Monday, June 01, 2009

`Undying Reliance'

In his introduction to Rosenfeld’s Lives, which carries the overheated subtitle Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing, Steven J. Zipperstein writes:

“Few who write today, few who live amid books that they read so that they might write better, can overlook the assault on reading at the heart of contemporary culture – with its emphasis on the visual, its distrust of intellection, which itself is, arguably, among the more powerful legacies of the last century. Never, it seems, has the role of the writer felt so at odds with what is around us – despite superb writing that seems to speak to fewer and fewer. Other writers have in the past, of course, feared that theirs were times when the fate of literacy was at risk and such concerns have proven unfounded, off-kilter. No matter: now this sense of uncertainty feels warranted. For those, like myself, who early on found coherence in the world around us mostly through books, the uncertainty surrounding their fate today, their increasing marginality, feels ominous, one more way in which the earth is heating up right under our feet.”

Zipperstein writes in the context of Isaac Rosenfeld’s book-smitten life, one that embodies a very American story – a wunderkind of learning, early literary fame, frustration, self-sabotage (not alcohol, for once), early death and, as Zipperstein’s subtitle suggests, oblivion. Rosenfeld, in the words of friends and admirers, was a golden boy. More than that, he was a wonderful writer of fiction, essays and criticism, and has been undeservedly erased from the collective literary memory. Into this story Zipperstein inserts his unhappy digression that, in the hands of a less gifted writer with a less compelling story to tell, might have come off as a cynical non sequitur. Instead, he’s an elegiac Jeremiah. I share his sense that we may already have passed the point of no return for language, literacy and the centrality of books.

Zipperstein’s words came back to me as I read an e-mail from a reader who identified himself as an “assistant professor of communications” at a large university in the Midwest. I felt something like compassion for his thwarted sense of rage, though not too compassionate. He stammered, even in print. To his credit he used no profanity, unless “elitist” and “snob” are profane. I’ll spare the details except for the list he made of “writers you mention over and over that no one ever heard of, ” including Henry Green, Geoffrey Hill, Zbigniew Herbert, L.E. Sissman, George Borrow, A.J. Liebling, Whitney Balliett and, for the sake of symmetry, Isaac Rosenfeld. I suppose I should be flattered he has read Anecdotal Evidence so attentively.

What strikes me as peculiar to our age is my reader’s lack of embarrassment in proclaiming his ignorance. He inverts snobbery and implies that his lack of broad reading is a virtue, whereas I came from a time and place where we lied about the books we had read. Now a person charged with educating young people can boast of his provinciality. Zipperstein’s notion of reading books “so that [we] might write better” no doubt would sound quaint to my reader. He quotes in his e-mail a single writer – Adorno.

Zipperstein writes, “Never, it seems, has the role of the writer felt so at odds with what is around us – despite superb writing that seems to speak to fewer and fewer.” The serious writer – they endure – is not so much “at odds” with readers and critics as the object of their indifference, non-recognition and consignment to oblivion. The provincial obsession with the contemporary at the expense of tradition, and the passive accession to vulgar tastes, means libraries “purge” essential volumes and tenured professors read fewer books than the dedicated common readers among their students. These lines, immediately following those quoted above, suggest the ultra-bookish Rosenfeld was no cloistered monk of letters:

“Books were for Rosenfeld a way out, the only credible way to clarify the dissonance, the incoherence, the furies of life. But he knew well how they could help one to hide. He insisted on confronting the limitations of a life spent with them; he refused to see books as the only way life might be understood, while, at the same time, acknowledging his undying reliance on them.”


Jonathan said...

If you haven't seen it yet - A nice little interview from one of those poets "no one ever heard of".

elberry said...

i wouldn't have heard of most of the writers your new pal mentions, except through your blog.

It's often the case that people who have, by virtue of their mediocrity, attained a position of some minor authority react to the real thing with a frightened hostility - because it shows them up, by its very existence. So Iago: "he has a daily beauty in his life, which makes me ugly". Your blog is a daily beauty and that is quite enough to shame the many dullards & buffoons - though the shame is entirely their own making - they could just as well read & learn, and so better themselves. But that is, no doubt, an elitist judgement.

William A. Sigler said...

I for one am glad you bring writers I’ve never heard of to my attention.

Isaac Rosenfeld is a case in point. His Pauline Kael-like criticism dares to feel, a stark contrast 60 years on with how we as a culture voluntarily suppress what is most authentic for the cool solace of surface images. Rosenfeld sensed this move toward numbness in a 1951 review of the just-published Across the River and Into the Trees for Kenyon Review:

“[Hemingway] has created his own subsection of the Myth of the American Male, supporting everything in this myth which is lifeless, vicious, and false—the contempt for women and for every tender feeling, as for something…corrupt,…the perceptual adolescence of the emotions with its compensatory heroics to cover a fear…not as a lapse from his art, but in its best practice.

“There is never real contact between Hemingway’s lovers; there is chatter, eating, drinking and lonely lying together…Longing is consciously suppressed…Nothing is deeply felt.

“The style covers up this starvation…[and] becomes a paraphrase of his philosophy, which…holds a man to be most human when he is most like wood…What was meant to be a full engagement with life turns out to be a fear of life…the capacity for love and surrender vanish for good, leaving no counterpart in the outer world…., which only answers to a man’s capacity for dealing a blow. The only possible contact in such a world is that of devouring, the only yielding, death….There is nothing in this scheme to allow for growth, development, education of the feelings, since these do not exist…[Hemingway’s] characters either learn nothing or,…reach, at the very end, the usual starting point of the novel…Once the reflex is conditioned, it is fixed.

“He presents a blank, which his more sophisticated audience returns to him, filled with insight. But we cannot afford to have artists so heavily in debt to their audience. It destroys literature, reducing it to anagrams and doctors’ theses. But isn’t that substantially the case with Hemingway’s…pernicious influence?

“[Across the River and Into the Trees] is the most touching thing Hemingway has done...because he let himself be lulled and dulled by the fable of himself [to] give away…a little of the real terror of life in himself, with no defenses handy, not even a propitiatory bull to offer in sacrifice, nothing to kill but the hero. And a little real courage, more than it takes to shoot lions in Africa, the courage to confess, even if it be only through self-betrayal, the sickness and fear and sad wreck of life behind the myth. Wish him luck.”

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I may never understand the praise of willful ignorance - and the censure of those who seek knowledge.

It's a backward, sadly prevalent practice.