One reason I left the academic world is because I didn’t think it was a place I could learn to write about literature without capturing meaning and feeling and housing them in a solid edifice, and then placing my little house in a neighborhood of more or less similar houses. This makes me sound like I’m aggrandizing myself into a Romantic free spirit idealizing Passion and Profundity, unwilling to sacrifice Beauty for Reason. I’ll take that hit, and offer only in my defense that I am probably too lazy to have worked towards the voice I wanted in a professional academic setting. I turned right from that world smack into Bob Dylan, and found a stronger reason than I could have imagined for finding that voice. I’m always so happy to find that I’m not completely alone in my quest, A recent comment here by Robert Reginio expressed frustration with Christopher Ricks’ style in Visions of Sin, as opposed to his arguments. Mr. Reginio writes,
Ricks’ exhausting punning-for-the-sake-of-punning style suggests a lack of “seriousness” about the endeavor. Why not write about Dylan as he writes about Beckett or Keats or Milton, i.e., in a style he finds fit for a “great poet.”?
Why did Ricks choose a voice which gave readers the impression that writing about Bob Dylan is a vacation from writing about John Milton? Absolutely true that someday the wheel may turn, and Ricks’ tone in Visions of Sin may become a standard for a kind of playful fellowship between critic-scholar and reader. Right now, I’m with Mr Reginio: Ricks isn’t speaking to me, soul to soul, through Dylan’s music.
George Steiner, who wrote the book pictured here, Real Presences, shares my quest in some fashion and I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t want me on his journey. I speculate that George Steiner is not familiar with the work of Bob Dylan, but I like to think that, given an hour, I could encourage him to see that Dylan delivers what I think he wants from art: the highest moral stakes, the severest doubt, the most intolerable mystery, beauty’s awful truth of how sweet life can be. This book is a plea to rescue art from the *linguistic turn* where the catalog in the previous sentence is pretty much dissolved into the boundless instabilities and illusions of language. Steiner would recreate the transcendent in our relation with art. Though this sounds here awfully reactionary, he gets the poststructuralists on their own terms, and he ultimately wants a new relation with art that can manifest real presence, not Romantic nostalgia. However, I personally am exempt from this experience, not because I’m a Bob Dylan fan, but because of something much less subjective and you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is
On I go in my search for writing about art that has real hineini in it. Hineini is “Here I am,” and it’s how Abraham answered Isaac on the way up Mt. Moriah. Just that–here I am.
Here’s an example that helps me identify what this voice looks like: http://www.slate.com/id/2229224/. I’m not going to summarize it because I would rather people read it for themselves. What I like best about this piece that Ron Rosenbaum doesn’t presume Nabokov’s significance. He doesn’t write the essay from an implicit agreement with the reader that Vladimir Nabokov automatically merits this kind of attention. Instead, he works out his relation to Nabokov in this public forum, as the motive and justification for the essay. How is my attention an instrument for Nabokov’s prose? is the question Rosenbaum answers, and from that singular attention grows the curiosity and labor that produced an essay most worth reading.
If you can’t keep making the language to get across how your attention is a living instrument for the art you’re describing, then find other art that hasn’t exhausted its ability to play through you, to other people. Soul to soul.