15 June 2016

A question of narration

For the past several years I have been particularly focused on the identity and influence of the narrator in fiction. Who tells the story? How is it told? How does what I know about the narrator affect how I read her narrative?  How has what I come to know about the story depend on what the narrator chooses or knows to tell? Or in the case of Huckleberry Finn, to what extent is the narrator capable of knowing.
     In Louise Erdrich’s new novel LaRose, a read I very much enjoyed, occurs this narrative passage: “Hey! Landreaux’s big face went wider and his soft smile came out. He shook Peter’s hand, whirling with apprehension, but maybe pleasure.”
     And I wondered: if my narrator cannot distinguish Landreaux’s emotion at this moment, then to what extent can I ever trust the narrator’s opinion about anything that the he/she says in the novel. How can a reader be assured of the accuracy of any assignment of feeling in the novel? There is an assuredness to the narration throughout this novel except in this once instance. The narrator seems certain that what she narrates has validity and accuracy. But without some confidence in what the narrator knows about Landreaux’s feeling here, then can I trust any statement concerning Landreaux’s emotions, or of the characterization of the emotional state of any of the character. And then . . . given this doubt, then to what extent is the entire story made (in)credible?
     There are significant novels with unreliable narrators, for example, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. In Ford’s novel our narrator Dowell wonders “ . . . if one doesn’t know . . . at this pitch of civilization (at this hour and this day) to what have we attained . . . what does one know.” I admit here that Dowell even gets wrong as well the knowledge of “this hour and this day,” but he acknowledges “Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.”  We have an identified narrator in The Good Soldier, and though he may be unreliable, may sometimes even remain blind to his own unreliability or be willfully ignorant of it, the reader knows the narrator is unreliable,
     But Erdrich’s narrator doesn’t offer to me in an any other place in the novel another suspicion of unreliability—and so this one moment intrigues me—does Erdrich herself not know Landreaux’s feelings? Has she at this moment stepped away from her narrator? And what does this say about the narrative of the entire novel?
     Of course, there is precedent for the author stepping into the novel and replacing the voice of the narrator—19th century fiction is filled with such intrusions, but this instance in LaRose isn’t such an instant: this is the narrator admitting an ignorance about something the narrator has previously spoken of with authority: the character’s emotions. And so I am curious what effect this incursion has on my understanding of the novel! Better: I am interested to consider how I am to understand the novel given this narrative breakdown.

10 June 2016


I read the news today, oh boy! From today’s New York Times: It seems that Mitch McConnell has some concern concerning the presumptive Republican candidate for President of the United States, Donald Trump.  The article, bylined by Maggie Haberman, reports that McConnell “condemned Mr. Trump’s lack of preparedness, and said that he will need to factor that into his choice of running mate. McConnell is quoted saying: “He needs someone highly experienced and very knowledgeable because it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues,” Mr. McConnell continued, “You see that in the debates in which he’s participated. It’s why I have argued to him publicly and privately that he ought to use a script more often — there is nothing wrong with having prepared texts.’ I am reminded of George’s W. Bush’s plaint in the debate series running up to the second election: “Hey, this is a tough job.” Surprise!!!
     The stupidity of the Republicans has reached a dangerous level. Mr. McConnell suggests that he would support a candidate who isn’t prepared to be President—who isn’t smart enough to be President but for whom he has every intent to vote.
     But really, I am so disgusted with the Presidential campaign thus far (not Hillary and Bernie who have for the most part been civil and respectful and addressed real issues with background and insight), that I would prefer to discuss myself.

I learned by reading how to read and maybe even to find what I didn’t know even to look for, and my readings grew in richness and perhaps prepared me for my present reading¾along with my daughter¾of Jane Austen. Thoreau would say that a good book requires that one stand on tip-toes to read, and for some reason I wanted strong calves. Reading fiction had become my desire¾the inalterable law of my being, as Terry Eagleton (2009) defines Desire! If Abraham from his desire had packed up his entire family and possessions and left for a land he would somehow know only when he arrived there, then I left the laboratory, the equations, the test tubes and the direction to medical school, my father’s house with all the persons I had already acquired and settled into the college library. I chose a chair in the English departments picked out all by myself and occupied it for my undergraduate and graduate years and dwelt there very happily. I live there still. Maybe that is one motive for why I now read Jane Austen: to be amongst what I have learned are my familiars. I learned this from reading though not especially from Austen, however.
     Reading has been good for me. I found a home there that allowed me to roam about societies without much actual traveling, and yet a home that always accompanied me in whatever journeying I undertook. My reading grounded me. I travel heavily with reading materials. Geoffrey Hartman, too, learned comfort from his reading. In his hope that his travel through text might offer him something, Hartman drew comfort from Halevi’s response to the King of the Khazars in The Kuzari, a text, I had read years ago on a completely different quest. In Halevi’s text the Rabbi answers Al Khazari’s questions regarding the nature of the God of Abraham. Rabbi says that the Hebrew God was a personal and not a transcendent deity, and that when Moses spoke to Pharaoh, Moses declared to Pharaoh that he has been sent by the God of the Hebrews. This God Moses implied, is “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” That is, this God was a personal God. Halevi asserts that this God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had led the Israelites out of Egypt with an outstretched arm: this is a God tied intimately to the people’s daily life: with each of the patriarchs he has made a covenant. Revelation had occurred personally at Sinai to each of the multitude assembled there.
     However, we are, indeed, far from Sinai, and that personal relationship to God no longer exists. But, says the Rabbi to Khazar, that though the Israelites experienced God first hand—through the miracles in Egypt and the revelation at Sinai¾subsequent generations knew God through participation in an uninterrupted tradition, “which is equal to personal experience” (italics added). This uninterrupted tradition to which the Rabbi refers occurs in textual study! Hartman says that Halevi’s statement eased the incipient critic’s seemingly impossible desire (desire is by definition impossible) for truth by offering an approach to revelation through the uninterrupted tradition of literature! Though he was not there at Sinai, Hartman asserts that study¾the uninterrupted tradition¾discloses Truth as unvaryingly as does the original revelation. “It was an intense period,” Hartman writes, “in which I felt that not to be thinking, feeling, writing, was sinful.” To be engaged in these activities became to Hartman an almost religious engagement. Hartman wonders if this study was “a version of the perpetual prayer compulsion I later read about?” I like to imagine that Hartman refers here to the Jesus prayer in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a book I recently reread (and handed down to both of my daughters and their respective significant others), in which the image of Franny intoning the Jesus prayer in her attempt to attain some spiritual state of peace in what she assumes is a crass, materialistic and phony world.
     Me, too. In literature I felt in community, in contact with Truth, and free to read, as it were, against the grain. Geoffrey Hartman again (2007) articulates this motive for study through his own experience with literature: “The least we can learn from interpretation as an art, as from humanistic discussion in general, is the quirky arbitrariness and relative mortality of judgmental edicts” (12). I learned a liberality, even a radicality, from the immersion in the tradition. In and by reading I became free. In a conversation with Hayden White, Ghasemi notes that  “[T]he plurality of narratives, readings, and interests foregrounds polyphony, or in Ihab Hassan’s term ‘multivocation,’ a postmodern feature that maintains that there exist multiple versions of reality or truths as read, seen, and interpreted from different perspectives.” Perhaps it was not the interpretation that has drawn me to books but the freedom to interpret them that attracted me to literature. Perhaps I can ascribe to reading (the process and possibility of it as much as the subject matters covered in the texts) my inclination to assume radical perspectives on worldly and spiritual matters. I had yet to learn to apply this multivocacity to a reading of Jane Austen; I had yet to learn, I think, the place for irony in the world.
     I read voraciously from a curiosity (about nothing specific I am sure but that encompassed a great deal) that then—and still now seems—insatiable. I felt always at home when I held the book. As a child I recall reading The Hardy Boy series volume by volume; I read with great joy (and even some despair) the sports novels of John Tunis; and studied with great interest The Microbe Hunters (Paul deKruif, 1961). From the latter, I suspect, stems my inclination to hypochondria. I read One Hundred Greatest Sport Heroes and religiously everything I was ever assigned in school and then some. During one convalescent period I read the entire corpus of Doyle’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes. I was a humanist then. Ah, perhaps I still am—the times are out of joint—but I am resisting. Lionel Trilling (2001) suggests in his essay “Why We Read Jane Austen,” that the humanist reads about then to discover how to behave now; the humanist reads to understand what is wrong with us in the present in the light of how they lived and wrote about their lives then. The humanist I was becoming considered that they had something to teach us if only we better understood them. I rightly assumed a common humanity but erroneously attributed to us a common culture. I think I was preparing myself for irony and for Jane Austen which during my undergraduate and even graduate days was a rhetorical device more than a philosophical stance in the world. In Lionel’s Trilling’s novel The Middle of the Journey, (1947/1975) John Laskell considers that his “desire to be an artist’ was not so much the wish to do a particular kind of thing, but rather the desire to be a particular kind of person, to live a life of sentience and morality. It was one of the disciplines of virtue, like chivalry or courtly love or religion” (101). I was John Laskell.
     Before my tenure at the University, I taught high school English for eighteen years. And during those years I learned a great deal about reading and literature from my work in the classroom and with students. I had wanted others to love reading the way I had learned to love it. Or perhaps because I had learned to love it I meant to instill my love in them even as my love for them hoped to lead them to the books I loved! I assigned to my classes a great many books. Oh Lord, I still do! Then, it was almost legitimate to teach the books that I loved, and I was fortunate to work in a school that maintained a very well stocked book room with many of the books I already loved and with not a few that grew in my affection and joined my canon. Literature, I felt, somehow had saved me¾though at the time from what I had been saved I could not precisely define nor articulate¾and I wanted in my pedagogy to save others. I thought then that literature could somehow save the world, or at least improve the character of the readers who were my students, as I cavalierly and yet innocently believed that it had improved mine! I believed (alas, I probably still hold somewhat true, a statement I realize now to be as ironic as someone’s admission to being a little pregnant) with Henry Tilney in Austen’s Northanger Abbey who says to Catherine Morland, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” (Austen, 99). Of course, what Henry means by ‘good’ is immediately called into question by his ironic disparagement of Catherine’s use of the word “nice” when she refers to Anne Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho as a ‘nice’ book. What exactly does nice mean, Henry wonders amusingly. And I wondered what is a good novel? I didn’t really know! I turned to Freud, to deconstruction and Marxism and began to study the reader as well as the read. I think during these years I was learning irony though I did not know its name.