Marjorie Garber – “The Use and Abuse of Literature”

“The absence of answers or determinate meanings is exactly the set of qualities that make a passage or a work literary.” – Marjorie Garber

The world is forever asking us to to join feuding mobs, each clamoring they have the truth. Any attempt at independence always causes suspicion; it suggests shiftiness. Nothing is more confusing to a dogmatic party than an individual’s “shifty” refusal to stand around for stamping and labeling. In fact, the dogmatic parties are quick to label that refusal anyway: it is “cowardice” or “apathy” or “feeble-mindedness.” If you’re not with them, you’re against them. But if you’re not with them, and also not against them, you’re incomprehensible. You’ve evaded the comforting simplicity of dichotomies. But not joining is hardly cowardice, and it’s often the bravest, and deadliest, choice. There’s safety in the herd. In the wilderness, the loner is prey. You either stampede with the unquestioning hordes, or you get stamped on. In gentler societies, the lone voice is simply made to disappear from a conversation.

When you’re asked to pick sides you’re also being told to stand in submission; you’re denied movement. Stay left or stay right; the important thing to a party is that you stay STILL. The famous F. Scott Fitzgerald line goes that intellect is the ability to hold two opposing views on a subject without being paralyzed. But he’s doubly wrong. A) Intellect is the ability to hold three, or five, or TEN different views on a subject. Two is a failure of the imagination. B) Paralysis doesn’t come from moving around and not being able to choose between two views; paralysis actually comes from choosing one of the views and not moving at all. If you settle on a dogmatic destination, that’s where you’re stuck. The traveler is forever finding pleasure on the road.

The culture wars that waged on literary circles quite viciously during the 80s and 90s were not exceptional in their demands for partiality. They still go on, naturally, but one party has been decimated by age: (the party that spoke for “dead white males + Jane Austen,”  if you were wondering.) These wars were and are predicated on ignoring any number of obvious statements: that one can understand and even sympathize with queer theory or Marxist theory or feminist theory or post-colonial theory or deconstructionist theory, or any number of other -isms, without necessarily surrendering the intellectual autonomy that every thinking person owes to themselves. One can uphold a canon AND argue for its elasticity AND include newcomers; one can accommodate tradition AND be sympathetic to transgression.  A swimmer can go as far from the shore as stamina and curiosity will allow, but they must also know when to return to the shore before they drown.

What happens to those who adopt a critical dogma is that, by necessity, they become hypocritical; they can only attack outwards, trying to batter the architecture of someone else’s beliefs, because they’re too deeply invested and entrenched in the defense of their own equally shabby fortress.

ABOVE: The Scarlet L

I’ve already thrown in traveling, swimming, and architecture (and probably exhausted your tolerance for cheesy metaphors), without getting at my point, so let’s just say that Marjorie Garber’s “The Use and Abuse of Literature” is a brilliant, stimulating book on the history and state of modern literary theory. It comes from exactly the kind of mind I admire: one that travels; one that swims far away from the shore without losing sight of it; and one that fully understands the architectural flaws of the academic tower she by necessity inhabits. Highly recommended.

RATING: COOL!

To Kill a Famous Reclusive Author : Stephen King – “Finders Keepers”

ABOVE: Bookers Weepers

“Finders Keepers” is second in Stephen King’s new genre-shifting trilogy, after “Mr. Mercedes,” and it’s another very successful action thriller even if you can see King straining to keep up with publishing trends. (Is a YA supernatural romance far behind? Or does “Carrie” already sort of cover that territory?) I mentioned the first novel had a certain “Michael Connelly” smell to it, and here King backs me up: retired detective Bill Hodges even refers to Connelly as “his kind of writer.”

“Finders Keepers” is foremost a thriller about literature; it’s not coincidental that it was released at about the same time as Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” It opens in 1978. John Rothstein is a reclusive author responsible for a beloved classic of American literature, the “Jimmy Gold” trilogy (think John Updike’s “Rabbit” books.) Rothstein is Updike, Salinger, Harper Lee and Philip Roth all at once, but that doesn’t save him from being murdered by Morris Bellamy, a literary fanatic dying to get his hands on Rothstein’s unreleased notebooks, where Jimmy Gold’s adventures reputedly continue.

Predictably things go bad for Bellamy, who gets caught and lands in prison for thirty-six years to more or less re-enact “The Shawshank Redemption” minus the redemption part. Upon his release, Bellamy aims straight for the golden notebooks he’s secreted away in a trunk. Problem: the notebooks have already been unearthed by a young boy, Pete Saubers, the son of one of the victims of “Mr. Mercedes” – and as much of a Rothstein fanatic as Bellamy. Cue cat and mouse game, leading to a heart-pounding final scene. It’s not an ORIGINAL scene, mind you: it owes a huge cinematic debt to “Night of the Hunter,” not to mention D. W. Griffith’s cross-cutting techniques. But it’s a scene that WORKS.

ABOVE: Seriously, this might as well be a still from the movie version of “Finders Keepers”

King usually gets slammed for not knowing how to end his horror novels, for summoning supernatural forces that he can’t quite confront satisfactorily. These two thrillers have side-swiped the issue with excellent climaxes. The flaws in the book lie elsewhere. Watching Bellamy and Pete in their collision course is far more interesting than anything going on with boring “hero” Bill Hodges and his side-kicks: crazy-lady Holly and Jerome “Tyrone Feelgood.” I’m glad SOMEONE obviously told King to cut it out with the “Tyrone” shtick, but we still get stuck with moments like this:

“Tyrone Feelgood Delight makes a mercifully brief guest appearance. ‘Dis here black boy goan tote dat barge an’ lift dat bale, Massa Hodges!’”

UGH. Not “brief” enough, let me assure you.

For those who feel King isn’t entirely in his element with  procedural business, there are good news: King hasn’t entirely gone Benedict Arnold on the horror field, and “Finders Keepers” ends with an implicit promise to takes us back into chiller territory for the trilogy’s finale.

RATING: COOL! Part 3, please!

Keep Countin’ : Walter Scott – “Count Robert of Paris”

More about Counts! They used to CONtrol “countys”. The English word Count is French Comte; Spanish Conde; Italian Conte; Turkish Kont; Irish, er, “Cunta” (be careful how you pronounce it.) It has Latin roots in “Companion,” as in Companion to an Emperor, leader of a military Company. Its Saxon / British equivalent is “Earl” but, interestingly, there is no such thing as an “Earless” : An Earl’s wife is called a Countess.

ABOVE: Watch the Throne

And here I am reading “Count Robert of Paris,” one of Walter Scott’s “lesser, latter” novels. This is an epic of unfulfilled ambition, about the first Crusade and the declining days of the Byzantine empire (torn between burgeoning Christendom and the Ottoman Turks). It is not much read today, and unjustly considered his worst. Scott himself referred to the novel as “no better than mended China” and struggled through its composition; the two strokes he suffered while writing it didn’t help. If “Count Robert of Paris” is his “worst,” I must delve deeper into Scott’s novels, because this is a novel of great interest and fascinating oddities, with an undeniable creative genius commanding things. The bad reputation is only relative to his earlier successes. As a critic once quipped: “Everyone who has NOT read ‘Count Robert of Paris’ knows it to be unreadable.”

“Count Robert of Paris” takes off from a minor historical event, in which the titular Count, an “uncouth” Frank leader, interrupted diplomatic negotiations between his troops and the refined Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus by casually – and sacrilegiously- sitting on the Emperor’s vacant throne. Scott sees the moment as emblematic of the complex crucible that led to the Crusades: Greeks, Romans, Turks, Normans, Saxons, Ethiopians, all clash and collude throughout the novel, as they do in “The Alexiad,” the historical chronicle on which Scott relies. (He also indulges in, as Isaac Asimov would put it,  “a little bit of cribbin’ / from the works of Edward Gibbon.”)

ABOVE: Anna Comnena, wearing an astronaut helmet. Very ahead of her time.

“The Alexiad” has the distinction of being the rare historical epic written by a woman: the “born-and-bred-to-the-purple” Princess Anna Comnena. Priceless to historians, “The Alexiad” looks at the first Crusade through the eyes of the Byzantine elite. Sure, it comes with some obvious partiality- a daughter is praising her Imperial father’s military deeds and all. But it’s also laden with wisdom and flights of philosophical “poesy”:

The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright says, it ‘brings to light that which was unseen and shrouds from us that which was manifest’. Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark against this stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.

Anna Comnena figures prominently in “Count Robert of Paris,” but as with every other player in the story, we’re given a deft portrait instead of a moving picture. Scott assembles quite a few interesting characters aside from Anna:  Emperor Alexius; Count Robert; Brenhilda, Robert’s Xena-like warrior wife; Hereward, the Anglo-Saxon hero and true protagonist of the novel;  Agelastes, the treacherous philosopher; Diogenes, the even more philosophical slave… But Scott seems uncertain of what he wants the characters to DO: only Sylvan the Smart, Killer Orangutan can be said to truly ACT, rather than “witness” or “plot”. Things build up at length only to end abruptly and inconclusively. It all feels like a prologue to a brand new stage in Scott’s career. Instead, we were left with a botched epilogue.

ABOVE: Snappy dresser.

Scott is not talked about enough these days, outside of hard-core fans of the historical adventure novel such as meself, and he is largely absent from the current curriculum, (unless you’re in Edinburgh.) Even the once seemingly perennial popularity of “Ivanhoe” has waned. The most eminent “man of letters” of his time, his overwrought style now seems archaic to most, and his love of dialect can easily turn off non-linguists and slow otherwise interesting novels to a crawl. (Here “Count of Robert of Paris” accidentally succeeds by being uncharacteristically set in ancient Constantinople. None of the folksy Scottish nonsense that made some passages of “The Astrologer” darn near unreadable for me.)

But what at first might feel belabored ends up seeming playful and engaging. If you can accept that his characters will never converse when they can speechify, then you’ll be fine. He remains one of the all-time great novelists, in the “big” sense of the word : capable of creating a world peopled by memorable men and women of varying natures, and setting them off against each other while having sympathy for his characters. Pamphleteers write about good guys vs. bad guys. Novelists write about people who want one thing vs. people who want another thing.

He even has sympathy for Sylvan the Smart, Killer Orangutan! Did I mention him? Let’s mention him again! (This was 10 years before Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”… and a century before Edgar Wallace’s “The Avenger”.)

ABOVE: Monkey Business

RATING: COOL at points; ambitious throughout; unsatisfying overall. But honestly, the killer orangutan was enough of a selling point for me.

Polychromal Spree : Victor Moscoso – “Color”

There was something missing from the pages of Robert Crumb’s “Zap Comix” : Color, (which is not the same as colorfulness.) Victor Moscoso’s 1971 “Color” was a self-explanatory attempt to remedy that: the first full color comic to come out of the underground, it’s a storyboard of sorts for a short film that didn’t really come to fruition until many years later: if you can track down the rare cartoon that eventually emerged from the concept, “Cosmic Comics,” give yourself a pay in the back, you persistent hippie.

RATING: COOL!OR

Babble On : Nicholas Ostler – “Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World”

“Who was ever silenced like Tyre, surrounded by the sea?”– Ezekiel, 27 : 32

ABOVE: Word Up and Down

What silences a language? Conversely, what turns a particular set of sounds into a country’s enduring  standard of communication? Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World” tries to untangle the twisted routes of linguistic expansion, concentrating on dozens of the most successful tongues as they evolved through time. Akkadian, Aramaic, Arabic. Mandarin, Swahili. Spanish, English. Indo-European, Afro-Semitic. Latin and Greek and Farsi. Ostler doesn’t just ask the seemingly unsolvable questions of “What makes the spread of languages a success? Is it religious imposition? Military might? Economic trends? Ease of usage?” Ostler also offers the best available answers, even if  they’re not ones that would surprise the wiser lovers of history: “All of the above. None of the above. It depends.”

The tale behind the world’s polyphonic proliferation stands in contrast to the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, (inspired by the understandable, xenophobic discomfort that Hebrew exiled experience in that cosmopolitan maze.) Humans didn’t separate because they spoke different  languages. They spoke different languages BECAUSE they separated. Ostler points out the myth is doubly off the mark given that, in almost unprecedented and rarely duplicated manner, the Babylonian government heavily enforced the official language, Akkadian, for over two thousand years.

ABOVE: “Ok, that’s it, I don’t understand these construction workers, we’re calling it quits.”

 

ABOVE: Tablet ( Version .000001.)

5,000 years of history follow, with dozens of major languages treated like heroic characters in a historical saga: emerging from nomadic obscurity, overcoming odds, and sometimes dwindling with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Inevitably, the book comes around to the role played by English, the world’s current powerhouse. (More people speak Chinese – but as a native language, within the confines of China.) It is hardly a thing to feel secure about, and English speakers would do well to check our hubris: French, which was only a century ago the preferred “lingua franca,” (notice the root of the second word) is now only slightly more spoken than Urdu, (a fact my high school French teacher failed to stress.)

Revealing and though provoking as “Empire of the Word” can be, it suffers slightly due to the dry stylistic choices, the general repetitiveness of expansion patterns, the density of geographical detail, and the linguistic annotations that will puzzle and/or bore the uninitiated: “The lower-Bactrian dialect of the second millennium B.C. lacked the glottal stop of the feminine suffixes as in -‘tzk or -‘jku, (contractions of ‘arutzk’ and ‘punjku’) as well as the ending nominative of the conjunctive fricative found in the ‘zkt sound of the latter-upper-Bactrian term ‘zktuzkt.'”

SURE, if you say so! This was a perfect under-the-hood complement to Peter Watson’s much more entertaining “Ideas.”

RATING: COOL! for content, GOOD ENOUGH for narrative drive.