matthew gasda

After Literacy

The great critic George Steiner was already remarking (to paraphrase) by the mid-sixties, that mass culture had diminished and deeply impoverished our sense of what it means to be literate. Steiner’s critique, his insight, into the relationship between literacy and media culture has become increasingly relevant with time, and increasingly depressing–for anyone who still cherishes the humanistic ideal, as I do. A literary culture, Steiner’s line goes, that reads its Proust or Rilke or Shakespeare or Plato or Kafka is fundamentally different (and normatively preferable) to a literary culture whose sense of language is derived from fantasy novels (wizards, vampires, dwarves et al), sports commentary, and pop-culture writing (blogs or print). It is a mistake to assume that because technically and materially and politically our society has advanced immensely in the last 100 years or so, that those who have the access to literacy and education have become better readers–the opposite, indeed, may be true: that for every step further into modernity, we take a back in our fundamental ability to comprehend a text. This has nothing to do with the cognitive effects of television or the internet, or the social question of access to education, but rather with our sense of what is possible when people do have access to education (and presumably, therefore, literacy) in the context in which media like the internet exist. Being literate at one time may have meant the possibility of reading Shakespeare or the equally rich English of the King James Bible, and at another time it may have meant reading Joyce or Fitzgerald or Woolf–but it always implied a certain familiarity with books of tremendous prolixity, innovation, and depth of thought. In different times and places in Western culture the level of general culture has waxed and waned–America in the eyes of Europe has always been more concerned with the quality of its ad copy rather than its novels–but my sense is that now, the entire spectrum has been shifted downwards, and that was once an acceptably high level of literacy and literary comprehension is simply off the scale in the area labeled “snobbish elitism”. TV culture, pop-culture, internet culture, celebrity culture–whatever you want to call–has so fixed itself as the mean standard of language, that a culture where Ulysses or The Trial or Tractatus are difficult but not impossible challenges seems itself a cultural impossibility. The density and compression of great literature and thought are now so far from the mainstream that, fundamentally, literary language is becoming–at least functionally–a language totally separate from the language we speak. To the average American who uses under 50 different words to communicate via text, and probably only slightly more via email, the lyrical and verbal exuberance of almost any poet or novelist or essayist must seem foreign and incomprehensible.

The social and spiritual effects of this cannot be understated: the way in which we imagine ourselves, and the ways in which we articulate those selves to others, by proxy of this linguistic deadening, is infantilized and retarded. The difficulty of constructing meaning for ourselves or meaningful relationships with others, is increased by the manifold cliches and truisms that come down to us from popculture speech. The limits of our world–the limits of our thought–are perhaps are determined by our language, but our language in turn, is determined by our environment. Realistically, the further we reduce not only our literal vocabularies, but the lexicon of our ideas and sensations, the more those limits move in on us. When I write that our level of literacy is falling, this is precisely what I mean–that we read with less and less compound depth of perception and feeling. That access to the full richness of a work–access that comes from grasping the text’s style, technical ambition, and allusion–is impossible if our reading can only resonate with Mad Men and Grimes. As much as again, this could be dismissed as snobbery or elitism, my concern is much more practical–that in a basic sense, we know less stuff, and have experienced a diminished range of human expression and feeling.

We have to begin to assume that this diminishment, this loss of range, will only really get worse–we have to prepare (that is we who are ourselves cultural anachronisms) for the post-literacy age; the age when literacy means being able to communicate in the most minimal, functional sense possible, and when being able to use language to express the full range of personalities, communities, and place in time, is impossible. The great test of this, may be whether our generation of young people, and future generations, will be able to walk into a used bookstore, and without anyone telling them what to read, find for themselves a book of lasting relevance. You can always tell a good reader by how assured they are in finding what to read next–surely one great book always opens the path to the very next. If we cease to be a culture in which we can read  and comprehend even a single great work of literature, we lose, presumably, the ability to find the next.


Whitman in New York

The past two days, in between work, love, conversation in New York, I reread the 1855 (the first) edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. There are moments, I think, with great poets, where one’s appreciation shifts from the abstract to the felt–which is what I feel has happened over the past few days between old Walt and me. Giving an exegesis here, of the first edition of Leaves of Grass would be unnecessary because it is done so well by Malcom Cowley in his introduction to the Penguin edition–and probably elsewhere, as well. But what I want to do is just make a comment about why  I feel like I understand Leaves of Grass in a new way now–which is that reading Whitman in New York, on the subway, the bus, in parks, coffeeshops, while I was walking down the street, in the middle of not only the city where the book was likely composed, but in the middle of the city that was one of Whitman’s poetic tropes itself, was– I’m beginning to realize–a way of experiencing the mode of consciousness that the poem itself aspires to: that while the feeling of the constant expansion, decay, and renewal–the seeming endlessness–of the city is not exactly the feeling of reading Leaves of Grass, it is close, closer than anything else that we have.

One of the deepest pleasures of reading poetry–or looking at a painting or listening to music–is finding an overall metaphor for the experience of life itself. That’s what makes the best art universal: its almost total congruence, and often supersedence, of reality.


How to Be a Russian Novelist

I suspect that one of the reasons that Latin American fiction was so good during the mid-20th century–the years known as “The Boom”–was that the societal and political conditions that surrounded life for Latin American writers and intellectuals then (and now) were such that fiction could draw equally and paradoxically on both optimism and despair for its energy–as well as look towards Europe for cultural inspiration.

The conditions of life for the “Boom” writers (Cortázar, Márquez, Llosa, Fuentes among others)  closely resembled that of the great the 19th century Russian writers (Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov). Politically, spiritually, economically both 20th century Latin America and 19th century Russia were intensely, feverishly revolutionary; the literature which comes out of those times, even if not even not literally about the events of the day, reflects the dynamic intellectual atmosphere of the times.

I am not trying to imply that there is some absolute sociological law which dooms or guarantees the production of literature (Marlowe couldn’t write like Shakespeare despite drawing on the same cultural energy, et al) but that there are patterns in literary boom times that indicate the heuristic importance of certain cultural habits and the irrelevance of others. The paradoxical embrace of despair and optimism in other words, the existence of which–as I’ve pointed out–was a feature of two periods of classic writing, should therefore be considered important to any culture that wants to cultivate its own great works.

Without exhaustively cataloging what I might as well call the spiritual bipolarity of certain books, one only need brush up on one’s Dostoyevsky–or Márquez for that matter–to know what I mean: one of the things we love about reading is having our inner highs and lows mapped out for us, and as easy as that might seem, only the rare writer can do it profoundly.

Russians took their inner lives seriously (as least their writers did) and they took the fate of their nation, their national identity as Russians, seriously (very seriously) as well. The exploitation, the dictatorships, the economic volatility, the Catholic history of Latin America (Latin America is a term I’m using very loosely and broadly here) can easily be interpreted to resemble Russian society of the previous century–so too can the huge importance placed on new literature and public intellectuals in both epochs. A new book or article by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, a new play by Chekhov was a national event, while in Latin America, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa ran for president of Peru in 1990 and lost a close run-off election.

For a literary writer to hold political office, or to exercise real political, public clout, in the U.S., is almost inconceivable–but my point is not to suggest that writers should run for political office (I would suggest the opposite), but that a society which vaunts its writers on a national scale, is one that loves literature, and one where literature must be flourishing; one where the sense of national fate is somehow tied to the fate of national aesthetics.

For a writer working in the United States, while the actual politics of a nation like 19th century Russia should not be enviable, the sense of event and importance that surrounded the release of new books in my examples should be a source of jealousy.

But more seriously for our writers–the spiritual, political, and aesthetic intensity (generated by the movement between hope and despair) of a great Russian writer, or a great contemporary Chilean or Mexican or Argentine writer, should be something worth emulating. Our writing, and more deeply, our sense of what it means to be a writer, has just become–on a general level at least–too trivial, too flippant. While the next pamphlet by Tolstoy was an event that legitimately could change the course of Russian history, the next novel by Jonathan Franzen is likely only to change the schedule of a book signing in Park Slope.

Writing a novel, a poem, a play, an essay–anything that one intends to publish and not keep private–should not be an act for the sake of itself, or for the sake of self-satisfaction. I don’t know for sure how it is that we can intensify (that is: Russiafy) our literary lives and our literary culture, but I do know that we ought to; that our new writing seems to lack (and this is a collective action problem) a singular conviction and power.

One suggestion, might be that we simply have to take life more seriously, as seriously (and yes that means we dispensing with our reflexive postmodern irony folks) the Russians did, or as the “Boom” writers did. We have to be serious in the sense that we see literature as having force enough to alter its surroundings, and serious in the sense that those surroundings are worth the time it would take to alter them.