Beyond the Masturbatory

September 27, 2009

One of the great pleasures in talking about books with a whip-smart grad student is that when the M-word is dropped it actually elevates the conversation. It gives heady concepts a certain street cred. This isn’t a natural born talent either. It’s earned. You have to spend a lot of time in the philosophical wilderness, as PJ Welsh has done. Like an intrepid explorer, he’s plunged into the heart of Hegel’s darkness and lived to tell about it in admirably clear language. That’s no small feat, I assure you.

studious pj

PJ Welsh

Who are you?

I’m a graduate student in philosophy with interests in German Idealism, hermeneutics, and literature. I grew up in Minnesota and currently live in New York.

What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramango. As the title indicates, it’s an imaginative retelling of the Gospel story. Saramago’s approach is difficult to characterize. He’s a religious skeptic, but the book is not a satire; in many ways, it is quite a compelling account. The angels, God, and Satan assume visible form to interact with Jesus and others. All of the miracles are taken at face value. Mary Magdalene redeems Jesus with her embrace just as much he her with his. Dialogue is embedded directly into the narrative, so that speech is less differentiated from other happenings in the natural world, less the product of an individual subjectivity. The overall effect of the treatment is at once to humanize the divine and to re-mythologize our earthly, human existence.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

My first thought was Socrates, who, as he’s been handed down to us, is a literary character. I could solicit opinions on subsequent philosophers — maybe even lift a dissertation topic from Socrates himself! But this probably shouldn’t count; for he is, first and foremost, a historical figure. My next thought was Helen of Troy. But this is more than a little bit of a cliché (and also puts me in an awkward position with regards to the second part of the question). Upon reflection, what I realize is that I don’t want to meet any literary characters. What fascinates me is the way they inhabit their worlds, and so, as soon as we strike up a conversation, they’ve become divorced from what makes them interesting.

What is your favorite scene in literature? Explain.

There is a moment in the fourth act of Twelfth Night that stands out.

Here’s the set-up:

Fraternal twins, brother and sister, have been separated at sea, each believing the other to be dead. The sister, Viola, dresses up as a man, assuming the name Cesario, and enters the service of a duke who asks her to woo, on his behalf, the beautiful Duchess Olivia. This duchess falls in love with the youthful and eloquent Cesario, who is, unfortunately, in love with the duke on whose behalf he is courting the duchess. Olivia professes her devotion to Cesario, who desperately evades her attentions. Also in the duchess’s court, the inept Sir Andrew, with the assistance Olivia’s debauched uncle Sir Toby Belch, futilely competes for Olivia’s attention. Sir Toby, for his amusement, contrives to orchestrate a dual between the reluctant Sir Andrew and a rather alarmed Cesario. The dual is upset and the parties quickly disperse.

viola

Zaniest threesome ever

Enter Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, fully believing his sister drowned. Wandering into Olivia’s estate he is automatically taken for his disguised sister Viola/Cesario. The court jester, Feste, sent to fetch Cesario, bewilders him with his insistences. Then Sir Andrew arrives on the scene and strikes him. Sebastian, unlike Viola, aggressively rises to the challenge. Enter Olivia, protesting this assault in heartfelt verse, demonstrating again her infatuation. Then this brief, delightful exchange:

SEBASTIAN

What relish is in this? how runs the stream?

Or I am mad, or else this is a dream:

Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;

If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!

OLIVIA

Nay, come, I prithee, would thou’ldst be ruled by me.

SEBASTIAN

Madam, I will.

OLIVIA

O, say so, and so be!

The power of the scene stems from the complexity of the set-up — which the reader, with the entrance of Sebastian, is forced to recollect and confront all at once — juxtaposed against the simple binary terms in which Sebastian grasps, and ecstatically surrenders, to the situation. It’s a brilliantly literalized dramatization of the reader’s experience.

When it comes to books, what’s your greatest pet peeve?

Literary antics, for their own sake; the subversion of convention as an end in itself. Reading and writing, to sustain their legitimacy, must outclass the merely masturbatory.

According to Hegel, how does the novel contribute to the good life?

That’s the sort of question you should know better than to ask a graduate student! But I’ll do my best to gloss over the scholarly and technical issues. First of all, Hegel says a lot about the fine arts (1,000 pages worth!), but precious little about the novel. So any position is both speculative and tentative. Art, for Hegel, is the expression of our freedom in a form that invites contemplation and enjoyment. At an earlier stage of cultural development — e.g., he contends, for the Greeks — art satisfied our deepest concerns and ambitions. But we’ve now reached a stage at which art is no longer an adequate vehicle for the exploration of the most comprehensive truths about human existence. That’s because we’ve achieved a self-reflective level of rationality that seems to defy sensuous representation, and so requires an explicitly philosophical development and articulation.

picasso_selfport1907

Picasso: Self-portrait. Who's really seeing whom?

This “death of art” thesis has been a source of long-standing controversy. One recent suggestion by Hegelian Robert Pippin is that, rather than simply accept its diminished role, art might instead adopt a new stance not anticipated by Hegel. Pippin proposes that modern art has transcended its classical and romantic preoccupation with beauty — assumed by Hegel to be definitional of art as such — shifting its orientation away from sensuous pleasure toward more cerebral preoccupations. Abstract painting, for instance, can take as its subject the self-imposed rules constitutive of painting as such, thus addressing the interpretive activity at work in all representational practices. The preoccupation with meta-narrative in some modern literature can be viewed through a similar lens, as an exploration of the normative frameworks we bring to bear on experience, our various ways of investing the merely given with a distinctly human significance, and so remaking an alien and sometimes hostile environment into a characteristically human world in which we can feel ourselves genuinely at home.

Why do you read?

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine

Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine

Oh dear, that’s a big one. Different books work in different ways, of course, and so they do different things for me. In general, however, I find literature therapeutic in a way well illustrated by Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. The driving concerns and ambitions of her characters have markedly little in common with my own aspirations, or with those of my friends and family — to the extent that, were I to find myself in any of the situations typical of the characters of Love Medicine, I would consider myself to have failed in quite a fundamental way, to have gone badly astray from many of the values that I have good reason to hold dear. But Erdrich brings that world to life, sympathetically illuminating its characteristic norms, its problems and its values, so that the reader can appreciate the legitimacy of lives its inhabitants pursue and the ethical worth of their manifold accomplishments. I call this therapeutic because it is reassuring, at least for me, just to be reminded of many, diverse forms of human flourishing, the objective situation being whatever it may.


One in a Trillian

September 20, 2009
We should not be able to say of a man, “He is a mathematician,” or “a preacher,” or “eloquent”; but that he is “a gentleman.” —Pascal

I’m tempted to say of Jennifer Summerfield many things, that she’s like ripening wheat on the plains of Wyoming or a swaying palm in Santa Monica, that she’s an expat in Paris or a bright light in the Big Apple or a West Philly resident and a magic lantern of the stage. Then I’m reminded of Pascal, and stop short. I absolutely refuse to call her a “gentlewoman.” That’s just too 13th century. But I will call her a damn fine reader and a wonderfully sincere and insightful respondent. Jennifer reminds us that, because we’re all magic lanterns, projecting personae and occupying roles, we desire solid footing and permanence: “I read because it makes me feel immortal.” 

spike-jones-2

Jennifer Summerfield (AKA Trillian Stars): proof, if proof was ever needed, that people purr, too

Who are you?

I am an actor, model, cat lady, wife/partner, traveler, decaying grammarian, frontier woman, family historian, city dweller but country lover.

What was the last book that you read? How did you like it?

I’ve been reading a great deal for other people recently, having become a member of a book group, and in my off hours trying to stay abreast of my husband’s projects in the science fiction world (which is not my chosen milieu). The last two books I’ve read have fallen into these categories — Coraline read on our way to the Science Fiction convention in Montreal, where Neil Gaiman was the guest of coraline-graphic-novelhonor. I love the world Gaiman creates in Coraline  he has a knack for writing as a child, seeing the world from the frustrating vantage point of a precocious little girl who longs to be appreciated and challenged. It brought back so many memories of trying to be heard, but being too shy to speak. While I was reading Coraline, I was re-reading Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which I had read in college when I took a Turgenev seminar, but enjoyed so much more this time around, nearly fifteen years later. I’ve always preferred Turgenev as a personality, and as a student of French language and culture, I was fascinated by his life as an expatriate in Paris, friend and confidant of the likes of Pauline Viardot and George Sand. However, as a 21-year old, I found it impossible to sympathize with any of the characters in Fathers and Sons, preferring his On the Eve with its female protagonist filled with

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons

revolutionary thoughts and passions and desires. At 35, I found myself reading it from the perspective of the “fathers”; having lived long enough now to know what it is to lose a loved one, I was filled with compassion for Bazarov’s well-meaning, but suffocating parents. The fascinating thing to me about Turgenev’s writing is that he can write in such minute detail that you can almost smell the tobacco in the air, yet you are merely a spectator, never inhabiting any one character’s skin completely. It’s beautifully scientific.

How does preparing for a dramatic role change your experience of reading, say, The Trial? Does it give you new insight into the story or the character of Josef K?

It gives me insight into the landscape of the story; if playing someone who is antagonistic to the “hero” of the play, as was often the case in The Trial, where I played multiple roles, I try not to understand the hero too completely. Getting inside his head would be counter productive. So, in that kafkaway, I suppose you could say that preparing for a specific role limits my literary perspective. It’s more important for me to know what it is about Josef K. that makes me react the way I do… and what the historical significance of the play/book is. When was it written, and why? And how was it written? How does the punctuation affect my delivery — does it change my inner punctuation, or should it be discarded? Every playwright/author is different in this regard, so understanding Kafka and what his background was is incredibly important. Whenever possible, I read a biography of the writer to better understand my role and the arc/style of the play.

If a literary genie could grant you one wish, what novel would you like to be a protagonist in? Why?

This is a difficult question. The books I love most often have terrible, tragic endings (The Awakening)… and characters to whom I find it easy to relate, so often spend the 300 pages of the novel struggling or obsessing over right and wrong (Villette) — not something I would choose to do if wandering the pages of a novel. Why not have fun and adventure… but no death and heartache? So, I choose… Just Patty by Jean Webster. Jean Webster went to Vassar at the end of the 19th Century and wrote about smart, witty, spunky, adventurous women who were college bound or ambitiously career driven… who studied Latin and wrote funny, entertaining letters illustrated with their own quirky sketches. So, if inhabiting the pages of a book (which has a sense of permanence about it), I’d want to be a Jean Webster heroine.

My choice in theatrical roles is quite different, however, and my mantra seems to be “bring on the drama!” One of the reasons I am so happy with the theatre where I do most of my work, Curio, is that the majority of their productions have a solid, literary base… so I am often granted that “impossible” wish of being able to inhabit a much loved work of fiction… and being allowed to bring to life a character who has never walked, never spoken in just this way before is positively thrilling.

Do you peek at what people are reading? Do you judge them harshly? Favorably?

I always peek at what people are reading, especially when riding public transportation. Usually I try to guess the genre of the book they’re holding, and when I’m right I feel smug satisfaction, and sometimes a little disappointment. When I’m wrong, I’m pleased that I was fooled. I try to be happy that people are reading at all… but I feel at my most patronizing when they’re reading the book du jour. When Girl With A Pearl Earring came out and it seemed to be everyone’s companion on the subway, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Part of this was due to the fact that I worked in a bookstore at the time, and everything on the “best seller’s” shelf was anathema.

Have you ever read a passage so beautiful you actually had to stop reading, maybe even kiss the page, before continuing on?

vilette

Vilette

Frequently. This happened a number of times when I read The Time Traveler’s Wife. I memorized passages of Jane Eyre that were too beautiful to forget… and on the subject of Charlotte Bronte… her passage in Villete about the actress Vashti — oh my! I couldn’t breathe until I’d stopped and re-read it and let the words sweep over me.

Which canonical writer would you lay down your life to protect: Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Joyce, or Proust?

Grave_of_Proust,_P%C3%A8re-Lachaise_cemetary,_ParisProust. Definitely Proust. Frail, observant, sensitive, haughty, superficial, complex Proust… with his sensory memories (no wonder I love him, as an actor) and his rich, descriptive phrases winding through time and space and logic and feeling… a moment distilled into thirty pages. What’s not to love and long to protect? I wish he’d lived for 30 more years… and bred legions of linguists before he was through. I used to go to his grave in Pere Lachaise, black and sleek and pristine, and split a baguette and a bottle of wine with my friend Laura. Proust. Even the word is round and solid in my mouth, like a madeleine.

Why do you read?

I read to discover new worlds… to fall in love… to be someone or something I’m not… to be punched in the throat with beautiful words and startling images. I read to believe in an alternate reality where I can travel to China and fight cholera… or live on an island and teach in a one-room school house. I read because it makes me feel immortal.


John Crowley: ontology, featherless bi-peds, and Pynchon’s great mistake

September 13, 2009

We often forget that the novel is a piece of low-tech wizardry. It divides us into authors and readers. One creates words, sentences, and stories; the other consumes them. What’s more, the novelist looms behind the majesty of his creation like an invisible presence. We praise him, beseech him, and very often curse him. Is it any wonder, then, that a booklover gets a little wobbly in the knees at the opportunity to correspond with an idol writer? I don’t think so.

Who are you?

Crowley

John Crowley (by Zoe Crowley)

I am a married white male age 66, living in northwestern Massachusetts, no criminal record, university grad (1965), parents deceased, two children (twin girls). Author of several volumes of fiction (13 or 17 depending on how various collections and odd volumes are counted). The most recent is Four Freedoms, a novel about people working in a bomber plant in World War II. The bomber is invented (so are the people).


What’s the most recent book you’ve read? What do you think of it?

Most recently I read The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. It’s an ARC or “advance reader copy” that goes out to reviewers; I’m reviewing the book, which won’t be out for a while. I enjoyed it greatly. I think Baker is one of our notable writers, an absolutely unique voice, exasperating sometimes, profoundly honest (about small things that most of us would be more ashamed to expose in detail than we would our big failings). His first novel, The Mezzanine, was almost entirely about an office worker who breaks a shoelace. It’s wonderful, and his later ones are better. This new one is about a poet who can’t write the introduction to his anthology of poems, Only Rhyme. It contains a lengthy and ingenious theory of prosody.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

This seems to me a profoundly mistaken question. Characters are functions of the books they exist within, and those books are made out of words; much as we enjoy pretending that the words in novels are imitations (Platonic sense) of actualities, and that the people constructed of words in books are capable of doing other or more things than they do in their books, we are fooling ourselves – or maybe say inventing fictions or supra-fictions of our own. Writers are less tempted to this category error; it seems ontologically creepy. All that said, I’d go for meeting Rima the Bird Girl in the forest, and getting to know her well; maybe get those feathers off.

What book simply got the best of you?

None has yet; I have no unpublished torsos. The third volume of the Ægypt series – Dæmonomania – came the closest. I was sure that I had failed, would not be able to make it to the shore of the last page, even knowing that Volume IV – a simpler book I understood very well – lay beyond that shore. What you do in that case is to make the possibility of failure, the certainty of it even, a part of the book, and your surrender to it a conclusion, an ending, an achievement. See Beckett.

If this question means What book did I try repeatedly to finish and failed, the list is so long and shaming that I wouldn’t know where to begin. How about War and Peace?

Is there a novelist you wished had the ear of President Obama? Explain.

In general I think novelists should not speak about politics, and if they speak about them we should resist listening. These are people accustomed to creating imaginary worlds and making them go as they like, which can make their opinions tend to the fascistic, even their gentle-hippie or wise-crone opinions. Autocratic maybe rather than fascistic. The relation of cause to effect in fiction, remember, is the reverse of the same relation in life, at least from the novelist’s point of view: endings and conclusions cause the situations that will bring them about, and characters take paths or do deeds because the endings say they must; all writers know they can always change a character’s early life if they find that they need a cause for something in his later life. Doing this every day does not make for a good political sense, which requires a mature and wise sense of actual possibilities. See Norman Mailer. See Thomas Mann. See almost any novelist.

Is there a defect in a widely admired novel that you‘d give your right arm to correct? How would you improve it?

Well, there’s the ludicrous intrusion of Marvel Comics characters into Gravity’s Rainbow, set in a hallucinatory but very time-specific 1945. They bang around for many pages. Dumb self-indulgence. I’d give Pynchon’s right arm to expunge it.

In the last 25 years, what’s the most significant change in the form of the novel?

I would say that it’s the proliferation of accepted fictional forms and projects. It somewhat resembles the proliferation of accepted choices in other realms of life – for instance the choice young people today have to be hippies, punks, Goths, ivy-league do-gooders, jocks, louts, etc., all pretending to be unable to comprehend the styles and choices of others. The world was formerly full of many distinct styles of being, but they – hillbilly, sophisticate, proletarian – didn’t seem like choices, and to be a hippie then meant rejecting all other modes. The 1970s struggle between maximalist/magico-realist and minimalist/mall-realist was just that, a struggle – one side was supposed to be right. In the last 25 years it has become increasingly possible to choose any mode, or make up your own (see Baker), or write in one genre while evoking another (see Kelly Link’s ghost and zombie stories), to cleave to realism a la Alice Munro or abandon it, or to write mall-realist stories with ghosts in them (George Saunders). Anything goes. Good.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

The Gideons began putting bibles in hotel rooms back when hotel rooms348-3 didn’t have televisions. Now that they do (complete with porn channels and gaming, not to mention the internet for your laptop) I’d guess that far fewer people pick up that very odd miscellany and leaf through it looking for something amusing or instructive (I have). So the fate of any book chosen to replace it would be a little like getting married to a king – you’d be thrilled at first, the fame and glamour, but you’d find your life has evaporated, and you’d never get out of the bedside-table drawer. Nevertheless, my choice would be Little, Big by John Crowley, a large and capacious epic (like the bible) and full of wonders (like the bible).

Can wisdom be found in novels?

See above, passim. Yes, wisdom can be found in novels, but other things (thrills, sexual titillation, environments strange to you, unlikely stories, commonplace stories, surprise endings, weddings and funerals) are far more common; and the wisdom you find is largely put there by you the reader – as the magician can trick you into giving to him the card, the coin, the paper that he pretends to have discovered in his pocket. I think that delight is a more reliable thing to find there, and less disputable (I can argue with the wisdom you think you got out of The Dark Tower or From Here to Eternity but I can’t say you didn’t enjoy them and find them memorable).


Thresholds

September 6, 2009

According to the world’s most famous pessimist, Schopenhauer thinks boredom is one of the gravest threats to the quality of human life. Like pain, boredom can have a terribly corrosive effect on the will. But a pessimist is only as insightful as the pragmatic advice he offers. How do we deliver ourselves from evil? Go down the rabbit hole of aesthetic experience — and prepare to be changed.

Who are you?

Valya Dudycz Lupescu

Valya reading Brothers Grimm

My name is Valya Dudycz Lupescu, and I am the founding editor of Conclave: A Journal of Character. I am a Ukrainian American writer with a passion for well-crafted characters and a penchant for magic realism. When I’m not creating or editing stories, I am sharing adventures (real and imagined) with my husband and three young children.

What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?

The last book I read was nonfiction, The Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar. The book is a discussion of the impact of stories upon children, and while interesting, Tatar’s selection of stories is limited (several of my favorites were not included). It also seems directed at an audience who would not expect children’s literature to be complex and transformational. How could it be anything but transformational?

My favorite part of the book is its end, where Tatar looks at boredom as the impetus for many of the adventures in children’s literature, highlighting Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat as examples. It was a good reminder that in our frenetic culture and overscheduled lives, kids today need the time and space to create their own adventures.

If you could meet a character on the holodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

Several of my favorite characters are from books where much of the conflict is internal, so if we were to meet on the holodeck, we might have a great conversation, but that’s about it (Stevens from Ishiguro’s The Remain of the Day, for example.) So, for the holodeck, I would choose to have tea, followed by a mythic adventure with Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings; or to attend one of Jay Gatsby’s fabulous dinner parties.

Where / what was your most memorable reading experience?

thegodwhobegatajackalOne of my more recent memorable reading experiences was among the ancient Ġgantija temples on the island of Gozo, where I read The God Who Begat a Jackal by Nega Mezlekia. My eldest daughter, who was a baby at that time, had fallen asleep. We had some time until the next ferry, so I pulled out my book and notebook and did a little reading /writing. There was something otherworldly about reading a novel set in 18th century Ethiopia while sitting in the shadow of megalithic temples built around 3500 BCE on a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the best of all possible worlds, which novelist should have the right ear of President Obama? 

Assuming that the dead can speak in the best of all possible worlds, Sir Arthur C. Clarke would be my choice. President Obama seems to have a handle on many of the great lessons taught by literature: empathy, courage, integrity, moral heroism. What could Sir Arthur C. Clarke offer President Obama? In a word: vision. Clarke’s many works incorporate art and science, often acting as a bridge between the two. Innovative and brilliant: Clarke’s work helped to shape attitudes toward space travel and lead to many scientific and cultural advances.

Clarke’s Second Law basically says that the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. There remains a high level of expectations for the Obama Presidency, and the President must make difficult decisions for our increasingly xenophobic and economically frustrated nation. I believe that Clarke would have been an informed yet visionary counsel.

How is reading like writing?

The best stories act as thresholds, whether I am reading or (hopefully) writing them. They allow us to cross over into new worlds; and even if we cross the same threshold and revisit beloved books, we still gain something unique. We are transformed.

In moments when I am immersed in writing a story, the rest of the world falls away, and I am completely present in the new world I am creating. When I’m reading, there is this same almost-mythic experience—where I lose touch with reality in exchange for a new literary creation.

Why do you read?

I read poetry for the sensual experience of the language. I read fiction (and nonfiction) for the adventure: for the thrill of immersing myself in a new place, a new time, a new idea. I delve into a book with the same curiosity and reverence with which I explore ancient monuments or engage an interesting artist in conversation about her work.

All the Pretty Horses

Sometimes there is crossover, and I relish those times: when a book like Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses envelopes me in the story, even as the lavish language engages my ear: the rhythm, the clarity, the intensity. It’s a literary delight.