Tag Archives: Flaubert

Marginalia, no.228

A Person is he whose words or actions are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of an other man…whether Truly or by Fiction. When they are considered as his owne, then is he called a Naturall person: and when they are considered as representing the words or actions of an other, then he is a Feigned or Artificiall person.

~ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

It may help us to understand the lives of certain novelists if we think of them as ‘feigned persons.’ To judge by their example, dissipation in chemical or sexual form must be a requirement for membership in the Cult of the Artist. General dishevelment, poor manners and complicated politics don’t hurt either. Flaubert cautions against affected bohemianism, recommending that an artist live like a bourgeois and save his energy for his work. Along similar lines, Jules Renard writes in an 1890 journal entry: “You can be a poet and still wear your hair short. You can be a poet and pay your rent. Even though you are a poet, you can sleep with your wife.”

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Shangri-La

God Save The Kinks.  I was driving to the train station this morning and listening to Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) when I had a vision of myself in Shangri-La.  I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat, nudging with one finger the sore spot a few inches below my sternum, wondering if it was a hiatal hernia, and dreading my arrival at the office where work has been, according to the lingo, a series of ‘fire-drills’ these past two weeks or more. Then Ray Davies sang:

The little man who gets the train
Got a mortgage hanging over his head
But he’s too scared to complain
Cos he’s conditioned that way…
Shangri-La…

My wife’s parents live on the east side of San Jose, up against the Diablo Range foothills that are so brilliantly green this time of year.  In line at a supermarket nearby I overheard a conversation between a clerk and a customer he seemed to know.  “So, how’s it going?” the clerk asked.  “You know how it is,” said the other, a big man, spreading out his arms, “…just another day in Shangri-La.”  “More like Shanghai,” the clerk said, with a guilty chuckle.  The three of us were possibly the only non-Asians in the store – but I suppose we each build a Shangri-La in our own image.

Flaubert wrote by way of advice that “[you should] be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”  Keep your head down.  Conserve your creative energy.  Pray to Wallace Stevens.  Play Prince Hal among the middle class drudges and office zombies till your sun of glory vaults over the horizon.  But what happens when you really are a bourgeois?  What happens when you’re too tired and well-fed to be violent and original?  Anyone want to take a mortgage off my hands?

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Showing a Little Plumage

James Wood is still raising hackles.  Back in 2000, before he ascended the throne at The New Yorker, Wood published The Broken Estate, a tour by essay of various nineteenth and twentieth century literary greats.  In a piece on Virginia Woolf, Wood speaks fondly of her critical work, which he calls  “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor.”  A “writer-critic” like Woolf, he says,

has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses.  That competition is registered verbally.  The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.

Reading this, one has the strong sense that Wood is talking as much about himself as about Woolf.  Wood published a novel in 2004, and whether or not one agrees with his methods or judgments, Wood’s prose is full of glittering precision and dreamy metaphorical effects that often top the novelists he’s examining.  Wood is forever showing plumage.  A few examples: 

Of Melville: “No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison.”

Of Chekhov: “He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he himself was – life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies.”

Of George Steiner: “[His] prose is a remarkable substance; it is the sweat of a monument.”

His metaphors do sometimes fail.  Take this, for example, from Wood’s summary of Anthony Julius’s screed against Eliot: “The idea seems to be that the three demons are separate but pull together, like hardworking chefs, to prepare the feast of prejudice.”

No one hits the bull’s eye every time.

It’s a tired old saying that ‘those who can’t, teach,’ and something similar is said of critics: that they make their way by praising or deploring the works of others because they themselves are unable to create anything original.  Like Flaubert’s Pellerin who “held the old masters in such veneration that it almost raised him to their status,” the critic schemes to win status by counterfeit means: If he can’t join the club by the front door, he climbs the trellis to break a window.  The assumption here is that it’s easier to be a critic.  Everyone is, so they say.  But being critical is not at all the same thing as being a critic.  I congratulate myself that Montaigne agrees:

Here is a wonder: we have many more poets than judges and interpreters of poetry.  It is easier to create it than to understand it.  On a certain low level it can be judged by precepts and by art.  But the good, supreme, divine poetry is above rules and reason… It does not persuade our judgment, it ravishes and overwhelms it. (Essays I, 37)

I wonder if we aren’t after all better served by “writer-critics” like Wood who possess some sort of artistic capacity, who because they share in the writer’s perspective are perhaps less confounded by the ravishment of words.  Or does that make them more susceptible?  But Wood at least is a pleasure to read, which is more than can be said for certain of his fellows.  (Sam Anderson considers reading Wood “practically a form of intellectual erotica.”)  I’ve personally benefited by Wood’s discussion -in the middling How Fiction Works– of the novel’s free indirect style, by which “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”  I’ve also gleaned a few satori moments meditating on Wood’s philosophy of metaphor (“the whole of the imaginative fictional process in one move”) and its function within narrative:

Narrative sequence, at bottom, is nothing other than the materiality of words, which forces us to place one word after the next, rather than on top of each other…  Metaphor is the way to explode sequence.

Despite the occasional “feast of prejudice” flop, this kind of stuff is, I think, reason enough to hope that Wood keeps peacocking around for some time to come.

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