David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: July 2007


For many years I loved to trace back to this isolated event, of which I know no more than I have set down, a number of the emotions that have patterned themselves over the subsequent years of my life. In doing so, I gave way to the most persistent of all these patterns: that the earliest identifiable self, with its primitive desires and its exorbitant demands and its own special kind of inconsolability, was the real thing, tap it and it rang true, so that any change I contemplated in myself would be a betrayal of myself by myself.

Richard Wollheim

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 weall 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

Private Language

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It’s not found in the language, I have invented it—Kuboå. It does have letters like a word—sweet Jesus, man, you have invented a word . . . Kuboå . . . of enormous grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness in front of me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my discovery and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had crossed over into the pure madness of hunger. I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show? I clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? All things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile I would sleep on it.

…I had made up my mind what the word shouldn’t mean, but had taken no decision on what it should mean. That is a minor question! I said aloud to myself, clutching my arm and repeating that it was a minor question. The word had been found, thank God, and that was the main thing…No, the word was really suited to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind–couldn’t I understand that? And I try to jog my memory to come up with something spiritual. Then it seems to me that someone is speaking, sticking his nose into my chat, and I answer angrily, What was that? Oh my, you’ll get the prize for biggest idiot! Knitting yarn? Go to hell! Why should I be under an obligation to let it mean knitting yarn when I was particularly opposed to its meaning knitting yarn? I had invented the word myself, and I was perfectly within my rights in having it mean anything whatsoever, for that matter. As far as I knew, I hadn’t yet expressed an opinion….

Knut Hamsun, Hunger (tr. Lyngstad)

Who is the interlocutor who interrupts him and prompts him with definitions? Is it part of him spying on himself? Would definition expose him to attack by these spies? He is not hesitant to define the word; he is defiant in not defining it.

Reviews of Two Fan Fictions

Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing “secondary worlds.” Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from “Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.

A.S. Byatt

Blood-soaked and piled high with deformity, the film is commercialized Surrealism. El Topo has been called a Zen Buddhist Western, but in terms of its derivations it’s a spaghetti Western in the style of Luis Bunuel, and tinsel all the way. The avant-garde devices that once fascinated a small bohemian group because they seemed a direct pipeline to the occult and “the marvelous” now reach the new mass bohemianism of youth. But the marvelous has become a bag of old Surrealist tricks: the acid-Western style is synthesized from devices of the once avant-garde–especially L’Age d’Or and the whole lifework of Bunuel, with choice lifts from Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, too.

The movie may seem bewildering, however, because the narrative is overlaid with a clutter of symbols and ideas. Jodorowsky employs anything that can give the audience a charge, even if the charges are drawn from different systems of thought that are–as thought–incompatible…. Well, of course, you don’t need erudition to draw on matters religious and philosophical that way–any dabbler can do it. All you need is a theatrical instinct and a talent for (a word I once promised myself never to use) frisson. Jodorowsky is, it is true, a director for whom ideas are sensuous entities–sensuous toys, really, to be played with. By piling onto the Western man-with-no-name righteous-avenger form elements from Eastern fables, Catholic symbolism, and so on, Jodorowsky achieves a kind of comic-strip mythology. And when you play with ideas this way, promiscuously–with thoughts and enigmas and with symbols of human suffering–the resonances get so thick and confused that the game may seem not just theatre but labyrinthine, ‘deep’: a masterpiece.

Pauline Kael

Carol Polsgrove on Ralph Ellison

Among the myriad reasons why Ralph Ellison never completed his second novel, I would propose one that Arnold Rampersad does not consider seriously in his new biography (reviewed by Morris Dickstein, May 25): the impact of Ellison’s disillusion with Communism. The agony of that disillusion comes through in a letter of August 18, 1945, to Richard Wright, which I quoted in my

2001 book, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights movement. Writing about American Communist leaders’ wartime collusion with liberals, Ellison said these party leaders were “as dangerous as Nazis”. He said, further: “If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn’t think they can get away with it. If they want to be lice, then by God let them be squashed like lice.

Maybe we can’t smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell”. This was Ellison’s state of mind when he wrote Invisible Man.

After the novel came out, Ellison refused to identify its Brotherhood with the Communist Party. Indeed, in the post-war, anti-Communist years, when association with Communism could devastate American careers, Ellison did what he could to erase his tracks back to the party. Rampersad, I fear, has been taken in by Ellison’s reconstruction of his own identity: I suspect Ellison’s involvement with Communism was emotionally deeper than Rampersad suggests, and his subsequent disillusion more devastating. Once that disillusion had exploded in the creativity of Invisible Man, Ellison was left standing in the ashes from which he arose as a Cold War liberal, an identity that did not, apparently, serve him well as a novelist.

Carol Polsgrove, Letter to TLS, June 27, 2007

Invisible Man is a novel that twists its issues into complexities that go far beyond its time and place, and the ambiguities it leaves behind always read as greater to me than any possible polemic Ellison could have intended. But the furious portrayal of the Brotherhood, which seeks to turn blacks into icons of oppression for the abstract betterment of man, is not only a defense of humanism over ideological struggles, but also a classic example of individualism as Tocqueville found it in Democracy in America. But these motives are double-edged and do not lend themselves to polemics. They do lead, however, to such things as Ellison’s half-hearted support of the Vietnam War as necessary, and to a more general political paralysis. (This result is played out in Invisible Man.) Supporting Vietnam constituted an abandonment of utopian dreams and a tacit acceptance of the idea of necessary evil, for whenever one proclaims some sort of action as necessary, isn’t it always to make excuses for the evil that it will cause? I cannot imagine that Ellison felt anything like a full endorsement of American actions, but his desire for a form of living that was both creative and positive forbade him, I suspect, from sinking into a nihilism that was internally or externally destructive. At the same time, it narrowed the set of positions he could write from. In response to Irving Howe, Ellison famously said:

Howe seems to see segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black Messiah to come along and blow the cork. But if we are in a jug it is transparent, not opaque, and one is allowed not only to see outside but to read what is going on.

In saying this, Ellision was objecting to such a strongly teleological view of black struggle in America (which Howe saw, in my opinion accurately, in Richard Wright) that recapitulated the objectifying processes of Communism. And I suspect Ellison was aware of the irony when, in the 1970s, Amiri Baraka declared race issues to be only a part of a larger class struggle and declared himself a Marxist. Baraka continues to be prolific, if not ambivalent.

Grondin on Gadamer

“Working out appropriate projections, anticipatory in nature, to be confirmed ‘by the things’ themselves, is the constant task of understanding” (Gadamer). This quotation does not fit the typical picture of Gadamer. His hermeneutic position is usually taken to be something for which there seems to be plentiful evidence: namely, that given the prejudice structure of understanding, there can never be any “confirmation by the things themselves.” But it is easy to show that his hermeneutics is quite misunderstood when taken thus. Even if Gadamer’s utterances are not always perfectly consistent, his “rehabilitation” of prejudices still warns us to be critically “aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” On the other hand, Gadamer does not fall into the positivist extreme of calling for a negation of the prejudice structure of understanding in order to let the thing speak for itself without being obfuscated by subjectivity. A reflexively critical understanding of the kind contended for will be concerned “not merely to form anticipatory ideas, but to make them conscious, so as to monitor them and thus acquire right understanding from the things themselves.” This is what Gadamer finds in Heidegger: the mean between the positivist dissolution of the self and Nietzsche’s universal perspectivism. The question is only how one is to come by the “appropriate” fore-projections that permit the “thing itself” to speak.

Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics

This has the ring of truth for me, and it embodies one of the central Gadamerian concepts of why a “method” is needed at all, or more accurately, how it comes into existence. Pace deconstructionism, Gadamer seeks to portray the process of how truth criteria evolve over time, not to postpone forever the idea that we could ever have them, but to indicate the persistence of changing standards of truth, verification, correctness, and understanding. The two extremes that Gadamer rejects are, first, the analytic (verificationist) pretense towards objectivity, and, second, the purely subjectivist account by which meaning and criteria fail to make any sense on their own terms, dismissing the first as impossible and the second as useless. The speaking of the “thing itself” is not some timeless universal innate to the text, but the arrival at a convention of truth under the current socio-historical horizon that can be seen as being as “accurate” as possible. The “method” for doing so is the process of questioning prejudice and, more simply, being aware of it. This “working out” involves strictures given to us by the text itself, not just our own prejudices. The understanding we obtain this way, for Gadamer, is as good as it gets. The reason the thing itself then speaks is that we have achieved the purest interaction with it possible under the inevitable influence of remaining subjective prejudices, partially cognitivized. Then, under the most successful application of this “method,” what we can glean from the text is what the text says to us. I take this to be the ontology of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses. The ideality of the word is what raises everything linguistic beyond the finitude and transience that characterize other remnants of past existence. It is not this document, as a piece of the past, that is the bearer of tradition but the continuity of memory. Through it tradition becomes part of our own world, and thus what it communicates can be stated immediately. Where we have a written tradition, we are not just told a particular thing; a past humanity itself becomes present to us in its general relation to the world….

Thus written texts present the real hermeneutical task. Writing is self-alienation. Overcoming it, reading the text, is thus the highest task of understanding.

Gadamer, Truth and Method (392)

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