David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2003 (page 3 of 4)

Anglo-French Relations

Via The Fall Website, we bring you the only comic to compare Mark E. Smith to Michel Houellebecq:

The choreography of Mark E. Smith is as startling as that of Michel Houellebecq waiting in line at an orgy.

Fair enough, even if Houellebecq doesn’t translate to music quite as well, even if “Le rock est ma couture!”

Oulipo Postscript: Because They’re There

Having roughly delineated the areas of generative writing mechanisms and how their purposes can be at odds with traditional notions of “meaningful” work, a personal statement. I discovered the Oulipo as a teenager through a series of Martin Gardner Scientific American articles, which focused on the most mathematical and formal of their work: the long palindromes, N+7, the million zillion sonnets, the lipograms. Most of this work was not readily available; most of it wasn’t even translated. But I kept the names in mind and bought what I could.

Like Eudaemonist, I was fascinated by Perec’s La Disparition, though I didn’t have the necessary French to read it. I tried a few (unfinished, unsatisfying) exercises in the same mode. By the time I got to college it had been translated as A Void, but I found that in the intervening years with their intervening troubles, Perec’s conceits had ceased to interest me or resonate with me. The trick could not, in my mind, be justified in execution, only in theory, and the resolute attempt to bring everything in line with the motif read as quaint. The final bit of Life: A User’s Manual, that the puzzle-maker’s last piece is a “W” but the whole is the shape of an “X”, seemed trivially self-defeating rather than profound.

It applied to other works. I could admire Ulysses for its structural properties but only warm to them as far as they related to the business between Stephen and Bloom. I never did get through Tristram Shandy.

I’m still stunned by the amount of effort and care put into the arrangement of such works, and sometimes the willingness to make things so much more difficult. I don’t plan on looking down on them from the pinnacle of awesome respect for their achievements, but they still are very useful reference points.

“Here”, Richard McGuire

Which isn’t to say that formalist experimentation can’t occasionally produce absolute total genius. Richard McGuire‘s earliest fame came as bassist for early 80’s minimalist funk band Liquid Liquid, authors of “Cavern” (or “White Lines,” more or less), and who apparently just played a reunion show. But he also fell in with Art Spiegelman and the RAW anthology crowd and drew comics. And one of those, “Here,” from RAW 2.1, is a concentrated masterpiece.

“Here” is six pages long, drawn in a clean, neutral, almost nostalgic style. Its main construct is that each panel portrays the exact same location and space at different, marked times, non-linearly. The space mostly a corner of a living room, of a house built in 1902. A family moves in, a child is born, he grows up and continues to live in the house, he leaves and another family moves in, the house burns down. McGuire subdivides each panel into multiple time periods, so that the bottom left quarter of the corner can portray 1948, and the rest portray 2032, with an inset in the middle from 1968.

The device is so overwhelming that McGuire keeps the story as neutral as the artwork. Some of the juxtapositions make simple points (kid in 1955 says “Who’s a chicken!”; rest of panel shows chickens in a pen in 1870) and get out of the way; others seem to be assembled through pure intuition. Perhaps McGuire sought a neutral tone to mirror the implacability of the passage of time, which, unsurprisingly, weighs heavily here. But that pathos still dwarfed by the pure elegance of the structure itself; the impact is sublimely aesthetic above all else. The achievement of “Here” beneath that is to take material that normally could only be treated in highly subjective fashion and decontextualize it without producing alienation. (The base material is so traditional, down to the retro-futuristic fashions in the 2020’s.) It’s a strange, unsettling effect, numbing but not unpleasant.

McGuire was rumored to be expanding “Here” to book length. I’m not sure how it could be done, since the six pages succeed through rejecting traditional notions of “depth.” But the thing is seminal and deserves to be reprinted.

Oulipo: Existentialismos, John Barth, Georges Perec

Once upon a time there was an author named John Barth, and he wrote a book called The Floating Opera, in which a very nihilistic young man does the Colin Wilson/Arthur Schopenhauer thing and declares there is no purpose in living, acting, or doing, and to prove it he plots to blow up the titular boat, before coming to his revised conclusion: “There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide).” This constitutes the climax of the book. The two descriptors that best apply to the precocious (at least for a man in his mid-20’s in the 1950’s) book are callous and callow, and if not for the fluency of the imagery and environment, the book would just be a signpost on the way to Michel Houellebecq and Bret Easton Ellis.

The basic ethos is mirrored in his second novel, The End of the Road, in which the formula is much the same. Perhaps a little less solipsistic, as the lookalike narrator is given a girlfriend (who dies during an abortion) and more significantly, an existential mentor named the Doctor:

Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist? It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you. Study the World Almanac: it is to be your breviary for a while…Take long walks, but always to a previously determined destination, and when you get there, walk right home again, briskly…Above all, act impulsively: don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neither of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful.

I’ve tried to trim down the Doctor’s obnoxious oratory; it’s internally consistent but seems a little naive in being presented as so contemporary. I’ve known people who used nearly the same argument to justify adherence to the more quotidian tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

(Quoth Rabbi Paysach Krohn:

The Torah extends more prominence to the right hand than it does to the left hand. However with regard to the act of tying, the prominence shifts to the left hand because tefillin are usually tied on the left arm. Therefore although both right-handers and left-handers put on their right shoe first (because of prominence to the right side), there is a difference with regard to tying their laces. The right-hander should tie his left shoe first (because it is on that side that he wears his tefillin) whereas the left-hander ties his right shoe first.

But I digress….)

I’m not particularly interested in how the nihilism turned into the existentialism, but it’s certainly a more generative strategy for the book and for action, any action, on the part of the narrator. And that brings up the question, could the same technique have worked for Barth? (Since it also could have generated the decision, “Let’s have Terry Southern write the screenplay adaptation of The End of the Road, some adjustments may have been required.)

Barth would, only two years later, write the mega-novel The Sot-Weed Factor, totally different than what went before and driven not by any philosophical ideology as the drive to excavate his world until he popped out the other side. This would lead to metafictional excursions like Lost in the Funhouse and especially Letters, a gigantic mess where characters from all his other novels shoot letters to each other and to Barth. The former actually stands taller as a statement of purpose, since Barth makes it very clear that storytelling and storytellers are everything, and he has stuck with that focus ever since. But if I look back on his work and its permutations of fourth-wall-breakages, mythological revisionism, and old-style deconstructionism, the chosen architecture of his conceits seems a bit arbitrary. I don’t use the word prejudicially–Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice has some obvious and less obvious revisions of the Pinocchio symbolism that are fine regardless of the fact that other interpretations were possible and some more obvious–but for an author as generative as Barth, his lack of ideological reasoning behind individual architectural choices is as much a dogmatic tenet as his focus on narratology. And isn’t this starting to sound a bit like the Doctor?

The analogue that I draw on for evidence is Georges Perec, the quintessential Oulipo author, whose novels followed the same path as Barth’s. His early A Man Asleep is the story of a man who is very, very apathetic and dissociative (and, I daresay, depressed). By Life: A User’s Manual (and others, but this is the key one), he’s on to stories of people who have rituals in their own lives: puzzles, cults, writing, etc. The evolution is the imposition of arbitrary structure. You can look at this as experimental, challenging, and unexpected, and you can also see it, as early Barth does, as existential.

And this gets back to the question of the Oulipo and whether, for example, the urge to create complex characters, offer psychological insight, or illuminate mores is fundamentally different from the urge to write REALLY BIG PALINDROMES. I think it has something to do with exactly what the arbitrary structure ethic is. I believe, without conclusive proof, that many of these authors do adopt a defensive, existential mindset, avoiding justifications of their arbitrary method because (1) there is none, it’s arbitrary after all, and (2) the very act of justifying the ethic would cause a regression to the earlier, nihilistic/dissociative state.

Classically, structural decisions are made with reference to advancing a plot or character; with an existentialist writing ethic, this becomes dishonest. It’s preferable to parade the arbitrariness as prima facie.

Ray Davis says something similar:

Embodying this recognition of survival’s triviality in the very work of survival is the point and foundation of the works’ significance.

But I believe the examples he references, Roubaud and Beckett, are in the minority. In most existentially-created works of this sort more commonly would reject this statement, as the statement itself is meaningless under the precepts of the work’s creation. You only get significance of this sort if you return to the nihilistic stage that most of the books work so hard to avoid.

More commonly, Barth’s approach, as with the more mechanistic approach espoused by the Oulipo, generates its significance because it works: it generates books. Lots of books. Lots of poems. This isn’t to denigrate the existential writing approach. But there are certain types of “significance” that its works often can’t contain, or admit.

Oulipo Tangent: Milorad Pavic

The difference between the works most closely identified with Oulipo writers (Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies, Queneau’s Exercises in Style) and those works which, while in the same exploratory spirit, don’t quite coexist in the same genre is them, like Sladek’s below, John Barth and Robert Coover’s metafictional spirals, or Tristram Shandy, is often the existence of a procedural gimmick. If the clef to a roman is an easily referenced generative device or structural ploy, the work can seem that much more mathematical and clever.

The danger is that the gimmick becomes the book. Milorad Pavic’s Landscape Painted with Tea is based around a crossword puzzle, but the device does not seem to justify an entire book, which is otherwise erudite and well-written. But more interesting is Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, a self-proclaimed “lexicon novel” based around Eco-like historical research and mythology. But what is the one thing it is known for, the thing that became its main marketing point? It’s the thing so significant it made it into the rec.arts.books FAQ:

12) What is the difference between the male and female editions of DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS by Milorad Pavic?

The differing paragraph is given in both forms. (And is it just me, or is the male version eerily reminiscent of Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths”?)

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