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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Anne Stevenson: In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls

As much as I appreciate the TLS’s loveletter to Anne Stevenson for her Collected Poems, I was not satisfied with it as criticism, so I thought I’d try to illuminate some more of her peculiar essence here. Stevenson was born in America but has lived in England most of her life, and by no coincidence her first book was on Elizabeth Bishop. Stevenson’s own work clearly owes debts to Bishop and Marianne Moore (not for nothing does Stevenson proclaim her Puritan ethic), but she’s less imagistic than either of them, and more prone to abrupt jumps in scene dictated only by a guiding idea.

Her biography consists of an academic upbringing, four marriages, and her life of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. I still fail to see much of an affinity between Plath’s poetry and Stevenson’s; the connection seems to be more personal and psychological than that. Stevenson is less cagey than Plath, and more given to express herself plainly and steadily, removing herself from the center of her voice. Here is one of my favorites:

In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls
For Angela Leighton

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell–well preserved in the water church of Torcello–
The wicked receive their deserts. Disembowelled and dismembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless souls, flushed out of the flesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolises torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To a hell for bad Italians, being damned and being saved as well.

The idea is simultaneously obvious and abstract: the physicality of evil and the intangibility of good. Next to the visceral language of Dante, the baroque art of the saints is gauzy and perfumed. Stevenson lets the language be guided by the imagery of the stanza, adopting florid description for the first half before shifting to a more commonplace portrayal of horrors. The first line of the last stanza is a coup, I think; the pointed banality of the adjectives “interesting” and “dull” clearly render the inadequacy of language for the meat of the topics under discussion. Stevenson in parallel leaps from the the physical to the more ambiguous language of the mind, contrasting body and soul. Even though it is a classical distinction, she paints it as a contradiction, with good and evil locked up in the mind and rendered invisible.

Stevenson’s careful modulations of style are a salve for endless reams of modern poetry that either affect a single voice on high or seek to abandon voice in an artificial suspension of sense. When she marshals them to polemical effect, the effect is brutal, as in “New York Is Crying,” partly an attack on selective post-9/11 mawkishness:

The hole in New York is a hole in a belief
That desperately needs to hide itself in grief

It’s only because of Stevenson’s surgical control of emotion and tone that she can get away with this. Stevenson is a literary classicist in positioning herself as a lone voice amongst many, but she possesses the uncommon perspective that lets her take up that voice with authority.

Gabriel Josipovici on Grimm and Kleist

Gabriel Josipovici recently had an article in the TLS on the Brothers Grimm. Aside from being generally fascinating and throwing fairy tales, the Midrash, Kleist, Benjamin, and others into the mix, it has this particular striking passage:

What happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of “revision” was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew “how to be a child”. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.

[Just now I notice that Steve Mitchelmore at This Space quoted the exact same passage.]

As a lover of Kleist and his iconoclastic position in literary history, I will certainly defend the uniqueness of “Michael Kohlhaas,” a tale of brutal revenge interrupted about two-thirds of the way through by several fairy tale devices. Why is it that Josipovici calls this out as designating an abandoned road of fiction?

First there is the matter of what road was taken. What is the nature of this pantomime compact between writers and readers which Josipovici only mentions briefly? Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions. By definition, none of them are particularly original. A look through Raymond Carver will isolate the basic vocabulary of jealousy, love, sex, family, etc., etc., but the vocabulary has been with us back through Updike and Cheever all the way to the malaise of Sinclair Lewis, the schemata of John Dos Passos, the tough guy tactics of Hemingway, and the decadence of Fitzgerald. (I don’t especially care for any of these authors.) There is an aspect of the fairy tale and the fable to tales that share this vocabulary, because they tell us what we already know–or rather, reiterate what we’ve already heard. The pretense lies in perpetuating the myth that these stock emotions have an emotional veracity transcending their unoriginal artifice.

Robert Musil called a writer embracing this sort of falsity “a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms” (“Black Magic”). Josipovici introduces fairy tales and exposition on them (the “Midrash” he speaks of) as a model for this unfortunate state of affairs, where writers are not only complicit with but actively collaborate in the deferral of reality as they write their books, producing not works of their own imagination but simply justificatory annotations to a helpful lie, removing their integrity in the process.

None of this is found in Kleist, certainly, whose particular psychosis drove him well off any conventional use of borrowed terms. Nor do you find it in Hofmannsthal or Alexander Kluge, who both question these things in their own ways. Josipovici implies that it is the willful perpetuation of myth after its collective falsification that makes for bad art, and I think this is a useful, new abstraction.

Update: Lars Spurious and The Mumpsimus have offered extremely thoughtful responses on the issues Josipovici raises. Lars elegantly asks, “How can we be told of what we don’t know?” Matt Cheney says of “Michael Kohlhaas” (in the midst of a detailed examination of the story), “The text becomes a kind of indifferent god, an object that requires neither worship nor doubt, and is impervious to both.”

I agree on both counts. “Michael Kohlhaas” was such a strikingly individual story that I once sought to rework it in a modern context, as it seemed a story beyond its time and beyond reduction, to assign a sense of unknowing awe to what had grown stale and quotidian. I was not able to do so, but the project still holds an appeal to me, for some future time.

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.

Dmitry Galkovsky: The Infinite Deadlock

There’s a huge frustration to hearing about a supposedly brilliant author (often, as with this case, in the Times Literary Supplement) and finding that his or her work has not been translated into a language you speak. Offhand, the absence of Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologiae has been irritating me for almost a decade, and yet I just now discovered that Frank Prengel, German scholar and Microsoft developer evangelist, has been translating it! So stop reading this and go read what Prenzel has translated so far of Summa Technologiae.

But Galkovsky is unfortunately more obscure. The only English reference I’ve found on him aside from the TLS’s offhand remark is this tantalizing snippet:

A member of the Antibooker panel of judges, Andrey Vasilevsky, says: “This is a book of extremely complicated structure, a book of annotations to a text that does not exist. Fresh annotations are made to these annotations, which forms an endless chain. Finally all gets so complicated, that the author supplements the book with a special index as to how to use it. However very few people can understand how to use that index.”

Anyone up for a translation?

I also note the similarity of this description to that of the imagined book Gigamesh in Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum:

Indeed yes: this novel is a bottomless pit; in whatever place you touch it, roads open up, no end of roads (the pattern of the commas in Chapter VI is an analogue of the map of Rome!), and roads not every which way, for they all, with their innumerable outbranchings, interweave harmoniously to form a single whole (which Hannahan proves employing topological algebra–see the Commentary, the Metamathematical Appendex, p. 811ff.). And thus everything achieves its realization…

There are rumors to the effect that Hannahan was assisted in his creation by a battery of computers furnished him by IBM.

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.

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