gall and gumption

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

So Not Over It

A thoughtful and voracious reader named paul k, who, like me, hangs out at Roy's place (the party is livelier over there) has left two critics' observations about Marvin Mudrick in the comments to the
post before this one
. They're old, but apparently they still have legs.

Here they are:

I also like Mudrick, but I think Wolcott was right about one of his limitations (re his dumping on the Bard):

Surely Mudrick knows that Shakespeare's reputation will prosper long after his spitballs have caked on the chalkboard, so why is he making such a commotion? Again, I think Mudrick has become overly smitten with his image as literature's fearless enforcer; he's taking on Shakespeare as a show of nerve.

And I think Michael Wood’s comment is fair:

[Roger Sale says that] Mudrick is "learned, witty, grim, quick to scorn and delighted to praise." He has an extraordinary gift for quotation, and a large fund of good sense. But that is all he has, and I am less taken with Mudrick's tone than Sale is. I find it strident and jangling, full of the sound of a man laughing at his own jokes.


I am pretty sure that these all refer to Nobody Here But Us Chickens, Mudrick's last collection of pieces from The Hudson Review. That book came out more than 20 years ago, but look, these still seem, to at least one thoughtful reader, to sum up most of what you need to know about Mudrick. And that's unfortunate.

Incredibly this comment arrived on a day when I had just posted a link to a Wolcott review in TNR in which he quotes Mudrick, as he does from time to time. And then I got home from the much-loathed job to find that Wolcott had linked to my post about his review. It was totally cosmic! And so I'm going to seem a tad smidge wee bit ungrateful for Wolcott's friendly notice and all the readers he has sent over here.

I'm not ungrateful really. But a few things need to be said.

1) These criticisms of Mudrick are status-based, not substance-based. They were in effect suggesting that Mudrick was misbehaving himself in his criticism of Shakespeare. They don't consider his arguments; Wolcott offers a theory of motive, but that is not a consideration of what Mudrick was saying. My own thinking about this is that if Mudrick's remarks on Shakespeare were, as he puts it, the firing of harmless spitballs then surely Shakespeare could look after himself, and Lord knows Shakespeare has enough defenders.

Who was risking more here, really? Mudrick didn't have a whole New York literary opinion-making establishment and all of received opinion at his back when he went up against Shakespeare. What he did have was years and years and years of reading Shakespeare and just about everything else, and thinking about it for himself. So it would have been more thoughtful and just at the time to ask why, given his trustworthy judgment on a wide range of other literary matters, he felt so strongly about this; to ask where he derived this opinion, rather than to dismiss it out of hand by infantilizing him.

2) I don't know who this Michael Wood geezer is, but I know this much: he knows absolutely nothing about what Marvin Mudrick had or didn't have, if that's all he saw in Mudrick's work. I mean, what does Wood have? I came across a wonderful word for what Wood did here: "shame-dumping." You can just sort of picture him dusting off his fingers, can't you? Having had to touch that unpatrician smart-mouthed vulgarian in order to put him firmly in his place.

3) There is such a thing as consensus opinion about literature. But interesting and real literary experience begins to happen right at the point where consensus has nothing further to tell you. I pick up a book, let's say, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. And I try to read it for the first time and it's hard and kind of boring. But I am aware that long-established and repeatedly proven public opinion
has great regard for this book, and that makes me think that therefore I ought to be careful when I make my judgment. Because the judgment of several generations has some weight. I am possibly ignorant in a lot of ways, my judgment is superficial. So even though my own experience has not been all that satisfactory I am willing to defer to established opnion and give it another go. There's a good chance a lot of people know better how to read this than I do. And maybe six months later I'm going trip somewhere and I throw it in the suitcase and this time I'm totally fascinated; I devour it. This is the beginning of my relationship with this book. And every couple of years or so I read it again and I get something different out of it each time, and I think it's great and that people don't really appreciate how great it is because it is so forbidding at first glance and it makes special demands on the reader. This is a complicated and nuanced relationship I have with this
book and it has nothing to do with public opinion. I've made my own opinion out of this relationship and I've worked really hard for it, with passion. This, incidentally, is a fair description of my real personal relationship with Clarissa, which I read every two years, give or take a couple months. So if someone makes a sort of normative statement that I am somehow out of order in my enthusiasm for Clarissa I just think that there is a certain point in literary experience where that sort of normative standard is just irrelevant. ("Who are you to presume..." standards.) Or else why would you read? If I want people to boss me around I stop reading and go to the office or a baby shower or get another boyfriend or something. (My idea of hell would be a baby shower that never ended, with maybe a musical Christmas tree thrown in.)

My experience is not unintelligible or incommunicable. There's a difference between a judgment that comes out of the real experience of a work of art and the judgment as to what sort of opinion conforms to some conventional standard of opinion-having. And it's interesting to explore this area of difference. It's a real subject.

You won't make any enemies standing up for Shakespeare. Moreover, awkward people like Marvin who put you in the position of defending their indefensible opinions -- it's so much easier to just dismiss them.

That's the way of the world. Mudrick on the other hand thought that if everybody could speak freely without having their personal status and essential moral character impugned for what they said, then you might hear something true that you had never heard before. The free flow of ideas depends on being able to freely make risky statements that can be freely picked apart, vigorously criticized and vigorously defended, and it should be fun. And in literature if you can't do this there is simply nothing to discuss. Nothing at all.

Public consensus will guide you to a work but, it will not guide you through it. Because like most received ideas it's just not that consciously thought out. I mean, what really is the value of
someone's opinion of Shakespeare if the last time they read it was in second-year college English, 12 years ago? We grow and change, we have to keep those experiences fresh so that our judgment is accurate. So sometimes public opinion hits a lucky number and it's right, and sometimes it's dead wrong (not taking Mozart seriously for about 200 years for example) and sometimes it just has nothing to say. And in any event everybody's own personal relationship to "conventional wisdom" if you like is equivocal and fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. Which is, you know, interesting, and a frequent subject of literature.

You don't read Shakespeare to experience public opinion of Shakespeare, you read it to find out your own. I mean, if you read it to experience what other people think of it you'll be bored and you'll be a bore too. And I know, I know, lots of people do that. But you don't have to.

And on this distinction Marvin Mudrick was absolutely serious. This was one where he did not play, and as I said, the risk and the cost were borne by him alone. It was an important piece of his whole approach to literature. Because once you could ascertain that, once you learned to compare your unexamined opinions with the evidence, you might begin to pick up a few things you never knew before, you might see things that were right in front of you that you never noticed or thought were important. Life got a whole lot more interesting. Which is sort of the point of literature, to give you a more interesting and revealing and rich theory of life and experience (including literature and music, yes) than the half-baked notions we walk about with unthinking. And it's unfortunate that so many people know Mudrick for being nothing but a smart-mouthed attack dog when his main driving motivation, just as evident in every single piece that he wrote, is somehow unknown.

See? I know I'm being sort of unhip and uncool here. I bring up this ancient history and go on and on about it so earnestly, not taking my tone from my surroundings etc. But I think that Marvin Mudrick's reputation has suffered because of reactions like these, and his major contribution to a viable ethics of literary study -- well, people have missed it, they have no clue. I don't know about anybody else but I get so bored and depressed when I get in amongst a crowd of people who can't bear for me to speak the truth of my mind, or who simply never get far enough into a subject so that it begins to yield some insight. Where people feel free to pursue an idea through changes, where they can kick the tires on an opinion, where you talk because you have something to say and you're excited about it, well, it's exhilarating and there's no comparison between that and knowing that you have managed to please some status-loaded bore by saying nothing but saying it in just the right tone and without ever laughing at your own jokes, even if you are the funniest person in the room. We have to eat, and that means you have to traffic with the traffickers in radioactive poo. But you don't give it head room. "You must clear your mind of cant," said Samuel Johnson. If you don't you feel weak and cheap and poor. So that's why I've gone on and on about this.

There's a punchline to this little bit of pleading, but I'm going to impose on my small but select readers and anyone who has gotten this far, to just do without that punchline for a day. Feel free to comment meantime. The punchline will appear here sometime tomorrow. I hope you'll stop by to see it.

4 Comments:

At 4:13 AM, Anonymous paul k said...

I agree with so much in your passionately argued post, but I need to clarify a couple of things:

1. You said “these [quotes from Wolcott and Wood] still seem, to at least one thoughtful reader, to sum up most of what you need to know about Mudrick. And that's unfortunate.”

First, I hope those brief quotes won’t discourage anyone from actually reading Mudrick. We murder to dissect, which means, in Wolcott’s case, I presented some isolated fragments pulled from a longer and considerably more nuanced review that acknowledged Mudrick’s achievement in his earlier books but was less inclined to do so with, as you correctly guessed, Chickens.

In short, the excerpts I provided don’t accurately reflect the full range of Wolcott’s opinions in this matter. I wanted to furnish you with a link to the original piece but couldn’t because it’s housed in the NYR online archives, to which you have to subscribe (as I whiningly do) for access. I could have tossed a bigger cut-and-paste your way, per my SOP over at roy’s site (where I often have to double-post back to back because while I’d rather be tossing off call-of-the-Wilde aphorisms that can register in the blink of an eye, I usually end up composing retina-ravaging mini-epics). But I didn’t want to be a bloghog on my first visit here (Jesus, he damn near sucked all the pixels right out of the room) and thus was uncharacteristically short-winded. (I could have e-mailed the complete Wolcott piece to you as a word doc, I guess, but I don’t have an address.) So mea maxima culpa for any ensuing misrepresentations or misunderstandings.

Likewise, when I said I liked Mudrick, I should have said exactly what it is that I like about him (his fiercely independent mind, clarity and precision, his directness, his easily borne erudition coupled with a complete lack of pretension) rather than tossing out a few negative critical snippets that only emphasized what some have construed as his shortcomings. (For the record, I do think that, per Wood, he does tend to laugh at his own jokes a little too much---a failing I share, hence my sensitivity to said foible.)

Anyway, here’s what Wolcott liked about Mudrick’s pre-Chickens books:

In his earlier collections, Mudrick was often an expert brickheaver, letting fly at the happiness-is-a-warm-puppy pieties of Robert Coles, the coziness of the Trilling-Podhoretz clique, the pretensions of structuralism (including this killer line about psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan: "Lacan is doubtless an inept wizard down on his luck, having inmixed a few too many othernesses between the fading gaps of desire...."). Indeed, Mudrick won my cheers in Books Are Not Life when, after quoting a woolly paragraph from Anthony Powell's interminable A Dance to the Music of Time, he cut loose:

Cobwebs and dishwater, condescension, malice, inertness, tics, false specification, simpering imprecision, endlessly unsorted gossip, on and on and on, not preliminaries or bridge-passages but the staple, the thing itself, the world as a closetful of baseless opinions....

Irritable excess is what makes the passage so effective: you can feel Mudrick's exasperation snowballing over every rocky comma. The best of his praising essays in the earlier books—on Casanova, Lord Rochester, Harold Rosenberg—also have this spinning zest and momentum.

But then Wolcott adds:

The problem with Nobody Here But Us Chickens is that humor and malice alike have thickened, become forced, encrusted.

As for WS:

It's almost nuttily obsessive, Mudrick's contempt for Shakespeare. Shakespeare floats through this book like a majestic battle cruiser, with Mudrick (slipping on dusty goggles) strafing his reputation in a series of swoops and dives. To Mudrick, Shakespeare isn't a lion-spirited poet but a shameless sensation-monger, his tragic heroes little more than a succession of strutting wankers.

But then he goes on to call Murdick’s description of Hamlet---

All right, so here he is, our representative to the world, Mr. Western Civilization, in codpiece and pantyhose up there on the boards, firing away at the rapt groundlings with his blank verses, not less of a word-slinger and spellbinder than the Bard himself and therefore not to be considered too curiously on such matters as relevance, coherence, consistency, propriety, sanity, common decency.

---“the funniest passage in Chickens,” which, I think, it just might be.

Wolcott gives a brief but, I think, fair summary of the general tenor of Mudrick's critcism:

Readers of Mudrick's previous collections know that he isn't a critic who holds art in sacramental awe; indeed, he argues that literature has often failed life, cheapened it with irony and smart derision. In a review of Ronald Blythe's Akenfield in Books Are Not Life, Mudrick observed, "It's helpful to be reminded now and then, while novelists persist in their noisy betrayals of human dignity, that living has a longer history than reading, and truth than fiction. reading, and truth than fiction."

Mudrick strikes a similar note in Chickens when he takes Joyce and Flaubert to task. "What they can't admit is that art is overrated: which artists, faking and fumbling it together out of spit and toothpicks, should know best of all”. . .He has no truck with trick mirrors or transcendence; he's interested in the earthbound here-and-now"

As I understand it, Wolcott’s main problem with the collection then under review was that Mudrick’s tough-guy persona had, for him, started to congeal into something like a pose, the Contrarian for All Seasons:

Mudrick was dubbed by one reviewer the "Mickey Spillane of Belles Lettres." It's a compliment which seems to have captured Mudrick's stony heart, for the writing in his new book. . .is even more brusque and combative. Tattoos snaking up his brawny arms, Mudrick has taken to patrolling literature's waterfront, tossing undesirables (Shakespeare, Flaubert—scum like that) rudely into the drink. He doesn't seem to be in a mood to brook any back talk. . . . One can almost hear him boasting in an Edward G. Robinson rasp, "I don't take nothin' from no one, see? Flaubert, Jesus, that highfalutin Shakespeare—they get in my way and they're Swiss cheese, nyah."

There’s more---the best thing is to read the original in full.

2. Michael Wood’s a terrific English critic---he’s not the brittle mandarin you take him for based on that quote I gave. He’s as good on movies (he loved Pauline Kael’s critcism, and at her liveliest the old gal was about as “vulgarian” as you can get) as he is on Nabokov and Derrida. He’s smart, subtle, and funny. Once again, I think a problem here is that I failed to provide the fuller cite (actually a footnote to a review of books by Roger Sale et al.):

Mudrick has published a new collection of essays and reviews called Books Are Not Life But Then What Is? Sale's remarks about an earlier book, On Culture and Literature, apply perfectly here. Mudrick is "learned, witty, grim, quick to scorn and delighted to praise." He has an extraordinary gift for quotation, and a large fund of good sense. . ., etc.

It seems to me that in agreeing that Sale’s assessment of Culture (i.e., “learned, witty,” etc.) could also ”apply perfectly” to Books, and by adding that Mudrick “has an extraordinary gift for quotation,” etc., Wood’s “but that’s all he has” covers a lot of territory and somewhat mitigates the severity of his judgment. God knows, I’d be happy if someone said that list of traits was “all” I had.

3. But interesting and real literary experience begins to happen right at the point where consensus has nothing further to tell you.

Absolutely. Received ideas indeed. (Have you read Kenner’s The Stoic Comedians? He’s good on Flaubert but his [Kenner’s] Olympian purr can wear on you after a while.) Academic orthodoxy is pernicious. Undertaken solely as a professional commitment rather than a passionate and highly personal exploration, the study of literature can become just the study of literature, an amusing game without any real stakes or surprises. The aura of hushed reverence and unflappable politesse that characterizes most literary discourse as I’ve experienced it (either in print or in person) can be murderous, as you note.

So critics like Leslie Fiedler, Mudrick, and even crazy Hitchens in his lit’ry mode (The Waste Land, he recently and correctly wrote, is on of the most overrated poems of the 20th-century) are indispensable. Intoning ancestral pieties about the canon won’t help you understand the ways that literature can enlarge your sense of wonder and possibility (and that can be a radically scary and disorienting experience). Despite the protective consolations of formal training, eventually the best readers learn to work without a net. They figure out for themselves whether and where a writer is alive, and why that aliveness should matter to their lives.

 
At 4:39 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Thanks for the extra excerpts, these certainly fill out the picture more. I'm also aware that Wolcott admires Mudrick a lot more than that rfirst excerpt would seem to indicate.

But it was the particular nature of these objections that I really wanted to get at, because I think they are objectionable even before you begin to consider the merits of whatever Mudrick said about Shakespeare -- and you may have noticed that I didn't get into that at all. That was a deliberate choice.

And no apologies are necessary about the quotations at all. All you've done at this point is put a lot more substance into the discussion.

Thanks for the offer of the whole article. Blogger apparently ate my email link when I switched over to the new version and gave me instead all these little decorations.

But if you feel like sending it you can send it to kpenso@yahoo.com
and one of these days I'll figure out where that link went. Or how to put it back.

I've got more to say on this topic and of course you are at liberty to get bored with it any time. And if you're not bored I'm sure you now know you should write what you damn well please -- what's a few pixels?

 
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