David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2003 (page 1 of 4)

Dot Matrix Printer Music: Hugh Davies and The User

Back in the days of Appleworks and WordPerfect, we all had dot-matrix printers. As far as anything of the sort can be, they were pretty musical. You had the constant hum of the printer head, the rhythmic chunk at the end of each line, and a variety of sounds depending on what was being printed. For normal text, it would usually come out as undifferentiated chattering, but I used to get a visceral thrill from the sharp ring of a divider line, and was irritated when bold type made the entire casing rattle with a deep roar.

The User’s Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers, from last year, downplays the more obnoxious noises and sticks to the cleaner sounds of simple characters like dots. “Control to Efficiency” really makes something out of the resonance of heads just moving along the track, not printing. The other two excerpts are reminiscent of glitch-style electronica–you could tell me it was Farmers Manual and I’d probably believe it–and are for me less interesting. You can use dot matrix printers as rhythm machines, but with everything on earth already having been sampled for rhythm, it’s not as noteworthy.

The other instance that I know of is Hugh Davies “Printmusic” from the mid-80’s. Davies is probably best known for being a member of the Music Improvisation Company in the late 60’s and early 70’s with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, and Jamie “If we carry on like this we’re gonna end up like King Crimson” Muir. Muir abandons the rhythm aspect as much as possible and focuses on the variety of timbres and unclean tones that his Epson LX-80 printer can produce. In the 80’s, I owned an Epson L-series printer, and despite its sturdy ordinariness, Epsons had one distinguishing characteristic: they were loud. You could hear it anywhere in the house once it started going, and Davies’ result is much harsher than The User’s, and closer to the sound source. It could be a different instrument. It’s not any more musical than his other work, but it isn’t especially less so; he gets a lot of mileage out of it over five minutes. (The composition is one page long, for those of us who forgot how slow these things were.) But the best experience is to be had from following the printed score as it plays, as lines like these are translated into recognizable sounds:

Indulgence: Joyce, Beckett, Oulipo

Via correspondence to Bellona Times, Paul Kerschen tells of a story of Joyce dictating Finnegans Wake to Beckett:

There was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in’?” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.” He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method. (Ellmann, 649)

In other words, Beckett was pissed off. There are so many who worry about slaving away in the darkness to an audience of one, only seen as cranks by the rest of the world, and there are impudent jokers like Joyce who implicitly ridicule them. For those of us who still wonder about the point of chapter 14 of Ulysses next to its massive show-off, the sight can be wearying.

I haven’t read enough of the Wake to comment on how dastardly the intrusion actually is–I’ve looked at the passage and it seems obtrusive and isolated enough to be disregarded–but it is this ethic that, intuitively to me, seems to reflect itself in the act of exhibitionism to young girls that figures early on in Finnegans Wake. But Joyce’s own private use (private even, I believe, from Stuart Gilbert) of the sigla does seem to mitigate against the charge of pure japery, and it’s that somewhat submerged ethic that keeps even non-obsessives wondering if the thing holds the meaning of the universe. On the other hand, it could just be a joke on the third item in Ray’s taxonomy of desperation, a tinge of regret that he gave up the five or six schema variations too quickly. But Joyce wasn’t that much of a joker.

(And Beckett had his own preoccupations as well.)

What later became a proving ground for indulgence vs. earnestness was the Oulipo, whose trickeries have overshadowed the vast differences between the efforts of its authors. Harry Mathews has more in common with B. S. Johnson than with Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec, and even Perec and Queneau, the most famous of the French set, are atypical next to, say, Jacques Roubaud, a seemingly more archetypal Oulipo writer who bears more of a resemblance to Donald Barthelme than he does to any of the aforementioned. That the rubric doesn’t include Robbe-Grillet or Claude Simon, who can be considered defiantly post-surrealist and viably experimental, makes the affiliation seem rather superficial: these authors were brought together by their love of palindromes, of games, of metafictional tour-de-forces.

And I think this is the reason that, with the possible exception of Perec, these authors’ most significant work was done outside of their association with the Oulipo, and their work inside of it was their most playful. (With Mathews, I see the difference as almost polar, particularly in his later work like Cigarettes and The Journalist.) The indulgence was a consequence of the context, of the avowed project.

The name-dropping in the last two paragraphs isn’t so important. The point is that the oil and water of logorrheic brinksmanship and the drive towards hidden universals (e.g., the sigla) can coexist. Some authors, like Beckett and Barthelme but also, for example, Lawrence Sterne, mostly reject one or the other. Many of the Oulipo authors worked with both at different times. In Ulysses, Joyce worked with both simultaneously. I suspect the same is true of Finnegans Wake.

Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo

The short but daunting Pedro Paramo does share some things with The Obscene Bird of Night: a wealthy landowner and his horrific son, a madonna/whore figure, and a very whacked narrative structure. But Rulfo’s book is not about the creative process at all, and deals with a fixed, if endlessly refracted, set of circumstances.

Juan Preciado returns to the town of Comala, which his mother had left when he was just a baby. His father is Pedro Paramo, the landowner, enforcer, and tyrant of the entire town. Comala is literally a ghost town; Juan is taken in by a series of maternal spirits that guide him through the history of the town and its death, brought on by Paramo.

Paramo owns all the land, and with the willing assistance of the church, most of the town is dragged into corruption, philandering, and decay along with him. As landowner, Paramo comes to infect the land, and violence suffuses the entire town. This is personified by Paramo’s son Miguel, who is a serial rapist and eventually comes to an end when he’s killed by his horse, before he can be killed by another man planning Miguel’s death. Rulfo is clear that all the chaos and evil is arising from Paramo’s hands, similar to the second part of Goethe’s Faust, as when the old woman Dorotea, who has lost her son, makes a deal with Paramo to round up women for Miguel. When Paramo’s unattainable love, the insane figure of redemption Susana, dies, Paramo shuts the entire town down, mandating that the farmland become dead and funding revolutionaries. He is eventually killed by another bastard son of his, leaving the town to the ghosts of its past inhabitants.

Those are the basics. There is a great UT essay that delves more deeply into the background. What makes the book difficult is the hopscotch narration, which jumps between Juan’s dealings with the residential ghosts of the town, his channeling of the non-ghost souls those departed who exist in a mental limbo, and non-linear retelling or straight narration of the past. It’s not as chaotic as it initially seems once the basic rhythms are established. Juan hears more and more levels of the story, and at the height of it, communicates with Susana, who is lost in the reliving of Paramo’s attentions, which she ignores, and her escapes to swim in the ocean, which constitutes her escape from Paramo. The structure is loosely a spiral, and by the end of the story Juan has completely disappeared, absorbed into the weave of fragments and voices.

The issue is what effect the treatment has on more or less classical, realistic material. Rulfo intends to have Paramo have acted in such a way as to create a purgatory, his shutdown crippling the progression of time and of souls. Body/soul dualism is very prominent here, and Rulfo has a bizarre version of it, since bodies go on as sentient ghosts without souls. And clearly, no salvation is at hand. To the extent that a clear end to the story would function as that anyway, the book does read as having an entrance but no exit. It trails off shortly after Paramo’s death, but the revelations of what have been going on are sequenced so that no real conclusion exists. Paramo’s death is known from the start, and the circumstances of his life and of the town’s life don’t end with his death as much as with the death of Susana. The discovery that it’s another of his sons who kills him is fitting, but it is so in line with what has gone before that it is not revelatory. Still, the material itself is intact. Rulfo’s elaboration through the after-the-fact ghosts and souls does not fundamentally alter the plot, which is traditionally tragic. It instead attempts to offer a version of how the events are perceived by those who experience them rather than by a reader. Mostly, there is infinity instead of closure and claustrophobia instead of perspective.

Despite the narrative shuffling, I believe that Rulfo was going for this simple effect of exploring tragedy as experienced rather than as viewed. It’s a selfless approach, and of all his admitted fans who adopted and modified his approach with considerably greater levels of complexity, mythology, and confusion, only Gabriel Garcia Marquez used it in a similar manner to move away from literary artifice. (I might also admit Guillermo Cabrera Infante, but honestly, the jury’s still out.) In comparison, Julio Cortazar in Hopscotch deploys the shuffling chiefly as a tool of abstraction away from experience. The problem is that while Rulfo’s strategy may be more noble, it likely makes writing nearly impossible.

“Walking”, Thomas Bernhard

Thomas Bernhard has always put me ill at ease. He possesses a unique style that promises much but is forever getting caught up in itself and carefully avoiding revelation. The intrusion of childish ranting in his later work is disappointing. And there is always the allusion to something missing, something very carefully left out as though it were anathema. The novella “Walking” does provide a partial key in a way that most of his other work doesn’t, but it’s only useful if you know the lock quite well. Bernhard’s exit from his most hermetic work is well known: you can see it from The Loser on, and even in his autobiographical fragment Wittgenstein’s Nephew. But the entrance is only revealed here.

The characters are typical of Bernhard: obsessive, ruminative, prone to running off at the mouth, and always men. Bernhard’s rhythmic style and intense repetitions come across regardless of the translator, though I think Sophie Wilkins always did the most convincing job of rendering them in English. When he gets going, as all but his earliest work does, his run-on style gives the impression of skipping across water…but in slow motion. He can be read quickly, but Bernhard avoids building momentum, preferring to secure his mood moment by moment. After a few dozen pages, his work inevitably comes to seem sludgy, as you wonder if you will ever be granted more than the myopic view he is presenting. (The answer is no.) Bernhard’s arid, obsessive elaboration on Beckett, Wittgenstein, and Broch is striking, but it can be limited.

“Walking” is an early novella, coming when Bernhard was just cementing his style, leaving the coherent grotesques of Gargoyles behind and beginning to focus on the minute (some would say petty) details of his Austrian world. Eventually this tack would turn into the extended anti-Austria cultural rants of Woodcutters and Old Masters, but in the 70’s, Bernhard managed to avoid the poles of both abstraction and curmudgeonness while digging very deep in his chosen idiom.

Here, the narrator (a Bernhard stand-in who is a shadow of the other characters) walks with Oehler, who talks about their mutual friend Karrer, who has gone insane and is locked up in an asylum. The book divides into three parts. The beginning of the first can be read here. (Thanks to wood s lot for the link.) In it, Oehler lectures on the decay of Austria, which, in its refusal to provide funding, caused the brilliant chemist and unofficial philosopher Hollensteiner to commit suicide, which helped tip Karrer over the edge. Oehler’s pronouncements are more rational and considered than Bernhard usually allows, and consequently they seem vapid. To someone who doesn’t know Bernhard, it’s an inauspicious start, with Bernhard failing to shrug off his predecessors.

Very, very few people have the strength to abandon their dislike of the country that is fundamentally ready to accept them with open arms and unparalleled good will and go to that country. They would rather commit suicide in their own country because ultimately their love of their own country, or rather of their own, the Austrian, landscape is greater than the strengths to endure their own science in another country.

There are two directions here: there is the unspectacular and derivative philosophizing, but there is also a buried reconsideration of from where it originates. The second is far more promising than the first, but it’s far from overt anywhere in the first third of the novella.

In the second section, Bernhard’s narrative redirection explodes as the narrator recounts Oehler telling him about telling Scherrer, Karrer’s doctor, about an incident in a clothing store where Karrer lost control and ranted at length about the shoddy “Czechoslovakian rejects” that are the cause of the near-transparent patches in his trousers. It’s a relief to see most of the philosophical pretense dropped, even as Oehler starts to look as badly off as Karrer, which is the sort of thing that tends to happen in Bernhard’s work:

I again recognized to what degree madness is something that happens only among the highest orders of humanity. That at a given moment madness is everything…Psychiatric doctors like to make a note of what you tell them, without worrying about it, and what you tell them is a matter of complete indifference to them, and they do not worry about it.

You get the impression that Bernhard agrees with this, but Oehler is not a stand-in for Bernhard. As Oehler details his conversation, which details the incident in the store, the frame of reference becomes narrower and narrower until the walls of the store are the limits of the world, and the only draw of attention the argument that Karrer is having with the owner’s nephew. It becomes a language game in the sense of Wittgenstein, with Karrer repeatedly throwing phrases like “Czechoslovakian rejects” at the nephew until their meanings are disconnected from their referents. Beckett’s How It Is works in approximately the same mode, but Bernhard is far more quotidian and approachable. The word “empirical” again seems appropriate. Beckett started from language, but Bernhard works his way backwards from situations.

In the third section, Oehler returns, somewhat different, to his philosophizing. Here he discusses the equivalency of “walking” and “thinking,” considers them as inseparable activities, as inherently un-self-conscious activities, how the constant approach of new thought/territory and recession of old thought/territory is unceasing, and, eventually, how, as Karrer says, “This exercise will one day cross the border into madness.” Oehler’s tone is the same as the first section, as is the style, unsurprisingly, but Oehler is a bit more detached, and the narrator has long disappeared, except for the steady interruptions of “says Oehler.” The second section acts as a key to the first section, since Oehler’s ramblings now read as a fancier variant of the same kind of language game as Karrer’s in the shop. The saner man’s self-assuredness and confidence vanish under the threats that Oehler reveals: the prisons of certain types of substance and style a person sets for themselves, and the endless, fixed track that they follow at varying speeds.

The odd thing is, I wouldn’t have figured this out had I not come to “Walking” late in the game. Wittgenstein’s name gets dropped in a few spots (Karrer is apparently an expert), but the connections aren’t as clear here as they are in later work. Read in isolation, “Walking” appears to have more in common with Schopenhauer because Bernhard isn’t especially precise about the nature of the thought that drives people mad. It’s as amorphous as the Will, and though Bernhard presumably intends the trousers scene to be a record of a moment of total loss of perspective, Karrer just seems existentially uptight. It doesn’t quite come off, nowhere near as well as Roithamer’s project to build a cone in the middle of the forest in Correction, where Roithamer is convincing as a Wittgenstein surrogate. But it’s only having read this book that the first section of “Walking” can be seen as a lab experiment rather than an uninspiring sermon. (I still have my doubts.)

By Correction, published in 1975, Bernhard had dropped the generalizations completely and moved into an even more rarified type of sludge. Why I find it both impressively focused and unsatisfying will have to wait until later, but “Walking” is more focused than most, less blinkered than what was to come, and underneath it all, contains more of a justification for Bernhard’s approach than anything else I’ve read by him. That first section makes the latter two damn near necessary.

Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb

Published by Pushkin Press in one of their cute, compact 5×7 editions, this is a novel with remarkably strange effects for its modest approach. There weren’t many people writing about pure dissatisfaction in Europe or America in the mid-1930’s, and Len Rix’s very contemporary translation helps, superficially, to unmoor the book from time and place. It reads nothing like Dezso Kosztolanyi’s social realism text Anna Edes, written a decade earlier. The setting hops from Budapest to Rome without incident, and the casual state of business and finances makes it seem as though the Great War never happened. Szerb came from a upper-class Hungarian background, and the novel contains traces of decadence and hints of a sheltered life. But Szerb reads sharper than all this….

Mihaly and Erzsi are a well-to-do but fundamentally lazy couple, and both are happy when they become separated during their honeymoon. Erzsi gets involved with manipulative men who treat her like dirt and nearly make her pine for Mihaly. Mihaly becomes obsessed with slipping into the shadows and divorcing himself from a staid, respectable life, following siblings Tamas (who committed suicide) and Eva, his tormented friends and masters as a teenager. Mihaly whines that he could never be as free as them, because “I was just too petty-bourgeois. At home they had brought me up too much that way, as you know.” Still they cast him in their plays:

I don’t have the slightest instinct for acting. I am incurably self-conscious, and at first I thought I would die when they gave me their grandfather’s red waistcoat so that I could become Pope Alexander the Sixth in a long-running Borgia serial. In time I did get the hang of it. But I never managed to improvise the rich baaroque tapestries they did. On the other hand, I made an excellent sacrificial victim. I was perhaps best at being poisoned and boiled in oil. Often I was just the mob butchered in the atrocities of Ivan the Terrible, and had to rattle my throat and expire twenty-five times in a row, in varying styles. My throat-rattling technique was particularly admired.

Szerb is able to preserve this buoyant tone throughout some dark and morbid incidents, and it’s clear that it is because Mihaly is indeed so petty-bourgeois that he is so invulnerable to the worst of what he walks through. He can’t be truly touched by tormented artists, repentant priests, or manipulative businessmen. His dissatisfaction drives him to consider suicide, but the recognition at the end is that he never even came close. Erszi’s chronicle is similar in her self-delusion but a trace more self-awareness only enables her to make more of a mess of her life. She stumbles through ex-lovers and new lovers with disgust and self-disgust, bravely damning the torpedos and getting nowhere. It’s less vivid than Mihaly’s tale, but it works as counterpoint: Mihaly looks even more hopeless in comparison.

Yet the book is light, with the same sort of bourgeois detachment that Mihaly finds in himself, and Szerb appears to intimate that this is how he himself deals with the world; i.e., that it would be inauthentic of him to deal with weightier topics that are outside of his own experience. Mihaly’s relationship with Tamas is so myopic and worshipful as to bring back memories of Death in Venice, but I respect Szerb’s book more. It holds itself back from pathos as well as romanticism.

Szerb died in the camps. There is nothing in Journey to suggest that he was at all troubled by what was coming; his detachment is greater than the Romanian Mihail Sebastian’s in his Journal, where his aesthetic reveries are constantly interrupted by a creeping panic which eventually balloons. Mihaly, and by extension, Szerb, could not commit to such visceral unease, and the book is one of the few written before the deluge that acknowledges a bourgeois unreality with an unblinkered eye.

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