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Agitations: Essays on Life and Literature

Arthur Krystal
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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    Book Description:

    We disagree. From small questions of taste to large questions concerning the nature of existence, intellectual debate takes up much of our time. In this book the respected literary critic Arthur Krystal examines what most commentators ignore: the role of temperament and taste in the forming of aesthetic and ideological opinions. In provocative essays about reading and writing, about the relation between life and literature, about knowledge and certainty, about God and death, and about his own gradual disaffection with the literary scene, Krystal demonstrates that opposing points of view are based more on innate predilections than on disinterested thought or analysis.Not beholden to any fashionable theory or political agenda, Krystal interrogates the usual suspects in the cultural wars from an independent, though not impartial, vantage point. Clearly personal and unabashedly belletrist, his essays ask important questions. What makes culture one thing and not another? What inspires aesthetic values? What drives us to make comparisons? And how does a bias for one kind of evidence as opposed to another contribute to the form and content of intellectual argument?

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14560-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Author’s Note
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. 1 Closing the Books: A Devoted Reader Arrives at the End of the Story
    (pp. 1-16)

    Several years ago, a man I knew, an assistant professor of English at an Ivy League university, decided to scrap his library—a gesture that at the time did not properly impress me. What interested me were the books themselves, as I was one of those invited to plunder the novels, biographies, anthologies of plays and poetry, works of criticism, short-story collections, a sampling of history and philosophy—exactly what you’d expect from a lifetime of liberal-arts collecting. The reason he gave them away, and the reason I didn’t catch on to what was really happening, is that he had...

  5. 2 H. C. Witwer and Me: The Making of a Reader
    (pp. 17-28)

    H.C. Witwer’s 1920 novelThe Leather Pusherswent for a song at the auction of boxing books and ephemera at New York’s Swann Galleries in January 1997. One of six books in Lot 51, which included Budd Schulberg’sThe Harder They Falland Harold Ribalow’sWorld’s Greatest Boxing Stories,it was not among the sale’s more celebrated titles. My paddle was up at eighty dollars, again at ninety, and then I made my mistake. I began to think. Five of the books didn’t matter to me, and ninety-five dollars is pretty steep for a book that isn’t a collector’s item....

  6. 3 Stop the Presses: A Petition for Less Writing
    (pp. 29-38)

    A point of information for those with time on their hands: if you were to read 135 books a day, every day, for a year, you wouldn’t finish all the books published annually in the United States. Now add to this figure, which is upward of 50,000, the 100 or so literary magazines; the scholarly, political and scientific journals (there are 142 devoted to sociology alone), as well as the glossy magazines, of which bigger and shinier versions are now spawning, and you’ll appreciate the amount of lucubration that finds its way into print. But to really get an idea...

  7. 4 What Do You Know? What Don’t You Know?
    (pp. 39-54)

    Emerging from the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House one evening, I overheard one middle-aged operagoer ask another, “Have you heard of a writer named Tolstoy, he was Russian?” I didn’t catch the reply because I had come to a full stop, and by the time my mouth closed, the men had disappeared. I related the incident to a few friends and then forgot about it. Some months later I heard myself saying that it was probably unnecessary to identify the author ofThe Sorrows of Young Wertherin the pages of a national magazine. The magazine’s associate editor disagreed....

  8. 5 Death, It’s What Ails You
    (pp. 55-68)

    You who are about to read this, I salute you. Not because you’re going to die any time soon, but because youaregoing to die. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day your day will come. Don’t think I enjoy pressing your nose against the grave; it’s just that I have a bone to pick with death—two hundred and six, to be precise, all of which will soon enough be picked clean by time and the elements. I’ll just come out and say it: I am appalled at the prospect of my own extinction, outraged at...

  9. 6 Why Smart People Believe in God
    (pp. 69-84)

    Lately, I have been mulling over my relationship with God. Well, not mine exactly, but other people’s. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be doing any mulling at all if these were not subtitled films–PBS–New York Review of Bookspeople (they may not have read Darwin, but they’ve read Stephen Jay Gould on Darwin); people who routinely vote the liberal or progressive ticket, scoff at evangelical preachers, cast an ironic eye on conceptual art, and, all the same, can look me in the eye and say, “I am not alone.” And when they do, I wonder what trick...

  10. 7 Taste, Too, Is an Art
    (pp. 85-96)

    John Updike and I do not see eye to eye. Reviewing the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art for theNew Republic(March 27, 1989), Updike took the occasion to pronounce Warhol a “considerable philosopher.” Relying onThe Philosophy of Andy Warholfor his text, Updike cites: “Some critic called me the Nothingness Himself and that didn’t help my sense of existence any. Then I realized that existence itself is nothing and I felt better.” Hmm. If this observation qualifies as considerable philosophy, surely any number of high school students have achieved equal philosophical sophistication.

    But Updike...

  11. 8 The Rule of Temperament
    (pp. 97-106)

    If you’ve ever wondered why people who resemble each other in age, coloring, education, and background can disagree vehemently about matters great and small, you’ll derive no comfort from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s assessment of man’s unwavering bumptiousness: “Deep-seated preferences cannot be argued about; you cannot argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore when differences are sufficiently far-reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.” Argument about comestibles is...

  12. 9 Art and Craft
    (pp. 107-116)

    Mistah Conrad—he dead.Well, yes. Conrad died in 1924, but he also died a second death during the 1970s when the author, or rather the idea of the Author, suffered an untimely demise. Although not the first time that the work took precedence over the worker (at midcentury the New Criticism insisted on the separation of poem and poet), this latest incarnation of the text’s primacy was particularly despotic, in both a philosophical and political sense. Literary movements, however, come and go, and the doctrines that rudely deposited authors into their conceptual coffins—I mean, the semiotic/deconstructionist writings of...

  13. 10 Certitudes
    (pp. 117-126)

    Certainty can be exhilarating; uncertainty, never. There is something fundamentally disquieting about not knowing the truth of things, the real as opposed to the unreal, the facts as opposed to the theories. Admittedly, artists and intellectuals occasionally celebrate uncertainty as if it were a liberating cause, but in the end uncertainty holds no thrill for me. Pliny’s maxim that ‘‘There is nothing certain but uncertainty, and nothing more miserable and arrogant than man’’ possesses the very quality the statement means to disparage. I reserve judgment about uncertainty, just as I would about anything that cannot be demonstrated without fear of...

  14. 11 What Happened? The Rise and Fall of Theory
    (pp. 127-136)

    Not so long ago, though it may seem that way, literary criticism was practiced by people for whom literature was essential to thinking about life. Such people wrote about books in order to write about art, politics, religion, and the interaction of society and culture—in short, what men and women of letters have always brought to the table. Although the same can be said of current literary practitioners, something else can be said as well: Unlike those who interpret books today, earlier critics possessed an implicit belief in literature’s significance, not simply because literature espoused a point of view,...

  15. 12 How We Write When We Write About Writing
    (pp. 137-148)

    Near the beginning ofEnemies of Promise,that strange alloy of literary criticism and autobiography, Cyril Connolly contends that ‘‘it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love letters.’’ Though this is probably more of a conceit than firm conviction (one can barely identify a writer’s sex, much less sex life, from what may be a few impersonal sentences), Connolly was expressing a general confidence in style’s transparency. ‘‘It is most true,stylus virum arguit,our style betrays us,’’ wrote Robert...

  16. 13 Looking for a Good Argument: Argument and the Novel
    (pp. 149-156)

    Is argument returning to the novel? I don’t mean generational feuds or emotional scuffling between the sexes but argument with some metaphysical meat on its bones. In the past several years, novels by Cynthia Ozick, Umberto Eco, and the late John Gardner have unabashedly pondered what Lionel Trilling called ‘‘the great issues with which the mind has traditionally been concerned: whence and whither, birth and death, fate, free will, and immortality.’’ Trilling felt that in neglecting these issues, midtwentieth-century fiction had suffered a loss of emotional power. This may be putting the case too strongly; impassioned dialogue about ideas, however,...

  17. 14 Just Imagine: Three Hundred Years of the Creative Imagination
    (pp. 157-166)

    Language, an entomological etymologist might say, is a hive of activity, aswarm in competing fictions. Words fly in and out of the mind, and the hum and buzz of implication rises and subsides as the world grows older. New words are coined, old words are lost, others survive only at the expense of their former authority. “Taste” for example, or “temperament”—words that once summoned a complicated set of notions about the world and human nature—retain today only an echo of the intellectual resonance that other centuries took for granted. Another case in point—one that may surprise—is...

  18. 15 Going, Going, Gone: The Place of Poetry in American Letters
    (pp. 167-180)

    There is these days, for those who care to notice, a sustained lull on the poetry front. For the first time in the stormy or ambivalent relations between poet and public, neither side cares enough to woo or rebuff the other. Reviewers may take the occasional swipe at poets who have garnered an undeserved reputation, but poetry itself, or rather the vocation of poetry, is no longer regarded with suspicion. Nor do poets themselves go around behaving like Byronic misfits, taking pride in their outcast state. And this, one might be surprised to learn, is of recent cultural vintage. Fifty...

  19. 16 The Writing Life
    (pp. 181-190)

    Writers are different from other people. Not all writers—not those who write only for wages—but the poets, novelists, and essayists who believe they have no choice in the matter, who feel no less compelled to write than to think, and who therefore receive the continuing news of their existence as potential lines on a page. For them, what happens happens in order to be turned into verse or prose. And so literature itself may be understood as sheer ego channeled into print, undertaken with the perfect conviction that experience is concluded only upon being written down.

    What an...

  20. Credits
    (pp. 191-192)