Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2005 (page 1 of 2)

A Note on Peter Cook

Mark Kaplan writes of Peter Cook:

This stare is like an empty demand to laugh appended to whatever content Cook happens to light upon: laugh, or be a prude; laugh or be subject to the ignominy of “not getting it”. The stare says, defiantly prior to any utterance: “I’m in on the joke–how about you?”

As Kaplan implies with his Adorno quote, the insecurity and ultimate conservatism of the satirist, who depends on the object of his ridicule, has been the downfall of writers from Gogol to Mencken to Harvey Kurtzman. It reminds me of Ian Penman’s precision demolition of Frank Zappa:

He had long hair but sneered at longhairs; he made a long and lucrative career out of endless guitar solos but sneered at other rock musicians; he constantly bumped his little tugboatful of ‘compositions’ up against the prows of the classical establishment, but he lambasted that, too. In stuff like “The Torture Never Stops” and “Dancing Fool” he got some of his biggest audiences by exploiting the very idea of exploitation he was supposedly upbraiding. He sneered at people who took drugs; he sneered at their parents who didn’t. Most of all, he sneered at women; girls trying to get by in a world of hateful, mastery-obsessed fools like himself. He sneered at anything which represented the mess and fun and confusion of life. He sneered, in short, at anything/everything that wasn’t Frank Zappa.

Although Zappa built a career on purporting to despise the facades of Western consumer culture, he could never actually tear himself away from its value system (he just recycled it, reflected it back in myriad ‘negative’ forms); he could never step out of his circus-master role and plunge into the world of the Other.

(The whole article is like this.)

Penman is dead-on when he says that Zappa was wholly unable to transcend the zeitgeist; most of his stuff sounds incredibly dated, often to a specific year. Like Cook, he got the good stuff out of the way early, when there was still a bit of celebration and joy (in a 60’s Southern California kind of way) in the music of his little band. Likewise, Cook’s best work with Beyond the Fringe is less satirical than absurdist, with jokes like “One Leg Too Few” and “The Great Train Robbery” (“a misnomer, since it involved no loss of train”) dispatched brilliantly. (Alan Bennett always seemed to me to be doing the heavy lifting on the satire.) Bedazzled is comparatively limp, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spare myself most of the Derek and Clive material.

But the man had raw talent until the end. The best thing I’ve heard of his besides Fringe was Why Bother?, a set of short, improvised dialogues with his most talented scion, Chris Morris:

I mean, I held out no great hopes that he wouldn’t be a boozy old sack of lard with his hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out, because he hadn’t given much evidence that that wouldn’t be the case. But, in fact, he stumbled in with a Safeways bag full of Kestrel lager and loads of fags and then proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper. Really quite extraordinary.

Morris was right. Eager to match wits with his hero, Morris repeatedly taunts and derails Cook, refusing to respond to Cook’s setups and repeatedly mentioning that Cook will die soon. Cook, relishing being challenged for once in his life, is damned sharp. I can’t imagine the partnership would have lasted had they been peers, but I think it shows that the old Cook had at least learned something about the emptiness of easy ridicule.

Friction: Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Wittgenstein

I knew that I would write no books either in English or in Latin in the coming year, the years after that, or in all the years of this life of mine. There is only one reason for this, a strange and embarrassing one; I leave it to your infinite intellectual superiority to give it a place among what to your clear eyes is an orderly array of mental and physical phenomena. It is that the language in which I might have been granted the opportunity not only to write but also to think is not Latin or English, or Italian, or Spanish, but a language of which I know not one word, a language in which mute things speak to me and in which I will perhaps have something to say for myself someday when I am dead and standing before an unknown judge.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Lord Chandos Letter”

This language he describes is as universal (in the sense that it cannot be contained, and is infinite in that regard), and utterly private–what is a language that he hears but of which he does not know a single word? The language that seems to speak of a union of noumenal and phenomenal substance, unmediated by language?

I know who to turn to for this…

The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.–We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investications, S.107

There will be more about slipperiness shortly; it figures in a book I’ve been meaning to write about for months. But my sense of what Wittgenstein says here is that with the removal of the requirement of meaning, language loses its sense, and with it the troubles of its inadequacy for its requirements of meaning and logic. But it is precisely the inadequacy we face whenever we try to place these requirements on it, and so any examination of language’s use must proceed from constant attention to the inadequacy of language to fit the meanings that are contained in what “mute things speak” to Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos.

Likewise the friction in Kafka’s The Castle between K. and the authorities, of which Lars at Spurious writes:

The drama of the novel – the collision between K., who wants to know he has a place in the village, and the implacable authorities would then be determined: it can only be a matter of frustration, of the alternation between moments of grace and moments of setback.

The supposed ending that was never written–K. dies and is finally granted permission to stay in the town, though his mission is not formally recognized–speaks to the end of the conflict. K.’s death signals the collapse of his will, or words, or what-have-you, that has kept him alienated from the town and active.

The self that frees itself from the alienation (i.e., friction) it feels from Sein, as Heidegger posits as a positive, is for Kafka nothing more than a dead self, just as it is an impossibility for Wittgenstein. Likewise, the mute, perfect language of Hofmannsthal’s narrator, which will only going to be accessible to him after death.

Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals

Since I don’t know any longer what socialism is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge China Mieville’s list of sf/f works for socialists. It’s such a heterogeneous list that the set of books seems unnecessarily short. With such diverse reasons for inclusion as genre subversion, utopia, satire, and working class sympathies, the list could have easily been expanded. Socialism evidently contains multitudes.

So instead, here’s my own list of works for liberals: specifically, liberals of the United States of around this time. And there is one theme in particular that these books reflect, which is how myths (i.e., lies) occupy the collective mind of society. More than anything George Lakoff has to say about “frames”, the idea of collective myth is one that the Republicans have embraced with great success, while the Democrats have utterly lost the fabled images of strong workers and social welfare that once fueled them. This is less about the content of these myths than the compelling aspect of their totality.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

The ultimate novel of how we forget our past and recollect it as fable and allegory.

Olaf Stapledon, The Flames

Amazing, and amazingly depressing, novella of rise and fall of an alien society around a shifting religious myth. As much a tale of the Crusades as a prediction of America’s fundamentalist near-future, it’s frightening.

Mark Geston, Lords of the Starship

Neoconservative/Straussian politics put into play in a post-apocalyptic world. Not too uncommon a theme, but Geston’s book is one of the comparatively few negative portrayals of it.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people’s existential senses of themselves.

R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions

A tall tale about secret powers at work. As a conservative Christian, Lafferty is rather good at playfully saying “Damn it all” to the world. More Hawthorne-influenced than it at first appears.

Kobo Abe, The Ark Sakura

Nuclear and survivalist paranoia from a Japanese point of view. The handful of main characters spend so much time locked in an underground cavern that they nearly create their own reality.

Carol Emshwiller, Various Stories

I’ll have to go back and pick some specific ones, but there is such a constant undercurrent of societal expectations being undermined in her work that nearly anything of hers seems to fit the bill. Probably the name I was most disappointed to see missing from Mieville’s list.

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo

Crazy Freudian dystopian novel that’s at war with itself, but so fevered that its societal hysteria is more vivid than most.

Objets Trouv&#xe9s

David Gelernter goes on about “machine beauty,” but these days the term mostly exists for me only in the most abstract sense, in the elegance of Unix file descriptors, ML polymorphism, and (credit where it’s due) Windows IO completion ports: not things given over to aesthetic visualization, or even easy explanation. But occasionally there’s something like the Curta, which is one of the few things that seems to justify the retro analog fetish. There’s a Flash simulator, but it’s just not the same.

The Merzcar lives. (Why not the Merzcedes?) It’s purely conceptual, but justified in that I really am curious to see what it would be like to drive around in an old Mercedes uncontrollably blasting high-pitched noise at top volume…for about two minutes.

Roberto Bolano: By Night in Chile

There is not much overlap these days between the worlds of literature and politics. The president is illiterate, only ever referring to a couple of books, and even the marginalized theoreticians do not have a great grounding in the humanities, dismissing the leftist/progressive trends of many fiction writers and poets as impractical and unhelpful. LaHaye and Jenkins’s Left Behind series does not qualify, since the books are total agitprop. Politics feeds the art, not the other way around, since LaHaye sketches out the plots based on fundamentalist Biblical prophecies he makes.

Roberto Bola&#xf1o (the link is to an excellent biographical overview) was in Chile during the transition from the socialist Allende to the authoritarian Pinochet, and the political landscape of By Night in Chile is one where church, state, and literature all mix together. The main character, Father Urrutia, is brought up in the seminary, associates with conservative priests who are also literary critics, hears them praise Neruda to the skies and damn Allende, and eventually get their wishes when Pinochet takes power. Urrutia himself is recruited at one point by mysterious figures to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so that he may know the enemy.

Bola&#xf1o, a socialist, is wholly unsympathetic to these people. Nearly everyone is sympathetic to the horrors around them, and the more distant figures, like Neruda, are painted as oblivious and self-satisfied in their complicity. The conservative upper-class of literature, the book screams at us, has cut itself off from humanity.

The key scene comes near the end, around a literary party hosted by a charming demimonde, Maria Canales, and her American husband Jimmy Thompson. Urrutia tells us that he later heard that one of the guests has wandered into the basement and found a tortured prisoner, and that indeed, Thompson has regularly been using the basement to imprison and interrogate anti-Pinochet elements (though not, as a rule, to kill them). Urrutia asks himself about it:

If Maria Canales knew what her husband was doing in the basement, why did she invite guests to her house? Because, normally, when she had a soiree, the basement was unoccupied. I asked myself the following quesiton: Why then, on that partiuclar night, did a guest who lost his way find that poor man? The answer was simple: Because with time, vigilance tends to relax, because all horrors are dulled by routine. I asked myself the following question: Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? The answer was simple: Because they were afraid. I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out but I didn’t see anything, I didn’t know until it was too late.

The scene is apparently based on a true story about husband and wife Mariana Callejas and Michael Townley, which Ben Richards discusses in The Underside of the Dump, and the incident is described with such neutral detachment that it seemed plucked from reality before I knew that it was. The image of well-bred, religious Chilean poets and critics having a cocktail party while standing above a torture room is indelible. Urrutia’s haunted, half-guilty stream-of-consciousness is unreliable and self-justifying, but the images jump out from the muck as things that he cannot deny any longer.

And so it is with the role of literature. Bola&#xf1o deploys an unreliable narrator in a stream-of-consciousness (except for the last sentence, the whole book is a single paragraph) style, in order to knock down the hierarchy of Chilean literary culture: to say that this sad, dying man is the voice of Chilean literature, not the pompous words that were published publicly. Bola&#xf1o avoids setting down any specific criteria for what constitutes a literature of integrity; he is more concerned with indicting a certain style and voice, one that has stood for Chilean literature that he sees as hopelessly corrupted. Like the torture chamber beneath the cocktail party, he wants to find the authentic, evil voice beneath the genteel, socialized voice.

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