Sentences — January 5, 2009, 4:01 pm

Language, Behavior, History

Imaginative literature traffics in selves. The statement can be read variously. The selves can be the creatures in the writing—narrators and characters who present or appear in a novel or a poem. Equally, though, the selves can be the writer, veiled, fed and fitted into the work’s people. William Gaddis was asked which of his characters in The Recognitions was based most on himself. He replied, effectively, that he was all of them.

It is a natural question, I think, when reading a story, to wonder if it is true. Of course, the story itself will tell us if what it tells us is true. A friend read a novel set in the 1860s. When he reached the word “relationship” he threw the book across the room. No one in 1860, was his sense of things, would use that word to describe love between a man in a woman. The book’s language argued against the book’s truth.

That definition of truth, from the point of view of literary criticism, is the more interesting one. We can have an interesting conversation about the truthfulness of an aesthetic enterprise: it is open to argument. Whereas truth as fact is a more limited discussion. The facts are that Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite; the facts are that anti-Semitism is a bald example of anti-humanism; the truth is that Ezra Pound produced many examples (quantitatively and qualitatively) of highly humanistic endeavor. That the self can be both humane and inhumane, that human behavior admits of both, is a complicating feature of language, behavior, history.

Listening to writers explain themselves can be disconcerting. Often, what is said about their work is not very illuminating. Elvis Costello said in concert many years ago, as he strummed the introductory chords to a song, that he had been asked by a reporter what the lyrics in that song meant. Costello said he told the reporter that if he had meant for the song to mean anything other than the words he had written for it, he would have written a different song. Less a stance than a pose, Costello’s answer only goes so far. What I do like about it, though, is its idea that the questions we might ask of poetry, or of prose, are better directed at the made thing than its maker.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2015

The War of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sharp Edge of Life

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Republican Land Heist

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Captive Market

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Day of the Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Great Republican Land Heist·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The wholesale transfer of public lands to state control may never be achieved. But the goal might be more subtle: to attack the value of public lands.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Sharp Edge of Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The struggle of the novelist has been to establish a measure, a view of human nature, and usually, though not always, as large a view as belief and imagination can wring from observable facts.”
Photo by Eddie Adams/Associated Press
Article
Captive Market·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Fear of random violence lives on, but the reality is that violent-crime rates have dropped to levels not seen since the early Seventies."
Photograph by Richard Ross
Article
The Day of the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Fifteen judges will then sit together in a wood-paneled room, in a city thousands of miles from the Andes, and decide whether the ocean Bolivia claims as its right will at last be returned to it.”
Photo by Fabio Cuttica/Contrasto/Redux
Post
Introducing the February Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ruin of the West
Christopher Ketcham investigates Cliven Bundy’s years-long battle with the BLM, Annie Murphy reflects on Bolivia’s lost coast, and more
Painting by Richard Prince, whose work was on view in October at Gagosian Gallery in New York City © The artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Percentage increase in the annual number of polio cases in Pakistan since 2005:

857

A bowl of 4,000-year-old noodles was found in northwestern China; and a spokesman for the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that “this is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.”

A federal judge sentenced the journalist Barrett Brown to 63 months in prison for sharing a link to information stolen from the private-intelligence firm Stratfor by a hacker in 2011. “Good news!” Brown said in a statement. “They’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today