David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: architecture (page 1 of 2)

Iannis Xenakis

It closes in just a couple days, but I loved the Xenakis Exhibit at the Drawing Center. Being able to look at the scores and plans while listening to the relevant pieces (on complimentary iPod!) was revelatory for me, particularly the extended coverage of Xenakis’s seminal Metastasis. (A nice little primer on the early stuff. I was also unaware of his absolute opposition to chance operations, improvisation, or performer choice.)

Study for Metastasis

This and others showed the hyperboloid curves that Xenakis used to generate the series of glissandi for a string ensemble, each instrument scored individually. Here’s the result:


At least for me, it vindicated how effectively Xenakis’s work does portray the graphic forms sonically, rather than sinking into impenetrable abstraction as Stockhausen’s far denser work frequently does. Xenakis really did have a rather atatvistic, populist conception of music (aided in popularity, no doubt, by the psychedelic era, which led to people like AMM getting major label recording contracts) that shows up in his own writing, where on several occasions he insists that his techniques are in the service of generating music that is intuitively graspable. The program included this quote from his early essay “The Crisis of Serial Music,” where he doesn’t sound so far from many of the more conservative critics of serialism (even daring to mention “the audience”!).

Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is the surface or mass. This contradiction inherent in polyphony will disappear when the independence of sounds is total. In fact, when linear combinations and their polyphonic superpositions no longer operate, what will count will be the statistical mean of isolated states and of transformations of sonic components at a given moment. The macroscopic effect can then be controlled by the mean of the movements of elements which we select. The result is the introduction of the notion of probability, which implies, in this particular case, combinatory calculus. Here, in a few words, in the possible escape route from the “linear category” in musical thought…. 

To paraphrase: forget individual manipulation of notes and tone rows, and focus on macroscopic presentation of dynamics, effects, densities, timbres, etc.

It would be empty speech if Xenakis’s work, or at least the best of it, didn’t succeed so viscerally in realizing his aesthetics (and listening to some of his followers reveals how easily things can go wrong–sorry spectralists!). I think his grasp of timbre and texture far outweighed many of his contemporaries (though granted, many weren’t interested in such things anyway), putting him closest to Messiaen and Varese, who both supported him.

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.

Faulkner’s Light in August and Coetzee’s Disgrace

Light in August is Faulkner’s longest book and certainly the most plainspoken of the early works, even more so than As I Lay Dying. I don’t think of Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness techniques as being integral to his work in the way that experimental prose stylings are to Joyce or even Woolf, for they are always in the service of a a story–perhaps scrambled–that takes its expression in various ways. I see and feel less purely linguistic focus, and contrariwise, overwhelmingly strong thematic content that subordinates style and plot to its boundaries. That is to say, Faulkner is concertedly experimental in the same way that Melville is.

So because Light in August is about mostly sane and often simple people, it is very rare for any character save Joe Christmas to slip into Quentin Compson-ish mental chaos. Joe is rather crazy, and so his demons mix their words up:

thinking I dont even know that what they are saying to her is something that men do not say to a passing child believing I do not know yet that in the instant of sleep the eyelid closing prisons within the eye’s self her face demure, pensive; tragic, sad, and young; waiting, colored with all the vague and formless magic of young desire. That already there is something for love to feed upon: that sleeping I know now why I struck refraining that negro girl three years ago and that she must know it too and be proud, with waiting and pride

And for all this talk of Joe as Christ, it’s not particularly convincing. He continually runs away from himself and others. When he meets Joanna, who was brought up by abolitionists to feel damned by being white, he runs from her attempts to draw him into her own play of guilt and fatalism, but he fails and in turn rapes, lives with, and finally kills her.

Reading this again, I made a connection that I had never made before to Coetzee’s Disgrace. I often disagree with James Wood, but I think he was right in criticizing the novel for its historically overdetermined allegory:

Lucy’s “disgrace,” of course, is not one that she earned or deserved; but in pairing the two forms of penitence, the novel comes unpleasantly close to suggesting a formal parallel of disgrace, in which both characters enact “necessary” falls.

This is a significant weakness, and it returns us to Coetzee’s limitations, which are the limitations of allegory. Disgrace is so firmly plotted and shaped, so clearly blocked out, that it seems to request a kind of clarity of reading which is ultimately simplifying and harmful to the novel, in which “issues” are shared out between the generations, and split into willing binarisms: young and old, liberal and conservative, man and woman, straight and gay. Around this, the novel’s architecture attempts to fuse these binarisms, by arguing for a kind of parallelism. It as if the form of the book tells us that despite the oppositions of Lucy and her father, both characters share more than they divide, for here are two people undergoing their different-but-similar forms of disgrace.

And Lucy seems awfully close to Faulkner’s Joanna; she too takes the brunt of punishment directed at her historically and not personally, and Lucy too goes further in raising the child from her own rape.

Where I think Faulkner is stronger and does not fall into Coetzee’s hole is that he negates this inevitability, not with Lena’s child at the end, but with Joe himself, who is not black nor white, but takes on various identities over the course of the book at others’ insistence, only to be crushed by them over and over. The conclusive indication of this blank slateness is towards the end, before Joe is caught and lynched:

It is just dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds. The air, inbreathed, is like spring water. He breathes deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffuse in the neutral grayness, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair. ‘That was all I wanted,’ he thinks, in a quiet and slow amazement. ‘That was all, for thirty years. That didn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask in thirty years.’

Note: (1) the emphasis on “neutral grayness” and its non-racial implications; (2) organized thoughts presented as words rather than as italicized stream of consciousness; (3) the continuous emphasis of calm and peace, of nature in the absence of society; (4) the absence of any inner conflicting force. Joe’s demons are externally given by dint of situation, and in the brief moment that he feels left alone by all people and society, he gains peace. This is not to say that it is Joanna herself that assigns him his identity, but that Joanna is sewn in a determinate way into the social fabric in the way that Joe is not. People argue over whether Joe has “Negro blood” in him or not, but the whole point is that it doesn’t matter. Joe is put into situations where he purportedly does and doesn’t have it and it’s always for the worse. And the investigation of Joe’s situation and its indeterminacy (if I were being trendy, I would call it an aporia) is where Faulkner transcends Coetzee’s novel.

[I would say the same for Ralph Ellison, who extends this uncertainty into far greater territory in Invisible Man.]

Borges: The House of Asterion

Of Mirrors and the Labyrinth, quoted by Art of Memory, made me remember that crucial Borges story that is not as well-known as some, “The House of Asterion.” It is one of Borges’s more explicit invocations of Kafka, and specifically of Kafka’s parables. I’ll just quote the whole thing, seeing as it’s very short:

And the queen gave birth to a child who was called Asterion. (Apollodorus Bibliotecha III, I)

I know they accuse me of arrogance, and perhaps misanthropy, and perhaps of madness. Such accusations (for which I shall exact punishment in due time) are derisory. It is true that I never leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (whose numbers are infinite) (footnote: The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that, as used by Asterion, this numeral stands for infinite.) are open day and night to men and to animals as well. Anyone may enter. He will find here no female pomp nor gallant court formality, but he will find quiet and solitude. And he will also find a house like no other on the face of this earth. (There are those who declare there is a similar one in Egypt, but they lie.) Even my detractors admit there is not one single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous falsehood has it that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Shall I repeat that there are no locked doors, shall I add that there are no locks? Besides, one afternoon I did step into the street; If I returned before night, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the common people inspired in me, faces as discolored and flat as the palm of one’s hand. the sun had already set ,but the helpless crying of a child and the rude supplications of the faithful told me I had been recognized. The people prayed, fled, prostrated themselves; some climbed onto the stylobate of the temple of the axes, others gathered stones. One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea. Not for nothing was my mother a queen; I cannot be confused with the populace, though my modesty might so desire. The fact is that that I am unique. I am not interested in what one man may transmit to other men; like the philosopher I think that nothing is communicable by the art of writing. Bothersome and trivial details have no place in my spirit, which is prepared for all that is vast and grand; I have never retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not permitted that I learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. At any time I can pretend to be asleep, with my eyes closed and my breathing heavy. (Sometimes I really sleep, sometimes the color of day has changed when I open my eyes.) But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”. Sometimes I make a mistake and the two of us laugh heartily.

Not only have I imagined these games, I have also meditated on the house. All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is another place. There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards pools are fourteen (infinite) in number. The house is the same size as the world; or rather it is the world. However, by dint of exhausting the courtyards with pools and dusty gray stone galleries I have reached the street and seen the temple of the Axes and the sea. I did not understand this until a night vision revealed to me that the seas and temples are also fourteen (infinite) in number. Everything is repeated many times, fourteen times, but two things in the world seem to be repeated only once: above, the intricate sun; below Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the sun and this enormous house, but I no longer remember.

Every nine years nine men enter the house so that I may deliver them from evil. I hear their steps or their voices in the depths of the stone galleries and I run joyfully to find them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. They fall one after another without my having to bloody my hands. They remain where they fell and their bodies help distinguish one gallery from another. I do not know who they are, but I know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that some day my redeemer would come. Since then my loneliness does not pain me, because I know my redeemer lives and he will finally rise above the dust. If my ear could capture all the sounds of the world, I should hear his steps. I hope he will take me to a place with fewer galleries fewer doors. What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? will he perhaps be a bull with the face of a man? or will he be like me?

The morning sun reverberated from the bronze sword. There was no longer even a vestige of blood. “Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus “The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.”

Hermetic isolation, an invocation of Purgatory as conceived by Dante, and to labyrinths before and after, to the invented worlds of Tlon and the murderous architecture of “Death and the Compass.”

Finnegans Wake: The Book of Lists

Since I was just talking about ecumenicality, I thought it would be good to return to the king of consubstantiality himself, James Joyce. Consubstantiality is an archetypal example of Joyce secularizing his Catholic influences. The Trinity are one substance in three persons, as much as instantiations of interpretation are present in a single substance of the underlying text. Hence, we read out of a text as much as we read into it, and I gather that Joyce so liked this idea that he sought to reject the finality of any single interpretation.

For all of Joyce’s constructivist instincts, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake both take pains not to display their architecture in miniature. The famous Ulysses schema Joyce gave to Stuart Gilbert has served as a misleading guidepost ever since it was published, since Joyce made alterations in versions he gave to others, and there is a ex post facto feeling to the whole affair that suggests it only tells a part of the story, or perhaps too much of it.

What Joyce does give, in copious quantity, is lists. Finnegans Wake can be irritating in that Joyce uses lists in two overlapping manners, neither of which serve to advance the overall architecture of the book:

  1. Lists are given to restate with variation a central element or elements.
  2. Lists are given to multiply possible interpretations and actions, both in number and in contradiction.

Joyce does not particularly differentiate between these two tactics, and wading through sometimes exhausting lists of river names (for example) that seem to be adding nothing can feel like trudging through molasses. Alas, there’s no getting around it; the technique is so ubiquitous that you have to approach it as with most things in the Wake, at the figurative limit.

Joyce gives a significant clue early on with the placement and content of the three largest lists. All three are miniatures are the content of their chapters, and all three concern themselves with a single central element. (Quick key: HCE is the father and husband, ALP the mother and wife, Shem and Shaun their twin boys.)

  1. Abusive Names Directed Towards HCE (pages 71-72, I.3)
  2. Colloquial Names Given To ALP’s “Untitled Mamafesta” (pages 104-107, I.5)
  3. Descriptions of HCE (pages 126-139, I.6)

The last one in particular is a real monster, thirteen pages of descriptive clause after clause with no apparent organization or continuity. It’s also the odd one out because while I.3 discusses the gossip around HCE’s purported (but highly doubtful) crimes and I.5 concerns itself explicitly with the physical aspects of ALP’s letter, I.6 is a Q&A between Shem and Shaun about all of the main character sigla of the Wake, from the family members to the old men to the citizens to the book itself. So I’ll leave the monster for last.

The abusive names are comparatively straightforward, a series of accusations in keeping with the general thrust of the chapter. The names, though, slip away from concerning HCE the publican and towards the realm of the wholly universal and arbitrary (“Lycanthrope”? “Sower Rapes”?), and ending with these three: “In Custody of the Polis,” suggesting HCE as both custodian of the city (he is the builder of Dublin and all cities) and being “in custody” of the city (under accusation and buried under the landscape where he sleeps); “Boawwll’s Alocutionist” sounds like “false accusationist” to me, HCE both as the victim and (self-)accuser of neurotic, imagined crimes; and “Deposed,” his ultimate fate of being conquered by his children. But the rest are so reference-laden as to defy easy assimilation, seemingly the residue of past actions and stories only hinted at by these names.

ALP’s letter (which is, at the least consubstantial with the Wake itself) carries colloquial names that are often these stories themselves. Rather than describing a single person’s characteristic or action, these titles often provide backstory, explanations, or motives, in keeping with ALP’s motive to defend her husband from the accusations leveled at him. So we get things like “Look to the Lady” (from MacBeth), “For [Noah’s] Ark see Zoo” (the saved animals now imprisoned), “Lumptytumtumpty had a Big Fall” (that would be HCE as Humpty Dumpty, as he is frequently), “How to Pull a Good Horuscoup even when Oldsire is Dead to the World” (fathers and sons in Egyptian mythology), etc. Only at the end does she explicitly address his purported crimes in a burst of defensive rhetoric about false accusations.

The third list, Shem’s enormous question, becomes partly a statement of filial piety. Not merely providing explanations as the names of ALP’s letter did, here HCE grows in his descriptions to full stature: he is the builder of cities, Adam Cadmon who was first and equal to God, Odysseus, St. Paul, every historical father figure of old. There is no defense in here, nor are there many crimes (there are probably a few in there somewhere…); it is a list of salutation and accomplishment. The speaker and respondent will be the ultimate destroyers of HCE later on, but here in nascent form prior to the proper start of the story (or after the end), they are sons under the sign of their father.

More than concerning their chapter’s contents, all the lists are about HCE in one form or another. They all serve to remove the traditional narrative and present many narratives quickly in no clear order. These progress from the vague accusations of I.3 to the defenses of I.5 and finally to the myths of I.6. Where it all is meaning to go, I can’t really say, but here is one interpretation.

HCE, as the builder and burgher of the city/polis, is strongly identified with the city, which contains all good and all bad in the modern world (“Dear Dirty Dublin” is the common refrain). As HCE and
ALP encompass myriad men and women respectively, so too does the city,
with its accomplishments and filth. The lists are a portrait, appearing as they do in the most spatial, non-temporal section of the novel. (Books II and III are far more narrative than Book I.) Moreover, they are a panorama and mosaic, an array of single shots from different points of view arranged cubist-style (hermetic cubism, I’d say). It extends the consubstantiality analogy into the realm of the visual, and then back into thematic elements, as the city is life itself. The lists are there because on this level, Finnegans Wake is meant as an encyclopedia as much as a narrative. To read it as a narrative and not be constantly reminded of its endlessly multiplicative nature would be to miss the point.

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