David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2003 (page 1 of 5)

Honi soit qui mal y pense: Two Quotes

What separates the atemporal pleiad of creators of texts from the general run of writers acclaimed by critics and applauded by the public at large, is the fact they perceive what the latter reckon buzzes with life to be either worked out or dead. The innovative author insensitive to the applause and reproaches of his contemporaries, knows he is surrounded by colleagues who are dead–whatever fuss these people make accumulating honours and prizes and aspiring, in the manner of some second-rate academics, to the glory of immortality.

Juan Goytisolo, “To Read or to Re-Read”

Geniuses have a rough time of it, because geniuses are not all equal. First come your run-of-the-mill and middling geniuses, that is, of the third order, whose minds are unable to go much beyond the horizon of their times. They are often recognized and even come into money and fame. The geniuses of the second order are already too difficult for their contemporaries and therefore fare worse. Nonetheless, recognition awaits the geniuses of the second order, in the form of a triumph beyond the grave. In addition, there exist, for there must exist, geniuses of the highest category. The intermediate types are discovered by either the succeeding generation or by some later one; the geniuses of the first order are never known–not by anyone, not in life, not after death. For they are creators of truths so unprecedented, purveyors of proposals so revolutionary, that not a soul is capable of making head or tail of them. Therefore, permanent obscurity constitutes the normal lot of the Geniuses of the Highest Class.

Stanislaw Lem, “Odysseus of Ithaca”

Both of these quotes dance around the word “crank,” though I do think of it as appealing to a particularly American self-consciousness. But Bruce Murray points out about Karlheinz Stockhausen: “Think he’s zealous crank!” (Frighteningly, “kilohertz can shake sun” is also appropriate.)

More about these matters soon….

Kobo Abe

Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night also reminds me of Kobo Abe, particularly his insane works of the 70’s, The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous. As long as we’re drawing cross-continental comparisons, William Burroughs is there too, but Burroughs more surrealist, later work is pedantic and decadent in a too-familiar way. These two books of Abe’s aren’t familiar. They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness. Apart from Inter Ice Age 4, an early work which gets mired in the tropes of science fiction, most of Abe’s translated books do have a purity about them.

I discovered Abe through The Woman in the Dunes. At the time I was a huge Camus adherent, and the summary of a man trapped in a sand pit with a woman who has lived there for years, makes it sound similar to any number of existentialist works of fiction. It’s not. Attempts to draw a metaphor do not work, since the book remains focused on the constraining of the man with a fundamentally unresponsive woman, and his very real interaction with the sadistic villagers keeping him there. The slow madness that overcomes him stems from the particular (and odd) circumstances rather than any speculative human condition. Far from existential, the story has more in common with Nabokov, especially the finely-ground fantasies Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, though it’s far more realistic than either. Teshigahara’s film of the book also seems to misunderstand it (though it has an amazing, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu), adoping long shots of dunes that don’t fit with the relative lack of desperation on the man’s part.

By the 70’s, Abe had headed away from anything close to realism. The Box Man revolves around a series of men who walk around with boxes on their heads, with doppelgangers and fakes, disconnected memories and self-consciously pompous meanderings on the integrity of being a box man. Michaela Grey offers an excellent description of the book, but I disagree with her tying it to Derrida: Abe remained focused on personal identity and integrity and was never concerned with purely textual matters. But the book is nuttier than what comes out in the article, since Abe never builds up any credibility in the narrative. The only strand that rings true is one about the noetic nature of being a box man, an affirmation that can’t be obtained externally. This in turn implies that any individual section of the book is dubious, since in total they are the ramblings of one or more men whose ability to place themselves in the world is falling apart. Apart from the surreal surface, here is where there is the most commonality with Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, in its resolute lack of commitment to any particular reality.

Secret Rendezvous is more narratively coherent, but only furthers the idea that individual plot points, characters, and settings are losing all intrinsic meaning short of inciting a vague, sickly psychosexual aura. The narrator’s wife is abducted one morning by an ambulance, and he journeys through the labyrinthine hospital attempting to find her. There is a nice twist on Kafka, when the frustrated narrator is allowed full access to the hospital’s surveillance tapes, only to find that there are so, so many hours of tape that he’ll never be able to derive anything from them. Again, the mental state of the man is subordinate to the organic disease around him that he seems oddly distant from. When, at the end, he ends up leading an entourage including a girl whose bones are dissolving, the enviroment mirrors the girl by not remaining firm enough to grasp. The parallel to Kafka is most appropriate here, but the “characters” are as indeterminate as the landscape. Where Kafka dealt with amorphous persecution, Abe simply pulls the rug out from everything he touches.

There is, at the heart of these books, very little interest in character or psychology, despite the trappings that appear. The next book he wrote, The Ark Sakura, is far less disorienting, but the main character, a paranoid survivalist, spends the last third of the book with his leg caught in an industrial toilet and the other characters are one-dimensional. The book is essentialy a Stevenson-like adventure story, and the abrupt end pushes the unreality of what’s gone before, as he finally emerges from his cave into the light:

Beyond the transparent people lay a transparent town. Was I transparent, then, too? I held a hand up to my face–and through it saw buildings.

The situations Abe deals in do not raise epistemological or existential questions; they are deranged treatments of metaphysics. The question is whether the shifting realities and, in The Box Man, pseudo-philosophical ramblings amount to something that is prior to experience and organized thought. With Donoso, I believe it is. With Abe, they seem detached from thought altogether: some sort of objectification of humans. The perversions in his books often come off as heartless, but Abe may be pushing for metaphysical heartlessness.

“Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon,” Robert Ashley

The piece is ten minutes long. Over some distorted, inconspicuous bells and static, Cynthia Liddell details the story of a rape from the victim’s point of view in mostly (but not totally) descriptive terms. Ashley describes his aims as follows:

My instructions [to friends] were simple: just describe a sequence of events, without any moral or psychological interpretation of those events, but include your sensory perceptual role in the events.

Ashley found all submissions unsatisfactory and subjective, and he wrote this one himself. He says:

The recording of this particular “description” got a lot of attention. Curiously, compared to some of the stories I heard, it has always seemed rather tame to me…It is the description that disturbs.

Well, no. Ashley certainly puts together an unsettling piece of music, but not for the reasons Ashley believes. The writing is unremarkable, but because of the subject matter, it’s memorable. Most people don’t want to read or hear ten minutes of this sort of thing:

His mouth was very wet. I remember he tried to touch his tongue as far down in my throat as he could reach. It choked me. I couldn’t swallow and I couldn’t breathe.

These are the same tactics used by horror writers: the intrusion of foreign forces, the narrator’s lack of control, the chance of rescue continually growing more distant. Ashley pulls a few tricks to extend the effect, which is to make the “description” entirely passive on the woman’s part. He even cheats at one point by having her say, “I felt hollow.”

Ashley’s words are part of an American literary tradition whose most famous exponent is John Updike, where vernacular and obviousness act as a pipeline to truth. The danger is that such concerns can be used indifferently simply to play on common experience and evoke bathos. It is the fate of someone who, in Robert Musil’s terms, “had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms.”

The words are, however, considerably more effective in the recording. The story is unpleasant, but the urge to stop reading isn’t as strong as the urge, when listening to Liddell, to get up and turn the thing off. It’s Liddell more than the description. It is her hesitant, vulnerable, nearly blank voice that is chilling. It invests the piece with all the emotion that Ashley claims to have removed from the text. It is not the voice of detachment; it is the voice of dissociation and vulnerability. It is the voice of a victim, of someone in a psychological state so fragile and private that you feel uncomfortable listening to her. Ashley has dealt with the notion of societally unacceptable speech in other works, and it’s hard to believe he’s not aware that it’s the voice rather than the words that has the dominant effect here. When there is a gasp towards the end, it gives away the game: Liddell has been pulling you along emotionally by the nose. The relation of facts, opinions, emotions, or anything in this style of speaking would sound dissociated and creepy.

If it sounds like I have a problem with “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon”…I do. I find it cheap. Liddell is not subtle, but she is effective, and she is at such odds with Ashley’s stated intention that it drags it down to the level of shock. A good chunk of the history of music (not just pop music) is singers giving weight to uninspired texts. “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” is notable for the failure of its atypical literary pretenses and the arrogance in its manipulation.

Case Histories, Alexander Kluge

The style of this book of stories is conspicuous, consisting of interrogatories, short passages under descriptive headers, and lists: lists of debts, of personality traits, of neuroses. The use of this sort of style as a way towards detachment goes back to Tristram Shandy, where it’s ironic, and you can see it in the flat descriptions of the contents of drawers in Dashiell Hammett. But Kluge’s use of it is most similar to the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. In Joyce, it served partly as a pathos-generating device, racking up details that etched Bloom and Stephen in momentary bliss and eventual sadness. Kluge uses it in a historical sense, using an inappropriately objective voice to create dissociation and dissonance between the material and the narration.

The forced (and, like in Joyce, there are intimations of its dishonesty and bias) neutrality turns it into the voice of history more than of fiction; damning moral judgments come out in its generalizations, but seem detached from any moral judgment of the person discussed. They are mostly apolitical; many are ineffective. So the historical treatment of people who are mostly incidental is jarring. When it’s deployed against the Eichmann-like Rudolf Boulanger, who helped “measure” the brains of Jewish scientists during the war and now lives freely in Cologne, the effect is numbing. Hannah Arendt made it seem as though the war criminals she treated were mindful administrators; Kluge goes further by giving him doubts and stumbling blocks absurdly inappropriate for the historical context.

Most of the stories are subtler. The prodigal Mandorf lives an uneasy existence on Crete under German occupation and wants to “let his personality unfold,” but can’t. After some of the local residents are executed by the Germans during an evacuation, Mandorf tries to save some of the others, but fails. In the process, under the title “An appalling discovery,” he realizes “he was indifferent to everything that had happened or was happening…Mandorf’s personality lay unfolded: it contained nothing.” He is one of the more moral of Kluge’s characters, but he is unable to cope with his impotence, and his better side is relegated to footnotes. The objective narration breaks more explicitly:

Mandorf the expert
Actually Mandorf was not an expert in anything.

Kluge is very respectful of the ambiguity between Mandorf’s inherent drive towards action, which he can never fulfill, and the horrible circumstances that drive him into resignation and isolation. Mandorf is doomed in his small way, but the extent of the exacerbating impact of what happens on Crete is unknowable, Kluge implies. Mandorf himself does become numb and regrets not gaining his professorship in 1939 more than anything afterwards, but the historical facts paint him as a nearly sympathetic person, even if this is, as Kluge indicates, totally, completely irrelevant to his emotional state.

Mandorf is much more respectable than Eberhard Schincke, an intellectual and researcher who turns vehemently anti-Nazi after several years of embracing it. But his reversal only stems from a cold day sitting on a horse in the reserves, which he spins into an argument against it. His academic nature and “aversion to topicality” lead him to reject Nazism on abstruse and meaningless ideological grounds, and his career is ruined not out of any real resistance but only a deep narcissism.

It’s difficult to work arbitrariness deep into the determining factors of stories’ characters, especially without some bias informing the direction. For Celine, it was contempt that underpinned his random horrors; for Christina Stead, it was an architectural drive to classify a certain personality type’s behavior across any situation.

But Kluge is remarkably equivocal, and the lack of a definitive orientation is often in danger of deflating the collection. These figures would not stand up to novel-length treatment; even over a dozen pages each one becomes dreary, because they are either rote and predictable or subject to drastic, unpredictable changes in direction. The style saves it, because Kluge manages to produce a different result in each story by contrasting the flat, historical reportage with brief implications of how the characters see themselves. Sometimes the result is irony, sometimes horror, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes disgust. That he produces so much without varying the style at all is the core achievement of the collection.

Richard Rorty: You were asking me what the definition of irony was…

onegoodmove gives us a dose of Richard Rorty (thanks to wood s lot once more):

[In my utopia:] High culture will no longer be thought of as the place where the aim of the society as a whole is debated and decided, and where it is a matter of social concern which sort of intellectual is ruling the roost. Nor will there be much concern about the gap that yawns between popular culture, the culture of people who have never felt the need for redemption, and the high culture of the intellectuals: the people who are always wanting to be something more or different than they presently are. In utopia, the religious or philosophical need to live up to the non-human, and the need of the literary intellectuals to explore the present limits of the human imagination will be viewed as matters of taste. They will be viewed by non-intellectuals in the same relaxed, tolerant and uncomprehending way that we presently regard our neighbor’s obsession with birdwatching, or macrame, or collecting hubcaps, or discovering the secrets of the Great Pyramid.

My response is the following series of topics for entries/essays that I will never get around to writing:

(1) Rorty embraces a populism that would render him (but also all his fellow academics) fully irrelevant, the same populism that Dwight Macdonald repellently but honestly scoffed at half a century ago in “Masscult and Midcult.”

(2) Rorty by his own admission takes John Dewey as a model. But is his worship of Dewey based on what Dewey thought or what he was: influential. Ideologically, Rorty should be aligned with the less sophisticated, inchoate thinker Randolph Bourne, who in all his pacifist dogmatism looks better in retrospect on World War I than Dewey. Bourne said:

Professor Dewey has become impatient at the merely good and merely conscientious objectors to war who do not attach their conscience and intelligence to forces moving in another direction. But in wartime there are literally no valid forces moving in another direction. War determines its own end,–victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end…A good many people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion.

Bourne, “A War Diary”

(3) A few years back, Rorty wrote Achieving Our Country, a hundred-page book conspicuously architected for mass consumption. George Will insulted it in Time. The Wall Street Journal liked it for its trashing of dissociative leftist academia. The book flopped.

(4) Rorty presents himself as the mediator between disparate schools of philosophy, but he has avoided steps towards organizing a consensus to the point of being ostracized.

(5) Rorty’s epistemology is a rather non-pragmatic, pluralistic approach to coexistence of contradictory mindsets. Far from Dewey and farther from Peirce, it bears some resemblance to the ethical studies of Alastair MacIntyre, which are tied up in the establishment of a pluralistic set of good lifestyles that eliminate the need for ethical rules. In Rorty’s version as well as MacIntyre’s, the pluralism is a Burkean conservative notion, because it prescribes behavior rather than ethics.

(6) His eliminative materialistic mind/body stance is similar to those of Paul Feyerabend and Daniel Dennett, even though he has nearly nothing else in common with them. He shares their strategy of wanting to end up in a certain place and moving the logical leaps around to make it appear as though he’s gotten there. The problem is that his examples yield idealism as easily as they do materialism.

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