Jabberwocky (trans. James Manteith)

Brave Contemporary Literature

Published in: 05. Stresses, Robert!

I have often heard talk of the braveness of modern literature, but I myself have never believed in this braveness.
—B. de Orvine

So, then, it has become fashionable, blinding trustful simpletons, to see literature as a different reality—a custom modernity has reinterpreted and adapted to fit its own needs. In an age of a senseless pragmatism that made the rights of its meager life the limit for all that might exist beyond this reality, beyond dependency on it, any art has received purely applied meaning and become, in theory, abstract, pure, free and so on. The clean hands of the artist, unspotted by any activity—including watering the grass and taking pets for walks—create masterpieces that can exist outside time and space—not involved…not participants…
At one time it was conceded that literature can define a time, and time was even permitted to define literature. Now, praises are sung of their intended and impossible mutual isolation; in other words, it is insisted the text and the person who wrote it only intersect at the moment of pen scratching paper (the improved variant: a finger taps at the computer keyboard). Before and after, the book lives its independent life, moreover not necessarily “in the mind of the reader”: it may on the whole remain unread. With this latest development, authors should be particularly happy, seeing the purity of their labors stay untouched.
I do not propose the desire of some fashionable bards to extract themselves capriciously from the context of time as exceptionally characteristic of the contemporary age, but namely this age has given the theoretical foundation to lifts such a desire to an apparent (although not to all) height. Initially, the mass of elevated minds and mind-lets may not have understood what a dishonest and ambiguous position they were falling into, on the one hand wanting nothing in common with colorless and lowly time but nonetheless remaining atop the pedestals time had formed.
At the time, the pedestals could seem perfectly decent, like remains of ancient ruins. But decades passed and, however you date the beginning of the modern—the long-ago shot in Sarajevo or the recent shelling in the same place—its unaltered essence might still be understood: It’s enough to feel the rude, unrefined grip of the age, its modernized boot upon you to see the actual present is no deep past. And in calling events of five- (fifty-) year antiquity obsolete yesterdays one should stay mindful that what will be obsolete is not the actual calendar day claiming its place in news-summary history, but dead ideas, customs no longer upheld and objects of piety no one honors anymore.
For us, the modern begins with the end of classical art and the demise of the life that nourished it—not only the thoughts but the air in university auditoriums and the celebrated “shady boughs” over poor graves.
For this reason, I take as modern the literature that by the beginning of the 20th century already had taken shape, resulting from a radically altered system of values and priorities. The usual discoveries in the realm of perspective proclaimed a perfected picture of the universe. Books were distributed in which the author steps forth as the focus of a world he himself created and gradually comes to identify with the real one, which makes him unable to see the world as real and not a background for his lovely figure and lovely feelings. Accordingly, when he endeavors, as the deathless critic would say, “to give answers to the crucial questions of existence,” the questions of existence depressingly take on the scale of his poor human calf, incapable of inflating itself to the size of the universe.
Modernity’s talents are more unruly and graphic than their predecessors; they are multifarious and prolific, they dazzle the eyes…and yet what will we see if, rather than pulling out a few heavyweight names, we attempt to pronounce a full list?
The rare monotony of the pillars of modernism and the prospectors who sweep up their last crumbs. Relics of the classical epoch: T. Mann, Galsworthy. The fashion, set by Sartre, of nausea and the digusted, frightened rejection of everything that goes beyond the confines of individual human existence, capable only of sensing, exquisitely, its own suffering. The patient popularizers of Proust, not one of whom cleared the hurdle presented them. H. Miller, Celine, G. Ivanov—each with a fallen personal universe burdened with already useless debris. The questionable poetry of J. Genet: a pen to the ribs, a hand to the wallet. Nabokov and his sickly shadow cohorts: the smooth, readable, absolutely impersonal style of a letter, bowing before a technique of which already no one can claim mastery. Again, Celine, nicknamed “The Viper”: confident hand, founts of bile (“like seas”). V. Woolf and Hesse, whose intellects were considerably larger than their literary gifts. Hemingway, whose literary gift wasn’t troubled by the least amount of intellect. Faulkner, who possessed neither one nor the other, through which, it seems, he became a classic. The New Antiquarians, headed by Borges: attempts to shatter time, ending with their own shattered lives. Cortazar—entertaining, caustic, technical, a smart man and a master, one of the best—an author with the air of carrion, a landlord of the crypt and the library near it, a writer whose books have lifeless eyes. And an interminable series of less-lucky players in the bead game, any of whose lives makes an excellent plot for a story. But simply as life it is good for nothing.
Then came the copies and shadows of the shadows: primitive philosophers (giftlessness made manifest), storytellers with a grasp of language but only capable of telling about themselves or, if capable of telling about others, then lacking a grasp of language—the former and latter devoid of all fantasy, but presenting this as an authorial virtue, not a detriment; high-class imitators for whom all styles are within reach except an original one.
Celine? He depicts Celine for us. Ooh! Ah! Crash! Temperament! Boom! All falls beneath the quick pen’s might. Something doesn’t fit; you can’t fake character and talent. But to make a copy recognizable isn’t too complicated, so the real, complicated world is represented by a cheap cartoon or a drawing from the wall of a public toilet and the public once again proclaims “a tearing off of any and every mask.” Who can explain that bravery lies not in “naming things by name,” that is, in gathering their street nicknames? It means little to stand in a place from which “one can survey the trashbin’s very depths” (Cortazar)—in the trashbin must be seen namely a trashbin and not the metamorphosis of Olympian mansions. But will it enter into anyone’s head that one may look in another direction and see the universe as much bigger than humanity, its spoiler?
In the last century, it was said the business of the poet is this and that—this and that is not the poet’s business. Now, inspiration takes orders from neither the critic nor so-called public opinion but from the harshly constructed, rational world, all-powerful even in relation to those who rushed to take the armchairs of detached observers. It goes without saying some kind of freedom of choice is not ruled out and one can always turn one’s back on reality—but it takes being ready for a kick in the pants. In the age of speed, this happens sooner more often than later.
To art, given such conditions, remains one possible ante: the achievement of professionalism, a polished style, purely technical resources; this results in the creation of what G. Ivanov, speaking of our friend Nabokov, called “well-wrought, technically nimble literature, polished to a gleam.” With Nabokov, it must be thought, such literature came to an end. Labors and feats the midnight oil must burn for are currently as unpopular as classical education, systematic assignments, loneliness-nourished thoughtfulness and generally everything that doesn’t fall from the heavens onto the head of the inspired genius, who need only unwind and devote himself to meditation. Bring us masterpieces of skillfulness and light style embodying fog orphanhood powder caked on faces of grandees or lackeys and so on.
And attention will be paid. And is this within the power of the poor stone-age authors, who have in reserve (instead of treasures stored up over time) only a poor, craving, ungifted soul, only borrowed bravery, only “touching tastelessness” no one finds endearing anymore—once the distinguishing feature of dark, but not evil, people, but now of the dark, and evil, and pitiful children of Apollo who chose, not out of greatness of mind, the luckless, lifeless, empty, in essence needed by few, art of our time, but couldn’t in the end decide to place their bellies on time’s cruel altar?

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