David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2005

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

When we last left off in Part 2 (also see Part 1), Finnegans Wake, classified as nonpropositional nonsense, was being held up as an exemplar of “our variable relation to and participation in language,” and we noted that the act of reading was not quite a language game, nor quite the self-contradictory “private language” of Wittgenstein. Bourbon finds the significance of such a reading (and writing) act in the idea that in this ambiguity can be found the titular soul replacement. In the modern/contemporary absence of the authority that fuels oracular pronouncements, this irreducible “humanness” and intentionality of meaning is not negated (as Henry Adams would have it), but contained in acts that do not have fixed meaning. Thus:

We do not say that “souls are examples of nothingness”; to do so would be to understand “nothingness” as if it were like a thing. Nothing is not a special kind of something, just as nonsense is not a special kind of sense. (215)

I have two associations with this passage. The first is the madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy, originating with Nagarjuna, which most clearly delineated the ideas of a “nothing” (sunyata) that is not a something nor the absence of something. And the argument does seem to resemble the old talk of nirvana:

If nirvana were not existent,
How could it be appropriate for it to be nonexistent?
Where nirvana is not existent,
It cannot be a nonexistent.

If nirvana is
Neither existent nor nonexistent
Then by whom is it expounded
“Neither existent nor nonexistient”?

Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika (tr. Jay Garfield)

I.e., to predicate nirvana/souls is to construe them in such a way that they fit into the schema of “things” (samsara, if you will), which is exactly missing the point that they don’t fit into such a propositional/representational schema.

The second association is with the infamous beetle-in-a-box of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The surrounding context is available as Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument, but the key passage is this:

293. If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means — must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. — Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. — But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? — If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. — No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

304. “But you will surely admit that there is a difference between pain — behavior accompanied by pain and pain — behavior without any pain?” — Admit it? What greater difference could there be? — “And yet you again and again reach the conclusion that the sensation itself is a nothing.” — Not at all. It is not a something, but not a nothing either! The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

The key point is that the pain (or the beetle, or the soul) is “a something about which nothing could be said,” as it is intrinsically private. Ironically, in light of the heavy weight of Wittgenstein on Bourbon’s book, Nagarjuna’s passage seems more apropos, as Wittgenstein seems content to let the metaphysics of the private sensations remain ambiguous, while for Nagarjuna and for Bourbon they are ultimately the focus of the inquiry.

But if nonsense is not a kind of sense (as the private beetles and nirvana are not things) and nonsense is something about which nothing can be said, it is, as said earlier, something which will can only be located in the gaps of meaning, or as Bourbon puts it, in “the ways we find ourselves nonsensical, which is just to find ourselves within and in relation to language.” This best illustrates the technique of Bourbon’s enterprise, which is via negativa. By attempting to show that there is not nothing in those nonsensical gaps (though hardly a something), he is looking for a metaphorical black hole by the absence of light around it. And what is outlined there he calls the soul, or the human, and it is reached through language, envisioned through literature.

We partially constitute events and actions by virtue of our descriptions and understandings.

We also partially constitute what we are, what we exist as, by how we describe and understand ourselves…We are that kind of thing that to say or show that we exist is to say or show as what we exist; to say or show what we exist as is to say what kind of thing we are. To be something that one cannot say what it is is to ask if it is something at all, and we are also this. (214)

(The aggregation of “say” and “show” here reads like a concerted rebuke to early Wittgenstein!)

The implication is that this is how we come to “mean.” To the extent that language loses sense in these acts of description and understanding, we find whatever it is that we are. So the title of the book is meaningful as an act in progress, as we are forever “finding” the meaning-generator through language, nonsense, etc.

So we return to the initial quote: “The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature” (259). From the arguments that literature is non-propositional and nonsensical, this would seem to follow, but it is obviously a strict reading of literature. I am not certain what an alternate argument would look like following from his precepts, but it connects to what most weighed on my mind in reading the book. Bourbon speaks of constructing other people through reading nonsense into their language, but, pace Wittgenstein, these nonsensical spaces are fundamentally private. They cannot be spoken about, and they can only be identified in the negative. When “we” read through literature, who is the “we” that is reading? It is not, I think, the collective “we,” but a multitude of independent “I”s; books become that through which we read a private version of the soul. If this is the case, we gain meaning in a near-solipsistic way; we read it in others only through being able to manufacture it in ourselves. The attribution of meaning to people and nothing else appears chauvinistic, as we lack evidentiary proof that other humans have those nonsensical spaces through which they make meaning. (And so, meaning becomes private itself.) The fundamental dialogue is not between people, but between every single person as a subject and a linguistic text as an argument.

I can’t help but think of this view as bleak, in the same way that Finnegans Wake can seem bleak when gazing on its dense pages. Personally, I would prefer to look in the language game correlates of literature itself for meaning; that is, look in the usage patterns of literature’s language in public speech between people (actual language, as Wittgenstein would say) rather than in the private spaces. Literature may not be propositional and may be nonsensical, but I do not see where this prevents it from being part of a Wittgensteinian language game. This has two negative effects, however. First, it deprivileges literature from giving us special access, and second, it deprivileges the particulars of meaning and of the human, as it only requires linguistic interchange, and the internals of the participants are irrelevant. These are significant sacrifices to make, and ones that I suspect Bourbon would be loath to accept. I don’t know about myself; I think I would.

A (True) Parable

A friend’s storage basement was flooded. He lost 90% of what he had accumulated over his lifetime, which was a lot: books, records, cds, magazines, all the low-cost high-content-density collectibles whose value lay in the information contained in them rather than their rarity or condition. Leaving aside Forster and Emerson’s wish to be freed of possessions, this is a minor tragedy.

So now my friend is faced with a battery of unappealing tasks:

  1. Remember the individual items present that melted together into a few large watery lumps.
  2. Provide estimates of the items’ value to the insurance company.
  3. Figure out which items to repurchase (and obtain them), and how much money to use for living expenses.

Even remembering must be painful; one purpose of a personal library is to remind you of the worthy items you’ve chosen to keep. Having to reconstruct the work of a lifetime on short notice requires rebuilding yourself from scratch, and as with all such hurried projects, pieces will be left out.

Pricing is anathema to whatever sentimental value the books and music held; they were simultaneously disposable and irreplaceable. It’s one thing to sell a book on the grounds that its role in your life is complete, another entirely to have it taken from you and needing to paper over its hiatus to preserve the illusion of continuity. And the option to re-buy, to make the choice of either retrieving what you had previously had to get back to where you were or else using the money to further your life, reduces one’s identity to commerce.

None of this will matter once everything is digitized and it’s all ephemerally available on demand for some micropayment. There will be nothing to lose. I don’t think I’ll miss the fragility, but object fetishization has been with us for so long that I have to imagine something else will take its place. (Though I guess for many people, clothes and/or high-tech gadgets already have.)


Literaisons on Wonder and Adolescence. She quotes Proust:

There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase [adolescence] which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.

Compare the words of a much less elegaic and nostalgic man, which I have quoted elsewhere:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

The wonder (or awe) of adolescence was for me, as for many others, distinguished by the sheer inability to communicate in words the overpowering emotions and the shocks of being put into juxtaposition with new and unheard of arrangements of things and ideas. It is only as we attempt to express these things, translating them from private experience into a lingua franca, that we find we must adapt our ideas to the standards of the commonwealth not just to make them understandable to others, but to give them sense to ourselves. Otherwise they are nothing more than the neurological side effects of brain growth, “powerfully alive” but undefined. In language we’re cut down to size but also brought into the world.

Jacques Becker

Jacques Becker‘s films seem to be coming back into style, with the recent rereleases of Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi. These, along with his last film, the brilliant prison escape movie Le Trou and the less memorable Rendezvous de Juliet, are the works of his that I’ve seen. Le Trou was the first and is still the best: as a claustrophobic document of five inmates and their clever, meticulous plan to break out, it rivals Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped for gripping verisimilitude. It even beats Bresson’s film by having one of the men who participated in the real break-out that Le Trou is based on play himself.

But there’s something in Casque and Grisbi that anticipates Le Trou. Both movies are fundamentally gangster movies about trust and betrayal amongst these sort of men; neither is as compelling as the best that was being offered simultaneously by Clouzot, Melville, and Dassin. Becker was not as grim as Clouzot, nor as artfully spartan as Melville, nor as virtuosic as Dassin. But there is one recurrent area where he is a master. In all of Becker’s movies, there are rhapsodic scenes of quotidian life. In Grisbi, Jean Gabin walks around his home tending to his clothes and cleaning up his papers before going out on a raid. In Casque, hero Rolando lies in bed one morning next to his girlfriend while hiding out from the boss. Elsewhere, the boss sits at his desk and shuffles papers. There is not a narrative tension in these scenes as there would be in Melville. Becker just lets time elapse, as though to have the audience fall into moments of peace and deferral, as though no one could be as monomaniacal as a Melville character. (And they probably could not.) But the interest does not diminish; it gives a sense of roundness and fullness. (Benoit Jacquot employed similar techniques to lesser ends in A Single Girl, which took place in 90 minutes of a hotel maid’s day.)

It’s this skill that reaches its apotheosis in Le Trou. By focusing on the most minute actions, both relevant and irrelevant (thereby separating him from Bresson, who boils it down to necessities), he reaches a sort of presence independent of suspense, more rooted in tactile reality.

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