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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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The Mythology of Laszlo Krasznahorkai

An article of mine on László Krasznahorkai has been published at The Quarterly Conversation:

All that is transitory is but a parable.
Goethe, Faust II

This line, meant by Goethe to indicate that our worldly lives are but symbols for a greater, permanent afterlife, carries with it ambiguities that Mahler never considered when he used it rather clumsily at the climax of his Eighth Symphony. If we are all Christians, how easy to dispose of the travails of this life by casting them as imperfections of a greater, lesser-known world. But if we do not know that world, how do we construct that parable, and how do we sustain it in the face of reality’s constant resistance to conform to it? This is the question that the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai pursues in his fiction.

Continued…

David B.: The Veiled Prophet (a.k.a. The Prince)

Thomas M. Disch Appendix

In dealing with Disch’s work, there was so much I had to leave out. I finished the article with an even greater respect for Disch’s achievement as well as a sadness that the rawness and brutality of his work perhaps confined him more to the generic ghetto than some of his peers. Certainly the quality and erudition of his writing matched any of his contemporaries. So here is an appendix of miscellaneous points that I didn’t have space for, in the hopes of pointing people to assorted other spots in his oeuvre.

  1. The short fairy-tale “Dangerous Flags,” published in 1964 and seemingly anticipating a lot of the work of Donald Barthelme, though Disch’s tale is far less goofy and more sinister. The tale of a bunch of small-town dopes manipulated in turn by the elite English teacher and the populist Green Magician. You can guess who won. But the general schematic for his view of middle America (the town is called Mean) is already quite formed here.
  2. “Displaying the Flag”: Nothing more and nothing less of the story of the sort of religious-right ideologues who amass power only to be found soliciting gay sex in bathrooms years later. Dead-on.
  3. “Feathers from the Wings of an Angel”: One of his nastiest stories, intentionally written in inept purple prose. A heartfelt story from the heartland that tells the chronicle of an ingenuous young writer winning a prize…with this very story! Arrogant, narcissistic, myopic. Has there been a metafiction so resolutely focused around crap writers writing about crap writing? (Mulligan Stew does not count.) Disch in a nutshell.
  4. The eccentric and hopeful story “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire,” part of 334, where historians specialize in a period in the past by inhabiting surrogate counterparts after great study. (Finally, Disch says, providing a use for PhDs.) The idea comes from Philip K. Dick, but Disch’s take is that by living out the misery of our predecessors virtually, we can gain a bit more insight and compassion with regard to our misery and that of those around us. He’s probably right.
  5. Terrorism forms a backdrop to several of Disch’s future versions of America. It’s there both in 334 and On Wings of Song, and in both cases it’s nebulous, seemingly coming from domestic elements but never conclusively explained. (The ACLU is blamed, but everything suggests they are just a scapegoat.) The responses are much more important: police control and xenophobic fear in the populace. I compliment Disch on not making too big a deal out of a specific counterculture (as many new wave authors did in the 60s). As you realize if you read novels from back then, the counterculture itself is not very politically interesting. It’s the establishment’s reaction and exploitation of it that is relevant.
  6. An allegory of power given by Disch, by way of analogy with Philip K. Dick, though really with any act of writing:

    There is a form of Monopoly called Rat in which the Banker, instead of
    just sitting there and watching, gets to be the Rat. The Rat can alter all the
    rules of the game at his discretion, like Idi Amin. The players elect the
    person they consider the slyest and nastiest among them to be the Rat.
    The trick in being a good Rat is in graduating the torment of the players,
    in moving away from the usual experience of Monopoly, by the minutest
    calibrations, into, finally, an utter delirium of lawlessness.

    I think Disch felt that if he did not subject his characters to such rules, he would be creating an improper fantasyland from which no one could learn anything.

  7. The M.D. is probably the most substantial work of Disch’s later career, and I wish I’d had space to treat it at length. It’s a perverse take on the Faust myth in which a young boy receives a caduceus from Hermes that has wonderful healing powers, but only to the extent that it has already done equal or greater harm. (Disch never explicitly states it, but the mistake of thinking of the caduceus as a healing object–i.e., as the staff of Asclepius–weighs in as a heavy irony throughout.) Naturally, apocalypse ensues. Disch’s only engagement with AIDS, as far as I know. It also features another instance of the dead-certain Christian believer, similar to Gus in The Genocides, perhaps Disch’s most frightening archetype, beyond reason and compromise.
  8. I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War. Likewise, the capitalist critiques of Gaddis seem way off the mark because they assume a certain amount of rational action on the part of the characters. Who is closer to Ken Lay, J.R. or Grandison Whiting? The best American authors have, I think, understood that America does not lend itself to highbrow cultural theorizing in the way that Germany does, and so inhabit the more gothic and grotesque modes. (Notable exception: Ralph Ellison.) I won’t attempt to justify this here….
  9. I cannot say enough about how Disch’s work anticipates the delusions of the Bush administration flacks who attacked the “reality-based” community. A greater vindication for Disch I can’t imagine. We have been ruled by the ruralities of the Bush administration and the urbanities of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” and have seen the flaws of both.
  10. Disch authored a text adventure in 1986, Amnesia. It doesn’t rank with the Infocom games of the time, but it has several very Dischian touches. First, it includes a detailed layout of Manhattan, including the entire subway system, but because of disc space limitations, there is very little descriptive text, making the city anonymous and unwelcome and, well, off-limits. Which leads to the second touch, which is that you spend much of the game as a homeless man trying to raise 25 bucks to progress to the next stage, and your options involve little beyond begging and washing car windows. Disch wants to make you know what suffering is.
  11. Toward the end of his life, Disch himself embraced many of the xenophobic and hateful tendencies he’d so acutely condemned. This is a common danger of those who get so close to such motivations and grow to hate them. The line is easily dissolved, as it was for Poe and Lovecraft as well.

R. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics

I’ve been reading Sikoryak’s parodies in one form or another since I was a teenager and saw “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown” (Charlie Brown does Kafka) in RAW. Finally they’ve been collected into a book. Here are two (they’re all pretty clever):

These high/low mixes don’t always travel well. How many people have any idea why Mr. Rochester speaks the way that he does in SCTV’s version of Jane Eyre? (“Whatever you do, Jane, don’t go up to the attic. I wouldn’t want you to get…murdered!”)

“The Invention of Morel”, Adolfo Bioy Casares

By far Bioy Casares’ most famous story, “The Invention of Morel” is still fairly obscure, despite being plugged (and strongly influenced) by his friend Borges, and supposedly being the basis for Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t know that it is the perfect work of genius that Borges claimed it is, but it’s certainly ahead of its time for 1940, and the ideas that fuel it are a grade above what Bioy Casares typically used in his work. Bioy Casares lacked Borges’ intensity and his sheer inventiveness, but in “The Invention of Morel,” he used what he had well.

The nameless narrator is a fugitive who has escaped to a remote, abadoned island that has the stigma of disease over it. He sees himself as an outcast, and the story begins to play out a ultra-Robinson Crusoe scenario, as the narrator’s links to reality appear to be severed in Wittgensteinian fashion. Will he lose his capacity for language? Will he lose his humanity? Yes, but this process is interrupted, then furthered by the sudden appearance on the island of a number of refined sophisticates, including the beautiful Faustina, whom he falls in love with. This despite the fact that none of them will acknowledge his presence. Other strangeness occurs, notably the presence of two moons and two suns in the sky.

It’s impossible to go further without revealing the main conceit, which is held back for over half the story, but there’s a pleasure to be had to it being revealed over the course of the story, so please imagine a tacky little spoiler warning here.

The narrator’s inability to relate to the others seems to be symbolic. He could be dead and existing as a ghost similar to the narrator of Nabokov’s The Eye (my favorite of his works, incidentally). His unspecified crime could have cast him out from the fabric of humanity and left him socially invisible. He could be imagining or recreating life on the island when he is in fact alone. But these are all wrong; the hints of anomie are, ultimately, a blind. The explanation is that he is not seeing people, not quite; what he is seeing is a projection of a recording made of past events, but a projection that has its own reality and is being superimposed on the island (hence the two sun and two moons). The leader of the group, Morel, concocted the invention, which will endlessly replay the week they spent on the island years ago. The downside is that at the time of projection, the force of the superimposed reality is so strong as to draw the life from those recorded and place it in the projected copies. Morel says, “When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges,” and he means it literally: the recreation in reality of the past events supplants the current reality of their participants.

Bioy Casares combines two themes in unorthodox fashion. There is the circular time/eternal recurrence theme that so fascinated Borges. In 1941 he wrote:

In times of ascendancy, the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as at the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.

And Bioy Casares evokes both the horror and the wonder that a week of reasonable existence with only minor troubles should become an eternal prison for its unknowing participants. The second theme is the transmigration of consciousness from the original person to the replica, which then plays out its part endlessly, never knowing that it has done it countless times before, nor that is not the original person–partly because it is. Bioy Casares uses a consciousness thought experiment decades before they came into vogue: if you were to create a copy of a person in an identical context, what would there be to differentiate the copy’s consciousness from the original’s? Since Bioy Casares adopts an emergent view of consciousness in the story (see Morel’s quote above), the answer is that they cannot coexist. It takes the inversion of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where the picture and not the man is subject to time, and inverts it again, so that the playback of a recording of events takes on greater reality than the continued existence of the subjects.

The injection of ideas on consciousness is brief but it elevates the story from pure fantasy to the level of, say, Borges “Funes the Memorious.” There, a man remembered everything and was crippled by it; here, people have the identical set of empirical situations played out for them, with no additional memory of it, while the metaphysical conditions change totally. Morel claims his machine creates nothing, only replicates what exists, but Bioy Casares makes it clear that the machine restructures reality. Bioy Casares also implies epiphenomenalism–the idea that internal experience supervenes on material reality without being able to affect it–since under the new conditions of Morel’s machine, the participants are absolutely unable to acknowledge that anything has changed.

The basic concepts here were used in many, many science-fiction novels later on (though not so many beforehand, as far as I know); the story is unique for its alienation from the consciousness that persists on in the projections. In nearly all other stories of shifting metaphysics, the characters still obtain a working knowledge of the problem at hand, which ultimately provides their only satisfaction; here, Bioy Casares sets up a situation in which they cannot. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation provides the closest echo I can think of, and it too gets around the self-knowledge issue by giving the reader more information than any character has. “The Invention of Morel” plays utterly fair and is more successful in contradicting any conception of what the “consciousness” of its characters could be.

Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo

The short but daunting Pedro Paramo does share some things with The Obscene Bird of Night: a wealthy landowner and his horrific son, a madonna/whore figure, and a very whacked narrative structure. But Rulfo’s book is not about the creative process at all, and deals with a fixed, if endlessly refracted, set of circumstances.

Juan Preciado returns to the town of Comala, which his mother had left when he was just a baby. His father is Pedro Paramo, the landowner, enforcer, and tyrant of the entire town. Comala is literally a ghost town; Juan is taken in by a series of maternal spirits that guide him through the history of the town and its death, brought on by Paramo.

Paramo owns all the land, and with the willing assistance of the church, most of the town is dragged into corruption, philandering, and decay along with him. As landowner, Paramo comes to infect the land, and violence suffuses the entire town. This is personified by Paramo’s son Miguel, who is a serial rapist and eventually comes to an end when he’s killed by his horse, before he can be killed by another man planning Miguel’s death. Rulfo is clear that all the chaos and evil is arising from Paramo’s hands, similar to the second part of Goethe’s Faust, as when the old woman Dorotea, who has lost her son, makes a deal with Paramo to round up women for Miguel. When Paramo’s unattainable love, the insane figure of redemption Susana, dies, Paramo shuts the entire town down, mandating that the farmland become dead and funding revolutionaries. He is eventually killed by another bastard son of his, leaving the town to the ghosts of its past inhabitants.

Those are the basics. There is a great UT essay that delves more deeply into the background. What makes the book difficult is the hopscotch narration, which jumps between Juan’s dealings with the residential ghosts of the town, his channeling of the non-ghost souls those departed who exist in a mental limbo, and non-linear retelling or straight narration of the past. It’s not as chaotic as it initially seems once the basic rhythms are established. Juan hears more and more levels of the story, and at the height of it, communicates with Susana, who is lost in the reliving of Paramo’s attentions, which she ignores, and her escapes to swim in the ocean, which constitutes her escape from Paramo. The structure is loosely a spiral, and by the end of the story Juan has completely disappeared, absorbed into the weave of fragments and voices.

The issue is what effect the treatment has on more or less classical, realistic material. Rulfo intends to have Paramo have acted in such a way as to create a purgatory, his shutdown crippling the progression of time and of souls. Body/soul dualism is very prominent here, and Rulfo has a bizarre version of it, since bodies go on as sentient ghosts without souls. And clearly, no salvation is at hand. To the extent that a clear end to the story would function as that anyway, the book does read as having an entrance but no exit. It trails off shortly after Paramo’s death, but the revelations of what have been going on are sequenced so that no real conclusion exists. Paramo’s death is known from the start, and the circumstances of his life and of the town’s life don’t end with his death as much as with the death of Susana. The discovery that it’s another of his sons who kills him is fitting, but it is so in line with what has gone before that it is not revelatory. Still, the material itself is intact. Rulfo’s elaboration through the after-the-fact ghosts and souls does not fundamentally alter the plot, which is traditionally tragic. It instead attempts to offer a version of how the events are perceived by those who experience them rather than by a reader. Mostly, there is infinity instead of closure and claustrophobia instead of perspective.

Despite the narrative shuffling, I believe that Rulfo was going for this simple effect of exploring tragedy as experienced rather than as viewed. It’s a selfless approach, and of all his admitted fans who adopted and modified his approach with considerably greater levels of complexity, mythology, and confusion, only Gabriel Garcia Marquez used it in a similar manner to move away from literary artifice. (I might also admit Guillermo Cabrera Infante, but honestly, the jury’s still out.) In comparison, Julio Cortazar in Hopscotch deploys the shuffling chiefly as a tool of abstraction away from experience. The problem is that while Rulfo’s strategy may be more noble, it likely makes writing nearly impossible.

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