Saturday, May 26, 2007

"How to Read"

Nick Hornby recently wrote this article called "How to Read." It's a quick read, but it's basic points are these:
  • Reading is for pleasure. Therefore, people should read what gives them pleasure, instead of racking their brains trying to slog through "important" books or supposed "classics" that they don't enjoy. Life is short.
Oh, well, there would be more bullet-points, but actually Hornby's argument stops there, more or less. Within the piece is, covertly, a theory of the novel: transparency into a world and its characters, whom the reader is made to care about. So, Hornby's champion is Dickens, rather than Henry James. Oh, fuck, let's just name opaque novelists with unlikeable characters: James, Flaubert, Conrad, Faulkner, Madox Ford, Woolf...

So, predictably, behind this argument for practical "simplicity" is an exclusion, a prohibition on difficulty which is reproduced in the argument: read for pleasure. Supposedly, difficulty is not pleasurable. Anyone who has ever, uh...done anything will tell you otherwise. The JOY of finishing a difficult novel is not to be underrated, and not merely in the sense of relief.

My argument, if you know me, is extremely predictable: in music, I refuse to believe that the bottom, root pleasure of music is the "pure pop song," which all the variations, experimentations, and genres we wade through are just complications and disguises for 3-minute pop gems. Similarly, I reject the idea that "plot" or "caring about characters" is the BASE LINE of literary enjoyment. If I agreed with that, Hornby would be right. Pleasure would be, ultimately, the same thing for everyone, only in more and less sophisticated versions. Literature would be like alcohol: some people might prefer chardonnay, others Pabst Blue Ribbon, but the root pleasure (getting drunk) would be the same, even if some aficionados veered into wine snobbery and pretended it were otherwise.

The best example for me will be Nabokov (and therefore, covertly, Proust, you see): Nabokov's novels are written in exactly the prose that Hornby deplores: "Prose that draws attention to itself." Moreover, the plot and characters of Nabokov novels cannot be said to be their main selling points. Further still, Nabokov is not a novelist you can just pick up and go. He is difficult, allusive, and benefits greatly from the reader knowing a great many conventions and references and maneuvers that will be played with, undermined, and exploited by Nabokov. It is an aesthetic enjoyment, rather than a mimetic one. And this pleasure is like the pleasure of exercising, of building muscles or generally improving at something.

Hornby's discussion is facile because the ability to take readerly pleasure changes over time, and not just with the seasons, but with one's readings, and in response to difficulty and challenges. Anyone who has read Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text will have noticed that this "pleasure" is far from uniform to every text (reading Zola versus Robbe-Grillet is Barthes' great example), and is a pleasure honed over a lifetime of difficult and introspective reading.

Hornby is arguing for a path of least resistance. Enjoy! (says the superego). I hope my rebuttal is clear: no one is born being a "certain kind of reader," as Hornby's article repeatedly implies; if someone enjoys Tolstoy, it is not because they are simply that kind of person, but because they have probably suffered and been bored and had to look things up, and wondered about putting it down---and that could all happen just reading War and Peace. On the other hand, there is no greater pleasure than reading War and Peace. It's fucking good. I would say, not despite, but *because* the novel is not unmitigatedly "pleasurable," determines its greatness. The Novel, Lukacs reminds us, is the aestheticization of its own problematic. And, so, the greatest novels tend to be, well...problematic.

As for Hornby's specious conflation of entertainment novels with difficult ones (I imagine Nostromo), it is no wonder that he "begs" us to put down novels that are "making us weep with the effort of reading them." By defining books as purely ENTERTAINMENT, Hornby essentially has made his entire argument. Why, indeed, struggle to entertain yourself? But it's so stupid, because even in classic fiction, the most "entertaining" novels (Mathew Lewis' The Monk), which make no demands on the reader, are ultimately forgettable. And I should stop here before I go into a long thing about Freud and cathexis and circuits of pleasure, but let's just say that if you believe Hornsby, you cannot also believe that crossword puzzles are fun. After all, they can be frustrating.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Herzog at Film Forum

The past week, I have been going to Film Forum's series of Werner Herzog documentaries. On Tuesday, I saw his 1994 film The Transformation of the World into Music, about the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

The most immediately interesting aspect of this film is that, where most documentaries (and Herzog's normal procedure) approach the subject as an outsider, even an ethnographer, throughout this film Herzog is simultaneously engaged in filming and in staging his own version of Wagner's Lohengrin.

This outside/inside binary is not interesting to me as an abstract dilemma faced by the instantiation of the camera--no, nothing like that. The absence of any outside is exactly pertinent to our discussion of taste. (Although, to be clever, I could point out the film's almost total lack of "exterior" shots; Bayreuth's rehearsal rooms are its whole world.) Because Wagner is such a polarizing artistic figure, often polarizing within a single person (see: Nietzsche), there is certainly a "cult" aspect to his work and following--a definite gap between the devotee and the puzzled outsider who does not see what all the fuss is about.

A recurrent motif in the film is that every single person involved in production, even down to the theater's fire sergeant, knows every word and melody of Wagner by heart. This allows for very short rehearsal times, but there are also intimations that this shared love is shielding Wagner from something: the ignorance of critics, anxieties about his music being co-opted by the Nazis (ie: whether this co-opting was somehow allowed or inherent in the music or in Wagner), and even the press of the cult upon the Bayreuth site as a destination for a pilgrimage.

[At one point, in staging Lohengrin, Herzog wants to play up the druidical cult-site that is the setting of the play, and surround the opera house with gigantic monoliths and have lasers shoot out of the building for hundreds of miles to other cult sites. I wonder how "knowing" this intention was, because the present direction of Bayreuth, under Wolfgang Wagner, is so opposed to such a "cult" and insists that everything must be INSIDE the opera house: that is where the staging takes place. But the cult scene has always-already infiltrated Wagner--the massive druidical stones are part of Lohengrin, and Bayreuth can never be "just" an opera house anyways.]

I am an outsider as regards Wagner. I don't get it. And this made the film all the more interesting, because I am such a card-carrying Proust aficionado---Proust, who is no stranger to Wagner! And the film is a kind of bizarro version of my embryonic fantasy of a world of Proust lovers, where every reference would land squarely, and scarcely another author would ever be mentioned. And in Herzog's film, you get this, and--here's the genius of it-- there is nothing creepy about it at all. Because it is about insiders shot from the inside, it is a film we might say, lacking distance, even as its subject is that very proximity. The total experience, therefore, is of having wandered into an alien world invisibly, and without crisis.

And so I would conclude that this is a film about the possibility of irony.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Well, here we are on the internet. You probably have a few other windows open: the New York Times, your email, the weather, and probably some kind of social-networking site (myspace, friendster, even a dating site). These sites are used for a great many things: pedophiles, spam, hyping shitty bands, seeing what your friends are up to, etc. For me, they are only about one thing: my lists of favorite movies, books, and films.

One glance at these enumerations of one's tastes immediately brings a charge of disingenuousness. One is far more likely to list Army of Shadows as one's favorite movie than the actually-superior The Godfather, or to treat one's tastes synecdochically, letting one more obscure noir stand in for a broader affection that "covers" the "obvious" but excluded Maltese Falcon.

This gets to the heart of the matter. "Taste" is for public consumption. And the very compulsion to take a lie-detector to people proclaiming Battleship Potemkin as their favorite film, is a misguided one. There IS authentic enjoyment. Aesthetic critiques are possible. However, the presentation of taste and one's actual (gustatory) taste, in their social articulations, become as indistinguishable from one another as the laws of chance and determination in Borges' "Lottery in Babylon."

What we propose is a sociology of these processes. There are apparent seams, paradoxes, glaring but unreproachable flaws, compulsions, and genius maneuvers everywhere in this field. We will cover literature, film, music, the notion of "hipsters," and New York in general.

More soon. For now, I should say that, if this blog were to have a reading list, it would be as follows (and I have not read these books, so we could get up a kind of discussion if we chose):
Immanuel Kant "Critique of the Power of Judgment"
Joseph Litvak "Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel"
Roland Barthes "The Fashion System"
Pierre Bourdieu "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste"