Compared to 2016, during which I read more than a book a week, I’ve barely touched a tome this year. That changed a fortnight ago, when I needed something to occupy my brain while hiding in a Marrakech hotel room from the North African sun. I’d brought with me Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 epic Blood Meridian, a novel I really only speed-read about eight years or so ago, so it was a relatively fresh experience.
I’m not sure if I have much to add to the critical furore over the book, which is chiefly centred around the prose and imagery. I’ve seen Mccarthy variously described as the greatest living stylist in any language and the heir to Faulkner. Harold Bloom’s general panegyrics probably do not need repeating here. Blood Meridian has been hailed as both his masterpiece and the best American novel by anyone after 1950.
There’s a great deal about his writing I find hypnotic and fascinating. He constantly reminds me of a something once written about Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: epic as the Old Testament, American as Huckleberry Finn. (Unlike Faulkner, McCarthy is also as bloody as the Hebrew Bible.) But there are frequently moments I find myself saying it loud, “Oh, come on” and wanting to reach for a red pen. McCarthy is decidedly not a purveyor of le mot juste, and sometimes the excessive sizzle denotes an overdone steak. There are even times when I cannot, for the life of me, understand what it is McCarthy is trying to say, and like him I am a devotee of Joyce – from whom, it must be said, McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons. Judging by his interviews, he seems to think Joyce’s greatness lies in his lack of punctuation… But that’s only true of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. True, as early as Dubliners Joyce sacked off speech marks, but he never possessed the terror of commas McCarthy ascribes him. Furthermore, Dubliners is an exhibition of precise language, whereas so much of Blood Meridian is just an accumulation of syntactically loose jetsam.
(I don’t have a copy of the book with me, but I can return with examples.)
I don’t mind idiosyncracy in a writer, especially not when such power can be derived from it. McCarthy’s writing conveys real menace – Judge Holden is a genuinely frightening and brilliantly realised character, although anyone calling him “the most terrifying […] in all of American literature” as Harold Bloom did has never encountered Dr Benway.
(In fact, all of the nonsense about whether or not the Judge is Satan misses the point obvious to a comic book reader: Holden is actually Darkseid, just like Benway is Desaad.)
Which brings me to another unfavourable and perhaps odd comparison I found myself making. Blood Meridian is, to its credit, a Hieronymous Bosch painting of the American West, but an inferior one to Burroughs’ truly revelationary Western Lands trilogy. Where McCarthy is idiosyncratic, Burroughs is experimental. Where McCarthy hints at the numinous, Burroughs eviscerates it. And where I see McCarthy as a genius and visionary amateur, Burroughs seems ever more the master – A real American Moses wandering down from Mount Sinai chewing on psychedelic cacti.
Is there a word for philological wanderlusting? Whatever it is, every so often I suffer it painfully and have to have a crack at a new tongue.
In this case, the stimulant was the knowledge I will never get the full hit of Dante without at least attempting to stumble through it in the original. This is self-evident from a mere glance at the untranslated text, which hides rhymes within rhymes and stacks rhymes on top of rhymes, vs the comparatively rhymeless English of the courageous interpreter who can never give more than a flavour of Dante’s endless cascade of onos and oros and itas and ritas and ortes and elles and ivas and inas.
I’d also realised it’s generally true of the language while rolling around a few memorised lines of Petrarch in my head:
Aura che quelle chiome bionde et crespe
cercondi et movi, et se’ mossa da loro,
soavemente, et spargi quel dolce oro,
et poi ’l raccogli, e ’n bei nodi il rincrespe…
In the first line, every non-conjuctive word but one ends in the same letter. The majority of words in the text end in vowel sounds, which adds immeasurably to il dolce suono. There’s also a beautiful da-da-DUM da-DUM-da rhythm that runs through, but that’s less a linguistic feature than something unique to Petrarch’s art.
(Does anyone else short-change “Petrarch” one of his Rs when typing his name? No matter how many times I type it knowing it’s “Petrarch,” I always seem to type “Petrach” and have to backspace past the C.)
Learning Italian to read Dante and Petrarch is also one of the prescriptions for poetic mastery given by Ezra Pound. (Along with learning Chinese – I’ll leave that one alone for now.)
I’ve always said I don’t have a head for languages, but I’m not sure if it’s more true that I don’t have a head for French, which is a language I’ve been studying on and off, formally and informally, for seventeen years and I still can’t do much more than follow the gist of a conversation. A few years ago I started learning spoken Russian via Pimsleur tapes, and within a few weeks I could comfortably pass the time of day. I read a course in Gaelic at university in order to get a better grip of Irish texts, and picked up a lot in a short space of time.
Likewise, studying Italian with the Duolingo app has been a great deal of fun where French was always a chore. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter – I’ve accidentally developed an almost A.E. Houseman*-esque contempt for French poetry beside Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, whereas I genuinely love Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Foscolo, Leopardi, Ariosto and Michelangelo’s sonnets. I’ve also suffered through Sartre and Camus in French, but I find them to be bores even in translation – maybe I need to turn my attention to a true prose aesthete like Flaubert.
In any case, this may or may not all come to nothing, but hopefully it keeps the brain nice and limber if nothing else.
*An anecdote tells us Houseman once asked the great Andre Gide at dinner why it was the French have never produced any poetry of note. Gide’s response was the quite get-out-of-jail-free-card retort, “What is poetry?” But to fight this bias, I have purchased the splendid Jacques Barzun’s “Essay on French Verse: For Readers of English Poetry.”
The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermés should naturally attend to her appearance first and foremost; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development – besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.
From Submission, by Michel Houellebecq. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein.
Demolition for the Village View Apartments hadn’t quite finished: July dawns you could still wander the small streets (shortly to be replaced by concrete paths between scrubby lawns and red-brick buildings) and, among the devastated acres, catch sight, in the muggy morning, of fires here and there beside one or another still-standing tenement wall. Off beyond the Jacob Riis Houses with their green sliver of park, the East River’s sluggish oils nudged the city’s granite embankments or bumped the pilings beneath the Williamsburg bridge: girder, cable, and concrete rose from among the delis and cuchifrito stands, the furniture and fabric stores, the movie marquees on Delancey Street to span the night waters – where cars and subways and after-dark cruisers took their delicate amble above the blue-black current banked with lights – before striking deep into Brooklyn’s glittering flank, above the Navy yard.
In the summer of 1961 no one had yet named it the East Village: it was still the Lower East Side.
– The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany
This just struck me as such a marvelous piece of writing, from Chip Delany’s memoir/bildungsroman about growing up black and gay in New York. It’s reminded me of my secret fascination with a city I’ve only ever seen from an hour stopover in Newark Liberty. I’m aware now that my New York doesn’t exist any more, and indeed it probably never did – but Delany’s prose is undergoing serious reconstruction work on the New York of my mind.
Can literature be said to have an architecture, or a topography? Or does it merely undertake work on the architecture of our minds, laying foundations of someone else’s dreams and shoring up old memories of things that never happened to us? I look at the paragraph above and think it looks so fine and complex, with its bold parentheses, subtle hyphens and italicised Puerto Rican delicacies, a melting pot of perfect punctuation even as the meaning the words convey peculates through my consciousness, rewriting streets and scribbling out buildings.
Ever since the Oxford English Dictionary announced that “selfie” was their Word of the Year 2013, there’s been quite a strident and cynical backlash. Some seem adamant that the rise of the selfie, social media’s apparently negative shorthand for pretty much any self-portrait photography, is indicative of a youth culture defined by vanity and solipsism. Grace Dent in the Independent was particularly hysterical, passionately longing for an era when individuals were controlled by their shame and public ridicule was waiting around the corner for those that weren’t:
In 1993, if you went to Woolworths three times a week to sit in the Foto-Me booth snapping pictures of yourself pulling “The Fonz is Cool” poses, your ego would have been the stuff of local legend. Now, a selfie-a-day is unremarkable. I sat in a bar recently while one friend took a dozen separate pictures of themselves in the toilet as “it was such amazing light”. We take selfies without irony, sans shame, posting the results online as bait in the great murky cyber-sea. We fish never-endingly for compliments, comments… indeed any feedback at all. Maybe just a Facebook like? A little Instagram regram and a new surge of followers. Anything – please God, anything – which indicates we were bathing, remotely, momentarily in another human being’s gaze.
I couldn’t, in truth, find a professional article behind Dent’s bleating strawmen, fragmented sentences and repetitive sarcastic uses of hashtags, but there must have been one for it to find its way past an Independent editor and subsequently all over my Facebook feed. Let’s therefore assume this isn’t actually more indicative of the hideous decline of journalism and more charitably say this suggests that the backlash against the selfie has moved beyond the usual two or three dry comments per each one uploaded to Facebook and has entered the English zeitgeist good and proper.
It’s good to see people so fired up and passionate about something so important, something so close to the bone of early 21st century social identity. There was a worry that this generation would waste their focus on relatively trivial subjects like the emancipation of Palestine or growing financial inequality on a global scale, but it looks like things are back on track as we stand up to the ubiquitous Instagram imposition, the frivolous Facebook encroachment that is the selfie. Already, crack squadrons of vigilant paladins are scouring their friends’ “mobile pictures” folders for anything that looks remotely like it was taken with a smart phone’s reverse camera, and woe betide those who haven’t got the memo and decide to create a new display picture instead of scrolling through thousands of mates’ pub snaps to find one suitable for their boss to see.
I must admit, I won’t be among them, however. I hold my hands up here: I am one of the hyper-shallow, self-obsessed, narcissistic, empty-headed young sociopaths who have, in the past, taken photos of themselves. Worse, I’ve then uploaded them onto social media. Yes, I am that worst kind of vapid, egomaniacal, attention-seeking, compliment-craving, exhibitionist braggart, the selfie-taker. Gaze upon my works, ye mighty, and despair:
They are merely three examples – there are at least two more around the internet. Looking over these selfies, I’m led to consider why I took them.
For as long as I can remember, I have had self image problems. Not for any good reason, looking at it objectively. When I was a child, I suffered terribly from sinusitis, resulting in a perpetual runny nose I would try to cover up as often as possible. As this faded in my teens, it was replaced by chronic acne, the scars of which I still carry on my body. I had a gap in my teeth that meant I didn’t show them when I smiled until I was about 18, and a permanent stain on one incisor I was neurotic enough to have removed as late as last year. Through this period, I’ve been sporadically self conscious about my weight, my messy hair, a surgical scar that means my bottom lip protrudes more than it otherwise would, my jawline’s lack of definition, the fact one of my nostrils is wider than the other and several other things that have meant my reflection and I don’t always get along well.
So what, right? Well… right. My experience of self-image problems aren’t particularly special. I’m convinced I’m in the majority when it comes to not looking like one would like to look. So, the first obvious point to make is: yes, it is probably nice to receive some mark of acceptance from one’s peers, even if it is a Facebook like. Dent, and others, are aghast that anyone might crave that kind of social confirmation, even a little bit, but I don’t actually find it particularly shocking. It must be said, though, that there’s actually something else going on, something bigger that’s at stake.
There’s a part in The Matrix when Morpheus shows Neo the inside of the computer simulation for the first time. The script reads:
Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different. The plugs in your arms and head are gone. Your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.
This part has always seemed bogus to me, and by conversations I’ve had with others, I’m not alone. The filmmakers, obviously restricted by the medium, can only show us Keanu Reeves in a jacket and jeans, and with an unexceptional haircut. If only it were true that our self images were that normal, basic and unchanging. The “residual self image”, quite simply, does not exist with that degree of consistency. It’s in a constant state of flux.
More so when something alters in our life, from a haircut (see above) to a break up. The Dents of this world want to see the common Instagram image of the girl two days after finishing with her boyfriend as being some kind of desperate public plea for attention and sympathy, as well as validation that she will be able to find a replacement. More likely, the validation that is desired is twofold: 1.) that she is not as ugly as the break-up has made her feel internally, and 2.) on a subconscious level, that she is still recognisably the same person as she was three days ago.
The quite wonderful and epoch-shaping photographer, Nan Goldin, certainly sees it this way, commenting on one of several of her pictures that would now be classified as selfies (emphasis mine):
My work has been about making a record of my life that no one can revise. I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. I was coming out of a melancholic phase. This was taken when I was traveling extensively, on the road from hotel to hotel. You get displaced, and then taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself.
A particularly devastating example of one of Goldin’s portraits is her “Nan one month after being battered”, an artistic capturing of her domestic abuse.
In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (p.8), she speaks frankly about the events leading up to this photo:
For a number of years I was deeply involved with a man. We were well suited emotionally and the relationship became very interdependent. Jealousy was used to inspire passion. His concept of relationships was rooted in … romantic idealism … I craved the dependency, the adoration, the satisfaction, the security, but sometimes I felt claustrophobic. We were addicted to the amount of love the relationship supplied … Things between us started to break down, but neither of us could make the break. The desire was constantly reinspired at the same time that the dissatisfaction became undeniable. Our sexual obsession remained one of the hooks. One night, he battered me severely, almost blinding me.
This photograph is, obviously, completely different than the smiling Facebook display pic taken in someone’s living room, and it would be completely wrong to compare them directly. But the emotion behind her taking the photo is consistent with Goldin’s more general rationale for her self portraits, which is identical to the reason for most selfies. They aren’t a desire for simple public gratification so much as a necessity for the individual to ground one’s own self, to do away with Cartesian distinction, within the social context that defines us as much as anything else does.
This is nothing new. If you could map the emotional path of Van Gogh, you’d find a tumultuous road indeed: it’s speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy. And the road would have selfies as milestones. Those keen to cling to the fantasy of the selfie as generational, and the sole preserve of talentless egotists, please look away now:
There are thirty-four more Van Gogh selfies extant. This is relatively restrained next to Edvard Munch, who crafted 190 selfies over the course of his life, in which he frequently sees himself mistreated by women or other forces beyond his control. Frida Kahlo made fifty-five selfies, including this famous one, but there are far more nightmarish and frightening examples where she tries to depict as best she can both her mental and physical anguish – Kahlo spent many years bedridden and alone. We might also here spare mentions for Rembrandt, Dürer, Picasso, Rubens, Schiele, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet, Whistler, Toulouse-Latrec, Gauguin, Renoir, da Vinci and Goya, irrepressible selfie-ists all. Schiele, by the way, would also paint himself masturbating or otherwise pleasuring himself, presumably as a forerunner to the satisfaction-seeking nature of the modern selfie:
Far from being demonstrative of shamelessness and arrogance, the selfie, like the self-portrait of old, seems almost overwhelmingly motivated by self-doubt, nervousness and even a sense of ontological ungrounding. Because your average Instagram user does not have the artistic talent of the ladies or gentlemen named, should that necessarily de-legitimise their own emotions, their own burning necessity to stand in on themselves in times of change and halt the flux, if only for a moment?
“The only people shallow enough to take selfies,” says the imperiously monikered IvyLeague, a participant in the comment thread below Dent’s crusading piece, “are unlikely to appeal to anyone above the age of 16 or with an IQ above 80.” It is with a little regret that I resign myself, then, to the ranks of the sub-literate, borderline-retarded cretins such as Rembrandt and Goya. It’s a tough cross to bear, but bear it I must, consoling myself with the poetry of that other brain-dead selfie-taker, Rimbaud:
I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.