Covering Literary Language...

Despite the large amounts of time that I seem to stumble across, squandering this wealth on the empty pleasures of my RSS reader, there is no way that I ever have time to read all the things that report their interesting tidbits to me, begging me to try their subtle delicacies.

Maybe this is why hedonism is considered a vice; no matter how much you commit yourself to pleasures, there is no way you could consume all pleasures available.

Anyway, back to the RSS feed: I almost didn't read this one; the articles normally available online for non-subscribers of the NYRB are little reviews, or letter replies to other articles I didn't read. Normally I just scan it for the titles reviewed, hoping to remember them later when I see them reviewed again, or possibly delve deeper if it sounds particularly interesting. Unlike, for example, the TLS, which I read each article, meaning that I have a backlog (currently, eleven articles) that causes me no end of anxiety.

Zadie Smith's review of Netherland and Remainder, for some reason, I decided to read. I knew neither of the works nor authors, and Zadie Smith is not really a impetus to me, either. But all the same, so very glad that I did.

The essay is long, but very detailed, going beyond the substance of the two reviewed works to more of a signpost in a certain thread of literary criticism: lyrical realism.

I'm not going to delve into lyrical realism. For one thing, I'm not sure if entirely understand to what it refers. (I often have this problem with the various genre's of lit. crit.; I understand much more of the mechanics discussed than the supposed rubrics under which said mechanics are distributed.) Much more than that, I enjoyed those mechanics that she was describing.

Before I say anything about the article content-wise, I just wish to recommend it. It was a very nice article. Strangely enough, I don't have any big contention with it, either way. Simply put, it was a nice read, for any who are interested in literary criticism. A little thought-provoking, but not too much.

Of course, there is a reason that I am writing a blog post about it, so I must have something to say. Here it is.

This may be the truest words I have read regarding the terrorist attacks on 9/11:

"There was the chance to let the towers be what they were: towers. But they were covered in literary language when they fell, and they continue to be here."

If there is one statement that gets put into the history books, attempting to provide some sort of closure or reflection about the attacks and what happened afterwards in this country, this should be it. As I re-say in my own words now: it could have just been an awful, violent thing. But because it had begun by meaning more than just that, it continued to mean more than just that.

I doubt Zadie Smith was intending such historical gravity when she wrote those words. She was discussing the symbolism and meaning, both intended and unintended, through which such an event is represented in literature, specifically to her target, the book Netherland.

"It's a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most practitioners of lyrical Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O'Neill. I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it's to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject. Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that "fine white thread running, through years and years," and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world ("I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite"), but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude."

By metaphysical she means, I would venture, 'with consciousness towards its being/self.' It would be easy for any person to write about 9/11, and say any number of things. But writing about things with the knowledge that what we are writing changes those things is a much harder task, and as such, often falls far short, and is just as often derrided as 'post-modernism' or some other pretentious fad. Netherland, according to Smith, succeeds at both, 'just writing', and 'metaphysically writing'.

"Netherland doesn't really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?"

Now, this in itself is no more than a nice, idealistic bit of writing, like most criticism. In other words, it may be general easy to write about what writing means, but it is far more difficult to write what writing means in the course of writing it. A reversal, perhaps, of the problem of lyrical realism that Smith is considering, back upon literary criticism itself. Writing, like the content of Netherland, seeks the authenticity of the self. But if one sieze upon the self too whole-heartly (with too much reverential authenticity) then you may wake up to find that the self one clings to is not the self at all (be in an aporia, an other, or whatever else).

I might cryptically add: self-doubt is only one way of discussing the difficulties of writing while writing. But to explain: writing about needing, yet doubting, reality is one way to write about reality while at the same time acknowledging that writing is not, literally, reality. But: it takes more than questioning reality to be able to deal with (non-)reality. Hence, the problem with folks who depart too far from convention in order to question it. In order to write about not-writing, one must still write!

Right? I would hate to sum up what I mean about writing with reference to a tragedy, but here we are, and so it goes. In Smith's two sentences about 9/11, she sums up most completely what I feel is the truth about our modern lives (including our history, and our writing).

Things could be simply awful, and not mean anything. But they already did mean something, and that is why they must continue to do so, for good or bad.

Furthermore, that is why things will continue to be awful. It is impossible for us to abstract certain deaths from the meanings attached to them. Then, it is impossible for us to attach meaning to certain deaths that are already in the abstract. We kill millions because of the deaths of few; we kill to prevent death; we hate and despise death yet seek it with that desiring, tongue-hanging incest-lust that has made our most stable civilizations the arena of social upheaval and mass-destruction. It could just be some dead people, but instead, it was already a symbol; death was already a tragedy.

"The stage is set [in Netherland], then, for a "meditation" on identities both personal and national, immigrant relations, terror, anxiety, the attack of futility on the human consciousness and the defense against same: meaning. In other words, it's the post–September 11 novel we hoped for. (Were there calls, in 1915, for the Lusitania novel? In 1985, was the Bhopal novel keenly anticipated?) It's as if, by an act of collective prayer, we have willed it into existence."

"As if" willed into existence. But it was not willed into existence, even though everyone may be kneeling in prayer. Real life, or whatever it is that realism is trying to access, is the same way. Our lives are so stuffed with meaning that we couldn't help but try to reduce our orgiastic oceans of symbols into thin, seminal-fluid streams of prayer towards the singularity in the sky. And, with so much meaning in the way, we were clearly going to be wrong. We were wrong before we ever invented writing. We were post-modern before we were modern. And we were dead before we ever lived. What rises to the surface is only what is happening now. Each tower was covered with symbols before it fell; when I saw the video, I thought how odd that there was so much paper in the air, drifting everywhere. But these were massive office buildings, designed to hold, sort, and make all kinds of papers. It was already inside, just waiting to be let out.

I suppose that's it; no real clever twist conclusion from me. Anyway, thanks Zadie Smith, for those two lovely sentences. I've been waiting for somebody to put it so well for seven years.

Oh, and the literary crit. isn't so bad either! Let's just be careful of the ways in which we try to access reality, right? But I suppose that's a post for another time... next time I promise not to fool you into reading an entire post about 9/11 and literary criticism and metaphysics by suckering you in with a little light banter about RSS feeds.

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