Out of Sheer Rage, continued

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 …


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Out of Sheer Rage, continued

  1. The obsessive and irritating element of Out of Sheer Rage might be explained by the fact that the book is written as a pastiche of Thomas Bernhard’s style. I mention it here only because his name doesn’t appear in your two posts – though I think Dyer himself refers to Bernhard in the introduction.


  2. Steve — thanks for the info — Dyer mentions Bernhard at least once in the book, maybe a couple times. He mentions him in particular as one of his favorite novelists. I haven’t read Bernhard, but I see I will have to soon…


  3. Does anyone ever really through books across the room when they are mad at them? Burning a book because you are mad at it seems a bit excessive. Maybe Dyer is bi-polar and forgot to take his medicine that day?


  4. Oh dear, just as I was getting excited about this book. I would be most annoyed by such a childish response. And to cap it all, quoting George Steiner who is at Churchill College not far at all from my own college makes a mockery of what he is saying. He’s about as academic as they come! I’ve just seen Stefanie’s comment above and burst out laughing! I think she has it just right.


  5. Stefanie — you may well be right! The passage I discussed, though, is really not representative of the entire book — it’s a small portion and Dyer seems to know he’s being a bit of an ass. But at the same time his love of literature does come through, so it’s not an entirely alienating passage.

    Litlove — I don’t mean to ruin a book you might like! However, while I like Dyer’s persona in the book, I would hesitate to suggest that others might like him — I can see that some might find him annoying. But really — the whole book isn’t like this!


  6. I added this to my list after your last post, and this entry only intrigues me more. We all know of academic criticism that is so convoluted and self-absorbed as to be patently ridiculous, but I love reading good criticism. Dyer’s ambivalence amuses me and anyone that can behave like an ass, then acknowledge and laugh at himself makes me smile all the more.


  7. Is he an academic himself? I take it that he probably isn’t. I was looking at the book you read previously by him and it sounds a bit like a travel narrative–I think that might be more up my alley.


  8. Jenclair — oh yes, I know that bad kind of criticism well, having had to read lots of it! I do think there are more good critics out there than people generally believe, however. Based on your last sentence, I think you’d like Dyer!

    Danielle — no, he’s not an academic, although he does have an Oxford English degree. But he’s too angry about formal literary study to be an academic! And yeah, the Yoga book is more of a travel book, although the Lawrence one does have a good bit of travel too.


  9. Pingback: Hating literary criticism « Of Books and Bicycles

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