David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2011 (page 1 of 2)

The Guinea Pigs, Ludvik Vaculik

[This is an old review which I’m bumping because Open Letters has recently republished this book, for which I am grateful. It has stayed with me as one of the greatest Communist allegories I have read.]

Ludvik Vaculik has very little in common with Milan Kundera, or Ivan Klima, or Josef Skvorecky. Those are three of the biggest names in modern Czech writing, and they all combine a historical awareness with a fondness of heavy allegory. All deal with political subjects explicitly, but the material isn’t polemical, especially with Kundera.

The Guinea Pigs is different. It shuns any specific realism and has a surrealistic streak that has more in common with the samizdat literature of Czechoslovakia, like that of Lukas Tomin, but it is handled with such steely calm that surrealism doesn’t predominate.

Very little predominates over anything else; Vaculik applies Kafka’s style of ambiguous symbolism to totalitarian allegory with huge success. Next to the more explicit and/or fanciful allegories of Koestler, Makine, Pelevin, and others, Vaculik’s book is more intimate, less graspable, and far more striking. Kafka wrongly gets posited as a political or humanitarian allegorist, when his stories are rather personal series of images and processes that cannot be conclusively unlocked. Vaculik really is an allegorist.

Vasek, the narrator, works as a bank clerk in Prague, where people regularly steal money to make their living. He buys some guinea pigs for his children, but becomes obsessed with them himself: specifically, with their responsiveness (or lack thereof), their tolerance for adverse situations, and their seeming absence of personality short of gut reactions (like biting).

Halfway through the book, he is torturing them. The tortures aren’t beastly; what makes them acutely discomfiting to read is the narrator’s sickly mental state:

As the water rose, the guinea pig rose too, although it ordinarily doesn’t stand around on its hind legs, but rather squats like a hare or a rabbit. Now it stood on its hind legs, though, and raised its body above the water level. “Well, how are things?” I said gently. “Not so hot,” it replied, and rocked slightly in the waves. But it was still standing on its feet. It raised its head, up, in my direction.

I turned off the water. The silence was a relief. Only the sewer gurgled. I became aware of a pressure in my skull, a drunken excitement that I had never known before, a tremor of the nerves. I reached into the pit. With my miraculous power, I lifted Ruprecht into the air, he grabbed my hand with all his claws, he hung on. I picked him up to my cheek and I could hear his tight, thin, wheezing breathing. I also whispered to myself, “We’re saved.”

Vaculik walks a very fine line between a symbolism that is too schematic and intrinsically arbitrary, on the one hand, and an overdramatization of the Vasek’s treatment of the guinea pigs, on the other. Sometimes he loses control and takes the easy way out, as when Vasek tells his wife that he’s turning into a guinea pig. But much of the time he carefully piles on the ambiguities and mysteries.

Vasek’s strange relationship with his workplace and his superiors, including the venerable Mr. Maelstrom, whose name signifies the slow degradation of the surrounding environs, as money disappears after it is confiscated from the workers who stole it, as the guinea pigs meet random fates in the face of Vasek’s disinterested curiosity, and as Vasek meets his fate as he loses all his emotional capacities.

The end of the book is an explicit reference to the end of The Trial, and there are other segments that resemble it, like Maelstrom’s discourse on circulation, which could be a first cousin to the speeches of the lawyer and the priest of The Trial. The flow and process of the book is not as effortless as in Kafka, but Vaculik manages a stricter version of a process Kafka never fully embraced, that of removal. It’s not there in his novels, and the two short stories in which the process of removal predominates–“The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist”–are actually atypical. By placing the senseless guinea pigs front and center, Vaculik sets his aim quite early, and follows the arc without error. What remains at the end is not language, as with Beckett, but a physical void.

Books like these that strive for an almost noetic effect can have an initial impact that is not lasting, but guardedly, I will say that it ranks far beyond any of the other Czech writers mentioned, and alongside Kleist and Gogol.

Wilbur Sanders on Literary Criticism

My ideal for a critic and scholar is one who combines (1) comprehensive knowledge of many individual works across multiple periods and disciplines with (2) a synthetic ability to make non-reductive assessments within and across periods. The combination of these two talents seems to be extremely rare, which is why the field of comparative literature/religion/culture has produced so many wrong-headed books.

When I read something like George A. Kennedy’s Comparative Rhetoric covering Australian Aboriginal, Egyptian, Indian, and Native American cultures on top of Greece and Rome, where Kennedy has clearly done a massive job of immersing himself into the primary material, I get frustrated that such books are less well-known than Walter Ong’s reductive and anecdotal Orality and Literacy (recently disputed rather heavily by Georges Dreyfus in The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, based on Dreyfus’s decades spent studying in a Tibetan monastery).

Wilbur Sanders, in The Dramatist and the Received Idea (1968), gives a similar account of two complementary skills and the difficulties in possessing both in sufficient measure. Taking cues from the historicist thinking of E.H. Carr, Johan Huizinga, Benedetto Croce, and R.G. Collingwood, he writes:

One tends to think of philosophy and philology as two mutually exclusive extremes, almost temperamental incompatibilities: one requiring the virtues of minute scholarship, the other demanding a rarer talent for large conceptions and bold leaps of imagination. But historical thought demands just these antithetical powers of mind–common enough in isolation, but rarely found co-existing in one mind in their fully developed form. It is the same twofold qualification that literature demands of its reader.

On the one hand he must bring all his normal modes of thought  and feeling, his deepest concerns and his most profound convictions, and try to interpret what the past offers him in the light of those concerns and convictions, incorporating the past into an inclusive personal view of life. He must try to assimilate the past to his present self, and do so at the deepest level. He cannot rest content with the kind of effete indifference that shrugs it all off with a murmured ‘De gustibus…‘. On the other hand, he must possess the scholar’s scrupulousness about seeing things ‘as they really are’; he must respect the ‘document’; he must recognise, indeed welcome, the unassimilable, the unpalatable, the indigestible.

He must realise that the past, insofar as it diverges from the present, constitutes a challenge to the present–‘Justify yourself! Can you afford to dispense with modes of thought which were fruitful and illuminating to us? Are you mental categories appropriate here? How can you be sure you have progressed? Answer for yourself!’ He must be prepared to discover that his interpretive tools must be abandoned, because they do too much violence to the data they are trying to encompass.

Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea

A very high standard.

Donald Sutherland Performs a New York Marriage (Little Murders, by Jules Feiffer)

Christopher Lasch is probably rolling over in his grave, but for those of us who are a little fonder of civil liberties and civil rights and less fond of homilies about the sanctity of marriage, I can think of no better tribute than this scene from Little Murders, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin. “An abandonment of ritual in the search for truth.”

You all know…why we’re here. There’s often so much sham about this business of marriage. Everyone accepts it: ritual. That’s why I was so heartened when Alfred asked me to perform this ceremony. He has certain beliefs, which I assume you all know; he is an atheist, which is perfectly all right, really it is. I happen not to be, but inasmuch as this ceremony connotes an abandonment of ritual in the search for truth, I agreed to perform it.

First, let me state to you, Alfred, and to you, Patricia, that of the 200 marriages that I have performed, all but seven have failed. So the odds are not good. We don’t like to admit it, especially at the wedding ceremony, but it’s in the back of all our minds, isn’t it: how long will it last? We all think that, don’t we? We don’t like to bring it out in the open, but we all think that. Well I say, why not bring it out in the open. Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won’t put any of these reasons down, each in its own way is adequate, each is all right.

Last year I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating. Please, don’t be startled, I’m NOT putting him down. That marriage did not work. But the man TRIED. He is now separated, still masturbating, but HE IS AT PEACE with himself because he tried society’s way. So you see, it was not a mistake, it turned out all right.

Now, just last month I married a novelist to a painter. Everyone at the wedding ceremony was under the influence of an hallucinogenic drug. The drug quickened our physical responses, slowed our mental responses, and the whole ceremony took two days to perform. NEVER have the words HAD SUCH MEANING. Now THAT marriage should last.

Still, if it does not, well, that’ll be all right, for don’t you see, any step that one takes is useful, is positive, has to be positive because it’s a part of life, even the negation of the previously taken step is positive, that too is a part of life. And in this light, and only in this light, should marriage be viewed: as a small, single step. If it works, fine! If it fails, fine; look elsewhere for satisfaction. To more marriages, fine, as many as one wants, fine. To homosexuality? Fine! To drug addiction? I will not put it down, each of these is an answer for somebody. For Alfred, today’s answer is Patricia. For Patricia, today’s answer is Alfred. I will not put them down for that.

So what I implore you both, Patricia, and Alfred, to dwell on, while I ask you these questions required by the state of New York to “legally bind you” — sinister phrase, that — is that not only are the legal questions I ask you, meaningless, but so too are the inner questions that you ask yourselves, meaningless. Failing one’s partner, does not matter. Sexual disappointment, does not matter. Nothing can hurt, if you do not see it as being hurtful. Nothing can destroy, if you do not see it as destructive. It is all part of life, part of what we are.

So now: Alfred. Do you take Patricia to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love — whatever that means — to honor, to keep her in sickness and health, in prosperity and adversity — what nonsense! — forsaking all others — what a shocking invasion of privacy! Rephrase that to more sensibly say, if you choose to have affairs, then you won’t feel guilty about them. …as long as you both shall live, or as long as you’re not tired of one another?

Alfred: Yeah.

And Patsy, do you take Alfred to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love — that harmful word again, could not one more wisely say, communicate? –to honor,– I suppose by that it means you won’t cut his balls off, but then, some men like that! –to obey,– well, my first glance at you, told me you were not the type to obey. So I went to my thesaurus, and I came back with these alternatives: to show devotion, to be loyal, to show fealty, to answer the helm, to be pliant. General enough, I think, and still leave plenty of room to dominate. …in sickness and health, and all the rest of that GOBBLEDYgook, so long as you both shall live…?

Patsy: (confused, speechless… finally stammers:) I do.

Alfred and Patsy, I know now that whatever you do…will be all right.

To Patsy’s father, Carroll Newquist — I’ve never heard that name on a man before, but I’m sure it’s all right — I ask you sir, feel no guilt over the $250 check you gave me to mention the Deity in the ceremony. What you have done is all right. It’s part of what you are, it’s part of what we all are. And I beg you not to be overly perturbed, when I do not mention the Deity in the ceremony. Betrayal, too, is all right, it too is part of what we all are.

Helpfully transcribed by someone on IMDB. Thank you.

Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule and American Democracy

I criticized Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven for reductionism, and in turn commenter Tocqueville criticizes me for reductionism. I think in the reductionism sweepstakes, it’s hard to beat a line like this:

The growing tolerance of profanity, sexual display, pornography, drugs, and homosexuality seemed to indicate a general collapse of common decency.

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

By the seventh or eighth time Lasch lists his grab-bag of decadent bugaboos, he really pushes credibility. For comparison, Lasch only mentions Vietnam about three times in the entirety of Heaven, which is fairly ridiculous for a book claiming to explain American culture during the 60s and 70s.

For a better, less-blinkered look at the 60s, the times which caused Lasch so much heartbreak, consider Morris Dickstein‘s Gates of Eden, which is ambivalent toward the movements of those times, but acknowledges their partial strengths and, more importantly, the logic of their evolution and collapse.

And for a better history of democracy and class in America, consider Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, which addresses many of Lasch’s points in far more nuanced fashion.

Comparing the annotated bibliography’s of Wiebe and Lasch’s books is instructive. While Wiebe lists dozens if not hundreds of works of history and documentary, Lasch tends to focus on theoretical and ideological work. There are a couple exceptions, such as Lasch’s detailed list of works on 19th century populism and syndicalism. These were his areas of expertise in his younger years, and indeed he displays a far richer understanding of them than of the FDR and LBJ eras.

As one barometer, while Wiebe has read Lasch, Lasch has not read Wiebe, whose The Search for Order was already considered a classic at the time Lasch wrote Heaven. Lasch preferred to stick to Carlyle and Emerson, despite their being absurd elitists themselves.

Wiebe, in contrast, has comprehensively studied the entirety of American history in reasonably rigorous fashion, and it shows. Even when his conclusions are debatable, they do not seem to have arisen out of abiding prejudice.

Wiebe’s central thesis, like Lasch, revolves around the loss of popular involvement in American democracy, but Wiebe doesn’t blame it on the hippies and feminists. For Wiebe, Lasch’s beloved populists and syndicalists represented a dying breath rather than an invigoration. Wiebe points to the period of 1890 to 1920 as one in which the “people” started to drop out of democracy. During this time, he claims, the two-class system of enfranchised white men and the disenfranchised everyone else gave way to a three-class system of national elites, the local middle-class, and the lower class.

The history of the 20th century becomes the history of the first two of those new classes coming into increasing conflict while both ignored the lower class.

What emerged with industrialization in the United States was a three-class system, conflictual but not revolutionary: one class geared to national institutions and policies, one dominating local affairs, and one sunk beneath both of those in the least rewarding jobs and least stable environments–in the terminology of my account, a national class, a local middle class, and a lower class. New hierarchies ordered relations inside both the national and lower middle class; both of those classes, in turn, counted on hierarchies to control the lower class.

Like Lasch, Wiebe bemoans the national elites trying to assist the lower class without bothering to raise their civic awareness or solicit their votes, but Wiebe’s point is that this technocratic policy machine was in place long before the dirty hippies and the Warren Court showed up.

Turn of the century labor and suffragette movements fought for increasing political influence while tacitly accepting the emerging class divisions. The sheer homogeneity of white men and their nepotistic political clubs had helped form an egalitarian, populist sensibility amongst them that necessarily could not survive the enfranchisement of minorities and women. Wiebe of course has no nostalgia for those days, but he identifies in them a sense of white men’s investment in civics that has never been restored to the American people since.

Further fissures emerged around the time of the Great War. Popular support for the war convinced many intellectuals and policymakers that the “people” could not be trusted to act on their own behalf, and so they embraced a more centralized technocratic regime. By the time of FDR, Wiebe can point to a figure like government antitrust lawyer Thurman Arnold, whose Folklore of American Capitalism (1937) “derisively dismissed the very thought of popular rule.”

This system held stable to a point, but with the increasingly liberalized, top-down stance of the national class (at least domestically) and the increasingly visible consequences of those policies, the conservative local middle class grew antsy and alienated, leading to “Reagan Democrats” and the eventual reactionary shifts that then followed.

I think Wiebe underestimates the mostly unfortunate role that the media played in controlling the discourse from the late 70s onward, but his point that neither the local middle class nor the national class could claim popular legitimacy is well-taken, and it continues to be a genuinely serious problem for any national progressivism. This of course is Lasch’s point too, but Wiebe shows that Lasch has completely mistaken its origins.

The book turns more speculative at its end, where Wiebe prescribes a loose, multi-level communitarianism as a panacea for Americans’ alienation from their government. Far less draconian than the visions of Alastair MacIntyre or even Michael Sandel, his vision is a bit too diffuse to be convincing, as though the depths of the difficulties and conflicts he has just chronicled have overwhelmed him, a sign that he realizes that things have become too complicated and huge to make the reinclusion of the lower classes an easy thing. But I take this ultimately to be a sign of the strength of his historical account.

Happy Bloomsday from James Joyce and Guy Davenport

Leopold Bloom reflected in John Ireland’s window, O’Connell Street, by Guy Davenport

Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now. Other I got pound.

Buzz. Buzz.

But I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory because under everchanging forms.

I that sinned and prayed and fasted.

A child Conmee saved from pandies.

I, I and I. I.

A.E. I.O.U.


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