Archive for April 2012

The Virtuoso   Leave a comment

Tomorrow we are reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “Cellists,” from his recent collection Nocturnes, in my graduate class, about a cellist who is tutored by an American woman, Eloise McCormack, who claims that she is a “virtuoso” despite the fact that she cannot play the cello herself – she possesses an “unwrapped” potential, she insists, that will someday be tapped by the right teacher.

One of my students, who is talented but has a habit of always putting her foot in her mouth, proclaimed loudly at the end of today’s class that she knows a bit about Ishiguro, not from reading him, but from the fact that I talked about Never Let Me Go in relation to one of our novels last semester.

“So have you read tomorrow’s story yet?” I asked. “Can you apply Foucault’s ideas about enlightenment to it?”

“No, I haven’t read it yet,” she said. “But I don’t need his theories. I have a critical mind of my own. I don’t need any else to tell me how to think.”

“Ah, so you are a virtuoso at literature,” I replied. “You don’t even need to read the text to understand it.”

She paused a moment and thought.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I am a virtuoso!”

The point of Ishiguro’s story, of course, is to challenge some prevalent (but false) cultural perceptions about “genius” with which human beings tend to delude themselves. The first is the romantic idea of the “natural” genius, the kind for whose art seems to flow onto the page without any apparent effort. In music, for instance, it might be Mozart, while in literature, the romantics reconfigured Shakespeare – because he did not have a rigorous classical education – in this same mold.

It has become one of the great myths of our time that “true” genius comes from a source of in-born talent, not hard work. Hollywood loves to perpetuate this stereotype. How many times do we see Good Will Hunting actually doing some genuine study? When do we see Russell Crowe (as John Nash) hitting the books in A Beautiful Mind? We only ever see the end product of their labors, never the hours and hours of grunt work that are needed to produce it.

In part, such films produce this illusion out of a need to provide action over reality (watching someone study is obviously less interesting than dissecting their love life), but this false picture is also clearly an anti-intellectual dig at the academy. The implication is that those other professors, the vast majority laboring away in the ivory tower, are doing so under the delusion that work is important. Genius, these films imply, does not simply make the work easier – it makes it so that there is practically no work at all. The world is revolutionized with the ease of making a sandwich. Work, as such, becomes the hallmark of failure, a sure sign that you are not a genius. It’s a perverse idea that hides an even nastier ulterior implication: that professors who are not hailed as geniuses are second-rate frauds (unless, of course, they are misunderstood geniuses at the heart of the film…).

For Ishiguro, this seems to be a peculiarly American point of view. He diagnoses it as a symptom of their insistence that everyone is important, everyone has something to contribute, everyone has some talent at which they can shine. It is not hard to see the inherent paradox in such a view: what makes something truly valuable, after all, is a mixture of proven quality and relative scarcity. Thus, for Ishiguro, Americans (at least in Nocturnes) regularly exhibit a kind of cultural schizophrenia that is a result of the glaring disparity between their egalitarian, democratic rhetoric and the Darwinian reality of how they actually live. Eloise McCormack’s unwillingness to develop her talent as a cellist, for instance, is reconfigured not as a failure, but as an “unrealized potential.”

In his poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes had earlier asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Ishiguro asks us to be more specific: what kind of dream are we talking about here? If it is a political dream – as Hughes seems to imply – then it does indeed seem worthwhile to continue pursuing it, for such goals are open to all. But if it a matter of fulfilling a particular kind of dream, then Ishiguro’s point seems to touch on something more difficult and profound. There are few geniuses in this world, and so dealing with failure at some point in our lives is something that we must all do as human beings.

To fail is a crucial part of the human experience – and yet, like Eloise McCormack, we often refuse to admit that any failure is possible, as though a lack of success in one area were an indication that our entire lives have been a failure. What happens to a dream deferred? The answer, it seems, is that it simply gets deferred some more. Rather than living our lives in this kind of suspended animation, however, it is far richer for us to come to the realization that life is for living now, that failure is inevitable, necessary, so that even if we do not excel in our chosen field, we can at least learn from our mistakes and say that our lives, as an experiment in living, have been a success.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted April 30, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Psychological Hunger   Leave a comment

One of the strange things about humanity, especially modern humanity, is that we deliberately, repeatedly choose to shape our lives, both individually and collectively, in ways that, in the big picture, make us unhappy. It’s one of those great paradoxes of the Enlightenment and its legacy – that people, presented with the tools to make their lives better, choose not to.

Is it just perversity? Do we do it for the same reason that we refuse to eat our vegetables, because achieving happiness is “boring” when it’s “good for you”? Certainly I think that’s one aspect of the problem, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

One of the things that I have wondered at during the last few years, as I have endured some very difficult life lessons of my own, is the bizarre extent to which this crucial element of success and happiness is left to a mixture of chance and imprecision. There are qualified experts to teach us all manner of technical things: how to be a mechanic, a software engineer, a yoga teacher. But there are no credible, established paths for how to lead a healthy and successful life.

Sure, there are gurus and leadership experts, preachers and life coaches, that all claim to provide us with guidance in our lives. But the field is so full of cranks and phonies that, were our technical fields to be run in such a way, we might regard our technology with a much more wary eye.

I learned a great deal from my professors, but there was one in particular who had an impact on me – not merely because she was a brilliant teacher and scholar, but because I could see in her a rare skill for living life, something that my parents were certainly not equipped to do. It was a skill I hungered to know more about, but could not ask her without seeming like a stalker. Every little insight she spoke about the life of the mind I have clung to, for they have proven to be precious pearls of wisdom over the years.

Emotional need is a taboo topic for a basic, paradoxical reason. We avoid people who are needy because it denotes insecurity. They are often passive-aggressive, unreliable, and demanding. Worse, giving such people attention often does not satisfy them, but leads instead to an black hole of endless emotional demand. This situation, however, is unfortunate, because it makes us withhold our attention from people who might be needy in a positive sense – that is, who may be hungry now, but wish to learn how to feed themselves.

The other reason emotional need is a problem is that, culturally, we have downgraded it as being merely a “luxury,” something that is secondary to the more pressing necessities of food and shelter. I think it’s fascinating, though, to consider a point raised by Erich Fromm near the beginning of The Fear of Freedom (1941), in which he asserts that humanity needs more than just the physical necessities in order to live. Fromm’s point is not that life is better with the emotional care of others, but rather that without it, human beings cannot survive. Even if we have all our physical necessities met, but have no sense of community whatsoever – if we are “morally alone,” as Fromm puts it – then we are driven to madness and suicide.

I’m teaching Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) in one of my classes this semester, and Fromm’s insight seems to me the key to unlocking this complex novel. The narrator’s physical hunger is transformed by Hamsun into a mirror of his psychological hunger, of society’s neglect of its spiritual and emotional side.

How bizarre that, in the twenty-first century, as the shadow of the obesity epidemic looms over us, that this metaphor has mutated once again. Now, gorging ourselves with cheap comfort food has become the new sign of our emotional starvation. We eat to fill a void in our lives that can never be filled. Obesity is a signifier, ironically, of our lack of contentment.

There is a scene in Hamsun’s Hunger in which the protagonist, out of a bizarre sense of pride and contrariness, refuses food, even though he is starving. We live in a society, in a similar way, that continues to denigrate the humanities as a luxury even as, emotionally, we are longing for just a moment of real, solid satisfaction.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Covers   Leave a comment

When I was about seventeen, I read The Children of Men (1992) by P.D. James – or at least, I think I did. I have almost no memory of the plot, apart from its central storyline about the spread of infertility in a futuristic, dystopian future. It’s not unusual. I regularly forget entire storylines and characters within a surprisingly short space of time, especially given my profession, although I rarely forget that I have actually read a particular book.

The strange thing is, though, that twenty years later I still recall quite vividly the cover of the book. There is a forest in the background, and the bottom right corner is torn away to reveal a limp, broken doll whose two, blue eyeballs have, rather unrealistically, fallen onto the pavement beside it. The other thing I remember is that it was a Faber and Faber publication, a brand that was, for me, quickly becoming an indicator of quality. That little ff sign introduced me to Andre Brink, Peter Carey, Kazuo Ishiguro, and numerous other outstanding contemporary writers during the 1990s.

It was with a sense of dismay, then, that I recently watched the adaptation of The Children of Men (2006), a film that garnered glowing reviews at the time of its release. The film is rather different from the book, but what struck my adult eyes was the clunky Christian symbolism that pervades the storyline. There is no question that Kee is meant to be a Madonna-figure, and she is protected, in turn, by Theo, his name transparently chosen because it means “God.”

As I meditated further on the film, though, something ironic struck me about all this Christian symbolism. It came from the realization that there is a parallel between my own faulty personal memory of reading The Children of Men and the selective cultural memory about Christianity on display in the film.

The scene that epitomizes this phenomenon occurs right before the film’s close, when Kee and Theo escape from a building that is under siege by government troops. Seeing the baby in Kee’s arms, the commanding officer orders the soldiers to cease fire so that she can escape to safety. Kee’s pathway through the lines of soldiers is clearly supposed to be loaded with quasi-religious significance, as soldiers visibly cross themselves when the miracle baby passes them by.

As soon as Kee and Theo have reached safety, however, the soldiers resume their attack on the building, mercilessly slaughtering the refugees inside. It was this obvious disjunction between their supposed reverence for life and their practical embrace of killing, a moral contradiction that the film did not even seem to register, that caught my attention. What had these soldiers gotten from their reading of the Bible? Had they remembered any of Christ’s teachings? Or had they, as I had with James’s own novel, only ever truly caught the surface of that book?

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 10, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Review: Edinburgh (2001) by Alexander Chee   Leave a comment

Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh deals with some difficult issues, as the book’s main character, Fee, struggles to deal first with the sexual abuse meted out by his choir master, Big Eric, and then, as he grows up, with his own identity as a homosexual man. Such problems, as one might imagine, run deep, and there is a repeated desire on Fee’s part to destroy himself, just as so many others in his life have done.

As I was reading Edinburgh, I wanted to be moved by these themes. After all, if these issues were being told to me directly, by a friend, then I would certainly be touched. But the more I read, the more I wondered: doesn’t this belong more properly in a memoir? That is to say, are these topics the proper domain of fiction?

There are some ways in which the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” The rise of so-called “dirty realism” in the 1980s – think Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver – is a clear influence on Chee’s style in this novel, which remains detached and economical, as if to counterbalance the melodrama of the story’s content. The subject matter also occupies the familiar territory of dirty realism: sex, drugs, perversion, all the emotional fabric of everyday life filtered through the lens of the novelist.

I share the view that no subject ought to be viewed as off-limits. But there is always a twin danger when treading along the borders of transgression. The first danger, which Chee successfully avoids for the most part, is becoming too emotional, either through hysteria or sentimentality. The second, however, he does not, and that is the feeling that the reader is being blackmailed into an attachment with the story at hand.

This feeling of emotional blackmail tells me that I ought to care about Fee because of his struggles simply because they are so weighty, that I somehow “owe” him something as a reader for this pain. But the truth is, I don’t. He’s a fictional character, and his difficulties are, in the end, made up. I would bestow my compassion on a real-life friend in Fee’s situation because their pain is real, stemming as it does from the weight of experience. In the case of a novel, however, the burden lies with the author to make me care by drawing me into the story. That requires a certain level of narrative skill and seduction that Chee, presuming on my pity, does not enact.

The reality is that, in fiction, the heaviest misery comes cheaply. Writers can destroy cities, unleash plagues, wipe out worlds in the blink of an eye, all with a few strokes of the pen. Suffering – that is, imaginary suffering – is cheap because, without the sparkle of narrative interest, any reader can see that it’s counterfeit, fake, made-up.

The fact is that Alexander Chee is merely another product of the great MFA sausage factory of empty fiction writing. Yes, I know he went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop – it may be a superior sausage factory, but it is a sausage factory nonetheless. The writing sparkles with meaningless, “poetic” phrases that sound pretty when you read them but reveal absolutely nothing. Take these sentences, for instance:

“Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches. Because when you feel threatened by a demon you are supposed to imagine around you a circle of blue light. You do this because the demon cannot cross blue light.” (pp.191-2)

What on earth does that mean? Passages like these are fool’s gold: they promise some kind of profundity, but the more closely you examine them the more you realize that they are nothing but decorative nonsense.

The greatest weakness in the novel, though, is the flatness of its narrative voice. There is nothing but surface in Edinburgh, no playful sense that our first-person narrator may be lying or mistaken (he is too transparent, too insipid for that), no desire to explore alternative viewpoints or other voices. There was a moment – the advent, in the middle of the book, of another narrator – when I thought we were going to see inside the mind of Fee’s abuser, but instead it turns out to the Warden, the abuser’s son, who, in keeping with the novel’s Narcissus references, is as dully monological in his admiration of Fee as the rest of the narrative. Chee mentions Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “chronotope” at one point, but he seems to have overlooked Bakhtin’s key idea that “polyphony” – “many voices” – is what makes a novel interesting.

So let’s just say that Chee’s attempt at blackmail didn’t work on me. It’s not that I’m heartless – but in the realm of fiction, where pain comes cheaply, you have to demonstrate some narrative skill to make me care.

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted April 5, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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