Thursday, December 22, 2011

Classic Literature, the Western Canon and Other Boring Texts

Let's take a break from the pop culture for a sec to talk about boring fiction. Whoops, did I say "fiction"? No, of course it's "literature". Literature is a special term used in the increasingly-irrelevant circles of academia which I tentatively intend to enter to describe texts which are so unbelievably boring that you get to wear it as a badge of pride if you manage to get to the end. At this point of course you go on about how amazing or profound the book was to make yourself feel better and make other people feel like idiots. I'm going to lay down on some canonical, classic and generally literary texts I've read and tell you want I think.

James Joyce, Ulysses
This is as boring as hell. Joyce deliberately wrote it to troll English academics, so I can never understand why people act like it's so brilliant. It has some good bits, especially the parts involving Stephen Daedalus, and the earlier Leopold Bloom stuff which can be quite clever at times, but the whole way through it's incredibly difficult to follow what's going on and as the style becomes more and more unconventional the later chapters are virtually unreadable and meaningless unless you're actually prepared to sit down and write an essay about it explaining it to yourself. It's part of a horrible vicious cycle where inscrutable prose feeds criticism which feeds even more inscrutable prose with the intention of bewildering critics even further in perpetuity. People love to go on about the final stream of consciousness section from Molly Bloom's point of view as she allegedly pleasures herself and how life affirming it is and so on but I think that's a load of wishy-washy feel good hippy nonsense. The whole think draws parallels to The Odyssey with a will towards depicting the life of an average middle-aged man living a boring life in a boring part of the world as equally heroic but that's complete rubbish, real life isn't heroic at all, it's just boring and stupid, unless somehow getting through the day in 1912 Dublin was some kind of heroic achievement, which wouldn't surprise me if all they did was attend funerals and bicker all day and only had this kind of stuff to read. To end on a positive note, though: Daedalus' "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," is a great idea. Shame we didn't get more of it.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land etc.
It's a poem, so it's nice and short, even if it's like a "modern epic", which it isn't because as I say it's too short. You're going to need someone with a good grasp to explain some of the details to you but once you get to it I think it's a jolly good poem. It has some rather nice phrases and it doesn't have any of this life affirming nonsense. It's all about impotence and infertility and degradation and death. Sure, it's the fault of Eliot and his contemporaries that twentieth and twenty-first century "serious" literature is overcomplicated, meandering and pretentious but at least he did it well, unlike his numerous imitators. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a similar deal, as is most of the stuff from that period. His later serious poetry isn't so good, but the poems about cats are kind of amusing.

W.B. Yeats's stuff
Personally I prefer Yeats to Eliot, I find his blend of Romanticism and Modernism to be interesting, and I think it has a little more heart to it than Eliot. Obviously his infatuation with Maud Gonne informs a lot of that and personally I think Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is the best example, but his writing dealing with old age such as Sailing to Byzantium is also very good. He just writes phrases and rhymes that sound good in your ear as well as having a rather strong mastery of imagery. Some of the more First World War focused writing can be a little turgid but mostly I think he's a standout poet of the time.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying etc.
Man, Faulkner is so boring. Almost everything of his I've read has been about the horrible grotesqueness and perversity of the American Deep South and people leading deeply disturbed and unpleasant lives in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County he invented. There are always about a million characters, even in the short stories it takes forever for anything to happen, and his rendering of local dialect and accent can be frustrating. A lot of it's quite powerful and confronting but it's also usually quite dry. I find it surprising to think that he was basically a hack who wrote for profit yet his writing, which to me seems incredibly niche in its appeal, was successful enough to make him a living. I think it's a matter of context, which I will get to.

UPDATE in 2015
I wouldn't pay too much attention to the next one. While I still think objectivism isn't as "evil" or "morally repugnant" as a lot of its critics claim, I do think it's a foolish totalising ideology which tries to do too much and appeals too greatly to people with massive chips on their shoulders who want to blame other people for their shortcomings (ironically, given that it's meant to be about self-interest and self-reliance). Ayn Rand's novels are certainly not worth discussing in the context of important Western literature (they only come under the "boring texts" heading of this article) and her views do not constitute a genuine philosophy or workable theory of economics, just the hobby of an escapee of Soviet socialism reacting to that totalitarian disaster in an understandable, but misguided, way.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged
Interesting ideas, poor execution. While The Fountainhead has its moments, I felt let down by Atlas Shrugged, which was more like a diatribe than a novel. It's far too long, the main protagonist is completely unlikeable and John Galt works far better as a symbol than a real person. The message is far from subtle; the dastardly "Looters" who want an easy life without having to do anything to earn it are trying to tear down the successful, utopian business ideals of objectivist supermen Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden and so on, and in one of the last chapters John Galt just spells it out for everyone in an interminable radio broadcast. Personally I don't have a problem with Objectivism; it's a nice theory, like Communism, but would never work in practice. I think a lot of its more hysterical detractors are the people Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead attack - those insecure people who mischaracterise independent success and achievement as really the product of sadistic exploitation out of envy and spite. It's just not an especially good novel in terms of pure storytelling and characterisation. Why do all three of the objectivist protagonists have to be in love with Dagny, as well as poor old Eddie Willers, who felt like the only sane man in the entire novel otherwise and who was my favourite character. The Fountainhead has better moments, especially in the first half, but the character's motivations are inscrutable, it does some pretty unsatisfactory work justifying rape as desirable and the ending is unbelievable hogwash. I don't care how eloquent you are, you could never get off scot free in court after blowing up a building just because people mucked about with the design. I do think the architecture angle is really creative though. Is Rand really even canonical? It's a matter of conjecture, I imagine. I still wanted to talk about her, so there you go.

Henry James, What Maisie Knew
This is another case of "good ideas, unbelievably boring writing." The story's clever enough: young  Maisie's parents get divorced, she's shunted between both parents who hook up with new partners, these rebound relationships eventually collapse, the new partners who've looked after her more than her own parents get together, her actual parents drift away, and she ends up essentially having two step parents who are irresponsible socialites and no real parents.  Her nanny takes care of her, don't you worry. It's a pretty harsh condemnation of the exploitation of children in adult affairs, particularly the machinations and power-plays of marriages and relationships. It's a shame the writing is so turgid.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The entire time I was reading this I was thinking "good heavens this is dull." But as soon as I'd finished it, I thought "that was really good!" Cynical boat captain Marlow travels up the Congo to find the mysterious and sinister Kurtz, who represents the hypocrisy of "civilized" Europe establishing itself in barbarous tyranny in colonial regions, particularly Africa. It's very atmospheric, it's very moving, and it's very short. Not too pacey, though. My memories of it tend to get muddled with, of all things, The Call of Cthulhu, because both end with the protagonist visiting the wife of a dead European explorer. Nonetheless it's worth a read.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Gatsby is a good novel. I know I certainly like it. It's funny and incisive and in my opinion manages to imbue itself with the glamour and razzle-dazzle of Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age" while it brutally tears it apart. You all know the story: noveau-riche war hero Jay Gatsby is trying to win back the heart of his old flame Daisy by throwing huge extravagant parties and appealling to what is his only chance of success: Daisy's (and society at large's) abject shallowness and superficiality. Narrator Nick Carraway, who I personally always thought was the best character, gets tangled up in the whole mess. It's very zeitgeisty, if I may employ the term, depicting the irresponsible and frivolous Roaring Twenties with a condescending but occasionally affectionate mockery and warning against living in the past. Like most of the authors I've praised rather than derided here, Fitzgerald knows how to pen a neat phrase.

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
This one's all right in my opinion. Catcher is never going to be my favourite novel (a spot reserved for The Hobbit, the pinnacle of human literary achievement), but I think it's a worthy text. There are two camps for Catcher: those who think Holden Caulfield is just a whiny teenager who would probably forget all his dilemmas once he was a few years older, and those who think Holden is them, and are concerned with how deeply they relate to him. Personally I think both are missing the point a fair bit. Everyone has problems growing up. I think it's a pretty universal message. I think we should pity Holden, and pity ourselves a bit at the same time, because while his ideas seem nice they're unrealistic. But that's the whole point. He's not a whiner, he's just giving voice to the struggles of maturation, but he's not you either, he's not some kind of postmodern superman who's got a real grip on how the world really works. He's just as confused as any of us. Maybe that's why we should feel sorry for him.

Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Read this novel. Exemplifying the idea that war is hell and that cameraderie and personal friendship are far, far more real and valuable than politics and the squabbles of nations and faceless governments, this is valuable in my opinion not only because it gives such a bold account of realities on the front line but because it's written from the German perspective in the First World War and as such is a diversion from the "written by the winners" World War Two content we get from Hollywood and so on. No one really won in the First World War, did they? It's very powerful and very readable. I've only read it in translation, of course, but even so I thought it was great. It manages to instill a variety of horrific and happy moments. It's powerful in encompassing a variety of experience.

Marcel Proust, The Way By Swann's
Good grief. This is another one I've only read in translation, and in a rather haphazard fashion, and while I wouldn't say that it's boring per se it's nonetheless not very readable. The story of Proust's first volume in his seven part colossus is meandering and tangential and the thought processes and motivations of its two protagonists, the eponymous Swann and the youthful narrator Marcel can be very difficult to relate to. That being said its ideas about the recurrent, cyclical nature of time and the eternal value of art over the seemingly-important but ultimately hollow folly of love, infatuation and attraction are rather poignant insights into the true sources of beauty and powerful emotion. Interesting stuff, but not to be read lightly.

George Orwell aka Eric Blair, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm
Two satires of totalitarian regimes. Two very different novels. Are they both successful? I think so. Animal Farm is doomed to be the lesser of the two works since it focuses on funny animals whose porcine leaders manipulate a utopian socialist ideal of peace and equality into a rule-changing Stalinist nightmare. It calls itself a "Fairy Tale", which a surprising number of people don't seem to understand as an ironic statement about either itself or fairy tales in general, and is relatable in a number of ways to historical events and characters in Soviet politics. It's a nice allegory but a little unsubtle for my tastes. Nineteen Eighty-Four is obviously the dominant work not only due to the lack of funny animals but also because it is more philosophically creative. It's not just another attack on Soviet dictatorship. It's an attack on wilful ignorance, on letting the powerful exploit our perception of the truth, and on submissiveness to degradation, interference in our personal lives and the adoration and worship of figureheads. It's an attack on human nature as a whole: society is nothing but the powerful, who crave power for its own sake and gain it through fear and hatred, and the powerless, who are stupid, cowardly and ultimately defeatable. My one criticism would be that this isn't always portrayed with the greatest subtlety. While I personally enjoy the metafictional passages from Goldstein's book, I think they suffer from a cases of showing, rather than telling. O'Brien's diatribe at the end is similar. Perhaps these concepts are just too awful for us to understand or imagine without them being spelled out for us. Orwell constructs the perfect totalitarian state where people are oppressed by rulers who may not even exist and who give up so much of their agency that they effectively let their superiors control the very fabric of reality. It's a confronting and disturbing read, but enjoyable nonetheless. Let me make clear that something doesn't have to make you happy for you to enjoy it.

Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
A contemporary of Fitzgerald who I imagine is a rather obscure figure outside of academic circles, his final novel is an even more brutal assault on the shallow Hollywood cinema culture of the thirties than Gatsby is on the ritzy New York party scene of the twenties. Budding artist turned set designer Tod Hackett is out to win the affections of flighty wannabe actress Faye Greener, a character who makes Daisy Buchanan seem deep and wise. Muddled up in these events is the bumbling Homer Simpson who exemplifies the persistence of trauma even in an apparently "peaceful" setting. Ending with a borderline-apocalyptic riot which is part celebrity-induced rapture and part hysterical outrage it paints a picture of cinema culture as akin to animalistic savages operating on mindless lust. The film adaptation is good too, especially as a film attacking the cinema industry, with the pre-World War Two context seriously amped up.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five etc.
My personal preference is for Breakfast of Champions but Vonnegut is generally pretty reliable for his science fiction novels which are communicative without being preachy and humorous without being silly. Slaughterhouse-Five juxtaposes the trauma of war to a man who is constant reliving the events of his life in no particular order; the idea of past, present and future is meaningless - they are all happening at the same time. The other big Vonnegut novel, Cat's Cradle, satirises scientific ignorance; using weapons without thinking of the consequences and failing to learn, from the mistakes of the past or of safer scientific knowledge. Some of the earlier work, like The Sirens of Titan, is a bit slower going, but it still gets the job done. Vonnegut is clever and entertaining and reliable, and should be lauded for exemplifying intellectually and technically significant genre writing.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels
Hollywood would have you believe that Swift just wrote a kid's story about a man who goes to one place where everyone's tiny and another where they're all huge. What he's really writing is a multifaceted satire of both his own society and the age of exploration, where people could go anywhere and write whatever fantastic nonsense they dreamed up and people believed it was true. Lilliput and Blefuscu satirize the conflict between England and France and the Protestant/Catholic divide, while Brobdingnag is an attack on the militaristic practices of the European powers. The third section is usually glossed over despite covering some of the most interesting imaginary locales, such as the magnetically levitating Laputa which depicts the scientific elite as out of touch with reality. The final, and most disturbing, section of the piece is the voyage to Houyhnhnmland, the island of talking, intelligent horses, where humans have been reduced to the vile Yahoos. Here we have total instinct and emotionless intellectuality pitted against each other to the ruination of Gulliver's sanity with ultimately a misanthropic outlook on human behaviour. It's not the easiest read by modern standards but I went into it under facile misconceptions and emerged altogether more impressed.
William Shakespeare (his plays, obviously)
What you have to remember with Shakespeare is that his plays were the populist trash of their day, performed for crowds of undiscerning commoners just as much as they were for the aristocracy. It's for this reason that I think a double standard exists. There are obviously numerous Shakespeare plays which are well-crafted, memorable and meaningful, like Hamlet and King Lear, but it was still the mass entertainment of its day. Well put-together mass entertainment, for sure, but still intended to be crowd-pleasers. You'd never see its modern equivalent lauded to the high heavens like Shakespeare is. You have to take time to be able to understand what he's saying considering how much language has changed but it is good stuff even to read and perform. I think most of it is quite good, especially the tragedies, but I do think maybe it has been overemphasised and overanalysed.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes
These are classics and obviously very culturally significant but I'm not sure if you'd find an academic who thought that they were very artistically credible. That's a shame because I think Sherlock Holmes is the best detective fiction of all time and if it tells us anything it's that it takes a very unusual way of thinking to deal with criminals with the utmost success. There are four novels and numerous short stories of varying quality but mostly they're all very readable and usually extremely interesting.

I could go on but I give up. Obviously there is, in my view, both good and bad literature to be found in the canon and among classics but really I think it's as divisive for the literati as it is for me. Some of these I've read voluntarily, like Gatsby and stuff I read as part of my education and intend to never read again, like Ulysses. Some stuff I've read "under duress" I've gone on to really appreciate, like Remarque. Some stuff I've picked up voluntarily has disappointed me, like Atlas Shrugged. I'm not all about dragons and aliens with laser guns but they help; Vonnegut is the standout example here because he's the science fiction writer. "Genre literature" as some people would dismissively call it is readable because of its elements of unreality. They make it interesting. Reading about the horrid lives of ordinary people may be very thought-provoking but it can be a struggle. I always find it's best when the context is from an interesting period of history, like The Day of the Locust. Again, I think it's a matter of context, like I said in regards to Faulkner. Tastes change, and while people allegedly don't and the most successful literature will always be that with a universal message, that doesn't mean that narratives mired in drudgery and the greyest parts of society will appeal to me. I suppose I don't really understand how someone could enjoy some of this stuff but I guess it's a matter of taste. But people shouldn't dismiss stuff which is popular, like Harry Potter and so on, any more than they should ignore something traditionally praised but incredibly dull, like Dickens. At the end of the day I think people are desiring more and more to be entertained and nothing more; as I've said before this trend is going to be hard to curtail but we could at least sneak a message in there somewhere. Hybridise the intellectual and affective components of creative work. I worry that the "canon" is seen as increasingly irrelevant to people outside of academia, and brainless entertainment is always going to be easier to watch or read that "serious art" which is unconcerned about its entertainment value. I think the answer is diversity. So if you're going to be reading about the adventures of awesome guys like Captain America or the Doctor, check out the adventures of Jay Gatsby or Winston Smith, too, and vice versa. If you're into the classics, read a comic or see a Hollywood film. Watchmen or Indiana Jones, perhaps. Otherwise we're going to end up with a vast majority who don't give a damn about the culturally significant texts of the past, and an academic community who is reading and writing for no one but themselves and is completely out of touch with what culture has become as experienced by most people. Read around, but believe me, I won't judge you if you think the space ships and Dwarves are more interesting.

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