David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2005

Ontological Humor

75 percent of Spike Lee’s work is really uneven.

–a friend

J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

What a frustrating book this is. I have had varied responses to much of Coetzee’s fiction, finding it anywhere from brilliant (Waiting for the Barbarians) to bloodless (Disgrace) to pretentious (Foe), so I didn’t get around to his first post-Nobel fiction until now. But I must say that I admire his willigness to put out a book that will completely alienate Nobel punters, as well as be so open to misinterpretation.

The book is a collection of “stories” (“Lessons”, they’re titled) about the elderly writer Costello, who, having long ago written a famous revisionist version of Ulysses from Molly’s point of view (called The House on Eccles Street), now listlessly attends conferences on various literary topics. She has no passion for these topics, and no shortage of contempt for the fanboys and other writers that attend the conferences. The one issue that does stir her to her feet is animal rights, which she pursues with the single-minded intolerance of the zealot, comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust.

Few of the reviews of Elizabeth Costello have addressed some of the most perplexing problems of the narrative. James Wood, always keen on religious readings of fiction, insists on a liturgical interpretation:

Far from being evasive, I think that Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that his entire book vibrates with confession. The reference to Ivan Ilyich is the key. Simply put, Coetzee’s subject is death. Costello’s lectures are about the lives of animals, and that means also the human animal. It is by contemplating her own death that she can enter the suffering – the millions of deaths – of animals. Our mortality is animal mortality. And likewise, to think about animal death is to think of our own death.

What Wood ignores is how truly obnoxious Costello is. Her empathy for animals rings false because she treats those around her (her son, her colleagues, her ex-lovers, her fans) like garbage, simultaneously condescending to them while demanding indulgence for everthing she does. Worse, she’s hardly eloquent. Her arguments are irrational, trite, and mindlessly syllogistic:

“As for animals being too dumb and stupid to speak for themselves, consider the following sequence of events. When Albert Camus was a young boy in Algeria, his grandmother told him to bring her one of the hens from the cage in their backyard. He obeyed, then watched her cut off its head with a kitchen knife, catching its blood in a bowl so that the floor would not be dirtied.

“The death cry of that hen imprinted itself on the boy’s memory so hauntingly that in 1958 he wrote an impassioned attack on the guillotine. As a result, in part, of that polemic, capital punishment was abolished in France. Who is to say, then, that the hen did not speak?”

If I were Coetzee, I would be very worried that after writing a book in which specious arguments such as this take up so much room, the arguments would be mistakenly attributed to me. (Justifiably so: The Observer condemns him for holding Costello’s opinions, and David Lodge’s review gives entirely too much credit to her opinions.) Indeed, had I not read Coetzee’s other work and his essays, I’d be tempted to assign these views to him. But Coetzee has never written like this. His criticism is coldly rational, well-researched, and often insightful. (I highly recommend his book of essays Stranger Shores.) And I cannot imagine that Coetzee would ever take seriously the theses of Costello’s speeches. Coetzee has compared Costello to Christa Wolf and Doris Lessing, and I don’t believe the comparison is meant to be flattering. Both writers are polemicists notorious for deducing fictional circumstances from preconceived ideas, and so it is with Costello. She is partly, but not entirely, Coetzee’s strawman.

Oliver Herford’s perceptive review in the TLS is the only one to have gotten at Costello’s lapses qua fiction:

Costello is impatient of the proprieties of public argumentation, preferring “to think in similitudes rather than reason things out”. This is a novelist’s failing, perhaps, but it occasions some spectacular lapses. She starts, too, from positions of provoking extremity…but passes rapidly from violent identification to a blank disbelief in what she has undertaken to say.

Elizabeth Costello is a thin, disagreeable character and an obvious contrivance – an unreliable surrogate whose obsessions and inconsistencies are conventionally opposed but never effectually challenged; she does not stay even to answer her own idle self-questioning, of which there is an exasperating amount.

All this is painfully illustrated when Costello interprets other works of literature and philosophy. Herford points out that her interpretation of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” is absurdly off the mark, but so are all of her interpretations. She disagrees with Thomas Nagel, saying she can know what it is like to be a bat. Of “A Modest Proposal,” she says:

If it is atrocious to kill and eat human babies, why is it not atrocious to kill and eat piglets? If you want Swift to be a dark ironist rather than a facile pamphleteer, you might examine the premises that make his fable so easy to digest.

In passages like these Costello reminds you of your freshman year roommate who lambasted you all year long for eating meat before giving up vegetarianism sophomore year. Or consider this gem concerning Ulysses, which she purportedly knew well enough to rewrite:

I do not like that other world, writes Martha Clifford to her pen pal Leopold Bloom, but she lies: why would she write at all if she did not want to be swept off to another world by a demon lover?

Martha Clifford’s typo (she meant “word”) has all sorts of resonances, but Coetzee’s meaning is clear: Costello has forgotten the context and has freely interpreted the passage to mean whatever she wants it to mean. She has imposed a tyranny of her own private meanings on everyone and everything.

And ultimately she is a tyrant, especially to her long-suffering son but also to nearly everyone she meets. Her “empathy” is actually the narcissistic projection of one’s own self on to the faces of the downtrodden, a common ailment of the terminally myopic. She sympathizes with people by imagining they feel just like her, unless they disagree with her, in which case she quickly dismisses them as inhuman morons. So it is with literature; if she cannot see herself in it, she dismisses it.

As a satire of the caprices of writers and of the unquestioning authority granted to their polemical pronoucements, Elizabeth Costello is grimly amusing, almost a middle finger to the Nobel Committee. (I suspect that Coetzee is deeply uneasy with their elevation of so many writers with deep moral flaws.) It’s hard not to agree with him after reading things like an interview with the hatefully senile Felipe Alfau. (Thank you Maud Newton for the link.) But especially in the last two sections, which are revisionist versions of Kafka’s “Before the Law” and Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”, Coetzee changes the terms. In the first, Costello is denied admission to heaven because she refuses to profess belief in any particular thing. In the second, she takes on the role of Lord Chandos’s wife, and portrays his epiphanies as those of Icarus:

But how I ask you can I live with rats and dogs and beetles crawling through me day and night, drowning and gasping, scratching at me, tugging me, urging me deeper and deeper into revelation–how? We are not made for revelation, I want to cry out, nor I nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.

If this is the final “Lesson,” then the object of the lessons has been Costello herself. She has not practiced literary criticism or philosophy over the course of the book, but has she practiced literature? If so, what price has she paid for it? Hofmannsthal gave us the image of a man overwhelmed with profundity that transcended language, yet he expressed it so eloquently that it was easy to believe him. Whatever profundity that Costello has private access to, she is unable to express it: not through misinterpreting other people’s works, not through angry screeds, not through interpersonal relationships. Yet it clearly causes her torment, and for this she does deserve our sympathy. I think that this is what separates Coetzee’s book from the seemingly endless river of literature portraying writers in various states of breakdown and uncommunication: given the abnormality of the writer, he is more willing to see writers in the context of societal normality rather than placing them at the center. Elizabeth Costello is ultimately a portrait of a marginal figure, and her inner pain seems all the more disproportionate for it.

The book also appears to indict much writerly discourse, yet other people over the course of the book speak quite cogently, usually when calmly destroying Costello’s arguments. No, the problem is quite clearly with Costello herself, and since we are never given evidence of Costello’s prior writing talent, it’s impossible to say whether her reputation is deserved. No doubt she is unique and uniquely tormented, but what of it?

Throughout the book, people make the mistake of engaging in discourse with Costello to no positive effect. Perhaps Coetzee wishes to separate literature from the realm of debate, saying that writers are not the sort to participate in argument. They are best left alone to write their books, which then the public can make sense of. But beyond that, Coetzee makes a statement on how dangeous it is to take authors at their intent and at their literal meaning, as well as point out how authors can be their own worst advocates. Coetzee in his essays reads for subtext and subtlety, often questioning the placement of an idea in a literary work rather than engaging with it. With Elizabeth Costello, he has written a work that acts as a warning, since considering Costello’s ideas only leads to silliness and frustration.

The reaction of people to the book–predominantly a willingness to take Costello’s views seriously, as no critic other than Herford mentions Costello’s series of grotesque misreadings of other authors–seems to confirm Coetzee’s concerns. But Coetzee is not so monolithically harsh, since the book is simultaneously a portrait of the vacant inside of one of these authors, and her inability to believe anything truly. Is this, asks Coetzee, who we want to argue with and interpret? Is it wise to hold up the figure of the author and deem him or her a seer, a prophet, or a truthteller? No, better to treat the books autonomously and dispense with the author.

Thoughts on Work

Marjorie Williams wrote that Christina Stead was one of the few authors to write accurately and thoroughly of money:

One other (random) thing I want to note is how wonderfully Stead writes about money. It is strange how little fiction there is that reflects the resonance money really has in life. (Middlemarch comes to mind, but how many titles spring after it?) The family’s economic decline, the scenes in which the Pollit children come to see that they are really poor, and the climactic one in which poor young Ernie–who defends himself through the careful accretion and management of money–discovers that his mother has stolen his last little savings, have a magnificent realism.

And I think this is partly true. Surely the most acutely realistic writers like George Gissing (in New Grub Street) have captured the relevance of money to the impoverished, but often, as with Dickens or Frank Norris’s McTeague, money simply becomes an item delineated by its desirability or its absence. The notion of finance, household particularly, is considerably rarer. Much of the “realistic” fiction of the last fifty years presents middle class people in financially comfortable situations, as long as they keep working.

But what of work? It has been on my mind lately because it’s been taking up larger-than-usual chunks of my time. But when I think about work as I know it, there are few literary correlates. Proust, I’m sure, would have had brilliant things to say, but he was lucky enough not to have to work. Social realist novels like Gladkov’s Cement or those of Dos Passos say less about the act of working than they do about the sociological politics underlying it. Leopold Bloom doesn’t spend much of his day, page-wise, in the office, and certainly seems preoccupied with other matters even while he’s there.

The two authors who I do think of are Kafka (particularly Amerika and The Castle, both about characters looking for work) and the Beckett of Watt. I don’t mean this in an existential, fatalistic, or hopeless way; it’s more that they capture the non-narrative nature of work, the idea that in spite of whatever is accomplished, you will be back the next day because it’s your job, and unlike school, there is no natural ending point (short of a mass layoff). The sheer unendingness of one’s occupation, and the ability for that infinite plane to envelop one’s life and weave its tendrils through your mannerisms and speech patterns, are better captured by the actions of Watt in serving Mr. Knott’s capricious needs than they are by tales of occupational woe and oppression. Watt’s preoccupation with the endless variations that he is put through, and the way that they define his words and actions, stand in contrast to the limitations of the setting of his work; this is what work is.

But even these stories are abstract and hardly particular enough to capture the particular flavor of corporate life in the first world today. And I fear that in the absence of a compelling literary story of work, sociologists and social theorists have taken over the job of defining work. They have done so primarily in Marxist terms, though not always. The effect has been to objectify these occupations and give short shrift to their mythologizers: at least to those who would see a mythos as crude as Confucianism. Even the Confucian hierarchy would be preferable to the individualist aesthetic that no longer seems germane to most modern occupations, whose managers stress interdependence as much as they do individual competition and achievement. Many theorists (I don’t have to name them) have overlaid a narrative of exploitation and alienation on corporate work, one that is in many ways quite accurate even as it misses the point. Consider C. Wright Mills, the most dramatic and emotional of the American narrators:

The old middle-class work ethic–the gospel of work–has been replaced in the society of employees by a leisure ethic, and this replacement has involved a sharp, almost absolute split between work and leisure. Now work itself is judged in terms of leisure values. The sphere of leisure provides the standards by which work is judged; it lends to work such meanings as work has.

Alienation in work means that the most alert hours of one’s life are sacrificed to the making of money with which to ‘live.’ Alienation means boredom and the frustration of potentially creative effort, of the productive sides of personality.

C. Wright Mills, White Collar (p. 236), 1951

A vivid portrayal of a nightmare. What I would argue, however, is that however great a straitjacket corporate work puts on its employees, it cannot be innately alienating. Alienation, pace Hagel, requires that one be alienated from an aspect of the world. Mills (among others) would say that the alienation is from the product of one’s work, but in corporate work the product of one’s work is not perceived as the end goal, not as much as (a) the process by which the product is achieved, and (b) one’s own self-advancement, and the relation between the two. The product looks very different from the inside than from the outside. In other words, there is a world of non-alienation at work, often a hostile and paranoid one, but one in which people live as an end in itself. And since this world is something that takes up over a third of the lives of the vast majority of people in this country, it deserves better than the slick generalizations of a Franzen.

But it seems that few writers has picked up the slack, leaving the academic left and the Straussian right to promulgate archetypal portrayals of the western employee to their various audiences. The topic of work is too significant to be left to theorists; Studs Terkel’s Working is a better map of these territories than Marx. The area should belong to literature, which can provide more personal and emotional narratives for it. But literature has yet to stake a serious claim.

Jean Eustache: The Mother and the Whore

The Mother and the Whore is 3.5 hours long, and feels it. Unlike Peter Greenaway’s six-hour The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom, or any number of Kurosawa movies, it does not have an accordion-like structure that can easily accomodate extended length with entertaining digressions and amusements, nor was it intended to have one. This puts it in danger of falling in with such endurance defiers as Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Theo Angelopoulos’s Ulysses Gaze, and Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite. (I’ve linked to positive reviews of all three on the grounds that the descriptions alone should be enough to turn people off of these horrors.)

When dealing with something whose duration has been stretched beyond common proportion, you have to come to terms with the decreased attention that’s paid to content and structure. It reminds me of a famous Morton Feldman quote:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.

There are few directors who were masters at this kind of scale: Tarkovsky, Melville, and, I grudgingly admit, Eustache. He puts together a film that by the end of its time has achieved something that could not have been done in less time, even though individual scenes could have been swapped out or significantly changed to little overall effect. As Feldman suggests, this is an achievement in scale.

Just to give an idea of how stretched the scale is, here’s the plot summary from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review:

The movie recounts the activities over a few days of a dandyish French intellectual in his late 20s named Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who’s living with and supported by his lover, Marie (Bernadette Lafont); she’s in her mid-30s and runs a small boutique. In the first scene he borrows a neighbor’s car and tracks down a former girlfriend, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), who’s just started a new semester at the Sorbonne, and tries to persuade her to marry him, only to discover that she’s just agreed to marry someone else. (We and Alexandre briefly glimpse Gilberte with her husband, played by Eustache, toward the end of the film, in the liquor section of a department store.) After hanging out with an equally idle friend (Jacques Renard) at the Deux Magots cafe, Alexandre follows a young woman after she leaves a nearby table, asks for her phone number, and scores; the remainder of the film is devoted to his courting of her.

Her name is Veronika (Francoise Lebrun). She works as a hospital nurse, lives in a small room in the nurses’ quarters, goes to a lot of nightclubs, and is as compulsive about her promiscuity as Alexandre is about his idleness.

I have my problems with the film. The tale of a shallow bourgeois layabout, the older woman he leeches off of, and the promiscuous girl he falls for is sometimes insufferable and far from “deep.” The characters are exactly who they appear to be, and when an epiphany is forced into the girl’s mouth at the very end of the film, it’s acutely uncomfortable; the structure (or lack thereof) makes it seem unearned. This gives two alternatives: first (as Pauline Kael observed), that Veronica is speaking for the director and her epiphany is revealed truth; second, that like so much else in the film, it is shallow bullshit piped out by the characters.

It is only due to the scale that the second option even becomes possible. In any other reasonably-sized film, Veronika’s explosive speech would be a climax and a revelation, but coming as it does three-plus hours into this seemingly structureless film, it is more tired than it is climactic. The emotions are so violent that it could only feel as tired as it does had the audience lived with the characters long enough to grow comfortable with them, and beyond that, to grow tired of them. Perhaps Eustache is implying that it takes three hours just to exhaust–and to be exhausted by–such simple characters as these, and that any more complex characters could not be so fully exposed in such a short period of time. As with Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the film seeks to give the viewer an experience of the characters that is more than a voyeuristic gaze through a hazy window for a brief time. Proust used a massive canvas for some fairly shallow society types. Eustache only has three hours, so he narrows his scope considerably.

He is helped immeasurably by the actors. Leaud was born to play Alexandre, and Veronika in particular seems to display her shallow soul at all times, never hiding a thing. Neither ever goes against the grain of their character. Both give the impression that there is nothing to their physical and mental being beyond what is displayed about their characters in the film, and this is crucial to its effect.

I return to the word exhaustion. What Eustache shares with Proust (and even Beckett) is the ability to exhaust the possibilities of his material, such that at the end the exhaustion that the viewer feels is not that of boredom or frustration, but the sense that there is nothing left, such that even an emotional epiphany reveals nothing more than has already been presented. This is a major achievement, and it requires (“justifies” may be too strong a word) the duration that Eustache uses. Yes, Bresson achieves something of this, but he bypasses the realm of internal experience altogether to focus on surfaces. Maybe Melville is the closest approximation, with carefully circumscribed characters whose motivations are simple yet everpresent. Maybe this makes The Mother and the Whore the film that took the French new wave and treated it as an exhaustible genre.

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