“Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them. Writers like Fielding and Smollett could seem realistic in the modern sense because they dealt largely with uninhibited characters, many of whom were about two jumps ahead of the police, but Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.”
— Raymond Chandler
— The Simple Art of Murder
“It is equally displeasing to God and to myself.”
— C.P. Snow
— The Two Cultures
While on tour in Germany promoting a film, Robin Williams was asked why he thought Germany had no reputation for stand-up comedy. Did it, he said, ever occur to you to stop killing all of the funny people?
Which brings us to James Wood.
Wood is a literary critic and part time novelist who got his start at The Guardian, graduated to The New Republic and then migrated to a nicer address at The New Yorker.
Along the way he assisted in manufacturing a reputation as a literary assassin, and as an erudite connoisseur, with an adamant commitment to a particular sense of aesthetics at odds with any number of contemporary forms in current writing.
The high point (or low depending upon your point of view) was a notorious piece of knife work in which he deployed the lethal descriptor, “Hysterical Realism” to gut a general trend he perceived in writing generally, and specifically in the work of, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith.
The piece set off the sort of alarms one would expect among the small echo chambers of publishing, writing and their remoras with a small, if not significant amount of teeth gnashing, and in the case of Smith a heartfelt, if unnecessary and somewhat wobbly defense, that admitted to some accuracy in Wood’s broadside but also contained a plea for generosity of spirit as, she said, we’re all doing the best we can. Of particular note is Smith’s point that the moment one starts throwing around words like “postmodern” one ends up with more than a few dolphins in the nets along with the canable tuna. In other words don’t be so broad based in one’s bashing. She was on to something and one wishes she had drilled down and stuck with it.
While there was and remains something to be said for Smith’s notion that Wood was laying on the ayatollah robes a bit thick, given the honest effort of the writers he had nominated for critical excommunication there was also, it seemed, at least on the surface, something to be said for his point that a great many contemporary writers were lacking in what could be called depth – depth of emotion, and style in support of the former.
There is a certain cold brilliance to Pynchon and DeLillo and we defy anyone to be believed if they claim that David Foster Wallace ever brought them to tears except for his final act. As to Smith, Wood is on slightly firmer ground when he hints at the unfortunate circumstances of her winning the literary lottery but, he doesn’t really go into any detail except to point out that she was given a hefty advance in exchange for a few dozen pages of rough manuscript. That’s indictment enough of the publishing industry (which to be honest, is as difficult to fault as it is to hunt fish in a barrel) and to a lesser extent Smith, though one could forgive her or anyone else if they found themselves suddenly offered while not yet passed 25, a lot of money in exchange for very little and some vague promises to deliver more of the very little already on hand.
But being a creature of the system Wood of course takes this no further. He does not mention (though Smith alludes to it with an appropriate shudder at the use of the word “multicultural”) that her ascendancy was the result of nepotism and a marketing campaign in search of a target, in the wake of the Blair triumph (the jumbling of the timeline notwithstanding – that is Blair came before White Teeth but they inform and contextualize each other ) and the end of the Thatcherite neo-fascist anti-union crusade that withered on the vine with John Major, and exploded with a Labor landslide. Thus, White Teeth and Blair and Cool Britannia. Black, female, multicultural, and also a reflection of some of what was happening ticks all the boxes. Smith though is not only a fabrication because Blair really did win in a landslide, and Thatcher really was a relic of the neo-fascist anti-unionism of the 1970s and 80s.
After all, while there are many ways to contextualize Smith and White Teeth, one could do worse than to mention Thatcher’s Orwellian (or Brechtian – as in – wouldn’t it be easier to dismiss the people) pinhead declaration that there’s no such thing as society, to which to a great extent, White Teeth is the perfect riposte; and thus in that it is honorable in intent, if still a failure in execution.
Of course one could do worse and that’s where we again find James Wood, who succeeds in not mentioning Thatcher or much of anything else of relevance while issuing his critical fatwas. Thus he employs a syteroidily enhanced and modified bespoke New Criticism technique, which disengages the work from any context, except the two that matter to him: the one of which he disapproves and the one he declares righteous, leaving the writer and the art hostage to his whims.
But history being bigger than Blair, it generated issues that were reflected in Smith and her writing. And yet for all of that, she was still a tool and no one with a dozen pages of rough manuscript should be handed a small fortune and a book contract. Not only because they don’t deserve it, but far more importantly because it’s not a model of sustainability for publishing and is a toxin in the culture(1). But, as Baudelaire said, brother hypocrite, I salute you, and while Wood seems content, if not downright elated, to stockpile glass and rocks, we are less inclined to scream that we saw Zadie Smith speaking with the devil. Which is not to say we think White Teeth is any good. In fact it’s haphazardly bad; on point one minute and a derelict the next. But of course we are a writer of novels and Wood is a journalist with a side gig in fiction, or if you prefer a writer of fiction with a side gig in criticism.
Smith to both her credit and sadly as a kind of what we now call a humble brag, seems to have been wracked with guilt and feelings of inferiority ever since, but what the fuck do we know? After all the Doors did a commercial for tires, so go figure.
That the moment ended with Blair in some sort of provisional disgrace and facing charges of being a mass murderer also is not mentioned, but not because Wood lacks for a political point of view so much as he is not about to let the facts get in the way of a good rant. Thus Smith is detached from her context along with the other writers mentioned, and Wood is then free to spray them with rhetorical napalm in his quest to apply order and discipline to the otherwise unruly mob.
There is a lot of cream in this but a small amount of substance (at least of the sort Wood intends). In other words as Mr. Wood says of Orwell speaking of Dickens: Poor architecture but great gargoyles.
Wood is full of both but what it boils down to is he doesn’t like Modernism-Postmodernism(2) (sort of and depending apparently on who he puts in his aesthetic blender) and shallow writing, or shallow writing that conflates facts presented at great speed as a substitute for substance, and who are we to disagree. Shallow writing is not interesting and also irritates. It’s a bit like an expensive meal at either a trendy restaurant, or one that had previously been trendy but the bloom has worn off, and one pays a lot for a plate that is mostly presentation and portions of such limited scope that one feels like a fool. And is left hungry. And broke. Except per Woods the culinary analogy would be a buffet of too much that has no substance, but still we take it as read.
But because he presents several courses – or rather several courses of one thing – that being his deconstruction of the foibles in the writing of Zadie Smith – he ends up being a an example of the thing he sets out to critique and warn us about. Namely, bad writing is shit. And the main indicator of bad writing is a sort of psychological shallowness; a sort of vagary where depth is required, or at least desired and instead one receives an overabundance of details detached from the wider structure. Which of course, leaves the structure to wobble on a flimsy foundation.
The chief culprit for Wood seems to be Smith who is convicted on the basis of a lot of nearly gelatinous half-baked phrases, and undercooked portraits, but mostly on a statement she made in an interview where she declared that a writer’s job is not to tell you how people feel but how things work.
That’s a bonehead comment for any number of reasons and one doesn’t want to dwell on its faults in logic or its cold-heartedness for very long, nor does one want to spend much time pointing out how it sounds so very capitalism is triumphant (as if end user agreements should replace Leaves of Grass). After all if writers were to be accused, tried and found wanting because of everything they have said, literature as we know it, from Sophocles to Danielle Steele would be erased and locked up in a museum dedicated to “Deviant Art.” Which we hasten to add is on a road with maps and rosaries being handed out by James Wood.
But we digress.
What matters is that as a kind of smoking gun Wood could do far worse than to pounce on the pronouncement as exhibit A in his j’accuse, and what matters even more is that we shall take this as the first of several crucial examples of Wood being hoisted on himself, as if he were his very own petard.
A writer’s job is to write to the best of their abilities. That’s it. That a host of other things, many of them contradictory, stem from that is a topic for another time. As to the rest Wood isn’t wrong. But he’s not right either as if you want to skip the feelings and go for explanations then go right ahead, and if you want it to be all about how people feel then do that because in what we like to pretend is a free society, you can write any fucking way you want. As Charlie Parker said: Learn the changes then forget about them.
We however take his meaning. Substituting an explanation for a feeling that explains, is usually shallow and not very interesting, because for a novelist how a computer works is usually not as interesting as why someone made it work the way that it does. On the other hand there’s a lot of boring and good books full of essayistic explanations including Moby Dick and Ulysses. And about that one wonders if in his haste to find blame, Wood forgot or that he was hoping everyone else had? As Ray Chandler has it: “Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with.”
And there are plenty of people who don’t care what the programmer had for lunch, or how they like to do it, but then there’s no accounting for taste or the persistence of sociopaths.
Of course in the end like its subject (existence) literature is a muddle. After all the Lord of the Rings is fairly shallow compared to say, Chekhov (even to a really short Chekhov short story) and yet it is compelling and a work of genius, and no one in their right mind doubts the emotional depth or motivations of any of the characters, and in fact several of them are portrayed with convincing depth and are full of complexity. And as an example, despite recent sniping to the contrary, Eowyn is one of the great (feminist) characters in literature. But more importantly, only a fraud would criticize Tolkien for failing to achieve something he wasn’t trying to do and so, saying The Lord of the Rings isn’t Chekhov is as useful as saying a whoopee cushion isn’t the Marx Brothers. It’s true, but only a pendant or a dilettante would care.
Which brings us right back to Mr. Wood.
Here’s Woods making his case about the style in question – what he calls “Hysterical Realism.”
“The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality—the usual charge against botched realism—but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.”
What’s important here is to realize that Woods is not wrong, exactly. It’s a matter of inches rather than lies but as with the difference between the great apes and humans, a matter of half of one percent is the distance between sleeping in a tree, and Kind of Blue and atom bombs. The problem though for Wood is not an abundance of details but a lack of depth in the details abundantly presented. After all, War and Peace and Moby Dick are essentially encyclopedias of details presented, with great abundance. He is not wrong to point out that there is, in a lot of contemporary writing, a tendency to skate on a surface of details without digging deeper so that the writing becomes structurally analogous to channel surfing. There’s always another station which itself opens like an alternate dimension of connections, and allusions, and references, and yet never reaches escape velocity.
And, Wood isn’t wrong to point out that there is something detached and cold about Pynchon and DeLillo, and that while technically proficient, and in many respects, flawless, there is somehow a lack of emotion but an abundance of material. But what contextualizes that and makes Wood’s criticism flawed if not a failure is that by removing the possibility of thought on the part of these writers, he recreates them as either accidents or idiot savants, who have stumbled into a particular style in support of a flawed vision that fails the litmus test of James Wood, who in fact fails as a critic by being disingenuous.
And so we arrive at the first of several instances where Wood fails by his own measure. He is insistent and repeats regularly, that anyone making bold statements must deliver evidence. And of course he’s right but then it stings all the more to point out that when speaking of his chief example of depth and a masterful presentation of details, Paul Valery said of Flaubert that (we paraphrase) he suffers from the idea that there’s always room for one more piece of information.(3)
Wood could be excused for his ignorance here were it not part of a pattern that upon examination suggests not so much lack of knowledge, but precisely the opposite and instead of ignorance there is a deliberate elision of contrary facts; a nasty habit of equivocation and prevarication. As with his denial of context for Smith and the others, the more one drills into Wood’s arguments the more a series of ugly hobgoblins pop out from under the bridge. In the case of Valery vis Flaubert the salient point is not that he is right (though we believe he is) or even that he is wrong, but rather that a competent expert believed Flaubert was flawed in exactly the manner Wood claims he was not and that it is, per Wood, the chief fault among his au current gang of literary miscreants. But worse still is Wood’s blatantly inconsistent tone. Flaubert he tells us has little interest in “interiority” and yet is also the Big Bang of the Realistic and the Modern. Except of course a full-throated examination of “interiority” in all its shape-shifting complexity is the sine qua non of Realistic Modernity and Flaubert is decidedly not that. Thus in a more refined critique, with less venom (and far less hysteria) and more thoughtfulness (i.e., depth) Wood would have been better served by going deeper. For example, by adding a sense of context.
After all Wood, who is from England, is not much older than Smith and worked at The Guardian for fuck’s sake, can hardly be taken seriously when he bemoans a lack of depth in her work, alludes to her rise on the crest of the wave that was Blairism, and then leaves out any and all mention of context (e.g., post Thatcher England, Manchester, or even The Spice Girls or The Stone Roses – feel free to make your own list and if it feels better go ahead and substitute The Clash and The Jam and talk about The Eton Rifles as bastions of anti-Thatcherite resistance). But rather than focus on context, political or cultural or the state of publishing as a wholly owned subsidiary of England Inc. (itself a wholly owned subsidiary of Money Inc.) he dredges up any number of old writers, but fails to mention that while Dickens is of some interest, the fact is that he lived in a world that is so increasingly remote from ours, that drawing comparisons in technique (and the sensibility from which technique is derived) between Pynchon, Smith, DeLillo, Rushdie and D.F. Wallace to the giants of the 19th century is not only anachronistic but borders on the intellectually criminal, and reactionary. And thus it is not that they are shallow but instead it is Wood who is a mile wide and an inch deep.
While it’s true that one can compare and contrast Zadie Smith to Dickens, only a knob (or a sob, or a reactionary snob) would fail to mention that Smith lives in a world with ipads and hand-held computers, and Dickens lived in a world where only a scant twenty years after Dickens’ death (1870) Conan Doyle could make a splash because he had written a story in which for the very first time a character used…(wait for it)…a magnifying glass.
Just how much of a reactionary Wood is comes into focus when he vomits up the literary hairball of how Dickens is the godfather of contemporary realism in fiction, influencing any number of writers. What reeks and is foul in this statement is not just the absurdity of it (reductio ad absurdum) but that Wood is taken seriously even though everyone (by which we mean everyone worth talking to) knows what he’s saying isn’t just wrong on points, but that precisely because he’s wrong factually he becomes wrong morally. In other words, he may not be a liar but he sure as fuck isn’t telling the truth and is guilty of the very intellectual pettifogging he claims he finds in others.
In his magisterial reconstruction of France in the Middle Ages, Lucien Febvre makes the point that while we can trace the roots of Modernity back into the mists of the past, (but not to Rabelais) the fact is that while the first caveman to rub two sticks together to start a fire was undoubtedly a genius, no amount of wishing it were so will give that genius credit for inventing the electric stove. (see note 16)
And so to Dickens, Flaubert and Wood.
Claiming Dickens as the spiritual godfather of the realistic sensibility in literature is not just absurd it’s intellectual hucksterism; a kind of banal literary three card monty. And not just because again, it’s wrong but because of how it’s wrong. Realism qua Realism is at the heart of the argument as the Postmodernists will tell you per Faulkner, the facts and the truth seldom have anything do with each other. Versus Wood who, living in some prefabricated off the shelf hermetically contained bubble, is clinging to an aesthetic that is so far in the rear-view mirror, it is now little more than a dot on the receding horizon.
Thus to the contemporary mind of the contemporary writer the origin of the real is to be found elsewhere. Baudelaire, yes. Rimbaud certainly. Dujardin without a doubt. Sterne, Twain, Cervantes. All true. And none of them get so much as a passing whisper from Wood (at least in Human all too Human) who not only puts his arrogance on display but wraps it into a pointy hat and holds a parade for himself. (No mention of Hemingway either, surely more of an authority than Wood, who said all American fiction comes from one book; Huck Finn).(4)
And missing as well, is of course any discussion from Wood on the cataclysmic advent of technology and the impact it has had on art.
We get Wood mentioning that Smith & Co mention technology, and we get Wood mentioning that Smith & Co mention pop culture, but we don’t get Wood discussing the impact that the slaughter of the war had on Hemingway and Eliot and their gang, and that they in turn were at the forefront of a revolution in our conception of ourselves (Hemingway towards an uncertain future and Eliot towards the embalmed reactionary past). And here let’s round up some of the usual suspects that Wood neglects to point out inform the mind of the Postmodernist: Cubism? No. Abstract Expressionism? No. The Rites of Spring? No. Hiroshima? No. The Virgin and the Dynamo? No. (again, feel free to make your own list) And that lack of contextualization by Wood is about as useful and intellectually rigorous as discussing Star Trek without ever mentioning the Klingons or Ahab without mentioning fishing.
Consider Wood here: “Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis.”
What irritates here firstly is the false binary choice. Either there is the deconstruction of the idea of character or there is that with a safe space for Wood’s innocent mimesis. In other words a sense of existential doom, of nihilism, of a world devoid of meaning of “personality” as a fluid suggestion and not a fixed objective idea, have been banished by James Wood.
Secondly what irritates about this is the implication that Modernism just somehow showed up as a concept, as a lark among some artists instead of the frenzied violent passionate intellectual, and spiritual response to the advent of the Modern and the collapse of the reactionary second phase of the ancien regime – put in place by everyone’s favorite Beat poet and anti-Modernist, and reactionary monarchist, Metternich (with help from a cast of thousands). What irritates here is that the writers Wood is so disdainful of believe that our innocence had been lost in the mud and terror of the Somme and in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.(as the high priest of reactionary fascism, Eliot put it: I had not thought death had undone so many). And beyond that exactly who are these finest writers? Notice that Wood mentions no one and we assume he leaves the warrant blank because if he didn’t, he’d have to actually make his case. And he can’t. And notice also the absence of any editorial correction as in, how did he get away with making a sweeping unsupported statement while complaining about sloppiness in writing? And let’s be honest as Wood is not being honest, and it falls to us to tell the truth. Take note that a bold statement devoid of evidence is one of Wood’s favorite ripostes to any number of critics (a point to which we shall arrive shortly) Innocent mimesis? What does that mean exactly, except that Mr. Wood is speaking about the ruptured Eden of his own religious upbringing. Innocent mimesis is without meaning beyond that, is without meaning in any practical sense and should make any reasonable person nervous.
In The Time of the Assassins Henry Miller set out to write a biography of Rimbaud. Being Miller he ended up writing more about himself than our Arthur, but in the final chapter, titled Coda, he points out that the Modern was essentially the period from Rimbaud’s birth until 1945 and that it was, as he says, nothing but crises, hallucinations and breakdowns. In short, a kind of systemic nervous breakdown in which the zero point, the moment of beginning where the Modern starts, is a chimera because it is diffuse and to be found in a hundred locations. Notes from Underground? Sure. Gogol? Why not. Jazz? Okay. Lautreamont? Of course. So what exactly is Wood saying?
Well, we are not the one who grew up with religious zealots speaking in tongues, and we are not the one who fled from that to the big sinful city to work for that bastion of lefty decadence, The Guardian. Far be it from The Ink to write a bit of fiction but were we to imagine a literary zealot harping about a need to return to some imagined 19th century arcadia, with its innocent mimesis, we could do worse than to invent a fluffy thug or condescending smurf, in an endless and agonizing siege against a spiritual DUI, and who ran away from a cult and substituted literature for a god that failed him. Or, as a late and sometimes missed wit put it in a slightly different context: Having lost his faith, Wood, absent any proof, believed that he had found his reason. And it is well worth noting that critics of Wood are quick to point out the irritating ease with which his religious upbringing seems to intrude on his criticism. We also notice that it is mentioned in passing with a kind of writerly shrug of the shoulders, and a well everyone knows that tone when in truth it should be nailed to the church door, or at least the forehead of the gobs at The New Yorker, who have given this punk a platform, because it speaks directly not only to Wood’s reactionary religious anti-modernist spin, but it suggests a template for his excuses for bigotry and fascism. A point about which we will have more to say below.
Which is not to say Smith doesn’t fail or that Wallace isn’t emotionally detached, and that velocity is not a useful substitute for substance, any more than a parade of details is a proper substitute for depth of character.
As Wood points out Smith fails in her description of a man who becomes a fanatical Muslim, and he’s correct when he says it lacks depth (he doesn’t mention it but Smith is not Graham Greene and White Teeth is not the Power and the Glory but then again she wasn’t trying to be).
The truth is though that all literature is at some level a kind of failure. There are no perfect stories only those that fail less than others.(As Hemingway said of Chekov: “A lot of it isn’t writing. It’s journalism.” And let’s be clear when it comes to a sense of who you gonna call for an opinion on what works and what fails in writing, the idea that any reasonable person would take Wood over Hemingway doesn’t pass the giggle test).
But Wood sees it differently. He provides a lengthy distinction between Dickens and the gang of contemporaries and gives himself a kind of out by saying yes, even in the greats (he offers Sartre and Dostoevsky among others as examples) there is the didactic and the set-piece in place of the genuine but, because they are so good at so many other aspects of writing one forgives them and even indulges them in this fault. Not so Rushdie and Smith and DeLillo etc. And then Wood tells us in that aristocratic tone so loved by people for whom anatomy books are confused with actual seduction, that no one rereads Rushdie but everyone who is anyone, rereads Flaubert.
Well, yawn and vomit.
The problem with this of course is the tone which then leads to the self-righteous prosecutorial immorality of the reactionary, making common cause with the neo-fascists, and their calls for deviant art to be displayed so we can appreciate its moral failures. The truth is, we don’t know if people reread Rushdie or not, but we sure as fuck know that Mr. Wood doesn’t know either. And again, where was the editor? Wood is at pains to demand devotion to veracity and yet makes statement after statement, that is nothing more than critical graffiti demanding to be taken as gospel.
And that’s it isn’t it? In Wood’s mind the world is still small and even somehow quaint, if not artisanal, and people reread Flaubert, and no doubt in French and consider it gouache to mention that he was a coke snorting whore hound, who died from syphilis.
But in truth we do know he ploughed through Emma with a snoot full of Bolivian optimism, and maybe we reread him and maybe we reread Faulkner, or Hemingway or Ray Chandler because they speak to us here, in our time, and Flaubert increasingly does not? (and maybe Pynchon writes a story where Flaubert’s coke dealer solves a mystery?).
Who’s to say? Not us. And certainly not Mr. Wood though he does make a good game of trying.
But that’s not all. Wood is intent on explaining to us benighted plebes that Modernism qua Modernism descends from Flaubert. Flaubert’s cool handed detachment begets Crane and Hemingway. He is the Omega Point from which stems our concerns with style. He eviscerates those who aren’t as good and he berates those who fail to provide evidence to counter his arguments.
Because of course it is not Wood who first links Flaubert to the Modern but none other than our old friend that nutty impresario of Modernity, anti-Semitism and fascism, Ezra Pound, who in an article from 1922 (in the American Mercure) said that Ulysses was the love child of Flaubert and the encyclopedias, of the collapse of the ancien regime, which is not untrue though others (Mary Mcolum) were quick to point out that you could trace Ulysses to Roseau, and we are quick to point out that in truth you can link the damn thing to just about anything, which was in part Joyce’s point and strategy. We also note that we are certain Wood, if asked, would not deny Pound’s pole position but, no one has asked and he hasn’t bothered to mention that his ideas on Flaubert aren’t original nor has he bothered to point out that they aren’t even especially accurate or at least open to debate (Except, apparently when he does. See the notes below for a look at Wood’s hopscotching on this point)
Flaubert is in fact a turgid, pre-modern landlocked hippo, about whom as we mentioned, Paul Valery said it (Flaubert’s writing) suffers from the defect of the author believing that yet one more detail is acceptable. Edmund Wilson, writing in Axel’s Castle says essentially the same thing, with far more politeness than we use here, and yet Wilson also highlights the gap in distance between Flaubert and Joyce as if to say yes the Modern can be traced back to 19th century France but…electric stoves and two sticks to start a fire, etc.
And indeed the irony here being that Bovary is a rant, a dead on arrival collection of useless details that read with all the passion of a technical manual and that, the vomiting of an encyclopedia of details is part of the criticism Woods levels at Pynchon, Foster Wallace and the rest. (Do we really need to know the menu at Charles and Emma’s wedding? And the number of and types of meat?) Enough with the details pleads Wood, but let’s venerate Flaubert and Dickens who are drowning in irrelevant details.
And here let’s take note of how Chandler considered the nature of literary innovation and the idea that there is a point of origin.
In The Simple Art of Murder he writes: “All literary movements are like this; some one individual is picked out to represent the whole movement; he is usually the culmination of the movement. Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway. Yet for all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett,(5) as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and himself. A rather revolutionary debunking of both the language and material of fiction had been going on for some time. It probably started in poetry; almost everything does. You can take it clear back to Walt Whitman, if you like.”
And so again a professional writer of fiction, (and a genius for surely Chandler was a genius) as opposed to Wood who is a professional critic of professional writers, makes the point for diffusion; for a multiplicity of sources rather than the simplistic appeal of a Big Bang.(6) And of crucial interest is the idea that it (maybe sort of) starts with Whitman, who of course is stylistically to Flaubert as a speed freak is to the average, dedicated insurance salesman. In truth, it is not Dickens and it is not Flaubert, it is the vast stage that, per Tolstoy, sets the stage for the individual (who in a sense is not an individual at all) who is post facto chosen as the representative.
This is no small issue as it speaks to the revolution inherent in Modernism which finds its current descendants in the writers Wood attacks. Does the individual exist? Or is the individual a cubist image where upon examination we find the borders of the personality (of identity) blur and merge and confound.(6) Perhaps not but are we to seriously take James Wood over Picasso and Chandler, or Hume and his bundles? Are we to seriously take the criticism Wood offers of contemporary writing seriously, when contemporary writing so often rests upon the foundations set by Picasso and Joyce and revolutions in thought and that debunking of language (and everything else) that Chandler speaks of? But more importantly there is the fact that even if one were to find Picasso & Co wanting, what irritates in and with Wood’s program, is that he not only makes no reference to what’s come before he writes as if the rest of us (and that includes Pynchon, Rushdie et al) are unaware of it, and thus it is impossible that we might base our aesthetics on that rock. This reduces the writers to at best idiot savants, or at worst just idiots.(7) Thus, again, Wood is found wanting and guilty of the very thing he finds wanting in everyone else.
Which brings us to the smoking gun in our takedown of Wood – our exhibit A.
Wood decries Smith & Co. for the way(s) in which they portray the world as being all about connections and that these connections are often nefarious if not deceitful, harmful, and/or the result of caprice whimsy shadowy government cabals and fate.
One cult, Wood tells us, is believable but three is not and is an example of details at the expense of substance. He has a point but then he manages to undermine it and yet again score on his own goal.
About this Wood says: “Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)”
Again it is important to mention that there is a telling lack of depth at work in many contemporary novels and one could do worse than to point out a depressing tendency in Pynchon towards snark at the expense of genuine satire which relies on a sense of there but for the grace of god knows what go I. After all, “Oedipa Maas” as a pun is hardly above the level of Mad Magazine (which is not necessarily a fault). Twain was sarcastic but not snarky because he was holding a mirror and we see ourselves in it and in Gulliver’s Travels and so on. But Wood is swinging at a pitch in the dirt here because he is missing two crucial points.
First, Pynchon’s (and others) deployment of vast (sometimes faux) conspiracies (right left and otherwise) is in the service of deconstructing Modernism’s template which held that everything was in fact connected by an series of repeating mythic structures that we can call fate. Thus Circe is Brett Ashley and Molly Bloom can be Penelope and Ithaca can be Dublin. For the Modernists it was not that god no longer existed but that an older pagan god(s) was playing fast and loose with reality. And in this world many things are possible that are not dreamed of in the singular philosophy of James Wood. And among those things are a set of interconnected conspiracies. Or as Chandler (again) put it in The Simple Art of Murder gangsters can rule cities and almost entire countries (remember he was writing that after Capone, Mussolini, Franco, Tammany Hall and Hitler). To see that deconstruction in action one need go no further than Pynchon’s introduction to Slow Learner in which he mocks his younger self for making use of Eliotesque allusions to the (symbolic) rain etc.
But what’s crucial in that is first, for Pynchon, it is not an empty universe because he takes perverse or sadistic pleasure in writing as if it were but because despite Wood writing as if Pynchon were some sort of idiot savant, god, as you may not have heard, is dead and secondly, understanding that Pynchon didn’t just roll out of bed one morning and say you know what would be cool? Making fun of everything, writing as if everything is connected, paranoia is normal, and let’s make light of it. Vonnegut really did live through the firebombing of Dresden and he was wrecked by it (or formed by it) and along with an entire generation of American and European writers the realities of Modernity made naïve or innocent mimesis a kind of literary incest – a taboo that exists because there is some truth to the idea that after Auschwitz poetry is banal. And while that maxim need not be taken as absolute it should absolutely be taken as a reason for the writing that came after it and why so much of it is replete with those qualities Wood dismisses. And from there one should of course dismiss Wood as an a-historical reactionary snob.
Which brings us to the second and far more lethal fault in Woods’ argument. He’s speaking as if the last 100 years never happened. That gap between say Flaubert and Pynchon is a wonderland of madness, social earthquakes, catastrophes and radical transformations in how we live and what we consider normal.(8) The difference between Bovary and V. or White Teeth is the difference between spaceships and horse drawn carriages. It is the difference between hand-held computers and opium being used to treat headaches. It is the difference between not just powered flight and the balloons of the Montgolfier Brothers but the difference between balloons and hijackings that end with skyscrapers coming down in a pile of dust debris and bodies splashing on the pavement like obscene water balloons.
But it is also the difference between a relatively small number of literate people and an explosion in data (distinct from information) that has placed the Library of Alexandria in the hands of billions of people. It is the difference between Alexander Pope being considered the smartest man in the world because he had 400 books and a knob with an e-reader that holds a terabyte of data.
That some of those people are writers and that some of them are writers who are not particularly deep may be true but there’s a reason for their belief in connections and their paranoid crouch.
The dismissal of paranoia as a conceit by amateurs (and the dismissal of the truth as merely only paranoia) has a ring of the reactionary to it whether it’s Philip Roth jizzing all over Commentary to please Podhoretz the First or Wood gagging on contemporary writing.
After MKUltra and Tuskegee, after the radiation experiments, after Nixon and the Cold War, after the Zinoviev Letter and the Zimmerman Telegram and Concentration Camps and coups and assassinations, and Verdun and Operation Condor, and COINTELPRO…well, exactly why wouldn’t any rational person have the jitters and shakes and be paranoid and exactly what does Wood mean when he dismisses the idea that everything is connected? Surely we all know everything is connected and even if they are not next door neighbors we know that if a banker in Zurich gets the flu then the men who set the price of wheat in Kansas get the heebee jeebees. We know that a cult may be based in Japan but its reach is global and in the 19th century it took weeks to travel anywhere versus today when you get around the world in 48 hours. The x-files need not be taken literally to be a literal representation of the contemporary zeitgeist. It is not that there are aliens in the White House but you don’t need Scully and Mulder to tell you that the current occupant is insane and that surely he is a crook engaged in covering up any number of things. No one makes and loses a fortune in New York real estate without at the very least being around people who know where the bodies are buried and to suggest otherwise is not only a perverse antediluvian view, it is intellectually childish and spiritually puerile. It is the language of the collaborator with the regime posing as a prophet pleading for righteous Enlightenment values. It is complicit.
Wood is writing as if history hasn’t happened and yet 20 years ago when he launched his assault was still after it was revealed that the US government had been conducting secret experiments in which it dosed people with lethal amounts of radiation LSD and syphilis. It was after Watergate and The Pentagon Papers. It was after Clinton had gone to war (bureaucratically) with the intelligence agencies to force them to declassify documents relating to the crimes they had committed from the 1950s to the 1980s. And it is President Clinton who wrote in his autobiography that after the war in Bosnia was over and while in direct talks with his counterpart in China he could not vouch for the integrity of the US chain of command. Thus, when the Chinese president brought up the awkward issue of the US air force dropping a bomb on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, he said: Bill, I don’t believe you ordered your air force to attack our embassy. I believe someone at the CIA gave your air force the wrong coordinates and as a result your air force hit our embassy. To which Clinton said: I could not tell him he was wrong.
Needless to say that is the president of the United States saying publicly that he could not vouch for the integrity of the chain of command, or the integrity of the rule of law, or that there wasn’t a cadre inside the CIA that had committed both an act of treason and terrorism.(Clinton’s biography comes post facto but the central point stands – only fools and collaborators dismiss paranoia as integral to the American experience).(9)
But James Wood thinks Zadie Smith and the rest of them are absurd to write as if the world is full of conspiratorial nuts.
Consider that at the heart of The Great Gatsby as a shadow and corollary to the central crime is the Black Sox scandal which not only represented a shocking public exposure of corruption and organized crime it also represented the integration of corruption and organized crime into the cultural DNA of the nation. Fitzgerald, who straddled the chasm between the 19th and the 20th centuries captured the expulsion from our Eden and the trauma of the truth.(10) Zadie Smith though she is a Brit, and certainly DeLillo and Pynchon and Foster Wallace, are Fitzgerald’s children. Or as Hemingway put it in The Sun Also Rises: The money could always be arranged. Especially in a foreign country. (which we hasten to add is dismissed as faux hardboiled existential cool only by amateurs. Instead of persisting in asking what his suicide says about him, it is well past time to ask what it says about us).
So exactly what the fuck does Wood mean when he dismisses “paranoia” and connections? Or as Joseph Heller put it: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
There is no getting around this. It is not just that Wood is making a sophomoric a-historical case it’s that he’s not being (widely) called out on it. How did this get published? How did he get a job at The New Yorker? Why is this third rate goon and first rate hack being discussed as if his opinions have merit? And who the fuck are the cynics and reactionaries paying his salary?
And here let us consider his thoughts specifically on DeLillo. In Against Paranoia The Case of Don DeLillo he establishes as is his preferred method the idea that on the one hand big books like Underworld defy criticism. Due to their vastness they render criticism essentially irrelevant. Combined with what Wood allows as DeLillo’s brilliance “big books flush away criticism.”
Fair enough except of course this is disingenuous as Wood proceeds to then engage in criticism so that either he is a liar or a fool. If the former than the hell with him as he is merely engaged in cheap rhetoric and if the later then he is not to be trusted as his criticism is as he says to be flushed. Or to put it more succinctly Wood has set for himself the scene in which if he floats, he’s a witch and if not, he drowns.
But then he doubles down on it with what must rightly be called the standard form of the reactionary.
“In Underworld, everything always comes back to a few themes: nuclear war, the secret power of the American government, the paranoid state in which the bomb put us all, and the abusing power of the postmodern image culture. The book is neurotically webbed – not surprising, perhaps, for a novel which seems to believe that ‘ everything is connected’”
“Indeed, Underworld proves, once and for all, or so I must hope, the incompatibility of the political paranoid vision with great fiction.”
Wood here is revealed firmly, without doubt, as a useful idiot of the right more likely to be found in his natural habitat of The National Review or The Wall Street Journal. Does anyone of any intelligence doubt the extent to which the bomb has put us into a state of paranoia? As with Roth in the early 60s, clearly Wood had forgotten John Hersey and cleary is hoping we have as well. And if anyone had slipped into a state of complacency about it surely the back and forth over who has the bigger (nuclear) button should have shocked them back into coherence if not outright panic.
Wood however is also too clever by half. After explaining for a few paragraphs how and why a paranoid vision is incompatible with great fiction any reasonably sophisticated reader might wonder well then, what of the men we call Shakespeare? Paranoia about plots, secret covens, Jews, fate, ghosts, murders, incest, mistaken identities, and coups involving murderous overthrows of the ruler all drip with blood from the pages of the Bard and no doubt reflected the essential views of his time. After all The Gunpowder Plot was of his time and what shall we make of this: “Of dire combustion and confused events…” surely a direct reference to Guy Fawkes and if not then directly to Fawkes then the paranoid fear that men were engaged in (secret) plots to cause havoc. And if not on their own then in the service of the crown or some foreign cabal. And here let us add that we are deliberately appropriating “paranoia” and don’t only mean it as a neurotic condition in which belief in threats is a fiction rather we mean that paranoia is also a state in which one perceives correctly that there are conspiracies, plots, counter plots and so on. (as that great connoisseur of insanity, William Burroughs said: Sometimes being paranoid is just a question of knowing the truth). And we also add that while it may not fit Mr. Wood’s definition of great we believe the best of Chandler and Hammett is in fact great literature and clearly reflective of a personal and public and political paranoia based on a steely-eyed vision of the facts.(11)
This is no idle matter. This is not just a rebuttal but an indictment that holds Wood guilty of being a hack. And his point that Dostoevsky for example remains great in spite of his personal paranoia holds no more water than his failure to reference Shakespeare. Of Dostoevsky, Wood says: “That private paranoias can generate great fiction…” is not to be doubted…except of course Wood is silent on how exactly one distinguishes between the private and the so called political and where exactly the demarcation occurs in of all writers, Dostoevsky – a man for whom everything was personal and thus social. Again, this is hack work. Dostoevsky’s vision(s) were borderless. God was indeed in the details and so was the devil and the Jews and the church and the Czar’s police as well as the so called pernicious influence of Western ideas, etc. “I am sick man…I think my liver is diseased…” is not only the language of a private paranoia but the scream from the abyss of one man who believed himself to be the canary in the mineshaft of all creation.
And then after a condescending dismissal of DeLillo’s motif where in a mountain of garbage generates an epiphany (how dare a writer find inspiration outside of the proscribed sacred places – why next thing you know someone will call a urinal a work of art and someone else will combine a bicycle seat and handlebars and call them Head of a Bull…can’t have that now can we) we get Wood finding that DeLillo is guilty of falsifying the character of a nun by substituting his own voice for hers. And then this (emphasis added):
“This is not how a nun would express herself, even a cranky nun. It is how DeLillo expresses himself. Which is not to say that DeLillo believes that the Bronx is, or ever was, full of KGB agents…paranoia, it seems, makes language go for broke, alas in both senses of the phrase.”
Well, except for the fact that the Bronx and a great deal of New York was in fact full of KGB agents, Wood makes an interesting point. (as well as being full of FBI agents and snitches not to mention crooked cops and assorted thugs and members of various organized crime outfits which we know courtesy of the Venona Intercepts and history books, memoirs diaries, etc).
And then Wood having established himself as ignorant about history veers right into bigotry by offering that DeLillo is absurd if not dishonest to have a character who believes that the US Census is a fraud because it does not count the accurate number of Black Americans.
As if we are to believe there have not been racially motivated battles over the census for decades in which bigots and professional cynics have not routinely manipulated the system and thus the data to achieve power. Make no mistake here – this is the soft bigotry of the neo-liberal bourgeois that claims to despise the conservatives yet plays wag the dog with their rhetoric. The idea that the census is not flawed, that it is not a battleground of race and money and class and a political football is not only absurd it is a reactionary and racist idea. That DeLillo uses it to show that people are aware of conspiracies and policies designed to deprive them of their freedom is a testament to both his intelligence and his integrity. That Wood denies its veracity is a testament to his shallowness and class snobbery.
This is infused with a chorus of Wood repeating DeLillo repeating that “Everything is connected” as if not only are they not but that it is a cheap literary stunt to write as if they are. To which we could offer any number of factual rebuttals like the Venona Papers or arguments about the census but we find it most effective and more amusing to point out that the baseball game which anchors so much of Underworld – the Shot Heard ‘round the World game with Bobby Thompson’s home run – was fixed because the Giants were stealing the Dodger’s signs. To which we say to Mr. Wood: Grab some pine meat.(12)
Wood doubles down on this hack work with his views on Pynchon. In The Broken Estate we have a Pynchon devoid of autonomy and a slave to a kind of obsessive compulsive joke telling disorder with a corollary affliction being his belief in vast interconnections and conspiracies in what is not only a godless universe but one in which those conspiracies, each essentially unknowable, are a replacement for god and religion. Wood however is simply guilty of a forest for the trees misreading or, a forest for the Wood misreading as the case may be.
He has the details (the trees) as he rattles off the list of Pynchonian puns, word games and jokes but for the forest all he can summon is that Pynchon is daft to think there are conspiracies or that people think there are and he is foolish to write as if history has collapsed upon itself so that the idea of a linear timeline is ripe for parody. Thus when Pynchon anachronistically employs a weed smoking Yiddish riffing George Washington in Mason & Dixon, Wood can only see vaudeville at its most shallow. This is down in no small part to Wood not only being a Brit but a very specific type of Brit who, suffering from European-iteis, is in love with pointing out that America smells funny, the food is bad, and…such small portions!
Although his litany of Pynchon’s alleged faults is long one shall suffice to highlight Wood’s shortcomings as both critic and vicar.
Keep in mind that he has said in an interview that he does not pay close attention to things around him (he won’t he says remember how someone’s hands looked twenty minutes after saying goodbye) and while he acknowledges that this lack of close attention to detail may impact his fiction he does not seem to realize that it clearly is one of the differences between his views and the default setting of professional writers. Like Pynchon.
But more to the point there is this, from The Broken Estate:
“For the wartime London of Gravity’s Rainbow is a similar place, less a city of one noble British defense than the site of intercine paranoias, a city of shadowy groupings and official acronyms: “Everyone was watching over his shoulder, Free French plotting revenge on Vichy traitors, Lublin Communists drawing beads on Varsovian shadow-ministers, ELAS Greeks stalking royalists, unrepatriable dreamers of all languages hoping through will, fists, prayer to bring back kings, republics, pretenders, summer anarchisims that perished before the first crops were in.” (Pynchon’s inability to stop accumulating meanings finds its verbal embodiment in his fondness for lists and descriptive catalogues.)”
Where does one start to untangle this train wreck?
First the facts. Pynchon is absolutely correct and Wood comes off as some sort of bottom end freshman (of the type Pete Townsend would humiliate and Keith Moon would ignore or the other way around) who has read no history. That was the atmosphere of London during the war. Every reputable source, every biography, every memoir, diary and collected set of letters confirms that like Bogart’s Casablanca or Auerbach’s Istanbul, London was a city of gossip, rumor, intrigue, espionage, plot, counter-plot and shadows and fog. This was the London, the England, that was being stalked by the Soviets and which later blossomed into the Cambridge spy ring. This is the London that was the seedbed for what later became Le Carre’s Circus and the sad ruminations of George Smiley, who could look back to the war and forward to the Cold War and see the same thing. This was the London of Chamberlain (in the period just prior to the Blitz) placing taps on the phones of his opponents, the London of the Cliveden Set, of Nazis crashing landing their planes in order to reach Lords and hold secret talks, this was Chamberlain who was employing George Ball(14) the chief spook and thug to battle the anti-Appeasement camp, including if not especially Churchill who was battling them in turn, by making use of a secret and illegal cadre inside the MOD, this was the England that had witnessed a strike (or mutiny if you prefer) by the sailors of the RN and the London of any number of other people and groups who were all but at war with each other. Intrigue was ripe. Conspiracies existed inside each other and looped around each other like Escher drawings.
And what to make of: “One noble defense”? This is bordering on the precious; a kind of UKIP sentimentality for an England that never was and even in its finest hour(13) was fraught with contradictions.
We know and there is no excuse for Wood not knowing and thus no excuse for his being taken seriously. Wood is not just being a-historical, and thus disingenuous, he is failing as a critic. His idea that Pynchon’s sense of connections and intrigues is false is itself false because Wood jettisons the facts and the literary pedigree Pynchon embraces. Pynchon, we do not doubt, knows his Sidney Riley, and his Holmes and surely also knows The 39 Steps and The Riddle of the Sands, as well as he knows Jones and Palin’s Ripping Yarns.
Taken all together these and a thousand other details contribute to a worldview that sees history as the nightmare from which another great encyclopedist was trying to wake. One may disagree with Pynchon’s vision but first one has to actually understand it, and stop playing fast and loose with the truth.
And here we leave off and return to Wood’s hatchet work in Hysterical Realism
For then we have this whopper in which Wood is dismissive of Rushdie for employing a mythic structure: “The Ground Beneath Her Feet suggests that a deep structure of myth, both Greek and Indian, binds all the characters together.”
And Wood’s point is that such a notion is absurd.
So much for Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, Melville, Chandler, Hemingway, Pound, Picasso, Ritsos, Amichai, the Gitta, Homer, Shakespeare and (Modernism) and a host of other writers who believed that a deep structure of myth, both Greek and Indian binds characters together.
How is this tripe taken seriously? Or rather why is it not taken as a serious example of reactionary bullshit and thus shallow faux criticism that is both factually inaccurate and morally defective?
And let us take note that the potential counter argument is itself also faulty. That is, were Wood to say that while yes other writers made use of myth as a unifying architecture, but they did it better he would be correct but that is not the point he’s making. He’s saying it’s wrong to use myth in that manner and that doing so is a kind of mental illness (a “neurotic web”). And it’s being done badly.
Which of course is the same turd polished twice. And where was the editor with their red pen? Simply saying Rushdie is absurd for using myth as a template is not criticism. It’s a fart. Or as Gertrude Stein said to the young Ernest fresh off the boat from dreary Oak Park (where, he said, the lawns were wide and the minds were narrow): Statements are not literature Hemingway!
Lastly then we have Wood’s unanswered question. Why? That is, he asks why Smith DeLillo & Co seem to skip along the surface rather than dive deep. Why do they believe everything is connected? Why do they see something sinister in so many of those connections? And here Wood fails yet again. As with Smith being a product of Cool Britannia, the lighthearted tone employed alongside a sense of seeing conspiracies is itself a product of the advent of the age of knowledge. We know. We read and we collate, and aggregate and we can connect. A lighthearted tone in response to the obvious, banality of evil in our times is not a priori a false response, though it may be presented without the depth to make it effective. It is a wide world and has room enough to accommodate both Mel Brooks and The Man in the High Tower. But within this wider historical moment there is also the colonization of most of publishing by the entertainment empires, which themselves are wholly owned subsidiaries of people like Rupert Murdoch and Disney, Time-Warner and Bertelsmann AG., who have no use for people what cause the horses to run in the street. Anyone who discusses what has been written without discussing who decides what gets published is a dilettante and a tool of the system.
Consider that right before the release of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films Johnny Depp mouthed off about W. and Cheney and illegal immoral wars and so on and 48 hours later issues a public apology and retraction. Why? Not because large heavily armed goons visited him but because diminutive and lubed up lawyers visited him, showed him a sub-clause of the 3000 page contract he had signed and told him that any public comments he made that in any way damaged the product would, cost him…everything.(and if that scene were written by Pynchon the lawyers would have been named, Mo…Larry…and…Brunhilde)
In other words, Wood has zeroed in on a plague and wants to yell about the dirty drapes while ignoring the fleas that carry the bacillus. Writers are often enough coerced into rigid formats devoid of substance because they are wholly owned subsidiaries of vast corporate archipelagos in which freedom is an illusion and the appearance of wit, the suggestion of depth, the unmistakable presence of a ferocious commitment to the truth is submerged in an ocean of tricks but not because the writers don’t know any better but because they have been captured and because like everyone else they have every reason to be paranoid and can see quite clearly that everything is in fact connected. Without recourse to the trained seals Chandler speaks of, we do not get criticism, we get an opinion. Notice that in extolling the virtues of Flaubert he neglects to mention not only that Flaubert was charged with indecency and brought to trial but that the genuine radical and Flaubert’s contemporary, Baudelaire was also charged but unlike the more wealthy bourgeois, was found guilty and had to blow town. (As a contemporary account has it: “Flaubert was smarter than us,” wrote the poet Théophile Gautier. “He had the intelligence to come into the world with some inheritance, a thing which is absolutely indispensable to anyone who wants to make art.” – and note that Baudelaire had an inheritance as well but it was taken from him). Again, why bother with the context when opinions are so much more entertaining.
But that’s not all. Twain was often lighthearted if deadly and so were Joyce and Sterne and Heller, and Bugologov (and if D.F. Wallace and Milan Kundera are to be believed so was Kafka) and any number of other serious as a stroke writers who saw the value in a joke as much as they saw the value of a tragedy. That too is Pynchon’s lineage. One is free to find it wanting but a critic is not free to write as if it doesn’t exist and as if Pynchon has never read a book.
And so Wood makes his point. Shallow writing is bad and an accumulation of details presented with a lighthearted whimsy is no substitute for depth. Thus this is who James Wood really is: Because Wood with his substitution of rules for writing in place of God does not live in the world as it is. He is too smug for the truth and the truth is too frantic for his dry morality.
It is the smug dismissal of the new money bourgeois; the sort of disdain expressed by a courtier on the eve of a revolution in the aftermath of which, when given the choice of being shot but not compromising his faith chooses instead to not only convert but to become the chief propagandist for the new tyranny.
Thus it is not just wrong in the manner of a musician deliberately hitting the wrong key (which is bad enough) but wrong morally because the elision of facts that are widely known and accessible is a kind of intellectual sin. What in a slightly different context was referred to as requiring a criminal lack of imagination.
Which brings us to the central and most damning fact about Wood. He is an enabler of bigotry and makes common cause with Jew hating fascists.
There is no getting around it and there is no getting around the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the magazines that enable him.
We are referring here to his extraordinary parsing and defense of T.S. Eliot’s well documented anti-Semitism and fascism and to his disregard for Dickens anti-Semitism while employing Dickens as the barometer of literary health.
First to Dickens.
We are here not concerned with Dickens’ hatred of Jews so much as we concerned with the cheap logic employed by Wood. On the one hand he finds Smith and Rushdie et al lacking because whatever his faults in architecture or construction, Wood finds that Dickens remains a great exemplar of the depths to which realism can reach. He’s right of course as long as one defines depth as being racist caricatures of money grubbing weaselly kikes that wouldn’t be out of place in Der Strummer.
The fault here, with Wood, is not his coy refusal to mention in even so much as a footnote that using Dickens as a model of realism is somewhat problematic. Rather it is that he faults Smith & co for a lack of emotional depth and a falsification based on an elaborate distortion of the norms of realistic fiction and compares them unfavorably to Dicken,s who in fact is guilty of at least as much lack of realism if not in fact more in that he is at fault for the greater sin – namely he’s a bigot and of course bigots by definition are not realistic. And keep in mind that Wood praises DeLillo and Smith but does it only to highlight where he says they fail and yet uses Dickens without qualification as the measure of their success and failures. In other words, sauce and goose and gander. And here let us say how criticism of Dickens has been warped by this fact. Do we honestly believe that a writer can be a bigot and produce vile and unrealistic distorted views of one ethnic group but can be counted on to deliver accurate portrayals elsewhere? It is possible (after all L.F. Celine was a fascist and a genius but also suspect) but we believe it is well past time to consider that there is a systemic rot to Dickens and that he should be treated accordingly. We may find truth in his depictions but it is almost an accident that he provides any truth at all.
Thus again Wood is wrong on points but also wrong as only a hypocrite can be wrong but worse still, he somehow escapes critical damnation and goes on with white smoke drifting from his keyboard.
Are we to seriously take Fagin and Dickens seriously or are we to seriously consider them as examples of bigotry and bad writing? The answer of course is not only yes, Fagin is vile and false, but so is Dickens but far more importantly so is James Wood. And in anticipation of any and all attempts at defending Dickens and his Fagin, we are reminded of the professional cockroaches who like to point out that except for all of his faults Nixon achieved great things. To which Ben Bradlee (a morally problematic man himself) said: that’s like saying some guy is really handsome, except for his face.
Which then brings us to Wood and T.S. Eliot.
Writing in The Broken Estate Wood is careful to begin by stating up front that T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. After all the essay is titled: T.S. Eliot’s Christian Anti-Semitism.
As if to say see, nothing up my sleeve, I’m on your side.
And it begins (emphasis added):
“T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite. Anthony Julius’s program in his book T.S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, is to assert the centrality of Eliot’s anti-Semitism in his thought.”
So good as far as it goes but then like a lawyer from the firm of I.M. Pettifogging, he launches into what frankly can only described as a bizarre and odious half-assed attempt to defend Eliot, by claiming that Anthony Julius is some sort of hysteric obsessed with the extent of Eliot’s bigotry and who, like all other hysterics and nutters who think they’re being spied on, believes in…a conspiracy.
Of course it is essential to mention and reflect on how Wood sets up his brief. Julius is, he tells us, awash in the glow of righteousness, and is often brilliant. Sadly, he’s a Jew with a “program” (i.e., not a criticism, like Wood, but an…agenda) and he’s wrong. No Wood doesn’t say that but he does come right to the edge of saying it and instead lets the implication speak for itself.
Consider this withering assault on Julius’s temperament and by extension how it uses the typical language of the establishment bigot who defends his power not by directly proclaiming it but by denigrating his opponent:
“His book is tendentious, misleading, and unremittingly hostile (sic!). He has written an unstable book about an unstable subject; reading it is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric.”
Thus, Julius is right to be upset, poor offended Hebrew, and Eliot is indeed an anti-Semite, but, you know those unbalanced crazy minorities…with their unbalanced sense of outrage…those unhinged ethnics (with multiple advanced degrees and advanced training in criticism and close textual analysis). You can’t trust them. Better to allow the cool hand of the refined Anglo to take the wheel. Thanks Julius- nee Julius-berg, we’ve got this covered.
Wood’s argument, such as it is, is based on the notion that while Eliot was on occasion odious, and a bigot, that stench of bigotry was not central to his poetry. And, he adds in regards to Gerontion but also as a baseline for his, program, that “…we have to able to free ourselves…” from the idea that bigotry was central to his identity and say: yes he was an anti-Semite but gosh what about all the Jews he didn’t hate?
His examples are: that he only wrote three overtly anti-Semitic poems, (as if there’s a quota) and that his speech at the university of Virginia, where he called for the segregation of Jews from the rest of society, was provisional, and that besides all of that, his bigotry as displayed in Gerontion was more like a rash limited to an arm and not, one assumes, an all body and systemic disease of the soul. Thus, Julius, described by Wood as a ferret, is seen off with a red card for chewing more than he’s bitten off while Wood, receives a pat on the back for establishing that Eliot only put it in a little and was telling the truth when he said the check is in the mail.
Where to begin?
First, again, as we mentioned Wood has the unfortunate habit of being a hypocrite. He assails Julius and others for making bold statements and not delivering the goods to support them. Which would be funny were it not such a serious example of moral turpitude and a corresponding lack of intellectual rigor. Consider that Wood dismisses and pigeon holds Julius as just and only a lawyer.
It is certainly true that Julius is a lawyer but what Wood fails to mention, or to be more accurate, succeeds in not mentioning, is that Julius holds a BA Lit with first place honors from that noted dusty hack factory, Cambridge, and a PhD. Lit from University College London. Along with a J.D. Which technically makes him better trained than Wood to deliver judgments on writing including that of T. S. Eliot about whom Julius wrote his dissertation, and which is the book Wood claims to be reviewing.
What bothers here is of course that while Wood could make the case that Julius is wrong (he’s not but we’ll indulge this for the sake of argument) he not only fails to prove that he’s wrong, he leaves out crucial information that calls into question both his argument and his morality. Is it really Julius who is unstable and misleading or Wood?
What irritates about this is that Julius’s cv is hardly hidden or irrelevant especially in the context of Wood quarantining his subject by confining his abilities to those of a lawyer, obsessed only with the facts and hysteria.
Which brings us to the idea that anti-Semitism of any kind exists on a spectrum of disconnected fevers and ranges from irritating (like a rash) to lethal like Ebola.
Consider this from Wood: “Gerontion is a poem with an anti-Semitic rash, but the rash is confined to a limb.”
And: “Some of Eliot’s anti-Semitism, then, is dogmatic Christianity’s anti-Semitism – not the anti-Semitism of the church (the riots, the superstition, the discriminatory laws, the complicity with the Holocaust)”
Well, that’s mighty white of you Mr. Wood.
In other words, again, it’s on a spectrum within the era of Nazism so for Wood, calling for Jews to be segregated, (per Eliot at the University of Virginia) while people were calling for them to be segregated and exterminated, is mitigated because Eliot’s anti-Semitism was, anti-Semitism lite and thus had fewer calories.
And yet he questions Julius’ rage.
The fact is that while Gerontion displays a small amount of the disease it is not an excuse for Eliot or Wood or the calamity of anti-Semitism. What it does do is show that Wood is a moral hermaphrodite trying to shuck and jive his way between fits of a literary Tourette’s Syndrome.
And it shows the base hypocrisy of an establishment committed to clickbait and money and its own power. Which we hasten to add is part of Julius’ brief against Eliot about whom he says there is an establishment effort to protect. That Wood dismisses this by pointing out the number of critics who have attacked Eliot for his anti-Semitism, is notable precisely because by claiming that Eliot’s anti-Semitism was of some special artisanal small batch variety ,Wood is guilty of providing the very protection Julius claims is attached to Eliot’s reputation. He is also guilty of condescension, and a sense of lese majesty regarding the right of an aggrieved minority to make its case against its oppressors. And those who defend that oppression by trying to parse the language of the bigots and minimize its lethality.
Yes any number of people have pointed out Eliot was a fascist who hated Jews, but we note that he still won the Nobel and that people like James Wood have gone to some lengths to maintain his reputation and mitigate his bigotry, and fondness for discipline.
And let us take a moment to point out that as a defense against Julius’ point that anti-Semitism is itself conspiratorial and part of a vast social network, Wood invokes noted paleo-conservative and Eliot’s friend, Russell Kirk(14). If you’re stooping to invoke (or in-volk as the case may be) the man who helped Buckley found The National Review, as an exemplar of people critical of Eliot’s bigotry then you’re in worse shape than we thought. Using Kirk as such is roughly the equivalent of using Ted Kosinski to highlight the benefits of being a luddite.
But we digress.
What matters here is that Gerontion was published in 1920 and the call Eliot gave to lock up the Jews was in 1933.
Thus, Gerontion is not some side show in the main event of Eliot’s fascism and his bigotry but is a moment where he lays his (tarot) cards on the table, and declares he’s just clearing his throat.
What matters here is that Eliot’s so called limited rash, progresses from the arm of Gerontion and Sweeney and Baedecker to a full throated all-over disease sprayed on the public at a moment in time when the fate of humanity was racing towards a cliff, courtesy of the gang of thugs in Berlin who were receiving any manner of assistance from punks like Eliot and other collaborators. It is not a rash confined to a limb but a symptom of a gangrenous soul. Eliot’s speech at Virginia was in 1933 and was published in 1934. And as Julius points out, at no point in all the years that followed did Eliot bother to alter or retract any of his poetry, though he did prevent After Strange Gods from being published. Not because he was ashamed or had changed his mind, but because he didn’t want it widely known that he advocated placing Jews in quarantine and we add, he feared being accused of collaboration which could very easily have landed him behind bars or, like his friend Ezra, placed in storage and stasis at Saint Elizabeth’s.
What matters here is that Wood’s argument rests on the hope that there won’t be a close textual reading of his essay or Julius’. He posits that anti-Semitism was anecdotal to Eliot’s poetry, which even if it were true does not change the fact that Eliot was not anecdotal to the rise of fascism with its emphasis on exterminating the Jews. Which of course is precisely one of the main points in Julius’ exegesis.
And here it is worthwhile to consider a few examples of Julius’ work not only for the way it expertly elucidates Eliot’s bigotry and the bigotry of his defenders but also for the ways in which it refutes Wood’s base distortions and highlights the style used by Julius and Wood’s cherry picking of the facts.
Wood has it that Julius is unhinged, hysterical and thus distorting the facts. Here is a sample:
“The anti-Semitic poems reappeared, and continue to appear, in the collected editions of Eliot’s poetry, as well as in Selected Poems (1954, and subsequent editions). They have therefore been in practically continuous print since they were first published. There has been no protest at this, and little protest at the poems themselves; they have not provoked controversy remotely comparable to the French ‘Heidegger wars’, or the de Man affair in America. In these instances, reflections on the authors’ anti-Semitism has led to inquiries into the very foundations of philosophical and critical practice.”
What strikes us about this paragraph is the unfortunate hint of Julius asking for censorship. It is not stated directly but it is suggested and here we differ as we believe censorship would be replacing one sin with another and we would prefer that either Eliot had withdrawn the poems or retained them but amended them with a public apology including a new forward to the editions in question.
However, these are not the objections raised by Wood. The passage is not hysterical and in no way suggests a maniac but is, measured in tone, follows proper form with citations duly registered. And more than that it raises serious questions about a serious topic. It is contextual. And as a result, and as further examples will prove, Wood is demeaning not only of Julius, and the victims of bigotry, he is demeaning to the practice of criticism and the ars poetica.
In another paragraph Julius writes:
“ ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ flirts with but refuses the notion of a Jewish conspiracy, and is thus to be compared to ‘ The Hollow Men’, another poem that scorns conspiracies and the vanity of conspirators, successful or otherwise. Hollow men conspired with Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar, and with Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament, It is the vanity of the unregenerate to assume that they have the power to intervene in history and redeem it. It is the folly of one kind of anti-Semite to credit Jews with the power to intervene in history and possess it. Eliot’s poetry is contemptuous of the claims of both. By a coincidence, that anti-Semitic fantasy of Jewish conspiracy, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was published in England in February 1920, the same month and year as Ara Vos Prec. Eliot’s sinister Jews would have been instantly recognizable to the readers of The Times…”
Again, here we can see the same measured tone, the same precise attention to detail supported by citations and notes in the traditional style. This is no maniac but a thoughtful critic engaged in not only a close textual reading but a close analysis of the wider context of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of his time. But inside this, and equally important, we take note that Julius has hit upon a symmetry between Eliot and Wood. Eliot, as an adherent of an authoritarian reactionary Christianity rejects a sense of free will that aims to upset God’s plan. The last time someone tried it they were cast out and discovered it was better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. Wood is here further revealed as a reactionary rather than a quaint crank with a fondness for 19th century forms and ideals. Eliot’s disdain for ‘conspirators’ and their plans is to be echoed repeatedly by Wood, as we’ve noted, in his false criticisms of Postmodernity and its anxieties as expressed in Pynchon, DeLillo and others. But we also take note that Wood is engaged in a kind of hucksterism; a con in which he is dealing from the bottom of the deck. His accusations against Julius are false.
The truth is as the selected passages show, Wood is not just wrong his comments are intellectual slander.
The truth is that there is no such thing as hating Jews a little. There is no such thing as being a little bit of a fascist or being a little bit pregnant. When the house is on fire everyone is either with the fire brigade or the fire.
What matters here is that James Wood is being taken seriously as some sort of brilliant critic, when in truth he is dealing from the bottom of the deck both in regards to the facts and in regards to a sense of decency.
This lack of decency, this absence of intellectual honesty is of course the main issue raised by the rightly aggrieved Jonathan Lethem, who pointed out that Wood was disingenuous at best and irresponsible at worst. To which we hasten to add that if there is a fault in Lethem’s otherwise spot-on criticism, it is that he didn’t go far enough.
Wood in his defense of Eliot reveals himself to be both a knob but far worse reveals himself to be the sort of person who defends bigots and fascists by making their disgusting behavior a sideshow to the rage displayed by people whose lives hang in the balance because fascists like T.S. Eliot fill stadiums and win the Nobel prize. In other words it is nothing more than the standard trope of blaming the victim. Thus Julius’ hysteria is presented as a given and it is he who must prove he is not crazy versus Eliot who is clearly a bigot and a fascist being given the benefit of the doubt because, per Wood, his hatred of Jews is only a minor defect in his writing.
But let’s take Wood at his word and examine the notion that because the anti-Semitism of Gerontion is as he says limited it is a sideshow.
What Wood is saying is that while it is unpleasant, it is of a limited scope and is itself a subcategory among the three (there’s only three he tells us) poems where Eliot damns Jews for being Jews.
Thus he says, Julius is being hysterical in his denunciation. After all, says Wood, three poems that use bigotry at a time when the survival of an entire ethnic group was in question hardly ranks as being like a rally at Nuremberg. Versus, James Fenton who said: “…for the evil of that event (The Holocaust) could not be entirely unconnected with the thinkers who fueled hatred” that is, the difference between a deliberate gas lighting decontextualization by Wood and an expansive floodlit contextualization by Fenton in support of Julius.
Of course only morons and reactionaries and neo-fascists believe that the rhetoric of anti-Semitism didn’t lead like a well-oiled train from idle whispers and exclusion from clubs and universities to mountains of skulls and the sun glinting off of miles of barbed wire.
And James Wood is not a moron. And neither was T.S. Eliot.
What he is suggesting is that he is in charge of the rage meter – that his sense of privilege is what we should start with and from there realize that while anti-Semitism is ugly, there are degrees as if there is no connection between the casual joke and the canisters of gas. And he’s the manager of measurements. Another would be engineer of human souls.
This is a-historical. This is disingenuous. This is a lack of rigor and a lack of spine and a sickening display of a-morality in defense of a close textual reading that ignores the facts in order to service a lie and therefore is in fact not a close textual reading at all but a closely selective reading. This is hysterical surrealism in which the facts are stretched in the name of precision but in truth in the service of deception.
Consider one example of what Wood leaves out of the narrative: In December of 1922, following the trial of Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson, Eliot wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Mail praising the Mail for supporting the verdict of death for the defendant. (James Joyce, to the contrary was appalled. Writing to Arthur Power he said: “what a terrible thing the law can be sometimes…”). But Eliot did not confine his praise only to supporting the state’s authority to execute people. He also wrote to express his admiration for the Daily Mail’s support for Benito Mussolini and its refusal to give in to what he called “flaccid sentimentality.” He went on to state his appreciation for the paper’s coverage of fascismo and its portrayal of Mussolini as the man who would save Italy from godless Boslhsevisim. And note that less than two weeks after the trial Mussolini’s blackshirts went on a epic spree of anti-left violence in Turin and executed communists, socialists, and members of trade unions by the hundreds. (and let us take note of the fact that, apropos of paranoia, conspiracies and bigotry, Mussolini was on the payroll of British intelligence receiving a stipend to both inform on leftists and build up the means to murder them, en mass). Thus we have Eliot, an avowed supporter of Fascism, of fighting the left with the methods of tyranny, writing in direct unambiguous language about the danger posed by Jews and other non-Christians.
But Wood is not content to administer a hand job to Eliot’s fascism. In the manner that is just so typical of a particular type of anti-Semite he calls Julius a ferret after the truth.
Coming after and amid a discussion of Eliot’s use of the traditional anti-Semitic image of the Jew as a rat, and while dismissing Julius as a hysteric, Wood is too well read, too smart, and too concerned with the nuances of language to have chosen the adjective at random.
No, this is the typical tactic of the advanced charlatan and those sophisticated bigots who periodically drop in to the bastions of the right, like Fox “News” to provide a patina of elegance to the gutter and those who employ the practiced art of the intelligent (sic!) anti-Semite whose language is a bait and who steps right to the edge of using blatant key words and then sticks the landing by using camouflage.
After all, a ferret does burrow for the target and a ferret is single-minded in that pursuit and thus, Anthony Julius, the Jew, lawyer, is described accurately but, says Wood, it’s not as if I’m suggesting there’s something rodent like about him or suggesting that it’s typical of Jews and other aggrieved minorities to be single-minded and thus wrong about their lamentations and accusations. Besides, as he’s already made clear, Eliot may have hated Jews but (he then adds) it was secondary to his Christianity. See, that makes it so much better. As if paying for the dry cleaning for the brownshirts is somehow less offensive than actually wearing one.
But there is something far more insidious and hateful in that word. A close reading of Julius reveals an extended examination of the use of animal symbolism by anti-Semites when slandering Jews. This ranges from Eliot’s Sweeney among the Nightingales where nightingale was slang for prostitute and the Rachel nee Rabinowitz of the poem is a cunning ferocious Jewess with paw-like hands, and includes any number of other terms including of course, rats as in Eliot’s use of the rat in Gerontion.
Considering Wood’s reputation for erudition, considering this is all within the context of a discussion of a critical work that seeks to examine anti-Semitism and in particular engages in a close textual reading of the use of animals as substitutes for Jews in Eliot’s work and the work of writers with whom Eliot was familiar, it is simply not believable that Wood stumbled into calling Julius a ferret nor is it believable that his use was innocent of connotation.
But then there is the rest of Wood’s argument. Since, he says, there are only three blatantly anti-Semitic poems and the speech at Virginia, Julius is wrong, hysterically blinded and blinded by his hysteria and thus cannot make the case that anti-Semitism is central to Eliot’s cause.
Except that this is the dog that didn’t bark.
Having made the case for fascism, having made the case for the destruction of the Jews and a free society in which they participate, Eliot is required morally and intellectually to prove that he is not on the side of the devils. The absence of anti-Semitic language in Prufrock and The Waste land does not absolve him or his work. What we must assume is that having made the case, Eliot saw no reason to admit that he was wrong, saw no reason to amend his words or atone for his sins. Therefore, having let the words stand, having changed only a lowercase use of jew to uppercase, no reasonable or intellectually honest person would conclude anything but that when Eliot lamented the collapse of the old order he was in part blaming Jews (which places Eliot firmly within his times) and that when he prayed for redemption he believed that salvation was open to a select clientele that of course, by definition, did not include Jews. And this sense of how history had unfolded and would continue to unfold is within the context of the trajectory of anti-Semitism as it slithered and vomited its way across Europe from the Middle Ages until the present. Eliot, like the rest of the Moderns was too intelligent, too well read, too well-versed in etymology, slang, current events, puns, derivations, and allusions to be unaware of his own lineage and context.
And so in our beginning we find our end.
Apropos of nothing except his own genius, and thus apropos of how everything is connected, Robin Williams, once asked rhetorically, why there were no Jewish faith healers. Why?!? ( He said) Your leg?!? My arm!
James Wood may think it’s perfectly alright to claim the privilege of telling the Jews how to manage their rage and their fear by claiming that anti-Semitism can be reduced to calculations of square feet, or three poems versus seven, he may claim that he can deduce the extent of the danger Jews face by placing markers on the body of Jewish culture, and its history, (and thus on the culture of everyone else) and in doing so he may claim the privilege of mapping out the future of Jewish thought, and its expression, by claiming to control its past and the narrative employed to discuss it but, the truth is both bigger and messier than the ideas of one man, squatting on a window sill.
- Consider two examples. In the first, Martin Amis was criticized for accepting a massive “American sized” advance for a new novel because it was damaging to publishing and thus damaging to writing (and in a very British way he was also criticized for letting down the side).The second is the more recent case of “Cat Person.” In the first case Amis at least had a substantial body of work on which, for better or worse depending upon one’s view, his reputation rested. The advance, though large, was not out of proportion to his (American) peers. That does not change the fact that the scale of advances has contributed to a law of diminishing returns in not only what gets published and what gets reviewed by the trained seals but what the quality of what gets published. Which brings us to “Cat Person.” That the story, such as it is, is execrable, is of secondary importance to the utterly out of proportion and damaging advance the author received. Said to be over 1 million dollars it sets in motion a systemic trainwreck. The publisher is now hostage to fortune and must devote fewer available resources to more easy to digest and less complex writing (at the expense of less easy to digest and more sophisticated work) in order to make up for the fit of irresponsibility. The violently simplistic binary sham debate about the story (if you don’t like it you’re a misogynist, etc) is dangerous echo-chamber media heroin. It reflects and is in symbiosis with the publisher who does not care one whit for quality and the longevity or health of writing qua writing or culture qua culture in the age of Trump (itself a subspecies of end phase capitalism) but is solely concerned with revenue. Thus the publisher will apply pressure to the media who will be pressured to write about the story in a manner that cares not one whit for quality so much as it cares for clicks. Here the New Yorker is of course to blame as it created with its publication of “Cat Person” clickbait metafiction from which it derived revenue at the expense of integrity.
- There are dictionary definitions available but at this point the terms and concepts have taken such a beating that if you were to ask two academics to define them you would receive three definitions if not more. Thus Smith’s point about canable tuna versus dolphins is on point.
- This is a point Wood acknowledges in The Broken Estate. And yet somehow this writer (Flaubert) is both the father of Realism and not a writer of “interiority.” So in fact, the triumph of detail over the details of the personality is genius in Flaubert and merely a menu without substance in Pynchon, DeLillo, Smith, Rushdie and D.F.Wallace. Aside from what this says about Flaubert and the cult that surrounds him it says even more about Wood and his cult. He is blatantly inconsistent and still receives not only praise but a type of praise predicated on a total blind disregard for his indiscretions in thought, style and substance.Valary was also underwhelmed by Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet which Pound attaches specifically to Joyce and his method in Ulysses. Contrast the genius and professional novelist Chandler with Wood who says of Flaubert: “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling of brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author’s fingerprints on all this are paradoxical, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe, or Austen, or Balzac but not all of it until Flaubert.” The line “like a good valet” is both laughable and disturbing and for the same reasons. It reeks of an unfortunate reflex towards a dangerous reactionary nostalgia which blooms in a sinister way when Wood attacks Anthony Julius. Additionally there is Wood’s strange program and method. He mentions that Valery was unimpressed but because Nathalie Sarraute was impressed we are to accept Wood’s proclamations about Flaubert. What matters here is that Wood does not (when it suits him) allow at the very least that there is a difference of opinion and that in such circumstances it seems absurd to take the opinion of a critic over that of writers. And as we have outlined, it also requires one to suspend consideration of the definition of Realism qua Realism. In support of Wood one could reference Nabokov with his idea that Kafka is a disciple of Flaubert because of his use of sparse and spare language that has a clinical precision to it. What Nabokov leaves out is that while Kafka is clinical and detached he is also often fanciful, if not surreal and consistently lean (and obsessed with “interiority”) where Flaubert is clinical but verbose and fundamentally, psychologically shallow. Kafka is a hunger artist. Flaubert is a dirigible.
- Even if one allows for the myth of Hemingway the mendacious the comment cannot be dismissed out of hand without exceeding the g-force tolerance of intellectual credibility. If for no other reason than that it is clearly at odds with Wood’s claim of Flaubert as the Big Bang. Hemingway is not to be dismissed as a colonial rube, nor can he be dismissed as the authority on what worked for him. Nor can anyone but a dilettante dismiss him as more of an expert on the American novel than Wood. Thus at the very least there are divergent schools of thought and again one is confronted by the difference between professionals and amateurs.
- Hemingway in a letter to Max Perkins specifically requests a copy of the latest work by Hammett. Hammett was of course friendly with Faulkner and he and Faulkner and Hellman would when schedules cooperated, drink and argue about literature.
- The academic and the critic (and Wood is both) is rarely also an artist. And artists it seems are more comfortable with multiplicity. An example that comes to mind is Durrell generally in The Alexandria Quartet but specifically in regards to Darley quoting Pursewarden to the effect that the personality is not fixed: “A step in either direction, and the whole picture changes.”
- Another crucial piece of context that is missing from Wood is the impact of Henri Bergson. Among the numerous points of influence one could cite, one could do worse than to recall the ending of Gatsby and boats (identities) being pulled ceasely into the past while still in the present. Thus a perpetual duality of identity. And it is worth noting that Bergson was Proust’s cousin. In addition one could consider the significance of an (in)famous exchange between Picasso and Stein. After seeing Picasso’s finished portrait of her, Stein said: But it doesn’t look like me. To which Picasso said: Don’t worry, it will.
- This is one of the great defects of Wood’s program as well as so much of the clickbait corrupted echo-chamber that passes for discussion, debate and criticism. It robs the subject of good will (again, see Smith’s objection to Wood as well as Jonathan Lethem’s response to Wood) and autonomy as well as the intelligence required to make an aesthetic choice. In its place it projects ill-will, mendacity, obsession and stupidity. That, needless to say is not criticism, but an opinion. Given the radical changes that have occured it leaves the idea of Flaubert as the primary source for the Realistic in the Modern as at best a distinction without a difference and at worst irrelevant. Flaubert is reduced, appropriately to a quote in the same way a painter quotes another and as a minor note.
- See our previous examination of Richard Hofstadter: https://rauldukeblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/09/why-so-dark-the-x-files-and-the-paranoid-style/
- This is where a more generous reading of A Moveable Feast is necessary. In Chapter 10 (corresponding to Book 10 of The Republic – see note below) Hemingway says that Fitzgerald never learned how to think. What he meant was that Fitzgerald retained a neo-Keatsian pre-modernist idea that truth was synonymous with beauty and that was all you needed to know. Thus Fitzgerald retained as well ideas from the 19th century. Tender is the Night should, properly speaking, have ended with Dick Diver offering the beach (described in the brilliant opening as being like a tan prayer rug) and Nicole the benediction and the sign of the cross. But, instead we get a postscript tagged on like some sort of literary carbuncle. This is Fitzgerald trying to haul the beached whale of the 19th century novel with its simplistic sense of morality, linear consciouness and identity into the 20th century. One could steal from the past but one could not repeat it.
- Hammett and Chandler have been confined to a literary ghetto where they are taken seriously up to the point where one would have to consider them as offering a complete vision of aspects of America’s reality. Red Harvest, The Glass Key, the Maltese Falcon and The Simple Art of Murder (as well as The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep) precisely pin to the wall the conspiratorial truths of the country. It is run by a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and gangsters can rule entire nations. The refusal to consider this, and the rejection of it as mere paranoia is reactionary at best and neo-fascist at worst.
- The phrase, Grab some pine meat is used almost exclusively by the legendary San Francisco Giants’ broadcaster, Mike Krukow. As to our use of it here, on the one hand Wood can be forgiven for not knowing the game was rigged. On the other he cannot be forgiven for assuming it wasn’t as it was after The Black Sox scandal and it was during a time when essentially the entirety of the country was rigged whether in terms of apartheid or the exponential growth of the mafia which occurred with direct assistance from the government. To deny DeLillo’s sense of conspiracies is to deny the truth and to deny cultural artifacts like Howl or All the King’s Men. See our previous examination of this: https://rauldukeblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/the-sea-was-angry-that-day-some-notes-on-philip-roth/
- Wood’s invocation of a classic trope of British nationalism is suggestive not only of reactionary UKIP sentimentality but of the tendency of certain American establishment centers and individuals to turn certain Brits into a fetish and for those Brits to take payment for it. The phrase is thrown into the mix almost as if by accident and of course without evidence and thus appeals to both sloppy thinking and deceit. In regards to George Ball: he is an infamous figure and a cursory examination of his biography instantly gives the lie to any and all attempts to be dismissive of postmodernist concerns with shadowy cabals. For specifics see Ball’s involvement with the Zinoviev Letter.
- As an example of the style of Russell Kirk’s defense of Eliot we offer this from one of his talks in defense of Eliot by way of denigrating his accusers: “It is mildly amusing to find Eliot denounced for his Christian faith and his “feudalist” politics by tenured professors of English, some of them enjoying salaries in excess of one hundred thousand dollars, comforted and cosseted by serried ranks of word-processors.” Well, it is indeed, mildly amusing. Even if one takes Kirk at his word and views tenured academics as also feudalistic that doesn’t change the fact that to a great extent Eliot, like Buckley had one of the greatest minds ever produced by the 11th century.
- A similar mistake and disingenuous critical con is made by Christopher Hitchens in his caustic appraisal (and obituary for his reputation) of Graham Greene. This is, as with Wood, criticism as play the man not the ball, or simply and crudely, ad hominem with a slick veneer of erudition.Written in 2005 at the height of Hitchens’ Road to Damascus phase, Greene is faulted first for a repetitive template in which, in some colonial substation his characters are placed on the horns of a moral dilemma usually involving god, the devil, affairs, and the shady side of diplomacy where at its most simplistic it intersects with spies and the local fauna in a sort of more sinister echo of Maugham and at its most complex in a sorrowful echo of Conrad.This, Hitchens says, demonstrates a lack in Greene (a cliché masquerading as sophistication) where we would say it demonstrates a lack in the British who had become prisoners of their own fantasies and truths (part of Conrad’s point in Heart of Darkness) and that until the crack-up of the Empire were condemned to a Sisyphean existence which Greene, like a man with a side gig in moral taxidermy captured with expert precision. That the Empire was cranking out cadres of future Mistah Kurtz or whole divisions of mini-Kurtz’s hardly seems shocking. That these men (mostly men with wives not women in tow) were Kurtz-esque or pale imitations of his sadomasochistic Lear template also hardly seems to be in dispute and one wonders then who Hitchens thinks Greene should have encountered instead and who instead, he could or should have written about? What follows is Hitchens laying on quotes that show (shock) Greene was a man of contradictions and was, like his characters, a prisoner of fate – that is, other people, and circumstances beyond his control. He faults Greene for standing with the Soviets (for which he is indeed at fault) but fails to contextualize it by mentioning that the US was also a police state and when it wasn’t was perfectly content to outsource its fascism to protectorates, rump states, colonies and assorted satrapies. In other words a world, Greenland, where everyone is a prisoner, held hostage to fortune and stuck on the horns of a morally ambiguous dilemma. In other words not unlike a certain Englishman, suffering from a god (Trotsky) that failed him, or who he failed, forced into a world where the straight path of righteousness is an illusion and who in the end swallows and then regurgitates a liturgy that contradicts everyone of his previous acts of faith and conscience. We are here reminded of Hitchens attacking someone who went from religious to agnostic by saying he was the exemplar of the idea that a man, who having lost his faith has, by definition, found his reason. What annoys here is that this is the same Hitchens who made the case that Henry Kissinger is a mass murderer and that the entirety of the US system is either directly guilty of genocide or at the very least is complicit in the manner of being silent in the face of genocide. Thus one wonders what Hitchens would expect of Greene who surely agreed that Kissinger was a monster and a perfect representative of the inherent moral ambiguity at the heart of the 20th century rivalry between the barbarism of the Gulag and the barbarism of Wall Street. As if the barbed wire in Siberia wasn’t paid for with money cleaned in a bank located offshore and run in part by men with offices in New York. This lack on the part of Hitchens to offer Greene the benefit of context can be attributed to two main and general themes. First that the truth about Hitchens’ motivations remain obscure, and will remain so until his government files (like Orwell’s) enter the public domain, and secondly the difference, as with Wood, between professional writers and journalists. As Greene said (we paraphrase) The reason I stopped talking to journalists and spoke instead only to writers is because the journalists were determined to write fiction and the writers were determined to tell the truth. And as an example of the wicked sense of irony Greene was fond of, we point out that the Orwell quote Hitchens references to illustrate what he describes as Greene’s moral and intellectual and writerly shortcomings, was written by a man who was of course working for the British intelligence agencies. But specifically it is worth considering one part of Orwell’s review of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter.“If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women.” This is the difference between a polemicist, even a brilliant one, like Orwell, and a psychologically brilliant novelist, like Greene. Orwell’s gloss is akin to a technical manual as if the soul were a gear box and the critic a mechanic. The idea that someone wouldn’t commit a mortal sin because it’s a mortal sin is not just a shallow tautology it is not to be taken seriously but can be seriously taken as an example of why one should avoid speaking in absolutes. The world and certainly the literature of the world is littered (from Augustine to Joyce) with people who believed in mortal sins and passed through the gate of guilt to the house of ill-repute to commit them and went right on committing them. As to people who believed in such things and doing it or not because of a pair of neurotic women, we can only say Orwell must not have been getting laid very much. But Hitchens is not done with the flimflam. He goes on at some length in his effort (remember this is 2005, the year of Katrina, way to go Brownie and the height of the slaughter in Hitchens’ noble crusade in Iraq) to paint Greene as an apostate of the West for his defense of the Soviet Union. And so we get this: “In 1967 he (Greene) wrote a celebrated letter to the London Times. Its ostensible purpose was to join the protest against the imprisonment of two Russian writers, but its main effect was to qualify that protest by stating the following: “If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States of America, I would certainly choose the Soviet Union, just as I would choose life in Cuba to [sic] life in those southern American republics, like Bolivia, dominated by their northern neighbor, or life in North Vietnam to life in South Vietnam.” This draws our attention for two reasons. First because it creates a Greene who is either an unthinking fool or a one trick pony and thus an idiot savant who in either case is incapable of sifting the facts and realizing that the Soviet Union is morally bankrupt and so is America and that per Kant, from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing will ever grow. And secondly because the problem for Hitchens is that first what he says lacks subtlety or much intelligence and secondly we observe not so much what he says but instead what he chooses to not say. The two Russian writers are of course, Andrei Sivyanski and Yuli Daniel. And of course Hitchens knows that and of course he knows that the readers he most admires and fears also know that and would have wondered why he doesn’t mention them by name. Hitchens was far too well versed, too intelligent and to meticulous a literary assassin and brawler to write such a line without considering how it would sound. Thus, what we have is that by not mentioning them he can reduce Greene to fool or idiot because Greene’s support of the two first contemporay dissident writers to be arrested, tried and sentenced to prison shows a flexibility and nuance at odds with Hitchens’ portrait of a morally bankrupt overrated but second rate flaneur and spiritual rube. Hitchens would have surely known that Greene would have known that aside from propaganda reasons, the Soviet Union would never allow Greene to have it both ways and on the one hand criticize the regime for a show trial and on the other praise it as a heaven in opposition to American perfidy. And keep in mind this was in 1967 a year when Hitchens was no doubt saying any number of things that his older self would find abhorrent but no doubt he would (and did) find ways to contextualize. But then, speaking of context, as this was said by Greene in 1967 we note that his moral objections were based on what was going on around him which included everything from self-immolating monks to carpet bombing civilians and the US government conducting secret experiments on its own citizens including dosing them with LSD, radiation and syphilis. This was three years after Strangelove and five years after Greene and Hitchens’ other compatriot Burgess, had published A Clockwork Orange. No, this won’t do for Hitch at all. Greene was committing a kind of noble suicide, utterly appropriate for the times and Hitchens is guilty of not only falsifying the record, but of not making the case on the available facts. The former offends morally while the latter offends good taste. The letter in question does not exonerate Greene but it does prevent Hitchens from winning on points if not in fact, losing because of the truth. First because it gives reason to doubt and secondly because it clearly demonstrates a moral failing on the part of the prosecution. This is the same elision of context practiced by Wood. Rob the narrative of why and suddenly things fall neatly into place. Include the context and suddenly the writers who are at pains to express ambiguity, contradiction paradox and the tumult of the postmodern madhouse, with all of its self-doubt and anxieties, become everything their critics deny. Greene is not Hichens’ failure, any more than Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Smith or Rushdie are Wood’s. And so one then imagines Hitchens arriving at a club in Hades and being offered a drink, by Greene (in a rumpled if still elegant off-white tropical weight suit) who says with a rueful smile: Welcome old boy. Don’t bother about the weather. You’ll get used to it. We all do.
- In Half Against Flaubert, Wood says: “From Flaubert, then, come the two main strands of contemporary writing: the aestheticism of style, or books “about nothing” (the nouveau roman, the avant garde, and so on).” Of course this is reductio ad absurdum at its finest, or worst. It sounds good in the pages of a slick like The New Republic but in truth it’s meaningless to the point of absurdity. To take one counter example: Stein, in speaking with Hemingway (who Wood would have us believe is descended from Flaubert, while his own declarations of paternity and Twain don’t get a mention) speaks of Cezanne. Stein of course was motivated to think visually by several points of personal friction – her rivalry with her brother Leo, her relationships with Matisse and Picasso, her own intelligence, and of course because she was surrounded by examples of a new language that forced a radical break with the prevailing orthodoxies. The idea that the visual revolution had no impact on the emergence of the Modern and the avant garde is not a serious notion. That Hemingway’s style (which as has been noted elsewhere is really a variant in the American style), per Chandler can be traced back to Whitman is undoubtedly true but Hemingway was a magpie, a sponge and in him one finds everything and everyone including the precise lines of a painter (as well as Bach and the King James Bible) and those lines are not only to be found originating in Flaubert. Regarding Febvre and Rabelais. It is interesting to note that Febvre was of course a founder of Les Annales and thus dedicated to a deep textual reading of the facts in order to create context. As such his deconstruction of the idea that Modernism begins with Rabelais is worth considering as an antidote to Wood’s proselytizing about Flaubert. Wood is making the same argument about Flaubert that others made about Rabelais and with the same essential defect. History as a linear progression from x to y is not legitimate because there are always too many points of origin and events are diffuse. The irony of course is that while a linear progression is usually the domain of the haute couture leftist, it emerges as the bespoke and ill-fitting costume of a stealth reactionary like Wood.
- A brief aside regarding A Moveable Feast generally and the chapters on Fitzgerald specifically. As we have pointed out elsewhere, the myth of Hemingway as monster is well established and has now descended into a kind of morbid senility devoid of actual scholarship but replete with prefabricated templates. Thus, Hemingway the mendacious, the misogynist, the closeted homosexual, etc. Hemingway of course was a genius and beneath the persona possessed a subtle and first rate mind. It is no accident that in the chapters about Fitz there is a scene where they discuss going to the Louvre to look at the ancient statues to gain a sense of perspective. This is lifted directly from the ideas of Plato, twisted in a Modernist vein and repackaged through the wit and method of Hemingway to show that Fitzgerald’s nexus of psychological dilemmas, relationships and thus his aesthetics were suffering unnecessarily from false beliefs. It is vintage Hemingway and thus many things but one thing it is not, is a sadistic put-down about shrinkage or a fishing line cast out by Flaubert.
- Contrast Wood’s assessment of Flaubert with Roberto Calasso writing of Baudelaire’s invention of, and response to the Modern and the style he forged to express it: “It is not something that concerns the power or the perfection of form. It concerns sensibility.” And: “The real modernity that takes shape in Baudelaire is this hunt for images, without beginning or end, goaded by the ‘demon of analogy.’ ”
- For a look at Wood’s equivocations and preveractions on Flaubert, see his letter to the editor, New York Times, May 6th, 2006.
- A Note on Dickens and bigotry. One defense used on Dickens’ behalf is that he was aiming to accurately portray the impoverished London of his time and that within that context, Jews, of a certain type, were to be found. This argument works up until one bothers with the fact that those Jews were that way (if at all) precisely because of the systemic bigotry and class warfare of the era which locked Jews into proscribed social roles for which they were then blamed. Compare this to the defense offered by certain individuals in the dust-up over George Lucas and Jar Jar Binks and other characters. The defense being that the creators did not intentionally create or mean to traffic in racist caricatures. That certainly is true but what is missing is that they stumbled into trafficking in racist characters because of their ignorance. The descent of those images from a time when it was understood that what they represented was “true” to a time when they have been taken from their context has left them latent like a dormant pathogen. But nonetheless the facts have not changed and become, alternatives. Dickens was a bigot who wanted a better world which was by definition one where Jews were still not Christians and thus not equal. Dickens was eventually to offer up a “good Jew” after receiving criticism about Fagin.
- Regarding Flaubert: Wood makes repeated insistent claims on Flaubert’s behalf and uses them to constrain the aesthetics of contemporary writers. He then equivocates and states that while he understands the counter-arguments he believes Flaubert’s position as origin point of Modernism is accurate. He then backtracks on that by stating Flaubert does not engage in “interiority” which of course is to Realistic Modernism as a thee and a thou are to Elizabethan drama. In regards to some specific examples of Flaubert’s writing: From the wedding: “According to their different social positions they wore tail-coats, overcoats, shooting jackets, cutaway-coats; fine tail-coats, redolent of family respectability, that only came out of the wardrobe on state occasions; overcoats with long tails flapping in the wind and round capes and pockets like sacks; shooting jackets of coarse cloth, generally worn with a cap with a brass-bound peak; very short cutaway-coats with two small buttons in the back, close together like a pair of eyes, and the tails of which seemed cut out of one piece by a carpenter’s hatchet. Some, too (but these, you may be sure, would sit at the bottom of the table), wore their best blouses—that is to say, with collars turned down to the shoulders, the back gathered into small plaits and the waist fastened very low down with a worked belt.” This is a perfect illustration of Valery’s point. It is also excruciatingly dull, listless and antithetical to Realistic Modernism. It is a sociology report not literature. The mitigating fact is that no one had really bothered to do this before and amid the rush of faith in objective scientific accuracy and honesty Flaubert can be understood if not forgiven. This is followed by: “The table was laid under the cart-shed. On it were four sirloins, six chicken fricassees, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and in the middle a fine roast suckling pig,flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel.” Wood and other adherents of the cult repeat mantras regarding Flaubert’s agonizing work habits. He toiled, we are told, sometimes spending a week on one sentence. We don’t doubt it. If this is one’s idea of good writing then we can easily imagine the effort required to list the details of a menu. And this: “Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.” It is not just that this is bad writing in the sense that it betrays an absence of depth (“interiority”) but that it betrays the myth of Flaubert’s “genius.” What it reveals is the pre-Freudian world; a pre-alienist world devoid of any psychological complexity. Emma/Flaubert goes from zero/love to 60/not in love with all the nuance of a teenager shifting from one crush to another.
- Works and authors consulted (a partial list): Wood, James, The Broken Estate. Julius, Anthony, T.S. Eliot anti-Semitism and Literary Form, and: The Trials of The Diaspora, A History of Anti-Semitism in England. Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder. Miller, Henry, The Time of the Assassins. Jackson, Kevin, Constellation of Genius 1922 Modernism Year One. Calosso, Roberto, La Folie Baudelaire.
- For a cursory examination of the extent to which Wood’s extraordinary cock-up regarding Pynchon’s use of conspiracies within London during the war, see details about the Right Club: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_Club
- Regarding Paul Valery it is important to note that he comes with his own baggage, namely his support for Edouard Drumont the proto-fascist and anti-Semite of the 19th century French right. Valery was also a committed anti-Dreyfusard and as a member of the political-military bureaucracy that is not surprising or in anyway mitigated by his later, honorable, public defense of Henri Bergson. Valery was a bigot, who occupied a vague middle ground between monarchy and fascism. He was also correct about Flaubert.
- For a look at the checkerboard of dissecting who is or isn’t an anti-Semite or who is a little bit of one, or even an accidental one (as if it were possible to trip into one’s brown shirt) see the following: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/f-scott-fitzgerald-and-literary-anti-semitisma-footnote-on-the-mind-of-the-20s/…and:https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-crippled-giant-by-milton-hindus/
- A brief note on Zadie Smith and White Teeth. It is worth pointing out that Wood is right about her being shallow, but it’s that he’s right for all the wrong reasons precisely because as discussed, he offers no context. As to Smith herself, she recently described her winning the literary lottery because of Cambridge-centric nepotism. She mentions that it was a former Cambridge student who asked to read her 30 or so pages of rough manuscript, that it was another Cambridge alum who put her in touch with the right people (i.e., publishers with money to burn) and still another Cambridge-ite who said she should get an agent. However, Smith stumbles in the telling because while she does a modified humble-brag about the nepotism, she discusses getting an agent as if one goes to the local box store and pulls one off the shelf. What’s left out of course is that not only is White Teeth shallow, (preciously shallow) but that it and the author were bought and paid for by cynics on the hunt for someone and something that ticked all the right boxes that had been ticked by the people in the marketing office who in turn owe their homes and souls to the accountants. For an outstanding look at what’s wrong with White Teeth, Zadie Smith and publishing, see the following:
Addendum: It is worth noting that John Ashbery’s view that the origins of the Nouveau Roman are to be found in the work of Raymond Roussel. Consider the following (emphasis added): “One sees how much the “new novelists” especially, Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose title, La Voyeur is an intentional allusion to, La Vue, have learned from Roussel. Their exasperatingly complete descriptions of uninteresting objects originated with Roussel, and so the idea of a universe in which people are merely objects and objects are endowed with an almost human hostility.”
For the complete essay, see: Death and the Labyrinth, edited by Michel Foucault. Ashbury’s essay was the introduction to the first edition and subsequently appears as a postscript.
Beyond that it is important to understand that while it is clear that Wood is not correct in his point about Flaubert as the origin of Modernism, that even if he were not wrong there are so many competing ideas about the origin, put forward by experts (i.e. professional writers of fiction) that intellectual honesty and rigor demand a proper accounting. In Wood, those qualities are lacking.
We also take note of another point that Ashbery makes in his notes on Rousell, in which he illuminates the technique in Roussel New Impressions of Africa, in particular, his use of lists (emphasis again, added).
“…but the narrative is constantly interrupted by a parenthetical thought. New words suggest new parenthesis; sometimes as many as five pairs of parentheses ((((())))) isolate one idea in the surrounding verbiage like the central sphere in a Chinese puzzle. In order to finish the first sentence one must turn ahead to the last line of the canto, and by working forward and backwards one can at last piece the poem together…the hiccoughing parenthetical passages that accumulate at the beginning and end of each canto, tend to subside in the middle, giving way to long catalogues or lists: for example, lists of gratuitous gifts; idle suppositions; objects that have the form of a cross; or others that are similar in appearance but not in size, and which one must be careful not to confuse, such as a pile of red eggs under falling snow on a windless day and a heap of strawberries being sprinkled with sugar.”
It is clear at this point that Wood is substandard as a critic and overabundant with his certainties. The danger of course, as we’ve shown lies in the moments when the lack of erudition is combined with that certainty as in his defense of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and his dismissal of the corollary – Eliot’s fascism. It also speaks to the triumph of the demagoguery of the bullhorn as a substitute for the difficult work of actual research. Magazines like The New Yorker operate as closed systems and echo chambers. Criticism is elided, or ridiculed to the point of being erased in a mock-Orwellian fashion. The truth of course remains; Wood is fraudulent, intellectually barren and The New Yorker is his enabler. This brings us back to Jonathan Lethem’s point that listening to Wood’s criticism is like being attacked by a miniature and unarmored knight who is convinced he is both a giant and covered in vibranium. Shades of Python, and the Black knight.
In light of the publication of James Wood’s new novel we note the following with amusement:
Here is Jean Paul Sartre having a go at Flaubert (courtesy of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism or the logic of late Capitalism):
“His sentence (Sartre tells us about Flaubert) closes in on the object, seizes it, immobilizes it, and breaks its back, wraps itself around it, changes into stone and petrifies its object along with itself. It is blind and deaf, bloodless, not a breath of life; a deep silence separates it from the sentence which follows; it falls into the void, eternally, and drags its prey down into that infinite fall. Any reality, once described, is struck off the inventory”
Essentially this is Flaubert’s gravestone. The appeal of his dead on arrival leaden descriptions is reactionary – that is, the contemporary reader who enjoys him is either blissfully unaware of Modernity (and by default is a reactionary) or like Wood refuses to acknowledge the facts (as his absurd smears on Pynchon and DeLillo make clear) and is actively a reactionary who dreams of somehow resurrecting the hierarchies of the pre-modern – thus Wood’s reverence for the phrase: Like a good valet…which reeks of snobbery and the decadence of a new-money aristocrat who has purchased a title.
For a look into Sartre’s massive examination of Flaubert see the following:
Note: The Vicar changes his tune regarding D.F. Wallace:
Another example of Wood’s second rate criticism and first rate reactionary stance can be found by considering the following description of the atmosphere in Miami in 1961-62. This is of course during the height of the Cold War confrontation between the Kennedy regime, the CIA, the Mafia, the military, the anti-Castro forces and Castro and the Soviet Union.
“The CIA’s Miami station, JMWAVE, became in short order its second-largest outpost in the entire world, behind only the new head-quarters in Langley, Virginia…Housed on the University of Miami’s sprawling South Campus, under the cover name of Zenith Technical Enterprises, JMWAVE grew to as many as six hundred personnel headed by the “blond ghost,”…as Ted Shackley, would be nicknamed.
JMWAVE had more than a hundred cars under lease and so many boats…it controlled the third largest navy in the Caribbean…It operated an archipelago of safe houses and training sites across South Florida. Some fifteen thousand Cubans were connected with JMWAVE…Miami came to resemble “wartime Casablanca”…”it swarmed with spies, counterspies, exiled dictators, Mafia executives, entertainers, countesses, smugglers, gamblers, fortune-hunters, gun runners, soldiers of fortune, fugitives and loudly dressed tourists – many pursuing possibly criminal ends against the garish backdrop of Miami beach.””
This is from the conservative historian, Max Boot’s biography of Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken, Edward Lansdale and The American Tragedy in Vietnam.
Of course it could just as easily be a description of a novel by Pynchon or DeLillo. And needless to say it not only refutes Wood’s criticism about the failure of what he labels paranoid writing, it demonstrates that Wood is an amateur as a critic who can’t be bothered to engage in even the most basic research. Q.E.D., it also makes it clear that Wood’s position is best described as a shabby reactionary stance – a fellow traveler of a corner of the UKIP and effete American right wing that prides itself on what it calls its intellectual superiority. Lastly this of course contextualizes The New Yorker as both a failure at editorial standards and as an intellectually bankrupt relic of East Coast aristocratic liberalism making common cause with the conservatives.
We note with wry amusement the following, from John Gerassi’s Jean-Paul Sartre, Hated Conscience of His Country in which Gerassi interrogates Sartre:
“How can you, an anarchist, understand a reactionary, Flaubert, who hoped that every communard would be put against the wall, who feared and hated the poor?”
Can there be any doubt, as to the true nature of Wood’s program and his agenda?
A note regarding the distance from contemporary writing to Flaubert vs Cervantes.
Logically one objects and says that if Flaubert is increasingly distant than surely Cervantes and Sterne would be even more so. If distance were the only criterion than that would be true. What distinguishes Sterne and Cervantes from Flaubert in the context of Wood’s claims, is the experimentation with form and the playfulness in the former two and the utter lack of both in Flaubert. Sterne and Cervantes wrote with the idea that they were making up the form of the novel as they wrote it; that there were no rules or at best the rules that existed were ad hoc and provisional. In contrast Flaubert is a haute bourgeois stiff with all the stylistic elasticity of a petrified turd. In other words, exactly as Sartre describes him.