Teaching and the Individual Talent?

Rachel Cusk’s feature in the Guardian Review in defence of creative writing has been nagging away at me ever since I read it.

I have problems with the view of the subject and, more importantly for creative writing, the view of the novel at the heart of the piece. I wasn’t initially particularly concerned with what Cusk was trying to defend, the teaching of creative writing, although, of course, her defence ended up making me question just that.

Here’s where it starts going wonky:

Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels the need to assert a “true” self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every social and personal network, has given rise to a “false” self.

This is presented as the student’s view, but it’s entirely consistent with Cusk’s own work and criticism. The piece continues by noting the hoariness of the cliché that everyone has a book in them:

What is it, this book everyone has in them? It is, perhaps, that haunting entity, the “true” self. The true self seeks release, not constraint. It doesn’t want to be corseted in a sonnet or made to learn a system of musical notations. It wants liberation, which is why very often it fastens on the novel, for the novel seems spacious, undefined, free. In the novel that common currency, language, can be exchanged like for like.

I wouldn’t disagree that the novel can be spacious – its spaciousness might, in fact, be constitutive of what it is – or free, but thought it might be useful to highlight some of the rich critical work that deals with the problem of the idea of this “true” self and attempts to assert it through language. The thing is, there’s not much point me doing that because it’s already been done with considerable energy and clarity by Tom McCarthy (that’s the Booker short-listed Tom McCarthy, so he’s no publishing obscurity) in his essay ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. (I’d love to be able to recommend you buy the ebook, as I did, but sadly its saddled with all sorts of DRM so I can neither copy from it nor read it on any device other than the computer I downloaded it on. I needn’t stress the absurdity of publishing an essay about literature as transmitted information in this kind of imprisoned form and should you want to read it you might want to have a look at scribd).

McCarthy’s title riffs on that of TS Eliot’s most famous critical essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which Eliot described what is referred to as his theory of depersonalisation, a process by which the artist removes himself from the picture to allow the rich tradition of literature to be reshaped by his mediation: ‘What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ In Eliot’s view, the individual poet becomes a collider for the particles of the literary tradition, providing ‘the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.’

McCarthy updates Eliot for the 21st century, quoting the critics who’ve, since Eliot, chipped away at the notion of the enthroned subject summoning great works of aesthetic beauty from some wonderful and mystical interiority. He writes that he’s almost embarrassed to quote the passage he does from Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’, so well known is it. But let’s sample just a touch, because Barthes is great (and available on Ubuweb – take note ebook publishers):

literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

McCarthy glosses this:

Who speaks? For Barthes, the answer is always: language – language speaks me, you, everyone, to such an extent that I and you and we and they are merely shifting and amorphous points, floating islands being continuously made and unmade by language’s flows and counterflows.

Lovely stuff. The thing is, on re-reading Cusk’s piece she seems to sense these problems but is unwilling to push at them, perhaps because of the implications for the self:

The novel seems to be the book of self: the problem is that, once you start to write it, you see that it has taken on certain familiar characteristics. It begins to seem not true but false, either a recreation of the false self or a failure to externalise the true one. It is a product, your product: in other words, more of the same. How, then, to produce the “true” writing?

Rather than working at this problem she defers to Karl Ove Knausgard, whose book was her pick of the year in the Guardian’s round-up.

“Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in A Death in the Family. “That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”

Any the wiser? Nope, me neither. And we all thought post-structuralism was difficult to understand. But wait, there’s an explanation in what, for me, is the most problematic statement of all in this article:

There is a spirituality, or at least a mysticism, to this statement that it seems to me ought to be embedded at the core of creative writing culture.

Is this a direction to go to a séance or a church? Because it reads like one. It strikes me that this is where you end up if you enshrine hugely problematic notions such as the subject and the idea of authenticity at the heart of fictional practice: flailing around, summoning the spirits and trying to divine the self in a concave mirror. A student might be excused for asking for something a touch more rigorous on a £5700 a year creative writing course.

I don’t want to attack creative writing, the particular course, or even the particular teacher, but I do want to make a problem of this mysticism. I realise that creative writing is not literary criticism. Barthes and Eliot might not be what creative writing students want to read (they may prefer Cusk and Knausgard). Fair enough. (ish. I think creative writing should be engaged with the possibilities of literature rather than therapeutic self-expression, and should certainly be aware of current directions in the novel, and let’s be honest, this isn’t even that current: nouveau roman, anyone? But then I’m frequently seen as some kind of utopian dilettante, if a bit grumpy about DRM).

I think even in its own terms this defence is flawed, because what is being advocated here is a type of novel that is in no way free or liberated, reduced, as it is, to self-portraiture. Indeed, Cusk herself describes Knausgard’s book as a self-portrait.

While Francis Bacon’s self-portraits might be very interesting in the context of his collected work, if there were only self-portraits, would we be interested? Even if you don’t want to engage with the questions facing literature, and just want to write a good detective story, should your detective story really be a self-portrait?

The view of the novel that is concerned only with the self precludes the possibility of Eliot’s fusion. It may have some awareness of the tradition in which it operates but it can’t hope to put it under sufficient synthetic pressure to produce work that will be of any value to anyone but the producing self, because this is its only real concern.

An idea of the novel that limits itself to self-portraiture is always going to end up here: this is an artistic correlationism that makes self continuous with work, without allowing for all the things – tradition, computer monitors, exterior soundfields, whisky, metaphor, mess, the continuous flow of information – that make such a notion nonsensical.

Lightning Rods

What was planned as a quick post on Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods has ended up taking me most of today. I finished reading this last week, found it compellingly, brilliantly strange and have subsequently read a couple of reviews. I don’t want to review it myself, because a number of these reviews are excellent and I’ll be referring to them below, and I don’t want to repeat the plot synopses that these do so well. I want to consider satire more broadly.

It’s an interesting thing, is satire. It’s typically highly normative. My Birkbeck colleague Joe Brooker has written very compellingly on this:

Normative satire requires that laws of right conduct be understood, not merely by the lone satirist, but by the work’s audience. It implies consensus around shared values, and implicit agreement that transgression of those values should be pointed out and punished at the level of representation […] The satirist seems to be on the side of change, of progress, or at least of correction. (Joseph Brooker, Satire Bust, 327)

This expands on Samuel Johnson’s definition of a satirical poem as ‘a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.’ In the broadest sense, a satirical text identifies something wrong with the world and aims to correct the situation by poking it with a textual stick.

The idea of consensus should be qualified, though: it may well be the audience who require correcting. How many of us were as acutely aware of the level of shamelessness with which the famous would prostitute themselves to TV and charitable causes before Chris Morris’s Brass Eye? Morris provided ‘correction’, brought his viewers into line with his worldview by educating them about the absurdity of the situation. Did he stop the media or the famous from functioning in the way they do? Demonstrably not. Did he make his audience more aware of what was happening? Absolutely. (Compare to later attempts to do the same thing which certainly assume audience consensus).

In fact, I think it’s worth pushing this a bit further. Mikhael Bakhtin identified what he called ‘carnival laughter’, laughter of all the people, in the work of Rabelais. Carnival laughter is multiple and ambivalent. In this kind of satire no one is excluded from the mockery, and at the same time, different people might be getting different jokes.

A personal working example of this might be around Chris Morris’s Richard Geefe columns in The Observer in which he wrote as a young man who was documenting the countdown to a suicide attempt. I was outraged at these columns before I knew they were spoofs: what was The Observer doing hiring this twat? My colleague Joe McNally spotted thematic resonance with Morris’s work and outed him. McNally enjoyed those earlier columns more than I did. I was initially on the wrong side of the joke which functioned as a mockery of people who get wound up about newspaper columns just as much as it did a brilliantly convincing parody of confessional me-journalism. (It occurs that Jerry Sadowitz might be our greatest living practitioner of Bakhtinian humour, and I’d love to hear him respond to that accusation.)

Reviews of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods have been illustrative of the complicated functioning of satire. For Jenny Turner it’s a ‘satire on office politics, sexual politics, American politics, and the art of positive thinking, culminating with a sad, dry attack on the very basis of constitutional democracy.’ That’s pretty multivalent. John Self writes: ‘Lightning Rods is a book about one thing which pretends to be about another thing. What it is really about is language, but it disguises all this in a satire of sexual politics.’ Garth Risk Hallberg goes for ambivalence: there are two kinds of satire, he argues, a loose form and a strict form. Lightning Rods is an exemplar of the latter, ‘an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends.’

Turner’s is the most Bakhtinian reading: everything within the scope of the novel is satirized, its carnival encompasses its world. Self hones in on just one of Turner’s objects, to consider it a satire of sexual politics that is ‘really’ about language. The novel’s position on sexual politics is indeed highly normative, assuming a consensus opposition to prostitution and weedle-words used to justify it. I think this might be better termed the ‘manifest’ object of the novel’s satire and I wonder if we mightn’t prod at that a little harder to reveal its ‘latent’ object. Language is certainly a concern of the novel, and many reviewers have praised its highly accomplished voice, a pastiche of self-help-derived, corporate sales schpiel and good-old, down-home values to produce something both very funny and capable of carrying off a single-minded logic.

Hallberg’s analysis is very interesting because while I’d dispute the need to narrow contemporary satire to just two types, it usefully identifies something very important: that the satirical text is a form of model, employing a kind of logic that indicates correlation between its fantasy and a real world scenario to make its case. In other words, satire is a form of analogy. Think of Swift’s mirror: the satirical text reflects the world back to itself in a warped version that highlights absurdity. It is appropriate that it should follow logical premises. Satire is structurally logical. In the case of Lightning Rods there is a formal match with content. This text is entirely monological: it is the single-minded extension of a fantastic premise – a premise literally taken from a fantasy – carried for the duration of a novel. Its language serves that logic: the ‘deadpan coolness’ of the ‘masking language’ in John Self’s description is a function of a fantasy logic that can overcome all obstacles. If a novel can indeed be about any one thing, this novel is about a form of logic.

While reading Lightning Rods I was several times troubled by a couple of nagging doubts: this is very funny, but why extend this fantastic scenario so far? Isn’t it too thin? And: am I laughing at myself here?

On completing Lightning Rods I was both certain that the logic had been extended so far for a very good reason – a reason well beyond reductio ad absurdum, because what need to render absurd an already absurd premise? – and certain that I had been laughing at myself. Two moments in the narrative clarified things for me.

In each of these moments it seemed certain that the monological continuation of (just another Regular) Joe’s fantasy would be derailed. In each of these moments this logic was, completely implausibly, not derailed. On several locations in the narrative alternate logics came into contact with that of the narrator and each was subsumed into his logic in implausible fashion but these two moments specifically stood out for me as markers in the sand. They reminded me a bit of Zadie Smith’s account of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, in which she noted the scene when Remainder’s narrator describes inviting a homeless man in to a restaurant to have lunch with him before declaring this obviously a fantasy: ‘There wasn’t any table. The truth is, I’ve been making all this up—the stuff about the homeless person. He existed all right, sitting camouflaged against the shop fronts and the dustbins—but I didn’t go across to him.’ In Remainder’s logic, a small irruption of reality into the fantastic fabric of the fiction; a tear, rent or ruck in the surface of mimesis. Smith described this as McCarthy insisting: ‘Satisfied? Can I write this novel my way now?’

In Lightning Rods there is inversion of this gesture to similar ends. DeWitt allows plausible reality just close enough to the narrative to let you sense how tenuous the fantasy is before subsuming it back into the implausible. In the first of these scenes Joe is door-stopped by an FBI investigator who has discovered the extent of the Lightning Rod network and how illegal it is. Rather than prosecuting him for innumerable violations of federal laws, the federal government takes up the Lightning Rods system as a means of controlling and protecting important individuals. Have I mentioned that this is highly implausible? Instead of derailing it, this episode reasserts the narrator’s fantasy – we remain within his fantasy. It also, importantly, I think, indicates that the state has taken up the logic of the fantasy with a slightly variant agenda.

In the second scene the narrator invites Lucille back to his apartment to discuss changes to the Lightning Rod business and how to deal with competitors. Lucile, it should be noted, is the focus of Joe’s germinal fantasy incarnate: an unflappable and business-like pneumatic blonde with a taste for bubblegum pink clothing. In this scene, domestic reality threatens to intrude: Joe’s dog is bouncing around and Lucille likes it; she also falls for his set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and they are surely about to get together… but no, instead they return to discussing Lightning Rods and Lucille voices a machine-tooled version of Joe’s masculinist logic. This incident blocks off the other side: the logic of romantic fantasy is excluded; the love scene is denied. There is only one form of logic in this text: Joe’s logic; the logic of the sale.

This is pretty much the structure of the novel: encounter opposition to fantasy logic, overcome opposition, move on. Every oppositional encounter is incorporated into the body of the fantasy as the all-accommodating fantasy extends its logic. The distracting toilet is overcome by the construction of a lowering mechanism; identifying skin colour and a racial equality suit are overcome by the implementation of PVC tights; the oppositions of Christian clients are overcome by sales patter.

What we end with is at root a male sexual fantasy predicated upon a resolutely male logic – that the male requires sexual relief in order to be usefully productive – that is developed single-mindedly and incorporates within it every opposition it encounters. Along the way, there are surprising benefits for the disabled, considerations of racial equality – but only as by-products of a warped fantasy of male sexual release.

It’s now 28 years since Fredric Jameson declared parody no longer possible: empty pastiche is all that we’re capable of, he argued, in late capitalist cultural production. I think that one way we might read Lightning Rods is as a response to free-market capitalism. Joe is a salesman. This is a novel about the sale of a system, a system that is expanded throughout the novel through a relentless monotone logic of incorporation that encounters every opposition as an opportunity to extend its logic – the kind of logic that would give us credit default swaps and obscure and baroque products developed as a response to an opportunity not to do anything other than extend the system? Such a reading would associate late venture capitalism with a male sexual fantasy implausibly extended throughout every aspect of life, supported and corroborated by numerous women along the way and adopted by the state but still, at root, a tawdry masturbatory fantasy. I’m quite happy to suggest this as the ‘latent’ object of the text’s satire.

On several occasions there is a suggestion that something went wrong with the Lightning Rods business, but it never actually does: there is no end to Lightning Rods within the novel’s world. Why on earth sustain a tawdry jazz-mag fantasy, implausibly propped up with sales patter, for 280-pages? Because it has to be sustained, we’re still in it. We can’t veer off into romance, or into realism. This fantasy is here to stay. Satire is a form structurally suited to critiquing the monological but to overcome Jameson’s problem, in order to retain its bite, it must locate itself logically parallel to the system, but outside; must be analogue. If there’s a norm to be assumed here, it’s a norm none of us are sharing in.

We’re definitely laughing at ourselves.

The Melancholy of McCaw

“Thinking nothing, McCaw looked up at the Auckland sky, a white sky spun with grey clouds and blue reflections, one of those powerfully and tumultuously windswept skies of Flemish painting, McCaw looked at the Auckland sky above Eden Park on the evening of 23rd October 2011 and he savoured with a poignant intensity the feeling of being there, simply there, in Auckland’s Eden Park stadium, on the evening of the Rugby World Cup Final.”[1]

In his LRB essay on Jean-Philippe Toussaint (‘Stabbing the Olive’, Vol. 32 No. 3 · 11 February 2010, pp. 26-28, see previous post), Tom McCarthy praised Toussaint’s essay Le Melancholie de Zidane, the Belgian author’s lyrical appraisal of Zidane’s performance in the 2006 football World Cup Final. McCarthy highlighted Toussaint’s interest in geometry; his invocation of Zeno’s paradox to understand Zidane’s headbutt into Materazzi’s chest as an attempt to “short-circuit finitude”.

I want to translate Toussaint, indeed to translate him to the power of two: from French to English; from association football to rugby football. The player analogous with Zidane at this rugby world cup is New Zealand’s captain, open-side flanker Richie McCaw, a player as instinctive and unique as the French midfielder, a player who has recast his sport and who, having passed a hundred caps, nears his own retirement. It is possible to switch elements in this equation, but in performing the translations we must balance out.


First we must squash the ball. We’re dealing with an ellipsoid rather than a sphere, but it still all revolves around the ball, the quasi-object that brings the collective into being, dictating the shape of the game, the patterns and waves of its human thermodynamics: understand that and you have it all in your hands. The quasi-object performs this role as long as it is in motion. As soon as it stops moving, it ceases to be a quasi-object, becomes just another moulded plastic egg. It seems too good to be true that the point in open play at which the ball stops moving is called the breakdown: deny the ellipsoid its quasi-objective status and the game breaks down. As England demonstrated, if you attempt to enforce your own pattern too hard, attempt to make the ball do your will and your will alone, it will not perform as you would like it to. Some essential quality of the game is lost (see also Scotland, and their English coach, for a text-book demonstration of patterned objectification of the ball). Allow the ball to define you within the closed system of the game, however, allow it to exert its influence dependent upon its relation to you and the other members of the collective, and then it begins to emerge: the true game.

McCaw is the ultimate geometer of this true game, a Thales intuiting his science from the ellipsoid rather than the pyramid. As a breakdown technician, the man responsible for maintaining the motion of the ball in play, lines of run must be persistently recalibrated, the mind becoming an anti-aircraft gunnery system, recalculating trajectory at each event along the ball’s path. Pace alone won’t get you there – although he has it in spades: you need to be able to reconfigure, respond, process information and run the routines. Williams slips it to Nonu, you’re still heading for zone A, where Jane will take it at pace. Nonu fumbles and you cut deep into zone B, switch to a recovery remit, ready to swoop onto a grounded ball.

When you arrive the immediate shape in which you organise your limbs is all-important, the angle between back and thigh, the hinge. You need to achieve equilibrium; your upper body cannot overbalance. The setting of the feet is crucial, a strong base required to withstand the impacts that will come as your opponents, lagging by two metres due to inferior angle readjustment, pile in. Trapezoid is the best fit.

Perspective too is crucial, maybe even sleight of hand, that combination of speed of movement and obfuscation that so infuriates oppositions throughout the world: that they call him a cheat only proves how close he is to perfecting it. That they suggest referees have been suckered only goes to show that he’s got it right. Because the law is ambiguous, it’s about interpretation (as are all laws). McCaw interprets it correctly, allows the pieces to fall around the moving line within its range of movement. His hands are on the ball and pulling it away, his body remains off the ground. Then his hands are off the ball. The ball is on the right side. The impacts knock him over. He’s done it. Or if he hasn’t, he’s slowed it, and pulled his hands out in that thickened second in which the referee might blow.

Photo by Trevor Coady. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Tonight, as always, McCaw is in the moment. But can his team be in that moment too? Can they get through without the mass of a nation bearing down on them? All that angst: you can’t transmute it. They’ve been stuck in a compulsion to repeat, repeat defeat. They don the mourning colours but the defeats remain unmourned! Melancholia. Catharsis required: McCaw the dart to the heart of the problem.

He’s a glider pilot: it’s no coincidence. Gliding is the poetry of three-dimensional geometry. The human, confined to the surface of a sphere for most of his activities, only briefly raised above it by his line-out lifters, gains unpowered access to the unvaulted space of the sky. “You’re using the atmosphere, the wind, and whatever the sun is doing, and you have to learn how to use those elements to stay up in the air — and then be able to go somewhere,” he told Scott Kara of the New Zealand Herald. “I just love being up there. It’s the closest thing to having wings on your back.” Has Thales become Icarus? Perhaps the wings are on his sandals; he’s more like Hermes, an intermediary, finding the route through the complex system.

Or perhaps in that moment he embodies Te Rauparaha, the author of Ka Mate, the standard Kiwi haka. Ka Mate tells the story of Te Rauparaha’s escape from death after hiding in a food storage pit. “I die! I die!” chants the leader. “I live! I live!” respond the team. In closing they all follow Te Rauparaha in climbing out of the pit: “The sun shines! Rise!”

The 1924 All Blacks who toured the UK, Ireland, France and Canada, and were nicknamed The Invincibles, performed the Ko Niu Tireni haka. Both in its original form, and the noisier version immersed by James Joyce, who saw the Invincibles play in Paris in 1925, in the spume of Finnegan’s Wake, we read and hear meteorology, ascent. “The New Zealand storm is about to break”, they chanted (“The Wullingthund sturm is breaking”, wrote Joyce, “The sound of maormaoring, The Wellingthund sturm waxes fuercilier”, his prose washed over by associative noise, signal distorted). “We shall attain the zenith the utmost heights,” they finished.

McCaw, in his glider, attaining the zenith.

The conditions near Omarama where McCaw flies are excellent for gliding. Lenticular clouds form along the lea of the Southern Alps, where hot air rises from the mountains. McCaw can glide for long distances. It’s all about the weather, as it was for his grandfather, who flew Typhoons, Tempests and Hurricanes in the Second World War.

Thinking nothing, McCaw looks up at the Auckland sky, a white sky spun with grey clouds and blue reflections, one of those powerfully and tumultuously windswept skies of Flemish painting. McCaw swoops and arcs into the next thermal, which he rides to gain height: static in the column of warmer air, desperate to use one form of temps, weather, to suspend the other. If only he could keep rising forever, in that shaft of more agitated gas. If only he could always be tracking towards a breakdown that never comes. If only the final whistle could not be heard, all sound drowned in a vacuum.

[1] A modified translation of the first paragraph of Toussaint’s essay Le Melancholie de Zidane (Editions Minuit, Paris: 2006).