“Crimes of which a people is ashamed constitute its real history. The same is true of man.”
“I am haunted by no phantoms. It is rather that the ashes I stir up contain the crystallization that hold the image (reduced or synthetic) of the living and impure beings that they constituted before the intervention of the fire. If life has a meaning, this image (from the beyond?) has perhaps some significance. That is what I should like to know. And it is why I write.”
So, Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now, first off, this prize is a bit like being named poet laureate of a country. Except it is even more irrelevant. At least in terms of art. But that’s a slippery definition at best, and before getting into some kind of analysis of that term its useful to look at the history of the prize. The Nobel committee is, for literature, made up of mostly academics of one sort of another. Nominations come in from a variety of sources and are sifted through in the manner of all committees. Which means this is always a compromise prize. James Joyce never got one, neither did Kafka or Tolstoy. In the early years of the prize, the model was the Academie Francaise. Strindberg famously ridiculed what he called the self appointed immortals of the committee. Of course Strindberg never won. The committee dismissed Thomas Hardy because his “god lacked any sense of mercy or justice”. The early years favored Victorian sensibilities and some vague sense of classicism, whatever that meant. Tolstoy was dismissed because of his fatalism and anarchist sympathies (per Burton Feldman) but in the end was chosen only to reject the offer and the committee found a substitute in the relatively obscure Theodor Mommsen. Later the Nobel committee decided it was time to embrace modernism but not before rejecting Ibsen and Zola for reasons very similar to Tolstoy’s. The list of mediocrities continued until 1920 when Knut Hamsun won, but then Hamsun was a fascist (but at least a significant writer). The modernist trend began, I guess, with William Butler Yeats — sort of. Although the noted *idealism* and classicism was still very important. And Yeats was conservative politically. The award also goes, almost always, to writers who are safely distanced in time from any political controversy. Hemingway didn’t get it until after 1948 (he won in 54) and the defeat of fascism and all that meant. The list from the 40s is a curious mixture of great (Faulkner) and sub mediocre (Johannes V. Jensen, a Dane who favored crypto eugenics racial theories). Some like Gabriela Mistral are simply mostly forgotten. But the rise of modernism created acute contradictions for the committee. Not just their relative political conservatism, but their confusion overall to arrive at any sort of coherent criteria for the prize.
Churchill won in 1953, and the less said about that the better. Juan Ramon Jimenez won in 56, and that proved to be a prescient choice as Jimenez looms as more significant today than he did at the time of his winning. A number of Soviet writers won, and just as many anti Soviets. The cold war played out as a weird narrative of carrot and stick. By the 70s the choices were clearly influenced by previous choices and by appearance. Some were good, like Eugenio Montale and some bizarre like Eyvind Johnson (but then he was a Swede). Beckett won way back in 1969. But without going over all the winners, the point is that a Patrick White won and Joyce didn’t. Wole Soyinka was the first black African to win in 86. And the last. The prize has gone primarily to novelists, with poets second and playwrights far behind in third. This is worth pondering, I think. Poets of course don’t translate as well. But playwrights?
More on that later. Off the top of my head I can think of a number of writers I might have thought would be favored. Athol Fugard at the top of the list. But also James Kelman and Richard Ford. Cormac McCarthy maybe, William Gass and Jon Fosse. Ladbrokes had Dylan at 50 to 1 odds. Syrian poet Adonis was 6 to 1. But there is Rohinton Mistry and Joan Didion, and Thomas Pynchon — who I’d love to see win just because it was would be great strange theatre. Surprisingly Handke was only 25 to 1. I can think of no greater living writer, personally. Fugard is close, though, and Kelman. Ryszard Kapuściński died in 2007 or I’d have had him as a possible deserving winner. Roberto Bolano, too. But I, of course, have no idea what deserving means. Robert Bly is on my list. How did William Burroughs not win? Hell, how did Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett not win? Churchill won but not Malcolm X.?
A week before the prize was announced Alex Shepard wrote…
“With the last three Nobel Prizes having gone to a Canadian international bestselling author who writes in the coveted “people looking at lakes” category (Alice Munro), a French guy who writes about remembering stuff that he thought he forgot but actually didn’t (Patrick Modiano), and a Belarusian woman who sort of makes stuff up and calls it oral history (Svetlana Alexievich), this year’s winner is anyone’s guess. “
The looking at lakes category is also called the looking at lint on my sweater category. Speaking of which Virginia Woolf never won. Chekhov, Brecht and Ionesco never won, and neither did Tennessee Williams. Or Jean Genet. Playwrights. Though Genet wrote novels as great as any in the century. Galsworthy won instead of Joseph Conrad or Woolf or Sean O’Casey. For there is, even with the deserving choices, a sense of middle brow conformity running through all this. And that brings me back to Dylan, the first writer to win who has pimped for Victoria’s Secret and Chrysler (and Pepsi and etc). Bill Hicks once said if you do a commercial you are off the artist roll call forever. But I suspect Dylan marks the first post literate choice for literature. The first post text winner. Dylan actually wrote two books and both are dreadful. If you read his lyrics without music, they are also dreadful. But he is a popular synthesizer of various American musical forms. Though one would think Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly should have gotten the award then. But Dylan has always been a teflon sort of celebrity. When he embraced Christianity, of a sort, for a while, he got a pass. But that is the point, I think. This is the post post modern award for anti literature.
Jeff St. Clair commented (at Counterpunch):
“The announcement that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature induced much carping from uptight academics about the alleged degeneration of the award. How dare they honor a rock singer? My question is what took them so long? The crusty Nobel committee should have recognized the role of popular music at least 35 years ago and given the prize to Bob Marley. Even Dylan would probably admit that Smokey Robinson should have been in line ahead of him.
Still Dylan deserves the recognition. He’s the greatest white blues singer and probably the best songwriter of the rock era.”
But see, if I bought this, and I don’t (though St Clair made another sharp point in that same article…more below) that’s still not a small issue. Marley I might feel better about, in fact. Marley so far as I know never did a Cadillac commercial. But beyond that I’m not an academic though I also don’t think one can denigrate such an absurd literary prize. If Pearl Buck and Churchill didn’t denigrate it, then its beyond denigration.
If I had to pick three writers who have been the most overlooked in the last 100 years it would be Herman Broch, Patricia Highsmith and Blaise Cendrars. Honorable mention to Juan Rulfo. But the craft of writing, however one approaches it, is strategically transcendent — by which I mean that something deeply important and urgent lies within all textual art. And perhaps Broch is not exactly overlooked so much as just not read. Though again, nobody reads anymore it seems. Sebald might have been another choice but so far as I know never got close. Broch certainly didn’t. But music is another category. Weill and Brecht would be overwhelming choices if this award had been meant to include the very things the Nobel committee just wrote about Dylan.
“A philosophy of language, as Leibniz and Herder understood the term, will turn to the study of literature with especial intensity; but it will think of literature as inevitably implicated in the larger structures of semantic, formal, symbolic communication. It will think of philosophy, as Wittgenstein has taught it to do, as language in a condition of supreme scruple, the word refusing to take itself for granted. It will look to anthropology for sustaining or correcting evidence of other literacies and structures of significance (how else are we to “step back” from the illusory obviousness of our own particular focus?). ”
But there is more than just the complexities of transcendence, the formal and allegorical; there is the loss of seriousness. The erosion of that sensibility of the serious is one of the primary casualties of the post textual age. The digital era has brought with it a superficiality and loss of historical reflection. And while that may sound like *carping*, its not. Advanced capitalism continues to erode humanness and historical context and it continues to dissolve the meaning of words. And it induces amnesia. Dylan can do Super Bowl commercials and hawk for poisonous soft drinks and its forgotten the minute after its aired. Because everything is forgotten.
The Clintons are the political mafia of the digital age. Petty, venal, and resentful. The crimes are large but their vision is not. The are the post literate political dynasty. And theirs is a vision born of appropriation. Hillary has been shaped by Kissinger but only symbolically, really. Her close advisors are people like Podesta and Jake Sullivan. And Sullivan is a sort of third generation dupe of Haldeman and Ehrlichman. It’s perhaps not useful to push this comparison too far. But the quality of mean spiritedness is what seems much larger now. Nixon was delusional, to be sure. And a red baiting cynical political climber. The boy from Whittier was not a ruling class insider, however. In fact he was never comfortable around wealth. His nightly dinner of Salisbury steak and cottage cheese always seemed a metaphor in some way for his class angst.
“I’ve spent the week greedily consuming the treats offered up by Wikileaks’s excavation of John Podesta’s inbox. Each day presents juicy new revelations of the venality of the Clinton campaign. In total, the Podesta files provide the most intimate and unadulterated look at how politics really works in late-capitalist America since the release of the Nixon tapes.
There’s a big difference, though. With Nixon, the stakes seemed greater, the banter more Machiavellian, the plots and counter-plots darker and more cynical.”
Jeffrey St. Clair
I’ve said something similar. There was a Shakespearian grandeur to Nixon’s delusions. Hadelman was a figure from Coriolanus or Othello. John Podesta is a wormy small Aaron Sorkin invention, at best. But maybe, in terms of the Nobel, the other way to look at it is to see the validation of bourgeois thought. Not all of the winners of course. Pinter and his brilliant acceptance speech was certainly an exception. But mostly that has been the tendency. Artaud wasn’t going to get one. Naipaul got one but Arundhati Roy didn’t. And that said, Naipaul for all his monarchist leanings is a very good technician of prose.
Raymond Geuss saw art in the 20th century following along one of two arteries. In the first… “Art followed its own laws which it gave itself: in particular, one couldn’t evaluate a work of art as art by such criteria as whether it gives a good imitation of reality, whether it has contributed to social progress, or by moral criteria. Usually this claim that art is autonomous was taken to mean that art produces distinctive “forms” that are inherently significant and worthwhile, and that the experience of these “forms” is in all relevant respects self-contained.”
In the second, the less Kantian and more Hegelian:
“To be more precise, art “in its highest vocation” must, according to Hegel, do two things at the same time:
1. it must tell us the truth or bring us to a correct awareness of our (natural, his- torical, social, and political) world;
2. by telling us this truth it must bring us to affirm our world as a fundamentally worthwhile place in which to live.”
Now, these are not absolute. And they overlap. And Adorno was aware of what might be a third, having to do with *expression*. But the point here is that the Young Hegelians found little to see that could be affirmative. And then Marx saw even less, and saw this as a result of a basically irrational economic system. Adorno would agree with Marx, but took it further. For Adorno there was something beyond just economic irrationality (and what one extrapolates from that) but a kind of historical malformation in humanity that itself helped create capitalism. The Nobel process is always one of validating (in their minds anyway) a kind of Enlightenment ideal of the pursuit of happiness. This of course got harder and harder the further into modernism one got. And I think there was a substitution for Enlightenment ideals with simply bourgeois respectability. Adorno and Horkheimer’s ideas on instrumental reason are very interesting here because the trend of capital was instrumentality and instrumentality meant a certain fungibility in humanity. And that, at least in part, accounts for the discomfort one feels when reading over the list of Nobel winners. I mean its depressing as shit. And I know I am only going to scratch the surface of the many reasons for that.
Everything was *for* something else. That was a key aspect of Adorno’s critique. Exchange value.
“If we accept for the sake of argument that our social world is evil, and that this evil has something to do with the dominance of instrumental reason, a number of immediate consequences follow for art. First of all, any form of art (or of religion or philosophy for that matter) that contributed to trying to make people affirm this world or think that life in it was worthwhile would not just be doing something unhelpful, but would be misguided in the most fundamental way possible.”
And this is, increasingly probably, why all awards are depressing. They are depressing because they are predicated upon some vague idea of affirmation. And the truly affirmative resides in despair. And comes out of the slough of despond…as it were. The Western belief, a cultic belief, in happiness and the pursuit thereof, is so tainted with bad faith as to be unredeemable. Art is not meant to make us comfortable. Firstly because such comfort is a lie. Second, if that sort of bourgeois bromide were true then next years short list should be the writers of children’s books. And look, Id not bet against J.K. Rowling.
“There is a point in the nineteenth century when a secret nadir is reached. It occurs, but without anybody’s noticing, when a young man no one has heard of publishes, in Paris and at his own expense, a work entitled Les Chants de Maldoror. The year is 1869: Nietzsche is working on The Birth of Tragedy; Flaubert publishes L’Education sentimentale, Verlaine his Fêtes galantes; Rimbaud is writing his first lines. But at the same time something even more drastic is going on: it’s as if literature had delegated to the young son of the consulate employee Ducasse, a boy sent to France from Montevideo to complete his studies, the task of carrying out a decisive, clandestine, and violent act. The twenty-three-year-old Isidore assumes the pseudonym Lautréamont, a name probably suggested by a character in the pages of Eugène Sue, and pays an initial deposit of four hundred francs to the publisher Lacroix to have him print his Chants de Maldoror. Lacroix takes the money and prints the book—but then refuses to distribute it. As Lautréamont himself would later explain in a letter, Lacroix “refused to have the book appear because it depicted life in such[…]”
But one must be a bit more precise about all this. And this, in particular, in the idea of critical judgement. What Hegel called internal criticism. And this has to do with putting aside notions such as effectiveness or lessons of morality, or social relevance. For all that is lodged with an instrumental framework. Art has no use. But it does have truth.
“Even the most critical art gives us some pleasure, and to take pleasure in art is to be close to being open to the possibility of affirming the society in which this pleasurable experience is possible. The implication Adorno draws from this is that for art to be socially critical in an appropriate way, it must be aesthetically radical, i.e., it must radically and to some extent successfully struggle against its own tendency to affirmation. It can do this, Adorno thinks, only if it is formally negative or critical. Eventually this notion of being “formally negative” will be ex- plicated to mean that the work of art in question must internally subvert traditional aesthetic forms.”
Now defining truth is mostly impossible. But the process and rigor of that search *is* meaningful. And that is, at a certain point, the most radical intellectual and emotional position possible. The ascent of the bourgeoisie after the French Revolution found expression in what was still rather Homeric in a sense (this is too complex to deal with here) but by the start of the 20th century Western society under monopoly Capitalism had begun to trigger mass disenchantment — and with two world wars and a global hegemony today in the form of U.S. neo liberal Imperialism, society is now reaching levels of cognitive vapor lock (to sort of mix a metaphor). What Debord called generalized autism over fifty years ago is now exemplified in the growing infantilism and amnesia of the societies of the West. The U.S. today is one country of severe inequality, racism, sexism, and growing xenophobia. But it is also one of terminal addictions to distraction. To gadgets and screens and electronic communication. Community is reduced to social media. And friendship is a mouse click. Such societies do not produce, I don’t think, Isadore Ducasses’ or Artauds, and probably not even Cendrars or Genets. A writer such as Patricia Highsmith is neglected because she is too interior. Her characters do not look at lakes or lint, they are subtly inspecting their own existential crises in varieties of minute mental adjustments. But such adjustments are based on a tacit understanding that the world has become a hostile and unforgiving place.
Calasso, a great reader, writes of ‘Maldoror….
“It’s as if the innocuous anaphora, as taught in any textbook of rhetoric, had been blown up beyond all proportion and then set insanely adrift. There are at least two consequences: first, the reading experience is brought close to the essential nature of nightmare, something that lies not so much in the awfulness of the elements that make up a vision, but in the way they keep on and on coming back into the mind. And then the narrative is injected with senselessness, the same way a single word, if repeated often enough, becomes a mere phonic husk freed from any semantic bond.”
The earliest best precursors to modernism, the prophetic glimpse of monopoly capitalism, are found in Lautreamont and in Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck (published posthumously in 1879). They are the flip side of the same coin of disenchantment and horror. In 1925 Alban Berg wrote what I consider the among the greatest musical creations of the century with his opera (Woyzzeck) based on Buchner’s unfinished play. Adorno wrote of Berg (with whom he studied)…“The main principle he conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different.” The post literate culture is one that has lost that last part. Intrinsic difference is now not so much rejected as ignored. Unheard and unseen.
The changes in culture over the last forty years is seen most clearly in the loss of an audience for what Adorno would consider serious work. Now, yes, this is European art, the cultural form that developed from the mid 1700s hundreds on through the modernism of the mid 20th century. And one of the ideas contained in the new populism that has arisen in the post modern period is that of accessibility. And it is true that if one has never been exposed to, say, Bresson or Pinter, even, this work will appear opaque at best. The very idea of *entertainment* is relatively new. And over the last twenty years, say, entertainment has eclipsed almost everything else. There is good work being done today, but its hard to find. Or, at least it requires work to find it. Meanwhile the corporate owned media machinery of financial capital churns out a previously unimaginable amount of product. And this product is consumed at a stunningly high pace. It is non reflective work. The fears that Adorno felt (and Horkheimer and Marcuse even, and others, really, from Steiner to Calasso to a huge swath of more specialized art critics like Donald Kuspit) have come true. And it is increasingly difficult to talk about art in the way these critics spoke of high modernism.
“Since any art that does not attempt to satisfy its highest vocation (by criticizing our society in an appropriately radical way) is morally reprehensible, destruction of the autonomy of art would be unmitigatedly bad. One might argue that it makes sense to think that entertainment is inherently reprehensible only if the position from which art could exercise its highest voca- tion is in some sense accessible. If it isn’t, then the automatic devaluation of entertainment lapses. The question is what “accessible” means. For Adorno, as I have said, in the study of cultural phenomena impossible aspirations are in some sense just as important as realities. Art may reach for a kind of unique- ness it will never attain, to a fully non communicative autonomy, etc., even if those ideals are inherently unrealizable. I assume Adorno would apply a ver- sion of this doctrine here. Art is a necessary failure—it can’t fully occupy a high ground from which it could realize its highest vocation, but the vocation is nonetheless important, and as such gives us good grounds for the denigration of mere entertainment.”
The rise of the warfare state runs parallel to the rise of domestic militarized police. And it runs parallel to the rise of empty cultural entertainments that favor jingoistic and infantile distractions. That said, it is not hard to view the white bourgeoisie that makes Hollywood film (since that is the dominant cultural expression today) unconsciously sharing their own anxieties. Zombie films increasingly (and all these pseudo reconstruction narratives that feature plagues and viruses and alien demons) as a fear of the masses. A fear of the poor. Zombies ARE hunger and need. And hence they are killed off in an almost absent minded manner. And killed off, in these films and TV shows, at an extraordinary rate. The affluent class favors self consciously prestige narratives that are about mostly the problems of the rich. It is the latest incarnation of the staring at lint genre. And it is work of astonishing narcissism. It is also, rarely, even slightly memorable. In fact it seems, increasingly, as if work is meant to be forgotten. This is the year TV has decided to reboot old franchises (Lethal Weapon, Training Day, The Exorcist, MacGyver, et al). The familiarity of the title is comforting. None of these shows has that much to do, really, with the original film or show, but that’s not the point. It is business. These are commodities. And the audience approaches them AS commodities. Shopping replaces discernment. Shopping itself is the art. The creative shopper. The role Adorno and others saw in culture is gone. And if people simply do not read, this is logical. People scan and sample.
“Wolf Lepenies finds in the figure of the melancholic a specific cate- gory of social rebellion. He identifies melancholia as the simultaneous rejection of both the means and the ends of socially sanctioned behavior. In line with Robert Merton’s (1968) ideas, Lepenies writes about melancholia as a retreat from and a total rejection of society due not only to the repression by way of social norms and interdictions but also to the total effect of society, which the melancholic experiences as a threat and as potentially suffocating.”
Esther Sanchez Pardo
The counter to the massive narcissistic and near autistic subject position is, I think, a kind of generalized depression or melancholia. Raymond Williams wrote that we should be…
“…looking, from time to time, from outside the metropolis: from the deprived hinterlands, where different forces are moving and from the poor world which has always been peripheral to metropolitan systems. This need involve no reduction of the importance of the major artistic and literary works which were shaped within metropolitan perceptions. But one level certainly has to be challenged: the metropolitan interpretation of its own processes as universal.”
One of the qualities of Ducasse and Buchner both was an identification with the underclass. Genet too shared this. In fact most of the writers I have mentioned share this. The aesthetic ideal of modernism, generally speaking, was a rejection of positivism and instrumental thinking. A rejection of conformism and homogeneity. And the dismissing of modernism today by a majority of post modern theorists is therefore not surprising. The post modernism that followed French structuralist thinkers became at a certain point an apologetics for social domination. Now, the original modernism ideal was compromised in different ways and a variety of contradictions ensued. Some in direct opposition to the original impetus. The psychoanalytical aspect privileged individuality and this founded a tendency toward self involved lint gazing in some quarters. Also the art market was developing and siphoned off energy toward commodity creation.
Critics like Shari Benstock, however, display a misreading of much mid century art when she writes of what she sees as the two main trends…
“…the urge towards polarities and oppositions (the proclamation of an adversary culture); the second is the effort to separate art from history (the proclamation of artistic autonomy). In fact, these pulsations are the same, and they lead to high modernism, which justifies continuity and exclusivity, in literary traditions. A dfferent kind of modernism, what I call avant-garde modernism (the excluded Other), announces itself as a rupture, a break with the past, and marks a cultural historical shift.”
The avant garde was, at least in its major practitioners, never divorced from history. History was the nightmare from which humankind was trying to awake. And autonomy was also not separate from history. But such failures of critical writing are all too common these days. Sanchez Pardo, who I quoted above, mentions that Andreas Huyssen saw modernism existing in the shadow of anxiety. And that much I think is true. But Pardo is, like other contemporary critics, both right and wrong. For the medicalization of psychoanalysis led to a default acceptance of instrumental reason. And, simply, an inability to actually *see* the work being described.
In any event, the selection of Dylan is telling in the sense that it signals a final disregard for the craft of writing. I was never a huge fan of Dylan (and full disclosure I had a series of meetings with him in the early 90s on a film project. And he was fun to chat with about music, of which he knew a great deal but in the end he just disappeared, as celebrities are want to do). But I also was always aware of his being white and playing mostly black music, and when not black music he was playing the music of the rural white poor and white Churches of the South. And like many white artists who did this he made some half hearted attempts to make his audience aware of these roots. But not enough. And then, finally, much as I liked some of the music, I found myself unable to get fully on board (much like being unable to root for the Cleveland Indians with their current logo…even if I love some of the players on that team). But the point is not what I or you *enjoy*. It is about the history of a European institution that claims authority — Strindberg’s immortals — and who are in the end just a factory for compromised solutions. And in fact no awards institution can ever be other than that. And no artist who believes in the radical nature of aesthetic resistance can accept pimping for General Motors. And no artist can accept such awards without formulating statements that reject the very premise (think Pinter and Sartre and Tolstoy).
There is an obscure film, that for some reason I thought of while writing this; Este pueblo no hay ladrones (There are No Thieves in This Village) made by Alberto Isaac in 1965 and based on a Marquez short story. The reason it is of interest is that the cast includes Juan Rulfo and Luis Bunuel (as the town priest…see below). Rulfo was a very fine photographer, but his fame rests on his novella Pedro Paramo, one of the greatest books of the century I think. Somehow it is seems appropriate to mention Rulfo here, and that novella, because while Rulfo is known, he is hardly famous. He was never a celebrity even in Mexico.
“All great writing springs from le dur désir de durer, the harsh contrivance of spirit against death, the hope to overreach time by force of creation.”
Art is inextricably tied to mortality. Entertainment is a kind of denial of death. And the political mirror of this denial is fascism. The sadistic cruelty — a sexual deformation, is tied in with the lust of greed and whatever one means by power. Great writing is not amusement. It is an engagement for the reader that is always exhausting. Reading bad books on airplanes makes sense. One wants no part of thoughts of mortality as one takes off. Here is another quote from Steiner…
“The highest, purest reach of the contemplative act is that which has learned to leave language behind it. The ineffable lies beyond the frontiers of the word. It is only by breaking through the walls of language that visionary observance can enter the world of total and immediate understanding. Where such understanding is attained, the truth need no longer suffer the impurities and fragmentation that speech necessarily entails. It need not conform to the naïve logic and linear conception of time implicit in syntax. In ultimate truth, past, present, and future are simultaneously comprised. It is the temporal structure of language that keeps them artificially distinct. That is the crucial point.”
Rulfo’s novella is about death. Much Mexican art is overtly death infested. That is its beauty. Steiner said something else a few pages later…
“With Wittgenstein, as with certain poets, we look out of language not into darkness but light. Anyone who reads the Tractatus will be sensible of its odd, mute radiance.”
This was something I had always felt and was heartened to read. For it is Wittgenstein’s sensibility that is so important. For him, most of the world, or the truth of most of the world, is silence. It is contemplation. The great works of Islam and Taoism and Vedic writing are all about silence and death. Beckett was about that, in his way, and so is Rulfo. The American culture of the 21st century is about noise. Noise and how it helps one to not remember. How it helps us not to remember that we can’t remember. Noise is there to distract and with it has come, in the U.S. anyway, a neurotic involuntary laughter. People laugh constantly and for things I don’t understand. Comedy shows outnumber drama in popular culture. Steiner notes also that mass media has reduced language, or something like 90% of it, to thirty four basic words. In Shakespeare’s time it was something like five times that. People talk more but repeat themselves more. Listening to the political theatre of the current election is to reduce one’s vocabulary even more.
Here is the opening paragraph of Broch’s Death of Virgil (translated by close collaborator and friend Jean Starr Untermeyer)…
“Steel-blue and light, ruffled by a soft, scarcely perceptible cross-wind, the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron as it steered toward the harbor of Brundisium, the flat hills of the Calabrian coast coming gradually nearer on the left…
Of the seven high-built vessels that followed one another, keels in line, only the first and last, both slender rams-prowed pentaremes, belonged to the war-fleet; the remaining five, heavier and more imposing, deccareme and duodeccareme, were of an ornate structure in keeping with the Augustan imperial rank, and the middle one, the most sumptuous, its bronze mounted bow gilded, gilded the ring-bearing lion’s head under the railing, the rigging wound with colors, bore under purple sails, the festive and grand, the tent of Caesar. Yet on the ship that immediately followed was the poet of the Aeneid and death’s signet was graved upon his brow.”