Strike a Pose Edition
Stephen Marche on the voices of a generation, Agnes Callard on the philosophy of decisionmaking, and the history of Halloween.
This is my semi-regular roundup of what I’m reading and working on.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Pose pretty for the panopticon. Canadian novelist Stephen Marche attempts to describe how 21st century writers have departed from their predecessors’ style. He calls the new paradigm, unkindly yet also admiringly, “literature of the pose”:
There is not a word out of place. Each sentence passes quality assurance: The above sentences are certified, not wrong. The writing of the pose is, first and foremost, about being correct, both in terms of style and content. Its foremost goal is not to make any mistakes. Its foremost gesture is erasure and its foremost subject is social anxiety and self-presentation. One never loses oneself in the writing. Rather, one admires, at a slight remove, the precision of the undertaking.
Marche’s literary taxonomy, as far as I can tell, divides the past century into three major camps, or sensibilities. There are the modernists who saw the purpose of literature as allowing for the inhabitation of many voices, and sought this kaleidoscopic multiplicity of voice above all (Joyce, Nabokov). There are the Boomers (spiritually if not always temporally), which he calls Writers of the Voice, who exult in their own pompously singular viewpoint and whose chauvinistic genius lies in finding the fullest expression of their individual distinctiveness (Roth). And then there are the Writers of the Pose, the economically and socially anxious Millennials, who have converged on the flattened, homogenized, over-socialized affect of those primarily concerned with avoiding downside risk.
Writing of the Voice may have been selfish—seeking self-expression above all—but Writing of the Pose would be narcissistic. (I say this with love and sympathy as a fellow Millennial, a cohort that is often unthinkingly maligned.) Narcissism is a sort of obverse of selfishness: it is at root an obsession not with the self per se but with how the self is perceived by others. Its ostensible grandiosity is a facade; a compensation for a weak sense of self. (Narcissus, after all, was not obsessed with himself, but with his reflection.)
This is not a meaningless distinction, as illustrated by the violent shift of tone between say, Roth, and the younger cohort Marche describes. A literature centered on the worship of self will on the whole end up in a very different place than one centered on projecting an idealized image of the self. The former revels in its appetites, its opinions, its sexual conquests, its every bizarre idiosyncrasy; the latter painstakingly curates and polishes itself for presentation to the world. What matters is convincing others, and perhaps especially oneself, that the gleaming hologram is actually a solid persona.
“It was important to me then to prove that I was a special person,” one of Sally Rooney’s characters explains. Prove to whom? Again, this is only superficially self-obsessed—it is, rather, an obsession with a lack of self. Can you imagine Philip Roth writing that line?1 His generation just assumed they were special people.
I’m agnostic on the validity of many of Marche’s critiques, since I have read precious few post-2000 novelists, and only a smattering of the particular works he deals with. But in wading through the mountains of other #content produced by my generation, I certainly recognize the urge we have to shear off any sharp edges until all that remains is a technically flawless but ultimately bloodless nowhere language. It helps explain, on the one hand, the proliferation of stylistic standardization among the legacy publications while, on the other, there is a flourishing of radical and experimental discourse—sometimes vicious, sometimes absurd, but generally speaking, alive—in the precincts of online anonymity.
I don’t particularly mean this as an aesthetic critique, even if Marche does. Social anxiety spurred by a weak sense of self, amplified through the insanity-producing demands of having to constantly curate a self-image under the gaze of a vicious and unforgiving Panopticon of judgment by the entire universe of your potential peers, lovers, employers—these are now simply facts of life affecting almost everyone (though not on an even distribution, of course). That’s as worthy of capturing in literature as anything else, even if the books themselves end up as wearisome as the experience of actually living it.
The deeper creative problem is less thematic than structural: the Muse demands experimentation, self-exposure, the risk of humiliation and failure. All things that don’t exactly come naturally, and which must be practiced; all things that the Ethos of the Pose tends to underemphasize, if not totally abandon. What happens when that fertile soil is not replenished? What’s left when holding the pose is just too much strain, when even a generation’s best talents are worn down by it? Rooney (born 1991) is already saying she may never write another book. “The perfect pose,” Marche notes, “is silence.”
The psychogeography of lonesomeness. Here’s a wonderful look at Edward Hopper’s visual process. He’s often considered a realist in opposition to the era’s trend toward abstraction, but this is too simplistic. His sketchwork reveals that his most famous paintings depicting desolate Americana were in fact highly stylized, painstakingly architected, imaginative universes devoted to the symbolism of form and space.
Shah mat, loser. The Met Museum’s Maryam Ekhtiar on the Persian origins of English chess terms:
The terminology of modern chess has Persian etymological roots: the Persian word rukh ("rook") means chariot; the term shah mat ("checkmate") means, literally, "the king is frozen"... Nishapur's famous philosopher and poet, Omar Khayyám, born in 1048, made chess a metaphor for the mischievous and ultimately deadly hand of Destiny:
'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.
The 12th century set she features, with abstracted and turquoise-glazed forms, is absolutely beautiful.
Mandatory fun. El Grande Borges on letting pleasure serve as your literary guide:
I believe that the phrase "obligatory reading" is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of "obligatory pleasure"? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek. Obligatory happiness! We seek happiness as well. For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised my students: If a book bores you, leave it; don't read it because it is famous, don't read it because it is modern, don't read a book because it is old. If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost—which is not tedious to me—or Don Quixote—which also is not tedious to me. But if a book is tedious to you, don't read it; that book was not written for you. Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament—which I do not plan to write—I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers' reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment. It is the only way to read.
It reminds me of Larry Durrell: “Books are like love letters; they are destined for a particular person. Never try to read anything which you don’t feel was written for you.”
Only with fear and trembling would I quibble with such writers, but nonetheless I will: we may not (for good reason!) speak of the oxymoron of obligatory pleasure, but nonetheless most pleasures—precisely to be the most pleasurable—require some tutoring or training. As children, for instance, we must be taught to develop our palates, and failure to do so (as on a mass scale in America) deprives us of the full depth of pleasure. We can rely on enjoyment alone as a guide only after our faculties are fully formed.
Aspiring to aspiration. Paul Millerd reflects on philosopher Agnes Callard’s distinction between ambition and aspiration, and how it applies to the creative life. For Callard, ambitious pursuits are those in which the values and outcomes (wealth, fame, prestige) can be understood and quantified in advance. Aspirations (parenthood, artistic or religious callings) are open-ended, defined by a continual process of transformation, and impossible to see the end from the beginning. They are illegible in ways that make them hard to explain to others, or to ourselves. You need a little Hunter Thompson in you: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
This helps make a bit more sense of decision-making and changes of the will, which are inherently mysterious and which Callard expends a lot of her intellectual firepower investigating. On a personal level, it is (for me) comforting to think that important decisions are not so much binary as they are a continuous process of choosing, becoming, leaning into the darkness and groping your way along it, until you slowly emerged into a place you could not have imagined, much less foreseen. You can interpret this through the lens of fear and anxiety—and, oh, I have—or by learning to see it as the grand adventure it is. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…”
We walked off to look for America. Chris Arnade is substacking his meanderings through some of America’s overlooked streetscapes. First up, Western Mass mill towns Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield.
It’s a big hat. It’s funny. Ben Sixsmith on the life and jokes of Norm MacDonald.
I finally got around to watching the film adaptation of Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, starring James Franco. For a film about drugs, childhood trauma, and the unstable nature of authorship, it was pretty flat.
Much more worth your time is the companion piece, After Adderall, a self-produced meta-film Elliott made about being cut out of the production of Franco’s film. Elliott’s version, by contrast, is a hilarious, fascinating, often moving rumination on the volatile relationships between memory, art, and self-presentation.
Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad on his friendship with Kurt Cobain. One telling anecdote reveals that beneath the pandemonium and partying and guitar-smashing, Cobain was, like all creatives, a control-freak perfectionist:
They fussed with the P.A. a little, and then they were off, running down songs from “In Utero.” Kurt ran the rehearsal, giving specific directions to each of the musicians. They played sections of songs, starting and stopping until Kurt felt that things were right. I suppose this was what Kurt thought was the boring part, but it was illuminating to see how much he controlled things, how exacting he was with music that appeared so rough-hewn. It was difficult to hear some of the flaws Kurt wanted to correct, but when the band fixed them it was obvious that everything had snapped into place.
Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
—Louise Glück, All Hallows
What I’ve been working on.
A Sorrentino-heavy month, with several pieces on the Italian director. I reposted an older review of The Great Beauty, as well as a longer essay on Sorrentino’s religious imagination through the lens of Flannery O’Connor’s theories of art.
A figure study in red, using the Zorn palette:
The liturgical life.
The Feast of All Saints is technically in November (Nov 1) but given the importance in our culture of its October 31 vigil, I will mention it here. Halloween etymologically is a simplification of Hallows Evening, itself a simplification of All Hallow’s Eve, which is a ye olde way of saying Eve of All Saints (hallowed=holy).
The celebration of the entire community of the saints grew up gradually, beginning with celebrations of specific martyrs, and then celebrations of all the martyrs, celebrated differently according to local traditions. By the 8th century, All Saints had been set on Nov 1 in Rome, a date that was soon extended to the universal Church. All Souls Day, on Nov 2, was a Medieval addition to the calendar, though the practice of specific days to honor the dead souls in purgatory (i.e. not yet saints) is also ancient. These celebrations were put together to dramatize the union of all the body of the Church, past and present, living and dead.
Halloween, meanwhile, is a particularly, wonderfully American melange of celebrations of mortality rooted in various immigrant traditions. Many point to the Celtic Samhain, a pagan harvest festival rooted in the thin line between life and afterlife. There is also the influence of the French danse macabre, emerging from the ravages of the Black Death, replete with dancing skeletons. Across Europe, children went door-to-door begging for “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for their deceased neighbors. In Mexico, meanwhile, Catholic and indigenous traditions intertwine in the Day of the Dead, which adds a celebratory, valedictory note to the communal mourning.
If I love the holiday and defend it against those who see it as too pagan, or too scary for kids, or too sugary (the last one has some merit), it’s because a culture that loses touch with the reality of death loses touch with the significance of life, and eventually finds itself backed into a perpetual, frightened adolescence. Memento mori, friends. Make haste. And make friends with the departed in this gloaming month, perhaps over a steaming cup of cider.
Sure hope nobody goes and finds a similar line in any one of his billion books.