Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rocket and Lightship and Haiku

Adam Kirsch discusses both ideas and literature in this enjoyable collection of essays. The first two essays examine the life of Charles Darwin and his legacy on the study of the arts, in particular, literature. The next two essays are on the end of history, seen in very different ways by Francis Fukuyama and a trio of European novelists, Houellebecq, Sebald and McEwan. Kirsch explains in an essay Hannah Arendt's antipathy toward the Jewish community. In the case of Walter Benjamin, he highlights how reading is for the German writer always a matter of interpretation. Kirsch is especially good on the multifarious ways in which a writer's Jewish identity may inflect his or her writing. The masterpiece in this mode is his essay on Susan Sontag.

If the first part of the collection examines the impact of ideas on literature, the second looks at the reverse, how literature may shape and present ideas in its own fashion. Kirsch is a very astute critic of fiction. He argues, quite convincingly to my mind, that E. M. Forster did not stop writing novels solely because he was tired of composing heterosexual romances. Forster felt the falsity of his rentier status too. In another essay, Kirsch traces sympathetically Cynthia Ozick's agon with Henry James. The essay on Bellow focuses on what Kirsch calls his "turbulence," imaged forth by the clatter of sewing machines all going at once in a garment workshop. Bellow is great because of his vitalism. There are many virtues in these essays, but the most important one, I think, is the supposition, which is also a hypothesis, that literature is an autonomous value. It cannot, finally, be explained and reduced to ideas. There is always something left over.


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