Cette cosmogonie ancienne et nouvelle

Exploration d’une oeuvre à la fois monumentale et intime qui se fait le témoin d’un questionnement perpétuel embrassant tous les territoires de l’âme et de la conscience, la visite de cette exposition est bouleversante. Anselm Kiefer nous associe à son travail de deuil mais aussi de connaissance; l’absence presque totale de représentations humaines (excepté l’artiste lui-même dans ses Heroische Sinnbilder et des personnages de la mythologie) n’exclut pas l’humanité, à laquelle se substitue le spectateur – qui devient acteur. Extérieur à la toile, il se trouve cependant placé à son point d’origine, ce qui l’engage immanquablement dans une réflexion personnelle. Kiefer ne souhaite pas imposer une interprétation, c’est au visiteur de trouver son chemin dans cette cosmogonie ancienne et nouvelle.

from a rather excellent review of an Anselm Kiefer exhibition at De Seuil en Seuil.

Berryman on Pound

If Browning makes the fastest verse in English, Pound makes the slowest, the most discrete and suave. He once said of a story in Dubliners that it was something better than a story, it was “a vivid waiting,” and the phrase yields much of his own quality. There is restlessness, but the art of the poet places itself, above all, immediately and mysteriously at the service of the passive and the elegiac, the nostalgic. The true ascendancy of this personality over any other is suggested by a singular fact: the degree in which the mantic character is absent from his poetry. He looks ahead indeed, looks ahead eagerly, but he does not feel ahead; he feels back. (…) It is the poetry of a late craftsman; of an expatriate of a failing culture

from John Berryman’s essay “The Poetry of Ezra Pound”, collected in Berryman’s indispensable The Freedom of the Poet.

I wondered ever too what my fate would be

John Berryman: The Search

I wondered ever too what my fate would be,
woman & after-fame become quite unavailable,
or at best unimportant. For a tooth-extraction
gassed once, by a Russian woman in Detroit,

I dreamed a dream to end dreams, even my dreams:
I had died – no problem: but a mighty hand
was after my works, too, feeling here & there,
& finding them, bit by bit.
At last he found the final of all one, & pulled it away, & said ‘There!’

I began the historical study of the Gospel
indebted above all to Guignebert
& Goguel & McNeile
& Bultmann even & later Archbishop Carrington.

The Miracles were a stumbling block;
until I read Karl Heim, trained in natural science;
until I had sufficiently attended to
The Transfiguration & The Ecstasy.

I was weak on the Fourth Gospel. I still am,
in places; I plan to amend that.
Wellisch on Isaac & Oedipus
supplements for me Kierkegaard.

Luther on Galatians (his grand joy)
I laid aside until I was older & wiser.
Bishop Andrewes’ account of the Resurrection-appearances
in 1609 seemed to me, seems to me, it.

I studied Titian’s remarks on The Tribute-Money.
Bishop Westcott’s analysis (it took him 25 years)
of the first eighteen verses of St. John
struck me as of a cunning like Odysseus’.

And other systems, high and primitive,
ancient & surviving, did I not neglect,
sky-gods & trickster-gods, gods impotent,
the malice & force of the dead.

When at twelve Einstein lost belief in God
he said to himself at once (as he put it later)
‘Similarly motivated men, both of the past & of the present,
together with their achieved insights,
waren die unverlierbaren Freunde’ – the unloseable friends.

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

Hustvedt, Siri (2011), The Summer Without Men, Picador
ISBN 978-0-312-57060-6

Here is something that is said far too rarely: Siri Hustvedt is undoubtedly one of the best novelists of her generation. In the past decade she has slowly built a body of work that has become more impressive with each new novel. Her fourth novel, The Sorrow of an American, may be a her crowning achievement so far, a perfectly sculpted examination of loss and memory, of identity and history. In less than 400 pages, Hustvedt offered us an intellectual novel that was considered, careful and driven by the urgency of the born novelist. It felt necessary, it was moving, and thanks to Hustvedt’s stunningly nimble pen, it was written with a precise and effective yet poetic style. Although she writes intellectual prose, her work does not resemble the ones of the likes of Paul Auster, Michael Cunningham, Haruki Murakami or Richard Powers, and not only because of her superior style. No, it’s the fact that Hustvedt’s work always seems necessary, well-rounded and complete. The point is especially obvious if we compare The Sorrow of an American with any novel by Richard Powers, for example The Echo Maker. Powers, a writer of gaps, of jumps and associations, has always put ideas before style; in his work, this has often meant relying on cliché plots and simple characters, reaching for a simple emotionality that is at odds with the sophisticated nature of the scientific and philosophical background of his work. Even his prose betrays his preferences, by slipping by turns into stock phrases and a slouching writerly gait on the one hand (as in The Echo Maker), or into a style marked by a sophisticated vocabulary crammed into a simple (sometimes even awkward) syntax, which makes for an unpleasantly bloated style (as in novels like The Goldbug Variations). However, there is a visionary air to the best of his books, and a highly insistent handling of the subject matter that keeps us reading, and that is responsible for the lavish critical praise he’s received over the past decades.

Hustvedt’s books are ostensibly more private, small-scale affairs, but no less visionary and a great deal more accomplished as literary works of art. She writes small dramas, employing her considerable insights into philosophy and science only as and when they are necessary for the story at hand. That, and the incredibly readable style of her novels might have obscured the fact of how extraordinary a writer she’s become, besting many of the male writers frequently regarded as ‘major’ writers of our age. There is bound to be a certain frustration with these matters, with this critical glass ceiling that many excellent female writers face who do not (or nor predominantly) write about the plight of their female characters. Most of Hustvedt’s characters are male, and her novels lack the shrill cry of canonical importance. As if we needed any further example, it was recently pointed out that Jonathan Franzen,yon bright beacon of self-satisfied canonized mediocrity, is reaping laurels writing the kind of domestic drama that female writers were always marginalized for doing. As I said, this state of matters is bound to create a certain degree of frustration, and I think that part of the astonishing energy driving Hustvedt’s slender, but magnificently dense new novel The Summer without Men is due to just that kind of frustration.

Of course, it’s easy for me to claim this since the book contains a plethora of rants and bitter and hilarious exhortations that touch on just these kinds of subjects. Indeed, The Summer without Men contains surprisingly little in the way of plot or characterization, especially when compared to Hustvedt’s other novels. The book takes off when Hustvedt’s protagonist, Mia Fredrickson, rents an apartment near where her mother lives after her husband Boris has left her for a French woman “with limp but shiny hair” and she suffers from a temporary psychological breakdown, which leads to a short hospitalization. The book doesn’t dwell much on the temporary insanity that gripped Mia, and dwells even less on her husband’s decision to call it quits after 30 years of marriage (although the novel does contain memories of happier times in their marriage). The rental she moves into is at the edge of town, and although there is no reason why it couldn’t be crawling with men, we perceive the area as a kind of female community, since those are the people that Mia keeps in touch with, both privately and professionally. Privately, she gets to know her mother’s circle of friends, a group of women who have made both happy and unhappy experiences in the company of men, and have drawn different lessons from it. The focal point of the group for Mia is the ninety-four year old Abigail, who has lived a life hiding in the embroidered folds of propriety. Literally. In her vast repertoire of embroidered objects, she has hidden images that would have clashed with the idea of what was proper for a woman of her time. Gleefully, she unveils her secrets one object at a time to a rapt Mia, who, talking to Abigail, her mother and the other older women, regains a firm sense of self. Her professional contacts mainly include a class of girls she starts to teach.

That class of girls starts to pick on one of their own, making her an outsider, a process that eventually leads to bloody tissue on the teacher’s desk, tears in the class room, and an extended exercise in writing intended to raise the self-awareness of everyone concerned. Even if we the readers had not been told of the extensive similarities that connects this group of girls with the group of girls surrounding Mia when she was their age, we would see that this is the obvious literary function of this part of the plot. In Mia, the old women and the mean girls in class, Hustvedt presents us with three generations of female experience. This is complemented by essayistic elements that discuss art, culture and science in almost acidic tones; this is done plainly, clearly and obviously. No attempt has been made to assimilate the various the plot strands, rants, comments, reminiscences and poems. They cohere only when we look at the whole of the novel as a long, coherent work. This is strikingly different from her earlier work which was always written in one voice, aperçus, remarks and various plot elements smoothed into one story. While her other novels are frequently novels of idea clothed in the sheep’s wool of a rich and engaging story, her most recent work is a much more obvious affair. Its story is more an excuse to develop a series of ideas about science, gender and relationships, and the author doesn’t attempt to hide the fact.

Although The Summer without Men is written from the perspective of her distraught and temporarily confused protagonist, the novel always keeps us at a remove from her by introducing a shelf-bending amount of other writers and thinkers by way of references and explicit quotes. Discussions of Emily Dickinson, behavioral psychologists and gender issues are woven into what is basically a long stream of thought that contains outside events as well as the the slow gestation of thoughts in the protagonist’s mind. Mind you, The Summer without Men is not a nonfiction essay merged with a novel, although the essayist fragments that swirl around in it are frequently brilliant. The book it most closely resembles is Nicholson Baker’s recent masterpiece The Anthologist, a meandering essay on modern poetry as channeled through the mind of its third rate poet/critic protagonist. Baker’s book is obsessed with its protagonist, molding the comments on poetic form and poetic tradition to fit his slightly unhinged mind. The effect would have been claustrophobic, if not for Baker’s light style; a book turned inward, its logic starting and ending with the limits and limitations of the eponymous assembler of anthologies. There is a similar web of connections that spans from Hustvedt’s protagonist to her elaborate musings on art and culture and finally even to characters and events that turn up in the novel. The effect is not at all claustrophobic, however, since Hustvedt’s novel looks outward, scans the ridges and valleys of culture and presents a woman protagonist who suffers both from a specific, individual fate, as well as from being part of a society that still fosters misogynist myths and stories.

This seems to be a somewhat common kind of narrative, but unlike canonical works of feminist literature (like Margaret Atwood’s scintillating, similarly slim masterpiece Surfacing), Hustvedt eschews essentialist symbolism. Her focus is not on the body and symbolism, or on locating ‘the feminine’ within loci and narratives thought of as male. Instead she hands us a story that could have been written by one of many mediocre postmodern novelists, but infused with a self-reflective awareness of how her protagonist is held and changed by her place in various discourses of power. It serves as a corrective mechanism to an American literary canon, where male narratives like Baker’s are perceived and read as universal. Books like Hustvedt’s point out how many things within such novels change if the gender of the protagonist, and the attendant contexts, change. If her earlier novel has easily bested those of Richard Powers at their own game, then this one takes on, and makes mince meat of, a different canon. This canon is led by writers like Paul Auster, whose work increasingly resembles that of the aging Philip Roth in that both contain sentimental plots that are garnished with a reasonably erudite discussion of literary and cultural contexts, all of which come to bear, in one way or another, on the sentimental education of his/their (male) protagonists. Women jump in and out of the books, mere foils for the protagonists to project their desires on. The sad climax of this development can be found in the lesbian fantasies in Roth’s The Humbling (2008, cf. my review here) and the pedophiliac fantasies in Auster’s Sunset Park (2010, cf. my review for details).

Hustvedt counters these stories with a doubting heroine, an angry, questioning woman stranded on what might as well be a planet without men, where women discuss and exhibit the problems incurred by living in a world where casual (and not so casual) sexism pervades science, criticism and everyday relationships. But her main hobby horse is literature. And it’s not just some odd obsession of Mia’s. One only needs to read one of the many put-downs of NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani’s writing; the tone and vocabulary of most of these petty criticisms (regardless of their overall accuracy) is frighteningly revealing as to the degree of misogyny of the writer of the negative assessment in question. One also might want to follow discussions of Jane Austen’s work, or read reviews of female poets. Whereas male poets are often just ‘poets’, female poets are ‘female poets’, more likely to be compared to other female poets, however close they may be to their male contemporaries. Mia Fredrickson is a poet and a teacher of literature, and acutely aware of these kinds of biases; what’s more, she’s aware of them in other areas, as well, pointing out again and again that the cultural and social center of gravity is predominantly male. So much so that, in fact, the “summer without men” is really a summer that contains a lot of men in absentia. Despite the female community and the female protagonist and the feminist topics, Hustvedt’s heroine doesn’t try to reclaim (as Atwood tried) a strong, separate female identity. These have, like all vaguely essentialist theories, weak points, reproducing identical biases, with the positions merely reversed.

In her brilliantly precise story, Hustvedt tells a story of a female experience that’s female not because of inherent biological factors, but because this sort of experience is forced on Mia and some of the women of her circle by the way society around them works. Lacking her exquisite precision, I find it difficult to pinpoint how fine a point Hustvedt and Mia put on this. In a discussion towards the end of the book, Mia argues for the primacy of experience over theory, but the whole of the novel is governed by a very clear view of the philosophical and theoretical foundations upon which the novel’s structure, from the individual events that happen, to the way the novel is assembled, is founded. There is none of the murky slough of despond like the one that takes center stage in the novels of the aforementioned aging Americans. Instead, Hustvedt’s book is driven by an almost crystalline clarity, which could also be seen as its main weakness. To some readers it may seem emotionally remote, an effect that derives from the fact that the novel depicts a mind thinking. Mia’s mind is working its way through various sets of knowledge; sets of things she knows and cares about: poems, lists of writers, stray memories. In the process of making sense of a radically changed emotional environment, even other people and events have to fulfill the role of objects about to be cataloged. The overall effect is mesmerizing, and The Summer without Men, while not Hustvedt’s best, is a powerful achievement. One hopes that she’s eventually accorded the place in the canon of major contemporary American novelists she deserves.


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A ball game and a juggling game

I mean, you can do it two ways in philosophy: You can talk about one book or one chapter or one page and pride yourself on never getting past the questions raised by that, or you can just throw a library at kids and force them to go through it. And I believe in both pedagogically. It’s always a ball game and a juggling game.

The incredible Stanley Cavell, in an interview with Bookforum

The early bees are assaulting the flowers

This poet I only recently discovered through an excellent essay by John Berryman on anglophone post-WWII poetry. His work is remarkably slim, but stunningly excellent. This is probably his most well known, most anthologized poem (the last line of each stanza is indented. Click here for a correctly spaced version of the poem):

Henry Reed: Lessons of the War

To Alan Michell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.