Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Village Explaining

Talking this way, I risk earning that most famous literary pejorative: "village explainer". The epithet applies more easily to Americans than it does to writers from other countries, which seems mysterious to me. Why isn't Gombrowicz a village explianer? How do Milosz and Kundera and Brodsky escape the title, when their non-fiction writing is no more acute than Pound's was and in most cases much less? Is it something national, something inherently cranky in the American non-fictive voice? And if so, should I really try to avoid it?

But a question like this really is nothing more than a placeholder for a larger one, isn't it? Why am I doing this? Why am I waking up at four o'clock in the morning and engraving my "thoughts" (more like moods or weather patterns) onto the unruled palm-sized electronic notecard that blogger hands me? What do I get out of this? Fame? But surely you realize that I might be writing all this down on the back of a beer coaster for all the people who will ever read it? My own patient passage through the Vale of Soul-Making? As if Keats would have written a line without the promise of someone, somewhere waiting for him on the other side...

Bloggers are the New Crusoes. You remember the story? If you do, you don't, since the real book happens in the gorgeous, green-green valley between Crusoe's arrival and when Friday shows up. Not that I don't like Friday: I do, especially after reading the French anthropologist/aspiring-vampire Michel Tournier's translation of him. But his arrival transforms Crusoe's redolent solitude into a society, which means conflicts, motives, and, eventually at least, plot. The Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky titled his book on plot in Tolstoy "The Energy of Delusion", which as I understand it is meant to equate the conviction required for story-making with the kind of whipped-up and blinkered myopia we might find in someone wearing a sandwich board. Shklovsky's own book is frustratingly plotless: a whirlpool of lines that seem to be less arranged against their margin than clinging to it, like iron filings on a magnet or arrows from St. Sebastian's side. This is frustrating at first - but the further you read in the book, the more you come to see that Shklovsky is in fact attempting his own kind of literary mimesis: mimicking the peripatetic and searching adventure of Tolstoy's drafts (hundreds of them on AK - entire rewritings even!) in his own investigation. The result is an unending digression on literary creation, a fractal fable:

"I'll repeat what's important for me: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy said that he didn't know how to draw a circle; he had to close the line and then correct it.
He knew how to think by juxtaposing words, by awakening them, in a way.
When he wrote his major novels, he would begin with something plotted, i.e., something that was happening or had already happened, and sought the relationship between the incidental and the inevitable.
He studied the thoughts of a child and how cunning emerged at its first stages.
The so-called draft version is not an adaptation of a text to the norms, not sorting through gems, like jewelers do when making necklaces or crowns.
Drafts weigh the essence of events. The scenarios, which the hero of the work goes through, they should be called 'hypothetical circumstances.'
This is the analysis of how man was created, i.e., his sensation of the world, and how through the movements of scenarios, experimented and tested hundreds of times in fiction, the truth becomes clearer.
This work is like that of a captain who navigates by the stars and moon, using his chronometer to verify and make sure of their hypothetical place in the sky. The captain is testing the ship's course." (p. 134)

Shklovsky's dedication to the search ("The purpose of my search is art", he says) was so great that he scrapped the more recognizable generic forms ("The only genre that interests me is film itself" - Tarkovsky) for something ragged and messy-looking. His book is, at times, almost viscerally embarrassing. But failure or no, it is also something infinitely valuable: it is sincere. An outmoded and abused virtue these days, I know....but how striking! How amazing, to watch him flail and attempt and then finally hit on something that you know he simply could not have said in a 20-page letter to the academy. Why couldn't he have said it? Simple: because he couldn't have seen it. As he describes it being for Tolstoy, writing for Shklovsky is a sea-voyage - a discipline (or ecstacy) of perception, wherein the calcified generic modes must be stripped, Blake-style, from the organs of perception, so that the truth of the world (truth, which likes to hide) can be glimpsed and revealed.

Does this actually happen? I'm wondering. Whatever good news I have to bring, I'm bringing; but I'm wormy and skeptical, especially when it comes to the rhetoric of vision. Blogs, luckily, let you do this. You can backtrack and undermine, revising your own assertions as you go. What won't you get by doing this? Well, among other things, you will never write Anna Karenina. Make peace with that right now: stare yourself down in the mirror, sure in the knowledge that your beard will never dangle, nor your t-shirt stretch into the peasant blouse that you so sorely desire. Your eyes will go unhaunted by that revelation of ordinary life that is Levin and Kitty, or the romantic pyre of their dark, ridiculous shadows, Anna and Vronsky. Not for you.

I guess what I'm trying to figure out here (what a village-explainery sentence!) is: what am I writing? At the same time, I think I'm trying to forget that: forget "novel", forget "blogging", forget "Tolstoy". No wonder I feel the need to explain myself so much.

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