More Discovery Than Communication
I’ve been reading even more than usual lately. There are quite a few books rotating in the stack… short stories by Julio Cortazar and Alexander Kluge, Lydia Davis’ recent translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, Michal Govin’s novel Snapshots (which I’ll write about here shortly), Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, Walter Benjamin’s Archive and Denis Donoghue’s Speaking of Beauty. (I think from now on I ought to call this practice multibooking.) But the book I am currently taken with is Gabriel Josipovici’s The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (Stanford University Press, 1971). The original connection between Josipovici and W.G. Sebald was Josipovici’s prophetic review of his book The Emigrants. But the more I read Josipovici the more I see new ways to look at writers like Sebald.
Josipovici writes: “The failure [of Romanticism] made it clear to the moderns that art is not the expression of inner feelings but the creation of a structure that will allow us to understand what it means to perceive, and will thus, in a sense, give us back the world.” Modernism is epistemological in nature, demanding, among other things, to know how we know things, why do we trust that we know something, and how do we share this knowledge with others? I can think of no better example of this than the photography of Edward Weston, who placed the world before our eyes, stripped of all symbolism, ornament, and narrative, and forced us to look again without the habits of the past.
“Art is more discovery than communication.” Josipovici favors art “that makes the spectator work,” art which aims “to recreate within the willing listener or spectator the liberating experience of the artist himself as he makes the object.” And: “all the great modern writers have struggled with: Why write at all?” These ideas resonated with me as a partial explanation for the energy that I receive from reading Sebald (among others) even though the ostensible subject ought to be relentlessly depressing. In a way, the world was simply a tool that Sebald used to discover himself – and even though he depicts a world of endlessly cruelty and destruction, the very process of discovery managed to give the world back to him (and us) in all of its wonderment. And for Sebald, one imagines, this process of recuperation probably helped mitigate the ever-impending sense of melancholy.
Josipovici writes criticism, novels, stories, and plays. Mark Thwaite’s excellent interview with him over at ReadySteadyBook is a good introduction. Josipovici’s own website is full of information about his work.