Monday, May 22, 2006


While I'm still in the midst of Muriel Spark's "The Finishing School" (somewhere in chapter 15) a few thoughts. While Harold Bloom's meditations on jealousy are not my single favorite aspect of his criticism (despite the centrality of "Cymbeline" and "The Winter's Tale" to my thinking, I can't quite pretend to consider, at least at this date, the theme of sexual jealousy as pertinent to my own life or my creative preoccupations, and as for "Othello" it is perhaps best, for better or for worse, to treat it almost as High Literature's equivalent of a snuff film-- and even Bloom, for all that Iagolatry, doesn't seem quite ready to cede "Othello" full partnership in aesthetic untouchability with "Hamlet", "Lear", and "Macbeth"), I can't approach "The Finishing School" without intermingling his musings on jealousy with those of literary "contamination", since Spark's novel concerns a kind of anxiety of-- not influence, since the competing authors in question have hardly seen each other's work-- but some surrogate form of literary anxiety and agonistics, since the two authors DO have each other's presence, and that seems quite enough to turn our protagonist Rowland, and indeed, the envied Chris as well, quite mad.
I don't know what, if any, opinion dear old bad old Harold has expressed of Spark (she didn't make the countdown at the close of "The Western Canon") but, as a more normative version of some of the impulses Flannery O'Connor represents, she surely is worth his comment, and I will certainly push her forward as destined for inclusion. Indeed, at this moment I feel quite convinced that if I were indeed to ever write a novel, it would be because of the impetus provided by "The Finishing School" and would even be writen in its equivocal shadow. I cannot feel that it is as rich a work as "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", yet I am utterly in its grip and, were it not for the Family's demands for four hours of godless television entertainment this evening, I would be painfully finishing it off as we speak.
Certainly it's painful, not only because of the carefully wrought suspense and the ever-present possibility that the narrative will, if not exactly "jump the rails" in any merely postmodern sense, at least pull off a considerable shocker of an ending (and anyone lightly familiar with Spark's output knows just how quickly those upturned narratives can drop themselves in your lap); but painful as well to be kept from the exhilarating, hair-picking labor of going back through the book at freeranging liberty to pick up on clues, meanings, hints, ambiguities (it's always possible that much of what happens after the last page has already been told to you somewhere back on page 32 or somesuch) and also to savor the delirious comedy of some of Spark's highflying satirical sallies, especially here those "comme il faut" discourses of Nina's which touch Carrollian heights of sublime absurdity.
Since Rowland is too preoccupied with other forms of jealousy, I can't help but admit that I've taken up a bit of sexual jealousy on his behalf (despite the fact that Chris' suggestion of a life-fate for Rowland and his marriage is monstrous and horrific) where Nina is concerned. Just what is that woman's game? Is she a half-baked fetishist of professorial tweed? As Spark must realize, when we read the novel we proceed from horror at Rowland's outrages, the injustice of his Salieri-like escapades and frustrations, and come to identify with this new patron saint of mediocrity-- if indeed a mediocrity is what he is? . . . The more he seems like Wile E. Coyote, the more the reader identifies with his desire to burst Chris' bubbles, the more one feels Chris' Blessing has been unjustly bestowed, the more even one begins to wonder, perhaps to suspect, to hope even with paranoid wishfulness, that Chris is a facade, a fake. And, this being a Spark novel, everyone, almost everyone has their schemes, and Chris the born novelist is a born schemer too, which means that the reader, like Rowland, may ultimately find herself well stocked with reasons to hate him.
But I'm feeling a healthy hate for Nina too, as I say. Self-protective and always looking out for herself, her future, she combines an improbable mixture of abject deference to "scholars" and an equally robust desire, intensely sexual in part but something more, for scholars with some apparently lunatic notions of education and social forms. The key, it would seem, is in her penchant for vague and utterly false name-dropping: a senior official at the UN told me; as was said to me by a late Cardinal, etc. Nina is sick with social-climbing, a particular subset of her own where education is central: conducting her "classrooms" is a form of social hobnobbing for herself, the wifely portion of the life she fantasizes about as the wife of the master of a college of Oxford or Cambridge. The vagueness of this consuming desire of hers makes it all the more of a squeal; when she takes up with Israel, she informs her husband that (to paraphrase, alas!): 'I think he studies art, or history. Maybe philosophy . . . ' Well, something anyway, that's what matters! But what can you expect from a girl who married out of a Rilke thesis?
Now, Rowland is no Othello, even if Chris wants him to be one (and this has to do, I think, with Chris conspiring to out-Iago his Iago by becoming HIS Iago) and even by Othello-standards, he has no cause due to his attempted Celestine indiscretions (an attempt to become the Othello of Iago's imaginings to Chris' Iago, or perhaps to put it more directly, Rowland's attempt at pulling an Iachimo). Sexual jealousy over his wife, though perhaps once an option in his regular life, is certainly an impossibility with his all-consuming Chris-envy. But Nina clearly, at least before, wanted Rowland's sexual jealousy and had her own anxieties over the proximity of the female students, as well as her in loco parentibus concern to keep the girls from getting knocked up by the household staff. Her fears over her husband's literary performance, her fear of his literary impotence, comes out instead in uncontrollable bursts of paranoia about potentially amorous inclinations towards his students. Hence, I feel, the constant airing of questions over Rowland's own sexual orientation. That is the expected line of questioning today, as it was even in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" with Sandy's own (potentially self-incriminating) ruminations, but it's also a way for Nina to get a handle on things: if Rowland is merely in love or in lust with Chris, then maybe he can still write his own novel. Whereas, if this insanity is really literary in inspiration, then her husband must indeed be creatively impotent, and thus must be dumped at the earliest opportunity.
This is all unformed speculation, of course, and not even with the book fully read or in front of me. I doubt I'll survive another read like this this year, though I'm planning on devouring the Everyman Library anthology with "The Girls of Slender Means" and "The Driver's Seat". "The Finishing School" is a sweet open sore in my consciousness, and I'll be picking away merrily at it for the rest of my life. So please, consider it a Great Read.

To pass comment on the goings-on on that despised boob tube: What was the deal with that "Will & Grace" series finale? As someone who only watched the show in passing, I could appreciate it as a well-written sitcom, for what that counts, and undoubtedly a worthwile time-killer if television is how you choose to kill your time. Whether it promoted social understanding is another matter entirely: promoting the centrality of a "fag/faghag" relationship above all other couplings in life, sexual, erotic, or companionable for either the gay man or the straight woman in question seems to have been a perplexing dramatic problem for the show, for a long time. The real question has to do with love vs. friendship, and Life itself is hard on the proposition that friendship can enjoy permanent precedence over love, especially on American television where every beloved TV character needs to Have A Baby at some point! So first the Will & Grace parenting attempt had to falter beneath the wheels of heterosexual inevitability (Grace's marriage to Leo) and then, finally, reproduction had to take place in the "normative" (in the pejorative sense of the word!) context of Stable Monogamous Relationships, both Marriages in fact, even if one was between two gay men (and no, readers of "The Nation", though "Will & Grace" may have blessed us once with a true Jewish marriage, it did not give us a gay ceremony). So sexually disinterested mating finally crumbled underneath the temptations for sexual, and societally sanctioned, nesting, and "Will & Grace" wound itself up by discarding the show's defining relationship as a passing youthful discretion.
But what's really weird is that, as if to pat every American who thought, or hoped, that "Will & Grace" was some sort of latter-day "Three's Company" about a guy posing as gay so he could boink the dickens out of that hot redhead, the show presents us with a meet-cute between Will's son and Grace's daughter who proceed to happily-ever-after Marriage. Say what?! Now, let's be honest: I strongly suspect that even many gay viewers may have felt that, given the show's dramatic dynamics, Grace really shoulda got Will liquored up and blindfolded and given him a taste of the other side of buttered bread. "Believe the tale, not the teller," as D. H. Lawrence would say. Why the hell did those two need each other so bad if there wasn't some underlying sexual tension? But if we're gonna explore that, let's do so honestly, because there is no denying in hell that getting their children of each's sex into bed with each other is Subtext! I mean, this would be richly poetic in one of Thomas Mann's multigenerational epics, but c'mon! "Yes, America, Will and Grace really wanted to get straight with each other, and it's only those dirty gay sitcom writers who have made heterosexuality the Love That Dare Not Utter Its Name!" The decent thing to do would be to have left the two in peace, together without their (at least in Leo's case) highly dubious mates (and if Vince isn't a dubious mate for life, Will certainly is), or else to have shown them old and divorced and lonely. What is this 'our star-crossed kids have picked up the forlorn banner of heterosexual love' crap? NBC and the "Will & Grace" creators have besmirched their credentials as honest celebrators of modern gay life by leaving a big cutesy heterosexist turd all over their legacy.
But don't let me forget to comment on the College Sunrise Fashion Show!!!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Harold Bloom, still the man

Having nursed Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" and "How to Read and Why" over the weekend, I was prepared to fire off a few salvos against the great and good man. "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" is a modern masterpiece, a work which helped greatly to clarify my own attitude towards Shakespeare (not "the Bard" for me, please!); despite my essential attitude of disinterest towards Bloom's governing thesis in that work, that Shakespeare is the definer of modern character, not only in fiction but in life, I draw deeply from its insights into Shakespeare's art, his characters, and moreso, from the Bloomo-Shakespearean philosophy of life. Like the eponymous character, nee Allan Bloom of Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein" (though not the Allan Bloom of Allan Bloom's own books), Harold Bloom gives a simmeringly vitalistic meaning to the word "nihilism" which makes even such a normative sort as myself feel there is essential universal truth in Bloom's attitude. But outside of the noble confines of "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" I find myself more often at (affectionate) odds with Bloom. He is wildly, and correctly, enthusiastic about Jane Austen, but tends to forget her whenever he is brooding over Cervantes or Proust as Shakespearean rivals (one seems to never find Austen amid those boys' club litanies). When on the subject of Oscar Wilde's epigrams (remember, all bad poetry is sincere!), which he unblushingly often iterates as absolute truths, he sounds like a garden-variety Paterian, which doesn't quite sort with his Gnostic intimations of sublimity (though heavens knows "Plato and Platonism" drinks deeply of the high Platonic spirit, however subjectively reinterpreted). Bloom's Bardolatry is perhaps the central weakness of his latter-day work, however; if Shakespeare is the greatest of all writers, Bloom isn't content to leave him first among equals, or even-- thus begin the incrustations of dogma-- to fail to establish Dante as anything less than the definite and absolute No. 2 in the Pantheon. It may have taken Bloom some time to figure out just where he stands as a reader, but having committed himself, there are clearly no fluctuations on his Great Chain of Writing.
All of this isn't so bad, after all; I'm just as committed to putting Milton in the seat Bloom assigns to Dante as he is to keeping Dante there! But can't the man even give Milton a page without rubbing it in his nose that Shakespeare is greater, or that Dante "won" the contest? Bloom's obsession with literary characters as vitalistic presences, really so many demiurges unleashed upon the earth, leads him into really idiosyncratic territory-- Milton's Satan must be a cosmological Iago, a failed Iago mind you, instead of a terrible creation of Milton's own great spirit, out of the Christian tradition and in agonistic relation to IT, not Shakespeare!, and endowed with a galvanizingly sublime rhetoric that has absolutely left a deeper impression on me than any of Iago's soliloquies. Fantastic and awful a presence as Iago is, Bloom can't see him simply as a dramatic representation of evil incarnate, a Mephistopheles tempting Othello's Faust to destroy Desdemona's Gretchen (just putting this Goethean cart before the Shakespearean horse would get me quartered by Bloom!)-- my god, man, what am I saying?!-- that Iago is a MARLOWIAN character?!!!? Don't we know that Shakespeare BESTED Marlowe, sailed forever beyond him?! Well of course he did: what are any of Marlowe's rhetorical, aesthetic or psychological splendors against "The Winter's Tale" or "Macbeth", et. al.? But why can't Iago simply be Iago, instead of some Satanic (more than Satanic!) living void, with Hamlet's intellect and (depending on what page we consult), say, Macbeth's prophetic intimations of essential Nothing, or Falstaff's immensity turned inside out, or what have you?
Turning Hamlet and Falstaff into gods also means that all attempts at expressing or, heavens help us, systematizing human knowledge must fail by comparison. For Bloom, Hamlet's restless intellect not only means that Hamlet the melancholy Prince is "the intellectual's Christ" (I agree) but the greatest philosopher, so that, in contradiction to all those mutterings about the moral or truth-value indifference of literature, answerable only to the aesthetic standard, Hamlet's collected utterances comprise the greatest set of philosophical ponderings ever commited to the page (for Bloom that should probably read simply, "committed", since Hamlet himself has, in some funny way, committed them)-- forget Plato, Emerson, Nietzsche, never mind Spinoza, Aquinas, Hegel or any of those other discredited non-aesthetic daydreamers! To what depths has Bardolatry led this brilliant man, that our enormous enjoyment of "Hamlet", our awed sense of its truthfulness to the human condition, our suspicion that it is the greatest literary artifact of all time even, must also commit him to promoting it to the rank of Greatest Philosophical Work of All Time? Even Shelley, for whom Dante, Shakespeare and Milton were "philosophers of the first rank" (again, true!) would not venture so far, for he would recognize that there are separate tasks to be undertaken in literature and philosophy, and imaginative literature cannot ask all the Socratic questions, let alone venture to systematize reasonings, in such a way as to successfully poach on philosophy's turf so far as to discredit it in the way Bloom blithely, blindly does.
But here-- I was going to have a conniption over his astonishing hypothetical that Samuel Johnson had a greater-- he lists three areas in fact, greater imagination, greater good taste, and greater moral judgment, or some such combination-- than Alexander Pope! Ye gods!, must he also elevate Johnson, his own role-model as critic, to more-than-Popean heights in order to affirm the critic's art? Must criticism be rendered central to the canon by undoing one of the authentically great poets of the English language? Johnson, whatever his outbursts of Sublimity, is a deeply 18th Century character, as so many persons of that century are, so mercilessly did it stamp itself upon its children; even Rousseau, that walking drum of dynamite, essentially talks the talk of a philosophe: the content is different, but the manner is the same, and it should be appreciated that in matters of the heart his own heartlessness is essentially the Laclosian norm of selfishness-- Burke didn't succeed in defending his age's gallantries, rather he failed to note what a precious little gallant Rousseau himself was. And the 18th Century is not happy turf for Bloom, who is no rationalist or moralist or materialist. A human being such as Washington, who could favor Addison's "Cato" as his favorite work of literature, might as well never have bothered to exist (and God knows, too true, too true!). Yanking at Pope's heels, I fear, is Bloom's way of fighting another action against the French Neo-Classicists, an argument that fortunately Bloom comes clean on in the introductory pages of "The Western Canon." And with reason-- Jacques Barzun, after all, perpetuates the Frenchie pseudo-Classical disdain for Shakespeare's 'roughness' in the pages of "From Dawn to Decadence", but really-- it's not like we're about to abandon Shakespeare for Racine, are we? or to elevate the sternly classical "Julius Caesar" to the preeminent place of "Hamlet" or "Lear"? "French Shakespeare", as he likes to describe Foucauldian interpreters, is indeed a contradiction; labeling it "French Shakespeare" is also very funny. But can't we let heroic couplets be the lovely things they are? Of course Dryden and company were foolish to make them the ne plus ultra of verse, a foolish and frivolous misjudgment. But that era made many such foolish misjudgments-- they took Voltaire more seriously than Leibniz, after all; they made fun of Plato and Aristotle, and Jefferson wrote philosophical arguments that would flunk him in a freshman introduction-- but they were charming people in their own right, and Pope was also a man of genius, and did extraordinary things that are his own. Perhaps "The Rape of the Lock" isn't an equal achievement in blessed insouciance to "Twelfth Night", but neither is "Twelfth Night" a substitute for "The Rape of the Lock". And even if one chooses to dismiss the "Essay on Man" as Bloom does, Pope was a person of rare moral sensibility as well as extraordinary verve, and Bloom himself should take enormous relief in the unprecedented and unmatchable vitriol of "The Dunciad", as he himself occasionally remembers.
Okay, but then "The New Republic" had to weigh in on his new "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine". James Wood makes some of the same general points as above, in generally entertaining fashion. But he has missed a great deal on Bloom's new book which, whatever its merits as literary criticism, makes some of Bloom's best post-Nietzschean arguments. Dismissively listing eight separate quotations as examples of "painful repetitiousness", he gives us instead a nice microcosm of the book's argument-- whether or not the book could have been pared down to an essay, as Wood contends, his eight quotations are not indistinct repetitions of the same idea. More troublingly, Wood seems to embark upon a course of selective sensitivity: Bloom "ignores much of the nonsense and fraudulence of Mormonism", whose adherents Wood thus confidently takes on, while he is charged with being "defensively Jewish". "It clearly irritates Bloom that Christianity became so important," Wood charges, also accusing him of "blasphemous ambling" and "ardent blasphemy."
Regardless of Wood's own religious affiliations, it's clear he feels Bloom shouldn't mess around with Christianity, not the real, orthodox stuff anyway. Wood very questionably asserts that, "For him, Yahweh is God and Jesus is only a man pretending to be God: standard fare." By "standard fare" does he mean standard Judaism, or standard wicked non-Christianism? Surely Wood is familiar enough with Bloom's corpus to recognize that he has never asserted himself to be a believer in any theologically-sanctioned God of any kind? Or has he missed the fact that Bloom, like most liberal interpreters of the Gospel of Mark, would assert that the historical Jesus had no pretensions of Divinity? It sounds as if Wood wishes to besmirch Bloom as another blue state Voltaire-wannabe, a blasphemous baby of the 18th Century who just doesn't "get it", why the New Testament is so profound a document-- because Christians believe it to be true.
Irritatingly, Wood would try to con Bloom into making "theological" assertions, even when the thought-content of these theological assertions is entirely negative. If Bloom asserts that the New Testament is not up to the standard of the Old, this must mean only that, for him, the Old Testament is truth (a wildly unfounded interpretation of the equivocal statement 'Torah "IS God"') and that Jesus is thus not the Messiah. This, for Wood, is a "theological belief", one that Bloom won't own up to, and thus Bloom has failed to own up to doing theology. Has Wood never opened Spinoza's "Theologico-Political Tractatus", from which all higher criticism springs? For there the non-theistic pantheist Spinoza argues that the New Testament is simply a different kind of animal, full of homilies and moralizing and not much in the way of miracles. These seemingly simply insights (which I do no justice to here) are what so many alleged "liberal theologians" still cannot get their heads around, or at least cannot confront honestly. How many Biblical scholars happy to rationalize away the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus rambling and whatnot, freeze up over the question of the resurrection of Jesus? If global flooding and seven-day creations go against the scientific record, how about victims of crucifixtion returning to life? Is the New, Christian Testament to be free from the scientific criticisms offered of the Old? Are the miracles of the New Testament more sacrosanct than those of Judaism? Wood insinuates that the New Testament writings were created with "the conviction" that "they were bearing witness, that they were reporting a historical occurrence", whereas the Pentateuch is "a blend of Mesopotamian mythology and Semitic history", "much of that history closer to epic narrative than to historical record". All this bears the stain of a double-standard. Anyone familiar with the record of miracles in the "Civitas Dei", or the Book of Legends or, for that matter, anyone not disposed by upbringing or proselytizing to lend credence to the miracles of Mohammed, knows how little science or "history" can do to lend credibility, let alone provide outright evidence, for the theological assertions that underpin Christianity. If Tacitus was entirely mistaken about the character of Tiberius, how much should we trust so unscientific an historian as Paul or "John"? But for Wood, Bloom's cardinal sin is not to take the Christian's Jesus seriously enough. One can hardly assent to Wood's insinuation that Bloom doesn't take Jesus seriously at all; hasn't he seen him compare Mark's Jesus to HAMLET?!? Gods man, don't you know what praise that is!? When Wood descends to accusing Bloom of "blasphemous ambling", he's lost all dignity, and properly speaking should send his credentials to the House of Buckley. It's for the scribes of the "National Review" to charge with blasphemy a man who never claimed to believe. The atheist or aesthete has a complete right to abstain from being treated as a pretend-member of any faith or sect they choose to joust with. Being a non-believer is not meant as some sneaky way to affirm believers in the seriousness of "belief".