David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2003 (page 2 of 4)

Doruntine and The Palace of Dreams, Ismail Kadare

For starters, neither is as good as Broken April. Part of the problem is that the prose is weaker and more watered-down probably owing to the fact that unlike Broken April, both of these were double translated, from Albanian to French to English. Kadare’s style is simple and robust enough to appear to withstand the two hops better than some of Stanislaw Lem’s work. But the major issue is that they are tangential to Kadare’s main concerns, while Broken April is fundamental. Both were written about fifteen years after Broken April, and either represent unsuccessful attempts to branch out, or ambitious attempts to claim more territory.

Kadare’s obsessions are those of an anthropologist: he believes in the power of a local self-legislated culture to perpetuate itself down through the ages and maintain a stranglehold on all aspects of life. In Albania, he had what seemed like a perfect case study, and he never lost interest in it. Doruntine and The Palace of Dreams really are works of anthropological study, but the basic materials of the books don’t lend themselves to it. Their achievement is in how Kadare contorts, often unexpectedly, the material to orient it to his interests.

Doruntine is a simple tale of medieval folklore. A small Albanian town’s police officer, Stres, investigates a ghost story where the long-dead Constantine supposedly brought his sister, Doruntine, back from the foreign lands of her husband, at the request of their mother, which he had sworn to honor under the custom known as a bessa. Since the sister and the mother both die of shock before Stres can interrogate them, Stres is rather stuck. The local church official tells him that he will face dire consequences if he doesn’t make shortwork of the idea that a man was resurrected. But Stres decides that local culture trumps even the threat of religious persecution, and that by proclaiming the power of the bessa to even transcend the Christian religion, he will solidify the power of the indigenous culture. This leads to a burlesque. Stres tortures a merchant until he admits that he and Doruntine conspired to pretend that the merchant was Constantine resurrected, then tortures him until the merchant admits that he made it up.

In spite of the torture, Kadare allows the triumph of the culture to seem honorable. But the only real success is in Stres’s integration into the community that he had felt alienated from, through the affirmation of the power of the bessa. And Kadare, having pulled the rug out from both the myth and the revelation, actually ends on a very dark note. The honor at work is completely contextual. Calling Kadare’s approach subversive would be misleading; he is an anthropological realist.

The intrusion of that realism on apparent folklore is unsettling. In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare applies the same realism to allegory and the results are bizarre. At first it seems like a modern allegory out of Camus and Orwell, something like Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Mark-Alem, through his powerful family connections, gets a job at the totalitarian-ish Palace of Dreams, where submitted dreams from the country are analyzed for dangers to the state and prophecies of what is to come. And early on, with the mechanistic, though vague, descriptions of dream analysis and the corruption in the monolithic Palace, it resembles the allegories of Vladimir Makanin and Danilo Kis. But even then, Kadare doesn’t seem to be as interested in the vagaries of dream analysis or even of the torment of the population. Instead, he focuses on Mark-Alem himself, and the political infighting between his family (apparently based on a real set of longstanding nobles in Albania, and using the same name) and the government. His family, it seems, controls a key part of the Palace and are attempting to use it to reorient the government. There is a putsch, but Mark-Alem, whose personality is underdeveloped and a bit passive, ends with an affirmation of cultural tradition and a declaration of allegiance to his family, which will outlast the imposition of the Palace of Dreams on the country.

Except for the bit about the dreams, this isn’t much of an allegory; it’s quite close to Communist Albania. If you want allegory, consider Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where modern Scotland gets put through an apocalyptic political wringer. Here, the Palace is neither inscrutable nor omniscient. Next to the castle in Broken April, the site of long-standing, immutable tradition, it’s nearly impotent. The role of the unrealistic palace of dreams is pedestrian: it represents an attempt by the new state to gain control over the fundamental culture of its people, and it can only succeed as far as a powerful family embedded in that culture joins it. Mark-Alem’s dilemma between state and culture is abstracted from specifics, but it remains too personal and too psychological to be an allegory. It’s not where Kadare’s interests lie. Like Aharon Appelfeld, in whose works the Holocaust looms unspoken, Kadare is monomaniacal in pursuing his chosen subject, but he is more willing to extend himself to new forms, even without ceding an inch of his intent.

3 Movies

The same inarticulateness and lack of differentiation described below makes it difficult to come up with much germane to the major event of the day, but when words seem like a luxury, there’s always film. Most war movies come off as voyeuristic or dilettantish, but there are three that come to mind which don’t seem altogether frivolous. Maybe they make for a good break from the news.

Fires on the Plain: Kon Ichikawa filmed the post-war novel in 1962, when the self-flagellation present in a lot of 50’s films (see Kobayashi’s 10-hour purgative The Human Condition for that) seems to finally wane; here it seems to be directed at all of humanity. A soldier with tuberculosis wanders through plains and jungles amongst desperate men killing and eating each other. His sickness is not made out to be a sacrament, only a method of detachment that makes the film something other than nonstop horror.

Beau Travail: It’s not really a war movie, but it is a military movie, and a very aesthetic one, with endless shots of soldiers training on African beaches. They keep quiet, too, which turns the artifice into something visually affective. The story is a rewrite of Billy Budd, and is nearly irrelevant. It’s about a mindset and a lifestyle, and the non-verbal aspects of them. Claire Denis has never come close to matching it.

The Red and the White: Miklos Jancso made this movie in 1967 in Hungary and supposedly passed it off as pro-Soviet propaganda, though I can’t believe anyone ever bought that explanation. It deals with the Russian Revolution skirmishes along the Hungarian-Russian border around 1919, and like Jancso’s The Round-up, takes place on one large piece of mostly open land, which might as well be the entire world for how it’s shown. No characters, no plot, no explicit structure, and still one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. The plot summary linked to above gives a better idea of the sensibility than any actual attempt at description.

You don’t watch these things to try to empathize with experiences (luckily) foreign to you, but to be shown something inexplicable, at least by all those fancy modernist novels you read. Hey, I liked the first 90 minutes of Three Kings too….

Fighting for the Right to Fight the Right Fight for the Right

If something that affects a person is too overwhelming for him, whether sudden fright or an unremitting spiritual pressure, it can happen that this person suddenly “loses his head.” He can begin to howl, basically no differently from the way a child howls; he can “blindly” rush away from a danger or just as blindly rush into it; he can be overcome by an explosive tendency to destroy, swear, or wail. Altogether, instead of purposeful behavior that would be appropriate to his situation he will engage in a great many other kinds of behavior that always appear to be, and in reality all too often are, aimless, and indeed counterproductive. We are most familiar with this kind of contrariness as “panic fear”; but if the term is not taken in too narrow a sense, we could also speak of panics of rage, of greed, and even of tenderness; or indeed wherever a condition of excitation cannot give satisfaction in such vivid, blind, or senseless fashion. A man as intelligent as he was courageous noted long ago that there is a panic of courage, which is only distinguished from the panic of fear by its reversal of polarity.

Psychologically, what takes place when panic breaks out is regarded as a suspension of the intelligence, indeed of the entire higher intellectual faculty, in place of which a more primitive spiritual mechanism emerges; but it might well be added that with the paralyzing and ligature of reason in such cases, what happens is not so much a descent to acting instinctively as rather a descent leading straight through this area to a deeper instinct of ultimate necessity and an ultimate emergency form of action. This kind of action takes the form of total confusion: it has no plan, and is apparently bereft of reason and every other saving instinct; but its unconscious plans to replace quality of action with quantity, and its not inconsiderable cunning rests on the probability that among a hundred blind attempts that are washouts there is one that will hit the target. A person who has lost his head, an insect that bumps against the closed half of a window until by accident it “plunges” through the open half to freedom: in their confusion they are doing nothing but what military strategy does with calculated deliberation when it “saturates” a target with a volley or with sweeping fire, or indeed when it uses shrapnel or a grenade.

Robert Musil, “On Stupidity,” 1937

I searched long and hard for a relevant passage from The Man Without Qualities, since he says so much there and the translation is better, but I had to go to 1937 and a speech to find him addressing the basest instincts of humanity, because even the vilest character in The Man Without Qualities (excluding the murderer Moosbrugger, who is not a character anyway) looks pretty good in absolute terms, and by the later portions, it is threatening to float off into a world that is still far too rational and considered to be applicable.

I can’t blame him. “On Stupidity” is as close to a scream as I’ve read of him, disguised unconvincingly in increasing abstraction and stilted detachment. More selfishly, it drives him nuts that it is increasingly cutting him off from what he once thought was important and valued:

But today it is even more important to place the concept of what is significant ahead of the upstanding mind; I will mention this concept only in the most utopian way.

The significant unites the truth we are able to perceive in it with qualities of the feelings that give us confidence for something new: for an insight, but also a resolve, for fresh perseverance, for whatever has both intellectual and emotional content and “presumes” a certain kind of conduct in ourselves or in others; this is the way it could be put; and what is most important in connection with stupidity is that the significant is accessible to criticism’s understanding aspect as well as to its feeling aspect. The significant is also the opposite of both stupidity and brutality, and the general disproportion in which, today, emotions crush reason instead of inspiring it also merges with the notion of the significant. Enough about this, indeed perhaps already more than one might be able to answer for!

Me too. The comments at Daily Kos’s board, the Happy Tutor’s fable, the lyrics to “The John Birch Society”, they’re all the same to me for now.

C. Wright Mills: The Malaise of Anticipation

Attempts to reinstate the old emphasis on the power of man’s intelligence to control his destiny have not been taken up by American intellectuals, spurred as they are by new worries, seeking as they are for new gods. Suffering the tremors of men who face defeat, they are worried and distraught, some only half aware of their condition, others so painfully aware that they must obscure their knowledge by rationalistic busy-work and many forms of self-deception.

No longer can they read, without smirking or without bitterness, Dewey’s brave words, ‘Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril,’ or Bertrand Russell’s ‘Thought looks into the face of hell and is not afraid,’ much less Marx’s notion that the role of the philosopher was not to interpret but to change the world. Now they hear Charles Péguy: ‘No need to conceal this from ourselves: we are defeated. For ten years, for fifteen years, we have done nothing but lose ground. Today, in the decline, in the decay of political and private morals, literally we are beleagured. We are in a place which is in a state of siege and more than blockaded and all the flat country is in the hands of the enemy.’ What has happened is that the terms of acceptance of American life have been made bleak and superficial at the same time that the terms of revolt have been made vulgar and irrelevant.

C. Wright Mills, White Collar, 1951

Today he would be wrong: they don’t hear anyone but themselves. But there is an appeal to the passage right around now, in its generals rather than its specifics, just as the Pé quote is taken rather out of context. There is nothing ironic about these words except for when they were written, in a period closer in spirit to the early 1990’s than today. So take a slight bit of hope, or at least perspective, from the knowledge that the above will always apply.

Mills’s next step was an embrace of Cuban communist rule, and its motivations are the mirror image of those in the above passage. It’s not a sign of weakness from Mills, but neither is it quite as clear-sighted as it intends to be.

Cassandra, Christa Wolf: The Ones to Get It In the Neck

Cassandra‘s concept is simple and thorough: Cassandra, daughter of Priam, the ruler of Troy until its demise, has been brought back by Agamemnon after the war as something of a trophy, and his wife Clytemnestra kills them both for Agamemnon’s “it was for good luck” murder of her daughter Iphigenia. In her last moments before she becomes a bit of collateral damage, she jumps through her past in the Iliad, the Oresteia, and other assorted bits and pieces. The basic plots are covered here.

Wolf’s book is classically revisionist in that it mostly sticks with the material. It is classically feminist in seeing Cassandra and the additional characters of slaves and women as fundamentally oppositional to the male characters of the original stories, and even Clytemnestra, who is one of those women, unlike Cassandra, who never do “stop wearing themselves out trying to integrate themselves into the prevailing delusional systems.” Its additions are ones of interpretation and of layering: notably, Cassandra has an affair with Aeneas in her youth, and he remains a fixture in the book. This is Wolf’s key addition, and the one that produces the most resonance, about which more later. But Wolf also overlays Cassandra’s interactions with servants and the invisible people of Troy, particularly her servant Marpessa. Marpessa is something of a pagan Sappho stand-in who provides Cassandra with the glimpses of an alternative, less “heroic” world that is clearly meant to be superior. Consequently, the hysteria with which she delivers her prophecies comes out less as insanity or desperation than as a fundamental (and willing) disconnection from the world of Priam, Paris, and Hector.

Aside from the overlays, Wolf plays up the escalation aspects of the Trojan War, taking the view that the abduction of Helen was a tit-for-tat response to Priam’s sister Hesione’s willing “abduction” by a Spartan who she has married. The parallels to the Cold War in the 80’s when the book was written (except for a couple of post-colonial elements that get pushed slightly too hard, there is nothing to suggest it couldn’t have been written a few decades earlier) are entirely implicit, but quite apparent. Wolf was a nuclear disarmament unilateralist living in East Germany, and she had no patience for half-measures.

Of course, it’s all seen through Cassandra’s eyes, through tight but mercurial narration, and Wolf’s attention to her rape by Ajax and her identification with the doomed amazons led by Penthesilia, but Cassandra’s personal persecution and the general horrors of the war, for which she is mostly an observer, aren’t resolved. Maybe they couldn’t be. Wolf comes closest with Cassandra’s relationship with Aeneas, marked out as the only real relationship she has had with one of the “heroes.” To Wolf, she shares with him an unwillingness to be a part of the historical narrative, and at the end of the book she signals her acceptance of Aeneas’s unavoidable fate of going down the dark, violent road of the Aeneid to found another empire. Cassandra’s fate as victim and hysterical prophet, as with Aeneas and Penthesilea, is contextually necessary, and Wolf uses that to endorse the other, overlaid context before it is destroyed by the heroes.

It’s a dogmatic book, executed with great skill. The emphatic cry that lies beneath the flowing surface seems to have gone out of fashion, what with Gunter Grass’s missives against German reunification already seeming dated, or at least mistargeted. Wolf’s academic polemicism actually shares more with Amos Oz and David Grossman, those Israeli writers for whom the solution to war is obvious yet completely out of reach, and for whom the approach is fundamentally emotive. But the sensibility has faded elsewhere. It’s not fair to chalk it up to the end of the Eastern Bloc, and the demise of the passion that some (Sergey Kuryokhin is a good example) claimed only came out of repressive states. Part of me thinks it’s about to make a reappearance.

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