31 December 2009

MCT: Roman Jakobson

Jakobson (wikipedia) is honoured with two extracts in MCT: "Linguistics and Poetics" and "The metaphoric and metonymic poles". Both illustrate his structuralist approach to literature: he is attempting to explain the mechanism of, in particular, poetry, showing how it differs from 'normal' writing.

The first essay identifies common features in poetry taken from a wide range of cultures. Principally, the view is that poetry is structured around repetition and variation, whether this be of sounds (rhymes) or rhythm (metre). He takes a long time to say this, and I can't honestly that the argument is developed. Rather, it is re-inforced by a succession of evidence. The range of evidence is impressive but this man was a linguist ...

The second essay covers the two options of metonymy and metaphor. Apparently, aphasic people fall into two groups: those who misspeak by way of metonymy (contiguity), and those who misspeak by way of metaphor (similarity). Someone in the first group might mistake his wife for a hat; in the second group, he might inappropriately use the word 'bride'. OK, that's what it's about. The point is that different writers, and different schools of writing, tend towards one or the other. So, in art, the cubists used metonymy, while the surrealists tended to metaphor.

Both essays, I suppose, contribute to a framework for understanding how literature achieves its effects. But they are exercises in linguistics. Indeed Jakobson explicitly claims that the study of poetics is part of linguistics. He wants a scientific approach:
Unfortunately the terminological confusion of 'literary studies' with 'criticism' tempts the student of literature to replace the description of the intrinsic values of a literary work by a subjective, censorious verdict.(p142)
Obvious problems there, above all the view that a work has 'intrinsic values', and the rest of the essays suggest that the linguistic analysis of the work will reveal them. Of course analysis of language has be to linguistic; in some sense it can't be anything else. But it really feels like something is missing here. Another book I've been reading quotes Stephen Sondheim's lines:
What's the muddle
in the middle?
That's the puddle where the poodle
did the piddle.
and says there's nothing in Jakobson to explain why that's rubbish. Exactly. I suspect it's the lack of connection to real and important subject matter, which suggests that literary analysis can't ignore the world outside the text.

(Reference is to Hans Bertens, Literary Theory: the basics p39).

29 December 2009

Comparative literature

When I tell people I'm hoping to do an MA in comparative literature, they usually ask what's that? and I usually can't answer. Someone answered the question for herself though; she said so, it's like saying, this book's bigger than that book, right?. Funny, and it seems not that far off certain approaches. I've been given Susan Bassnett's book Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction for Christmas (it was either that or Katie Price's latest autobiography), and I realise the question is one that has been around a long time, and one that doesn't have an easy answer.

One answer has always been that comparative literature is there to demonstrate that our literature is bigger and better than theirs. Here's a table showing some of the us and them alignments:
EnglandvWales, Scotland, Ireland
EuropevThe Orient
EuropevThe Americas
AfricavThe rest of the World
Comparative literature, in other words, has been used as a political tool. The literature of, say, the Middle East is used to demonstrate and maintain prejudices about the nature of its people and society (eg Kinglake and Burton), while the sagas of Iceland were adopted by a ragbag of people, including Nazis, as the exemplary development of male aryanism.

So, according to Bassnett (writing in 1993), the study of comparative literature has declined in Britain, presumably because of the obvious unloveliness of the discipline in this form.

But, she says, there has been a growth in interest in the subject in, for example, India. This has depended upon a revaluation of the local literature, which has put that at the heart of the subject. In India, historically, it may have been hard for local intellectuals to get free of colonial thoughts about the primacy of English literature, in which it is the benchmark against which other literatures are compared. This transformation is partly driven by post-colonial theory, but it means that comparative literature becomes a tool of post-colonialism, a complete reversal of its earlier role.

There's also a fascinating interplay between colonialism and sexuality, which I hadn't realised before. Bassnett clearly brings feminist theory into the subject, but when you realise how often colonisers talked about "virgin" territory, and orientalists speculated obsessively on the sexual secrets of the east, it's hard to deny it was always there.

So, interesting stuff, but I still don't have an easy definition of what comparative literature is. Probably it's too general a concept, and it should be renamed as "world literature". But if the music business is any precedent, "world literature", like "world music", would mean anything that's not from North America or some parts of Europe. So maybe it's just "literature". That can't be right - it's much too simple.

26 December 2009

Strange languages
OK, it's not rigorously academic, but it's interesting. Does the existence of evidential language in Tuyuca mean that its speakers think differently? And how would you translate it?
Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

23 December 2009

MCT: Jacques Derrida

Derrida is another of those "crazy frogs" who had a revolutionary but possibly already diminishing impact on critical theory. One thing I'm finding out is that in some cases, the impact was greater in America than in Britain, and it would be interesting to speculate why. I suspect the adoption of French theories may have remained "cool" in American intellectual circles longer. In Britain, it's now always America that's considered cool, and also maybe the practical criticism tradition is more robust. That's for another day. Today, I'm looking at Derrida's "Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences", taken from his book Writing and Difference.

Derrida starts from the structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and finds that the aim of describing all anthropology in terms of structure is doomed to fail because the structures must have a reference point, which is not itself structural. Lévi-Strauss is said to have acknowledged this, but to have ignored it for the sake of the argument. Because Derrida is treating the question philosophically, rather than empirically, he can't be content with that. In fact, he suggests that this philosophical flaw causes the most obvious failing of Lévi-Strauss's view: the treatment of the incest taboo in the classification of natural v cultural. Lévi-Strauss says that we can consider as natural all behaviours which arise from human behaviour independently of laws or local norms; while cultural behaviours are those which result from social restrictions. But incest is a universal taboo in humanity (which makes it natural) but the restrictions that enforce the taboo are social (which makes it cultural).

One thing I want to say here is that I'd need to be convinced that the distinction between natural and cultural ever was solid. Another crazy frog - now hugely unfashionable - argued that it's impossible to think of a human outside of society: all our behaviour is social, therefore cultural. Never mind that, for now.

Derrida's view is that this weakness undermines any attempt to view human sciences structurally, and so, according to the editors' introduction, post-structuralism and deconstructionism were born. The fixed point, to which everything else relates, does not exist, so instead in a society or in a text there is choice of structures (I'd be inclined to call them networks) of which none has any special truth or value.

At least, that's how it's developed, and that's why it's been blamed for an absolutely relativistic approach to literature. I suspect it's an exaggeration and a misapplication of the original point. But this is a tough one, and I'll have to spend more time on Derrida and on those who developed (to put it neutrally) his insight.

17 December 2009

MCT: E D Hirsch Jr

The fact that Hirsch is "Jr" and that his essay is called "In defense of the author" reveal that he's American. This essay is from his book called Validity in Interpretation or Validity of Interpretation (it's referred to by both versions in the editors' introduction).

It's a defence against what Hirsch would consider the abuse of the "intentional fallacy" argument: the belief, which he traces back to Eliot, that an author's intention in writing something is no concern of ours in reading it. He refers to "the sensible belief that a text means what its author meant". In fact, the whole argument is semantic (appropriately). He distinguishes between meaning and significance. He makes the case that an author must have had a meaning in mind while writing. A reading is better the closer it matches that meaning, and a work is better the more accurately it conveys that meaning.

I'm prepared to accept the view that of course an author had a meaning in mind, and his dismissal of the view that because we can't wholly know the author's meaning, we might as well not bother to try to understand it. I think I'd say, using his terms, that it is significance that is important. The problem with this, for Hirsch, is that there's no normative measure of value in an interpretation based on significance.

But, if we start from the view that the purpose of reading and interpretation is (i) to understand the author's meaning and (ii) to evaluate the work in terms of its success in transmitting that meaning, why would we bother? I don't care if an author wants to tell me that (say) war is a fearful but exciting thing; if a novel should demonstrate that, make me feel the fear and excitement, what does it matter what the author had in mind? There are ways of demonstrating that a reading is valid without reference to the author's meaning: simple things like evocative use of words and imagery. In fact, all the apparatus of practical criticism.

So I'm unconvinced. And I'm prepared to admit that this is partly due to Hirsch's appalling use of non-inclusive language. I mentioned this when I looked at George Steiner, and I know everyone used to do it and I suppose I should cut some slack for something written in 1967. But it's hard to overlook. It's an unconsidered reflex here to use generalising male pronouns: "Since we are all different from the author, we cannot reproduce his intended meaning in ourselves", and even worse: "It is proper to demand of authors that they show consideration for ... the generality of men" (p273). The generality of men? It sounds like a phrase he's invented deliberately to wind me up. But I shouldn't be guessing at his intentions! Just note that above I've managed to avoid using generalising masculine pronouns entirely.

MCT: Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin (wikipedia entry) (1895 - 1975) was a Russian theorist whose work suffered under the Soviet state until near the end of his life, but is, apparently, growing in status now. The piece in MCT, "From the prehistory of novelistic discourse" is one of the longest in the book, but it seems generally easy to follow.

15 December 2009

Anthony Burgess, arse

It almost stops me picking up the book, and certainly makes me wish I'd got it in another edition, this quote on the back of The Book of Disquiet:
It could not have been written in England: there is too much thought racing hopelessly around.
Anthony Burgess, there, someone who, as I recall, wrote books in England. Presumably, like everyone who says "Oh, the English are so shit at cooking/writing/sex/living ..." he wasn't including himself. "Oh, I don't count because I'm vaguely Irish/educated/Catholic/just, y'know, cleverer ..."

He goes on:
There is a distinguished mind at work beneath the totally acceptable dullness of clerking. The mind is that of Pessoa. We must be given the chance to learn more about him.
I bet when he first wrote this, vanity got the better of him and instead of Pessoa, he typed Burgess.

12 December 2009


I've now got hold of Labyrinths by Borges from the library, a fairly new copy (bought in 2008) of the Penguin Modern Classics collection. I've got it particularly to remind myself of what really happens in the story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".

First thing to strike me was how irritating the story is. Borges uses as a narrator an unnamed academic, who is commenting on the works of Pierre Menard and the criticism that has so far been made of him. There is a short list of Menard's published work and then the narrator discusses his work on rewriting Don Quixote. If this story were the work of an English writer, we'd describe it as "donnish". Borges clearly aims the work at people whose work involves textual and literary studies. Here's the best joke. One of the cited works is:
A technical article on the possibility of improving the game of chess, eliminating one of the rook's pawns. Menard proposes, recommends, discusses and finally rejects this innovation.
Oh my sides.

In my memory, Menard had adopted the personality of Cervantes, by reading everything he had. But Borges is clear that he discarded this method. He wanted to remain Menard but still recreate the novel. The way he did so is unclear (deliberately - Borges' narrator makes it clear that there was no trace left of Menard's work in progress). The point is that if we assume that a 20th century writer had - somehow - written Don Quixote, it would be a much richer work, because it would have been written with all the knowledge of what has happened since.

And of course the real point is that when a 20th century reader reads Don Quixote, they are reading something different to what a 17th century reader would have read. A fair point, but I'm not sure we needed to endure all the donnish humour to get to it.

But let's apply these methods to the collection of stories etc we have in front of us. It was first published in 1964 by New Directions. The editors, Donald A Yates and James E Irby did an introduction and some of the translations. Other translations are taken from various magazines and journals. The preface is by André Maurois, and undated, but he died in 1967. So all of the translations and all of the editorial comment in the book are over forty years old. More than a lifetime in literary studies. And Maurois makes the same mistake I did: he states that Menard's method was to be Cervantes. Wrong! The fact that Maurois' mistake doesn't stop him from getting the point suggests to me that the story obscures a fairly simple idea by proposing an impossible scenario to (purportedly) embody it.

The editors' introduction then reports Borges' poor reputation in Argentina, blaming the fact that he was perceived as too European. That seems a fair accusation to me. They quote Ernesto Sábato: "if Borges were French or Czech, we would all be reading him enthusiastically in bad translations". I've a feeling that's what a reader of this book may be doing.

Even if these translations aren't "bad", they're old: new translations are needed, precisely because the Borges a translator reads now is very different from what these translators read 50 years ago. And a new introduction is needed: Borges' reputation has changed and his place in translation theory - a theory that has developed enormously in those 50 years - needs to be reviewed. The preface by Maurois is a historical document now. It might be worth keeping, but surely the opinions of someone who's been affected by magic realism, for example, would be more valuable to contemporary readers. Even the selection and arrangement of works is ripe for review.

I'm disappointed that Penguin is still publishing this sixties view of Borges. Ultimately, it makes it hard to know what Borges' quality and status is. Now.

(Edit. After writing this I've looked at the Wikipedia entry on Borges. It appears his estate is obstructive to publication of translations, in ways that aren't entirely clear. So I guess Penguin have little choice but to persist with this volume. Apologies to them.)

10 December 2009

Alaa Al Aswany (2)

Now that I've read the stories in the collection, it seems to me that they most resemble James Joyce's Dubliners. There's that same sense of injustice over the colonial past, with the same sense of despair at the inability of post-colonial politicians to do any better. Also the writing is simple, sometimes with a Flaubertian narrator, who genuinely reveals little about himself. It's a big difference from the only other Egyptian writer I've read, Naguib Mahfouz, whose writing is formal and ornate - presumably in accordance with a classical Arabic tradition.

Most of the time the stories are small-scale domestic, but one or two stories deal with the politics of Palestine or Egypt. And they tend (like the novella) to have a gap at their heart. To take one example, in the story "Kitchen Boy" a promising young surgeon finds his career progress stalled in a hospital where bullying and intimidation filter down from the head surgeon. One day the young surgeon has a meeting with him.
No one knows what passed between Hisham and Dr Bassiouni on that day, but equally no one ever forgot that meeting of theirs because it was the beginning of the transformation.

Hisham becomes Dr Bassiouni's favourite, and prospers. The narrator concludes:
Frequently we visit him at the surgery department, where we have a lovely time with him, chatting and recalling old memories, though sometimes, despite the cheerful welcome he gives us, and despite our affection for and pride in him, we feel that something about our old friend has changed. It is, however, a thought that we quickly expel from our minds.

You get the feeling that he doesn't need to say the unsayable, because everyone in Cairo will be able to guess what happened, and there's no need for anyone else to know.

The two stories that cover overtly political issues are "To the air conditioning attendant of the hall" and "Waiting for the leader". In the first, a public speaker tells the story of the Jenin attack in the six-day war of 1967, treating it as a story of betrayal by the Jordanian army. The second is about the former leader of the Wafd party, a movement destroyed by Abdel Nasser. In both, there's the sense that both governments and opposition forces let down their people.

Joyce described Ireland as the sow that eats her own farrow; I think Al Aswany sees Egypt the same way.

09 December 2009

Alaa Al Aswany

Another chance find in Catford library, Alaa Al Aswany is a contemporary Egyptian writer, known for two novels and the book I'm reading, Friendly Fire, a novella and some stories. All I've read so far is the novella "The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers". I'd never heard of this writer before, but so far I'm impressed.

It would be easy to take this book as a fertile example of post-colonial literature. The title of the collection, for example. I've no idea what the original Arabic title (Nīrān sadīqa, نيران صديقة)‎ means, but "friendly fire", I think, only came into common usage during the first Gulf war, and is associated with that conflict, with all the irony you wish to put into it.

Then there's a preface, in which Al Aswany is at pains to stress that the views of characters in a book are not necessarily those of the author. He tells of how his attempts to get these stories published - where all commercial publication is controlled by the state - ran up against refusal, leading to his decision to self-publish.

And then the novella itself shows why that could have happened. The leading character, a first-person narrator, tells the story of his life as the son of a moderately unsuccessful artist, and his growing view that he'd rather be anything than Egyptian. He grows infatuated with images of the West, and eventually has an encounter with a German woman, which causes the crisis that ends the story. In the meantime, he is quite shockingly at odds with his mother, who is suffering from cancer (and from being a fairly obvious symbol).

But it does effectively dramatise the dilemma of someone who sees the faults in his own society, but risks losing his own grounding. While I've no doubt Al Aswany doesn't necessarily share his character's views, his reaction to Mustafa Kamil's view that "If I weren't Egyptian, I would want to be Egyptian" is strong. These words
represent (assuming that the one who said them really meant them) the sort of stupid tribal loyalty that makes my blood boil every time I think of it. What if the good Mustafa Kamil had been born Chinese, for example, or Indian? Would he not have repeated the same phrase out of pride in his Chinese or Indian nationality? And can such pride have any value if it's the outcome of coincidence? (p1)
The character then goes to accuse the Egyptian character of actually being worse than most, and it may be there that Al Aswany distances himself. I suspect that artists, or writers at least, must always live in the land of "it isn't as simple as that" - a land that Daily Mail readers apparently don't believe in.

So we could reduce the story to simple (yet ambivalent) post-colonial fable, but there's a level of detail that raises it above this. When Abd el-Ati's father receives a complimentary letter on his art, he reacts in a way that is entirely personal and biographical. And there's a subtle humour. After Abd el-Ati becomes infatuated with the West, he wants to meet some westerners, and so he goes where they will be: "their places - the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, Saladin's Citadel". (p68)

The ending of the novella suggests that Abd el-Ati's position - either personally or symbolically - isn't healthy, and I wonder if the other stories in the collection, or the novels, will move on from this.

04 December 2009

National literatures

I suppose this link is the first I've done that's related to the nebulous concept of comparative literature. Another entry in the sometimes dull, often provocative, Author, Author series in The Guardian Review, here Pankaj Mishra gives some of his experience as a judge on international literary awards.

The story is of how local literatures develop, sometimes in opposition to western norms, sometimes, though, in opposition to nationalist tendencies (eg Joyce & Beckett). He talks about how publication in the West (ie in translation) depends on whether the work meets the West's expectations; so Egyptian novels about the role of women are OK, while Cuban literary mystery novels which don't criticise the Castro state (Leonardo Padura) are not. We want sex and salsa and dissidence from Cuba.

It's a short but thought-provoking piece. I'm sure these are themes I'll come back to.

03 December 2009

MCT: And so, Baudrillard

I'm not sure which weakness is shown up here: either that of MCT's anthological approach, or that of Baudrillard's own view. The extract is from Simulacra and Simulations - the unnecessarily perverse re-titling of Simulation et Simulacres published in 1980, translated in 1983. Examining Disneyland and Watergate, Baudrillard says that these more or less obviously fantasy creations are a kind of mask, hiding the fact that there is no reality. There is a false contrast between their obvious fiction and the assumed, but false, reality of everything else. Watergate is "an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter". OK, I can see that there's hyperbole at work here, but it's unhelpful. You may wish to redefine reality, but surely a belief system that acknowledges nothing as reality - however ethereal the nature of that reality - just can't exist. Unfortunately, in this extract there is nothing to show how Baudrillard sustains this impossible act. Maybe it's elsewhere in his work.

What we do find here is more evidence of his jokey references to other concepts: "When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its true meaning". It's not a great joke, and I'd advise him not to try it at the Glasgow Empire, but suggests something lost in translation. However, I'm not tempted to read it in the original. I'd probably still miss the jokes, and a lot more.

In the extract, though, there are traces of a post-marxist-freudian basis for his view:
The only weapon of power, its only strategy against [its own break-up], is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere, in order to convince us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production.
And he even slips into italics: "Undoubtedly this will even end up in socialism". Let's generously assume that "even" is a clumsy translation and that the French original is a sentence someone might possibly have written. The recourse to italics suggests a recourse to blind hope, or faith in historical inevitability, which 29 years later isn't looking too good.

But again, it's a stretch to link this social/economic analysis to literature. Near the start of the extract, Baudrillard covers some semiotic theory. The denial (by capital) of the non-existence of reality show itself in four successive "phases of the image":
(1) It is the reflection of a basic reality.
(2) It masks and perverts a basic reality.
(3) It masks the absence of a basic reality.
(4) It bears no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.
I'm not sure how this would help me understand what goes on when one reads The Cantos. And even here, the bedrock of the argument is an unargued assertion about the loss of reality.

Is it the fault of MCT's selection or of Baudrillard itself that this argument is unmade? I still can't say, but it's clearly a fault of the approach that I can't tell. The editors' introductions are impartial, correctly, but do refer to critical works, which are probably more useful. Surprisingly, then, my experience of MCT is making me think that it may be better to read secondary works, rather than the sources. And we're getting further away from the actual primary sources, our original concerns, the literature, than ever.