theory of mimetic desire
In a fine overview of some recent criticism, Robert Macfarlane (‘Honeymoon Realism’, TLS, 23 July 2004) quotes a passage from James Wood’s essay ‘Hysterical Realism’ (and here I am quoting Macfarlane quoting Wood, hoping you’ll mention this post to your friends. This is unnervingly symptomatic of part of what Wood is complaining about. Um. Go read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, and come back when you’re done.):
“Recent novel have featured … a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese, and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexico desert (DeLillo), [and a couple of inanities from Foster Wallace.] This is not magical realism. It is hysterical realism. Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.”
Says Mac: “For Wood, these writers have all been misled by a mimetic heresy: the heresy which states that only the novel which tries to reproduce a culture might be in a position to criticize that culture. In their attempts formally to recognise the hybridity, rapidity and triviality of contemporary society, these novels… have themselves ended up lush, rapid and trivial.”
This reminded me of B. R. Myers’s observation a while ago (‘A Reader’s Manifesto’, Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001) that a survey of his style evidenced “DeLillo’s belief – apparently shared by Mark Leyner, Brett Easton Ellis, and others – that writing trite and diffuse prose is a brilliant way to capture the trite and diffuse nature of modern life.”
I found this persuasive - until I bothered (I prefer not to have my private convictions disrupted by such prosaic concerns as ‘the facts’) to read DeLillo, and was captivated. ‘The Names’ (all I’ve read so far) is extraordinary.
Macfarlane informs us that Wood holds, in the “secular tradition of novelist-moralists”, “a conviction that the novel’s special mandate is to investigate and to remedy human behaviour in ways which other forms – journalism, criticism, poetry [blog posts?] – cannot.”
Now it’s debatable whether there is any one thing that a novel must do, or even whether a novel must do anything (or that there in anything that a novel must do [sorry. but think about it.]). But even against the limited measurement above, ‘The Names’ does a formidable job. There is throughout a meandering thoughtfulness (‘diffuse prose’?), and DeLillo’s wondering and intelligence and inventiveness make this alone worth the price of admission. But it is also a very precise novel, in its tightly structured narrative and thematic deftness (which I would love explained, by the way. Comments please…) [Is it just me or is there something perverse about this self-gratifying communion with people who don’t exist (or am I just looking for an excuse to say XXXistentialism)?], and in the relation of the characters to the themes and structure. This is hardly a breathtaking insight, and you could say this about any half-decent novel with literary aspirations (is this what being ‘literary’ consists in?) – and you couldn’t about some fully decent ones with no such aspirations (Elmore Leonard comes to mind) – but I think in this type of writing especially, loaded with, to use Wood’s term, ‘information’, the connection of content to form is especially important. ‘The Names’ works in part because of the elegant correspondence of detail to theme, of matter to ideas. And it is meticulously crafted detail - significances sculpted from specifics. The reader is presented with richness, not a burden, of detail. [Maybe sometime I’ll actually substantiate this with reference to text. Probably not, though. Perhaps you can contribute, dear imaginary audience.]
Effective structure imparts weight and direction; events are extended beyond the trivial (part of something, connected, meaningfully related, representative), developments aren’t gratuitous [is it, in itself, a problem if they are?]. But an impressive architecture is not, of course, sufficient to “investigate and remedy human behaviour”. I’m not sure what is, but DeLillo seems to be getting there. DeLillo is a compelling storyteller; there is an emotional resonance to the movement of character within plot. We become attuned (I related strongly to James Axton) to his circumstances, while retaining a multiplicity of perspectives. Again, standard stuff. But what sets DeLillo apart is the landscape of those circumstances. Characters moving within, against and beyond social and political currents. The times (in the zeitgeist sense) are the backdrop. DeLillo crafts a cultural landscape out of flight schedules and bank transfers.
But, and this is essential, our appreciation and understanding these artefacts of our time is deepened, or readjusted, only to the point that DeLillo can reinvent them, or redisplay them, and (no less) only to the point that we are convinced. It requires a quality of thought, an unusual cultural sensitivity, and the imaginative resources, to pull off properly.
Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, for example, is certainly technically assured and structurally sophisticated - but it’s horrible. The prose is annoying, stylised rather than stylish, and intolerably self-important. Franzen is too pompous for the kind of operation he undertakes (which is subtly different from pretension. DeLillo is hardly unpretentious. I mean, who isn’t pretentious?) How can you assume cultural literacy if you’ve don’t know Oprah, for God’s sake! And while ‘The Names’ is such a beautiful book - beautifully constructed, beautifully written, beautiful ideas - ‘The Corrections’ is more readily described as clever. Cleverly written, cleverly constructed. It’s jam-packed with cleverness, and with stuff, but without the feel, the (to return to an old theme) ‘getting it’, the respect for that stuff. It’s clever because Franzen understands the structures and the conventions of the novel, he knows how to control his material – he’s seen DeLillo do it, he understands how it works. He’s one smart dude, he knows how the game is played. (DeLillo, for one, was impressed.) But the novel is unconvincing.
This reveals the real mimetic heresy (no, confusion): The confusion that the only way to write an important novel is to sound like DeLillo and Pynchon. These writers are not hyper real, they’re one step removed from reality. Take Zadie Smith. (Please.) She can write wonderfully. ‘White Teeth’ was my book of the year in 200(1?). But ‘The Autograph’ man (I’m never reading anything starting with a ‘The’ again) was dismal; little more than media-studies theorising slickly connected in a wishy-washy plot. The story is weak, the characters are flimsy, and the insights are not very insightful. But then it never stood a chance – it isn’t representative of reality at all, so how likely is it to shed new light on that reality? Instead, it is representative of a hundred other books that have been written in the last fifty years. When Smith refers to “the popular actress Julia Roberts” (urg!) she is not referring at all to the popular actress Julia Roberts. She is referring to that bit in the po-mo/media textbook about signifying and the celebrity.
That’s how she talks about culture. When she tries to speak through popular culture: oy. To say that her Lenny Bruce Jewish/Goyish routine is bad misses the point. It’s not that it’s poorly rendered (though it is) - carelessly timed, unselectively chosen, badly phrased, or whatever – but that it misses completely. Smith is speaking in an idiom that she doesn’t understand. Or if she does understand, it is as a tourist speaking from a phrasebook. Her words approximate the meaning of her original thought, rather than express the sentiments that the language was constructed around. She never gets into the heart of the thing. Rather, she goes through the motions, assumes the lingo, imitates the delivery – but she never delivers. She admires, but doesn’t really get, what Bruce is up to. ‘The Autograph Man’ is, in Wood’s own perfect summation, fundamentally goyish. (Check out Wood’s own mimetic routine. It’s great!) [Incidentally, Wood is himself pretty darn goyish. DeLillo is very goyish. This must be understood not to be a value term.]
I’m not suggesting that an artist should speak only in a voice that is culturally familiar (a dangerous idea) or should restrict her modes and perspectives of expression. I am suggesting only that critical modishness is a very inadequate guide to choosing a style.
* * *
William Kentridge went to mime school.
On Thursday there was a screening of Kentridge films (Yes, again. Why don’t they just start a dstv channel or something? I’d watch) in Newtown.
In his introduction, the producer mentioned, to much rolling of eyes, ‘the smudge of memory’. Kentridge’s technique of erasing part of the image and adding movement leaves behind, in each alteration, a trace of the previous state.
Maybe I’m getting soft (or am I just trying to mask the triteness of the observation?) but I thought there was something to this.
One moment stood out. In the last film there is a cut to a shot of Soho Eckstein standing on a rock, on the beach. We don’t observe him getting there (at least not in this shot) he is just there, looking out at the ocean. But we do see a series of smudge marks, a record of each movement towards that point.
Soho looks innocent, vulnerable even, facing the ocean, alone. An engagement of self with the vast and impersonal plane of raw existence. Being, with no reference what one has become.
But the residue of history is always present. The preceding films testify to what Soho has become, and, in painfully many ways, one is what he becomes. Is the present ever anything more than the temporary culmination of moments past?
As we cannot escape the past, no more can we hold onto the present.
Derrida in the interview Jermaine posted (read the comments, people!):
“At the moment I allow "my" book to be published (no one makes me do it), I begin to appear-and-disappear, like some unteachable ghost who never earned how to live. The trace that I leave signifies to me both my death, either to come or already past, and the hope that it will survive me. It's not an ambition of immortality, it's structural. I leave behind a piece of paper, I leave, I die: it's impossible to escape from this structure; it is the constant form of my life. Every time I allow something to go forth, I see my death in the writing.” [Is this why I haven’t written my essays?]
Is this something like the condition of living, of being in time? Each movement forward, each moment experienced, is the assignment of that moment into history. Living is, in a sense, the realisation of presents into the past. The structure of being is such that all potential rests not in the future, but in future pasts: that which will have been.
Kierkegaard famously observed that “The irony of life is that it is lived forward but understood backward”. Is the deeper paradox that this movement forward is but the entrenchment of our being in history; and that the point of understanding – when we can recognise what is (what was), rather than the transitory momentum of being – is, structurally, beyond our attainment. (Yikes!)
* * *
Sampling is a type of mimesis.
How amazing was the Basement Jaxx concert? Wow!!
There’s a story in today’s Sunday Times Metro (I don’t know why I was reading it, either) about a Jaxx vocalist, Nomvula Malinga. She lives in London, but is from Joburg.
Anyone who was at the show last night will agree that she was fantastic.