Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

José Saramago and the Elephant

This morning, the Portuguese newspaper Público reported that the rights to José Saramago’s estate had been granted to the Andrew Wylie agency, a company known for negotiating exorbitant sums for its clients and for transforming allegedly progressive cultural figures into the kind of money-grubbing upper-crusters they publicly claim to despise. In the documentary José y Pilar, Saramago digresses prophetically about the inspiration for his novel A viagem do Elefante. Having seen, in a European country, the foot of an elephant in an antique shop refashioned as an umbrella stand, he thought of the animal’s birthplace in faraway India and the travails it must have suffered through before arriving at its ridiculous destiny.

FullSizeRenderIt is difficult to see what distinguishes the treatment of the writings of  the lifelong communist Saramago, offspring of a peasant family in Ribatejo, from the indignities suffered by this mysterious animal for the amusement of the wealthy.

In their imaginative sensitivity, Saramago’s meditations on the elephant’s vanished life recollect those of Flaubert concerning the twin of an obelisk at Luxor, stolen away and shipped to France to be erected in the center of Paris:

Perched on its pedestal, how bored it must be in the Place de la Concorde! How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?

Paris obelisk  - sketch of the capstan used to raise it in Paris - from The Architectural magazine

Nabokov’s Critique of Dostoevsky: Some Thoughts

fyodor-dostoevsky_2-tI am not sure of the nature of the enduring attraction Dostoevsky holds over me. Nabokov, who esteemed him poorly, but whose offhanded tone often conceals real depth of thought, particularly as regards matters artistic, made a number of acute observations about Dostoevsky, chief among them that he was a playwright of brilliance burdened by a novelist’s ambition. This dramatic disposition leads to a negligent attitude with regards to the sensory textures that form the bedrock of poetic truth (incidentally, this is what is magical, though it tends sadly to be passed over in favor of more obviously lurid sexual and political aspects, in the better novels of Mishima, the fact that nothing exists outside of time: the white faces of the Kabuki actors, “powdered even more meticulously than usual,” a golden fan giving off scarlet reflections as it oscillates, a “late-flowering gentian.” Nabokov rightly notes such details are absent in Dostoevsky):

If you examine closely any of his works, say The Brothers Karamazov, you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist.

Nabokov goes on to describe the novel as:

a straggling play, with just that amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors: a round table with the wet, round trace of a glass, a window painted yellow to make it look as if there were sunlight outside, or a shrub hastily brought in and plumped down by a stagehand.

All this is true, and yet I cannot contemn Dostoevsky as an artist, and in his most heart-wrenching moments –– Ivan’s rejection of theodicy, which he cannot reconcile with the suffering of children, the shimmering suppressed chapter of the otherwise mediocre Demons, or the episode of Ilyusha and the toy cannon, which even Nabokov acknowledges the excellence of (I cannot help but mention, because Nabokov himself was so merciless with readers who got such things wrong, that the cannon in question is brass or bronze and not silver, as Nabokov has it) –– in these moments, he reaches a degree of pathetic sublimity to me far more moving than the bombast of Tolstoy when one of his personages has some grand realization or other, though I understand why Tolstoy is thought the better artist.

Perhaps the gravamen here is what passes for a novel, and how much this has changed in recent years. While the roman à clef and its analogues have existed for centuries, they bore a basic similarity to the novel proper, which could be described in terms of a number of generic criteria; this is true even for many of the apparently quite radical books gathered under the rubric “modernist.” Since the late 1960’s, however, the novel has come to be defined apophatically: for me the book that marks a turning point is Peter Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance, though there must be many precedents I am unaware of. From that time forward, the novel becomes a refuge, however nominal, for a kind of prose that, while eschewing conventions of character and plot, longs for a kind of poetic freedom that established non-fiction genres abjure.

Nabokov describes Dostoevsky as a genius of spiritual morbidity. It is representative of the kinds of radical divergences of symbolic longings upon which so much of artistic taste is founded that Dostoevsky’s expression of this genius, which strikes me as sublime, should not even enter, for Nabokov, into the domain of art as such. One is used to disagreements of taste arising from disagreements over principles, but I find very little inapposite in Nabokov’s ideas about Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky is a sentimentalist, a blowhard, his plots are creaky, he writes potboilers, he has little feeling for the sensual, and yet for me, none of this matters, I can find all that is missing from him in the writings of others and these others do not quell my desire for what he offers. Nabokov claims to be an advocate of disinterested appreciation, I myself have always considered this idea to be a chimera, the aesthetic transposition of court etiquette into the domain of the spirit. It is clear, in any case, that Nabokov’s objection to Dostoevsky is as much personal as aesthetic, that he finds him a distasteful character, and his remarks on the subject are illuminating:

We must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive.” A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at the Traviata. A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on. Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoevski, we mean the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.

This last comment is most important, marking as it does what is precisely so despicable in tearjerker books and films (for a witty send-up of a particularly awful subset of this genre, which one might dub that of the sagacious retard, see the Dewey Awards skit from Mr. Show here). Sketching out an innocent being, pulling the usual heartstrings, and then subjecting that creature to some florid disaster is a cheap technique, and one Dostoevsky employs promiscuously; yet whereas Nabokov seems to think it is for effect, I liken it to what traumatology refers to as intrusive memory. Zinaida Trubetskaya reports that Dostoevsky confessed to her that when he was a child, a drunken soldier had raped one of his playmates. He ran to fetch his father, a doctor, but it was too late; the child bled to death. Dostoevsky was famously affected, like Nietzsche as he fell into madness, by the brutality of a coachman beating a horse in the street. The recurrence of situations in which children, but also countless other avatars of innocence, are abused and degraded, fits neatly with the concept of repetition compulsion, according to which, by means of symbolic re-enactment, one tries to gain control of a traumatic situation that has entirely overwhelmed one’s capacities.

In his attempts to approximate the psychology of the wicked, Dostoevsky comes sufficiently close to the bone that the presentiment of a degree of contamination is not unwarranted. This seems to me the origin, not only of a part of Nabokov’s comments on his sentimentality, but also of the calumny spread about him by the writer Nikolay Strakhov to the effect that Dostoevsky had, with the aid of a governess, raped a child in a bathhouse. (He appears to have purposely twisted an anecdote Dostoevsky recounted from his newspaper reading, which he was considering placing in a novel, and the accusation has never been taken seriously, to my knowledge). In fact, as Nabokov notes, the profiles Dostoevsky comes up with, to use the contemporary cliché, are highly dubious, and tell us more about Dostoevsky’s hysterico-religious tendencies than about the depths of the criminal mind:

He liked to torture, and because of this, he raped a child (Notes to The Demons)

His plots are risible, his only plausible psychological types are ramifications of his own shortcomings (zealous enthusiast, drunken sentimentalist, desperate profligate, brooding habitué of that moral masochism Jankélévitch so brilliantly describes as pseudo-austerity), and yet there is something about him that is indispensable to me: an unwillingness or incapacity to look away from deviance and a sense that to do so it is to vitiate, in some fundamental way, the entirety of the human experiment.

Reading Knausgaard

I have begun reading Knausgaard again after an initial, disappointed first try. It is not especially like Proust, and my guess is that people who make this comparison have not read very much of Proust or the many other very long novels by Arno Schmidt, Anthony Powell, or Marguerite Young with which My Struggle might be compared, at least for variation’s sake. I wonder whether there is something in the Zeitgeist, if Zeitgeist is indeed a real thing, that compels both the literate and subliterate to stories told with a long arc, if there is an overarching cultural drive expressed in the compulsivity with which various persons read My Struggle or the Harry Potter novels or stay up for nights on end burning through whole seasons of Breaking Bad or The Wire; and if there is, what it might mean; whether it might, for example, bear some relation to the voyeuristic tendency that leads one to gawk at a person’s photos on social media or google people one hasn’t seen in years.

Sadly, the better part of book-reviewing, which has come increasingly to fall into the error of calling itself literary criticism, consists in the main of the deployment and redeployment of a small set of adjectives so weak and genetically similar that they resemble a tribe that has lived in long isolation and has no immunity from foreign invaders; as a consequence, when an apparently novel idea comes along, the contagion is near catastrophic. This has happened with the word “banality” in reference to Knausgaard: the notion that he should be praised for making the banal captivating or that the book’s profound allure and alleged banality constitute some sort of paradox. The word is useful because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything and people who write about Knausgaard do not take much trouble to be sure that it does, because then they would have to say something definite and hence falsifiable and taking a proper stand is not a well-developed habit among today’s field of professional, semi-professional, and self-elected literary opinion curators.

It is difficult to see why banality should be more characteristic of Knausgaard’s work than Chekhov’s, or Peter Taylor’s, or countless others’. In fact My Struggle is rife with nuanced discussions of art, emotional conflict, literature, the problem of integrity, and so forth.

My feeling is that actually the writing people have accustomed themselves to is so lacking in the basic skills a writer is supposed to exhibit –– a feeling for texture, for history as embodied in place, sensitivity to detail –– that they are surprised to find a living, still-young writer who displays them consummately, so much so that they herald him as unprecedented. I would not say that Knausgaard is over-hyped, because he writes beautifully and because there is no such thing as the proper amount of hype, in any case; but I have the sense that the exultation characterizing so much of the press surrounding him is as much a product of the deficiencies in literary culture typical of many writers of book-chat as it is of Knausgaard’s obvious talent.

There is a lovely description of frozen green beans in Book One of My Struggle, when Knausgaard is preparing dinner for his brother and his enfeebled grandmother. When he pours the vegetables from the bag, they are “covered in a thin layer of downy frost.” Whether or not a green bean is seen as a dignified subject, it is not at all right to call this observation banal. Elsewhere he describes the folds in an undertaker’s neck as lizardlike. Hundreds of times people look at lizards without noticing how the thin skin of their necks collapses in folds as they turn their head. Knausgaard’s doing so is not a break with what writers have done before; describing things better, more clearly, more truly than others is what writers have done for centuries.

I am never done thinking about the problem of sentimentality in art, and it came back to me this morning, because I am translating an awful book that purports to be a meditation on lost love and lost friendship. Among its less agreeable features are the comic scenes with their tiresome, overwrought jokes to which the characters naturally respond by laughing. The novelist has a poor memory, I think, and so he doesn’t remember what children actually thought was funny; or his powers of observation are poor, and he isn’t quite clear on what people normally find funny; or perhaps he has made the mistake of thinking the story is what matters and so the barest lineaments of a joke will do to move things forward, he can write “everyone laughed” and the effect will be like a laugh track on a syndicated comedy and will similarly trick the dimwitted into believing something comical has transpired.

A writer’s integrity hinges on the truth of such small moments.

Late in the first volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove and Yngve are drinking with their grandmother, and, enlivened by the alcohol, she begins to tell stories from her past. She reminds Yngve of how he stayed with her when he was a boy, and when his father came to pick him up, he had grown a beard, “And you ran upstairs shouting, ‘He’s not my Dad!'” She continues: “And then there was the time we were listening to the radio, and they were talking to the owner of Norway’s oldest horse. Do you remember that? ‘Dad, you’re the same age as Norway’s oldest horse,’ you said.”

It is hard to pin down what is so vibrant and true in passages like this; in some sense, that is the task of aesthetics, to clarify such intuitions.


The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”


The infamy of literature

This morning, reading a broadly acclaimed biography of a celebrated writer, I came across a sympathetic account of the latter’s father, who had died as a consequence of a botched medical procedure, followed by an apparently sincere appreciation of the struggles this man had been forced to undergo as a consequence of his race, his poverty, and his condition of exile. I thought of how the web of privileged acquaintances that had made the composition of this biography possible and had led to its becoming a popular and critical success was analogous to the endogamous apportionment of money and privileges that had rendered the life of this émigré father so bitter and disappointing and his death so derisible. This is a picture in miniature of the infamy of literature and of the cultivation of feeling as an end in itself. In many cases literature is no more than a means by which, from a position of privilege, people of a sensitivity that quite easily grades into the cagey profit from sorrows already long since brought into flower, about which nothing can now be done, to assure themselves a place in the prevailing social and economic order where they will be tolerated as a kind of pampered moral ornament. 

Nicolas Bouyssi on Édouard Levé


Translated on the fly, in the morning, without coffee.

The author’s name is not an evaluative criterion. The author’s name is not a frame. The names Homer and Shakespeare include, perhaps, countless men. The distinction between the abstract and the figurative artwork has long been obsolete. Art has scarcely anything to do with reportage. Art has scarcely anything to do with journalism though it does, perhaps, have something to do with investigation. A monumental work is not more important or ambitious than one that is not so. Literary or artistic pleasure are not based on identification. The possibility of identifying or not identifying with a character cannot be an evaluative criterion. That which art wishes to say lacks any sort of importance, what rather matters is knowing what the epoch seems to be saying via art, and how to decode it. It is always possible to say the same thing through a photo or through text. The arts are symmetrical and take nourishment from one another. The symmetry of praxis is the opposite of diffuseness and of dilettantism. Monumental art, like the timeworn conservation of redundancy, is an art that is afraid of not making itself understood. Architecture is an enduring art with which nearly no one knows how to identify. Decorative art is an ephemeral art that is afraid of its own uselessness. The culture of political engagement, of sternness, has become a ghetto culture, addressing itself solely to those whose apparent searching is derived from their already having found. The bestseller is the cultural logic that dreams of transforming the world into a ghetto. In the one case as in the other, there is no room for interpretation. There is no room for the encounter with an other side, an unforeseen particularity, with alterity, in other words. One has begun to do something, and it progresses, one realizes, up to the point of stumbling over, grazing against, the limits and the interest of one’s milieu or one’s epoch.

From: Esthetique du stéréotype: essai sur Édouard Levé (2011).