- Henry Rick James
- Preposition of the Day
- Jane Austen in Austin [Jane Austen is (-ing verb) at (Austin location)]
- TheNewspapersWereRight [(X) was general all over (X)]
- Lovecraft Sells Amway
- Maltify [(verb) (amount) of malt into (noun)]
- AyiyiAI [Uh-oh, the AI just (past tense verb) (the noun) in the (noun)]
- Pudding [pudding]
- Facial Hair Wars ([historical figure]’s (type of facial hair) vs. [historical figure]’s [type of facial hair)]
- AdverbialBrooks [(line from David Brooks corpus), thought David Brooks (adverb)]
- Paisley [paisley (X)]
- YoMamaPoliceState [your mother is so police state, she (dystopian phrase corpus)]
“Is there a greater imaginable human power than the power to control the way others apprehend the world?” –QA
Quentin Anderson’s The Imperial Self is the kind of idiosyncratic literary criticism by white men trying to say something about America that flourished in the post-WWII period. I had never heard of it until I read Jonathan Sturgeon’s Baffler salvo Divine Indigestion: the endlessly fabulized American self. The overview Sturgeon provides in that piece interested me enough to seek out the book. I’m not sure it’s worth seeking out even if I found it thought-provoking.
It did have the salutary effect of curing me of whatever vestiges of intellectual goodwill I had left for Emerson (and the vestiges were already small).
I also have to admit that I have been sitting on these quotes since I finished the book back in late summer. Now seems like an even less good time to post them than back then was. Or maybe it’s an even better time. I don’t know. On the one hand, these seem like an indictment of the entire fictional enterprise of modern western SF&F. On the other hand: look who is doing the indicting. And: when I think of the works that have spoken to me most over the past few years, they’re works which circumvent or, more often, short-circuit what Anderson describes below. Which grasp the cultural tools at hand but use them in strange, beautiful, angry, hope-generating ways.
Please note that Anderson was an idiosyncratic curmudgeon who took many of his cues from Lionel Trilling, which means his political stance is, for lack of a better term, complicated. Moderate but cranky? Classically liberal? Neoconservative? Maybe somewhere in between those three. It’s hard to say and that’s just as much a function of the platforms and tactics of the two U.S. political parties over the past half century as it is slipperiness on the part of Trilling (and Anderson–but Trilling was the larger figure so there have been more attempts by others to claim him/pin him down). I mean, Anderson was a Columbia professor during the 1960s, which led to this wonderfully euphemistic sentence from his official CU obit: “He chaired the Joint Committee of Disciplinary Affairs, following campus disturbances in the spring of 1968.”
It’s also not fair to present these quotes without the context of the book, especially Anderson’s argument about Emerson’s effect on the American imagination, and specifically the way communities and their social ties were redefined and weakened by the elevation of the individual self and the self constituting the world itself aka the imperializing the world (the extreme logical extension of which can be found in modern techno-libertarian fantasies where the self extends it ability to be an imperial self through technological augmentation).
Also: the world has changed a lot since these words were written.
So with all those caveats:
A part of the rather grim comedy of the period of the 1940’s and 1950’s is that we were in the habit of asking ourselves anxiously why we no longer had political imaginations, political concerns. If we had seen the meaning of our subscription to an iconography of imagination, we need not have asked these questions. In such art the world has been moved into the self, as in Blake, and the plurality, the inconsequence, the muddiness of existence have been replaced by internalized antinomies. These playlands of the imagination were great fun to explore, but they altogether lacked what a form such as tragedy provides, a recognition that life is actually open-ended. When we came to understand how this cultural shift came about, we will have to admit that while our theory of art ruled out art as a cause, or art as having cognitive value, the theory served simply to protect us from a knowledge of what was happening to our imaginations. As usual in historical matters, we can’t tell whether our responsiveness to certain kinds of art was a primary cause, but it is plain that our art and our cultural disposition were after all bound up with one another.
The notion of the impersonality of art became the refuge of the infantile demand to rule the whole world. And with reason. Here after all was a human power one could actually exercise, actually experience. Is there a greater imaginable human power than the power to control the way others apprehend the world? (202-203)
Without pretending to explore the significance of the most recent impulses of youthful disaffiliation, we may find in the groundswell of enthusiasms over the last ten years a number of particular instances. The need for the young to feel for a total translation of experience, a fresh ground for experience or a new umwelt for their sensations, has led to the immersion in Tolkien, science fiction, or the substitute world of Blake’s prophetic books. (204)
Both excerpts are from The Imperial Self by Quentin Anderson, 1971, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
P.S. Perhaps the best recommendation for the book is Harold Bloom’s condescending misreading of it in a July 1971 review for Commentary Magazine.
A passage about art and artists from the preface to Israel Zangwill’s Künstlerroman The Master.
Published in 1895, Israel Zangwill’s The Master is a Künstlerroman about a teenage boy in Nova Scotia who overcomes a difficult childhood and extreme poverty to become a great painter. The Master also features illustrations by George Wylie Hutchinson, a frequent Zangwill collaborator whose life story informed the writing of the novel.
I haven’t gotten that far into it yet so I don’t know if it’s any good (it was a bestseller when it first came out). But what I do know is that this passage from the proem (preface) is an overwrought but fabulous and cutting meditation on art and artists that ends with an image that is SF&F adjacent and thus worth noting here:
“And amid these homely emotions of yeomen, amid the crude pieties or impieties of homespun souls, amid this sane hearty intercourse with realities or this torpor of sluggish spirits, was born ever and anon a gleam of fantasy, of imagination: bizarre, transfiguring, touching things with the glamour of dream. Blind instincts—blinder still in their loneliness—yearned towards light; beautiful emotions stirred in dumb souls, emotions that mayhap turned to morbid passion in the silence and solitude of the woods, where character may grow crabbed and gnarled, as well as sound and straight. For whereas to most of these human creatures, begirt by the glory of sea and forest, the miracles of sunrise and sunset were only the familiar indications of a celestial timepiece, and the starry heaven was but a leaky ceiling in their earthly habitation, there was here and there an eye keen to note the play of light and shade and color, the glint of wave and the sparkle of hoar-frost and the spume of tossing seas; the gracious fairness of cloud and bird and blossom, the magic of sunlit sails in the offing, the witchery of white winters, and all the changing wonder of the woods; a soul with scanty self-consciousness at best, yet haply absorbing Nature, to give it back one day as Art.
“Ah, but to see the world with other eyes than one’s fellows, yet express the vision of one’s race, its subconscious sense of beauty, is not all a covetable dower.
“The islands of Acadia are riddled with pits, where men have burrowed for Captain Kidd’s Treasure and found nothing but holes. The deeper they delved the deeper holes they found. Whoso with blood and tears would dig Art out of his soul may lavish his golden prime in pursuit of emptiness, or, striking treasure, find only fairy gold, so that when his eye is purged of the spell of morning, he sees his hand is full of withered leaves.” (3-4)
WHM distrusts poetry and dislikes time travel narratives. So guess what he just wrote!
return to preserve that perfect moment
return with a crust of salt, a cloud of smoke, a cube of ice, a cruet
of vinegar, a crock of butter
of duck fat
return again with
a clear glass bottle in which to carefully rebuild it in miniature (but not out of matchsticks–of sensory details and flickering images and elusive feelings and
you don’t know what
because it always
return again with
a dictionary in which to press it (the one you used in college bound tight with
your grandmother’s belt–the one with the extra hole punched in it
and it was a man’s belt but she wore it anyway because it was sturdy and made of good leather
which she oiled religiously, and your mother didn’t know what she oiled it with when you asked her so you used leather conditioner which you
bought at a saddle shop
even though you knew that your grandmother would have scoffed at
or at least that’s the story you always told whenever you wore it)
return again with
a jar of sugar in which to nestle it in the hopes that it will speckle the granules with its essence as it fades (which it always does which is why it must be
the expenditure of energy required to do so is immense,
your reserves are burned to fumes,
and it’ll take years to build them back up again)
return again with
a bottle of gin in which to soak it (the acrid, desert smell of juniper replacing the fresh sharpness
of birch trees–a swap of sensory detail that corrupts the memory only a bit and in the right direction, which you know now
you think you know now
you can’t remember–even though you have returned
again and again)
return again with
a bucket of formaldehyde in which to plunge it
as if extreme measures were all that were left to you
as if the puckered slick thing you come back with is meaningful
as if the fumes rising from it didn’t clog your nose and prickle your skin and blind your eyes with tears (and you are aware that surely by now the controls must need re-calibration, but you can’t change the process–too much depends on keeping everything the same even if that same is veering off course
what if you over-correct your re-calibrations
what if veer so far off course you can never return again)
and it’s not that it never works—it’s that it never works quite right (and never for long enough)
the mind is peat, permafrost, silica, calcite
a bog for drowning
a tundra for burying
a desert for sinking
the mind is a ruined book, a yellowed ruff of pages
the mind is a minor playwright’s half-completed masterpiece filled with country bumpkins and withered vicars and lost sea captains and way too many cousins
the mind is an epic poem all fragments and heroes–all fire, ill winds and mistaken identities
and each return is a second too late, a minute too long–
you fill the kitchen counter until it’s slimy with
fit only to jam
not a single one that optimal ripeness that bursts sweet and tart
and so fresh with life
you could savor it, devour it forever
it’s never that forever
the one with salt stinging your skin; smoke perfuming your hair, fat
glossing your lips
it’s the one
where you return again and again and come away with
hardtack and jerky
pickles and preserves
and they only last so long
before you have to go back again
Artists probably shouldn’t comment on their own work. But I want to interrogate my reaction to this poem because it was a strange thing for me to write. See, I posted a line to Twitter that I found evocative. Not an unusual practice for me. The line was: a crust of salt, a cruet of vinegar, a cloud of smoke, a cube of ice. I thought about that succession of images and thought, hey, there’s something there, and dutifully copied the line over to my big list of story ideas. My thinking was that perhaps I could build a short story around it where each line was a section of the story. Or perhaps four variations on a story. But then the thing kept gnawing at me, and the first stanza came to me, and I couldn’t let go from there. I had to play the whole thing out. What makes this strange to me is that I really do have a distrust of poetry. And I dislike time travel as a narrative device. I don’t write either and don’t read much of either. It’s not so much that I refuse to as that I avoid both genres as much as possible. Which is a stupid thing to do. But I have my reasons. Which are:
Distrust of Poetry
I think I like poetry. But it’s hard for me to know how much I like most poetry because I distrust it. When I read poetry, I do not dive into the text with an open heart and mind. This is not because I was traumatized by grade school or high school teachers who over-mystified or over-analyzed poetry. Nor was it because college lit classes burned me out on it. In fact, my distrust of poetry grew after I started writing fiction. I think it’s because as I became aware of the rhetorical tricks of fiction, I became even more attuned to how poetry’s concentrated, intense efforts are intended to capture the reader (however meagre my own powers in this area may be). Poetry is spell working. Or to put it another way — I distrust poetry for the same reason I distrust film: because it uses atmospheric, powerful sound (and soundtrack) and striking images to manipulate my emotions. I mean, all art is trying to do the same. It’s just that poetry is so in your face about it. And that makes me distrust it. Which is a stupid attitude, I know, but even though I’m aware of it, when I approach poetry, it’s very hard for me to do so in an unguarded way. The distrust interferes with my experience of reading poetry, which means it’s a self-reinforcing barrier. Which means I don’t read much of it. And I certainly don’t write it*.
Dislike of Time Travel Narratives
Time travel messes with the causality endemic to narrative. I suspect this is why some people like it. I suspect this is part of why I don’t. Although I don’t think that’s the entire reason because I like work that messes with narrative conventions. Meta-fiction, flipped narratives, strange points of view, ambiguity — I’m cool with all that. So I suppose that part of it may be simple snobbery: time travel is too often reached for as a trope and too often it is deployed clumsily. But I think there’s something else: time travel stories inevitably become about time travel itself. Because time travel is impossible (or functionally impossible) according to our understanding and experience of physics, when used as a plot trope, it’s always having to justify itself (or awkwardly, blatantly ignore the need for such justification). It’s so inelegant a device (in most writers hands).
What Happened as a Result of Writing preserve
Writing this poem has reminded me that I’m definitely not a poet. Poetry—real poetry—-is difficult. Because I’m not a poet, I rely too much on repetition (of sounds and images). Those techniques are fine if used sparingly in poetic prose. They’re not the most sophisticated techniques when used in poetry. I lack that ability to find a perfect image or line and so overcompensate with a profusion of them. More importantly, I’m not good at laying those images out or twisting them up in a way that adds extra meaning to them. Oh, and: really good poets are remarkable with their transitions. Good transitions are difficult in prose — they’re incredibly difficult in poetry. I also suspect that a good poet would have been able to avoid the use of second person or used it in a more interesting way and would have been more thoughtful about line breaks. But I’m not a good poet, and I doubt that poetry will be a regular part of what I write in the near future.
Nor do I think I’ll be using time travel narratives in my fiction anytime soon. I do think I better understand the appeal to the writer. Narrative is history. Fiction is memory. Time travel messes with history and memory. Writers live to mess with stuff. And yet I still think that time travel stories tend to be about time travel itself and that’s not something I want to engage with at the moment. Memory and history are important to me — but I’m more interested in how they work in, how they haunt the present of the narrative.
And yet: while the poem showed me my limitations as a writer and gently reinforced some of my literary prejudices, what I can’t escape is that once I committed to the concept, the puzzle of working through the final form the initial idea should take was interesting and fun. This is a mundane observation, but I’m going to make it anyway: strong preferences (likes and dislikes) are important for artists. There are good reasons and strong forces that cause artists to specialize. But I wonder if sometimes we (especially when we = newer writers) limit ourselves unnecessarily. I’m not a poet. It’s not something I want to be. But that doesn’t mean I should avoid poetry. Two years ago I wasn’t a novelist and claimed that I was agnostic on the matter of ever writing a novel. I’ve since written one. If you asked me today, I’d tell you that I am not fond of memoir/personal essay and can’t see myself ever engaging in that literary form (and, honestly, that’s a form I’m going to continue to resist). I also have no desire to write horror, westerns or about the singularity. That’s not a bad thing. Most writers must specialize in order to be successful. But sometimes it feels good to be a dilettante. To try on other forms and genres and see how they fit. To discover that maybe you aren’t as fully formed as you thought you were.
Of course, if I was really committed, I’d start reading more poetry. Any suggestions of where to start with poetry from the past 5-35 years**?
*The exception is that I have written poetry that appears within the text of prose fiction, but it’s different when it’s in that context. And it doesn’t happen often.
**I’ve read the 18th to early 20th Anglo/American poets rather broadly and a few of them deeply (Rilke, Blake, Donne, Dickinson)