Reflections on living the life literary by the Urban Sundog
Non-Academics Prefer Aggression
I enjoy reading Edith Wharton.
I think she’s one of them ladies what really gets it. There’s nothing so archaically noble about her characters that can’t be simply undone by an entirely modern yet timeless petty moment of selfishness. But they’re essentially good people, and occasionally rise to inspiring actions in their behaviour that make you wish you could be certain you’d act the same way in a similar situation.
But beyond that, the woman has an eye for social detail, critique and commentary that is honest and again can speak across the decades to make points we can stand to hear now. I read The House of Mirth recently, and found this piece in particular to be a startling example of that sort of clarity of thought.
To the point that I immediately thought other people must have realized this -- I’d like to hear what other people have to say about this book and its issues these days! Searching the Library, I was able to locate a relatively recent (2001) collection of essays on The House of Mirth. Always up for an intelligent discussion of a good book, I checked it out immediately. Oddly, there wasn’t a waiting list for the book.
There were four essays in the book. I could read the first one. Enjoyed might be too strong a word. It wasn’t really getting at what I thought was there in the source material. The second essay managed to take up a high percentage of the pages of the total book with endless digressions on other novels which at least the writer of the essay had read even if no one else has, but did say the odd thing here and there I could at least recognize as concerning The House of Mirth. But again, seemed to miss the obvious points.
The last two essays were unreadable.
I find the general idea worthwhile of someone making the argument that as demonstrated in House of Mirth, when a person makes a negotiable item out of her social persona, as the only way a woman like her can get ahead in the world is to broker the most profitable marriage for herself, that person is faced with a demeaning approach to life. But the society as portrayed in House of Mirth is so out of date, it can’t really be held up as a cautionary example regarding such behaviour today.
What I object to is that same argument being expressed like this:
“The commodification of persons, the sex/gender economy, the radical capitalism of human relations presented by the text and amplified by subsequent readers remain as reminders of the power of materialism in its attempt to render society commensurable and exchangeable all the way to its most constituent parts, the human in the person and sociality in society. However, heightened awareness of our own production and perpetuation of this economy does not seem to have altered our behavior terribly much for the better. One could argue that we have rather complexified the processes completely out of hand, achieving for the system a kind of ubiquity that has an inuring effect on consciousness. When coercive agents and personal complicity get multiplied at every point, the task of critique and repair looms too monumental to mount. ... (The House of Mirth) wants us to identify with its version of a captivity narrative, but we may well be past the point at which this text can really scare us about what the commodification of human relations produces.”
(“Beyond Her Self”, Thomas Loebel, from New Essays on The House of Mirth, edited by Deborah Esch, Cambridge University Press, 2001 -- because I’m betting all of you are just chomping at the bit now to get out there and read the rest of that essay.)
“Amplified by subsequent readers”? “The human in the person and sociality in society”? “We have rather complexified the processes”? Guess what -- “complexified” isn’t a real word. “The task of critique and repair looms too monumental to mount”? “Captivity narrative”? Am I the only one who thinks that although the point the fellow is trying to make is valid, the way he expresses the paragraph is utterly ridiculous?
Here’s a shorter quote from the second essay, the one I thought had a point or two to make. Unfortunately in the midst of thousands of others I didn’t think needed to be there.
“All three novels express something of the aggressivity of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication in plotting to reduce their rakish heroines to tears. In part, as we’ve seen, this aggressivity is directed against femininity’s narcissistic love of pleasure.”
(“Determining Influences: Resistance and Mentorship in The House of Mirth and the Anglo-American Realist Tradition”, Mary Nyquist)
Once again, “aggressivity” isn’t a real word. Non-Academics prefer aggression. Which is a line I am reserving for the title of a new Jason Midnight story. If I read many more of these essays, I have a feeling that story should write itself.
Another thing I find fascinating is the utter contempt many academic writers express for emotions evoked by a writer in his or her work. No dismissal is more haughtily disdainful than the observation that the author only weakened for a moment from her higher pursuit to include a bit of writing only for “emotional effect”. Which is apparently an academic synonym for “melodrama”. Or should I say “melodrassivity”?
Oddly enough, that annoyance matches the reaction I have when what should be an intelligent discussion spills over into the cloying clichés of academic incomprehensibility. A misuse of clear language in the unwarranted pursuit of trying to sound authoritative and above most “complexifications” because of the weirdly based opinion the critic has about his or her qualifications to expound sententiously upon a subject can lead to conclusions and rhetoric both grandiose and ill-founded. Something like the sentence you just read.
My favourite example of that was in an academic study I mistakenly read of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books, where the critic was moved to wonder three quarters of the way through if the stories were not perhaps completely about incest. Since there was a complete absence of any evidence to draw that conclusion from in the writing itself. Burroughs was clearly trying to hide something.
None of this is to say that there isn’t some very intelligent writing coming out of academic settings well worth reading. I am a huge fan of the Popular Culture and Philosophy and the Blackwell Philosophy and Popculture series of books. Some of the most intelligent, entertaining, thoughtful, and amusing nonfiction writing I’ve read in the last ten years came out of those books. And the writers usually are to a person from the academic world. Sorry -- of course I really meant to say milieu. The only complaint I have here is that it doesn’t seem too likely an Edith Wharton and Philosophy title will be coming forth from either company soon.
Maybe philosophers are simply more likely to get it right than the “literary elite”.
I find it interesting that the blurb at the front of the book of essays on Edith Wharton I scored from the Library stated that each volume in its series begins with an introduction to the topic by “a distinguished authority on the text”. How does one go about becoming a distinguished authority on somebody else’s writing, I have to wonder? For example, is someone some day going to become a distinguished authority on my use of the utterly degenerate Iron Clown in Reality Fiction Too? The Oddball Edition? The actual essays included in the Wharton critical volume come from “senior scholars of established reputation and from outstanding younger critics”. You’d think then they’d be able to find someone who knew the difference between “aggressivity” and “aggression” and “complexified” and “complicated”.
I can’t help but think Edith Wharton herself would have had something to say about this sort of thing. A terminology being used to create an upper class of elite readers since they have more education, as in relation to say, a relatively vacuous and pretentious group of people setting the social standards for others based on the sole fact that they have more money? As I mentioned at the beginning, Edith was one of them ladies what really got it.
Here’s another overblown quotation I read somewhere else I had to laugh at -- “If the writer’s goal is to interpret the world, one eye looking back, the other forward, [sounds painful] the most intimate manifestation of this goal is to draw meaning from a life on the edge of death; to read the map of our life, as Borges would have us, written in the creases of ...” Whoops. That one’s about me. From the distinguished scholar writing the intro to my poetry book.
And brilliantly insightful it is, too.
REALITY FICTION UPDATE!
And what is Reality Fiction, you may well ask?
Simple. The concept of the Reality Television Series translated to the printed page. 40 characters from my backlog of generally unpublished material are gathered together to compete in a different theme each Episode, with one or two characters being eliminated each sequence until there are only two left to fight it out in the final. The winner gets a short novel of their own as the grand prize.
But somehow, things always seem to go horribly wrong ...
What’s happening now?
Well, a few more people checked in to see what the hot sex was all about last week in the first instalment of Erotic Supernatural Romance, but I have to say, the numbers weren’t up that significantly from the poetic fantasy of the Flying Episode. So we’ll go back to plain ol’ violence in instalment two and see what happens. Solitude lashed out at everybody on Monday. See how he made out. (As opposed to those other characters who were only ... You know what I mean.)
Results Friday at: realficone.blogspot.ca
REALITY FICTION TOO! EPISODES TO DATE
EPISODE FIFTEEN: EROTIC SUPERNATURAL ROMANCE:
“The Shadow of Her Passion”
EPISODE FOURTEEN: FLYING:
EPISODE THIRTEEN: SLAPSTICK:
“The Phantom of the Werewolf”
EPISODE TWELVE: DAIRY FARMING:
“Early One Morning”
EPISODE ELEVEN: BURROUGHS:
EPISODE TEN: WEREWOLVES:
“The Silver Solution”
EPISODE NINE: WRESTLING:
EPISODE EIGHT: JANE AUSTEN ROMANCE:
“The Proud and the Senseless”
EPISODE SEVEN: THE JAZZ AGE:
“The Bucky-Dusky-Ruby Red Hop!”
EPISODE SIX: SUBMISSION:
EPISODE FIVE: MASQUERADE:
“The Eyes Behind the Mask”
EPISODE FOUR: SELF HELP:
“Sausage Stew for the Slightly Overweight Presents:
Some Several Suggestions Guaranteeing Success for the Mildly Neurotic”
EPISODE THREE: NUDIST:
“If You Have To Ask ...”
EPISODE TWO: FRENCH BEDROOM FARCE:
“Un Nuit a Fifi’s!”
EPISODE ONE: STEAMPUNK:
“The Chase of the Purple Squid!”
A J.H.B. Original!