Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: November 2010

The TLS reviews Cabinet Magazine

Keith Miller’s review is just surreal. And in the TLS no less.

The journal’s name, avowedly and fairly obviously, comes from the Renaissance Kunstkabinett, the princely chamber of wonders or curiosities, a system of ordering and contemplating the world which was not quite as disorderly as it seemed. There has of late been a revival of this approach in museum culture, a setting aside of Enlightenment taxonomies, which can, somewhat subversively, give the modern bourgeois museum-going public a taste of the old douceur de vivre. This is partly to do with richness, variety, a series of picturesque contrasts, that you don’t quite get if you put all your Japanese sake cups into one big glass case, say, with the oldest on the left and the newest on the right. But it’s also about exposing the public to a vanished world of privilege. The princely cabinet was a theatre of power as much as of knowledge. Certain conventions, certain “objectivities”, were widely upheld – broad Plinian distinctions between animal and mineral were generally if often mistakenly enforced, and a crocodile on the ceiling was de rigueur – but the suzerainty of one particular collector over one particular collection was nonetheless both a metaphorical reflection and a ritualized re-enactment of the divine spark which had, somewhere in the deep past, ignited the feudal principle. And on this spark, we museum-goers can warm our grateful hands today.

You could say that Cabinet works along similarly democratic lines, offering its readers a range of experiences which traditional didactic or organizational principles set aside in favour of a mundane “objectivity”. It is interested in art, nature and – in a fairly lowoctane way – science; in old things and new ones; in words and in pictures, all in an evenhanded but still inescapably capricious way. And the unlikely combinations of tone and subject encountered in its pages strive towards an enchanting, liberating effect: a tapping of the revolutionary energy of the miscellaneous. You can imagine some scholarly tut-tutting about Cabinet’s antitheoretical, and politically quietist, nature – though it is often alarmed about the environment – and you could object that the Park Slope intelligentsia who read the magazine, and from whom it solicits tax-free donations over and above the healthy cover price, constitute a kind of new princely class (it is more or less useless in any kind of workaday scholarly context). But on the whole the journal is a serious attempt to fulfil a frivolous purpose rather than a frivolous attempt to fulfil a serious one.

Leo Perutz: The Master of the Day of Judgment

Perutz was an Prague-born, Jewish Austrian writer who wrote a number of short books. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938 and lived there until his death in 1957. His background only shows up indirectly in this novel, which falls under the “metaphysical mystery” category. It shows in the foreign background of our narrator and protagonist, the Baron, who has had an affair with the wife of a famous actor named Bischoff. Bischoff commits suicide under mysterious circumstances shortly after the book begins, after telling the Baron and a few other guests of the mysterious suicides of a soldier and his cousin. The Baron is accused; he is innocent, but the suicide does not seem to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The Baron then accompanies an engineer (another outsider) in his investigations into the murder.

This all plays out rather glacially, and the Baron contributes a cryptic introduction that reveals that the engineer too will die in his pursuit of the solution to these (induced) suicides. Before long we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution is not supernatural, though it is a bit untenable, but Perutz then undercuts that explanation itself with a coda that places an entirely different interpretation on what has gone before. I won’t give too much away if I say it jumps from gnosticism to Freud.

The asymmetry of these two accounts, and how each is incommensurate with the other, is the most unique point of the book. It does not leave a sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me impressed with what Perutz had managed, as well as wondering exactly what his intent had been. The two accounts really don’t mesh; they could come from different centuries.

The book reads like an antecedent to Borges, especially “Death and the Compass” (with a little of “The Aleph” thrown in), and also to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ early novels like The Invention of Morel. Borges praised Perutz, so I gather he and his friend Bioy Casares must have read this book and appreciated its attempt to mix the gothic, the gnostic, and crime. The admixture is compelling precisely because it is so awkward. The crime aspect, in particular, always seems to jut out. I’m not at all a reader of mysteries, and when the heavy stuff is introduced in Master, it makes the crime seem rather trivial in comparison.

The tradition continued with Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works, where the crime really does get smothered by Gadda’s own philosophical obsessions. Stanislaw Lem took it up from Borges (his admitted idol) in his mystery novel The Chain of Chance, which, bizarrely enough, features a solution quite similar to one of Perutz’s two resolutions in The Master of the Day of Judgment. Lem’s thematic, metaphysical concerns (science, probability, technology) are completely different from Perutz’s eschatological ones, yet the forms of the two novels are the same: the concerns are piggybacked onto the narrative until they overshadow it.

Umberto Eco also took the blueprint for his entire career in fiction from this tradition. The latest exercise of this sort that I can think of is Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in which Rembrandt places the solution to a covered-up murder in the details of a painting. The difficulty, to me, still seems to be keeping the elements in balance without the whole work turning trivial.

William Ian Miller on Academic Aristocracy

(Or why graduate school may be counterproductive in preparing one for not entering the academy.)

The story is an old one: the seller and his quest for money was believed to dissolve values, status, and dignity into a soup of tawdry slop, one spoonful as bad as the next. The trader disrupted certain useful illusions; he created and fed cravings. He offered everything for a price; he was a pimp, a go-between, a purveyor; money went a-whoring or made everything and everyone a whore; nothing meant filthy lucre and holy dollars anything because everything was for sale. Selling for a price polluted the thing bought and sold, the person buying and the person selling.

This is an irony that should give some pause about the company one keeps: the antimarket, antitrader, anticommercial, antibourgeois spirit of the left academic makes him or her the heir of the old aristocratic distaste for working in trade, whether that view is embodied in the person of an Achaean warrior, a sixteenth-century English duke, or a nineteenth-century impoverished habitue of St. Moritz looking for a rich American heiress to fund his uselessness. The people? Hoi polloi? They higgle and haggle, or in more successful guise they were the fathers of those rich American heiresses, men who hawked their daughters to old European blue bloods at fancy watering holes to gain grandchildren who would soon learn to be ashamed of them for having been in trade.

It should hardly need to be pointed out that money is as money does. The antimarket people want money, too, but they want it to know its place and to be devoted to purposes deemed dignifying, or paid out indirectly via various subsidies, just as aristocrats wanted it via inheritance or by marrying rich spouses and felt it should be devoted to the glorifying, because wasteful, purposes of sumptuous display. If through its history money has been demeaned as barren metal or filthy shit – it is never quite clear whether sterility or fecundity is what makes it revolting – at least as excrement it can fertilize schools and the arts.

That said…

But the discourse of hard-nosed economists, the faux toughness of the marketeers, of those economists who wish to measure commitment and caring by a “willingness-to-pay-in-dollars” standard, is no less parasitical on dignity talk than the apples-and-oranges position is parasitical on fairly healthy amounts of filthy lucre. The everything-is-about-self-interest crowd, the market priests, the willingness-to-pay guys, know that their game is played for pretty safe stakes, not just because they make a living by flattering and being serviceable to the rich and powerful, but for the very reason that no one will kill them for their tastelessness and bad manners, for letting money speak with a megaphone in our ears, for telling us that we are motivated by nothing more than a painfully risible view of human behavior as driven solely by self-interest.

(From Miller’s Eye for an Eye.)

Ah Cheng on Writing

Great interview.

Oriental Outlook: But we haven’t seen you write any commercial films.
Ah Cheng: The directors haven’t asked me to. If they asked me, I’d do it. But would the movie sell? It’s not something you can simply will to happen.

Commercial stuff is very hard to do. It’s like a cow—everyone’s seen one, so if you’re even a little bit off, everyone can criticize you. Art is a ghost—since no one’s seen one, how do you know what I’m really thinking? Ghosts are easy to paint. Cows are not.

Oriental Outlook: When you were in the US, did you have to work for a living?
Ah Cheng: Of course. Do you think I held up banks? I worked a lot of jobs in the US, but I mostly did house painting. Painting doesn’t require any thinking. Who says I have to find a mentally-taxing job?

Oriental Outlook: What books are you reading these days?
Ah Cheng: I’m most concerned with primary sources, primary materials from society. Literature is not produced out of literature. If that were the case, it would be idiotic. Inbreeding always produces idiots.

I read the local news in the newspapers. People’s stories can help your thought process.

Oriental Outlook: What sort of help?
Ah Cheng: We normally live our lives within limits. Reading primary materials, you’ll see a different side of life, one that you’ve never had a chance to see, and you’ll discover lots of relationships that you never before imagined.

Oriental Outlook: So what is the appropriate designation for your current identity?
Ah Cheng: A person without an identity—you probably haven’t interviewed one before. I’m just someone a little bit better-off than those disadvantaged groups.

Oriental Outlook: As an author and an intellectual, how do you perceive the invasion of high culture by commercial culture?
Ah Cheng: First, as I’ve said, don’t call me an author. If you call me an author, you’re calling me a beggar.

Commerce is the foundation of production and of life. Without commercial culture there’d be no high culture. We cannot escape it for even an instant; we would cease to exist if we were to do so. There is nothing blame-worthy about commerce itself; the measure is whether a commercial product is of high or low quality. Hollywood films are commercial products of the highest quality. Domestic commercial films, shit, with quality as poor as that, they aren’t commercial films. They’re like low-quality fakes—toothpaste that doesn’t work when you brush your teeth. This is the crux of the problem.

We’re only trying to eliminate low-quality fakes right now, but we haven’t truly engaged commercialism. Only in a society with full financial and credit systems can we talk about commercial issues. Does China have real credit cards? Can someone without a job get a credit card? When you use a debit card you are spending your own money. In the US, utilities are hooked into the credit system, so your credit is built up gradually. If you don’t have that foundation, then you can’t talk about commercial culture.

Do you think that American beggars are all a certain sort of person? There are double PhDs all over the place, people who simply lost their credit and now are disconnected from commerce.

More on Ah Cheng.

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