Tag Archives: hero

Martin Amis – Money (1981)

The novel is narrated by John Self, a American-British screen-writer/film-producer, as he self-destructs in the transatlantic flow of Hollywood money. In short, it ends up that the script he is working on, alternatively called Good Money and Bad Money, is the story in which he is playing a part; his friend Fielding Goodney turns out to be playing him all along; the movie doesn’t exist; he has signed tons of loans and debts, etc. In short, we are in a world of simulacra, with money itself standing in as ur-symbol of exchangeability.

“My head is a city, and various pains have now taken up residence in various parts of my face.” A curious endpoint to all that modernist angst about the individual in the urban. Amis turns turns the table: John Self exclaims, “I’m not allergic to the the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century” (89). The point here is that relationships to the world of consumer goods is no longer defined in terms of resistance and consumption, but only between different types of consumption. We are beyond the point where we can still define ourselves as autonomous creatures navigating an external world, but rather as creatures that have become characters in a world only partially of our making: Television is working on us. Film is. We’re not sure how yet. We wait, and count the symptoms. There’s a realism problem, we all know that. TV is real! some people think” (332)

Martin Amis notoriously appears as a character in the novel. In the tradition of Murphy, John Self and Martin Amis battle it out in a chess match at the end of the novel. Much like Lemuel at the end of Malone Dies, Amis asserts cool control over his character, eluding both his attacks, on and off the chess board. For winning, Amis requires one thing that Self has, but never says what: it become obvious that it is nothing less than his identity, his self-hood.

Interesting to put in dialogue with Philip Larkin’s poems: both the “The Importance of Elsewhere” and “High Windows.” The latter is more obvious: Amis takes the vulgarity of the opening lines and strains to make them lyrical; unlike Larking, who turns to Lyric and dramatizes its hollowness or inexpressively. In Amis, the “deep blue” air is marred with pollution. In the “Importance of Elsewhere,” Larkin comments on the ease with which one can defy national customs while traveling–in one’s own country, it is much harder to both gain objective stance and take the personal risk of resistance or critique. In Amis’ novel, the United States is a necessary elsewhere for defining the postmodern condition. Curious how this recapitulates earlier transatlantic anxieties as detailed by Alex Zwerdling in “Transatlantic Slinging Match.” In short: americans “use” the polis of Europe to produce Modernism, consolidating a “Europe” that subsumes any smaller differences. But in the post-modern these differences will again falir up, only to be subsumed again, one could argue, in the Blair-Bush years. And then we can move to McEwan writing about the 2003 Iraq war protest in Saturday.

Ezra Pound – Gaudier-Brezka (1916)

A “memoir” of the sculptor who worked mostly between 1912 and 1914 before heading to the Trenches, where he as killed at the age of 23. The format is strange, consisting mostly of previously published pieces (by G-B, Pound, Ford and other) on the Vorticist movement or Vorticist works. Pound also includes letters written to him and others by G-B when we has was in the Trenches. Distinguishing the editorial voice from the primary documents is often difficult, since Pound is prone to insert paraphrase and summary without warning. Can read the form of this book as one more instance of bricolage that characterizes in a different way the mode of constructivist, vorticist artwork. 

Pound repeats over and over the centrla tenets of Gaudier-Brezka’s aesthetic theory:

Sculptural feeling  is the appreciation of planes in relation.
Sculptural ability is the defining of these masses by planes.

It should be pointed out that “masses” does not have a reference in the first tenet despite the use of “these.” Determining the material of art is an ambiguous enterprise throughout.

Many themes from imagism and Vorticism are recycled in these pages.:

“Great art is a stasis.”

Lyric is poetry in which music seemingly bursts into speech, while imagism is that art in which sculpture or poetry seems to “come over into speech.”

Symbolism turns the symbol into a metonym, whereas as imagism preserves the absolute metaphor.

The image is that which presents and emotional or intellectual complex in an instant of time.
The image is not an idea, but a node or cluster through which ideas are constantly rushing.

But there is also some curious, novel stuff. For instance, his reading of his own poem “In a station at the metro” highlights (indirectly) the importance of the colon as a mode of equivalence that suppressed the distancing of simile. There is an immediacy of equivalence. 

Also, on the art market: Pound is happy that Quinn has been able to collect most of G-B’s work, so that it does not get distributed into the market, owned by people that simply wait for prices to rise. This comes right after Pound directly addresses G-B’s death. The consolidation of his work somehow compensates for his death. Relate this to Pound’s connection to an older system of patronage, etc.

The “caressable” artwork: by which he means the ability for the subject to be caressed by the work: he argues that the more it is caressed, the more its stimulating character is diminished. Relate this to the kick and the caress in Murphy.

Mentions that Hulme, as a child, would pester the local blacksmith for a piece of metal absolutely square. Just a ridiculous anecdote.

Concludes with a late essay distinguishing the satisfactions of art and the satisfactions of life. They are different, but both valuable. Art stands in opposition to the demands made of social necessity, which is inauthentic necessity imposed by powerful imbeciles. The artwork is supposed to transform that relationship between art and necessity: this is imaged in the hacking off of large pieces of rock from the stone.

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1860-1)

The orphan Pip is brought up by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. One night Pip encounters a convict in the cemetry, and he does him an act of kindness which the convict, who will turn out to be Magwitch, Mr. Provis and Mr. Campbell all in one, will never forget. He soon goes to Miss Havisham’s house to be a playmate with Estella. He starts to become ashamed of himself and his lower-cultured childhood friends. He becomes and apprentice with Joe, and works alongside Orlick, who is a sort of double that plays out all the crimes that Pip almost commits but never does. [An instance of shadowing the protagonist with doubles, sorta like Bertha Rochester and Jane Eyre.] Pip receives an inheritance (via Jaggers) from an unknown source, but he assumes it is from Miss Havisham. This enacts the processes of accumulation that correlate with the field of desire associated with Miss Havisham.  But he soon gets into debt and it is revealed that Abel Magwitch–and it is further revealed that he is the father of Estella (her mother is Molly, Jagger’s housemaid). Pip tells Havisham this story, she stands to close the fire and dies from her injuries, despite Pip’s attempts to save her. Magwitch is arrested and dies; Pip is about to be put into debtor’s prison, but he gets sick, and then is nursed back to health by Joe. He returns to Joe’s home, where they have had a child named Pip [cf. Sydney Carton at the end of Tale]. He visits Stalis house, where he meets Estella. It’s ambiguous whether they marry or not.


Guilt vs. desire – One can frame Pip’s two worlds according to this tension. Pip is marked by guilt from the very beginning, as his actual inheritance. The world of desire, or lack, is associated with Havisham and Estella. Cognitively adjusting to the knowledge that his inheritance comes from guilt rather than desire entails a confrontation with a world of crime that does not square with the tenants of individuality and subjectivity he had adopted in the middle part of the book. Rather, crime seems somehow universal: Magwitch somehow emerges from the landscape, he is an atmosphere of sorts. Pip himself will toggle between these two spheres.

Is Pip being a bad reader because he has not yet grown up? (structure of dramatic irony to deal with how these things can be known at all) Contrast this with Maisie (does not give signification, only registers impressions). As an example of better reading by way of negative contrast: Magwitch shows Pip how he acted poorly towards Joe. But where do we locate this knowledge?

In David Copperfield, the impetus to give full signification (retrospective and fully) is the same impulse as in Great Expectation (Pip as narrator does know things that phenomena subject does not know) but sometimes we just get the narrated Pip and we see his ignorance negatively. In the end, Pip the narrator and narrated converge but there is not a full knowledge. Indeed, the reduplication of Pip as a young boy points to the “bad infinity” that could ensue: the second Pip is able to effectively truncate the narrative with a new beginning. And to the degree that “family” is posited as a source of final cohesion, it should be noted that Pip is excised from that family.

Two ends in Great Expectation: 1. very clear that Estella and Pip don’t get married 2.  you don’t know whether they get married or not, structurally undecideable.

More broadly: Can think of Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope as obsessed with evidentiary character of narration, must give an account fo how the narrative has come into being. On the other hand, Eliot, Hardy and James fully accept the arbitrary nature of the narrative–they can’t justify it, so they just start. [in Hardy in particular, one has the sense that anyone walking along a road could furnish the novelist with a story]


Georg Lukács – The Theory of the Novel (1920, 2nd edition 1962)

The famous Preface begins with the anecdote concerning “individual, concreate acts of heroism,” which, in 1920, Lukács thought masked the violence of the total system of war. He asks, “Who will save us from Western Civilization?” Theory of the Novel was therefore written in a tone of despair, but also one of utopian hope. Indeed, Lukács claims that his early work was by no means conservative, but that its subversive nature was grounded on an entirely naive conception of utopia’s emergence form the rubble of capitalism. Such a view tips over into conformism, a conformism of which he directly accuses Adorno and others: they have taken up residence in the ‘Grand Hotel Abyss,”

a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (22)

It should be noted that the grounds of accusation revolve around a certain relation to food, taste, and subtlety. Adorno has supposedly succumbed to the very dilettantism he accuses the vulgar philistine of.

He distinguishes integrated and problematic civilizations. The current civilization is problematic (appropriate to the novel), while the Greek civilization was integrated (appropriate to the epic). Similar to Bakhtin, the novel is given the burden of strictly miming the “ruptural totality” of contemporary worlds. The epic is the genre of childish immaturity while the novel is the genre of virile maturity (71)–that is, it is capable of soberly reviewing the homelessness of it factical position.

The novel, as an assertive, form-giving endeavor, runs a double risk: either it does not fulfill the minimally sufficient demands of the form, or it is too coherent, closing the circle of signification too soon or too tightly (72).

Indeed, the novel always risks the bad infinity of pure mimesis: it therefore must assert the form of biography, submitting the subject matter to confines of a life. [Connect this to Brooks argument about Freud’s master-plot, and also to the idea of Victorian literature marking out its historical contours according to the life of Queen Victoria.]

The mode of all novels is irony. It is the form of reflecting on itself. This need for reflection is the novel’s “deepest melancholy.” Put otherwise, “Te novel is the epic of a world abandoned by God.” Irony is able to negative render those spaces from which God has withdrawn. It is a negative mysticism. Irony is the highest freedom that can be attained in a world abandoned by God. (93).





Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (1900)

Marlow tells the story of Jim, whom he first sees in a court room, being tried for jumping off the Patna even though the Patna did not sink. Jim is torn up over this because he has romantic ideals that he tries but cannot fulfill–but it’s actually not so clear, since at times it seems that it is simply Marlow attempting to write Jim in to a heroic story. Jim is disgraced but Marlow and his friend Stein get him a job on the island Patuma, which is wehre he become “Lord Jim.” He rids the island of competition, meets a woman named Jewel, and is well liked and respected by all the natives. However, some guy named Brown shows up and tries to take the island over. Jim drives him away, but Brown manages to sabotage a group of islanders before leaving, killing the king Doramin’s son. Jim resigns himself to his fate, and his shot by Doramin.

The epiphany in Conrad, and the impossibility of representation. Contrast the following descriptions of Jim’s face with the knoweldge conveyed in Kurtz’s “the horror!” What is the different statuses of knowledge? In Lord Jim, the chinese box narration withholds clarity all together, retrospective and otherwise:

To watch his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the gloom growing mysteriously intense in the calm of maturing violence. (chapter six)

The muscles round his lips contracted into an unconscious something violent, short-lived, and illuminating like a twist of lightning that admits the eye for instant into the secret convolutions of a cloud. (chapter ten)

He heard me out with his head on one side, and I had another glimpse through a rent in the mist in which he moved and had his being. (chapter eleven)

It is hard to tell you what precisely she wanted to wrest from me. Obviously it would be something very simple—the simplest impossibility in the world; as, for instance, the exact description of a cloud. (chapter thirty-two)

A good opportunity to talk about narrative vs. story, and about the readerly contracts necessary for creating a distance between the narrative and the story. So Marlow keeps saying “one of us” (connect to Forster’s ONE and Ford’s GOOD PEOPLE) as a way of implicating the reader in the Western tradition of the quest, for example:  Marlow is attempting to show the reader that that narrative is appropriate to the story.

Stein and the butterflies, rendered as aesthetic objects. Talk about Jim as a butterfly of sorts.

The trope of the abyss: here it is first and foremost an abyss of non-meaning. Track how this differs from both New Grub Street and Howard’s End.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1899)

Unnamed narrator introduces Marlow. He tells a story on the Nellie, a ship floating on the Thames. The story begins: he can’t find a job, but eventually takes one that will involve traveling into the interior of the Congo as the captain of a ship, where he will help with the ivory trade. He says good-bye to his aunt and sets off. He arrives at the “Central Trading Station.” run by a dubious “Manager.” The boat sinks and Marlow suspects him of sabotage. Marlow keeps hearing about Kurtz. He eventually goes up stream with a small crew. They are attacked, but eventually arrive at Kurtz’s station. With his astounding “eloquence” he has convinced the natives to treat him like a god. He is deathly ill, so Marlow takes him on board. Just before he dies, he gives Marlow some papers, and pronounces “The horror! The horror!” Marlow returns to London where he seeks out Kurtz’s “Intended.” He cannot bear to tell her his final words. He lies by telling her that he last said her name.

Bureaucracy – The opening section is largely about the inefficient bureaucracy plaguing the Imperial project. The manger is the definition of Weber’s bad bureaucrat. Michael Levenson reads the tension between good and bad social forms (between crippling bureaucracy and Kurtz’s “charisma”) being supplanted by “a nightmarish choice between social venality and passionate license,” and “ends by offering the individual moral psyche as a slim third term between these weighty alternatives” (Norton, 403). Marlow is the one who seeks to cultivate this third term, which manifests itself in the style of the narrative itself:

Conrad longs to overcome the separation between fact and value; he longs to see value lodged securely in fact–“the redeeming facts of life”–so that the individual need not rely on the rickety apparatus of social ethics. (404)

Opposed to an ethics of the social, “Conrad” asserts the sensuous as the domain of judgment–which includes the second and third critique. 

This can be connected with the self-conscious attention to the “surface of things” in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, as well as in the Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus:

Fine sentiments be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes–I tell you. I had to watch the steering and circumvent those snags and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man. (38)

This falls more or less into Ian Watt’s reading of Heart of Darkness as an education in impressionistic narration. The closing bars of the novel portray the Thames with a vividness learned in the heart of darkness. Conrad, narrator, Marlow: the three join in the truth of cohesive artistic project.

But this reading does not account for the “lie” that Marlow tell to the Intended. The nameless fiancé stands in for the outer limit which a bourgeois  ideology fixes on Conrad’s art. The “horrible” truth must be suppressed in order to sustain the narrative overcoming of the fact-value distinction. In this sense, the act of narration participates in the violence of historical imperialism. What was at first “just a hole” (14), becomes “ostentatious holes to bury stuff in” (50), and then finally Kurtz’s unmarked grave: “the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole” (69): sensory impression, empirical report, ideological concealment. Perhaps this also could be rounded out into a critique of intentionality (the Intended)  in general (cf. Levinas, M-P, ALF).

The problem of endings is  also a way to talk about Kurtz’s cry “the horror, the horror.” Marlow wonders: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” Marlow recalls, “It was as though a veil had been rent” (68). Talk about how this “rent” and glimpse into “complete knowledge” is withheld in Lord Jim. Also, compare Marlow’s question to the one asked by Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”: did she take on is knowledge. These are questions about history, about the violence of history. About the possibility or impossibility of narrating that violence. Connect this with Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and also to Arendt’s comments on “Action” in The Human Condition.

Maps (page 11) – Marlow and Conrad are both obsessed with the colonial map–with the spread of the colonial flag, but also with the blank spaces that represent opportunities for the adventure that is writing itself. Connect this with Naipaul’s A Way in the World, with Moretti’s work on the bildungsroman, and with Peter Brook’s stuff on plotting and mapping in the novel.

Life as (Modern) Art: “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (69).

The heart as a symbol and device  in Conrad, Yeats and Ford Maddox Ford.




An attempt on Conrad’s part to overcome the fact-value distinction. We have contrast between good and bad bureaucracy in the opening, that turns into a contrast, in the second half of the novel, between rigid social control and unrestrained passionated license. Between these two alternatives, Conrad tries to insert his impressionism. which would imbue sensuous judgment with moral judgment–a sort of compression of the second and third critiques. Curiously, for the novel to emerge into this aesthetic reality (so that Marlow can read the Thames as a “heart of darkness,” a social commentary in itself) Marlow needs to lie to the intended. He lies in order to conceal the violence that makes possible Kurtz’s knowledge into socially suitable form.

This connects to other books in which Imperial violence is forceful repressed, as in, for instance, Howard’s End and Mrs. Dalloway.

This connects in very interesting ways to some of Conrad’s non-fiction…he is constantly trying to bring the whole into the particular….every line must carry the full weight of the whole…first line of the Preface. But also, in his work on Henry James, we see Conrad trying to claim for the novelist the position of an historian: an historian of human experience. in this way, we can connect Conrad’s desire to merge fact and value to Yeats’ attempts to render history aesthetic in Easter 1916 and Leda and the Swan.


Henry James – The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Kate Croy, the child of a poor and socially scorned father, is given the choice to be brought up by her aunt or stay with her father. She stays with aunt, but her desire to be married to Merton Densher, a poor British journalist, is complicated by her Aunt Maud Lowden’s desire to marry her well (to Lord Mark). Merton and Kate declare an informal engagement before he leaves for the US on an assignment from his newspaper. While there, we learn that he has met Milly Theale, a fabulously rich but somewhat culturally naive American, and Susan Shepherd, her culturally savvy tag-along. They are traveling in Italy, but decide to go to London, where they fall in with the crowd at Lancaster Gate. Everyone likes everyone else, but everyone also “working” everyone else according to their “quantity” and ability to “give.” Milly confides in Kate that she has a terminal disease. Merton returns and Kate tries to convince him to marry Milly (with the secret intention of her dying and leaving her money to Merton so that she can then marry Merton and have Milly’s money). Milly goes to Venice and everyone follows. Merton is conflicted about what to do, and Lord Mark has suspicions: he suspects that Merton and Kate are engaged despite Milly’s insistence that Merton has declared his love for her. Lord Mark spills the beans and Milly dies. She leaves some money to Merton anyway, but he refuses to take the money and instead says that Kate can have the money (but she will lose him) or she can refuse the money and marry. Merton says, I will marry you in an hour “as we were,” but Milly responds, “We will never be as we were.”

Combines, in James terms, “the narrative and dramatic lock,” but the theatrical melodrama, of which there is a lot, takes place “offstage”: we do not see the betrayal of the conspiracy, its revelation to Milly, or the immediate effects on Milly.

Milly’s “gift” to Merton and Kate has a similar damaging effect as it does Ralph Touchet’s “gift” to Isobel Archer: she is given social freedom, but it destroys her by “grinding her into conventionality.” However, Milly’s gift is also the opportunity for these two individuals to separate and gain a certain amount of narrative freedom. But it is through a refusal that such freedom is gained. Talk about this in relation to James shift from omniscient narrator to the creator of the “Scenario.”

Figure of the Dove. Taken from Psalms: David wishes to be a dove so that he may avoid death, but God is also likened to a Dove that descends and protects. How is Milly both? And does this bird differ from, say, the eagle in Isaiah that soars on wings because of a trust in the Lord that grants a renewal of strength. The Dove is inherently weak. The wings are also tipped with gold (connect to Golden Bowl and all the other instances of Golden (Marius, Dorian Gray, Mill on the Floss, Tale of Two Cities)). Simply put, Milly in life plays the object of desire (a dove that can be petted) to the a subject of desire in death that literally envelops all the characters.

Quantity – People are often referred to as quantities. This successfully integrates characters into the perverted circuit of gifts that sustains the rampant exploitation of London society. Also, Aunt Maud is referred to as “large,” as if James is playing with the idea that enough of something, anything, can tip over into a quality in itself. This is what happens to Milly’s money in the end: does it convert into a love? Perhaps, but a love that makes an impossible demand if it is taken up.

Life – As in the Ambassadors, Milly is obsessed with “living.” She goes to London readying herself for the “assault of life.” The anxiety of living a full life runs throughout James work, finding its most refined expression in “The Beast in Jungle,” where Marcher confides to May that his one flaw (what  makes him unique) is his sense of perpetual anticipation. May dies knowing that what he has been waiting for has come: the terrible realization that he has wasted a life in waiting. Leo Bersani associates the indefinable “It” for which Marcher is waiting with the Freudian “Id” which contains the pure potentiality of unconscious desire. In James this expectancy and potentiality becomes constitutive of the subject itself: Can we read Densher’s final freedom (and his gift of freedom to Kate) as pure potentiality? Importantly, this must be routed through an indirect object: Kate’s gold.

Thingliness – Use Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to talk about how emotions, states of consciousness, desire, relations, take on texture: “the sticky and slippery couch” on the first page, the sheer density of the perceptual field when Merton visits Aunt Maud for the first time is disarming, crowding out the ability to think lucidly. Aunt Maud treats Merton with a “softness…the quality of fin velvet, menat to fold thick, but stretched a little thin” (502).

Sickness – Compare to The Good Soldier, in which bourgeois Londoners are constantly afflicted with “heart problems” that do not in fact exist as a pretext for traveling to a spa, where they can carry on elicit affairs with one another. The one character that does die of a heart problem (Maisie Maiden swallowed by a suitcase) is the one persistently abused by everyone else, especially Edward.

Novel as mode of enquiry – how can we conceive of late James novels as modes of enquiry into the incalculable adjustments and comportments that lead to subject formation. Can we think about it in terms of the temporal limit of affect–not where affect ends but where it beings–where the concessions, intersubjective emotions, etc.make possible a subject but do not bind that subject at the other end? Wings of the Dove refuses to put a limit on the affectively possible: it is rendered (however negatively) as the pure potential of not exercising an exploitative power.