On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless

Steven Zultanski

On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless is an essay-poem about the ability of literature to pull the rug out from under the appearance of authority. Presented as a non-exhaustive catalogue of techniques for depicting the inherent weakness of power, it continually strays into critical commentary, sinuous digression, and bodily autobiography.

Authors (and filmmakers) discussed: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Joanna Russ, Antler, Gabriel García Márquez, Rosario Castellanos, Elfriede Jelinek, John Cassavetes, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Trisha Low, Jane Austen, Sam Greenlee, Chantal Akerman, Doris Lessing, Émile Zola, Margery Kempe, Robert Glück, Claire Denis, Patricia Highsmith, Alice Notley.

“Literary Means is a brilliant treatise on power and the uses of literature. It is nicely reasoned and Steven Zultanski doesn’t so much risk the obvious as aspire to it, as the Latin poets did. ‘And all I’m trying to say, which I’m sure you already know….’ But his examples have so much reach that Literary Means attains a far-flung poetry. Zultanski fashions this act of communal enquiry—What oft was thought—with ‘examples’ that make a kind of community—but ne’er so well express’d—and most of all through his performance of the genre itself, the tender intimacy of the narrator and his insistence on locating the conversation and the transmission of stories inside their social realities. Literary Means is also an autobiography, and surely it is the tenderest analysis of a brutal subject. ‘People are at odds with themselves, and power is never coherent.” —Robert Glück

“I’ve been haunted by the last sentence of Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, the story of a cruel cacique’s demise, ever since I read it: ‘He fell with a thud against the ground and began crumbling as if he were a pile of stones.’ Think of literature as a mano a mano between authors and the authority figures tackled in their texts. As artificers of their characters and their fates, authors tend to prevail—they know more than the powerful. But here, Zultanski’s author undermines himself in both poignant and darkly comedic ways. His stomach growls, he falls short, he dispenses pointed yet obvious insight. Moreover, he claims to have written the book in one day, with examples culled from memory! How could his random taxonomy not be unreliable, or incomplete? He resists turning himself into an authority on authorities as represented in literature, and that’s this book’s poetry.” —Mónica de la Torre

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