Barbie, Inc.

By Jan Baetens

Everybody knows the situation: a delayed flight, and nothing more to read. Airport literature is then the answer to all our anxieties. In this case, it was entitled Swing Time (2016, Penguin edition in 2017) and its author is Zadie Smith. 453 pages of which I read 91 during the flight. I stopped in the middle of a sentence and did not go on to page 92, despite the multiple incentives that litter the volume. Swing timeThe book has indeed an exceptionally long blurb section, which starts at the front cover, continues on the back cover, appears to cheer up the interior cover pages and quite a lot of the front matter. In short: no less than nine pages of praise of a “superb”, breathtaking”, and “brilliant” book, which only made me yawn.

For skeptical readers, excessive blurb always sounds suspect and my own reading only confirmed this intuition. Imagine a novel where the author has tried to combine the following three constraints:

  1. List and mix everything that may illustrate the modern, cosmopolitan life of a bobo (please don’t forget issues of race, class and gender).
  2. Be cool and try to surprise with crisp dialogues and a “well written” style, but never forget that easy reading is the key of success.
  3. Target an audience as broad as possible (think of all the translations and how people abroad think of London, New York and West Africa) and cater to all possible reader groups.

Zadie Smith applies all these rules in an amazingly efficient way (after all, she also teaches creative writing, and one can guess that her work holds a top place in book discussion groups all over the world). The result is perfect plastic literature. Barbie and Ken may do and experience and say and think everything that the Mattel dolls are not allowed to, but they remain dolls. What Zadie Smith is writing is Barbie literature for post-young adults. Let’s hope the film will be better.

Mimesis as anti-Figura

By Jan Baetens

Porter1James I. Porter’s “Disfigurations: Erich Auerbach’s Theory of Figura” (Critical Inquiry, vol. 44-1, 2017, pp., 80-113) is one of the best essays I’ve read in recent months. It is a rereading of Erich Auerbach’s seminal study “Figura” of 1938 as well as a vital contribution to the cultural analysis of reading and storytelling, not in the empirical, but in the philosophical sense of the word.

At first sight, “Figura” is a typical philological study on the many meanings of this word and the semantic field it organizes. On a less superficial level, it is a reflection on two conflicting types of reading and interpretation by a German professor, one of the founding fathers of modern comparative literature, who had been forced to abandon his position at the university due to the Nazi anti-Jew laws. In “Figura”, Auerbach mainly distinguishes the allegorical way of reading, which wipes out the concrete historical event told by a story in favor of its symbolic and extra-temporal meaning, and the figural one, which maintains the reality of the historical event while reframing it as the symbolic announcement of some later event. The Christian reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition as a prefiguration of the New Testament is the classic example of such a conflict between allegorical and figural reading and the no-less-classic example of the victory of the figural over the allegorical. The figural will become the hegemonic way of reading between early Christianity, when this type of reading appears, and the Renaissance, when it rapidly vanishes as a dominating type of interpretation (after the Renaissance, the hegemony shifts from figural reading to “realist” reading, in a society whose dominant paradigm is increasingly that of science).

Porter2For contemporary readers, however, Auerbach (1892-1957) is not the author of “Figura” but of Mimesis, written in exile between 1942 and 1945. Mimesis, which has never been out of print, is a study of the progressive emergence of “realism” in Western literature, that is of a way of interpreting that emphasizes the literal, not the symbolic meaning of the text, even if the literal meaning is open to debate, and that highlights how stories are rooted in concrete historical and material contexts. Auerbach scholarship generally focuses either on “Figura” or on Mimesis, but rarely brings together both studies, as if the author’s attention had simply shifted from classic philology and symbolic reading to comparative literature and realism. Yet in “Disfigurations”, this is exactly what James I. Porter does: rereading Mimesis in light of “Figura”, not in order to find a dialectic synthesis of the two apparently conflicting poles, but in order to disclose the profound continuity in Auerbach’s thinking as well as the crucial importance of “realism” in the genesis and meaning of Mimesis itself, which was written in exile in Turkey (a then militantly nonreligious state). Auerbach’s great book, Porter argues, should be read not just as a defense of Western realism, but as a reaction against the symbolic –be it figural or, worse, allegorical– that was defended by Nazi philosophy, philology, theology, etc., to delete not only Jewish history and Jewish tradition but the typical way in which the Jewish tradition read its own stories, namely as realist stories deeply rooted in precise historical conditions yet utterly ambivalent and ambiguous –and therefore inevitably open to endless interpretation and reinterpretation and permanently inviting us to question our own relationship to the specific environment in which we are living here and now (including our fundamental incapacity to produce final and fixed meanings).

I must confess that I did not know James I. Porter’s work. Shame on me, but I have the excuse that he is working in a field (critical theory of ancient literature) that is not mine. Thanks to Critical Inquiry, the leading journal in my field, this excuse is now no longer valid, and of course I immediately ordered this book: Erich Auerbach. Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach. Ed. James I. Porter. Trans. Jane O. Newman. Princeton University Press, 2013. I haven’t read it yet, but I already recommend it very warmly!

Anything but a tourist guide

By Jan Baetens

Tourism is big business and “literary” travel guides are often marketed as culturally correct tools to upgrade the experience of the journey, be it abroad or at home. The new book by Eric Hazan (a publisher and political activist born in 1935 whose crisp and provocative ways of writing and thinking can be given as an example to many of those who are much younger than him) is not a book of this kind. A personal and often directly autobiographical expansion of his well-known social history of Paris (The Invention of Paris, translated by Verso in 2011), Une Traversée de Paris (“A Crossing of Paris”, a heavily connoted title which refers to the tradition of Situationist psychogeography as well as to a famous French movie on the black market during the German occupation) is, in the first place, a political book: a challenging contribution to the rich corpus of non-tourist books on Paris (other recent examples can be found in the work by Jean Rolin, Zones, 1997, which exists in a bilingual pocket edition, and Thomas Clerc, unfortunately not yet available in English).

HazanHazan’s crossing of Paris leads him from the south (Ivry) to the north (Saint-Denis) and focuses on the “center” of Paris; that is, the twenty neighborhoods that can be found “inside” the beltway, which both prevents the traditional city to grow and protects it from the dangers of the less wealthy suburban circles that surround it (some French view Saint-Denis the way some Belgians view Molenbeek). Yet the margins are permanently present: geographically, humanly, culturally, politically speaking. The major aim of Hazan’s book is to disclose the “popular” aspects of the capital, which resist the galloping gentrification, and to highlight the continuity of a revolutionary tradition in the city.

Walking though Paris –and Hazan is a wonderful guide, a great observer, an excellent writer– is a very different experience from what tourist offices and their marketing spin doctors describe in countless brochures and reportages (all costs paid by the organizations that commission the writing, of course –and should it be repeated: literary slum tourism is an extremely popular, well paid and highly profitable part of this industry). The book is not at all an aggressive rebuttal of the tourist dream factory. It does what all great literature should do: make us aware of a different reality, and help us look better; that is, to really watch instead of just look around.

On: Eric Hazan, Une Traversée de Paris, éd. du Seuil, 2016, 194 p.