16 December 2021

Bibliographilia—Lasch's Roth

Here is the article by Philip Roth which launches Chapter IV of The Minimal Self.

Several passages are of interest despite (in some cases because of) not having been referenced by Lasch.
It is hardly news that in best-sellerdom we frequently wind up with the hero coming to terms and settling down in Scarsdale, or wherever, knowing himself. And on Broadway, in the third act, someone says, “Look, why don’t you just love each other?” and the protagonist, throwing his hand to his forehead, cries, “Oh God, why didn’t / think of that!” and before the bulldozing action of love, all else collapses—verisimilitude, truth, and interest. ... If the investigation of our times and the impact of these times upon human personality were to become the sole property of [this tendency (?)]...it would indeed be unfortunate, for it would be somewhat like leaving sex to the pornographers, where again there is more to what is happening than first meets the eye.
Well, sure. But is this a difference of degree or of kind? In this analogy, are we sure Great Books are not just really good, deep, intellectual pornography? Is there not always more to what is happening than literature can do justice to?
It is possible that I have exaggerated both the serious writer’s response to our cultural predicament, and his inability or unwillingness to deal with it imaginatively. There seems to me little, in the end, to be used as proof for an assertion having to do with the psychology of a nation’s writers, outside, that is, of their books themselves. So, with this particular assertion, the argument may appear to be somewhat compromised in that the evidence to be submitted is not so much the books that have been written, but the ones that have been left unwritten and unfinished, and those that have not even been considered worthy of the attempt . Which is not to say that there have not been certain literary signs, certain obsessions and innovations and concerns, to be found in the novels of our best writers, supporting the notion that the world we have been given, the society and the community, has ceased to be as suitable or as manageable a subject for the novelist as it once may have been.
The Silent Evidence gets it’s hearing! (Sort of.)

To beat the dead horse some more...when it's always, always, always our best writers whom we find supporting the notion du jour, surely it is worth at least noting the possibility of causes and effects having become all mixed up.

I most enjoyed Roth's investigation into the
of the more overtly self-asserting writers, raising the question,
Is this language in the service of the narrative, or a kind of literary regression in the service of the ego?
What we have here, it seems to me, is not so much stamina or good spirits, but reality taking a backseat to personality—and not the personality of the character described, but of the writer who is doing the describing.
There is, on one hand,
a firm conviction on the part of the writer about the character,
and on the other,
the conviction—or the desire for us to be convinced—of something else: Herbert Gold IS. I am! I am! In short: look at me, I’m writing.
And so,
Because Gold’s work serves my purposes, let me say a word or two more about him. He is surely one of our most productive and most respected novelists, and yet he has begun to seem to me a writer in competition with his own fiction. Which is more interesting—my life or my work? His new book of stories, Love and Like, is not over when we have finished reading the last narrative. Instead we go on to read several more pages in which the author explains why and how he came to write each of the preceding stories. At the end of Therefore Be Bold we are given a long listing of the various cities in which Gold worked on this book, and the dates during which he was living or visiting in them. It is all very interesting if one is involved in tracing lost mail, but the point to be noted here is that how the fiction has come to be written is supposed to be nearly as interesting as what is written. Don’t forget, ladies and gentlemen, that behind each and every story you have read here tonight is—me. For all Gold’s delight with the things of this world—and I think that his prose, at its best, is the expression of that delight—there is also a good deal of delight in the work of his own hand. And, I think, with the hand itself.
So, when the authors themselves want to tell us all about themselves, it’s self-indulgent. But when an author (or a stuffed-shirt critic-scholar) wants to tell us all about another author, that is criticism, outreach, putting their work in its proper context, and so on. We should call it "critical capture," in the vein of the "regulatory capture" of government agencies by the businesses they regulate. The line here between a fellowship and a cartel is a fine one. (Musicians are like this too.)

Incidentally, this is the passage that leads to the line,
not so much an attempt to understand the self, as to assert it,
of which much is made by Lasch, and of which I certainly would make much myself, but at which point I was led to expect something very different than what Lasch ultimately presented. Instead of this
of self which, by the time of the millennium, had run rampant, Lasch hones in on the experimentalists, conceptualists, and minimalists, whose
deliberate effacement of the artist's personality
ultimately proved
a more accurate forecast than Roth's of the direction art would actually take in the coming years.
Are we sure about that? And are we sure we've gathered all of the evidence?

Roth continues.
I must say that I am not trying to sell selflessness. Rather, I am suggesting that this nervous muscular prose that Swados talks about may perhaps have to do with the unfriendliness between the self of the writer and the realities of the culture. ... Of course the mystery of personality is nothing less than the writer’s ultimate concern; and certainly when the muscular prose is revelatory of character—as in Augie March—then it is to be appreciated; at its worst, however, as a form of literary onanism, it seriously curtails the fictional possibilities, and may perhaps be thought of, and sympathetically so, as a symptom of the writer’s loss of the community as subject.
Well...I am trying to sell at least a certain kind of selflessness here: not the total kind, but a kind which buries the self in technique and abstraction so that selves per se cannot easily become the content or the surface of the work; the self may still in some sense express itself, but it is not expressed to the audience. This orientation is anathema to all things literary. If I spend too much time preoccupied with the literati, it's because I see essentially literary pretensions everywhere I look.

When you're not a literary person, the line between the
revelatory of character
and the
literary onanism
can be hard to see.

Here is the final long paragraph:
And now, alas, what does all of this add up to? It would certainly be to oversimplify the art of fiction, and the complex relationship between a man and his times, to ignore the crucial matters of individual talent, history, and character, to say that Bellow’s book, or Styron’s, or even Herbert Gold’s prose style, arise naturally out of our distressing cultural and political predicament. However, that our communal predicament is a distressing one, is a fact that weighs upon the writer no less, and perhaps even more, than his neighbor—for to the writer the community is, properly, both his subject and his audience. And it may be that when the predicament produces in the writer not only feelings of disgust, rage, and melancholy, but impotence, too, he is apt to lose heart and finally, like his neighbor, turn to other matters, or to other worlds; or to the self, which may, in a variety of ways, become his subject, or even the impulse for his technique. What I have tried to point out is that the sheer fact of self, the vision of self as inviolable, powerful, and nervy, self as the only real thing in an unreal environment, that that vision has given to some writers joy, solace, and muscle. Certainly to have come through a holocaust in one piece, to have survived, is nothing to be made light of, and it is for that reason, say, that Styron’s hero manages to engage our sympathies right down to the end. However, when survival itself becomes one’s raison d’être, when one cannot choose but be ascetic, when the self can only be celebrated as it is excluded from society, or as it is exercised and admired in a fantastic one, we then, I think, do not have much reason to be cheery. Finally there is for me something hollow and unconvincing about Henderson up there on top of the world dancing around that airplane. Consequently, it is not with this image that I should like to conclude, but instead with the image that Ralph Ellison gives to us of his hero at the end of Invisible Man. For here too the hero is left with the simple stark fact of himself. He is as alone as a man can be. Not that he hasn’t gone out into the world; he has gone out into it, and out into it, and out into it—but at the end he chooses to go underground, to live there and to wait. And it does not seem to him a cause for celebration either.

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