the prism of literature

a double review of Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois and Distant Reading
For Moretti, there is something “ghostly” about the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie—once the essential “embodiment” of capitalism; now its obsolete cast-off. He examines this extinct species by excavating the “fossil remains” of its foremost literary record: the realist novel, a genre which György Lukács once called “bourgeois epic.” In fact, Moretti’s method in this book is as indebted to Lukács as to the laboratory. Like his Hungarian predecessor, he sees the true traces of social relations in literature’s form, not its content—as he asserts, “I found the bourgeois more in styles than in stories.” And although his stylistic analyses here draw on corpora, their attention to “the buried dimension of language” owes as much to a more old-fashioned approach: the commendably “close” cultural philology of an Erich Auerbach, or a Raymond Williams. So, Moretti sets out to study “the bourgeois, refracted through the prism of literature.” What this means is that he moves between social history and narrative structure, searching for “the fit between cultural forms and class realities.” Characteristically, he has little to say about characterisation, or plot. Moretti is much more concerned with the concrete behaviour of words on the page; with, say, “the oblique semantics of Victorian adjectives,” or “the role of the gerund in Robinson Crusoe.” In his hands, however, this apparently arid approach proves so revealing that it partly bears out the bold claim, “the past speaks to us only through the medium of form.”

read the rest in the Times Literary Supplement

belated language

an interview with Christine Schutt
DW: Whatever this “knowledge” is, it isn’t directly articulated. It’s as if it can only be got at obliquely, with words that cling to things’ surfaces. Your writing is often described as “elliptical”—what role might mystery and unknowing play in your work?

CS: “Reality, of course, is man’s most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all.” So says Erik H. Erikson, but reality does not for me “outbalance” the bewildering experience of being in the world. Add the scrim of memory and incessant excursions into the past, and the most I can do to construct a world is to stitch together sensations of it. I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans… mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.

read the rest at The Quarterly Conversation

constitutive impurity

a review of Tom Eyers’ Post-Rationalism


Eyers shows how structuralism arose through a dialogue with earlier epistemologies—in particular, the philosophies of science elaborated by Bachelard and Canguilhem. Such philosophies “simultaneously affirm and transcend rationalism”, emphasising both a rationalist commitment to formalisation and an awareness of the “constitutive impurity” of the objects and subjects of knowledge. A renewed appreciation of this tradition might serve to subvert today’s prevailing assumption that philosophy must be beholden to “either a scientistic empiricism on the one hand, or an irresponsible relativism on the other”. The lesson we learn throughout Eyers’ book is that thought is always more finely grained than such forced choices lead us to believe.

read the rest in Radical Philosophy 182

the other life that is ours

a review of Dawn Raffel’s recently reissued In the Year of Long Division
Throughout all of these stories, what is heard, spoken, or seen only hints at its flipside: an ineffable reality that exists everywhere around us, but remains beyond reach of our words. “There is another world,” W.B. Yeats once wrote, “but it is in this one.” And this is the secret, silent world that Raffel’s work opens onto: the other life that is ours. If there is a message in these stories, it is that life’s meaning is most apparent when looked at askance. As Raffel writes, “there is a way that whatever you turn away from owns your heart.” Hers is writing with its back turned to what it tells of — but in this very act of turning away, it realizes an indirect revelation.

In the Year of Long Division is fascinated by frozen water; by its combination of surface and depth, solidity and concealed liquidity. In “Somewhere Near Sea Level,” the “curve and grace” of ice skating quickly collapses into the “flat flung limbs” of a fall. “Two If By Sea” starts with a girl “testing, toeing, slipping” across an ice-covered river: “just before [she] went under, she could hear it crack.” For me, such moments express the essence of Raffel. Her style slides with weightless grace across the surface of the world. But in so doing, it also puts pressure on that surface, revealing the water that waits, in roaring silence, on its underside. Through this movement, her writing gestures towards the source of its beauty. In the words of one of her narrators, “our lake was great. Could have been an ocean. Under the surface, everything shone.”

read the rest at the Los Angeles Review of Books