Writing Against Time

Writing Against Time

by Michael W. Clune


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For centuries, a central goal of art has been to make us see the world with new eyes. Thinkers from Edmund Burke to Elaine Scarry have understood this effort as the attempt to create new forms. But as anyone who has ever worn out a song by repeated listening knows, artistic form is hardly immune to sensation-killing habit. Some of our most ambitious writers—Keats, Proust, Nabokov, Ashbery—have been obsessed by this problem. Attempting to create an image that never gets old, they experiment with virtual, ideal forms. Poems and novels become workshops, as fragments of the real world are scrutinized for insights and the shape of an ideal artwork is pieced together. These writers, voracious in their appetite for any knowledge that will further their goal, find help in unlikely places. The logic of totalitarian regimes, the phenomenology of music, the pathology of addiction, and global commodity exchange furnish them with tools and models for arresting neurobiological time. Reading central works of the past two centuries in light of their shared ambition, Clune produces a revisionary understanding of some of our most important literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804770828
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/09/2013
Pages: 198
Sales rank: 1,216,951
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael Clune is Assistant Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of a previous work of criticism, American Literature and the Free Market , and of a forthcoming memoir, White Out.

Read an Excerpt


By Michael W. Clune


Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7081-1

Chapter One


IMAGINARY MUSIC is the first weapon Romantic writing deploys in its war against time. Immanuel Kant, John Keats, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, and Marcel Proust all imagine musical forms that resist neurobiological time's erosive force. But why imaginary music? Time is a great enemy. One wouldn't bring an imaginary knife to a gunfight. These writers' interest in virtual forms thus immediately raises a fundamental question. Does the imagination of time-resistant music represent some kind of victory or an admission of complete defeat? Can the creation of imaginary music really count as an achievement?

A simple experiment will decide the issue. Close your eyes. Pick a familiar song, one that once gave you intense joy, and that now gives you a milder pleasure or none. Try to remember what the song sounded like when you first heard it. Recall what it sounded like the last time you heard it. Now imagine a different kind of song. This song will sound just as fresh after several hundred listenings as it did on first hearing. Imagine listening to this song. How do you feel? What is the song like? Describe the features that imbue it with unfading freshness.

My intuition is that the mental operations this experiment elicits will provoke little resistance until the subject is asked to imagine the different song. At that point, I suspect, most people will find it very difficult to imagine this new, habit-resistant music in anything but the most general terms. If my intuition is justified, then a piece of writing that makes it possible to imagine what such music is like with any detail will have achieved something significant.

What resistance does such writing have to overcome? Why is it hard to imagine music that stays new? I will approach these questions through a different one. Why is it hard to imagine seeing with our ears? This is the question Thomas Nagel poses in his 1974 essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Nagel posits an "explanatory gap" between everything we can learn about a bat from a third-person perspective and the subjective experience, the "feel," of actually being a bat. The bat's sonar, a mode of perception unlike any human capacity, lends the example its particular salience. We know about sonar. Science can describe the mechanism by which the bat creates an image of space through the emission and reception of sound waves in abundant detail. But to know what it is like to experience the world through sonar, we need to imaginatively place ourselves in the bat's position. And imagination, Nagel argues, is simply not powerful enough to do this.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk.... Insofar as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. (520-21)

For Nagel, our past experience imposes a limit on our perceptual imagination. To the extent we are able to robustly imagine new perceptions, we do so by piecing together familiar perceptions. I may never have eaten pineapple ice cream, but if I have had pineapples and ice cream I can do a good job of imagining what this would be like. If I love pineapples, however, it might be difficult to imagine what pineapple ice cream would taste like to someone who hates them. It might not be as hard as imagining what it's like to have sonar, but it wouldn't be easy. Perception, after all, is not just raw sensation, but sensation filtered through a set of capacities, memories, associations, and desires. It might even be hard to specify exactly what the pineapple lover's taste perception shares with the pineapple hater's. Does the hater register the same precise mixture of sweet and tart as I do before she spits it out? Or does the recognition—this isn't peach ice cream, it's pineapple!—blot out everything else?

How can I imagine the world from the perspective of a different perceptual organization? The first step would be to eradicate my own habitual associations. Nagel reasonably doubts our ability to do this. But we can imagine such an imaginative ability. Bruce Sterling, in his 1985 science fiction novel Schizmatrix, writes about a technology that closes the explanatory gap by showing you exactly what it is like to be a giant insect equipped with a very inhuman sensory apparatus. And as soon as one plugs in, the technology "render[s] everything novel" (176). The device that answers Nagel's question—what is it like to have a different sense?—also answers the question with which we began—what kind of object can defeat habit? Here is a fuller excerpt of Sterling's description of the experience of the character transformed by "The Shatter."

He could see time lying on the world like a sheen, a frozen blur of movement chopped out of context and painted onto the surface of the cold stone like alien shellac. Walls became floors, balustrades cold barricades. He realized then that he had too many legs.... He became aware of fine detail within the stone, the surface suddenly no more than frozen smoke, a hard fog petrified by captive eons. (176)

Through some organ unknown to us, the alien sensorium enables the character to "see time." Time is fully spatialized. Thus the effect of plunging a person into a different perceptual matrix—everything becomes new—is here mirrored by the nature of the alien sense. We ordinarily experience neurobiological time as a gradual darkening of novel surfaces. Sterling's alien sense literalizes and dramatizes this dynamic. The character sees the objects of the world standing in pools of time, masked beneath time's "hard fog." Time is externalized, pushed out of the brain. Time afflicts objects, not the permanently peeled senses of the Shattered.

The device produces unending novelty by placing a character's consciousness inside another nervous system. It accomplishes this transfer by using a combination of a drug called "PDKL," "adhesive eye-cups," and "microprongs" to stimulate the brain in radically new ways. When Proust, writing some sixty years before Sterling, imagines a technology for producing this effect, he calls it "music." For Marcel, Vinteuil's late music is a device for grafting the composer's sensorium onto the listener's brain, a procedure that endows the experience of the work with "permanent novelty" (III, 728).

Despite the originality of his description of the effects of Vinteuil's septet, which I take up in detail below, Proust's choice of music as his ideal art form is hardly idiosyncratic. Carl Dahlhaus has written of music's special status in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Music is an "untimely art" in this period, "neo-Romantic" in a modernist context. Dahlhaus shows how intellectuals saw post-Wagnerian instrumental works as offering "the prototype of an alternative world" (7). He reads Nietzsche's writing about Wagner as the fullest formulation of a "comprehensive concept of absolute music which reveals the latent unity of musical aesthetics in the nineteenth century" (39).

In his early essay "On Music and Words," Nietzsche, while still under Wagner's spell, nevertheless resists the master's belief that the finale of Beethoven's ninth symphony had exposed the limits of absolute music and revealed the necessity of joining words and music in a new "total" artwork. For Nietzsche, this gets things exactly wrong. Music represents a pure transmission that is only polluted by words; music communicates a state that resists translation into our familiar semantic categories. By 1887, after completely breaking with Wagner, Nietzsche could write: "Compared with music all communication by words is shameless ... words make the uncommon common" (Will to Power, 428).

Marcel Proust and John Keats approach the hard problem of Romantic aesthetics—the vulnerability of the work to neurobiological time—by creating imaginary musics. I begin with Proust, showing how he radicalizes Nietzsche's belief in music's communicative power to imagine a way of permanently translating the common world into the uncommon. I then examine the ekphrasis of music in several of Keats's key works, showing how he experiments with different kinds of imaginary sound and different kinds of imaginary listeners in order to overcome the paradox of "Bright Star," and to robustly imagine a way to "feel for ever." My discussions of Proust and Keats are linked by a section in which I argue that the concept of duration in Kant's Critique of Judgment provides us with a model for understanding the achievement of virtual aesthetics in making the unimaginable imaginable.

* * *

In Swann's encounter with the "little phrase" of Vinteuil's sonata, Proust describes the trajectory of aesthetic experience from an initial intense renewal of the feeling of life, to growing familiarity with and knowledge of the work's form, to recognition of an object that belongs to the understanding but no longer to the senses. By the end of the process, the life force that the work stimulated has ebbed, and the little phrase has become powerless to renew it. Even the most bewitching music suffers the same fate Proust ascribes to furniture. A striking new object arrives, you get used to it, and then you hardly even see it. We require new music to set the furniture on fire. Each given work comes with an experiential expiration date, so we need a constant supply of new works, new styles, new forms.

But later in Proust's vast novel, Marcel suggests that even new objects of experience might be insufficient to keep his senses young.

A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. (III, 732)

Here Marcel detects a flaw in what I have called the reasonable solution to art's hard problem. Critics ranging from Viktor Shklovksy to Michael Fried see the historical evolution of technique as ameliorating the limited ability of individual works to make time swell and stop. But Proust suggests that this constant tinkering with objects and techniques is deluded: the problem is in our heads, not in objects. Time's poison attacks our senses; switching styles is just switching deck chairs on the Titanic.

Of course, our best critics of innovation are hardly advocating the difference without a difference of consumerist novelty, the cynical alterations in packaging characteristic of the false, tranquilizing newness that Horkheimer and Adorno denounce in popular culture. Shklovsky and Fried consider artworks to be special objects, specially designed techniques for countering the slow death of perception, and for overcoming our inevitable adjustment to the last route to presentness.

But, Marcel worries, isn't there a limit to our susceptibility to these techniques? In Search of Lost Time understands habit to be a protean force, a powerful enemy. One can get used to anything. After enough time, couldn't one get used even to the experience of genuinely new works? Alternately, couldn't thirty or forty years of slowly congealing habit render us utterly immune to the shock that would crack the crust of neurobiological time and give us a glimpse of the world? Perhaps, Marcel speculates, the code of habituated perception eventually becomes too hard for the artistic code-breakers. He adapts the metaphor of travel to point to the all-too-familiar truth he suspects may apply to the artistic realm: wherever I go, there I am.

Earlier Marcel had compared art's ceaseless innovation to science. Now this innovation seems empty to him. While artistic change might provide ample scope for a pedantic history of styles, for Marcel it has lost its vital function as minister to a basic human need. The reasonable solution to the hard problem has come to seem to him like a cheap subterfuge designed to make us accept the slow work of time by tricking us with worthless remedies.

But he does not despair. The passage above comes after he has concluded that Vinteuil's sonata can no longer speak to him. But he has discovered a new work, a late Vinteuil septet, which has opened his eyes to the possibility of a radical solution to the hard problem. Here is how the passage continues:

If we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees ... and this we can do ... with a Vinteuil. (732)

Like Swann, Marcel experiences music as a "fountain of youth." But the episode from which I excerpt this passage marks a complete reversal of the logic that drove Swann's rapture. For Swann, intensity of perception is coincident with the initial fuzziness of the work's form. When he got to know it, when the form resolved into clarity, the magic fled. As Germaine Bree writes, "In the last analysis, music has made him live more intensely—but only for a moment" (194).

When Marcel hears the late septet, the new work "made me feel as keen a joy as the sonata would have given me if I had not already known it" (725). The effect—arresting neurobiological time, defeating habit, experiencing full life in perception—is the same for him as for Swann. But the means are utterly different. Now, knowledge of the work does not militate against its experiential effectiveness. Only Marcel's deciphering of the intricacies of this late music enables it to perform its work of renewal. And, above all, the late work is distinguished with respect to the earlier by its complexity. The sonata's power was concentrated in a single phrase. It is the septet as a whole that fascinates Marcel. This imaginary septet seems to be partially based on Beethoven's late quartets—renowned for their difficulty—and the addition of three extra parts seems intended to multiply the complexity. Swann's phrase is a duration of modulated sound; it gives him a sonic impression, and is perhaps modeled on the impressionism of early Debussy or Ravel. But the septet is a communication, and its complexity is dictated by the sheer magnitude of the information it is designed to convey.

Like Nietzsche, of whom he was a devoted reader, Proust here understands music to be a fantastically efficient mode of communication. Music enables, through its direct transcendence of language's imbrication with familiar concepts, transmission of the composer's very perceptual organization. In mastering the musical structure's dense web of relations, Marcel pieces together the sensory organization of another being. Music gives Marcel a glimpse of the world through the composer's eyes.

Vinteuil's works have the "apparently paradoxical and indeed deceptive quality of permanent novelty." Because the unique individuality of the composer's perceptual being permeates the work, "Vinteuil, although he had appeared at his appointed hour and had his appointed place in the evolution of music, would always leave that place to stand in the forefront whenever any of his compositions was performed" (728). Vinteuil's formal vocabulary is historical; anyone knowledgeable about music can tell he comes after Wagner, and before Stravinsky. But if his vocabulary renders him commensurable with other composers of his era and locates him in historical time, the particular use he makes of that vocabulary in his late works expresses the absolute singularity of an individual's perceptual experience, and removes him from every time scale.

Like Sterling's "Shatter," the Vinteuil septet recalibrates the listener's perceptual apparatus, tuning it to another key. Once deciphered and internalized, the work is not an object of experience; it is a subject of experience. Marcel feels as Vinteuil felt, he hears as the dead composer heard. Proust presents this aesthetic virtually, as a description of a character's encounter with an imaginary piece of music. But others have seen it as a reasonable description of how actual art works. Georges Poulet, for example, develops Marcel's reflections on Vinteuil into an influential critical perspective. In "Phenomenology of Reading" Poulet examines "this strange displacement of myself by the work" (59).

When I read Baudelaire or Racine, it is really Baudelaire or Racine who thinks, feels, allows himself to be read within me. Thus a book is not only a book, it is the means by which an author actually preserves his ideas, his feelings, his modes of dreaming and living.... Indeed every word of literature is impregnated with the mind of the one who wrote it. (58)


Excerpted from WRITING AGAINST TIME by Michael W. Clune Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Writing Against Time 1

1 Imaginary Music 23

2 The Addictive Image 57

3 Big Brother Stops Time 87

4 The Cultured Image 115

Conclusion: From Representation to Creation 139

Notes 151

Bibliography 171

Index 185

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Writing Against Time 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lul I'm bored.. Cirrus walked around, kicking dirt and rocks. Her black hair was cut short, with some faded purple streaks left. A single tear trickled down from her blue eyes, which were clouded with sadness. "God damn." She muttered, wiping the tear away. Cirrus heard a crack in the bushes, instantly pulling her bow and arrow out. "Hold your fire." A commanding voice said, an older boy stepping out with a sword drawn. He had the same blue eyes and dark hair, a firece look drawn across his face. "Who the hell are you?" Cirrus asked." And don't tell me what I can and can't do." She aimed at him threatingly. "God dammit, you can't be serious Cirrus?" He put the swod in its sheath and brushed his hair away from her eyes. "You can't possibly be telling me that......" Cirrus gasped, thinking back to when she was little *lul flashback because yolo* A younger version of Cirrus ran around, the boy behind her with a toy airplane. The two giggled and Cirrus fell on her back, looking at the sky. "Look Raven! Look at the clouds!" She exclaimed, pointing at all of them. "That one looks like a bird!" "That is a bird, stupid!" Cirrus punched him playfully in the arm, then petted his head. "Pfh, I knew tha......" Raven answered, smiling. *end of le flashehbackeh* Cirrus broke into tears." R..Raven?" Raven hugged her, and Cirrus began to cry happily." I found you......" He murmured, messing up her hair. Cirrus smiled and puched him lightly." And I missed you." ••••••••••••••••••••• Le sobbeh storeh. I wuz bored. Sorreh.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I ran faster and faster, when BAM! The ground hit my face as i tripped on the root. I almost yelled but covered my mouth. No no no! I told myself. No screaming. My ankle was already swelling. I wrapped it up as best as i could but it still hurt. I began to swing in the branches. I heard barking "Crap( is that cussing?)" I muttered "they found me. " i climbed up high then bagan to swing quietly. I heard shouts as they paswed me. Why did he have to frame me? Now i had to go. I began to swing again untill i came to the ejd of the fotest. I collapsed and everything went black.______ when i opened my eye there was someone spooning broth into my mouth. I began to freak out then a voice said "dont worry. The mermaids will care for you. " i realized i was underwater and breathing! I looked under the covers and i had a tail. I gaped at it then... "dear..dont ypu recognize me? " a flash od memory shot through me. "M-mom?" I asked "yes dear. " suddenly the years of blankness brightened. I remembered swimmimng with my froends, singing at school, hugging my parents. I swam out with my mothr and saw my father "Coral?" His pipe dropped. "I thought those two fins had you for good!" We embraced. We shqred sories and stayed happy for the rest of our lives. (I rp a charachter at sewoa. Im a shapeshifter and im named Artenitia)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There was a beautiful she cat named duststar and she was lonely all of her mates have died. Then she invited a friend over named tigerclaw. He said you have eyes as beautiful as the sunset. And a half an hour later the mated. Sorry so short. True story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Sniffling a couple yards of snot back in with this exact sound effect: 'HEEEEEEEEFINAGINGWEGHARFBLAR' He continues on his adventure* Inhales, then exhales, inhales, then exhales, inhales, then exhales, inhales, then exhales *pausing for a fa<3>pping break his face slowly turns blue* GRHAKGINGNEARD! Huge inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale. *Takes another break to clean up the... mess left from his previous break, he holds h breath for an incredible amount of time* OHSWEETBABYJESUSINEEDAIR Inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale, inhale, then exhale.