David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: borges (page 3 of 5)

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

Lem’s obituary is not as unhappy one to write as many, because he more than accomplished his life’s work. Having identified the issues he wished to examine, he synthesized them wish vigor and brilliance, and to quote someone or other, if he did not exhaust them, they exhausted him. He had a long, productive, successful career, and he never wrote the same book twice. Under the guise of fiction (and sometimes not), he became the speculative master of two issues: evolution and technology. I cannot think of another writer who dealt with the essence and possibilities of these subjects better than Lem.

From both, Lem acquired a resigned pessimism. The limits and flaws expressed in humanity (and via humanity, in technology) were not ones of some nebulous human essence, but the product of a process–evolution–for which individuals and society were meaningless side effects. Lem’s recurrent, thrilling ploy was to play technology off of evolutionary fatalism, and to show the sparks when technological ambition runs up against the epistemological limits that bound a species. It made for concentrated stories with novel ideas, and a rigorous approach to potential technologies and societal trends. His Summa Technologiae (1964) still puts most so-called “futurism” to shame.

Politically, he could fall prey to an cold anti-humanism. His enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin (“He’s what the people want,” he declared), his sexism, and his indifference towards issues of race and class except in the most general anthopological sense all bespoke an unwillingness to be engaged in normative ethical debates. This is not unusual for science-fiction. Just as war historians celebrate the tactics of generals while ignoring those who got it in the neck, the sweep of (imagined) future history has led many science-fiction authors to embrace a cruel stability or ignore the collateral damage of establishing galactic empires–or both. These conservative instincts, pace Ellis Sharp’s belief that science fiction is mostly progressive, have in fact driven the main currents of science-fiction even at its best, from Wells to Cordwainer Smith to Mark Geston. The opposing sf trend that includes such people as Delany, Joanna Russ, and the also sadly departed Octavia Butler is so drastically different in its focus from the dominant trend that it might as well be another genre. But this is a topic for another time.

But Lem, more than many of his peers, could show compassion about human suffering, as he did, albeit ironically, in “Altruizine” and His Master’s Voice. “Altruizine” especially stands out as a sad allegory about a race of super-beings’ last attempt to bring about universal happiness, the previous 64,000 having failed. It is not the stuff to inspire polities, but it is a very human satire for any of us who have gotten frustrated at people’s constant inability to act in their own best interests.

I wrote a callow appreciation of Lem many years ago, but I still agree with a lot of it; you can see it below the fold. I would change my assessment of Lem’s ultimate message and his philosophical attitudes (see above!), but the explication of his work still seems reasonable to me. And I still think that Lem deserves a place next to Dante, Borges, and Stapledon in the pantheon of pure imagination.

David Grossman: See Under: Love

This is a big book, and when I say big, I don’t mean in page count. It’s a modest 450 pages, but the scope of what Grossman tries to do here dwarfs longer works like Dostoevsky’s lesser works, Christina Stead’s novels, and even things like Cortazar’s Hopscotch. It is, I suppose, the sheer outsizedness of Grossman’s ambitions that renders See Under: Love simultaneously awe-inspiring and messy. Things like that have been said about other modern bookss like The Tin Drum and far too many Latin American novels (where outsized ambition is a stereotype, despite the meticulous focus of authors like Borges and Rulfo), but Grossman’s book is unique as far as I know in bringing the aggressiveness to a resolutely abstract peak. A noted expert on Israeli literature tells me that the book had a massive impact when first published in Israel in the mid-80s, because unlike the strict narratives of authors like Wiesel and Appelfeld, Grossman’s approach was out to contextualize the Holocaust in language and literature.

The book is divided strictly into four parts which are only loosely connected. Characters reappear between them, but in drastically different form. The main character is a child (third person) in the first section and an adult (first person) in the second, then recedes to a background third person narrator in the third section before disappearing altogether in the last. Maybe it will make more sense if I describe each segment:

1. Momik: A child, Momik, grows up in Israel in the 50s, born to Holocaust survivor parents. His parents will not speak about what they call “Over There,” and Momik comes to wonder about what he calls the Nazi Beast. He knows it’s present, but he senses it ignores him because he is not truly a Jew; a Jew is one who knows the story of “Over There.” He plots to take his grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, another surivor, into the cellar of his house to lure the Beast into showing itself. His grandfather tells him enough to send him into paroxysms of fear, from which he does not fully recover. Then his grandfather disappears.

2. Bruno: Momik is now an adult writer in the early 80s, and he’s fairly obsessed with Polish writer Bruno Schulz, a half-mystical, half-imagistic Jew who was shot during the war by an SS man. In “The Mythologization of Reality”, Schulz wrote:

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

And likewise, Grossman presents a fantasia on Schulz’s life that ends with him not being shot, but escaping into the waters, where he communes with the fish. Momik eventually meets up with him, and Schulz takes him to a new world of a new language, one without violence, without the idea of violence. But it’s not what one would expect…

3. Wasserman: Momik is reconstructing a life of his grandfather, who in earlier years was the author of lovable juvenile adventure stories featuring the “Children of the Heart.” Wasserman comes to the camps, and the Nazis find that he cannot be killed; a direct bullet to the head doesn’t do it. They bring him to the camp commandant, Neigel, who makes a deal with Wasserman: Wasserman will tell him new stories, Scheherezade-style, of the Children of the Heart, and for each story, Neigel will attempt to kill Wasserman. So amidst mass death, Wasserman reinvents the Children of the Heart in the present day, in alternately nightmarish and surreal situations. Of particular interest, though not described here, is their parentage of a child named Kazik.

4. The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life: Structured as an alphabetical concordance, though not arbitrarily (there is some structural linearity to reading it from beginning to end), this section interweaves revelations about Kazik and the Wasserman/Neigel situation. Kazik, it turns out, is a child who lived an entire human life in less than 24 hours, whom the Children of the Heart prayed would “know nothing of war.” He grows up, has sex, takes a trip, and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Neigel’s wife leaves him, even though he had been attempting to use Wasserman’s stories, unattributed, to draw her back to him. Neigel too commits suicide. Wasserman lives.

There’s more, much, much more. Especially in the last section, Grossman throws out ideas and images so quickly that there is simply too much of an overload to assemble them into a conceptual structure for the book. I suspect this was consciously intended, for it fits with the themes of the book for the beautiful, focused prose of the first two sections (“Bruno” in particular is viscerally moving) to become more abstract and more incoherent as the subject matter comes to inhabit the Holocaust. It is a strange book where an underwater fantasy adventure with Bruno Schulz is more concrete than scenes in a concentration camp, but that is one of Grossman’s most distinctive achievements.

Four words to describe the novel: violence, love, language, memory. In the same way that Momik, in the first section, is alienated by his lack of memory of “Over There,” Kazik suffers in his lack of knowledge of war. The middle two sections, in turn, show language to be, inseparably, an equal conduit for love and violence. This is an absurd reduction of the novel, but since Grossman is very cagey about giving the reader any one place to start, and effectively gives the reader no place to end (the encyclopedia runs out of alphabetical entries, but that is hardly an ending), I constructed my own, and that is it.

To be continued…

Update: The aforementioned expert, Adriana, corrects me for misquoting her:

But the point that I was making when we talked (while measuring flour for a [sugar-free] peach cobbler) had to do specifically with the novel’s reception in Israel and how it compared to the Holocaust narrative of another Israeli author. Wiesel did not factor in that particular comparison. What distinguished See Under: Love was that Grossman was not a Holocaust survivor, and his novel attempted to imagine the Holocaust from the perspective of the second-generation, particularly (and this is a crucial distinction to keep in mind when reading the novel) the Israeli second-generation.

I admit full culpability for adding Wiesel to the equation, but the first-generation/second-generation distinction (which, to the best of my knowledge, I would agree is keenly apparent in the book) is not all that she mentioned. She also described the reception as also centered around the somewhat shocking experimentalism of the book in dealing with the Holocaust material, as well as its overt anti-narrative tendencies. While Appelfeld uses clearly allegorical and synecdochal techniques, his novels are fundamentally realistic and linear. Adriana says:

Appelfeld skillfully exploits the conventions of realism to create narratives that are deeply concerned with language, history, memory and the looming threat of their breakage.

But I would inquire further as to the difference between a novel that obeys the conventions of realism and a novel that is realistic. (What can realism be besides a convention?) I would point out as an ironic example Appelfeld’s novel The Immortal Bartfuss, where the titular adjective is used to denote his survival; meanwhile, Grossman imagines a truly immortal character in See Under: Love. This is not to deny Appelfeld’s stunning use of narrative ellipsis or his undermining of narrative expectation, but he inhabits realistic techniques thoroughly enough that I am willing to draw a line between him and Grossman. I would also ask where Amos Oz figures in this, since he falls in age between the two authors, and seems to stick to the realist paradigm. Even when uses an epistolary format in Black Box, the story remains quite linear and explicit.

Machine Translation

Among others, The Literary Saloon discusses Wyatt Mason’s article on translation and Proust in The New Republic.

After having spent the better part of four months reading the new Viking/Penguin Proust, and the old Kilmartin/Enright Proust, and the erenow Moncrieff Proust, I will tell you there is no comparing them. No matter the local differences aplenty, the global movements of mind and the quality of vision are undeniably, uniformly there. Reading each from tip to toe, no matter which, one follows Proust’s narrator as he makes his way, “descending to a greater depth within myself”–ourselves. That depth survives in translation, in all the translations, for–however subjective assertions of “goodness” surely are when assessing literary quality–greatness is calculable, irrefutable, inviolable: a great writer survives any translation.

There is, I believe, a Borges essay that refers to the same phenomenon–that works of greatness can survive translation better than lesser pieces of art–but I haven’t been able to locate it. This case is somewhat undermined by the fact that two of the three Proust translations that Mason mentions (the new one and the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright) are strikingly similar, and the third is not very good at all. I’d also direct true believers to Douglas Hofstadter’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which begins:

My uncle, matchless moral model, When deathly ill, learned to make, His friends respect him, bow and coddle– Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.

Whatever has survived, I doubt it’s Pushkin. Maybe you could amend the phrasing to be, “a great writer survives any faithful, competent translation,” but that introduces two subjective adjectives into the equation, of the “I know it when I see it” category.

Consider Jeff Vavosour’s article on computer platform emulation, Back To The Classics: Perfecting The Emulation For Digital Eclipse’s Atari Anthology. The slavishly perfectionist approach of people who write emulators (here’s a remarkable Apple IIgs emulator) is ironic given that many of the early games they’re emulating were themselves extremely loose ports from arcade console games, adapted to the limitations of the hardware. On the difference between ports and emulation, Vavosour artfully writes:

In its most basic approach, emulation is an on-the-fly translator. The analogy I’m fond of is this: In porting, it’s like you took a foreign movie, gave the script to someone fluently bilingual, and got that person to rewrite the script in English. You’d rely on the translator’s appreciation for the nuances of the original language, appreciation for the subtext, the message of the movie, etc. The quality of the product would be entirely a property of the translation effort, and regardless, what is important to one person is not what’s important to another. Some double-entendres and the like just don’t come across, and need to be replaced with something of equal value, or else ditched.

In emulation, you’re watching the original foreign movie, but someone has given you a translating dictionary and all the books on the language’s grammar and nuances. Looking up each word on the fly as it’s spoken, and appreciating all the impact it has, and still being able to follow the movie in real time sounds impossible. It would be, unless you could think about 10 times to 100 times faster than the movie’s pace.

Of course, this is just an analogy, since the goal is to replicate the platform for thousands of games, not port each individual piece of software. But the precision of the platform emulation is still paramount, because every quirk counted:

It really pains me when I read reviews that talk about how appalling it is that our emulation appeared to slow down somewhere, as, for example, one review commented of the smart bomb effect in the N64 version of Defender on Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits, released a few years back. The emulation slowed down because the original game slowed down, and emulation strives to reflect every nuance of the original game. There are often timing nuances and sometimes even original code bugs, which become part of a player’s strategy in playing the arcade game. For a truly authentic experience, every one of these quirks needs to be reproduced.

Do I hear an echo of Nabokov’s famously stringent attitudes toward translation here? There is no tolerance for variation in emulation, and this is because any competent game player’s experience is located in details as small as the ones that Nabokov finds in the rhythms and sounds of words.

Of course, there is no analogue for emulation in literature, unless you can imagine a Russian pseudo-brain hooked into your synapses, translating the myriad nuances of Eugene Onegin into a lingua franca of structured senses, emotions, and images that are exactly those that a Russian reader (any Russian reader!) would have. This would have to be the mythical (and now discarded) deep structure of linguistics.

So as I return to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin Proust now, I have to think of it as being that horrid Apple IIe port of “Pole Position II” that I played back in the early 80’s, standing in the shadow of the majesty of the original console.

Marienbad and Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares’s excellent science-fiction novella The Invention of Morel was recently reissued by NYRB Press. Borges originally led me to it by claiming it a perfect masterpiece in one of his essays, and there is a hard beauty to it that leaves its stripped-down premises quite vivid.

But its relationship to Alain Resnais’s ever-cryptic Last Year at Marienbad is more complicated. (Consult Lawrence Russell’s article on Marienbad for a good overview.) Whatever its meaning, Marienbad is about a man who desires a woman, and how memory, the past, and the present confound his desire. Bioy Casares’s novella can easily be read as a metaphor for film watching: the man who falls in love with a woman, only to find out that he is watching a real-time, three-dimensional movie of her, and sacrifices his life so that he too can enter the movie, by synchronizing his movements to appear to be interacting with the woman of the film.

(I recently saw Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which attempts the opposite effect. It has an extended dream sequence where Keaton “enters” the screen of a movie and interacts with the scenery, which abruptly changes behind him and sends him reeling. Strange stuff.)

Last Year at Marienbad has something in common with Morel, and Thomas Beltzer has written on the links in Last Year at Marienbad: An Intertextual Meditation:

Last Year at Marienbad buries its association with its "low brow" science fiction text; nevertheless, they are relatives all the same. I discovered the kinship by accident on the dust jacket of Casares&#x92 A Plan for Escape, a novel written in the early 1940&#x92s, which also bears an interesting affinity with Last Year at Marienbad. Dust jackets of novels are occasionally mistaken, but I was able to confirm the information by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that "The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet&#x92s film script for Last Year at Marienbad". The high modernist masterpiece is "outed" as a postmodern, science fiction film.

Beltzer’s analysis of the union of literary and filmic approaches is provocative, as is his statement that the Frenchmen sought to obscure the links to the “lowbrow” fiction of Bioy Casares, but the parallels deserve more examination.

Morel posits two levels of reality: the man observing the movie, and the movie itself, reflecting an earlier chain of actions. By inserting himself into the movie and seeming to take part in its events, the main character creates a third reality, a revision of the movie, a film of the film with additional overlaid content (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000), though intended to be as transparent as possible. Marienbad is considerably more oblique. The three main characters, X (the protagonist), A (the woman and object of desire), and M (A’s husband and X’s nemesis), all break continuity with the background at various times, most strikingly when other people in the frame freeze while X, A, or M go about their business. But there are also times when M or (especially) A seem themselves frozen or unresponsive while X interacts with them. I’m certain that there is a conceptual schema that would explain these relations, but I’m also sure that there would be no proof of its validity to be found in the film itself. I believe that the movie is not meant to be understood in the same way as The Invention of Morel can be; it lacks the definiteness of a single interpretation.

Where does that leave us? Bhob Stewart has a key bit of information presented on Prefuse:

In the mid-Fifties, when Casares’ novel was translated into French, it was read by Robbe-Grillet. We know this since he wrote a favorable review of the book in 1955. In 1961, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet were interviewed by filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who commented on the link between MOREL and MARIENBAD, parallels briefly acknowledged by Robbe-Grillet (who didn’t elaborate). Resnais and Robbe-Grillet had evidently =never= discussed this, as indicated by Resnais’ comment that he was unfamiliar with the book! An English translation of this interview was readily available to all New York critics in 1961, but none of them picked up on the significance of those few sentences.

It’s fitting that Resnais was not familiar with Bioy Casares’s story when he took the script. I don’t know further details; I have to guess based on my impressions of Robbe-Grillet and Resnais. I imagine Robbe-Grillet appreciating the beauty of the desire of the main character of The Invention of Morel, and also appreciating the pure surface aspect to it: since he can never speak with the object of his desire, she remains forever a collection of purely observed moments. I imagine Robbe-Grillet muddying this, seeking to show X relating, and then not relating to A, and M drifting in and out of the active picture as A and X do and do not relate to him. I imagine Resnais seeing Robbe-Grille’s oblique script and taking it as a blank slate, overlaying a formalist visual approach that does not gibe in the least with the original source of the script. I imagine Resnais as the main character of The Invention of Morel not interacting with the buried meaning of Robbe-Grillet’s script, but inserting himself and his visuals among its surface features and crafting a new meaning from it.

Alexander Kluge: The Blind Director

The question in my mind when seeing Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director, having not seen any of his films before, was whether it would be anything like his books. Specifically, would it deal in the neutral, “journalistic” tone adopted in Learning Processes With a Deadly Outcome and the highly effective Case Histories, which effected uncanny shifts in the depth of field via their reportorial style. By using standard journalistic techniques (interviews, summaries, lists, topic-based analysis) on dead-serious material, he called into question both existing treatments of the material and the hidden biases of the techniques he was applying. Given the crucial role that narrative tone plays in his written work, would it carry over into the less verbal medium of film?

The answer: yes, more than I expected. Partly, this is due to Kluge directly injecting narrative text into the film: there are significant amounts of voiceovers, given by Kluge himself, that provide interpretation or direction of the images on the screen. And Kluge is far less narrative than I had expected: his film technique is as compact as his novels. He gets the ideas on the screen and moves on, more or less abandoning the idea of narrative development to present situations as they are. The approach has a little in common with Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique, where behavioral scientist Henri Laborit is inserted in the film to discuss the motivations and hidden impulses of the characters. But while Resnais’s film comes off as a stiff attempt to illustrate a theory, Kluge strives for the more elusive mixture of having the narration and the story elements stand on equal, sometimes opposing footings, with the narration often not explaining what’s on the screen, but going off in another direction entirely.

The Blind Director himself is only present in the last third or so of the film, entitled “The Blind Director.” The German title of the film is Der Angriff der Gegenwart auf die &#xfcbrige Zeit, or, “the assault of the present on all other times.” After an opening segment of the opera Tosca, Kluge moves through some disconnected shots of “hurried people” and the like, theorizing over them, before settling down into the first of two “stories.” In “The Transfer of the Child,” a foster mother who has raised a girl since her parents were killed in a car crash is forced to give her up to rich relatives of the parents. After her detailed, obsessive instructions on how to take care of the girl and her habits are ignored, she takes the child away with her. In “The Blind Director,” we meet the director of a strange project about a medieval monk and a dead girl who isn’t quite dead. He has gone blind, and the studio is in trouble, because the insurance won’t cover the illness. There are some funny, deadpan exchanges about how assistants will be brought in to help him finish the film and describe everything to the director, but the story never goes further than that. It ends with a shot of the director blind and despondent.

There are many thematic layers in the film, but what intrigues me most about Kluge are his narrative techniques. Kluge takes a scenario that would be allegorical in a facile way (the blind artist who can no longer communicate his vision, a theme best turned inside out by Borges’s “The Secret Miracle“), and postpones it until the last third of the movie, where it is more or less presented as an static image. We hear about it through a journalist interviewing the director first, then the producer. The situation is presented and dispatched, as though we had read about it as a news item denoting a single event (“director goes blind”), rather than any sort of story (“director working on profound weird film loses his ability to do so and must excavate his inner life to find the cure” — I’m thinking of 8 1/2, but any number of other stories would fit the bill). It would seem to represent a more realistic alternative to traditional, contrived narratives, but Kluge’s result is so idiosyncratic that the film comes off as considerably more experimental than billed. Kluge has been reticent in explicating his theory of montage, saying that it is simply identical to Godard’s. But Kluge is more emotionally reflective and less explicitly dialectical.

Consider the German title, “The assault of the present on all other times,” which seems to conjure up the idea of a present moment consuming past and future, growing to satiety. This ties directly to one of Kluge’s favorite themes, the dual nature of time:

For the Greeks, Chronos stood for time that leads to death, time that consumes itself. Chronos is a gigantic god who devours his own children. His antipode in the Greek pantheon is Kairos, “the fortunate moment.” Kairos is a very small, dwarf-like god with a bald head. But on his forehead he has a tuft (of dense hair). If you catch the tuft, you’re lucky. If you are just a moment too late, your grip on his bald head will slip and you won’t be able to hold on to him. This character, Kairos, is the “happy time” that is hidden in the time of people’s lives, in their working time, in everything they might do. He is an object of aesthetic activity. With Chronos on the other hand, you can only become a watchmaker.

The narration, discontinuity, the lack of development, the emphasis on single moments: these all fall into what could be called a “moment”-based attitude towards narrative and montage: that by focusing on single incidents in isolation and drawing out from them past and future implications both tangible and abstract, a meaning can be drawn from them that is absent in traditional narrative, which only leads inevitably to death. It is somewhat complementary to Stockhausen’s idea of “moment form,” though more philosophically sophisticated. John Dack explains:

Stockhausen&#x92s adoption of moment form need not discard perceptible processes with goals; they simply refuse to participate in a globally directed narrative curve, which is, naturally, not their purpose.

I think this is about right. Kluge’s depiction of “hurried people,” and his portrayal of the director as a hurried man stopped in his tracks by his blindness, suggest a desire to reverse the traditional narrative process in favor of what he sees as a more life-affirming one. (Hence the name of his production company: Kairos.)

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