After reading John Williams’ superb Stoner, i decided to get some more “campus novels”, so ordered Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, Brett Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, PJ Vanston’s Crump, and Francine Prose’s The Blue Angel. The only one i didn’t enjoy was the Ellis (too barren, nihilistic, fragmented), the rest were pleasurable enough. Crump satirises the lunatic multiculturalism of modern England, and the comprehensive destruction of education; it tends to heavy-handed condemnation, from which i withdrew – not because i disagreed, but because it jarred somewhat, in a novel. The Blue Angel was slight but enjoyable and well-constructed.

i read lukewarm reviews of the Wolfe but it gave me great pleasure for the whole of its 676 pages. The protagonist is something of a blank but the supporting characters are vivid and kind of horrifyingly interesting. It even has a happy ending, as the heroine hooks up with the only suitor i really took to. i wasn’t interested in the plot (it’s a typical bildungsroman/campus novel) but found it enjoyable for itself, that is, for the pleasure of reading. The prose, the characterisation, pacing, everything gave me pleasure. Given i got it for something like 5 Euros including postage & packing, i feel 676 pages of pleasure was a bargain.

The heroine, Charlotte Simmons, is a prodigy from some town on top of a mountain in cracker country, USA. She comes to a Harvard-like university where she meets the scum of the earth – rich frat boys and pampered skank. If i hadn’t come across similar portraits in Ellis, and on a documentary a few years ago, i would have taken it for parody; but, apparently, rich Americans are really like this. The rich young Brits i met at my school and university were on the whole okay, but perhaps because we don’t, on the whole, feel there is a metaphysical difference between the rich and the not-so-rich, or the poor even.

In the novel, Charlotte writes a letter home to her white trash parents. A difficult exercise. She naturally writes in a cliché-ridden literary style (“I’ll admit my eyes blurred with mist when I saw you drive off in the old pickup”); she checks herself, realising her parents will see this as “pretty writing”. Charlotte becomes increasingly embarrassed about her origins, her family. i think she should rather treasure her provenance, for unliterary standards often act as a necessary corrective to the temptations of style. i guess one reason i much prefer Camus to Sartre is to do with Camus’ sparse, unrhetorical style, his lack of interest in overly complicated philosophical questions; and i think this came from his origins, in dirt poor Algeria. Sartre, by contrast, had no ballast against style and thought. He probably saw no reason to distrust his own intelligence; there is a sharp-elbowed confidence about Sartre.

Reading second-rate thinkers, such as CS Lewis or Slavoj Zizek, i feel they are misled by language. Language is midwife to thought; and it is the body of thought. Before the words, one has only an inchoate “feeling”; one can, with effort, “think” in images but to really take crystalline, precise form one needs language; thus thought cannot be extricated from style. However, language has its own shape, its own texture and contour and gradient. Second-rate thinkers allow language to take over; they like “pretty writing” of some sort; they mistake linguistic shapes for real thinking. It is easy to be misled by linguistic symmetries, by assonance, patterning, repetition, inversion; and for these devices to as it were hijack the thought and lead it astray. One must be alert to the false note; one can pick this up quite quickly by reading Literary Theory for a while. The fashion in Literary Theory is for a strange mix of almost impenetrable drivel and casual, tendentious assertion. Zizek isn’t as bad as, e.g. Homi Bhabha – he has real intelligence, and some interesting insights; but he succumbs to the temptations of fancy writing, of a brute, ugly variety:

The crucial feature to take note of here is that this inversion cannot be formulated in terms of a primordial lack and a series of metonymic objects trying (and ultimately failing) to fill the void. When the eroticized body of my partner starts to function as the object around which the drive circulates, this does not mean that his or her ordinary (“pathological” in the Kantian sense of the term) flesh-and-blood body is “transubstantiated” into a contingent embodiment of the sublime impossible Thing, holding (filling out) its empty place.

It is not incomprehensible, or obviously insane. It just sounds like fancy writing to me – posturing. It is how one writes if one is mentally at a podium, gesticulating wildly for emphasis, or on a talk show, preening, or shouting people down. It is professorial prose; it is the don at his lectern.

(Professor Fidel Castro)

i don’t think one need write like Hemingway or The Sun newspaper. Two of my favourite writers are Henry James and Kierkegaard, both stylistically sophisticated, both at times impenetrable. But neither seem to me to posture. i feel that, rather, their primordial, inchoate shape of “thought” is naturally so – complicated beyond easy expression before it even arrives in words. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is paradoxical, and any easy formulation would be simply false. The thought sets the bar high – he seemed to delight in difficulty, labyrinthine expression, but for all that any “Cliff Notes” version of Kierkegaard would be a traduction and lie.

i am no thinker or writer – very much a blogger, an amateur – but teaching English is usefully chastening, all the same. Today i taught Level 1 and 2 groups, both with limited grammar and vocabulary. It is a strange situation, when one has established a personal connection but the language is inadequate. One must make do with the simplest means. This is my main social activity, and i spend far more time speaking with students than i do writing; i doubt it has obviously influenced my prose, but i think there is some subtle alteration, a clarification perhaps. One very weak Level 3 student said she was surprised she could understand everything i said, even when the discussion was fairly complicated. After teaching for a while you learn to simplify everything; i do so without compromising the thought (easy enough since i’m not a philosopher). i use images and stories, for example likening doing the wrong job to putting diesel in a petrol car – you can keep driving for a while but it feels strange, and eventually you destroy the engine. i like stories like this; they do not pretend to be the thought; they merely illustrate, can be taken up, examined, then discarded.

Using stories seems to me a good way of doing philosophy, because the reader need not suppose the words are the thought. They are clearly a commentary on the thought, something you can consider, rather than a doctrine or textbook. Or i could say the words, the stories, are one version of the thought, but they admit of themselves their provisional, finally inscrutable nature. They are, in this sense, parables. The thought itself never enters form; rather, it provokes form.

The second-rate writer is seduced by words. One must hold to the mastering thought, the formless, in spite of language and its betrayals. It is from this distrust and resistance that we manifest true form.