to some new ground of freedom, and because Roth's newest narrator, David Kepesh, has still not done so in The Professor of Desire, we shall either have to revise our estimate of Roth's importance or reconsider the very nature of his project all over again.
Ever since Neil's self-examination at the close of "Goodbye, Columbus," Roth's narrators have looked forward to the possibility of redemption and release from frustrations wide and universal enough to bespeak our customary sense of modern life as a confinement. With Portnoy's Complaint, of course, the nature of the confinement was apparently pinned down and defined. It was sexual in nature, as neat and clear as the dictionary definition at the start of the book seemed to indicate. Like his constipated father, Portnoy's innards were dammed up, condemned to repression until Spielvogel helped Alex to express himself. But with what result? An endless cycle of confession, with Spielvogel's celebrated words, "Now vee may perhaps to begin?" starting the novel all over again each time it was finished. The retelling was required not because Alex had failed to plumb the real depths of his desires (after all, what else was there left to say?), but because no revelation, however profound, was really capable of producing the insight or the relief it was supposed to.
Portnoy's great explosion led not to resolution but to a plethora of self-interpretations resembling nothing so much as the Talmudic mazes and Kafkaesque castles of Roth's Jewish precursors. By disclosing no absolute self in these dark corners of the soul, the novel turned its own categories inside out, exposing therapeutic abreaction as a myth, and, by implication, a whole modernist mythology of privileged moments, immediacy, personal testimony, subjective truth. Like his alphabetical lovers ("with sex," says Portnoy, "the human imagination runs to Z"), Portnoy's desires could be voiced or sounded according to any series of possible combinations or registers. How to find the true voicing? The key, alas, was missing.
Why this was so, however, was left to The Great American Novel to explain. Although critical response was unsympathetic, Word Smith's punning interpretation of American life and literature gave reasons for Portnoy's failure to find relief by revealing the constitutive - rather than the expressive - role played by language in Roth's very conception of reality. Like literature, life itself was made out of languages and myths like the "Rules and Regulations" that once governed the Patriot League; the erasure of the League from the annals of history meant that the world was itself a product of such systems or languages, without which there could be no reality at all. No wonder, then, that Portnoy had been unable to find what he was looking for deep within himself - the only reality he could discover there was the play of the "Rules and Regulations" - of the psychological categories - that had created his depths in the first place.
Nonetheless, The Great American Novel was not perceived in the line of Portnoy, nor was it read as evidence that Roth had recovered from what seemed to be the digressions of both Our Gang and The Breast. No, The Great American Novel only showed how much Roth had lost his redeeming moral seriousness (now he looked oddly like Coover or Pynchon with this new logic of systems), including the therapeutic trajectory that had given weight and meaning to the earlier phase of his career.
With My Life as Man, however, the human consequences of Roth's new vision became more than apparent. Here he demolished the difference between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, text and world by making Tarnopol's autobiography an even denser and more polyvalent text than the short stories it was supposed to illuminate. Without a standard for truth, Roth's characters were left gasping, particularly Tarnopol's suicidal wife Maureen, who masturbates with a can-opener in an attempt to make the psychological "Rules and Regulations" real by acting them out to the letter - as though orgasms like Portnoy's could literally open her up.
If Roth's overt moral seriousness returned with a vengeance in My Life as a Man, it returns in a much sweeter and more controlled fashion in The Professor of Desire, Roth's most skillful and buoyant handling of the monologue form since Portnoy itself. Once again an autobiography unfolds, this time Professor Kepesh's, and the more the details of his life pile up - childhood at his parents' Catskill resort; youthful sexual adventures in London; marriage and subsequent divorce; doomed domesticity with a new lover at the novel's close - the more difficult it becomes to sort out the range of meanings his experience may be said to articulate. As a literary critic, Kepesh, of course, is aware of the degree to which even his desire is a discourse subject to any number of possible understandings, all of them plausible but none of them effective in providing relief or satisfaction. Roth satirizes psychological revelation with Kepesh's visits to Klinger, his smug psychiatrist; he lampoons biographical interpretation in literature with Kepesh's visit to Kafka's tomb in Prague; above all, he burlesques intimacy itself by deidealizing the brutal honesty of Kepesh's cocksmanship in London.
These parodies of self-discovery, however, do not interfere with the urgency or the pain involved in Kepesh's attempt to understand himself. For Roth, the tension lies not in Kepesh's weakness as an interpreter but in his permanent inability to locate the self that his psychological questions have promised him is really there. Trapped we may be, says Roth, but trapped by our myths rather than by the facts they pretend to disclose. To continue to search for genuine selfhood within such a framework is to valorize our present conceptual equipment - our own "Rules and Regulations" - without bearing in mind their purely fictive status. To take them too seriously, like Maureen, is to risk keen disappointment and the desire for death.
The search for self, however, is the only story we know, although to retell it by monitoring and correcting the terms by which it is normally undertaken is what makes Roth's work morally more exacting and intellectually more conscientious than the work of most of his contemporaries. If such a cautionary project carries with it a contempt for all those characters, men and women alike, who continue to believe in authenticity and redemption, that is the price of Roth's almost solitary courage in resisting the modern theologies that foreclose any understanding of the real "Rules and Regulations" by which life is governed in our culture.

Originally published in The Ontario Review, Spring-Summer 1978

Good, Good, Good, Good Vibrators

by Perry Meisel

At the risk of abandoning a position that has given me the pleasure of justifying much crossover muzak, I am obliged, in all musical conscience, to praise the Vibrators, one of a growing number of you-know-what-kind-of-bands from England to release a record in America during the last few months - Pure Mania, on Columbia.
Unless you want to worry about the usual Dire & Dreadful/cute & capricious metaphysics, the worst thing you can say about the new LP is that it very often sounds like a rip of the Ramones. But to find the Ramones' imprint everywhere on Pure Mania is a sign of filiation and homage rather than of derivativeness or even anxiety of influence. In fact, the absence of an anxious struggle with rivals or precursors may explain the Vibrators' ultimately secondary status, not only compared to the Ramones, but also to the Jam, who seem to be their other principal analogue, and who are considerably more joyous and effusive than the dark and tight-lipped (though humorous) Ramones themselves.
Nonetheless, these two kinds of p--k combine in the Vibrators to make music that is bone-crunching and hip-shaking (or is it just head-bobbing?) on the one hand, but also insidiously melodic on the other. Anchored as much in Liverpool as in East London or the Bowery, the more-than-three-chord verses and surf-swiped bridges of tunes like "London Girls" or "Sweet, Sweet Heart" situate the band in a radiating wheel of influence that doesn't trap it in cliche but gives it instead an epic tradition and a future.
They can play, too, executing much slower, bumpier grooves than I'd ever heard - or thought I'd heard - at CBGB, and very straightforward vocals, sometimes not even overtracked like the Ramones'. They're also twangier than either the Ramones or the Jam, not just because they vengefully stutter and stagger the rhythm guitar licks that hold the sound together, but also because they leave lots of breathing space between phrases, whether on drums, lead guitar, or vocals. This almost r&b quality is probably what is so appealing, although it is r&b in the sense defined not only by Memphis but also by the Who. On "London Girls," "Keep It Clean," "Sweet, Sweet Heart," and "Whips and Furs," the premise is a pumping Southern thing adapted to discreet metal, and leavened in the case of the last tune with a surpassingly melodic channel underlined by peripatetic, powder-puff (read McCartney) bass whose harmonic logic threatens to break into bebop deconstruction. On "You Broke My Heart," there's even a Claptonesque guitar solo added on top of distinctly syncopated rhythm riffs, helping to constellate the band (also) somewhere between the Ramones and the current mainmen inheritors of British rock and roll proper, the Rumour.
The greatest song on the record, as distinctively the Vibrators as "Sheena" is the Ramones, is "Baby Baby," a cute and (wittingly) plodding Herman's Hermits kind of dumbo music hall ballad with a buried passion that surfaces on an exuberant chorus with shouts of "Baby, baby, baby!" reminiscent of early Stones. All this happens over a slow-pumping vamp hardly as naive as the melodic facade makes it appear, especially once the lush, bluesy organ drenches deepen the late choruses and the solo guitar fills begin to remind you of Robin Trower bleeding his heart out with Procol Harum.
Stones and others aside, there is also the Beatles. One unmistakable allusion to them here is the concluding chord of "Wrecked on You," although what I'm really thinking about is a specific Beatle tune - "Polyphene Pam," whose changes and guitars the Vibrators virtually copy for eight bars at the start of the chorus on "Stiff Little Fingers." We interpreted "Polyphene Pam" in the fall of 1969 as a parody of the Who, an interpretation that still stands today, especially if you consider how much of p--k is Zep and the Who mediated through Beatles as well as Stones, with the net result that the idea of the power trio gets pushed back in time and applied as an ensemble strategy to pre-Cream vocalizing and song-structures alike. The full range of influence, and inflexion of course, is even more expansive than that - notice, for example, the way John Kay vocals get woven with Zep guitar on "Petrol."
What is most remarkable, though, is that p--k rarely comes off sounding as pale or derivative as such bondage to sources might suggest. Its paradox and its appeal lie in a naturalness and immediacy out of all proportion to its dependence on the past. And what the mechanics of this mysterious alchemy may be is something we'll be tossing our brains about for some time to come.

Originally published in The Village Voice, May 1, 1978

8/26/10

Bullish on the Woolf Market

THE LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: Volume III: 1923 - 1928. Edited by Nigel Nicolson & Joanna Trautmann. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 600 pp. $14.95; paperback, $5.95

BOOKS AND PORTRAITS: Some further selections from the literary and biographical writings of Virginia Woolf. Edited and with a Preface by Mary Lyon. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 221 pp. $10

by Perry Meisel

The Virginia Woolf revival continues space, with the expected result that Woolf the novelist is beginning to occupy our attention less today than Woolf the essayist, correspondent, and diarist. One can complain, of course, and mount as an offensive either from the feminist point of view that now claims for Woolf a status outside writing altogether, or from the customary modernist position whose interest remains largely confined to the novels and to certain of her polemical essays. In either case, though, one risks neglecting the salutary effect the continuing publication of posthumous documents has had in demonstrating how miraculously unified and self-contained a sensibility Woolf possessed, no matter what form she chose to work in and no matter what particular thematic account was nearest to hand or heart.
It is as correspondence and essays that the two newest additions to the Woolf library take their places in the lengthening succession of her works, although both the third volume ofLetters and the latest collection of essays, Books and Portraits, present so striking a continuity in the figure they disclose in common that the only real distinction between them is to be found in whatever difference separates the art of personality from the surpassing personality of art itself. It is, of course, largely as a personality that Woolf's fame has come to be reconstituted in the last five years or so, and it is as a social and domestic creature that we have grown accustomed to meeting her in the first two volumes of her Letters.
Now, with Volume Three, we follow her into the central years of her achievement when, over a six-year span, she writes in virtually uninterrupted succession Mrs. Dalloway, The Common Reader, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One's Own, and essays like "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," "Street Haunting," and "Phases of Fiction." From the Letters themselves, however, one would hardly know that these masterpieces are brimming over in her imagination. "I've almost finished two books," she writes to the painter Jacques Raverat, now her confidential correspondent in matters aesthetic; but while the books in question here areMrs. Dalloway and The Common Reader, the news about their progress is merely inserted between paragraphs - what's more, within the hush of parentheses.
Such a graphic sign for the marginal place of literary topics in Woolf's correspondence is by no means unusual ("Aren't letters of literary criticism dull?" she asked in Volume One), and while we may grow somewhat irritated at the sheer accretion of what Woolf refers to unabashedly, in letter after letter, as "gossip," there is nonetheless much significance to be read in the suppression and replacement of the literary by the detailed accounts here of friends old and new (chief among them now Vita Sackville-West), and by the inbred milieu of social and bohemian London. To be sure, there are revelations of a minor sort to be had in some unexpectedly tender missives to her husband Leonard and in the weighty symbolism attached to the news that Woolf set the type for the first Hogarth Press edition of The Waste Land with her own hands. Moreover, when she is not exchanging sympathy, advice, and reminiscences with her sister Vanessa, we even find her arguing humorously with friends about the propriety of writing for Vogue (which she did); raising her rates on The Yale Review as her reputation slowly begins to grow; and cancelling a trip to America because the New York Herald Tribunedecides not to pay her hotel bills.
For the most part, however, the world of friends and relations acted as a kind of cocoon in which she could spin her prose in safety while outsiders like Joyce, Lawrence, and Proust took the novel perhaps even farther than she did. What the Letters finally shows us, after all, is an increasingly strong and confident Woolf only indirectly in touch with literary life outside the confines of Bloomsbury London proper. She is, for example, continually hesitant to write to Ezra Pound (whose work she hates, she confides to Lady Ottoline Morrell) for a contribution to the fund she wants to set up so that T.S. Eliot, one of her few literary intimates outside Bloomsbury, may leave his job at Lloyd's Bank. Above all, she is ever quick to begrudge Joyce his fearfully close and threatening achievement (she now finds Ulysses boring as well as vulgar), habitually blinding herself to his work without once exchanging a letter with him over the course of careers virtually parallel in time, development, and critical reception. This is more than the customary petulance one sometimes assigns to Virginia Woolf as a personality; it is evidence, surely, of her profound instinct for protection and self-defense as a writer, for shoring up her own achievement even to the extent of making her very sensibility as complete and self-contained a thing as the best poems or prose.
But if Woolf's writings find her anxious about her rivals among contemporary novelists, as an essayist she is very likely without peer in this century. Next to the Letters, even a group of essays as brief and occasional as those collected in Books and Portraits returns us to the heart of the literary achievement that alone justifies the exhumation of her private papers and correspondences. These are the last but 50 of Woolf's journalistic efforts to be collected (many of them had originally appeared anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement, and while they may be the final ones chosen, they are for the most part only fitfully inferior to her best nonfiction in premises and verbal strategy. Most of the pieces are of identical length, too, recalling to us how much of a professional and routine worker she was despite - or perhaps because of - the seriousness with which she pursued her vocation. Indeed, this much alone is enough to disabuse us of our lingering notion of Woolf as the frail and sickly artiste, and to place her instead among hard-boiled professionals of letters like Dickens, Defoe, or George Eliot.
The bibliographical interest is, moreover, considerable. Not only has editor Mary Lyon selected some of Woolf's earliest published work, including her very first article to appear in print, a sketch, fittingly enough, of the Brontes' home at Haworth published in 1904; there is also Woolf's single piece of music criticism ("Impressions at Bayreuth"); a review of Sarah Bernhardt's memoirs; a surprising "salute full of homage and affection" to the Victorians in the form of an appreciative memorial on the death of Lytton's mother, Lady Strachey; and some additional examples of her imaginary and historical portraiture. Even more, for the first time we get to see Woolf giving bad reviews to poor or misguided books, whether a biography of Dostoevsky by a daughter steeped in Gobineau or the "hissing inanities" of a moralizing study of Jane Austen's domestic situation.
Most of all, however, Books and Portraits confirms afresh the astonishingly uniform and personal character of all Woolf's nonfiction prose. Virtually every one of her essays puts into practice her stylistic ideal of "luminous transparency," with the result that her writing is at once pellucid and yet subject to a vast and complicated array of semantic vibrations that sets off unexpected contests for different meanings and emotions beneath the surface of a prose manifestly harmonious and serene. Moreover, like all her essays, those in Books and Portraits say less about their ostensible subjects (even the spectacular series of articles on Dostoevsky) than they do about the elastic nature of Virginia Woolf's own expressiveness. At its root, her covert program as an essayist is always to celebrate the achieved perfection towards which every piece is directed as a self-contained and self-fulfilling instance of literary architecture, even in works of a political nature like A Room of One's Own, "Women and Fictions," or the late Three Guineas. If the Letters show us a Woolf secured from the threat of strong contemporaries by means of a self-delighting temperament and the protection of family and friends, her formal writings show us the same temperament forging whole and complete in themselves essays so impeccably wrought that they fulfill entirely her desire in "Women and Fiction" to find a style "that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it." Very often in the criticism proper this is carried out under the pretense of discerning what is perfect in another writer, and while her judgments are often wonderfully acute, even when a writer is questioned or condemned her own sureness of vision brings us in the end to marvel at the execution of "a structure," as she puts it in A Room of One's Own, "leaving a shape on the mind's eye, built now in squares, now pagoda shaped, now throwing out wings and arches, now solidly compact and domed like the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople." It is an achievement that earns her the description she reserves for Ruskin inBooks and Portraits: "He is opulent in his eloquence," she writes, "and at the same time meticulous in his accuracy." It even earns her the surpassing praise with which she approaches the achievement of Shakespeare himself: "His poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare."

Originally published in The Washington Post Book World, April 23, 1978

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8/25/10

Brother Bishop Belts the Blues

by Perry Meisel

National Merit Scholar Elvin Bishop had been studying out of school for more than two years before the University of Chicago finally threw him out in 1963. Instead of Marx and Cervantes, Bishop had been taking Waters and Diddley, but for all its legendary progressiveness, the university couldn't quite see its way to giving him class credit. It was a lucky decision for American music, and probably luckier still for Bishop himself, who recalls today that his scholarship to Hyde Park was never more than a ticket to ride: "I grew up with pigs and chickens on the farm outside Tulsa," says Bishop as we collapse in the dressing room following his show last weekend at the Palladium. "Till I went off to school," he says, "I never saw more than 10 0r 12 people together at one time." Well, mebbe - it's a fact, at least, that Pecos Bill couldn't play the blues half as well as Bishop can.
To call Bishop's music the blues may be putting too fine a point on grooves that range from swing (both dance-band and country), to funkadelicate soul things; I guess the real word for it must be rock and roll. For almost five years now, Bishop has been fronting a traveling band that plays the kind of stuff you might be privileged to stumble upon some luminous Friday night at a roadhouse deep in the country. It might be Texas, with chicken-shack tenors yakking up a storm, or maybe Mississippi, with chortling guitars; it might move closer to the city, with Melvin Seals bubbling on Hammond organ; it might even be suburbia - this is a democratic band - with Mickey Thomas, a cross between Little Eva and Little Stevie Wonder, just before they became Mark Farner, singing up high. With Bishop's apprenticeship in the Butterfield Blues Band anchoring his whole career, his music sums up a flexible blues belt traditionalism with one foot in Chicago and the other somewhere in the vast rural tract stretching north from Dallas to the Texas panhandle, up through the plains states, then east toward Memphis, and lately - with these double guitar leads - back down to Macon. Bishop has also been putting out records of comparable breadth and consistency on Capricorn for four years (my favorite is Let It Flow), and has recently released a live twofer that's as fine a concept LP as you're likely to hear (Raisin' Hell).
The music's conceptual and geographical range is matched by the way the band hits you onstage, spread out in a big, comfortable semi-circle with plenty of room to jump around in. But there's plenty of brassy snap to keep you rocking steady right there in your seat, too. With virtually no jive in sight, the band spins relaxation and craftsmanship into quality fun. It's a setting in which soloists are allowed to find a groove at the beginning of a set; they're not limited to one-chorus rides meted out like so many bowls of gruel to wage-slaves. No, here altoist Jerry McKinney could take his time during the first few choruses of his opening solo on a slow blues, spitting out a terse soul line and then feeling free to lace it through some 16th-note variations on the changes, confident that the foray could always resolve itself in an equally terse finale if the ideas dried up. But if things felt good - as they did when Bishop and his boys were at the Palladium in mid-February - he could pluck more high-voltage riffs from the band's fecund rhythms, setting the pattern of performance that buoyed the soloists throughout the evening.
Bishop himself roams the (physical and musical) space with comic urgency, sputtering a lick on his red guitar like some zany frontier humorist, then cocking his head with a wriggle of his frizzy mop as though to scrutinize the phrase for the quality of its foresight. Will it lead to something dramatic when the four-chord comes around? Or will he be forced to rethink his moves completely? When the solo is almost over - neat as hell, of course, and unexpected in its symmetry - Elvin will spin on his heel and shuck back to his place in the platoon behind Mickey Thomas and second guitarist Johnny Vernazza, reeling off the descending chords that signify the solo's end with his back facing the audience.
The style of Bishop's comic energy evokes Michael J. Pollard or even Soupy Sales, especially now that he's gotten rid of the cowboy hat. He cakewalks up and down the edge of the stage - aided by a transistor device in his guitar that allows him to romp and play at will without an umbilicus tying him to a particular spot - like a white and belated version of Chuck Berry. The witting uncool way he waddles on his haunches signifies both an honesty and a security rare in the musicians of his generation.
Hence, the purity and relative innocence of both the music and its style of performance are themselves the sign of something beyond the good old fun they invoke with such exuberance. For all its vitality, Bishop's is an almost monastic vocation, rooted in years of tradition and with a peculiar kind of anonymity as its constant precondition. After all, living on the road is a lonely and a trying way to make a living, with little more to keep you warm than endless hamburgers and "drinking whiskey in airport bars," as Bishop describes it on "I Love the Life I Lead." With a humanity that is both the cause and the result of his inability to fetishize stardom and massive popularity, Bishop's secure maintenance of the traditions that sustain his music calls to mind the way in which medieval cathedrals were built over periods of time that outspanned the lives of all the anonymous hands that contributed to their construction. Blues belt music like Bishop's is a scholastic edifice in its own right, complete with the assurance and quietude that can only come from humble participation in a system bigger than any of its priests. For Bishop, the music itself is its own and only real reward - he holds the keys to the kingdom, and the highway, every night he plays.

Originally published in The Village Voice, March 6 1978

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8/23/10

The Boz in the Machine

by Perry Meisel

Renee and I had settled into our seats at Avery Fisher Hall with lots of expectations that hot night last July. Here was a chance to see Boz Scaggs up close and find out whether he could deliver the elegance and heartbreak of Silk Degrees in front of real people. After all, his newly cultivated persona was bound up body and soul (if such terms still had meaning here) with the air-conditioned isolation and faintly android world-view of the Sun Belt studio. Until a few listenings had revealed how astonishingly moving and melodic Silk Degrees really was, its slicko production could easily be taken for a rocker's version of Lou Rawls in Philadelphia, or maybe George Benson in Vegas. Besides, there was something musically troubling, too. Even on TV, he usually looked strained, a little black under the eyes, and we'd seen him hang out at Mikell's, not quite sure what to do with his hands.
We didn't get a chance to find out much of anything that July night, since three tunes into the concert suddenly the lights, the sound, everything went out and Boz's story slipped into darkness once again. The music was at the mercy of the machine more than Boz perhaps had wished. With his new album - Down Two Then Left, on Columbia - the presence of the machine seems to have diminished, although its futuristic title and jacket conjure up a Boz of the studios even more forbidding than the suspected technocrat of Silk Degrees.
To be sure, the title's assumption of a (probably nonorganic) grid or puzzle on which we locate ourselves (or is it seats at a concert, or the way to the men's room?) is a wonderfully subtle way of suggesting how the album positions its tunes and its vocal manners across a wide variety of cultural and musical combinations or styles. Boz runs a wider musical gamut here than ever before, stretching from throaty stomps like "Hollywood," to falsetto r&b ("Then She Walked Away") and the Cab Calloway nuances of "Gimme the Goods." Culturally, meanwhile, Scaggs's distinctly Bozoid compeers on the album's silvery cover (sources? selves? servants?) may even define his present identity as a series of personations, perhaps an attempt to account for the self-conscious minstrelsy on which his ambience has depended since "Can Somebody Spare Me a Dime?" Is he outdoing Leon Redbone? Or is he simply replaying the Pips without the pedigree?
But don't let the album's neurology fool you. Like Silk Degrees, this one needs to be listened to five, maybe 10 times before it starts turning up in your head in the middle of a movie. It has the same insinuating melodic power as Silk Degrees, with even more of the passion on the run that gave the earlier record so real and powerful a charge of longing and regret. Here Boz is once again battered by forces beyond his control and even beyond his ken. His triumph is to achieve so superb a sense of balance, whether the forces that rock him are to be read in a sociopolitcal way (preppie whiteboy from Dallas actually pays his dues) or in the global and vaguely apocalyptic context of "1993."
Boz's poise is moral, however, only in terms of what the new album finally tells us about his growing sense of craft. Here technique itself becomes an ethical category, as if the only agreeable relation to black culture possible for a white musician is to learn from it singular lessons of restraint and artistic rigor. Thus, the breakthrough of Silk Degrees itself, with its sure sense of limits in singing and songwriting alike. The tunes were exemplary for their shrewd lyricism and the singing for its knowledge of where to stop the phrase and where to crack the voice without letting a lack of natural genius betray itself in mediocrity or, more likely, in plain old mistakes. Down Two Then Left follows the same pattern, only with stronger chops, which allow him to be an even more ambitious writer and singer and to hit more grooves and more inflections without risking his credibility at all.
So the striving that relieves and transforms the regret here is the product of a joyful sense of knowing just how to do it and just where to stop. That this brand of sublimation is perfectly in accord with the super-'70s sensibility at work in Boz's sleek, glistening persona helps to relieve it of its mechanistic, technocratic, and just-plain-plastic scariness. Boz is Disco Redeemed, the guy who shows us how much we lost by not taking this new tone and manner as a genuine musical possibility. With honorable melodies, serious soloing (even a trumpet on "We're Waiting," besides a number of guitar rides peppered throughout the album), and a lot of heart, this stuff really is the knockout we always thought it couldn't be. Take heart, world - Graham Parker is not alone.

Originally published in The Village Voice, January 2, 1978

8/19/10

Strachey's Counterplot

by Perry Meisel

One man opposing a society
If properly misunderstood becomes a myth.
I fear the understanding.

- Wallace Stevens,
"Lytton Strachey, Also, Enters into Heaven"

Current interest in Bloomsbury has done little to rescue Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians from the neglect that threatens to depose it as a classic. Among the first direct expressions of revolt against the Victorian legacy, the book was greeted with immense enthusiasm by Strachey's young contemporaries when it appeared in 1918. In Cyril Connolly's words, it "struck the note of ridicule which the whole war-weary generation wanted to hear." 1The therapeutic virtues of Strachey's ritual slaughter of the Victorian fathers - Miss Nightingale included - easily produced the conviction that "at last," as Virginia Woolf put it, "it was possible to tell the truth about the dead." 2
Telling the truth about "the dead," of course, meant more in this case than simply telling the truth about the dead Victorians who people Strachey's book. It meant telling the truth about those other, newer dead, too, the ones who lay scattered in anonymous graves across France and Belgium. Written over the course of the four years' fighting, in the spring of 1918 the book's "topical relevance," as David Garnett called it, could hardly have been greater. 3 After all, the Great War had come to be perceived, says J.K. Johnstone, as "an inheritance" from the ageEminent Victorians criticized.4 For Garnett, "the life of Gordon, and still more that of Florence Nightingale, had indeed many direct applications to the conduct of the war of 1914-1918. When the book was first published, the likeness of the Crimean War to such sideshows as the campaign in Mesopotamia must have struck every reader . . . . Even Cardinal Manning was an apt illustration of how men rose to power and their passion for it. In Doctor Arnold I saw how English education moulded men to accept convention and prefer almost any sacrifice to losing caste by thinking for themselves. I felt sure that there were many of my generation who would recognise the same implications in Eminent Victorians, and I could not doubt the book's success." 5
The psychological relief to be had from blaming the war on the Victorians even held off for a short time those historians who would soon mount an attack against Strachey's document by pointing out deviations from source material which Strachey had apparently distorted for the sake of ridicule and dramatic effect. Although the offensive began only a few months after rave reviews had greeted the book's publication in May of 1918, the skirmishes have continued into our own day, and for largely the same reasons - that Strachey "cared too much for art and too little for history." 6
Whether one believes in objective history or not, however, the polemical intentions of Strachey's narrative tend to put us off a little today. Among the numerous causes that may be assigned to the book's declining credibility are our new sympathy with the Victorians themselves, and our growing impatience with what seems to be Strachey's rather complacent diagnosis of hypocrisy and obsession in the four subjects of his biographical sketches. The text's irony now seems to inhere less in the portraits than in the portraiture. If Strachey meant to ridicule his Victorian forebears (his personal legacy was representative enough), it appears instead that the real victim was Strachey himself. After all, Eminent Victorians disturbs us most today because of the pasteboard dramaturgy and the cant that seem to follow from its easy judgments and loaded arguments. These qualities are fine for topical pamphleteering, but seem little suited to a text that aspires to immortality. Such ambition requires meanings that are more durable, more literary.
But whatever reasons we may give for the book's decline in prestige, they are as much as anything else the consequence of our failure to attend to what Strachey himself has to say.Eminent Victorians is a far shrewder project than even its champions seem to realize, and a far more balanced text than its audacities would appear to suggest. To be sure, the book's initial aim is to throw into question the pious achievements of its eminent characters. But let us see what precise kinds of problems Strachey's polemical intentions manage to generate. Strachey sets himself up, of course, as a new sort of authority, one who can separate the reality from the sham of his forbears, and so adduce a "true history" (164)7, as he puts it at one point in the Nightingale sketch, which will differ from the cover-ups written by the Victorians about themselves. Distinguishing himself from the standard Victorian biographer in the famous and problematical Preface to the narrative, Strachey makes claim to "a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant" (IX). And yet, a few sentences later on, he is the very model of redundancy himself: the biographer's "business," he says, is "to lay bare the facts of the case, as he understands them. This is what I have aimed at in this book - to lay bare the facts of some cases . . . " (14). Not only does Strachey's narrator seem wittingly to violate one of his own principles. He also claims for himself a ground of factual accuracy that his cautious modesty earlier in the Preface ("I have attempted, through the medium of biography, to present some Victorian visions to the modern eye" [vii]) has largely eschewed.
These manifest inconsistencies in the Preface carry the suggestiveness of a clue. Though Michael Holroyd has made apologies for whatever contradictions may appear in the text, it is probably more accurate to say that the text's very condition is one of contradiction. In fact, Strachey's attempt to set himself up as an authority capable of separating fact from fiction embroils him in a series of paradoxes so overt as to seem almost intentional. Indeed, Strachey appears to burlesque those distinctions between truth and legend that have always been taken as the cornerstone of his fame.
Consider, for example, the portrait of Florence Nightingale. "Everyone knows the popular conception, " says the narrator at the start of the sketch. "But the truth was different. The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancy painted her" (135). What, then, is Strachey's version of the truth? "A Demon," he says, "possessed her" (135). Somehow the seriousness of the psychological assertion - if that is what it is - is reduced by the absurdity with which it is expressed. Indeed, Strachey's peculiar version of "fact" displays an astonishing capacity for hyperbole, one that even rivals Miss Nightingale's for a melodramatic understanding of her life and mission - the understanding, at least, that we get through Strachey's loaded version of what the facts of her biography seem to be. Moreover, the ambiguous keyword "vision" appears throughout the Nightingale portrait, sometimes as a cipher for fancy, myth, and legend, and sometimes as a cipher for the narrator's refutations and counterclaims. The distinctions are necessarily hard to grasp, and Strachey's use of the same word on both sides of the imaginary boundary line between the world of fact and the world of fiction makes it no easier to be clear about his categories. Strachey's "fact," after all, is just as fanciful as the legends it seeks to overturn. Indeed, our present uneasiness about the book's simpleminded distinctions between truth and myth may even help to point us in the direction of what seems to be the narrative's hidden strategy of intent.
As it turns out, fact and fiction are simply rival interpretations of the same evidence. In fact,Eminent Victorians is everywhere concerned with interpretation, and the relentlessness with which it discerns the presence of decipherment in all aspects of the stories it tells elevates interpretation to the status of a major theme in the narrative. The narrator, of course, is an interpreter par excellence, working only from other books, as Holroyd reminds us, hence pursuing his personal indictment of the fathers more or less strictly within the confines of an exegesis - he even lists his sources, all of them published, at the end of each chapter. "It is only possible to discern with clearness," says the narrator of Manning's story in an exemplary aside, "amid a vast cloud of official documents and unofficial correspondences in English, Italian, and Latin, of Papal decrees and voluminous scritture, of confidential reports of episcopal whispers and the secret agitations of Cardinals" - the subject of all this has yet to appear - "the form of Manning, restless and indomitable, scouring like a stormy petrel the angry ocean of debate" (169-70). It is rather dramatic and detailed picture that emerges despite the "cloud" of evidence that Strachey has found to obscure the subject of his search. Like the Army telegraphist in the Nightingale portrait, it is his job, after all, "to compress the messages which pass . . . through his hands" (168).
Strachey's concern with the labor of reading evidence and writing evaluations of it is clearest in the the choices he makes to describe and motivate his characters. Like the narrator, all four subjects read and write habitually, even obsessively. Manning, for example, uses his diary to examine "with relentless searchings . . . the depths of his heart" (45), because his whole life, piety and politics alike, resolves itself, in Strachey's words, into the question of "how . . . to judge" (48). Miss Nightingale, meanwhile, pours out her frustrations during the Crimean campaign in an endless series of letters, and produces later in the story a massive volume of analysis about the British Army little different in form and method from the constant decipherment of the Bible and other religious tracts that absorbs both Dr. Arnold and General Gordon in the second pair of Strachey's four portraits.
Moreover, if there is one common factor that explains why Strachey's characters appear so preposterous to us, it is because they find huge significance in absurd portents and clear answers to issues shrouded in ambiguity - much, in fact, the way Strachey himself does. Strachey's description of the kinds of theological hermeneutics that engage Manning and Newman in the first, and probably the best, portrait, might well be (mis)taken for a description of his own activity in the narrative: "But directly someone found it important to give them a new and untraditional interpretation" - Strachey is at this point discussing the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican church - "it appeared that they were a mass of ambiguity, and might be twisted into meaning very nearly anything that anybody liked" (31).
Hence Strachey sets himself up in the same position of blatant and often criminal authority for which he derides the subjects of his sketches. The adventures of his characters resemble nothing so much as the adventures of their narrator in his attempt to render their lives. The style of his own power over history tends in fact to mirror the style and power of his Victorian protagonists since, like them, he threads his way through the evidence with a singlemindedness of intent that begins to focus as much abuse on his own enterprise as on the material it is intended to indict. Indeed, Strachey's hyperbolic demeanor seems so much like the comportment of his subjects that he appears almost to have learned his methods from them. The narrator's mandarin prose is often no less starched and affected than the targets of its invectives are supposed to be, with the result that Dr. Arnold's Rugby and Strachey's Bloomsbury tend to seem far more alike than they are different.8
This reflexive strategy establishes a kind of retrograde movement or counterplot that tempers the narrative's otherwise uninhibited polemic. It even accounts for the almost absurd degree of attention the narrator lavishes on the nuances of Biblical interpretation and theological disputation throughout the book. Except for the usual reasons of humorous scorn and abuse, there seems little cause for the atheistic Strachey to write about four religious fanatics and to dwell for so long and with such relish on the intricacies of the various religious questions that obsessed all his subjects. Even stranger is the fact that all this proceeds with little of Strachey's customary vituperation and even less of the languid yawning that one expects the Bloomsbury attitude toward theological questions to be. The reason, though, is clear enough: Strachey is downright fascinated by interpretation in whatever form it appears.
The intrigues of religious interpretation generate the whole drama of Strachey's portrait of Manning, and if we are to ascribe the uniqueness of the sketch to something more than its simple psychologizing, the cause must be the narrator's constant attentiveness to the specific hermeneutic dramas that lead both Manning and Newman - the co-hero of the sketch - along the intertwining paths of their respective careers. Strachey's interest in these disputations is, of course, more a function of his interest in interpretation itself than in the fatuous religious dilemmas that Manning and Newman both try to resolve by means of their hermeneutic imaginations. Indeed, both men are interpreters before they are anything else, with Newman's aestheticism and Manning's political schemes both functions of their shared propensity for decipherment.
Dr. Arnold is above all a theological interpreter, too. According to Strachey's citation from a description of Arnold by "one of his contemporaries," the headmaster's "religious doubts" are the result of his confusion about " "the proof and the interpretation of the textual authority" " (208). (It goes without saying, of course, that the Higher Criticism and its effects on a figure like Clough provide still another reflection on Strachey's hidden theme.) Despite his puzzlement, however, Arnold envisions Rugby as a "theocracy" because he is an obsessive reader of the Bible, deciding to "treat his boys at Rugby as Jehovah had treated the Chosen People" (214). Even his commitment to the study of Greek and Latin comprises a model insistence on the interpretation of documents. Moreover, his conviction that the aim of education " "is," " in his own words, " "not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge" " (219) establishes a clear ground of identity between himself and Strachey the narrator, whose own interest is always with the instrument of interpretation rather than with its particular conclusions.
Like Arnold, General Gordon is always studying his Bible, and like Manning and Florence Nightingale, he is always to be seen scribbling in his diary in an attempt to purge his frustrations and to find in them some meaning or secret that will elucidate and compose the conflicting messages presented by his experience. Of course, the melodramatic visions of both Gordon and the Mahdi resemble nothing so much as Strachey's own melodramatic caricatures of these brother visionaries, and both kinds of melodrama proceed according to the same style of hermeneutic search. Like the exegetical Strachey, Gordon hunts "for prophetic texts" and tends to "dally with omens" (260), trying always "to discover what were the Bible's instructions, and to act accordingly" (258). "A day never passed," says Strachey, "on which he neglected the voice of eternal wisdom as it spoke through the words of Paul or Solomon, of Johan or Habakkuk. He opened his Bible, he read, and then he noted down his reflections upon scraps of paper" (261). Meanwhile, of course, all the Sudan hangs on the question of another interpretation, one that stands at another center of Gordon's story: "There were signs by which the true Mahdi might be recognised - unmistakable signs, if one could but read them aright" (273).
In this concluding portrait, it is the problem of Gladstone's character that provides Strachey with a summary account of the medium in which both characters and narrator come to take their existence in Eminent Victorians, the medium of ciphers and interpretation. Stalking the length of the book like a nimbus, Gladstone overarches the narrator, playing major roles in the first and last portraits and now bespeaking the pervasiveness of the book's hidden design at its close:

What, then, was the truth? In the physical universe there are no chimeras. But man is more various than nature; was Mr. Gladstone, perhaps, a chimera of the spirit? Did his very essence lie in the confusion of Incompatibles? His very essence? It eludes the hand that seems to grasp it . . . Speech was the fibre of his being; and, when he spoke, the ambiguity of ambiguity was revealed. The long, winding, intricate sentences, with their vast burden of subtle and complicated qualifications, befogged the mind like clouds, and like clouds, too, dropped thunderbolts. (308)

Eminent Victorians, then, is a self-accounting book since it is a text about texts, an interpretation of interpretations, a piece of writing about writing. From this point of view, its missionary anti-Victorianism is in many ways a vehicle for its meditation on the nature of signs and their decipherment. Language, according to Strachey, is not privileged to do more than interpret other pieces of language, sealed as it seems to be from the world fact that appears in its pages as a fancy of its own instead. Here the paradox of Strachey's intent becomes particularly acute, since his polemical stance is constantly subverted by his mode of expression.
The real referents of Strachey's argument recede from the text at the moment they come to life, as though the narrator's language tends to empty out its historicity in favor of a self-contained and endlessly reflexive play on its own status as a medium. Strachey's counterplot collapses the distance his manifest intentions wish to draw between the narrator's present and his subjects' past, turning this modernist history into an allegory of repetition in which all men - including Strachey himself - are the fools of interpretation. Even the certitude of a clear finale to the text is shattered, since the narrative offers a double ending to Gordon's story whose intentional ambiguity distinguishes itself radically from the clear terminations common to the usual discourse of "true history." Such a perspective skews our inherited notions about Strachey's text and its apparently fixed and limited place in literary history, allowing us to reinsert it in a more central line of high modernism along with patently reflexive works like Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Ford's The Good Soldier, or Conrad's Lord Jim.
That the book is a meditation specifically on the nature of (writing) history goes, of course, without saying. We have now only to take Strachey at his word to understand just how specific an identity he means to draw between himself and his subjects when he makes the famous claim in the Preface "that it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one" (viii). Strachey suggests that there is less difference than we like to assume between discourse and adventure, and what writing and acting, reading and scheming, are more similar than they are different. Hence part of Strachey's achievement in Eminent Victorians may well be to destroy our cherished distinctions between art and action by means of an interpretation of life that sees the world itself as a text or a complex of languages, and that exacts from all human endeavor the single and enduring feature of reading and interpreting signs. Strachey thereby calls into question the usual modernist faith in immediacy and the truth of one's impressions by inserting the mediating and distancing factor of interpretation between the subject and his objects of knowledge and desire. Such a strategy also explodes the difference between legend and reality that is the narrative's fictional starting point and its predominant working myth. That Strachey should destroy customary dichotomies under the pretence of asserting them makes of his famous irony a far weightier tool than we ever expected it to be.
Strachey's counterplot finally suggests that we should take the polemical dimension of modernism a little less seriously than we used to. Strachey's attempt to map out a new perception of the past (and, by implication, a new literary and historical period in the present) turns out to be made on the model of the objects and events from which it wants to distinguish itself - it claims a difference by means of a resemblance or repetition. Moreover, the book's hidden design allows to see that a similar kind of self-subverting structure informs many classic modern texts at the root of their conception, defusing their momentary claims to priority and fulfillment in the present by revealing the common temporal chains in which their meanings necessarily inhere. Recall, for example, the way both Ulysses and The Wastelandinsist on the rift between past and present by means of mythic identities that put into question the very rupture they are meant to repair. The same kind of ironic counterplot is at work in Lawrence's The Rainbow, too, in which the achievement of what Mailer will later call apocalyptic orgasm is enacted episode after episode, hence dissolving its claims to priority and satiety by its very recurrence. Above all, we are reminded of the way Virginia Woolf's faith in the moment is constantly corrected, not only by the pressures of literary tradition evident throughout her work, but also by the cognitive mechanisms that allow her characters their epiphanies by means of repetitions and remembrances that put into question whatever integrity the moment may seem to possess on its own.
As our own distance from the moderns begins to widen, then, such a perspective may allow us to place Strachey, Woolf, and the rest of their literary generation in the continuities of tradition rather than to leave modernism in its usual adversary relation to all that comes before it. Even more, Strachey's counterplot reveals the paradoxical nature of modernism as a project in its dependence on the very models from which it wants to be freed. The rift in question is not between modernity and the past, but within the will to modernity itself. Like Strachey's Gladstone, its "very essence" lies in the "incompatible." To invoke history and to deny it are its twin and irreconcilable imperatives.

New York University

1. Quoted in Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), 11, 331.
2.Virginia Woolf, "The Art of Biography," in Collected Essays, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967), IV, 223.
3. David Garnett, The Flowers of the Forest (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 154.
4. J.K. Johnstone, The Bloomsbury Group (New York: Noonday, 1954), p. 267.
5. Garnett, pp. 153-154
6. Gabriel Gersh, "Lytton Strachey: Pathfinder in Biography," Modern Age, 11 (Fall 1967), 399. For a survey of historicist criticism of Strachey, see Donald H. Simpson, "Lytton Strachey & the Facts," Encounter, 42 (January 1974), 87-94.
7. All references and citations from Eminent Victorians are from the first American edition (New York: Putnam, 1918).
8. It is Connolly who pointed out the "Mandarin" quality of Strachey's prose, although he maintains it is meant to "lull . . ." the mandarin ear into "revolutionary" conclusions rather than to double mandarin procedures. See Enemies of Promise, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 47.


Originally published in Structuralist Review: A Journal of Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy,Vol. 1 No. 2, Winter 1978