Sunday, July 8, 2007

Hypocrite Lecteur!

There are several accomplishments in my life that I'm really proud of: getting 20k hits on this blog, my Masters degree, the fact that my old band Hog Lady opened up for Mudhoney and the Boredoms in 1993, but all of those achievements pale in comparison to being hated by some French guy. Yesterday I discovered a French blogger by the name of L'ombre calling my kettle black.

In his post, Une gene technique [A Technical Embarrassment], L'ombre writes:

"Je voulais parler de Philip K. Dick, analyser un peu le Maître du Haut Château, mais une sorte de gêne me retient. Cette gêne a une url : celle du site d’un PhD qui a fait sa thèse sur Dick, et qui se permet, sous prétexte d’avoir un diplôme d’État, de se considérer comme l’autorité ultime et le gardien du sens des textes de cet auteur. Il y a encore quelques jours, il s’amusait à descendre en flèche une critique sur son auteur fétiche, comme si lui seul était habilité à en parler. S’il se contentait de critiques objectives, fondées sur des erreurs factuelles, des contresens grossiers, cela irait de soi ; mais notre thésard aime l’invective, et manier – mal – l’ironie : son jeu favori consiste à citer ses victimes pour mettre en lumière leur soi-disant absurdité. Malheureusement pour lui, cette absurdité, c’est souvent lui et lui seul qui l’y voit : il n’a pas son pareil pour déformer le sens d’une citation afin d’y lire l’ineptie qu’il souhaite y voir. Si quelqu’un écrit innocemment que Glissement de temps sur Mars se situe « entre Le Temps désarticulé et L’Œil dans le ciel, partageant et révélant de bien des façons les obsessions étudiées dans ces romans » – ce qui semble désigner une affinité thématique, et rien d’autre –, il a tôt fait d’y lire une erreur de chronologie, et de se moquer du pauvre rédacteur qui ignore que Glissement de temps sur Mars vient bien après ces deux titres. Et si un article a l’heur de lui plaire, c’est évidemment « dans la mesure où il semble se diriger vers [s]es propres interprétations » - se diriger, et rien de plus : lui seul est allé jusqu’au bout du raisonnement, bien entendu. Autant dire que ses méthodes critiques augurent mal de son travail de recherche. Qui plus est, pourquoi se plaindre sans cesse de l’engouement autour de l’œuvre de Philip K. Dick ? Il semblerait faire partie de ce genre d’élites autoproclamées qui ne supportent pas que la foule jette un regard sur les textes de leurs poètes maudits ; parions qu’il abandonnera bientôt PKD pour une idole moins connue, autour de laquelle il pourra tranquillement tisser les toiles de ses interprétations fumeuses."

I don't speak French. It sounds like a very beautiful language full of love, gendered nouns, and ennui. My first thought upon seeing the blog was, "Wow, they love me in France. I can't wait to read all the nice things this wonderful European gentleman has to say about me," but as I ran the post through my computer's translation program, it gradually dawned on me that this guy wasn't being nice at all.

Here's the translation my computer provides with my commentary (apparently that's one of the things I do that bothers L'ombre):

"I wanted to speak about Philip K Dick, to analyze a little the Master of the High Castle, but a kind of embarrassment retains me. This embarrassment has a URL: that of the site of PhD which made its thesis on Dick, and which is allowed, under pretext of have a diploma of State, to regard themselves as the ultimate authority and the guard of the direction of the texts of this author."

Ouch! The joke's on you L'ombre. I don't even have a PhD! I'm far less qualified than you ever imagined. But seriously, L'ombre, I believe in something called Reader Response Criticism which was developed by one of my literary heroes, Stanley Fish (Reader James Grebmops points out in a comment that Stanley Fish was one of a number of literary critics to champion reader response criticism, David Bleich, Michael Steig and Walter Slatoff were other early advocates for the reader-centric critical approach. Thanks James for keeping me honest). The idea Fish [and others] pioneered was that ultimately meaning is constructed as a collaboration between the reader, the writer, and the text itself, and as such every interpretation or reading of a piece of art is subjective. I personally reject the idea that there is any single "correct" interpretation for a text (of course not all criticisms are equal; each must be judged on its own merits). What's more I encourage all readers to find their own personal meaning in any piece of art. I certainly don't have all the answers, just a long list of useful questions.

Nevertheless, the lambasting continues:

"Still a few days ago, he had fun to descend out of arrow a criticism on his fetish author, as if only [he] were entitled him to speak about it. If he were satisfied with criticisms objectify, founded on factual errors, coarse misinterpretations, that would go from oneself; but our thésard likes the invective, and to handle - badly - the irony."

I do like the invective (L'ombre seems to enjoy it as well). L'ombre's talking about this post in which I ripped into one Sue Davies who is, as far as I can tell, a professional writer whose review of Martian Time-Slip which appeared on Stephen Hunt's SF (which I later learned was the largest science fiction site in Europe) was so riddled with errors that it wouldn't even get a passing grade in my Freshmen Composition class.

L'ombre continues:

"His favorite play consists in quoting its victims to clarify their so-called nonsense. Unfortunately for him, this nonsense, it is often him and him only which sees it there"

Kind of like a French guy who can't identify sarcasm when he reads it.

"He does not have its similar to deform the direction of a quotation in order to read there the ineptitude which he wishes to see there."

That doesn't really make sense (although I think L'ombre is misreading my remarks to find what he wishes to see: a dumb, arrogant American who thinks he's right about everything). I bet that last line would make more sense if I translated it into German and then back to English, to French, then Italian and back to English:

"Here he does not have relative similar in order to deform the sense of a citation in order to read the exactitude lack that wishes to see here."

Exactly! L'ombre does have a point:

"If somebody writes innocently that [Martian Time-Slip] is between [Time Out of Joint] and Eye in the Sky, sharing and revealing of many ways the obsessions studied in these novels" - what seems to indicate an affinity set of themes, and anything other -, it early made there read an error of chronology, and make fun of the poor writer who is unaware of that [Martian Time-Slip] comes well after these two titles."

He's right. I may have misconstrued Davies. She may have meant that Martian Time-Slip is situated between Time Out of Joint and Eye in the Sky thematically rather than chronologically, but the problem is that the writing is so bad it's unclear exactly what Davies means. I teach writing and cannot stand when an author cares so little for what he or she has written that they don't even bother to proofread it. Now if the author is being paid to churn out sentences that are riddled with errors about an author I happen to love, and blog about - voluntarily - well I think it makes a certain amount of sense that I would resent that.

But by now L'ombre's got a full head of steam and is shifting into fourth gear with his righteous indignation:

"As much to say that his critical methods badly forecast his research task. What's more is, why complain unceasingly about the passion around the oeuvre of Philip K Dick? It would seem to form part of this kind of autoproclamées elites which do not support that crowd throws a glance on the texts of their cursed poets; let us bet that he will give up soon PKD for a less known idol, around which he will be able quietly to weave the fabrics of his smoky interpretations."

That last bit translates beautifully doesn't it? Ironically L'ombre seems to intuitively understand that good blogging involves antagonism. His post is great because he's got someone to attack. Of course he's attacking me for attacking someone else, and here I am attacking him for attacking me for attacking someone else - that's the Internet people, an infinite regress of contrarian bickering. To quote T.S. Eliot, "You hypocrite lecteur! -- mon semblable, -- mon frere!"

Say what you will L'ombre. I will continue to hold professional writers and critics to the highest standards when they are writing about a truly great American writer whose work has been overlooked for too long, whose texts are often riddled with the publisher's proofreading errors, and who was shunned by the literary elite during his lifetime. Recently a reader named John explained that his Granada UK edition of A Scanner Darkly is set in 1944 instead of 1994 as the result of the publisher's typo. It's not that everybody has to agree with my readings of Dick's books (thank God they don't), but paid writers have a responsibility as professional journalists to make sure their articles are free of both grammatical and factual errors or else suffer my wrath.

Rather than reveling in sarcasm, L'ombre seems absolutely unable to detect it. Of course it's possible that it's just the language barrier that's keeping L'ombre and I from understanding one another. However, I suspect my translation program has eliminated a lot of L'ombre's most vitriolic language. Will his eliminate mine?

Update: Let's all remember the French were hip to PKD way before we were over here in America. They got Miles Davis before we did too, and for Christ's sake let's be nicer to them.


Anonymous said...

Hold your horses. Reader response criticism was NOT developed by Stanley Fish. He is one of its champions and he has his own theories (interpretive communities and everything) but he is not the only one in that game.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I use Babel Fish or some other online translator I'm always reminded of Galactic Pot-Healer, of course! Sometimes I wonder if they're deliberately obtuse, so you have to pay for the 'premium' service to get something that makes sense - but that might just be my paranoia :)

Duncan Lawson said...

I'm trying to guess which less known idol around which [you] will able to quietly weave the fabrics of [your] smoky interpretations.

It's probably better translated as hazy, but smoky sounds more poetic.

How about Donald Hamilton, who wrote the the Matt Helm series. 27 books in all!?! He don't get no respect. Plus he looks eerily like PDK.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to post a more accurate translation of my article, for I stand by my words (even if they are mean, but as you rightly put it, blogs fuel on antagonism), and if I criticize someone, I might as well do it in a language he understands ; but your automatic translation is good enough as it is. For what it matters, I reacted out of disappointment : when your site went online, I expected a lot of PKD related discoveries, enlightenment of some sort, and so on ; but I read mostly negative criticism - which is fine by me, but shouldn’t be the main object of the site. In fact, I never anticipated such a reply to my post, but you must admit your reaction kind of justifies it ! And sorry for my grammar – I am French, after all, and not the nationalist nor the generalizing type, so no offense taken (I read the post before it was gentlemanly modified). And I don’t feel macho enough to call myself « Hombre »…

Ragle Gumm said...

I think you need look no further than here or here to see that I work quite hard to post all different kinds of PKD-related material on this blog. If you hate it, you're just not reading it enough!

valis said...


I too had serious Galactic Pot-Healer flashbacks whilst reading this post.

Anonymous said...

'War Clock Voucher' - name that book!

MDK said...

Oh, come on L'ombre. Give The Total Dickhead another chance. So what if it doesn't live up to your expectations. Enjoy for what it is. You don't have to agree with everything that is written. But Alas, what is a story withuot conflict?

Unknown said...

You know that "Hypocrite lecteur - mon semblable - mon frere" is stolen from Baudelaire, right?

Anonymous said...

I don't "hate" this site, I visit it everyday!
As far as Baudelaire is concerned, I teach french literature in la Sorbonne, so I did see the reference...