David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2003 (page 1 of 4)

The Twofold Vibration, Raymond Federman

There is something niggling about this book. It is, as Ray Davis has described, one of those works which deals with a deep trauma through literary extravagance. You could even say that it is about dealing with deep trauma through such extravagance. The trauma is the Holocaust, and if the work is not as arbitrarily generated as Beckett’s Watt, it tries its best. And there is something niggling about the effort.

(“Niggling” might make a less pretentious and more value-neutral substitute for “uncanny.”)

It’s not the metafictional artifice, with its fourth wall eternally under construction. Federman introduces himself at the beginning and discusses how he came to arrive at the book, and how his two assistant narrators, Namredef and Moinous, are going to help him talk about this horny old Holocaust survivor writer who is about to be exiled to another planet on the eve of the millenium. (The book was published in 1982.) The old man, we’re told, was born in the same year as Federman’s father. Federman himself discusses the two narrators here.

It’s not the intentionally perfunctory science fiction trappings. Federman dispatches them early on and only returns to them obliquely, when he gets involved with the Jane Fonda stand-in “June Fanon,” clearly in her post-Barbarella phase. He drops Lem and Bradbury’s names, but is content to sling a few insults at generic science fiction: “most science-fiction tends lamentably towards unconvincing futuristic descriptions and explications of the impossible…with simplistic characters and melodramatic plots which animate elementary didacticism.” Most metafiction tends towards narcissistic tail-chasing, but let’s keep going.

June Fanon is one of many women the old man is involved with, and a fair amount of time is spent detailing his successes with wild abandon. But it’s all in the past since he’s about to be exiled as part of some mysterious exile program, which is not actually exile, Federman explains, but a dumping of society’s refuse into space. The process is never clearly explained, but it’s very definitely a Holocaust metaphor. The old man is a survivor, and the two fulcrums at work are his hesitation about what has happened in the past, and the haziness and blankness of his upcoming exile. As a contrast we’re offered specifics–his continued anger at Germany, culminating in him expectorating (and worse) on a bed of Deutschmarks, and his rabid activism, all of which are not related to either of his exiles.

The book is driven by a generation of realistic but absurd plots that all proclaim their independence from the mysterious Holocaust and the mysterious exile. Most strikingly, the old man seduces a starlet by telling her the story of a boy narrowly escaping the camps by jumping from one train to another. She’s convinced it’s him: “I know it’s your story, the way you tell it, has to be your story.” He scores, but hates her and hates himself, and continues to insist that it was not him, “just a story.”

The underlying spirit at work, more than Beckett, is that of Edmund Jabes, whom Federman mentions twice. The only part of Beckett present is his playfulness, not the sparseness nor the precision, and without such stark contrast, the result can seem frivolous. “But that’s the point,” a response could go, “to focus on the quotidian which can be described to elucidate what cannot.” Jabes also worked in the space around what he believed he could not speak, and Federman ultimately seems to be marking territory with “Keep out!” signs. The problem is that the lightly comedic quality of the rest of the material references the dark center without illuminating it.

That niggling quality: it is that you can work through pain and suffering and the most awful thing in the world, and you can have fun doing it while making sure to be conscious of the unconscionable past and future, and you can even write all about that, but that elliptical quality that Jabes references, illumination, is, perhaps intentionally, absent. Left instead are pure aesthetics, hovering without reason, seemingly treasured.

Immanuel Wallerstein: Don’t Encourage Him By Proving Him Right

I keep waiting for Immanuel Wallerstein to pop up in the debate on the current troubles, but so far I haven’t seen him around. Wallerstein is the man who has claimed for some time that the United States’s global influence and hegemony has been in inevitable decline for thirty years and its leaders are simply deluding themselves that it will be king of the hill for much longer. Since it’s not the most obvious of theses, his papers appear from time to time with seeming bemusement from people

It’s not my main area of interest or study, but Wallerstein’s argument sure seems to have some problems. He overplays past dominance:

The history books record that World War I broke out in 1914 and ended in 1918 and that World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. However, it makes more sense to consider the two as a single, continuous “30 years’ war” between the United States and Germany, with truces and local conflicts scattered in between. The competition for hegemonic succession took an ideological turn in 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany and began their quest to transcend the global system altogether, seeking not hegemony within the current system but rather a form of global empire.

The second part sounds all right; the first part doesn’t. Wallerstein argues that the U.S. was already a major economic power by 1914–fair enough–but it’s hard to see how the U.S.’s claim to global dominance even became an issue before the 20’s and 30’s. Working with the same evidence and a similar conceptual framework, Karl Polanyi still painted the first war as concertedly Eurocentric. At the time, states didn’t have enough truck with the U.S., and vice versa.

Wallerstein also underplays the U.S.’s current influence. When he says:

In the Balkans and the Middle East alike, the United States has failed to exert its hegemonic clout effectively, not for want of will or effort but for want of real power.

he downplays the ability of the U.S. to help put Israeli ultra-nationalists Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman exactly where they want to be, or at least way closer than prudence would dictate.

But I’m not inclined to get in a debate on the matter, other than to say I think he’s offbase. It’s a slightly more conservative argument than Paul Kennedy’s because Wallerstein seems to invoke qualities of national prestige and posture that are not directly related to economic power. But after a few diplomatic disasters in the last year or so, Wallerstein is starting to look pretty good; in fact, I’d say he looks better than Kennedy, because it hasn’t been economics so much as pure posture that has turned everyone against the U.S. (Marshall has been working overtime discussing this, and there’s still so much more to be said.) In the last section of the article, Wallerstein is able to nicely retrofit his theory without much trouble on the “never thought that would happen” neocon dominance. His analysis of U.S. strongarming in the middle of last year looks extremely prescient:

Yet the U.S. response amounts to little more than arrogant arm-twisting. Arrogance has its own negatives. Calling in chips means leaving fewer chips for next time, and surly acquiescence breeds increasing resentment. Over the last 200 years, the United States acquired a considerable amount of ideological credit. But these days, the United States is running through this credit even faster than it ran through its gold surplus in the 1960s.

But Wallerstein’s position is that the strongarming inevitably used up credit and it failed (in Turkey, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, etc.) because the U.S. simply isn’t as powerful as it thinks it is, and other countries disobeyed because they could. I’m inclined to think that the administration just bungled it; those we strongarmed resisted in spite of fairly notable consequences (or, maybe, resisted because the promises of rewards were totally unreliable, in light of how the administration had already repeatedly screwed Mexico). Wallerstein’s argument, as he says, becomes one of bungling just hastening the inevitable, not wrecking a working piece of machinery.

The neocons actually look worse under Wallerstein’s version for overestimating their country’s position, but it takes some of the blame off of them, since it implies that there probably wasn’t much of a way to get multilateral support for an Iraq war in the first place. Wallerstein does not claim this (well, he didn’t in 2002; I wonder what he is saying now), but he does say that there is far less prestige for the U.S. to squander than is commonly thought. But in general, he seems too pessimistic on the amount of presige right now, and I expect he would claim his estimation as one factor in the inept U.N. wrangling of the last six months. (As much as, say, presenting garbage evidence.) I think he attributes too little power, and thus too little responsibility, to the administration. It still looks like a contingent screw-up, not even a vaguely necessary one. In the short-term, his essential pessimism still looks misplaced. But the diplomatic damage that everyone is talking about and the economic damage that everyone will be talking about look to vindicate him, and we can only hope that his theory isn’t at all useful in removing responsibility for decisions that I suspect are far more decisive than Wallerstein thinks.

The Little Demon, Fyodor Sologub: The Will to Profundity

And yet, there is one anomalous, eloquent passage that stands out from the paltry misery and conniving that dominates the book:

[Peredonov] felt that in nature was a true reflection of his own depression, a projection of his own fears. He was oblivious of that inner, indefinable life that is in the whole of nature, that life which alone creates deep and genuine relations between man and nature. Therefore all of nature was permeated with petty human emotions in his eyes. Blinded by the illusions of personality and his alienated existence, he had no understanding of those elemental Dionysian ecstasies triumphantly echoing throughout nature. He was pathetic and blind to them–like many of us.

This is the one time where the veil does fall–or perhaps, is replaced–and Sologub exhorts his readers. When Gogol did this, it was preachy and disingenuous; the last few pages of Dead Souls are ridiculously romantic next to what’s preceded them. But for Sologub here, it’s the sudden glimpse into unknown areas where there are not base vices and gossip, but chaotic, immanent purity. This is the one glimpse Sologub gives in the entire book, and more than any of its characters get. Whether it is a forged anomaly or the key moment of revelation (for the reader, certainly not for the characters) depends on what you’re looking for.

The Little Demon, Fyodor Sologub

The obvious comparison that jumps out is to Gogol. There is a similar dark humor, and a similar cynicism, but those affinities are mostly superficial. While Gogol had larger than life archetypes as characters (the pathetic bureaucrat, the obsessive gamesman, the skinflint), Sologub’s characters are resolutely small and detailed. They hardly succeed at signifying anything other than their own pettiness. The Little Demon was written in 1907, but has nothing of the upcoming Russian futurists about it (though his poetry sure does), nor the power of premonition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, nor the contemporary feeling of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. It is more parochial than Gorky. The Little Demon has the claustrophobia of a hellish vision of a small village beyond which no one’s thoughts ever go.

The hero, Peredonov, is a nasty little man, an abusive schoolteacher whose ambition is to become inspector of schools, through the connections of his fiancee Varvara. Unfortunately, Varvara, terrified of Peredonov dumping her for a less repellent woman, has been in league with the old spinster Grushina and has fabricated her connections. Grushina forges letters from a princess in St. Petersburg to Peredonov. Varvara keeps up the charade with increasingly unbelievable antics until Peredonov marries her, by which point Peredonov is quite paranoid, and partly with reason, since most of the people around him really do loathe him and gossip about his peccadilloes. But by the end, he has become completely crazy, unwilling to believe what everyone else knows–that the letters are fakes–and instead chasing after fabricated plots, setting fire to ballrooms, and eventually turning on his dense friend Volodin and slitting his throat, all the while spurred on by the “petty demon” of the title, which taunts him and eggs him on. The hallucinations and unreality is similar to that of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” but there is no redemption, no moment of clarity, only oblivious dark.

In the context of the surroundings, stripped of any nobility, Peredonov occupies a role in his environment similar to that of Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, written in 1840, seemingly as a rebuff to Pushkin’s more romantic view of Russia. Pechorin was the cynical, brash opportunist who was no more moral than the pompous nobles around him, but is incredibly successful at exploting them. Lermontov implied that the logical end of Pechorin’s mindset was an ennui-laden fatalism, but Sologub seems to have another answer: paranoia and compulsive scheming can arise just as easily when those around you are too dumb to even act predictably in their own self-interest.

Sologub fills up the book with other grotesquely picaresque anecdotes, which aren’t as shocking as they might be because the characters are so flat. Three shrill sisters, a pompous windbag headmaster, a succession of increasingly dull officials. But one story stands out and nearly takes over the book, though it’s only tangentially connected with Peredonov’s tale, and that’s the story of Lyudmilla and Sasha. Sasha is a young, persecuted student who Peredonov, in another incomprehensible scheme for promotion and fame, attempts to claim is a girl, and Lyudmilla is a shallow, nasty woman who becomes infatuated with him, driven by dreams of being the queen of a palace full of boys whipping each other. Lyudmilla dresses him up in girl’s clothes, pinches him, induces him to foot-worship, and eventually seduces him. Unlike Peredonov, Lyudmilla manages to completely cover up the affair when his aunt hears about it, with Sasha playing along perfectly.

The material is unnerving if not shocking; it’s of such a base nature that Peredonov’s insanity looks fuzzy in comparison. And Sologub seems to relish it more than the rest of the plot, devoting more and more time to the details of their meetings. (That and the general misogyny, misanthropy, and prurience suggest that Sologub was not a nice man.) Lyudmilla even picks up some pagan pretenses that she initially uses to justify her perversions to Sasha. It could be trash, but Sologub goes a ways towards justifying it by painting them in opposition to Peredonov. While Peredonov runs amok, Sasha and Lyudmilla maintain (or even, in Sasha’s case, establish) their public decency by falling back on a secret vice. The implication is that Peredonov failed because his addiction was public achievement. Sasha and Lyudmilla are undoubtedly doomed as well, but they are doomed in the way that Frank Norris’s McTeague was doomed: tolerated if not respected, they’ll go along until their private life destroys their public life. McTeague eventually abandons his dentistry practice for the promise of gold, but Sologub is a bit lighter than Norris. Sologub gives his characters their private pleasure, while in McTeague, there is clenched-teeth misery only let loose when a young boy urinates in public and humiliates his whole family, in an expression of unbelievably repressed (and oppressed) rage.

That’s not to say that Sologub is sanguine, but the two main plots of Peredonov and Sasha/Lyudmilla strengthen each other. Peredonov would just be a madmen amongst dullards, and Sasha and Lyudmilla would just be perverse caricatures, but each is a reaction to the other, as Charles Bovary’s failures make Emma’s futile dreams deeper. I will not go into detail about how the two aspects, one public and deranged, one private and devious, reinforce each other and how that might apply to the past and future history of Russia, but I’d say there’s something there.

Go! (Roll Call, Part II)

We belatedly bring you a continuation of Slate‘s Roll Call:

Peter Iovine is a marketer.

There’s a saying that juries do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I think that applies here. The evidence is bad, the diplomacy is bad, the leadership is bad, but none of them are as bad as Saddam. When all is said and done, are you really going to tell me that we shouldn’t remove this maniac from power?

Randy Brinkman owns a small chain of office supply stores

Is there even any serious debate about it anymore? Before 9/11, there were a lot of people, young kids mostly, who thought it had always been a safe, wonderful world with no enemies, so we could afford to be nice to everyone and act like we weren’t the single stabilizing force for good in the entire world. People got their minds changed quickly after the towers fell. Now we’re back in reality and these dictators are threatening the whole world. Go and take them out.

Marcy Hitt was a health care claims administrator before becoming a stay-at-home mother.

I’ve read the Pollack book. I’m with him. I do not believe that there is an imminent threat, and I don’t believe Iraq has any serious ties to Al Qaeda. But it’s unacceptable that he’s trying to obtain nuclear weapons, and it would be a disaster if he used them. I don’t like the whole pre-emptive war doctrine. I don’t want it to be a doctrine, because I think there are threats that can be handled with diplomacy. But this is not one of them. He invaded Kuwait in 1990 thinking that we wouldn’t do anything, and that if we did do something, he could fight us off. He’s a madman, and it’s better to stop him sooner than later, when he really will pose an imminent threat.

James Newton is a certified public accountant.

I don’t trust the President on this. Before you do anything this serious, you want to believe that you’re being led by a brave man of integrity. You want to believe he’s telling the truth. I don’t, and even though you don’t see it on the networks, you can see all the contradictions and phonied-up evidence if you just pay attention. USA Today is for the war, but my local daily paper isn’t. The writing’s better in USA Today, but I trust my local paper more.

Raymond Corn is a podiatrist.

We should have done the job in 1991, of course. It wouldn’t have made us any less popular than we are now. Instead we now have to start a war for what seems like no reason, because Hussein has been there all along. He’s always been a menace. He’s an evil man. It’s never wise to tolerate evil, and we’re already paying the price for it. There are some moral black and whites. No matter what sins we’ve committed, we are the force of good, and he is a force of evil. It is our moral duty–it has been our duty–to go and eliminate Hussein, just as it seems to be Europe’s duty to appease him.

Marcus Fiorello works in the computer industry.

The United States shouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan. They’ve completely screwed the Afghanis, Afghanistan is run by warlords everywhere except Kabul, which is pretty much a gangster town anyway next to our little puppet government. And now, just because they barely pulled that off, they think they can do it in Iraq. The word is hubris. If I made promises like our leaders have made, I’d be out of a job. I think a bad wakeup call is coming for the people in this country.

Peter Linder is the floor manager of a stockroom.

My neighbors are very depressed. They think this signals the beginning of the end of the world. I agree with them. There’s too many bad things going on in North Korea, in India and Pakistan, in Israel and Palestine, and now in Iraq. Nuclear weapons in the hands of these madmen. Something’s going to blow and it’ll be the end. I’m a Christian, but I don’t welcome the end times, and they’re pretty clearly here. I’m nominally against the war, but I don’t see how it matters.

Ralph Ames works in retail.

I hope it will make us safer. I don’t know whether it will. I guess on balance I’d say it will, since state-sponsored terrorism would have one less state, but it’ll probably increase Al Qaeda recruiting. People spend all this time talking about whether or not Iraq was involved in the World Trade Center bombings. Does it matter? If they weren’t involved, they wanted to be. Saddam Hussein and his associates are monsters just like Al Qaeda and they exploit fanatical religion to foster hate against this country and all western ideas. It only takes one of them to dump anthrax on a city or infect us all with smallpox. And they’re trying to get nukes. But I don’t know what you can do other than to try to wipe them all out. I don’t want to die.

Janice Bern is a lawyer.

It’s very easy to overintellectualize these things and explain away all sorts of mortal sins. It’s too easy to criticize yourself and your own country when you should be taking action. It’s easy to feel too much shallow sympathy for these people who are going to be bombed, who have never known freedom or dissent. The people of Iraq are mere embryos, from whom an open, progressive society could sprout, if their regime were only decapitated. They have had many years to overthrow a brutal tyrant, and they haven’t done so. This does not speak well of their own values. If we have to do it for them, that’s a burden I’m willing to shoulder. I hope our example–us sticking our necks out–will instill in them a sense of nobility about who they allow to rule them. Complicity in the face of barbarism is never acceptable, for them or for us.

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