Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: hungary (page 1 of 5)

A Conversation with Janice Lee

Janice Lee is an American writer, artist, editor, programmer, and generally well-rounded intellectual. We discussed her recent book Damnation and its influences from the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr and writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai (responsible for the film Damnation), the difficulties of being an “American” writer and what that even means, the grim brilliance of Hungarian culture, and the end of the world. I recommend checking out Damnation and her earlier works Daughter and KEROTAKIS, available at her site JaniceL.com. She is also the executive editor of Entropy Magazine. Many thanks to her for her time and patience in engaging with me.


DA: I was happy to see you mention Pamela Zoline’s science-fiction stories in your best of the year. I read “The Heat Death of the Universe” as a teen and thought it was quite remarkable, and quoted it in an art essay I wrote last year, Archimedes’ Mindscrew. Zoline’s story is, I think, very directly apocalyptic, which connects her to Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s work. Krasznahorkai has spoken of his “personal relationship with the apocalypse,” and Tarr’s landscapes often look like the black and white residue of some post-nuclear blast. “Even if this is the apocalypse, if you stay indoors and mind your own business, the angels and demons will leave you alone” (Damnation). What I get from all of these artists is a negating of the seeming scale of things: apocalypse isn’t a definable event or a point in time, but something baked into the order of things. (Which is why, I presume, entropy has held such an appeal to many apocalyptic writers.) Krasznahorkai says that the apocalypse has already happened. So what is apocalypse for you?

JL: “We are living in the apocalypse. The first moment of life was the first moment of the apocalypse and death. Please, don’t fear the apocalypse.” This quote by Krasznahorkai is maybe the one that resonates with me the most, this idea that we are already and have always been living in the apocalypse. The apocalypse, for me, is more of an anticipatory state. In another interview Krasznahorkai talks about birth as a journey towards failure, this inevitable journey that becomes the life in which we live, bookmarked by these two events in time. But, as we see in Tarr, time carries on without us. Time is the vantage point from which we observe and anticipate. And in one way, the real tragedy is that we must go on whether or not the apocalypse is really coming. That we go on, is the heroic gesture, is the gesture of hope. The apocalypse is about failure, but also about relief and hope. It is about the modification of reality, the ability to see the world from a pair of eyes not just one’s own. It is about disintegration and ruin, yes, but also about empathy and the relationships between human beings. It is about the acceptance of uncertainty over clarity and an abandonment into the beauty of reality. It is about the plateau, the daily struggle, not the end.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation.

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation.

DA: For all the talk about the “death of the subject,” it seems like people still return to interpersonal relationships, even familial relationships, as a place to ground themselves. Even if we are neurologically predisposed to find meaning there, we do not seem to want to let go of family or friendship in the same way that we let go of God. You titled a book Daughter, where you call a daughter “the excavator of dead gods,” and you dealt with Frankenstein, the synthetic child, in KEROTAKIS. I’ve been amazed at the sense of stability and certainty (comparatively, at least) given to me by my child. Campanella and Plato wanted to emancipate humanity from the idea of the family (nuclear or extended oikos), but the idea has never gotten much traction outside of cults. For me it’s due to two nigh-unassailable factors: the ability of creation within the family, and the reification of blood ties (real or virtual). The family is the ultimate self-propagating cult. You’ve written, movingly, about the death of a parent; what does that mean to you relative to the apocalypse, relative to time?

JL: The death of parent both changes nothing and everything. What happens during grieving, which lasts an entire lifetime, is different at various moments of life. When my mother died, it was sudden. I was sad, yes, but also shocked, and heartbroken in a way that only dealt with the finality of a life, trying to come to grips with an absence that wasn’t felt as a significant presence until the finality of death. Probably what hit home the hardest was when we returned to my parent’s house one evening and my dog proceeded to run around the house looking for something. He went into every room repeatedly, sniffed all of the corners, looking up at me, looked some more. He was looking for her of course, without the ability to understand that she wasn’t coming back, but also with an understanding that something was wrong. The apocalypse is a prolonged state for me, the anticipation of some finality, but this, too, is living. In one moment I remember my mother and realize how much I have become like her. In another, I lament the strange construction of an identity I have created after her death, how the collage of memories I have pieced together into an identity says more about what I need in this moment from her than who she really was as a human being. I think about how we remain constantly and incessantly surrounded by ghosts, and again, these ghosts say more about the present moment in which we find ourselves in than the ghosts themselves. After all, it is us who keeps them here, not them who linger.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation.

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation.

DA: Does time go on without us? One modern philosophical theme is the idea of the block universe, the idea that time is a human construct and all moments exist on equal footing with no concept of “now.” I read this as fundamentally similar to Nietzsche’s eternal return, since each moment is a moment that becomes emblazoned eternally. Yet physics seems to indicate profound incomprehensibility at the heart of things, such that even as we try to grasp the universe-without-us, the universe-without-us turns out to be the universe-without-us-with-us.

JL: Indeed. There is time, and then is time. What both Krasznahorkai and Tarr really point to is how subjective time is, how eternity isn’t a quantitative measurement, but more of a feeling, an endured and continuous state. Eternity can last 4 seconds, it can last hours. So time becomes something that may or may not exist outside the human world, but at least it is only significant and felt when embodied corporeally.

DA: I recently read British-Chinese novelist Xialu Guo complaining that American “realism” was a limiting ethic. Your work certainly doesn’t embody the sort of conventional writing to which she’s referring, but my reaction was Krasznahorkai’s work certainly feels more real to me than the sort of literal mundanity peddled by people from Franzen to Tao Lin. Looking at the situation in Ferguson, it reminds me more of The Melancholy of Resistance than The Corrections. But then, American literature always seems to have had a legitimacy problem. As Ann Douglas wrote, “Melville’s writing is alive with his outraged conviction that he cannot produce a work significantly better than his culture.” I think that the aspiration to a 19th century European-style realism (like that of early Henry James) is one alternative response to that problem. Is it time to reclaim “realism”, or throw it away?

JL: Realism is always such a tenuous and odd term for me. I mean, much of art has been dealing with this notion right. What is more or less realistic? What more or less embodies or expresses what is real? Once in a writing class a professor compared the work of Samuel Beckett, where real is someone trudging through the mud for countless pages, versus Bertolt Brecht, whose plays point to constructedness of reality itself. Or to look at a photograph of a vase of sunflowers versus a painting by Van Gogh where the deformity and texture and warpedness and colors of the sunflowers enacts a different kind of reality than the photo representation. Krasznahorkai’s work feels real to me in the way that it invokes such familiar qualities of abjectedness and intertia. There is mud, yes, but the humans who insist on moving through the mud, persistent. These kinds of impulses seem to human to me, so real, even if these people are so far from the reality that I live in everyday. Even something about Krasznahorkai’s sentences, the language that seems to constantly overturn itself, these protracted moments where the present gets drawn out in this way but continues to change direction. “Real” makes me think of expression and the dilemma of expression, or the dilemma of representation. So much is inarticulatable. And sometimes the inarticulation becomes the articulation. For example, I’ve been obsessed lately with taking photos of the sky and the sunset in Los Angeles. But these photos can’t capture any of the essence of what I feel in those moments looking up at the sky. That’s an impossibility. But the photo then becomes the articulation of that inarticulatable moment in a way that the evidence acts as a frantic ghost, a wound, a relinquishing of the everything of a single moment into a concentration of something, no matter its density or weight.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation

DA: America has a long-running streak of Millenialism in its religious populations, but in my own reading I’ve always felt like Eastern Europe has really had the monopoly on doomy apocalyptic literature–and that in contrast, modern secular America is very good at minimizing eschatology and doom (malaise, yes, but not doom). So when reading Damnation through two lenses, first my own American lens and then through my image of Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s European presence, and I felt somewhat dislocated, caught between my preconceptions of American garrulousness and Eastern European austerity. This was one of the reasons I wanted to read your other work, to see how to what extent I would feel one association or the other; what I noticed in those other works was, in fact, that your use of religious and morbid content acted to smooth over the gap between these two divergent conceptions. So aside from asking for your reaction to my own impressions, I’d like to ask whether you feel a particular American component to your work, and to what extent you feel other lineages (whatever they may be) tugging on you?

JL: This is a hard question for me to answer. Mostly, because I’m not sure. I’ve never been to Europe. I can start there. I’ve actually never left North America. Nor do I feel any strong or direct connection to the history or culture of Eastern Europe. Yet, nonetheless, the worlds of Tarr and Krasznahorkai make sense to me, make more sense to me than probably any of the other worlds I’ve encountered in film or literature or art yet, and I’m still wondering why that is. I was very pleasantly surprised, when, taking this silly little online quiz, to find that my test results deemed Hungary as the country of my internal citizenship. So maybe there is something there. But something more to do with the bleakness, the worldview, the hope, the empathy, etc. rather than the specific history or culture. Whether I feel a particular American component to my work, I can only answer that with the above, and an added piece of information that, well, yes, I’ve lived in America my entire life and will probably die here. Yet, I’m still not sure of this relationship between a writer’s country and the art that is produced.

DA: Hungary, or more generally the “Alpine-Carpathian zone” (in Paul Magocsi’s term) has been a touchstone for me as well. The area produced a huge number of influential scientists and mathematicians in the 20th century as well, in addition to its great artists, yet I’d be hard-pressed to make a generalization about it other than a generally dour, skeptical, yet curious worldview. When I was in Slovakia two years ago, I felt a bit more at ease with the willingness of people to criticize and express themselves unselfconsciously, as though the freedom to speak one’s thoughts would be welcomed without it being taken as a personal affront. Even something as simple as saying, “Have you read X?” to a stranger and hearing “Yes, I didn’t like X” was refreshing. But as Douglas says of Melville, the inability to come to grips with America is probably one of the signposts of being a real American writer. America simply does not seem to produce national figures like Goethe, Pushkin, Shakespeare, or Soseki. T.S. Eliot had to go to England to become a national figure there!

JL: I’m becoming more and more convinced that I really need to visit Hungary ASAP, to really be in the physical space and investigate what it is about that place that draws me so close and which I somehow, from a great distance, empathize with so closely.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation

DA: You work as a programmer, as have I. There was a time, centuries ago, when the sciences and the humanities were not so differentiated, long before C. P. Snow made his “two cultures” argument. For me this split is something I live, because writers of all stripes are so different from technically-minded people, and each points out the deficiencies in the position of the other (and how I possess both sets of deficiencies.) More than anything else, the public image of technology, in the eyes of writers, bears no resemblance to technology as I relate to it and as most techies I know relate to it. What is often called dehumanizing or mechanistic I see as blessedly regular and beautiful, a source of beauty purer than that in all but the greatest works of art. This was why I was drawn to Robert Musil, for trying to reconcile the two, and Krasznahorkai touches on this at length in his references to the mathematics of tuning and Cantor’s infinity. This too seems to be common to the region; Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is one of the most precise books about being lost in language that I know. And it is the fierce organization of sections like “The Machinist” in Damnation that makes me think of programming. Where are the joins for you?

JL: I agree that it seems these kinds of modes of thoughts and roles seem to be getting more and more specialized. But honestly, to me, I’ve never distinguished between these disciplines. I work as web designer, yes, one of my many modes of thought and being. Evident from my first book, KEROTAKIS, I’m also research-obsessed and have a lot of interests, including neuroscience, the occult, alchemy, the paranormal, ufology, biological anthropology, psychology, theology, phenomenology, etc. I just mentioned in another interview that I like to stay away from aesthetic categories that act as constricting forces and rather, see all these disciplines and areas as overlapping wavelengths on a broader spectrum, or different perspectives on the same subject of study, namely, life. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t study science first. I wouldn’t see narrative the way I do if I hadn’t, in some part of my life, been on the track to be a doctor. And I wouldn’t have the relationship with language I do today without the films of Bela Tarr. That is to say, it’s hard for me to separate between these areas, between the sciences and humanities even, at least in my own practice.

The Case Worker, by George Konrád

The true symbol of the totalitarian state is not the executioner, but the exemplary bureaucrat who proves to be more loyal to the state than to his friend.

George Konrád, “The Long Work of Liberty”

Harry Kent’s cover for the Korean edition of The Case Worker

The Case Worker (1969) is a short and brutal novel by George Konrád (1933-). Konrád is a Hungarian Jew who barely escaped the Holocaust. He stayed in Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1955, eventually becoming a dissident whose works could only be published samizdat. The Case Worker was his first and only novel to be published publicly in communist Hungary. It is not explicitly political, but the graphic bleakness of the novel does its country of origin no favors.  I’m a bit surprised that it was published.

 

Konrád was a case worker himself for a time, and I fear that the novel has an autobiographical basis. The narrator is sort of a social worker who takes down the reports of the lowlifes, unfortunates, and madmen who come to him: suicides, domestic violence, sexual abuse, murders. Sometimes he takes further action; often he does not. The early part of the novel is a sequence of disconnected, brutal stories of violence and perversity, chronicled in a sober, semi-detached voice. The narrator is explicit that his dissociation is a coping mechanism so that he does not go insane from overempathizing with the hopeless cases he sees, but even from the beginning, there is too much humanity in his voice for us to ever think that he will succeed in disconnecting completely.

At the beginning of my career, I thought: It’s like swallowing fistfuls of mud; I can neither digest it nor vomit it up. IN the last ten years I must have said, “Have a seat, please,” thirty thousand times. Apart from colleagues, witnesses, informers, prying newspapermen, and a few inoffensive mental cases, it was distress that drove most of them to my desk. In most instances their anguish was massive, tentacular, and incurable; it weighed on me in this room where people cry, “Believe me, it hurts,” “I can’t go on,” and “It’s killing me,” as easily as they would scream on a roller coaster. ON the whole, my interrogations make me think of a surgeon who sews up his incision without removing the tumour.

The plot arrives in the form of a brain-damaged four-year-old child. His barely functioning parents have committed suicide, and the narrator is unable to find anyone to take care of the child. The parents raised him feral in the hopes of toughening him up, and he is more animal than human, incapable of any emotional relationship to another person. No institution will admit him, so the narrator takes him in, while continuing his work.

The narrator grows sicker from hearing more horrific stories. His care for the child is a mechanism not to alleviate guilt, but to remove the jarring transition between the damaged world which he views in his work and the safe, sane world in which he otherwise lives:

I would merely wave a token farewell to the child, certain that the meaning of my gesture would not get through his vacuous gaze to his consciousness, and after shaking hands with the staff, hasten down the steps of the pillared portico to where the taxi driver, impatiently drumming his fingers on the half-open window of his car, would be waiting to take me back from this morgue, which humanitarianism had disguised as a home, to the city that tramples its misfits and castaways, the city where both of us have our jobs and families and friends capable of articulate speech, and where more or less efficient organizations segregate the untouchables, the maladjusted, the waste products of a society that maintains order by violence, from us free citizens with our inborn sense of duty: the sight of their repulsive existence must not be permitted to remind us that we and they might have anything in common.

So the novel becomes a chronicle of a seriously divided consciousness. Half of the narrator is the functioning member of society, while half of him is the feeling, bleeding, and dysfunctional empathizer, who takes care of this child because it is the only way he can feel any meaning in the world. This is no budding revolutionary consciousness or political awareness. That sensitivity does great damage to the narrator, and only serves to disconnect him from any sort of functioning social realm. The social realm, through organizational necessity, squashes such sentiments as he has.

Taking the handy legal shortcut rather than the roundabout path of sympathy and indignation, dealing superficially with thousands of clients instead of giving three or four, or even one, the attention they deserve–all this, I sometimes think, is plain fraud.

Actually, what I do amounts to nothing. I regulate the traffic of suffering, sending it this way and that, passing on the loads that pile up on me to institutions or private citizens…There’s no hurry, no situation is irreversible, today’s mortal danger will be nothing tomorrow and vice versa, today’s nothing will be death. If I don’t help my client, someone else will; if nobody helps him, he’ll help himself; and if he can’t, he will learn to bear his lot. But try as I may to encourage myself with such phrases, this child has undeniably become my lot.

Society, which treats him as an interchangeable part in one structure or another, a representative member of one class of people or another (be it occupation, economic class, gender, ethnicity, etc.), entices him to remove responsibility that goes beyond what he is tasked with in that part. With the arrival of the child, his unsocialized half rebels and will not permit him to remain in his part. But to do so is to isolate himself from society and ally with the wretched ones who come to his office.

I have been deleted from their schedules; they transfer their emotions to some worthier object and discover with relief that I can be replaced. That is as it should be–I feel the same way. If I live to old age, I shall love only the interchangeable.

The novel ends, sort of, with a great statement of solidarity for the broken people of the world. Konrád seems to proclaim the impossibility of any systematic institutionalized system of empathy, and thus the need to preserve that sort of empathy in an unregimented fashion no matter what the cost.  And the cost is great; the narrator is cut off, at least for a time, from his family and any institutionalized aspect of culture, including sex itself, which becomes to him a meaningless, socialized form of affection. But for the case worker, only incommensurable, non-interchangeable emotion can grant meaning.

It’s a remarkable and powerful novel, particularly for amassing such volatile emotional material into a cogent moral and social statement. (It is that last element that is completely lost in a book like his countryman Attila Bartis’s Tranquility. I think it shares a sensibility with Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs, but it is far more overwhelming and less allegorical. It works with the bare stuff of pain.

A final note on culture: Irving Howe writes in the introduction to the 1987 edition that Konrád’s communist Budapest does not seem so different from capitalist Manhattan. I’m not sure quite how he draws the comparison: more than any political difference, the tonal and stylistic differences between Konrád and literally any American writer I’ve read are so blatant as to make it extremely difficult to compare the underlying socio-political circumstances between The Case Worker and an average 20th century American novel. It’s possible that the American institutionalizing of individualism has made it that much more difficult to draw out that unsocialized empathy, and so works that ask us to empathize beyond any reasonable expectation have become rather rare in American society.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Chaos

These thoughts are a follow-on to the points I made in The Mythology of Laszlo Krasznahorkai and to a lesser extent in my comments on his Animalinside, which it seems will finally be released in the US in April by New Directions.

Krasznahorkai’s work tends to revolve around an intrusion onto order by chaos. In some of the early work like Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, the order takes a form of a recognizable socio-political situation: a small town, perhaps with echoes of the Communist era in it, though those echoes are never more than secondary associations. In other works, though, it just becomes what’s familiar by definition: the ideas and concepts we use to structure reality. The chaos comes as a pollutant. It’s some force that leaks into the known world and rips it to shreds. The world does recover, and I think this is because it must. Order will not disappear except with the death of every last human being. The chaos is an irruption.

Now, the order/chaos dichotomy is one that I do take fairly seriously. I think that it resists easy dismissal because, as Blumenberg says, it is primordial. The chaos is defined via negativa: it’s whatever our minds and concepts can’t get around. You can use other terms for it, like “infinite” or “other” or “transcendent,” but these are all misleading because they all imply (at least to me) a degree of access that, were it to exist, would domesticize the chaos and make it, well, non-chaotic, non-infinite, non-other, non-transcendent. Kierkegaard is always bizarre to read because he acts like he is on a first-name basis with the infinite, palling around with it and chatting over that crazy character Abraham. The same goes even moreso with Levinas: you can’t bow down to the Other in the way that he wants everyone to do so. This I think is one of his mechanisms for how the Other and the worldly tend to merge at certain points, when such a merging should not be possible, leading to twisty bits of logic like this:

Religion and religious parties do not necessarily coincide. Justice as the raison d’etre of the State: that is religion. It presupposes the high science of justice. The State of Israel will be religious because of the intelligence of its great books which it is not free to forget. It will be religious through the very action that establishes it as a State. It will be religious or it will not be at all.

Levinas, “The State of Israel and the Religion of Israel”

I do not find this objectionable; I merely find it incoherent.

But all this confusion has something to do with the falseness of Gnosticism. For any gnostic worth his salt is not going to come out and start talking about how much he (or she, but usually he) is a gnostic. Any real knowledge of that raw chaos, the way it is manifested far more honestly in Krasznahorkai’s work, causes insanity. By insanity I mean a form of disconnection from the world that no longer allows dialogue with the “order” of the known. Did Daniel Schreber have it? Did Antonin Artaud? (Louis Sass takes these two as studies in schizophrenia in his excellent book The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Perhaps Cassandra is another case of this sort of intrusion, given more logical form as befits Greek culture, but there the joke is that she actually knew better. They thought she was insane, but really, she was right! It’s an inexact example. In Krasznahorkai’s cases, such as with Korin in War and War and the grandson in From the North by Hill, as well as (I think) the narrator in Animalinside, the chaos is dehumanizing in that it removes the person from the realm of the human. It overruns them with non-sense (not nonsense). In contrast, the gnostic sages that claim secret access to the Truth are false prophets, since they speak our language too well.

In contrast, I think the real sense of what that confrontation with chaos might feel like is partly captured by the ending of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which starts off as beauty and then turns very very frightening, perfectly accompanied by the shift from Bach to Artemiev’s electronics:

(For all the differences between Tarkovsky and Stanislaw Lem, Lem’s focus on human knowledge encountering its limits and being forced to recognize those limits certainly provided a common ground between them, as much as Lem may have loathed admitting it. I wish Tarkovsky had made it clear that Kelvin’s gesture of falling to his knees is pointless, as good a reaction as any to the planet. Tarkovsky may not have thought that, though I know that Lem did. Bach is playing, the day is lovely, you feel in perfect harmony with the universe and in touch with God or whatever, and then you realize everything is wrong.)

And also with this excerpt from Kafka’s The Castle, which I quoted in the article and which still holds as an example of the announcement of that which is beyond you:

The receiver gave out a buzz of a kind that K. had never heard on a telephone. It was like the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance—blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound that vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.

Franz Kafka, The Castle

So, likewise but without the religious apparatus, chaos appears in Krasznahorkai’s work as a threat, a breach upon what is safe and orderly, the violation of Hume’s riddle of induction that requires that we take our predictions to be reliable though we have no guarantee that they will be. It is an antagonist, like the Prince and the angry mobs he foments, or a corrupted trickster figure like Iremias in Satantango.

It spreads as well. I think of it a little like Ice-9, except that the process is reversible through the brutal reassertion of order. The infringing agent is destroyed in some manner or reassimilated into the greater orderly whole (remember, despite his seeming power, the Prince is a frail figure who needs the assistance of a factotum, among others). Iremias seems to display both aspects, both chaotic and order, since he rips up the social fabric of the town just as easily as he informs on the townspeople to the authorities, and I take this to be a sign of his malevolent madness. His mystical experiences are not total fabrications, but he is utterly unable to share them with the others; he merely inspires them with high-minded rhetoric to destroy their lives.

I do not think that Krasznahorkai paints an end or resolution to this sort of intrusion and countermeasure. He portrays it as far more imminent and pressing than most people are likely to experience, since we don’t usually suffer such irruptions, and when we do, there are carefully coded social mores and institutions to try to regulate and control them. This provides a feeling of safety and insulation, until it doesn’t. The chaos is something we live with.

Miscellany

  • Explicably funny: “Ah, daylight: nature’s sunlamp.” (Thanks, G.)
  • Belgian writer Hugo Claus, who wrote the striking, perplexing, and recently translated Wonder (Archipelago), turns out to have dated Sylvia Kristel for a few years in the 1970s. I found this out while watching a bit of Claude Chabrol’s film Alice, his loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll, which (a) stars Kristel, and (b) looks rather bad. Stick with Jonathan Miller’s incredible Alice, the only version (as far as I know) to have been influenced by William Empson’s essay on Carroll, “The Child as Swain.”
  • I’m very happy to see that the amazing resource Hungarian Literature Online has returned with a new redesign. I voted for Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight in their poll over Esterhazy, Nadas, and Marai, which has currently put it over the edge to lead, though I can’t imagine it’ll win.

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.

 

But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

« Older posts

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑