Home > Opinion > Literature and me: nursing the enchantment

Literature and me: nursing the enchantment

 Usually I don’t write personal posts but Max’s post The Death of Enchantment and its comments have been nagging at me. His post is about What Ever Happened to Modernism, by Gabriel Josipovici, a book I’d never heard of before reading reviews on blogs. It hasn’t been translated into French that maybe why. Two things have been nagging at me.  

The first thing was the answer to my provocative comment stating that for me, literary criticism is cutting hair in small pieces. Someone named Steve replied it’s a self-destructive thought. That bothered me as I don’t think of myself as self-destructive. He was very educational and tried to lead me back to the right path through enlightening readings. And I’m very grateful that he took the time to do it, as I love to learn. It led me to a blog post about Borges I couldn’t understand and to researching Maurice Blanchot on Wikipedia. I came to the conclusion that all these ideas are out-of-reach for me because I lack the academic and cultural background to grasp them. But I’m not really satisfied with that simple explanation and it has a sour taste of defeat I don’t like.

The second thing was when I read the following exchanges. “Read” is a big word. “went through them” is more appropriate. I couldn’t get interested in them despite their obvious intelligence. And I wondered why because usually my curiosity is endless. Plus, I don’t particularly shy away from abstract thinking. Was that because it was beyond my brain’s abilities? After further thinking, I thought not. It’s not that I can’t understand the discussion –I probably could if I took the trouble reading closely and studying a bit, it’s just that I don’t want to. OK, that’s also better for my ego, I admit it.

The truth is I thought it was pointless. The discussion about “modernism” and its status, dead or alive, seemed pointless to me. And that was the chore of the problem. I think these philosophical discussions about the novel, its form, its future pointless and even dangerous for me. Why dangerous?

I have enough of reality at work and in my everyday life with groceries, homework and so on. Literature is my hobby. It’s my enchanted world. I want to ogle at books, I want to be a child, I want to dream. As a child, I never wanted to know how a magician did his tricks. As an adult, I don’t watch films make-overs. I don’t want to know that a painter put that touch of white precisely there to enforce perspective. And I don’t really want to know how a writer created his/her book. I’m looking for pleasure. I want to stare at beauty with bewildered eyes.

I don’t know if what I say is clearly expressed, so I’ll take an analogy. Let’s say I’m looking at a handsome man and think he has a sexy smile. I’m interested in understanding that I find his smile sexy because he has dimples and reminds me of someone I love. It tells something about me and my relation to beauty. I don’t want to see his X-ray and know that he has that sexy smile because his jaw has such a form that it could only end up showing dimples. I don’t want to see the X-Ray because after that, every time I’ll look at this handsome man, the X-Ray will be there, somewhere in my mind, killing the enchantment and altering the beauty, the sensation of looking at beauty.

That’s how I feel about literature. I’m reading for the enchantment. I’m reading for beauty. Therefore I block out everything that could kill the enchantment and spoil my pleasure. According to Wikipedia “Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals.” I leave this study, evaluation and philosophical discussion to others.

I have a childish way of reading and I’m proud of it. Who said I needed to be an adult in every area of my life?

Categories: Opinion
  1. July 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Emma: A large part of my education included a component on literary criticism and the various schools of thought. I think it’s a useful tool, really useful, and I have many lively debates with people on verious topics, but it’s something that exists, for me, in another room. I can enter that room if, and when, I wish. But when it comes to my day-to-day reading I more or less leave those strains of thought behind, and I either enjoy a book or I don’t.

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    • July 1, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      I like your way of talking about a room because you can close the door.

      I know it can be useful but it’s hard for me to find interest in it when it leaves the path of history and putting a book in its context. I wouldn’t read classics otherwise. I’m happy to know Flaubert used to read his books aloud to hear how they sounded but I’m not specifically looking for that kind of information. I’m interested in what a book can tell about humanity, the society at the time the writer wrote. And sometimes I just want to have fun.

      I think sometimes it just goes too far and I’m not tempted by literary experiments that experiment before trying to tell something. Have you read Maurice Blanchot when you were at school? I’d be interested in you opinion. I’ve only read his profile on Wikipedia, the only thing I can tell is that I don’t feel like reading his books. Life changing experience or not. My reading time is limited.

      You know I love David Lodge but his characters, usually university teachers, seem to live on another planet. When you haven’t studied literature in university – and it never tempted me – this world is as bizarre as financial markets for philistines or scientists studying a specific animal.

      I also think the way we study literature in school kills literature. At least in France, I don’t know how it is abroad. I loathed literature classes from junior high to prep school when it finally stopped. It should have been my favourite class, considering how much I was already reading. No one will start reading after enduring this.

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      • July 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm

        Although I throughly enjoyed taking literature classes, I never wanted to teach literature, and for an English major headed into teaching that’s unusual. Most of the people I knew fought for the literature classes.

        I don’t remember Blanchot at all. He might have been part of the curriculum, but I don’t remember him. Emphasis at the time was on Derrida, Foucault, Fish, Barthes, Bloom (who seemed to be going out of fashion, Kristeva, Heidegger, Northrop Frye was a biggie, and Lacan. Those are the names that come to mind off the top of my head. I admire Foucault a great deal.

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        • July 3, 2011 at 10:06 pm

          I think being a teacher isn’t something anyone can do, so I understand what you mean. I could never be a teacher, I don’t have the personal skills or qualities to be a good one. In France too, literature students often make a career as school teachers or literature teacher.

          I’ve never read Foucault beyond excerpts in prep school. (The theme of the year was ‘Le corps’, I remember something about torture in Surveiller et punir)

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  2. July 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I understand very well what you say but I think I’m pretty different, funny enough (after all I’m the one reading fantasy), I like to analyse but differently. As I write too, I want to know, how he/she did it, but that isn’t exactly what the literary critic does. I like to read like a writer, not like a critic and not only like someone who is purely enchanted. I guess it is somewhere in the middle, close to what Guy says. I will definitely read that Josipovici, I’ve been waiting for it for weeks now. I suspect I will not like it. We will see. I have Blanchot’s books here but it’s a long time I’ve read them. Can’t remember that much. Some literary criticism is too much in love with its own thinking to be appealing to me. But some does enrich the reading experience. It doesn’t take away anything from the enchantment.
    On the other hand I remember when I started studying literature I first chose modern French literature and had to analyze a poem by Baudelaire. That really spoilt it. I also realized tat I didn’t want to share my feelings, my thoughts on a book, maybe, but not how it made me feel. So I changed and studied French literature from the Middle Ages to Voltaire. What a relief. You can analyze that literature without damaging it. It is very different. The thing I dreaded at the time the most would have been to tell anyone how Duras made me feel and the go, pick her apart and be left with bits an pieces.
    I’m not making sense… Bah.

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    • July 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm

      You make a lot of sense to me.
      “Some literary criticism is too much in love with its own thinking to be appealing to me.” That’s what they look like to philistine. (you know : se faire des noeuds au cerveau)
      Don’t talk to me about analysing Baudelaire, it brings back painful memories.

      After posting my comment to Guy, I thought that I don’t want to know how it is done because I don’t want to write myself. I understand that an aspiring writer is interested in lit crit to improve his/her writing. It’s like a painter taking lessons.
      But me, when I look at Guernica, I want to know what happened in Guernica, that Picasso was Spanish. I want to know why this painting is a revolution and where it stands in Picasso’s history but I’m not interested in the kind of painting or brushes he used. I just want to stare, enjoy with the maximum knowledge of the context. But if I were interested in painting myself, sure, I’d want to know how he did it.

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  3. July 1, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    I don’t think it’s adult or childish. It’s just a question of what interests.

    For example, I have very little interest in knowing much about the writers behind the books. Some people find that fascinating and informative, and I have no argument against it, but for me the book stands on its own and the person behind it isn’t something which I care about.

    In the case of Anthony Powell that means I’m consciously ignoring much of what drove his fiction. Huge parts of Dance are essentially autobiographical. Much is based on real people, or amalgams of a range of real people. I know that, but I don’t care. My interest is confined to what he wrote.

    Is that childish? Adult? It’s neither, it’s just where my interest stops.

    I think Stephen was using literary criticism in a different way to you. You I thought meant academic criticism, he meant it in a broader sense and in that sense any blog entry is a form of literary criticism. Academic criticism generally doesn’t interest me either. I read What Ever because I’ve read several modernist novels, found them interesting and wanted to learn a bit more about what was out there and what drove the movement. My interest in other words was born out of reading books. I also have on the TBR pile a James Wood of the New Yorker book about books, but again my interest in it is that it might open doors for me to authors I haven’t looked at or help me look at authors I already know in new ways.

    Literary criticism in the academic sense is an academic field. I doubt I’m much more interested in it than you are. It only interests me if it introduces me to new books or new levels in books – ie if it makes a difference to what I read in a positive way. I’ve no issue at all with literary criticism as a field, it’s a wholly valid one, but I have no personal interest in it for its own sake.

    Similarly, I don’t watch making ofs or DVD extras much. The film is the art work. I may discuss how it was shot, lighting, dialogue, but I don’t dig behind that which I can see on the screen because my interest is in the work. I’m not a filmmaker.

    It’s a similar thing. It merely reflects that while I love film I am not a film maker. I love books, but I am not an author. I don’t need to see how the sausage is made to tell how good it tastes.

    Literary criticism is a tool. If it helps illuminate a book in a rewarding way then it’s a useful tool. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. It has for me no merit in itself. Ultimately people engage in literary criticism because they enjoy it. Stephen talked of reading books which were dark, destructive even. So do I on occasion, but only because ultimately I enjoy those books every now and then.

    I think that’s what’s sometimes missed. The difference between reading Dan Brown, Colm Toibin, Flaubert, Tom McCarthy or Edgar Rice Burroughs is in essence one of differing tastes. I’m not saying there that quality doesn’t exist, the Toibin will be better written than the Dan Brown, but the reason for choosing one over the other is nothing more than which one better enjoys.

    Everything I read I read for pleasure. Josipovici is a better writer (in terms of quality of prose) than say Mickey Spillane, but the ultimate truth remains that I read both simply because I enjoy them.

    Lit crit of the sort done in school is something that’s not for me either. I still can’t stomach the thought of reading The Grapes of Wrath, after slowly crawling over it in tedious detail line by line as we tore open the sentences squeezing out meanings for grades. It’s a sad thing, but even when teachers help build a love of reading we’re rarely left wanting ever again to read the books they used to teach us.

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    • July 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm

      I’m like you about bios. French paperback editions include very few info about writers. I never take the time to research more. I enjoy reading it when it is brought to me (for example, Guy’s explanations about writers in his posts) but I won’t dig by myself.

      And I like your sausage analogy. Literature in school is taught in such a way that you learn how the sausage is made before eating it, cold bite after cold bite when it should be served hot and with vegetables to fully enjoy it.
      I think Academic criticism makes a science out of literature. It’s like a scientist studying the social behaviour of ants in Amazonia. I can understand someone is interested in it but it’s not my thing. Like I said to Caroline and like you said, I don’t want to be an author.

      I think of literature as enjoyment (your Mickey Spillane) or art. And there’s definitely in me something that doesn’t want to break the magic. I meant childish in that way. The way 6 year old children still want to believe in Santa Claus even if they feel there’s something else going under.

      Of course, when I write a post about a book, some way it is criticism. And I wouldn’t have a blog if I wasn’t interested in thinking about what I read.
      But I mostly want to share my emotions and make someone else want to read a book if I thought it was good. If someone reads Cees Nooteboom after reading my post, then it was worth spending time writing it. Someday someone might even read Romain Gary 🙂

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  4. July 1, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I didn’t really get the “Steve replied thing”, returned to Max’s post and now I understood. Yeah well…
    I think there are different types of literary criticism. You must be aware that Litlove is an academic literary critic and funny enough she is just writing an essay on Josipovici. I think it is about the whole body of his work.
    I would go as far as Max an call any of our posts literary criticism, with a few exceptions. A think a review is different as you can include your feelings. Some reviews are pure “consumer reports” and I occasionally don’t mind that. I also like when somene really puts his feelings in the center of the review.

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    • July 1, 2011 at 10:29 pm

      It made me think, and that’s always good.

      Most of the blogs I enjoy reading are written by people who have studied literature and/or work in that field. It’s not difficult to perceive. Some are more academic than others. It’s another world, just as my work environment has its own world and jokes. (The look in the eyes of people when I tell what I’m doing is priceless. It’s like they fear I’m going to give them an injection of boredom. But I find it interesting anyway.)

      Like I said, it’s all about being the Monsieur Jourdain of literary criticism!

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  5. July 12, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Just to say, I also love Romain Gary!

    But that’s not really the point I wanted to make here. I spent twenty years of my life at Cambridge university, researching French literature and then teaching it myself, and certainly a part of that involved literary theory. I loved it, although it wouldn’t suit everyone, and I am very happy to respect whatever conditions a reader needs to get the most pleasure out of a book. These things are personal, and written into the DNA. No need to fight them.

    But as for critical theory, the last place I’d ask anyone to begin is with Blanchot. There is masses and masses of literary criticism and critical theory out there. It varies in quality enormously and it encompasses many, many perspectives. For my own part, I like any of it that enhances my reading of a book. I also prefer the sort of criticism that is well written and reads lucidly and informatively. I’ve spent plenty of time getting through Derrida and so on, but it’s not my preference.

    All I’m really saying is that, if you feel able to, don’t dismiss all of criticism because your experiences so far haven’t been productive. There is no need to search it out if it isn’t essentially your thing, but I feel quite sure that the right sort of criticism for you would strike a chord and add to your reading.

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    • July 12, 2011 at 8:32 pm

      Great! Someone who loves Romain Gary! After reading Guy’s review of Death and The Penguin, I want to read Gros Câlin again.

      Thank you for your comment. I’d never heard of Blanchot before this and for me Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze, Lacan and so on are in the “very-obscure-and-difficult-to-read” bag. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at reading non-fiction, any non-fiction. I don’t know where it comes from.
      When I started blogging, I bought a literature manual in English for French students. (for students in classe préparatoire Khâgnes, precisely) I needed to learn some vocabulary and I thought I’d need some theory to write posts. I couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t find interest in texts by EM Forster about the novel and other excerpts by Henry James about writing. I’m using the book as a dictionary now. Je crois que je suis perdue pour la cause 🙂

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