22 February 2005

Hearing voices

John Harwood on Eliot:

But the contrast is equally striking: Kafka discovers his voice in his story; Eliot finds a voice in Laforgue. All writing may be rewriting, but not equally so, and in this regard, Kafka and Eliot are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The mature Kafka can certainly be equipped with precursors, but only in the most paradoxical fashion. Borges goes to the heart of the matter in two pages:

At first I had considered him to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognise his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods.

The half-dozen instances offered are as eclectic as can be imagined. 'If I am not mistaken,' he concludes:

the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other....In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist....The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

The last sentence is accompanied by a footnote referring us to 'Tradition and the Individual Talent.'

The fact is that very few writers create their precursors in this sense; Kafka (like Borges) remains as singular as the phoenix, whereas in the best of Eliot we have a poet in whom we can hear, from one angle, nothing
but the voices of his precursors. This is not intended as a value-judgement, but as a distinction in kind. Eliot did not create Laforgue; Laforgue created Eliot. Again with no pejorative intent, we might reverse Eliot's terms and say that, as a poet, he was metamorphosed from a person into a bundle of second-hand sentiments--and that this, though in a costly and ultimately self-defeating way, was the making of him. (122)

I'm still figuring out to what extent I agree with this. Although Harwood is careful not to comment upon questions of "greater" or "lesser," he seems to be distinguishing between two forms of originality. Is it a matter of innovation vs. drawing on a tradition? Or which types of "disparate experiences" are "amalgamated...forming new wholes"? Is it because Eliot "found his voice" in literary sources whereas Kafka drew on himself? Is that even a fair question?

1 comment:

amcorrea said...

Heh. I just reread this and had a mental picture of Kafka doodling on his arm with a black sharpie.