David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2004 (page 2 of 3)

Alasdair MacIntyre on Tradition

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions?

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (221)

This is a good encapsulation of MacIntyre‘s “conservative Marxism,” where he uses dialectical techniques to undermine liberal Enlightenment traditions and movement conservatism.

The idea of a thriving institution as always being in a state of becoming is appealing because it maintains the notion of an active, integral participation on the part of the players, not the meaningless repetition of desiccated institutions. This idea has been used in business theory to chart the life cycles of companies, and believe me, I’ve seen it in action.

One point to make clear, though: when MacIntyre speaks of argument over the traditions being established in an institution, I believe he means that this argument plays out through the different, conflicting practices of the participants, rather than in an explicit dispute over the definition of the purpose and methods of the institution. The definition is articulated by the acts, not the words, of the participants.

Ossification sets in when the people in a group begin arguing endlessly over definition, attempting to codify implicitly established but imprecise tradition. The most creative thinkers become bored and depart. Action is replaced by memorial enshrinement and a self-conscious glorification of the past that has led up to this crowning moment where the institution is fully defined–and dead.

This is not how it always plays out. The pressure to establish a working practice in the face of potential failure and annihilation often spurs the vital conflict that MacIntyre mentions. Without that urgency, the arguments often begin before the practice does.

Marienbad and Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares’s excellent science-fiction novella The Invention of Morel was recently reissued by NYRB Press. Borges originally led me to it by claiming it a perfect masterpiece in one of his essays, and there is a hard beauty to it that leaves its stripped-down premises quite vivid.

But its relationship to Alain Resnais’s ever-cryptic Last Year at Marienbad is more complicated. (Consult Lawrence Russell’s article on Marienbad for a good overview.) Whatever its meaning, Marienbad is about a man who desires a woman, and how memory, the past, and the present confound his desire. Bioy Casares’s novella can easily be read as a metaphor for film watching: the man who falls in love with a woman, only to find out that he is watching a real-time, three-dimensional movie of her, and sacrifices his life so that he too can enter the movie, by synchronizing his movements to appear to be interacting with the woman of the film.

(I recently saw Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which attempts the opposite effect. It has an extended dream sequence where Keaton “enters” the screen of a movie and interacts with the scenery, which abruptly changes behind him and sends him reeling. Strange stuff.)

Last Year at Marienbad has something in common with Morel, and Thomas Beltzer has written on the links in Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation:

Last Year at Marienbad buries its association with its "low brow" science fiction text; nevertheless, they are relatives all the same. I discovered the kinship by accident on the dust jacket of Casares&#x92 A Plan for Escape, a novel written in the early 1940&#x92s, which also bears an interesting affinity with Last Year at Marienbad. Dust jackets of novels are occasionally mistaken, but I was able to confirm the information by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that "The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet&#x92s film script for Last Year at Marienbad". The high modernist masterpiece is "outed" as a postmodern, science fiction film.

Beltzer’s analysis of the union of literary and filmic approaches is provocative, as is his statement that the Frenchmen sought to obscure the links to the “lowbrow” fiction of Bioy Casares, but the parallels deserve more examination.

Morel posits two levels of reality: the man observing the movie, and the movie itself, reflecting an earlier chain of actions. By inserting himself into the movie and seeming to take part in its events, the main character creates a third reality, a revision of the movie, a film of the film with additional overlaid content (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000), though intended to be as transparent as possible. Marienbad is considerably more oblique. The three main characters, X (the protagonist), A (the woman and object of desire), and M (A’s husband and X’s nemesis), all break continuity with the background at various times, most strikingly when other people in the frame freeze while X, A, or M go about their business. But there are also times when M or (especially) A seem themselves frozen or unresponsive while X interacts with them. I’m certain that there is a conceptual schema that would explain these relations, but I’m also sure that there would be no proof of its validity to be found in the film itself. I believe that the movie is not meant to be understood in the same way as The Invention of Morel can be; it lacks the definiteness of a single interpretation.

Where does that leave us? Bhob Stewart has a key bit of information presented on Prefuse:

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between MOREL and MARIENBAD, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently =never= discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

It’s fitting that Resnais was not familiar with Bioy Casares’s story when he took the script. I don’t know further details; I have to guess based on my impressions of Robbe-Grillet and Resnais. I imagine Robbe-Grillet appreciating the beauty of the desire of the main character of The Invention of Morel, and also appreciating the pure surface aspect to it: since he can never speak with the object of his desire, she remains forever a collection of purely observed moments. I imagine Robbe-Grillet muddying this, seeking to show X relating, and then not relating to A, and M drifting in and out of the active picture as A and X do and do not relate to him. I imagine Resnais seeing Robbe-Grille’s oblique script and taking it as a blank slate, overlaying a formalist visual approach that does not gibe in the least with the original source of the script. I imagine Resnais as the main character of The Invention of Morel not interacting with the buried meaning of Robbe-Grillet’s script, but inserting himself and his visuals among its surface features and crafting a new meaning from it.

Alexander Kluge: The Blind Director

The question in my mind when seeing Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director, having not seen any of his films before, was whether it would be anything like his books. Specifically, would it deal in the neutral, “journalistic” tone adopted in Learning Processes With a Deadly Outcome and the highly effective Case Histories, which effected uncanny shifts in the depth of field via their reportorial style. By using standard journalistic techniques (interviews, summaries, lists, topic-based analysis) on dead-serious material, he called into question both existing treatments of the material and the hidden biases of the techniques he was applying. Given the crucial role that narrative tone plays in his written work, would it carry over into the less verbal medium of film?

The answer: yes, more than I expected. Partly, this is due to Kluge directly injecting narrative text into the film: there are significant amounts of voiceovers, given by Kluge himself, that provide interpretation or direction of the images on the screen. And Kluge is far less narrative than I had expected: his film technique is as compact as his novels. He gets the ideas on the screen and moves on, more or less abandoning the idea of narrative development to present situations as they are. The approach has a little in common with Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique, where behavioral scientist Henri Laborit is inserted in the film to discuss the motivations and hidden impulses of the characters. But while Resnais’s film comes off as a stiff attempt to illustrate a theory, Kluge strives for the more elusive mixture of having the narration and the story elements stand on equal, sometimes opposing footings, with the narration often not explaining what’s on the screen, but going off in another direction entirely.

The Blind Director himself is only present in the last third or so of the film, entitled “The Blind Director.” The German title of the film is Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die &#xfcbrige Zeit, or, “the assault of the present on all other times.” After an opening segment of the opera Tosca, Kluge moves through some disconnected shots of “hurried people” and the like, theorizing over them, before settling down into the first of two “stories.” In “The Transfer of the Child,” a foster mother who has raised a girl since her parents were killed in a car crash is forced to give her up to rich relatives of the parents. After her detailed, obsessive instructions on how to take care of the girl and her habits are ignored, she takes the child away with her. In “The Blind Director,” we meet the director of a strange project about a medieval monk and a dead girl who isn’t quite dead. He has gone blind, and the studio is in trouble, because the insurance won’t cover the illness. There are some funny, deadpan exchanges about how assistants will be brought in to help him finish the film and describe everything to the director, but the story never goes further than that. It ends with a shot of the director blind and despondent.

There are many thematic layers in the film, but what intrigues me most about Kluge are his narrative techniques. Kluge takes a scenario that would be allegorical in a facile way (the blind artist who can no longer communicate his vision, a theme best turned inside out by Borges’s “The Secret Miracle“), and postpones it until the last third of the movie, where it is more or less presented as an static image. We hear about it through a journalist interviewing the director first, then the producer. The situation is presented and dispatched, as though we had read about it as a news item denoting a single event (“director goes blind”), rather than any sort of story (“director working on profound weird film loses his ability to do so and must excavate his inner life to find the cure” — I’m thinking of 8 1/2, but any number of other stories would fit the bill). It would seem to represent a more realistic alternative to traditional, contrived narratives, but Kluge’s result is so idiosyncratic that the film comes off as considerably more experimental than billed. Kluge has been reticent in explicating his theory of montage, saying that it is simply identical to Godard’s. But Kluge is more emotionally reflective and less explicitly dialectical.

Consider the German title, “The assault of the present on all other times,” which seems to conjure up the idea of a present moment consuming past and future, growing to satiety. This ties directly to one of Kluge’s favorite themes, the dual nature of time:

For the Greeks, Chronos stood for time that leads to death, time that consumes itself. Chronos is a gigantic god who devours his own children. His antipode in the Greek pantheon is Kairos, “the fortunate moment.” Kairos is a very small, dwarf-like god with a bald head. But on his forehead he has a tuft (of dense hair). If you catch the tuft, you’re lucky. If you are just a moment too late, your grip on his bald head will slip and you won’t be able to hold on to him. This character, Kairos, is the “happy time” that is hidden in the time of people’s lives, in their working time, in everything they might do. He is an object of aesthetic activity. With Chronos on the other hand, you can only become a watchmaker.

The narration, discontinuity, the lack of development, the emphasis on single moments: these all fall into what could be called a “moment”-based attitude towards narrative and montage: that by focusing on single incidents in isolation and drawing out from them past and future implications both tangible and abstract, a meaning can be drawn from them that is absent in traditional narrative, which only leads inevitably to death. It is somewhat complementary to Stockhausen’s idea of “moment form,” though more philosophically sophisticated. John Dack explains:

Stockhausen&#x92s adoption of moment form need not discard perceptible processes with goals; they simply refuse to participate in a globally directed narrative curve, which is, naturally, not their purpose.

I think this is about right. Kluge’s depiction of “hurried people,” and his portrayal of the director as a hurried man stopped in his tracks by his blindness, suggest a desire to reverse the traditional narrative process in favor of what he sees as a more life-affirming one. (Hence the name of his production company: Kairos.)

Quick Hits

I greatly enjoy all of the blogs linked below; here are some particular entries that have held on to my mind:

pas-au-del&#xe0 thinks about Mimetic Rivalry in the context of the literary weblog universe. The inchoate nature of the audience for many of the less established blogs seems to be mirrored by the sometimes tentative form and intent of the writers themselves, things I am happy to see brought out in writing and dialogue.

The Reading Experience excavates the subtext of Arts and Letters Daily and turns up a plum of neo-conservatism. I stopped reading the site a while back because I too got tired of seeing links to Dinesh D’Souza, Keith Windschuttle, and Camille Paglia. Given the choice between educating people as to the motives of such sites and simply ignoring them, I’ve chosen the second option, but I’m glad Mr. Green can mount such a cogent attack. But I’m glad there’s enough space on the web that good writers and critics don’t have to define themselves in opposition to Dutton, but can create their own autonomous spaces.

Golden Rule Jones quotes the angst of Robert Walser, the man so driven to write that he scribbled on backs of envelopes, on any paper at hand. And yet Walser’s work is so much more dense and evocative than that of, for instance, Daniil Kharms.

Spurious, who has been on a wonderful roll lately, finds some sanguinity in Kafka. I’d add that the “contented death” he mentions is reflected in Kafka’s proposed ending to The Castle, where after K. dies, word comes down from the Castle that K. will be allowed to live in the village in which he has spent the entire book. Only after his death is he accepted into the community by the authority.

Werfel, Zweig, Yesterday, Tomorrow

For Werfel, the decisive things were the emotional aspect, the romantic idea, the lyrical substance–the power of language. He did have a language of his own! Unlike Stefan Zweig, who is simply an intolerably poor writer. Zweig blows himself up, he inflates ideas that he doesn’t even have. Whereas Werfel is prodigal with his ideas but often doesn’t know how to make anything out of them. He was an infinitely greater natural talent than Musil, but Musil is the infinitely more interesting writer. I think I know what Werfel lacked: he hardly ever questioned himself. He could be a Marxist, he could be an anarchist or a conservative, he could be a Catholic–it was all interchangeable, it all depended on the moment’s whim, idea, emotion. That is where Karl Kraus’s evil eye did, after all, see the truth: while writing was a necessity for Werfel, while he had the urge to express, what he then wrote–the actual message–was totally interchangeable. Werfel pulled himself under, time and again. That was a talent of a great writer who destroyed himself.

Hans Mayer (from Peter Stephan Jungk’s Franz Werfel)

Where to begin? Hans Mayer is an interesting, obscure (at least to me) figure by himself: a quasi-Marxist critic in the line of Lukacs who broke with the orthodoxy before it turned inward on itself; a more plainspoken sort who is still dedicated to analyzing literature in a Marxist context.

While it removes him from the heavily theoretical line of Adorno to Jameson and onward, Mayer was still far more aggressively radical than someone like Irving Howe, a liberal who loved his milieu too much to question its precepts. I like Howe, but many of his essays seem as much relics as their time as Lionel Trilling’s, as compared to Gore Vidal’s literary essays of the same period (50’s and 60’s), which seek out extremes that Howe shunned. Perhaps the closest American analogue for Mayer is Morris Dickstein, a theorist who wants books to work and succeed, who is always subjugating his own essayistic practice to that of those who he prizes most highly: the great writers of fiction. But here, he treats two writers (Werfel and Zweig) whose lives bore them out more than their fiction did.

Yet Mayer damns Werfel and Zweig in this passage for entirely different reasons. Stefan Zweig is dismissed for being a weak thinker, while Werfel is criticized for thinking too much, in too many directions, such that it paralyzed his writing. Both writers met with a good deal more success than Musil, Zweig for a long series of popular biographies, Werfel for all sorts of things, particularly two long but well-written potboilers where, indeed, the lyricism takes over.

But I think he dismisses Zweig too quickly. Zweig was a frail mortal amongst the giants of his age: Broch, Mann, Kraus, Musil, Canetti. His autobiography, The World of Yesterday, differs from Elias Canetti’s memoirs of Vienna in the 20’s, in that Zweig lacks Canetti’s ego. Zweig’s book is suffused with the knowledge that he could not match the minds around him; while he could (and did) meet with popular success, there is never the hint of the visionary about him. His works dispatch small ideas efficiently; his novella The Royal Game is considerably more compact than Nabokov’s The Defense in dealing with the theme of chess-as-obsession. While Werfel throws himself at ideas and produces pages upon pages, Zweig approaches them tentatively and knows when to finish. (Accusations of inflated ideas seem inflated.)

Zweig and Werfel have similar places in my mind; neither of them is on a par with the best of their time, and the works of both have a small spark that keeps them vivid in my memory. Werfel may have been more heat than light, but the heat has not survived. Yet Zweig wrote a humble autobiography in which he looks backward quietly, and called it The World of Yesterday (DIE WELT VON GESTERN), which Werfel could never have done. Yesterday seems to have been all Zweig had at that point; having fled to Brazil from Europe, despondent over the war and unable to envision a new life for himself or for Europe, which he claimed had destroyed itself, he committed suicide.

Werfel, productive to the end, survived the war and two heart attacks. He was planning out several future projects and living the good life in Hollywood when he died in 1945. His endless ideas were at least as good to him as they were to his work.

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