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.
In the foreword to his new book, What the Furies Bring, acclaimed poet and essayist Kenneth Sherman asks, in the wake of 9/11, ‘What help is writing to the writer? What help to the reader?’ Examining the works of authors who have lived and written under great duress, Sherman suggests how writing can serve as ‘equipment for living.’ He contemplates Primo Levi’s desire to tell his story -- a yearning that kept the Holocaust survivor writing through periods of crushing depression. Sherman’s insight into the ways diary writing afforded Chaim Kaplan and Anne Frank a means to keep their sanity and humanity under the most harrowing conditions will prove inspirational to readers. In ‘The Angel of Disease,’ Sherman examines the curative aspects of writing by discussing authors who, though critically ill, persisted in their quest for the right word. Sherman’s book is not limited to writers from our past. He captures our current situation in, ‘Poetry and Terrorism,’ a prescient essay that delves into the moral and aesthetic considerations brought to the foreground since the terrorist attacks on NYC. He follows this with essays that consider whether contemporary poets and novelists have risen to the task of articulating the new age. The ‘furies’ in Sherman’s title belong to history and what they bring is not only destruction but the opportunity to transform our art and ourselves.
2010—ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year,
2010—Canadian Jewish Book Award,
2010—Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards,
‘These all-encompassing essays ferry us across the Atlantic, and move gracefully between Old and New Worlds. Perhaps Sherman’s grandfather’s underworld connections prepared the poet-essayist for his later encounters with so many obscure literary figures that experienced the Holocaust. Sherman’s strong humanistic groundwork firmly roots his pine tree, which bears witness to the horrors of the past century and whispers furiously in redemptive tones that transcend the abyss.’
—Michael Greenstein, Toronto Star
‘Although it’s hardly light holiday reading, Kenneth Sherman’s essay collection What the Furies Bring is a powerful literary engagement with our post-9/11 world.’
—Steven W. Beattie, Advent Book Blog
‘Like such poets as Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney, Sherman is a marvelous literary essayist.’
—Karen Shenfeld, OpenBook Toronto
‘Tragedy brings most to grief; it brought Kenneth Sherman to study. What the Furies Bring is a collection of essays on his musings on the world, reflecting on Judaism, poetry, other religions, terrorism, the works of Anne Frank, and so much more. His thoughts bring many ideas to his readers, to help them reevaluate how they look at the world themselves. What the Furies Bring is a choice pick for any collection of scholarly philosophy.’
—James Cox, Midwest Book Review
‘Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Canadian poet and literary critic Kenneth Sherman asked himself what the response of literature to such traumatizing events should be. For guidance, he turned to writers who had addressed the most horrific experiences of the 20th century, including the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag. In this collection of essays, Sherman analyzes with care and precision some of the best such writers, including both well- and lesser-known figures.’
—Ezra Glinter, ForeWord Magazine
‘For a book on how the art of writing helps one remain sane, even amid the appalling conditions of Nazism and Stalinism, one should pick up poet Kenneth Sherman’s book of essays, What the Furies Bring, published here in Canada by The Porcupine’s Quill. Sherman is not only a crystal-clear writer, but also a great reader, and the quotes he offers from the writings of great modern European Jewish, Russian and Polish poets are tonic for the reader who senses that he/she is missing out by never picking up a book of poetry.’
—Ron Charach, McNally Robinson.com
‘The book is, in part, a response to 9/11, but it is much more. It is proof that one can read deeply in the 21st century. That there can be continuity within contemporary life with deep subject matter. That our literary inheritance offers more than gossip, subjective gotcha reviews, and despair.... This book shows that however much criticism in general may suck, its supposed decline is not yet fatal. It is a book that ought to tempt every reader with literary aspirations, everywhere.’
—Michael Bryson, Underground Book Club
‘... all the essays collected in this book of extraordinary insight and sensitivity, are about art itself (here confined to writing), asking ‘what is art’ and ‘what is art good for’ and Sherman consistently affirms the power of art to make suffering not only bearable but meaningful.’
—Jewish Book World
‘As opposed to Unsettled Remains, which use academic language and seeks to assert the place of a new sub-genre in Canadian literature, Sherman’s style is reflective and personal; his essays read as though we are eavesdropping on his conversations with writers he loves and admires. It is perhaps because of this personal aspect to his style that Sherman is able to make the claims and ask the questions he does, such as what the value is of poetic work, whether or not the achievements of Old world writers can ever be duplicated by modern ones, and why some ‘‘contemporary American poets lack the historical sensibility to write powerfully about 9/11.’’ Sherman warns us in the preface that his ‘‘is not a systematic study’’ and it is not. Rather, it is a collection of the reflections and thoughts of a poet, an intellectual, and an essayist who sincerely wants to know what motivates a writer to try and capture horror, fear, and trauma, and the role the reader has in sharing these horrors. Taking on the boundaries between remembering and forgetting, New and Old worlds, hope and shame, Sherman’s essays flesh out the connections between the literary imagination and the status of humanity.’
—Heather Latimer, "Unsettling History and Text", Canadian Literature
‘Kenneth Sherman’s essays could not be more timely, or more welcome in their wise and wide-ranging reference. His meditations on poetry as response to duress remind us of what we keep forgetting: that poetry is a primary human source, not an adornment, and that it offers the deepest address to the hard truths of experience. What the Furies Bring is right on key, and its ethics and aesthetics are closely plaited.’
‘Carved sentences, luminous apprehension of art, history, and human connections. In short, Kenneth Sherman is a consummate essayist.’
‘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.’
‘Sherman’s is a critical voice we have heard too little from. It is free of jargon and ideology, and it displays the prime requisite of a critic -- great intelligence and sensitivity to language. Sherman’s book is prime evidence that the western literary and humanist tradition is alive and kicking.’
Introduction or preface
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 questions has taken me across genres and so this book includes essays on poets, memoirists and fiction writers. Several of the authors discussed -- Primo Levi, Varlam Shalamov, Czeslaw Milosz -- wrote of their trials from memory. Others -- Chaim Kaplan and Anne Frank -- wrote day by day under conditions so excruciating that we marvel at their ability to put pen to paper.
The essays in this book explore what writing means to those who suffer a season in hell: how does the experience affect their humanity, their imagination, their very ability to endure? Our current response to crisis figures in my essays ‘Poetry and Terrorism,’ ‘Toward the Earth: Poetry and 9/11,’ and ‘America on Trial: Updike’s Terrorist.’ Duress takes forms other than the social and political, and in ‘The Angel of Disease,’ I attempt to understand how a writer responds to serious illness, and how the writing acts homeopathically. To give the reader a clearer sense of who is speaking through these pages, the book begins with an autobiographical essay, ‘Who Knows You Here?’
This is not a systematic study. I have no thesis to prove. Though the authors I read have characteristics in common -- courage, tenacity, a commitment to humanism that is gravely tested -- each faced a unique trial. Anne Frank, in hiding from the Nazi terror and fearing for her life, strove to transcend the petty bickering that plagued her fellow-refugees. Varlam Shalamov, a poet hounded by a sadistic bureaucracy, struggled to survive nearly two decades of meaningless labour in Russia’s grim northern wastelands. Chaim Kaplan -- his life’s work as educator and linguist terminated the moment his city was captured -- worked to fortify himself while rations in the Warsaw Ghetto dwindled and his own annihilation grew imminent. With each of these authors, I was moved by the essential personality: Anne Frank’s candour, her curiosity, her spontaneous joy over the simplest pleasures; Shalamov’s scorn and defiance, his mordant, death’s-head humour; Kaplan’s equanimity, his adamant resolve to leave behind an accurate record of the appalling events.
And we who live in the shadow of 9/11? Near the close of the lecture he delivered fifty years ago, Camus reminds us of the gift history’s furies lay at our doorstep. ‘Let us rejoice,’ Camus tells his audience, ‘at being faced with cruel truths.’ Might we not likewise celebrate? Today’s harsh reality -- a world we are only beginning to comprehend -- returns us to an art that can heal, instruct, console, and transform, an art that summons the deepest self.
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 is a full-time faculty member at Sheridan College where he teaches Communications; he also teaches a course in creative writing at the University of Toronto.
In 1982, Sherman was writer-in-residence at Trent University. In 1986 he was invited by the Chinese government to lecture on contemporary Canadian literature at universities and government institutions in Beijing. In 1988, he received a Canada Council grant to travel through Poland and Russia. This experience inspired several of the essays in his book Void and Voice (1998). Sherman, author of the acclaimed Words for Elephant Man, and The Well: New and Selected Poems, lives in Toronto with his wife, Marie, an artist.