There’s something incredibly unsettling about the dispassionate description captured in these lines, which the reader encounters midway through “Pinky Agarwalia,” a science fiction narrative written by the British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil. By Kapil’s account, the story revolves around the destruction of what was once Earth by a thermonuclear war and opens in medias res with the narrative voice of its eponymous protagonist: the orphaned Punjabi child named Pinky Agarwalia.
One of the touchstone quotations in Franco Moretti’s work on distant reading is a line from the composer Arnold Schoenberg, which Moretti seems to have encountered in Theodor Adorno’s The Philosophy of Modern Music. It’s a repudiation of middles, and it goes like this: “The middle road . . . is the only one which does not lead to Rome.” In Moretti’s “Modern European Literature: A Geographical Sketch” (1991), Schoenberg’s claim helps set up a series of polarizations within modernism—James Joyce and Franz Kafka, T. S.
When I tried to write on the scale of the literary object, I found myself mired in complications. These were as much methodological as epistemological. The problems I encountered had to do with reading as a practice—the fact that reading inevitably encounters objects that stretch and contort, exceeding the horizon one brings to them, thus unbalancing the scales rather than making them fall from our eyes. Not only are scales of many kinds already “in” the literary object, but no two literary objects should be read according the same scale or with the same eyes. Rather than bring in external measurements to comprehend these strange artifacts, which we do anyway whether we like it or not, I suggest that reading should follow the idiosyncratic metrics of the text, allowing it to instruct us and, if we are lucky, to change the way we construct the “objectivity” of the object.
What sociological knowledge do we possess of contemporary literary culture? Very little, as Amy Hungerford points out, for the basic reason that the objects of sociological study are “virtually unreachable by the ordinary means of scholarly inquiry.” The fine-grained interactions of living, breathing social actors—writers and editors, publishers and booksellers, students and teachers, all going about their business as you read this sentence—cannot be recovered from historical archives or extrapolated from literary texts. Partially, the methodological problem is one of contemporaneity. We cannot arrest the flow of the present to study it any more than we can raise the dead from their graves and order them to speak. But in the ever-expanding field of contemporary literary activity, the problem is also one of number and scale: more people are reading and writing than ever before in more socio-institutional settings and in more disparate ways. Given the massive profusion and diffusion of literary culture, how does a literary scholar select the texts and readers she will study from among the many that are available to her in any given social context: a publishing house, an MFA program, a literature classroom, a book club, an online forum? How can the analysis of a single text or reader or institution, marked by the innumerable and ephemeral contingencies of time and space, scale up into a general theory of contemporary literary production or reception.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote “Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo.” His were to be read slowly. We literary critics who are slow readers may find a compensatory gift, a certain quality of attention, well suited to closely reading poetry. For musicians, the analog, poor sight-reading, could be considered a boon: cautiously stumbling through an unfamiliar score yields a hard-won understanding of the contours of melodic and harmonic lines and details in phrasing and a physical sense of a piece’s range. Along the twin paths of ancient Greek’s lyric into modern poetry and music, meter remains a key common term, with all the dangers of a false cognate. However, another musical measure of time, tempo, is more useful for accounting for the varying paces at which text and music are experienced, and for the gifts that slow, belabored encounters offer scholars. The premise of this essay is that when set to music for the voice, the elasticity of a poem’s time scale surfaces, and that there are valuable critical insights to be gained there.[2
Modernism’s singular allure for contemporary novelists and critics alike raises a number of questions, problems, and interpretative opportunities. What do these shared attachments reveal about the legacies of modernism today? What feelings does modernism inspire, and what values do those feelings imply? Why do contemporary novels invoke modernist writing with such urgency, and what conceptions of modernism emerge from these engagements? Should we take seriously the idea that contemporary fiction might affect the praxis of modernist criticism?