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Literature & Criticism

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Dangerous Ideas

Is ‘cultural appropriation’ a pervasive injustice or merely a figment of the imagination? And when did it become ‘a thing’? And is it justified for a prominent white (=non-minority) writer to dismiss those who argue that minorities should be able to tell their own stories, without fear of being drowned out by establishment writers who use such stories as fodder for their next novel? BRB contributor Yen-Rong Wong takes an encounter with Lionel Shriver at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival as an occasion to reflect on these and other identity-related issues. As she argues: “Identity is important, and yes, making sure that we don’t pigeon hole ourselves into one thing, or into what others want us to be is also important. But it’s easy to say that ‘Asian isn’t an identity’ when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism (both casual and overt) in your everyday life.”

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock

From 21st-century TV adaptations to steam-punk movies based on Conan Doyle’s original stories, Sherlock Holmes is hot. In this two-part article, BRB contributor Bruce Fleming looks for the real in the fictional stories of murder, crime, and 19th-century forensics. What he finds are stark contrasts: between urban life and the dark side of the English countryside; between Romantic ennui and eccentric exhilaration; between the dull and predictable life of the English worker and the exoticism of the colonies. In the end, it turns out, Holmes is both a Romantic — a brother to Baudelaire and his contemporaries — and something different altogether. Where Baudelaire celebrates, and wallows in, ennui, Holmes is a curiously passive rebel against the forces of lethargy. Holmes, then, is perhaps more human than his super-human inferential abilities might suggest, and a quintessentially modern figure to boot.

Sherlock Holmes, Romantic

From 21st-century TV adaptations to steam-punk movies based on Conan Doyle’s original stories, Sherlock Holmes is hot. In this two-part article, BRB contributor Bruce Fleming looks for the real in the fictional stories of murder, crime, and 19th-century forensics. What he finds are stark contrasts: between urban life and the dark side of the English countryside; between Romantic ennui and eccentric exhilaration; between the dull and predictable life of the English worker and the exoticism of the colonies. In the end, it turns out, Holmes is both a Romantic — a brother to Baudelaire and his contemporaries — and something different altogether. Where Baudelaire celebrates, and wallows in, ennui, Holmes is a curiously passive rebel against the forces of lethargy. Holmes, then, is perhaps more human than his super-human inferential abilities might suggest, and a quintessentially modern figure to boot.

The Realization of Something New: The Life of the World to Come

Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900) is widely considered one of Russian philosophy’s most ambitious figures. His magnum opus, ‘The Justification of the Moral Good’, ranges from a characterization of humans as spiritual creatures to discussion of the historical development of our socially situated consciousness, and on to questions concerning the morality of war and the moral organization of humanity. Contemporary readers may reject, or even mock, Solovyov’s musings, not least on account of their unabashed Christian roots. But, as Andre van Loon argues in his review of a new (and refreshingly unfussy) translation of Solovyov’s book by Thomas Nemeth, closer inspection of his Solovyov’s writings reveals a sophistication that eludes his critics and may vindicate him as ‘cleverer, more insightful and spiritual than his critics’.

Cultural Curmudgeons

Recently, a string of authors have lamented the state of American university education, including the limited aspirations of college students. Instead of pursuing, as William Deresiewicz called it, “passionate weirdness”, students major in applied subjects such as business studies, enter the financial sector and management consultancies, quickly leaving a more critical engagement with the status quo behind. What’s striking for the student of cultural history is the fact that every quarter-century or so this sentiment resurfaces, with professors expressing extreme frustration with how unlike them their students are, how docile and unquestioning. Tracing a trajectory from Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘Dialektik der Aufklärung’ (1947) via Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1987) to more recent examples such as Deresiewiciz’s ‘Excellent Sheep’ (2014), BRB critic Bruce Fleming analyses this historical phenomenon. What he finds is that reading all these eerily similar books back to back suggests larger truths that no individual author can more than hint at, truths about the position of cultural critics and their ultimate inability to change that culture.

Excellent Sheep, Excellent Shepherds?

In his book ‘Excellent Sheep’ (New York: Free Press 2014), William Deresiewicz offers a probing indictment of America’s top universities which, with few exceptions, turn young people into narrow-minded and career-oriented drones, who are more likely to pad their resumes in order to secure a job in finance than to cultivate intellectual growth or develop world-changing insights. The student-inspired title of Deresiewicz’s book (the term ‘Excellent Sheep’ is traced by Deresiewicz to a comment by a Yale student) is supplemented by two subtitles, joined together somewhat awkwardly with just an ampersand: ‘The Miseducation of the American Elite’ & ‘The Way to a Meaningful Life’. While this three-part title reflects the three main strands of the book, they do not always sit very well together. Thus, BRB reviewer Bruce Fleming argues, it is unclear what the search for a ‘meaningful life’ has to do with the curricula of elite universities and the alleged miseducation of the elites: Surely Deresiewicz does not want to suggest that there can be universal institutionalized ways for finding one’s true self and becoming the person one truly wants to be? We may all dream of being bohemians, but most of us aren’t cut out for it. And even for those of us who are, the quest for meaning can hardly be reduced to the problem of curriculum reform.

Work and Structure

Writer Wolfgang Herrndorf committed suicide in the summer of 2013, at age 48. He was best known for his bestselling novel “Tschick”, which garnered Herrndorf many literary accolades, even as he was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly before its publication. Herrndorf documented his thoughts and the final years of his life in a blog, which has now been published as a book entitled “Arbeit und Struktur” (“Work and Structure”, Rowohlt, Berlin 2013). The title is derived from a comment by one of many doctors (Herrndorf, in his diary, resorts to referring them by numbers), who had recommended “work and structure” as a way of confronting fear and despair. Yet, as reviewer Frank Berzbach observes, no matter how depressing the diary’s entries are getting, at no point does Herrndorf allow his suffering to wrest control of his life from him: “This, indeed, is a reason to read his book: so as to maintain the upper hand, come what may. So as not to be driven to madness, or to escapism.”

Vehemence and Doubt

What intellectual or moral use does it have to think about a writer’s life? This question becomes all the more salient when — as in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky — it concerns an author, whose life has been systematically obscured for political reasons. Dostoevsky started well enough, from the later, official point of view. He debuted with the sentimental, socially conscious novel Poor Folk (1846), became a member of the Petrashevsky socialist circle, and suffered for his politics during his subsequent Siberian imprisonment and enforced military service. What the Soviets could not countenance, however, was the writer’s infuriating, post-Siberian right-wing turn, the erstwhile socialist dreamer becoming an ardent royalist and defender of personal responsibility. Thus, finding out about Dostoevsky became harder than ever during the Soviet era. The University of Toronto’s Slavic scholar Peter Sekirin, in compiling and translating around one hundred, rare first-hand accounts of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s life and career, attempted to fill this gap and identify as many previously suppressed voices as possible. Recently reissued, ‘The Dostoevsky Archive’ is the result of this painstaking effort. It is, writes BRB reviewer Andre van Loon, quite literally ‘the product of a liberal impulse’.

A Voice from the Shadows

Self-Shadowing Prey, one of the final texts by the Romanian poet Ghérasim Luca (1913-1994), combines surrealist playfulness with an impetus for rigour that does not shy away from revising, expanding, and rearranging ordinary vocabularies and meanings. Indeed, much of Luca’s life and work suggests a poetics of dislocation on several, intensifying levels: first, as self-dislocation, in the assumption of the pseudonym by the emerging Jewish-Romanian artist; second, by the artist’s migration — and movement into another language — from Bucharest to Paris. Finally, there is the dislocation in poetic practice, occasioned by the confrontation with the very historical forces compelling such migration. The result, in the words of reviewer Michael G. Kelly, are works which ‘bathe in a carefully modulated and sustained sense of menace where language’s porosity, the compossibility of contrasting and overlapping meanings, heightens the lack of ease that is fundamental to the poet’s artistic subjectivity’.

Masks behind Masks

One of the most innovative and daring Hungarian writers of the 20th century, Miklós Szentkuthy wrote such masterpieces as ‘Prae’, ‘St. Orpheus’ Breviary’ (comprising 10 volumes), ‘Narcissus’ Mirror’ and many others. Thanks to recent efforts by Contra Mundum Press, much of Szentkuthy’s work is now gradually being made available in English. In this essay, writer and scholar András Nagy discusses Szentkuthy’s life and work, painting a rich portrait of a man with many masks and a vast – and lasting – literary legacy.