David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2005 (page 1 of 2)

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Hardly a novel, and not a novella either, this short book has Hrabal straining beyond the reach of the light/serious allegory of I Served the King of England to something more personal and confused. It’s the story of Hanta, an old man who has worked for decades compacting waste paper, books especially, in his press, selecting a couple to take home with him and read. The beginning of the book describes his mostly solitary existence, the noises and sights of the press, and it’s beautifully personal and focused.

From there the book grows circular, since there is little to do but flesh out the situation. As Hanta says:

And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.

Hanta finds that he is becoming obsolete. He has books stuck in his head, bits and pieces that repeat uncontrollably, but a new industrial machine is coming and he can’t stand to be taken away from his own little press. In the end he seals himself up in his house with his salvaged books, turns inward, and goes the way of Socrates and Seneca, as he puts it, chasing after a lost love who died in the war.

It’s tempting to draw all sorts of symbols out of the narrative, given the Communist backdrop and the frequent mention of all sorts of classical thinkers. But I resisted this because Hrabal isn’t one to let symbols dominate a fable. Just as the story of I Served the King of England illustrated the rise and fall and rise of a small man through his nearly myopic view, Too Loud a Solitude is worth seeing in its most immediate context.

There are two points to draw on. The first and most obvious is Hanta’s age. He has happy with his life, but his life is over just as the narrative begins. While the narrative dwells on how books survive in people’s minds, it’s not quite permanence. Hanta’s death and replacement by a greater industrial machine shunts him even more quickly into the solitude of the title. The books are his friends, occupying his house, but it’s a solipsistic sort of friendship. Hanta remembers bits and pieces of his books, but there is little to suggest that he has done much with them except use others’ words to reflect his own thoughts. He has processed the books as his press has.

(Which brings up a point I can’t answer: there is an English pun in the book, which I would guess is intentional, of the two meanings of the word “press.” In the book it is that which destroys books; it is also that which creates them. It is entirely suited to the narrative of metamorphosis and transubstantiation that creation and destruction are equated in this way. Is there a similar pun in the Czech?)

And that is the second point. Hanta is not an intellectual in the least; his view of books is explicitly non-academic and non-critical. He remembers little phrases and names the way we remember flavors of ice cream from childhood. He fixates sentimentally on some, like Lao Tse and Seneca, with a concerted arbitrariness. The books he saved from the press were chosen with great indeterminacy; his attachment to them is with no idolatry of their contents. Rather, he has completely internalized these books and converted them into part of his life. They have provided the social context in his later years that the social realm usually does. This, I believe, is the crux of the novel. How many people take in books so closely that they have no need to articulate their sense of the book–or moreover, cannot articulate it? How many people live with books like that?

Strawson on Consciousness

For those of us like me who can’t help wondering about the physical reality of subjective mental events, here’s a passage from the ever-excellent Galen Strawson, from a review of Antonio Damasio:

The standard formulation of the “mind-body problem” rests on a huge and wholly unjustified assumption (this assumption, in fact, is Descartes’s deepest error). It is not content with the obvious truth that matter and consciousness seem to us to be utterly heterogeneous things. It slides on to the claim that matter and consciousness are in fact utterly heterogeneous things, in such a way that it is mysterious how one could ever be the basis or “realization” of the other. It shifts from a harmless and true epistemological claim about how things seem to us to a mega-therial metaphysical claim about how things are in reality.Why? Why indeed? The root cause of the mistake is the unsupported assumption that current physics – or indeed ordinary experience, in its own modest but compelling way – gives us a pretty good fix on the fundamental nature of matter, and shows it to be utterly qualitatively unlike consciousness. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems in any way mystifying, for there is nothing particularly puzzling about consciousness as it is in itself. We know just what it is like – or at least what certain forms of it are like. Consider an experience of blue or of giddiness. Consider it as it is in itself. You know what it is. So, if our best picture of matter makes it seem incomprehensible that matter should be the basis of (or simply be) conscious experience, all this shows is the inadequacy of our best picture of matter. Locke, Hume, Priestley, Kant and others were very clear about this, but few understand it today. Many now make Descartes’s deepest error, in fact, with far less justification than him – while condemning him for his errors.

It is not in any way anti-scientific to claim that we do not have a good fix on the fundamental nature of matter. Current physics instructs us daily in how foolish it is to assume that we do (while providing a magnificent theoretical framework in which to express and exploit a great deal of information about the behaviour of matter). It is widely agreed that the current “Standard Model” is unsatisfactory; the old quarrel between relativity theory and quantum mechanics remains unresolved; there is turmoil in general cosmology; and String Theory, after the “second superstring revolution”, is again pressing obscurely at the door.

The first problem of consciousness, then, the mind-body problem or qualia problem, is just a vivid proof of our ignorance of the nature of matter, and of the difficulty – seeming impossibility – of reconciling first-personal and impersonal data. There is no metaphysical mind-body problem, only an epistemological one.

I like this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the conclusion, which takes the most appealing aspects of several consciousness theories–Colin McGinn’s “new mysterianism” (that we are not set up to understand consciousness and never will), Gerald Edelman’s neurological theories (correlates exist, but only go so far in dealing with the problem), David Chalmers’ panpsychism (consciousness as a different kind of property), and John Searle’s anti-functionalism (consciousness as a material-specific property)–while avoiding many of their glaring defects and leaps of faith. Tossing out the metaphysical problem by dismissing it as based on faulty assumptions, and thereby dismissing all linguistic constructions thereof (so long to Kripke’s proof of dualism, e.g.), he leaves open an unbounded epistemological space that is on first glace far more counterintuitive, since it’s far easier to believe that mental and physical events are heterogeneous than homogeneous. And yet to envision an answer that encompasses a homogeneity of the physical and the mental without denying qualia or intuitions of “folk psychology,” intuitions which Daniel Dennett and the Churchlands have hardly managed to tear down successfully, is quite inspiring. For the anti-qualia gang have had the burden of denying the experience of qualia as well as qualia themselves, and thus the experience of the experience of qualia, etc., etc., and this infinite regress does not go down so easily.

Strawson’s approach reminds me of Stanislaw Lem in Golem XIV (read the entire text of Golem XIV), where his panopticon of a computer alludes to Wittgenstein’s unmooring of language while firmly binding an evolutionary etiology of such language:

If one who is thinking could perceive this horizon – his intellectual range – in the same way that he perceives the limits of his body, nothing like the antinomies of Intelligence could arise. And what in fact are those antinomies of Intelligence? They are the inability to distinguish between transcendence in fact and transcendence in illusion. The cause of these antinomies is language, for language, being a useful tool, is also a self-locking instrument – and at the same time a perfidious one, since it tells nothing about when it becomes a pitfall itself. It gives no indication! So you appeal from language to experience and enter well-known vicious circles, because then you get – what is familiar to philosophy – the throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. For thought may indeed transcend experience, but in such a flight it encounters a horizon of its own and gets trapped in it, though having no idea that this has happened!

Thoughts on Genre: Hitsville, Dullsville

So, we have two rough categories for placing tight genre product: first, exemplary genres, where the best work represents the ideal summation of what all the genre product aims at, and second, exceptional genres, where the best work stands out because of its departure from the genre’s standards. Ray Davis suggests that the ideals of 1930s comedy are simply better ideals: what’s not to like about them? I agree in part, but I don’t think this explains the disproportionate amount of good product relative to nearly every other era of filmed comedy.

One correlation to be drawn is that in the exemplary case, the best work does not emerge from particular talents but across the board, while in the exceptional case, it is the peculiarities of individual creators that give the best work its shape and form. Indeed, it’s the issues of shape and form themselves that seem to determine whether genres can succeed on their own merits, or whether they require the intervention of a particular individual to bring their own idiosyncrasies to mediocre requirements.

So then, some genres I can think of on either side of the fence. Predictably, I was able to think of far more exceptional cases than exemplary ones. One thing I’m fairly confident of is that as with many mass phenomena, exemplary genres only roll around rarely, through chance.

Grub St. Writers: Exceptional. The sheer hackwork being done by most of these novelists rivals any commercial genre extant today. The few giants of the era tower over their competitors beyond belief.

90s Techno/House/Gabba/etc. Music: Exemplary. The sheer homogeneity of the genre and the rate at which evolutions in beat percolated throughout the communities made individual authorship subservient to all sorts of emergent properties. I’m no Simon Reynolds, so I can’t give the details, but here’s one case in which no one particular artist has ever jumped out at me as being especially ahead of the pack. Meanwhile, the big names have never especially impressed me, seeming to be commercially watered-down rather than especially personality-laden. I do love DJ Scud, but admittedly he’s less interested in working within the genre than eviscerating it.

Chivalric Novels: Exceptional. If the works quoted in Don Quixote are any measure, it took masters like Cervantes and Ariosto to prove that this genre wasn’t completely unredeemable.

EC Comics: Exemplary, sort of. The confluence of talent in
EC is hard to explain, but the randomness that besets the quality of
individual creators’ work, and the ability of the writers and artists to cancel out each others’ flaws (and sometimes their strengths) is one of the few cases in comics where a huddle-room mentality worked. Still, I have to admit that people like Wally Wood certainly have their own stamp, and because the genre never overtook individual quirks, this is a conditional judgment.

Disney/Marvel/DC Comics: Exceptional. I could add many other genres here from the Golden and Silver ages, to say nothing of newspaper comics. Barks, Kirby, Cole, Eisner: without the handful of great names in these genres and their commitment to very personal visions, comic books would truly have the shameful, worthless history that many assume of it.

Stax/Volt/Motown Records: Exemplary. There’s a reason why punters focus on the multi-artist greatest hits discs.

60s Beat Groups: Exceptional. Despite the attempts at a Hitsville USA type factory approach, very little of quality came out of endless beat groups covering a narrow repertoire of house songs, until the best of them gave up and started writing for themselves. Interesting how early some of them (Hollies, Beau Brummels) started to do that.

Dub/reggae: Exemplary. Despite the persistence of some huge names, gems pop up all over the place from people who are never heard from again. Massive amounts of appropriation, plagiarism, and retooling also make picking out individuals extremely difficult to begin with.

Baroque Kantatenwerk: Exceptional. Bach’s sheer weirdness and inspiration blew away whatever qualities his competition had.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Anonymous apotheoses versus individual quirkiness. The first conclusion to draw from these examples is that by banking talent together and forcing tons of cross-pollenation, a bottom-up approach emerges whose impact is only seen in retrospect. In comparison, the top-down dictates of a publisher or a church official make for a more static environment in which it is easier for individuals to insidiously invest themselves in their work.

And that brings me to my next question: whither blogs?

To be continued…

Georg Buchner: Lenz

[Here’s a tricky one: should I spell his last name “Buchner,” “Buechner,” or “Büchner” so as best to assist English-speaking people in finding the page?]

Hard to read this without thinking of the other masterpiece that followed it a century later, Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”. Just as Hofmannsthal sets the goals of modernism even as he posits their impossibilities, by portraying the greatness of the mind as he details the inability of the title character to articulate any of it, Buchner so sets the goals of romanticism, then shows the madness they lead to.

This isn’t the self-pity of Goethe’s unfortunate Sorrows of Young Werther. The main character, Lenz (a real playwright), is genuinely insane and suffering, and moves over the course of the story from revelation to agony and shutdown. It’s not clear that they are any different for him; his revelations have the same visceral force as the pain. He comes to be disgusted by all abstractions and ideas. It is only through the force of the emotionally apprehended that he can perceive the world. Lenz says:

“What I demand in all things is life, the potentiality of existence, and that’s that; we need not then ask whether it be beautiful or ugly, the feeling that whatever’s been created possesses life outweighs these two and should be the sole criterion in matters of art. As it is, we encounter it rarely, we find it in Shakespeare and it rings forth fully in folk songs, now and then in Goethe. Everything else can be tossed into the fire. These people can’t even draw a doghouse. They claim they want idealistic figures, but from what I’ve seen, they’re all just a bunch of wooden puppets. This idealism represents the most disgraceful contempt for human nature.”

Coming as it does in the middle of a mixture of fugue states, exhaustion, and eventually a total flip-out (before a return to functioning), Lenz seems quite touched, but this is his most coherent moment. Lenz wants an art of total mimesis, but why? There are two rationales that run through the story. First, Lenz has gone mad to the point where sensory impressions are overwhelming him, and ideas and abstractions lack “life.” Second, Lenz is struggling to get away from his own mind: he desires that he exist purely in the world of the noumenal, where his mind is no longer acting as an interpreter but as a passive observer. This abandonment of the self as rational adjudicator stands in the romantic tradition, but Lenz articulates it in an almost synaesthetic manner. The abstractions have become pinpricks on his mind because they throw him back to an interpretive state; the more he sees the world recreated by a person, the more he sees himself harmoniously integrated with the world.

By Hofmannsthal’s time, the abstractions have moved to the forefront of the real and Lord Chandos is trying to figure out how to get the thoughts into his mind out into the world through speech. This then mutates into the madness of Clarisse in The Man Without Qualities, where she is wholly romanced by ideas and removed from the physical world. Lenz’s madness seems more fundamental, less controllable, more native.

Yet Lenz’s cogency doesn’t last, and by the end of the story he has collapsed into fits. But he recovers. He doesn’t die or go completely insane, but simply soldiers on out of sight, representing an eternal and eternally tormented spirit, set upon by primordial sensitivities that set upon his brain, rather than emanate from it.

Vital Stats

Via Geegaw:

Total number of books I’ve owned: When I moved last year the total on hand came to about one ton, according to the movers. Figure a pound a book.

Last book I bought: Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor.

Last book I read: Georg Buechner, Lenz. Look for a report soon.

Last book I finished: Ditto.

Five books that mean a lot to me:

  • Daniel Pinkwater, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death
  • Jean Merrill, The Pushcart War
  • Carl Barks, Donald Duck circa 1948-1955
  • William Sleator, The Green Futures of Tycho
  • Raymond Smullyan, 5000 BC

Five people I want to see do this:

Debbie at Literaisons
Ray at Pseudopodium
Lars at Spurious
Genevieve at You Cried for Night

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