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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kafka (page 5 of 7)

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.

Thoughts on Work

Marjorie Williams wrote that Christina Stead was one of the few authors to write accurately and thoroughly of money:

One other (random) thing I want to note is how wonderfully Stead writes about money. It is strange how little fiction there is that reflects the resonance money really has in life. (Middlemarch comes to mind, but how many titles spring after it?) The family’s economic decline, the scenes in which the Pollit children come to see that they are really poor, and the climactic one in which poor young Ernie–who defends himself through the careful accretion and management of money–discovers that his mother has stolen his last little savings, have a magnificent realism.

And I think this is partly true. Surely the most acutely realistic writers like George Gissing (in New Grub Street) have captured the relevance of money to the impoverished, but often, as with Dickens or Frank Norris’s McTeague, money simply becomes an item delineated by its desirability or its absence. The notion of finance, household particularly, is considerably rarer. Much of the “realistic” fiction of the last fifty years presents middle class people in financially comfortable situations, as long as they keep working.

But what of work? It has been on my mind lately because it’s been taking up larger-than-usual chunks of my time. But when I think about work as I know it, there are few literary correlates. Proust, I’m sure, would have had brilliant things to say, but he was lucky enough not to have to work. Social realist novels like Gladkov’s Cement or those of Dos Passos say less about the act of working than they do about the sociological politics underlying it. Leopold Bloom doesn’t spend much of his day, page-wise, in the office, and certainly seems preoccupied with other matters even while he’s there.

The two authors who I do think of are Kafka (particularly Amerika and The Castle, both about characters looking for work) and the Beckett of Watt. I don’t mean this in an existential, fatalistic, or hopeless way; it’s more that they capture the non-narrative nature of work, the idea that in spite of whatever is accomplished, you will be back the next day because it’s your job, and unlike school, there is no natural ending point (short of a mass layoff). The sheer unendingness of one’s occupation, and the ability for that infinite plane to envelop one’s life and weave its tendrils through your mannerisms and speech patterns, are better captured by the actions of Watt in serving Mr. Knott’s capricious needs than they are by tales of occupational woe and oppression. Watt’s preoccupation with the endless variations that he is put through, and the way that they define his words and actions, stand in contrast to the limitations of the setting of his work; this is what work is.

But even these stories are abstract and hardly particular enough to capture the particular flavor of corporate life in the first world today. And I fear that in the absence of a compelling literary story of work, sociologists and social theorists have taken over the job of defining work. They have done so primarily in Marxist terms, though not always. The effect has been to objectify these occupations and give short shrift to their mythologizers: at least to those who would see a mythos as crude as Confucianism. Even the Confucian hierarchy would be preferable to the individualist aesthetic that no longer seems germane to most modern occupations, whose managers stress interdependence as much as they do individual competition and achievement. Many theorists (I don’t have to name them) have overlaid a narrative of exploitation and alienation on corporate work, one that is in many ways quite accurate even as it misses the point. Consider C. Wright Mills, the most dramatic and emotional of the American narrators:

The old middle-class work ethic–the gospel of work–has been replaced in the society of employees by a leisure ethic, and this replacement has involved a sharp, almost absolute split between work and leisure. Now work itself is judged in terms of leisure values. The sphere of leisure provides the standards by which work is judged; it lends to work such meanings as work has.

Alienation in work means that the most alert hours of one’s life are sacrificed to the making of money with which to ‘live.’ Alienation means boredom and the frustration of potentially creative effort, of the productive sides of personality.

C. Wright Mills, White Collar (p. 236), 1951

A vivid portrayal of a nightmare. What I would argue, however, is that however great a straitjacket corporate work puts on its employees, it cannot be innately alienating. Alienation, pace Hagel, requires that one be alienated from an aspect of the world. Mills (among others) would say that the alienation is from the product of one’s work, but in corporate work the product of one’s work is not perceived as the end goal, not as much as (a) the process by which the product is achieved, and (b) one’s own self-advancement, and the relation between the two. The product looks very different from the inside than from the outside. In other words, there is a world of non-alienation at work, often a hostile and paranoid one, but one in which people live as an end in itself. And since this world is something that takes up over a third of the lives of the vast majority of people in this country, it deserves better than the slick generalizations of a Franzen.

But it seems that few writers has picked up the slack, leaving the academic left and the Straussian right to promulgate archetypal portrayals of the western employee to their various audiences. The topic of work is too significant to be left to theorists; Studs Terkel’s Working is a better map of these territories than Marx. The area should belong to literature, which can provide more personal and emotional narratives for it. But literature has yet to stake a serious claim.

Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome

To begin with a tangent: one of the things that I love about the Times Literary Supplement is how dutiful they are about getting experts to review books in their fields, so that instead of, for example, hearing praise for the wonderfully informative, picturesque prose of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, as happened in countless American publications, you get to hear how badly Menand’s book misrepresented the pragmatic philosophical tradition, as Bruce Wilshire discussed at length, concluding:

Menand’s failure to grasp the purport and consequences of distinctively philosophical ideas becomes damagingly clear. What is the meaning of truth, persons, groups, reality, matter, mind, the meaning of meaning itself, the meaning of “pragmatism” itself? James’s pragmatic theories of meaning and truth depend on his metaphysics of radical empiricism or pure experience, but references to this metaphysics are absent in Menand, and so James’s pragmatism cannot be grasped. Neither can Dewey’s, nor Peirce’s.

It would be nice to say that The Metaphysical Club is on balance worth having. Menand provides interesting and valuable historical knowledge often overlooked by “pure” philosophers, touching on important thinkers such as Chauncey Wright, Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, Randolph Bourne, W. E. B. Du Bois, Arthur Bentley, Edward Ross, Learned Hand and many others. But I cannot say this nice thing. Menand’s valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of ideas will badly mislead unless one already knows quite a bit about the ideas themselves. It is not safe to assume that even many learned, educated, or inquiring people possess this knowledge and discipline.

Right on, Mr. Wilshire. (Sorry, the article is not publicly available, but it’s in the subscriber archive of the TLS.) More recently, Stephen Greenblatt picked a fight with Alastair Fowler, who had slammed Will in the World, over seventeenth century European population statistics, and Fowler came out the more knowledgeable winner.

The point is that there is often a real difference between presenting one’s experience of a work and critiquing the work itself, and often people present themselves as qualified to do both when they can actually only do the first. So I fess up: I don’t know enough about life in the Soviet Union during perestroika to claim that I truly understand Kira Muratova‘s The Asthenic Syndrome. But then, I’m not sure that Jonathan Rosenbaum does, either. He describes the first forty-five minutes of the film in detail, then throws up his hands, declaring:

Doubtless there are other details referring specifically to aspects of everyday postcommunist Russian life that are too local to register with much clarity to outsiders like me. Truthfully, I found the movie a lot easier to follow when I saw it a second time and knew not to look for too much plot continuity, though I can’t claim there weren’t parts that still baffled me. The movie’s a treasure chest, and if we get to see it more, more will surely become clear.

Nevertheless, the fundamental aspects of The Asthenic Syndrome come across loud and clear–and you certainly don’t have to be Russian or postcommunist to recognize them as central philosophical as well as behavioral strains in our public life.

(Now I don’t have to feel so bad about discussing the film.) I disagree with Rosenbaum; the movie has a very specific context and makes allusions within it, and speaking to some Russian friends after the movie, it was clear that they were both essential to the film and presented only by allusion. The film is bereft of political (or even markedly cultural) references, yet unlike Alexander Kluge’s The Blind Director or the work of Bela Tarr, which also deal in elusive allegories, Muratova’s film exists within a very definite time and space, that of Gorbachev-era perestroika in the Soviet Union.

If you don’t know that perestroika is seen as the source of millions of deaths stemming from deregulation, corruption, and crime, the melancholy and despair that fill The Asthentic Syndrome seem disconnected from a particular cause: what is Muratova critiquing, exactly? Rosenbaum sees it as a general critique of politics and systems, but that is to deny its overwhelming sense of specificity. Muratova made a film for Soviets, and to reduce it to a series of abstract statements, as Rosenbaum does, sells it severely short. Without the context, the film is simply an ugly, abstract meditation on nothing in particular, one that can be used in assorted political contexts, but which lacks much innate value. Knowing the context reveals the emotion behind the puzzling surface.

The film proceeds for its first segment as Rosenbaum describes: a washed-out, black and white portrait of a woman, Natasha, grieving after her husband has died. But the actress playing Natasha is so hysterically over-the-top, and so unrealistic and disconnected in her mood swings as to be off-putting. So it comes as a relief forty-five minutes in when, with absolutely no prior indication, the camera pulls back to reveal that the film so far has been a film within a film. Everything is now in color, and an audience is bored with this art-house movie, not bothering to question the actress who played Natasha, who is the special guest. Eventually only one man is left in the theater, our hero Nikolai, who has fallen asleep.

Nikolai, it turns out, has some kind of (highly symbolic) narcolepsy, and spends much of the film asleep. He teaches, but rarely displays any emotion beyond resignation and exhaustion. He is clearly the opposite of Natasha, almost comically so. He wanders in a world filled with unpleasant people throwing decadent parties where the party game of the hour is to pose two nude people to make a scene depicting “love.” Nikolai repositions himself and a woman to, pace Kafka, appear to be lying next to each other in a coffin.

So it proceeds. The visuals are mostly drab and underplayed, and the extras in particular make a point of not intruding with much visible emotion. This is, evidently, a portrait of society in despair, a society which has lost a principle of order, albeit a cruel, totalitarian one, and is lost. Historically speaking, given the popularity of Putin’s return-to-authoritarianism regime, Muratova’s vision seems quite prescient.

Yet the relation of the two parts puzzles me. The film-within-a-film, never named, is so artificial as to even be considered a “bad film,” and thus something being rejected; certainly it seems to have no resonance for any of the “real” characters. But the balance of the opposites–lack of affect vs. hysteria–makes it out to be something more complicated. My tentative conclusion is that the film-within-the-film is intentionally designed to have an alienating effect, to be so extreme as to push the audience into the corner of the narcoleptic who is the film’s true protagonist. The old violent extremes, Muratova seems to say, have vanished and are no longer relevant, but that means that there is no revenge to be had, no purgation of anger for the descendents of the victims of Stalin. Rather, the rug has just been pulled out from under them, and they are left in an unregulated void.

I was intrigued by The Asthenic Syndrome, but often confused, sometimes bored, and rarely moved. (An anomalous, memorable sequence of a unlikable old matron ineptly playing the trumpet is a notable exception.) But this film was not made for me. It is a portrait of a unique situation that I never experienced, and it does not go out of its way to generalize or polemicize, though it has its strong opinions. It is of its time in a way that Tarr’s The Werckmeister Harmonies is not, yet that gives it a strength that allows it to easily best Angelopoulos’s tepid, feeble Ulysses’ Gaze, which is more concerned with making a pompous statement than capturing life.

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.

At the Gate


I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables.

The servant did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted.

In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant.

He knew nothing and had heard nothing.

At the gate he stopped me and asked: “Where is the master going?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.”

“So you know your goal?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Out of here–that’s my goal.”

–Kafka

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