(Another old essay that I may have changed my tastes on.)
Skimming through any number of reviews, or for that matter any number of blurbs, pretty much the same words are used everywhere, but without grounding they lack the form to convey anything other than a flimsy kind of praise. If the word were so directly linked to the praise, and if people applied their praise correctly and correspondingly, then I wouldn’t have such a hard time going through the same scores of Google inanity just to search for a new type of book, or author. A lack of precision in praise is just about the worst thing in the world, because there’s nothing more horrible than to be so underdeveloped that the best a person can muster is a general statement. How many ‘brilliants’, ‘perfects’ or ‘astoundings’ can one pull off in a single lifetime? Anyway, because language expresses private truths, and the words reorient themselves in different contexts, a person seeking to write any kind of congratulatory review with the standard review stock-cliches has to be extremely certain about whatever he says.
Experience tells me that generally this is attributed to two types of creations. The first, which is ‘perfectionist perfection’ is where you hear the author/creator as going through any number of drafts merely to stake his claim on a single sentence. Praise like this is commonly attributed to poetry, with the old adage of ‘the perfect words in the perfect order’, but certain prose writers can stake their claim over this too. I can look through, for example, the endless letters of Flaubert and his search for ‘le mot juste’, his years of solitude and his struggle over the word, and his spending around 5-6 years or more per novel just to tailor it down to the absolute clearest state. Sadly I don’t know French but I’ve heard that his language is exactly baroque when it needs to be as in supposedly in his Salammbo
(“Through the forest he pursued the she-monster whose tail coiled over the dead leaves like a silver stream; and he came to a meadow where women, with the hindquarters of dragons, stood around a great fire, raised on the tips of their tails. The moon shone red as blood in a pale circle and their scarlet tongues, formed like fishing harpoons, stretched out, curling to the edge of the flame”)
Whereas he can also be held back when he needs to be, as in the unassuming opening of Madame Bovary
(“We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who were sleeping woke up, and everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work.”)
And Flaubert has written in most genres, from a faux-play representation of a Christian parable, to a naturalist story about modern ennui, to an absurdist tract about the futile task of gaining knowledge, to exotic historical novels. Supposedly his sentences run conceits against counterconceits in the original language to the point of zaniness, but I wouldn’t know. Anyway when we hear such martyrdom for the arts, and such martyrdom corresponds to the clarity of form, then we may find the need to postulate that a work is ‘perfect’. Other literary stories includes Hemingway and his countless drafts for the ending of a Farewell to Arms, Kubrick and his vicious amount of retakes, Saint-Exupéry and his poetics, Kafka and his perfectly weathered parables, Beckett and his insane subscriptions to minimalism, Tarkovsky and his refined poetic touches, and Bresson and his acting-less, firmly controlled style (Kawabata probably counts as well). When I hear of such pains, and then I look at the works themselves and witness their immaculate clarity and structure, I feel like commending them as a connoisseur does to a brilliancy in a game of chess. But of course, despite the praise, what doesn’t work for a person just doesn’t really work for a person, although we feel very motivated to give kudos to a martyr of style.
Yet the second kind of perfection is usually attributed to the opposing end of the spectrum, as in works which are wholly imperfect and flawed, but fit the context of life perfectly. Such a work may be, for example, any amount of Dazais, Dostoyevskies, Nietzsches, Kierkegaards, Salingers, or things that are completely ‘perfect for the period’. One would never call any of their works (except maybe Salinger) perfect in terms of clarity (Dostoyevsky is notorious for his lack of clarity), at least the same way a martyr of style would be, and yet they perfect synchronize with moments of impressionability and ‘existential crises’, and it is during that moment that ‘perfect’ is pretty much the right praise to cast over them. Yet usually such works are only perfect for a stretch of time, and many are apt to fall in ‘disfavor’ after the period. Yet their influence maintains, while the original joy has faded away.
Is Pynchon a ‘perfect’ writer? He’s been called a ‘mathematician of prose’ before.
I have yet to know whether Romeo Tanaka is a ‘perfect’ writer as well or not.
‘Precise or Clear or Crystalline’
A praise of the ‘perfect’ variety, but mainly applied to minimalists. Is it true that a work created by a ‘martyr of style’ also tends to be minimalistic? Well Flaubert proves otherwise, but his seems to be the only kind. But can also apply to less rigorously pored over works that are functional in their style. Any number of Orwell’s writings for example. He doesn’t seem to be as much of a martyr as any of the above (Although he did write his critique of improper usage) but he’s still amazingly functional in the conveyance of an event, idea, or setting. My love for 1984 is because it denotes exactly what it wants to denote. A type of praise that is frequently applied to types of short story writers, Japanese and Asian poetry, as well as Logical Positivists (and especially Wittgenstein’s Tractatus).
One primary poet to draw from is Borges (who is himself an extremely clear writer, although with an obscure and referential hinge), in his praise of Coleridge. Borges wrote that Gustave Dore’s illustrations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner completely undercut the clarity of the style with the Gothic obscurity of the drawings. One of the clearest images, to me, is the image of the ghost-ship appearing ‘betwixt us and the sun’. Not only is the sun described in such a way as to seem tangential to the sea, but this slight meeting point causes the whole sea-horizon to glow ‘a-flame’, and finally the ominous ghost-ship materializes in front of the orange drop in the sea.
(The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.)
(In one of my short stories, I ripped off almost the same image with different words “the sun is dimming down over the sky and we’re on this highway so we can see it settling into the ocean and turning it all orangey with a black spread outwards after the cut-into.”)
A minimalist that eschews too much becomes ‘alienated’. Any number of Alt-Lit writers or ennui writers can fall into this category.
In film terms, on my personal scale, while Kubrick is considered ‘perfect’, a director whom I think is very clear or precise is probably David Fincher. Its interested that writers or creators with a minimal hinge tend to be described as ‘cold’ at times.
‘Rich, Baroque, Byzantine, Ornamented, Decorative etc…’
The most perfect word to describe Shakespeare, is, of course, ‘rich’. Possibly never has there been a richer writer in terms of poetic connection, puns, wordplay, humor, characterization, and literary allusion. Then after Sir Billy you also have the rest of the standards, namely Henry James, Rabelais, Victor Hugo, Joyce, Pynchon, Nabokov, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Gothic Writers, Romantic Poets, the rest of the Elizabethian playwrights, and everyone whose verbal architecture reflects the constructions of Antonio Gaudi.
In the domains of poetry, Whitman and Milton have also been awarded this praise.
In the domains of contemporary music and rock, does Serge Gainsbourg count on this aspect, with his luscious oodles and oodles of music mixed with supposedly amazing poetry? In Fashion its definitely Alexander McQueen.
The war between clarity and baroque verbiage has also been fought before by Spanish literature in the past, between Culturanismo and Conceptismo. The former was more rich in allusions, while the latter was more clear in providing a philosophical idea or sensational motion.
What strikes the difference between a Rich author and a Decorative author is how much the decoration or ornamentation corresponds to an idea. I’ve lost my interest in the Beats and I don’t exactly like the more ‘Decadent’ or Symbolist poets because their words are only sensory and feel empty.
Generally the type of praise to encounter such a writer is the same that was said by Mozart with regards to music, mainly ‘to make music like sows pissing’.
In the realm of criticism, this could be applied to William Gass, Joan Didion, tim rogers (which is quite surprising when you look at the standards he set himself for his other essays and prose!), some of Sarah Horrocks’ reviews, Lester Bangs, and the parts of Borges reviews where he starts randomly bringing in any number of other references while commentating on a single book.
In fact William Gass (in his Temple of Texts) has a lot to say about certain writers who love to overload their weight in words:
(On Thomas Browne
The full list, the final role of honor, would include all the great Elizabethan and Jacobean prose writers: Traherne, Milton, Donne, Hobbes, Taylor, Burton, the translators of the King James Bible, and, of course, Browne, or “Sir Style,” as I call him. I would later find them all splendidly discussed in a single chapter of George Saintsbury’s A History of English Prose Rhythm, the chapter he called “The Triumph of the Ornate Style.” Of course, there are great plain styles. Of course, positivists, puritans, democrats, levelers, Luddites, utilitarians, pragmatists, and pushy progressives have something to say for themselves. There are indeed several musicians after Handel and Bach. And there are other mountains beyond Nanga Parbat. But. But the great outburst of English poetry in Shakespeare, in Jonson, in Marlowe, and so on, was paralleled by an equally great outburst of prose, a prose, moreover, not yet astoop to fictional entertainments, but interested, as Montaigne was, in the drama and the dance of ideas. And they had one great obsession: death, for death came early in those days. First light was so often final glimmer. Sir Style is a skeptic; Sir Style is a stroller; Sir Style takes his time; Sir Style broods, no hen more overworked than he; Sir Style makes literary periods as normal folk make water; Sir Style ascends the language as if it were a staircase of nouns; Sir Style would do a whole lot better than this.)
(On Billy’s Anthony and Cleopatra
This play by the Bard, whom immortality has murdered, his texts chewed by actors dressed in business suits, his corpse cut to pieces by directors and the remains dragged by popularity through the street, rose for me in a manner more vibrant than life. The language is yet a cut above the most high, the imagery so flamboyant sometimes as to establish a new style. I became properly fatuous in his presence. I said: “Boy, you sure can write.”)
(On Jose Lezama Lima’s Paradiso
The translation by Gregory Rabassa reads wonderfully, but we know that the jungle has been cleared, the nighttime lit, the tangles, at least some of them, straightened. If How It Is (by Beckett, the ultimate minimalist) is one polar cap of my little literary world, Paradiso lies at the other: both forbidding, both formidable, both wholly formed, though so differently achieved. Beckett was as spare in person as his work. Lezama Lima was large, and wore (I believe) a wide white hat, and held forth in cafés, and put his loving fat hands on young men and blessed them with his attention. The Latin American literary boom has heard the firing of many cannons, but none sounds more loudly in my ears than Paradiso. Surely, with Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, it forms a fresh Andes. I shall now make a bad joke: If Sir Style is the king of the Baroque, here is the queen. Long may they live and break wind, as Pantagruel would say.)
(On John Donne’s Sermons and Poetry
Having drunk the poetry, I found the prose. And what prose! He raised rhetoric like a club of war. I must quote. How shall we be when we are angels? “The knowledge which I have by Nature, shall have no Clouds; here it hath: that which I have by Grace, shall have no reluctation, no resistance; here it hath: That which I have by Revelation, shall have no suspition, no jealousie; here it hath: sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a respiration from God, and a suggestion from the Devil. There our curiosity shall have this noble satisfaction, we shall know how the Angels know, by knowing as they know.” You have to admire the punctuation. He was another Sir Style, of course, and another deeply doubting believer. Or deeply believing doubter. It depended on the poetic subject. The poet’s real loyalty is to the rhyme and to the repetition of that “hath.”)
I like Hölderlin best when his critics say he is mad. Whenever an artist bursts through the limits, he is said to be astigmatic, immoderate, deaf, arthritic, depressed, drunk, insane, syphilitic. Literature has many wonderful poets, each as mad as Blake. However, there are a few poets whose poetry outmodes poetry itself, the way very late Beethoven seems to transcend music and seek another realm. Mallarmé is a prime example. One might include Paul Celan. As if whatever had been done before was no longer enough, as if every old depth had dried up and shown itself shallow, as if every use of language had worn its edge round; the poet at first flutes on his instrument, until finally he finds a way to play backward through it, or upside down, or without using any breath, or simply by thinking through the tube, sounding the sense somewhere. The hymns and the late poems of Hölderlin, like the elegies of Rilke and the last lays of Yeats, are no longer poems. They have eluded her grasp and that of every category.)
(On Yeat’s The Tower
Yeats wanted to be a seer, and if, as it happened, there was nothing to see, he would invent it, not simply for himself but for everybody else, too. He sets Byzantium down in Sligo. Yeats invested his language with an original richness, as if every word were a suitcase he would open, rummage around in, and carefully repack, slipping a few extras in among the socks. I read him in one gulp—the Complete Poems—from end to end, and then in small bites, and finally in ruminative chews. The Tower became a tree, and rooted itself in me. Yeats grew old disgracefully. It is the only way to go.)
(On Henry James’ The Golden Bowl
The Golden Bowl, the critics said, was James indulging himself, James parodying James. Critics are a dim lot. It was James being James right enough. I could have listed half a dozen of his novels (from The Portrait of a Lady through The Spoils of Poynton to The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) or half a dozen of his tales, and called upon his travel work as well, so that to place only the great Bowl here is a bit perverse. I do so because what affected me most about Henry James lay not in some single work itself, but in his style—that wondrously supple, witty, sensuous, sensitive, circumloquatious style—and the Bowl is that style brought to its final and most refulgent state.)
Really, I tell myself to try, sometimes, to write as sparse and clear as possible, but then whenever I return to any number of Gass’ exhortations, he just makes you feel like you have to put your craziest whole in any number of works (a pity he somehow works better in mini-exhortations than in his long and really really ornamented literary essays)
Nabokov is probably the most contemporary and ridiculous in his writing. Read it and weep
(And as I looked up at the eaves of the adjacent garage with its full display of transparent stalactites backed by their blue silhouettes, I was rewarded at last, upon choosing one, by the sight of what might be described as the dot of an exclamation mark leaving its ordinary position to glide down very fast—a jot faster than the thaw-drop it raced. This twinned twinkle was delightful but not completely satisfying; or rather it only sharpened my appetite for other tidbits of light and shade, and I walked on in a state of raw awareness that seemed to transform the whole of my being into one big eyeball rolling in the world’s socket.)
A strange writer I came across while looking up Russians was Bunin. Supposedly the richest writer in the Russian language (in terms of decoration, since the thickest book still has to be attributed to War and Peace, and I heard Gogol is crazier in his style).
(The mountains have stepped back, and already the sea is racing along beside the highway, surging with a hiss and the smell of crabs onto the white shingle of the shore. Far ahead in the dark lowlands there is a scattering of red and white lights and the rosy aureole of a town, while the night that stretches above it and above the bay is black and soft as soot.)
Cormac McCarthy is every sort of ridiculous, but most succinctly (irony!) in Blood Meridian. In fact any amount of Southern Gothic writers can apply, but McCarthy seems to be the highest flourish of the style.
(See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.)
In movies and animation this is Takashi Miike, Seijun Suzuki, Hayao Miyazaki, the whole of Studio Shaft works, Diebuster, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar Wai, Fellini , Orson Welles, the Red Shoes ballet sequence, any number of large famous Hollywood studio musicals, John Ford’s Westerns, Shunji Iwai, Barry Lyndon (and maybe a Clockwork Orange), Blade Runner, Jodorowsky, Kurosawa, and maybe David Lynch (although whether his images have ideas attributed to them is a matter of debate, but he is definitely baroque in his composition, with flowing reds and weird paintings and all that).
‘Psychological, Profoundly Human, Empathetic, Heartfelt’
Stuff to teach about life. (to cont another time)
‘Genius, Difficult, Brilliant etc…’
Specially for people who love to verbally show off, but are completely worth the show-offiness. Usually applied to Modernists or Postmodernists. David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, Gaddis, Joyce, Thomas Mann, Borges, Stanislaw Lem, Delany, SCA-Ji, Godard, Charlie Kaufman, Linklater, Coen Brothers, Woody Allen etc…