David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Hugo von Hofmannsthal: An Incident…

His eyes were gradually opened to the way all the world’s shapes and colors lived in his objects. He saw in the intricacy of their ornaments an enchanted image of the intricate wonders of the world. He discovered the forms of animals and the forms of flowers, and the gradual transition from one to the other…and he discovered the moon and the stars, the crystal ball, the mystical circles sprouting wings of seraphim. For a long time he was drunk on this great, profound beauty that was his, and all his days were more beautiful and less empty among these objects, which were no longer dead and insignifcant, but a great legacy, the divine work of all the generations.

Yet he felt the triviality of all these things along with their beauty. The thought of death never left him for long, and it often came over him when he was among laughing and noisy people, at night, or as he ate.

“Tale of the 672nd Night”

My mind’s been on Kleist lately, a figure whom Gabriel Josipovici says had no contemporaries or followers, and he didn’t–not for a while, at least. But by the end of the 19th century, the spirit of Kleist’s anti-fairytales come back in full force in the stories of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Hofmannsthal mixed a brew of German traditions together and came up with something that, in his prose, is alternately gauzy and brutal. (His ghastly “Tale of the 672nd Night” throws E.T.A. Hoffman in the mix and produces something even more violent and disturbing than Kleist.) Amongst all the beauty there is always a worm of destruction to sever, to corrupt, to poison. The worm emerges more slowly and linearly than it does in Kleist, who tends to spiral out of bounds very rapidly, but when it does, it is more insidious and sometimes more punishing, as it is for the merchant’s son in “672nd Night,” who is methodically arranged for death. But in both, that worm is never something that comes from a logical procession of romantic ideas, as it is in Goethe or Buchner, but something that attacks the supposed underpinnings of the story itself.

His most Kleistian moment comes in “An Incident in the Life of Marshall de Bassompierre.” The Marshall rides through Paris and meets a flirty shopkeeper, then invites her to bed. She accedes, and from there we descend to fire, plague, and death, and only the Marshall escapes to tell the tale. The herald of misfortune is the shopkeeper’s announcement, “May I die a miserable death if I have ever belonged to anyone other than my husband and you or desired anyone else in the world!” And then there is the spectral, wordless appearance of her husband, seen by the Marshall through the window of the shop….

It is not only that the adultery ends so morbidly, but that the motivations of the shopkeeper are so inverted from their initial appearance. Once she is undermined, the Marshall himself turns from a romantic nobleman into a diseased lothario, and narratively speaking, it is the shopkeeper who brings about this change in perception. The shopkeeper, who meets an end not so far from Dido’s after she was spurned by Aeneas, fails in the revenge architected by her husband, but succeeds in impressing himself on the Marshall much as Dido did:

“I shall die unavenged, but I shall die,”
she says. “Thus, thus, I gladly go below
to shadows. May the savage Dardan drink
with his own eyes this fire from the deep
and take with him the omen of my death.”

IV 909-913

When the shopkeeper dies on her pyre, having offered herself up to the Marshall in what he thinks of as a casual affair, she and not her husband turns the “incident” into something far more serious. The purported motive of revenge fades in front of a far more sordid affair invoking powers beyond the control of the Marshall or the cuckolded husband.

[Request to readers: can anyone fill me in on the sources for this story in Goethe and in Bassompierre’s actual memoir? Online searches turn up nothing in a language I read.]

Georg Buchner: Lenz

[Here’s a tricky one: should I spell his last name “Buchner,” “Buechner,” or “Büchner” so as best to assist English-speaking people in finding the page?]

Hard to read this without thinking of the other masterpiece that followed it a century later, Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”. Just as Hofmannsthal sets the goals of modernism even as he posits their impossibilities, by portraying the greatness of the mind as he details the inability of the title character to articulate any of it, Buchner so sets the goals of romanticism, then shows the madness they lead to.

This isn’t the self-pity of Goethe’s unfortunate Sorrows of Young Werther. The main character, Lenz (a real playwright), is genuinely insane and suffering, and moves over the course of the story from revelation to agony and shutdown. It’s not clear that they are any different for him; his revelations have the same visceral force as the pain. He comes to be disgusted by all abstractions and ideas. It is only through the force of the emotionally apprehended that he can perceive the world. Lenz says:

“What I demand in all things is life, the potentiality of existence, and that’s that; we need not then ask whether it be beautiful or ugly, the feeling that whatever’s been created possesses life outweighs these two and should be the sole criterion in matters of art. As it is, we encounter it rarely, we find it in Shakespeare and it rings forth fully in folk songs, now and then in Goethe. Everything else can be tossed into the fire. These people can’t even draw a doghouse. They claim they want idealistic figures, but from what I’ve seen, they’re all just a bunch of wooden puppets. This idealism represents the most disgraceful contempt for human nature.”

Coming as it does in the middle of a mixture of fugue states, exhaustion, and eventually a total flip-out (before a return to functioning), Lenz seems quite touched, but this is his most coherent moment. Lenz wants an art of total mimesis, but why? There are two rationales that run through the story. First, Lenz has gone mad to the point where sensory impressions are overwhelming him, and ideas and abstractions lack “life.” Second, Lenz is struggling to get away from his own mind: he desires that he exist purely in the world of the noumenal, where his mind is no longer acting as an interpreter but as a passive observer. This abandonment of the self as rational adjudicator stands in the romantic tradition, but Lenz articulates it in an almost synaesthetic manner. The abstractions have become pinpricks on his mind because they throw him back to an interpretive state; the more he sees the world recreated by a person, the more he sees himself harmoniously integrated with the world.

By Hofmannsthal’s time, the abstractions have moved to the forefront of the real and Lord Chandos is trying to figure out how to get the thoughts into his mind out into the world through speech. This then mutates into the madness of Clarisse in The Man Without Qualities, where she is wholly romanced by ideas and removed from the physical world. Lenz’s madness seems more fundamental, less controllable, more native.

Yet Lenz’s cogency doesn’t last, and by the end of the story he has collapsed into fits. But he recovers. He doesn’t die or go completely insane, but simply soldiers on out of sight, representing an eternal and eternally tormented spirit, set upon by primordial sensitivities that set upon his brain, rather than emanate from it.

J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

What a frustrating book this is. I have had varied responses to much of Coetzee’s fiction, finding it anywhere from brilliant (Waiting for the Barbarians) to bloodless (Disgrace) to pretentious (Foe), so I didn’t get around to his first post-Nobel fiction until now. But I must say that I admire his willigness to put out a book that will completely alienate Nobel punters, as well as be so open to misinterpretation.

The book is a collection of “stories” (“Lessons”, they’re titled) about the elderly writer Costello, who, having long ago written a famous revisionist version of Ulysses from Molly’s point of view (called The House on Eccles Street), now listlessly attends conferences on various literary topics. She has no passion for these topics, and no shortage of contempt for the fanboys and other writers that attend the conferences. The one issue that does stir her to her feet is animal rights, which she pursues with the single-minded intolerance of the zealot, comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust.

Few of the reviews of Elizabeth Costello have addressed some of the most perplexing problems of the narrative. James Wood, always keen on religious readings of fiction, insists on a liturgical interpretation:

Far from being evasive, I think that Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that his entire book vibrates with confession. The reference to Ivan Ilyich is the key. Simply put, Coetzee’s subject is death. Costello’s lectures are about the lives of animals, and that means also the human animal. It is by contemplating her own death that she can enter the suffering – the millions of deaths – of animals. Our mortality is animal mortality. And likewise, to think about animal death is to think of our own death.

What Wood ignores is how truly obnoxious Costello is. Her empathy for animals rings false because she treats those around her (her son, her colleagues, her ex-lovers, her fans) like garbage, simultaneously condescending to them while demanding indulgence for everthing she does. Worse, she’s hardly eloquent. Her arguments are irrational, trite, and mindlessly syllogistic:

“As for animals being too dumb and stupid to speak for themselves, consider the following sequence of events. When Albert Camus was a young boy in Algeria, his grandmother told him to bring her one of the hens from the cage in their backyard. He obeyed, then watched her cut off its head with a kitchen knife, catching its blood in a bowl so that the floor would not be dirtied.

“The death cry of that hen imprinted itself on the boy’s memory so hauntingly that in 1958 he wrote an impassioned attack on the guillotine. As a result, in part, of that polemic, capital punishment was abolished in France. Who is to say, then, that the hen did not speak?”

If I were Coetzee, I would be very worried that after writing a book in which specious arguments such as this take up so much room, the arguments would be mistakenly attributed to me. (Justifiably so: The Observer condemns him for holding Costello’s opinions, and David Lodge’s review gives entirely too much credit to her opinions.) Indeed, had I not read Coetzee’s other work and his essays, I’d be tempted to assign these views to him. But Coetzee has never written like this. His criticism is coldly rational, well-researched, and often insightful. (I highly recommend his book of essays Stranger Shores.) And I cannot imagine that Coetzee would ever take seriously the theses of Costello’s speeches. Coetzee has compared Costello to Christa Wolf and Doris Lessing, and I don’t believe the comparison is meant to be flattering. Both writers are polemicists notorious for deducing fictional circumstances from preconceived ideas, and so it is with Costello. She is partly, but not entirely, Coetzee’s strawman.

Oliver Herford’s perceptive review in the TLS is the only one to have gotten at Costello’s lapses qua fiction:

Costello is impatient of the proprieties of public argumentation, preferring “to think in similitudes rather than reason things out”. This is a novelist’s failing, perhaps, but it occasions some spectacular lapses. She starts, too, from positions of provoking extremity…but passes rapidly from violent identification to a blank disbelief in what she has undertaken to say.

Elizabeth Costello is a thin, disagreeable character and an obvious contrivance – an unreliable surrogate whose obsessions and inconsistencies are conventionally opposed but never effectually challenged; she does not stay even to answer her own idle self-questioning, of which there is an exasperating amount.

All this is painfully illustrated when Costello interprets other works of literature and philosophy. Herford points out that her interpretation of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” is absurdly off the mark, but so are all of her interpretations. She disagrees with Thomas Nagel, saying she can know what it is like to be a bat. Of “A Modest Proposal,” she says:

If it is atrocious to kill and eat human babies, why is it not atrocious to kill and eat piglets? If you want Swift to be a dark ironist rather than a facile pamphleteer, you might examine the premises that make his fable so easy to digest.

In passages like these Costello reminds you of your freshman year roommate who lambasted you all year long for eating meat before giving up vegetarianism sophomore year. Or consider this gem concerning Ulysses, which she purportedly knew well enough to rewrite:

I do not like that other world, writes Martha Clifford to her pen pal Leopold Bloom, but she lies: why would she write at all if she did not want to be swept off to another world by a demon lover?

Martha Clifford’s typo (she meant “word”) has all sorts of resonances, but Coetzee’s meaning is clear: Costello has forgotten the context and has freely interpreted the passage to mean whatever she wants it to mean. She has imposed a tyranny of her own private meanings on everyone and everything.

And ultimately she is a tyrant, especially to her long-suffering son but also to nearly everyone she meets. Her “empathy” is actually the narcissistic projection of one’s own self on to the faces of the downtrodden, a common ailment of the terminally myopic. She sympathizes with people by imagining they feel just like her, unless they disagree with her, in which case she quickly dismisses them as inhuman morons. So it is with literature; if she cannot see herself in it, she dismisses it.

As a satire of the caprices of writers and of the unquestioning authority granted to their polemical pronoucements, Elizabeth Costello is grimly amusing, almost a middle finger to the Nobel Committee. (I suspect that Coetzee is deeply uneasy with their elevation of so many writers with deep moral flaws.) It’s hard not to agree with him after reading things like an interview with the hatefully senile Felipe Alfau. (Thank you Maud Newton for the link.) But especially in the last two sections, which are revisionist versions of Kafka’s “Before the Law” and Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”, Coetzee changes the terms. In the first, Costello is denied admission to heaven because she refuses to profess belief in any particular thing. In the second, she takes on the role of Lord Chandos’s wife, and portrays his epiphanies as those of Icarus:

But how I ask you can I live with rats and dogs and beetles crawling through me day and night, drowning and gasping, scratching at me, tugging me, urging me deeper and deeper into revelation–how? We are not made for revelation, I want to cry out, nor I nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.

If this is the final “Lesson,” then the object of the lessons has been Costello herself. She has not practiced literary criticism or philosophy over the course of the book, but has she practiced literature? If so, what price has she paid for it? Hofmannsthal gave us the image of a man overwhelmed with profundity that transcended language, yet he expressed it so eloquently that it was easy to believe him. Whatever profundity that Costello has private access to, she is unable to express it: not through misinterpreting other people’s works, not through angry screeds, not through interpersonal relationships. Yet it clearly causes her torment, and for this she does deserve our sympathy. I think that this is what separates Coetzee’s book from the seemingly endless river of literature portraying writers in various states of breakdown and uncommunication: given the abnormality of the writer, he is more willing to see writers in the context of societal normality rather than placing them at the center. Elizabeth Costello is ultimately a portrait of a marginal figure, and her inner pain seems all the more disproportionate for it.

The book also appears to indict much writerly discourse, yet other people over the course of the book speak quite cogently, usually when calmly destroying Costello’s arguments. No, the problem is quite clearly with Costello herself, and since we are never given evidence of Costello’s prior writing talent, it’s impossible to say whether her reputation is deserved. No doubt she is unique and uniquely tormented, but what of it?

Throughout the book, people make the mistake of engaging in discourse with Costello to no positive effect. Perhaps Coetzee wishes to separate literature from the realm of debate, saying that writers are not the sort to participate in argument. They are best left alone to write their books, which then the public can make sense of. But beyond that, Coetzee makes a statement on how dangeous it is to take authors at their intent and at their literal meaning, as well as point out how authors can be their own worst advocates. Coetzee in his essays reads for subtext and subtlety, often questioning the placement of an idea in a literary work rather than engaging with it. With Elizabeth Costello, he has written a work that acts as a warning, since considering Costello’s ideas only leads to silliness and frustration.

The reaction of people to the book–predominantly a willingness to take Costello’s views seriously, as no critic other than Herford mentions Costello’s series of grotesque misreadings of other authors–seems to confirm Coetzee’s concerns. But Coetzee is not so monolithically harsh, since the book is simultaneously a portrait of the vacant inside of one of these authors, and her inability to believe anything truly. Is this, asks Coetzee, who we want to argue with and interpret? Is it wise to hold up the figure of the author and deem him or her a seer, a prophet, or a truthteller? No, better to treat the books autonomously and dispense with the author.

Friction: Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Wittgenstein

I knew that I would write no books either in English or in Latin in the coming year, the years after that, or in all the years of this life of mine. There is only one reason for this, a strange and embarrassing one; I leave it to your infinite intellectual superiority to give it a place among what to your clear eyes is an orderly array of mental and physical phenomena. It is that the language in which I might have been granted the opportunity not only to write but also to think is not Latin or English, or Italian, or Spanish, but a language of which I know not one word, a language in which mute things speak to me and in which I will perhaps have something to say for myself someday when I am dead and standing before an unknown judge.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Lord Chandos Letter”

This language he describes is as universal (in the sense that it cannot be contained, and is infinite in that regard), and utterly private–what is a language that he hears but of which he does not know a single word? The language that seems to speak of a union of noumenal and phenomenal substance, unmediated by language?

I know who to turn to for this…

The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.–We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investications, S.107

There will be more about slipperiness shortly; it figures in a book I’ve been meaning to write about for months. But my sense of what Wittgenstein says here is that with the removal of the requirement of meaning, language loses its sense, and with it the troubles of its inadequacy for its requirements of meaning and logic. But it is precisely the inadequacy we face whenever we try to place these requirements on it, and so any examination of language’s use must proceed from constant attention to the inadequacy of language to fit the meanings that are contained in what “mute things speak” to Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos.

Likewise the friction in Kafka’s The Castle between K. and the authorities, of which Lars at Spurious writes:

The drama of the novel – the collision between K., who wants to know he has a place in the village, and the implacable authorities would then be determined: it can only be a matter of frustration, of the alternation between moments of grace and moments of setback.

The supposed ending that was never written–K. dies and is finally granted permission to stay in the town, though his mission is not formally recognized–speaks to the end of the conflict. K.’s death signals the collapse of his will, or words, or what-have-you, that has kept him alienated from the town and active.

The self that frees itself from the alienation (i.e., friction) it feels from Sein, as Heidegger posits as a positive, is for Kafka nothing more than a dead self, just as it is an impossibility for Wittgenstein. Likewise, the mute, perfect language of Hofmannsthal’s narrator, which will only going to be accessible to him after death.

Italo Calvino on Musil and Gadda

John Barth’s article also mentioned Calvino’s essay on “Multiplicity.” It’s a short piece on novels that spawn ever outward and novels that are unfinishable on that account. Calvino loops in some Oulipo authors and talks about generative novels, but his main focus is on uncontrollable novels, not contrived ones. Proust, Mann, and late Flaubert are mentioned, but the two flagships he uses are Carlo Emilio Gadda and Robert Musil. Musil and Gadda appear to have almost nothing in common except for a certain underlying contempt for the world, and even that comes out very differently.

Calvino says:

If we compare these two engineer-writers, Gadda, for whom understanding meant allowing himself to become tangled in a network of relationships, and Musil, who gives the impression of always understanding everything in the multiplicity of codes and levels of things without ever allowing himself to become involved, we have to record this one fact common to both: their inability to find an ending.

This is as far as Calvino goes. I don’t know that he ever wrote more on Musil, but he was a big booster of Gadda: Calvino’s introduction to Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Mirulana is quite wonderful and much easier going than the novel itself. But does it have a lot to do with Musil, or is the comparison spurious?

Calvion only alludes to the fact that Gadda wrote not one but two unfinished novels, making him a bit less successful than Musil, who got a couple completed books under his belt before embarking on a twenty-year unfinished project. For Calvino, they are unified by the devouring nature of their books, both of which (he implies) prevent completion by their very design. Musil can’t finish his book because there’s still more to understand; Gadda can’t finish his because there’s still more to describe. But with Gadda, it’s unavoidable: there is the insistent breakdown of facts and objects that Gadda can’t avoid. His neurosis won’t let him. Whereas with Musil, there is the sense that after a good chunk of near-total control in the first two volumes, The Man Without Qualities runs off its rails in the third and Musil tries desperately to get it back on track. Had he lived longer, he could have brought it to a conclusion, albeit an unsatisfying one. Gadda could never finish any novel, even given an eternity.

Despite Musil’s considerably loftier aims, it’s Gadda who ends up exemplifying the theme of “multiplicity” better, because he sets himself up in an impossible solution, where the sludge of the novel’s environment creates an irresistible inertia. His is a very pathological version of the multiplicative obsessions of Borges and the rest of the authors Calvino discusses. Musil, as is his tendency, evades the classification.

(And on the topic of multiplicity, there is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Andreas, a novel that not only was never finished, but barely started.)

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