The Casual Optimist

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Tim Parks: Life Transformed into a Series of Categories


Gustave Doré: Canto VII—Hoarders and Wasters, from Dante's Inferno

Tim Parks on literature and bureaucracy for the New York Review of Books blog:

So could it be—and this is the question I really want to ask—that however much literature may appear to be opposed to bureaucracy and procrastination, it actually partakes of the same aberration? Balzac’s Comedie humaine with his declared ambition to “compete with the civil registry”; Proust’s monstrous, magnificent Recherche, which he likened to a cathedral, tediously extending the analogy to every section of the work; Joyce’s encyclopaedic aspirations in Ulysses, his claim that Finnegans Wake would be a history of the entire world. Or go back to Dante, if you like, and his need to find a pigeonhole in hell for every sinner of every category from every sphere of society. Or fast forward again to Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s two incompetents who react to practical failure by becoming obsessive copiers of literary snippets. This without mentioning the contenders for the Great-American-Novel slot, so eager to give the impression that their minds have encompassed and interrelated everything across that enormous continent (one thinks of the interminable lists of contemporary paraphernalia in Franzen’s writing). In each case, however different in tone and content the texts, life is transformed into a series of categories, made more mental, more a matter of words and intellect; we revel in the mind’s ability to possess the world in language, rather than to inhabit it or change it.

(pictured above: Gustave Doré: Canto VII—Hoarders and Wasters, from Dante’s Inferno)

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