David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: new york (page 4 of 6)

Little Miss Sunshine

This sometimes amusing farce gives me the opportunity to plug a few far greater comedies that it echoes:

Smile also shares the beauty contest motif, but works it into a small town setting where the teen beauty pageant becomes an exhausting force that draws out suppressed pain and disappointment. Bruce Dern, who was mostly known for playing psychos, does an uncanny job suggesting all that is wrong with the average small-town citizen. Barbara Feldon is also amazing as the disillusioned ex-winner turned ice queen pageant director. Yet it’s not heartless, and the small degree to which the characters can still genuinely emote is touching.

Little Murders is heartless. It was directed by Alan Arkin, who has the best role in LIttle Miss Sunshine, and he did an appropriately ghastly job with Jules Feiffer’s script. Elliott Gould plays a catastrophically depressed photographer in New York in the bad old days of random violence, anomie, and paranoia. Awful things happen. It’s constructed as a series of setpieces, but enough of them are brilliant to keep things moving along. Donald Sutherland’s reverend probably has the best bit, but I’ve always had a weakness for the scene where Gould returns to his parents to be consoled and…I won’t give it away.

And as far as pre-teen beauty pageants go, I think Chris Morris (scroll down to “BRASS EYE”) had the best, shortest commentary on it all.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

I said I’d been holding off reviewing this book, originally published in Hungarian in 1999 but only translated into English now, until I knew more of what to make of it, and I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet. But the past week has been personally rather lousy for me, and overlapping as it does with the conflagration in the Middle East between Israel and, well, nearly everyone else, War and War has been at the front of my mind in ways that I cannot totally quantify. The way it treats the amorphous yet concrete intersection of the personal and political is so convincingly evocative of my current admixture of petty personal woes and fatalistic political worries that I have to say that it is the book for now.

I thought Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance a fantastic book, a haunting and violent political allegory that had more to say than a hundred contemporary books. I wrestled with it as I do with Musil, Riding, Gass, and too few others. In its sweeping, uncanny world, it is the book J.M. Coetzee has tried to write several times, but never quite succeeded. (I think Waiting for the Barbarians comes closest.) So I looked forward to War and War, also translated by the poet George Szirtes, as the most promising book on the horizon this year.

War and War is a remarkable novel, and it is drastically different from Krasznahorkai’s previous novel. Stylistically, the huge sentences and paragraphs are there, as is the sheer bleakness and black humor, but this book is far more oblique. It is not an allegory, but neither is it a realistic narrative, nor a fantasy, and as unusual as his past work was, War and War is sui generis. It is intensely personal, and I think it works hard to defy easy analysis. Krasznahorkai was quite explicit about the narrative and thematic construction of The Melancholy of Resistance within the text; here he draws back whenever the text is about to be too conclusive.

The story is odd and spare. A Hungarian scholar, Korin, has located a historical manuscript of tremendous importance to him, and he wants to share it with all humanity. To do so, he goes to New York, the heart of the living world, makes acquaintances with some unpleasant characters, and purchases a computer and web site to post the manuscript. He describes the manuscript at length to everyone he encounters. Korin is quite touched (and out of touch), and by the time of his eventual suicide, one wonders how he made it so far.

The manuscript is something else entirely. We only hear about it through Korin’s descriptions, but it is one strange beast, placing four somewhat nebulous travelers in various historical times and places from Greece to Italy to Africa, usually just before some sort of catastrophe or war. Often their bete noir, the Mephistophelian Mastemann, makes an appearance. The manuscript becomes hazier and more chaotic, according to Korin, until he himself has no idea what to make of it, other than being convinced of its utter importance. His most explicit summary comes towards the end, speaking of the possible author Wlassich and the four men:

It was a way out that this Wlassich or whatever his name is, was seeking for them, but he could not find one that was wholly airy and fantastical so he sent them forth into the wholly real realm of history, into the reality of eternal war, and tried to settle them at a point that held the promise of peace, a promise that was never fulfilled, though he conjures this reality with ever more infernal power, with ever more devilish fidelity, even greater demonic sensitivity, and populates it with the products of his own imagination, in vain as it turns out, for their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace, and this Wlassich, or whoever it is, despairs ever more of his one-person, amateurish ritual, and eventually goes completely off his head, for there is no Way Out. (203)

Needless to say, Korin is living this nightmare himself, though in a rather abstruse manner. The severity with which he goes about his life, even the simple matter of traveling to New York and publishing the manuscript, is difficult to bear at times. It is this historical weight, the constant sense of grand war and a society that is too great and heavy with suffering for a person to contain, that is the heart of the book, as inexplicable as it may be. Korin suffers it constantly and acutely. Krasznahorkai does not give any simple explanation, or any real explanation at all, for Korin’s condition, in which the historical and personal have collapsed and are overwhelming him. But the “historical” is not quite what we read in the papers and in books; it is, as Korin says, “the version that has triumphed by stealth.”

As for the Way Out…Krasznahorkai leaves it somewhat open. The end uses a couple of metafictional conceits. One of them is quite a punchline, and the other is touchingly ingenuous. Both reinforce that Korin’s nightmare is meant to be shared, as it is Krasznahorkai’s and his readers’. In his online introduction, Krasznahorkai says:

…there was an unexpected, fierce, poignant vision: a couple of people running for life in timeless devastation and meanwhile taking stock of all that they have to say good-bye to.

The book I started to write in 1992 rests on this vision, and given the feeling I had while working on it that there were less and less people who would grasp the meaning of a vision like mine, from 1996 on I tried to get in touch with them. I had been writing messages for two years and dividing them into separate sentences I had them published in literary journals. Then in 1998 I sent a kind of a last message, a story forwarded as a letter and entitled Megj&#xc3&#xb6tt &#xc3&#x89zsai&#xc3&#xa1s /Isaiah has come/ in which the future hero described the roots, origin and spirit of the novel announced to be published the following year.

Perhaps Krasznahorkai is trying to resituate Beckett and Kafka’s private mirrors of the self in known historical reality, a goal with which I am wholly sympathetic. His open conception of a narrow readership seems in line with this goal, and it matches the book’s concept as well, since Korin and the four travelers are such aberrant figures. I don’t know if I’m included in that readership, but for the last week I’ve felt like I am, felt shaken as Korin does.

Finnegans Wake and Little, Big

I purposefully read Beckett’s Watt after Proust to clear away ideological detritus. After Finnegans Wake, I didn’t sense any particular residue, so I chose to reread John Crowley’s brilliant and unique Little, Big, not realizing that its approach is in some ways opposite that of the Wake.

The two books don’t seem to have any special relation, and I don’t know anyone that’s claimed a place for Joyce as one of Crowley’s major antecedents. (I see more of James Branch Cabell and Charles Kingsley than Joyce, for example.) But with the Wake floating in my mind, there was one polar difference that weighed on me the entire time I was reading Little, Big, which I’d loosely put as gnosticism vs. physicalism.

Now, I’m a bit biased here because my Wake teacher is an avowed enemy of gnostics (his criticism in a nutshell: “They just make shit up!”) and so had something of a vested interest in reading an anti-gnosticism into Finnegans Wake, but even on the surface level, the Wake is a very physical and visceral book. It’s most obviously present in Joyce’s obsessive scatology and descriptions of near-every bodily functions, which eventually make the book clinical enough that all disgust and fetishism fall away, and you might as well be reading about the sexual proclivities of moths. But as I said last time, Joyce isn’t one to deal in ephemeralities: there is little theology or eschatology in the Wake. When religion is invoked, it’s often with direct relation to the physical or the historical.

Little, Big (and for that matter, much of Crowley’s work) not only sets itself to discussing the reality behind the appearance, but does so in a rather gnostic matter. The subsequent Aegypt books make this connection explicit, but it’s certainly there in Little, Big, in which a set of the privileged are allowed mysterious, ineffable access to a world within a world that exists consubstantially with ours.

One look at Finnegans Wake and it seems like mysticism. But Joyce is almost devoutly quotidian: the things he repeatedly, obscurely analogizes are the very basics of the world and more importantly, the known: male, female, parents, children, birth, death, day, night, sex, education, work, play. The most realistic scene (in
III.4) appears to concern a pub-owner and his family, and the
situation as far as I can discern it is hardly anything more unusual than Leopold Bloom’s in Ulysses. If anything, it’s more normal, as there’s far less information given to make these people unique. The pub-owner, named Porter, is a Protestant Irishman and well-respected citizen leeading an typical middle-class life. Joyce loads the scene up with the usual allusions and such, and I take from it that this scene is to be put on an equal footing with all the complications and mysteries have gone before. The message: This is it. This is the world for all to see and all that anyone can see.

It’s hardly so clear-cut, of course, and the heavy use of the Egyptian Book of the Dead are one of the most prominent mythologies that seem to negate Joyce’s physicalism. But as I read it, these mythologies chiefly analogize the physical, monistic reality around us, rather than alluding to some Other realm, just as Bloom’s hallucinations in Nighttown explore his brutal reality. You’re welcome to disagree, but the sense I get is that language and the physical are the two realms at work, and Joyce’s problem isn’t the lack of correlation between one and the other, but the overlapping and overloaded correlation between the two.

Little, Big, on the other hand, purposefully portrays the world-as-we-know-it through a gauzy haze, abstracting New York as “the City” and only vaguely referencing massive events of upheaval in this world, as though to emphasize that the characters are already in process of leaving this world and entering another. Little, Big repeatedly invokes the unexplainable and mysterious motivations in showing the encroaching Otherness in the familiar world. The basic illusoriness of the physical is even more present in Engine Summer, and I think that Crowley enjoys using the concept to show how stories and conceptions of the world trump any certainty about the world itself, using fairy tales as one of his key metaphors. And ultimately, I think Joyce prefers to use the tales to serve the world, rather than the other way around.

Supposedly the hyper-obscure debate between Bishop Berkeley (note the “Ding hvad in idself” reference to Ding an sich) and Saint Patrick near the very end of Finnegans Wake describes the triumph of materialism over Platonic-styled idealism, but I won’t pretend to have much idea of what it means. But consider Giordano Bruno, who figures heavily in both Crowley and Joyce’s worlds. For Crowley, it’s the gnostic/hermetic tradition that Bruno embodies, with his memory arts and mystical reality therein. At least to my eye, Joyce doesn’t reference those aspects often, at least nowhere near as much as the near-constant references strewn about to Bruno’s cosmology and the physical, natural homogeneity of the universe. (Bruno was quite creative and disparate in his philosophies and heresies!) I think he was quite happy having his hands full with the world as we know it.

I don’t really have a preference for one approach over the other, but amazing how Joyce made me forget about non-monistic accounts of reality. Amazing Joyce’s utter presence in this world.

[Thanks to those who responded. I will address your comments soon!]

Quick Hits

  • RIP Peter Strawson. Good obit from The Guardian.
  • Underneath the Bunker opens its doors. Like Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum, this web journal focuses on experimental literature, mostly of the Eastern European variety. Highly recommended.
  • Carl Schmitt manifests himself through Stanley Fish in the New York Times, with his attack on “liberalism’s theology.” The combination of Fish’s abstruse theorizing and its irrelevance to the debate makes me heave a heavy “Whatever.” I still think the academic left’s interest in Schmitt is one of the most depressing things to come out of the universities in a long while.
    Update: I always think of these things too late, but Fish is more or less quoting Walter Sobchak’s “Say what you want about the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism, at least it’s an ethos.”
  • How to Make Garfield Funny…Remove His Thought Balloons. This quickly led to “Remove Garfield Entirely.” Including this thing of beauty:

Samuel Delany: The Motion of Light in Water

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to say of this book. It’s a personal book, mostly (but certainly not totally) bereft of the hardcore cultural theory that attracted Delany later in his career. It is a relatively straightforward memoir of Delany’s childhood, ending more or less with the end of his marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker, and most of the book chronicles their life in the East Village in the early 60s. As it is a record of what was important to him during the largest developmental stages of his life, and what he remembers of it, the best assessment I can offer is how it differs from what I would expect a recollection of this sort to contain and the conclusion that Delany is a very, very different person from me, and not only in the obvious ways.

The summary: Delany grows up in a somewhat harsh but well-adjusted black family in Harlem, attends Bronx Science, and marries Marilyn Hacker at around age 18 after impregnating her (it ends in a miscarriage). They move into an East Village apartment together and both devote themselves to writing, sometimes taking odd jobs. Delany sells a science-fiction book and quickly writes four or five more over the course of the memoir, books that he implies are precocious juvenilia. He writes a libretto for an opera by an older composer, meets Auden, plays guitar in folk clubs. Delany is already identifying as gay, but there’s no evidence that I could detect that Hacker later would. Delany voraciously explores the world of anonymous and non-anonymous gay sex in New York and struggles with the definition of himself as a gay black writer. He and Marilyn eventually split up and he heads off to Europe and parts unknown for new adventures.

These are the basics, and they make for a unique and historically significant document. Here are the odd bits:

First, despite what a singular figure Delany is (is there another writer anything like him?), he seems so willing–no, compelled–to identify as part of a group. The ideas of blackness, gayness, writerness, etc., weigh very heavily on him, and he pursues them in an realistic (not nominalistic) fashion, as though they were Platonic gestures that he imprecisely embodies. His actions, he points out on several occasions, stem from these identities. They do not limit him, not in the slightest, but he uses them to give definite shape to his existence. He readily heads into this sort of abstraction.

This tendency towards universals is complemented by a visceral physicality. Delany apparently remembers raw sense data from decades previous with a vigor that I can hardly apply to last Saturday’s dinner. This is most apparent in his descriptions of his sexual encounters on the docks and elsewhere, but it pervades every event he describes, until I could imagine the character of the walls in his apartment and

We have the body and the mind. Where is the spirit, Plato’s third component of the individual? For the most part, it feels noticeably absent. I’ll put it this way: were I to write of my life in my late teens and early 20s, it would first off be a lot less interesting than Delany’s life. What it would chronicle would be the intersection of shifting but undoubtedly myopic views of the world with shifting but confused interactions with other people. This is not at the forefront of Delany’s chronicle. When he meets people, he describes their appearance, their demeanor, and what they talked about. If they have sex, he describes that. But there is little emotional introspection or cross-examination, at least not by my standards. Hacker herself remained quite opaque to me; many of her poems are quoted, but even they seem to leave her as an observer more than a subject.

All of this comes to a head when Delany is institutionalized for panic attacks. He suffers from acrophobia amongst a host of other odd phobias, but his approach to them is anything but Freudian. Even in the hospital, his pathologies do not seem to ever touch emotion. In earlier years I would have called this simply impossible; now I can believe it, but it is hopelessly distant from how I interact with the world.

I think of Proust saying that the artist must not waste time with useless conversations and must devote himself in isolation to his art. Proust admits his failure to do this for much of his life and solves his problem but withdrawing from society entirely to achieve the necessary distance. Delany? He appears to have had the distance from the very start, as well as the ability to maintain it even when in intimate physical and verbal contact with another person. No isolation was necessary.

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