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

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us If You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

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