Show them a world…

Suburban apocalypse

Tarkovsky said an artist should never try to convey her ideas to an audience, but should instead simply ‘Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.’ Coming from a storyteller whose works could hardly be described as lifelike, this advice would perhaps be better phrased ‘Show them a world, and let them explore it.’ That world doesn’t have to be true to life as long as it’s internally consistent, however perverse (consider Beckett’s plays, for example). Allen’s poetry passes this test – there are no documentary pegs jammed into surrealist holes, so to speak – though the audience still has to fend for itself.

Humphrey Astley on Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland


Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

Adorno’s claims about art in general stem from his reconstruction of the modern art movement. So a summary of his philosophy of art sometimes needs to signal this by putting “modern” in parentheses. The book begins and ends with reflections on the social character of (modern) art. Two themes stand out in these reflections. One is an updated Hegelian question whether art can survive in a late capitalist world. The other is an updated Marxian question whether art can contribute to the transformation of this world. When addressing both questions, Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art proper (“fine art” or “beautiful art”—schöne Kunst—in Kant’s vocabulary) is characterized by formal autonomy. But Adorno combines this Kantian emphasis on form with Hegel’s emphasis on intellectual import (geistiger Gehalt) and Marx’s emphasis on art’s embeddedness in society as a whole. The result is a complex account of the simultaneous necessity and illusoriness of the artwork’s autonomy. The artwork’s necessary and illusory autonomy, in turn, is the key to (modern) art’s social character, namely, to be “the social antithesis of society” (AT 8).

Adorno regards authentic works of (modern) art as social monads. The unavoidable tensions within them express unavoidable conflicts within the larger sociohistorical process from which they arise and to which they belong. These tensions enter the artwork through the artist’s struggle with sociohistorically laden materials, and they call forth conflicting interpretations, many of which misread either the work-internal tensions or their connection to conflicts in society as a whole. Adorno sees all of these tensions and conflicts as “contradictions” to be worked through and eventually to be resolved. Their complete resolution, however, would require a transformation in society as a whole, which, given his social theory, does not seem imminent…

…The priority of import also informs Adorno’s stance on art and politics, which derives from debates with Lukács, Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s (Lunn 1982; Zuidervaart 1991, 28–43). Because of the shift in capitalism’s structure, and because of Adorno’s own complex emphasis on (modern) art’s autonomy, he doubts both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of tendentious, agitative, or deliberately consciousness-raising art. Yet he does see politically engaged art as a partial corrective to the bankrupt aestheticism of much mainstream art. Under the conditions of late capitalism, the best art, and politically the most effective, so thoroughly works out its own internal contradictions that the hidden contradictions in society can no longer be ignored. The plays of Samuel Beckett, to whom Adorno had intended to dedicate Aesthetic Theory, are emblematic in that regard. Adorno finds them more true than many other artworks.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Rivka Galchen on beauty and The Pillow Book

From a Rivka Galchen review of:

Unbinding ‘The Pillow Book’: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic 
by Gergana Ivanova.

LRB Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020

One compelling idea of beauty is that something is beautiful to the extent that it sets off in the mind of the looker (or reader) a series of attempts to categorise the beautiful thing – at which point, once the correct category is found, the beautiful object can settle into ordinariness. The longer it takes before the beautiful thing or person or experience can be satisfactorily categorised, the more beautiful the thing or person or experience – or maybe book – is. The Pillow Book, in this line of thought, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and its author – ancient and modern, silly and sophisticated, cruel and tender, alien and familiar – is similarly beautiful, and ultimately uncategorisable. In English we can catch imperfect sight of her, as if from behind a screen.

Adam Mars-Jones on space in the novel

I thought this was interesting in the context of our writing workshop (even though we weren’t writing novels, of course). It’s from a review of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, in the London Review of Books. Pretty fierce, but fascinating and instructive, all the same. Mars-Jones always has a gimlet eye when it comes to writing on writing.
(Worth having a look at a different review too, by M John Harrison in the Guardian Review – it’s like they are writing about two different books.)
Vol. 42 No. 6 · 19 March 2020

Muffled Barks, Muted Yelps

Adam Mars-Jones

Hurricane Season is divided into eight sections, each of which consists of a single, very long paragraph. Paragraphing is a form of courtesy to the reader; it creates a rhythm that allows the eye to rest and refreshes our attention. The protocols of courtesy change over time, so that paragraph lengths that once seemed moderate (I’m thinking of early Margaret Drabble novels) now seem surprisingly substantial. Withholding indentation can amount to an assertion of seriousness and ambition, as it does in Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. That novel, written in two enormous paragraphs of equal size, multiplies the rebarbative look of a single unindented page to convey, as if there was any doubt, that mere entertainment is not on the menu. Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, admittedly a short book, also has only two paragraphs, but they’re hardly symmetrical. The second is very short. How short? This short: ‘And then the storm of shit begins.’

The amount of blank space between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, the size of the hole in the ice where the freezing swimmer can snatch a breath, has no bearing on anything but the reader’s experience – without which a book doesn’t exist except as an object. The interval between the second and third sections of Hurricane Season is half the size of the previous gap, which amounts to a full page, and though white space doesn’t represent time in a novel, it strongly implies it.

Conventional paragraphing and chapter breaks could be inserted into Hurricane Season without repercussions on the other elements of the book, but Melchor’s way of constructing sentences, which also overrides the reader’s convenience, isn’t so easily wished away. The book’s third sentence, for instance, covering half a page, leads up to a main verb: a group of boys are described as ‘so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared’, then the sentence continues with an apparently endless succession of qualifying phrases in apposition:

the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn round.

The whole latter part of the sentence is grammatically unsupported, cantilevered over empty space.

This is not the long sentence as practised by James, Proust or Mann. Their sentences were magnificently terraced earthworks, but Melchor’s are more like slow-motion mudslides. There’s no question of any surprise, a sting in the tail, the equivalent of Columbo’s ‘One more thing ...’ The refusal of so much of the sentence’s structural, tonal and above all rhythmic potential has a disorienting effect.