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« "Toward Precision Medicine" (Dean) | Main | Did You Ever Notice? (Norman Costa) »

November 03, 2011

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Wood, what little I've read of him, has always perturbed me. He doesn't have the slightest idea what literature is nor how it works (it doesn't, a fact of which he's probably unaware), notwithstanding his perch in Cambridge, Mass. His entry in Wikipedia scandalously compares him to Harold Bloom. Yes, both emphasize "aesthetics," albeit in a narrow sense referring to the personally affective power of a text, rather than to the mechanisms by which a text spawns affective responses (which is not to admit in contradiction that the text is doing work). But Bloom, on his good days, never cared about "what the sentence paints [and] how it sounds," largely because Bloom didn't tolerate this kind of bullshit. Empson, too, had some fun things to say about "pure sound" criticism in his Seven Types of Ambiguity.

I miss good literary criticism, for instance, Bloom back in the day of his dabbling in Freud and Kabbalah, or de Man's brilliant (or brilliantly clever, contra Wood's disparagement of cleverness) meddling in philosophy and rhetoric. These guys produced commentary that, sure, helped with reading Wordsworth or Benjamin or Freud, but more importantly contributed its own often equally compelling observations. I disagree, Ruchira, with your take on the scope of Wood's piece. Perhaps he can be forgiven, because the piece is just a review, an invitation for him to elaborate his opinion of the subject work, rather than to study it and account for it, but both Bloom and de Man also published reviews among their collections of more academic criticism.

But how, if at all, do their reviews differ from Wood's? I'm not sure that's entirely easy to specify, but neither Bloom nor de Man (nor many other good literary thinkers) ends up doing his or her best work merely advancing an argument. Wood here states an opinion, finds a passage to support it, tries to dazzle with his own insights designed to compete with the text, and moves to the next stage of his argument. At one level, this is instructive, even when Wood is wrong or unconvincing. It's a model for the representation and expression of knowledge. At another level, the text is troubled in ways that Bloom, de Man, and their cohort loved to squeeze to the surface. At the outset, for instance, Wood deploys Nabokov's phrase "weak blond prose" to condemn the pretense to beauty of most acclaimed writers. I don't know the context of that remark, and it isn't clear to me what "blond" is doing in it. Does it mean "etiolated"? In any event, "weak...prose" recalls Bloom's own cavalier notions of weak and strong poetry (and poets). In Wood I read a weak wordsmith at work. When he writes, "Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine," he demonstrates a species of the very problem he wants to condemn. There's nothing here one would want to imitate or appropriate. It is an amalgam of merely clever constructions and phrasings, and the insights are uninteresting, even if true in a way. Hence, Wood must salvage his point with the Nabokov allusion. Bloom might have had the same insight into the same text, but he wouldn't have spelled it out in this way had he felt the need to specify it at all.


"Good grief!" I had the same reaction.

It reminded me of a scene from the BBC video dramatization of Robert Graves' 1934 novel, "I, Claudius." Roman emperor, and whack job, Caligula invited his uncle Claudius to comment on Caligula's metamorphosis. Caligula presented himself like a model showing off the latest in togas for the Fall. Caligula could see that Claudius was unable to comment and thought he was stunned into silence. So, Caligula asked Claudius if he could not see that he had been transformed into a god. Quickly, Claudius recovered his wits, and in a effort to preserve his head and the good graces of psychopath Caligula, he said something like this: "Oh, great emperor Caligula, I am overcome by the brilliance of the light that shines from you. If it were dark in the world, I could stand beside you and still read a book." It is one of my favorite and very funny scenes.

Good grief, why all this obsession with 'weak" whether violet or blond?

Of course, I had to fuel my curiosity about the origin of the phrase 'weak blond prose', and have this to report: it is likely an allusion to blonde beer or ale, which can be 'weak' as well as 'strong', naturally. It wasn't anything to do with wishy-washy effete blond poets producing reams of bad poetry that is prose chopped up into unmetered lines, though that image did occur to me.

The Wood review is not enticing me to try reading the original, beautiful writing notwithstanding, with parsed examples.

Well, this is James Wood on a bad day, but I like him. For my money, Tim Parks, a novelist and essayist who writes often for the NYRB, has lit crit gifts that exceed anyone else's. As for Violet Weak-Heights, she sounds like a blond to me...

When I read things like this, I feel it really is better to say more with less - which is something I continually struggle with myself. And since this overdose does put me to sleep, there's got to be a better critique of that novel out there.

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