David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2004 (page 2 of 3)

Galen Strawson and Narrativity

I was planning to summarize Galen Strawson’s arguments against narrativity in the Oct 15 issue of the TLS, but I’m blessed, because Peter Leithart has already done a sterling job presenting Strawson’s argument. The key idea, in Strawson’s words, is the opposition between diachronic (or continuous, or narrative) and episodic (or discontinuous, or non-narrative) perceptions of life:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience (D) is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term Diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative. If one is Episodic (E), by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms (the Episodic/Diachronic distinction is not the same as the Narrative/non-Narrative distinction, but there are marked correlations between them).

Strawson slides some of the terms around, but to keep things relatively simple, let’s consider that diachronics are inclined to build narratives around themselves and others over time, while episodics are disinclined to construct cognitive edifices that rely on the assumption of a constant body undergoing incremental change. The assumption is not intuitive for them. I have no problem instantly classifying myself as episodic, or in accepting the basic nature of the dichotomy. As Strawson says, it is not the default position in most literature, and one of the reasons reading Proust has been so revelatory has been his stance that a person at one moment is incapable of looking upon their memories, their past experiences, and their acquaintances with the same authentic eye that he or she possessed at any past point. This stance struck me as refreshingly honest and non-reductionistic, and went a ways towards justifying the book’s length. It occurs first with Swann and Odette:

Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead?

This represents to me a more realistic and complex view of human experience than anything in Balzac or Fitzgerald. From Strawson, I would take it that my intuitions are not shared by many, and certainly not by fiction writers. Strawson’s diachronic writers are canonical, his episodic writers are idiosyncratic. Beyond that, I was gratified to see that of Strawson’s list of episodic writers–

Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Laurence Sterne, Coleridge, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story-teller), A. J. Ayer, Bob Dylan.

–I felt favorably (sometimes extremely favorably) towards most of them, while of his list of diachronic writers–

Plato, St Augustine, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O’Brian.

–I find Conrad, Greene, Waugh, and O’Brian extremely boring, and wouldn’t identify myself with any of the others, who I appreciate more in the role of philosophers of narrativity than when they are employers of it. Yet it’s amazing how, despite the disputable nature of the choices (wouldn’t Hegel have been a lot less controversial than Heidegger?), so many of the episodic writers are of special significance to me.

(I know people who would claim that Conrad, particular the Conrad of The Secret Agent, has a much more complicated view of character and choice than Strawson dismissively gives him. But I’ve never seen it myself.)

So whatever the debatable points of his taxonomy (and this being analytic philosophy, there are plenty of taxonomic points to debate), I think Strawson is on to something. Here is my personal experience with that something:

My great frustration with so much short fiction was not the narrative itself, but the function of change. There are stories that present a character in terrible, pure stasis and illuminates that stasis through assorted means, but the vast majority of stories end up with their characters some distance from where they started by means of some turning point event. This change is meant to stand out and mark a posthole in a character’s existence. But this assumes a backdrop not just of consistency, but of stasis itself.

After reading Proust, I came to believe that my frustration arose from the writer’s expedient mechanism of fixing the frame of reference so as to call out a moment of particular meaning or catharsis. I so often found this moment artificial, since the story would then assume an ever-extending future from thereon out with the reverberation from the story’s climax ringing down into the line. I was puzzled to run into other writers that thought of this approach not simply as natural for their characters, but for their views of themselves and others as well.

The modern American short story writer who I did feel the most identification with was Stephen Dixon, and in his endless variations on metaphysical possibility, hypothetical settings past and present for what is really a limited set of characters, he embodies something of what Strawson describes as episodic as much as any more experimental writer who has just thrown out the notion of realistic characters altogether. (Shoe gives some idea of his approach, though he requires a lot more space for the constant revisionism and moment-by-moment-ness of his style to take hold.) I wouldn’t describe it as “episodic,” but it is certainly anti-narrative in a way that owes a little to Laurence Sterne. Again, I have only my tastes to rely on, but Strawson’s framework is valuable for my own outlook if nothing more.

One last point that I couldn’t work in above. Strawson doesn’t mention Wittgenstein, probably because he tends to have the effect, like Kafka, of throwing a monkey wrench into whatever schema he’s inserted into. Wittgenstein might allow for the idea of a public narrative enshrined in language, but it would necessarily be cut off from one’s own idea of one’s self: a narrative that is not narrated. It’s entirely fitting then that Wittgenstein had no patience for most fiction save detective stories, with their objective descriptions of facts, flat characters, and galloping, punctuated plots.

Derrida on Politics

The irreplaceable wood s lot links to one of Derrida’s last speeches. I’m no expert in Derrida or in deconstruction in general, which is why I find their speeches to laymen so informative. This one has me puzzled, though. It reads like a bastardization of Derrida’s own ideas. Aren’t deconstructionists always riled by the application of their technique of breaking down dichotomies into simple “not black, not white, but gray!” statements?

Yet that is what Derrida seems to do here:

This Europe, as a proud descendant of the Enlightenment past and a harbinger of the new Enlightenment to come, would show the world what it means to base politics on something more sophisticated than simplistic binary oppositions. In this Europe it would be possible to criticise Israeli policy, especially that pursued by Ariel Sharon and backed by George Bush, without being accused of anti-semitism. In this Europe, supporting the Palestinians in their legitimate struggle for rights, land and a state would not mean supporting suicide bombing or agreeing with the anti-semitic propaganda that is rehabilitating (with sad success) the outrageous lie that is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. [you get the idea]

Which is all fine and well, but I simply don’t see how a compromise solution involves a breakdown of dichotomies; we aren’t talking Rorty-style ironic pragmatism here, as much as Rorty would like to have you believe that his version derives from deconstruction. (The deconstructionists are not fond of Rorty.) It instead involves promulgation of a very specific ideal derived from the better parts of the Enlightenment: human rights, liberal democracy, tolerance. There is no mention of the parts of the Enlightenment that have come in for such criticism by much of recent deconstruction philosophy: scientific hegemony, white man’s burden colonialism, prejudicially normative ethics, the search for a single ultimate truth and pretenses towards such, etc.

Maybe he didn’t have space. But the piece is filled with other binary oppositions: globalization/anti-globalization, anti-Americanism/pro-Americanism, reform/reactionary. I have no problem with many of these, but the absence of Derrida’s own theory from the piece, except for a simple token dropping of “binary oppositions”, makes me wonder if Derrida had migrated toward a Chomsky-like position of separating research and politics, and had realized on some level that his academic positions, in short public speeches, could undercut the force of his beliefs. Is his rapprochement with the Enlightenment real, or a convenient reference to a belief that can be used to bring out the best in Europeans?

To Rorty’s credit, he always has worked very hard to keep the theory in his politics, and explain why he thinks linguistic deconstruction can be used as a tool in a liberal revival. I don’t think he succeeds, but I find his attempt to bring such theory to the masses in the service of social good somewhat noble.

Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Imre Kertesz

I spoke of Imre Kertesz’s Fateless earlier, and my issues with its pretense towards portraying an adolescent’s immediate experience of the Holocaust. Now I’ve read Kertesz’s other commonly available translated book, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, and it goes a great ways towards explaining the other book. (Supposedly far better translations are coming out soon….)

Kertesz is, of course, far more opinionated than his adolescent stand-in of Fateless, and this interview with Gunter Grass and Kertesz gives a good idea of where Kertesz stands. The Reading Experience excerpts the most salient bits, but for me Kertesz’s words boil down to this one sentence:

Around the time when Mr Grass was beavering away on political commitment, I was beavering away on why a writer should not commit himself politically.

That rejectionist stance, in brief, is what Kaddish is about, except it is about how a Holocaust survivor, who happens to be a writer, cannot commit, period. He cannot commit to having a child, and he cannot commit to a relationship with his wife. Other writers have used the Holocaust as grounds for political action of certain stripes, or as a mark of disgrace against all or part of humanity, or as cause for fatalism. But Kertesz uses it to reject abstraction. And this comes out of anger at what he sees as more trivial representations of the Holocaust:

By way of that wretched sentence “Auschwitz cannot be explained” is the wretched author explaining that we should be silent concerning Auschwitz, that Auschwitz doesn’t exist, or, rather, that it didn’t, for the only facts that cannot be explained are those that don’t or didn’t exist…Consequently, Auschwitz must have been hanging in the air for a long, long time, centuries, perhaps like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting to finally drop on one’s head…I could have said about Auschwitz that the explanation is contained in individual lives and exclusively in individual lives, nowhere else. Accordingly, Auschwitz is the image and deeds of individual lives in my opinion, seen under the emblem of a particular organization. If all of mankind commences to dream, Moosbrugger is bound to be born, that attractive lust-murderer we read of in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

The paradox here is that while organized genocide requires the auspices of a state or a large functioning body, it is still individuals, and their individual dreams that grow, unknowably, to produce a single totality. Part of Moosbrugger’s role in Musil’s work is as a character who resists explanation, who may be a product of society, but not a conceptualized product of society. Likewise, Kertesz seems to say, Auschwitz is a consequence of such-and-such in the lives of millions of people over hundreds of years, and that irreducibly serves as its explanation. What is not possible is to generalize the mechanism of its creation. Debates over “Is art possible after the Holocaust?” are not just meaningless, they’re offensive.

He mentions a story he wrote about a Christian man who, due to Jewish blood, is sent off to the camps. This man is estranged from all concepts of heritage and culture:

But how can one fundamentally like an abstract concept as, for example, Jewishness? How can one like an unknown mass stuffed into this abstract concept?…Now he had rid himself of this pain of his assumed responsibility. Now he can, in good conscience, reject those whom he rejects and he no longer has to like those he doesn’t like. He is liberated because he no longer has a homeland. All that is left to decide now is the state of his death. Should he die as Jew, as Christian, as hero or as victim, perhaps even as a metaphysical absurdity, the victim of a neo-chaos of the demiurge? Since none of these concepts means anything to him, he decides not to taint the positive purity of his death by a lie.

And here is what Kertesz was getting at in Fateless: the attempted presentation of unmediated experience as unvarnished truth, bereft of theory, ideology, meaning or meaninglessness. Throughout Kaddish, the main character rejects role after role: father, friend, husband, and writer. The last is most significant for the reader, and it gives the implication that Kertesz believes that Fateless was destined to be a failure and is a failure, because even in writing he takes on an abstract role that he does not wish for himself.

This makes for frustrating but brutally honest reading: if Fateless was the unsuccessful product of a concept (which it surely was), then Kaddish is the breakdown of conceptualization and Kertesz’s rejection of it. As an exercise in self-abnegation it has entirely different qualities from Beckett, and maybe a little in common with Ingeborg Bachmann. But the agonized image of a man for whom every written word is a lie is far stronger in Kertesz, and it puts me in mind of, ironically, William Gass’s The Tunnel, in which literary use of the Holocaust was pushed to intentionally distasteful and trivial ends. (See this review for further details.)

Return of the One Column Tyranny

For all the much-vaunted promise of non-linear hypertextual narratives (well, in 1996 anyway), the sequential simplicity of a single stream of text won out. I have to say in David Gelernter’s defense, Lifestreams wasn’t so far off the mark in positing a searchable time-ordered stream of self-documents; he just never got around to implementing it.

I am, however, happy that hypertext theory has finally met with interactive fiction, thanks chiefly to the efforts of Nick Montfort, who must have coerced Stuart Moulthrop into co-writing a paper [PDF] on Adam Cadre’s Varicella. Go Nick!

The essay spends a good deal of time explaining the nature of the beast itself, but if it spawns 100 academic flowers of interactive fiction, that can’t be a bad thing. Unfortunately, the sheer difficulty and unwinnability of Varicella will probably send most hypertext theorists running for the hills. A close friend who’s a professional computer programmer and all-around technical expert claims that she still can’t get the “hang” of interactive fiction games.

Montfort has also written Twisty Little Passages, a historical overview of the genre that I haven’t read. The chapter titles indicate that he shies away from too much theorizing (ironic given the amount of work in the genre, which dwarves that of self-proclaimed hypertext fictions).

I have to think that the same things my friend mentioned will probably keep it in the margines. The restricted degrees of freedom offered by IF have provided for some brilliant moments within their context, meaning that familiarity with the genre is pretty much a prerequisite for appreciating any of the more experimental work going on in the field. I suspect it will have to transmute into something quite different to transcend that limitation.

A Mind Forever Voyaging

This was one of those old Infocom text adventures, one of their most ambitious, and one of their least successful. It came out around 1987, when they had pretty much exhausted the cave crawl (Zork, Enchanter, etc.) genre and were branching out in whatever directions appealed to them, as graphics games slowly eroded their market share. This was not helped by their ill-advised foray into relational databases, Cornerstone (aka Gravestone), but AMFV came at a time when the future still looked relatively bright. Steve Meretzky (Hitchhiker’s Guide, Sorcerer, Leather Goddesses of Phobos) would never attempt anything so ambitious, or so earnest, again.

The game is the only explicitly political game in their catalog, an exercise in liberal agitprop/hysteria. You play a supercomputer who is going to test out a “simulation” of the future after the adoption of an ominous right-wing “Plan for Renewed National Purpose.” Unsurprisingly, it’s a disaster; forty years into the future, the world doesn’t just suck, it’s literally hell on earth, with gangs and vagrants occupying what used to be civilization. The apocalypse comes through pure social decline. You expose this grim future to people in the real world, and a different, liberal plan of social welfare, compassion, and peace is adopted, yielding paradise on earth shortly thereafter.

So the politics are callow, but not much more so than your average John Brunner book. But check out the Plan itself:

The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Legislative action: * cut tax rates by fifty percent * vigorous prosecution of tax evasion * decentralization of federal responsibilities * deregulation of all major industries * reinstatement of the military draft * emphasis on fundamentals and traditional values in education * mandatory conscription for troublemakers and criminals * a strict “USA First” trade policy * termination of aid to nations not pro-USA * cutbacks on all types of bureaucracy, e.g. registering cars, guns * termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Constitutional amendments: * increase the powers of the Executive Branch * increase the Presidential term of office to eight years

Draw your own conclusions.

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