Annoying, Brilliant Kafka


Rivka Galchen has a great review of Reiner Stach’s massive biography of Kafka in the latest London Review of Books.  In it she deals with the weirdness many people encounter when they read more about this “unusually well-documented” figure.  Kafka often surprises you by sharing the same perspective of wonder at his own life.  It’s as if he wasn’t the person who actually lived it, actually is the person you are reading about, but is in fact also an observer of his life.  The result is very funny and very tragic at the same time.  Very Kafkaesque.

In many ways, Galchen says, this is because he is so very obsessed with his work:

One element of the comedy of Kafka’s biography is the way his life, at whatever moment, is dwarfed by his work. Whether or not the reasonably capable writer and insurance official living in Prague through the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and into the 1920s resembles the Kafka of your imagination depends in part on how attentively you’ve followed each succession of corrective articles and introductions, but also on your ability to assimilate dissonant information, and on how substantial external life seems to you.

But also it is because the position of alienation from himself is, for all its bizarre nature, actually congenial to him.  It allows him, in particular, to be ruthless with himself, and express things that couldn’t be said if he were as committed (or resigned) to his own depressing life as, say, Melville’s Bartleby is:

If for many years, much of the reading public saw Kafka as a kind of cousin of Bartleby – if we were most swayed, say, by his never finishing his novels, or by his talk of ghosts and the unbearability of everything – it now seems hard not to see that although Kafka truly was a Bartleby-kin, he was at the same time just as much Bartleby’s well-intentioned, overwhelmed, frustrated boss. Kafka himself found Kafka difficult.

The stance outside himself allows himself to inquire into what the hell all this living business is about, to express frustrations with it that run deeper than the usual list of grievances we have about living.  This is especially so with his diaries and letters, which narrate his own activities often in the third person, where he says things like the following (which Galchen quotes):

He could have resigned himself to a prison. To end as a prisoner – that could be a life’s ambition. But it was a barred cage. Casually and imperiously, as if at home, the racket of the world streamed out and in through the bars, the prisoner was really free, he could take part in everything, nothing that went on outside escaped him, he could simply have left the cage, the bars were yards apart, he was not even imprisoned.

These sorts of thoughts would be, if entertained directly, too depressing for words.  Galchen quotes, too, a letter to Max Brod about “his enormous dread over a pretty insignificant decision about whether to take a trip to Georgental:”

He has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived. By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. The only essential thing for life is forgoing smugness, moving into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. One might argue that this is a matter of fate and is not given to anyone’s hand. But then why this sense of remorse; why does the remorse never stop? To become finer and more savoury? That, too. But why do such nights always end on this note: I could live and I do not live. The second major reason – perhaps it is all really one, I don’t seem to be able to sort them apart now – is the idea: “What I have toyed with is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now I will really die. My life was sweeter than other people’s and my death will be all the more terrible.”

As a reflection about Kafka himself–which can only be moved to talk about “my life,” to use the word “I” fictionally, in quotes–this is too much to take.  Galchen summarizes the only response it could generate: “Brod replies saying, basically, that he can’t take Kafka’s complaint too seriously.”  But knowing when to draw the line like this is also what made Brod Kafka’s most sympathetic reader: he understood that the speculations of this sort are not really about Kafka’s own despair, but are an inquiry into just how deeply absurd and depressing life can be.

This seems strange, that we would have to deny the reality of a speculation based on the sheer nature of its content.  But what Brod instinctively understood is that this content is also a natural result of the style of speculation: that to take such an alienated view of existence, to write from it, also issues in conclusions about living that can’t be lived.  They issue from life, like all writing does; but they have to be regarded as in some sense unreal, because no real person could actually utter them and still resign himself to living.  They are impossible reflections, and they hit home because in our despair they almost can be lived–and that desperate acts like suicide, for instance, seem to be motivated by them.

But in this content we in fact reach a limit of nonfiction, a limit that is reflected in the limitedness of our character: that we can’t actually live our own death, as the old Wittgensteinian saw goes, and that we can’t do this also, and even especially, when this death is understood in a wider sense, when we see it as life.  It would seem to be the opposite–seeing death in and as your life would seem to make life indeed a form of death.  And to admit one can’t live death would seem to deny the suffering that is in life.  But that thought revolves around the false equivalence of pain with death, refuses to admit that there is suffering out there which is worse than death, and fundamentally, just as a thought cannot be real: we can’t live our own death even when we see death everywhere, when our existence seems so dreary, never quite fully lived, that it almost approximates the condition of nonliving.  We can’t live our own death even when we regard ourselves as “dying our whole life long.”

This would seem to be a problem if you are a writer of nonfiction who concentrates upon, indeed is obsessed by, this view of living, and Brod’s action appears insensitive if you are interested in Kafka as this sort of writer merely.  But Brod knew the impossibility of living your death also shows the place of fiction in our lives.  It shows why, in fact, however much we may be committed to nonfiction, fiction can’t go away.  The unreal needs, in some sense, to be lived, and fiction is the way to live it.

What made Brod reject entertaining the thoughts of Kafka here, then, is what also made him so assiduously devote himself to the publication and promotion of his friend’s work, as Galchen points out.  It is because he needed to live this impossibility so much in his nonfictional writing that Kafka’s fiction is so very good.   Brod had known deeply how, in his life, as Galchen puts it, “Kafka’s singular brilliance and annoyingness are perfectly bound.”

Levels of Life


Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, 118 pages, £10.99, April, ISBN 9780224098151

Knopf, 144 pages, $22.95, September, ISBN 9780385350778

“We’ve work to do,” says Blake Morrison of The Guardian about Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, which includes, alongside two narratives of ballooning (one historical, one fictional), a meditation on the death of his wife. “Not grief-work such as the author’s, but work all the same.”

The book–which came out in the UK in March, and which will come out in the US in September–inspires similar sentiments in many reviewers. There is an eagerness among them to do work along with Barnes, to do work alongside the work they see him doing. Rarely do we find a direct judgment of the book put in straightforward terms.  No “good,” no “bad.” Leo Robson in his prickly review for The New Statesman is pretty much the only critic to take the book as if it were an object placed before to pronounce upon.  Everyone else seems to feel some need to abandon this more conventional relationship to the thing and engage with it in their own way.  If these efforts come to terms with the object as an artistic object, that’s fine. If not, the important thing is that they documented an experience of art.  The question is, does this alternative approach make for better criticism?


The answer depends on the motives behind these attitudes.  And there are two discernible ones, prompted by two discernible features of the book which each tries to respect.

There is, first, the fact that the book is a powerful and very personal look at grief, at loss, at death and what it means.  It is divided into three sections, the first two chronicling the adventures of early 19th century balloonists. The first section itself contains a fascinating history of ballooning, similar to Richard Holmes’ recent history, and turns into a enthralling account of the adventures of Nadar in aerial photography. Then there is a very touching, very sad story in the second section of two balloonists, a fiction about their flirtations and misunderstandings very similar to “The Revival,” a beautiful story of Barnes’ in The Lemon Table.  But then after this section, there is a final nonfictional section in which Barnes channels the meditations which run throughout the book and attempts to come to terms with the actual death of wife.  This is frank and forthright, deeply touching and tender.  All together, is proves a strangely powerful, even formidable work.  The whole work is a very human document, and elicits a desire to feel through the experience with the author.  We don’t just read along, we feel along.  All this makes critics want to do something more than comment.

Then, second, critics also feel compelled to do some work because–what already might be clear from this little summary–there is also a disconnectedness to the work.  And this isn’t just because of the sections themselves and the changing shift of focus between them.  There is the way the book is full of pauses between thoughts, gaps between paragraphs, jumps between topics, and seems to take us up in an effort to give some sort of continuity or or generate some kind of community between these juxtapositions.  In fact, the book is quite frank about this, from its first sentences.  “You put together two things that have not been together before.  And the world is changed.”  The work invites and responds to efforts which bridge gaps and make connections.


Critics for whom grief is the most important fact about the book emphasize its third part and what Barnes talks about there.  Though the book is full of interesting individuals, complex characters–Nadar, Burnhardt and Burnaby are all vividly drawn–Barnes does not really take us into their thoughts and feelings (Jane Shilling in the Independent though notes in a very nice phrase that “there is something intrepid and fragile about these characters”–in the same way, indeed, that there is something fragile about the rather flatly character of Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending).  One of the most interesting ideas to arise in all the critical discussion is that it would be nice to see a full novel developed out of the Burnhardt-Burnaby narrative: Tim Martin makes the case pretty forcefully that there is potential there.  This is understandable and is meant as a sincere testament to the success of the first two parts, but it also betrays an assumption behind commentary on the book: that in some way the third piece is its main focus.

Accordingly, instead of relating more about the characters of the work, critical comment has a tendency to drift towards the third section, towards giving us some information about Barnes’ wife and towards giving us some information about Barnes himself as a character in this section.  Pat Kavenagh was well known as a literary agent, and a few reviewers of the book actually worked with her.  Emma Brockes recalls: “Precision was the thing with Pat, from her couture to the punctuation of her emails.”  Blake Morrison also speaks of his long professional relationship with her.  There are many pictures of her there in the reviews.  More reviews will no doubt add further testimony about her life.  Similarly there is much information about Barnes’ feelings.  We find critics combing through the stories he has written since 2007, when Kavenagh died, looking for signs of his dealing with it.  Brockes’ Guardian review is called “The Sense of an Another Ending,” which comes to hint at some specific connection between Barnes’ last novel and the death.  Barnes’ very honest and–given that talk about it is still almost taboo–frankly courageous discussion of thoughts about suicide gets much attention (it is the feature topic of a whole article by Hannah Furness in the Independent), and it is hard not to see that for reviewers the literary history of his works from this period now are seen through the lens of his remarks in Levels of Life.

This is not to say that this focus is misguided, even when it may come at the expense of discussing other aspects of the book or other characters in it.  While the work has to be the thing that critics consider first and foremost, these reviews confront the fact that we may be too complacent nowadays in following the old rule that the author’s intentions can’t be confused with what we find in the text itself–the autonomy of the artwork and all that.  Whatever its effects, for a writer who has been so dedicated to this dictum when it comes to the more private aspects of his life, to have a book that has a section in it this personally revealing can’t but call attention to itself, and this at least justifies pushing against it as the reviewers do here.  In fact, it may allow us to pick up on the possibility that Barnes may have always been much more interested in toeing these lines and even overstepping them than keeping them clearly drawn.

They even suggest the idea that invoking such critical rules about the author’s impersonality with respect to the work, far from keeping things straight in aesthetic evaluation, makes us, when we do have to turn to the personal, do it so crassly and unfeelingly.  For the decent way reviewers have handled themselves in dealing with these personal matters makes the case for dealing further in this vein of criticism.  Brockes anticipates reactions to the it that will see it as a tell-all or celebrity confession, but as of this moment, there is a remarkable display of sensitivity to the personal aspects of Barnes’ narrative.  Reading them makes us recall that one function of reviewers is to set an example for the public, to set the tone of critical conversation.  The efficient discharge their office, with so many of the ugly abuses of privacy that have been happening in Britain all around them, makes their behavior impossible not to admire.  Perhaps it is time for a wider questioning of the commitment to the impersonal that so dominates modern  literary criticism.

Nothing as abstract as this of course can motivate the reviewers in this turn towards the third section of the book.  It is more likely they are responding to the kind of grief that Barnes says is important to him; and minding the kind that he does not like.  Important here is a scene Barnes describes vividly: he is at lunch with some friends after her death, and for some reason or other he brings her up in the conversation. Barnes is met with an uncomfortable silence. The moment passes, the conversation moves on. But it happens again.  Again no one knows what to say and after a moment things resume as normal. But what, really is normal about this?  How did this sort of consensus-built indifference become normal?  Frustrated, confused, something spiteful in him brings her up again. And yet again there is nothing.  Barnes is furious at this. It is a vivid moment in the history of his grieving, and looking back at it from a distance, Barnes says, touchingly, that he might have reacted this way because he so much enjoys hearing more about her–any scrap, any fragment, even other people’s dreams about her–so as to see where and how she is still alive to people. It it is because of this that he also says he hates the idea that she wouldn’t be brought up because of some sort of conversational rule.

This incident strikes a chord with British reviewers.  It is a very English slipup , and the reviewers’ shared resentment is a very English resentment at the coldness of social relations (Michael Wood in the LRB has been interested in the way these sorts of English dynamics surrounding Barnes in the past).  And so their reviews show many signs of trying to respect the hatred of silence that Barnes displays, rather than write a review that would gloss over facts and focus on the mere aesthetic aspects of the book in an effort to maintain some idea of propriety.  They seem indeed to get that to write about the book as a mere aesthetic object is precisely what the book itself would make impossible.  That this is art feeding the desire to think about the author, what he is privately feeling, and its disjunction or conjunction with what he more publicly writes.


There is much less risky work to be done when it comes to resolving the book’s formal difficulties.  Much more effort in the reviews is made in this direction.  You can see the comfort of the critics come through in these moments.  Trained in the explication of modernist techniques of juxtaposition, they can take up the task of explaining how the book’s difficulties and incoherences are really not those things at all.  They can dramatize the experience of readerly realization, and point to specific instances when it occurs too–when a textual gap is jumped by some insight that can be elaborated and made intelligible in clear and precise language.  They are here given something to do, and they do it.  Here work really feels like work.

In fact, the problem of how to solve these problems of form becomes more compelling and interesting than most other aspects of the book, because the book can even seem to get a little petulant from this point of view about this task.  Following the statements about how the world is changed, Barnes continues: “People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter.  The world has been changed nonetheless.”  This not only asks for it.  It seems like a challenge to the critic to notice these things.

Accordingly, the critics bring out all the big tools in the critical toolkit.  How are they going to piece together a work in three sections?  Morrison refers to “themes,” that can continue across three sections regardless of how they are split up.  How are they going to justify the different genres of the work (history, fiction, memoir)?  Particulars are there in all of them, regardless of how they are treated (a curious return of the pre-Romantic understanding of literary kinds): we get different views of them like we get different views of the soap Bloom endearingly carries in his pocket throughout Ulysses.  And how are they going to bring together the sheer scattered nature of the interests of the work, as they move from facts about ballooning, to the many thoughts in Burnaby’s head as he professes his love to Burnhardt, to what kind of soccer he tries to distract himself with in his grief?  One solution is heard constantly: metaphor.  As Leyla Sanai in her excellent April 13th review for The Independent says:

Levels of Life uses the pioneering of balloon flight and the development of aerial photography as metaphors for the soaring heights, freedom, and imprinting of memories, of love.

Brockes in her Guardian piece speaks of Barnes taking up “the liberating apparatus of metaphor”:

The book’s guiding metaphor is Nadar’s feat of being the first man to take an aerial photograph, from a balloon over northern Paris, and in that moment to experience a sort of existential freefall that finds its echo in the last third of the book.

Martin Fletcher in another review for the Independent, explaining how the book works, says:

[P]ain beyond words can only be expressed metaphorically.

Robson in The New Statesman expresses his displeasure by summing up the book’s effort as,

 a lesson […] on the dos and don’ts of metaphor.

That there might be something wrong with the use of metaphor is a question, but that metaphor is the most important thing to grasp–this is not.  And this seems to be what all the critics say.

This is well and good.  In fact, they are only being sensitive to the language of Barnes himself in describing the book to Brockes:

I was initially planning to write about grief in terms of Eurydice and the myth thereof.  By that point the overall metaphor of height and depth and flat and falling and rising was coming into being in my mind.

The author, after all, probably has a good language for talking about what he is trying to bring off, and in trying to make sense of such a book, this kind of comment is a gift for trying to come to terms with it for people.  But still, we might question whether metaphor is in fact the right way to make sense of the disparate interests of the book before we claim, like Ian McGillis does in his recent review of the book for The Montreal Gazette, that,

The age of ballooning provides writers and other artists with such a perfect metaphor that you would almost think a bunch of them had cooked up the whole idea over a few drinks.

Was it really the most natural thing in the world that someone should come along and use ballooning for a metaphor for how he feels after the death of his wife?

And we might begin to question this by asking whether Barnes’ grief itself is the thing the metaphor stands in for–which is the what is implicit behind what Barnes says, but which perhaps isn’t the best description of what he is doing.  The critic can wonder, that is,  just at what point the actual is entered into here–what it means for grief to be literal.  Brockes describes turning to the third section of the book: “with a sudden, shattering lurch, the figurative is made real.”  This seems is a question of how much the beginning of the book does work for the later part of the book, and the later part of the book does it for the beginning.  And while this gets at what the event is that happens between the second and third parts of the book, does it really get at what is said in the earlier moments of the work, when these topics also had so much meaning for the characters?  There is a strange sort of desire for the literal itself to mean grief, in other words: for grief to mean dealing with the hard, grubby facts of the world, to dispense with all this literary hocus pocus, all this falsity and double-talk–and not to mean talking about height and depth and flat and rising and things like that.  Tim Martin talks almost admiringly of the way the last section of the book is “so unsparingly desolate and unconsoled that it sweeps away the rest of the book like chaff in a hurricane,” and other reviewers echo this in a strange, contradictory kind of praise, given they were looking for some way to praise the rest of the work too.

This tendency to refer to metaphor because it brings all the disparate formal elements of the book together through the final section–rather than to give us some sort of precise way to understand its language–has some neat side effects. In the process of piecing together what they see as the parts of the work reviewers continually take up the language of the work in a rather looser way in order to try and give it some coherence, to give some sense of the form they think may be there. This can lead to some surprising insights. They repeat the work’s tone, they use its themes, they use its metaphors and similes, extending them, elaborating them.

Love gives air, exaltation, uplift; we aspire to the heightened state. […] But, like memory, height can be dangerous.

Anyone who has been bereaved will know that some people expect grief to be finite; something one recovers from, like the flu.

Just as every love story is a potential grief story, so every exultant balloon ascent is a potential disaster; as well as freedom and adventure, there is hubris and farce.

This is not Barnes being quoted here, but the reviews (Fletcher, Sanai, and Morrison respectively).  What is so interesting about this is it isn’t paraphrase, the normal literary critical technique that might have been employed here. It is really a rewriting. They draw conclusions Barnes doesn’t himself draw, from language that is almost identical–and only almost.  The aim of the quotation itself is to differ from the sense of the original.  So in staying faithful to the work’s gestures towards form, they seem really only to be committed to its lack of form, its more informal aspects.

Getting a hold on this slippage of form into the informal is what allows Michael Wood in the LRB to share with us something in between that seems the best single statement on the book, as he is discussing Barnes’ statement that grief is banal:

Balloons and photography, flight and fall, height and depth, sky and sewers, town and country, England and France, France and Germany, love and grief, dreams and memory: these are some of the things Barnes puts together around the people that life put together and took apart. So many ‘patterns’, as Barnes says, collisions, coincidences, cancellations. Might not these careful symmetries overwhelm the careless, asymmetrical fact of death? They might but they don’t, and I mention all this because Barnes has risked writing a terrible book in order to write this very good one. The bad book hovers just off the pages, a sort of uncredited collaborator, a reminder that if we don’t want to be original about the banal, we don’t want to be banal about it either.


There remain a few difficult questions with respect to each of these ways of working with this book, and the manner in which they combine.  How much of our sympathy is bound up with our attempt to make formal sense of the book; and how much of our interest in its form is dependent upon our sympathy?  Leo Robson’s review, which is also a review of the new book on early ballooning by Richard Holmes (someone Barnes quotes in Levels of Life for his grisly story of a man who fell from a balloon)–Robson’s review gives us an answer to both, because he on the one hand can’t sympathize with Barnes’ manner of writing about his grief, and on the other sees little that is worthwhile in trying to make sense of its form.  He rejects outright, as it were, the invitation of Morrison.  He doesn’t want to get to work.

And this, far from detracting from his review, makes him ask the crucial question which neither of the other approaches really takes the time to ask: how much effort should we as readers really be putting into this?  Which itself is asking a deeper question: aren’t we really just doing what the language of the work asks us to do?

After all, what is strangest about the statement about putting things together, and what makes us want to put things together–to answer that challenge–is the way it is in this strange and ambivalent voice: “You put things together…”  Well, who does?  Barnes?  Or us?  One of the tricks Robson sees in this is the way such a statement doesn’t really need a reader at all, even though it may invite one.  In normal circumstances, we would think of it as a statement that generalized from personal experience, and related this statement to another.  But here, it doesn’t show any trace of its origin, and it could just as much be an empty saying  as a generalization from personal experience.  In that case, are we really the recipient of such a statement?  Isn’t it then like a philosophical treatise, admitting of propositions and subordinate propositions?

It sounds to him, accordingly, “teacherly,” full of “acidity and self-righteousness,” not the voice of someone who is going to be talking about his grief.  It is on “anxious terms with confession.”  And while this is a little harsh, it gets at something strange indeed about how the work is getting us to work.  The paradoxical effect of this language is that though it talks as if it doesn’t need anyone, this is precisely the reason we think it needs us to read it.  We do this, even when we know this language knows it to be so.  We imitate it, we talk in its voice, because we want the work to talk to us, we want to turn statements like these into things that we have genuinely heard, that were generalizations of personal experience directed to us.  Robson seems to feel like this is taking advantage of something in the reader, when in a way Barnes is actually manipulating this aspect of the language, working on this level.

But to want to escape from this may be redolent of a certain displeasing tendency in criticism to simply want to do away with any of the complications involved in dealing with a work authored by another human being entirely.  The other side of cultivating so many approaches to a work and so much readerly independence in our time as we do, is a certain ready distrust of books in general.  That is, not so much a distrust of what is said but of the mere fact of whether we can get anything out of reading or out of literature itself.  This sort of petulant attitude seems to have started infecting literary critics and indeed readers of all stripes after the 80s, and is still around in our impatience with certain works we now find unsuggestive, irrelevant, or too political.  Suspicion of what the work is expressing, prevalent in cultural criticism of all sorts, becomes a suspicion about the extent to which any critical statement about a work was doing what that work wanted us to do. It becomes, in other words, an attempt to continually wrest oneself away from the work, towards the goal of total readerly independence–something that isn’t too distinguishable from the aim to reduce a work to a totally inhuman, objectlike document, or a set of data ready to be analyzed by technology–so as to get somewhere, anywhere, outside of the grasp of its basic claim on our interest as individuals with free choice over our attention and feelings.  If a work doesn’t allow this independence,  if it doesn’t play by the rules, we can chuck it away.

In the end, whether we are working or being put to work or not, and whether we like this or not, we can say is that the critical discussion of this book is fascinating, and it will be all the more interesting to see how it develops when the work comes out in the US soon.

Bromwich between the lines

David Bromwich looks at Syria for the NYRB

David Bromwich has a long history of reading between the lines–not excluding battle lines.  Always capable of perceiving a nuanced argument about even a military situation when others can see it only in black and white, and always able to put this in the most forceful language when others would find ways to hedge such strong claims, his readerly eye is American criticism’s  kryptonite against consensus-building rhetoric and obfucating plather.  In a new article in the New York Review of Books, he considers current American opinion about the civil war in Syria, and yet again cuts through the standard ways of seeing the situation.

In it, he draws the attention given to the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi towards the larger situation in which it occurred–the overthrow of Gadaffi in Libya–and traces the way NATO intervention in Libya (in which the US played a crucial part) may have influenced the current situation in Syria by the displacement of soldiers from the former country into the latter.  He then pounds away at the argument getting bounced back and forth now on TV and in the media generally–and which was put most forcefully by Bill Keller in an Op-Ed in the Times on May 5th–that our invasion of Iraq has somehow made us unwilling to intervene in in the Syrian civil war, and that Syria would therefore be a wonderful place muster up the strength to get over Iraq.  From there, he looks at other tendencies in the press that make our intervention in Syria seem necessary and even inevitable–not to mention easy.  Returning then to the effects of such displacement of people after the intervention of Libya, he reminds us of the scale of the displacement of people (two million) after the invasion of Iraq.

The message is clear:

Americans for a long time have tended to think (when we think of other countries at all) that the more new nations spring up, the better. This goes with our relaxed communitarianism but bears little relation to realities elsewhere. Our latest siege of optimism, which followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, has now been given a fair trial over a quarter of a century. It has not always worked out well. Not in the Balkans, not in the former Soviet republics, and not, it seems, in the Middle East.

To understand fully our involvement in the revolutions in the Middle East, in other words, we have to keep in mind a parallel history of the cyclical, revolving nature of American policy in the region, which involves intervention in the place, displacement of the population, destruction and unrest, intervention…

Whether or not you agree with Bromwich about the claims he is making here, what is striking in the article is the type of attention to what is in between the lines in the reporting of these incidents, and the argument against another type of attention that it makes.

Some critics take in information slow and feel it through and through, turning it into opinions that when voiced are thorough and heartfelt; some critics react fast and wittily, bouncing themselves off what they see and making us value what happens in the process; most critics have a brief vague reaction, and then heap the insights provided on to a foundation of hardening opinions; very few are able to react flexibly to information, to form forceful opinions immediately and put them to work pragmatically.  Bromwich is a critic of this last sort.  In this respect, he resembles one of his critical heroes–the man he largely brought back into the canon after years of neglect: William Hazlitt, the tough-minded and many-sided essayist of the early nineteenth century.  Hazlitt had a knack for seeing a situation in the most complicated way as soon as he was exposed to it, and capturing the gist of it in the clearest and most immediately relevant phrase.  Bromwich has the same knack.

His remarks develop an area of reflection he has been pursuing for some time now.  He has made it quite accessible–as well as eloquent–in several  interviews at Brown University’s Radio Open Source (the excellent project put together by Christopher Lydon) and opinion pieces on and the Huffington Post.  It centers around three things, all of which are related: the vague use of language by Barack Obama to manage his stubbornly consensus-driven means of leadership; the expansion of American policies of the projection of power and humanitarian intervention into outright imperial behavior; the subtle but consistent acclimation of American thinking to the idea that we are perpetually at war abroad.

But here such reflections are secondary to a type of reading that works in the moment, that uses these concerns (particularly the third one) only as a way to hold at bay other ideas that would keep him from giving us a unique view.  In particular, where we might want to bring attention to events by linking them together into one interpretation, Bromwich gives us a view that makes it palatable to look deeper behind the things.  It is hard to describe exactly the way that this happens, but essentially we feel that Bromwich always tries, whenever he gives us some information, to draw our attention to what might lie behind it, or what is left out in it.  For instance, in this article he draws attention to the language used in the New York Times to describe the situation in Syria, when it was alleged that the government had used chemical weapons on the opposition:

On April 26, for example, a story by Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt was entitled “White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms.” The factual substance of the article was ambiguous, and its headline might more accurately have read: “Chemical Weapons Used in Syria. US Uncertain of Source.” Again, on May 7 the headline delivered a judgment: “White House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria.”

But he doesn’t stop there, and then looks further at the relationship of the words to the things they are trying to describe:

This would not, in most papers at most times, have qualified as a front-page story at all. That there has been no change of policy is hardly news unless a great many sensible persons are expecting a change. The headline implied that the common sense of the well-informed now favors armed intervention; yet the paper had carried the day before, in a corner of page 9, a Reuters dispatch of some significance. This was a report of a statement by a qualified investigator, Carla Del Ponte of the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, who flatly contradicted the rumors of the use of sarin by the Assad government: “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” UN officials commented that there was “no conclusive proof” about the use of chemical weapons. Astonishingly the Reuters story was neither analyzed nor incorporated in the lead Times story of the day’s events.

In short, he gives us a background that we can’t but see behind the foreground.  This sounds basic, but when we think of what it does to words–it makes them things that are more or less transparent or opaque with respect to the thing that they are trying to talk about, so that when we find them misused, we find them misused not with respect to some abstract idea of correctness or incorrectness but with respect to reality, to the things they are supposed to describe–the effect is profound.  And when we think of the alternatives, like the mere placing of things in quotes (Bromwich himself does this when he refers to the way the overthrow of Gaddafi is called “regime change”–and the effect is less forceful than if he put it another way), we get a much more complex sense of how words may be mismatched with their referents in reality.

To do this, Bromwich uses what he thinks are very old, very rudimentary techniques of critical reading.  On the most basic level, in discussing things, Bromwich quotes articles, names the writers of those articles, names their past opinions.  They count as individuals, these opinion-makers, not as mouthpieces.  What matters is their history of opinions, not the volume of those opinions.  (Raymond Williams once remarked that he found the use of the word “impact” to talk about the influence of ideas incredibly crude, even revolting, the sign of a kind of blurring of the criteria.  Bromwich, we can gather, feels similarly.)  They are, in short, writers first and foremost.  Authors.  And the advantage of this is that what they say can be traced to a consistent manner in which they say it–their temper, their habit of mind.  This doesn’t so much allow us to predict what they will say, so much as simply keep tabs on it, and then show, quite clearly, how it matches up with events and the unfolding of history.  With the speeding up of the news media, these seemingly techniques of slower reading, while perhaps looking old-fashioned, allow Bromwich to catch characters who use this speed as a way to bury their previous opinions and become simple opinion-producing machines–with no relation to the world in which they discuss what they discuss.  Along with this, Bromwich uses the rather basic technique of explication.  He literally walks us through a work.  He has done this not too long ago with a speech of Martin Luther King’s against the Vietnam War, paraphrasing it as he goes.  One of the features of this mode is that it educates, it has to inform you about what is going on behind the words.

By far the most interesting technique is an offshoot of this: it is simply to insert, in the middle of a work, a sentence by sentence query about the claims that it is making.  In the article here, he does this with an opinion piece of John McCain’s, in which the senator talks about what we could do in Syria to help the opposition.  Bromwich puts his own comments in brackets and italics.  “We could train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces,” McCain begins:

We could train and arm well-vetted Syrian opposition forces, as recommended last year by President Obama’s national-security team. [“Vetted” by whom and with what expertise?] We could strike Assad’s aircraft and Scud-missile launchers. [Inside Russian-built air defenses stronger than those in Libya?] We could destroy artillery and drive Assad’s forces from their posts. [All without ground forces?]

If this sounds a little pedantic, whatever pedantry is there gets dissipated by the fact that we see it is called for.  In the end, we don’t mind that this can sound like a teacher grading a paper, or an editor proofreading an article or book, because the comments themselves make clear we need this extra, marginal intelligence in order for what they say not to obfuscate the issue involved.  Reading this way, in short, we learn that there are things behind the text, which we can’t always keep in focus, and which words even when their context is brought into the foreground can put out of focus.

This is very different from the type of opinion that he attacks in the article.  Current opinion would like the event to be “situated”–related to a context of happenings that then make it intelligible.  Usually with Benghazi, attention to the facts is dissipated in a network of other facts having to do with the general intentions of Obama in the region, and the response domestically to those types of decisions.  Like healthcare, like the deficit, what matters about the event is that Obama  is stifled or confused in his foreign policy by Republicans.  We move from the Middle East back to Washington, and the original incident is made part of a familiar debate that is strangely domestic in its character, the point of which is not pragmatic, but abstractly moral.  What, after all, is the aim of talking in this way about foreign policy?  It seems, from the way we cover it, to be to develop a policy which is a priori right, correct, and which both sides of the aisle can get on board with, and which responds to conditions on the ground merely by conditioning those principles.

Bromwich, on the other hand, looks straight into the thing, and then presses us to read the reality of the situation behind the words.  Benghazi then is important, not because of its relation to what we know already, but because it is one event in a larger policy in the region that is difficult to make sense of–a policy that is being executed and put in practice all the time over there, and which is wide-ranging in its effects.  The question Bromwich wants to hear answered about the nature of the talking points that are mentioned, is not whether the administration fudged the mentioning of the particular incident in question, or whether they didn’t, but why they deleted the mentioning of “five similar attacks in Libya, and the fact that al-Qaeda-linked-forces were known to be active in the vicinity?”  We stay in the region, and then we follow the news through the region.  He notes facts: there were seven months of air attacks on Libya, there were 7,700 bombs dropped.  He himself wouldn’t describe it this way (Bromwich has in the past been a critic of mushy terms like this) but essentially he makes us extend our sympathies outward and imagine a world in which our policy is carried out.

The argument against Keller then has such force because it comes from a perspective that attests to the clarity of vision that is possible in policy discussion.  If you talk about the consequences of actions, you can decide on the actions that will lead to consequences, is what it promises.  And this is precisely what Keller does not want to admit is possible: it is crucial to Keller to say that in a way it is impossible to imagine the full effects of American policy abroad and how it relates to the ways we describe it at home.  We are traumatized, and need to work ourselves up out of this state in order to do anything.  And for that to happen, action is necessary, and further discussion is pointless.  We are too bound up in our context, and the only way to change a situation is to simply create a new one.  But what Bromwich argues is that what sounds like trauma, may just be inattention, and an unwillingness to face consequences of any sort.  Far from being a nation that is traumatized and needs to overcome our injuries to help those of others, we may very well be a nation that only feels sympathy with other nations only before we give them aid.  It replaces an idea of decisionmaking then that would provoke us into action by convincing us we are irrational, that we can’t act rationally, and must make some, any decision, with one that says that if we do not see a situation clearly, we are just not looking at it long enough.

Bromwich has a tendency to brush off his work in his public journalism as a kind of basic journalistic connecting of the dots, or a rudimentary operation that any intelligent critical reader could do.  This is the humility of an intelligence for whom conducting oneself ably in public debate is so vital a part of the critical task that it has become natural–when it is just as natural too for other critics in similar positions to think the most political thing they can do is pursue and fight over tenure (something he in fact writes about eloquently in his book Politics by Other Means).   With respect to the most basic techniques that he sometimes uses, this attitude perhaps plays too easily into a narrative about the decline of public discourse in late 20th century America,  overlooking the very clear possibility that the critical techniques and conception of language  found in what he is doing, and which may have been obvious to him and other critics of his generation, are no longer obvious to everyone.  These involve a distrust of language’s relation to reality, a basic concern for their correspondence, even if the idea that they might correspond was in fact doubted; and this is very different from a concern with language that is built around an idea of its contexts, its correctness, its connotations and its relevance–in short, the connections it makes, the ways words like objects connect together with other words, and build a consensus.  Bromwich spoke in 1986 (in Social Research v53no3, Autumn, p. 412) of the idea of criticism as a genuinely useful human activity, and said the following: “A false hope on which this idea of criticism was premised […] was that something as elusive as tact could somehow be taught.”  But his criticism continually gives us some promise, even in the basic elements of his tactful approach, that it is not a false hope.

Sahlins and Lévi-Strauss

Sahlins takes us back to the idea of the human sciences in the London Review of Books v35 n9, May 9, 2013

Marshall Sahlins, renowned anthropologist at the University of Chicago, has been on a campaign recently to give some backbone to ethical practitioners of the soft sciences.  Well, not “soft,” but, let’s just say, “less hard.” He continues this campaign in a small piece for May 9th LRB.

In February, he left the National Academy of Sciences, when the Academy elected to its membership the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon is the author of several questionable studies of tribes and their allegedly aggressive, combative, individualistic behavior, and recently defended his work in an autobiography, Noble Savages. Sahlins has been attacking the book in reviews and vehemently stating the case against it in interviews.

He also mentions that he left the Academy because of its funding of certain studies that collaborated with the US military, which were designed to eventually assist the latter’s warmaking capabilities. It has been reported that this is “an issue that has nothing to do with Chagnon,” but in this piece Sahlins eloquently affirms that the two issues are rather intimately connected,

insofar as Chagnon’s sociobiology of the selfish gene and the American global project of making the world safe for self-interest would impose cognate versions of Western individualism on the rest of humanity.

Sahlin’s continual commitment both intellectually and practically to the welfare of indigenous peoples across the planet makes this connection vivid enough.

The rest of the piece explains the relevance of the once popular idea of the “human sciences” to the uproar that his resignation has caused. There have been two reactions: first, that his actions expose some sort of rift among anthropologists, between those who believe that there is some settled way of going about research (Sahlins), and those that do not (Chagnon); second, that there is no rift at all, that we can clearly specify the nature of anthropology’s mission, because Chagnon’s work is simply bad. Sahlins is surely sympathetic to his supporters who attack Chagnon with the latter argument, of course. And he recognizes that if his actions are interpreted to say that there is a certain settled method by which good research is done that Chagnon fails to address, this can work even against Chagnon to forward an idea of anthropology in which work like Chagnon’s might be more well received.  Chagnon can claim that there is ideological bias in the accepted methods of anthropology, which are used to invalidate his work. But he is skeptical about saying that Chagnon’s work simply is bad, or not good enough, objectively.

He does this because he thinks laying so much stress on the objective nature of the research (which Chagnon seems to have just not involved himself in) is missing what is most important about anthropological research. He wants to say that anthropologists, instead of addressing brute objects, practice a science that is actually able to address the nature of other peoples, and advocate for them.  Anthropology is a human science.

Sahlins uses the phrase popular in mid-century France among linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scholars of literature to describe a program of research, study, and policymaking that would combine together the efforts of the sciences and direct them towards more typically humanist concerns, under the rubric of a method and philosophy called structuralism, pioneered by linguists and by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In this effort it was to be very much unlike the resurgent humanism in the United States, battling fiercely with the intense post-war boom in the scientific study of behavior (in psychology, anthropology, sociology), and the rather strange divide between the “two cultures” of the moral sciences (including literature) and those of the laboratory in Britain.  Indeed, this mode of study never quite caught on in the US, and certain people still wish it would have.  But this was never to be, as the idea of the human sciences itself was subjected to deconstruction in the very conference that was supposed to introduce it to the US.  Jacques Derrida at a whopper of a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1964 made the human sciences the main subject of an essay that question ed the premises of its policies–so that what came to be called post-structuralism basically came into being before structuralism itself ever could make its way onto our shores.

This was so in the humanities, but Sahlins makes the case that it is also so in the sciences too.  So, in terms less abstract, we might say that the inhuman sciences had their day in America before the human ones ever did: the study of literature, history, artworks, bodies of belief, behaviors in terms of the silences, events, materials, technologies, objects in which they allegedly inhered or out of which they were produced, and which never needed human involvement to be involved in human activities, though they indeed can matter to us (a pun which was used over and over again).  Or the study of the events, materials, technologies, objects themselves in terms of probabilities, calculations, random quantum effects.

This is why the case for the idea of a human sciences can follow the reflections here–why, after all these years, the virtues of the idea of the human sciences can be reasserted.  They were, in essence, passed over, both here, and, through American influence, abroad, and the effect has been to make our sense of knowledge revolve not around understanding things in terms that make sense to humans, in terms that are familiar to us, but in terms that are distinctly foreign to us.

For knowledge about humans as objects (Sahlins says) shows us that knowledge about brute objects may not always be as powerful.  And here is where he quotes Lévi-Strauss:

Indeed, inasmuch as these peoples [that anthropology studies] are meaningfully making their modes of life, and inasmuch as we share the same capacities of symbolic invention and understanding, we have the possibility of knowing the cultures of others in ways that are in some respects more powerful than the ways natural scientists know physical objects. [A]s Lévi-Strauss put it for his own discipline, “Of all the sciences, anthropology is without a doubt unique in making the most intimate subjectivity into a means of objective demonstration.”

It would take too long to show in detail just how Lévi-Strauss himself would put this, but there are two new books of his out now that surely should: The Other Face of the Moon, and Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, both newly translated and published this year by Harvard University Press.  The first is a collection of his writings on Japan, the second a series of lectures he gave.  But the message boils down to this: what is important about science, in short, is less what the knowledge comes from than where it comes from.  And what structuralist anthropology shows us is that it can indeed come from anywhere our sympathies are extended objectively.  Sahlins explains:

Natural science starts out with what is familiar and ends with something altogether remote; human science works the other way around. One may well begin with something so distant or unpleasant to us as cannibalism in the Fiji Islands in the 19th century, yet end up finding it “logical” – which is, after all, a mental state of our own.

He puts it differently a little later, repeating the statement of Lévi-Strauss:

Since cultural practices are meaningfully constructed, and since we too are symbolising beings, we have the privilege of knowing others by reproducing in the operations of our own mind the ways they are culturally organised. The method and content of investigation are one: the most intimate subjectivity becomes the means of objective demonstration.

Too much stress on the inhuman sciences, Sahlins says, by contrast tends to make us think that it can come only from things we don’t already know, indeed only from things that we find strange or odd, so that knowledge itself has to make us feel foreign to ourselves for it to count as knowledge:

[T]he more the natural scientist discovers about things, say the table at which I am working, the less such things are like anything in human thought or experience.

And the same could be said about the literature student, concerned with talking about otherness, or trying to make a text allow us to “think otherwise” about a subject.

The appeal, however, of the inhuman sciences is also evident: instead of a science that needs argues the human is objective, here is one in which the objective just turns out to be human–no arguments necessary.  Whether though this can ever be an understanding that is fundamentally sympathetic in the way that Lévi-Strauss’ most definitely was, however, is a serious question, and one of the things that Sahlins is essentially protesting against is a rather unsympathetic intellectual culture, so concerned with the relevance of discoveries and its ability to forward the discipline that it becomes fundamentally unconcerned about what it studies and why–namely, other people, for the purpose of enriching our own understanding as people.  And indeed, many of the research programs in the humanities, for all that they pretend to be post-post-structural, still retain this inhuman focus.  Yet structuralism has certain affinities with the holistic methods involved in the study of networks and complex systems in the sciences and social sciences, though the principles behind the latter are fundamentally different, so there maybe is a place for it in the future.

Questions of belief

The London Review of Books, v35 n7, 11 April 2013

How do we trust our judgments when we can’t trust the thing they judge?  To When we aren’t sure whether it is the thing we think it is? When the thing can’t be trusted to be the thing we think it is? We hear something by Haydn, but it might be his brother. A person may be scheming against us the whole time. We don’t need to get philosophical here, to open up issues of aesthetics. But we can’t like a thing unless we know a little about what it is. And when it seems to defy our efforts to get at it, by distracting them or tricking them or what have you, we need to make a decision without actually being sure of the thing we’re deciding about.  So: how much belief do we have to put into the things we decide about?

This is a crucial question for literary critics, who regularly make decisions about things that aren’t actually real, and take action on (indeed sometime stake their careers on) their understanding of entirely fictional situations or characters.  Coleridge tried to get at this by talking about “suspension of disbelief.”  It is, in truth, a problem of aesthetic judgment in general.  Not because it is so subjective, but because the sides or aspect of a thing it finds so important may be such a slippery a thing to begin with, too slight a thing, too thin or too wispy. How can we go about saying something about an aspect of a character, when nearly everyone knows him, quite intimately too, and yet when everybody can have a radically different picture of him?

How–to take a basic example–how do we judge that Snape’s maliciousness goes all the way down, when we find Harry Potter teasing him? And when, in the next book of the series, when we find out he was teased a lot as a kid? How we do this, when we also then see him kill Dumbledore? How do we do this, when at the very same time, we suspect that he might redeem himself? The sensible explanation perhaps is to say that we feel like we decide, but in reality we don’t make any sort of decision. We judge him now, and then we say we will sit and wait for the next book to see; or we throw up our hands and call it a decision of no consequence, ignoring that we just thought his maliciousness quite interesting. And yet we do make the judgments even here. We end up possibly saying that Snape is very multifaceted, that the maliciousness itself has many sides–and so may or may not go all the way down into that area where it renders all his motives bad (or good). Even in throwing up our hands we decide that the maliciousness is something that is of less importance than other things about the novel that we liked without ambivalence. To deny that we do make these judgments doesn’t make them mean any less; and even to regard our perceptions as meaningless is also a decision, which would not matter if they weren’t meaningful and real enough.

It is a basic question then, and one that opens up philosophic territory, but also one that art allows us to treat extremely practically, and learn much from. This is the question pondered by much of the April 11th LRB, with its ruminations on how far we should trust Wagner’s art, the use of statistics in understanding and reforming the NHS, in believing in the conventions of televised fiction itself, and in trusting a particular one volume edition of of collected poems to decide about the quality of the poet.  Nicholas Spice’s lecture on Wagner (a wonderful version is available on the LRB website), Paul Taylor’s discussion of statistics on the death rates in various NHS hospitals (which may or may not be real), John Lanchester’s review of “Game of Thrones” (both the books and the series), and Iain Sinclair’s look back at the poetry of Edward Dorn all work through this issue (which may or may not reflect the nature of the experience of the books separately).


Spice and Lanchester are especially good about this.  They valiantly take the line that we do decide on something of consequence, when we decide something about art. And yet that is precisely where the trouble starts for each of them.

Spice listens to Wagner and, like many listeners, is taken in to the point that he loses it–loses himself, that is. In particular, he begins to get insomnia, at the same time as he begins to see insomnia as the central experience of “Tristan and Isolde”–the long night of their love, in which they cannot, would not, would never, let their love end, and go to sleep. But this isn’t all. It isn’t even the beginning. He recounts a list of similar experiences, and more intense ones, where in fact people have gone mad after listening to Wagner, or working with him and his work. He acknowledges these are coincidences, but can’t quite shake the feeling that there is a grain of truth in the desire to see them as true. We enter the work, and the process is the one that takes us away from ourselves. He acknowledges it, feels he has to acknowledge it. “Wagner had no interest in the pathos of distance.”

And at its root–he can’t deny it–is the feeling, on some level, that Wagner may perhaps be bad for us, that the sort of emotional intensity we experience in listening to Wagner distorts our perceptions, makes us beholden to a vision that the author has put in our heads in order to manipulate us, and which to surrender to, would be wrong. It is the view that ultimately Wagner is unhealthy. We can tell that Spice has contempt for this feeling as it comes to be articulated–he doesn’t believe it makes sense to say Wagner might be bad for us, to characterize the feeling we feel as a sort of badness–but it is the central question of his essay, and he indeed treats it seriously enough, in trying to put it into other, more aesthetic terms–in terms of how the music works. It isn’t just a mere sort of confusion of aesthetic categories, already existing and more verifiable, that Wagner’s music encourages, in its intense appeal to one’s subjective response. It is what the music indeed means to us, and as much as Spice thinks this feeling about Wagner badly articulated, and wants to articulate it differently, in terms more sympathetic to it, he acknowledges it, doesn’t deny it, pretty thoroughly. Should then Spice allow that this effect should make us feel a certain way about Wagner? Should we really regardWagner as bad for us, and treat him accordingly? What to do?

What Spice does is to buy as much time as possible to get rid of the idea of unhealthiness that hovers over this whole perception, and which in his eyes distorts it. It is, in other words, to pull back and begin to indeed deny the existence of the feeling he believes he had and which others have had–to transform the oddness of the feeling into a skepticism about its possibility. He does this by close reading the music, excellently, showing us all its ins and outs–a process particularly vivid on the audio version of the lecture, where we hear in clear clips much of the music he talks about. There is an absolutely unbelievable comparison of the first minute of Carmen and Falstaff and other operas to the first minute of nearly all of Wagner’s great operas, and the result really is astounding. This is combined with a frank discussion of the relation of the emotions to music–that deep and strange connection always acknowledged between them and which made Walter Pater say that all art aspires to music’s condition. Out of both we arrive at some genuinely interesting propositions about the nature of what Wagner is doing, which are much more illuminating than the simple word “bad.” We learn, perhaps best, that the thing that makes us come out of ourselves in Wagner’s work, the thing that makes us feel like he is forcing us to feel his work and not allowing us any space to have any independent feelings–indeed almost any independent awareness at all–of the work and our relationship to it, can in reality be explained much more profitably as a kind of “generosity.”

Wagnerian music drama… is is unusually permeable to our search for coherence. There’s a sense in which it gives up its meanings generously and that this is the result of Wagner’s quite exceptional feel for the way our brains take in musical and dramatic information. When we have been drawn deep into the Wagnerian zone, much as we love Bach and Haydn and Bartok and Berg, the thought of their music can seem a little bit too much like hard work.

This can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways. The comparison with the other operas tells us this by showing just how much information we get in the un-Wagnerian operas, compared with the throbbing single chord of the opening of Die Walkure. And the discussion of the nature of classical and Wagnerian music also reveals that we contemplate when we encounter density, feel involved when we encounter Wagner’s simplicity: “where in much classical music, the exposition of material… stands in a very high ratio to passing time, in Wagner’s work this relationship is radically relaxed.” In getting more time to think about less musical data, we get only enough time to think. This is bizarre, but, we feel, quite convincing.

The conclusion we can see coming out of all this though is that Spice does have to acknowledge the feeling he feels exists, but only so much. What Spice searches for, of course, by trying to analyze the work down into a more forgiving set of terms, with a more detailed understanding of them, is a transformation of the feeling initially felt. And this is a transformation that would be able to be effected, he supposes, by doubting that it exists in the form we initially understood it in. But in calling what was felt to be bad, generous, he indeed shows he does indeed believe in the existence of the thing he was talking about; he thinks we have to treat Wagner in a certain way. This is not to say he merely replaces the terms. It is to say that this form of skepticism succeeds analytically because it cannot pull off everything that it intends to do.

But perhaps this is also a kind of in-between, when we believe, but then know in some way that it is wrong to believe too much in what we are speaking about, to get carried away, to seek it out only:

In the question “Is Wagner bad for us?” there’s a hint of tiresome passivity, as though we had no choice in the matter… It’s surely up to use to manage Wagner’s charisma… But whether it’s really possible to keep Wagner at a distance without losing something essential in our experience of his work is unclear to me. What I do know is that to toy with the idea of Tristan und Isolde as the foundational event in a new religion or to take it as “a sacrificial consolation for the imperfect loves of those who witness it” is to turn this great work into a fetish.

We have to acknowledge the feeling that we feel Wagner’s music may be bad for us; but what we learn through analysis is that we can refuse to acknowledge that he is good for us. We have to acknowledge what we feel when we judge and that the feeling exists, and so we have to believe in its reality; and yet in doing so we can believe that what we feel could still very easily be the opposite of what we feel. What we can’t do is deny our feeling that Wagner might be bad for us, just on the off chance that he might be good for us.


In another review, we see John Lanchester amazed that the fictions of fantasy can be believed in at all. He wonders throughout his review of the “Game of Thrones” series and the books it adapts how he could be so held and fascinated. We see him fascinated with his own relationship to the story and its characters, to the world it inhabits, to the way it treats magic, to the plot elements that seem strange and absolutely unexpected. And the nature of this amazement is that it is extremely fundamental–we witness a critic steeped in the world of culture and products seeming to find a work that actually possesses their most basic rudimentary elements. You genuinely don’t know what is going to happen next,” is a comment he makes in passing.

At the same time, we find a rather sly argument in all of this naive enjoyment against the concepts of fiction that are not fantastic in their nature. Lanchester spends a good part of his article wondering why people are so turned off fantasy in the first place:

When you ask people why they don’t read fantasy, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘because elves don’t exist’. This makes no sense as an objection. Huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist, and as it happens, things that don’t exist feature particularly prominently in the English literary tradition. We’re very good at things that don’t exist.

True enough. But this doesn’t seem like the rousing call to fantasy and to the imaginative in literature that it should be. It seems to be concerned with being a neat proposition, rather than a true one. Is it really true that “there is no other body of literature quite like it,” as Lanchester claims, asking us to “consider the comparative absence of fantasy from the French and Russian traditions?” First, this doesn’t seem empirically right, since as soon as we admit folktales the proposition falls apart. Second, we get the sense that there is an equation here being made between fantasy and the fictional in general.

We get some sense of what’s wrong with the latter point when we start understanding the weakness of such a claim that “huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist.” This is like asserting–nay, taking pride in–the claim, “huge swathes of the clouds we see are white.” Not that the assertion is meaningless. It is just that what is actually emphasized by the statement is not what Lanchester thinks it is. The point that is emphasized in such a statement is not that a large proportion of imaginative literature indeed concerns what’s made up. The point made is that it would not matter even if this proportion were smaller. The point, in other words, is that white is essential to the nature of our sense of what clouds are and what they feel like–they are white fluffy things–even when dark grey clouds exist. So it would not make sense even to admit of the possibility that we might think of clouds as essentially dark grey, even though dark grey clouds exist. For when they look different, when they are grey, the entire nature of what we mean by “clouds” changes. We think not of sunny days, and blue skies. We think of storms and a bleak future ahead for us. In fact, we’d have to be benighted entirely for imaginative literature to concern something wholly different than the non-existent.

What Lanchester wants to get at, however, by making such claims is the way that “it’s perfectly normal for widely literate general readers to admit that they read no fantasy at all.” There seems to be a gap in the nature of fiction itself between that which is not contained in fantasy, and that which is. People read fiction, yet don’t read fantasy. And this is not an argument about high and low culture, nor even a sort of argument about genre, though Lanchester can sound like he is saying this–speaking sometimes as if here is the proper, stolid, frumpy, literary novel, and there is the fantasy paperback. But no, he is talking simply about what we like. This is an argument about the nature of the stuff we find available to us, and what appeals. Most people seem to like vanilla fiction more than fantasy, and to avow their preference rather loudly. And this is odd.

What Lanchester seems to do with this interesting point however is something rather backwards. We sense him trying to make a case for the fantasy against contemporary ideas of fiction, but as he goes through what is excellent in “Game of Thrones,” we sense him all the time pointing out the merely fictional qualities of fantasy, affirming them to be fantastic all along. This is the neat trick of the article: to make fantasy sound like it can outdo fiction on its own turf. That this might encourage fantasy’s inclusion within our preference for the fictional, rather than place the burden on readers of fiction to seek out fantasy, doesn’t seem to cross his mind.

I’ve been acting as a kind of low level pusher or drug dealer for the series, shoving recommendations and occasionally box sets in the direction of friends. I tell them to forge past their elves-don’t-exist resistance at least until the end of the first episode. And that, generally, is all it takes. After that initial act of drug-pushing, I follow up on my new clients to ask how they have got on with the series. Everyone is addicted…

This feels entirely right in terms of how we might love fantasy, and love to lead others into fantasy, even as most other readers seem to shy away from it. And yet, it is also a strange description too. It is as if we needed to be ashamed of what we were doing to the normal fiction readers in the process.

It is in fact quite telling that what is most impressive to Lanchester, as he begins to go through just what is so addictive about the show, is in its sheer destructiveness of its own story-telling resources. Everything that is hovering about it, which a normal literary work would prize and treasure and make central to its project, seems toyed with and ultimately dispensed. On the one hand this shows the inherent interest of Game of Thrones itself; on the other, it proves that fantasy can in fact outdo modern fiction in every sense–there is a richness to it that beats everything. Lanchester is most taken aback by the all the characters who die as the story unfolds. He goes through them one by one, remarking:

These are not peripheral figures but richly imagined, textured, three-dimensional portraits of central characters: the kind many writers couldn’t bear to kill off. Nobody needs to give Martin any advice about how he needs to slaughter his darlings.

For “many writers,” we might read, “writers of mere fiction.” What might otherwise be an appreciation of the capacity for the show to keep going on, to develop other characters, other interesting depths, turns into a fascination at its ability to punish its readers and reward their continuing interest despite this. What is punished is the allegiance to fiction that would find the coming up with new events and new characters rather normal; what is rewarded is the belief in fantasy that thinks this never is found in fiction. In some sense what seems most interesting to Lanchester is the way that fantasy has the ability to erode our confidence in the ability of anything other than fantasy to satisfy what we want in fiction. We want the make-believe? Here is so much of it, that you won’t need to go anywhere else for it.

In a way, then, Lanchester does not have a hard time believing in fantasy; but he does have a hard time believing that fantasy is a kind of fiction–odd as that sounds. It is this link that is there and awaits belief, but he withholds the assent that might make it real. The article, then, comes to a stop here, even as it develops much more its vision of the merits of “Game of Thrones.” As to the question of whether we need to believe in the objects we criticize, then, for Lanchester, we don’t–at least in this case. We only need to get hooked by them, and get others hooked, and become users of them.  But the question is–is this too good a thought to be believed?