David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2005 (page 1 of 2)

Dmitry Galkovsky: The Infinite Deadlock

There’s a huge frustration to hearing about a supposedly brilliant author (often, as with this case, in the Times Literary Supplement) and finding that his or her work has not been translated into a language you speak. Offhand, the absence of Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae has been irritating me for almost a decade, and yet I just now discovered that Frank Prengel, German scholar and Microsoft developer evangelist, has been translating it! So stop reading this and go read what Prenzel has translated so far of Summa Technologiae.

But Galkovsky is unfortunately more obscure. The only English reference I’ve found on him aside from the TLS’s offhand remark is this tantalizing snippet:

A member of the Antibooker panel of judges, Andrey Vasilevsky, says: “This is a book of extremely complicated structure, a book of annotations to a text that does not exist. Fresh annotations are made to these annotations, which forms an endless chain. Finally all gets so complicated, that the author supplements the book with a special index as to how to use it. However very few people can understand how to use that index.”

Anyone up for a translation?

I also note the similarity of this description to that of the imagined book Gigamesh in Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum:

Indeed yes: this novel is a bottomless pit; in whatever place you touch it, roads open up, no end of roads (the pattern of the commas in Chapter VI is an analogue of the map of Rome!), and roads not every which way, for they all, with their innumerable outbranchings, interweave harmoniously to form a single whole (which Hannahan proves employing topological algebra–see the Commentary, the Metamathematical Appendex, p. 811ff.). And thus everything achieves its realization…

There are rumors to the effect that Hannahan was assisted in his creation by a battery of computers furnished him by IBM.

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul, cont.

(Please see Part 1.)

A third disanalogy between Wittgensteinian and everyday criteria indicates that, and why, although Wittgenstein’s immediate audience was the empiricist tradition of philosophy, his views are going, or ought, to offend an empiricist sensibility at every point — which is only to say that this conflict is an intimate one. Go back to the first element of my lay-out, the one I label “Source of Authority”. There one finds “American officials”, “I”, “Africans”, “Anna Freud”, “Shanley”…Wittgenstein’s source of authority never varies in this way. It is, for him, always we who “establish” the criteria under investigation. The criteria Wittgenstein appeals to–those which are, for him, the data of philosophy–are always “ours”, the “group” which forms his “authority” is always, apparently, the human group as such, the human being generally. When I voice them, I do so, or take myself to do so, as a member of that group, a representative human.

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (18)

This quote illuminates some of the problems that Bourbon faces in separating the human from the non-human (e.g., machines). When Wittgenstein uses “we” to generalize over a metaphysically strict notion of people using language (which seems to me a more precise term than “human”), the criteria used are de facto implied by the usage of the words themselves. A word means by virtue of its use, and authority stems from use rather than, for example, a particular set of sense data.

Bourbon does not quite have that avenue open to him, since he is interested in a criteria of being human. What for Wittgenstein was an effect of usage is here inverted, as language takes on a role in elucidating what it is to be human. If the book is to answer this question, he has to engage in debates such as, “Women, narratives, poems, and the like can be understood (1) as expressive of human beings or (2) as analogically like human beings” (170). To do so he cannot rely on language use alone, but on language’s interaction with certain types of ontology (say, “what it is to be human”). This, I think, is the most radical move made in the book. Not coincidentally, there is a tension between the “we” and the “I” in the book–both are used liberally–that implies a more voluntary notion of humanity than the version that Wittgenstein mandated. But for all that, it sometimes is straightforardly ontological:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The challenge is set here: to find a version of humanness that has in its very ontology a relation that is illuminated by our relationship to the non-propositional language in fiction.

To this end, the book alternates between passages in high analytic philosophy style (especially Davidson) and much more freewheeling reveries that owe a little to Heidegger and Levinas, but not that much. Sellars is one philosopher who I’m pretty weak on, but from what I can gather, Bourbon draws on his response to Quine in some of the more technical passages. There could be a little John McDowell in there as well, but I’m really not qualified to tell. While Bourbon is concerned with literature, philosophy and more importantly, philosophical forms of argument, take precedence over literary theory and its forms. Apart from a short passage criticizing Helen Vendler and John Ashbery of “philosophical infelicities” (for taking a facile view of meaning in literature), there is little attempt to engage with literary analysis.

The early part of the book attempts to clear some territory, using analytic-styled arguments to push literature out of the realm of philosophy by claiming that fictional sentences are non-propositional. I.e., they do not contain truth values, and therefore do not actually reflect any correspondence to reality. As such, they are nonsense. Here he dispenses with much literary analysis, saying that poems are “provided with content by conceptual means: unjustified conceptual means” (10). Further:

If it [a poem] is going to be valuable as a means of reflecting upon ourselves, then it cannot be because it offers us theories, or places to test our theories. What kind of test would that be since our interpretations can rig the results? (11)

In other words, since whatever correspondence is mandated by an act of interpretation, the meaning of a fictional text is imposed on it, rather than contained in it. Rather (and the significance of this will be clear later), “their value will come out of nonsense.”

He then dispatches the versions of humanity offered by Keats and Henry Adams. Keats in his view sees humanity as an unnatural (or non-natural) phenomenon, capable of motivation in contrast to the non-intentionality of nature. This, he says, is insufficient; it is a definition by contrast and negation. The gloomier Adams offers an inversion of Keats’s bright view, portraying humanity as a meaningless “dynamo” of fireworks and little else in this wonderful passage from “Vis Nova”, near the end of The Education:

Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed. There, whether finished or not, education stopped. The formula, once made, could be but verified.

The effort must begin at once, for time pressed. The old formulas had failed, and a new one had to be made, but, after all, the object was not extravagant or eccentric. One sought no absolute truth. One sought only a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it. Among indefinite possible orbits, one sought the orbit which would best satisfy the observed movement of the runaway star Groombridge, 1838, commonly called Henry Adams.

(Also see Ray Davis’s quotation of Adams for similarly grim times.)

Bourbon rejects this too as ultimately nihilistic and begging the question of the initial axiom, which I will quote a third time:

Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

Ergo, humanity is not merely a dynamo. Poised between the pre-modern conception of the soul and the existing deterministic, mechanistic view, Bourbon proceeds to nonsense, as embodied by the non-propositional sentences of fiction. His primary exemplar is Finnegans Wake.

Now, to claim Finnegans Wake as a representative of literature is disingenuous, since it is one of the most marginal and extreme works of fiction ever. But I don’t believe Bourbon is doing that; rather, he identifies FW as portraying the aspects he’s interested in in their rawest form, devoid of the facile interpretations that can be placed on the “plots” and “characters” of most books. Without these misleading interpretive constructs, we can get down to business.

For example, the “characters” in FW are not characters at all, but arrangements of assorted things and people that are designated by sigla and/or initials like HCE and ALP. HCE, standing for “here comes everybody”, “Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker,” etc. Such a thing resists one particular sense; “We have to learn to recognize HCE, but we also have to learn what it is we are identifying” (175). But from the argument that fictional sentences lack sense and are non-propositional, this seems an impossible feat. Thus:

FW would seem to exemplify all these ways of falling into confusion,
all of the ways words, sentences, and persons slip into obscurity. (175)

It is here, I think, that Bourbon sees the commonality with Wittgenstein, who in his later work explicated “language games” as holistic systems of linguistic practice; i.e., that words themselves lack a definite representative meaning, but rather gain what sense they have through their use between people. But what sort of language game is being played in fiction, where the use is explicitly nonsensical (so Bourbon says), and the activity is taking place not between two people but between a set text and a reader? Wittgenstein (in the view of David Pears, at least) mandated that a language be used between two people before it can properly be called a language; a language invented and used by one person who had never met anyone else would not properly be a language at all. That is not what the Wake deals in, but neither is it quite normal communication either. It is in this space between Wittgenstein’s idea of a language game and a solipsistic non-language that Bourbon fills in his idea of the human.

To be continued…

The Nightingales in New York

Robert Lloyd, singer and lyricist for the Nightingales, always sounded like a middle aged man, so their reunion fifteen years after breakup seemed more tenable than most. Sure enough, Lloyd seemed absolutely apropos moaning his despondent/sarcastic lyrics while half bent over the microphone. It didn’t seem silly that a man of 45 or so would be singing the tract of The Crunch or the slogans of Blood for Dirt.

Lloyd’s voice has actually improved in the intervening years; now it’s less whinnying and deeper.

They opened with ten minutes of “Going Through the Motions,” backed by an off-putting drone that sent the punters running. It’s one of many songs about performers being obliged to perform over and over for audiences (“performance is deformance”), but Lloyd’s visible joy at separating the believers from the detractors (listen to a recent performance of Going Through the Motions)–halfway across the world, no less–turned it from a bored complaint into an idealistic invocation. The implication being that if you last through this and like it, he and his band will give themselves over to you fully and gladly for an hour.

And they did. By the time the inevitable How to Age came around at the end of the show, Lloyd was strutting with the visible satisfaction of the cynic who, with the Bush and Blair administrations and lord knows what personal crises, has been proved utterly right. (Steve remembers the song here.) It was as though he’d grown up into the words that were too large for him.


Fill the lacunae in your inspiration by tidily copying out what you have already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street”

But this is pretty rare with a computer or a blog; you might as well just move on to the next blog entry instead. In the absence of automatic writing (the surrealist’s tool, made all the more simple by the speed at which most people can type), I don’t know of any people who actually copy out what they type on a computer, though transcribing from handwritten notes might half-count. I do edit with a pen and paper, marking up and crossing out before going back to the terminal and making the edits on the screen, because things that read well on a screen sometimes seem so awkward and angular on a thin page. I treasure these marked-up drafts because they are the only unique items that are created in the writing process, as visual documents as much as revisions of words, like a humble Humument (the thumbnails lead to the full-size pages if you click on the numbers–and you should!).

I have recopied writing on computer on occasion, but even then it was because I was so unsatisfied with the original that I wanted to rewrite every sentence, so “copying” hardly seems like an appropriate term. The act of recopying puts me into the rhythms of writing much more than the rhythms of reading, and the harmony of each word being slowly recreated along with the rattle of the keyboard invokes a very different aesthetic than the silent run of the eyes along the screen.

And, for a contradictory view, here’s Kenneth Goldsmith:

I am spending my 39th year practicing uncreativity. On Friday, September 1, 2000, I began retyping the day’s NEW YORK TIMES word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page…When I reach 40, I hope to have cleansed myself of all creativity.

Automatic writing indeed.

Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England

I read Hrabal many years ago in a small-press English language edition of Total Fears, portraying the wandering mind of an aging writer and what might be most accurately termed his tulpa, a female correspondent that he monologues to and rhapsodizes over. I haven’t been as thrilled with the Czech literature I’ve read as with much of the Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian work that oft en dealt in similar socio-political issues. (One very significant exception is Ludvik Vaculik.) And so I never got around to reading much of Hrabal’s other work, until I was reminded of him by James Wood in one of the articles in The Irresponsible Self. Wood gives a good overview of Hrabal’s spirit, but there are some things in I Served the King of England, specifically in his treatment of the historical material, that Wood doesn’t mention.

First, his verbal style. The book reads fantastically well in English, and I can’t believe it’s all translator Paul Wilson’s doing. Hrabal writes in a breezy, propulsive way, tossing off curious images even as he keeps things going quite quickly. The style supports big events and little ones nearly equally, and the blending of them (very important in this novel) comes off a lot more seamlessly than it does in, for example, a Jonathan Franzen or Don DeLillo novel, where the pressures of larger concerns pull the reader away from the characters.

But the structure helps as well: I Served the King of England is about a very short waiter named Ditie, who holds jobs at a couple hotels before getting involved with a blond Nazi after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, then moving on to start his own hotel (built out of a blacksmith shop in an abandoned quarry) before losing it to Communism and spending time in a minimum-security (absolute minimum) prison for millionaires.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. Like Grass’s The Tin Drum, it portrays the skewed, sometimes myopic perspective of someone who doesn’t feel fully human because of their shortness, but the incidental details are less horrific and surreal than they are comical and short-sighted. Ditie is looking up at those around him, literally and figuratively, and pushed down by a headwaiter who claims expertise because he once “served the king of England.” (Ditie later serves the Emperor of Ethiopia and comes to attribute all his skills to it.) And a very long time is spent in the restaurants before the Nazi invasion. The novel is half over and all that has happened is that Ditie has gotten a series of slightly better waitering jobs, had some farcical encounters with perfectionist waiters and, of course, the Emperor of Ethiopia. The “historical” events are all relegated to the last half of the novel, and there is little indication in the first half that they are coming.

And indeed, when they do come, Ditie only sees them through his perspective, which, unlike Oskar’s in The Tin Drum, is that of a man inside history, not a child outside of it. When Ditie meets the Nazi girl:

She was attractively dressed, and to get on the good side of her and show her how grateful I was that she spoke German with me I said it was awful what the Czechs were doing to those poor German students, that I’d seen with my own eyes on Narodni how they pulled the white socks and brown shirts off two German students. And she told me that I spoke the truth, that Prague was part of the old German Empire and the Germans had an inalienable right to walk about the city dressed according to their own customs.

He quickly gets an in with the Germans and soon enough faces his old master headwaiter, now as an important customer, and tells him, “You may have served the King of England but it hasn’t done you any good.” He leaves his wife and child (who end up being the subjects of an experiment to see what sort of Aryan baby could be made with a Czech) after suffering a crisis of conscience over the horrors of the war. Yet Hrabal never pulls back enough to see anything beyond Ditie’s eyes, and the book reads as one of the most immanent stories of life around the war. It is farcical and unrealistic, but the remote backdrop of history, kept carefully in check, quietly undermines the position that the history is known as it has been written. Ditie remains half-unknowing and half-happy, and his experiences are shaped more by the odd fraction of life that he experiences than by any larger world outcomes. Against the backdrop of the war, this is alternately amusing (allowing the reader to condescend to Ditie) and horrific; the vividness of the first half takes on as much narrative weight as the second, which is Hrabal’s achievement.

When, much later, he ends up doing manual labor in a gamekeeper’s lodge in a forest, he has lost everything and feels happier for it. He does not treasure his successful days of past, but nor does he quite regret them, and he makes no excuses nor asks for any forgiveness, remaining too happy to be just a waiter and servant. It is, Hrabal implies, how he can live. Ditie shrugs metaphorically at the end, with relief rather than indifference. The story, with the structure of a tall tale and the scenery of historical horror, does not give a moral or a resolution. It is affirming, but it requires that all the good and bad be affirmed together.

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