Casaubon's Book

Still Far Away and on a Dark Mountain

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird’s cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above the snow…
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mache’…
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry – It was
A choristoer whose C predeeded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality. – Wallace Stevens “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”

It is almost certainly not wholly your fault if you hear the words “poetry,” “criticism,” and “culture” and your brain shuts off immediately and you start thinking about whether doing the dishes piled up in the sink would really be that much less fun than surfing this portion of the internet. Much of literary culture, and literary education from the middle school to the graduate school level is designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to bore the crap out of you and make you hate anything that smacks of high culture. Whether intentionally obscurist or simply tedious, literary education, literary criticism and indeed, contemporary literary culture are designed to valorize the obscure and totally irrelevant over the pressing and immediate, explain to you why the people you actually read are not important and often, to take the fun out of your books.

I’ve told this story before, but I think it bears repeating as a good example of why people don’t read poetry. Some years ago, my cousin, now herself a teacher, brought her high school English homework to a family event and asked me to help her with it. The contents were a long list of literary terms, and a thick sheaf of poems, all ostensibly about trees and nature. Her job was to find three examples in the poems of each of these literary practice, and then write an essay comparing two of the poems. Sitting down with her to look for foreshadowing in three poems, and then zeugma (yeah, I had to look it up too ;-)), I could see why my cousin informed me that she had absolutely no intention of studying English in college beyond what was absolutely mandatory.

When she asked me for help with comparing two poems (here initial proposed thesis “they are about trees.” ;-)), I suggested that she consider why both Frost (Birches) and Wordsworth (Nutting) felt it was so important to write poems that were ostensibly about trees, but had an enormous amount of content about masturbation. She initially didn’t believe that content was there – she had read the poems, but had also been taught so long that high culture was boring that it never occurred to her to look for anything fun. A brief dramatic read-along made it kind of hard to believe otherwise, though (yes, I know you want to go look them up, so go ahead, this piece will still be here.) In the end, she, probably correctly, did not feel such a paper would prosper with the kind of teacher who sent one a sheaf of tree poems to find instances of foreshadowing.

That kind of English education, and the high academic style that focuses on trivialities to the exclusion of the point (I should be clear, not all academic studies of literature fall in this category – indeed, many don’t) are both to blame for the fact that things that aren’t actually boring or all that difficult get treated as though they are. All of the commonly lamented reasons why people don’t read “serious literature” are true – we watch too much tv, we play too many video games, we are in many ways a post-literate culture. But were our serious books and our poems as engaging as much low culture writing actually is, I doubt we’d bother making the laments.

The project of good teaching about literature, then, I find, is mostly about un-teaching people what they’ve learned – that is, that one does not love books because of their importance, or the author’s self-importance, or because you’ve been taught that they are important. One loves books because they are funny and engaging and brilliant and moving and angering and arousing and dirty and comic and fierce. Teaching Shakespeare, for example, is partly about teaching people to understand Shakespeare’s language, but even more about unteaching them the reverence they’ve been imbued with for Shakespeare the high culture genius and replacing it with actual affection for Shakespeare the very funny and moving writer. It has been a while, but I have stood in front of a room full of students trying hard to get them to laugh at the scene of the noble heroine, so pure and glorious that cast into a whorehouse because she’s so damned annoying, she converts the whores to nuns, and they sing hymns to the horny sailors below. It is a tough sell until you break the mystique of Shakespeare, and then, they laugh.

What’s perhaps not surprising is that the same false impression that your average 18 year old has of high culture writing – that it is good because it is obscure and focuses on high minded ideas rather than the actual realities of life – seems to be what most critics think makes a good novel these days. A Professor of mine, Paul Morrison once observed that never in all of literary history has there been such a violent distinction between “Good literature” and what people are actually reading. The literary movements of the last 50 years have been confined entirely to an increasingly smaller educated class of people who have actually bought the “obscure is good” bit, and an entire industry exists to promote the literary works of writers whose main claim to fame is that they are hard to read and spend their time meditating on important things like the emptiness of modern life.

There are some important exceptions to this in contemporary writing, mostly from writers writing in English from Africa, India and the Caribbean, but England, Canada and the US have created a gulf between people we read and people we pretend we read so vast that it is nearly impossible to ignore it – or would be if more than a minute percentage of the population actually gave a shit.

When high culture writers do actually get read, it is often, these days, because they abandon their traditional forms and write books that more closely resemble the genre fiction that most people actually read. And the genre they most often take up, given the scope and pressing nature of our collective crisis, is the apocalyptic novel. If you are Philip Roth, for example, and have already dragged out the personal disaster of aging as long as humanly possible, through an extended meditation on incontinence and impotence, what’s left, except an alternate history disaster story? After you’ve already killed everyone off in _No Country for Old Men_ why not actually kill everyone off, in _The Road_. It is not accident that these books were real best sellers, rather than the kind of best seller usual to high culture writers, ie, that created by someone creating a household buzz about a book that no one reads (this is what book reviews are for) but often gives to one’s relatives that one doesn’t know very well. If you are Ian McEwan who has already meditated lengthily and with no obvious results on what, Iraq, Terrorism and potential toilet paper shortages, mean to very dull people, why not go on to climate change and sell a few more books by being RELEVANT?

These books represent an attempt to grapple with the great crises of our time, to step out of the irrelevance of high culture psychological writing, and actually get at what’s coming, but they represent failures in a number of ways. The Road, (which I think may win prizes for most over-rated book of our times and also for unintentionally-funniest-moment-designed-to-horrify that fails miserably – who doesn’t love a good baby-on-a-stick) goes where just about every man has gone before – to the end of the world. Unsurprisingly, what he finds there is pretty much nothing good. The same is true for Roth, whose deepest message might be best described as “good thing it didn’t happen” or McEwan whose final message is “If we think a lot about these things, well, thinking is nearly as good as doing.”

There is, as yet, no literary writers who can get at where we’re going, who don’t fall into the trap of the end of the world. I find this disappointing, because such a literature does exist – we have literatures that derive from deep suffering, from the unmaking of a world and reconsittuting it in difficult times. We have the literature of Holocaust Survivors, and the survivors of the medieval and renaissance black deaths. We have the body of literature written by the world war generations, seen the world torn by conflagration, and by the poets who lived through the unmaking of monarchic society and revolutions in England, France and. We have the poetry of war-torn lands, of Apartheid and slavery. That is, the canon of literature is overwhelmingly a body of work whose best creations came when the world was radically transformed, when it did not seem as though there was a comprehensible future. Unlike the present, though, that literature was usually popular and literary simultaneously – that is, it was written for the people whose world was being unmade, by people who could tell stories – stories to explain, stories to inspire, stories to move to laughter in the face of terrible events, stories to use as a guide to navigate through hard places.

As far as I can see, that is not true of most contemporary poetry and fiction – in fact, it is the contrary. Most writers are not writing for the people who are living through the beginnings of our trauma – they know that the people who are already struggling, already impoverished, already losing their homes will not read them, and while some struggle with this, most seem so accustomed to the radical division between people we read and people we don’t that they don’t grasp that it matters.

I began this essay with Wallace Stevens, who in many ways is, I think, the patron saint of th division between high and low culture – and the architect of one kind of (failed, but interesting) attempt to push through the barriers. Stevens, the archetypical high culture poet, preoccupied with language, with abstraction, with the role and importance of the poet in an industrial society that was rapidly determining that the poet had little importance at all, turned, late in life, to the question of how a poet gets at something real, that actually matters. The poems he wrote from WWII on were materially different than the ones he wrote before, an attempt to grapple, awkwardly, at a distance, two steps forward and one back, recoiling in horror at harsh reality, with this question of what poetry can do in the face of something truly terrible, how the poet, frozen in language and distance can finally get real.

This question of whether we can get real matters. The truth is, we know our world by stories – we may inquire into truth and attempt to remove bias, but we live in our world through stories. We tell them and listen to them and they organize the meaning we find in events. This is what literature, high and low is ultimately about – and we have not yet, as a people, figured out what kind of stories we will tell. We are stuck between two false ones – the techno-utopian future in which our problems are solved, the consequences disappear and we emerge into sunny perfection, with plenty of time to meditate on our personal alienation, or the end of the world, at which there is nothing, at which even language ultimately collapses.

But there is a story in the middle there – or rather, many stories, waiting to be told. Stories about how we break through our narrow options. Stories about how we will navigate this new world. Stories about how we will tell our history to others. Stories about how we will survive, and how we will die. Stories that are true and stories we will, eventually, come to remember as true.

The only people I know of attempting to do this are those involved in the Dark Mountain Project, founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, who have conceived a literary movement driven by precisely our collective crisis, an attempt to grapple with things we have no words or stories for as yet. It is a fascinating project, and one worth doing – I’m watching their emerging thought with curiosity.

It is not clear what, if anything, Dark Mountain and the literary movement it clearly aims to inspire will produce, or whether many people will read what it does produce. I personally tend to think that the best writing is often produced not by those who throw themselves enthusiastically off the edge of the precipice, embracing radical change, but by those who are fearful of the edge but drawn to it, who crawl, hands and knees, towards a shaking margin, drawing back and unable to look away. I wonder if Dark Mountain writers may not be too enthusiastic about the project of “uncivilization” in some ways.

But they are trying, and grasping at something extraordinarily difficult, and the grasping alone is worthy and honorable work. Attempting to find a story between the obvious ones, one that we can actually tell ourselves and go on to tell our grandchildren, that has both truth and the feel of truth and pleasure as well – this is no easy project, and I admire them for the attempt. Just breaking out of the rigid, bony structure that divides us into apocalypse and utopia alone is remarkable, given how strongly we are driven between those two piers.

As I began with Stevens, I will end with him, from one of his very late poems, published posthumously, clearly a meditation on what will happen after his death from its title “As You Leave the Room.”


You speak. You say: Today’s character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.

That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,

The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.

I wonder, have I lived a skeleton’s life,
As a disbeliever in reality,

A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes

Part of a major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality

And thus an elevation, as if I left
With something I could touch, touch every way.

And yet nothing has been changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.

The speaker here speaks back to another poem “First Warmth” in which Stevens articulates the coming of something, a warmth, a reality, that he had lost or forgotten or never wholly known. In “As You Leave the Room” he has another speaker ask him the same question – has he been a real person, or has he been so apart from the world as to be unable to matter to it. And this time, the answer comes back not in warmth, but in cold, in snow, like the warmth, touchable, but this time unstable, uncertain. “First Warmth” ends with the sense that Stevens has found the human, found something that will enable him to actually connect. “As You Leave the Room” leaves us less certain – he has connected with something, but it is icy cold and much harsher, and much less certain. But, of course, we suspect it may be more real.

The difficult honesty of Stevens, who at least can acknowledge what he does not know and cannot get at, may be the thing that differentiates Dark Mountain as a literary movement from our disconnected, abstracted literary movements that seem, correctly, to have nothing to do with anything. They do not tell new stories, for the most part, and they do not seem to realize that it is possible to have a literature that actually speaks to the present, even when history inconveniently, moves along an untrodden path. It may be the most honest attempt at literature we’ve seen – and that alone marks it as a kind of success we have been lacking.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 jen
    February 1, 2010

    Thank you so much for linking this project, I had yet to hear of it and am very interested in following the progress. How literature will evolve through out this century is something my spouse, an English teacher/writer, discuss often. As we see job postings cut by half or more in the humanities and the continual mantra of you can’t do ANYTHING with a liberal arts degree, I worry we will lose even more footing in the argument for the validity of literature, for the study of it. I’m trying to remember a post you wrote, I think, about tending to the chores while thinking of a poem, etc. I feel that more than ever we will need strong voices to carry us through this transition, through the days that will grind our souls.
    Oh and thank you for Stevens, one of my favorites, if only we could all write those poems.

  2. #2 Greenpa
    February 1, 2010

    You’ll be interested to know I came to much the same conclusions on Biology textbooks- they are hideous in their presentation of what is totally fascinating; almost designed to turn off anyone not already turned on.

    My conclusion about it was that the texts are written by professors. Many of them of course suffer from PhD Disease, but beyond that, they tend to want to show us what THEY find most interesting. In Biology, that’s usually DNA and the intricacies of genetics. Fairly new, very exciting, and utterly lethal for a non-interested person.

    If ya wanna get them interested, take them outside, and set them to chasing frogs and butterflies. They’ll be fascinated in no time.

    The analogue in literature would probably work the same. Go play with the words. Have fun.

    I actually brought this up with a favorite professor of mine, when I learned he was writing a beginning Bio text; went into it in detail, from my viewpoint of recently having served as TA for big beginning Bio classes full of kids just filling a requirement.

    He was sympathetic to my concerns; listened well- and explained another reality of textbooks- they are designated, published, and purchased by “boards” – not by any measure of student success, appreciation or preference. And the boards answer to – parents, who demand the best most advanced stuff for their expensive children.

    Artsy-fartsy airy-fairy doesn’t cut it in the publication biz.

    Sigh. What a mess we are.

  3. #3 Shamba
    February 1, 2010

    Thank you so much, Sharon, for the thoughts about books/literature/writing and our real lives!

    And thanks for always writing about the “middle way” between the future of total annihilation and techno-utopia. It’s very important to remember we have some choices about how our future develops.

    Peace to all, shamba

    P.S. I hope Mac is fitting in with all of you up there in cold NY state.

  4. #4 Grandma Misi
    February 1, 2010

    Reading this made me think of how satisfied and intensely interested I was in reading the “City of Ember” series to my grandchild. The folk there had to ESCAPE from the techno-utopia (esp the idea that it had been around for so long, meaning it was self-destructing, and that no one understood why or how it worked) and traveled to the agrarian, sef-sufficient, yet hard, life above ground. The idea of there not being enough for all, without sacrifice on everyone’s part, was to me exceptionally pertinent. I’d love to read more, and possibly write, “juvenile” literature with these themes….

  5. #5 dewey
    February 1, 2010

    I have argued that the Harry Potter series is some of the best literature published in our time. You can’t write books for kids with a dull plot and whiny characters; they’ll throw the book across the room!

  6. #6 wondering
    February 1, 2010

    Just wanted to say thank you for recognizing that The Road was terribly over-rated.

    I love apocalyptic fiction, but this one bored me to tears. They weren’t doing anything. I understand that “quests” are a standard part of much fantasy, but that journey was the world’s most boring quests, even taking cannibals into consideration.

  7. #7 Liz
    February 1, 2010

    On the flip side of lack of interest that’s been cultivated in “high culture” literature is the reluctance to apply serious analysis to popular literature or popular film or television (or the derision of those who do). The idea that a college class about The Simpsons or Harry Potter is fluffier than one about Shakespeare, for example. That such stories are only meant to be mind numbing entertainment, when in reality there are many excellent examples with great breadth and depth that can be enjoyed on multiple levels and encourage the audience to ask the thought provoking questions that need to be asked about who how we view ourselves and our future.

    I often wonder about the future of film and television though, since they require equipment and the energy to run that equipment in order to be seen. Maybe we’ll see a resurgence in theater and these stories continued on through that medium.

  8. #8 Brad K.
    February 1, 2010

    Sharon,

    Three books that begin with society’s descent to neo-barbarism – Palmer’s “Emergence”, Gordon R. Dickson’s “Wolf and Iron”, and Brin’s “Postman” (the book, before Kevin Costner got involved, was pretty good). I have enjoyed all, they share a vision similar to “H.A.B Theory” and Niven and Pournelle’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” (about an asteroid strike that doesn’t have Bruce Willis save the day). And I guess I would have to consider Wen Spencer’s “A Brothers Price” with these, since the story setup includes a genetic disaster (most men go sterile and/or deformed offspring), return to old-west era technology, and completely transformed social conventions. With not just gender-role reversal, but a good examination of gender roles and parenting.

    But I recall a couple of economy crash novels that included transformation without the homeless shootout transition period. John Dalmas’ “The General’s President” (1988) and Maureen F. McHugh’s award winning “China Mountain Zhang” (1992, story begins after Red China takes over the US after default on the US goes bankrupt). Perhaps Anne McCaffrey’s endearing “The Ship Who Sang”, which is based in the future, and considers an interesting quirk on a eugenics program. Or her “Pegasus in Flight” stories, based in the near future after decades of runaway social spending has enslaved and ensnared all but a few of the elite.

    And I wonder if Patricia Brigg’s urban noir stories of werewolves and fae coming to public awareness from their accustomed habit of hiding amongst humans, doesn’t give an example of good writing with a contemporary (be wary of bigotry, and understand your neighbors – and take self defense classes) theme.

    I was taught in high school that poetry is highly dense in information, compared to prose. Sort of like the laundromat scene, in “The Prince and Me” with Julia Stiles. Which was much more enriching than the chase through the library scene in “Little Sister” with the philandering boyfriend. I wonder if the information-dense literature format to come from our age will be texting (or sexting?) or “illustrated novels” (which look a lot like the comic books I grew up with). Is haiku (or the infamous “bad” haiku) considered poetry? lol!

  9. #9 Prometheus
    February 1, 2010

    My friend David, an octogenarian emeritus professor of Elizabethan literature, passed away three years ago but his descriptions are always at the forefront of my memory:

    “One cannot fathom the terrible injustices done poetry in our age. There is nothing poetic about poetry when it is demeaned to tread the cesspit of academic enterprise. No creature on this globe is more adverse to the ugliness of breeding in captivity than a poet.”
    D. French

    Sharon wrote:
    “Teaching Shakespeare, for example, is partly about teaching people to understand Shakespeare’s language, but even more about unteaching them the reverence they’ve been imbued with for Shakespeare the high culture genius and replacing it with actual affection for Shakespeare the very funny and moving writer.”

    David again:

    “I have little use for pendants who believe a lectern is a license to explain Elizabethan prose and poetry. Shakespeare and Marlowe just want a bit of translating after 300 years. It is enough to know that they invoked the same tears on the cheeks of fishwives and Gloriana at the same moments for the same reasons. A tear does not want explanation. The language may be a world away but the configuration of hearts remains the same.”

    D. French

  10. #10 Claire
    February 1, 2010

    I read very little fiction – not much time to spare, and most of it bores me. The only apocalyptic fiction I’ve read is Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing. The very end seemed a bit forced, but overall I thought it was not just a good read, but a good presentation of a way of life after the crash that makes sense.

  11. #11 adrian
    February 1, 2010

    Sharon,

    Well, yes, exactly. As a RHT/COMP/Lit instructor, I concur. I’ll check out dark mountain. Most of my teaching methods, especially in Intro. to Poetry, are an effort to re-enliven, especially for those poor “AP refugees” who’ve had the enjoyment/interest/genuine engagement test-focused out of them by “gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.” Many of my students are in recovery from high school. Many are afraid of poetry because of having been taught by teachers who are afraid of poetry. My favorite student comments are the ones that say something like, “I never thought I would like poetry until I took this class.” I’d love to read your thoughts on current critical theory and the language used to write it.

    And regarding biology: yes, greenpa, you make sense. My son was an incipient biologist (always outdoors, the one who found the spiders hatching, who spent hours out in the backyard making discoveries)–until he took high school biology with its deadening textbook.

  12. #12 Jim Thomerson
    February 1, 2010

    An engineer friend told this story. He had to take a “Poetry for Engineers” course. The first day of class he told the instructor he though poetry was a bunch of crap and gave his reasons. Anyway the course went along and the class was given a final assignment to write a poem, the best of which would be read aloud to the class. Come the day, the poem read aloud was written by my friend. The instructor then asked, “How can you, who dislike poetry, write such a fine poem?” My friend replied, “I am an engineer, if you show me how to do something, then I can do it.” I would say the instructor earned his pay.

  13. #13 Dunc
    February 2, 2010

    I don’t suppose you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Signal To Noise? It contains some very interesting thoughts on the perennial attraction of the apocalypse…

  14. #14 Holly Jean Buck
    February 2, 2010

    As Diane DiPrima said, the only war that matters is the war on the imagination (or something like that..)

    I think most of us face a crisis of the imagination when trying to conceive of new narratives. But I still believe that a work of fiction which really galvanizes the imagination & shows a hopeful future– like 1984, but the opposite, towards hope– could really make a difference. (Especially if a film version is made of it!)

    I have a post-oil novel that I think avoids the “end of the world” trap, called Crossing the Blue (you can read the reviews on Amazon)– if you have an address I’d post you a copy, because I think you’d like it.

    There’s probably also something to be said about the corporate mergers in the publishing industry and the kinds of stories that are able to be published today.

  15. #15 Zuska
    February 3, 2010

    Sharon, because The Road was such a popular movie last year, it might be of interest to a lot of readers across ScienceBlogs if you posted a bit more of a review about WHY it is such a crappy apocalyptic movie (if you already did so and I missed it, my apologies. I have poked around a bit looking for a review on your blog but didn’t find it.) I’m not telling you how to run your blog, you have your own thing goin’ on and plenty to blog about no doubt, just sayin’ that people would probably be interested in hearing your take on it. No doubt your regular readers know what you mean when you say it sucked.

    Regarding “third way” novels…are you familiar with Octavia Butler? I’m wondering what you think of her Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago). It is scifi but extremely evocative, thought-provoking, metaphorical. The whole question of people having to transform the way the live, produce food, cook, eat, build shelter, who they live with, and how they mate…and what this means, ultimately, about who they are…very powerful stuff.

  16. #16 Sharon Astyk
    February 4, 2010

    Fair point, Zuska – I’ve written a little bit on ye olde blogge about The Road the book, but never done a review. I actually haven’t seen The Road the movie, and the reason I haven’t written a review is that two hours of that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time ;-). I don’t have an opinion as yet on the movie, although I should probably suck it up and see it. I do think it is a bad book, however – lovely prose in places, but every type and trope imaginable.

    I like Octavia Butler a lot – and yes, I’ve read the Xenogenesis ones, and also like her no aliens Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Sower sequence a lot. I love the thought experiment she set up “end of the world with aliens, end of the world with psychic powers, end of the world without any of them.” She’s a really interesting writer to me.

    Sharon

  17. #17 Tamara
    February 4, 2010

    16. Octavia Butler will be greatly missed.

    Comment 4: Grandma Misi–Ever heard of “The Turning Place” by Jean E. Karl. It’s been a long time since I read it, but it has some of the same feel as the Ember books.

    Tamara

  18. #18 Zuska
    February 8, 2010

    Sharon, I did not go see “The Road” precisely because my feeling was that it would be exactly what you said “two hours that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time”. Not that one shouldn’t ever see movies that are disturbing…but it wasn’t clear to me that this movie was going to disturb me for any fruitful purpose beyond the disturbing.

    Thanks for writing this post.

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