Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting Wise, Finding the Lowdown

Kulchural Studies seeks the incontrovertible fact, the photographic evidence, the smoking gun of the historical process—what Pound called the "luminous detail". Of course, a simple fact can only ever shine on the background of a shared understanding of how the world "really" works. In this post, I want to look at the kind of world that kulchural studies assumes we live in and the kind of character or intellectual figure that is required to study it.

"An education consists in 'getting wise' in the rawest and hardest boiled sense of that bit of argot," writes Pound in the Guide to Kulchur. I'm grateful to Jonathan Morse for bringing Malcolm Cowley's corroborating observation to my attention in his interesting piece in Jacket 34. "I've found the lowdown on the Elizabethan drama," he quotes Pound saying and adds: "he was always finding the lowdown, the inside story and the simple reason why" (Exiles Return, p. 120). Elsewhere, Cowley also characterized Pound's view of history as a "conspiracy" theory.

According to Pound, "the method of Luminous Detail" had two main competitors in scholarship: "the method multitudinous detail" (most prevalent in his day) and "the method of sentiment and generalisation" (which he saw as outdated). (This was in "I Gather the Limbs of Osiris", from 1911, SP, p. 21.) In the Guide to Kulchur he puts it this way:

This active and instant awareness is NOT handed out in colleges and by the system of public and/or popular education. In this domain the individual will remain, individualism will remain, without any theoretical and ideological bulwarks. A man will continue to gain or lose his own soul. (GK, p. 52)

This individualism is really quite important. Kulchural Studies is not about teaching others how the world works. They'll "get it" if they do, we might say, and always in their own way. It is about saving your own soul from being duped about "the process now going on" (51).

When reading Pound, I sometimes think of Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder", an essay that was published at about the same time as the Guide to Kulchur. Here he describes the corrupt world of hard-boiled detective novels. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean" (20). "He talks as the man of his age talks—that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness" (20-21). In a way, this describes the Poundian literary and social critic.

But there is a disturbing detail: Chandler's "realist" vision was "a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities" (I wonder if that shouldn't read "gangsters can rule cities and almost rule nations"). The informal, personal, and often violent networks of loyalty that run the world in the background of these novels are arguably fascist.


Kirby Olson said...

I loved how you brought this together in the final sentence.

Kirby Olson said...

I wonder if you write as well in Danish as in English.

I wish I could read Kierkegaard in Danish.

Do you have any humorous Lutheran writers that I should know about?

Thomas said...

Kierkegaard is an excellent humorist. He's certainly funny at times.

I'm not comfortable with the idea of "Lutheran writers". It's a good challenge to fill that category out. I'd be able to identify Jewish writers of course. And I know that the idea of a Catholic and an anti-Catholic novel makes sense (Jonathan Mayhew mentioned something like this is passing) but I wouldn't really know how to identify them.

What's a Lutheran writer?

I suck at Danish. I grew up in English is why. (Bad DeLillo impression.)

If I ever get time I want to retranslate S.K.'s Philosophical Fragments ... or, rather, so-called fragments ... I want to put some of the humor back into it.

Kirby Olson said...

I think a Lutheran writer would be someone in the Lutheran tradition: interested in the ideas of Martin Luther. Very interested in the destiny and personal lives of Lutherans, and writing about Lutherans, and their own relationship to Lutheranism. Kierkegaard would certainly qualify as a Lutheran writer, in this sense, right?

You can think of Marxist writers, or nihilistic writers, Jewish writers (I.B. Singer) or even fascist writers (Celine, for example, who for some reason did make his way to Denmark), so why the discomfort with Lutheran writers?

I'm very pleased that you write poorly in Danish, since you seem so at home in English. I was prepared to feel jealousy, but instead I feel relief, but am also disappointed.

How do you explain the origins of the name Denmark? Finland, of course, is the land of the Finns. Denmark?