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Gabriel Josipovici: Everything Passes

As Richard says, this was written as part of a proposed symposium on Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes, and so it wasn’t meant to stand alone as it does here. I somewhat assumed people would have read other assessments already, such as Paul Griffith’s excellent breakdown. See also Dan Visel’s commentary and Stephen Mitchelmore’s.

The key moment of Everything Passes, I think, comes very close to the end, when, having been frequently treated to slightly varying descriptions of a man standing at the window over the course of the book, our main character Felix now describes the room in his spoken description of a near-death experience (apparently drawn from the experience of Schoenberg’s that inspired his intense String Trio):

–I saw myself standing in an empty room, he says. I was standing at the window, looking out through the cracked pane.
–Then I saw my face at the window, behind the cracked pane. Looking out.

For me it came as a revelatory moment, for two reasons: first, Felix is revealed to be the one who has had this vision that has so frequently recurred; and second, this is the only time the vision is given from a definite vantage point, that is, from outside the window. Both of these are in contrast to the structure of the book to that point, which has presented the narrative in present-tense, third person, seemingly from a God’s-eye view. To be shown the same scene in nearly the same words through Felix’s eyes is to imagine that for the whole course of the book he has been staring the whole time at himself, that this disconnected and pointilistic narrative was constructed by Felix himself. Except not quite by Felix, because Felix is behind the glass now, the object of viewing. The viewer stands outside the glass. Who is this viewer?

The easiest analogue to draw is that of a near-death experience, with the common report of a person seeing himself from some vantage point above his actual body. I don’t find this very compelling. I would rather see it as a device used to expose the literary vantage point of the reader. We find that the vague narrative of a life assembled over the course of the book has been part of the experience of that narrator, rather than only the narrative structure imposed on the life by the author, standing between us and Felix. Except now that Felix is the narrator, looking through the window outside, he is no longer the man inside the room. Who is this man?

I don’t know that the book permits an actual answer to this question. Felix changes from object to subject as we go from observing him to seeing through his eyes, and then we realize that we may have been staring through “his” eyes the whole time, staring at a doppelganger who plays out larger and smaller pieces of his life. The superimposition of these frames, those of text, life memories, cultural knowledge, subject, and object, is what gives the book its doubly vertiginous quality, miming contrasting forward and backwards motions on different levels. I do wish that the content of the memories had been closer to the loaded material of Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden, where the weight of history and catastrophe gave the sparse text an immediacy missed here. In Everything Passes, as the details of a life not particularly well-spent accumulate, the life drains from its narrative as we learn more of the man behind the window, as it does from Felix himself.

Nikolai Leskov: The Enchanted Wanderer

I only heard of Leskov recently (Irving Howe and Walter Benjamin both wrote about him, so perhaps this is my fault), and I can’t understand why he isn’t better known in English. Leskov may not be in the absolute top rank, but he certainly deserves a place alongside other big 19th century names like Goncharov, Lermontov, and Shchedrin. But no, even though his most famous story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” was turned into an opera by Shostakovich, there’s very little on him in English. Leskov is less spiritual and more folkloric than his contemporaries, preferring not to deal in big concepts like family and fate, and perhaps this makes him less archetypally Russian. But especially in the massive novel-length tale “The Enchanted Wanderer,” he pulls off an extended anti-everyman epic that has echoes of the less satirical (and less crazy) side of Gogol, but even more so, Kleist.

I adore Kleist, and I follow Gabriel Josipovici’s line that Kleist was a singular and oppositional figure in Germanic literature, pointing away from the dominant trends of the time. Leskov is nowhere near as perverse, but the willingness with which the stories blithely take hairpin turns and lapse into burlesque is something Leskov has to himself.

“The Enchanted Wanderer” plays up the blitheness, as our hero, the strong giant Ivan, is not the most reactive sort, and greets his many crazy and painful picaresque adventures with more nonchalance than anything else. For most of the story, his calm ability to take things in stride comes as simply an odd quirk, but by the end it appears integral to Leskov’s portrayal of the world. He is a reluctant storyteller. Late in his life, as a monk, some people on a boat ask him to tell his long life story, and he eventually agrees.

The story then has several more or less discrete sections with jarring transitions between them. Here’s a synopsis:

  1. He is born as a serf and becomes a horse driver for his lord. One day he inadvertently kills a monk, who returns to him in a dream at night. The conversation he has is typical of his attitude:

    “You took my life without giving me a chance of repentance.”

    “Well,” I replied, “it’s tough luck and I’m very sorry, but what do you expect me to do about it now? I didn’t do it on purpose, did I? Besides,” I said, “what have you got to grumble about? You’re dead and that’s that.”

    …”You will suffer many hardships and adversities, but you will not die until the day appointed for your doom, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and you’ll become a monk.”

  2. He continues at his job as a horse driver until saving the life of his lord’s son, at which point he becomes a caretaker of pigeons and such. But after a cat eats the pigeons and he cuts off his tail, he is punished and humiliated and flees to become a robber.
  3. He is soon found by another landowner who trusts him immediately to be the nursemaid for his wife and child. But the wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him, and taking a moral stance that the lovers should be together (after initially wanting to beat up the lover), he helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
  4. He shows up at a horse fair and displays his expertise in judging horses, then gets into a flogging fight with a Tartar, whom he kills. The Russians present try to haul him off to trial, so he flees with the Tartars to the steppe.
  5. The Tartars like him too much and hold him hostage on the steppe for ten years by implanting bristles into his heels, making it difficult even to walk. He has several wives and children.
  6. At age 33, he is finally able to flee from the Tartars (converting them to Christianity beforehand via some prestidigitation) by finding corrosive earth that allows him to open his heel and remove the bristles.
  7. Ivan is hired by another lord for his horse judging skills.
  8. He meets up with a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through Kleistian nightmares and hallucinations in order to cure him of drink.
  9. Still employed, he meets up with some bizarre gypsies, falling in love with the captivating dancer Grusha, to whom he loses a huge amount of money. His master goes to see Grusha the next night and buys her from the gypsies as a mistress.
  10. Grusha becomes miserable, the master grows tired of her and imprisons her in a remote cottage. She escapes and returns to our hero, demanding that he kill her to put her out of her misery. He reluctantly agrees.
  11. He joins the Russian army and, wanting to die over his guilt for killing Grusha, he embarks on a suicide mission, miraculously surviving and defeating the Tartars. He tries to confess killing Grusha, but no one believes him, and he is made an information clerk in St. Petersburg as a reward for his heroism.
  12. In St. Petersburg, he beats up an actor for harassing a young actress and loses his job as a result. Finally out of options, he joins a monastery.
  13. In the monastery he wrestles with his sins and with the Devil himself, finally driving off his torment through extreme fasting.
  14. A Jew hangs himself near the monastery and our hero thinks that his ghost is Judas and is tormenting him during the night. Turns out to be a cow.
  15. He gets frustrated while setting up a service one day and knocks over a bunch of candles in anger. He is imprisoned in a pit in the monastery for months, but he doesn’t find it too bad, and acquires a gift of prophecy.
  16. He takes the trip that began the story, meaning to go to some saints’ tombs and pray there, for he foresees more war and will leave the clergy and take up arms if war breaks out: “I want to die for my people!” he says, and the story ends.

This gives a decent idea of the eccentric nature of the story, but not of what lifts it above the level of a picaresque folktale. It’s in the telling that Leskov draws the pieces together, not just in his maintaining certain traits to the narrative but also in how he rejects other more conventional ones.

Leskov seems to have had a thing for telling stories that go on longer than their expected end point. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” famously does this, but here it’s even more perverse. The whole story is structured to lead up to Ivan joining a monastery and fulfilling his prophesied destiny, and yet when he does finally become a monk, the story goes on as if nothing has changed. He still gets into misadventures, he still falls into slapstick antics, and he still suffers in his usual nonchalant way. Far from being any particular destiny for him, his engagement with religion turns out as arbitrarily as everything before.

So if the destiny angle is not fulfilled, what forms the commonality of his adventures? It’s Ivan’s character. Ivan is not a cerebral man; he primarily acts out of instinct, and he doesn’t learn much from his experiences. He is not appreciably different from his younger self at the end of the story. But throughout, his reactions follow a certain moral pattern. He can act out of rage or out of kindness, but he tends to show a great sympathy for women and possesses a sense of honor that seems more innate than situational. If he feels bad about something, no one is able to stop him from proclaiming his unworthiness; if an authority condemns him for something he believed to be right, he ignores the conflict and just walks off. And these reactions spring forth fully formed from his unconscious; he seems to watch them as they happen rather than choose them, and this is complemented by his blase attitude toward the strangest happenings (shown well in the dialogue above, where he is ridiculously at ease with the ghost of a man he just inadvertently killed). And he has no lessons to tell to his audience on the barge; he’s just telling a story.

So while there is a melancholic fatalism to the plot, Ivan’s personality makes it difficult to greet the events with any sort of tragic sense, because his own attitude is such that he knows he will survive anything, even if he doesn’t wish to. This makes him very much the archetype of a “wanderer,” but one without angst and one untroubled by regret, concerned neither with salvation nor damnation. Yet he is not a holy fool in any sense, as he suffers greatly and maintains a consistent, though buried, moral posture throughout. As with Kleist, the whole story holds together in spite of its refusing any easy shape that it might fit.

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.]

Ecumenicality

Those who live in the present but who harbour no doubts about the structure of authority, about the extreme dangers of our society, including the estrangement of man and nature, those whose anger does not drive them to delve into the essentials, and those whose approach to their art raises no questions, all of these must renounce their status as artists.

Masayuki Takayanagi (tr. Alan Cummings)

For a long time, the local library would give me old copies of the Times Literary Supplement. For years, I used to read it at night when I could sleep with a mixed fascination. Culture, intellectual life – all this was marvellous. But I was disturbed by the steadiness of its tone and the tranquility of its judgements. So, at least, it seemed to me then. Gradually, I saw in it an old enemy: culture itself, the old culture, whose conservatism was clear when it came to reviewing works of philosophy. My judgement was simplistic, unsubtle, but one day I took hundreds of editions of the TLS to the dump and felt lifted.

What was it I disliked? Simply that a metaphysic was not allowed to lift itself from literature. Or that the approach to literature was in some way obvious, or transparent, and that judgements could be made. But I asked myself – I still ask – whether this is because I lack something, something quality of judgement; that I am not far enough from what I read – and that, perhaps, others like me also lack. But then I also asked – and ask today – whether those who seek from literature a clue as to how to live, how to act, how to experience the contingency of the world, can only ever be too close to what they are compelled to love.

Lars, Spurious

It was Lars’s quote that provoked me, and the anger in the Takayanagi quote that gave me the words and moved me to write (because anger is such a kinetic emotion). An attack on my beloved TLS! And not even on the hyper-Tory issues of early this year that seemed to be begging Rupert Murdoch not to sell them.

I think Lars is probably right if you look at any individual article in the TLS. Unlike the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, which both review books under the aegis of a particular cultural orientation set by the editors, the TLS has always been far more ecumenical. Nonfiction tends to be reviewed by experts in the field of the book under discussion, and correspondingly, the instances of axe-grinding tend to be intradisciplinary rather than cross-disciplinary. This tends to result in a greater plurality of critical apparati, since reading Philip Payne on Carl Corino’s biography of Robert Musil is a lot more enlightening and involving than reading Charles Simic on Elizabeth Bishop.

Except for the occasional creeping Toryism (happy, Rupert?) and an evident bias towards analytic philosophy, Lars is right to observe the lack of an emergent metaphysic and to say that the engagement tends to be on the books’ own terms. It is precisely this provincialism, which in combination with ecumenicality, allows for much more open-ended speculation. For there is an implicit set of metaphysics in each discipline and review, and to their honest credit, the TLS is open about letting the contradictions sit next to one another. Marxism sits next to neo-liberalism, post-colonialism next to the saner half of evolutionary biology, and Fredric Jameson next to Charles Taylor.

This plurality of habits of being, as it were, provides me (at least) with a constant deferral of finitude. When I read Alastair Fowler shredding Stephen Greenblatt, I don’t see a transparency but a vicious questioning, done on Fowler’s terms but nonetheless insidiously non-final. Moving on to an article comparing various parodies of Bacon, I take not the harsh judgment of Greenblatt (satisfying as it may be), but the sheer partiality of it all. It is this lesson that I take with me in life, and it’s why I hesitate to ever settle on a single field of expertise.

Authors like Beckett, Bernhard, Blanchot, Josipovici, and Davis attempt to effect an erasure of that traditional cultural baggage, that which makes us feel comfortably situtated when reading. They succeed in varying degrees (I vote for Beckett myself), but I admire their project in every way. It is not enough, however. The role of those authors and critics–“fans,” you could call them–that are obsessed with consuming, regurgitating, and mutilating culture is to remind us of the fluidity of such things: that we should not damn it but synthesize it genealogically. Joyce in Finnegans Wake, as I said in many previous entries, constitutes a pinnacle of this all-consuming methodology, but so does the TLS. They give us the evidence.

There are those who selectively pick from that evidence and fall in line; they fall under Takayanagi’s accusation. But one does not cure one’s susceptibility by avoidance alone. Engage impartially and ecumenically and your intentions will be progressive, not conservative.

Gabriel Josipovici: In a Hotel Garden

I consider Gabriel Josipovici one of the best literary critics around (most recently, his brilliant essay on Grimm and Kleist), and as usual, I tried in vain to put his criticism aside when I read this novel. I was half-aware of Josipovici’s orientation and apparati while reading In a Hotel Garden, but in this case it wasn’t such a bad thing.

The back of the book says:

The narrator Ben relates to his friends his enthralling encounter with a Jewish woman in the Dolomite Alps. The tale of her compulsive visit to a hotel garden in Siena–where her grandmother fell in love with a man soon to be a victim of the Holocaust–illuminates Ben’s half-lived life….

With the exception of a factual mistake that is the crux of the book, this is indeed all that happens in this short novel. It’s a summary, not a teaser. The ultimate resolution, such as it is, is that the garden may be the wrong garden after all, and the significance that the other woman, Lily, attaches to it is mistaken, at least in the literal sense. There is no particular elaboration on the subject matter, something I believe Josipovici explicitly intended.

For, knowing Josipovici’s concern with Blanchot and his attention to language as a form of living and dying (as opposed to, say, a representational mechanism), what meaning there is lies in the dialogue. The novel is mostly dialogue, and the chapters delineate conversations between sets of characters. The early chapters, between Ben and his wife and friends, are aggressively and off-puttingly banal: the quotidian routines of holiday and family life. The conversations between Lily and Ben affect a change in style as well as content: the frustrating non-communication of much of the book gives way to a laying-out of the discourse, as the pace of the conversation slows down and the speakers appear to consider their words in a qualitatively different way. I won’t attempt to describe it, for the book’s strength is in achieving this distinction in text alone, and its goal (I believe) is to do so in a way that resists explication.

What is made explicit does not qualify as any sort of eloquent epiphany:

–You said this morning that when you saw the garden through the doors
of the hotel it was like coming home, he said.

–Yes.

–What did you mean?

–As if I’d known it all my life, she said. As if at last everything was going to come clear…As if it was where I came from, she said. As if once I entered that garden I would know who I was.

Such vague simplicities grate, but I came to decide that they were not meant as profundities in themselves, but as indications of a different sort of verbal struggling. Josipovici lashes himself fiercely to the mast of everyday conversation and refuses to build out of it or on top of it, preferring to present such conversation unadorned and elaborate on it purely through small variation and contrast. Like Blanchot, the result still feels to me like a mental schema overlaid onto characters, rather than one emerging through characters. But as an alternative to traditional presentations of dialogue–expository, developmental, and ornamental, for example–I find it productive. I’m not convinced or converted, but I am happy that the novel asked me for a different kind of reading, I asked why, and I was able to find an answer.

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