Writing words about words

TS Eliot

When it comes to literary criticism or theory, I am almost entirely an autodidact, with all those few pros and many cons that this entails. I have had a good fortune to meet and talk with some extremely smart and distinguished people in those fields, but the closest I have personally come to studying it is a seminar with Mihhail Lotman where we did close reading of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” — and that’s about all of it.

However, lately I have become a regular, if not too frequent, practitioner of the critical genre — mostly in my capacity of a co-author of the main literary blog in Estonia (in addition to occasionally fooling around here). Most of the stuff that I post to Varrak hardly deserves the title of criticism, as usually it is just an offhand review of a book I’ve happened to read recently or a reference, with a few supporting lines, to an article worthy of attention. However, earlier this week it was my turn to be a moderator of the public reading of Andrei Ivanov’s wonderful novella “Tuhk” — and that entailed posting an introductory piece to open the discussion. This posed me with kind of a difficult choice, as Ivanov is an extremely interesting author on many different levels, and his book — while it may look simple — is a very intricate work (think of, for instance, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Danilo Kiš).

Writing the piece (and the internal discussion we had in its wake with a couple of people) made me to reflect upon literary criticism in more general terms. One question that came up in that follow-up discussion was that of why do people tend not to question the need for analysis and reflection upon issues that are political or economic, while when it comes to discussing literature it is all too easy to have it summarily dismissed as navel-gazing and mindless banter that can have no relevance outside the cuckoo-land of humanities departments of academia. It is not rare to hear gripes over this sort of “technical approach” killing the “simple fun of reading”, and this not only for those who actually do like to read this way (and apparently fail to recognize that there is no fun left), but also for others who would like to retain their own personal private fun, unspoilt by references to death of the author, narrative discourse or political unconscious.

My own response to this was that perhaps it has to do with the different ways how people think of politics and literature. While the first does, by general opinion, properly belong into the public sphere, reading a book or a poem perhaps tends to be seen as a private experience — something that can indeed be talked about but that ultimately cannot be shared or related with similarly private experiences of other people. I am, in fact, rather sympathetic towards this kind of defense of readerly autonomy and private sphere that Richard Rorty has been arguing in favour of in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. However, there is a price to pay for this kind of autonomy that is eloquently pointed at by Pankaj Mishra in his contribution to New York Times’ recent panel on “Why Criticism Matters:”

Both Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner from China, who is a literary critic by profession, and Mario Vargas Llosa, the literature laureate from Peru, testify to the impossibility of considering aesthetic matters in isolation from social and political movements. They confirm that a writer’s individual self-awareness is always historically determined, and that one cannot assess a writer’s work without examining her particular quarrel with the world, the rage or discontent that took her to writing in the first place.

Or without situating herself as a reading into this historically determined social and political frame, I would add. Trying to separate aesthetic beauty from the nitty-gritty of our mundane political and social existence courts the danger of denying it the very dimension that makes it matter to us. Or, as says Elif Batuman in her piece in the same series:

Beauty is surely the defining property of literature — but what can criticism do with it? Doesn’t it invariably leave beauty to one side like a pile of indigestible fibers? To approach the question from a different angle: If literature is a vehicle for some other content, why doesn’t it express that content more efficiently? Why the surplus value of beauty? Is beauty just “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down”? If that’s what you have to believe to be a critic, then who wants any part of it? Freud shows that beauty isn’t a surplus value at all. It isn’t superimposed onto content like icing on a cake. Rather, aesthetic features almost always indicate a hidden level of meaning, a richness of signification, which is itself the very thing that we perceived as beauty to begin with. “A beautiful dream and no indiscretion — do not coincide,” Freud wrote, and the same may be said of beauty and meaning. In other words, the precise features that make “Anna Karenina” a work of art, and not some kind of a treatise, may be signs that interpretation is not just possible, but necessary.

My own personal paragons of the literary criticism genre are decidedly old school — T. S. Eliot, George Steiner, Isiah Berlin, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin, Northrop Frye, and so on. It is a curious thing to notice that all of them have not only written exceptional critical interpretations of literary works, but also highly influential critical reflections of what does it mean to be a critic. They have wrestled with their own position towards literature in general as much as with those particular authors and texts that they have been analyzing and interpreting. They are also, despite their extremely high level of technical skill, extraordinarily lucid, and when reading their work it is not the technical mastery that dazzles, rather than the breadth of their grasp and depth of their insights. And this, to me, fundamentally becomes a question of being able to see and establish relationships, to work the text outwards the same way as one can analyze it internally. Or, to conclude with a quote from Sam Anderson:

Isn’t “Ulysses” a boundless, self-devouring review of the “Odyssey,”  “Hamlet,”  “Madame Bovary” and even Carlyle himself? And isn’t “Molloy” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses”? Isn’t “Infinite Jest” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses” and “Molloy” and “JR” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “White Noise”? The membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable. That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.

The critic’s job is to help amplify that conversation. We make the whispered parts of it audible; we translate the coded parts into everyday language. But critics also participate actively in that conversation. We put authors who might never have spoken in touch with each other, thereby redefining both. We add our own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions and modes of expression — and in doing so, fundamentally change the texts themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Writing words about words

  1. Hi,

    I was searching some books in estonian. I wanted to make a present but I don’t find anything! Could you help me?

    For example Foucault: History of the crazyness, or some books of Cortázar, Borges, etc…

    Does a website exist?

    Thanks a lot from Spain.
    Pablo.

  2. Foucalt’s “History of Madness” was translated into Estonian a few years ago as “Hullus ja arutus”, this should be available in all the major bookstores in Estonia. If you need to order online, you may try http://www.rahvaraamat.ee, http://www.apollo.ee or http://www.raamatukoi.ee. I haven’t tested their delivery myself, so I’m afraid I can’t give any particular reccommendations.

    Cortázar is woefully undertranslated in Estonian, with only one slim book published in 1985 – it seems to be available second-hand here: http://www.raamatukoi.ee/cgi-bin/raamat?50184

    With Borges, things are slightly better, but not much: http://www.raamatukoi.ee/cgi-bin/index?valik=otsing&paring=borges. Aleph and Essays are probably your best bets.

    If you’d give me some more specifics what kind of books you’re after I could try to be more helpful. In general, Spanish-language literature isn’t all too well represented in Estonian translation. The obligatory Cervantes plus the usual Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Ruiz Zafon fare is there, but as soon as you stray away from those couple of big names, the pickings become rather slim. There was a translation of Javier Marias’ “Corazón tan blanco”, but this seems to be sold out for many years.

    Anyway, let me know if you need any more help.

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