David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2009 (page 1 of 2)

Gene Wolfe Redux

I have never gotten as much flak for an entry as I have for my criticism of The Book of the New Sun, and since people have been reading that troublesome entry lately, I thought I’d add that I do like Wolfe, or at least find him very intriguing. I see him as having a large wellspring of talent that, for a number of reasons, goes off track too frequently to write much that is genuinely successful, even if it is highly evocative and complex. When he avoids the pitfalls, as with “The Death of Doctor Island,” he can be well-nigh brilliant.

So among the world-building riches that his work offers, I think the problem arises in his combination (and misalignment) of narrative (epistemic) subjectivity and factual absolutism. He puts readers through knots trying to figure out what goes on in his novels and stories, but both in the work and in Wolfe’s own interviews, there is no doubt offered that all questions have answers: you just need to figure them out. If you enjoy the puzzles, great, but there is still something unsatisfying to me in knowing that any given question pretty much does have a simple yes/no answer (or, and this is a significant exception, chalked up to divinity as per Wolfe’s Catholicism), and that much of the obscurity is not serving any other purpose other than as “entertainment” for the reader. Take this excerpt from a Q&A between some devoted fans and Wolfe:

5. Do you care to enlighten us as to whether the Enlightenments are purely miraculous or are concurrent with activities of Mainframe or Pas? — They are purely miraculous.

10. What are the dimensions of the Whorl? — I don’t know.

12. Who was Blood’s father? — Patera Pike. [DRL: This was a complete surprise all round, by the way.]

15. Is the Outsider a form of Severian? — No. Severian is a form of the Outsider.

21b. Who is the narrator of the very last chapter …? — I think you mean the Afterward. It was written by Hoof, Hide, and their wives — but mostly by Hide.

Is the Outsider a spiritual God? Or another virtual being? — The Outsider is a spiritual God.

To continue on the issue of divinity in Wolfe’s work, I wanted to point Wolfe readers to Five Steps Towards Briah, an essay by Nick Gevers that is the single best thing I’ve read about Wolfe. Gevers gives a remarkably coherent and comprehensive account of Wolfe’s agenda, interests, themes, and techniques, and more significantly, how they reinforce one another. His analysis is of The Book of the Long Sun, but his points apply more or less to all the Wolfe I have read. Gevers’ key point, with which I agree:

The entire 1400 page text [of The Book of the Long Sun, with its hundreds of characters, scores of voices, and countless veering twists of plot, is an exhaustive proof by Wolfe of the need to obey a simple injunction: transcend the material world. As a very subtle but also very emphatic Roman Catholic propagandist, Wolfe is commanding us to perceive our bodies and our physical surroundings for the pale mortal envelopes that they are, and rise into the divine light. Any godless secular world, he declares, is Hell, a place where any solutions are temporary, partial, empty. The Whorl is a reflection of contemporary Earth, that fallen spiritual wasteland. The way out is not fruitless secular endeavour, but rather an ascent back towards God, an exodus into His Creation.

The ultra-short summary: Wolfe’s tales are Christian parables (or propaganda, if you will) told or retold by acolytes of one form or another with imperfect knowledge, just as the Gospels are.

Wolfe is not quite as explicit about his religious content as James Blish was in his singular novel A Case of Concience (which overtly treats the Manicheistic heresy), but ultimately there is less doubt about Christian doctrine than there is in Blish, and more emphasis on the One True Way, getting past all the false gods to reach the true one. Gevers maintains, and I agree, that beneath all the puzzles and complexities, this is the fundamental purpose and position of Wolfe’s work. Determining the worth of such a message–that anything that can be known in this world will fall short in providing purpose in life and one must look to the transcendent and undescribable–is up to the individual reader.

Oh, and also…

The Gene Wolfe challenge: in response to some of the comments made on my last entry that insisted that all narrative ambiguity in Wolfe was easily soluble by close reading (my thanks to Jonathan Rock for instead answering my questions about the ambiguities), I issue the following challenge: give a coherent and defensible account of the actual events of Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights,” an eerie postcolonial story that, as far as I can tell, collapses into obscurity and narrative indecipherability by its end. I cannot find a commonly accepted account of the plot, but here’s an excerpt of Robert Borski on the Wolfe mailing list trying to figure things out, just to let everyone know what they’re in for:

When the narrative recommences it’s with the passage I quote at the beginning of paragraph 9, wherein Nadan wants us to believe that someone has broken into his room, relocated his journal, and eaten the missing egg. Actually, however, I believe this is being written an entire day later, on the night that concludes Day 6. Nadan makes it seem as if the break-in and the events preceding it are still part of Day 5, but I believe Wolfe provides us with several clues that it isn’t when he has Nadan reprise the evening’s activities. As we expect, Nadan goes to the theater; when he arrives, however, much to his surprise, he discovers that Bobby O’Keene is already there and preparing to go on-stage. “You are free,” Nadan says. But given Nadan’s and Ardis’s previous frustrations with the police (who, remember, seem to believe there’s something more to the alleged robbery than a simple mistaking of intentions), in addition to the sorry state of the prisoners, is it likely that O’ Keene is going to be this well groomed and composed–especially since Nadan describes him as having been beaten to the ground by the crowd that’s witnessed the robbery–and ready to trod the boards?

Ardis, in turn, then asks Bobby, “Was it very bad?” To which the actor responds, “It was frightening, that’s all. I thought I’d never get out.” But if he was arrested late the night before, and released the following day, perhaps being confined, at the most, 16 hours, this hardly seems to warrant a comment about never getting out. In addition, when Bobby says, “I hear you missed me last night,” Ardis responds, “God, yes.” But if Bobby has actually been confined in jail for a day-and-a-half, Ardis may well be commenting on the poor performance of his stand-in (the fact that Bobby has been missed by her is obviously communicated by someone else).

I gave up. But you, Gene Wolfe fan, should not!

The Elitist’s Credo

It is not at all natural to want to listen to classical music. Learning to appreciate it is like Pascal’s wager: you pretend to be religious, and suddenly you have faith. You pretend to love Beethoven–or Stravinsky–because you think that will make you appear educated and cultured and intelligent, because that kind of thing music is prestigious in professional circles, and suddenly you really love it, you have become a fanatic, you go to concerts and buy records and experience true ecstasy when you hear a good performance (or even when you hear a mediocre one if you have little judgment.)

Berlioz detested the music of Bach: he did not want ot enjoy it. Stravinsky despised Brahms, but came around to him at the end of his life. Not all composers are easy to love: Beethoven was more difficult than Mozart, Stravinsky harder than Ravel. Some composers, on the other hand, bring diminishing dividends over the years to their amateurs. One can revive a taste for Hummel or Saint-Saens, but it is not nourishing over a long period. (A little Satie for me goes a long way: I am never in a hurry to return to him.) Those amateurs who love a composer are the only ones whose opinion counts; the negative votes have no importance. The musical canon is not decided by majority opinion but by enthusiasm and passion. A work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing.

Charles Rosen, “The Irrelevance of Serious Music”

I like Charles Rosen, both as a writer and as a pianist. (How many people in the history of the world have been truly proficient in music and writing?) Rosen sounds like an elitist in this passage and in rather many others (he is not tolerant of ignorance or dilettantism and disdains populism). It’s a very carefully circumscribed elitism, however, since he reserves his praise for the passionate enthusiasts. Still, he can’t resist sniping at those who are indiscriminate; it’s true, there is nothing more vexing to the discriminating amateur than the freshly-minted fan who loves everything, and I guarantee you, at least one of those ten people is going to be someone who will enthuse the next day about the latest piece of pap to come down the pipeline. But an elitism around enthusiasts is still preferable to one which says, “A work that these ten people love is more important….”

Jean Eustache: Mes petites amoureuses

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny-rabbits or at the hearthside absorbed in a storybook. It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.

J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood

There have been many movies portraying various childhood hells with different degrees of sentimentality and relief, but I can’t think of one that competes with Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses in portraying childhood as so sheerly joyless, so gray and unappealing. The world is not as brutal to Daniel, its young teen protagonist, as it is to anyone in a Dardenne film or Francois in Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue, nor is Daniel a delinquent on the order of Francois. But nor does Daniel experience much of the momentary fun that those characters get. So the movie is of a piece with Eustache’s earlier work, The Mother and the Whore, in its portrayal of the denial of pleasure in what for most people might be called the pursuit of happiness. Not torment, just jadedness.

Daniel leaves the countryside to move in with his mother and her rather lame lover. They treat him with indifference and contempt, though not quite outright abuse. He hangs out with locals, eventually learns how to pick up girls, gets a lousy job at a bike shop where he watches his employer rip off the customers. He provides suitably numbed voiceovers to some of his experiences, flatly detailing his feelings (“I was scared”). In contrast to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s charisma in The Mother and the Whore, the actor playing Daniel is reticent and a bit stiff; you can’t really get close to him, not that anyone in the movie ever tries. His most animated moments are when he is learning to pretend, as when simulating a circus sword-swallower’s act by lying on (carefully placed) broken glass, or when he is feeling up a girl in the movie theater by dutifully imitating a boy a few rows down.

There is one exceptional moment, and I don’t know whether to call it a slip on Eustache’s part or the final nail in the coffin of Daniel’s dreams. Daniel speaks to the only student he knows, in one single close-up, in his only extended monologue in the whole movie:

DANIEL: I read a book about this guy’s high school years. He said his French professor really made him sick when he lectured about passion in the works of Racine and Corneille. He said the same things year after year. Finally the words had no sense, no heart. That professor had no business talking about passion. He knew the plays inside-out, but he’d never lived them. Whereas the student felt he would live those passions later on…. Any opinion?

STUDENT: That you run off at the mouth. Coming to the cafe?

And that’s that. He goes off with some boys to make out with girls and gives up on school. When a girl says she can’t sleep with a boy until they get married, he thinks, “It seemed to me I’d heard it all, that I knew the whole thing by heart.” Eustache committed suicide seven years after this film.

Dennis Potter: Blue Remembered Hills

I was thinking about this old tv play (available entirely on youtube, hooray) in connection with two other old French films about childhood that I recently saw, Naked Childhood and My Little Loves. As much as they do their best to deromanticize childhood, this one may have them beat, and not just because adults are playing the children. The French movies all have alienation in one way or another, but there’s not a lot of that here: these are younger kids before the age of introspection. And what a terrible age it is. In the absence of the cuteness of little kids (the actors are mostly rough-looking except for Helen Mirren, who looks somewhat gangly but mostly looks like Helen Mirren), what shows through?

First there is fear. The boys are adventure-mag and war-informed, but they have yet to grasp the size of the world and so they are quite scared that the war is very close to them and very real. When they aren’t playing little war games among themselves, they are quite terrified that they are all going to die at German hands, even in a remote forest in England. Many of their fathers are away and some are missing, and the children switch back between having no sense of the reality of it and being frightened by the Germans as bogeymen, the sort of monsters you’re repeatedly told aren’t real, except these are. That wrenching movement between the serious and the frivolous is what stays, and lord knows it’s a good thing that kids have it, because the bare fear looks horrific.

They do have one other positive mechanism, which is camaraderie. The boys and girls fight with each other, but when there is a threat, even an imagined one, the kids are suddenly all in it together, and they know that they are the protagonists and the evil Germans are the bad guys, so at least they’re all on the same side. This even extends, to a point, to the miserable outcast of the group, the boy called Donald Duck who is mercilessly teased and demeaned. When the war games are over, the rest of the kids indulge in some rampant cruelty–the third main motif–against Donald that ends up going very badly for him, and too late, the others realize that they crossed the line and they feel bad. Though they mostly make excuses for themselves, they do acknowledge a certain undebatable humanity on his part. It’s small consolation for Donald, but it does draw a certain line.

Poor Donald, though, since up until that point he has been an outcast and the only one really excluded from any compassion from the others. He blubbers and he is really, truly frightened, and so he is deprived of the any of the consolation of camaraderie, and he gets stuck in the fear. It’s not just loneliness, though the lack of support he feels from anyone else is palpably agonizing, but it’s also that by lacking that communal outlet to play together and have adventures, he is locked in one of the most miserable places that a person can be, before a child learns that they aren’t always going to be so completely helpless and alone. It’s wretched to watch.

The Sickest I’ve Been in Years

There’s that wonderful illness that incapacitates you from all responsibilities and just leaves you to lay in bed thinking about the most interesting things with just enough strength to pick up the books at your bedside which are conveniently piled there for you. (At an extreme, Robert Wyatt described recovering from the fall that left him paraplegic as an experience like this. I’m not so stoic, but it did produce Rock Bottom, so I can’t argue with the man.) Then there is the sickness that removes from you all your capacities one by one: movement, balance, sensation, thought, comfort, digestion, respiration. I had the latter. I don’t know if swine flu is always so bad but for me it was, and for nearly a week I was reduced to the simplest thoughts and simplest sentences breathed shallowly through my throat. Hans Castorp was a distant fantasy; if only I could be relaxing in a mountain resort having conversations with blowhards. If only I were restricted to a Parisian apartment with pages and pages of novel drafts of which my mind were acutely aware. Even the sharp recollections of the nearly-quadriplegic character of Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow seemed enviable as my skin burned with every contact with furniture, fabric, sheets, water, and air. I thought more of Lawrence Sterne and his miserable years during which he amused himself with Tristram Shandy, and all those years Martin Luther spent on the toilet while working out his theses. And above all I suppose I thought of this, since I first saw it when I was 13 years old and it made such a primal impression on me:

I don’t know what the sequence is supposed to be, but after the desperation and the fear that arises from briefly losing faith that one will ever get better and that full mental facilities will ever again be at one’s reach (and this is just from a week), there was then the anger that I had put up with anything out of disposition or laziness and frustration with myself that I hadn’t taken things more seriously when this sort of sickness was just around the corner. This is the stereotypical response, I understand, after which most people don’t change their lives one bit at all. It’s some kind of survival response.

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