10 February 2011

Literature as Assay

Stories are entertainment to us, almost invariably ONLY entertainment. Our books--published in enormous numbers as only America (and England, our mother) can--have little depth and significance...they are, after all, now written by folks who have been raised with television and video games which seems to have predicated the resurgence of the comic book in "long form" (perhaps a separate post is warranted on pictorial art--cave-art story-telling) which seems to this former reader of The Fantastic Four a little bit more about marketing than "art".

I am aware that this is a very general statement, that there are always good, deep, significant works of literature written and published annually. What I'm really getting at is that the business or industry of book publishing has now made the possibility of reading one of those important titles hard come by. We promote, market and sell "sure things" and frequently the really creative and important works are not of this type--and in fact many would say "strangeness" characterizes our deepest works of art.

Yes, there's a lot to argue about here. Classics are "institutional" and so suspect (chicken/egg arguments abound). Classics are patriarchal and promote the ideas of a small group of "power elite"--even the "strangest" titles can be shoe-horned into this category with a specific type of reading.

I'm saying that the field where the seeds of art are sown are NOT conducive to great depth. Our industries have not only literally stripped away our topsoil but have also done so figuratively...we have no fertile ground to induce roots to deep growth.

What prompted this was trying to characterize my own habits of reading. Not to say mine are better than anyone else's but rather to try to find out what attracts my attention and why these things are somewhat "classic" yet marginal at the same time.

In doing this I've also discovered this same "industrial" bias in the use of the very margins of what was once strange. All things have become "means" to aid in the production of predictable ends--and so, no strangeness. "Creativity" is only allowed if in service to the end. Creative film-makers, for example, are such within the boundaries of profit if they want to continue to make movies with a particular kind of distribution. (There's more on this, too--but later, maybe).

Okay, I've been reading (dipping in and out of) the works of Susan Howe and she is very much a poet-scholar-thinker "on the margins" and in the margins. One of her pieces is "Melville's Marginalia" and she speaks of her reason for following Melville's lead through the books he read, "I thought one way to write about a loved author would be to follow what trails he follows through the words of others..." I think that this is really the way I like to "follow trails" in reading. Howe, though, not only follows but in the process creates a new work and in that new work there is interpretation of the past in a way that casts light on the human condition...on what it means to read, write, think--to be in language.

Finally, what prompted this note, is that there was a doctoral dissertation (this is what prompted Howe, "a library cormorant"), by Wilson Walker Cowan from 1965 where this young student searched out as many of the books in Melville's library that he could and copied out (by hand, of course) the marginal and inter-textual notes that he determined were in Melville's hand as well as the text that the notes were made on/in. A labor of love in a time when this research was indeed LABOR and was indeed born of love or kinship.

And today, after spending some time yesterday searching for extant copies of this dissertation outside of libraries, I discovered an industrial academic project based on Cowan's work. Melville's Marginalia is now a product. It's editor (project manager) describes being a graduate student under noted Melville scholar (production manager) Hershel Parker:

“Hershel sent me far and wide to fulfill research tasks on Melville—the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Harvard University, the Boston Public Library. Along with giving me specific tasks to perform for his biographical research, he would also suggest leads that I could pursue for publication…. It was not long before I started making significant discoveries of my own and began publishing the results under his guidance. His scholarly curiosity and enthusiasm were contagious, and I was quickly sucked into the Melville vortex,” he says.

[Note: the interview with this project manager is published via the office of communications and marketing at the U of Delaware.]

And so Melville's mind, his marginalia, are mined for the production line of industrial academia...not for love or kinship...but for the means of "making discoveries" in the service of "publishing results" in the manner of reporting on chemical assays.

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