Friday, March 17, 2006

Adam Kirsch, the Renaissance, and Garcia Marquez

In a recent essay called "Rereading the Renaissance" the literary critic Adam Kirsch says of the field of studies known as the humanities:

The only thing most teachers and students of the humanities agree on, it often seems, is that these are troubled times for their field. For a whole variety of reasons—social, intellectual, and technological—the humanities have been losing their confident position at the core of the university’s mission. This represents an important turning-point, not just for education, but for our culture as a whole. Ever since the Renaissance, the humanities have defined what it means to be an educated person. The very word comes from the Latin name of the first modern, secular curriculum, the studia humanitatis, invented in fourteenth-century Italy as a rival to traditional university subjects like theology, medicine, and law.
According to Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, one of today’s leading scholars of the Renaissance, “the studia humanitatis, the humanities....encompassed quite a specific range of subjects: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, the arts that gave a command of Latin, the language of learning, and oratory, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.” For centuries after, these disciplines were considered indispensable for any well-educated person. Still more important, they helped to define an ethical ideal: they were “forms of thought and writing,” Grafton explains, “that improved the character of the student.” To study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being. In the words of the critic George Steiner […] modern education has been defined by the principle “that the humanities humanize.”

Most part of Kirsch's essay is about a project called the I Tatti Renaissance Library, a series of translations from Latin - the language of scholarship in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries - of the classic texts of the Renaissance. Indeed, there are some parallels between this project and another ambitious contemporary publishing venture aimed at making a section of the world's classical literature widely available in English, the Clay Sanskrit Library. I wonder why there is not so much as a word about this in the Indian press (when if Paris Hilton breaks a fingernail, then we know all about it in the Indian papers the very next day. O books page editors of the country, what are you up to?)

Among the best bits in Kirsch's essay is when he harks back to the fourteenth-century poet and scholar Petrarch and his search for good books - this in the age before the world-changing invention of the printing press:

…one of the most moving things in Petrarch’s life and work is his sense of the precious rarity of good books—the opposite of our own postmodern sense of literature’s crushing abundance. [...] Before the invention of printing and the rediscovery of many ancient authors, finding good new books to read was an ordeal of a kind we can hardly conceive in the age of Manuscripts first had to be tracked down, often in dusty monastic libraries, and then copied by hand. The British historian Lisa Jardine, whose fascinating book Worldly Goods explores the material culture of the Renaissance, gives a telling example of the expense and labor involved in assembling a library. Cosimo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence and one of the richest men in Europe, gave his agent Vespasiano da Bisticci an unlimited budget for books: “[A]s there was no lack of money,” the latter reported, “I engaged forty-five scribes and completed two hundred volumes in twenty-two months.”
Kirsch is a critic of great distinction; there are not many literary journalists I enjoy reading as much. Like all the best critics, he manages to articulate precisely what in another reader would only be an inchoate feeling. I have never liked the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its avalanche of batty Buendias, is one of the most tiresome books I've ever read), but to my knowledge no one has expressed a sense of what is wrong with Marquez's work better than Kirsch in a recent piece on Marquez's new book Memories of My Melancholy Whores:

Garcia Marquez manages to deflect moral or even psychological judgment on the acts of his characters because the "magic" of his fiction annuls the "realism" that is supposed to go along with it. He never demands for his creations the kind of sympathy that enables and necessitates judgment. Rather, he endows them with the grandiosity, and the irresponsibility, of heroes from fable and romance. They are so innocent they ascend into heaven (Remedios the Beauty in "One Hundred Years of Solitude"), so devoted they cherish an unrequited love for 50 years (Florentino Ariza in "Love in the Time of Cholera"), so evil they serve their enemies for dinner with a side dish of cauliflower (the dictator in "Autumn of the Patriarch"). But this means that they are not really innocent or devoted or evil at all, in the way we ourselves might be. Like the world they inhabit, Mr. Garcia Marquez's heroes are stupendous, and therefore stupefying; larger than life, and therefore not really alive.
Here are some links to old posts on the Middle Stage on classical literature, both European and Indian: Boccaccio's Life of Dante (the first post I ever did, therefore not perhaps the best), the Rig Veda, and Dandin's Dasakumaracharita. And here's another old post, about a man from the pre-modern world just as passionate about books as Petrarch: Jahiz the bibliomaniac.

Here's a chapter from Paul Johnson's excellent book on the Renaissance, with a very good survey of the invention and spread of print technology. ("Before printing, only the very largest libraries contained as many as six hundred books, and the total number in Europe was well under one hundred thousand. By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million." Johnson's beautiful book Art: A New History, with which I've spent many pleasurable hours in the last six months, is available at Strand Bookstall for a steal at Rs.750. Buy it while you can.) And here's a good interview in the magazine Bookforum with Steve Maikowski, the press director of the Clay Sanskrit Library.

And lastly, to return to Marquez, a short piece by the critic Jonathan Bate on One Hundred Years of Solitude, in response to the question, "Which are the most overrated authors, or books, of the past 1,000 years?"


Anonymous said...

agree completely with you that ' 100 years.." is not gripping.
But after " The General in the Labryinth" the lyrical quality of his writing leaves a long lasting impression. i stopped reading fiction 10 years back. but i can still smell sweet death in those pages.


Space Bar said...

This has nothing to do with this particular post--just wanted to say that I really enjoy and look forward to your posts. They give one much food for thought without become mired in jargon.

Thank you.

Sanket said...

I might concede that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a overrated book. But I am not impressed by Jonathan Bate's review. I find the book very readable. It is clever of course. But to good effect. He also talks about Marquez (and his followers') 'feigned reverence' towards peasants. Supposing it is a 'feigned reverence', so what? It is a novel, after all. And how does it matter whether or not it punctures the "bourgeois complacency of our time"?

Similarly, Kirsch's review does not convince me. He talks about Marquez's literary techniques of dissociating all "reality"and making the characters grand. The characters are larger than life and cannot be alive. That is Marquez's technique. One may like it or one may dislike it. Kirsch choses to dislike it. But since he talks about the technique and literary style, unlike Bates who also talks about a 'motive', I'll accept it as a review and chose not to agree with it.

While we are at it, since you said Kirsch articulates your views, and since he talks about the grandness and unrealness of the characters, what is your opinion on "No One Writes to the Colonel". I think that work much different.

Chandrahas said...

Sanket - I agree, the Bates piece might be read as a fit of pique. But Kirsch's piece is very comprehensive - those are very unusual and well thought-out arguments. On your own part you say of Marquez, "The characters are larger than life and cannot be alive." I would say that is a damning comment. Not all characters have to be realistic - many larger than life characters are indeed alive. If the characters are not alive, but behave quite arbitrarily, as they sometimes do in Marquez...well, one of the great pleasures of fiction is lost there.

Also, "That is Marquez's technique. One may like it or one may dislike it. Kirsch choses to dislike it." I m afraid that literary judgment is not as subjective as that. Good readers usually have good opinions to offer on a work; they cannot be dismissed lightly.

I haven't read *No One Writes To The Colonel* - I abandoned Marquez after a couple of trying experiences. You should write a post about exactly what it is you like about his work.

Space Bar, thanks for your very kind words.

shoummo from Mexico said...

I too have not been able to get through 1000 years but thats not a comment on its literary merit. 'No one writes to the colonel' is a short but stunning work by Marquez. Till I read it, 'Love in the time of cholera' was my favourite. It depicts in its own way the frustration of the mundane existence of a Colonel who is waiting for his pension for years. There is no money at home but a rooster is being fed and kept alive for sentimental reasons. The book ends with the colonel's spouse asking as to what should they be eating the next day - 'shit' replies the colonel. On reading the reply I felt I had been slapt on my face, though I will not be able to explain the reason.

Aishwarya said...

Wonderful as ever. :)

ORTHODOC said...

great going .keep it up.

Anu M said...

This was an interesting piece. However, having read several reviews of Memories of my Melancholy Whores I can't quite escape the feeling that the criticism of the book is from a moral position i.e. 21st century discomfort with something that skirts too close to paedophilia (even though Marquez has been pairing off older men with pubescent girls routinely in his earlier books without much comment). Further, Jonathan Bate seems to have poured every bit of bile he ever had about magic realism into his piece. Perhaps literary criticism has its cycles (witness Leavis with DH Lawrence, its hard to imagine such fulsome praise for DHL these days) which is why we can expect the "Marquez is not so great school" to emerge. Marquez in the early 80s was different - a break from authors the English speaking world had read before (ditto Rushdie whose Midnight Children went nowhere but still had a voice that was unique) which must in part account for his rise in stature as an author (though as pointed out here this fame comes at a price, Marquez is so identified with 100 years that everything else is measured against it or falls with it). To insist that his world should have moral judgement (as Kirsch does) seems - at the risk of stereotyping - a wholly American need that has little to do with literary merit. I don't enjoy all of Marquez - for example I couldn't stop reading Innocent Erendira but could not read a single subsequent story in the collection. But I still think of him as an author who deserves his reputation. i guess my point is that literary criticism is never absolute and always a personal opinion and authors of course fall out of fashion with the times.

Also, as someone who studied science and yet happens to read a lot of literature, the idea that "to study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being" seems a rather tall claim. If this is the credo of humanities departments, no wonder they are in crisis.

Chandrahas said...

Anu - those are in the most part fair comments. I agree - it cannot be that Marquez does not deserve his reputation at all. It's just that the book for which he is best-known is perhaps not as good as it's thought to be, and from some points of view it's actually a pretty poor book.

On criticism that takes a moral stand, I partly concur with your views. Criticism, to my mind, can very legitimately make some kind of argument of what a particular work is worth in a moral sense, but our judgment of a writer cannot be based solely on such considerations.

"i guess my point is that literary criticism is never absolute and always a personal opinion and authors of course fall out of fashion with the times." To repeat my own thoughts on this, good literary criticism, while never absolute as you suggest, is not JUST a personal opinion as well - it has the power to illuminate even when we do not agree with its conclusions.

Now to your last point. The idea that "to study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being" is perhaps not so much a claim - you will hardly find humanities departments saying such a thing - as an ideal that informs the study of history, philosophy, or literature. You are of course free to accept or reject it. All I can say is that almost everyone, at some point in their lives, has, on reading a particular book or viewing a work of art or seeing the past suddenly opened up in some way, has felt inside them a profound curiosity and excitement that in some way corresponds to that ideal of the humanities. In my own assessment, humanities departments are in crisis because they are now preoccupied with pettier, not larger, concerns.

Thanks again for some good thoughts - please write again.

Anu M said...

First off, I didn't mention that I read your blog quite often and its a pleasure to read, thanks too for the many links you provide.

I agree that good literary criticism should not be of the "I just didn't like this" variety but should have something more to say even when being subjective. And that you can discuss the morality or otherwise of a work. But - and this is based on a few discussions I have had with literature students and I may well be wrong in this - it does seem at times that literary criticism is subject to the fashion of the day and more or less tells you what you should (or should not) be reading if you are a serious reader. The hyperbole on Marquez may well have been a response to linear narrative, moral tomes in a white voice (I am speculating here), perhaps today the literary establishment has had enough of sprawling, amoral works attempting to dazzle and would rather heap praise on the old fashioned narrative. In that sense a review should "step out of its time" - if that makes sense. Mind you I didn't particularly like the new Marquez but I thought some of its reviews off the mark. If a novel should stand the test of time, so should the criticism of it - and I think it is possible only when critics take a detached view (Kirsch seems to come to his review having made up his mind that Marquez's characters are not properly "alive" in a way we can easily recognise and all else follows from this, there is little analysis on why stupendous or stupefying fiction/characters has always existed and why people who may exercise all kinds of moral judgements in life may yet understand a narrative bereft of it).

I think there are many things in life - not necessarily only those that fall into the category of art or literature - that illuminate life for us. One may never read a book and still have an insight into life or feel opened up by an experience as you say. I don't at all question the role of the humanities, I think they are very important - perhaps it was just the idea that it was essential to be a complete human being that got me:-):-)

Emily said...

Your ethos would be stronger if you all referred to him correctly--"Garcia Marquez" is his whole last name.

Anil P said...

And I cannot believe that there is anyone better than Marquez :)

It boils down to just two things (1) Would we think otherwise were we to read him in his language rather than his translated versions? (2) What must we know of his country, or his people, or for that matter his milieu to be able to better understand his writing, and hence, him.