In a comment on my previous post about Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Smithereens, drawing attention to the book’s title, asked, “Is there anywhere in the book a raging moment or is it pure second degree?” Actually, there’s not a whole lot of rage in the book, at least not of the obvious, overt sort. For the most part, what rage there is lies under the surface, smoldering beneath Dyer’s melancholy, laziness, indecision, and contrariness.
The book’s title comes from a D.H. Lawrence quotation:
Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy, I am afraid — queer stuff — but not bad.
This is a perfect epigraph for the book — Dyer’s own book is ostensibly about D.H. Lawrence, but really is not about Lawrence at all. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s about much more than Lawrence. It’s also “queer stuff — but not bad.” Not bad at all.
There is one section I’ve come to with more overt rage, however, and it’s the only section I’ve felt ambivalently about, the only one where Dyer began to irritate me. In this section he talks about a book a friend had given him, a collection of critical essays on Lawrence, the sort with titles like “Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality” and “Alternatives to Logocentrism in D.H. Lawrence.” Merely reading the book sends him into a rage:
Oh it was too much, it was too stupid. I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient. By now I was blazing mad. I thought about getting [the editor’s] phone number and making threatening calls. Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.
I burned it in self-defence. It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches.
Yes, Dyer throws a temper tantrum because he can’t stand academic criticism. He goes on about how much he can’t stand academics either:
Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.
I’m very tired of this clichéd idea that academics secretly hate the thing they study and that they can’t write and that everything they say is inscrutable and pointless. Yes, sometimes this is the case, but obviously not always, maybe not even often.
But Dyer knows this too. First he starts talking about literary criticism he does like, the criticism written by other writers:
If you want to see how literature lives then you turn to writers, and see what they’ve said about each other, either in essays, reviews, in letters or journals — and in the works themselves. ‘The best readings of art are art,’ said George Steiner (an academic!); the great books add up to a tacit ‘syllabus of enacted criticism’.
He claims that writerly criticism is different from academic criticism because writers throw their lives into it:
Brodsky has gone through certain poems of Auden’s with the finest of combs; Nabokov has subjected Pushkin to forensic scrunity. The difference is that these works of Pushkin’s and Auden’s were not just studied: they were lived through in a way that is anathema to the academic …
And then, with that closing ellipsis — Dyer’s, not mine — he saves himself, in my opinion, by finally coming to some sense. The next paragraph reads:
Except this is nonsense of course. Scholars live their work too. Leon Edel — to take one example from hundreds — embraced Henry James’s life and work as perilously intimately as any writer ever has. I withdraw that claim, it’s ludicrous, it won’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I withdraw it unconditionally — but I also want to let it stand, conditionally.
And now he gets all angry again —
Scholarly work on the texts, on preparing lovely editions of Lawrence’s letters is one thing but those critical studies that we read at university … Research! Research! The very work is like a bell, tolling the death and the imminent turning to dust of whichever poor sod is being researched. Spare me. Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.
Well. As much as I’d like to stay irritated with Dyer, I relent a little bit, because that closing sentence was wonderful, and so is this passage, just a little after the above:
That’s why Lawrence is so exciting: he took the imaginative line in all his criticism, in the Study of Thomas Hardy or the Studies in Classic American Literature, or the ‘Introduction to his Paintings’. Each of them is an electrical storm of ideas! Hit and miss, illuminating even when hopelessly wide of the mark (‘the judgment may be all wrong: but this was the impression I got’). Bang! Crash! Lightning flash after lightning flash, searing, unpredictable, dangerous.
Yes, I too love criticism that takes the imaginative line, which Dyer’s book certainly does, and which any kind of critic is capable of doing, writer or not — a fact Dyer does recognize, if grudgingly. This makes me long to read the Study of Thomas Hardy and Studies in Classic American Literature. And, although I’m still mildly irritated with Dyer, I’m more than willing to read on in his book …