Old School Book Meme: A Homage to Mark Fisher
On June 28th of 2005, Mark Fisher posted something like the following on his still-extant k-punk blog. I never really blogged but the format struck me as similar to the kind of stuff that used to circulate on Facebook, back when Notes were still a thing (blogging by other means, I suppose). The last one of those that I ever posted was on September 6th of 2009 with the title My Life According to Leonard Cohen (“Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 10 people you like and include me”). It included pearls such as:
How do you feel:
Light As The Breeze
Describe where you currently live:
If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
First We Take Manhattan
Your favourite form of transportation:
By The Rivers Dark
You and your best friends are:
In the life of the Internet the past is another interface. Can you remember what Facebook looked like eleven years ago?
While I’m still gearing up to write full-blown posts (some of which will be teased at throughout what follows), please accept this selection of recommended reading.
1) How many books do you own?
In lieu of an attempt at a count, please accept this more-or-less representative snapshot:
2) What was the last book you bought?
Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson, which just arrived in the post.
Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, or The Realm of Shadows by Henri Lefebvre, which I ordered in the recent Verso sale and should be on its way.
Apparently I can’t resist a Marxist with a fondness for subtitles.
3) What was the last book you read?
K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016)
Really, this whole post is an excuse to write a sneaky mini-review of this great big brick of riches.
And while we’re being honest, Mark Fisher is more than partly the reason I’ve decided to take up this kind of writing.
The highest compliment that I can pay this book for now is to promise that I will be both directly and indirectly engaging with its multifarious ideas, insights, provocations, and sheer generosity of learning and information throughout numerous subsequent pieces. Fisher had me the second he admitted to the great struggle of writing a doctoral thesis (the burdensome feeling that one must know everything on one’s topic; the abstraction of one’s potential audience ), and how liberating he found the experience of writing more informally, for a direct audience.
I took my time reading this book, setting it aside and nearly abandoning it at several points. His politics — jet-black despair leavened by magical prescriptions offered with reckless insouciance (and I fear that he barely believed in them himself)— frustrated me; his insistence on Marxo-Lacanian technobabble drove me to near madness; some of his writings on music I found nearly unreadable. And yet, having read the whole tome cover-to-cover, I feel like I understand more than ever about the avant-garde and its terminal decline, the rise and fall of post-punk and U.K. hardcore, the lost promise of the counter-culture, and hauntology — all subjects which bear upon my own current research and projects.
To whet your appetite, here are five of the items I found most interesting and nourishing:
4) Five books that mean a lot to me.
The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971–2000 by Martin Amis
It was my thrill and misfortune to fall under the spell of this collection as an undergraduate. Even more so than his corrosively gripping novels, reading Martin Amis’s essays can be a disaster for a young writer because his style seems to foreclose on all other possibilities. Without quite realising why you’re suddenly so unhappy, you end up trying to be as biting, memorable, and funny as him without having anywhere near the necessary grounding in reading and experience that he brings to bear upon his subjects. The fanatical insistence upon style as morality and as absolute arbiter also inculcates some pretty damaging ideas about its relation to content, which I’ll get to later on in this list.
Frank Kermode praised Amis by noting that “Often, being right and being funny are, in this book, aspects of the same sentence.” I could quote dozens of examples of memory; here are some of the first that spring to mind:
On Don Quixote: In his copious free time, ‘which engrossed the greatest part of the year,’ a humble gentleman named Alonzo Quixano grows addicted to books of chivalry, and, like all addicts, soon pauperises and deracinates himself in lone gratification.
On the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs: Needless to say, [Thomas] Harris has become a serial murderer of English sentences, and Hannibal is a necropolis of prose.
On Philip Larkin: A great poet, but in his personal life he was a clear example of UK toilet-training run amok.
On Hillary Clinton’s writing style: By the time everybody’s done, we are out there on the cutting edge of the uncontroversial.
On Ulysses: Beautiful prose came so naturally to Joyce that he often indulged a perverse attraction to its opposite: to hideous prose, to mirror-cracking, clock-stopping prose.
I more than partly blame Amis for my long struggle to find a viable style for academic writing — a situation most painful during the composition of my Master’s thesis, which was about Amis, Will Self, and David Foster Wallace. Under Amis’s influence I fatally confused figuration and argumentation. Much like in the literary criticism of Norman Mailer, a deleterious misprision took hold, in which the purpose of figurative language is conceived as the enactment of the struggle of trope to trump, encompass, and subjugate trope. That’s the danger that Amis presents: his sense of competition is corrosively intoxicating, and ultimately paralysing when the agon inevitably turns inwards rather than towards the material under consideration. I recall a painful observation that Alfred Kazin (another beguiling stylist, whose tropes are capable of tremendous suggestive compression) made about Edmund Wilson: that often the pressure to write well was so grinding that there wasn’t an image seen, but only the effort to make one. Today I’m capable of re-reading Amis with much greater ease and pleasure, free from what even then I knew to be an anxiety of influence.
The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry by Harold Bloom
Another book which had a formative and, for a long time, catastrophic influence on my thinking and my style. This wasn’t the first book of Bloom’s that I read; that would be Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which sealed my fate at the age of seventeen — I was to be a literary critic and scholar. Bloom, it seemed to me, wrote as beautifully and with as much freedom of invention and association as the most powerful of imaginative writers. I had been inaugurated into the mode of thinking that criticism is either a genre of literature or it is nothing at all, which is Dr. Johnson’s formulation. I didn’t realise that it was a recipe for spectacular unhappiness as a student of the subject. One on level, becoming a Bloomian placed me on a collision course with the mainstream of the academy; on another, similar to the competitive glamour of Amis, I tried to ape Bloom’s authoritative cadences while essentially knowing nothing compared to him — again, a sort of fake-it-til-you-make-it fallacy of what literary style is. These days of course I know better, thanks in part to reading other critics, like Alfred Kazin:
Harold Bloom is a prodigy of learning, memory, exegesis. We owe him a great deal for bringing the English romantics — especially Blake and Shelley — back into critical favour after the Eliot dictatorship fell. Bloom’s early books are wonderfully stimulating — not least because his sense of Jewish tradition has benefited from Gershom Scholem’s re-creation of Jewish mystical tradition. There is a frustration of religion in Bloom that excitedly finds expression in English romanticism; as Whitehead said, romanticism is spilled religion. But under the spell of Freud’s “family romance,” Bloom has cultivated ideas of the necessary rivalry between poets, of the necessary “misreading” of long-established texts, that totally mistake the critic’s power and responsibility. Bloom, essentially orphic in his pronouncements, is attempting to make of the universal spirit-in-time-and-space-as-the-genius-of-poetry (this was German orphic romanticism) something that will enable him to slip into it as a kind of poet.
Irony of ironies, Bloom was my anxiety of influence. If you’re wondering what a critical prose looks like that was is obsessed with Bloom’s genealogical speculations as with Amis’s lapidary phrase-making, I could refer you to the thesis I wrote for my Master’s Degree. But small mercies: I lost it years ago. And yet Bloom looms as large over my thinking as he ever did. For the last three years I’ve co-taught a course on the phenomenon of literary influence at my university, and both the joys and the challenges of the process have only underscored the prime Bloomian wisdom: that the phenomenon of the canonical is indistinguishable from influence and its agons and anxieties.
A Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez
One I’m proud to say I’ve read closely in the original, making this one of the few texts studied at A-Level to stay with me for my whole adult life. Goethe described a masterpiece as that work which simultaneously gives birth to one genre while bringing another to termination. In my personal experience, this slender work of pure wonder both introduced me to the genre of magical realism while also— and this dawned upon me by slow degrees — nearly killing it stone dead. So perfect did this book seem in its concision that it not only made it impossible for me to enjoy the works of pale imitators like Louis de Bernières, it also came close to ruining more legitimate successors like Isabel Allende and even the larger works of Márquez himself.
Occasionally one encounters a work that seems so achieved, so much of a lifetime’s one-off, that one somehow just knows that its creator is incapable of better. I felt similar when reading Catch-22, Money, and White Noise. It’s been a long time since I read this book, and yet it feels fresher in my mind than Love in the Time of Cholera, which I finished only a few months ago. I remember the helpless tears of the Widower of Xius, who cannot refuse the large sum offered by Bayardo San Roman for his house. I remember the comically gruesome autopsy carried out on the body of Santiago Nasar, as well as the hopeless attempts by the Vicario twins to get themselves stopped or arrested before being forced to carry out the grim duty of honour.
Susan Sontag wrote that style, or structure, serves a mnemonic purpose through the patterning of emphasis. I suppose that one reason why this book’s events and personnel find such easy residence within the memory is structural. It’s perhaps a cliché to liken a narrative such as this one to Rashomon, but it does serve as a useful shorthand to indicate how this book repeats its central story from multiple perspectives. While Kurosawa’s film explores subjectivity and unreliability in matters of justice, Márquez is more sardonic in offering us an anatomy of inevitability. Casting himself as narrator (to much more satisfying effect than, say, Amis in Money or even Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions), in trying to make sense of the death foretold which befell his friend, Márquez spins variations on his narrative in order to achieve his own amor fati. Rarely has narrative scepticism resulted in storytelling of such pure and joy-giving verve.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
I took a punt on this in Waterstones, intrigued by the title and beguiled by the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics Edition. I ended up taking my time with its 160 pages, so fell and forbidding did I find its portrait of a woman teetering on the brink of herself. In recent years I’ve read some fantastic works that bear comparison to this one: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, and several of the stories in Lauren Groff’s Florida. But none of those quite got under my skin in the same way as Mortimer’s depiction of existential dread.
Martin Heidegger defined dread (if I’ve got this right — always a big if when it comes to Heidegger) as the apprehension of nothingness, which springs to mind when thinking of this compact, minatory, and often screamingly hilarious work. Mortimer’s protagonist — nameless, that is, beyond her designation within her marriage as Mrs. Armitage — looks within herself for some identity prior to and independent of her function as a wife, a mother (of a large and teemingly indeterminate number of swarming children), and a mistress and finds nothing, not even some nurturing conception of womanhood.
This is a book which resides in the memory like a fog over a desolate landscape. You gingerly grope your way across. Figures float into menacing view, changing shape as you get closer — in this way do other characters in the narrative flutter at the far reaches of Mrs. A’s view, darting in and out of the periphery. Past and present, dream and reality and speculation mix in an opalescent blur. The only consolation this book has to offer is the brilliance of its own style — which, it must be said, is considerable. I couldn’t otherwise in conscience so heartily recommend a tale of such crushing bleakness.
Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
This one taught me the single idea most important to my practice as a critic: that there is no division between style and content; that style and content are the exact same thing. This is an idea which, once grasped, truly liberates one into the freedom of aesthetic play, which Nietzche in The Birth of Tragedy calls the highest pathos. More so than the aggrieved hectoring of a Harold Bloom, or Martin Amis’s insistence that style is somehow equal to morality itself, Sontag’s subtle cast of mind is the ultimate abstergent against the tedium and tendentiousness of ideological criticism. It’s been strange to see Sontag held up as some sort of hero by the current crop of feminist critics when they themselves have strayed so far from her wisdom that the aesthetic and the ethical are inseparable. If this seems an unreasonable or untenable observation, just take to Twitter to see how rashly books and films are judged by their content with the peremptory certitudes of the ad hominem and the ex hypothesi.
All this is laid out in the collection’s second essay, “On Style,” and the greatest pleasure is to be had in reading the collection straight through and seeing Sontag remain true to her own strictures. The films of Goddard, the plays of Ionesco, the philosophical writings of Simone Weill — all these are treated in their proper unity. Sontag made her punditry an absolutely rigorous exposition of the ideas she espoused as a theorist. In that sense reading her is a far more satisfying experience than the full spectrum of writings by, say, John Gray. Gray in his philosophical writings views the human animal with a bracing objectivity, while in his journalism he descends to the level of higher gossip. Another interesting comparison is to be made with Gabriel Josipovici, whose Whatever Happened to Modernism? is at its least convincing when championing the once-fashionable Nouveau Roman experiments of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras — not the most cutting-edge look in 2010, and a weakness in Josipovici’s flank. I bring it up because Sontag can seem similarly mired in the post-war avant-garde and shares several of Josipovici’s enthusiasms, but in her case they coruscate with the immediacy of the present tense, of the in medias res. To read Sontag on these artists is to have a writer render explicit her vaunted erotics of art, rather than to be lectured on the lost promises of an older man’s youth.
5) Tag five people.
Gives away the age of the meme, this one. How about you go ahead do one of your own if you’ve read this far and feel like filling it in yourself?