Safeguards and salvage

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Adam Kirsch (born 1976) is an American poet and literary critic whose work is distinguished by its scope and ambition, its continuing appraisal of the modernist movement and its growing interest in religious writings (as opposed to literary ones): Kirsch’s intriguing daily readings of the Talmud can be found on the Tablet website. In an era when the book has become more of a lifestyle signifier than model for reflecting on “the way we live now”, Kirsch is admirable for insisting on the seriousness of literature, even in extenuation. As he wrote on Lionel Trilling, one of his heroes: “to live a literary life… is itself the best, most inspiring resistance to unliterary culture” (the last term to be understood ironically, in a merely anthropological sense—as in “gun culture”).

Rocket and lightship, the intriguing title of the able young American critic Adam Kirsch’s new collection of essays, is borrowed from the climactic moment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s long poem on the grounding of the SS Deutschland on the Kentish Knock in December 1875, a shipwreck notorious at the time for the slow rescue response, the ship’s flares and distress lights notwithstanding. Scores of passengers were drowned, including five Franciscan nuns who were emigrating to the United States as victims of the first Kulturkampf (when Bismarck’s National Liberal party enacted the Falk Laws to lessen the authority of the Roman Catholic church in favour of the Prussian state). It was this disaster that moved Hopkins to write his ode and explain the ways of God to the Victorians.

Adam Kirsch

Kirsch’s old-fashioned commitment to seriousness—he believes it the critic’s duty “to engage with texts at the point where literature intersects with society and history”—nudges the wreck of the other “Deutschland”, a codeword for the central European culture in which deep notions of seriousness, especially German-Jewish ones, once had a home. It is a seriousness Kirsch finds lacking in the intellectual theatre of the leftist thinker and media pundit Slavoj Žižek, for one, whose holy fool antics under cover of “comedy and hyperbole” and film-buff fondness for gangsterism as a model of the social order, have him casually rehabilitating “many of the most evil ideas of the last century” and promoting revolution as “the acte gratuit”. Žižek, according to Kirsch, even corrupts the poise of Walter Benjamin’s famous “angel of history” by imagining it—in one of his trademark “What if?” digressions—striking back at the “storm of progress” that pins its wings open and drives it backwards into the future. That would be to negate its angelic nature. Benjamin, whose angel was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee, was “one of the first writers to see all the products of civilisation as worthy of analysis”, though Kirsch surely doesn’t intend to applaud the rise and rise of culture studies, which have colonized humanities departments since the 1990s. Benjamin’s awkward embrace of Marxism is dealt with in an article on his role as interpreter, following on from a finely considered examination of how Hannah Arendt’s insistence on public identity limited her sympathy, “which she could freely give only to those as strong as herself.” Sympathy as a moral force also receives a sidelong look in “Up from Cynicism”, an essay on Peter Sloterdijk’s psychopolitical speculations, in his 2500-page trilogy Spheres, on how we contrive to get through life in self-absorbed bubbles—or “biospheres”. It wasn’t entirely clear to me why the enormously productive Sloterdijk deserved such a generously attentive hearing, being on the whole just as “arcane” and “hyperbolic” as the unloved Žižek.

It is, however, in his half-dozen essays on key twentieth-century writers such as E. M. Forster, and more recent ones such as Cynthia Ozick, David Forster Wallace and Zadie Smith, that Kirsch’s insights are most focussed. He analyses the “hot sincerity” of Alfred Kazin’s Journals with aplomb, and registers Susan Sontag’s shift from an early elevation of aesthetic over ethical concerns in Against Interpretation towards a conservatism hardly entirely alien to that of her former husband Philip Rieff. What survives of Sontag—“a hedonist according to the categorical imperative”—is her image, Kirsch suggests; for the work “has mostly lost its power to thrill.” Irony and wit, which Sontag notably lacked, “are only possible,” he adds, “when seriousness is the premise of one’s self-conception, rather than the result that must be achieved.”

Whether starting point or end effect, this kind of self-assured seriousness is made to carry a lot of weight: Kirsch regards the writer not just as an individual but as a representative person. “What matters is not that a writer has a right,” he insists, “but that he is right.” Given that the secular world is lacking the kind of absolute authority such a statement warrants, Kirsch is drawn—surely against his own better vocational instincts—to the lexicon of religion, and its long-standing, absolute, legalistic arguments with the intellect. In the essay “Proust between Halachah and Aggadah” (Jewish religious laws as opposed to legends), he shows the French writer explicitly rejecting religion even as he invokes a Platonic metaphysics in his attempt “to make art itself an independent source of value”. Kirsch gets Proust out of this bind with some lessons from Kant, which he extends in another essay, “Darwinism at 150”, to rebut the current encroachment of often crude ideas from evolutionary psychology into ethics: when we make choices, he asserts, “the language of evolution is perfectly useless.” (This also happened to be the conclusion of William James, over a hundred years ago, in The Principles of Psychology (1890): natural selection has produced thinking beings whose choices do not cohere with the doctrine of “the survival of the fittest.”)

Turner_Stranded ship

Elsewhere Kirsch espouses his “needful” vision of the literary life when he insists, discussing Saul Bellow’s novels, that the writer is bound to believe “in a kind of divinity”. “Indeed”, he goes on, “[God] could deduce the work from its intention far more perfectly than the writer can produce it.” The relationship between work and intention is surely never so cosily geometrical. Writers—like the Biblical God—are often forced to confront the true nature of their creation when it is already under way, finding to their astonishment that it has a big flaw: its materials and especially its creatures—those self-borne identities in process—fail to behave as defined by the terms of reference. Divine omniscience might be astoundingly long-sighted but its insight doesn’t extend to itself. This ironic discovery (which obsessed German Romantics writers such as Schlegel and Schleiermacher in the early 1800s) suggests the need for a more radical incorporation of contingency into art forms than Kirsch is willing to concede (a process the unloved Darwinians might term “co-evolution” although it really goes back to a pre-Socratic sense of cosmic creativity as both intelligible and unpredictable). Even to make that concession would take nothing away from the decisive importance of getting the first line down: Laurence Sterne, not a noticeably pious curate of his time, believed he was up to the task of inception, and then conceded that “God Almighty” might chime in with the second sentence. From then on, it would be easy going.

On occasion, Kirsch—disconcertingly—seems to lack faith (or to have lost it) in the routines of the literary life: Proust, after all, wrote his great if solipsistic novel on selfhood without straining to elucidate its “meaning”, which was to emerge from a very prolonged state of deferral. Uniquely among writers, Proust allowed the grape to wither on the vine. That his narrator, after three thousand pages, disavows art as a final value is precisely the kind of anti-idolatrous gesture Kirsch is moving towards: the ethics of writing means not opting for aggadah over halachah, even if writing would seem to be an activity that thrives precisely on the fuzzy categories and borderline situations that religious laws try so hard to suppress. Even then, the identity of Proust’s narrator subsumes all the mundane desires and pleasures he has left behind him in an aesthetic salvation that, unlike the old contemptus mundi, actually raises worldly concerns to a higher plane. All art, ultimately, is a presumption or contestation: if the world were truly sufficient unto itself why would we need art?

And Kirsch’s arguments can veer in directions barely predictable from his initial “requests for assent”. It was the magisterial Henry James who pointed out that “the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life”: he didn’t say “compete with creation”, and indeed, as James would be the first to concede, there is bound to be something unforeseen, bewildering and perhaps even dismaying about even the most subtly expressed and fully convincing of novelistic lives, the (real) world we inhabit being antecedent to our individual existences. Vladimir Nabokov was perhaps the last author to believe he was “God” in that high-flown nineteenth-century sense, and even then only ironically: he certainly knew he wasn’t creating ex nihilo but analogously—from occasions of feeling and the resources of several pre-existing natural languages and their dictionaries (not forgetting the precise entomological idiom in which he expressed himself as lepidopterist).


At the other end of the cosmic scale, in his reading of the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi as a “nihilist” Kirsch misses the plangent, recurrent echo of the Book of Job (“Wherefore then hast thou brought me forth out of the womb?”) in a writer whose massively varied, purposeful and recently translated jottings, Zibaldone, suggest that even if Leopardi failed to convey a sense of life’s possibilities he was not quite the blackly depressive personality Kirsch observes. Insofar as language is an act of faith, jottings (like his) that express even the most desolate sense of the void have already put something in its place. To state a curse is an attempt to bear it. Leopardi said so himself: “It is a property of works of genius that, even when they represent vividly the nothingness of things, even when they clearly show and make you feel the inevitable unhappiness of life… such works always bring consolation, and rekindle enthusiasm, and, though they treat and represent nothing but death, they restore, albeit momentarily, the life that it had lost.” That is why Leopardi, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, is perhaps best seen as a pessimistic idealist.

Elsewhere, the bluntly naturalistic declaration that “language is an evolutionary adaptation”—in other words, that our psychology is intelligible in the light of the selection pressures that shaped it and that there is only a difference of degree between us and animals—conflicts with recent work on the symbolically distinct, non-adaptive nature of symbolic language over animal signals, and even clashes with Kirsch’s own resourceful defence of “Art over Biology” in the essay of that title. The old question of the origin of language shouldn’t be conceded so readily to the Darwinists, who fail to grasp the illogicality of demoting the human origins of transcendental signs to the biological model of natural selection and adaptation. Any form that can self-recursively include itself is no mechanism. (Leopardi’s “nothingness”, as suggested above, is a category comprehensible only as an aspect of language.)

It is disappointing that such an otherwise astute literary critic—who would appear to have every reason to take on Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of the moral force of speaking partners whose claims on us derive from their being different—often seems to approach the issue of language like a cognitive scientist. Evolutionary gradualism cannot account for our verbally-mediated consciousness, chiefly but not only because it focuses too exclusively on cognitive issues rather than ethical ones: the crucial point surely is that an enhanced cognitive awareness of being in the world necessarily leads to moral complexities requiring a consciousness able to deal with them.

Seemingly out to thwart its own rescue mission, Rocket and Lightship, in its concluding “shipwreck” log, even forgets the promise Hopkins made in another poem—not to feast on “carrion comfort, Despair”. This coda, a loose set of Kirsch’s notes on the literary life (which reads at times like an afterlife), jettisons many of the assumptions that made it possible for him to be serious about literature in the first place, and fizzles out on an assertion that flatly contradicts his earlier insistence on the writer as representative figure: “Writers are innately unrepresentative, precisely because they see life through and for writing. Literature tells us nothing, really, about what most people’s lives are like or have ever been.”

© Iain Bamforth.

First published as a shorter review “Representative Persons”, in TLS, March 6, 2015