Cynic, Charlatan, or Genius?
Arthur Rose, Literary Cynics: Borges, Beckett, Coetzee
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £80.00, ISBN 9781474258647
reviewed by Rafe McGregor
The monograph consists of five main parts: an introduction, a chapter on cosmopolitan fame, and a chapter each on the three authors in the subtitle. The four chapters are sandwiched between five short interstitial texts called ‘Paradoxes’, of which Rose makes the curious claim that ‘they may be read or ignored without too much disruption to the reading process.’ To perpetrate the failure of which I shall accuse him below, I think that these are in fact the most important parts of the developing critical argument, weaving each of the three authors into a tapestry that includes their predecessors and is completed in the fifth paradox, ‘Creaturely Dog Men’, rather than the two-page conclusion. I justify this contention on the basis that the paradoxes establish links between the authors that are more tangible than the stylistic features discussed in detail by Rose in chapters two, three, and four. The combination of this misdirection with Rose’s affinity for the repetition of verbs like appropriate, interrogate, and perform and a liberal use of scare quotes creates a persistent and ultimately persuasive impression that he has appropriated the very cynicism he explores in Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, and JM Coetzee.
Rose’s aim is nonetheless admirably clear, to develop a critical theory of the cynical literary use of language in post-war World Literature. The literary use of language is itself a device for establishing literary authority and literary cynicism is the ‘paradoxical use and abuse of literary authority’. The paradox is that certain writers – of which Borges, Beckett, and Coetzee are paradigmatic – were granted literary authority on the basis of a self-reflexive style that attempted to undermine their authority and that this is especially evident in the late work of all three. The authors adopt a cynical cosmopolitanism, using their own fame as an aesthetic means of representing their political subjectivity, and cynical cosmopolitanism becomes literary cynicism when it takes the form of what Rose calls ‘alienated appropriation’ when discussing Borges. The idea is that the author simultaneously appropriates and distances himself (all of the literary cynics are male) from his reputation and in so doing problematises not only his own authority but the relation between authority and authorship. In proposing that the integration of aesthetic and political value in the late work of Borges, Beckett, and Coetzee should be understood in terms of Michel Foucault’s appropriation of Diogenes’ cynicism, Rose is – in more prosaic terms – making an argument for a new literary movement, style, or categorisation. Rose writes in the same way he lectures, with great authority, and he flexes his extensive knowledge of both literary particulars and philosophical generalisations with fluency, flair, and self-assurance.
In his brief conclusion Rose identifies his work with Foucault’s and – whatever other critical affiliations he may profess or deny – writes from a post-structural perspective. At the root of post-structuralism is the thesis that language is composed of signifier-signifier relations (word to word) rather than signifier-signified (word to object), that the signifier-signifier relations are in state of constant change, and that meaning is therefore never constituted. Every word is not only identical to itself, but also different from itself because that word had a different meaning in the past, is currently being put to different uses, and will have another meaning in the future. Meaning can never be fixed because there is always some usage that is in excess of the attempt to tie it down to a definition. The other pillar of post-structuralism, Jacques Derrida, used this excess to formulate the logic of supplementarity, by which the concepts that an author appears or intends to prioritise – for example, speech in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) – are shown to be not only reliant upon the structural relation with their polar opposites – for example, writing – but in fact subordinate to those opposites. The consequence of this logic for deconstructive criticism is that practitioners have often focused on features ignored by other critics and brought minutiae, trivia, or even marginalia to centre stage.
Rose’s decision to concentrate on the late works of the three authors is well-judged, avoiding the need to recap or summarise vast amounts of criticism on the literary luminaries and offering evidence of stylistic similarity. The problem is that he takes the post-structural imperative to its extreme and his chapter on Coetzee, which is representative of his overall approach, is focused not only Coetzee’s use of adverbs and adjectives, but on Coetzee’s use of two variations of the same word: mere and merely. When one considers the rich literary and philosophical content of the two works thus analysed, Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007), this post-structural pedantry – perpetrated by a critic who obviously grasps the full import of the works – is, well, cynical. It also produces statements such as this:
The word “mere” is deployed ten times and the word “merely” five in Diary of a Bad Year. While it would be erroneous to claim that the novel (or even the essays that form part of the novel) may be explained through the exegesis of these instances, they do provide interesting points of reference to an argument about Coetzee’s rhetoric, and how it interacts with the generic purpose of the essay to write the self-as-matter.
The result is that Rose’s interesting points of reference – and there are dozens in Literary Cynics – obscure his argument, the argument about Coetzee’s rhetoric in the fourth chapter and the overarching argument of the book. I am sure Rose is well aware of this, which is why I read Literary Cynics as a performance of literary cynicism, undermining its own authority by deliberating obscuring the argument that connects Borges, Beckett, and Coetzee. I have no doubt that Rose is a cynic, the question is whether his cynicism is tinctured with charlatanry or genius.