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)




11/29/10

Trans(re)ference: The Nature of James Strachey's Discipleship

by Perry Meisel

Face a teacher with the image of the taught and the mirror breaks.
- Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

The unwillingness of psychoanalysis to account for itself is one of the more amusing ironies of modern intellectual history, especially since it is the precise signature of Freud's overwhelming influence upon us all. If, as Lacan long ago pointed out, the fate of the notion of repression is its own repression, then the repression of the inevitable dynamic of psychoanalytic history is to be expected, too - the Oedipal agon between influence and originality that is both the story Freud tells and the means by which he tells it. After all, if Freud's patients (and the Freud of the self-analysis) have chief among their complaints the Oedipus complex at the level of story or histoire, then Freud's narration or récit is likewise - in a reflexive mimicry of what he describes - also implicated in an Oedipal struggle with a complex variety of prior or precursor texts that number among the bewilderingly countless overdeterminations that engender his writing.

Discipleship as Transference

The Oedipal structure at both the empirical and narrational levels of psychoanalysis is also identical with another structure central to its discourse and one that has recently become a renewed focus of attention both clinically and theoretically, and, oddly enough, in both American and French Freud: the transference. Our present concern with it may in some way alleviate the usual neglect to attempt to discern why, as François Roustang puts it, psychoanalysis never lets go. At least we may find that the transference is the mechanism that analysis itself customarily uses to account for the trance of consent and illusion perpetrated by any production of power, or, to put it another way, the mode of formalizing and studying reader-response or faith within any institutional setting. Attending to the transference as a category, then, is the decided result of an increasing internal pressure within analysis to begin to talk about the nature of its own peculiar realities. The transference is, properly speaking, the reflexive category par excellence among the arsenal of terms invented by Freud. It is no less than the very structure of both the patient's inscription within the clinical narratology of analysis and the controlling dynamic of analysis itself as a procedure. Interrogating the transference by definition leads to some recognition of the nature of the mechanism of its own power - not the empirical kind but the self-engendering kind of rhetorical power psychoanalysis has as a science or religion. Of course, any such recognition also remains, from a scrupulously analytic point of view, nothing but a displacement, yet another symptom of our enduring inability to confront our collective discipleship to Freud himself.
The transference, in other words, must itself be analyzed. Now, however, especially after French Freud, our international group transference onto Freud at large is so dense and manifold that the layers of additional mediation that have been defensively imposed upon our originary transference onto Freud himself (for some of us, it may have been only Erikson, or Jung, or Lacan in the first instance) requires us to number among the first objects of a self-accounting inquiry the many discipleships to or readings of Freud that distance him even further from us. Thus the history of our fetishization of new apostles - from the early émigré renegades to the inescapable shade of Lacan - is symptomatic to an almost paradigmatic degree, since such a history is really a history of the most influential transferences onto the Founder. The enthusiasm with which we greet Lacanianism today, for example, may itself be described as the renewed expression or fulfillment of the wish still not to confront the father to whom Lacan famously claims to return. In fact, from a classical exegetical point of view, Lacan's is a typologically Christian articulation of the Oedipus complex or anxiety of influence by which he subordinates Freud rather than serves him, relegating Freud's Old Testament to the status of prophecy rather than maintaining it as revelation, thereby requiring its deepest truths to be available only at the moment of the son's - Lacan's - belated redemption of its real meaning. Freud, of course, had already put himself in such a situation at three stations in his own itinerary, as though to preempt any and all of his still wished-for future discipleships by playing the part of disciple to his own achievements during the course of his manifestly self-revisionary career - the originary self-revision of 1896-97, the metapsychological reflexivity of 1914-16, and the 1920-23 tripartition of the mind.
To begin, then, to solve the paradox of Freudian capture or discipleship, or at least to negotiate it, analysis must be turned upon its history, much as Freud did upon his own from time to time. Surely the recent acting out on the part of Masson, Sulloway, or even Balmary is in some measure victim to it. It is an avenue of non-escape, the result in such cases of a non-analytic personalization that reduces everything to quaint biography. That Masson in particular wishes simply to repress the precise moment of the invention of psychoanalysis is bald in its pathology. By contrast, the history of analysis, like Freud's own texts, should be read reflexively so as to break the thrall of authority that is supposedly Freud's historically revolutionary intent in the first place. A case in point is Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism as a projection of the disciples' collective fear of Freud's own authority or status as Führer, a nomenclature that is not incoincidentally contemporaneous with what may justly be called a fascization of the analytic movement around Freud's very body in the 1930s (hence, too, the fasc-ination with his decaying health), and one not, alas, unlike the procedures that characterized the simultaneous advent of fascism proper in the culture that had already produced psychoanalysis itself. Indeed, in the wake of Freud's own Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, it is reasonably easy to theorize that all identification or self-fashioning is structured like classical fascism to the extent that the introjection of consequential images is a function (using, in addition, Winnicott's reading of Lacan's mirror stage) of primitive transferences not recognized as such. The schismatic tendencies that elaborate rather than inhibit the history of analysis are likewise a sign of Freud's own transferential intent rather than a grossly Napoleonic ambition. Considered strategically, the maintenance of orthodoxy was not for Freud himself at all as straightforward as analytic history may make it seem, nor, of course, as naively fascist as an aggressive history could. Freud wished heresy. As the history of analysis goes on to attest, no single reading of Freud has ever - can ever - succeed in maintaining itself as wholly just or authoritative. The implication is plain that Freud's apparent willfulness during his lifetime to preserve a theoretical orthodoxy, no matter the personal cost nor the apparent expense in the repression of influences both local and international, disguises his arguably real desire to produce rival discipleships, a far more cunning means of securing immortality than mere assent, since it allowed for - indeed, required - the expression of schisms inherent in the Founder himself, and, in the process, disseminated his teachings at increasingly diffuse levels of debate.

English Freud

In the Anglophone world, of course, an exact problem defines the nature of our particular collective discipleship, shaped as it is by the fact of the Standard Edition. No inquiry into our relation to the English or Bloomsbury Freud that produced it - the originary transference that structures the relation of English readers to the Freudian original - would be complete without at least schematizing the nature of the action of the translation, and, even more, of the exemplary - and, from the point of view of analytic history, wholly repressed - discipleship that brought it about. It is with this specific problem that the remainder of the present essay is concerned, and to the extent that a reading of English Freud is largely absolute among non-German readers, it is, for better or worse, the very horizon of our already displaced relation to Freud himself. James Strachey, chief editor and translator of English Freud beginning unofficially as early as 1922 (Meisel and Kendrick 1985), was good enough to leave the implicit imprint of the structure of his discipleship in his classic essay on the transference, "The Nature of the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis" (1934). No stranger to its nuances, Strachey had already been strategic in noting the transferential advantages to be had in choosing as his own second analyst (the first, of course, had been Freud himself, from 1920 to 1922) a fellow member of the British Society, James Glover, with whom he began sessions in 1925 and continued until Glover's untimely death that year. (That James's wife Alix had also witnessed the death of her second analyst, Karl Abraham, the year before is particularly seductive for an account of the Stracheys' power as mediators and purveyors of the Father in their own right.) Younger brother of the psychoanalyst Edward Glover, James Glover thereby duplicated in his personal history a familial structure strikingly similar to Strachey's own. Both Jameses not only had older brothers whom they genuinely loved and who performed similar jobs (James Strachey was, like his older brother Lytton, a journalist early on); James Glover was at the same time also younger than James Strachey himself. That both also possessed the same Christian name likely made the promise of clinical efficiency additionally enticing.
As Strachey outlines it in his 1934 essay, the structure of transference lies in the double action produced by the bond between analyst and patient. Strachey focuses on the simultaneous or, as he puts it, "mutative" play between the patient's immediate relation to the analyst as a person in his or her own right and the patient's relation to the transferential status the analyst acquires during the analytic procedure. Such a play or relation, Strachey argues, is the very pivot of the action of the transference itself. The psychoanalytic narrative is, in other words, both about itself - the patient and analyst in their actual state - and about something else like it - the patient and analyst in transferential or mediate, not immediate, relation.
Hence trans(re)ference: the premise of the transference's motivating mobility of symbolizations on the part of the analyst is structurally analogous to that of reference itself: something is what it is because it is something else. Thanks to différance, a sign is, by definition, what it is by virtue of its ability to stand for what it is not. Authority - the analyst's, for example - is what it is by virtue of what it can be by contrast, in the symbolizations to which the analyst lends his or her plasticity. To the extent such symbolization stops - a function as it is of the relation between the two planes upon which the analysis has proceeded, the immediate and the transferential, very like the two planes of récit and histoire in narratology - the tension that drives the narrative of the analysis itself also stops. In other words, once the difference that allows symbolization to be maintained collapses, relations between patient and analyst grow normal; that is to say, the analysis is "completed."
Once récit recognizes itself as such - once the transferential symbolizations that produce an analytic histoire assigned to the patient's primary process comes to a halt, or at least to a cease-fire - its putative difference from the histoire it supposedly only recounts collapses, too, rendering the analytic scenario all that it had ever been anyway: the byplay of a series of récits and interruptions, all designed to evoke the always absent causality of the unconscious factors to which they appear to refer. To arrive, then, at the immediate - for Strachey, a figure meant to represent the fact of straightforward interlocution between consenting adults rather than the mediate symbolizations between them that reciprocally produce the roles of patient and analyst instead - is to arrive at the usually unthinkable terminus of an analysis. The transference, in other words, is what allows for the analytic production of primary-process material as an obviously direct function of the analyst's interference with the patient's discourse, whether by speech or silence. Transferential authority serves as a kind of marker around which, scene to scene, imago to imago, the patient is conducted into an associative and inferential realm of elaboration - both in his or her reactive speech and in the silence beyond the session that the analyst never hears - that situates, by definition and after the fact, the primariness its mutative play has succeeded in rearing. For Strachey, the trajectory of the transference increasingly dissolves its own authority as the very sign of its success.
We already know these narratological configurations particularly well in literature. Paradise Lost is probably the frankest instance in English of a text that freely admits how and why the putative immediacies that give its narration the aura of presence are the function of contrast or negation. The garden, innocent man and woman, all the poem's pre-linguistic primacies are, like Freud's unconscious, really the result of fallen - that is to say, belated - modes of narration. Heeding the conditions that Gabriel and Michael lay down (and that Joyce will later on overtly invert so as to clarify them in "The Dead"), Milton broadcasts his "erring" but necessary reversal of temporal priorities ("a new train of intermediate images," as Dr. Johnson puts it in the Life) in the very construction of the poem's histoire - the story it tells - by explicitly announcing, even exploiting, its retroactive production by means of its anthological récit. The mechanism of readerly belief in novels or any narrative is, of course, similar. David Copperfield, presaging the readerly metaphors that chart Pip's progress in the later Great Expectations, is thereby the novelization of the production of an author - a prior cause - that accounts for the earlier reality of David's life by means of a deferred account of it. The tension of narrative desire is, like the dissolution of the transference, released in closure by the collapse of the (only) functional difference between récit and histoire as each tale proceeds. Great Expectations concludes with stability because Pip has managed the same for himself.
If the structure of reference and the transference are very largely the same, then both in turn are structurally akin to the nature of psychoanalytic thought itself - that is, to the production of (the objects of) its knowledge.1 Much as the play between récit and histoire produces the illusion of an aesthetic world of whatever referential order in the structure of narrative proper, so the play between patient and analyst produces the very ground of the subject's interiority in tandem with its production of the analytic discourse it tautologically signifies. Like a literary text, the transference in analysis becomes in retrospect not just an instrument that works upon objects or states of mind it may come upon, but the self-engendering ground of its discursive scenario from the start. As we already know, Freud's various origins or primacies - the unconscious, the primary process, even the originary father - are produced as retroactive functions of their symptoms or effects - consciousness, the secondary process, the son. As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere (Meisel, "Freud," "Reflexive Realism"), the ineluctable modality of psychoanalytic knowledge is that of retrospection or, as Freud calls it in the celebrated case of the Wolf Man, deferred action or Nachträglichkeit. While it may appear at first that deferred action is the structure of the patient's memory alone, it is also evident that it is the structure of the analyst's knowledge of the patient as well - Freud's narration doubles rather than simply reports that of his patient. In fact, the two narrations are in the final instance inseparable. What comes later - Freud's récit - effectively puts into place what comes before it - the apparent quiddity of the Wolf Man's histoire. As the text of the case history graphically attests - especially if we are attentive to the almost comic revisions to which the primal scene is subject as the narrative unwinds - Freud's vaunted primacies are later constructions that suggest the very category of the primal scene to be, like screen memories, a (re)presentation after the fact of something that happened only because it was required to happen.
In a real sense, then, we can say that Freud is, like his famous patient, belated in relation to his own discoveries. While we may like to think that Freud characteristically finds the cause or original that accounts for its later symptomatic tokens - it is actually the other way around: the later, symptomatic tokens - whether neuroses, dreams, or slips - are the real motivation for the retroactive invention of prior causative categories (the unconscious paradigmatic among their permutations) that may be said to account for them. As Nietzsche remarks, we too often mistake consequence for cause, and in Freud's case the mistake is especially evident in the history of his normative reception, masking as it does the very pivot or fulcrum of his power as a mythographer and so allowing him to appear to be a mimetic phenomenologist - a scientist - rather than a poet on the heights.

Translation as Transference

Given such conditions, there is only one avenue of Freudian discipleship that is preconditionally identical with the structure of analysis itself, and that is the structure of translation. Among the many who tried it, from A. A. Brill to Joan Riviere, Strachey alone seems to have understood that the very project of translation redoubled the project of analysis as such. For, much as analysis itself produces its originals - the unconscious and its brother variations - as the belated effects of its narration of them, so too does translation as a project produce the simulacrum of an original behind it as the price of its success. Of course, weak translations - literal ones that believe in pedantic correspondence rather than imaginative equivalence - are victim, like vulgar analysis, to the notion that there really is an original - a fathering text, like a genuine primal scene - to which the belated translator or disciple must remain strictly faithful. By contrast, strong translation - the kind that reimagines and reinvents in the awesome shift from the signifying fields of one language and its history into another's - knows that the prior original or father-text is both in practice and effect only belatedly present once the translation has been accomplished. The Homeric original, for example, gains its authority precisely because we receive it belatedly in at least two ways, one inescapable even if the other is not. Without Greek, we receive it simply in translation; but even without translation, we receive it as the direct effect of a fall from the fullness of oral speech to the secondariness of writing. The secondariness of Homer's founding epics in relation to themselves is in fact the constitutive irony upon which their authority durably rests. And on the basis of such a decidedly secondary original - the kind of phenomenon that even in 1800 Wordsworth, for example, can only describe paradoxically as "originally derived" - we customarily bestow a phantom legitimacy upon the prior fullness to which it bears witness only rhetorically.
Given also the ways in which all texts - Freud's originals included - are profoundly unstable to begin with, semiotically porous, deconstructible, even an empirical attempt to maintain the fixed reality of the fathering origin of Freud's German is likely to end in the lessons in narratology such questioners as Bruno Bettelheim never had. In the case of translation as authoritative as the Standard Edition, matters are largely closed. That Bettelheim's outburst is a combination of nostalgia and resistance is clear. That strong translation is in fact agonistic is already clear to Wordsworth in his revised Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1802. "A translator," says the poet, "endeavours . . . to surpass his original, in order to make some amends for the general inferiority to which he feels he must submit." That translation is also transferential is equally clear: the translator, says Wordsworth in the same passage, actually "deems himself justified when he substitutes excellences of another kind for those which are unattainable by him." Even more, such a strong notion of translation (in contrast, say, to Arnold's in the 1861 lectures on translating Homer) depends upon a poetics of reading that does not in the first place grant the fathering text the status of stable essence or fixed original.2 Much as the unconscious is an ensemble of signs that when read later on belatedly gains the priority of cause, so too does the fact of a strong translation suggest that whatever original it reinvents is not in the first instance the given beginning it may appear to be. After all, the multiplicity of readings to which Freud is subject in German - or to which Homer is in Greek - already puts in question the absolute status of the father-text from the start. A genuinely effective poetics of translation presupposes, in short, that language, even that of an original or primary text, functions as a set of mutable relations, not as a lode of presence, rendering the origin the result of its own derivations in the first place.
As translator, then, Strachey's discipleship to Freud is therefore a special one, occupying a sphere entirely apart from the two most historically influential ones, Jung on the right, Lacan on the left. The real power of the translation thereby turns on an irony so strategic that it loses in glamor or fame what it gains in influence: anonymity vs. eponymity. While the terms Jungian or Lacanian are commonly used, the designation Stracheyesque is virtually never used. But despite Strachey's relative anonymity, his power or influence is in fact far more pervasive than that of any of the other disciples, even Jung or Lacan. One is even inclined to submit that Strachey alone of all the disciples resolved his relation to the psychoanalytic origin, to the Freud to whom we can never return, in a unique or successful way. Whether or not a real act of parricide is behind the subsequent totem by which Feud customarily assures us of the crime's prior reality - as though to answer affirmatively his own ambiguity as to the question of the reality of such primal scenes in the Wolf Man - Oedipus is, of course, always a question of how murderously the father is to be handled by the disciple anyway. In Strachey's case, the answer to the question, "Does the father, Freud, retain priority?" is a surprising one. For Strachey - and likely for Strachey alone among psychoanalysts - the answer is no. In a Christianization of the overcoming of totemism, Strachey as translator consumes the very corpus - the body or original of the father, Freud - by consuming the real body or corpus of his text, not the biographical body of Masson, Sulloway, or Balmary. (The metaphor of ingestion also turns out to be the very means by which Strachey tropes such a radical sublimation of the Oedipus complex in his other important essay, "Some Unconscious Factors in Reading" [1930].) Now the parentheses can be removed from trans(re)ference, too, since the nature of Strachey's discipleship in fact consumes Freud's original text entirely - consumes the original to which it refers, its own English referents entirely different from those of the text translated, which has been brought instead into the thickets of the history of the English usage that even Freud himself does not occupy - besetzt - himself.
The irritating history of justification, hesitation, and praise of the Standard Edition ignores the far plainer fact that, from the point of view of psychoanalysis itself, the Standard Edition is most significant as an instance of sublimated rather than repressed discipleship. It is no less than a disservice to history to use it as a means of engaging in the sullen, nonpsychoanalytic quibble that translation as an activity ought to be judged on the basis of the adequation of a later text to its prior original. Translation is instead reimagination within systematic limits. Though Strachey practiced analysis and was a believer in the faith, surely his quite real control of what Freud had to say made it equally plain to him that psychoanalysis fashions its very objects of inquiry by making their absence the inescapable mode of their presence. Such rhetorical irony could hardly have escaped Strachey, pacing the lawn of his brother's house at Ham Spray with Alix, and may be said to have led him to the kind of position in which he had already found himself as a successful translator, namely the position that psychoanalysis itself is altogether a tissue of language whose referents by definition disappear when invoked.
Hence the characteristically saving failure on Strachey's part not to fall into the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that distinguishes, or fails to distinguish, the nature of virtually all other discipleships to Freud, and that adds a component of vulgarity even to Lacan's. It is nothing less than the belief that Freud's texts are about something other than their own effects. Indeed, so constitutive is this paradox to psychoanalysis that we turn away from it as readily as we always have from the like notion of repression. Whether or not our negation thereby confirms the truth of what it denies is, of course, best left unresolved.

Notes

1. Strachey's model for the transference necessarily clarifies the structure of Bloomsbury's common project as well, and his older brother Lytton Strachey's neglected masterpieces in particular - Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria, and Elizabeth and Essex, the last dedicated to James and Alix, and applauded by Freud, in a letter to Lytton, as "steeped in the spirit of psychoanalysis" (Meisel and Kendrick 1985, 332). There is, as one might expect, an exact match between the structure of Jamesian transference and Lyttonian historiography. Eminent Victorians, for example, reflects upon its own mode of text-production by virtue of narrating stories about the powerful negotiation of texts. It narrates itself by narrating something else that turns out to be like it, a procedure I have elsewhere termed reflexive realism (Meisel 1984, "Reflexive Realism"). In Queen Victoria and Elizabeth and Essex, Lytton even goes so far as to narrate quite directly the historical emergence of his own burlesqued psychological categories. Moreover, Jamesian transference not only formalizes Lytton's project but also suggests the degree to which psychoanalysis was - as Woolf by negation most famously reminds us - a significant part of the plainly collective achievement of Bloomsbury as a sensibility, which rotates the rhetoric of politics and privacy programmatically, whether in the texts of Woolf or Keynes or even G.E. Moore, and which finds its best slogan in James's psychoanalytic oxymoron, "psychic economy" (see Meisel 1987).

2. For a Stracheyesque correction of Arnold on translation, see Lytton Strachey.


Works Cited

Balmary, Marie. 1982. Psychoanalyzing Psychoanalysis: Freud and the Hidden Fault of the Father. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1983. Freud and Man's Soul. New York: Knopf.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth P. and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953 - 74. All references and citations from Freud are from the Standard Edition and are noted in the text by volume and page number.

---. "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis." SE 17: 7 - 122.

---. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. SE 18: 69 - 143.

Masson, Jeffrey. 1984. The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Meisel, Perry and Walter Kendrick, eds. 1985. Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924-25. New York: Basic Books.

Meisel, Perry. 1981. "Freud as Literature." Introduction to Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

---. "Freud's Reflexive Realism." October 28 (1984): 43 - 59.

---. 1987. The Myth of the Modern. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reich, Wilhelm. 1946. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Trans. Theodore P. Wolfe. New York: Orgone Institute Press.

Roustang, François. 1983. Psychoanalysis Never Lets Go. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Strachey, James. "Some Unconscious Factors in Reading." International Journal of Psychoanalysis 11 (1930): 322-331.

---. "The Nature of the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis." International Journal of Psychoanalysis 15 (1934): 127-159.

Strachey, Lytton. "A Victorian Critic." In Literary Essays. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Harcourt, n.d. 209 - 213.

Sulloway, Frank. 1979. Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. New York: Basic Books.

Winnicott, D.W. 1974. "Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development." Playing and Reality. Harmondsworth: Pelican. 130-138.

Originally published in University of Hartford Studies in Literature, Spring 1988

11/27/10

Beautifying Lies and Polyphonic Wisdom

by Perry Meisel

The Art of the Novel. By Milan Kundera. Translated by Linda Asher. 165 pp. New York: Grove Press. $16.95.

Milan Kundera has charmed the world with his sonorous fictions - five novels, a play and a volume of stories - although it is formalist rigor as much as charm that distinguishes his first book of nonfiction, The Art of the Novel. A collection of five essays and two dialogues published over the last decade, The Art of the Novel recommends self-effacement as a precept of writing and dooms purveyors of dogma in either literature or criticism. Whatever moral arrangements the Czechoslovak subjects of his narratives might suggest to us, Mr. Kundera as critic is little inclined to dwell upon them. Instead, he dispassionately explains - and with singular instructiveness, as he ranges from Cervantes and Richardson to Kafka, Joyce and Hermann Broch -how novels are made and why; how the novel and its history constitute a specific form of knowledge not to be confused with philosophy, politics or psychology; and why novels are and should be written at all. Linda Asher's translation from the French deftly conveys the lucidity of Mr. Kundera's prose.
The emphasis on the formal aspects of fiction in The Art of the Novel is accompanied by an overt disavowal of any political agenda. Disingenuous as such a claim may sound coming from an Eastern European writer living in exile in Paris, it is nonetheless the first of three working principles in The Art of the Novel. Mr. Kundera bases it on his belief in ''the radical autonomy of the novel'' as a form, as he puts it in his essay on Kafka, ''Somewhere Behind.''
The second principle is derived from the first, and it is the rejection of kitsch. Not simply bad or laughable art, kitsch is, in Mr. Kundera's definition from ''Sixty-three Words'' (his dictionary of the terms and categories that organize his imagination), ''the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one's own reflection.''
Mr. Kundera's most recent novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, gives us examples of Communist kitsch, American kitsch, fascist kitsch, feminist kitsch - even artistic kitsch. The ''Jerusalem Address'' in The Art of the Novel bluntly describes the last as ''the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling.'' The ''either-or'' mentality of kitsch, as Mr. Kundera phrases it in ''The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes,'' is, in the final analysis, the result of ''an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge.''
Hence the novel's distinctive value as a form. Good novels are not kitsch because they do not take sides in the situations they imagine. The point is perfectly documented in Mr. Kundera's own fiction, and especially in his frequent satirizing of the well-intentioned delusions of Communists and Western individualists alike.
One antidote to kitsch is to write novels according to Mr. Kundera's third principle - what he refers to throughout The Art of the Novel as ''novelistic counterpoint'' or ''polyphony.'' ''Counterpoint,'' or ''polyphony,'' is, strictly speaking, the play among different kinds of writing - essay, dream, narrative - in a single text. Mr. Kundera's own version of counterpoint, however, has a temporal dimension, in contrast to some of his relatively static models, such as Broch's neglected masterpiece of 1930-32, The Sleepwalkers. The technique also has its roots deep in the history of the novel. With Cervantes, Mr. Kundera argues, the novel discovered multiple perspective; with Richardson, he argues again in ''Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,'' it discovered the ''interior life.'' To these formal discoveries, Mr. Kundera has himself added ''chronologic displacement,'' a term he coins in the book's richest piece, ''Dialogue on the Art of Composition.''
By means of ''chronologic displacement,'' the novelist can tell crossing or intersecting stories, not only from the alternating perspectives of the relevant characters, but in staggered chronology as well. The yield of this technical innovation is emotionally astonishing. It enlarges the reader's vision by producing resonances and relations among a series of lives that no one individual is in a position to apprehend. Mr. Kundera's polyphonic novels provide this mode of seeing, what he calls a ''suprapersonal wisdom.''
The Joke, Mr. Kundera's first novel, is a polyphonic tour de farce, although the last two sections of The Unbearable Lightness of Being are probably the most remarkable illustration of polyphony in his work. There the deaths of Tomas and Tereza are mentioned in passing in the novel's sixth section, which is told from the point of view of the novel's other lovers, Franz and Sabina; the seventh section goes back in time to tell the story of Tomas and Tereza's happy retreat to the Bohemian countryside, stopping just short of the accident that takes their lives. Our foreknowledge of their end - and the novel's refusal to allow us to witness it - is unashamedly compelling.
Mr. Kundera's polyphonic novels are, among other things, nothing less than strategies for surmounting one's sense of entrapment in events outside one's control or even awareness - thus the enormous importance he places on Kafka in ''Somewhere Behind'' and ''Notes Inspired by 'The Sleepwalkers.' '' The quality of the ''Kafkan,'' as Mr. Kundera calls it, is the best precedent for understanding his own fictional world, since it provides an uncannily elegant rehearsal of life as it has recently become in Kafka's very own Prague - that is, Mr. Kundera's.
While it is traditional to view Kafka as an absurdist, for Mr. Kundera such a view is mistaken. To him, Kafka does not represent the breakdown of writing, but a possibility of real existence on which the novel can draw. The Kafkan is an acute sense of ''the trap the world has become.'' It even pressures Mr. Kundera's prose into epigrammatic concision, as though, like Kafka's Joseph K., he were running out of time: ''The world according to Kafka: the bureaucratized universe. The office not merely as one kind of social phenomenon among many but as the essence of the world.'' In fact, Mr. Kundera implies the Kafkan is the characteristic state of the West as well as the East. Unlike the obvious coerciveness of the ''police apparatus,'' however, Western bureaucratization uses milder, more covert ideological instruments such as ''the mass media apparatus.''
To see Mr. Kundera in the light of this reading of Kafka makes it clear why his essays promise a future for the novel. Instead of tracing novelistic invention by way of the exhausted legacy of Joyce (or ''establishment modernism''), Mr. Kundera, through his heightened sense of the Kafkan, suggests that the novel still has unlimited sources of inquiry in the ''bureaucratic''; it also has great power, by virtue of the formal devices available to it, over the sense of confinement bureaucracies and kitsch engender. Mr. Kundera transforms the Kafkan by locating its vision in decidedly realist settings, and by imagining a means of ''suprapersonal'' escape from the claustrophobic universe common to East and West alike.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988

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11/23/10

Emilio's Is Dead, Long Live Emilio's!

by Walter Kendrick and Perry Meisel

They said it many different ways: "This place isn't supposed to close." "This is the worst thing that's happened to the Village since the fire at the Eighth Street Book Store." "If Emilio's closes, anything can happen." They were, of course, the usual crowd - actors, musicians, grocers, professors, black, white, old, young, gay, straight, and all the stages in between. They laughed, they cried, they loaded their plates with eggplant parmigiana, meatballs, ziti, and, for no apparent reason, fried chicken. They drank as if there were no tomorrow. And there wasn't.
Emilio's restaurant, a Sixth Avenue institution for 32 years, was shutting down for good. Sunday evening, several hundred of its regular patrons gathered to say farewell at a party that resembled a cross between an Irish wake an Italian wedding. Gil Rainero, son of the original Emilio, was retiring, and he threw a bash to say thanks. The timeless waitresses bravely served their last suppers: Maria (28 years on duty), Carol (22), Paula (16); even the new arrivals, Tricia (two years) and Mary Lou (just one), deftly hugged old friends with one arm and dished out lasagna with the other.
Manager Gus Theodoro, Gil's impromptu press secretary, waxed eloquent: "Emilio's was a true melting pot; it was what the country should be. Other places are Irish bars, Italian bars, actors' bars, sports bars, gay bars, Jersey bars - Emilio's was all of these. People are here tonight to get a last little taste and touch of that human family that used to belong to them part-time." On an average Saturday night, he said, Emilio's was home to 750 diners, 75 people who came in to use the bathroom, 40 for the phone, and 25 purse-snatchers. "A real microcosm," he said.
The bar, Gil maintained, was the center of Emilio's, but for us it was the "red room" (the one with the fireplace) in winter and the "garden" (with hardly a plant to be seen) in summer. In the garden, July 1977, we cheered with the sweaty crowd as the Village came out of the blackout; all along, Emilio's had been the only place you could get ice in your drink (they trucked it in from Jersey). For 12 years, from the time we moved to New York, we used to meet there almost every week, and we charted our development in what we ordered: In 1975, Perry favored veal parmigiana and disdained the lasagna; by 1980, he knew better. Walter, by contrast, was an early lasagna fan, but in the '80s his taste turned in favor of the veal. No one, however, went to Emilio's for the food.
It was the atmosphere (you couldn't call it ambiance) that drew us back again and again, and that made us drag our friends there, no matter how snooty they were. Yuppification never put a dent in Emilio's: It was New York as you used to see it in old Don Ameche movies. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths disappeared in the late '70s, and fake Tiffany hanging lamps moved in, but the painful benches and little fake flowers endured. Now it's being turned into an appliance store - just what the neighborhood needs. The last gloppy forkful of characterless mozzarella went down as smoothly as the first. Emilio's is gone, but the heartburn lingers on.

Originally published in The Village Voice, January 19, 1988

11/19/10

Young Wittgenstein

by Perry Meisel

The World As I Found It, by Bruce Duffy. 546 pp. New York: Ticknor & Fields. $19.95.

When the wealthy and cultivated young Ludwig Wittgenstein burst upon the hermetic world of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore at Cambridge in 1912, three lives were changed forever. The Viennese Wittgenstein struck even Russell as perhaps more than his match. The unflappable Moore shared in a fierce but collegial relation that survived two world wars. As a combatant in the Austrian Army late in World War I, Wittgenstein completed the only book he saw fit to publish during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Returning to Cambridge in 1929, he began to question his own assumption in the Tractatus that the study of language could yield systematic rules, preferring instead to delight in the indeterminacies of linguistic reference, and composing, among other works, Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, two years after his death.
So alluring is Wittgenstein's appeal that it has stirred Bruce Duffy, a writer who lives in suburban Washington, to produce a historical novel centered on Wittgenstein and his English friends. Its sweeping arrangement of fact and fancy is vivid, passionate and funny. Mr. Duffy adheres faithfully enough to the outlines of Wittgenstein's life as we know them (a full-scale biography has yet to be completed), although his book is really an accomplished orchestration of the spheres of Russell's urbanity, Moore's domesticity and Wittgenstein's wanderlust that is organized around three key points in Wittgenstein's experience - his first years at Cambridge, his service in World War I and his return to England.
Mr. Duffy intersperses his absorbing narrative with deft flashbacks that fill in the pasts of all three men (the death of Wittgenstein's father in Vienna is probably the novel's most extraordinary sequence). He writes with great wisdom about love, work and fame, painting raucously humorous and uncommonly moving portraits of his three principals. Russell stews deliciously in his inwardness; Moore gobbles his meals at high table at Trinity with such methodical relish that his philosophical hedonism is explained more convincingly than it is in most academic accounts.
The rendering of Wittgenstein is more dramatic and less naturally inward, testimony to his daunting intractability as both a man and a thinker. Wittgenstein's melancholy narcissism was so profound that it frequently turned into its opposite - the feeling that he hardly existed at all. In reply to a friend's request to take his photograph, Wittgenstein remarks: ''You may develop your film and find no image whatsoever.''
The novel's title comes from a passage in the Tractatus (''If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I should have to include a report on my body'') that concludes with the difficult statement that such a book would be ''a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject.'' Mr. Duffy exemplifies Wittgenstein's point both by apprehending him within a matrix of social contexts, and by dramatizing the elusiveness of subjectivity in the dream of a world he fashions with a prose that aspires to a combination of visionary expansiveness and postmodern terseness.
There are, to be sure, a few hitches. Bertrand Russell did not, pace Mr. Duffy, split infinitives. Nor did Lytton Strachey have a booming voice - it squeaked. There are also some lapses into melodrama - a visit to a Yiddish theater in Vienna, a family friend-turned-Nazi and Wittgenstein's painful acknowledgment of his Jewish roots at the onset of World War II. Such moments aside, Mr. Duffy's is an achievement in both fiction and historiography which deepens Wittgenstein's mythology and should attract a wider audience to it.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1987

11/16/10

Company Jets

by Perry Meisel

Football is blocking and tackling. Everything else is mythology
.
- Vince Lombardi

The Jets' regular home is the Weeb Ewbank training center, comfortably tucked in a (naturally) green and isolated strip of the high-rise Hofstra campus on Long Island. When I went out for a visit in the plash of a sporadic rain the Thursday before the season-ending (so far) Monday Night Football tilt with the Patriots, the military atmosphere was anything but subtle. Within 10 minutes after arriving, I was spotted squatting along the sideline watching the offensive troops drill. Eyes everywhere, the Coach greeted the new visitor with a question asked in a tone that was only half joking: "You're not from New England, are you?"
This was hardly the austere and rabbinic Joe Walton I was used to seeing on the tube; it was clear that, full metal jacket and all, Joe was enormously relaxed (this was five days before the strike and long before he was forced to coach scabs), and, well, enjoying himself, even relishing the implication (wholly unwarranted given the hardass security at the gate) that I was an enemy spy sent by the archrival Pats. Joe's question in fact detonated a whole string of images that lead into the heart of football's classic military vocab.
Squad, bombs, drills - the list of shared terms is endless. Engaged as we now are in an NFL DMZ, the tenacity of these tropes is alarming, especially if the strike principals stick to 'em. You think I'm exaggerating? The Jets' PR chief, Frank Ramos, a lean and elegant man with keen, distant eyes (not unlike field general Ken O'Brien's), spent his army hitch working for the football program at West Point.
Military structure runs through all pro football, but there's another system at work that's especially evident with the Jets. I didn't see it fully until I visited the locker room following the Monday night game at the Meadowlands, where the cold high-tech feel provides a stark contrast to Edenic Hofstra. While the Giants or the Bears will pop off to the press, the Jets are trained not only as a football squad but also as, well, a corporate sales force. (Walton's description of Freeman McNeil in the Jets media guide could just as well have fit an IBM marketing veep: "He has good leadership qualities and the team responds to him.") Face it: despite their relative eloquence (or perhaps because of it), the Jets are now one of the most faceless teams in the NFL.
The fabulation of team harmony is so brutally perfect it leaves you gasping. These guys are as man/nerly in their discourse as they are on the field. The Brooklyn-born O'Brien is the perfect Jet - cool, levelheaded, nerveless. But whether it's because he's developed Sacramento cool or because Lockheed subcontracted his cerebrum, it's hard to tell. No showboating for this team, no fat-heading, no stupidity - not as players, not (any longer) as personalities. Only Jetspeak, a fine and supple language that yields nothing and whose primary rule is that the speaker subjugate himself to the team as a whole. The corporate message behind Jetspeak is sheltered very well indeed in the military metaphor. Jetspeak is a mode of military orderliness for the players, but also a mode of corporate cool for the company.
Jetspeak is an example of the slow addition of the language of the corporation to the more classical milatarese we associate with football. But the noncoincidence of the metaphors is surprising. In fact, it's caused a football strike. Pro football has, of course, always been a business, but only lately - in these days of Super Bowl Giants who are both suburban M.B.A.'s and "lunch pailers" - have its self-describing metaphors caught up with the corporate reality that produces them. In fact, you could say that there's been a time lag in the history of football terminology. You could even say that the military lingo has, until recently, almost entirely repressed the corporate infrastructure.
The striking NFL player looks like a guy itching to be a mercenary (the natural combination of war skills and the corporate marketplace) but discovering that he's only got a single client - and a single metaphor - to stand on. After the USFL's demise, the NFL is once again a monopoly, especially when the TV money is divided equally among the clubs no matter how well they perform. Had Pittsburgh played the Jets last weekend, for instance, it wouldn't have been a fight between cities but between "organizations." Look at it this way: football, the ultimate TV sport, is a living-room war - our continuing Vietnam. But the difference is that the NFL is always the home team and the enemy. Sorta like Rollerball (itself a joke about the NFL) with Tokyo and Houston in mortal "combat" in the arena under the regime of a single international corporate government. Sorta a lot like it.
Military and corporate metaphors have suddenly collided rather than meshed - hence the strike. In fact, for the past few years they've been colliding in the current system, which is military for the players ("loyalty to the team") but coldly corporate for the owners ("loyalty to profits"). "When we call it a game," said John Matuszak in North Dallas Forty, "you call it a business. When we call it a business, you call it a game." Most NFL players not named Gastineau have finally come to understand the slipperiness of this doublespeak - and to act on it.
No matter how successful the players are in their strike and how much the structure of the NFL changes as a result (it's hard to imagine the NFL Players Association turning the league into the People's Republic of Santa Monica), the Jets' astonishing bolt out of the gate this year is likely to silence kvetches and succor the faithful once a legitimate season resumes. OneVoicehand even quipped that a strike would at least bar another late-year Jet collapse, since the schedule will be truncated. Whatever happens, who'd've figure the Jets to be 2-0 and the Giants 0-2 in 1987? Before the opener at Buffalo (a sturdy though numerically slim victory, 31-28), it seemed that the Jets would probably benefit from a suspension of play more than any other team in the league (Joe Klecko, Lance Mehl, and Reggie McElroy are expected to return no earlier than November - hang on, scabs).
The Monday night subjugation of the Patriots should've dispelled any lingering questions about Obie (his late-season slide last year turned most Jets fans into amateur shrinks) or the two rookies, Gerald Nichols and Alex Gordon, now filling in for Klecko and Mehl, respectively. With a combo of sticky D by the secondary and funky stunts by the line (from the second quarter on), supersound field-positioning by the special teams, time-bomb running by Johnny Hector and Freeman McNeil, and an obviously refreshed O'Brien, particularly in the second half, the Jets are (were) on a roll again.
Ironically, it's the Jets rather than the Giants who should be hungry to get back to work. They're (once again) the surprise team of the year, this time in a stillborn season.

Originally published in The Village Voice, October 6, 1987

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11/14/10

The Theory of Composition and the Composition of Theory

by Perry Meisel

What do our students really know when they walk into their first writing class in college? Too often we tend to think they know nothing at all - that their implicit scholarship in pop music, sports, fashion, even the semiotics of motorcycle repair, is altogether beside the point when they arrive in our midst. Texts and Contexts makes no such assumptions, and tells us why by appealing to the developments in the theories of human discourse that have contributed so much to the history of contemporary thought in the last two decades and more. Thanks to such developments - and, of course, to their own imagination and good sense - the Summerfields have generated a text and a practice very likely singular among efforts of its kind.
Crucial is the book's delicate but decisive adjustment in our pedagogy by moving it away from the usual "process" approach to composition and onto the student's - and the teacher's - growing recognition of what the Summerfields shrewdly call our "enabling constraints." These enabling constraints are the sediments of convention in everything we do, even in what we are, and in forcing them out into the open, the Summerfields show how useful a theoretical background can be in clearing up the muddle that has confronted us for years over the problem of teaching composition. Reading and writing, maintain the authors, are both products of concrete social exchange. Text production and text reception are a common process that makes the theory of reading - criticism - and the theory of writing - composition - virtually one and the same.
The implications of such a pedagogy are almost innumerable, but we can isolate at least two chief effects among them. The first is the degree to which the Summerfields tactfully but efficiently integrate the lessons to be had from structural linguistics, narratology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy; the second is the degree to which they can thereby go on to alter our frequent reflex manner of sustaining models of composition based on outmoded notions about hitherto uninterrogated categories such as essential selfhood, autonomous being, spontaneous expressiveness, and the supposed transparency of language itself.
First, then, the assumption throughout - as the title tells us - that any text always already has its context; nothing, in short, makes sense except in relation to something else. By virtue of subscribing so diligently to this axiom of structural linguistics in the tradition of Saussure and Jakobson, the Summerfields presume in all their suggestions for teaching the existence of a larger - and largely unconscious - cultural context looming up to determine what we do in even the most apparently marginal of writing exercises. This context the Summerfields call "funding," a term borrowed from the American philosopher John Dewey; other familiar terms for it include ideology, Chomsky's "competence," Foucault's "episteme," Lacan's "Symbolic," or, most recently, what Stanley Fish calls the presuppositions shared by "interpretative communities." To recognize this determining context startles us into realizing how entirely implicated we are in the social languages we normally oppose to our privacy. It is quite clearly the authors' intent, then, to make us hesitate about continuing to insist upon the notion of the "solitary" life of the author as it is usually mystified by our culture; instead, the Summerfields describe the real nature of the scene of reading and writing as a function of the "social production of discourse."
Thus, central to the theoretical recapitulations contained in the Summerfields' pedagogy is their reassessment of the status of the self, that fragile vessel to whom all of our teaching is addressed. Following one of the chief philosophical implications of structural linguistics (those made especially evident by the linguist Emile Benveniste and the philosopher Jacques Derrida), the Summerfields conclude that the self comes into being as a belated function of the various discursive situations in which it gets positioned - whether as father or mother, daughter or son, lawyer or doctor, student or teacher. The self is not - as the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan is most exact in articulating - what we usually think it is, an essence independent of time and history, "beyond culture," to use Lionel Trilling's phrase. The self is instead a bundle of conventions from the start, and its location in language is fundamental to its very coherence. The implications for teaching make the philosophical ones even more readily apparent.
Second, then, the results at the practical level of pedagogy proper: the "inner process" for the Summerfields is not what we customarily think it is in our usual attempts to theorize the self in the theory of composition. The authors are in fact exact and explicit about their lack of belief in a Rousseauesque kind of freedom in which an essential self may be said to exist independent of the community that otherwise sustains it - another way of saying that even the most private of personal experiences is at the same time also necessarily social, since it takes place as the result of discursive conventions that don't just express but actually shape what feelings we have. Thus, the otherwise familiar usefulness of notebooks and journals in composition class is, for the Summerfields, less the function of the students' discovery of an "authentic" self than it is of their discovery "that as their jottings accumulate, they come to constitute a representation of the self." This is not normative "process" pedagogy, then, but one designed instead to produce a more contemporary - and, for our students, a more faithful - view of the nature of experience than the liberationist ethic of spontaneity can provide. It is, as the Summerfields say, an "effective alternative to the current orthodoxies offered by the term process."
Indeed, the book has a luminous figuration for why "internal process" is not really monological or self-sufficient, a figuration theoretically precise as well as reminiscent of the psychological companions that haunt our Romantic literary heroes from Keats to Pater to T.S. Eliot - that of our "ghostly interlocutor," as the Summerfields call it, even in the solitude of idleness or despair. The "inner process," conclude the authors, is itself always polylogical, since "any 'personal' experience is," as they say, "inescapably saturated, informed, packed by public meanings."
The production of a systematic pedagogy in accord with the contemporary climate in criticism was, of course, bound to happen anyway - the demands of the real are too acute to have prevented it. If there is a reason why our renewed attempts to teach writing in the last decade have frequently failed, it is that we have relied too largely on outworn models of reading, writing, and selfhood that force us into appealing to categories that our students are predisposed to reject on the basis of what their lives are like in an overtly systematic and media-oriented world. While neo-conservatives imply that any devolution in reading and writing skills is a function of open admissions policies and affirmative action, the real truth is that such devolution is actually a function of our clinging to precisely the kinds of essentialist notions that the Summerfields put so plainly into question. The point, therefore, is not to lead students of composition - or of literature - into a realm of absolutes, but into an awareness of historicity and cultural particularities instead. Our students' various knowledges or "fundings" are not only systematic, but, given today's communications society, knowingly so. What may well separate us from our students is our lingering humanist belief in a realm beyond systems to which our students no longer assent. Thus a pedagogy of "enabling constraints" is one that is sufficiently paradoxical to correspond to the world as it presents itself in the present. "We bring them," say the Summerfields of their own students, "to a certain place in their heads wherein certain structures become," not restraints or ornamental annoyances, but, rather, "appropriate," and, indeed, "necessary." The text of the self and those of the world are in ever-shifting relation and pedagogy consists in bringing students to an awareness of the manifold structures those relations can and may take.
It is not, however, only a practical absorption of theory or even a winning pedagogy that distinguishes Texts and Contexts. Its plasticity as a text in its own right also requires recognition as a reflexive instance of what it has to say. After all, any ordering of its series of recommended writing exercises, each of them ingenious in itself, is provisional and experimental. Like Hugh Kenner's description of any given reading of Joyce's Ulysses, any given use or reading of Texts and Contexts is only one of so many "trial alignments," none absolute, none nugatory. In its refusal to construct itself upon any fixity, the book does what it says: the "various interacting dialectics" that may, as the authors put it, give shape to the book are always a function of how the teacher reads and uses it. The text, in other words, can, like any text, address itself only to particular, never universal, contexts; to put it another way, every text is a function of its reading, of its place in a signifying chain determined by specific reader or audience. To discover, moreover, that the plastic structure of Texts and Contexts resembles the structure of a postmodern novel such as Cortazar's Hopscotch is hardly surprising given the commonality of their projects. Like modernism and postmodernism themselves, the best pedagogy is clear about the socially necessary, if metaphysically random, orderings that language and society require of us no matter what our particular or momentary beliefs.
The range of the book's implications, then, are as striking for the criticism of literature as they are for the teaching of composition. Chief among them is the plain inevitability of our having to recognize that texts are different by virtue of degree rather than of kind, that a student essay and a poem by Ted Hughes - the kind of juxtapositions the Summerfields are fond of supplying us - in fact occupy or overlap equivalent discursive spaces despite what differences may otherwise separate them. But, of course, one can't measure that distance - one can't evaluate either Hughes's poem or one's own composition - without the presumption that both texts belong to similar fields of signification. Such a presumption is no less than the very precondition of measuring one's ability to perform in any discursive field at all, and the precise educational yield of the Summerfields' approach. In the process, it forces us to rethink, too, not just the relation of the literary to the paraliterary text, but also the reason we privilege literature as an object of study in the first place. We do so because literature is the locus par excellence for the production of persuasive rhetorical effects upon others, a microscope of the field of power in all its realms of play in life and letters alike, even in the semiotics of motorcycle repair. This position is perhaps difficult to accept wholeheartedly because of its raw truth; its inevitabilities are, however, inescapable. As a teacher, one cannot hesitate to explore every possibility.

Foreword to Texts & Contexts: A Contribution to the Theory and Practice of Teaching Composition, by Judith and Geoffrey Summerfield. New York: Random House, 1986.

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11/12/10

A Long Way from New Zealand

The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Volume One. 1903 - 1917. Edited by Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott. 376 pp. New York: Oxford University Press. $27.50

by Perry Meisel

"My theory," wrote Virginia Woolf in 1923, six months after her friend Katherine Mansfield had died of consumption at the age of 34, "is that while she possessed the most amazing senses of her generation . . . she was as weak as water" - Woolf suddenly grew impatient - "when she had to use her mind." Mansfield may have lacked the larger, shaping powers required to construct novels, but the lyric intensities of her exquisite short fictions are sufficient proof of her considerable gifts. The self-portrait that emerges in the first of four projected volumes of her "Collected Letters" is, not surprisingly, a luminous and affecting one.
Mansfield's forthright stance and extraordinary sense of self should dispel the two biographical myths that have endangered her reputation. She was neither a mistress of manipulation nor an unappreciated genius. "I'm only the jam in the golden pill," she wrote in 1915, "and I know my place." Born in New Zealand in 1888 as Kathleen Beauchamp (she delighted in using different names throughout her life), Mansfield narrates her journey from the outpost of Empire to its center. After girlhood schooling in England, she decided to leave New Zealand forever. As she explained to her sister Vera, "there is really no scope for development - no intellectual society - no hope of finding any."
London, of course, was the only alternative. Although Mansfield's colonial status marked her as a perpetual outsider, she made her way in the capital with pluck and stamina. Snug in lodgings in Gray's Inn Road, the newly fashionable bohemian neighborhood adjacent to Bloomsbury, the young writer was ecstatic. "Everything," she wrote to a friend in 1911, "is a wonder." The intellectual figures with whom she mixed included D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
In 1911, Mansfield also met John Middleton Murry, then a student at Oxford, and, like herself, a writer (he was to become editor of the Athenaeum in 1919); her entrance into the worlds of love and letters was thereby secured. Precocious to a fault, Mansfield had already had two painful romantic experiences, one leading to marriage and divorce, the other to pregnancy and miscarriage. Murry was, by contrast, her anchor, and he remained her emotional and intellectual focus. Soothing his inherent bitterness ("You must not really hate life"), she also learned to quell her own turbulence both as a person and as a writer: "In my heart I am happy," she declared in 1915, "because I feel that I have come into my own."
So intense was the relationship, however, that Mansfield retreated for a time to Paris, then to Bandol in the south of France. Her visionary predilection flourished in the Mediterranean warmth: "The sea is roaring out the Psalms," she wrote to Murry on Christmas morning in 1915. Although Mansfield's editors, Vincent O'Sullivan, who is lecturer in English at Victoria University at Wellington, New Zealand, and Margaret Scott, who has written extensively on Mansfield, share the popular misconception that Mansfield was a tissue of masks, the letters from Bandol are eloquent testimony to her daunting authenticity. "I seem to have only played on the fringe of love," she confided, again to Murry, "and lived a kind of reflected life that was not really my own but that came from my past - Now all that is cast away."
On her return to England, she and Murry moved to Cornwall in April 1916 with D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda. The difficult months during which they were neighbors prompted Mansfield to write some of the most vivid accounts of Lawrence we have - his "frenzy," his "monomania," his "slavery" to Frieda. The tensions of Cornwall forced Mansfield back to London and into the snares of Bloomsbury that Lawrence had evaded. When the Woolfs' new Hogarth Press published Mansfield's most significant achievement, "Prelude," in 1918 (only their own stories had been printed before hers), Mansfield's acceptance was complete. "I threw my darling to the wolves," she remarked on the success of her work, "and they ate it and served me up so much praise in such a golden bowl that I couldn't help feeling gratified . . . . It is all too wonderful."
Even at the hub of London letters, however, Mansfield and Murry remained subtly marginal, a familiar enough station for the emotionally durable Mansfield, but one that hurt Murry and abetted the paranoia for which he became notorious. Murry's illness from overwork at the War Office late in 1917 preoccupies Mansfield in the final pages of the first volume, even though the severity of her own condition was just coming to light. The ironies did not escape her. Now Murry had to console Mansfield once the doctor warned her never to spend winters in England again. Having worked her way to the center, she was compelled to abandon it at the height of her powers. Mansfield seemed to have grasped her fate well beforehand: "I want to get so much into a short time," she wrote in 1909. In fact, she did.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1985

11/7/10

Interview With Julia Kristeva

by Perry Meisel

PM
: At what moment in French intellectual history would you say you arrived in Paris?

JK: It was a very interesting moment. Politically, it was one of the highest moments of Gaullism, that period when Charles de Gaulle said that he wanted to create a sphere of influence stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. Intellectually, there was the very interesting coexistence of the discovery of Russian formalism through Lévi-Strauss; a certain revival of Marxism, also on the background of structuralism (I mean a rereading of Hegel); and a third very important current, the renewal of psychoanalysis through Lacan. All these movements were, for me, the real background of the 1968 events. Because if you look at the people who were involved in the 1968 revolution - students - most of them were involved beforehand in very advanced theoretical writings. Les Cahiers pour l'analyse, for instance, at the Ecole Normale were done by people who became Maoists after 1968. So it was a kind of intellectual turmoil, a sort of real theoretical fever. Where can you speak of Marxism, structuralism, Freudianism? Not in the Eastern countries; it's not possible. American society is too technocratic and too dominated by positivist ideologies, whereas that's not the case in French society. It was a very, very rare conjunction.

PM: At what point did existentialism give way to this new wave and why?

JK: On the one hand, existentialism was, in my view, a regression with regard to the great philosophical and aesthetic formal movements, to take only my own fields. The whole development of linguistics, of formal logic, was fundamentally ignored by Sartrean existentialism. If you're interested, on the other hand, in art, the great revolution of the avant-garde, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, and after them the surrealists - the entrance of psychosis into the life of the city which modern art represents - these were also ignored by existentialism. Thus, it was a reaction to all that. Structuralism, Marxism, Freudianism, joined together, are a reaction.

PM: And yet Lacan was, with the surrealists, already at work in the late 1920s. Why did it take so long, indeed, twenty years, maybe more than that, for this to break out? Lévi-Strauss had already begun his work before the war as well.

JK: Because of political reasons: you had the war. At that moment there was a sociological way of thinking, more rooted in the everyday and looking for immediate and simple causalities, that prevailed. Existentialism lasted after the war, for historical reasons and because of economic difficulties.

PM: So that a movement that claimed to interpret history was itself part of the determination.

JK: Precisely. It couldn't distance itself.

PM: It has been said that Sartre was unable to think the unconscious.

JK: Absolutely. I think that Sartrean thought has no means to deal with the unconscious and, similarly, with everything which is material and formal, in other words, with the whole problem of the modern arts, of poetry, of plastic art. The unconscious as a logic, as a language, which is the essence of the Freudian discovery, is entirely foreign to Sartrean thought.

PM: And yet in Marxism, even in orthodox Marxism, there is, implicitly at any rate, even before Lacan tells us so, a notion of the unconscious.

JK: It's not the same unconscious. I think that what seduced us in Marxism was rather a materialist way of reading Hegel and a concept of negativity. It was and still is a matter of finding the agent, the agent of process, the agent of history, the agent of the unconscious.
So, to summarize, there were some lacunae that had been pointed out in each - Marxism, structuralism, Freudianism - and, at the same time, some positive elements which had been brought in by the others. For example, Marxism had undergone a grafting of the theory of structuralism, but structuralism had undergone a grafting of the theory of subjectivity. In structuralism the subject was missing, so the subject was brought in in the form of different technical considerations: in linguistics, for example, the subject of enunciation, the speaking subject in literary texts, etc. There was a sort of exchange that enriched the three disciplines.

PM: In a sense, then, structuralism provided the link between Marxism and Freudianism that had never been accomplished before.

JK: At the moment we're in the middle of a regression which is present in the form of a return to the religious, a return to a concept of transcendence, a rehabilitation of spiritualism. It's a vast problem which can be interpreted in various ways. It is not uninteresting. There are now in France all sorts of spiritualist movements: pro-Christian, pro-Jewish, pro this and pro that. Here the Sartrean problem returns. I think that there's a religion of reason in Sartrean thought, just as in the new spiritualists there's a religion of transcendence. But both of them obliterate those forms in which the fact of signification is produced, the form in which meaning is produced.

PM: So, from this point of view, a religious notion of transcendence, a fetishizing of reason à la Sartre, are structurally the same.

JK: I think so, and both are regressions with regard to the current of thought which is most acute, most lucid in the twentieth century, and which involves, as well as the discovery of the determining role of language in human life, the whole adventure of contemporary art. There's a blindness in Sartrean thought in that regard which gives it extremely charming ethical and humanistic positions, just as it gives extremely precursive ethical and humanistic positions to all the new spiritualists today, who are often in the foreground of the cultural, ideological battle in Paris.
It would be better to take up again the basic presuppositions, start from the small things, the small notions. I had a professor who bequeathed to me a great wisdom in this area: Emile Benveniste, a professor of linguistics at the Collège de France. He used to say to me, "You know, Madame, I concern myself with small things, the verb 'to be,' for example." Well, I think one must have this ambitious modesty, leave the meaning of history, production, leave all that and take up instead the minimal components that constitute the speaking being. The little elements that make me speak, the little elements that make me desire. It's still too difficult to be able to separate them. I mean that it would be necessary to start from a minimalism, to simplify things, and to be satisfied with more rigorous thinking rather than stir up emptiness with grand theories.

PM: So could we say that Lacan and Benveniste together in some sense provided this next step, and that at this point one could situate the beginning of your work?

JK: Exactly. Benveniste's work is important because it sees the necessity of introducing the notion of the subject into linguistics. Chomskyan linguistics, even though it recognizes the place of the speaking subject (although in its Cartesian form), has finally stayed very far behind the great semantic and intersubjective field within discourse that Benveniste's perspective has opened up. What Benveniste wanted to found was not a grammar that generates normative sentences in limited situations. He wanted to constitute, and this is what is happening now, a linguistics of discourse. In other words, the object, language, has completely changed. Language is no longer a system of signs as Saussure thought of it; nor is language an object in the sense of generative grammar, that is, sentences generated by a subject presupposed to be Cartesian.

PM: What is the difference, then, from our traditional assumption of the artist as subject - that is, the artist who speaks in the work?

JK: I think that when you say that the artist speaks in the work, you suppose an entity that exists before the work. Yet we all know artists, and we know that very often their individuality is in total discordance or enormously different from what they've produced. In other words, the work of art, the production, the practice in which they are implicated extends beyond and reshapes subjectivity. There is, on the one hand, a kind of psychological ego, and on the other, there's the subject of a signifying practice. One mustn't imagine that there exists an author in itself, not that there is no relation between the two. I'm convinced that personal experience is very important for the materiality, the formal features, of the work of art, but there's no equivalence between the two. The work of art is a kind of matrix that makes its subject.

PM: In other words, our traditional understanding of modernism as the assertion of the free will of the subject over inherited forms is a misapprehension of what the twentieth century has given us?

JK: Precisely. Even more so because the problem of art in the twentieth century is a continual confrontation with psychosis. It's necessary to see how all the great works of art - one thinks of Mallarmé, of Joyce, of Artaud, to mention only literature - are, to be brief, masterful sublimations of those crises of subjectivity which are known, in another connection, as psychotic crises. That has nothing to do with the freedom of expression of some vague of subjectivity which would have been there beforehand. It is, very simply, through the work and the play of signs, a crisis of subjectivity which is the basis for all creation, one which takes as its very precondition the possibility of survival. I would even say that signs are what produce a body, that - and the artist knows it well - if he doesn't work, if he doesn't produce his music or his page or his sculpture, he would be, quite simply, ill or not alive. Symbolic production's power to constitute soma and to give an identity is completely visible in modern texts. And moreover, all of his experience, literary as well as critical, is preoccupied with this problem.

PM: So there is, then, to your mind, no way of one's role as an artist and one's role as political activist ever being entirely coincidental?

JK: I think that the artist, since we were just talking about form which is "content," is never more engagé than in his work. To ask an artist to s'engager in order to justify himself is an imposture into which many artists fall for reasons I have just mentioned: the work presupposes a lot of solitude and a lot of risks. You need to justify yourself; you need to identify yourself. But you have to know that, and if you know that, you can carry out engagement with humor; when you can, you take your distance. If not, engagement is the antidote to art. There's nothing more murderous for art than engagement. This is not to say that I am for art for art's sake. Art for art's sake is the reverse of l'art engagé. It presumes that there is such a thing as pure form, and contents that would be abject. I think, on the contrary, that contents are formal and forms are contents. Again, if you understand modern art as an experience in psychosis, to work with forms is the most radical way to seize the moments of crisis.

PM: So there is a political component to artistic activity and it cannot be direct.

JK: It's not direct and it's not immediate, because I think you know that you always ask yourself what the political component is, although that's a very recent question. Why not ask what the moral or religious component of aesthetic activity is? I think it's a relevant question. Remember Nietzsche's famous distinction between cursory history and monumental history. I think that the artist is in monumental history, and in monumental history, his relationship to history is through what one used to call morality or religion.

Originally published in Partisan Review 1, 1984