David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: socialism (page 3 of 3)

Thomas Bernhard: Extinction

This, Bernhard’s last novel, does not, I think, deliver on its title. It may be intentional. It is the title of the novel the narrator, Murau, wishes to write but cannot, and it is what he wishes for his Nazi-poisoned family estate, which he has somewhat unhappily inherited after the sudden deaths of his parents and brother. The word “extinction” promises an uncategorical end and cessation, and a finish in type, not just in instance. It is something that Murau seeks even as he leaves his own tainted legacy.

Bernhard’s career divides into three rough, overlapping segments. There are the early, more surreal works like On the Mountain and Gargoyles; the hermetic, philosophically engaged works like Correction, The Lime Works, and perhaps The Loser; and the late works such as Woodcutters, Old Masters, and Extinction which take place much more specifically in the real world. Extinction, Bernhard’s last novel, fits squarely in the last category, and Murau shares with the other late narrators his complaints about modern Austria and Catholicism, as well as an alternately comical and nightmarish tone of incessant ranting. Where Old Masters and Woodcutters were content to examine the objects of their narrators’ wrath (painters and actors, respectively), Extinction is Bernhard’s attempt to transmogrify the anger of his late work into an elusive, self-reflective statement. Because the fury is mostly unrelenting, and because Bernhard is hellbent on letting no one, readers or characters alike, take the easy way out, Extinction‘s depth is not obvious, but there is far more method here than in any other late Bernhard work.

Murau has cut himself off from his family and sought to establish an intellectual life as a tutor in Rome. In the first half of the novel, he reflects on the spiritual, intellectual, and moral impoverishment of his family to his student Gambetti. He only has respect for his Uncle Georg, who similarly cut himself off from the family and helped Murau to save himself. In the second section, he returns to his family’s estate, Wolfsegg, for the funeral, as well as to determine the disposal of the estate, which is now in his hands.

Murau’s intense dislike of his family is immediately apparent, but even as Murau complains, he employs a strategy of postponements. It is not until the end of the first half that we learn that he thinks of his family (and indeed, all of Austria) as Nazis, and even here he is vague and rhetorical:

For the National Socialism of my parents did not end with the National Socialist era: in them it was inborn, and they continued to cultivate it. Like their Catholicism, it was the very stuff of their lives, an essential element of their existence; they could not live without it…By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. (144)

The generalities, the conflating of Catholicism and Nazism, the uncategorical dismissals: it is not until he arrives at Wolfsegg that we find out what he neglected to tell Gambetti. He is irritated with his sisters and brother-in-law, but then he changes tack:

The people I was afraid of were the two former Gauleiters who I knew had announced their intention of attending the funeral, and the fairly large contingent of SS officers, whom I had once believed to be long dead or at least to have received their due punishment, but who, as I learned some years back, had gone underground and remained in contact with my family for decades, with my parents and many other relatives. They’ll use this funeral, I thought, to appear publicly again for the first time…I was actually afraid of the Gauleiters, not knowing how I should greet these friends of my father’s–first of all his school friends, or lifelong friends as he called them, and then those he remained in close touch with after the war, knowing them to be informers and murderers. Despite this knowledge he supplied them with a hiding place and food and everything they needed to make ends meet, as he would have put it. For years, it seems, he hid them in the Children’s Villa, though at the time we children had no inkling of this. I later recalled that for years we were not allowed in the Children’s Villa. There was a simple explanation for this: in the postwar years our parents used it to hide their National Socialist friends. (221)

For a few pages Murau drops Catholicism, drops the rage, and lets through fear and claustrophobia, and a good deal of specifics. The funeral turns out to be magnificently ghastly, Nazis in full regalia saluting their brethren, with Murau’s mother’s lover, a high-ranking archbishop, delivering empty words of praise. Murau is powerless and complicit. The wish for extinction is not met; rather, Murau has been avoiding truths and associations which discomfit and frighten him. The funeral is not so much an extinction as a coming-forth, as the Nazis and Nazi governors spring forward from Wolfsegg once more, out of hiding. For all the complaints of Murau, he has only touched on the horror of this climactic scene.

Murau’s guilt and repression and its relation to Austria and his parents is the central theme of the novel, but I want to focus on only one aspect of it, which is how Bernhard analyzes his own writing techniques to reveal their own evasions. As far as I know, Bernhard did this nowhere else in his work. And his foremost technique is that of exaggeration. After a rant about the utter falsity of photographs:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear. (65)

It seems like a throwaway line, but later–much later–it returns. After the funeral, he stops by the open grave, and, now speaking to himself instead of Gambetti, he confronts himself:

The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void…You actually believed that your childhood could be repainted and redecorated, as it were, that it could be refurbished and reroofed like the Children’s Villa, and this in spite of hundreds of failed attempts at restoring your childhood, I thought. (302)

[Or read the whole thing.]

This then prompts him to remember two reflections he made to Gambetti (who has rarely been mentioned in the second half of the novel) in close succession. The first is a rant against three-ring binders. The second is a return to the subject of exaggeration.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration, I told Gambetti. On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise…With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. Exaggeration is the secret of great art, I said, and of great philosophy. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it. On my way to the Farm, I went up to the Children’s Villa, reflecting that it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations. (307)

Coming as it does after the funeral scene and his memories of the villa, this passage is easy to ignore, but it is the revelatory moment of the novel, when everything folds back upon itself. Murau has realized that he has been living in denial of his own implication in his family’s history, but here it dawns on him (but not on Gambetti) exactly how it has driven him to art, and poisoned him further. To Gambetti, and to Murau himself at the time, it must have seemed like another passing remark, an exercise in rhetoric, but Bernhard here gives it a far more sinister hidden meaning. Murau says, “it was the Children’s Villa that had prompted these absurd speculations”, and even in the double use of the word “absurd” he backs away from what he is saying. But he is talking about the void that he has created for himself, how, in the absence of confronting the activities of his family, his childhood has been made a void. And the technique he has used has been exaggeration combined with understatement. He has ranted about small things, about vague things, about petty things, and he has done it to survive, to spare himself the torture of his own self. Murau then incriminates all of art in this role of unjustified exculpation. To Gambetti, the “great” of “great art” was just that; when he thinks on the Villa, “great” comes to mean something new: criminal. I.e., art that has the power to make people pardon themselves for mortal sins. For example, an amusingly trivial rant about three-ring binders.

The presence of Gambetti, who laughs at his words and jokes with him, is crucial. Gambetti is Murau’s collaborator. His presence provides the mirror to the society of his parents, and reveals that Murau too has established an audience for himself (Gambetti says very little over the course of the novel) that unknowingly endorses his obfuscatory tactics. He stops speaking to Gambetti in the second half of the novel because Gambetti has been an agent in Murau’s self-deception, and it is at the very end of the novel that Murau realizes this, in reflecting on his past conversations with Gambetti. And this in turn allows Murau to write his Extinction, which is the book we are reading. In the light of this paradox, Murau’s very final gesture in the novel concerning the disposal of Wolfsegg (which I will not reveal), is a conflicted afterthought.

Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals

Since I don’t know any longer what socialism is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge China Mieville’s list of sf/f works for socialists. It’s such a heterogeneous list that the set of books seems unnecessarily short. With such diverse reasons for inclusion as genre subversion, utopia, satire, and working class sympathies, the list could have easily been expanded. Socialism evidently contains multitudes.

So instead, here’s my own list of works for liberals: specifically, liberals of the United States of around this time. And there is one theme in particular that these books reflect, which is how myths (i.e., lies) occupy the collective mind of society. More than anything George Lakoff has to say about “frames”, the idea of collective myth is one that the Republicans have embraced with great success, while the Democrats have utterly lost the fabled images of strong workers and social welfare that once fueled them. This is less about the content of these myths than the compelling aspect of their totality.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

The ultimate novel of how we forget our past and recollect it as fable and allegory.

Olaf Stapledon, The Flames

Amazing, and amazingly depressing, novella of rise and fall of an alien society around a shifting religious myth. As much a tale of the Crusades as a prediction of America’s fundamentalist near-future, it’s frightening.

Mark Geston, Lords of the Starship

Neoconservative/Straussian politics put into play in a post-apocalyptic world. Not too uncommon a theme, but Geston’s book is one of the comparatively few negative portrayals of it.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people’s existential senses of themselves.

R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions

A tall tale about secret powers at work. As a conservative Christian, Lafferty is rather good at playfully saying “Damn it all” to the world. More Hawthorne-influenced than it at first appears.

Kobo Abe, The Ark Sakura

Nuclear and survivalist paranoia from a Japanese point of view. The handful of main characters spend so much time locked in an underground cavern that they nearly create their own reality.

Carol Emshwiller, Various Stories

I’ll have to go back and pick some specific ones, but there is such a constant undercurrent of societal expectations being undermined in her work that nearly anything of hers seems to fit the bill. Probably the name I was most disappointed to see missing from Mieville’s list.

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo

Crazy Freudian dystopian novel that’s at war with itself, but so fevered that its societal hysteria is more vivid than most.

Three Versions of Politics

In the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunamis, the Bush administration pathetically found itself spending more money on its second inauguration than it initially committed to disaster relief. Even now, its contributions are not especially impressive. I donated to relief organizations, and then, left to my own thoughts, I went through three responses: anger, despair, and detachment.

I was infuriated when I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Liberal Waterloo. Zizek proposes that it is for the better that Bush won the 2004 election, since it will

dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. … Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush&#x92s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush&#x92s politics.

Zizek spends a good deal of space lambasting liberals for their faulty faith in Kerry and his empty vision, instead proclaiming the ascent of a new counterweight that will not seek unity with the United States. I disagree (except on the empty vision part), but it is not this that bothers me. Nor is it throwaway lines like this, which make me fear that his grasp of economics is quite weak:

Further, Bush&#x92s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

No, it was the words “painful but necessary” that were maddening. I pictured Zizek sitting in his safe European home, gently telling his dialectic-minded followers that it is all for the best, that the nightmares that await are part of a cleansing clarity of darkness through which the new sun will rise. I thought it displays a faith not so different than that which informs the Left Behind books that he mentions. I exaggerate, but I was upset.

From Edmund Burke, a philosopher I despised for a long time before coming to a tenuous rapprochement, I learned not that revolution was wrong, but that it is absurd to believe that a ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, can be faithfully transmuted into a working polity. Zizek does not offer statecraft, but inflated theory with which he cheers the coming crash. I have no doubt that life will get far more unpleasant, but I will not allow myself to believe that the decreased education, increased poverty, and burgeoning intolerance will yield a better world or revivified political debate through anything except pure accident. I will not applaud the clarity gained when the U.S. refuses to ante up more than a pittance for the damage wrought by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.

Nor do I believe that the “lessons” learned from these horrible experiences by the vast majority of Americans (or others) will be anything other than instinctive reactions towards some new random vector. Even the ultimately optimistic economist Joseph Schumpeter was sober and cautious when considering the failure of capitalism and the successful rise of socialism, offering only an equivocal endorsement of what he believed would come to pass.

Zizek portrays an America of uniquely extreme religious fanatics. But the United States’ problem is that through an unlucky confluence of events, a group of crazies have taken over, people who do not act, in general, in line with the beliefs of those who voted for them. This is not because Americans are particularly close-minded or bloodthirsty, but because most people everywhere are irrational and ignorant.

After the election, I felt an alienation from huge chunks of my country far greater than anything I’d previously experienced. I could not find words for it, but Steven Shaviro sharply articulated the paralyzing despair: Nothing.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice.

I believed this too in darker moments, but then I asked myself: what duty? I remind myself that this President hardly articulates policy, especially given how often it reverses. His steady, agonizingly simple personality is the foundation for any policy; (I don’t think Tom DeLay could have gotten elected with the same rhetoric, and so far, he agrees with me.) With any luck, this version of politics too will fall away after Bush leaves public office (whenever that may be), and there is no longer a cowboy hat on which to hang the current policies.

Looking to the future, I think that India has it right. The Road to Surfdom has a piece on India’s attitude towards America that gives probably the best-case long-term scenario. Dunlop paraphrases the Indian government’s attitudes as such:

[The Congressional delegation] spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don’t much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That’s our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You’ve encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix – terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don’t care about sanctions.

That seems about right. The resistance of so many people to embrace a non-Western-centric view of the next half-century years (and I include Zizek here) is as much a product of parochialism as it is of short-sightedness. The view of a battle between European progressivism and American fundamentalism (Zizek calls it fundamentalism; I, who can’t see a competent hand at the wheel, would just term it insanity) seems obsolete, an artifact of half a millennium of Eurocentrism.

Given the damage wrought to it by the tsunamis, India certainly regrets the United States’ lack of assistance, but is probably not surprised by it. The United States’ total inability to lead in aiding South Asia, or even to feign appropriate sympathy (pace Burke), is ironically appropriate. I still wish that the richest country in the world would shell out a few billion, and I do believe Kerry would have wrangled a bit more, though not as much as I would like. But either way, change is coming through economic realignment, not through Zizek’s advocacy of the repoliticization of the economy (which itself seems to be synonymous with a re-Europeanization of the world).

Likewise, the damaging acts of the United States, assuming they don’t wipe us all out, will be self-marginalizing, rendering the decline of liberalism and the increased polarization of Europeans and Americans irrelevant. So when I am set upon by the black mood of despair that Steven Shaviro described, I regretfully welcome the decline of the United States’ influence, so as to minimize the impact and scope of what Zizek ominously describes as “the confrontations to come.”

Ominous to me, at least.

Robert Musil and Walter Rathenau

Maybe now is the time to learn German. Karl Corino’s massive, 2000-page biography of Robert Musil was recently published, and apart from articles in the New Left Review and the TLS, I haven’t seen much mention of it in my English-speaking circles. Philip Payne, who translated and edited the English reduction of Musil’s diaries, did the TLS review, about half of which is present at that link.

For me it’s tantalizing, since it relates something that remains very oblique even in the diaries, which is Musil’s ongoing and shifting relation to the The Man Without Qualities, which he was creating for decades. I’m skeptical of the theorizing over Musil’s syphilis and the hint that Musil wasn’t especially good for his friends. Speaking about the brilliant but flighty and capricious Clarisse, from MWQ, and her real-life parallel Alice Donath, Payne says:

(Clarisse, like Alice, goes mad after her marriage and is eventually placed in an institution; one wonders whether Musil’s wedding gift to Alice of Nietzsche’s Collected Works, or his letter inviting her to become his “little sister” contributed to her troubles.)

Without knowing the details, I have to wonder if Payne has spent too much time with Musil and his (many) flaws. Ray Monk grew to despise Bertrand Russell while working on his biography, and I’m sure that Musil’s unyielding, single-minded genius could easily have the same effect.

But I’m intrigued by the talk of Musil’s increasing isolation from his work’s sources: not just temporally, but even personally, as he stopped associating with friends who had been the novel’s models. This, however, seems secondary to Musil’s situational problem, which is that history had left him behind:

In a letter of 1934 to his friend the satirist Franz Blei, Musil, given his desperate personal situation and the Nazi takeover in Germany, compares his continued work on The Man without Qualities to “the diligence of a woodworm, boring through a picture frame in a house that is already ablaze”.

The metaphor alludes to the Reichstag fire, but also to Musil’s own task. He was, very carefully, tearing apart the liberal and nationalistic ambitions and ideals personified in the characters of MWQ. The failure of “the barren conceit of the brain” manifested in the Great War is the constant theme, and there is no greater representative of the brain of statecraft than Arnheim, whom Musil repeatedly dissects as brilliant, but shallow. Arnheim was modeled on Walter Rathenau, the businessman and foreign minister who became one of the most prominent international negotiators in post-Versailles Germany, until he was assassinated by anti-Semitic right-wingers in 1922, removing one more obstacle in the way of the ideological and political ascent of Nazism.

Musil’s engagement with Arnheim/Rathenau is total, but by 1934, it could not have seemed relevant. He was attacking an Enlightenment-derived ideology in one of the better statesmen of the century while National Socialism had taken over the world around him. Excavation of a flawed “frame” was hardly noticeable while the house was on fire.

Musil treats the more extreme aspects in the later parts of the book, introducing the figure of Meingast, a faux-mystical shyster who plays like Kevin Kline quoting Nietzsche in A Fish Called Wanda. Meingast was loosely based on Ludwig Klages, a Spengler-ish conservative, anti-Semitic moron, deservedly forgotten. (I’d rather not link to the stuff that turns up, but if you’d like to be introduced to Klages and his unpleasant breathren such as Carl Schmitt, try looking for them on Google.) While Musil has some fun with Meingast (he’s the only character who is really a caricature), you sense that his heart’s not in it; Meingast is not a challenge. Anyone with a brain would hardly take him seriously. But anyone with a brain was in short supply.

(For an inexact modern parallel, I think of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, where he condemns the anti-egghead attitude by pointing to how Eisenhower, the “normal guy” candidate, won twice over the wonky, detached Adlai Stevenson. Oh, for such days again….)

Musil wrote “On Stupidity” in 1937, a abstruse (for him) Benjamin-like exercise in postponement in which he never quite gets around to what he wants to say because it would get him in big trouble. I won’t subject it to close reading here, but consider the very end of it:

For because our knowledge and ability are incomplete, we are forced in every field to judge prematurely; but we make the effort, and have learned to keep this error within recognized limits and occasionally improve on it, and by this means put our activity back on the right track. There is really no reason why this exact and proudly humble judgment and activity could not be carried over into other areas as well, and I believe that the principle, “Act as well as you can and as badly as you must, but in doing so remain aware of the margin of error of your actions!” would already be halfway toward a promising arrangement of life.

Why the sudden pragmatism and appeal to modesty, attitudes not particularly present in MWQ? Earlier in the same essay he closes the book on German Enlightenment attitudes, saying that the new task is “to complete the always necessary, indeed deeply desired, transition to the new with the least possible loss.” His plea for caution is an attempt at damage control, with the fatalistic implication that he himself is an anachronism, and that all his brains can only boil the present day down to a homily that should be obvious. Rathenau is long dead, and with him much of the kindling for Musil’s work.

Update: Thomas Pynchon chimes in via Gravity’s Rainbow, shortly before Rathenau is channelled by some Nazis and issues some cryptic mystical statements about industrialization, chemistry, and death:

His father Emil Rathenau had founded AEG, the German General Electric Compny, but young Walter was more than another industrial heir–he was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority–a structure based, not surprisingly, on the one he’d engineered in Germany for fighting the World War. (165)

Though Rathenau seems to have had a change of heart post-death, since the live Rathenau never spoke of “The persistence, then, of structures favoring death.”

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