What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Interesting Emendations: David Denby's "Jungle Fever"

Hearing the sad news of Chinua Achebe’s death, I recalled David Denby’s “Jungle Fever” (The New Yorker, November 6, 1995) – one of the best “A Critic At Large” pieces ever to appear in the magazine – in which Denby argues against Achebe’s potent charge that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is racist. A version of “Jungle Fever” appears as chapter 27, titled “Conrad,” in Denby’s wonderful 1996 Great Books.

Comparing the two versions, I notice a couple of interesting differences. Firstly, the Great Books version uses slightly stronger language to describe the racism argument. For example, it says that Heart of Darkness “could be read as racist by anyone ruthless enough to detach its representation of life from meaning” (emphasis added). This sentence isn’t in the New Yorker piece. The book version also says, “Still, one has to wonder if blaming writers for what they fail to write about is not a bizarrely wrongheaded or even malicious way of reading them” (emphasis added). The New Yorker version of this sentence uses “extraordinarily” instead of “bizarrely,” and omits “or even malicious way of reading them.”

Secondly, the “pleasure” aspect of Denby’s argument in the New Yorker piece is less pronounced than it is in Great Books. Early in Great Books, in a passage that I adopt as one of this blog’s touchstones, Denby says,

I believe in pleasure, even in “immediate” pleasures, “shallow” pleasures. Pleasure is the route to understanding; you expand on what you love, going from one enthusiasm to the next, one book to the next, one piece of music to the next, and finally what you wind up with as the sum of these pleasures is your own soul.

In Great Books’ “Conrad” chapter, Denby describes Achebe’s (and Edward Said’s) approach in terms of “their fear of narrative pleasure, their demand for correct attitudes.” These words don’t appear in the New Yorker version. Neither does the brilliant question posed near the end of the Great Books version: “So what had pleasure learned, how had pleasure been corrected, extended, or rebuffed?”

And when, in Great Books, Denby concedes a point to Achebes and Said’s approach, he says, “So let pleasure yield this much to the academic left: However wrong or extreme in individual cases, the academic left has alerted readers to the possible hidden assumptions in language and point of view.” The New Yorker version drops the “So let pleasure yield this much” and simply says, “However wrong or extreme in individual cases, the academic left has alerted readers to the possible hidden assumption in language and point of view.”

Both versions make a powerful case for Heart of Darkness as a work of “daunting intricacy.” (Great Books says, “daunting”; The New Yorker says, “spectacular.”) I prefer the Great Books version slightly more because it argues the pleasure principle.

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