Recently deceased people that I admire (also not about the pope)

I have a friend, who is Jewish and currently spending his year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who last year gave me his belief that James Joyce was the most successful of the literary modernists because he was the only one who found an authentic cultural identity for the artist and, by extension, modern man in society, an identity which, paradoxically, consisted of its deracination from cultural moorings. In other words, while Yeats, for example, was fruitlessly trying to revive an authentic mythology, a spiritual grounding, Joyce’s evocation of the mythic is more inherently and self-consciously ironic, aware of the naivete of believing in such a project, and casting the absence of the mythic and the secure in the world today into even harsher relief. Regardless of the truth of this idea (I think Kafka far surpassed them all and actually succeeded in seamlessly fusing the primeval and the ultra-modern), the reason I mention this, and the reason my friend’s religion is pertinent, is because this sort of notion of a culture grounded in deracination is even more obviously characteristic of Judaism, and that may in fact have been the inspiration for his idea, consciously or not. I recently read an autobiographical work by Georges Perec entitled W ou le souvenir d’enfance (W or the memory of childhood), which is very much in this vein. Perec was a small child in France during WWII and lost both his parents to it, one in battle and the other in the Holocaust, and his evocation of the time is extremely elliptical, composed, as he says, “d’absenses, d’oublis, de doutes, d’hypothèses, d’anecdotes maigres” (“of absences, of forgetfulness, of doubts, of hypotheses, of thin anecdotes”), and the whole text is interspered, between every chapter, by an account of an Olympic dystopia, a society devoted entirely to sports competition which slowly crescendoes into pure concentration-camp horror and is intended, in my opinion, to show how at that time one’s personal past was being continually interrupted and superimposed by the catastrophes of the war, of history. The main themes are clear: silence, brokenness, the impossibility of any sort of recovery of the past. It’s very finely done but my objection, as to much Holocaust art and literary modernism, is the barrenness of this sort of spiritual orphanage. This is not to deny the importance of the horrors of the past but simply to suggest that, in the case of both Joyce and Perec, there is something, if not disingenuous, then at least deliberately hopeless about the whole project. It seems to me that the irrevocable annhilation of the past is one of the premises of their work, and that in the end it becomes the exaltation of a dead end. In the linguistic minuteness and general incomprehensibility of both, esp. Finnegans Wake, this is almost literally true, as if the language has gone to the limit (and beyond) of expressiveness in this direction, and this is the end.

Which brings me to the thrust of things. Philip Roth has just published some correspondence with Saul Bellow in the New Yorker in which Bellow describes mainly the genesis of The Adventures of Augie March, his first major success. He was living in Paris when the inspiration came to him; I find many parallels between his situation and my own, and not only on that account. He felt, as I often do here, “that Europe was defying me to do something about it” and was consequently terribly depressed. And then, ah! inspiration, “I discovered that I could write whatever I wished…I did not have to kill myself in the service of art.” It seems that this disburdening is not purely personal, but also has larger cultural overtones, for, as he says, “That “Augie March? happened in dismal postwar Europe (knowledge of the Holocaust was slowly coming to us back then) is evidence of an independent move of the mind, a decision not to surrender to horror. I discovered that I no longer wanted to be put upon by art seriousness.” This moment of inspiration at the end of a downcast sojourn in Paris seems to symbolically indicate, then, a break with an exhausted and morbid European culture, a discovery of an artistic vitality native to America and the English language. And there you have it: Bellow had discovered a new free language and mode of expression which was also implicitly an assertion of freedom, a step forward and away from the onerous legacy that extinguishes everything in Perec and so many others’ writings and thoughts. It would no doubt be a great over-simplification to say that Europe has followed the cultural path of Perec and America of Bellow, but it is comforting to find a soul from my culture that, in contrast to much of Europe’s (and possibly America’s) cultural élite, understands that Adorno’s belief that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric is a “surrender to horror” and, more importantly, actually discovered a vital form of expression that could resist it, and resist it sensibly and animatedly, not tragically and despairingly. And this has made him practically the founder of post-war American literature.

3 Responses to “Recently deceased people that I admire (also not about the pope)”

  1. John Sabotta Says:

    I say nice things ’bout your post over at NT.

    Now you have to buy a lung print.

  2. shonk Says:

    Now you have to buy a lung print.

    Not that it’s my post, but I was actually thinking about it. Hmm…

  3. selling waves » Blog Archive » “…but at what price” Says:

    […] ory of Childhood (Verba Mundi (Paperback))”>W or the memory of childhood”). I […]

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