Friday, December 12, 2008

The Other Side of Language, Part 2 (Elvira edition)

Nada Gordon left this comment on yesterday’s post about J.M.G. Le Clézio:
I’m a little suspicious of the notion that one writes (poetry) to “make a better world.” In fact, I criticized the otherwise wonderfully uppity authors of the “Neoliberal Poetry” essay in the new Crayon on that very point.

It just sounds so do-goody. I can accept that one writes poetry to create alternative paradigms, to build fantasies, to narrow or widen focus, to drive a wedge into, to collapse or overturn, to celebrate, etc. (this list could go on and on). I just don’t think it’s about “making a better world,” which makes me think of nothing so much as Disney’s Tomorrowland.
I replied:
Hi Nada,

One thing that intrigues me about Le Clézio’s Nobel Lecture is that he tips his hat to the “must make better world” idea while fully recognizing that most peoples of the world don’t need literature to do that—they’ve got movies, or myth, or storytellers to do whatever socially useful things it is that art does. That’s a weird bind to place the writer in, whose ability to even “remember” or bear witness or whatever, let alone improve the world, becomes kind of superfluous. A desire to “have an impact upon reality” instead of a real possibility. The upshot’s not a better world, but writerly malaise. That seems like an odd (and very possibly true) thing to say.

If you read the
whole speech, I wonder what you make of this “Elvira” he dedicates his prize to (among others). Elvira is an Amerindian storyteller Le Clézio witnessed in performance in the Embera forest of Central America. I admire his humility and generous angle of vision, but why then aren’t we hearing from Elvira? Is Le Clézio’s (the writer’s) global role just middleman between cultures? It reminded me a little of that moment at the end of Heart of Darkness where the African “queen” that Chinua Achebe talks about in his critique of the novel gets to keen, but not talk. Not sure how to feel about all this … one reason I like it.
Some of this exchange reminded me of Konrad Steiner’s comments about Peter Sellars’s “The State of Cinema” speech last year in San Francisco. (“Film is the greatest art form at the moment for penetrating deeply across the cultures, across the world, and it’s the art form that has the lifeblood of the gestalt flowing through it right now”). You?


Guillermo Parra said...

Didn't "Elvira" have a job hosting horror movies on TV in the 80s? She was quite the Goth Central American storyteller/shaman. Good for Le Clézio for acknowledging her.

Nada said...

My goodness, Rodney, you do read such fine essays and speeches. I had a lot of homework to do before I could even begin to respond to your simple question: What do I make of Elvira? My first thought is that I am incredibly curious about her outfit. It's true that I also would like a less mediated presentation of the thing in that respect. I can't just go to Google Images to find out what she looks like.

Secondly, I find myself profoundly jealous of her authenticity, or at least the authenticity that Le Clézio romantically attributes to her. I mean, I would like to have her job, and do what she does, instead of doing a weak, ironicized, postmodern version of what she does. I suppose I just got borned into the wrong tribe at the wrong time. I mean by that, not just me: we all did.

Given that fact, you know, I prefer to just transform the writerly malaise we are left with into a highly embellished joke, festooning it with ribbons, etc., as if it were a pinata (please insert tilde) to bash at and bash at in the spirit of "fun" but also to channel an almost inarticulable rage at, among other things, hollowness.

Ryan said...

I initially read Nada's comment as: "I just got borned into the warm tribe..."

Seem pretty autentico to me.