Edward Dahlberg is an unparalleled stylist among twentieth century writers. The chief reason to read his 1941 book of essays on literature, Can TheseEdward Dahlberg is an unparalleled stylist among twentieth century writers. The chief reason to read his 1941 book of essays on literature, Can These Bones Live, or any Dahlberg book, is to see this style on display. He writes with the muscular certitude of Sir Thomas Browne or Herman Melville, casting off aphorisms as easily a normal writer does commas. Randomly flipping through pages, I come across gems such as these:
"Good and evil are inseparable; beast and man are sewn together with threads of heaven."
"Our artists are American Ishmaels doomed to be cut away from the human vineyard. "Call me Ishmael," prophetically utters Herman Melville in the first line of Moby Dick. We are brute, giant pathfinders, without a remembrance of the past or tradition, discoverers of brand-new nostrums for sex, life, science, art and religion."
"There are planetary reaches and saturnine chasms in man unknown to the hedonist and the naturalistic Preacher of Pity. Spikenard, cypress and the myrrh of Lebanon dilate the nostrils and free the aching pores: sated, the Epicure sheds tears but has no ashy, cindery grief."
"Thoreau's life is a half parable: to be pure he cast out the devils, but entered the swine."
Writers of this kind of lean, unflinching prose are a nearly extinct breed, and a breed that has been dying since the late 19th century. Today, the dominant style is either conversational and informal, or else abstract and scientific. The former involves much hand-wringing, geniality, and the sense of "taking the reader on a journey," while the latter abounds in abstruse jargon and passive constructions. We all could learn a few lessons from Dahlberg.
As to the content, Dahlberg takes on the realm of literature, focusing especially on America. He continually returns to Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Don Quixote, William Shakespeare, and Jesus Christ. He also makes forays into social realism, singling out Randolph Bourne for praise. Dahlberg's positions on these writers are contradictory, overblown, and frequently insidious. For example, his equation of Christ and Quixote in "The Cross and the Windmills" is one of the most spiritually vile anti-Christian polemics dressed in the garments of piety. Dahlberg is also a well-known misanthrope, hating woman for her nature, and man for his enthrallment to woman.
Nonetheless, good literary criticism is made of such villainy. Strong statements made in unrelentingly powerful prose - such is the stuff of which legends are made....more
Seeing as the author, Stephen F. Teiser, is one of my teachers, I find this book hard to critique. Indeed, the very grounds of my criticism stem fromSeeing as the author, Stephen F. Teiser, is one of my teachers, I find this book hard to critique. Indeed, the very grounds of my criticism stem from things I've learned in Teiser's classes.
Nonetheless, the book holds up. In it, Teiser provides a very thorough survey of sources related to the Ghost Festival (a.k.a. yulanpen 盂蘭盆 or gui jie 鬼節), from canonical scriptures and their commentaries to recently excavated manuscripts. He also plumbs the depths of modern Buddhological scholarship in English, French, Chinese, and (especially) Japanese. All this to give us an overview of the Ghost Festival in its historical, ritual, cultural, and literary contexts.
Throughout, Teiser attempts to fight the notion that "Buddhist" and "indigenous Chinese" are separate categories; instead, he finds them to be inextricably tied together, forming a coherent whole during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). If I have one minor complaint about this book, it is that this dichotomy is repeatedly set up and torn down, becoming a bit monotonous.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters are #6, "The Cosmology of the Ghost Festival," in which the various hells and the torments therein are described in vivid detail (à la La Divina Commedia), and #8, "Concluding Perspectives," which attempts to completely reorient our understanding of traditional Chinese religion, for the most part successfully.
All in all, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China is a field-defining work in the fields of Chinese religion and Buddhology, which, by standing on the shoulders of giants, is able to touch the stars. Heck, I'd even read it if he wasn't my teacher....more
Try as I might, I can't get myself to finish this book. Every time I pick it up, the rapidly compounding fallacies produce a visceral rage, and I'm unTry as I might, I can't get myself to finish this book. Every time I pick it up, the rapidly compounding fallacies produce a visceral rage, and I'm unable to continue.
Essentially, Abram's argument is based upon two things: 1) reifying a linguistic metaphor of agency, and 2) brashly asserting the non-arbitrariness of language (despite evidence to the contrary, which he does not cite). Upon this shaky foundation, he tells us that all things in the world, sentient and non-, should be seen as "subjects," i.e., beings with full interiority. He then goes on to say that "oral, indigenous" cultures realize this, while literate cultures have forgotten this because written language separates us from nature.
Not convinced? Neither am I. To make just one objection, the whole orality/literacy dichotomy is not nearly as neat as Abram makes it out to be. Just read Oral Poetry by Ruth Finnegan or nearly any book by John Foley or any other scholar who addresses the question of oral literature. Heck, even the slightly dated work of Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy could correct a lot of this....more
A great book for autodidacts. Although I used this as a textbook in a course, the book basically teaches itself. Highly recommended for anyone who wanA great book for autodidacts. Although I used this as a textbook in a course, the book basically teaches itself. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to read French but isn't necessarily interested in writing, speaking, or listening....more
Read it for the translations and historical work, both of which are excellent. The overall argument, about Wang Ji's shifting personas embodying the DRead it for the translations and historical work, both of which are excellent. The overall argument, about Wang Ji's shifting personas embodying the Daoist philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi, is a little less solid....more
What is desire? What forms does it take? Does it matter whether the object is a person or a text or a painting? How do different types of desire interWhat is desire? What forms does it take? Does it matter whether the object is a person or a text or a painting? How do different types of desire interrelate?
These are the kinds of questions Stephen Owen asks in perhaps his most ambitious book, Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire. In attempting to answer these questions, Owen draws on (and usually translates himself) Irish folk tunes, classical Chinese poetry, Plato's dialogues, MIchaelangelo's sonnets, Goethe's imitations of Rumi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, and a host of minor poets from all over the European tradition, deliberately discarding historical and geographical context in order to get at the core of desire. Owen takes us down the many twisting paths of his labyrinth, from methods of seduction to vicissitudes of memory to the frustration of desiring one with a (literal or metaphorical) heart of stone. The journey is pleasant; the sites, wondrous; the guide, loquacious.
Stephen Owen, a scholar of Chinese literature by training (and one of the most influential at that), makes a point to focus not on his specialty. Translations from Chinese count for only 1/4 of the material analyzed in this book. The purpose here is to open up a conversation between various disparate literary traditions, traditions that have little to no historical connections. This effort is to be highly applauded, as it teaches us scholars of Chinese literature to venture beyond the provincial realm of Sinology, and it teaches scholars of comparative literature that Europe is not the universe, that the world did not begin with Homer, and that theory did not begin with Kant. More truly comparative scholarship in this spirit must be written if we are to escape the dangers of Eurocentrism (or Sinocentrism, to look at it from the Chinese-speaking side).
Owen's approach, in essence, seems to be modeled on Theodor Adorno, especially as found in Minima Moralia, a collection of hundreds of brief (2-7 page) essays which pick apart various cultural phenomenon - a Hegelian-Marxian dialectic applied to everything from Kierkegaard to classical French literature to the cult of American masculinity to the phenomenon of third-world citizens who go to college in the U.S. and Europe. While Owen remains focused on poetry, he picks up Adorno's emphasis on fragments and particularities as a means of resisting totalitarianism. For example, Owen's "Brief and Unfair Execration on the Novel" tells us that the novel is a totalizing medium, that even experimental fiction is "revolutionary on the model of the Khmer Rouge and the National Socialists," in that it subsumes all particularity to its grand design, and then concludes:
Rebel against its work. Open a novel and read only one paragraph; read it many times; refuse to "go on." At some other time open it elsewhere and read another paragraph at random. Eventually you will understand that the paragraphs are more important than the whole, which wants to swallow them up and diminish them. By reading only those paragraphs you are violating a taboo about understanding the novel; you are taking them "out of context." Remember, it's only a book: you can read it as you please.
In what is certainly a meta-textual statement, Owen tells us why he would write a book like Mi-Lou: to resist the totalizing impulse of (geographical and historical) contextualization.* This aligns him squarely with Adorno, the German-Jewish theorist who fled to the U.S. during World War II and made it his mission to figure out how the Enlightenment project of 17th- and 18th-century Europe could culminate in Nazism.
The problem is that where Adorno sought the intellectual roots of a very real evil which utterly changed his home country, Owen is fighting a turf war in academia, a consequence of historians and literary critics squabbling after being housed in the same "(East) Asian Studies" department. Thus, totalization in the politics = totalization in thought = totalization in cultural production (Adorno's move) = totalization in disciplinary approach (Owen's move). We have come a long way from Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia, Owen's protestations notwithstanding. Perhaps if Owen were to read Adorno more, ahem, historically, he could find a better conceptual synthesis. And in fact, Adorno saw himself as working to historicize, that this was the only way to fight reification under capitalism. "History does not merely touch on language; it takes place in it" (Minima Moralia #141).
Even if we were to accept Owen's move, he would still fall prey to his own criticism of totalization. After all, why look at poems in so many different languages except to "subsume" them all under the "totalizing" concept of desire? In so doing, all poetry becomes expression of a singular, universal humanity. That is to say, we are left with a humanism remarkably similar to the one which, according to Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, kicked off totalitarianism as we know it.
Moreover, Mi-Lou is uneven in its treatment of sources. Whereas the original texts of Italian, French, Spanish, and German are given, we find none for Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Chinese. By this, it seems that Owen wishes to imitate the style of the grand European intellectual, that nearly extinct figure who translates nothing, alludes to authors by surname alone, and generally assumes the reader to have the same aristocratic knowledge as he. Putting aside issues of elitism, this style needs to be avoided for other reasons. For one, Owen touches on such a broad range of materials that he should not assume background knowledge in his readers. Second, many of the Chinese materials he uses have rarely, if ever, been translated in English before. By not giving the original Chinese texts (or romanization or citations), he denies the reader access to the standard by which to judge Owen. In effect, Owen silences the original and chooses to speak for it.
The reason that this silencing of the original is so dangerous is that Owen is a rather impressionistic (if prolific) translator. To give just one example, on pages 118-123 and 147-149, he relates the story of Táng 唐 Dynasty poet Bó Jūyì 白居易 (772-846 CE) writing about a woman named Pànpàn 盼盼. The story goes that while Bó was feasting with his friend Secretary Zhāng 張尚書, his courtesan/concubine Pànpàn entertained them with music. Afterward, when Zhāng died, she was left to waste away in a place called Swallow Tower 燕子樓. Ten years later, Bó heard about the couple's tragic fate and wrote three short poems on it. Over time, the story grew into a legend, going through many iterations.
Owen chooses to translate the Bó's preface, one of the three poems, and a poetic response by Sū Shì 蘇軾 some 200 years later. While his work is admirable, touching on themes of memory and desire, he botches several of the details and leaves out a host of others. The secretary Zhāng, for example, is misidentified as Zhāng Jiànfēng 張建封, whereas it should refer to his son Zhāng Xī 張惜 - a common error, but one that has been identified in all critical editions of the tale since the 13th century.**
Though this may seem like nitpicking, Owen's insistence on the importance of "particularities" invites such criticism. Furthermore, it makes one wonder: if Owen is careless (or deceptive) with such insignificant details as this, what else is he fudging? A literary critic builds his authority on expertise, on the fact that the reader can trust him to navigate a whole host of difficult texts; once that trust is broken, everything comes in to question.
So while I find the idea of Stephen Owen's Mi-Lou to be a very exciting contribution to the field of Comparative Literature and Sinology - a breakthrough, even - the actual execution leaves much to be desired (which is perhaps ironic for a book about desire.) The dichotomy of "particular" and "contextual" is a false one; history and literature ought to be concerned with both. Neither is meaningful without the other. The very concept of "desire" is a case in point - it means much different things to an 8th century Chinese Buddhist (for whom desire is the root of all suffering) and to a 21st century American capitalist (for whom desire is the engine of economic growth).
A much better route to making meaningful comparative literary analysis comes through philology, as outlined in Erich Auerbach's "Philology and Weltliteratur." This would mean making use of particularities - historically and linguistically provable facts - as a way of approaching the universal and understanding the human through it. Such a work would be less the labyrinth and more the ball of string to guide you through it.
I give you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball: It will lead you in at Heavens gate Built in Jerusalems wall. -William Blake, from Jerusalem
*Owen actually tells us as much in response to an early review of his book by historian Mark Elvin. For both review and response, see China Review International 1.1 (1994): 192-201.
**Such as: Bó Jūyì jí jiànjiāo 白居易集箋校, ed. Zhū Jīnchéng 朱金城, 15.926‐930; Wáng Zhòngyōng王仲鏞, Tángshī jìshì jiāojiàn 唐詩紀事校箋, 2:2024-2028; Féng Mènglóng 馮夢龍, Xīnpíng jǐngshì tōngyán 新評警世通言, ed. Qián Bóchéng 錢伯城, 10.129-138; and André Lévy et al, Inventaire analytique et critique du conte chinois en langue vulgaire, pt. I, vol. 2, 400‐404....more
A good, solid historical overview of the Tang Dynasty, which at the time was the most populous and power empire on earth. Particularly impressive is LA good, solid historical overview of the Tang Dynasty, which at the time was the most populous and power empire on earth. Particularly impressive is Lewis's first chapter, which incorporates much recent research on environmental history. The chapter on writing relies too heavily on Stephen Owen's four volumes on Tang literary history, but in doing so, Lewis is merely reflecting the trends of English-language scholarship. Recommended for anyone interested in world history....more
This book is very entertaining and well-written, but I wouldn't sell the farm and become a Gladwell disciple anTwo stars for content, four for style.
This book is very entertaining and well-written, but I wouldn't sell the farm and become a Gladwell disciple anytime soon. A more interesting question is one level higher: why is Gladwell so popular? To turn his own question back on him, what cultural conditions have created the possibility of his success? Perhaps I'll attempt to explain those in a lengthier review....more
Can't find a better introduction to Chinese vernacular short story pre-1911. Hanan is not only a titan of a scholar, but also a very skilled writer/trCan't find a better introduction to Chinese vernacular short story pre-1911. Hanan is not only a titan of a scholar, but also a very skilled writer/translator with an amazing ability to synthesize large amounts of material. He starts by describing the various Chinese languages circulating in the late Ming / early Qing dynasty (i.e., 17th century) and then proceeds to describe the development of the vernacular short story over several centuries....more
Orienting Arthur Waley is a noble attempt to study the life and thought of perhaps the foremost translator of Chinese and Japanese literature of the 2Orienting Arthur Waley is a noble attempt to study the life and thought of perhaps the foremost translator of Chinese and Japanese literature of the 20th century. Although Ezra Pound receives more attention because of his prominent place in American modernist and avant-garde poetry, Waley's translations were actually held in higher regard by most educated readers. But his books were not only best-sellers; they are still respected as fine translations by Sinologists today.
John W. de Gruchy's aim in this book is to study Waley's translations from Japanese as works of English literature, situating (or "orienting," to use the titular pun) him in his own time, as a younger member of the Bloomsbury group, as a cataloguer at the British Museum, as an English Jew, and as a man of "ambiguous sexuality." While this is a great goal, de Gruchy's methodology has severely hindered his work. For one, by choosing only to study his translations from Japanese, his misses a good 3/4 of Waley's oeuvre, including: his translations of Chinese poetry, his adaptation of Journey to the West (西遊記) called Monkey, his scholarly articles, his biographies of Chinese poets, his books on early Chinese thought, his translations of the songs of the Ainu (a Japanese minority group), and his translations of Buddhist texts.
Another problem is that de Gruchy avoids comparing the translations to the original texts (or at least, the versions of the texts Waley had). De Gruchy makes a big methodological point of this, saying that he's interested in studying Waley as a writer, not judging the quality of his translations. While I understand his desire to focus on the translation rather than the original, this ignores the fact that translations are not themselves original texts, and that they are, by definition, bound to another texts. That is to say, translation is always a navigation between two languages, an attempt to find matches of one kind or another. Therefore, studying a translation is impossible without some recourse to the original. If you want to understand the translation, you must try to figure out the kinds of decisions facing the translator, and why s/he chose one option over another. This de Gruchy fails to do, because he's interested in Waley exclusively in the English context.
Which brings me to the book's final problem: that it is overly determined by identity politics. It seems to me that Orienting Arthur Waley subscribes to the critical credo of the '90s that an individual is completely shaped by the groups to which s/he belongs. Thus, because Waley is Jewish, de Gruchy draws on accounts of anti-Semitism in early 20th century England, explains that Waley must have experienced something similar, and that is why he became a private individual. But this doesn't tell us that Waley actually felt the brunt of anti-Semitism (in fact, his family was quite well assimilated), and it ignores the fact that not all Jews shied away from public life. Dare I suggest that, perhaps, Waley was just a shy or introverted fellow? Occam's razor sits collecting dust.
The other big identity de Gruchy ascribes to his topic is "sexual ambiguity." However, unlike Waley's Jewishness, there is in fact no real evidence for this. There's also no definitive evidence against it (whatever that could be). Sure, Waley lived with a woman (Beryl de Zoete) for 44 years without marrying her, and then, after de Zoete's death, married another woman (Alison Robinson), but perhaps these weren't sexual relationships. de Gruchy draws on accounts of homosexuality within the Bloomsbury group, seeming to imply that if any of the Bloomsburians are queer, they all must be. But so little evidence survives (Waley's letters and diaries were destroyed some time ago) that any sexual identification of Waley is speculation at best, innuendo at worst. This is unfortunate, as much of de Gruchy's thesis depends upon an effeminate Waley identifying with the Orientalist depiction of a "feminine" East.
If one wishes to learn about Arthur Waley, the best place to turn is still Madly Singing in the Mountains, a collection of anecdotes about Waley, along with a selection of his work. Although this volume is a bit too hagiographical, it at least gives the reader some general impressions of the man. Edward Schafer, one of Waley's younger contemporaries in Sinology, reviewed Madly Singing in the Mountains for Pacific Affaris in 1971, ending with a call for "a good critical biography" of Waley. That call has still not been answered....more
George Steiner is a syncretist in the best sense of the word. Like Fredric Jameson, his main powers are those of summary and synthesis, with each of hGeorge Steiner is a syncretist in the best sense of the word. Like Fredric Jameson, his main powers are those of summary and synthesis, with each of his books being a journey through, and explanation of, the entire Western tradition. The Poetry of Thought is no different. A master stylist and formidable thinker in his own right, Steiner seeks to show the common linguistic ground of literature and philosophy, that both depend upon "style." As he writes in the introduction, "Argument, even analytic, has its drumbeat. It is made ode."
In nine chapters totaling 217 pages, Steiner takes the reader whizzingly past all the major touchstones of the European philosophical tradition, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche, Plato to Agamben, Augustine and Aquinas to Sartre and Wittgenstein. He draws on perhaps eight linguistic traditions, mentioning dozens of versions of the Faust legend, emphasizing the importance of Galileo's reading of Ariosto and Tasso. A typical paragraph, like this one on Hegel's lack of stylistic grace, reads thus:
To consider Hegel as a writer verges on lèse-majesté. Is there any great philosopher seemingly less stylish, more averse to "spirited language" and elegance - "geistreiche Sprache" - as he found it in the French philosophes? Friends amended Hegel's tortuous syntax, so often derived from laboriously spoken, opaque lectures, abounding in rebarbative neologisms and Swabian locutions. The young Heine, even before a brief personal contact in 1822, was among the first of many who parodied the master's idiom. But the crux is not one of literary, rhetorical finish or welcoming suavity, let alone poetic inspiration.
Along the way, Steiner employs his characteristically punchy style. Here he is on the linguistic naïveté of classic psychoanalysis: "For Freud nothing cataclysmic has happened to the Logos since the Nichomachean Ethics." Giordano Bruno is described as an "imaginer of heretical infinities." Lucretius as "the most Latin of Roman poets." Adorno "yielded to the charms of obscurity." "Disinterested cerebral and sensory passion," we are told, "can no more be explained than love."
Yet for all the wonders of his prose, Steiner's two recurrent flaws become glaringly obvious in The Poetry of Thought: superficiality and Eurocentrism. As to the first, Steiner should not be blamed for such faults; it is part of the trade of the syncretist to pre-digest entire libraries of thought and touch upon them only through allusion and brief quotation. Like Confucius, Steiner lifts up one corner of a subject, expecting the student to pick up the other three (Analects VII.8).
Which brings me to Steiner's second (and more serious) flaw: his intense Eurocentrism. Although many of Steiner's books make claims to universality (see also After Babel and Real Presences), he is so steeped in the traditions of classical Europe, especially as it comes to us through twentieth-century French and German philosophy, that he seemingly cannot conceive of the rest of the world. I counted two references to the Chinese tradition in this book, one of which was actually to Borges. Islamic thinkers, too, only receive mention through Borges. Russia is important only as a check on Marx. Not to mention the lack of anything related to the civilizations of South Asia, Africa, non-European America. This ignorance would not be so irksome if Steiner would just fess up to it, state at the outset that he aims to work within a very specific tradition and not make gestures toward universality.
As it is, George Steiner has left us a very valuable essay on the interconnections between literature and philosophy in the classical European tradition. The Poetry of Thought is intellectual candy for the Western humanist, a source of brief, penetrating insights into some very difficult works, written with style and grace. But, like all syncretisms, something is lost in the mix....more
John Foley, perhaps the leading proponent of the highly influential Parry-Lord theory of oral composition, provides an excellent introduction to the fJohn Foley, perhaps the leading proponent of the highly influential Parry-Lord theory of oral composition, provides an excellent introduction to the field. Foley traces its development from its origins in 19th century German philology and early anthropology, to the breakthroughs of Milman Parry and his disciple Albert Lord in their study of Homer and contemporary Slavic oral epics, to the application of the theory to more than 100 linguistic traditions, eventually turning "oral poetry" into a field in its own right. Foley's clear prose and ability to summarize complex arguments are on full display here, making the book an easy read. In its final section, Foley shows new developments in and modifications to the theory, ending with several suggestions for further research. The bibliography provided is a good introduction, though far less thorough than the one provided on his website (http://oraltradition.org/bibliography). Unfortunately, the book is a bit dated, as it was published in 1988 and therefore doesn't take into account the last 20+ years of development in the field. However, for an introduction to the field, I recommend it highly....more