Two brief excerpts from Quentin Anderson’s The Imperial Self

“Is there a greater imaginable human power than the power to control the way others apprehend the world?” –QA

Detail from the front cover of The Imperial Self showing a stylized Q and A.
Detail from the front cover of Quentin Anderson’s The Imperial Self

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:    

Excerpt 1

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)

Excerpt 2

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.

Two lines from Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority

WHM posts two lines from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Authority which typify its creepiness (and humor).

Back when I read Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, I posted the line that hooked me into the novel, that convinced me that I was all in for the ride. I didn’t need any convincing when I got my hands on Authority, but I do want to share one of the lines that is both hilarious and creepy and so very VanderMeer:

They had to don white bio-hazard suits with black gloves, so that Control was actually wearing a version of the gloves that had so unsettled him down in the science division. This was his revenge, to plunge his hands into them and make them his puppets, even if he didn’t like their rubbery feel. (123-124)

Time and POV in Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

WHM discusses what he learned about time, POV and narrative structure from reading Alice Munro’s collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories.

Hateship Friendship Munro collectionThere is nothing genre about Alice Munro. The author and her work are one of the key nodes of modern literary fiction. The perfect detail. The minor epiphany. The mundane realism. Even if you’ve never read any of her stories, you know that these things are why Munro is a master of the short story form. I must admit that I had never read her work until recently when the gushing praise after she received the Nobel Prize for Literature finally upped my curiosity enough to give Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories a go (with a seventh month lag, of course: my curiosity is often a slow burn).

So why didn’t anyone tell me about the way she uses narrative structure? I would have read her stories much earlier if I had known. Because as it turns out (and I can only speak to this collection), for all that Munro’s stories are about funerals and family dinners and strained familial or spousal relationships, they also do very interesting things with time and POV. The stories switch among POVs, but not in a regular manner. Most have one primary character that is focused on, but at the beginning or ending (and sometimes in the middle), the POV may be on a different character or characters. And these other POVs may or may not take place in the same time period as the bulk of the story. And they function not as narrative frames because a) they’re usually asymmetrical [not actually frames] and b) it’s not always easy to tell how they relate to the main story.

The effect on the reader, or at least the effect on me (and it simply may be because I’ve been mainly reading SF&F lately), is one that is not foreign to genre, especially science fiction. It’s that pleasant but puzzling confusion. A wondering how all the pieces fit together and the inability to make everything fit. Without that effect, I wouldn’t have liked the stories as much. I mean, there’s nothing new about the story of an academic who commit adultery. But the way Munro messes with the narrative structure of each story adds strangeness to the reading experience.

Which isn’t to say that they are fully weird. Most of the stories in Hateship, Friendship etc. are more or less resolvable, although “Post and Beam” remains a mystery to me. Why does it start there? I still don’t know. But I like it much more than I thought I would, and I hear that other of Munro’s work plays even more with time and memory. Munro intersects with the fantastic much more than I had thought. It’s a welcome surprise.

Adjectives in fiction and the bourgeois project of evaluation

Adjectives in literature and Franco Moretti’s *The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature* with a side thought about SF&F.

Cover of Franco Moretti's The Bourgeois: Between History and LiteratureFranco Moretti’s The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature is an interesting blend of digital humanities, post-Marxist theory, and straight up close reading of texts. Interesting because Moretti uses statistical analysis of individual texts as well as a corpus of (mainly) 18th and 19th century literature to surface patterns that then suggest a that the rise of bourgeois values can be tracked via literary texts.

One of the sections that I found the most illuminating is in the chapter Fog where Moretti discusses the use of adjectives in Robinson Crusoe in relation to later (more bourgeois) tects. He notes, for example, that in Robinson Crusoe the adjective strong is used to modify a raft, current, limbs and an enclosure; however, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 social novel North and South strong modifies will, wishes and temptation and in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (published in 1869) it precedes inspiration, individualism, belief and taste. Another good example is the adjective “dark”, which in Robinson Crusoe refers to the “absence of light period”.

But in 19th century works we find dark referring to:

  • North and South: look, “dark places of the heart”
  • Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens, 1864-65) attention, frown, smile, business, look, soul, expression
  • Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1871-72): ages, period, silence, times, “closet of his verbal memory”

Moretti goes on to write:

Other instances could easily be added (hard, fresh, sharp, weak, dry …), but the point is clear: in Victorian times, a large group of adjectives that used to indicate physical traits begin to be widely applied to emotional, ethical, intellectual, or even metaphysical states. In the process, the adjectives become metaphorical, and hence acquire the emotional ring that is typical of this trope: if, applied to ‘fence’ and ‘cave’, ‘strong’ and ‘dark’ indicate robustness and absence of light, applied to ‘will’ and ‘frown’ they express a positive or negative verdict–half ethical, half sentimental–on the noun they are attached to. Their meaning has changed; and so, more importantly, has their nature: their point is no longer to contribute to the ‘literal accuracy, unmistakable definiteness, and clear intelligibility’ of Hegel’s prose, but to convey a miniature value judgment. Not description, but evaluation. (127)

20th and 21st century fiction hasn’t quite thrown off this bourgeois use of adjectives for evaluation (literary modernism perhaps attempted to, but I think that was more an attempt to change the value judgments that are embedded in the adjectives rather than to free them from their evaluative weight), but it has complicated them quite a bit. And in my experience SF&F has been more ready than other genres of fiction to partake in this project of complication, especially since the New Wave of SF of the 1960s. I don’t have the data to back me up on this (it would be awesome to put together a corpus of modern SF&F for such a project, although I would imagine that copyright issues would make that difficult), but it seems to me that prying adjectives loose from bourgeois norms by combining them in futuristic, strange and/or startling ways (with other less mimetic adjectives; with unexpected nouns) changes literary discourse and perhaps even causes readers to see the world (real world and textual world) in a different way. What’s more the drive of genre authors to create the effects that SF&F (and horror) create can’t help but lead to innovation in the use of language, including adjectives. Or at least that’s my hope.