Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Preceded by his work?


The New York Times is running an obituary for Alain Robbe-Grillet which has makes me feel momentarily guilty for giving up so easily on the dour old bugger's novels. The Times reminds us of how innovative Grillet's approach to fiction - if that's the right word to use - seemed in the 1950s:

Mr. Robbe-Grillet and the other so-called New Novelists, including Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon, wanted to do in literature what others had done in art — just as Marcel Duchamp had deconstructed human motion in “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the Abstract Expressionists had valorized gesture, the movement of a brush stroke itself, over representation. Mr. Robbe-Grillet believed that writing should reveal the archaeology of its own construction, should depict a mind unfolding its thoughts over time.

His first novel, “The Erasers,” is an inverted detective story, while “Jealousy,” set on a Caribbean banana plantation, reads at turns like scientific observation and stage directions. (“The moment has come to inquire after Christine’s health. Franck replies by a gesture of the hand: a rise followed by a slower fall that becomes quite vague.”) The effect “was for many people sterile, for others exciting,” said Tom Bishop, a friend of the author’s and a French professor at New York University, where Mr. Robbe-Grillet taught every other year for 25 years. “He put the reader in a position where he had to be the central part of the novel.”


It all seems so clever, doesn't it? And yet even some of the admirers quoted by the Times don't seem too keen on actually rereading the novels the man churned out. I do have a fond spot for Robbe-Grillet's comrade Michael Butor's demented Letters from the Antipodes, which I found in the 'Aussie Travel Guide' section of a ruinous Sydney bookshop a decade ago. Butor's tome records a trip to Australia back in the '70s by randomly quoting texts the 'author' came across. Menus, tour guides, surveys of archaeological sites in the Outback, breeding tips for Kangaroo owners - all of them go into Butor's stew. I haven't actually read it from cover to cover, of course. Did anyone?

The 'nouveau roman' project to which Butor and Robbe-Grillet belonged reminds me of the movement of 'Language poets' which caused a stir on the American literary scene in the '80s and '90s. Influenced by the Frankfurt School interpretation of of Marx, by post-structuralist philosophy, and by the minimalist classical music of Steve Reich and others, Language poets and political activists like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews tried to produce deliberately fragmented texts which the reader had to 'complete'. By 'empowering' the reader, they aimed to defeat the capitalist commodification of meaning and the supposed recuperation of most forms of avant-garde art by the 'system'. In a series of astonishingly dogmatic 1980s essays, Silliman virtually outlawed every alternative form of writing; even supposedly cool writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon were simply 'stylising their acquiescence' in the outmoded games of narrative and author-constructed meaning. (In other words, they were like, you know, fun to read.)

It seems to me that both the nouveau roman novelists and the Language poets fell victim to two very common fallacies of the literary avant-garde. They assumed that to be innovative a work of art must possess a certain, narrowly defined form, and they attempted to adapt the forms that had enriched another artform into literature, without asking what would get lost in the transition.

The programmatic insistence on a narrowly defined form - Robbe-Grillet's 'new novel', or Silliman's 'new sentence' - inevitably lowered the horizons of the members of the schools, and pre-empted inspiration and experiment. And the forms in question arguably weren't worth bringing into literature in the first place. The methods which make Reich at his best an exciting composer of music, for instance, simply can't be adapted to literature. Reich's practice of repeating a few notes over and over, before ringing a minor change, can produce radically accessible yet wonderfully enigmatic music, but if transferred to the page it produces page upon page of unspeakably dull poetry.

Even the most ruthless avant-garde has a boredom threashold, and today both the nouveau roman and Language poety belong to literary history. The Times' tribute to Robbe-Grillet has an antiquarian feel, and even Silliman appears to have belatedly embraced a less fundamentalist approach to writing.

If any young genius reading this post is casting around for a new avant-garde idea, then I want to point them in the direction of the thoroughly uncool Allen Curnow, who said that he wanted to write poetry that was so old-fashioned it seemed radically new.

9 Comments:

Blogger Ron said...

Where in the 1980s (or '70s or wherever) did I ever say such a thing, say, re Pynchon or these other modes of writing? I think you're hallucinating a straw man and giving it my name. This is very close to libel.

Ron Silliman

8:07 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Silliman has abandoned Language poetry but invented a new distinction between the Post-Avant (goodies) and the School of Quietude (baddies):

http://briancampbell.blogspot.com/2005/04/gould-vs-silliman-school-of-quietude.html

Same old 'ourselves alone' bullshit.

10:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In one post on his blog (again, I don't recall the exact date), Silliman wrote that soi-disant "School of Quietude" poets read avant-garde poets, but not vice versa. His point was that only he and his friends wrote poetry worth reading, but what came across most strongly was a smug insularity and provincialism, the assurance that of course there couldn't be anything of interest in those so-called SoQ folks (and of course a School of Quietude poet is anyone he decides is one), so why bother even looking at their work? What a sad admission of narrow-mindedness. It seems that Silliman has always already read every poem he encounters: he knows what he thinks of any given poem, or of any given poet, because he knows what he thinks of where it came from, or rather, where he has decided it came from.

This reflexive dichotomizing among what poet Ron Slate calls the avant-gardeners (a great phrase) between avant-garde work (too often and easily equated with real poetry) and soi-disant "School of Quietude" poetry (i.e., everyone and anyone who's not in my club and doesn't wear my uniform) is very disturbing. So often work is not judged on its own merits (and the possibility that different kinds of poetry might be doing different and equally worthwhile kinds of things is not even considered), but preemptively dismissed or lauded in terms of the author's presumed affiliations: text is erased by context. Given the avant-garde's supposed commitment to the exploration of the unknown, such prejudgments are particularly problematic. After all, when Prufrock says that he has known them all already, known them all, it's a lament, not a boast.

What gets lost in all this territorialization is actual poems. But then, Silliman has written that he's interested in poetry but not in poems. Unfortunately, it shows. I am sometimes hard pressed to tell the difference between the poems that he praises and those that he dismisses. But then, I frequently see little difference between work labeled avant-garde and work labeled "mainstream" or "School of Quietude"—too often it's just a matter of who one's friends are.

In response to some other things in Seth's comments, sometimes poems take us to new places we discover that we've been all along, finally making us see them. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." Sometimes poems take us to places we've never dreamed of going, of whose existence we had no suspicion. Sometimes a single poem does both things. Helen Vendler cites Bishop's "Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!" as her paradigm of the journey on which a poem takes us; Charles Bernstein retorts with, "Hell, I don't know this place at all." (I may be taking some liberties with the exact phrasing.) I would like to think that there is a place for both possibilities in poetry, that there is room for both consolation and estrangement, and that poetry can indeed be the meeting place of otherness and brotherhood, a conjunction I tried to embody in the title of my fourth book, Otherhood.
http://reginaldshepherd.blogspot.com/2007/01/which-side-are-you-on-boy-which-side.html

11:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maps you are always driving to the end of the road to find paradise. It aint there. The Beats told us that. Space time travel didnt work for the next generation either. The pot at the end of the rainbow is still shit. Art for the masses is revolution.

9:42 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Robett-Grillet, the language poets, Beckett, Stein etc all had a profound effect on my own writing Scott. Jealousy is perhaps one of my favourite works of writing - one of the greatest.

I also agree with Ron (not about libel) - I my feeling is that the language poetry did an enormous service to world literature.

There was certain dourness we noted with some of the language poets but you have simplified it all too much..the point made re Pynchon was generally that he didn't fragment language in the same way as some of the "postmodernists" or what you will...(I loved Pynchon's 'The Crying of Lot 49') - he is a great writer. But so is Ron Silliman and Robbet-Grillet (was - I didn't know he was deceased).

There was never any statements that Bernstein etc were the ONLY way to go... (I have to say is sometimes I feel that Bersntien is or was a bit into "power" (or perhaps is perceived to be and he is "tenured" and so on...if that matters) but that gets into the huge debate that has already happened about 1999 or so in NY..)

Also in defence of Ron and Bernstein he isn't a card carrying communist (but you know he visited prisons etc for many years) but as you know he did all that work - he is also doing a great job on his Blog in getting writing out there o.k. it's mostly US but he looks at other areas)...

Sure we had words on 9/11 - I started out actually in the same position that Perloff and Silliman reached then I turned around and went the other way - I can see hat Perloff etc would come to conclusions we in NZ might not as we ARE NOT THERE..very different if say Auckland had been attacked...

That said I still feel pretty dubious about 9/11...but now I am not so stridently sure of anything... but Perloff (albeit I believe she has some right wing views but so do many great thinkers and writers) and Ron etc were not the only Langpos...I owe the language poets and Ron Silliman (and Scott you got to Wittgenstein via Perloff's book and you were very impressed by The New Sentence - you cant rubbish these guys because they might have different world view to you)) a lot myself (ideas etc) via a course done at AU in the 90s with Wystan Curnow, Roger Horrocks and Michelle Leggott et al.

In fact I owe the genius and 'idea-generation' of that movement enormously.

And Ted Jenner - who is also very keen on Robett-Grillet picked up the influence of him in the last work I had in Brief.
The Language poetry movement was and is still enormously important (in my view it was essential) for progress of any significant kind to happen in literature & in literary history - in my opinion to avoid it or to dismiss it is like dismissing Shakespear and the Romantics, Swift and Pope, Dylan Thomas, Eliot, Olson, Williams, Bishop, Creeley, Ashbery, Schuyler, O'Hara, Spicer, Duncan, Berryman, Zukofsky, Joyce; Auden, Curnow, the NY Poets...and many many others for many countries and times ... (in fact all writers that Smithyman himself acknowledged as great) as well as about 80% of all other world literature and I think that many of the writers in hat group are among some of the greatest writers and innovators of all time ... and I include Ron in that category - his Tjanting is an incredible work as
are many of his other works in his Alphabet project.

Bernstein's essays had great influence on my The Infinite Poem and he is an incredible writer of immense talent as are Howe, Heijinian and many others from that "group"...of course locking into them can mean one overlooks the great contribution of other "traditions" but I don't think that is necessarily a problem.

2:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maps, why do so many 'avant-garde' poets (Zukofsky; Oppen, etc) give up on Marxism?

11:04 am  
Blogger maps said...

I'd better stave off legal proceedings from Ron by quoting the passage I referred to in my post.
It comes from 'Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World', which is the first text in Ron's 1987 collection of essays The New Sentence.

In 'Disappearance...' Ron argues that capitalism turns words into commodities, and that part of this process involves the creation of a 'false transparency of language' and the 'disappearance of the signifier into the signified'.

The way to avoid commodifying language and thereby supporting capitalism is to use Ron's 'new sentence', which places 'the issue of language, and the repressed signifier, at the centre of the program'. Only the 'new sentence' has 'successfully resisted any proprietory assimilation'.

The passage I remembered sees Ron ripping into a wide range of writers who haven't seen the light and abandoned such bourgeois shibboleths as narrative and character:

'Another response is to accept commodification and to go on to write novels in which language is all but invisible. While Saul Bellow (or Pearl Buck or John Steinbeck) represents an attempt to achieve this within a serious mode...and while a number of writers merely stylise their acquiescence (Mailer, Vonnegut, Roth et al) more typical - and more revealing - are those who carry commoditization towards its logical conclusions in the mass-market best-seller, such as Leon Uris, Peter Benchley or Mario Puzo...

every major Western poetic movement
has been an attempt to get beyond the repressing elements of capitalist reality...Typically, they have been deformed at the outset by the very conditions of existing within the confines of the dominant reality.'

I remember this passage well, because shortly before I encountered it I had read Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions.
I thought then, and still think now, that Vonnegut's novel is a masterpiece of politically engaged yet formally innovative writing, an indictment of modern American society which is wondefully written and constructed as well as laugh out loud funny.

And I thought then, and still think now, that it is completely ridiculous for Silliman to sneer at Vonnegut, and so many other writers, simply because they refuse to ditch certain literary forms that conflict with the strictures of the 'new sentence' that a bunch of Bay Area geeks invented in the '80s.

I don't, of course, object to criticisms of Vonnegut, or WS Merwin, or James Wright (to name two of the fine poets I remember being conemnded as insufficiently pure in Silliman's tome). But the depressing thing about Siliman's formula is the way that, like all the categorical constructions of dogmatists, it eliminates the possibility of substantive criticism. As one of the earlier commenters in this thread remarked, Silliman seems already to have decided whether he will like a piece of writing before he reads it, based upon whether the piece satisfies the criteria of a theory.

Silliman lumps together a swag of very diferent writers, denounces them, and then counterposes them to his correct formula for text production. What do Mailer and Vonnegut have in common with each other, and what does either have in common with Leon Uris? Nothing, I would suggest, that would help us understand their work.

The phrase 'acquiescence' is particularly objectionable because Silliman wants it to connect aesthetics and politics. He regards a refusal to drop the apparatus of the 'traditional' novel or poem and write in the 'new sentence' as a political failure. Because Vonnegut tells stories he somehow props up capitalism. The manner in which the use of a particular literary form - in this case, the 'new sentence' which 'resists proprietory appropriation' - is linked to a correct politics reminds me of the worst excesses of Zhdanovism and 'socialist realism'.

(It's rather ironic, but not surprising, that the allegedly acquiescent Vonnegut remained a principled man of the left until the end of his life, whereas revolutionary Ron caved in to American national chauvinism in the aftermath of 9/11 and became a supporter of George Bush's War of Terror...)

3:14 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps - I agree a lot - "Breakfast of Champions" is one of my favourite books...

Everyone gets caught up in their theories etc

Silliman's political views (and again we cant really know for sure exactly what they are until we debate that directly with him (and indeed do his views or are they relevant to the situation?)) - everyone was pretty devastated (or at least surprised - some pleasantly!)* by 9/11 (although I found it all rather beautiful and exciting myself - great TV!! (but perhaps not so great for those involved ... but then despite much about Fischer I didn't like - I admired his maverick aspect!!) and it caused all kinds of ideas to spin around)) etc don't really mean he is or the language poets were all "no good" (or not a very significant movement") and so on... sdiitto with Robbe-Grillet - regardless of his politics or philosophy his writing for me is great - many innovators from the Langpo movement -
of course there were many outside also...

Complex issue ...everyone forms groups or tends to...don't throw the baby out with bath water...

Politics - can be as restrictive as as say an extreme isolationist "position" - I prefer to go it alone as much as I can - Silliman's evoking libel is a bit stupid - better simply to ask for verification - but neither Vonnegut nor Silliman or anyone else will ever achieve anything substantive via the commodification or not of signifiers etc but the 'debate' launched by the Language poets was not as insignificant as you implied - albeit perhaps there is a sense of "holiness" surrounds them - but that sees to surround literary people of every ilk - thus the obsession for literay trips to the Hawke Bay and prizes and festivals and meeting the "right" literary people and glorious Laureates etc (something Comrade Ron also seems to be obsessed with a bit) -

Gruppenfuehrer Bernstein - Head of the Glorious Poetics List in Buffalo NY - not that I have met him in person seems (key word - I am a long way from him!) rather a kind of Hebraic "guru" figure...but his ideas and works are fascinating I find... ('Controlling Interests' is one book worth looking at)

None of this diminishes my admiration for the writing of many of these writers... ('Tjanting ' and 'Paradise' were also 2 favourite works of mine) but of course there are many many writers o/s the Langpo "tradition" who are important to me also... Robbe-Grillett important to me (and also such as Stein, Beckett Perec and Calvino et al) in any case - regardless of his theories - not interested in them much....just his writing.

Heidegger believed that poetry could be set against "techne" and was "the solution" to society's ills ... he was a Nazi at one stage but was very influential to many writers (Jack Ross is a great fan of Heidegger) ... as was Neitsche (not a Nazi in fact he was opposed to Wagner's anti Semitism) and so on...

It doesn't seem to matter what a writer's or an "artist's" political or moral views - or even his/her actions in life - are - he she can still create great work... all mostly or at sometimes contradict themselves... My great friend and poet Leicester Kyle was right behind the US in their attacks on "terrorists" - for, as as he said to me, "Bin Laden terrifies me ..the things he says on TV"..and I when I asked him if he didn't think it was simply all a (CIA or extreme right wing) jack up - he said no - he said he was sure that Bin Laden etc were very dangerous - so everyone has his or her world view...

*After all it DID mean that Him Big Napalm Happy America not so Smart Him Can Always Beat Him They Big Bad Terror Man Oily Arabs!!

8:09 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

These theorists and writers have some interesting ideas etc but we don't need to get mesmerised - I try to avoid being a part of any groups like Silliman's and keep an open mind - a lot of the theory is too difficult in any case -
this freedom of choice maximises creativity - there is a tendency towards sameness in groups such as Loney's (School of Bitter Otherness Unto Death??)and Oberfuehrer Silliman's...

But they do some interesting stuff all the same...

Keep the bath water!]

Comrade Fuehrer Jack von Ross loves theories .... but he has even more strange and devious agendas, and "wildernesses of mirrors", than the Langpos could ever dream up in their philosophy.

2:11 am  

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