Thursday, August 13, 2009

Things I've been reading: Rai, Lopate, Kolakowski, James, and Shakespeare

Some things I've been reading (or listening to) recently:

"The Persistence of Hindustani" by the literary scholar Alok Rai, an account of the fortunes, over the course of the twentieth century and before, of this shadowy language ("In a recent paper, Hindustani was described, sensitively, as not quite a language, but rather a zone of “anxiety” between Hindi and Urdu. This is a pity because a large part of the power and delight of Hindustani consists precisely in the way it enables the skilled user to play with polymorphous perversity, so to speak, over the entire range, from fairly tatsama Sanskrit all the way to fluent Persian and guttural Arabic, providing cross-border frissons to a genuinely multilingual community")

An interview with Phillip Lopate, one of the best film critics and essayists of our times and the editor of the excellent anthologies The Art of the Personal Essay and American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Till Now ("'Show, don't tell,' it seems to me, is far too broad a rule even in fiction since a lot of great eighteenth, or nineteenth-century fiction certainly does show and tell. It's a crude formulation, which has a greater truth in it. Of course if the teller has a wonderfully modulated voice and mind, I can see it in any method of telling. When Stendhal is on a roll, who care's if he's showing or telling? I don't want to fight that battle. What I want to say is that this interdiction against telling began to percolate into the craft of contemporary nonfiction, so that in workshops I teach I'll often hear students say, 'Well I think you should do this as scenes,' and I'll think, well, maybe yes, maybe no. The issue is not to do it as scenes or not as scenes. The issue is to bring a lively understanding or intelligence or voice in the material.") If you want more of Lopate, here is his essay "Novels And Films: A Comedy of Remarriage".

A recent podcast of James Wood's hugely funny (and then abruptly serious, and on that plane equally good and cogent) speech at the 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize awards ceremony.

"What The Past Is For" by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who passed away recently ("The doctrine that 'there are no facts, only interpretations' abolishes the idea of human responsibility and moral judgments; in effect, it considers any myth, legend, or fable just as valid, in terms of knowledge, as any fact that we have verified as such according to our standards of historical inquiry. In epistemological terms, any mythical story is just as good as any historically established fact; the story of Hercules fighting against the Hydra is no worse—no less true—in historical terms, than the history of Napoleon being defeated at Waterloo. There are no valid rules for establishing truth; consequently, there is no such thing as truth. There is no need to elaborate on the disastrous cultural effects of such a theory.") Kolakowski's Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing: 23 Questions From Great Philosophers, which I read last year, seemed to me of the greatest works of philosophical exposition I have ever come across

"The Necessary Mininum" by the literary critic Clive James, a scintillating account of the power of poetry to hold up against the wash of time, and of the work of two poets, Dunstan Thompson and Michael Donaghy ("[Donaghy's] essay... sums up his lifelong—lifelong in so short a life—determination to make sense out of the twentieth-century conflict between formal and free verse. As a musician by avocation, Donaghy had no trust in the idea of perfectly unfettered, untrained expression. He agreed with Stravinsky that limitations were the departure point for inspiration. Donaghy believed that a living poem could emerge only from an idea in “negotiation” (the key word in his critical vocabulary) with an imposed formal requirement, even if it was self-imposed, and might be rendered invisible in the course of the negotiation. The split between form and freedom, in his view, had begun with the difference between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. He favored formality, to the extent of hailing Richard Wilbur as the supreme phrasemaker. But he could also see that freedom had been fruitful. He was ready to welcome vital language wherever it came from, even if it came from the uninstructed. This readiness made him the ideal teacher of creative writing, even though he was suspicious of the very idea.")

"Philip Larkin's first interview", a brilliant memoir by John Shakespeare of an interview with the poet in the nineteen-fifties. Larkin was, at thirty-four, still a star not easily marked out from the rest in the sky of poetry, and so, "For a few weeks the poet bombarded me with letters and suggestions about his profile, all in beautiful, precise prose. The Larkin that emerges from this correspondence is an exceedingly pernickety individual. Something of a control freak, in today’s terms, he was clearly determined to seize the opportunity I had so rashly offered him to recast his image in the way he thought would appeal most to his as yet almost non-existent audience. He also displayed an underlying concern that nothing in the profile should upset his employers, his staff or his parents – in that order. [...] He was also almost obsessively interested in the photograph that was to accompany it. 'I wonder which picture you chose? Standing, sitting reading catalogue, or staring suspiciously over right shoulder?' "


Anonymous said...

A feast of a post. There goes my day's work.

Saikat said...

Lopate's comment on show-don't-tell reminds me a line from The Joy Luck Club. "It is a game of secrets in which one must show and never tell." Amy Tan's talking about chess, not fiction.