Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Book of Job(s)

by Robert J. Howe

In the Fall 2013 issue (#206) of The Paris Review, Jonathan Franzen translates an essay, “Heine and the Consequences,” by Karl Kraus (1874–1936), of whom Franzen says, "...was an Austrian satirist and a central figure in fin de siècle Vienna’s famously rich life of the mind."

Kraus frames his dissection of Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), with a comparison of "the German" and "the Romance," which Franzen footnotes thus: "In the dichotomy of Romance versus German, which runs throughout this essay, Romance refers to “Romance-language” or “Latin,” particularly French or Italian."

You might ask why we should devote much time to a deconstruction of a 19th century writer by an obscure late 19th/early 20th century writer, but you don't read The Paris Review to get Stephenie Meyer, and Franzen sells the piece, at first.

Then we get to the second footnote, reproduced here in its entirety (bear with me):

2  Kraus’s suspicion of the “melody of life” in France and Italy still has merit. His contention here—that walking down a street in Paris or Rome is an aesthetic experience in itself—is confirmed by the ongoing popularity of France and Italy as vacation destinations and by the “envy me” tone of American Francophiles and Italophiles announcing their travel plans. If you say you’re taking a trip to Germany, you’d better be able to explain what specifically you’re planning to do there, or else people will wonder why you’re not going someplace where life is beautiful. Even now, Germany insists on content over form. If the concept of coolness had existed in Kraus’s time, he might have said that Germany is uncool.
This suggests a more contemporary version of Kraus’s dichotomy: Mac versus PC. Isn’t the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? It doesn’t even matter what you’re creating on your MacBook Air. Simply using a MacBook Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of dos operating systems and early Windows. 
One of the developments that Kraus will decry—the dolling-up of German language and culture with decorative elements imported from Romance language and culture—has a correlative in more recent editions of Windows, which borrow ever more features from Apple but still can’t conceal their essential uncool Windowsness. Worse yet, in chasing after Apple elegance, they betray the old austere beauty of PC functionality. They still don’t work as well as Macs do, and they’re ugly by both cool and utilitarian standards. 
And yet, to echo Kraus, I’d still rather live among PCs. Any chance that I might have switched to Apple was negated by the famous and long-running series of Apple ads aimed at persuading people like me to switch. The argument—that Macs are pretty, easy to use, free of bugs, and unsusceptible to viruses, all of this in contrast to PCs—was eminently reasonable, but it was delivered by a personified Mac (played by the actor Justin Long) of such insufferably cool smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison. You wouldn’t want to read a novel about the Mac: What would there be to say except that everything is groovy? Characters in novels need to have actual desires; the character in the Apple ads who had desires was the PC, played by John Hodgman. His attempts to defend himself and to pass himself off as cool were funny, and he suffered, like a human being. To return to Kraus’s dichotomy, I could easily imagine the PC being played by a German actor and the Mac by a Frenchman—never the other way around.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the concept of cool has been so fully co-opted by the tech industries that some adjacent word like hip is needed to describe those online voices who proceeded to hate on Justin Long and deem John Hodgman to be the cool one. The restlessness of who or what is considered hip nowadays may be an artifact of what Marx famously identified as the “restless” nature of capitalism. One of the worst things about the Internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate—to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the position that everyone else is taking. Kraus may not have cared about hipness per se, but he certainly reveled in taking positions and was keenly attuned to the positions of others. He was a sophisticate, and this is one reason why Die Fackel has a blog-like feel. Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.

When I first interviewed at my current job, a number of years ago, my soon-to-be boss asked me whether I was a Mac user or a PC user. I told her that she wasn't supposed to ask religious questions in a job interview. In the footnote above, Franzen departs the LitCrit envelope, and flies his rhetorical airplane into the side of Mount Hierology. At the heart of his plaintive moo is this: "…the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned."

So full disclosure: I use both Mac and Windows boxes (and have used pre-Windows PCs), but strongly prefer Macs because I'd rather be writing (or doing whatever other thing needs doing) than computing. In my experience, Macs are transparent: the interface puts the minimum barrier between the user and his or her work. Many people, however, prefer Windows machines, not least because they are cheaper and (still) offer more applications than Macs.

In his introduction to Kraus's essay, Franzen writes: "For now, let me just make a small plea for patience with Kraus’s prose. He’s hard to read in German, too—deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism and a stickler for the interpenetration of form and content, and to his followers (he had a cultlike following) his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out." 

Franzen's argument against the Mac, and by extension for the dense, impenetrable prose of Kraus, hinges (ironically) on a romantic notion of of what literary work is. I don't have the same affinity for self-imposed barriers that Franzen does, this Teutonic fetish for the the hard way of doing everything, but it kind of charms me that Franzen does. Every writer has his or her process, and this is clearly is part of his. But the kind of intellectual and cultural elitism that Franzen argues for here (catnip to The Paris Review audience, I imagine) is, I think, at cross purposes with the goal of an honest writer.

There will always be a tension between those who want a small, pure church, and those who are more comfortable with a large, heterodox congregation. Different writers have different audiences, and I would be the last person to say anyone should write a certain way. I have no truck with Meyer-of-the-sparkly-vampires, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is doing the best she can to reach her audience. In that regard, she is an honest writer. Likewise, I respect writers who are using complicated language to convey complicated ideas and emotions. The form follows function. Again, honest. What I have no patience with are writers who are deliberately obtuse in the service of ideas or a story that could be stated to greater effect with simpler prose. At best it's a fetish, at worst it's a snobby affectation that serves only as balm for the writer's insecurities; it puts the writer above an imaginary audience too dim to appreciate his or her genius.

God knows I have these insecurities (and the compulsion to mock Stephenie Meyer is of a piece with them): most writers do. No one is proud of their id, their profoundly narcissistic, greedy, enraged, and envious inner voice, but most people's ids are just toddlers, thrashing around and wailing in the snack aisle until the adult self scoops them up and calms them down. Writer's ids, though, are more like hormonal teenagers out for a night with mom's car, a six-pack of Rolling Rock, and a gassed-up chainsaw. If you don't pounce on them before they get out of the driveway, you're going to have a hell of a mess to clean up in the morning. (Then you have serial killers, hedge fund managers, and reality TV producers: people whose ids are like Grendel on a meth binge, and the adults have fled the house in terror.)

There are some noble aspects to Small Church Franzen. He obviously cares about what he does. His fiction is always interesting--I think the better angels of his nature reside there. He snubbed Oprah, despite the goose she could do for his career. I'd like to think he did so not because she is popular with what Franzen considers a lowbrow audience, but because she is a horrible person whose television show was often an atrocity exhibition that would make Ballard gag on his bourbon. It's telling though, that Franzen identifies with Kraus's anger (he was called "the great hater" by his critics). I think Franzen's own enraged id sometimes takes over and suffocates his empathy, and his targets aren't necessarily the rich and powerful, like Oprah. In footnote 51, he writes:

"I was on a deserted train platform in Hannover. I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark gray German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. There with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hannover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus."

I'd seen this excerpt mocked on The Toast, and discussed on Cat Rambo's Facebook page and elsewhere, but I hadn't gotten to the original yet (it's the last article in the issue), and wasn't sure if there was exculpatory context. Not so much, to my mind. And of course he's put his sexist mitre on in a few other masses at the Church of the Male Author. That's not to say his translation (with fifty-three footnotes, some of which go on for pages) isn't worth reading. Franzen is a powerful writer and, often, a thoughtful one, and I subscribe to The Paris Review for exactly this kind of thing. 

I think, finally, it's Franzen's palpable anger and resentment that keeps his church small. Those emotions are the enemy of connection, and while people read novels for a lot of reasons, high among them is the desire to live the life of the other; to at least temporarily lower the barriers that separate us. "Only connect!" said another early 20th century writer. In this, he has the better of Franzen.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beltway Roofies

some politicians
have their way with words, they do

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Reasonably Adequate Gatsby

Robert J. Howe

[Obligatory Spoiler Alert]

The critics are not in love with the latest film incarnation of Gatsby. Lenny Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham and fiction writer himself, believes the curse of Gatsby movies is that the audience has read the book, and has what he, Cassuto, calls "individuality of response;" everyone has their own Gatsby in their heads. It’s an interesting conceit, but I don’t buy it.

If "individuality of response" didn't kill Peter Jackson's execrable Lord of the Rings, a trilogy that much of the audience can quote in large snatches, then it seems an unlikely explanation for the Gatsby Curse. In any case, most books are Rorschach tests. Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.” I think that sums up the field of literary criticism fairly neatly.

I sat through Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby today, and mostly found it pretty diverting—even at two hours and twenty minutes. It was visually stunning. I thought DiCaprio was a fine Gatsby, and Tobey Maguire a likeable amanuensis. I take El’s word that the film is reasonably faithful to the book: though I read Fitzgerald’s novel, I recalled none of it as the story unspooled on the screen.

I think the reason The Great Gatsby is impossible to film, or at least why critics think so, is because they’ve already seen the iconic version. It’s called Citizen Kane. Like Gatsby, Citizen Kane is the story, told in flashbacks, of a man who amassed money and objects in the pursuit of love, only to die alone and misunderstood. Both have their sympathetic (if less great) Boswells, both live in ornate mansions, having risen from grinding poverty, and both try relentlessly to claw back a happier past.

About halfway through the film I realized that every close up of DiCaprio reminded me of Orson Welles: the captain of a doomed ship underway at night in a fog, chasing fairy lights with increasing desperation. In neither case do the main characters’ rags-to-riches transformation succeed in bringing them the desired consummation. Authenticity, it seems, is what the universe requires, and what Gatsby and Kane have forgone. 

Though The Great Gatsby was published 16 years before Citizen Kane was filmed, I think every screen version of Gatsby stands in the (considerable) shadow of Orson Welles. Both DiCaprio and Luhrmann would know at least a little of Welles’ untidy personal life. (John Kessel captures a rigid, self-destructive Welles painfully well in the short story “It’s All True.”) As an actor, DiCaprio must have seen “the greatest movie ever made,” and Luhrmann certainly would know Citizen Kane inside and out. 

The considerable gravity exerted by Welles’ film, his portrayal of Kane, and his larger-than life, may well have bent the latest Gatsby and its title performance into familiar planes. If nothing else, Citizen Kane is a staple of film criticism. The critics may not like Gatsby, and especially this Gatsby, because every tight shot of DiCaprio’s anguished face would be moment of uneasy déjà vu in the seats. It is one thing to know where the arrow will land before it leaves the bow—tragedy often possesses a grim inevitability; it’s another thing to follow the same missile over the same course again and again.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


John Kessel, “It’s All True” from Some Like It Cold

Monday, January 12, 2009


In a May 2007 article the Jerusalem Post reported that "All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert." The article goes on to say: Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

If you wonder how we got where we are today,
Eliyahu's pronouncement is a partial answer. In Sunday's New York Times, public editor Clark Hoyt writes in his column:

David K. Shipler, a former Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land,” said in an interview that each side firmly believes it is the victim in the struggle. “Any fair-minded coverage has to shatter that paradigm,” he said. “Both sides are both victims and perpetrators at the same time.”

Exactly right.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

NOMA Applause

I am often drawn to the intersection of spiritual belief and scientific empiricism (religion belongs to another category altogether and is probably best discussed by social scientists, psychologists and neurobiologists). Earlier today I posted a short clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining that science educators had to take into account their intended audience's state of mind (see the post just below this one—very much worth watching in its entirety), and the exchange between Tyson and Richard Dawkins made me think of Stephen Jay Gould's theory of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (abbreviated "NOMA" by both its adherents and detractors).

Gould's argument, briefly, is that religion and science are spheres of human inquiry that are not in conflict because they address different phenomena and different concerns. I think that position is naive: science and religion are regularly in conflict, especially in the sphere of public policy. From Texas school boards trying to jam creationism into science curricula, to Islamic fundamentalists blowing up girls' schools in Pakistan, there is no shortage of people trying to ensure that their particular religious belief is reflected in government policy.

We'll never know, but Gould may have been groping toward a state of mind familiar (in teaching, if not in practice) to adherents of Zen Buddhism: attainment of enlightenment through the non-rational. In his essay on NOMA, Gould admits "I cannot, through ignorance, speak of Eastern religions..." which is a shame, because I think in Zen he might have found both intellectual and emotional appeal. A Zen fixture in popular culture is the question, "What is the sound of one hand clapping," a phrase drawn from a Japanese kōan. The point of a kōan is not to arrive at a logical answer, or at any answer whatsoever, but by pondering it to force the mind from its rational dualism. NOMA aside, many people who give thought to issues of spirituality and science believe either science is right or spirituality is right; they can't both be right.

I know what you're thinking: he's going to say "What if both are right?"

Nope. I'm going to say "What does right mean?" We are, some of us, very focused on winning the debate, without really understanding what winning means. I don't refer here to politics, nor public policy here: winning and losing have clear and consequential meaning in those arenas—see Dover v. Kitzmiller. (And in that vein, I have no truck with the Templeton Prize or its winners: despite its posture of reconciliation with reason and scientific inquiry, the organization is just another partisan in the culture wars; the whole point of the prize is "affirming life's spiritual dimension.")

I think it's more important, and likely more productive, to ask what it means to the individual, inside his or her own head, for one view or the other to prevail? Does it mean losing a part of ourselves? Maybe. Or to phrase it differently, maybe clinging to the either/or of spirituality versus empiricism keeps us from reaching our genius.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Fitzgerald may have put the cart before the horse. It's possible that one develops a first-rate intelligence (if we take intelligence in the broadest sense) by attempting to hold conflicting ideas in mind at the same time. If not enlightenment, it is possible that a deeper level of understanding may come from sidestepping the question of being right, concentrating instead on just being.

Point, Tyson

A clip of Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining his approach to science education, in contrast to Richard Dawkins' approach. Well thought out and well said, I think.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kitten X Awarded Tenure

In a milestone action for Feline Americans, Kitten X has been awarded tenure through an unusually expeditious and evenhanded process at FSP.

We urge our reader to write to FSP in support of this faculty appointment.