Lit vs. Everything Else

January 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Let’s pit the art forms against each other in a grisly melee. Life being what it is, I could’ve ended up with an interest in anything else: music, sports, motorcycles, whatever. But straws were drawn and I got books as my passion. How does that stack up against other possibilities?

In the interest of counting my blessings, I’ve thought about the advantages and disadvantages of being a reader, and of the literary art form. There’s so much to explore in life that even if you pursue all your interests with the deepest energy and effort you have, you’re only getting one or two flavors of creative enjoyment from your years. To love deeply is to love a sliver of things.

First, the bad stuff. Language is always changing, so compared to other art forms, like music, literature is thoroughly doomed to obscurity. Even if we optimistically assume the permanent dominance of the English language, your writing is not going to survive as it is. Shakespeare is only four centuries old, and even his work, the crown jewel of the canon, is heavily annotated today.

So all writing is inherently doomed in the long run. What else? Literature is obsolete, compared to movies or video games. The art form is pretty well established and even corporatized. It has no hold over the public imagination and — don’t underestimate this one — doesn’t gain the direct and exciting benefits of advancing technology the way music or movies do. It’s inherently more static than other art forms because of the simplicity of its means, words on a page.

But there are serious upsides. They just require a lot of work on the part of a writer or reader to manifest:

Anyone Can Write

You don’t need an early introduction to writing, the way violinists start at age three. You don’t need to gain entry into a conservatory or art school, you don’t need to be born into an upper-class life that sanctions frivolous pursuits, and you don’t need a formal education. Because writing is a skill acquired in some form by practically everyone, everyone has the foundation to explore the art form if they’re so inclined. And (this is a big one for me personally since my childhood was so scattershot) you can pick it up in your teens or twenties or thirties and it’s not too late to become a great reader or writer. So there’s less luck involved.

A Blanker Slate and a Freer Range

Music works within an abstract system of scales and harmony and what not. Painting is bound to color and line and space. Motorcycling follows the laws of physics. But an individual piece of writing sets its own rules for harmony or color or physics. It also sets its own logic, its own sense of time, and its own definitions of possible and impossible. In The Metamorphosis, a man may turn into a beetle. In In Search Of Lost Time, time is an imaginative process rather than an administrative or entropic one. In Coleridge’s poetry, Xanadu is vividly felt and real life is a hazy interruption. Who knows what the stuff of a real book may look or feel like, or how it may behave, or how it may delight? Who knows? That’s the fun of it. (That’s also what makes writing really hard, by the way. Why do you think the publishing industry and creative writing classes are so obsessed with restraint and convention? Because the threat of freedom is so large.)

Varieties Of Subtlety

The fine, nearly inexpressible subtleties and details that transform mere narration into an amazing imaginative act can take any shape. This is harder to explain than the previous two points. In Gogol’s writing, artistry is the digression that gives the backstory for the “freshly laid egg” in a simple analogy like “Her pretty face was as oval as a freshly laid egg.” In Dickens, artistry is the aggregation of soot-marks — on the windowsill, on the floor, in dirty London — before discovering a character has spontaneously combusted. Neither of these is a prescribed pattern — like, say, recitative in opera or a slice serve in tennis — but an artistic form newly and wholly created for the sake of a single book or passage or image. There is a dizzying and exhilarating exploratory quality to all great writing, since we are seeing what strangeness an individual mind can produce and still get away with under the humble guise of a “novel”.

There’s probably more, but I hope I’ve made enough points. If my points have anything unifying in them, it’s probably that, since language is and can be twisted to so many ends of so many minds, books occupy a special closeness to the dizzying variety and strangeness of thought and imagination.

Two Tolstoys, Two Novellas

January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the holiday I read two of Tolstoy’s novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and it’s amazing that one writer could produce two books that are so different only a few years apart. How does this happen?

First off, if you haven’t read them, Ilyich traces through the comfortable life and agonizing decay and death of a middlingly successful bourgeois. Toward the end there’s some message-y stuff about what it means to live a good life, but mostly the book is just a bracing description of a fall from comfort. Kreutzer, on the other hand, is a lurid lecture, where a man on a train tells the story of how he grew disillusioned in his materialist marriage and insanely jealous of his wife and her sexual flirtations with a violinist. (Note how Kreutzer uses a kind of old-fashioned device, the murder confession, like something from Poe.)

They really could not be further apart. Ilyich is like a reflective history and Kreutzer is a purely moralizing lecture via a grisly tale of murder. Ilyich is literature, and Kreutzer is pulp. (Grisly pulp has a tendency to be pretty heavy-handed moralizing in disguise, I think.) How — how? — could the same writer produce both?

I think the answer is in Tolstoy himself, who was his whole life torn between sensual indulgences (concentrated in his youth) and moral-spiritual seeking (concentrated in his old age). As Nabokov put it, these two deep aspects (an oxymoron, I know) of Tolstoy’s character could show luminously in the same book, say in Anna Karenina. Here’s Nabokov (Google Books link):

It is rather difficult to separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist – it is the same deep slow voice, the same robust shoulder pushing up a cloud of visions or a load of ideas. What one would like to do, would be to kick the glorified soapbox from under his sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper – far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.

But these two novellas, Ilyich and Kreutzer, pretty well split these two Tolstoys like a prism. Or really, it’s like when Superman was split into good and evil selves in Superman III. Kreutzer is long on moralizing and low on artistry — the framing of the lecture as a murder confession is crude, and the writing is all framed in heavy-handed abstractions rather than living breathing details. I’ve bolded the abstractions I spotted in a representative passage:

We did not then comprehend that this love and hatred were one and the same animal passion, only with opposite poles. It would have been horrible to live in this way if we had realized our situation; but we did not realize it and did not see it. In this lies the salvation, as well as the punishment, of a man — that, when he is living irregularly, he may blind himself so as not to see the wretchedness of his situation.

And Ilyich ends with a pretty benign bit of “what matters in life?” philosophizing, but at its best, the way it captures conversations, and gestures, and states of mind, is breathtaking. Here’s a scene of mourning foiled by the furniture in the room:

As he sat down on the ottoman Pyotr Ivanovich recalled how, in decorating the room, Ivan Ilyich had consulted him about this pink cretonne with the green leaves. The whole room was crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, and as the widow stepped past the table to seat herself on the sofa, she entangled the lace of her black shawl in a bit of carving. Pyotr Ivanovich rose slightly to untangle it, and as he did the springs of the ottoman, freed of pressure, surged and gave him a little shove.

Everything is vivid — the pink cretonne, the widow’s black lace, the springiness of the ottoman. The composition of a quiet scene with these bright and noisy domestic details is absolutely masterly. This is Tolstoy the artist.

You look at these books on, say, Goodreads (here’s Kreutzer and here’s Ilyich), and they’ve got similar ratings despite being on totally different planes and having totally different relationships to fiction and imagination. That’s the danger of reputation or canon or authority. A Tolstoy book is not simply a Tolstoy book. You have to sit down read the books, and understand their what and why and how. The problem is, when you want to see what all the fuss is about, you can never know if you’ll find something substantial or something easily fussed over.

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