Throw Michiko Into the Waste Land

New York Times: “In his new book, ‘T. S. Eliot,’ the British poet Craig Raine gives us a new, more accessible Eliot, an Eliot he describes as a virtuosic fox in terms of style, and a single-minded hedgehog when it came to themes.”

Let me count the ways in which this sentence is stupid. For one thing, why the fuck should “The Waste Land” be “accessible?” It’s not as if Eliot’s masterpiece is a building that needs a fucking handicapped ramp. It’s an epic poem that requires you to take the damn thing apart and find out why it hits you in the gut. “After the torchlit red on sweaty faces?” Come on. It’s pretty fucking clear we’re not reading a Carl Hiassen thriller. It’s pretty fucking clear that we’re not talking about some bullshit dichotomy (Complex style! Simplistic themes! You see! No gray areas! Here’s a helpful bulleted list for you to bring to your book club after you bifurcate the fresh fruit!).

Single-minded hedgehog? Try looking at yourself in the mirror, Michiko.

“The Waste Land” is a poem that requires you to read other poems, that requires you to understand why so many other writers feel compelled to reference it. And poetry itself is a form that requires rereading and note taking and many other things that an active reader engages in (SURE AS FUCKING NOT MICHIKO, who has earned the Pulitzer Prize for the flaccid, worthless and, above, all abso-fucking-lutely bitter “reviews” she regularly files for that bulimic broadsheet).

Second, is Michiko such a reclusive and illiterate dunderhead that her review here is a matter of telling us what the fuck Craig Raine (who Michiko helpfully reminds us is “a poet himself”) is telling us? Are there absolutely no fucking brain cells she can access within her head? Nothing in all her years of reading that she can ruminate upon to give us some concept of what SHE MIGHT FUCKING THINK of T.S. Eliot? Can she not even offer one fucking sentence limning (to momentarily use that dreaded book review verb) Eliot’s prosody? Or is she hopelessly locked in this self-imposed literary menopause and just too damn absinthian to feel anything anymore?

If this is the case (and I suspect it is), then what we have here is a critic who approximates the living embodiment of Cliff’s Notes: dictatorial, synthesizing a process that has never been about a verbal heartbeat, and emitting generalizations in a way that discourages the next generation from literature. Because in this review, it’s not about the poetry, dammit. It’s about Eliot’s “buttoned-up banker’s mien.” It’s about personality. It’s about what Eliot had for breakfast or who he fucked or whether he ate a tuna fish sandwich before penning a canto. But it sure as fuck isn’t about “torchlit red on sweaty faces.” Because Michiko has no desire to sweat. She has no desire to feel. She has no desire to see what’s so fantastic about these five words. She has no desire to throw herself into anything approximating emotion. For Michiko, it’s all about how she can tear someone who’s struggled for years to produce something beautiful a new one in a matter of 1,000 words.

I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough. Why does the New York Fucking Times, the alleged vanguard newspaper that has the temerity to declare itself the cultural fucking gatekeeper, employ so many fucking people who could not give two solid shits about fiction? Who feel the need to stifle this fantastic art form with idiotic banter? Who feel the need to constantly shit upon it without expressing a glimmer of literary interest? And who treat the people who read these reviews like dark and dusty troglodytes who hole up under bridges with books rather than active thinkers who are part of our population?

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6 Comments

  1. Er. I think she was referring to the accessibility of the poet, rather than “The Waste Land.” It’s pretty clear that she’s not using “Eliot” to signify the body of the man’s work, either, because the sentence goes on to describe the “accessible Eliot” Raine is offering us: virtuosic and committed to a dense core of themes. Nowhere does Kakutani begin to imply that “The Waste Land” ought to be easy (or that its themes are particularly simple). “Single-minded hedgehog” is fairly obviously not an insult, especially given that it is a paraphrase of Raine’s words.

    Second, is Michiko such a reclusive and illiterate dunderhead that her review here is a matter of telling us what the fuck Craig Raine…is telling us? …

    Is that her job? As I understand it, her object in writing a review is to describe the book in question and present, defensibly, its relative merits and flaws, so that the reader can decide whether or not to purchase and read the book. She’s to do this with a limited number of words. If I’m reading the review of Craig Raine’s T.S. Eliot, I probably want to know what distinguishes Raine’s take on Eliot from the takes of others. If I’m interested in Kakutani’s feelings on Eliot, I’ll wait for her to write an essay; there’s never going to be enough space in a review for anything but the most superficial, 101-caliber personal ruminations.

    I’d frankly be a bit miffed if Kakutani wasted words putting herself center-stage. Isn’t that egotistical? It’s not that I’m disinterested in a layered, thoughtful discussion of Eliot; reviews simply aren’t the place for it. Even in literary criticism, where there is proper space for extrapolation, so much of what goes on is egomania. In reviews, what abbreviated pseudo-criticism takes place tends even more heavily toward self-aggrandizement.

    This just smacks of eagerness to shit on Kakutani.

  2. Jerome Incandenza January 17, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Hhhhmmm…. @Eric: i really haven’t read the review, nor, should i say, *any* review in the NYTBR since i live in the backwaters of this world, so i can offer no valuable insights on the matter. In addition i haven’t read The Waste Land in the original, only translated, which anyone can say is like not reading it *at all*. But…
    @Ed: i so love it when you turn these angry, flame pieces. I can see you pounding away at your computer, mumbling and muttering all the while. The presence of “fuck” and its derivatives is ample proof of that.
    I am no fan of the polished school of badmouthing, of the academic way of booing somebody we don’t like. Say “fuck” and say “moron” and “dunderhead”. These words exist because they convey a meaning better than others, in some contexts.
    By all means, fire away.

  3. You offer some fair points, Eric. I should also point out that I was suffering from a severe sleep deficit when I wrote this. However, I don’t think offering some idea of what Michiko thinks of Eliot (or other critics, for that matter) is an entirely unreasonable proposition. A critic’s job is to synthesize, compare and contrast. And this is a piss-poor example of a critic failing at her task. Michiko is, by and large, more content (perhaps like this post to some degree) to shit upon her subjects rather than think about them.

  4. “torchlight red”

  5. Ed:

    “dictatorial, synthesizing a process that has never been about a verbal heartbeat, and emitting generalizations in a way that discourages the next generation from literature”

    Kind of cuts both ways.

  6. “Self-imposed literary menopause?” Dude, hate women much?

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