Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: October 2009 (page 1 of 2)

Peter Greenaway: From “The Falls”

Erhaus Bewler Falluper

Whilst acknowledging his output, Falluper’s detractors accused him of manufacturing fictions and deliberately confusing identities. He was also accused of not knowing the difference between a good joke and a bad one. Falluper’s supporters were certain that these accusations were often true, but they believed that Falluper’s half-fictions were effervescent by-products of his compulsion to draw up maps, index disaster and break chaos into small pieces that he might rearrange those pieces in a different way, perhaps alphabetically. However, Falluper’s supporters had no illusions about his ability to tell a joke; they knew that he was much too serious to have a sense of humour.

Falluper asked his questions of forty-one people. In the latest edition of the VUE Directory, there were exactly double that number of persons whose surnames began with the letters FALL. Of the forty-one persons that Falluper interviewed, seven were to become VUE victims. These seven, like Falluper himself, now speak Abcadefghan, have superlative night-vision, are welcomed at children’s parties, can whistle well, fear flying, loathe the FOX, and inaugurate projects that others less gifted invariably complete.

Falluper is Greenaway’s surrogate in The Falls, and his listmaking and cataloging are the methods of Greenaway himself. It took Greenaway over twenty years to return to the metatextual analysis of his own themes in The Tulse Luper Suitcases, where 92 (the number of natural elements) is once again used as the structuring device for the caprices of Falluper, or rather his original form Tulse Luper.

Cesar Aira’s Bad Writing

I don’t usually write about bad books because there’s little point to it, even if they’re popular. (This is why you don’t see me complaining about such important contemporary writers like M_______ or F_______ or L________.) But sometimes I read a book where the badness is illustrative or at least interesting, and Aira’s Ghosts is one of them. Aira writes short books with endorsements from Roberto Bolano. Here is a bit from one of his dips into philosophical musing in Ghosts:

She dreamed of the building on top of which she was sleeping, not as it would be later on, not seeing it finished and inhabited, but as it was now, that is, under construction. It was a calm vision, devoid of troubling portents or inventions, almost a verification of the facts. But there is always a difference between dreams and reality, which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference in this case was reflected in the architecture, which is, in itself, a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections was provided by a third term: the unbuilt.

The architectural reflections go on, but this is enough. On first glance it may read well, but the longer you look at it, the more incoherent it seems. I do not think this is the fault of translator Chris Andrews, whose translations of Bolano had no such issues. How is a vision a “verification of the facts”? If the superficial contrast between dreams and reality is not the important difference, what is it in the general case, not just for this building? Why does the architecture “mirror” the built and the unbuilt? Why is the mirroring reciprocal? How does one bridge two reflections?

Such elisions would not be capital offenses if they didn’t point to such a sloppiness on Aira’s part, as though he were writing more quickly than I read. (He publishes 2-4 books a year, so perhaps he does.) Skewing concepts toward surrealism can be effective, but with Aira, that impression is merely an unpleasant side effect of a quick, lazy attempt at profundity. The ensuing reflections on “the unbuilt” also fail to cohere for the same reasons: Aira hasn’t spent enough time thinking things through.

Because rigor and precision are not traits that are greatly valued in fiction (not now and probably not ever–even now it is rare to see Musil elevated above Mann and Broch as the sharpest thinker of the three by far), there’s little context in which to criticize Aira’s faults. His flashy collisions of ideas give the book credibility as fine literature, but in the race to write, publish, read, review, and ultimately forget about books, no one seems to have stood back and said that the ideas are inchoate, secondhand, and lacking.

For contrast, I was just reading some stories by Mario Benedetti. They don’t shoot for highbrow philosophy, but the writing is sharp, and the ideas are, as a philosopher said, clear and distinct.

Bernhard on Heidegger

And speaking of Heidegger, here is the much less subtle Thomas Bernhard on him, from the always amusing Old Masters:

I always visualize him sitting on his wooden bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife who, with her perverse knitting enthusiasm, ceaselessly knits winter socks for him from the wool she has shorn from their own Heidegger sheep.

I cannot visualize Heidegger other than sitting on the bench outside his Black Forest house, alongside his wife, who all her life totally dominated him and who knitted all his socks and crocheted all his caps and baked all his bread and wove all his bedlinen and who even cobbled up his sandals for him. Heidegger was a kitschy brain….. a feeble thinker from the Alpine foothills, as I believe, and just about right for the German philosophical hot-pot. For decades they ravenously spooned up that man Heidegger, more than anybody else, and overloaded their stomachs with his stuff. Heidegger had a common face, not a spiritual one, Reger said, he was through and through an unspiritual person, devoid of all fantasy, devoid of all sensibility, a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow, Reger said, which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades let its smart little cow-pats drop on it….

Heidegger is the petit-bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who has placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcaps, that kitschy black night-cap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.

There’s another great section, which I don’t have at hand, talking about how at dinner parties people are always coming up to you and offering you bits of Heidegger and you haven’t even gotten in the door before someone is offering you a little piece of Heidegger, and so on.

Blumenberg and Husserl

Durkheim (not that one) wrote about my account of Blumenberg:

I think that Blumenberg is much more positive about the modern age than you suggest. Indeed, one might even compare his remarks on science – particularly its institutionalisation of method – with those of Popper. Popper of course would have no time for myth, but Blumenberg’s genius was to have shown that myth too can be defended in a similar way to science. The never ending variation that is the history of myth’s rewriting is comparable to the infinite progress that is the fate – and the triumph – of modern science.

I agree with this and I didn’t mean to give the impression that Blumenberg is a pessimist. In fact, Blumenberg’s ire seems reserved for those conservative pessimists like Schmitt, Loewith, or even Voltaire, who define the present moment as a crisis and look back to the past to try to find some point where we went wrong. He has even less patience for those, from Epicurus to the Gnostics to Kierkegaard, who ask that we should turn our back on the world and seek some private, otherworldly transcendence. And I do believe that Blumenberg’s endorsement of curiosity, science, and a secular interest in improving the world amounts to a prescription for a pragmatic progress: the right for humanity to explore, experiment, err, and positively evolve.

It is so optimistic, in fact, that it is difficult for me to accept enthusiastically. If I believe that a humanistic science offers the best way forward for the people on this planet, it’s only because I can’t think of any better ideas, not because I am filled with hope that things will work out. Blumenberg is more of a believer, and the faith he holds seems best portrayed in Blumenberg’s touching portrait of Husserl:

Scarcely a decade after theory, as mere gaping at what is ‘present at hand,’ had been, if not yet despised, still portrayed as a stale recapitulation of the content of living involvements, it was the greatness of the solitary, aged Edmund Husserl, academically exiled and silenced, that he held fast to the resolution to engage in theory as the initial act of European humanity and as a corrective for its most terrible deviation, and that he required of it a rigorous consistency, which is still, or once again, felt to be objectionable. Hermann Lübbe has described as the characteristic mark of this philosophizing, especially in the late works, the “rationalism of theory’s interest in what is without interest”: The existential problem of a scholar who in his old age was forbidden to set foot in the place where he carried on his research and teaching never shows through, and even the back of the official notice that informed him of this prohibition was covered by Husserl with philosophical notes. That is a case of ‘carrying on’ whose dignity equals that of the sentence, ‘Noli turbare circulos meos’ [Don’t disturb my circles].”

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, III.Introduction

Let’s leave aside that Archimedes, in addition to being killed while working on theoretical math, had also designed warships and this claw:

The ideal here is that of a scholar who can retain his absorption in theory even as the surrounding chaos nearly envelops him. Here, for Blumenberg, it is theory that acts as the linking and growing mechanism of humanity. (And as commenter Durkheim suggests, theory is something of a halfway point between myth and science.) The danger is, of course, that theory turn into something as private as Gnosticism. What is it that gives Blumenberg and Husserl the assurance that they have not disappeared into a private fount of knowledge irrelevant to the greater world? This is a crucial question for Blumenberg to answer in the context of the book. I think that the answer, which is hinted at above, is that there needs to remain some sort of firm method, that “rigorous consistency” that Blumenberg mentions: the placing of the external world as authority and arbiter rather than one’s own self-certainty. (Here, Blumenberg separates from Hegel and moves back to Kant.) Again, I see this as a pragmatic methodology more than anything else, except that there was no such named tradition in Germany.

The other somewhat orthogonal point is how Blumenberg contrasts Husserl with Heidegger, who goes unnamed but is sniped at as the person who attacks Husserl’s theory as “gaping at what is ‘present at hand'”. Blumenberg implicitly connects Heidegger’s political beliefs with Heidegger’s priority of the “at hand” and activity over cognition and observation. Heidegger’s political associates bar Husserl from the library at which he studied. Heidegger removes the dedication to Husserl from Being and Time. Husserl stands back. He keeps working. And Husserl remains one of the least alluring, least sexy philosophers ever. He never cheats, he is never cheap, he is never glamorous. (Even his glamorous successors–Derrida and Sartre–did not put a shine on him.) He just keeps working things out.

I don’t want to enter that eternal debate on Heidegger, but I do sympathize with the emphasis Blumenberg places on detached observation, on the classical act of thinking and theorizing that still seems to have gone missing amidst unending talk of politics, subversion, performativity, and so on. (To those who say that detached observation is a luxury, the subsequent activities are no less luxuries.)

When I quoted Satie the other day (apparently an appropriate quote, thank you Dennis), it was this contrast between theory and action that I was thinking of: youth in action, old age in reflection. As every development in culture and technology (hello, the web) rushes to celebrate and analyze itself before it has barely begun to be anything at all, the nonstop circle of activity exhausts me, and I want to be the rigorous, consistent theorist myself:

Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one’s head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It’s just play acting, and innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.

Kafka, “At Night”

Teshigahara and Kobo Abe: The Man Without a Map

That is the opening to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Man Without a Map, better known in its English novel translation as The Ruined Map. The amazing cutup music is by Toru Takemitsu.

It’s the final of four collaborations between Teshigahara and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe, who also produced the gorgeous The Woman in the Dunes and the surreal and disturbing The Face of Another. If there’s a problem I have with those two, it’s that Teshigahara always seems to be the sanest of the contributors: while Takemitsu and Abe are straining at the margins of convention, Teshigahara seems more content to play things straight, filming things as though they were conventional dramas with haunting scenery. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Teshigahara’s last film was about a master of tea ceremonies.

In The Man Without a Map everything falls apart. The movie isn’t a disaster and has enough to hold interest, but it is a failure. Teshigahara seems uninterested in the material and gives it little visual flair, while the ambiguities of the earlier films now spill into incoherence. The basic story is of a detective hired to investigate a missing man, Nimuro, by Nimuro’s sister. But the noir tropes dissolve as quickly as they’re introduced. Nimuro’s brother shows up to give the detective secret information that the sister did not reveal. Nimuro’s wife appears and disappears. Nimuro was involved with some bootleg food stalls possibly associated with the mafia, who beat up the detective. A man tempts the detective with nude photos he claims were taken by the Nimuro, but were they? Do they have anything to do with Nimuro?

That last mysterious man, who throws out clues that may be red herrings, who may not be related to the case at all, is the closest to the heart of the movie. The detective is hostile to any sort of conventionality, and by the end of the film, the noir tropes appear to be springing up because he wills them to do so, even if they don’t make sense. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), the mystery man announces his attention to commit suicide on the phone to the detective, who is annoyed with him and ready to hang up. The detective asks if he’s written a note: “No. They’re not exactly easy to write.”

I laughed, but I take it to mean that in trying to write some sort of lives for themselves outside the margins, Nimuro, the detective, and the mystery man have unwoven the fabric of their lives and so they fall apart, like the movie. Similar disintegrations happened in the earlier films by Teshigahara and Abe, but they didn’t reach the level of the plot, as they do here. Because, it appears, Teshigahara is not on board with Abe’s conceit, the film falls apart as it attempts to fall apart.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if a more avant-garde filmmaker of the time like Terayama, Oshima, or Yoshida had worked with Abe’s material–this or Abe’s far crazier The Box Man, where Abe abandons all pretense to psychological realism. The Face of Another is the most successful of their collaborations because Teshigahara is able to transform a “normal” world into one that becomes increasingly frightening and chaotic for the faceless protagonist. But once the normal is far out of sight, visual innovation has to substitute for the normal reference points of identification, and in The Man Without a Map, it doesn’t happen.

And just to conclude, here is the trailer for The Woman in the Dunes, featuring Takemitsu’s eerie, remarkable electroacoustic score:

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