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Literature & Criticism

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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.

Poetry and the Brain

When an award-winning novelist-translator and a renowned psychologist join forces to explore their common areas of interests, one can expect a wealth of interesting insights — and perhaps even answers to such questions as: How does poetry affect our thinking? Is poetical experience different from ‘ordinary’ experience? How does the brain make sense of poetical patterns in language? And, last but not least: Why do certain texts arouse aesthetic pleasure and what happens in the brain, when we feel the urge to read a poem again and again? In their recent book ‘Gehirn und Gedicht’ (The Brain and the Poem, Hanser Verlag, Munich 2011), poeta doctus Raoul Schrott and Berlin psychologist Arthur Jacobs explore these and other questions, aiming to offer an synthesis of contemporary neurolinguistic, evolutionary, and aesthetic research. And yet, says reviewer Hans-Dieter Gelfert, the result falls short of the professed goal of making sense of poetic experience from a neuroscientific perspective. For, nearly everything that is being said about the neurological responses to visual, musical or verbal stimuli in poetry applies to such stimuli in general, irrespective of their aesthetic quality. In the end, what fuses the various neuroscientific elements into the kind of poetic unity that gives rise to aesthetic enjoyment is something which the theoretical framework of the two authors cannot explain.

Fairies Forever!

Fairy tales seem quaint, imbued with the patina of a bygone age — literary misfits in a modern world. Why, then, do they continue to be so remarkably popular? One reason is their appeal to timeless experiences, conflicts, and narratives that are intelligible across different traditions. In a new edition of a 1934 collection of ‘modernized’ fairy tales, which was first commissioned by Peter Davies (and has now been updated, with a new introduction, by Maria Tatar), much of the patina is stripped away from the olden stories — and a significant dose of satire and black humour is added — revealing just how much fairy tales can tell us also about the modern world. As reviewer Dieter Petzold observes, many of the modernized versions amplify the originals, by adding details that make their fictional world often seem ‘more real’ than the silhouette world of traditional folktales. And, perhaps more tellingly, virtually all modern writers take an ironic stance — adding a layer of self-conscious awareness to the intrinsic strangeness of the worlds described.

Entering the Zone

Both a guide to, and a literary ‘amplification’ of, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 ‘Stalker’, Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’ is quite literally — as the subtitle puts it — ‘A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’. Just as in the movie a man named Stalker guides a writer and a scientist through ‘the Zone’ — an apocalyptic wilderness supposedly endowed with supernatural qualities — so Dyer leads the reader to questions at the limits of meaning. In doing so, writes reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, Dyer is not so much practising philosophy, but is pursuing a line of questioning that might be called ‘literary anthropology’. Dyer’s ruminations on Tarkovsky’s sense of place, his retelling of the film with all its décor, colors, flickering lights, noises and smells, all bring the reader closer to the metaphysical meaning of the film — its distinctly post-secularist intermingling of despair and hope.

The Art of Walking

‘Zbinden’s Progress’, Christoph Simon’s fourth novel, tells the story of Lukas Zbinden, an 87-year-old former schoolteacher who lives in a nursing home in Switzerland and who, one morning, decides to go for a walk with his carer, Kâzim. As the novel blossoms, Zbinden’s rich life is narrated, through stories that sometimes fall into step, sometimes part ways. Yet throughout, writes reviewer Benjamin Morris, ‘the locus of attention remains the walk: not just the present walk with Kâzim, but all walks, from walks past to walks future to the history and theory of walks’. A few stumbles notwithstanding, the novel — with its simple narratological formula: ‘someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, goes for a walk’ — is a fascinating read, not least due to Donal McLaughlin’s seamless translation from the original German into English.