Grand Hotel Abyss Opens New Wing
March 2, 2010

György Lukács is not, in general, a very funny writer. But this is priceless:

“A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the 'Grand Hotel Abyss’... a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss, between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.”

Wasn’t Lukács dead on? Don’t we just love our comfortable hotel rooms with a view of the abyss? Reveling in the nonexistence of the self in a series of articles carefully signed and copyrighted? Denying the existence of authentic desire over a delicious bottle of Château Lafite? Finishing our lecture on love as a bourgeois myth before returning to our spouse and children?

Well, it turns out Grand Hotel Abyss just opened up a new wing — the Discovery Channel wing.

Here’s the pitch: the literary field is just one big struggle for life. Writers try stuff out at random, driven by a blind impulse, and the market—like a pack of cheetahs descending on defenseless gazelles—determines what lives and what dies. Some texts make it, some don’t. Entire genres go extinct, like flocks of dodos and herds of velociraptors. Requiescant in bibliothecae.

In this vision, there are no agents. Writers aren’t agents: they have no idea what they are doing; they just work by trial and error, like nature does. Readers aren’t agents either: they don’t deliberately choose; they too are driven by instinct, cheetah-like.

You can see why this is such an exciting idea. It has that thrill of the sublime to it, that special excitement of powerlessness for which we literary folk are such suckers. The chilly winds of unfreedom! Die Luft der Unfreiheit weht!

But alas, it’s just not true.

Sure, no writer can predict whether his or her work will meet with success. (None of us can predict whether anything we do will meet with success; if that’s all the idea came to, it would be trivial. Heck, it’s already in Aristotle.) But that doesn’t mean it’s all a matter of “trial and error.”

To see this, all you have to do is take a quick look at what writers say about their own work, whether in essays or correspondence. At the very least, you’ll find them deliberately writing books they themselves would want to read. Mallarmé, bless his heart, received “an almost cabalistic feeling” from reading his own poems. No, he couldn’t guarantee that they would continue to be appreciated. But he built in—deliberately—the reason that they are. And as his theoretical writings show, he fully understood it.

The first problem, then, is that writers are also readers. Them gazelles be cheetahs.

Let’s not forget, either, that T. S. Eliot brought the “metaphysical” poets out of obscurity, that a host of universities succeeded in making the unjustly marginalized Jane Austen required reading, and that all kinds of other such salutary moves are in place and underway.

The second problem, then, is that many readers are also critics. Them cheetahs be park rangers.

(You want to say “that’s just selection too”? Maybe you also like the argument, made by free-market fanatics, that the fact that the Enron executives eventually went to jail proves that the market rights itself. No, the market did not “right itself”; it was controlled from without by actual humans with actual agency imposing actual norms.)

Does all of this matter? Yes. There are real-world consequences. If writers and readers really are just a bunch of gazelles and cheetahs, we literary critics may as well give up: nothing we do can change the fact that certain books, and certain kinds of book, are “losing the struggle for life.” If it’s not, then we have work to do, and we’d better roll up our sleeves and get on with it.

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