Saturday, June 13, 2009

"A Polycentric Literary Heritage"

TLS June 12, 2009

from Terence Hawkes’s review of Michael Holzman’s James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence:

Holzman’s brisk, uncluttered book offers valuable access to previously untapped material on Angleton, who became the first head of the Counter-intelligence Staff of the CIA. In particular, it makes incisive use of his years as a student of English at Yale and the influence on him of the New Critics and modernist poets of his day.


[William Empson] identified a kind of universal, all-purpose ambiguity in human relations which melted simple-hearted trust and wrought havoc with lame notions of truth and clarity. One kind of dramatic irony may result:

Irony in this subdued sense, as a generous scepticism which can believe at once that people are and are not guilty, is a very normal and essential method . . . . This sort of contradiction is at once understood in literature, because the process of understanding one’s friends must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind.


Empson’s experience of a fractured society in China is obviously pertinent, particularly when he talks about the ambiguous fog enveloping his own world at that time. Speaking later of lines in Macbeth which some critics claim to be verging on nonsense, he insists that “no one who had experienced civil war could say it had no sense”. Confusion was widespread in those years, but Empson countered it with a peculiarly British concept of ambiguity: “When I was crossing the fighting lines during the siege of Peking, to give my weekly lecture on Macbeth, a generous-minded peasant barred my way and said, pointing ahead: ‘That way lies death’”. Empson’s response was foggy, gnomic but swift: “Not for me, I have a British passport”.


from Mark Thompson’s Commentary on Danilo Kis, the last Yugoslav writer:

His books carry an echo, the sound of literature seeking a frontier with its opposites: encyclopedias, police files, casualty lists, birth certificates, railway timetables, even gazetteers. He tests fiction’s possibilities, not by slighting our desire for stories, rather by drawing that desire into zones of history where it cuts against our hunger for unadorned truth. Nobody did more to prove that Europe’s twentieth-century experiments in fiction can take the measure of its experiments in totalitarianism, without blurring the crimes of the one or curbing the liberties of the other.


Far from being ethnically bestowed, a true relationship to literary tradition has to be won in the teeth of “kitsch and folklore—folk kitsch, so to speak”, which are “nothing but nationalism in disguise.”

In contrast to national culture and language, Kis sketched an “astrological” vision of a polycentric literary heritage “with no Sun as its Centre and Tyrant”, where “all the zones of influence are equally important and predominant and only the relationships change, the triumph of one influence is only a transient adventure . . . . For in this system, all particles act on each other”. These relationships do not correspond to the borders around “states, centuries, schools, nationalities, epochs, literary connections, individual talents, or the Zeitgeist”. The fact that this utopia could never be realized in political terms . . . was no reason not to establish it in the virtual paradise of literature. If history is a prison and biographical data are fate—as they were for Kis—then literature is a form of freedom which most reveals itself in its enemies’ imprisoning and fateful embrace.


Basil Bunting once quipped that collecting his poems was like screwing together the boards of his coffin. Kis seemed to feel the same, but with more dread.


Kis figures our experience as an ark that we carry around, or that carries us, through the splendid wreckage of our days: a cabinet of personal curiosities, bearing fertile and unsinkable possibilities. Everyone is their own ark, harbouring customized versions (doubles) of the world and its contents.


[Baptism saved the boy Kis from the Nazis.] In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti wrote that transformation to escape an enemy

is universal, being found in myths and fairy stories all over the world. One creature is pursuing another, the distance between them diminishing all the time until, at the very moment when the quarry is about to be seized, it escapes by transforming itself into something different. the hunt continues, or rather, starts afresh.

Transformation stories lie at the root of the literary impulse. Kis’s baptism turned him into an image of himself: his own double. The priest’s words and holy water had cast a spell strong enough to hold death at bay five years later. One can be sure that this experience underlay both Kis’s faith in the fabulous power of language, and his fascination with documents.


Central European writers, Kis wrote in a fragment, are doomed to drag a piano and a dead horse behind them wherever they go. The piano holds, ark-like, the heritage of Western art, while the dead horse signifies the leaden legacy of local “battles and defeats”, “words and melodies that nobody outside the writer’s particular language can understand without long footnotes”.

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