David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: proust (page 3 of 11)

The Clown Program Has Been Put on Hiatus for Retooling

No, it hasn’t. Sorry for the lack of posts, but other projects (see left) have been consuming what little time has been available. I hope to get back with more substantial posts shortly.

  • Reading Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, finally. It’s much easier reading than Taylor’s Sources of the Self, and, in tandem with Proust, asks the question: is what masquerades as modern realistic fiction today actually a series of Homeric narrative legends and myths?
  • Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Haino, and Tatsuya Yoshida are each playing a dozen or so shows at The Stone in December!
  • Spurred by my endless confusion between the books Concrete and Cement, one a Bernhard novel and one a Russian social realist text, some friends and I tried to come up with other titles that could be similarly confused. My best so far: Obsolescence. Anyone else want to have a go?

wood s lot Musil Special

In honor of the 125th anniversary of Musil’s birth, please see wood s lot’s Musil Feature with many fantastic quotes.

Many have made the criticism that Musil is too analytical and too detached to have the sort of resonance of a Proust or a Joyce. These quotes as much as anything show that he was anything but; he looked to integrate emotion (or “soul,” his preferred term–is it Seele, pica?) into every aspect of intellectual inquiry, with varing results. I suspect this accounted for his irascible nature as much as his unique genius.

In honor of his birthday I quote some of the best advice ever received:

Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession, and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change. It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; those events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time. In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whose appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently.

The Man Without Qualities

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.

Yasunari Kawabata: The Sound of the Mountain

It sure is difficult to focus on books when you’re eagerly watching Patrick Fitzgerald’s every move, but here are a few notes on Kawabata’s quirky take on old age. Neither as grim as Soseki nor as perverse as Tanizaki, The Sound of the Mountain is about an old man named Shingo, distant from his wife (who he married only after her sister, his first wife, died), with grouchy divorced daughter and a louse of a son who’s cheating on his wife Kikuko, to whom Shingo feels closest.

Shingo’s interventions accomplish little over the course of the book. His son doesn’t especially reform, and mostly he’s just left agape at the sadness that everyone seems to be going through: abortions, infidelity, abusive husbands, war widows, and so on. Shingo himself doesn’t have it so bad, but his failing memory and the uselessness he perceives in his aging self produce dreams and a desire to bond with young women. If this were a Tanizaki novel, his involvement with these women would turn to unrequited lust that would drive him crazy (see: The Key, Diary of a Mad Old Man, etc.), but here he’s never overcome with much at all. If anything, he identifies with the plight of his son’s wife, as she seems to occupy the closest position to his, one lacking all authority. When he eventually confronts his son, his son is dismissive and seems unaffected by Shingo’s words.

The family situation may be superficially reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but Kawabata is more subversive and less complacent. Where Ozu showed the elder parents in the eyes of their children as troublesome and disconnected, Shingo is made more aware of his surroundings by his increasing inability to be involved with them (a Proustian theme). The decadence of the younger generation is not, as is de rigeur, connected to a loss of parental authority (due to the war or other reasons) or a culture in decline. Shingo and his son work in the same job. The ending effects a resolution, but it is not one in which Shingo is included. The son gives up his mistress through no action of Shingo’s, and the family communicates more than it has in the entire book, yet Shingo is mostly silent and has, if anything, acquiesced to his declining fate.

The ultimate effect is something like watching a soap opera through the eyes of someone who has become unhealthily involved in the lives of the characters. Shingo fades throughout the book; his interactions with others, particularly the young women, promise more than they deliver. I wouldn’t call the book elegaic, because it’s too particular and detailed for that. But nor is it hopeless; it’s just that by the end the main character has ceased to be the subject of the plot.

Samuel Beckett: Watt

I intended Watt to be a palate cleanser after reading Proust. One doesn’t take away characters, stories, or ideas from Beckett in the normal way. Rather, it’s a certain effect that he creates, and it’s one that’s intimately involved with the reading of the text; it’s less easy to carry around with you. So his books make for better rereading than most.

Watt isn’t as focused and abstract as Beckett’s post-Molloy work; nor is it as borderline-normal as Murphy. The extensive lists and permutations make their first big appearance here, but they’re at their most pointless. The title character, a man of no imagination but much logic, relentlessly explores possibilities for every small event as he enters the employ of Mr. Knott as a servant. He doesn’t meet Mr. Knott while a servant on the first floor, giving him plenty of time to form hypotheses about the circumstances of Knott’s life and habits. He moves to the second floor, but we only hear of his experiences there through what he tells the narrator. There is much pedantry, but every so often there is stark beauty. Of Knott, Watt says the following sentences in reverse (I have reversed them for reader convenience):

Abandoned my little to find him. My little to learn him forgot. My little rejected to have him. To love him my little reviled. This body homeless. This mind ignoring. These emptied hands. This emptied heart. To him I brought. To the temple. To the teacher. To the source. Of nought. (106)

People (including me) think of Beckett as a terminal figure, like Godard, someone who pushed an approach as far as it could go, so that his successors had to turn back and follow other approaches. But after three-thousand-some pages of Proust and the trappings of Parisian high society, the empty nought Watt finds after leaving behind his “little” reads as distressingly liberating. Hardly a good freedom, but one in which language no longer carries the incredible weight which Proust invested in it; where, rather, it can hardly be tied down.

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