Candor and Critique: On Greg Gerke’s See What I See – Michigan Quarterly Review

Candor and Critique: On Greg Gerke’s See What I See

In Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Walter Pater notes that criticism is never impartial: “in aesthetic criticism the first step to seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.” The work of art is never detached from an individual’s encounter with it. Our sensory interactions with art impress emotions into the fine sediment of our memories: laughter, rage, ennui, joy. The work of criticism, Pater says, is to tread that soft earth again with a reader in tow. A guidebook through the beautiful, criticism should clear the brush and reveal the terrain—the smooth hills, the crags, the life brimming in the streams and teeming under the dark canopies of trees.

This is the crux of Greg Gerke’s new essay collection, published by Zerogram Press. The title announces at once the aim of criticism: that the reader See What I See. In the thirty essays collected in this volume, the reader is capable of doing just that. Strokes of memoir mediate Gerke’s encounters with texts, libraries, films, and writers. The product is a mode of criticism that eschews didacticism and pedantry, a mode that endears the reader through lyric turns of phrase, candor, and vulnerability.

Indeed, the first third of the volume—essays grouped under the heading “The Writing Life”—offers a primer in writing sincere, emotional literary criticism. In the essay “On or About,” Gerke riffs on Virginia Woolf’s famous remark, in “Modern Fiction,” that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Gerke points out that Edward Mendelson called Woolf’s comment a “serious joke,” before offering his own serious jape that the transformation in character occurred on or about 2010, with the rise of the smartphone. In response to Mendelson, Gerke writes the following: 

That’s a serious joke, too. Both Woolf and Mendelson are probably not right; besides, trying to pinpoint something as elastic and elusive as human character is better left to the hacks. Few persons living or dead would attest to these dates when asked about human character, which most people think falls under the rubric we call life. [. . .] It holds that all of us have different markers to our lives.

Neither Woolf nor Mendelson is a “hack”; they just happen to channel in their critical work a reaction informed by their own lives. And that is precisely Gerke’s point in sharing a chuckle with the reader over the “serious joke” of these two authorities. Woolf’s remark isn’t a pronouncement, no matter how many modernism scholars want to make it an orthodoxy of literary periodization. The remark points to the death of King Edward VII in May 1910 and her friend Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist Exhibition in December of that same year—events that generated for Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle an endless fount of aesthetic currents. The same truth underlies Mendelson’s implicit eye roll at the age of the smartphone.

Gerke’s own essay, “On or About,” remains delightfully elastic, snapping between Woolf and Mendelson, to a monologue from Citizen Kane, to a summer morning in 1988 or ’89 when a young Gerke watched a national broadcast of a Friday the Thirteenth installment on TV. “I actually wasn’t too tied to the film,” Gerke notes, “because in the backyard [. . .] my sister and her soon-to-be husband [. . . were] testing the durability of an old tent they were considering for a weekend camping trip.” It was an unusual event, an experience interpolated with scenes on the television of Jason prowling after victims in the woods. Art and life merged: “The cool kids (my blood) were going into the forest. Wasn’t that more interesting than edited death by machete impaling? Mmmm. [. . .] I asked if we (I) had a will to do what we wanted?” Later, Gerke alights on the meaning behind this question: “In essence, I had my first ideas of what I was missing. Now…how would I give up the make-believe world to get there?”

Gerke admits that our lives likely don’t contain “as many epiphanies [. . .] as we report.” But we needn’t rely on epiphanies and raptures for clarity: deft criticism can work like a balm on the eyes, rinsing away the scales and bringing subjects into focus. Gerke’s brand of criticism also prescribes patience—a necessary palliative, in this era marked by eyes bloodshot from staring at our screens and impotent anger at the fresh iniquities surfacing daily in the 24-hour news cycle.

As a writer and critic, Gerke’s lodestars are not Pater (who is, admittedly, one of mine), but William H. Gass and Wallace Stevens. Gerke emulates the doggedness of Gass, the novelist and philosopher whose own prose is a masterclass in deliberation and precision. On reading Rilke “Gass-style [. . .] to find my own voice and drop the imitation act,” Gerke writes of the mental gymnastics needed to engage one’s own impressions: “craning my consciousness to see above and under a work of art, see it in different weather, see and understand the clarity in which the object or subject is rendered, see to be able to fashion sentences and trains of sentence [. . .], as each word is the work and the whole becomes more complex, more dense, encouraging multiple readings.”

That sentence itself demands that we take the pommel horse of language by its rings and consider the whole apparatus—its dimensions, the labor needed to build and sustain momentum, the routines that we (and others) have performed on it. In “How to Live, What to Read,” Gerke recounts the experience of sitting “sprawled on the curved orange seat of the 2 train,” his copy of Gass’s Life Sentences in hand. While on the train, Gerke  reads the essay “Narrative Sentences,” in which Gass diagrams a sentence from Henry James’s Italian Hours and observes that the “sinuousness” of this sentence “touches on the tensions between city life and country life.” Through Gass’s “spindle diagram,” Gerke revels “in the gorgeous way the unit builds up one’s fast-paced experience in the city only to laze into the easeful nature of the country, before reconnoitering and returning to the shuffle of the city.” Where some readers would find a 200-car pile-up, Gerke observes the sinuous pull and weave of the vehicles in traffic, the contrails of their exhaust tracking the path from an urban freeway, to the country, and back again. (It’s worth noting, though, that Gerke doesn’t always describe James’s heavy prose as “sinuous.” Elsewhere in the volume, he labels his style “architectonic”—blueprinted, structured, with a serious aesthetic.)

“As Gass himself once said,” Gerke writes in the essay “On Influence,” “one does not read a masterwork the first time in order to read it, but to ready oneself to read it.” Gerke contends that writers need Gass’s work ethic to become receptive to the beauties and mysteries of poetry. This is especially true in reading a poet like Stevens, whose work opens more readily to those who share it aloud, transmuting its words into sound and breath, actual yet fleeting. In “Living Words,” Gerke writes, “I might call my dearest into the alcove of her room and share one of Stevens’ late poems: say, ‘The Novel,’ or ‘Farewell without a Guitar.’ I’ll read it, we’ll remark about such a term as ‘routemarche,’ she’ll take the book in hand and read it again as I finger the sad edge around the quaggy longing to make us two people we aren’t.”

For Gerke, the poetry of writers like Stevens bridges the void between two souls, but also exposes the gulf between the actual self and the aspirational self—“the quaggy longing,” as Gerke calls it. Poetry is a yearning and desiring artform, one that we must learn to live with and to learn through. Two other essays on Stevens explore the bittersweet of reading poetry—“A Year with Wallace Stevens” and “The Rabbit Poem.” Poems are monuments that can be rendered private and therefore transformational—very much the case when, in “A Year with Wallace Stevens,” Gerke writes that “I badly believed everything in my life had brought me back” to the copy of Stevens’s Collected Prose and Poetry in the University of Oregon’s Knight Library. The confluence of Stevens, that book, and the library slowly lead Gerke to the beauty waiting in the margins of the poem: “One reads it on a sofa and a line overwhelms and one’s regard for life is colored by a burnishing of the words and sounds.”

There are other luminaries in See What I See—Gertrude Stein, Louise Glück, Rainer Maria Rilke, Henry James, William Gaddis, to name but a few. Gerke’s writing on these figures shows the infinite versatility of candor, vulnerability, and joy in poetry. The art of criticism is not about dismantling, but about creating. Reading Gerke, I could not shake a few lines of Stevens that have always haunted me—from “The Idea of Order at Key West,” when Stevens’s “genius of the sea” reveals that we make poetry, and that poetry makes us: “Then we, / As we beheld her striding there alone, / Knew that there never was a world for her / Except the one she sang, and signing, made.”

If I’ve spent a long time reflecting on Gerke’s deep affection for Gass and Stevens in the first third of See What I See, it’s because his reverence for these writers restores joy, passion, and pleasure to the art of criticism. Moreover, as writing advice, his admissions of vulnerability and labor-intensive craft seem more honest and essential than Faulkner’s famous dictum of literary osmosis: “[r]ead, read, read. Read everything. [. . .] You’ll absorb it.” Where Faulkner would encourage us to be aesthetic sponges, Gerke urges his readers to experience art as a vital adjunct to our encounters with other artforms, commercial products, and the environments we share. An aesthetic sensibility cultivated through encounters with art activates the fulfillment we derive from the mundane and the unusual, alike. The remaining sections of the essay collection—entitled “Real Life” and “The Silver Screen”—probe this through memoir and film criticism. 

Gerke’s deep affection for Gass and Stevens in the first third of See What I See…restores joy, passion, and pleasure to the art of criticism.

The shortest of the book’s three sections, the memoirs of “Real Life” detect the seriousness undergirding marriage, junk food, and friendship. In “On Eating Combos,” Combos (which Gerke likens to the Gone Girl of foodstuffs) become a comic metaphor for the tension between gratification and genuine sustenance, both intellectual and physical. “Highlight” tracks a literary friendship between Gerke and another young bibliophile who shared books and living accommodations during their apprentice years—a gripping narrative in which the works of Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munroe, and others become vehicles for introspection.

The anchor essay in this section, “Paris Doesn’t Belong to Us,” trespasses on the twilit space between the lived present and one’s memories, as Gerke and his wife honeymoon in the City of Lights. Paris exists both as a place in itself and as a place that exists in the image of it crafted by others—a combination of Claud Lorrain’s baroque paintings, of Lonely Planet travel guides, and word-of-mouth recommendations. (Stevens makes an appearance here, too, when his “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” functions as a compass in the essay’s fugue state.) The prose is lyric, stitched with phrases, like “the hurdy-gurdy of my perceptions,” that telegraph to the reader the delightful difficulty of navigating this mental space.

Mercifully, when Gerke changes gears, from memoir to film criticism, he avoids the easy pun of a “Reel Life” essay series. But the pun is there on the edges of the film, and it invites us to project our experiences of the cinema against the fantasies preserved as translucent strips of celluloid, etchings on DVDs, and bits of data in a video file. This section itself contains some of the expected masters of arthouse film—Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, Roberto Rossellini, amongst others. But the essay “Mr. Fincher and Monseiur Dreyer” displays the full range of Gerke’s trenchant wit, his appreciation for demanding art, and his aspirations for criticism. He confronts the pulpiness of director David Fincher’s oeuvre, including films Zodiac (2007) and The Social Network (2010), both enshrined in the BBC’s list of greatest films of the twenty-first century. Responding to the all-caps praise ladled onto The Social Network by outlets including the New York Times and Rolling Stone, Gerke snarks that “one would think God had made a movie.” He cavils that ad copy—the hyped-up declarations that a film is “revolutionary” or “a once-in-a-generation” flick—dodges the obligations of criticism. But Gerke is willing to supply us with his reading of The Social Network—a film that “doesn’t require much from its audience,” and fails “to meet the basic criteria for a compelling drama” due to its staid characters, dull performance, and its over-reliance on the artistry of the script.

Gerke’s mind glides, in this essay, from film auteurs to Noam Chomsky to Virginia Woolf, constructing a meta-critique that calls into question any mode of criticism that elevates commercial interests, reputations, and celebrity over the viewer’s reactions. “Great art,” Gerke concludes in this essay, “is its own miracle because it informs as a parable with no personal political push except its own terms of beauty. [. . .] if for only a little while, true art, great art, can offset the gross weight of the muck on our souls and open a space in our lives for our behavior to mend.” That is, the film itself stirs the viewer to feel, to react, or to meditate. On those grounds alone should a film be evaluated—not on its director’s celebrity, its mass appeal, or the stars or awards garnishing a poster.

As Gerke practices it, the art of criticism isn’t pedantry, the work of lecturing a reader and instructing them. Instead, criticism is a hand extended to a reader, an offer to tour the beautiful, to share in it, and to enact its lessons in our own lives. One of Gerke’s reactions to Wallace Stevens seems a fitting reflection on the task of criticism, especially as perfected in the thirty essays of See What I See: “I am reminded to regard living as only a joy; and if hallowed love hoists itself only to get shadowed into an irreal, unkempt creation, no matter then—the globe cannot be so haunted by realities apart from art.” If criticism can impart that ethic to its readers, if it can infuse the darkness of reality with the joy of living and the beauty of art, then it is work worth persisting at.

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