The Present Moment

Ok, I said. As long as I’ve got you here, we’re going to use and appreciate this present moment. Because I wish, and I’ve wished a thousand times since you went, that we’d known it was the present, and that we were living in it.

Ali Smith, Artful

“Cynicism is not the cure for sentimentality”

I love things [movies, books etc.] that are brave enough to be nakedly about what our lives are actually built of, when you’re wild about someone, or you love something, or you’re a fool, or you embarrass yourself. And I don’t think the answer is cynicism. Cynicism is not the cure for sentimentality. Cynicism is its own form of sentimentality. … Life is not bad, and it doesn’t look more real if it’s ugly or it’s gritty. Think of your own life. Most of what’s in your own life, hopefully, is exactly that. Friendship and love and passion for movies and cartoons and comic books, whatever it is that you love. Most of the way we live our lives involves looking for pleasure and beauty and happiness and affection. Real artists don’t use reflexive clichés about things. It’s about honoring the reality of people’s lives, which defies conventions and clichés and expectations. People are interesting, period.

Daniel Mendelsohn (from this interview). Co-sign. There is a certain article/essay/lecture that comes around periodically in the evangelical sub-culture about “Christian” fiction (note: Daniel Mendelsohn, not commenting on this phenomenon). A phrase like “recognizing the reality of a fallen world” is used. More grit is requested. The popularity of the “Amish romance” sub-genre is referenced. Flannery O’Connor appears in some form or another (always Flannery O’Connor! Enough with the Flannery O’Connor!).  It’s a lazy, rote argument at this point, and frequently it falls into the trap Mendelsohn describes: prescribing cynicism to combat (an often accurately identified) sentimentality.  More arguments for “Christian” fiction (whatever that term means) that dares to “be nakedly about what our lives are actually built of,” please.

James Wood on Criticism as Redescription

All criticism is itself metaphorical in movement, because it deals in likeness. It asks: what is art like? What does it resemble? How can it best be described, or redescribed? If the artwork describes itself, then criticism’s purpose is to redescribe the artwork in its own, different language. But literature and literary criticism share the same language. In this, literary criticism is completely different from art and music and their criticisms. This is probably what [Henry] James meant when he spoke of the critic’s “immense vicariousness.” To describe literature critically is to describe it again, but as it were for the first time. It is to describe it as if literature were music or art, and as if one could sing or paint criticism. … The writer-critic’s relationship to the writer she reviews may be likened to hearing, in the next room, a sibling playing something on the piano that you yourself know well but have not yet played yourself. The language of metaphor is the language of this secret sharing, of approximation, of likeness, and of competition.

James Wood, “Virigina Woolf’s Mysticism” in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, which I enjoyed. I enjoy James Wood. He is a skilled reader and writer and one of the best literary critics around. Even if I don’t always agree with his various judgments (and he delivers some real fire-and-brimstone-judgment every once in a while), I always learn something from his essays. I had drafted a few hundred words after reading the book, but realized that redescribing James Wood’s redescriptions was resulting in a very lame blog post. Criticism of criticism seems like a sure path to boredom for both writer and reader (perhaps explaining why academic criticism is often so terrible to try and read) unless you’re someone like James Wood who, when analyzing Virgina Woolf’s work as a critic, comes up with an image like “hearing, in the next room, a sibling playing something on the piano that you yourself know well but have not yet played yourself.”

As a side note, I do want to return to his thoughts on the relationship between religion and literature at some point after I’ve read more of his writing on that topic.