What the Furies Bring by Kenneth ShermanWhat the Furies Bring by Kenneth Sherman

What the Furies Bring

byKenneth Sherman

Paperback | October 1, 2009

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In the months following 9/11, while images of the collapsing towers haunted the media, Kenneth Sherman began a course of reading, seeking out authors who believed that literature could address the most extreme circumstances. Sherman contemplates Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, writing under crushing depression; Anne Frank, retaining sanity by diary writing; authors who, though critically ill, persisted in their quest for the right word. The `furies' in Sherman's title belong to history and what they bring is not only destruction, but the opportunity to transform ourselves.

Kenneth Sherman was born in Toronto in 1950. He has a BA from York University, where he studied with Eli Mandel and Irving Layton, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. While a student at York, Sherman co-founded and edited the literary journal Waves. From 1974--1975 he travelled extensively through Asia. He i...
Title:What the Furies BringFormat:PaperbackDimensions:176 pages, 8.82 × 5.6 × 0.81 inPublished:October 1, 2009Publisher:Porcupine's QuillLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:088984318X

ISBN - 13:9780889843189

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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Hit and Miss This book is neither fish nor fowl. It is not a book of sustained literary criticism (although this is the dominant theme), nor is it a history of terror and atrocities over the past 80 years (although that is the focus of much of the book). As a book of literary criticism, it has its highs and lows. Sherman’s essays on Primo Levi and (in a delightful eye-opener for me) Rupert Brooke are thoughtful and insightful. However, his hagiographical attempt to portray Anne Frank as an exceptional literary talent is a muddled conflation of admiration for an individual with an unconvincing attempt to glorify her prose. Surely if one wants to glorify a young woman’s bravery in the face of fascist insanity, Sophie Scholl would have been a much more worthy candidate. Philosophically, Sherman is maddeningly inconsistent. At one point, he criticizes Galway Kinnell for mentioning the Holocaust, atomic blasts, and American racial violence in a poem about 9/11. He argues ‘These tragedies resist being lumped together; they cry out for the dignity of their own narratives’. I agree. However, Sherman commits the same offence. There is scarcely a single essay where Sherman does not bring in the Holocaust, whether the subject is 9/11 or the Russian Gulag. His otherwise wonderful essay on Primo Levi contains the line ‘The logic that leads to suicide is seldom rational…’. This is a debatable if not indefensible position, since it is easy to conceive of situations where suicide may be a fully rational response to unbearable circumstances. What makes it even more unsupportable is that the remainder of that very essay argues just the opposite: Levi’s suicide was in fact a very rational response from Levi’s point of view. That’s just downright sloppy argumentation. Editorially, the book also has flaws. While I realize that the essays were drawn from submissions to various magazines, their ordering and consistency could have been improved. Such a book inevitably has seams, but some editorial effort could have papered over some of the seams. Encountering the same quote from the same author to make the same point in consecutive essays strikes me as careless. Thematically, his lament for the demise of Yiddish as a literary language is discordant. It is neither a literary criticism nor a tragedy of the scale of the other visions of horror and terror he meditates on. Here, his somewhat blinkered focus on the Jewish experience colours his objectivity. Can a case be made for the special status of Yiddish over the other languages that are disappearing? Can a case be made that it is a tragedy on the scale of the Stalinist purges or Nazi slaughter? Why is it in this book? Where Sherman focuses on primary literary criticism, he is at his best. Where he comments on other academic critic’s views of various obscure poets, he enters an elite literary echo-chamber out of reach (and frankly, out of interest) to most readers.
Date published: 2010-06-26

Read from the Book

In the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001, while images of the collapsing towers haunted the media, I began a course of reading, seeking out authors who had lived and written under duress. My aim, I soon realized, was to reassure myself that writing was purposeful, that it could address even the most extreme circumstances. What was the origin of my doubt? The First World War, with its mechanized killing and its millions of victims, fragmented experience and swept away old artistic forms. The stunning scale of human catastrophe during the Second World War -- the death of 20 million Russians, 6 million Jews, 100,000 inhabitants of Hiroshima -- as well as the ingenious technologies used in their destruction, forced artists to seriously question the value of their enterprise. This crisis of purpose especially burdened writers. Unlike painting and music, writing cannot avoid meaning. Since earliest times, literature has both reflected and influenced our world. But what if even the most convincing writing falls short of the human condition? Ever since the death camps, the slaughter pits, and the rubble of ruined cities became principal features of our mental geography, writers could wonder if literature is anything more than `a deceptive luxury.' The phrase comes from a lecture given by Albert Camus at the University of Uppsala in December, 1957. In his speech, later published as a text entitled `Create Dangerously,' Camus issues a call to arms. `The time of irresponsible artists is over,' Camus contends and goes on to assert that artists can no longer escape `history's amphitheatre.' Insisting upon artistic commitment, responsibility, and risk-taking, Camus rejects the doctrine of art for art's sake, a theory that, he argues, results in an art cut off from the concerns of the human family, an art `fed on affectations and abstractions, ending in the destruction of all reality.' What does Camus mean by reality? `We resemble one another,' he writes, `in what we see together, in what we suffer together.' In the relatively tranquil decades before the twin towers were brought down, North American artists seemed to abandon historical concerns. In those self-absorbed times, Camus' theme may have seemed outmoded; his voice, overly dramatic. But words have their own destinies and now that the world is more perilous, `Create Dangerously' resonates with the truth of our dilemma. The terrorist act we call 9/11 heightened concerns I have long held. Literature is a means to self-possession, a way to apprehend our being-in-the-world. Life is brief, and we have the right to demand that literature bear the weight of ultimate questions. Aside from Camus' touchstone essay, I have returned time and again to three other seminal texts: Czeslaw Milosz's The Witness of Poetry, Isaiah Berlin's `Artistic Commitment' from his book The Sense of Reality, and Elias Cannetti's `The Writer's Profession' from his The Conscience of Words. Note the nouns: Commitment, Conscience, Witness, Reality. Note also that these authors are European. North Americans have for the most part remained resolutely ahistorical, though there have been exceptions. The American poet Wallace Stevens in his fine essay `The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words' makes a notable -- and, given his reputation for linguistic dandyism, surprising -- case for artistic commitment. The literary critic Kenneth Burke, who called literature `equipment for living,' was another resolute voice, as was Terence Des Pres whose Praises and Dispraises heralded the note literature must strike to deal with our current predicament. The question of art's usefulness is ancient. Plato doubts art's value and warns that its emotive powers might lead citizens of his Republic astray; for him, art is neither useful nor, in the strict sense, true, (though in the Laws he does briefly mention the healing effect of music.) It is Aristotle who argues the usefulness of art, making claims for its cathartic and therapeutic value; significantly, he does this not in his Poetics, but in his Politics where, he insists, artists have social worth. Our immersion in historical extremity distances us from the ancients and complicates our situation. Media saturation of the global village (global abattoir?) compels us to bear witness. Reality bombards the modern writer and it is reasonable to feel overwhelmed. Yet the true writer -- not the propagandist and not the giddy experimenter -- is engaged in a difficult dialogue with the real. The resulting work conveys the tension between subject and object, between states of consciousness and the words that refigure them. Our engagement with dire realities gives rise to urgent questions. What help is writing to the writer? What help to the reader? My exploration of these qu

Editorial Reviews

`Every one of these essays is so quiet-voiced that you could read it and almost fail to notice its startling originality, its secure centre in the sort of unhurried thought and layered reading that other times may have known but ours, for the most part, has run past.'