Friday, May 17, 2013

Sudden lit crit

I am thinking of some of the greatest short moments of literary criticism I know. I would mention Twitter, but that would corrupt the idea, and besides you tend to need the quotation, the literary sample, before the remark. Herewith a few such moments:

A scrap from Dickinson, about Antony's great speech in Antony and Cleopatra:
                            Since Cleopatra died,
I have lived in such dishonour, that the gods
Detest my baseness.
He's heard the (false) report of her death only about ten lines earlier. Dickinson writes three words: that engulfing since.

Empson on Hamlet, an absolutely great essay:
What is reckless about the speech is that it makes Hamlet say..."I have cause and will and strength and means / To do it", destroying a sheer school of Hamlet Theories with each noun.

Blanchot on Kafka, who in his journals describes the necessity for a writer to devote oneself to writing all one's life. "Toute sa vie." Trois mots exigeants.

Blanchot again on The Iliad. Achilles, remembering his own father, whom he will never see again, allows Priam to take Hector's body. Then he seeks to feast Priam (as the laws of hospitality demand), but Priam refuses. Achilles tells Priam, in a tone of quiet menace (say I) that he had better eat, for fear that Achilles should forget himself and kill Priam if he doesn't. This is the most elemental of alternatives: ou la parole, ou la mort. Either you accept human connection (as Achilles has done) or all there is is death. This is the meaning of the laws of hospitality. Blanchot's two word judgment of Achilles's speech: Parole sublime.

Proust on Flaubert, long by these standards but worth it: un homme qui par l'usage entièrement nouveau et personnel qu'il a fait du passé défini, du passé indéfini, du participe présent, de certains pronoms et de certaines prépositions, a renouvelé presque autant notre vision des choses que Kant, avec ses Catégories, les théories de la Connaissance et de la Réalité du monde extérieur.

(This is all by way of celebration. The great negations are really all about The Excursion. Francis Jeffrey's This will never do. Mary Shelley after she and Percy read it aloud to each other: He is a slave.)

I think that in the twentieth century, a certain kind of novel learned to reflect on itself this way. Fitzgerald was particularly great at that, especially in Tender is the Night. This sort of self-reflection was arch in the nineteenth century (Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, for example), but became real literary criticism later on. Thus this moment from Tender is the Night:

The foregoing has the ring of a biography, without the satisfaction of knowing that the hero, like Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena, is ready to be called to an intricate destiny. Moreover it is confusing to come across a youthful photograph of some one known in a rounded maturity and gaze with a shock upon a fiery, wiry, eagle-eyed stranger. Best to be reassuring--Dick Diver's moment now began.

Denis Johnson does something very similar in The Name of the World. Mike Reed, the narrator, reflects on his narration and what he should say next, in the subtlest but most lucid of ways. These were originally Johnson's own notes on his MS as he was writing, and their incorporation into the narrative intensifies its narrator's exploration of the strange, and literary, experience that is all that is left to him.

I think Virginia Woolf might have originated this, maybe in Jacob's Room? The third person narrator reflecting on her materials, on the situations and settings of her novel.

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