Very Good Paragraphs – Self-Critique Edition

This bit from Jon Baskin’s NYRB review of Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk left me looking hard at myself and recognizing finally, in words, something I’d felt creeping up on me but not feeling able to name (emphasis mine):

That the final articles in Souls, as well as some Yang has written for the liberal-centrist Tablet since the book went to press, criticize aspects of these [i.e. neo-socialist, post-Bernie] movements—a development that has disappointed some of his former admirers—may be seen as indicating an underlying consistency: where before he had resisted, from the perspective of the “singular” individual, the flattening out of social life into a series of market-based transactions, today Yang opposes the “politiciz[ation] of everyday life” on similar grounds. But it also suggests a characteristic dilemma for those who came of age when authenticity was experienced predominantly as a personal, rather than a political, possibility. To learn to measure all against the barometer of the “hard and unyielding” self is to come to distrust the demands of unified groups and movements, no matter how well meaning. For every “movement” revolves around a set of orthodoxies that will be unacceptable to one habituated to defiance.

It me, as the kids online say. Being true to thine own self feels less like a virtue in these times of oppression.

Very Good Paragraphs

Came across this one, from one of Kafka’s letters, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom:

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.

I love how this starts out as contentious and misanthropic and then swerves to end on something akin to salvation and hope.

I’ve got more to say on Sade’s book, but for a future post. For now this quote’s going on the wall of my office.

The Return of Very Good Paragraphs

To celebrate the return of this steady feature (well, as steady as anything is here), I’ve got two from the 10 Dec 2018 issue of The New Yorker, which is as far as I’m caught up.

First up is this bit from the Joy Williams story, “Chaunt” [1]:

When Jane Click still read, she preferred the language of displacement and estrangement that prepared a path to revelation over language that simply refreshed and enlarged upon what she already knew. But if you asked her what was the very last book that she had read—that one that had ultimately led her to the conclusion that books wanted only to expose and destroy you, tear your heart out and leave it in the dust, like the soul of a murdered and soon forgotten little animal—she wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Next is this ¶ from Louis Menand’s piece on literary hoaxes, the part of the piece that most made me want to write one:

Does this all mean it’s a game? Yes, in a sense. Literature is a game with language, and hoaxing alerts us to the fact that the rules are not written down anywhere—in the same way that someone who goes barefoot to a wedding alerts us to the fact that there are actually no regulations governing these things. Those acts draw our attention to the thinness of the social fabric by tearing a little piece of it. Literary hoaxes appeal to critics and theorists because they expose the fragility of the norms of reading.

Here’s maybe the place to point out that, amid a Twitter discussion this weekend on which Hogwarts house I was a member of, I chose Slytherin.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Shameful, this might be the first Joy Williams story I’ve read. And of course it was incredible, the best story I’ve read in months. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.