In 1928, the anthropologist Margaret Mead released a great report called Coming of Age in Samoa. This landmark book introduced Westerners to a primitive people whose sexual mores, more lax and egalitarian, differed radically from their violent, patriarchal values. In the ongoing nurture-vs.-nature debate, the idyllic Samoans scored a major point in favor of nurture by showing to the West an earthly paradise built thanks to cultural differences. This brought hope to utopians dedicated to perfecting our corrupted, neurotic Western civilization: human nature was not a fixed concept, but malleable; with the right guidance, the right people could even reprogram it to make things right. It was a great time to be an engineer of human souls.
This great report, however, was a great ruse.
In 1983, the anthropologist Derek Freeman challenged Mead’s conclusion in his infamous book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. There were myths galore to kill. “Margaret Mead disseminated the incredible claim that Samoans have no passions – no anger between parents and children or between a cuckold and a seducer, no revenge, no lasting love or bereavement, no maternal caring, no tension about sex, no adolescent turmoil,” Steven Pinker summed it up in How The Mind Works. However, Freeman, and others since then, “found that Samoan society in fact had widespread adolescent resentment and delinquency, a cult of virginity, frequent rape, reprisals by the rape victim’s family, frigidity, harsh punishment of children, sexual jealousy, and strong religious feeling.” In the intervening years between the two books, anthropology had changed from a conclave of racists to an academic discipline in the grip of cultural Marxists. The West had experienced one of its episodic moments of doubt: the French malaise had infected Universities; our recent ancestors were being told that their distant ancestors had all been slave owners, slave traders and imperialists; Chinua Achebe had ruined Joseph Conrad for a generation of susceptible sophomores; Edward Said’s Orientalism had survived the bad reviews of Orientalists trained to see the crass errors in the book, and thanks to positive buzz from Foucault, then a superstar (and equally famous for his own shoddy history books), went on its way to muddle interracial/intercultural dialogue for the next 40 years; Sartre, when he wasn’t moonlighting as a whitewasher of Soviet crimes, was praising the murder of Frenchmen in Algeria; and other decent folks like him, all around the world, put great hopes in the Third World as a bulwark against capitalism and neo-imperialism.
And here was Freeman telling them that the Other looked a bit too much like us. You can imagine how Academe received this killjoy. The American Anthropological Association quickly passed a motion decrying Freeman’s book as “poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading.” Freeman has joined E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins on a growing list of thinkers vilified by freaked-out anthropologists for making despondent remarks about the power of nature over nurture. Steven Pinker has tirelessly chronicled this ongoing debate in The Blank Slate and How The Mind Works for our amusement and edification.
Since Mead and Freeman both extrapolated from evidence by now almost a century old, and since human senses and personal biases distort data, which is always incomplete anyway, and since a discipline like Anthropology does encourage a slapdash approach to data-gathering (living with a group of people and taking notes for a few weeks is not exactly the apotheosis of the scientific method), nobody will probably ever ascertain who was right and who was wrong. Each one has critics and supporters, and the discussion rages on. I don’t care about one side or the other, really; in situations like this one I just ask myself, “What would Lucian of Samosata do?” and take everything with an oceanful of salt.
Why did Mead paint such a rosy portrait of Samoan society? Her unraveling started in the 18th century when philosophes romanticized primitive societies and popularized the figure of the “noble savage.” The Enlightenment, another moment of doubt in the West, had the benefit of making Europeans look at themselves from outside perspectives – it was a period of novels about foreigners visiting Europe and commenting on it, of which Montesquieu’s Persian Letters is the most famous example. Changes in mentality also led thinkers to idealize primitive life; the Enlightenment, as Isaiah Berlin remarked, was an age of messiahs looking for utopian solutions, and for some that utopia was to be found amidst those unsoiled by rampart civilization. It was a lost paradise, of course, since even Rousseau, who believed civilized society to have a pernicious effect on the individual, recognized that it was impossible to turn the clock back. In the 19th century, though, idealization gave way to decimation. It had become clear that, as imperialism marched on to the sound of canons, primitive people had their static existences numbered. Most of the time, they represented a nuisance, a hindrance; society at large debated whether they should be rescued or put out of their misery. The reader can find a well-documented history of one such debate in John Hemming’s Amazon Frontier, about the Brazilian Indian. Social Darwinism, a pseudo-scientific elaboration of “might makes right”, had given empires carte blanche to wipe out the savages. If human existence was predicated on races fighting each other for resources, then why moral qualms about the strongest killing the weakest? They were just obeying natural law.
The primitive man’s fragility didn’t pass unnoticed to anthropologists at the dawn of the 20th century. So they put themselves in the front line to salvage savages. A seminal figure in this process was Franz Boas, not incidentally Mead’s teacher, who understood the need to move the discourse away from race to culture. Boas argued that the European’s apparent superiority had nothing to do with race but with culture. Then he tore down hierarchies between cultures: according to him, any culture, seen from inside, does not look primitive to its members but complete, functional, and adequate to their needs. Therefore, to speak of superior and inferior cultures made no sense; one should see culture in terms of how it fits the people using it. Anthropologists call this cultural relativism. Boas had taken a major step in the direction of wider tolerance for societies that did not share the West’s values. As a corollary of this idea, primitive societies required protection because of their uniqueness, their strangeness. Their value came from what set them apart. This made anthropologists prone to believe anything and everything, it gave them free reign to exoticize primitive people to the maximum. They went from defending savages in spite of being exotic to defending them precisely for being exotic. After all, the weirder they were, the more unique they were, and thus the greater the reason to conserve them, to keep them safe from the march of progress. What began as a bid for tolerance became another way of romanticizing others into the Other. When their research didn’t unearth exoticism, their neural programming allowed them to make it up on the spot. Thus were born so many great reports.
Linguistics provides a privileged place to see cookie-cutting anthropologists at work in their goal to demonstrate “how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us,” to quote Geoffrey K. Pullum in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Franz Boas, as Pullum pointed out in his book, not only influenced Anthropology, he also left a legacy in Linguistics, and several of his students turned into influential linguists, the with Edward Sapir taking the lead. Boaz himself inadvertently contributed to a popular myth: the fabled dozens, hundreds, or thousands of words that the Eskimo have for “snow.” Pullum located the birth of that myth in Boas’ The Handbook of North American Indians (1911), where he made an ordinary remark about how the English and Eskimo languages use different morphological processes to express similar concepts; anyone who speaks multiple languages will quickly understand what he means and won’t make a big deal out of it. But we’re not talking about people who speak multiple languages; we’re talking about Americans. One such American, Benjamin Lee Whorf, studying Linguistics in the 1940s with Sapir, came upon Boas’ book and pulled out of thin air a number for the words Eskimos have for “snow”. He began with 7; his descendents have inflated that to several hundred more. As Pullum pointed out, Whorf had never studied the Eskimo language. (I’ve been using this term so far, but there’s no such thing as an “Eskimo” language; there is the Eskimo–Aleut, a family of languages, a nuance that people tend to overlook: which speakers exactly was Boaz talking about? Or Whorf?) Emboldened by the fact that nobody around him spoke Eskimo either, and thus unchallenged, Whorf moved on to bigger ambitions. Next he created the popular Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, which states that the structures of language affect how speakers perceive the world. In other words, the way we think derives from the way we use language; so we are determined to be a certain way because of the language we are born into. If that’s not the triumph of culture over biology, what is? Language, after all, can change; and if language is the seat of how we thinking, it can even be improved to improve us. That, at least, was the goal behind Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics: tinker with language and, voilá!, world peace! (I actually find General Semantics very reasonable, if used with judiciousness.)
Whorf based his assumptions on the Hopi language, spoken by a Native American tribe, although he was not fluent in Hopi. The most popular example of his hypothesis concerns itself with the alleged lack of words for time in Hopi; this led him to assume that the Hopi perceived time in a totally different way than white Westerners – in fact they had no concept of time whatsoever! There it was, language was a prison-house; Nietzsche was vindicated! Since fellow anthropologists wanted to believe that primitive people were otherworldly bizarre, and since nobody around Whorf spoke Hopi either, Academe quickly believed him a second time. But in 1983, that annus horribilis for Anthropology, Ekkehart Malotki published a book questioning Whorf’s findings. The title was quite provocative: Hopi Time. Science, for the time being, has debunked linguistic relativism. The last passionate defence of it that I read was Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, a gorgeous book that all language lovers must read! Even so Deutscher had to concede that language influences the way we perceive reality in far smaller ways than Whorf thought. But even Deutscher’s cautious book has deserved a rebuttal from John H. McWhorter called The Language Hoax. However, since the outcome of the nature/nurture debate has far too many consequences for things like justice, equality, and freedom of will, I’m sure someone is preparing to refute McWhorter anytime soon. Can’t wait for it.
With this brief survey of anthropology’s misadventures, I now hope the reader will stand warned against the reliability of great reports. Anthropologists, like other academics, don’t like to revise their beliefs when someone corrects them. The anthropologist Laura Martin has been a tireless corrector of the Eskimo vocabulary hoax: she’s patiently collected evidence against it, written articles, spoken in public, received publicity from Pullum – to no avail. Teachers and students continue to parrot Whorf. Pop culture is like Apokolips' Fire-Pits: once something tumbles into it, it never climbs back out. It goes to show that not even anthropologists give a hoot about the great reports their colleagues write on great reports.
In fact the only person I know who believes in anthropological great reports is the British novelist Tom McCarthy.
Given my suspicion of
everybody, imagine my horror at someone wanting to turn anthropology into a
structural aspect of the novel. A novelist, no less. In 2015, in conjunction
with the publication of Satin Island,
McCarthy published in The Guardian an
essay called “The Death of Writing.” He loves writing these appendixes to
recently-published novels. When C
came out he had one ready: “Technology and the Novel.” Nice pattern: put together a couple of thoughts
thematically related to what your new novel deals with, and give them gratis as
I don’t think that Mr. McCarthy already had this shtick organized back when he published Remainder, but in that case chance intervened and somebody else wrote an essay to accompany the novel. I didn’t know him until Zadie Smith hailed him as the future of the novel. Well, not if he has any say in it.
Why do proclamations about the death of the novel come mostly from people with poor gifts for novels? How come you reach the end of the obituary and on the dotted line you never find the name John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, William Gaddis? In the 1920s, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega Y Gasset signed one demise of the novel. Around the same time, André Breton believed that Surrealism would fuse fantasy and realism into a superior genre that would obliterate the novel’s existence; then he published Nadja and immediately disabused himself of his own delusions, and when Surrealism went belly up one world war later, nobody could locate one great surrealist novel. Decades later, Roland Barthes, another non-novelist, and thus not having to mourn a death in the family, killed the Author; the Kunderas and Calvinos of a quarter-century ago quaked at such quackery, I’m confident. Now, thanks to years of crossbreeding, eugenics, and blood transfusions, this death-dealing species has finally gestated a specimen that bears some resemblance to the species it’s trying to kill.
I can’t explain why “The Death of Writing” piqued my curiosity; after all, I only need to look around to see fiction writing alive and kicking. McCarthy, incidentally, means fiction writing, novels, not writing in general; putting “writing” instead of “novel”, far from betraying an attempt at originality or implying a magnified ambition vis-à-vis his predecessors, merely exemplifies the clumsy diction that characterizes the average I-only-know-2000-words contemporary novelist. Many recent novels do attest the medium’s vitality, like A Naked Singularity, Laura Warholic, Middle C and other opuses that Mrs. Smith, I fear, does not want in the novel’s future. Refutations came forth at the time, from David L. Ulin and Michael G. Donkin, rather tepid and unconvincing. Mr. McCarthy only elicits either reverence or prudence. In the end I found this essay useful in showing how a conventional novelist, exploiting a virtuosity for self-promotion, has branded himself as an avant-garde novelist while regurgitating decrepit gospels of transgression and pining for a century-old Modernism.
McCarthy, tellingly, does not start with novelists but with philosophers, anthropologists, in sum Intellectuals. Sure, he may belong to an endangered species, but he longs to belong to a better class of people. He immediately announces his awe at Claude Lévi-Strauss, a man who wrote “with a sense of structure, pattern, system,” words that McCarthy seeks in fiction, and not just in his. His affection for “grid” shows up a few paragraphs later. “Signal” is also there somewhere – don’t worry! As he enumerates Lévi-Strauss’s many merits, he hints at his views on the novel. He wrote “with a tantalising sense that, if only he could correlate it all, plot the whole system out, some universal ‘master-meaning’ would emerge, bathing both him and his readers in an all-consuming, epiphanic grace.” Around this point incoherencies begin to accrete like lint in a corner. Consider McCarthy’s cheapening of the novelist’s purpose: “You look at the world and you report on it. That’s it.” That’s certainly it when it comes to his fiction prose, which has never struck me as anything but a disheartening porridge of journalistic style. Not content with writing like a journalist, McCarthy encourages novelists to become journalists. Why he idolizes James Joyce instead of Ernest Hemingway remains a mystery. (Strangely, he praises Lévi-Strauss for his lyrical style; I can only imagine a heartbroken Mrs. Smith tut-tutting at the betrayal – so the lyrical Joseph O’Neill was the future of the novel?)
The novelist, if he had a future, could learn a lot from Anthropology. After observing a tribe, the anthropologist would “lug your note-packed trunk” back home and write “the Great Report that maps the world you have been observing at its deepest and most intimate level, sums the tribe up, speaks its secret name.” Now, this unconditional trust in anthropological great reports amuses me. McCarthy demands for himself a literary lineage going back to the Modernists. However, the Modernists enriched literature by exploring the role of subjectivity in constructing “reality” and our inescapability from fragmentation, ambiguity, and distortion. Franz Kafka created labyrinths which frustrated the protagonist’s attempts at finding meaning in them; Marcel Proust showed the impossibility of apprehending one’s whole past; Joyce and William Faulkner used multiple narrators; Joyce and Virginia Woolf, one using stream of consciousness, the other the tunneling process, showed people to be less in control of their thoughts than they believed. A diet of Modernists should inure one against idolizing Great Reports. (McCarthy, incidentally, appears to have no knowledge of what Anthropology has been up to since Lévi-Strauss, who carried out his most important work in the 1950s and 1960s. How has the discipline changed since then? Is Lévi-Strauss still accepted? Is he relevant yet? Has he been challenged, disproven, as it so often happens? Who knows, who cares? His heirs, nobodies, don’t carry cultural cachet yet, and McCarthy can still sound sophisticated and erudite in an accessible, non-threatening way by name-dropping the familiar Tristes Tropiques.)
McCarthy, the man of tomorrow, only knows how to move backwards. It turns out that his impression of the anthropologist as a mere data-gatherer living amidst hunter-gatherers comes from Bronisław Malinowski, a golden oldie. McCarthy writes, “You never know (he reasoned) what will turn out to be important and what won’t; the smallest, most trivial-seeming episode or situation might contain the key to understanding larger cultural enigmas – so capture it all, turn it all into data, into text.” According to him, this view shares similarities with Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous dictum that everything ends up in a book. But let’s have a closer look at Mallarmé’s words quoted by McCarthy. In The Book, Spiritual Instrument, Mallarmé saw the book as a place where “an immaculate grouping of universal relationships come together for some miraculous and glittering occasion”. Now, “miraculous” and “glittering” confer a sense of importance, of hierarchy, to the occasion; as the Christians of yore knew, a miracle is a rare thing, a breach in the natural order of things. Mallarmé’s wording evinces a designer bias: data can’t just pile itself up into meaning; it requires some process that turns it into something rare, rich and special. In short, it needs a writer. However, McCarthy negates this role throughout the essay in favor of emergence: add inert data plus inert data, let them interact alone, and meaning will rise from a steaming pool of data slime, somehow. This approach resembles scientism, currently a popular trend in science, a very extreme interpretation of scientific materialism that posits that science can explain everything if you just keep amassing more data. Both scientism and McCarthy’s superficial understanding of Anthropology only work if they ignore the observer’s role in giving meaning to data, which is, as the examples of Mead and Whorf show, a process fraught with biases. McCarthy’s contempt for the observer, the designer, the writer, is understandable given the loathing for humanism that runs through his writing. However, not even this post-human author can get fully rid of the human figure; at times he must use human-oriented vocabulary, as when he concedes that Lévi-Strauss would have to “plot the whole system” to find the master-meaning. Plotting, alas, implies acting upon data, imposing a scheme on it, otherwise you won’t have a miraculous occasion; you’ll just have inert data dawdling about. If McCarthy liked novelists, which I doubt, if he read novels, which I doubt, he might have known that novelists have been mocking the delusional search for total knowledge and Great Reports for centuries now. I’ll just direct readers to Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Chapter 5, wherein the Editor describes Diogenes Teufelsdröckh’s ludicrous attempt to create a comprehensive philosophy of clothes.
Mallarmé’s achievements can fill volumes, apparently; McCarthy explains that
he called for a radical dismantling and reconfiguration of the shape and format of the medium itself, envisaging ways in which the page might be unfolded and expanded into performance, social practice, even cult activity. In so doing, he laid the foundations for the 20th-century avant garde, from Cage’s extra‑literary activities or Burroughs’s revolutionary ethnographically inflected provocations to that most immaculate and glittering grouping of all universal – and quotidian – relations, Ulysses, in which Joyce repeatedly states his ambition to make a whole culture, at micro- and macro-level, from its advertising slogans or the small talk in bars to its funerary rituals and the way the entire past and future are imagined, to use Mallarmé’s words, aboutir dans un livre.
The bit about Ulysses cracked me up. Look at that abrupt transition from typographical mischief to the novel as embodiment of an entire culture. We’ll get to that. First of all, though, does a more typographically boring novel than Ulysses exist? It has page numbering, chapter breaks, paragraph breaks, paragraph indentations, majuscules where majuscules should be, dashes to indicate dialogue, linear margins, sentences running from left to right, from top to bottom. It’s not a chaotic throw of dice.
Next things get more complicated because Lévi-Strauss himself realized that the “purity” that he sought in primitive tribes was a deceit. Mind you, this does mean that Lévi-Strauss reached an epiphany that his personal views distorted the reading of primitive tribes. The purity McCarthy refers to is “no more than a state in which all frames of comprehension, of interpretation or analysis, are lacking,” a purity that exists until the anthropologist applies his scientific methods upon his subject, at which point the mystery “evaporates.” If I understood it correctly, this purity reworks the old saying that “ignorance is bliss.” The anthropologist, however, seeks the tribe to destroy mysteries, to shed light on the unknown, to make others less of an Other, instead of outré. The unromantic McCarthy never judges Lévi-Strauss irresponsible for romanticizing primitive cultures and faraway places.
Next he makes sweeping generalizations about how, since Lévi-Strauss’s time, “the ethnographic viewfinder has shifted its gaze from the ‘primitive’ world to the developed one, and to the very societies of which anthropologists themselves form part. The tribe is us.” Did he graduate one of the world’s best colleges verily convinced that, prior to a Frenchman taking a canoe trip into the jungle, Westerners had never thought about analyzing themselves? Worse than an unexamined life, only an Oxford alumnus who failed to examine the dusty tomes of history, sociology, economy, politics, and philosophy, to say nothing of novels, bowing the shelves at New College library – but it sure explains a lot! Unless I’m mistaken, one of the tenets of Post-Colonialist Studies posits that the West has only thought about itself, obsessively, for too long. Furthermore, belief in this shift comes at the cost of ignoring the many anthropologists still fascinated by primitive tribes and their idiosyncrasies. As I’ve demonstrated, linguistic books tend to come packed with the latest findings about the bizarre workings of some dying language spoken by some dying tribe on the margins of the Amazon River, and how some of its unique features prove or disprove something someone – usually Whorf – held more than half a century ago to be true regarding language. Traditional anthropology is doing just fine.
Those tasked with shifting the gaze away from the tribe to us now face a predicament their predecessors didn’t, says McCarthy: the “outside” no longer exists. In the past, and this makes all the difference, the anthropologist left the tribe, went home and wrote there; now he has to write about the tribe at home. That home, according to him, is Academe. Sadly, the distinction between field and home has eroded in the wake of business companies co-opting academies. I’ll skip his romanticizing a bygone era of “‘pure’, unsullied knowledge” prior to corporations putting all academics in their huge pockets.
For McCarthy, the novel’s deathblow has come because the corporation,
in its most cutting-edge incarnation, has become the arena in which narratives and fictions, metaphors and metonymies and symbol networks at their most dynamic and incisive are being generated, worked through and transformed. While “official” fiction has retreated into comforting nostalgia about kings and queens, or supposed tales of the contemporary rendered in an equally nostalgic mode of unexamined realism, it is funky architecture firms, digital media companies and brand consultancies that have assumed the mantle of the cultural avant garde. It is they who, now, seem to be performing writers’ essential task of working through the fragmentations of old orders of experience and representation, and coming up with radical new forms to chart and manage new, emergent ones.
McCarthy’s essay began with anthropology, then moved to a poet. When it finally addresses novelists, it couldn’t be more damning. “If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google, and if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter since the operations of that genius and vision are being developed and performed collectively by operators on the payroll of that company, or of one like it.” Since acyrology is his strong suit, this is one of the essay’s most oblique passages, not because of the complexity of the thinking, but because of the sloppiness of the words employed. What does he mean with genius and vision here? Joyce wasn’t an ideas person; he got them from others, like Vico and Croce. His genius involved verbal dexterity and a powerful talent to glean and organize what Isaiah Berlin in The Sense of Reality beautifully called the “dark mass of factors whose general drift we perceive but whose precise interrelations we can formulate.” Joyce understood form. His admirers praise him for several reasons: the humour, the characters, the weave and poetry of the words, the psychological insight, the rendition of Irish culture, the musicality, the ease at shifting styles, the polyphony, in sum, things going on with the novel long before Joyce steamrolled its history. Praising Tolstoy and Proust, Berlin described their genius in a way that fits Joyce’s, namely the ability “to convey a sense of direct acquaintance with the texture of life; not just the sense of a chaotic flow of experience, but a highly developed discrimination of what matters from the rest, whether from the point of view of the writer or that of the character he describes. Above all this is an acute sense of what fits with what, what springs from what, what leads to what; how things seem to vary to different observers, what the effect of such things upon them may be; what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces – geographical or biological or psychological or whatever they may be.” Joyce represents the culmination of Naturalism, as Kundera and William H. Gass have argued. Joyce was awash in the 19th century realism that McCarthy so arrogantly dismisses.
Form does not interest McCarthy, only clumps of data. “Malinowski may have urged his craft’s practitioners to Write Everything Down – but now, it is all written down already,” he sighs. “Who, nowadays, maps our tribe’s kinship structures, our systems of exchange, the webs of value and belief that bind us all together?” he wonders. (Considering how many times he repeats the word “system” I understand why even a good critic like Tom LeClair has been bamboozled by him: vanity is every mortal’s weakness.) “Software does, tabulating and cross-indexing what we buy with who we know, and what they buy, or like, and with the other goods that are bought or liked by others who we don’t know but with whom we cohabit a shared buying or liking pattern.” We’re all a tribe now being written about: “Far from being unwritable, the all-containing Great Report is being written around us, all the time – not by an anthronovelist but by a neutral and indifferent binary system whose sole aim is to perpetuate itself, an auto-alphaing and auto-omegating script.” But is that really the binary system's sole aim? How can it know its aim, or choose it, unless someone has programmed it into it? And if it does aim to perpetuate itself, isn’t that rather a by-product of the task humans have programmed it for, a by-product that goes on without affecting its real purpose? The funny thing is that McCarthy, in spite of his post-human proclivities, can't help anthropomorphosising everything. We’ll still see him one day touting intelligent design.
The massive incremention of information has made the novelist’s role redundant. We live so saturated with data “that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.” We could then simply ask, “So why do you publish novels? Why didn’t your essay write itself? Why is your essay so full of you, as you are of yourself?” Alternatively, we could alter the context in which he’s lodged this epiphany. It seems to make sense if we assume that all fiction aspires to be realistic and to report to the world something that already exists in it. McCarthy, I fear, has lagged behind the discussions about aesthetics from the past 60 years, at least, which have steered art away from mimesis to adding something autonomous to the world that didn’t exist in it before. That, however, still cheapens what Zola was doing with the realistic novel; reading him is not the same as reading a search engine. Because the robotic McCarthy construes people as soulless machines, he thinks that reading is just reading; words are just words, whatever the shape they’re in. I can understand why he thinks that given the shapelessness festering in all his pages, but people don’t read like that, otherwise the Yellow Pages would be a favorite read. This point, like declaring the death of writing, is such a nonsensical claim, it requires no cogent refutation. Future scholars will only value it for its glimpse into McCarthy’s crazy notions about writers and writing.
What does a Google employee do? I assume he’s a coder, a programmer, performing something related to IT. The association, as far as I can see, comes from the presumption that both Joyce and a Google employee manipulate large chunks of information. But stockpiling data achieves nothing, means nothing. Google does store information, but above all it runs a search engine that allows us to find information others have put on the internet. From a perspective of scale, Ulysses can’t even begin to compare. “Joyce repeatedly states his ambition to make a whole culture, at micro- and macro-level,” he claims. Perhaps he did; but did he achieve this goal? His admirers often repeat that should some catastrophe obliterate Dublin, it could be rebuilt brick by brick from Ulysses. I love a good adynaton as much as anyone else, but the problem with praise is that you need to constantly find bigger and absurdly bigger ways of praising a great novel. So for instance, someone wrote that, “His achievement may come short of being able to rebuild Dublin brick by brick.” What hubris! I’d love to see someone actually try to create a maquette of Dublin from Ulysses, just to prove how foolish that claim is; something tells me it’d a far cry from the detailed precision of Adolf Hitler’s model for Welthauptstadt Germania. Just for architectural starters: what was the color of each door? How many houses had electricity? How many had doorbells? How many had backyards? How many had three stories? How many lamplights lighted the streets? Let’s widen things a bit now: what were the designs of Irish stamps in 1904? What did children play with? What were the year’s most popular plays? What were the bestsellers? How many people died? How many children were born? How many poor were there, and how many poorhouses? How many hotels, inns, pubs? How many roads? How many carriages trod its roads per day? How many boats were anchored in Dublin’s harbor? How many immigrants moved in, how many emigrants moved out? How Lilliputian its details! Ulysses performs a neat act of legerdemain: like other totalizing works – The Divine Comedy, The Lusiads, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Moby-Dick, The Recognitions – it tricks the reader into thinking that he’s holding a condensed world in his hands. McCarthy worships a novel that never existed, that cannot exist. Novelists have long mocked its impossibility even if they’ve attempted to create it. Gustave Flaubert put a pair of bumbling fools, Bouvard and Pécuchet, hopping from one area of knowledge to another. Flaubert died before completing it; but could it be completed?
I doubt McCarthy enjoys reading Flaubert.
Now let’s assume that Joyce did write everything down, like Malinowski prescribed. In the past, there was a plotter giving master-meaning to this jumble of notes. But Google uses software that reads itself, it does away with authors and readers. So it follows that if Joyce was the model, Ulysses should be a plotless collection of data without structure, just mountains of randomly gathered data. Google does store data and index websites; but even Google, and the internet, has a structure; it’s not just heaps of information; the search engine shapes the internet; when I type a word, my computer completes it for me, it knows my tastes, remembers things I searched in the past. So we all end up creating our own internet. Our consciousness shapes the internet we use. Likewise, usage leads to popularity, and popularity to a hierarchy of hits. A search engine doesn’t return hits willy-nilly; it follows automated algorithms. Once you have a hierarchy, you have classes, and once you have classes you can organize them, and then you have a structure with several levels.
Switching examples, a novel made of brute data wouldn’t differ a lot from an encyclopedia. But even an encyclopedia follows an organizational principle: it’s alphabetic, for one thing; it can be thematic, specialized; not to mention that each article is written by an expert in a field who’ll weigh what must be mentioned or ignored. I’m tempted to compare McCarthy’s imaginary novel to a CIA server filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the internet, haphazardly bloated with every e-mail, every chat, every post, every newsletter ever. It’s just there, dormant. For the CIA, like for Malinowski, every piece of writing really does matter. The problem, though, is that even the CIA gathers information for interpretation; sure, in their paranoid state of mind, everything may feed into their centripetal force, but it’s there just in case an actual human brain needs to go through it with a conscious mind. Malinowski himself, his advice to writing everything down notwithstanding, did not use everything. You’ll note from his book titles that he had very specific, very precise, very narrow interests; he wrote about Myth in primitive psychology, or Coral gardens and their magic, or Sex and Repression in Savage Society. He did not write A Comprehensive Catalogue of Every Goddamn Bagatelle I Jotted Down While Living with Primitive People. Like Joyce, he was a plotter.
Paradoxically, while McCarthy has an anti-Enlightenment bias against consciousness, he values another aspect of Enlightenment: confidence in data. But why? Data is not information, and information is not wisdom. The value of data is in how it’s manipulated and for what purpose. Not all data contains information, not all information makes you wiser. I’m wary of people who want to know everything; in ancient Greece such a man existed; his name was Hippias; he claimed he could speak on any known subject, whether he had studied it or not; he had created a technique for it. He was one of the Sophists, evidently. Dr. Faust thought that information for information’s sake was, not just a big deal, but a good deal. It wasn’t, of course; Renaissance plays punish him for being bad at extrapolating consequences. The Renaissance prized good thinking. You have to wait for the Romantics, for Goethe, the Enlightenment’s backlash underway, for Faust to have his soul saved from his own stupidity.
If Joyce had only wanted to immerse himself in data, he could have worked at Oxford creating dictionaries, or at the Encyclopedia Britannica. He could have decided to be a statistician, a land surveyor, a warehouse clerk checking the arrival and departure of cargo, a business partner in an import/export house, a stock market broker; he could have worked for the British intelligence office, anything that involved quantities, data, numbers, adding up, writing cold reports, pilling up. Instead he chose to be a novelist. Joyce never just piled data; he selected, organized, shaped, improved and, forgive me the neologism, aestheticized the data. Novelists tend to do that.
Now, is there a novel that more flamboyantly shows its author’s consciousness than Ulysses? One that shows more reason and planning and minutia and revision and calculation going into every detail of it? Writing that one novel consumed the same years it took Mr. McCarthy to deliver three already. Many novelists besides Joyce have relished data: Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, Thomas Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes with the monstrous Terra Nostra. Alexander Theroux does love to gather data and collect trivia, The Primary Colors, The Secondary Colors, and his upcoming Einstein’s Beets belong in this tradition, which, incidentally, goes back to books like The Anatomy of Melancholy, so that his novels read like essays and his essays read like one of his characters shooting erudition. But they’d all agree with Jane Austen’s description of a novel as a “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” I’ll go out on a limb and say that, were Joyce alive, he’d be writing novels, perhaps like Women and Men, Gravity’s Rainbow, Darconville’s Cat, Infinite Jest, The Tunnel, or A Naked Singularity; in sum, Joyce would be writing the type of novel McCarthy has never come close to writing yet and that I doubt he has the talent to write. I even suspect Joyce would have sooner taken a crack at The Corrections than at C.
McCarthy’s motorized interpretation of novel writing only sustains itself if he does away with consciousness. This runs into several problems, for he himself has to acknowledge that when Lévi-Strauss created his Great Reports, a consciousness somewhere worked to “plot the whole system out,” to use his own words. Doing away with consciousness puts him in a ridiculous position, but it coheres with the persona he has created for himself. How else can a post-human writer scoff at old-fashioned realism with its insistence on characterization, psychology and epiphany? The spirit gets in the way. I won’t deny him his right to get rid of it, but I wonder if he knows he has stiff competition? The hatred of consciousness has a long history.
Ever since the Enlightenment dared to suggest that using reason was a neat idea, the backlash against rationality has been more odious than anything conceived by the Catholic Church. Romanticism put emotions on a pedestal; Social Darwinism used scientific babble to release people from ethical behavior; Freud, inventing the unconscious, surrounded human actions with hidden reasons and impulses, reducing agency; Marxism, with its loopy belief in historical laws, just created another type of predestination; Dada hated reason on principle; Surrealism preached automatic writing; Behaviorism did away with morality and sought to explain human behavior in purely mechanical terms; New Age mysticism has created a thriving market for people addicted to snake oil; and in our time neuroscience has reclaimed Behaviorism’s bad ideas, hiding its poor results with state-of-the-art brain scans. Let’s not even get into Deconstructionism…
McCarthy’s agenda to take the ghost out of the machine gets truly cuckoo when he inflicts Michel de Certeau on the reader. This thinker saw all the aspects of society – theology, literature, legislation, anthropology, politics, sex, clothes, dance, whatever – as a (wait for it) “scriptural system,” some entity or machine that runs on its own, turning us into its slaves. Monsieur de Certeau certainly has fresh interpretations of society. Dying people, for instance, are “Set aside in one of the technical and secret zones (hospitals, prisons, refuse dumps) which relieve the living of everything that might hinder the chain of production and consumption.” I thought that they were moved to special facilities for good reasons, like health and sanitation. For instance, I live in an apartment in a building; I’d find it awkward if just across the hall there were an apartment-sized hospital, door open, that I could visit and see sick people being treated, bringing my microbes there and taking a few others with me into the street, to spread pandemics. When the Portuguese, in the 16th century, started quarantining sailors who came from unknown continents teeming with exotic diseases, they thought they were just following common sense: separate the ill from the healthy, curb the contagion. But De Certeau, like The Shadow, knew what evils lurk in the hearts of men, and saw beyond simple expedients into far more sinister motives. No doubt the measures to keep prisons away from schools and to stop students from walking into cells and befriend drug dealers and rapists also belong to that conspiracy whose goal is imponderable to me.
The scriptural system is another old idea. In the past people have treated nature as a book which could be read, a popular metaphor during the Renaissance; it was so popular it survived until Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. But how would McCarthy know that? He doesn’t quote novelists. We can think of society as a gigantic scriptural system, sure; as a metaphorical model, it may be practical to see it like that sometimes; but it doesn’t mean it’s actually that. McCarthy, who loves to name-drop, should give Alfred Korzybski a try; let’s start with his famous dictum “The Map is not the territory” and move on from there to General Semantics; Robert Anton Wilson is another delightful nut job I recommend to those wanting to clear up up conceptual muddiness. Of course in a literate society such as ours, we turn everything into text, be it verbal or non-verbal, since language systems help us make sense of data in order to navigate through a complex, messy world. Likewise, there’s nothing new about recognizing that texts enslave us to a certain extent: Holy Texts have done that for millennia. Because our thinking comes in words, it’s easy, if not inevitable, for us to enslave ourselves through texts. Korzybski had another neat concept for this: he called it time-binding, the ability humans have to build on past generations’ accumulated knowledge, instead of starting from scratch like every new brood of eagles. Part of this comes from the fact that we can store data via language. It’s also problematic because we not only inherit past wisdom but its superstitions, its grudges, its biases, its clichés. We’re all slaves, one way or another, to scriptural systems, because we’re the oil that makes it run. It’s liberating to accept that we all need texts to read because we constantly need to make models of external reality to function. Being aware of this limitation should gladden us rather than gloom us; if we know the script exists, we can shield ourselves from it. The fact that no one single author exists means that anyone can add his line to it. There’s tremendous freedom in that, probably more nowadays than in the past when the script was closed and controlled by priests and princes and professors.
McCarthy thinks the super-script must be resisted lest it overwhelm us. However, his solution is weird. Taking a cue from De Certeau, he positions the dying man, the one whisked away to secret zones that you can enter if you respect visiting hours and ask for a visitor’s card at the reception, at the center of resistance. This dying man can operate a resistance or rupture against the machine’s logic. In other words, “the dying man finds his own body transformed from a palimpsest on which the scriptural enterprise has stamped its law into a liminal, disgusting and yet almost miraculous new space in which the binaries of life and death break down.” I confess I have no idea what he means by this. Because De Certeau specialized in the familiarly amphigoric abstruseness of Academe, an intellectual like McCarthy cannot resist him. But even he concedes that it’s fairly easy to “dismiss these thoughts as French bollocks.” Oh, yes!
His views on writing begin coalescing. Although he lured us with its death, a U-turn announces itself. However, he must first get rid of old-fashioned concepts like “individual self-expression,” “the transcendent human spirit,” art-“as-redemption” and other “fantasies to which a conservative view of fiction still clings. Somewhere he riles against the “great tales of authenticity and individual affirmation.” For him, the future of writing involves exploring “with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition, this non-life-restoring resurrection that, if De Certeau is correct, is writing’s true and only lot, its afterlife. What would this afterlife look like? What forms might these melancholy-joyful explorations take? It is impossible to prescribe these – nor would I want to. I just hope they happen: let a thousand zombies bloom.” I sympathize with him because I have problems with authenticity and individual affirmation myself. I believe other modes of writing can be more authentic; I believe other modes of writing can show individuality better. I believe it because it suits my temperament better. But when McCarthy reduces writers’ objectives across the centuries to this list, he’s making a straw man here in dire need of a torch. Writes want lots of things, sometimes in one go: to express themselves, to express others, to see conflicting ideas clash, to leave frescoes of societies, to mock, to castigate, to get even, to get rich, to seek immortality, to convince, to express hatred, to celebrate. Writing serve so many purposes, how absurd to pigeonhole it like that. By reducing novelists to mere data-gatherers, they do become expendable since machines do that better and faster. But gathering data interest the novelist less than the interaction between data and consciousness. The machine can gather but can’t interpret it or shape it in a meaningful way. And this machine devoid of agency is what McCarthy wants the novelist to become. Paradoxically, then, after the machine has allegedly stolen the novelists’ job, the novelist will retake it by behaving more like the zombie-like machine.
This purely mechanical view of writing dovetails nicely with his contempt for humanism and his panegyric to software. As he says at one point, even the surrealists’ automatic writing is no longer enough. Well, of course not: you need a mind to change gears from manual to automatic. A zombie, however, does not have brain activity, it just exists, like the mythical Great Report existing to “perpetuate itself, an auto-alphaing and auto-omegating script,” into infinity. McCarthy doesn’t explain how this zombie-writing would be, but that’s just a coy position: actually has a very clear program for literature: a mixture of “scientific, evidence-based research” and “epic art”.
It’s symptomatic of McCarthy’s self-proclamation as an avant-garde writer that his vision of contemporary literature is more old news. Such novels have always existed: writers have always mixed research with fiction; from the last century we need only remember Joyce, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and maximalists in general. Edward Mendelson coined the term “encyclopedic novel” in 1976 for a reason. I’d wager that this type of literature has already been achieved by William T. Vollmann in his “Seven Dreams” series. Thomas LeClair’s The Art of Excess is a primer on such novels; his essay on Gravity’s Rainbow demonstrates how it appropriated epic art for its own ends. Is there a greater mixture of the ethnographer’s observations of society and epic art than Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, which turns America into a pagan festival wherein the Rosenbergs burn as sacrificial offerings to the dark modern gods? Yes, yes, McCarthy is talking about old things. The fact that he doesn’t mention these novels doesn’t surprise me: one, he doesn’t seem very well-read on the medium he allegedly serves; two, he doesn’t seem to like it very much. Why giggle with Coover when you can gibber with De Certeau?
In his previous essay, “Technology and the novel, from Blake to Ballard,” he had already planted the seeds of an avant-garde posturing that, under the microscope, is nothing but misty-eyed nostalgia for the past:
Where the liberal-humanist sensibility has always held the literary work to be a form of self-expression, a meticulous sculpting of the thoughts and feelings of an isolated individual who has mastered his or her poetic craft, a technologically savvy sensibility might see it completely differently: as a set of transmissions, filtered through subjects whom technology and the live word have ruptured, broken open, made receptive. I know which side I'm on: the more books I write, the more convinced I become that what we encounter in a novel is not selves, but networks; that what we hear in poems is (to use the language of communications technology) not signal but noise. The German poet Rilke had a word for it: Geräusch, the crackle of the universe, angels dancing in the static.
His distaste for the human dimension, it turns out, derives from Futurism and its fascination with machines. It’s strange that he doesn’t include H. G. Wells in his short history of novels and technology; Mary Midgley, in Beast and Man, writes wonderfully about how Wells’ hatred of mankind grew from his idolatry of machines. (Does Tom McCarthy read British philosophers, or is he exclusively a Continental man?) His affection for Futurism shouldn’t surprise anyone given his knack for admiring only worn out ideas. But, damn it!, for a man who thinks himself of the vanguard, he has trouble co-existing with contemporary thinkers.
McCarthy has no innovative ideas for the novel. His yearning for evidence-based research comes a couple of years after David Shields’ Reality Hunger in its equal disdain for plot and fantasy, in its idolatry of mere data and the realistic dandruff floating off the quotidian. Both are very much against artificiality, which is the currency consciousness does business in. Likewise, his predictions that the digital age, with its hold on text, will force writers to change stopped being a prediction years ago. It’s another illustration of McCarthy’s dubious role as an avant-garde writer that he seems totally unaware of conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing. A genuine avant-garde, Goldsmith has defended the use of digital text to create poetry, and the obliteration of creativity and the conscious role of the artist, who is truly reduced to a mere internet browser finding fragments of text to put on a page and call it a poem. In order to illustrate his thesis, he wrote a poem that is basically a real-life weather report in printed form. It’s called The Weather. That’s audacity!
If it be true that the novel, a rather conservative genre, is always late in relation to poetry, and poetry to the visual arts, I suppose The Weather marks the moment literature has finally caught up with Warhol’s Brillo boxes, God help us all. At last we can shove readymades into books! As disgusting as that sounds to me, I have to concede that at least Goldsmith is being bold and truly avant-garde. McCarthy, for all his blustering and a leg up from critics who repeat ad nauseam that he’s experimental, has yet to come up with anything as iconoclastic as The Weather. In fact, McCarthy, although he loves to name-drop, draws mostly from a cozy, wholesome group of established names. He ventures not, he brings not new names; he strives to be ahead of the curve, and yet he’s wholly provincial and outdated in his references: Lévi-Strauss, Mallarmé; ugh, that’s so 20th century! Another book he could have quoted, alongside Goldsmith’s, was Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius, which also addresses the status of the writer in the age of hyper-information. Like David Shields, she sees the future of writing involving appropriating the writings of others in order to create new texts, much like a dada collage created a new objet d’art from magazines and trash. You’d think McCarthy would slip in a nod to them, since they’re also working from a non-humanist, non-expressionist frame that seeks to obliterate the conscious artist. (To give due its due, I wouldn’t have discovered Goldsmith and Perloff without Big Other.) He could have mentioned Edouard Levé’s Works, a novel that’s “A list of 533 projects, beginning with its own description–both likely and unlikely, sober and ridiculous; some of which Levé later realized, most of which he did not.” He’s French! It’s impossible that McCarthy never heard of him!
If poetry is always ahead of prose fiction, can we then expect to see novels in the future being just clumps of unpolished facts? Michel Houellebecq has already put Wikipedia articles in a novel, so who’s to say otherwise? But McCarthy, so far, has not done a lot to jumpstart that revolution. His novels are plotted, have characters, backgrounds, backstories, goals, all the things the bourgeois reader takes for granted. Even his denying the novel a touch of humanity has, like everything else his mind touches, a raggedy history already. It comes straight from one of his masters, Alain Robbe-Grillet. McCarthy may harp on about Joyce again and again, but his love goes to Robbe-Grillet, his muse, the one novelist who truly endeavored to turn the novel into a mere mass of shapeless data. Michael G. Donkin blames the Naturalists for McCarthy’s dull, monotonous voice; but he got that from Robbe-Grillet, and also from the existentialist novels of Camus and Sartre, whose emotionally stunted protagonists narrate in an anodyne tone, without outbursts or spikes of emotion and intensity, and even without stylistic flourishes, churning out a bland reportorial series of statements and observations. Remainder will only seem innovative to whoever has been spared the martyrdom of having read ‘60s European novels aping Robbe-Grillet’s subversion of novelistic conventions. Curiously, Robbe-Grillet maintained that his new techniques made novels more realistic, not less. As John Barth once remarked, he was just after a higher form of realism. And what’s behind McCarthy's worship of anthropological data-gatherers if not exactly impoverished realism unadorned by art? After all, you look at the world and you report on it. That’s it, isn’t it?
McCarthy’s quaint old-fashioned thinking, though, reveals itself in other ways. Consider his bourgeois faith and respect in Academe. His mind clearly owes more to it than to the history of literature. He name-drops references from Critical Theory, Continental Philosophy and Anthropology, seldom from literature. He sounds like the index of names of a primer on Deconstructionism. Nothing screams “Bourgeois!” more than devotion to Academe, but McCarthy knows his turf and will defend it. Who cares about De Certeau outside the hallowed walls of whatever institute of higher learning students are forced to study him? Who’d care about French bollocks if they weren’t taught in Academe? Because he wears his ignorance of the history of literature with pride, how could he know that truly avant-garde writers have always had a penchant for ridiculing Academe and formal education?
Aristophanes satirized Socrates in The Clouds; Petronius opened the Satyricon mocking teachers; and papa Lucian wrote countless dialogues ridiculing different philosophical schools. Erasmus’ Praise to Folly mocked philosophers and theology; his great disciple, Rabelais, savaged Sorbonne professors. Voltaire condemned academies and universities, and satirized Leibniz’ Optimism in Candide. Thomas Love Peacock went after Kant for his “mental chaos”. Melville, in The Confidence-Man, devotes a few chapters to making fun of Emerson and Thoreau. Machado de Assis created a mad philosopher, inventor of Humanitism. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita opens with the devil mocking two Russian intellectuals. John Barth tore Camus and Sartre apart in his first two novels. Malcolm Bradbury exposed the derangement of Structuralism and Deconstructionism in the hilarious Mensonge. Even William H. Gass, who taught philosophy for most of his life, thinks that philosophy should teach people that they don’t need philosophy. His last two novels take a very parodist view of academic life. In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a character imagines a School of Comparative Irrelevance. For many writers down the ages, that’s what Academe has always been.
Even philosophers abhor Academe: tradition assigns to Diogenes the role of party-pooper constantly mocking the posturing of philosophers, including Plato, the founder of the Academy. And Arthur Schopenhauer, in the essay “On Men of Learning,” diagnosed people like McCarthy quite well in his savaging of the academic world:
“When one sees the number and variety of institutions which exist for the purposes of education, and the vast throng of scholars and masters, one might fancy the human race to be very much concerned about truth and wisdom. But here, too, appearances are deceptive. The masters teach in order to gain money, and strive, not after wisdom, but the outward show and reputation of it; and the scholars learn, not for the sake of knowledge and insight, but to be able to chatter and give themselves airs. Every thirty years a new race comes into the world—a youngster that knows nothing about anything, and after summarily devouring in all haste the results of human knowledge as they have been accumulated for thousands of years, aspires to be thought cleverer than the whole of the past. For this purpose he goes to the University, and takes to reading books—new books, as being of his own age and standing. Everything he reads must be briefly put, must be new! he is new himself. Then he falls to and criticises. And here I am not taking the slightest account of studies pursued for the sole object of making a living.”
(I couldn’t find a French philosopher, but Schopenhauer is Continental too, so...)
For a man who worships the iconoclastic, who likes to pretend he doesn’t fit with conventional behavior, who brands himself as some sort of outcast, McCarthy’s devotion to such a bourgeois institution as the academy is pretty embarrassing for any novelist who takes his mission seriously. I doubt Duchamp and Tristan Tzara would have approved; they’d have supplied the dynamite.
McCarthy’s own habit of publishing explanatory essays in The Guardian when a new novel comes out winks at a trend in the 1960s and 1970s of booksplaining new fiction to the befuddled masses. Where to start?
Alexander Theroux published an essay in the second edition of Three Wogs; Paul West added an interview at the end of Caliban’s Filibuster; Gass wrote amazing essays and continues to write them; John Barth just wrote “The Literature of Exhaustion” but it was enough; Joseph McElroy gave us a bizarre essay called “Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts,” which I think is a sort of personal poetics, but I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Thomas McCormack edited Afterwords: novelists on their novels in 1968, which is worth owning just for the letter Gass sent to his editor on Omensetter’s Luck. Interview books abounded, like Joe Bellamy’s The New Fiction and LeClair and McCaffery’s Anything Can Happen. The Italian Giorgio Manganelli wrote his own poetics in La Letteratura come Menzogna. Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute pioneered this excess of explanation with books such as For a New Novel and The Age of Suspicion. My favorite example of these reading tools for the reader, and possibly the funniest and most sophisticated, are the rejection letters that Gilbert Sorrentino puts at the beginning of Mulligan Stew, explaining the novel’s labyrinthine structure even before the reader’s taken a crack at it on his own. McCarthy is derivative even at pedagogy.
To date I have yet to find a convincing, well-argued defense of his innovation and experimentation; an instance of his craft that is not utterly derivative of an older novelist; a philosophical theory that proves that he’s up to date on the philosophy of NOW. Not names that reached their heyday in the 1970s and so are old news, or of young iconoclasts who were giggling over their manifestos more than a century ago. (Monsieur de Certeau passed away in 1986.) I mean actual new thinkers, obscure ones, that are news to us. For a man who drones on and on about data, why are there no news in his essays? McCarthy is just a mass of ideas culled from others: the anti-humanist zeitgeist of neuroscience; the writers of yore subservient to philosophy; the trend of explaining. I wouldn’t consider this a problem if he didn’t constantly paint himself as an innovating experimentalist on the brink of reshaping prose fiction. He doesn’t even show awareness of the actual people involved in that discourse, like Perloff and Goldsmith. His conventional novels, marketing aside, just copy what genuine iconoclasts did. Remainder would have impressed somoene in 1953, but by 2008 who hasn’t already read a thousand novels like it? Characters identified with a letter has been done to death; repetition has been done to death; is anyone still scared of plotlessness? C is an average well-researched historical novel. He’s never attempted anything new. Ever. His alienating effects, weak copies of old techniques, are well within the limits of endurance of the average reader who’s grown used to them in diluted forms for the past half century. McCarthy’s inability to be an avant-garde novelist would not be tragic if he hadn’t mounted such a successful marketing campaign. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far it’s been lacking.
McCarthy, however, has only thrived thanks to an establishment that has uncritically agreed with him and parroted his own hype. A literary establishment that, with each new coronation, proves it needs a few lessons on the history of the novel. McCarthy himself is a harmless person, a nostalgic boy who can’t shut up about Joyce and Marinetti. A wily businessman who has turned Modernism into a souvenir shop. What worries me is the carelessness with which words like “innovation” and “avant-garde” get bandied about. We live in a culture of neolatry, and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if neolaters actually knew a bit of history to evaluate what’s actual novel. And yet I’ve never read anyone praising McCarthy try to discuss what “new” even means.
McCarthy’s only use is showing how useless literary criticism has become. Other than that, his pronouncements don’t bother me. I’ll let him think that the rise of the corporation forces him to “rethink their role and function, to remap their entire universe,” they haven’t paid attention to it. Does William H. Gass’ Middle C, a mensch of a novel compared to the middlebrow C, look like the work of someone who rethought his whole role? When I read it, it still struck me as a conventional novel by a masterful stylist in the way of past great master stylists. The novel, for all its eclecticism and formal openness, is a conservative genre, and novelists are stubborn. I understand why McCarthy would think that we need no “skilled craftsman” to create novels; should he become a defender of stylists, how could he justify his own existence?
He has the freedom to believe whatever he wants. What I don’t understand is that if he truly believes that the important thing is to just jot stuff down, why does he himself write novels that reveal a conscious mind at work? When will he unleash the zombie? Admittedly, his essay came during Satin Island, so far all I know he may have made this breakthrough afterwards; his future novels may yet end up being just random collection of data. I have doubts that he’ll go in such direction; unlike his beloved Joyce, he puts out novels with the speed of a man desperate to live from his writing, like any well-behaved bourgeois writer. He wants to make it. He has important things to communicate, like bourgeois writers have, and uses the newspaper, that tool of the bourgeoisie, to keep his readers posted.
Joyce just wrote, and you only knew he had written something when the book came out.
Like William Gaddis, who disappeared for decades without a public word between novels. Like Flaubert.
Let’s imagine that he does have the bravery to write such a fracturing novel. Hopefully by now he’s saved up enough royalties to self-publish this black whole of data that sucks everything in but lets no light come out. I doubt a publisher will want to lose money publishing such a courageous example of novelistic avant-gardism. Although of course if he doesn’t have those savings, and if no publisher publishes his masterpiece of drivel adrift in a sea of cognitive debris, then I guess he’ll always have a good excuse to castigate us with another one of his essays. I can even predict the title, for Mr. McCarthy is nothing if not predictable: “The Death of Risky Publishing.”
I sincerely hope he writes it.
I'm indebted to Obooki who first directed me to the splendors of Tom McCarthy years ago.
I'm indebted to Obooki who first directed me to the splendors of Tom McCarthy years ago.