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Sep 01, 2015
This is a review of an eBook that Netgalley enabled me to access before the official publication of the book.
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This is a review of an eBook that Netgalley enabled me to access before the official publication of the book.
Executive Symbolist Junior
Duane Delacourt - Secretary of Symbolism under President Carter (later Executive Symbolist and Press Secretary for California Governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown)(Doonesbury character)
Prolegomena to a Polemic on the Republic
One of the things that is so fascinating about terrorism as a political strategy is that relatively small groups of terrorists (one, two, three, six individuals) can take on a civilisation and its military might by targeting its symbols.
The attack on the World Trade Centre was effectively an attack on a symbol of the centre of world trade. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on the symbolic status of free speech, just as much as it was motivated by revenge for continuous acts of blasphemy against Islam. The attack on a kosher supermarket was an attack on Judaism and Jewish culture.
Such a precise attack on a symbolic target guarantees that it will be seen and watched as a major spectacle, which is what the terrorists want to achieve (after all, we live in the society of the spectacle). It would be of no value as an act of aggression or protest, if it was hushed up by the government and the media, if we simply pretended that it never happened.
Satire of the Charlie Hebdo type equally attacks power, self-righteousness and pretension, usually by attacking symbols important to the target (e.g., the prophet Mohammed in the case of Islam).
A lot of the immediate concern of this book is the public response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in particular, the marches in which up to four million people are supposed to have participated.
No doubt each participant had a sincere personal reason for doing so, even the politicians.
However, collectively, they created a symbol of the refusal to bow down to militant, jihadist Islam and terrorism.
Emmanuel Todd questions this symbol, in words, with the precision of a social terrorist or a satirist. As a result, there has been a significant backlash from many people who had gathered around the symbol, bought the t-shirt, tweeted that they were Charlie, and been heroes just for one day.
It's ironic that these people have been just as protective of their symbol as many Moslems have been of theirs. What emerges, then, is an understanding of how seriously we take our symbols and values, and how we react when they come under attack.
However, the real value of this book is how it attempts to analyse what was really going on in January, 2015 and why.
A Beautiful Polemic
This book is a classic polemic, and what a beauty it is, too!
Born in 1951, Emmanuel Todd is a French academic who is qualified in multiple related areas: anthropology, sociology, demographics, political science and history.
He describes himself as "a Frenchman exasperated by his own society." Written in 30 days, his polemic betrays the spontaneity of something written this quickly. However, it also reflects Todd's view that the Charlie Hebdo attack and response can be analysed within a socio-political framework that he had developed over the course of 40 years. There are frequent references to two earlier books that he has co-written. Thus, this is a subject matter that he has thought and written deeply about for a long time. It's like inviting an exceptional mind to get up on the podium and speak about his favourite topic. The words are there, the structure, the rhetoric. It's left to us to decide whether we're convinced by his arguments.
One question mark I had relates to how Todd deals with both international and domestic French issues. On the one hand, Islamic extremism and the domestic response to it has become a global issue. On the other, much of the anthropo-sociological analysis concerns the unique social fabric of France, if not possibly the European Union. The question is to what extent some of this analysis can be applied outside Europe.
Family, Religion and Republican Values
The overall analysis is based on the anthropology of family structures and the sociology of religions. The analysis is clearly indebted to both Weber and Durkheim.
Todd focusses, firstly, on the values of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) and the extent to which they have been embraced by different religions, and secondly, on how different family and social structures relate to equality and egalitarianism.
The latter subject was the most unfamiliar to me and therefore the most interesting part of the book. However, it was also the part most specifically based on an examination of local or European conditions (e.g., the influence of the Roman Catholic Church).
While I was aware that France had been one of the more Catholic countries in Europe, I wasn't aware of the extent to which Catholicism has apparently broken down as a social force in France.
Todd believes that Catholicism is less of an influence in the central part of France ("la France centrale") than the peripheral parts. Even on the periphery, there is less observance of Catholic rituals and beliefs. However, Todd suggests that many of the cultural traits of Catholicism have survived post-religion and have shaped what he calls a life after death or "zombie Catholicism", which in a later manifestation has resulted in a shift towards the left on the part of the right-wing Catholic electorate:
"We gave the name ‘zombie Catholicism’ to the anthropological and social force that emerged from the final disintegration of the Church in its traditional bastions. I will later be examining other phenomena, in education and the economy, which provide evidence of the survival of this residual form after the death of the peripheral Catholic subculture. This cultural survival is probably the most important social phenomenon of the years from 1965 to 2015. It eventually led France into a multifaceted ideological venture, including the rise of a new kind of socialism, decentralization, a surge of pro-European feeling, a masochistic monetary policy, a deformation of the nature of the Republic and, as we shall later see, a particularly shifty form of Islamophobia and, probably, of anti-Semitism."
Authority and Inequality
Todd uses the term to help explain two different views of authority and inequality that he finds present in the people who supported Charlie Hebdo by marching on 11 January:
"Charlie...works in two ways, the one conscious and positive, liberal and egalitarian and republican, while the other is unconscious and negative, authoritarian and inegalitarian, dominating and excluding."
The latter view he associates with zombie Catholicism. It pervades the middle class who have come from a Catholic background. It has left them with a residual Islamophobia, which Todd described above as "shifty".
On the other hand, the former view is more a product of the secular tradition of the French Republic. It seems that Todd associates this view with the old left before it was appropriated and changed by the zombie Catholics.
Liberty and Equality
In contrast to the French periphery, Todd believes that the people in the Paris basin are more concerned with equality and egalitarianism. For them, also, "equality in the family was linked to liberal values."
However, the current problem from Todd's point of view is that the left has been contaminated by the arrival of the zombie Catholics.
On the one hand, he recognises that the "the Socialist Party that has been revitalized by the absorption of refugees from Catholicism".
On the other, he questions whether "zombie Catholics, in joining the Socialist Party rather than converting to the egalitarianism of the central regions, have brought their inegalitarian mental baggage with them and deposited it in the heart of the left."
Zombie Catholic Islamophobia
The result is a cultural division within the left, which manifests itself in the different attitudes towards Moslems (see also Nick Cohen for a living example of the divisiveness of this issue in England).
Todd's preferred view seeks an accommodation with Islam, although he is at pains to point out that "there is no naively idealistic Islamophilia in this book."
In order to lend credence to his own view, Todd recognises the cultural phenomenon that, having suffered prejudice from zombie Catholics, some young Moslems have responded by attacking Jews. Thus, they are not without fault.
The other view is the Islamophobia of zombie Catholicism. While he doesn't say so expressly, he seems to imply that the zombie Catholic support for the Charlie marches was motivated more by Islamophobia than a commitment to free speech.
Whether or not you are convinced by this analysis, the significance is that the Charlie marches were a composite of both views.
In Todd's opinion, they didn't necessarily represent any unanimous confirmation of the Republican values of liberty, equality or fraternity. Individuals were there for different reasons and motives. There was even an attempt to stage manage how the march was perceived: the National Front wasn't allowed to participate, and the Russian representative was relegated to the margins where he couldn't be seen.
A System Broken Down
While the march seemed to bring together diverse forces in recognition of the value of freedom of speech, Todd believes that what divides French politics now, why "the French political system has so spectacularly broken down", is the fundamentally different views on equality and inequality, egalitarianism and inegalitarianism, which reflect different family and religious backgrounds.
The left that has emerged is an unstable coalition. It risks stumbling from issue to issue, unable to command a constant majority with respect to the most fundamental item on its agenda, that of equality.
The Meaning of Equality
It was a surprise, then, that there didn't seem to be a robust definition of the type of equality under discussion.
Some on the left seem to demand equality of outcome (in terms of income), whereas others would be content with equality of opportunity. The latter agenda leaves scope for significant differences in wealth and income, as long as there is a safety net for the lowest income earners. This might include higher minimum wages, as well as a redistribution of income by a combination of social security benefits and differential taxation (both dependent on the maintenance of a welfare state).
It's interesting that Todd seems to remain on the left of the left (e.g., even further left than the Socialist Party), especially in relation to inequality and how to deal with it. Even Thomas Piketty appears to be a little too conservative for his liking. Todd seems to hint at a nostalgia for aspects of the old French Communist Party (the PCF) that existed before the collapse and evaporation of (Euro-)Communism as a popular social and political movement in France.
The Absence of Fraternity
Also absent is any substantive mention of the third Republican value of fraternity (which is the foundation of social harmony). I had hoped that any discussion of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism would touch on this value, particularly as the Charlie Hebdo issue for me was always an example of how liberty and fraternity might occasionally come into conflict, and a compromise between the two values might be required.
That said, the book contains a sophisticated, interesting and insightful attempt to judge different national cultures in terms of the balance between liberty and equality:
"La France centrale combines liberty with equality; England combines liberty with the absence of equality; Germany combines authority with inequality. Russia joins equality with authority."
Getting the Balance Right
Whether or not you agree with Todd's analysis or conclusions, he has made significant progress in getting the focus back on the Republican values (albeit equality moreso than liberty or fraternity), who supports them and for what reason.
Ultimately, there is more at stake in the French Republic than the right to blaspheme a religion associated with people many of whom are currently trapped in the lowest stratum of French society, even if this has become a powerful symbolic issue in a post-Charlie Hebdo world.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen:
Article I - Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.
Article II - The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.
Article III - The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.
Article IV - Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.
Article V - The law has the right to forbid only actions harmful to society. Anything which is not forbidden by the law cannot be impeded, and no one can be constrained to do what it does not order.
Article VI - The law is the expression of the general will. All the citizens have the right of contributing personally or through their representatives to its formation. It must be the same for all, either that it protects, or that it punishes. All the citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.
Notes are private!
Oct 02, 2015
Oct 02, 2015
Oct 01, 2015
Jul 22, 2008
PERMANENCE AND FLUX
Parmenides:“Being appears as the pure fullness of the permanent, gathered within it, untouched by unrest and change.”
Heraclitus:“Ev PERMANENCE AND FLUX
Parmenides:“Being appears as the pure fullness of the permanent, gathered within it, untouched by unrest and change.”
Heraclitus:“Everything is in flux. There is no being. Everything "is" becoming.”
Pindar:“Mayest thou by learning come forth as what thou art.”
BEING AND BECOMING
What becomes is not yet. What is need no longer become. What "is", the being, has left all becoming behind it if indeed it ever became or could become. What "is" in the authentic sense also resists every onsurge of becoming.
BEING AND APPEARANCE
Appearing [is] self-manifestation, self-representation, standing-there, presence.
The realm of emerging and abiding is intrinsically at the same time a shining appearing. There are three modes of [appearing or] "Schein":
1. Radiance and glow;
2. Appearing, coming to light; and
3. Mere appearance or semblance.
...for the Greeks, standing-in-itself was nothing other than standing-there, standing-in-the-light. Being means appearing. Appearing is not something subsequent that sometimes happens to being. Appearing is the very essence of being.
The essence of being is physis. Appearing is the power that emerges. Appearing makes manifest… being, appearing, causes to emerge from concealment. Since the being as such is, it places itself in and stands in unconcealment, aletheia...The being is true insofar as it is. The true as such is being. This means: The power that manifests itself stands in unconcealment. In showing itself, the unconcealed as such comes to stand. Truth as un-concealment is not an appendage to being.
Truth is inherent in the essence of being. To be a being - this comprises to come to light, to appear on the scene, to take one's/its place, to produce something. Non-being, on the other hand, means: to withdraw from appearing, from presence.
Beings display themselves as the momentary and close-at-hand. In appearing it gives itself an aspect, dokei. Doxa means:
1. Regard as glory;
2. Regard as sheer vision that offers something;
3. Regard as mere looking-so: appearance as mere semblance;
4. View that a man forms, opinion.
Doxa means aspect, regard...to place in the light and thus endow with permanence, being. [I show myself, appear, enter into the light. Here the emphasis is on sight and aspect, the regard in which a man stands...esteem.] For the Greeks glory was not something additional which one might or might not obtain; it was the mode of the highest being...appearing belonged to being, or more precisely...the essence of being lay partly in appearing.
Because being, physis, consists in appearing, in an offering of appearance and views, it stands, essentially and hence necessarily and permanently, in the possibility of an appearance which precisely covers over and conceals what the being in truth, i.e., in unconcealment, is. This regard in which the being now comes to stand is Schein in the sense of semblance.
"The Tragedy of Appearance"
It was in the Sophists and in Plato that appearance was declared to be mere appearance and thus degraded. At the same time, being, as idea, was exalted to a suprasensory realm.
A chasm…was created between the merely apparent being here below and real being somewhere on high. In that chasm, Christianity settled down, at the same time reinterpreting the lower as the created and the higher as the creator.
[It is] necessary to secure the priority of truth as unconcealment, of discovery over occultation and distortion.
BEING AND THINKING
Thinking sets itself off against being in such a way that being is placed before it and consequently stands opposed to it as an object...being takes on its entire interpretation from thinking.
In the seemingly unimportant distinction between being and thinking, we must discern the fundamental position of the Western spirit, against which our central attack is directed.
Thinking refers to the future as well as the past, but also to the present.
Thinking brings something before us, represents it. This representation always starts from ourselves, it is a free act, but not an arbitrary one, for it is bound by the fact that in representing we think of what is represented and think it through by dissecting it, by taking it apart and putting it together again. But in thinking we not only place something before ourselves, we not only dismember it for the sake of dismembering, but, reflecting, we pursue the thing represented. We do not simply accept it as it happens to fall to us; no, we undertake, as we say, to get behind the thing. We find out how it stands with the thing in general. We get an idea of it, we seek the universal.
Three Characteristics of 'Thinking'
1. Representation 'of our own accord' - considered as a uniquely free act;
2. Representation as analytical synthesis; and
3. Grasp of the universal through representation.
Separation of Logos and Physis
How did the separation between logos and physis come about? How did the logos (the 'logical') become the essence of thinking? [Hegel: 'the logical is the absolute form of truth and, what is more, it is also the pure truth itself.'] How did this logos in the sense of reason and understanding achieve domination over being in the beginning of Greek philosophy?
Being in the sense of physis is the power that emerges. As contrasted with becoming, it is permanence, permanent presence. Contrasted with appearance, it is appearing, manifest presence.
What else can logos mean but statement, discourse, word?
Heraclitus' doctrine of the logos was regarded as the forerunner of the logos that figures in the New Testament...the logos is Christ…the God-man.
Noein is understood as thinking, an activity of the subject. The thinking of the subject determines what being is. Being is nothing other than the object of thinking, that which is thought. But since thinking remains a subjective activity, and since thinking and being are supposed to be the same according to Parmenides, everything becomes subjective. Nothing is in itself. But such a doctrine, we are told, is found in Kant and the German idealists. Essentially Parmenides anticipated their teachings.
According to Heraclitus what man is is first manifested (edeixe, shows itself) in polemos, in the irruption of being itself. For philosophy what man is is not written somewhere in heaven. Only where being discloses itself in questioning does history happen and with it the being of man, by virtue of which he ventures to set himself apart from the being as such and contend with it.
Only as a questioning historical being does man come to himself; only as such is he a self. Man's selfhood means this: he must transform the being that discloses itself to him into history and bring himself to stand in it. Selfhood does not mean that he is primarily an 'ego' and an individual. This is no more than he is a ‘we’, a community.
The initial separation between logos and physis led to the secession of the logos, which became the starting point for the domination of reason [i.e., in the contest between rationalism and irrationalism].
This secession of the logos which started logos on its way to becoming a court of justice over being occurred in Greek philosophy itself. Indeed, it brought about the end of Greek philosophy.
In the end the word idea, eidon, 'idea', came to the fore as the decisive and predominant name for being (physis). Since then the interpretation of being as idea has dominated all Western thinking throughout the history of its transformations down to the present day. This origin also explains why, in the great and definitive culmination of the first period of Western thinking, in the system of Hegel, the reality of the real, being in the absolute sense, is conceived as 'idea' and expressly so called.
In our first introductory characterisation of the Greek experience of being, we listed idea, eidos among other names for it… In reading the philosophy of Hegel or of any other modern thinker, or in studying medieval Scholasticism, we frequently run across the use of the word 'idea' for being.
The word idea means that which is seen in the visible, the aspect it offers. What is offered is the appearance, eidos, of what confronts us. The appearance of a thing is that wherein, as we say, it presents, introduces itself to us, places itself before us and as such stands before us, that wherein and as such it is present, i.e., in the Greek sense, is.
This standing is the stability of that which has emerged from out of itself, of physis. But from the standpoint of man this standing-there of the stable and permanent is at the same time the surface of what is present through itself, the apprehensible. In the appearance, the present, the being, presents its what and how. It is apprehended and taken, it is in the possession of an acceptance, its property, it is the accessible presence of the present: ousia. Thus ousia can signify both: the presence of something present; and this present thing in the what of its appearance.
Herein is concealed the source of the subsequent distinction between existentia and essentia.
Thus the idea constitutes the being. But here idea and eidos are used in an extended sense, not only for that which is visible to the physical eye; but for everything that can be perceived. What a being is lies in its appearance, but the appearance presents (makes present) the what.
The crux of the matter is not that physis should have been characterised as idea; but that the idea should have become the sole and decisive interpretation of being. [The idea, as the appearance of the being, came to constitute its what.]
Physis is the emerging power, the standing-there-in-itself, stability. Idea, appearance as what is seen, is a determination of the stable insofar and only insofar as it encounters vision. But physis as emerging power is by the same token an appearing. Except that the appearing is ambiguous…Appearing means, first: that which gathers itself, which brings-itself-to-stand in its togetherness and so stands. But second it means: that which, already standing-there, presents a front, a surface, offers an appearance to be looked at.
Being and Apprehension
But does not Parmenides' maxim say: being and apprehension - that which is seen and the act of seeing - belong together? Yet, to be sure, the thing seen belongs to seeing, but from this it does not follow that being-seen alone determines, or could determine, the presence of the thing seen. Parmenides' maxim does not say that being should be understood on the basis of apprehension, i.e., as something merely apprehended; it says rather that apprehension should be considered for the sake of being. Apprehension should so disclose the being as to put it back in its being; it should consider that the being presents itself and as what. But in the interpretation of being as idea, not only is an essential consequence twisted into an essence, but the falsification is once again misinterpreted. And this too occurred in the course of Greek experience and interpretation.
Being as Idea
As soon as the essence of being resides in whatness (idea), whatness, as the being of the being, becomes that which is most beingful in a being. It becomes the actual being, ontos on. Being as idea is exalted, it becomes true being, while being itself previously dominant, is degraded to what Plato calls me on, what really should not be and really is not, because in the realisation it always deforms the idea, the pure appearance, by incorporating it in matter. The idea now becomes a paradeigma, a model. At the same time, the idea necessarily becomes an ideal. The copy actually 'is' not; it merely partakes of being, it is a methexis. The chorismos, the cleft, has opened between the idea as what really is, the prototype and archetype, and what actually is not, the copy and image.
From the standpoint of the idea, appearing now takes on a new meaning. What appears - the phenomenon - no longer physis, the emerging power, nor is it the self-manifestation of the appearance; no, appearing is now the emergence of the copy. Since the copy never equals its prototype, what appears is mere appearance, actually an illusion, a deficiency. Now the on becomes distinct from the phenomenon. And this development brings with it still another vital consequence. Because the actual repository of being is the idea and this is the prototype, all disclosure of being must aim at assimilation to the model, accommodation to idea. The truth of physis, aletheia as the unconcealment that is the essence of the emerging power, now becomes homoiosis and mimesis, assimilation and accommodation, orientation by..., it becomes a correctness of vision, of apprehension as representation.
Correctness and Un-distortion
The being is disclosed in the logos as gathering. This is first effected in language. Consequently the logos becomes the essential determinant of discourse. Language - what is uttered and said and can be said again - is the custodian of the disclosed being. What has once been said can be repeated and passed on. The truth preserved in it spreads, and in the process the being originally gathered and disclosed is not each time experienced for itself. In the transmission the truth detaches itself as it were from the being.
Logos in the sense of discourse and utterance becomes the realm and the scene of decision concerning the truth, i.e., originally, the unconcealment of the being and hence its being. Initially the logos as gathering is the event of unconcealment, grounded in unconcealment and serving it. Now logos as statement becomes the abode of truth in the sense of correctness. And this process culminates in Aristotle's proposition to the effect that logos as statement is that which can be true or false. Truth that was originally unconcealment, a happening of the dominant being itself, governed by gathering, now becomes an attribute of the logos. In becoming an attribute of statement, the truth not only shifts its abode; it changes its essence as well. From the standpoint of statement, the truth is achieved if discourse adheres to what it speaks of; if the statement follows the being. The truth becomes the correctness of the logos.
Physis becomes idea, truth becomes correctness. Logos becomes statement, the locus of truth as correctness, the source of the categories, the fundamental principle in regard to the possibilities of being. 'Idea' and 'category' become the two terms that dominate Western thought, action, and evaluation, indeed all Western being-there.
From the standpoint both of the idea and of statement, the original essence of truth, aletheia (unconcealment) has changed to correctness. For unconcealment is that heart and core, i.e., the dominant relation between physis and logos in the original sense. The very essence of dominance is emerging-into-unconcealment. But apprehension and gathering govern the opening up of unconcealment for the being. The transformation of physis and logos into idea and statement has its inner ground in a transformation of the being of truth from concealment to correctness.
Unconcealment [is] the space created for the appearing of the being.
Ever since idea and category became sovereign, philosophers have tormented themselves in vain, seeking by every possible and impossible stratagem to explain the relation between statement (thinking) and being - in vain, because they never again carried the question of being back to its native ground and soil, thence to unfold it.
The Greek for 'to distort something' is pseudesthai. Thus the struggle for the unconcealment of the being, aletheia, became a struggle against pseudos, distortion and perversion. But it is in the very nature of struggle that whether a contestant wins or loses, he becomes dependent on his adversary. Because the battle against untruth is a battle against the pseudos, the battle for the truth becomes - from the standpoint of the combated pseudos - a battle for the a-pseudos, the undistorted, unperverted.
This transformation of unconcealment by way of distortion to undistortion and thence to correctness must be seen in one with the transformation of physis to idea, of logos as gathering to logos as statement.
Being signifies permanent presence, already-thereness. What actually has being is accordingly what always is, aei on.
Apprehension, noein, is taken over by the logos in the sense of statement. Thus it becomes the apprehension which, in determining something as something, thinks-through what it encounters, dianoeisthai. This discursive thinking-through defines the understanding in the sense of evaluating representation. Apprehension becomes understanding.
Ousia (permanent presence) now began to be interpreted as substantia. Ousia has become the decisive term for being.
In opposition to becoming stands eternal permanence. In opposition to appearance as mere semblance stands what is actually seen, the idea which, as the ontos on, is again the permanent and enduring as opposed to changing appearance. But becoming and appearance are not determined only on the basis of ousia, for ousia in turn has been essentially defined by its relation to logos, discursive judgment, dianoia. Accordingly, becoming and appearance are defined in the perspective of thought.
From the standpoint of evaluating thought, which always starts from something permanent, becoming appears as impermanence. In the realm of the already-there, impermanence is manifested primarily as not remaining in the same place. Becoming is seem as change of place, transposition. All becoming is regarded as motion, and the decisive aspect of motion is change of place.
BEING AND THE OUGHT:
Plato conceived of being as idea. The idea was a prototype and as such set the measure. What seems more plausible than to take Plato's ideas in the sense of values and to interpret the being of the Being from the standpoint of value? [Thus, History came to be regarded as a realisation of values.]
Insofar as the ideas constitute being, ousia, the idea tou agathou, the supreme idea, stands, beyond being. Thus being itself, not as such but as idea, comes into opposition to something other, on which it, being, is dependent. The supreme idea has become the model of the models.
Being itself, interpreted as idea, brings with it a relation to the prototypical, the exemplary, the ought. As being itself becomes fixated as idea, it strives to make good the resulting degradation of being. But by now this is possible only if something is set above being, something that being never is yet but always ought to be.
The ought is opposed to being as soon as being defines itself as idea.
In statement the 'is' serves as a copula, as a 'little word of relation' (Kant). But because statement, logos as kategoria, has become a court of judgment over being, it defines being on the basis of its own 'is', the 'is' of statement.
When ultimately ousia, meaning permanent presence, became the basic concept of time, what was the unconcealed foundation of permanence and presence if not time?
Time had to be taken as something somehow present, ousia tis. Consequently time was considered from the standpoint of the 'now', the actual moment. The past is the 'no-longer-now', the future is the 'not-yet-now'. Being in the sense of already-thereness (presence) became the perspective for the determination of time. But time was not the perspective specially chosen for the interpretation of being.
The essential is not number; the essential is the right time, i.e., the right moment, and the right perseverance. ...more
Notes are private!
May 20, 2015
Jun 21, 2015
Oct 31, 2011
Oct 31, 2011
"Their Objects Were the Only Way I Could Invoke Them"
Patti takes a shot of some solitary thing (view spoiler)[a possession, a relic, a fragment (hide "Their Objects Were the Only Way I Could Invoke Them"
Patti takes a shot of some solitary thing (view spoiler)[a possession, a relic, a fragment (hide spoiler)] that is personal, intimate, private, obscure, useful, valuable relating to an artist (view spoiler)[a life mask, a bandana, a bed, a chair, a tea cup, a guitar, a typewriter, a mirror, a grave, a cane, a hat, shoes, slippers, eating utensils, paint brushes (hide spoiler)] and leaves us with an image that is precious, emblematic, iconic, reverent, sacred, talismanic (view spoiler)[a thing that captures and embodies love (hide spoiler)].["br"]>["br"]> ...more
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May 19, 2015
May 20, 2015
May 17, 2015
Jan 01, 1929
Feb 28, 2002
Virginia Plain Live
Virginia Woolf constantly defies my expectations, always for the better.
Nothing I had read prepared me for the light and comic touc Virginia Plain Live
Virginia Woolf constantly defies my expectations, always for the better.
Nothing I had read prepared me for the light and comic touch of this short work (which is not to deny the lasting significance of its subject matter).
The essay grew out of a talk she gave to the female students at two Cambridge Colleges in 1928. She edited and added to it afterwards.
However, it still bears the traces of a live performance. It must have been inspiring to hear it in person.
The Four Marys
At a metafictional level, an author, Virginia Woolf, is physically speaking. However, her narrator is someone else, Mary Hamilton, arguably one of the four Marys from the ballad of the same name:
"‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being...(call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please — it is not a matter of any importance)."
Well, perhaps, it is of no historical importance, when it comes to kings and queens, but it is important in the historical progress of women.
The essay is partly about the ability of women to write themselves back into history and literature, whether as authors or narrators. Obviously, it's also about the ability of women to write about female (and male) characters from the different perspective that they bring to the study:
"Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them..."
Women and Fiction
Woolf offers her audience an amalgam of both fiction and non-fiction, just as she invites them to become writers of whatever subject matter:
"If you would please me — and there are thousands like me — you would write books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science."
Ostensibly, the title of her talk was "Women and Fiction".
Her one piece of advice on that topic was:
"...a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction..."
How much money did a writer need? What could you do with it? Well, in 1928, she calculated:
"Five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine...By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream."
I haven't been able to work out whether 500 pounds is closer to $12,000 or $40,000 per annum now. However, this happened to be the amount of a legacy that she had supposedly received from her [fictional?] Aunt Mary Beton (the name of one of the "four Marys").
It's been inferred that this was Woolf's way of saying that, in order to write, you had to be independently wealthy.
This is quite the opposite of what she implied. She frequently talks about women "earning" the money that sustains them. She envisaged that writers would either have a day job or would earn the required amount from their writing.
They would transition from the "pin money" given to them by their parents to "pen money" generated from their own writing.
There were no limits. That time had already passed:
"If there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good."
Her audience was, after all, studying at Cambridge.
Don't Give Up Your Day Job?
Woolf brings a degree of optimism to the ambition to write. She wanted more women to write, so she and we could read more writing by women, and women could say what needed to be said.
However, she doesn't seem to recognise the demands that work itself places on the potential writer. How can you write at night and on the weekends, if you've already worked a full week at your day job? Perhaps she anticipated that you could kill two birds with one stone, by earning your income from writing from the outset?
This is a difficult enough task for a single woman. The challenges for a woman with a family were/are even greater:
"How many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night."
A Room of One's Own
This is part of the reason for the second limb of her advice (and the title of her book), that a woman needs a room of her own.
Women, like men, lived in the family home. There was relatively little privacy. Few, except the patriarch of a wealthy family, could enjoy the luxury of a study. A drawing room or sitting room had to be shared with the rest of the family:
"...to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century."
There was no prospect of a "separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families."
A Solitary Woman
So far, Woolf's advice addresses practical issues, the reality of a woman writing.
Her aim was to get women writing, by telling them what was required. However, to some extent, her advice applies equally to men. Anybody who wants to write, female or male, has to have some source of income, either from their own labour or that of their partner.
Besides, the solitary and private nature of writing means that they frequently have to turn their back on their family. It's OK to have a room of one's own. However, you have to be prepared to close the door on a world that arguably should be your first priority (whatever the gender of the writer parent). Men might find this easier. Women would find it difficult to achieve without a supportive partner or a considerable amount of guilt.
Woolf is concerned most of all with the reality of the life of a writer. It's this world into which she invites her audience:
"When I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not."
The Androgynous Writer
This concern with reality extends to what women write about and how they write about it.
For all its intrinsic feminism, it seems that Woolf didn't think that women needed to write radically differently from men (which is not to say that all men wrote the way she thought they could or should).
Woolf advances a theory about the androgynous writer, which is analogous to the views of Coleridge.
She asks whether:
"...there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness?
"And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man.
"The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her...
"It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought."
From this starting point, Woolf develops the proposition that men should write from a "man-womanly" point of view and women from a "woman-manly" point of view.
She believes that Shakespeare lived up to the former description. Then she imagines the idea of Shakespeare's sister, "Judith", who would live up to the latter.
On the other hand, she argues that women shouldn't write fiction from a polemical or political perspective:
"...it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death."
Woolf argues that writing is an internalised collaboration of the sexes:
"Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness."
What is most important is the capacity to portray both sexes credibly. Woolf is trying to achieve fiction that does justice to reality.
In effect, Woolf challenges her female audience to write like Shakespeare's sister:
"For my belief is that if we live another century or so [ed: 2028]...and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves...if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down."
Joan Baez - "Mary Hamilton"
Notes are private!
Mar 17, 2015
Mar 17, 2015
Mar 17, 2015
Mass Market Paperback
This Precious Image
"Mountolive", the third volume in "The Alexandria Quartet", initially alienated me, but totally turned me around.
"Clea" started i This Precious Image
"Mountolive", the third volume in "The Alexandria Quartet", initially alienated me, but totally turned me around.
"Clea" started in the same manner, but more patient this time, I let it work its magic. It fell into place much more quickly, and the rewards came sooner as well.
Initially, I wondered whether it might be a grab bag of ideas and impressions stitched together as an afterthought to what might otherwise have constituted a trilogy.
Even if it had been conceived of as a trilogy, "Clea" fits in neatly. It is set some years later, both during and after the war. Whereas some of the relationships in the earlier volumes were still jostling around with the heat, by now they have started to settle. People have matured. They've worked out what they're seeking after. They've started to find it. Some, however, have moved on or shuffled off this mortal coil.
Most importantly, for the narrator Darley, he's now remote enough from the original events that he has lost some of his timidness, he has emerged with a perspective (or at least a composite of multiple perspectives), he has realised that he is ready to write about these events, and he has decided what form his project should take:
"It had been so long in forming inside me, this precious image...the old story of an artist coming of age."
The Kingdom of Your Imagination
So, just as the Quartet is a story about Alexandria and its inhabitants ("When you are in love with one of its inhabitants, a city can become the world"), it's also a story of an artist delving into the past and readying himself to write about it.
Although Darley feels that "the whole universe had given me a nudge", it's Clea who has seen what the universe had in store for him and, indeed, for herself:
"As for you, wise one, I have a feeling that you too perhaps have stepped across the threshold into the kingdom of your imagination, to take possession of it once and for all."
Each is now "a real human being, an artist at last."
Finding Your Self in the World
"Clea" is probably the densest of the four novels in terms of plot. It's also the most linear, to the extent that it even hints at a happy ending.
However, its concerns seem to revolve around the questions: what does it mean to live? What does it mean to love? What does it mean to be an artist? What does the imagination have to do with the truth?
In concepts (if not necessarily language) that evoke Hegel, the writer Pursewarden theorises:
"The so-called act of living is really an act of the imagination. The world - which we always visualise as 'the outside World' - yields only to self-exploration!"
Thus, we have to explore ourselves in order to understand the world. By the same token, if we explore the outside world, we will also understand ourselves better.
Hence, by understanding the city, we will understand its inhabitants. And vice versa.
Pursewarden's Inkling of the Truth
Pursewarden often seems to be the vehicle by which Durrell allows Darley to acquire wisdom, without necessarily realising the immediate or abstract significance of what is happening before his very eyes. Part of the novel's metafiction involves Darley reading Pursewarden's correspondence, journals and draft fiction and verse:
"Seeing Pursewarden thus, for the first time, I saw that through his work he had been seeking for the very tenderness of logic itself, of the Way Things Are; not the logic of syllogism or the tidemarks of the emotions, but the real essence of fact-finding, the naked truth, the Inkling...the whole pointless Joke."
Action and Reflection
Another writer character, Keats, adds, "The man of action and the man of reflection are really the same man, operating on two different fields. But to the same end!"
For an artist at least, you need to be both a man of action and a man of reflection. Each quality informs the other.
Meddling with Time
Pursewarden makes a similar point in relation to Proust:
"Time is the catch! Space is a concrete idea, but Time is abstract...In the scar tissue of Proust's great poem you see that so clearly; his work is the great academy of the time-consciousness. But being unwilling to mobilise the meaning of time he was driven to fall back on memory, the ancestor of hope! Ah! But being a Jew he had hope - and with Hope comes the irresistible desire to meddle."
This passage seems to imply that Proust focused on memory in the absence of action in the present. Yet, it also suggests that Proust was prone to hope and meddle, presumably in relation to the future. Perhaps, then, Pursewarden (in contrast to Proust) focuses more on the present than either the past or the future. The present is the only facet of Time that can be immediately influenced and mobilised by Man.
Yet Pursewarden suggests that, in trying to mobilise the progress of Time into the future, this other manifestation of Man ("we Celts") has the opposite problem to the Jewish predicament of hopefulness:
"We Celts mate with despair out of which alone grows laughter and the desperate romance of the eternally hopeless. We hunt the unattainable, and for us there is only a search unending."
No matter what the characters think they can achieve by acts of will, a sense of determinism occasionally creeps into the novel.
The past seems to shape both the present and the future:
"It was indeed another island - I suppose the past always is. Here for a night and a day I lived the life of an echo, thinking much about the past and about us all moving in it, the 'selective fictions' which life shuffles out like a pack of cards, mixing and dividing, withdrawing and restoring."
If at times we seem to be actors on the stage of life, have our lines already been written for us? Or are our choices simply limited to the number of cards in the pack?
The Seeds of Future Events
Darley, looking back on events in the the past, in preparation for writing about it, says:
"It is not hard, writing at this remove in time, to realise that it had already happened, had been ordained in such a way and in no other. This was, so to speak, only its 'coming to pass' - its stage of manifestation...The seeds of future events are carried within ourselves. They are implicit in us and unfold according to the laws of their own nature."
It's almost as if our character determines our fate. Perhaps, not just our own fate, but we all contribute to the passage of history, which is just a record of the passage of Time.
In a beautiful musical analogy, Darley writes to Clea that the individual events in our lives might "plant themselves in the speculative mind like single notes of music belonging to some larger composition which I suppose one will never hear."
The Poisoned Loving-Cup
Throughout the novel, various permutations and combinations share a loving cup. But Darley refers to it as a "poisoned loving cup".
Obviously, some lovers were never meant for each other at all. However, Clea is the first to appreciate that love can often be a matter of timing. It doesn't help that this is love during wartime:
"I shall see if I can't will him back again. We aren't quite ripe for each other yet. It will come."
The Richest Love
Durrell reserves some of his most beautiful writing for these moments of intimacy:
"So it was that love-making itself became a kind of challenge to the whirlwind outside which beat and pounded like a thunderstorm of guns and sirens, igniting the pale skies of the city with the magnificence of its lightning-flashes. And kisses themselves became charged with the deliberate affirmation which can come only from the foreknowledge and presence of death. It would have been good to die at any moment then, for love and death had somewhere joined hands.
"It was an expression of her pride, too, to sleep there in the crook of my arm like a wild bird exhausted by its struggles with a limed twig, for all the world as if it were an ordinary summer night of peace." *
But perhaps it should be Pursewarden who has the last word:
"The richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time."
We must love as if this is the only time available to us. Because, when all is said and done, this much is true.
REVIEWS OF "THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET":
"Justine" (Vol. 1 of 4)
"Balthazar" (Vol. 2 of 4)
"Mountolive" (Vol. 3 of 4)
* When I read John Hawkes' "The Lime Twig", I didn't think to look up the literal meaning of its title. This second reference impelled me to:
Notes are private!
May 08, 2015
May 10, 2015
Mar 16, 2015
First Impression Followed by a Second
Initially, I suspected that this second volume of "The Alexandria Quartet" might be inferior to the first.
Howev First Impression Followed by a Second
Initially, I suspected that this second volume of "The Alexandria Quartet" might be inferior to the first.
However, having finished it, I don't really think of it as a wholly different work. Its very nature and purpose is to tweek "Justine". It's both supplementary and complementary.
What emerges (in the mind of the reader) isn't so much a second distinct work, but a compound of the two. My memory of the first is now irreversibly altered by the experience of the second. Soon, I expect, I will have one collective impression of "The Alexandria Quartet".
The Great Interlinear
Like "Justine", this novel is a composite of diverse fictional contributions.
Over the two volumes, we absorb the narrator's words, Justine's journal, her first husband's novel ("Moeurs"), letters from Clea, Pursewarden's notebooks for his novel, and the "the Great Interlinear" contributed by Balthazar as a critique of the narrator's first draft of "Justine".
(view spoiler)[According to the dictionary, "interlinear" means "inserted between lines already written or printed". Durrell also uses the word "intercalary" to describe the interposition of additional material. (hide spoiler)]
In a way, Durrell uses Balthazar's Interlinear to clarify, question, contradict, qualify or change what he or his narrator has written.
Lawrence Durrell, Layer by Layer
Towards the Creation of a Palimpsest
Balthazar explains his motive for writing the Interlinear in terms of the quest for truth:
"No doubt you are bringing us to judgement on paper in the manner of writers...It must fall very short of truth...
"These pages may lose your friendship without adding anything to the sum of your knowledge. You have been painting the city, touch by touch, upon a curved surface - was your object poetry or fact? If the latter, then there are things which you have a right to know."
The narrator realises that his memories of Alexandria and his friends are an ongoing creative work. The Interlinear highlights the extent to which it is "a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or her individual traces, layer by layer."
By extension, the reference to a palimpsest emphasises that Durrell's metaphor is an artistic or painterly one:
"In order to go on, it is necessary to go back: not that anything I wrote about them is untrue, far from it. Yet when I wrote, the full facts were not at my disposal. The picture I drew was a provisional one - like the picture of a lost civilisation deduced from a few fragmented vases, an inscribed tablet, an amulet, some human bones, a gold smiling death-mask."
The past is a lost civilsation if we rely solely on our own experiences and observations.
Now that we know a little of the city and its characters, Durrell seemed to feel it was time we observed them interact. Thus, there is far more narrative action in "Balthazar". However, the events that occur in this volume retroactively shape the narrator's perception and memories of the past:
"In my mind's eye the city rose once more against the flat mirror of the green lake and the broken loins of sandstone which marked the desert's edge.
"The politics of love, the intrigues of desire, good and evil, virtue and caprice, love and murder, moved obscurely in the dark corners of Alexandria's streets and squares, brothels and drawing-rooms - moved like a great congress of eels in the slime of plot and counter-plot."
This is a pretty good summary of the novel. For every aspect of the plot, there is a counter-plot. It writhes before our very eyes.
A Memory Reflected in a Mirror
Durrell indulges in much more description of both the psychic and the physical landscape. However, there is more conflict in this volume. The narrator becomes more engaged in his subject matter. His perspective changes:
"Once again, as always when the drama of external events altered the emotional pattern of things, I began to see the city through new eyes - to examine the shapes and contours made by human beings with the detachment of an entomologist studying a hitherto unknown species of insect. Here it was, the race, each member of it absorbed in the solution of individual preoccupations, loves, hates and fears. A woman counting money on to a glass table, an old man feeding a dog, an Arab in a red flowerpot drawing a curtain."
The surface detail invites him to explore the depth of what lies beneath. Equally, he acknowledges that the surface has altered his perception of the earlier layers:
"...a single chance factor has altered everything, has turned me back upon my tracks. A memory which catches sight of itself in a mirror."
I love the constant reflexivity that the mirror brings to the mind and its memories.
Portrait of Josa Finney, the hostess of the Carnival ball in the novel
The Key to the Self
Although the narrator's mind is made of memories, he is gripped and captivated by them. They appear to have cast a spell on him. Ultimately, he seeks a release, a deliverance from their hold.
The city of Alexandria might be a metaphor for life and perhaps for the individual as well, but he must escape it in order to know himself. Ironically, he must know more before he is able to discard the wealth of information:
"I must know everything in order to be at last delivered from the city...How will I ever deliver myself from this whore among cities...I must set it all down in cold black and white, until such time as the memory and impulse of it is spent. I know that the key I am trying to turn is in myself."
The Self Located in a Space and Time Marriage
The narrator believes he must discover the self ("my own real (inner) life") that is separate from his experiences and memories.
Yet, he wonders whether his mission is misguided. There is no self that is static or constant, that simply perceives a constantly-changing exterior world. The self is at the heart of relativity.
Pursewarden, the novelist who has been reading Einstein (1) ("In the Space and Time marriage we have the greatest Boy meets Girl story of the age!"), is the vehicle for these speculations:
"As for human characters, whether real or invented, there are no such animals. Each psyche is really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion - but a necessary illusion if we are to love...
"We live lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time - not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed."
Once again, we are witness to the changing composition of the art work, the picture, the portrait.
The Other's Love of the Self
If our individual perspective can change in space, then perhaps we might also need the perspectives of other individuals to approach the truth more assuredly? Hence, Balthazar's Great Interlinear and the other metafictional devices.
Ironically, observation of the self by the other contributes to whatever substance the self is capable of. We need verification and vindication. Pursewarden says:
"I regard [the psyche] as completely unsubstantial as a rainbow - it only coheres into identifiable states and attributes when attention is focused on it. The truest form of right attention is of course love. Thus 'people' are as much of an illusion to the mystic as 'matter' to the physicist when he is regarding it as a form of energy."
Love, it seems, is a way of acknowledging the existence of an other (and reciprocally, of being acknowledged by the other).
The Illusion of Completeness
Still, the foundation of one's own self is unstable. Love is a perceived, but inadequate, prop:
"At first, we week to supplement the emptiness of our individuality through love, and for a brief moment enjoy the illusion of completeness. But it is only an illusion. For this strange creature, which we thought would join us to the body of the world, succeeds at last in separating us most thoroughly from it. Love joins and then divides. How else would we be growing?"
Justine Imagined Wearing a Domino at the Carnival ball
The Form of Truth
As with the first volume, Durrell constructs the novel on the foundation of these abstract concerns. We increasingly encounter multiple, incrementally-changing perspectives in the constant search for truth:
"I had made the image my own jealous personal property and it was true yet only within the limitations of a truth only partially perceived. Now, in the light of all these new treasures - for truth, though merciless as love, must always be a treasure - what should I do? Extend the frontiers of original truth, filling in with the rubble of this new knowledge the foundations upon which to build a new Alexandria? Or should the dispositions remain the same, the characters remain the same - and is it only truth itself which has changed in contradiction?"
It's too early to say whether Durrell was positing a stable or variable concept of truth. If anything, though, it seems at this stage as if truth is a matter of perception, and there are multiple perceptions.
On the other hand, Time itself might be a constant or at least an invariable Truth. However, Balthazar contradicts this:
"To intercalate realities is the only way to be faithful to Time, for at every moment in Time the possibilities are endless in their multiplicity. Life consists in the act of choice. The perpetual reservations of judgement and the perpetual choosing."
Hence, Time itself is multi-faceted, subjective, and variable. In other words, Time is relative.
The Form of the Novel
Ultimately, once again, this speculation is reflected in the form of the novel.
"I suppose that if you wished somehow to incorporate all I am telling you into your own Justine manuscript now, you would find yourself with a curious sort of book - the story would be told, so to speak, in layers.
"Unwittingly I may have supplied you with a form, something out of the way!
"Not unlike Pursewarden's idea of a series of novels like 'sliding panels'...or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down upon the other, the one obliterating or perhaps supplementing another. Industrious monks scraping away an elegy to make room for a verse of Holy Writ...I don't suppose such an analogy would be a bad one to apply to the reality of Alexandria, a city at once sacred and profane..."
To which the narrator responds:
"The Interlinear now raises for me much more than the problem of objective 'truth to life', or if you like 'to fiction'.
"It raises, as life does itself - whether one makes or takes it - the harder-gained question of form.
"How then am I to manipulate this mass of crystallised data in order to work out the meaning of it and so give a coherent picture of this impossible city of love and obscenity?"
It's almost as if life is a fictional work that we create as we experience and remember it. However, the more the narrator learns (or the more the author writes), the more the fiction changes.
In the Light of These New Treasures
As readers, we're still striving for our own coherence within the fictional world of Durrell's novel. The more we think about it, the more it changes! And we're only halfway through!
As a result, it seems like it's still too early to rush to judgement about what's actually happening. More treasures await us.
The narrator has isolated himself in Corfu, so that he can distance himself from the city and its characters enough to write about them. However, by the end of this volume, the characters want him back. They crave an input into the narrator's (if not the author's) enterprise (maybe even its direction and outcome). In the words of Clea:
"...perhaps your book...has changed. Or perhaps you, more than any of us, need to see the city again, need to see us again. We, for our part, very much need to see you again and refresh the friendship which we hope exists the other side of writing - if indeed an author can ever be just a friend of his 'characters'."
If reality is fiction, here is fiction striving to become reality.
These metaphysical and metafictional concerns are often associated with Post-Modernism. However, up to this point, at least, the Quartet is a persuasive argument that they were equally part of the Modernist project.
(1) The character of Pursewarden is believed to be based on the novelist Wyndham Lewis. His non-fiction work, "Time and Western Man" (1927), examines concepts of Time in literature. In it, he attacks James Joyce, to which attacks Joyce responded in "Finnegan's Wake". At the level of Time and Space, the work can be construed as evidence of a continuity between the concerns of Modernism and Post-Modernism. The work was published in the same year as Heidegger's "Being and Time".
REVIEWS OF "THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET":
"Justine" (Vol. 1 of 4)
"Mountolive" (Vol. 3 of 4)
"Clea" (Vol. 4 of 4)
Matthew Sweet - "Walk Out"
"When you look into a mirror,
The reflection that you see
Is a shell of what you were.
It's not who you want to be."
Miles Davis - "Time after Time"
Live at Yomiuri Land East, Tokyo, Japan on July 25, 1987
Live At Yomiuri Land Open Theatre East, Tokyo, Japan on July 28th, 1985
"Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
And think of you
Caught up in circles...confusion...
Is nothing new
Almost left behind
Suitcases of memories,
Notes are private!
Apr 17, 2015
Apr 19, 2015
Mar 16, 2015
Mar 12, 1984
Twenty-Twenty Something Vision
Simone de Beauvoir wrote these five short stories before the war, when she was between 27 and 29 years old.
They were rej Twenty-Twenty Something Vision
Simone de Beauvoir wrote these five short stories before the war, when she was between 27 and 29 years old.
They were rejected by two publishing houses (in one case for "heaviness and tedium" and in the other for lacking "any originality at a deeper level"). They would not be made available to the public until 1979, when de Beauvoir was 71.
Conscious of its "obvious faults", she described the book as "a beginner's piece of work", even though she had already written rough drafts of several unpublished novels.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think all concerned underestimated the merit of her stories.
"Nothing Without Engagement"
These tales were the first works in which de Beauvoir injected aspects of herself and her life (as opposed to what she called the "phantasms" of her imagination) into her fiction.
Each story captures the experience of a young woman. Some are fictionalised versions of actual friends of de Beauvoir's. However, it's hard to tell whether and how much they are biographical, projections of her own concerns, and/or manufactured.
All of the stories show women attempting to define themselves, while circumscribed by the dictates of both religion and family, what she calls "beliefs and codes".
All of the girls attended Catholic single sex schools, and had little exposure to boys outside their own family. Their parents discouraged any subsequent contact with men, unless it was an approved engagement that would lead to marriage. Certainly, there was no expectation of premarital sex.
The cover of the paperback I read.
"Without Me Grasping It"
Marcelle has to get engaged and eventually married in order to experience a relationship of any kind with a male.
A creative person, she is lonely within a framework of institutional obedience. When it comes to a relationship, she is resistant, fearful of being carried away by illicit passion. When finally she is married, her experience is one of humiliation, "awkward silence", "passionate submission". Her wedding night is a fall into a "bottomless pit of abjection". She clings to her new husband, "ecstatically, drunk with shame":
"'I'm his thing, his slave,' she thought to herself; and aloud, 'I adore you.'"
Eventually, Marcelle realises that she must seek the meaning of her life within herself, not in or through a man. Only then does she come to "the wonderful revelation of her fate. 'I am a woman of genius,' she decided." She was now free to realise her creative ambitions.
Chantal paints a picture of herself as someone who wants "no part of life to go by me without grasping it". Yet, her journal reveals that she feels empty and on edge: "I am stifling. I have the feeling of being buried alive." Unfortunately, she passes only conformist values onto her 14 year old pupils.
In contrast, Lisa seems to be the "disgusting romantic" Chantal warns her class about. A woman accuses her of being her husband's mistress. It's not true, but she nevertheless fantasises about the "dark flower of my passion":
"Perhaps one day I shall get some man to keep me."
Anne is most overtly inhibited by her mother's religious and moral strictness, much to Chantal's frustration as her friend:
"You have told me yourself that this total submission to the divine will is often only a cover for laziness and cowardice. Your resignation is in fact a definite choice: you choose peace. How do you know that God does not require of you the very thing that is hardest, not renouncement but resistance, not refusing to live but life itself?"
"Nothing Forbidden, Nothing Impossible"
Marguerite's story is the only one that is told wholly in the first person. De Beauvoir says in the Preface that it is the one most based on her own family life. Marguerite describes the experiences that "helped liquidate the last vestiges of religion in me". In its place, she develops her own philosophy and moral code. Initially, she does so tentatively:
"I belonged to a mean and reasonable breed - I was a dreary little bourgeoise. I was preparing my future liberty with the same careful economy as Mama, when she put money aside for her old age."
This conservatism is reflected in her apprehension about sex:
"I lost the clarity of mind I was so proud of and all my self-assurance when I saw a prostitute on a street corner stop a passing man - I was seized with distress and repulsion."
Yet it's her introduction to the world of Paris bars that propels her development. She feels some veneration for the whores she finds there:
"I should have liked to know by what series of initiations they had won the splendid freedom they enjoyed in relation to their bodies. They were beyond fear, beyond disgust; nothing was forbidden to them, nothing impossible: for my part I was ashamed of my virginity."
"There in the Centre of Things"
Of course, Marguerite doesn't become a whore: "a kind of election was required; and I had not been chosen."
When she pretends to be a prostitute in a bar, her pretense is apparent to all. One of the customers remarks, "You are a little bourgeoise trying to act the bohemian."
Still, she throws caution to the wind. In retrospect, she realises that "I had made a blind use of my freedom, I had let myself drift on the currents of chance and things had happened - slight, no doubt, and even squalid, but that made the fragment of miracle hidden in the depths of the vulgar happening seem to me all the more precious."
Abandoned by her first real love interest (Denis), she has a revelation of almost revolutionary proportions:
"What treasures of time I had wasted! Slowly I walked off; the world was shining like a new penny, and although I did not yet know what I wanted to do with it, everything was possible, since there in the centre of things, in the place Denis had left empty, I had found myself."
A Young Woman's Liberation
If the first four stories are sometimes dry, the last is a profound and skillful tale of personal liberation, while the collection as a whole is a fictional rehearsal of the ideas that Simone de Beauvoir would explore 12 years later in "The Second Sex".
Today, some women might not believe or relate to the limitations to which de Beauvoir's characters were subjected (especially if they decline to embrace the term Feminism). However, that doesn't make her work any less real or true. Anybody who reads these stories will appreciate why there had to be a movement called Feminism, and why it requires eternal vigilance to protect its gains (quite apart from any question as to whether it has yet achieved everything it set out to). ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 17, 2015
Jun 20, 2015
Mar 13, 2015
Jul 27, 2004
"In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."
Exercises in Style
These stories are fascinating exercises in "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."
Exercises in Style
These stories are fascinating exercises in style.
They effectively document the development of Borges' style at a time when "he was a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of other men."
Matter of Fact
As Borges said in an earlier Preface, "the stories are not, nor do they attempt to be, psychological."
I assume he meant they weren't concerned with the internal consciousness and motivation of the characters. Borges was primarily concerned with external facts, in effect, what could be witnessed or seen by those present.
Only, in relation to writing, an author can help a reader to be vicariously present, and therefore to become a witness to what had been related by the author, or at least the narrator.
Good, Compliant Readers
Borges isn't interested in sincerity, because that can be faked.
Rather, he's interested in fact and factuality (and, ironically, how that can be faked).
One might expect that matters of fact would be truthful and undeniable. If you write matter of factly, then the reader will believe you.
Borges mentions that reading "is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual."
It has the benefit of the writing, which necessarily has preceded it. The reader tends to give primacy to the writer, and therefore is both less sceptical and more trusting.
However, when the author or narrator decides to play a game with the reader, then the reading can be no more authentic than the writing. An author or narrator can make a reader complicit in their fraud, their forgery of truth.
An Impostor Forges His Style
These exercises in style, therefore, witness Borges mimicking and constructing styles of fiction and non-fiction that give the appearance of truth, veracity and authenticity.
If he fakes the style of non-fiction well enough, we will assume that he is sincere, or at least as sincere as history is capable of.
Of course, it's not enough that we believe that what is factual is true. Borges must make us believe that what is not true or factual is true as well.
He achieves this by setting his untruths in other people's truths. If he does this seamlessly enough, we won't be able to tell the difference.
Borges, therefore, starts even this work as an impostor, or at least as someone who is interested in the methodology of imposture.
The Virtues of Unlikeness
It's a game, of course. As well as a challenge. Having mastered likeness, the challenge is to embrace the virtues of unlikeness.
The more improbable the imposture, the greater the game.
How much can Borges get away with? The paradox being that the success of the likeness on the same page might draw attention to and undermine the unlikeness. Still, Borges believes that the dilemma can be overcome with greater, rather than less, audacity:
"Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as well that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretence would be a convincing proof that there was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily have convinced."
Man on Pink Corner
Having eschewed psychology, having forged the appearance of likeness, having melded likeness and unlikeness, Borges was now ready to write "Man on Pink Corner", what seems to be a genuinely fictitious short story (or is it?).
Presumably, nothing in fiction need be truly factual, although the author might seek to persuade us that it is. Fiction is, by definition, a pretence.
If Borges could master fraud, was he now ready to master pretence?
Some guide to Borges' modus operandi is revealed in the first sentence:
"Imagine you bringing up Francisco Real that way, out of the clear blue sky, him dead and gone and all."
Unlike the earlier stories, there is a first person narrator. The subject is Real, if not necessarily real. He is ostensibly invented out of nothing, brought up out of the clear blue sky. And the inventor is the second person, "you", perhaps the reader, though it could equally be Borges himself or at least "Borges".
An Imaginary Primer
Our role, the role of the reader, is to be the agent who complies with the instruction implicit in the first word, "imagine".
Borges entrusts us to be "more resigned, more civil, more intellectual." We have to be, in order to participate in and enjoy his labyrinthine games of the imagination.
Needless to say, Borges is an adept teacher, and this is both his and our first primer.
What's remarkable is that we learn to read as we watch him teach himself how to write.
Of course, it was only the beginning!
Deborah Conway - "It's Only The Beginning"
Notes are private!
Feb 28, 2015
Feb 28, 2015
May 28, 2014
May 28, 2014
I'd like to put down some spontaneous thoughts about the law, war and terrorism, in the hope of defining some issues and initiating a debate.
I'd like to put down some spontaneous thoughts about the law, war and terrorism, in the hope of defining some issues and initiating a debate.
Each state has criminal laws that deal with injury to people and damage to property.
The injury or damage becomes a public issue, when the state considers it to be serious enough to be punished, not just as a wrong committed by one person on another, but as one which should be punished as a crime against society.
Criminal punishment might extend from fines to imprisonment to the death penalty. In the last case, the state reserves to itself the right to deprive a citizen or alien of their life.
Criminal law sits outside and separately from international law.
States might have different political values and systems. They might have different religious populations.
In one sense, international law is the law that governs the relationship between states.
Historically, there have been situations where two states have gone to war with each other.
Personally, I don't think a state should initiate a war against another state without good reason. Obviously, self-defence is a good reason.
However, whatever the reason, I think there should be no war between states without a formal declaration of war between the two states.
One consequence of a formal declaration of war is to establish formal rules of warfare, such as the Geneva Convention.
In the 21st century, I would also expect wars to be restricted to those situations endorsed or permitted by the United Nations.
State Perspective on War with a Non-State
The concept of war applies between nation states.
It's not so readily applicable between a nation state (e.g., the United States) and a political movement that might be located in one or more states, regardless of whether it is endorsed by those states (e.g., Al Qaeda or ISIS).
If one nation wanted to invade another to deal with a non-state force, I would expect it to:
* obtain the permission of the UN;
* obtain the permission of the state;
* formally declare war against either the state or the non-state force;
* comply with the Geneva Convention; and
* minimise injury to the civilian population and damage to property.
The above analysis applies to states.
I'd like to now consider the issues from the point of view of a non-state force.
I want to do this by neutralising any discussion of the political merits of the non-state force.
However, I want to assume that the non-state force for whatever reason believes that it is threatened by a state.
The non-state is not a nation. Thus, it is not able to formally declare a war between two or more states, although it might use this language.
Secondly, it doesn't make sense for a small state or a small non-state force to formally or informally declare war on a state that would justify the utilisation of all due force by that state against the infringing state or non-state force. You wouldn't declare war on another state, if you thought it would immediately blow you out of the water.
Thus, many non-state forces simply take action which effectively snaps at the heels of the nation state.
Snapping at the Heels of the State
Logically, there are a number of forms that this action can take:
1. damage to public property;
2. damage to private property (e.g., businesses);
3. injury of the armed forces;
4. injury of the police force;
5. injury of the civilian population.
So let's say that the non-state force has 40,000 members around the world.
Is it going to assemble them all in one place to strengthen their attack on one location, but make themselves vulnerable to being obliterated by superior firepower?
Is it going to break itself into disparate cells, so it can attack in small groups that tie up enormous resources of self-defence?
The Logic of Terrorism
Hopefully, whether we like it or not, the above speculation reveals that not only is it unlikely that we will see an end to terrorism, but that there is a logic in it.
The Definition of Terrorism
There has been some difficulty defining terrorism.
However, some of the attempts actually explain why it is adopted as a strategy.
This is the wiki summary of the UN approach:
Since 2000, the United Nations General Assembly has been negotiating a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. The definition of the crime of terrorism, which has been on the negotiating table since 2002 reads as follows:
"1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person, by any means, unlawfully and intentionally, causes:
(a) Death or serious bodily injury to any person; or
(b) Serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility or the environment; or
(c) Damage to property, places, facilities, or systems referred to in paragraph 1 (b) of this article, resulting or likely to result in major economic loss,
when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act."
Terrorism versus War
Terrorism is a form of intimidation or coercion.
War entitles the victor to subject the loser entirely. However, the subjection might be achieved at enormous cost.
Terrorism doesn't necessarily want to achieve total subjection. It might be satisfied with a resolution of only one issue.
The Efficacy of Terrorism
Terrorism therefore is justified in terms of its efficacy in achieving a resolution of that issue.
The question therefore becomes: in the absence of diplomatic negotiation, what is likely to achieve the best result in the shortest period of time?
This is presumably how terrorists choose between the five forms of action mentioned above.
Unfortunately, the current view is that the methods of greatest efficacy start at the bottom of the list and work up.
The Response to Terrorism
Naturally, the response is: we will not negotiate with terrorists.
However, this approach simply establishes a Mexican stand-off, where the terrorism persists, often by seeking to cause:
* the greatest intimidation or coercion
* of the most spectacular kind
* at the least cost to the terrorists and
* the greatest cost to the state (in terms of self-defence).
What Do Civilians Want?
As a civilian, I want to know:
* what is it that's pissing these people off?
* are their claims reasonable?
* is there a better way to sort this out? ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 19, 2015
Jan 19, 2015
Jan 19, 2015
Oct 27, 2015
Oct 27, 2015
This is a review of an uncorrected eBook file that Netgalley enabled me to access before the official publication o Netgalley Disclosure
This is a review of an uncorrected eBook file that Netgalley enabled me to access before the official publication of the book. Under the terms of access, I may not quote any text for publication, until I check my copy against the finished book. As the finished book is not yet available, I won't quote any specific text, and will make only generalised comments about the style. I'll also avoid plot spoilers.
"Slade House" grew out of David Mitchell's Oulipean project in which he wrote a short story, "The Right Sort", strictly in compliance with Twitter conventions that restrict each tweet to 140 characters (approximately 20 words per tweet).
The restraints are so commonplace in a non-literary context that it's easy to overlook just how much this exercise constituted a work within the post-modern tradition.
Superficially, it seems that the story grew, tweet by tweet, without any overarching design. Thus, apparently, David Mitchell entrusted himself to his sentences and tweets and wherever his story took him.
Whatever the constraints, story (and therefore story-telling) prevailed and supplied the skeletal strength of the short story.
Fresh from writing "The Bone Clocks" and still committed to the concept of an über-novel, it was perhaps inevitable that the story would intersect with the subject matter of the über-novel. As a result, when Mitchell decided to turn the Twitter project into a fully-fledged novel, he remained in the realm of "The Bone Clocks".
Is This the Right Start? Is This Just Fantasy?
For readers who are new to David Mitchell or who have read him only selectively, you could ask whether this short work is an appropriate place to start.
It's certainly capable of being read as a stand-alone novel. However, I wouldn't recommend this, unless you don't really intend to read any earlier books, particularly "The Bone Clocks".
If you're curious about the fantasy world that Mitchell is constructing, then this is a way to dip your toes into it, without making the investment of time that the longer "The Bone Clocks" would require (even though both books are very easy to read).
If you've already read "The Bone Clocks" and didn't like the fantasy elements, then I'm tempted to recommend that you avoid "Slade House".
David Mitchell in David Bowie make-up at the Brisbane Writers' Festival, May 20, 2015
Wholly Unapologetic Submersion
Mitchell is aware that many readers don't relate to the genre aspects of his über-verse.
This novel, as the next in the sequence, might have been an opportunity to attract or placate such readers. However, instead, Mitchell wholly and unapologetically submerges himself and his readers in the same environment that worried some readers of "The Bone Clocks".
If "The Bone Clocks" disappointed your expectations, then this novel confronts readers with the choice of changing their expectations, suspending disbelief, or jumping off the Mitchell train at this station.
This is Mitchell's statement to us that he knows what he is doing and that he intends to do it that way. So what is it exactly that he is doing?
Five Times Nine
Once again, we get the juxtaposition of diverse chapters or stories. This time, there are five first person narratives, each separated from the next by nine years.
Whereas sometimes it's been difficult to work out what links the stories, this time they're linked by Slade House itself. The five stories give us five perspectives on the significance of Slade House in the über-verse over a period of time.
Atypically, one perspective belongs to an Atemporal - someone who has a limited capacity to free themselves from the dictates of time and achieve immortality by periodically killing engifted humans for spiritual sustenance (as opposed to Horologists, who are naturally immortal - get it?).
Return to Psychosoterica
Needless to say, we have to get our heads around Mitchell's psychosoteric framework.
It includes Lacunas (small spaces that are immune from time), Transversion (a form of astral projection that allows Atemporals to get a long way away from their body for a long time), Suasioning (which allows their soul to occupy another person's body for an extended period of time), and Orisons (reality bubbles in which the souls and psychovoltage of engifted humans can be removed immediately before their death, so that the modus operandi of Atemporals can be recharged).
So, you can see we're squarely in the time and space of "The Bone Clocks"!
I don't want to give anything away, except to say that we encounter one favoured Horologist, no Anchorites and two or three presumably evil Atemporals (who have eschewed the Shaded Way). By the end of the novel, the numbers have reduced a little (if not the diversity), but in a way that is clearly designed to permit a sequel, if not a prequel!
A Portrait by the Artist of an Adventure
From a literary point of view, this is not one of Mitchell's overtly lyrical novels. The language is economical, functional (including mandatory info-dumps - chill, sceptic!) and fun, apart from the last page, which sets the scene for the future in an evilly, eerily-romanticised style.
Like "The Bone Clocks", the novel is an out and out adventure.
The pace is rapid. You don't have to stop to think. All dialogue is plot-driven. It's in the tradition of boy's and girl's own adventures. In parts, it reminded me of a mash-up of Harry Potter and Enid Blyton. It's complete with an "X-Files Six" composed of student science society nerds, one of whom is truly engifted.
As with "The Bone Clocks", it's not intended to be taken too seriously. It's meant to be enjoyed with childish or teenaged enthusiasm. No sooner are you finished than you're ready for the next episode or instalment.
We have the opportunity to read the über-novel chronologically according to the date of composition, not knowing where it's going. One day, when it's all finished and some of us have shuffled off this mortal coil, readers will be able to jump into the completed work, not caring about the order in which they read it. To them, it won't matter where the artist started their painting. Their eyes will be able to roam the completed canvas with delight. If you're open-minded enough, you can read like this now! Enjoy!
The Who - "The Real Me" (from the album "Quadrophenia")
New Seekers - "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing"
Tchaikovsky - "Chant de l' alouette"
Guns N' Roses - "Sweet Child o' Mine"
Luna - "Sweet Child o' Mine"
Pink Floyd - "Another Brick In The Wall" (from the album "The Wall")
"Which one's Pink?"
Queen - "Bohemian Rhapsody"
"Time Warp" (from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")
Eels - "Novocaine For The Soul"
Supergrass - "Caught By The Fuzz"
Björk - "Hyperballad"
Massive Attack - "Safe From Harm"
The Orb - "Little Fluffy Clouds"
Philip Glass - "Truman Sleeps" (from "The Truman Show")
Bonus Tracks (Slade is in the House!):
Slade - "Goodbye to Jane (Gudbuy T'Jane)"
Slade - "Hear Me Calling (Live)"
Slade - "Darlin Be Home Soon"
Luna (with Lou Reed) - "Ride Into The Sun"
The Who - "Baba O'Riley (Teenage Wasteland)"
"Sally, take my hand
We'll travel south cross land
Put out the fire
And don't look past my shoulder.
"The exodus is here
The happy ones are near
Let's get together
Before we get much older."
Notes are private!
Aug 17, 2015
Aug 19, 2015
Jan 14, 2015
Dec 31, 2014
Dec 31, 2014
Here is a complete list of the books I read in 2014:
Below is an overview.
Long Weekend Immersions
I Complete List
Here is a complete list of the books I read in 2014:
Below is an overview.
Long Weekend Immersions
In the Land of the Long Weekend, sometimes we get an opportunity over three or four days to read a large book that would otherwise take weeks or months.
If you can get through 200 to 300 pages in a day with relatively little interruption, you can achieve a lot in three or four days. (I also fly interstate for business once a month.)
This is hardly skim reading. It's usually quite intense and demanding, and always quite selfish. However, it is doable, especially once your children are a bit older and more independent.
Immersion can be like watching a replay of a football game on fast forward or watching American football without all of the stoppages. It allows you to focus on key words, sentences and themes, and then to capture and document a response while it's still spontaneous and fresh.
In 2014, I managed to immerse myself in:
James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" (the ultimate play with words, though it must come to an end, to enable additional and more play)
Rabelais' "Gargantua and Pantagruel" (a revelation)
Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (quintessential)
Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" (as funny as I recalled from my school years)
William T Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down"(RURD) (too impressionistic, poorly researched and undisciplined for my liking)
William Gass' "The Tunnel" (Funnier and longer than, but inferior to, Saul Bellow's "Herzog")
The first four readings are part of a personal project in which I am exploring the hypothesis that there are only two substantive macro-movements in the history of the Novel: Realism and practices that challenge Realism or draw attention to the processes or fictionality of the Novel (let's call it Modernism).
My hypothesis is that what we describe as Post-Modernism is just a variant of Modernism (i.e., although it purports to react and respond to Modernism, it is really only just another response to Realism).
Modernism is effectively a roof over many variants of rebellion against Realism or concerns with form.
Modernism develops generation by generation. In the academic reaches of literature, some generations inflate the differences between themselves and their predecessors in the game of musical (or professorial) chairs that constitutes academic careerism.
As an interested spectator, what's important is not so much the difference between the acts, but that the circus must go on.
Fiction Written by Women
About 20% (19) of the books I read in 2014 were written by women.
I started off the year with readings of the following novels:
Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" (also enjoyed "Quartet")
Anna Kavan's "Ice" (an eyeopener)
Eleanor Catton's "The Rehearsal" (a brilliant first novel)
Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" (I really regret being intimidated by her until 2013)
Christine Brooke-Rose's "Amalgamemnon" (had only read about her until a few years ago)
Maggie Estep's "Diary of an Emotional Idiot" (Very entertaining. I must read more of her and more recent women writers)
Midway through the year I thoroughly enjoyed two novels by Angela Carter that had everything I seek in fiction:
"The Passion of New Eve"
"The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman"
I hope to re-read both novels regularly. They're that good!
Sadeian Women: Women's Perspectives on de Sade
Later in the year, I did a thematic reading of three women writing fiction or non-fiction about or inspired by the Marquis de Sade, his writings and his philosophy (in conjunction with my readings of Vollmann, Robert Coover and John Hawkes):
Simone de Beauvoir's "The Marquis de Sade - An Essay" (Hope to re-read "The Mandarins" in 2015, as well as some of the books about her relationship with Sartre)
Rikki Ducornet's "The Fan-Maker's Inquisition" (I want to read more of her in 2015)
Angela Carter's "The Sadeian Woman" (I've enjoyed Angela Carter's fiction and non-fiction enormously, and now regard her as one of my favourite writers)
I found these books far more subtle, stylish and insightful than Vollmann's writings about de Sade, transgression and sexuality generally.
My longest, most difficult and most frustrating (but ultimately most satisfying and rewarding) project was reading and reviewing Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit" and several secondary works in preparation for it.
I missed Hegel on the way to Marx at university. I studied political science, rather than philosophy proper. I wanted to understand why Marx respected Hegel so much, but nevertheless felt the need to turn him on his head.
I would always recommend reading some secondary works before reading a primary text by Hegel, even if they misguide you or misshape your priorities and perceptions (both of which happened to me, although by comparison and contrast, you hope that eventually you will get back on track).
Hegel is more problematical, because the translations of his style are very difficult to read (although every now and again a sentence or concept will blow your mind). He is more needing of annotations than James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis.
This project wore me down. But I emerged with a better understanding of some key ideas that I can build on with further reading.
I am particularly interested in the subsequent reception of Hegel in France and Germany, as well as the US.
This is a foundation for further reading of works by Marx and Engels (on dialectical materialism and alienation), Heidegger (on Being and Mitsein), Sartre, de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Lacan and Zizek (which will hopefully form the basis of my non-fiction reading in 2015/2016).
I had delayed reading Zizek until I had a better understanding of Hegel.
William T Vollmann (Mit Oder Ohne Jouissance?)
I read seven works by Vollmann in 2014.
I didn't read these works in any preconceived chronological or other sequence. Initially, I felt that each work fell between four and five stars. However, as I read on, and this serial immersion started to reveal obsessions and flaws, I grew increasingly frustrated with what I was reading and the relative absence of criticism of his work.
Some readers and critics should just stay away from Vollmann. He will never appeal to them. However, there are many other readers who would appreciate his work, if it was less self-indulgent and better executed.
Vollmann is about two years younger than me. Ironically, there was a similar age difference between him and David Foster Wallace.
I share Vollmann's passion for living, thinking, reading and writing at the intersection of sexuality, morality, culture, law, politics and philosophy.
I respect the polymathleticism that his lifestyle permits him. However, ultimately, I question whether he is as brilliant or as insightful or as skilled or as empathetic as he or his fan club seems to think he is.
He is what I would call an autodidactilletante (but so am I). He takes himself and his obsessions (and therefore has managed to persuade hundreds of readers to take him) far too seriously (but so do I).
Vollmann seems to work on the assumption that, if you give somebody (of our generation?) a studio, a computer, internet access, a passport, a crazy mate (like a photographer or an architect or a lawyer), an expense account, the luxury of not having to hold down a real job, a headcam, a bar fridge, a gun, a transgressive wardrobe, a baseball cap (reversed), freelance gigs with a monthly magazine (before Spin, it used to be Rolling Stone), and an audience that aspires to be (or recognises themselves in) you, then you will become the latest:
* Jack Kerouac
* John Steinbeck
* Woody Guthrie
* Norman Mailer
* Charles Bukowski
* Tom Wolfe
* Hunter S Thompson
* Lester Bangs
* James Ellroy
* all of the above.
I wish DFW was still around to tell Vollmann how embarrassing he has become. He's really just the naughty flipside of Jonathan Franzen. (view spoiler)[DFW sought desperately to find a way to relate to the world and other people. At least one of Franzen's protagonists wants to correct how the previous generation went about it. In Vollmann (at least, what I have read so far), you won't find one functional relationship between two people. His version of freedom is the freedom of a lone ranger without commitment. (hide spoiler)]
Nevertheless, Vollmann has transformed himself into a product of the internet era. He must sit plugged into cyberspace for hours on end, between train trips and trips to the bar fridge.
Really, he has achieved the ultimate blogger's dream. He can type whatever and however much he likes, and we'll lap it all up like kittens.
It would be so much easier to do it all online. I wonder why he bothers with the book format. I don't think of his works as separate books anymore. I think he's just writing/typing one big work, because he can't stop, except for a drink or a piss.
His work is often a collection of discrete portraits, stories and/or essays. Little unites them but the binding (or the fact that they share the same author).
His work lends itself to being published on separate pages of a website, so we can read them more discretely and selectively as one work with daily or minute-by-minute updates and annotations. We could plug ourselves into Vollmann. Pretend to be him! Only we wouldn't have to swallow 700 or 3,000 pages whole at a time.
This way, Vollmann wouldn't need to write books that contain everything he knows about everything (plus a few bonus fictionalisations of everything he did or imagined doing with whores or crack or trains or ghosts since the last book).
In this cyberspace environment, it wouldn't matter how long his works were. It wouldn't matter how much shell there was for each rare and tiny pearl. It wouldn't matter whether he edits them. They would just be there! We could stop writing self-congratulatory reviews about the fact that we actually finished reading them, and focus on their subject matter and style! Plus, they wouldn't finish anyway. They'd just keep on appearing, as if they'd been written by a ghost!
Really, though, I'm more interested in the quality of his insight and language.
The more I've read him, the more I've realised how self-indulgent and inconsistent he is. His obsessions intrude like a fart in a yoga session. He's too hit and miss at the moment.
This is sad. It's like observing the deterioration/destruction of an/the American mind. Live.
I've started to feel like I'm still going to Pogues concerts, but I'm more interested in whether Shane MacGowan will collapse on stage. What is this man's use by date? Will his teeth fall out first?
Honestly, I wish Vollmann would just lift his game, so that the reading experience was improved, instead of kowtowing to the taste of his audience of mirror images.
Unfortunately, in the revolutionary fashion that gave us Post-Modernism as a rebellion against Modernism and academic career path for its youthful exponents, he now seems to have been adopted by members of the upwardly mobile junior academia, who diligently fill their CV's with hagiographic essays and links to their GoodReads pages, while bent on careers in Vollmann Studies. I assume that, because he is so multi-disciplinary, it will need its own new Faculty.
Young lecturers will become Associate Professors. Associate Professors will become Professors. Out with the old, in with the new. They must have been reading "The Zizek Progression" to learn how it's done. Only he's older than the lot of us!
Of course, the real potential of the internet is: fire the old bastards, get them off the pot and let somebody under 40 (30?) have a crack at it. Every generation deserves its own drug.
Give me China Mieville (42) any day ("Three Moments of an Explosion" due in June, 2015).
The English seem to do this sort of thing (radical intelligence?) so much better.
Lucinda Williams - "Joy" (Live)
[Dedicated to Unser Bill]
"You took my joy.
I want it back."
Murakami and Mitchell
Well, that got a bit serious, didn't it!
In stark contrast, I get enormous pleasure and joy out of these two authors. I read or re-read five of their novels in 2014:
Haruki Murakami's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage"
David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"
I read them for literary entertainment. I like the way they play with genre, fantasy, the unconscious, the supernatural (for Vollmann fans, they're a bit like ghosts), connectedness (who would have thought this would be such a controversial concept in an era governed by hyperlinks?).
Notes are private!
Dec 31, 2014
Jan 01, 2015
Jan 01, 1981
Mar 28, 1982
The Bed Stripped, the Maid Whipped, My Eyes Pricked
I should really rate this very brief novella five stars. What appears on the page is both a perfect The Bed Stripped, the Maid Whipped, My Eyes Pricked
I should really rate this very brief novella five stars. What appears on the page is both a perfect construction and an exquisite confection, and yet somehow it wasn't enough.
I am not alone in this:
"He goes to gaze out into the garden, vaguely dissatisfied. The room is clean, the bed stripped and made, the maid whipped, why isn't that enough?"
For all of its hundred pages, I felt that I was in the presence of a master (and slave) craftsman. I didn't want it to stop, I wanted more from it, more of it, and isn't that, after all, the greatest compliment you can pay an author?
Maybe it was my fault? Something in the way I read it?
"Is there something missing in the manuals? No, more likely, he has failed to read them rightly. Yet again."
Did I fail to read it rightly? Yet again? What more did I want? I don't really know.
I suppose I am vaguely annoyed, no, angry, that, like life or sex or desire itself (as long as it doesn't become a grind), I didn't want it to come to an end. So soon. (view spoiler)[But, as does Coover, I repeat myself. (hide spoiler)]
This is a wonderful exploration of the complementary, if not always reciprocal, bond between this particular master and maid, as well as the relationship between the Master and the Maid/Servant/Slave at a more general or allegorical level.
Each needs the other, at least in the realm of literature, just as an author needs a reader to complete the act of fiction.
It's not nearly as erotic or pornographic as I imagined or feared or hoped it would be. There are powerful psychological insights at work here. I was stunned to encounter these words, perhaps a description or explanation of my dilemma:
"Maybe it's some kind of failure of communication. A mutual failure. Is that possible? A loss of syntax between stroke and weal?" (view spoiler)[The last sentence is one of my favourites of the year. (hide spoiler)]
Does the author stroke and the reader feel the weal? (view spoiler)[Is it a public weal or private? Is it a common weal? I am ignorant of this kind of thing. (hide spoiler)]
Who is in control in this relationship between author and reader?
Play Up, Play Up and Play the Game
At the same time, the seriousness is tempered by an occasional comic tone (the sound of the whip, for instance: "Whish-SNAP! Hiss-WHACK! Whizz-CRACK! WHAP! THWOCK!" The way he refers to the maid's buttocks as her "sit-me-down") that cautions us not to take it or its subject matter too seriously.
This work is at least partly a game, again, like life and sex, and I wanted the game to go on.
I honestly expected it to be more overtly American or capitalist or commercial or exploitative in its embrace of pornography or its sexual subject matter.
Instead, it is far more subtle in what I will tentatively and ineptly call a European manner, in the way that "Lolita" is just as much a European novel as an American one (as is "Gravity's Rainbow", in my opinion).
Almost instantly I opened its pages, it smacked (if that's not the wrong word to use in this context) of Italo Calvino.
It's interesting that Coover wrote it just three year's after "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler".
It's almost a response to Calvino's call, like "If on a Winter's Morning a Maid (Walked in on her Spanker)".
That's how good this novella is.
Just Another Maid from the Agency
You will enter his suite, dressed in your black uniform with its starched white apron and lace cap, deliberately, gravely, circumspectly, without affectation. You will be circumspect in your motions, as you’ve been trained. It will seem as if this is the moment for which you have been created. Even if, by then, you will do the same thing every day. You will glance briefly at the unmade bed, but not dwell on its contents. Most likely, they will have been placed there to shock you into submission. You will observe his cast-off nightclothes. You will not pick them up yet. You will not hesitate as you open the curtains. You will sigh as the sunlight floods the room. You will sing a few lines of a country and western song, maybe something modern like “Constant Craving”. You will assume that he is not hiding in the suite somewhere, as he has done many times before. You will pick up your bucket and mop, and enter the bathroom. You will express surprise at finding him there. “Sir! I’m so sorry!” He will turn around to face you. You will observe that his towel is very wet. You will offer him a dry one. The wet towel will drop from his waist. You will look down on him. Your eyes will light up coyly, while he gazes at you. You will say, “Sir, what a big cock you have this morning!” As you have been instructed to. He will say that you have been a bad girl. You will ask him whether you should go out and come back in again later. He will say, “No.” You will ask him if there is any other way you can make amends. He will say, “No. You must be punished.” You will sob. He will ask, “Am I being unfair?” Now, you will say, “No, sir.” He will sit down on the edge of his bed and place you on his lap. He will lift your skirt above your sit-me-down. You will say, “I don’t understand, sir.” He will pull your drawers down and whip you, until the welts are hot enough to fry an egg. You will say, “You’ll draw blood, sir.” It will have no effect on him. He’ll push your skirt further up your torso. “WHAT?” He’ll say. “WHAT’S THIS?” He’ll fumble with it, turning it around, then realization will set in. “A WIRE?” Then he will look through the window at our apartment across the courtyard. He will see the video camera, and me behind it. Is that clear? Do you think you’re up to it?
Notes are private!
Dec 11, 2014
Dec 12, 2014
Nov 16, 2014
Jan 01, 2005
Dec 02, 2014
The Garden of Forking Corridors
I had just finished "The Garden of Forking Paths". I was about to start some Kafka, but I wandered into a $10 booksho The Garden of Forking Corridors
I had just finished "The Garden of Forking Paths". I was about to start some Kafka, but I wandered into a $10 bookshop to see if there was anything that I could read in between. I looked at the front table. Nothing. Inside I wondered about a book about Heidegger. I went back to it twice, but decided I had enough Heidegger for the moment. I resolved to be virtuous and save my money for another occasion. I had one last look at the front table on the way out, and there it was. A solitary hardback copy of "The Strange Library" for $10. Almost 70% cheaper than anywhere else. I read it the following morning on a one hour train trip.
The book is beautifully typeset, designed and printed, with marbled paper and scientific illustrations from old books found in the London Library. The English version is totally differently illustrated to the Japanese version.
It was serendipity that I would segue from "The Library of Babel" to "The Strange Library". Borges' library is a symbol of a universe that is both chaotic and infinite. Beneath Murakami's library, a young boy is led to a reading room in the basement that is "as dark as if a hole had been pierced in the cosmos". Normally, a library connotes the quest for and gain of knowledge and comprehension. Here, it houses a labyrinth in which the narrator suffers loss. In contrast to the cosmos, the library makes him realise how it feels to be alone and the depth of the darkness that surrounds him. At his age, at least, the narrator is unable to generate enough light to counter the darkness outside.
The sheep man makes an appearance. There's no black cat, but early in his life the narrator is bitten by the black dog (of depression?). There's a pet starling and, of course, a pretty girl the same age as the narrator.
In Borges, the style is dense with words and abstraction. In Murakami, it's sparse and uncluttered, the stuff of fairy tales, if still dark.
The novella ends with one cycle of the moon. There's no sense of what is to come. We can only assume that the narrator will approach adulthood with little guidance, little reassurance, little comfort and no library card.
"If you don't hurry, you'll be lost for eternity." ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 14, 2015
Jul 14, 2015
Oct 07, 2014
Aug 30, 1995
Hannah Arendt met Martin Heidegger in 1924, when she enrolled in his philosophy course.
She was 18, he was 35. He married his wife Hannah/Martin/Elfride
Hannah Arendt met Martin Heidegger in 1924, when she enrolled in his philosophy course.
She was 18, he was 35. He married his wife, Elfride, seven years before, in 1917. She was a student of political economy and came from a strict Prussian military family. She would later become and remain an enthusiastic National Socialist and a fan of Hitler. By 1924, they had had two sons.
This work gives Elfride fairly short shrift. She comes across as an insecure, jealous disciplinarian (even if the reasons are clear). The couple are described as like minds, but there is little sense of her having been a soul mate of Heidegger (to the extent that Arendt would become), even if they shared a belief that Hitler and the Nazi Party were the only hope Germany and Europe had in order to fend off Communism.
Whatever the external threats and challenges, the Heideggers never separated or divorced. Their marriage remained solid as a rock, until death (Heidegger's) did them part. Elfride stood by her man. She held her marriage together.
One to One Correspondence
At the time this short work was written, the private correspondence between Arendt and Heidegger hadn't been publicly released.
Mary McCarthy, a close friend and confidante of Arendt's (as well as her literary executor), alerted Elzbieta Ettinger (then a professor at M.I.T.) to its existence, in the hope that she might write a biography of Arendt. Ettinger wasn't able to complete it before her death. However, early in the process, she decided to publish a book based on what she had gleaned from the letters about the intimate relationship between the two.
Watch out, Hannah, you don't know what those cigarettes will do to your skin!
A Youthful Dalliance, No More
Heidegger fell in love with Arendt early in his lecture course. Within two months, he had invited her into his office, where they talked shyly for several hours. Unable to break her reserve, Heidegger wrote her a love letter and then another. Within two weeks they had become lovers.
Later it would become known within a limited circle that Arendt had had this youthful dalliance, which was first mentioned in Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography, "Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World" in 1984.
No particular importance was given to the dalliance at the time. It did not immediately detract from Arendt's defence of Heidegger and his philosophy after the war, when he was ostracised for his support of the Nazi Party and his anti-Semitism.
What wasn't known up until this work was published was that their close relationship continued for the whole of their lives, although not necessarily on a physical level.
This account of the relationship creates a dilemma for a reader.
On the one hand, it caters to a prurient interest in the personal lives of two important philosophers (based, largely, on private correspondence). Do we really need to know this stuff?
On the other hand, there is no attempt to sensationalise the story. The words and acts of the protagonists speak for themselves, even though Ettinger wasn't able to quote directly from Heidegger's letters to which she had access (she had to paraphrase them). (Only after Elfride died in 1992 were there discussions about publishIng some of the correspondence, which did not occur until 2003.)
Poison in the Inkwell
When, after the war, it became known that Heidegger had been a Nazi supporter and anti-Semite, the issue became one of whether his philosophy could be divorced from his politics.
Ettinger addresses this issue here. However, her book also implicitly asks the question whether a philosophy can be divorced from the man who created it.
Does the true nature of the man poison his philosophy? What are we supposed to make of a philosophy that expounds on the nature of authenticity, if it seems that in his public and personal life the philosopher was duplicitous, manipulative, hypocritical and insincere?
This isn't meant to be a criticism of the morality of an extra-marital affair. It's more targeted at Heidegger's betrayal of his Jewish colleagues and friends (Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers), and his refusal to recant, explain or apologise for his Nazi beliefs under extreme public and personal pressure after the war.
Love in Truth
I approached the book on the basis that Arendt and Heidegger were genuinely in love. At least, initially, they did justice to the spiritual and sexual demands of that love.
If you would believe Heidegger, she taught him how to love. Until the relationship, he was "strict, rigid, hard-working, the son of devout Catholic peasants" (although it seems that he and Elfride chose not to baptise their children in the Church).
If Ettinger is to be faulted in any way, I think it's the lingering insinuation that Arendt was duped by Heidegger.
As it turned out, she wasn't the only female student he had a relationship with.
However, for all the suspicion Heidegger and his philosophy invoked in the eyes of the Gestapo, it seems he hid successfully behind the apparent solidity of his marriage, particularly insofar as they were perceived as fervent Nazi supporters.
Arendt and Heidegger remained lovers until 1930, when she left Marburg to study under Karl Jaspers in Freiburg.
When they parted company, Arendt, now 23, swore that she could, and would, never love another man. While she did have relationships and marry twice (once at least very happily), it's clear that she reserved a large part of her heart and mind for Heidegger.
At her age, you can't put this down to stupidity or naivete.
The Idol in the Twilight
Ultimately, it seems that Heidegger needed to be idolised more than loved. Love was almost a by-product.
I'm still finding my way around Heidegger's philosophy and trying to assess its significance. It's arguable that "Being and Time" is the greatest philosophical work of the twentieth century. However, I wonder whether Heidegger's greatness derives more from his writing than his philosophy. Much of his work simply revitalised Greek philosophical tradition. He used the etymology of words and concepts to bring fresh understanding and insight to old ideas. He wrote like a poet or novelist, even if readers are often hamstrung by his neologisms and novel use of old words.
Most importantly, he wrote like an orator speaks. He was a great rhetorician.
I Put a Spell on You
A year before she died, Arendt wrote to Heidegger, "No one can deliver a lecture the way you do, nor did anyone before you."
In a tribute to Heidegger on his eightieth birthday, Arendt spoke of his reputation, even before she took his course:
"Little more than a name was known, but the name made its way through all of Germany like the rumor of a secret king."
He was the most popular teacher at the university, because of his innovative philosophical thought and his mesmerising delivery. It seems he shared a charisma with Hitler, whose chief ideologue he sought to be.
Karl Loewith (a former pupil and later a harsh critic of Heidegger) wrote:
"He was a dark little man who knew how to cast a spell...The technique of his lectures consisted of building up a complex structure of ideas, which he then dismantled to confront the overstrung student with a puzzle and leave him in a void. This art of witchcraft entailed very risky results: it attracted more or less psychopathic minds, and one student took her own life after three years of puzzle-solving."
"Aware of his allure to both male and female students and of his power over their minds, Heidegger purposely kept his distance, intensifying the mystique, the awe, the reverence."
Worship and Adulation
Later, Ettinger expresses the opinion, "Heidegger transferred the cult of worship from the lecture hall to his personal relationship with Arendt."
Even when he was 63, Ettinger describes him as "an avid sportsman,...in excellent shape, creative, popular, surrounded by disciples and acolytes, male and female."
From Heidegger's point of view, Arendt, a beautiful, intelligent, shy, sensual Jewess, was a "stimulating force" in his life. Whatever else, it's clear that the relationship and its longevity had an intellectual foundation, one of "spiritual kinship".
Ettinger denies that Heidegger was an aggressive man, but she says his behaviour revealed a "forceful, self-centred nature and a capacity for ruthlessness and cunning...he was an insecure man in constant need of worship and adulation...which Hannah provided in abundance."
Despite her strength of character, Heidegger treated Arendt as his apprentice and acolyte. He brought out in her an "obedience or even passivity". Even at age 46, she "could not resist his spell":
"Arendt vacillated between what reason told her and what she knew. She did not want to liberate herself from Heidegger's power, to put an end to the bondage but not to the bond; she wanted to retain his friendship, and perhaps his love."
The Compensation of Genius
Still, for the whole of her life, she continued to regard Heidegger as a genius. She was quite distressed when Alfred Kazin told her that the name Heidegger "had become sort of a cuss word in Germany". Equally, she was familiar with how "terribly hurt" Heidegger was when confronted by the apostasy of former pupils and acolytes (like Karl Loewith).
Heidegger drew comfort from the fact that she was "intellectually dependent on him".
In her words, she "remained faithful and unfaithful, and both in love."
Towards the end of her life, Arendt would tell Mary McCarthy that Heidegger was "the great love of my life", though in her eyes, "with men like that, talent overruled unreliability, or compensated for it."
Ettinger recognises that the heart sometimes rules the mind, even in the case of a philosopher:
"No person who knows about love and passion will consider Arendt's forgiveness of Heidegger unusual."
Thus, it seems that Ettinger finds Heidegger culpable, but forgiven, at least by one of the individuals who matter.
Martin Heidegger to Hannah Arendt: 24 April, 1925
When I gave you [back your manuscript 'Shadows'] today, your elementary joy overwhelmed me and made me helpless. I gave you a piece of my soul — little enough for your love — but your joyful gratitude towered over everything...
There are “shadows” only where there is sun. And that is the foundation of your soul...
You come straight from the center of your existence to be close to me, and you have become a force that will influence my life forever. Fragmentation and despair will never yield anything like your supportive love in my work...
“Shadows” were cast by your surroundings, by the age, by the forced maturity of a young life.
I would not love you if I were not convinced that those shadows are not you but distortions and illusions produced by an endless self-erosion that penetrated from outside.
Your startling admission will not undermine my belief in the genuine, rich impulses of your existence. On the contrary, for me it is proof that you have moved into the open — although the way out of such existential contortions, which are not really yours, will be long...
You were so happy today when you arrived, sparkling and free, just as I hoped you would be on your return to Marburg. I was dazed by the splendor of this human essence—whom I am allowed to be close to. And when you asked—as I apparently seemed absent—if you should go, then I was with you — entirely alone — free of worldly cares and doubt — in the clear joy that you exist.
I will be lecturing in room 11 again; do you know what that means?
Good night dearest Hannah!
Notes are private!
Jun 29, 2015
Jul 03, 2015
Sep 21, 2014
Mar 01, 2013
Mar 07, 2013
A Novel Salvaged from the Archives of the Cinema Gaumont Pathétique
I recommend this novel to anybody who shares my interest in Paris, film, photograp A Novel Salvaged from the Archives of the Cinema Gaumont Pathétique
I recommend this novel to anybody who shares my interest in Paris, film, photography, letters, screenplays, concubines, sisters, doppelgänger, lesbianism, ménages à trois, petites morts, imposture, revenge, theft, murder, suicide, detection, justice, well-constructed plots, economical prose, short chapters, pattern recognition, post-modernism, memento mori and sub-Proustian narrative. ...more
Notes are private!
Sep 23, 2014
Sep 26, 2014
Aug 13, 2014
Apr 01, 2007
"It Might be the Supreme Pancake"
Flann O’Brien finished this novel in 1940, but it wasn’t published until 1967, the year after he died of cancer.
It mu "It Might be the Supreme Pancake"
Flann O’Brien finished this novel in 1940, but it wasn’t published until 1967, the year after he died of cancer.
It must have broken his heart that it was initially rejected for publication. It’s arguable that it was finally released at a far more appreciative time. However, this is little comfort if you're dead, and what we readers have missed out on is the type of fiction he would have written had it been accepted.
Flann O’Brien ranks with great wordsmiths and humourists like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Spike Milligan.
The novel loosely details a crime (murder) and a punishment (hanging) and the aftermath of both. What's uncertain is the timing of the events. As with so much in life, what appears at first to be linear could equally be circular or recurrent. To say any more or to be any less circumlocutious, would be to enter spoiler territory.
The novel is intelligent, challenging, playful and economical. It makes a powerful case for minimalism against maximalism.
You can enter and re-enter this compact, almost infinitesimal, world of infinite jest with infinite pleasure.
To paraphrase the first policeman, "It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter."
For it to remain so when you read it, I’m not going to say much about it apart from outlining the metaphysical speculation that seems to drive it.
"Is It About a Bicycle?"
It most certainly is. But just as a bicycle has two wheels, the weight of the narrative is borne by two wheels that don’t always spin in the same direction. In fact, they might even counteract each other and defy progress.
I’ll try to describe their dialectical machinations below.
"What Fresh Hell is This?"
See if this makes sense.
Everything is made of omnium. Omnium is everywhere. You could think of it as particles. You could also think of it as waves. Omnium is energy. Omnium is also light. This is the basis of Atomic Theory. Obviously, in reality, particles are in contact with each other. Omnium rubs up against other omnium. Take me and my bicycle for example. If I sit on the seat of my bike for long enough, some of me will rub off on my bike, and some of my bike will rub off on me. Let’s call the bit of me that rubs off on my bike my "soul". My soul is transported through my ass via the seat to my bicycle. Eventually, it’s possible that I might lose all of my soul to my bike. What I get in exchange is timber. Without my bicycle, I am only wood. I am lifeless without my bike. As if it’s not bad enough that some among us are half-man, half-bike, the police are finding that more and more people are losing their bikes. Without our bikes, we can’t make any progress on our journey. If our goal is heaven, we can’t get to heaven without our bike, i.e., without our soul. The handle bars on our bicycles are our consciences. The lamps illuminate our path. If we’re parted from our bicycles, we might lose our direction in life. We might fall into a life of crime. We might be destined for hell. Indeed, life without a soul might define hell. We don’t even have to die to get to hell. When we get to hell, it might even look very much like life before we died. When we get to hell, we might find that the punishment for our crime is to relive our lives. Hell might be an eternal repetition of our lives of crime. Hell might not be other people. It might be us. Hell might be an eternal recurrence of ourselves and our past lives.
"A Journey is An Hallucination"
A different approach to life and death comes from the narrator’s favourite philosopher, de Selby (1).
He argues that "a journey is an hallucination." For him, human existence is "a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief."
Each experience is a static occurrence. No experience is a point on the axis on which you go from A to B. It is simply a rest or a pause. At no point is the traveller moving. They are never actually going anywhere. They are never progressing from A to B.
The human mind groups together millions of these rests, and mistakenly calls the aggregate "motion".
However, de Selby believes that motion is an illusion. He argues that there is no progression or serialism in life. Time does not pass. Time as we know it does not exist. Life is a photograph, not a cinematographic film.
If we are not moving anywhere, we are not moving or progressing towards death. If death is the supreme hallucination, then our belief that we are approaching death must be illusory.
The Triangulation of the Bicycular Dialectic
These are two very different perspectives on life and death, morality and mortality. But I won't say any more. It's important that you negotiate the novel's journey guided primarily by Flann O'Brien and influenced by as few external preconceptions as possible. You have to think it through for yourself when you read it. That's the challenge and the fun part and the ultimate reward, the supreme pancake.
However, I'll disclose some questions I asked while reading the novel:
If God is a Trinity, is the House of God triangular?
If God’s Police enforce God’s Law, who is the third policeman?
I won't answer them either, because Flann O’Brien counsels, "Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any."
I hope you get to read and enjoy the novel!
(1) Reprised in "The Dalkey Archive":
Miles Davis - ''Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud''
Laughing Clowns - "Collapse Board"
"You shake your head you can't believe
The sickening stability of my life
You've got about an hour left
And then you're standing
On the collapse board again
And feel the rope around your neck again."
Notes are private!
Oct 30, 2014
Aug 02, 2014
Jan 01, 2003
My more formal review of this novel is here:
The purpose of these notes and comments (and Formal Review
My more formal review of this novel is here:
The purpose of these notes and comments (and they are really nothing more than that) is to help build a picture of the intellectual, cultural and political context and subtext of this unique and uniquely Australian novel, so that readers not familiar with the landscape or culture of Australia can get some additional insight into the novel.
Despite or regardless of its Australian origins, the novel transcends national boundaries.
Hopefully, a discussion of the following issues will help unlock the merits of the novel beyond the beauty of its writing.
The narrator refers to the remote central districts (presumably of Victoria). (4)
The only coastal city mentioned is Melbourne.
The Individualism of the Narrator and the Plainsmen
The narrator develops a belief that only he can interpret the plains:
"I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret. (3)"
This individualism seems to be something he developed from proximity to the plainsmen.
They don't value a common belief. They are not trying to create an agreed tradition:
"Listening to the plainsmen, I had a bewildering sense that they wanted no common belief to fall back on: that each of them became uncomfortable if another seemed to take as understood something he himself claimed for the plains as a whole. It was as though each plainsman chose to appear as a solitary inhabitant of a region that only he could explain. And even when a man spoke of his particular plain, he seemed to choose his words as though the simplest of them came from no common stock but took its meaning from the speaker’s peculiar usage of it. (9)"
This individualism is reflected in their use of language. There is a sense in which even the words, the signifiers, are individual, rather than social. Needless to say, the signified is peculiar to the individual plainsman.
The plainsmen are not collectivists. The community of tastes and values is seen as a virus that can be contagious to the individual:
"I saw that what had sometimes been described as the arrogance of the plainsmen was no more than their reluctance to recognise any common ground between themselves and others. This was the very opposite (as the plainsmen themselves well knew) of the common urge among Australians of those days to emphasise whatever they seemed to share with other cultures. A plainsman…would affect to be without any distinguishing culture rather than allow his land and his ways to be judged part of some larger community of contagious tastes or fashions. (9)"
The individualism of the plainsmen seems to be opposed to the tradition of mateship and egalitarianism in Outer Australia.
The narrator meets up with a group of plainsmen in the bar of the hotel where he is staying.
They are townsfolk. They are different from the Landowners.
Unlike the townsfolk in the coastal cities, they are all referred to as "intellectuals and custodians of the history and lore of the district."
Two Intellectual Movements
Historically, at first, there were two intellectual movements among the plainsmen:
* the Horizonites (15); and
* the Haremen (15).
These groups emerged out of a "cautiously expressed manifesto signed by an obscure group of poets and painters". (27)
This could be an allusion to the role the Surrealist Manifesto played in the early stages of Modernism.
The Horizonites are identified in terms of a more metaphysical approach to culture:
"They may well have intended no more than to provoke the intellectuals of the plains to define in metaphysical terms what had previously been expressed in emotional or sentimental language. (28)"
They are less concerned with actuality. Their art contains:
"…few renderings of actual places on the plains (29)
"What moved them more than wide grasslands and huge skies was the scant layer of haze where land and sky merged in the distance. (29)"
"Talked of the blue-green haze as though it was itself a land – a plain of the future, perhaps, where one might live a life that existed only in potentiality on the plains where poets and painters could do no more than write or paint. (29)"
Their pivotal art work is the poem, “The Horizon, After All” (27).
There could be some allusion to the use of the concept of the "horizon" by Husserl.
Their colour is Blue-green.
Their political party is the Progressive Mercantile Party (which aims to "establish new industries and build railway lines between the plains and capital cities".) (36)
It is possible that this party might be based on the Australian conservative coalition. However, this could be overly simplistic, especially because the Haremen political party does not equate obviously with the left-wing Australian Labor party.
The Horizonites consider themselves to be men of action (35)
They think of themselves as "true plainsmen, ready to push back the limits of pasturage into regions too long neglected." (35)
Their polo team is the Outer Plains (sea-green uniform).
The Haremen are named after a marsupial plains-hare:
It is noted for its stubborn foolishness (31):
"It was obliged to cling for safety to its barren surroundings; to persist in seeing the shallow grass of the plains as a fortress against intruders.” (32)
The Haremen "wanted the people of the plains to see their landscape with other eyes; to recover the promise, the mystery even, of the plains as they might have appeared to someone with no other refuge." (32)
Their pivotal art work is Decline and Fall of the Empire of Grass. (30)
Their colour is weathered gold or yellow (32)
Their political party is the Plains First League (“Buy Local Goods”). (36)
The Haremen insisted that "they were the practical ones, contrasted their own realistic plans for closer settlement with their opponents’ grand plans for populating a desert." (35)
This party does not seem to relate to the traditional Australian left. Instead, it seems to anticipate more conservative, nationalistic Australia First-type parties.
There even seems to be a suggestion of a White Australia policy, which was embraced by the Australian Labor Party in its early stages.
Their polo team is the Central Plains (yellow uniform).
Third Intellectual Movement
Later, a third unnamed movement starts. It is described as a "new absurdity".
However, its tenets are not identified in any detail.
This movement ironically unites the other two in opposition:
"They discredited it finally on the simple grounds that it was derived from ideas current in Outer Australia. (33)"
It sounds existentialist.
Overview of Three Intellectual Movements
The three intellectual, cultural and artistic movements can possibly be differentiated on the following basis:
* Metaphysical/idealist vs
* Naturalist/Realist vs
These are very approximate summations of the movements, and could well be totally inaccurate.
However, they might start a discussion of the substance of Murnane's writing on these issues.
I also feel that these concerns place him within a Modernist tradition, rather than a Post-Modernist tradition, even if he explores metafictional concerns.
After the decline of these intellectual and political movements, two secret societies formed.
Murnane doesn't give much detail about these societies, other than to say that they engaged in brawls.
It's not clear whether or how they were aligned with the above movements. It's possible that they crossed boundaries.
Brotherhood of the Endless Plain
This society elaborated a scheme for "transforming Australia into a Union of States whose seat of government was far inland and whose culture welled up from its plains and spiraled outwards."
The Union would incorporate Outer Australia.
This is closer to the type of federalism that Outer Australia did embrace.
League of Heartlanders:
This society proposed a separate Republic of the Plains.
The Republic would exclude Outer Australia. Thus, the continent of Australia would be split into different nations.
The great landowners "kept aloof from politics."
They come across as powerful mandarins to whom the other plainsmen kowtow.
They engage the townsfolk to provide cultural services to their families.
The processes by which they select plainsmen to provide these services resemble the grants process adopted by the Australia Council (formerly the Arts Council).
While the process must ultimately be subjective, a whole bureaucracy surrounds the administration of the financial support.
A Post-Structuralist Diversion
Many artists would argue that decisions of the Australia Council are not solely made on merit. As far as I am aware, it took Murnane many years of unsuccessful applications before he received any funding.
He did however receive an Australia Council emeritus award in 2008. The other recipient that year was:
The Chair of the Australia Council’s Literature Board at the time was Dr Imre Salusinszky, who wrote a critical study of Murnane in 1993:
The monograph was based on interviews Salusinzski conducted at the University of Newcastle:
This news item mentions a Film Australia documentary called "Words and Silk", which was made by Philip Tyndall:
Salusinzski has been described, perhaps unfairly, as "an ultra-Right political columnist for the Australian".
He was an editorial adviser to "Quadrant", a conservative literary and cultural journal similar to "Encounter" (some might recall the allegations that the funding it received from the Congress for Cultural Freedom was sourced from the C.I.A.).
He has been a lecturer at Yale University, I gather, while on a Fulbright Scholarship. He is keenly interested in the Canadian critic Northrop Frye and the French philosopher/critic Jacques Derrida, and has written about "Yale School" Post-Structuralism, which is reflected in many of the interviews found in this text:
Salusinzski was born in Hungary. This might explain Murnane's decision to learn Hungarian late in life.
Murnane has quoted the title of an essay by Derrida in one of his own essays. However, I suspect that he doesn't have much time for Derrida, and might have first learned about him from reading the Times Literary Supplement, rather than from Salusinzki.
Despite the fact that Salusinzki has played a large role in promoting Murnane, I am not sure whether Murnane endorses everything Salusinzski says about his work. I have a fleeting recollection that I might have read that the two had fallen out.
For an example of the Culture Wars that occur in Australia (mentioned in my other review), see the transcript of the debate between Peter Craven and Ken Gelder below (note the centrality of Gerald Murnane):
Ken Gelder wrote a monograph on David Ireland, who I would juxtapose against Gerald Murnane as an explorer of the Australian psyche, although not to the exclusion of either.
Peter Craven is a prominent Australian literary critic. He co-founded the literary magazine, "Scripsi", with Michael Heyward, who is the publisher at Text Publishing, which has re-printed works by both Murnane and Ireland under its "Text Classics" imprint.
Heyward also published a book on the "Angry Penguins Hoax", which is the basis of Peter Carey's "My Life as a Fake".
The Temperament of the Plainsmen
The narrator identifies a "basic polarity in the temperament of the plainsman: anyone surrounded from childhood by an abundance of level land must dream alternately of exploring two landscapes – one continually visible but never accessible, and the other always invisible even though one crossed and recrossed it daily." (45)
The Seven Landowners
The first dialogue in the novel appears at pages 61 to 75. It consists of snippets of conversation or speeches by seven Landowners. There is a continuity to their views on the subject matter. However, it might also be possible that each Landowner has discrete views. I didn’t really pursue an attempt to determine these views after re-reading the dialogue a few times.
One issue is the complexion, pallor or colour of the skin of the plainsmen, especially their ideal woman including their wives and daughters. They place great value on white skin and delicate golden tans.
The complexion of the women is preserved by the use of silk blouses and parasols, which provide a screen between the real world and the object of a male’s love.
(view spoiler)[Silk recurs in Murnane's fiction, also being associated with the silk jockey shirts, caps and colours worn by jockeys in his favourite hobby of horse-racing. (hide spoiler)]
This practice is recorded in a 200 stanza poem called ”A Parasol at Noon”. Ironically, the poem captures ”the posture of men forever looking into the distance.” Like their vision of the plains, the features of the object are never quite distinguished. It remains an unreachable ideal.
Another goal of the plainsmen is the exploration of the plains and what lies beyond.
The seventh Landowner remarks, ”a man can know his place and yet never try to reach it.”
Ironically, despite the narrator’s own journey of exploration, he takes up a role with this Landowner.
Words and Film
The narrator’s film [“The Interior”] will be ”the story of this man’s search for the one land that might have lain beyond or within all that he had ever seen…the Eternal Plain…What distinguished a man after all but the landscape where he finally found himself?”
For Murnane, the quest of the artist, like that of any man, is find himself: ”Every man may be travelling towards the heart of some remote private plain.”
For the narrator, his film will be ”concerned with memories and visions and dreams, …and the last sequence of ‘The Interior’ would bring to light the strangest and most enduring of my dreams.”
The novel is necessarily made of words. However, the narrator’s task is to make a film.
Ironically, the plainsmen have ”a scant interest in films and…claim that a camera merely multiplied the least significant qualities of the plains – their colour and shape as they appeared to the eye.”
What matters to them is the narrator’s words, ”a form of writing…which came near to defining what was indefinable about the plains.”
They are interested in what lies beyond the light of the plains, which happens to be darkness.
Ultimately, Murnane believes that man must be the source of his own light. What lies beyond man’s own light is darkness.
The Australian Cultural Cringe
For a long time, Australia had a cultural cringe, an inferiority complex about its own intellectual and cultural status. Indeed, it’s arguable that we still have one.
In the 60’s, many writers and artists left the country to seek inspiration and recognition overseas. Examples of such expatriates are Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and Richard Neville.
Politically, this was a conservative period. Many people on the Left would argue that, only when the Whitlam Labor Government was elected in 1972, was there a cultural resurgence and a greater self-confidence in our creativity.
It meant a lot to Australia that Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, even if many of the Left hadn’t read or liked his novels up to that point.
Not only did we consume more local talent domestically, but we exported it as well. However, equally importantly, with greater self-confidence, we opened up to new ideas from outside.
We had always fed off British and American culture. However, we were now more open to European culture, including Continental Philosophy, which contributed to the radicalization of University Arts Faculties.
The Role of Gerald Murnane
Gerald Murnane, who has recently been considered a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize, stands adjacent to, but not wholly within, this recent tradition.
He has consciously never travelled outside Australia, even though he has read widely and recently learned Hungarian in order to read that country’s literature.
Still, he has played a major role in addressing the cultural cringe, at least at a personal level.
Apart from his teaching roles, I would argue that he pursues his goals individualistically and idiosyncratically.
In ”The Plains”, he journeyed into Inner Australia, not just to find what was there, but to turn his back on what was in Outer Australia, i.e., the urbanations on the coastal fringe.
By heading towards the centre, I suspect he was better able to see and understand Outer Australia in his rear vision mirror.
I don’t think he feels much in common with the Australian culture he is witness to.
This is not necessarily to denigrate him or Australian culture.
I would say he has to be one of the most self-contained writers and artists anywhere on the planet.
It doesn’t matter that he looks beyond the horizon and sees darkness.
The important thing for him and for us, is that he looks within and finds light, and he harnesses that light, so that those of us, particularly Australians, who are willing might be enlightened.
For as long as Murnane continues to write, I’m confident that he will build on the personal vision he has constructed.
To the extent that this brings him success, it’s possible that many academics in Australia will jump on his bandwagon.
In my other review, I’ve argued that there is an element of hoax in the novel.
If I’m wrong in this opinion, it is at least a declaration of independence from those who would claim him as their own (e.g., post-structuralism and post-modernism).
This isn’t meant to detract from the uniqueness and distinction of his writing.
I think that in this novel he is playing a game with his audience in the same way that Nabokov played with his readership.
For all of his earnestness, I suspect that this solitary man, Gerald Murnane, is also a Great Australian Ratbag. I admire all of these qualities in him.
Neil Diamond - "Solitary Man"
Johnny Cash - "Solitary Man"
Notes are private!
Jul 08, 2014
Jul 10, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Aug 15, 1994
"One Must Do Abnormal Things"
The whole of Vollmann’s novel is conveyed by an omniscient narrator. It’s tempting to assume that it’s Vollmann himself. "One Must Do Abnormal Things"
The whole of Vollmann’s novel is conveyed by an omniscient narrator. It’s tempting to assume that it’s Vollmann himself. However, as usual that would probably be a mistake, even if we learn a lot about the author by what he writes in the guise of others.
The key protagonist is a male American, known variously as the butterfly boy, the journalist, the husband and Vanna’s husband.
These guises or masks represent different stages in the unnamed protagonist’s life. Vollmann presents them almost like short stories, but together they constitute a legitimate novel.
For almost half of the narrative, the journalist is accompanied by a double, the photographer, on an Asian assignment for a glossy magazine (presumably Esquire). One is responsible for the words, the other the pictures.
They complement each other. They’re a team. However, the assignment is a ruse to whore their way around Asia and document it for payment. Of the two, the photographer is the more vainglorious, the journalist the more sensitive. Together, they’re just as bad as each other.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t use the word "bad". Vollmann asks us to leave morality and all concepts of Good and Evil behind when we open the book. It’s good advice. This is not a morality tale, it’s not a moral calculus. It’s about men fucking women with whom they share only enough words of either language to negotiate a sexual transaction. Despite the title of Vollmann's "Prostitution Trilogy", it's not so much about the abstract of prostitution as the concrete of what men do to prostitutes.
Still, it’s a Bildungsroman of sorts. It’s about the getting of wisdom, even if the journalist seems to make no progress over the course of the novel:
"He remembered again what the Inuit had always said, that to gain more wisdom than others one must do abnormal things. The Inuit had done it by going off into the ice alone until animal spirits came. The husband would do it through promiscuity."
Flings like a Butterfly, Stings like a Bee
For all of its metaphysical concerns (which can be inferred from the eminently brainy epigraphs at the head of each story), the style of the novel is more realistic than Post-Modern.
But for its sexual subject matter, the language is fairly pedestrian, almost nondescript and utilitarian.
The structure of the novel and the emphasis on the time in Asia does, however, tend to disguise the fact that the two protagonists were only in Asia for about two weeks. They got to know about a dozen whores each. Like all male western sex tourists (or "falangs"), they were regarded as butterflies, because of their tendency to flutter from one woman to another without commitment. This novel, then, is the monarch of butterfly stories.
Both protagonists were already married back in America. Both believed that they fell in love with at least one of their whores (Vanna in the case of the journalist, and Joy in the case of the photographer). The photographer, despite (or perhaps because of) his general lechery, had the good sense to realise it was a holiday infatuation. The journalist was never able to adjust. On his return, he decided to divorce his wife of 11 years, without necessarily knowing whether he would ever see Vanna again.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love
There is much talk about love in the novel. The whores use the term almost as an inducement to another night in the sack, i.e., another payment. For all of their abject poverty, they are the most realistic about the personal and economic situation.
They reassure the journalist that, in finding Vanna, he has not necessarily found love. He has only “found a hole; he knew from the Pat Pong girls that there’d always be a hole if he wanted one badly enough.”
The journalist kids himself that he's in love. But what is love? What is the difference between love and filling a hole? Does love just fill a hole?
"And what was she to him? She said she loved him, and he did believe that if he asked her to marry him she would do it, come with him, bring her child (her other husband had kicked her in the face and abandoned her), and he thought that she must love him as she understood love, and he loved her as he understood love; was that enough?"
He summarises his predicament to a friend:
"I’m thinking of leaving my wife and marrying an illiterate prostitute from Cambodia whose language I can’t speak a word of."
Still, Vanna is not without her appeal. Here is a physical description of her:
"She was so slender, like a thin hymen of flesh stretched over bones; he could feel her every rib under his palm. Her long brown nipples did not excite him, but enriched his tenderness."
Love and Loneliness
This is about as lyrical as Vollmann gets in this tale, apart from describing the journalist’s love and (the hole of his own) loneliness:
"He was so lonely among them that he wanted to love any and all of them even though loving any of them would only make him more lonely because loving them wasn’t really loving them…"
Still, he leaves a special place for Vanna, at least in his mind. She is different from any other wife or whore, even though he plans to make a wife of her:
"…the similarity between whores and wives is that you don’t have to consider their pleasure when you fuck them, unlike sweethearts such as Vanna (who probably don’t enjoy it either)."
Even as he contemplates the implications of what he has done, he justifies his butterfly activities:
"There was nothing wrong with sleeping around if you loved everybody; you could be faithful to a hundred wives…The husband loved Vanna the best. He’d keep being promiscuous only until he had her forever. Then he wouldn’t need anyone but her. And if it turned out then that he was still unfaithful after all, surely a whore would be used to it."
Ironically, some of Vollmann’s best writing is reserved for a whore the journalist meets after Vanna:
"Lying in bed with Noi, the light still on, the butterfly fluttered excitedly knowing that Noi’s vulva was going to open up for him like one of those Ayutthaya-style gilded lacquer book cabinets: gold leaves and birds and leaf-flames on black…He saw himself, though, as some old white palace with gilded lacquer doorways and windows, the courtyard still and green…Inside him there was definitely room for Noi. Inside Noi there was room for him."
Longing for a New Wife
There’s no need for me to colour this writing with any insinuation of (im)morality or self-indulgence. You can infer that for yourself, if you so desire. Hopefully, I have represented the concerns of the novel accurately enough to let you judge whether it might be your thing.
Still, at a more philosophical level, I think it’s a bit much to suggest that the journalist forms any relationships that embody any Hegelian mutual recognition or Heideggerian Mitsein. Rather, the novel seems to describe the perils of contemporary western narcissism, if not necessarily wholesale solipsism.
The journalist is in a prison of his own making. Now, finally, he can understand de Sade’s prison scribblings:
"…the sex object no longer mattered; an old man was as good as a young girl; there was always a hole somewhere; but unlike de Sade he didn’t want to hurt anyone, really didn’t; didn’t even want to fuck anyone anymore particularly; it was just that he was so lost like a drifting spaceman…"
This is a novel about longing, about a quest for "Love, I guess. A new wife." The journalist recognises several times that he is lost. He has lost his religion. Yet, somehow he believes that he is not lost at all. He still has his new wife, Vanna, the wife he can experience only in his mind, even if she too can be supplanted by the next tight cunt he encounters:
"What he was doing was systematically dismantling his own reality, blurring faces and names (sometimes he couldn’t remember the name of the woman he was on top of; of course she couldn’t remember his, either), forming mutually exclusive attachments that left him a liar and a cheat attached to no one, passing his own reckoning by."
Even if this might be grist for an edgy new fiction mill, surely it's not the way to find a new wife or a new life?
WE CALL UPON THE AUTHOR TO EXPLAIN:
Paris Review Interview (What I Would Do For My Art)
INTERVIEWER (Madison Smartt Bell):
It’s clear that parts of Butterfly Stories have to be fictional, but still I wonder, did you have unprotected sex with that many prostitutes? Why take those risks?
Well, I wouldn’t mind finding some other way. When I was writing Angels, Rainbow Stories, and the other stories, that sort of thing wasn’t particularly interesting to me—getting involved with all the prostitutes that way. But I kept thinking when I first began writing that my female characters were very weak and unconvincing. What is the best way to really improve that? I thought, Well, the best way is to have relationships with a lot of different women. What’s the best way to do that? It’s to pick up whores.
Has this worked?
I don’t know, but I feel that I have created some really good characters. Also, I often feel lonely. It’s been really nice for me to have all of these women who really, I truly believe, care about me. I care about them. I keep in touch with them. I help them out, they help me out; they pay my rent because I can write about them. I do pictures of them, I give them pictures; I paint them myself. It works pretty well.
It seems to me you’d learn a whole lot about how prostitutes think and are, and not necessarily that much about more conventional women.
Right. Well, I have been able to sleep around with some of them too.
Well, good. I’m glad to hear that.
I almost never sleep with American prostitutes any more, unless they really want me to—if they are going to get hurt if I don’t. I have a lot of them as friends. They pose for me as models, and I have written a lot of stories about them.
There are some other writers who do make an issue of their personalities in their work in one way or another—Norman Mailer, in certain phases of his career, or Hunter Thompson or Charles Bukowski, whose material is similar to what’s in The Rainbow Stories. But that style of self-presentation is often about vanity. I was wondering how you felt about this. Are you aware that people are watching? Do you care? Do you think that no one’s watching?
I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.
BESIDES AND RARITIES:
Divine Revelation a la Sade et Genet
What I write is
And ten percent
Hello, Tiny Madam
[Inspired by Robyn Hitchcock]
Now we've got our K-Y Jelly
And some porn on the telly,
Will you lick the royal jelly
That you've drizzled on my belly?
Waiting for Our Bill to Come
by Vladimir Jackoffalot
We came in off the street
For the best steak in town.
The neon sign, it said,
"You can't beat our meat."
Upstairs, Vanna disagrees.
She gladly lends a hand.
She'll even share dessert.
She's not one to displease.
Obsessed with tender loins,
But way down on his luck,
The writer can't afford
A blowjob or a fuck.
We spot him all our notes,
Two hundred dollars plus,
For a tip, these coins.
Let's hope he gets some quotes.
Now he's down on his knees
Begging her just to please,
Let him get a close-up,
So he can write it up.
Ninety minutes later,
We're still here, waiting
For our bill to come,
With the female waiter.
The Blue Boy
The blue boy moved to a new school on the outskirts of the city midway through grade two. He can remember arriving early and sitting down in the sandpit near the oval, where pretty soon he was joined by a girl with long, straight hair called Karen. They became friends. They even talked about each other as boy- and girlfriend by the end of the week. On that first day, Karen introduced the blue boy to everybody else in their class, and he quickly found a place in the pecking order. There was another boy whose name he can't remember now. Let's call him Martin. His family came from somewhere in England. Martin was the first person he'd known who really liked Alice Cooper. The blue boy was really into David Bowie, but in those days Alice Cooper was pretty cool too. They became friends, too, though not as close as Karen. One day, Martin's father walked to school with him. His hands were shaking and his eyes looked like he had been crying. He hugged Martin and said goodbye. When he'd gone, the blue boy asked Martin what was wrong. He said his dad had been in the war. The blue boy thought he meant the second world war, but he was talking about some war that had just been on in Malaya. "Wow, what did he do? Did he shoot anyone?" Martin looked hesitant, then decided to answer, "I suppose so, but not with bullets. He was a photographer." The blue boy wasn't sure what this involved: "What did he photograph?" Martin's eyes lit up in pride: "Dead bodies." It turned out that Martin's father had kept a stash of black and white photos of dead Communist insurgents. Martin agreed to bring them along to school later that week. The blue boy flicked through them anxiously. Their purpose had been to identify exactly how each insurgent had died. They were graphic portraits of horrific injuries. Close up shots of skulls half-blown away with the eyes still open. Open chests exploded as if from inside, broken ribs jutting out while supporting bloody mangled internal organs that had long ceased to function. The blue boy kept reacting, "Oh, yuck." He had thought he could handle something like this, but after a while he had to stop looking. He could understand why Martin's father still shook. He had started to shake himself.
Robyn Hitchcock - "The Afterlight"
[Track actually ends at 3:47]
"The Monarch is a butterfly who’s built the same as you and I
He wears blue jeans with a wine belly
He’s secreting royal jelly
Which his consort loves to cook
And then they peer in the cooking book...
Hello tiny madam, can I comfort you tonight
With the tiny world so bright
Hello tiny madam, can I comfort you tonight
When the priest has gone? Oh, right!"
Robyn Hitchcock - "You've Got a Sweet Mouth on You Baby"
Robyn Hitchcock - "Sounds Great When You're Dead"
"Your mother is a journalist, your father is a creep
They make it in your bedroom when they think you're fast asleep
The scenes that they're enacting now beside your little bed
Are never in your consciousness but always in your head
He lives and breathes on systems that nobody can supply
And you're immune to everything except the butterfly."
Drawing of nameless Asian girl (let's pretend it's Vanna) with Marlboro and "WTV" love heart tattoo found on inside back cover of my second hand copy of the novel.
Notes are private!
Nov 20, 2014
Nov 22, 2014
Jul 18, 2014
Feb 06, 1997
Welcome to the Occupation
The whole way through George Saunders' first collection of short stories, there are suggestions that the world is not as it s Welcome to the Occupation
The whole way through George Saunders' first collection of short stories, there are suggestions that the world is not as it should be.
Imagine a world like this, totally unlike our own:
The characters and narrators are (or are surrounded by) kooks and wackos. People have names like Shirleen and Melvin. Where there were once cornfields and flood plains, there are now parking stations and theme parks. Gangs invade civil war re-enactments. All dreams are defiled. All entertainment is simulated. Muzak reigns. All other music is lip-synched. All consumer items are fake or synthetic. All advertising is misleading. All flavouring is artificial. Outside homes are suspended signs saying, "Homogeneity, Sweet Homogeneity." A Randian Bountytown welcomes you with the greeting, "Where merit is king - and so are you!" Success in the community means you've been inducted into Rotary. "God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy." Designer verisimilitude is de rigueur. Memories are shmemories. Errant fathers are passive flakes, milquetoasts and yes men who leave their families behind and marry floozies. Even Dear John letters are forged. People are either Normal or Flawed, special or mutant, possessed or dispossessed. There is no longer any innocence, only guilt. Sincerity is a thing of the past. Authenticity has disappeared into thin air and survives only as a ghost or a rumour.
My Torn and Black Heart Rebels
Saunders' narrators believe they have to do something about it; the world needs to be rectified:
"Having lost what was to be lost, my torn and black heart rebels...enough already, enough, this is as low as I go."
Understandably, they have to start at the bottom:
"Learn to enjoy what little you have. Revel in the fact that your dignity hasn't yet been stripped away."
For all the satirical intent and comic effect, these stories of rebellion have a heart of gold. They live and breathe pure empathy:
"Everyone you've ever loved you've treated like gold."
The door of happiness swings open for the selfless:
"I look after her and she squeals with delight when I come home, and the sum total of sadness in the world is less than it would have been."
This is the real thing.
George Saunders and Mark Twain
The Chills - "The Male Monster from the Id"
R.E.M. - "Welcome to the Occupation"
"Sugar cane and coffee cup
Copper, steel and cattle
An annotated history
The forest for the fire
Where we open up the floodgates
Freedom reigns supreme
Fire on the hemisphere below"
Geneviève Toupin - "Heart of Gold" [Neil Young]
Russell Morris - "The Real Thing"
The Chills - "Part Past Part Fiction"
Middle Brother - "Million Dollar Bill"
Middle Brother - "Million Dollar Bill" [KXT 91.7 and Art&Seek Present: On the Road]
Mazzy Star - "Fade Into You" [Live on Late Night with Conan O'Brien]
Rainy Day - "I'll Keep It with Mine" [Bob Dylan]
Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet - "A Different Drum"
Wilco - "Taste the Ceiling" [Live at Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago on July 17, 2015]
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Notes are private!
Jul 22, 2015
Jul 26, 2015
Jul 02, 2014
Oct 31, 2000
Prudish Inquisition Becomes Immersive Exquisition
Rikki Ducornet opens this novella with testimony by Sade’s fan-maker, Gabrielle: "A fan is like the t Prudish Inquisition Becomes Immersive Exquisition
Rikki Ducornet opens this novella with testimony by Sade’s fan-maker, Gabrielle: "A fan is like the thighs of a woman. It opens and closes."
But it's also like a book or a mind. They too can be opened or closed. And the life of Sade was very much about one open mind opposed to many closed ones. This book is designed to open (if not blow) our minds and free our imaginations. Ducornet quotes Mallarme: "There is no explosion except a book."
Sade’s renowned cruelty or sadism is not the principal focus of the story. It actually humanizes Sade and two women who might have featured directly or indirectly in his life: Gabrielle, perhaps a fictional creation, who made erotically-illustrated fans for Sade to give to his whores and mistresses; and Olympe de Gouges, Gabrielle’s lesbian lover, as well as a real life playwright, political agitator and feminist (she wrote "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen", only to be guillotined on 2 November 1793 for the crime of her sexuality). (view spoiler)[
Ironically, French women didn't obtain the right to vote until 1945, only four years before Simone de Beauvoir published "The Second Sex". (hide spoiler)]
The fictionalized Gabrielle doesn’t appear to have been one of Sade's lovers or debauchees. However, she was close enough to be interrogated by the Parisian Comit de Surveillance, the administrative vehicle for a repressive, almost puritanical, post-Revolutionary political and moral inquisition.
As part of her evidence, she must read from the letters that Sade sent to her, the expectation being that they will incriminate her. In the second half of the book, after she too seems to have suffered the fate of Olympe de Gouges, Sade becomes the narrator and reads from her letters to him.
Thus, Ducornet constructs an epistolary vision of this potentially triangular relationship. Whatever, it’s enough to immerse us in both Sade’s world and his imagination.
Whipping Up Fanatical Opposition
I benefitted from reading Simone de Beauvoir’s "Must We Burn Sade?" immediately beforehand. As a result, I was already familiar with some of the people and events alluded to.
Some of the language was so familiar that it was hard to tell whether Ducornet used Sade’s actual correspondence and writings, or whether she reconstructed it in his style. I’ll assume the latter, because I don’t want to burst the bubble she created.
Her writing is consistently lyrical and exquisite, without being purple. She conjures up a rich feast for the senses. The descriptions of meals are literally mouth-watering. The recipe for Sade’s post-whipping salve makes you want to replicate both the whipping and the cure (just to verify its efficacy)!
What emerges, as with Beauvoir’s essay, is a Sadeian world that wasn’t really as transgressive as his reputation would have us believe. After all, what's a little fellagellation between friends and accomplices?
He maintained that he only ever whipped mistresses or whores who consented to their whipping and to whipping him. He disputes that he cut a tramp with a knife and poured wax on her wounds. As good as his salve was at healing welts, it could not have healed cuts in the short time between their infliction and when the alleged crime was reported to the authorities.
As with many of his problems with the law, it seems that he was the victim of the jealous gossip of his rivals, including Nicolas-Edme Rétif (here referred to as Restif), a writer and pornographer who shared with Sade a mutual hatred (he even published a rebuff to Sade’s "Justine" called "Anti-Justine").
Fanning the Flames of Liberty
Both women in the novella end up victims of the Inquisition. Whatever Sade’s crimes, those committed by or on behalf of the State were worse, because they were institutionalised and they struck at the very life and heart of the imagination. The State and its lackeys perpetrated the Terror. They were the true monsters.
Ducornet balances these events that occur in the aftermath of the French Revolution with the contents of a polemical pamphlet, in which Sade (apparently with the help of Gabrielle) attacks Bishop Landa, the Spanish missionary who instigated a genocide of the Mayan people when they failed to convert to Catholicism during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in 1562.
In order to prevent the survivors from returning to their own religion, in order to close their minds, Landa burned all of their beautifully-illuminated holy books.
One man’s faith is another man’s heresy. One woman's fan offends a statesman's fanaticism. Every inquisition holds within it a potential holocaust. Something monstrous, not just wicked, this way comes. All of this in the name of a God whose existence was vehemently denied by Sade.
Ultimately, Ducornet asks that we understand in Sade, not just the libertine, but the libertarian. Like Gabrielle, the book fans the embers of a political, social, moral and sexual liberty that seems much more compatible with the times in which we live than Sade’s own:
"Let me explain. Sade had dared take the imagination's darkest path. I thought that if I could follow that path with my own mind, I would come to understand the forces that rage about us, the terror that, even in times of peace, is always a possibility. I knew that in order to read Sade, I would have to embark on a voyage, naked and alone, without the comfort of received ideas...I would have to learn a new way of reading."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Nov 16, 2014
Nov 20, 2014
Jun 30, 2014
Oct 28, 1969
The Existence of Metaphysics Precedes the Essence of Metafiction
Barth’s second novel, "The End of the Road" ("TEOTR"), is now usually packaged as part The Existence of Metaphysics Precedes the Essence of Metafiction
Barth’s second novel, "The End of the Road" ("TEOTR"), is now usually packaged as part of one volume with his first novel, "The Floating Opera".
In the introduction to the package, Barth gives the impression that "TEOTR" is the lesser of the two, and that both are inferior to his later, more metafictional works. However, there is much of value in both works and especially in "TEOTR".
It's a deeply philosophical novel. However, what appeals to me is Barth's ability to examine profound philosophical issues within what is ostensibly a realist fictional construction, even if it betrays an occasional black sense of humour or sense of the absurdity of the cosmos.
At the most abstract level, the plot encompasses a grab bag of existential and/or existentialist issues: life, being, nothingness, the abyss, choice, indecision, immobility, remobilisation, progress, advice, depression, treatment, inauthenticity, bad faith, deception, infidelity, adultery, a gun, nausea, abortion and death.
Yet, Barth pulls all of these together into a novel that is both thought-provoking and entertaining.
A Cosmopsist Narrator
The first person narrator is Jacob (Jake) Horner. Sometimes I wondered whether he was supposed to be Little Jack Horner. Others, at a glance, "Horner" looked like "Homer".
His therapist, perhaps an alter ego, remains anonymous, and is known only as "the Doctor".
From the Doctor, he learns that "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."
As with "The Floating Opera", the narrator falls into a triangular relationship with a married couple, Joe and Rennie Morgan.
An English teacher (grammar), Jake describes himself as a "placid-depressive":
"My lows were low, but my highs were middle-register."
He's afflicted with a cosmic malady Barth calls "cosmopsis":
"When one has it, one is frozen like the bullfrog when the hunter's light strikes him full in the eyes, only with cosmopsis there is no hunter, and no quick hand to terminate the moment - there's only the light."
Jake is unable to make choices, he freezes, becomes paralysed, immobilised, when confronted with a decision. It's as if he is continually standing at the abyss, suspecting that it's all absurd.
A Rational Being
In contrast, Joe's life is driven by logic and what is rationally justifiable:
"I can always explain what I do or say."
At the same time, he's an individualist. While he purports to be objective, he is still essentially subjective:
"In my ethics the most a man can ever do is be right from his point of view...he's got to expect conflict with people or institutions who are also right from their points of view, but those points of view are different from his."
He's not interested in ostensibly absolute values like the greater good or the good of the state: "four things I'm not impressed by are unity, harmony, eternality and universality."
Of all of the characters in the novel, he's the one most capable of making a decision when confronted by a situation. However, his thought processes are so rational that they almost seem irrational from a personal or social point of view.
Joe sees no inconsistency in his predicament:
"...the more sophisticated your ethics get, the stronger you have to be to stay afloat. And when you say good-bye to objective values, you really have to flex your muscles and keep your eyes open, because you're on your own.
"It takes energy: not just personal energy, but cultural energy, or you're lost.
"Energy's what makes the difference between American pragmatism and French existentialism - where the hell else but in America could you have a cheerful nihilism, for God's sake?"
A Self-Sufficient Being
Rennie is self-sufficient, physically strong and private, by and large a common sense type of person, perhaps an authentic, real life, down to earth (non-philosophical) pragmatist. Yet all those around her seem to regard her with condescension and disdain. She comes across as devoid of an ego, "...but you think I'm a zero."
Indeed, Jake treats all of those around him like pawns or cyphers in some absurdist cosmic game. All of the characters in the novel are, or are treated like, beings on the edge of nothingness.
Apart from the Doctor, Rennie has the greatest insight into Jake's condition:
"I think you don't exist at all. There's too many of you. It's more than just masks that you put on and take off - we all have masks. But you...cancel yourself out. You're like somebody in a dream. You're not strong and you're not weak. You're nothing."
An Engagement with the Doctor
The other person who seems to have some insight into Jake's existential problem is the Doctor. He demonstrates his approach by asking how many seats there are in the Cleveland Municipal Stadium:
"Logic will never give you the answer to my question. Only Knowledge of the World will answer it...The world is everything that is the case, and what the case is, is not a matter of logic...but if you have some Knowledge of the World, you may be able to say...[unlike logic,] no choice is involved."
The Doctor elaborates in a way that takes this argument from its Wittgensteinian origins "The world is everything that is the case" to a Sartrean Existentialism ("human existence precedes human essence"):
"Choosing is existence: to the extent that you don't choose, you don't exist. Now, everything we do must be oriented toward choice and action. It doesn't matter whether this action is more or less reasonable than inaction; the point is that it is its opposite [i.e., the opposite of inaction]."
So the Doctor's therapy involves action, movement:
"Above all, act impulsively: don't let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you're lost...keep moving all the time. Be engagé. Join things...Say something! Move! Take a role!"
The Doctor is not so much concerned with authenticity (whether or not in relation to some underlying essence), as motion rather than paralysis, mobility rather than immobility, engagement rather than disengagement.
It’s a Shame about Rennie
The first role Jake takes is a teaching position at the same institution where Joe teaches. The second involves an adulterous relationship with Rennie. In a way, the two males present her with a choice between Reason and Unreason. However, it's equally possible that Joe is just another double or alter ego that allows Jake to learn about himself.
Rennie is the least satisfactorily drawn of the characters. She seems to be just a board upon which the metaphysical forces play out their game of cause and effect. Yet, she is the one who suffers most from the clash of these pseudo-titans.
Towards a Therapeutic Mythopoesis
If there is any flaw in the novel, it is that, for Jake, Rennie is just a minor character, a bit part in the film of his life.
However, once again, the Doctor might have an explanation:
"Not only are we the heroes of our own life stories - we're the ones who conceive the story, and give other people the essences of minor characters. But since no man's life story as a rule is ever one story with a coherent plot, we're always reconceiving just the sort of hero we are, and consequently just the sort of minor roles that other people are supposed to play...
"This kind of role-assigning is myth-making, and when it's done consciously or unconsciously for the purpose of aggrandising or protecting your ego - and it's probably done for this purpose all the time - it becomes Mythotherapy...
"Mythotherapy is based on two assumptions: that human existence precedes human essence...and that a man is free not only to choose his own essence but to change it at will."
In a sense, we are what we make of ourselves (no matter what we make of others).
The first task is to heal your Self, then you can take care of the Other(s).
Beyond the End of the Road
Ultimately, "TEOTR" documents Jake's course in Mythotherapy, leaving his ego functional enough one day to shave, dress, pack his bags and call a taxi.
His destination? The "terminal”, at the end of the road, from which he can depart his old life and perhaps commence a journey on a new road to being both somewhere and someone else.
Attractatus Barthicus Medico-Logico-Philosophicus
1.1 The World is everything that is the case.
1.2 What the case is, is not a matter of logic.
1.3 Logic involves choice.
1.3.1 A choice requires logic.
1.4 Knowledge of the World does not require choice.
1.4.1 Knowledge of the World does not require logic.
1.5 Choosing is existence.
1.5.1 To the extent that we don't choose, we don't exist.
1.5.2 If we use logic, we exist.
1.6 Action is a choice.
1.6.1 Action is existence.
1.6.2 If we act, we exist.
1.7 Everything we do must be oriented toward choice and action.
1.7.1 It doesn't matter whether any particular action is more or less reasonable than inaction.
1.7.2 Action is the opposite of inaction.
1.7.3 Inaction is not a choice.
1.7.4 Inaction is the failure to make a choice.
1.8 Inaction is nothingness.
1.8.1 If we don't act, we don't exist.
1.9 Don't get stuck between alternatives.
1.9.1 Act logically.
1.9.2 Act impulsively.
1.9.3 Act the goat.
Notes are private!
Jul 02, 2014
Jul 05, 2014
Jun 30, 2014
Apr 26, 2012
"The Man in My Mind Who Sits in the Fields of Grass"
"I watch the man in my mind writing with his pencil in his notebook while he sits in the fields of "The Man in My Mind Who Sits in the Fields of Grass"
"I watch the man in my mind writing with his pencil in his notebook while he sits in the fields of grass."
Gerald Murnane, "In Far Fields", 1995
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Plainsmen Fiction"
This is a beautifully written novella. Every sentence has been carefully and lovingly crafted. You don't often encounter writing as good as this.
Only it contains within it a hoax (view spoiler)[(or perhaps two, if you include both those perpetrated by the author and the narrator) (hide spoiler)] of magnificent proportions, one that Alan Sokal would be proud of.
It might seem like a sympathetic piece of metafiction, but I smell a rat.
I suspect that one of the aims of this highly intelligent writer and novella is to interrogate the world of Post-Modernism it purports to inhabit and to aggravate its adherents, practitioners and benefactors.
It is, at heart, deeply conservative, politically and culturally. In this sense, it reminds me of the contemporary response to the work of Patrick White.
Of course, its conservatism is no reason to refrain from reading it.
By all means, read and enjoy it (I've rated it four stars), but I suspect it's a Trojan horse that has made its way into the forecourt of the citadel of Post-Modernism.
As a web-savvy Virgil might have warned, beware of geeks bearing gifts.
"A World of His Own"
There are a few precise beautiful descriptions of the Australian Outback. But the Plains are something metaphysical beyond the Outback.
The Plainsmen don't exist, except in Murnane's mind, and he has created them, in equally precise and beautiful prose, in order to undermine, criticise and parody them.
The Plainsmen do not constitute an imagined or imaginative world that is intended to be inspirational or aspirational for the author or for the reader. They are there to be questioned and attacked. This is an eloquent political tract, a satire of Swiftian scale and achievement.
Although the Plainsmen are intellectual and sophisticated, they represent a culture that threatens the personal, creative or social world that Murnane has grown used to (even if that culture wasn't fully-formed in Australia at the time - it was the end of the conservative Fraser government - he saw it coming, almost prophetically).
"Less Concrete Concerns"
Here, later, an interview with Murnane describes his relationship with this culture:
"Perhaps surprisingly for someone so self-contained, [Murnane] taught creative writing for many years at Prahran Teachers College, now absorbed into Deakin University.
"He took early retirement from teaching, disillusioned, he says, by the shift from text to other, less concrete concerns, such as literary theory...
" 'The unit I dealt with was the sentence. It was where I started: no theoretical talk about meaning, theme, character, social relevance or any such thing.' "
A Space of My Own
Read Murnane for the beauty of the text, his sentences (they are not only flawless, but consistent) and the innovative skills needed to construct his "elaborate daydream world", but don't assume that he is sympathetic to the world of Post-Modernism that he plays with and against.
He is an exquisite formalist, at best an old-fashioned, patrician Modernist, in the style of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
He is primarily metaphysical, and then only secondarily metafictional, perhaps because he has always been interested in the method of writing, at least his method, the nature of the craft, sometimes so he can teach others:
"I would then go on to tell my student that my mind consisted only of images and feelings; that I had studied my mind for many years and had found in it nothing but images and feelings; that a diagram of my mind would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns."
Driven to Abstraction
I infer from this description of his craft that Murnane is writing about "phenomena" in his mind, rather than the "noumena" that exist in the outside world.
To this extent, his approach and work could potentially be described as phenomenological.
However, it's quite something else to infer that Murnane's style derives from or is influenced by the philosophy of phenomenology or that his work consciously investigates its implications.
Rather, I suspect that he has intuitively arrived at a similar understanding of how his own mind and writing process work to that of the phenomenologists, and that he is simply exploring his own personal phenomena in his fiction, as opposed to plumbing the depths of the philosophy.
Ironically, Murnane eschews the concrete of external "noumena" in favour of the abstraction of the "phenomena" of his own mind, even though it was the less concrete concerns of literary theory that motivated him to retire from tertiary education.
Presumably, there are different degrees or qualities of abstraction. Unless it's as simple as, my abstraction is better than your abstraction. And what, after all, could be more subjective than abstraction?
"To Write is to Go in Search" (Jacques Derrida)
If my suspicion is right, it is even more remote from the truth to argue that Murnane's work is self-consciously Post-Modernist or Post-Structuralist.
This is an argument arrived at from the outside rather than from the inside.
It probably reflects the tendency of Post-Modernism and Post-Modernists to appropriate practices used in the past as if they were a precursors to the concerns of Post-Modernism, rather than practices that existed in their own right and emerged out of totally different historical and cultural contexts:
"Good writing exactly reproduces what we should call the contour of our thought."
[Herbert Read, "English Prose Style" as quoted by Gerald Murnane in "Why I Write What I Write".]
The difference is twofold: first, Murnane's work doesn't have to be construed in terms of any ostensible Post-Modernism, and second, he might actually not relate to Post-Modernism in any particularly meaningful way.
Murnane might relate to somebody like Derrrida to the extent that he writes in order to search the images in his mind. However, that doesn't mean that he has read Derrida more than superficially or bought his philosophy wholesale.
Both Artisan and Partisan
Rather, I'd argue that Murnane approaches Post-Modernism from the opposite perspective, in other words, critically, as both artisan and partisan. To make greater claims of his Post-Modernism is to confuse reality with an image of him. It's just a trick of the light.
Still he writes beautifully within the constraints he has set himself, within the private, imagined space that he has made his own and that he, in turn, offers to us.
CONTEXT AND SUB-TEXT
I've added some personal views on the context and sub-text of the novel here:
VERSE [A TRIBUTE TO A HOAX WELL EXECUTED]:
[Apologies to Harold Stewart and James McAuley]
The Obliquity of the Darkening Ecliptic
Just a black swan of trespass
On such remote inland plains.
The Love Life of Ern Malley, Poet, Post Restante the Wimmera
A secret book,
Out on the plains,
Lilac and black,
In the library
Does now abide.
If you do look,
It might astound,
For it contains
Plans of attack
To seduce, ably,
My patron’s bride.
My Life as a Fake Plainsman
Why not decry
These writers, not
If not curious,
About boundless plains,
Who’re yet to set
A foot on them,
As if they’re just
A Telegram from Herbert Read
"I TOO WOULD HAVE BEEN DECEIVED BY ERN MALLEY BUT HOAXER HOISTED BY OWN PETARD HAS TOUCHED OFF UNCONSCIOUS SOURCES INSPIRATION WORK TOO SOPHISTICATED BUT HAS ELEMENTS GENUINE POETRY"
SOUNDTRACK ("YOU WANNA BE THERE, BUT YOU DON'T WANNA TRAVEL"):
The Triffids - "A Trick Of The Light"
"Well the rim of her mouth was golden
Her eyes were just desert sands
But that's not her!
That's just the light
It's only an image of her
It's just a trick of the light."
The Triffids - "Wide Open Road"
"The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road."
Dave Graney 'n' the Coral Snakes - "You Wanna Be Loved"
Good old Mount Gambier boy! It's further away than the Plains!
Dave Graney 'n' the Coral Snakes - "I'm Gonna Release Your Soul"
Sanctum Theatre - "The Plains" 2008
"Anyone surrounded from childhood by an abundance of level land must dream alternatively of exploring two landscapes one continually visible but not accessible and the other always invisible even though one crossed and recrossed it daily."
Gerald Murnane - Melbourne Prize for Literature 2009
Gerald Murnane - "The Writing Room" (ABC)
Gerald Murnane - "The literary life of Gerald Murnane" (Radio National Book Show)
Notes are private!
Jul 08, 2014
Jul 10, 2014
Jun 30, 2014
Jan 01, 1957
Dec 01, 1995
The word "jalousie" (the Fren \\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\
The word "jalousie" (the French title of this novel) has two meanings: one being "jealousy" (which was given to the English title); the other being "shutters" or "louvres":
"...a blind with adjustable horizontal slats for admitting light and air while excluding direct sun and rain."
Both French meanings are equally vital to the appreciation of the novel. To some extent, they've been lost in translation.
A louvre is a shutter or blind. We look through louvres. They selectively submit and admit the objects of the outside world to our scrutiny. They limit and shape our gaze.
Louvres and lovers share their etymology. Just as a louvre might be a blind, so might a lover be blind. As Shakespeare said:
"Love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit."
Centipedes and Louvres
The power of this novel is in the set-up, rather than the character development or the plot.
We see a colonial plantation farm house in almost forensic detail. There's even a plan showing the location of rooms, doors, windows, even the furniture (not to forget the dark stain left by a centipede squashed on the wall of the dining room). The book could almost be stage directions for a theatrical work.
Robbe-Grillet places the characters in this house around meal time or cocktail hour. We seem to observe them through the louvres. However, someone appears to be missing. There's a vacant seat in the lounge room and an empty place at the dining table.
Does it belong to the husband of the female protagonist? (Is she even married?) Is the husband the omniscient third person narrator? Is he the one apparently looking through the louvres? Is he spying on his wife? Does he suspect she is having an affair? Is he jealous of his married neighbour Franck (whose wife never appears, because their young child is at home ill)? Does this ostensible illicit couple even do anything that suggests a relationship? Do they only seem culpable, because we (as vicarious peeping toms) attribute blame to them?
Robbe-Grillet carefully selects both the content and the sequence of his story-telling to dramatise this set-up.
We read the half dozen most significant aspects of his story several times. He plays with repetition. But each iteration preserves the old perspective and adds a new one.
Thus, meaning for the reader is cumulative, a result of accretion, even if at the end of the novel, we're still not sure what really happened or what the real meaning was.
Utter Unconnected Fragments
Robbe-Grillet gives us a clue to his intentions in the narrator's comment on a native song being sung by a road worker:
"The singing is at moments so little like what is ordinarily called a song, a complaint, a refrain, that the western listener is justified in wondering if something quite different is involved. The sounds, despite apparent repetitions, do not seem related by any musical law. There is no tune, really, no melody, no rhythm. It is as if the man were content to utter unconnected fragments as an accompaniment to his work."
By the end of the novel, these unconnected fragments have nevertheless cohered into a discrete work.
Inevitably, for a piece of metafiction, there is also a story within the story, or a novel within the novel, an African novel (or at least a novel set in colonial Africa).
Two characters, the ostensible lovers, comment on it, while their own story seems to assume the shape of its narrative. Franck, describes the husband in the novel in a sentence that we don't hear in its entirety, that "ends in 'take apart' or 'take a part' or 'break apart', 'break a heart', 'heart of darkness', or something of the kind."
The novel is an exercise in style, one of fragmentation and defragmentation. Can the reader reassemble what the author has dis(as)sembled?
The narrative isn't supplied to us pre-digested and easy to consume or swallow. Much is left unsaid. Even more is filtered out by the louvres, the blinds, la jalousie. It is forever oblique, raw and uncooked. We have to do our own mastication. We are like one of the characters peering into its meaning:
"He seems to be looking at something at the bottom of the little stream - an animal, a reflection, a lost object."
The novel doesn't so much tell a story as suggest one. We're permitted to sit at the table. We are silent eavesdroppers on the other side of the louvres. What is absent (and not described) is just as important as what is present (and described). Inference is just as important as implication. The imagination supplies what the senses don't.
A Proliferation of Possibilities
Like the narrative and characters of the African novel, the twists and turns of the primary story construct:
"...construct a different probable outcome starting from [each] new supposition...Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings. The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to enjoy multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation..."
Robbe-Grillet's experiments proliferate in just over 100 short pages. They're more likely to appeal to fans of post-modernism. Readers have to tease out the meaning, and even then we don't know whether we're right. However, if we remain open-minded, tolerant and patient, we too can be intoxicated.
The Letter ["The Pretty Follies"]
[During the novel, the female protagonist receives and drafts a response to a letter from Paris. We don't see either letter. This is a fabrication of the letter she receives.]
While I've been here, alone, in Paris, for months, desperately trying to negotiate the sale of our plantation (for our substantial and mutual benefit, as I'm sure you will appreciate), I continue to hear rumours that you have been taking Negro lovers in the port. At least you're not indiscreet enough to bring them home with you! What would the servants think? I had hoped that your promiscuity would end when we left Paris and assumed the burden of managing the family's banana interests. I also hoped that we could put your youthful affair with Franck behind us. Little did I suspect that he'd soon follow us with his new bride. Fortunately, he has been a true and loyal friend to me while we've been in the colony. I just wish I could say the same about you. Frankly, though it pains me to acknowledge it in writing, I can't see any future for our marriage. It's best we part company when we both return to Paris. I am only grateful we have had no children. I will deal with you fairly, so you shouldn't ever have to worry about money. I have always loved you, but now I find that this letter is the only way I can and must express my love.
Alain Robbe-Grillet's Lecture at San Francisco University in April 1989 [part 3 of 10]
Notes are private!
Sep 05, 2015
Sep 06, 2015
May 14, 2014
Whether to Exit if Not Entranced? That is the Question
Time is a river. And all the world's a stage...in this case, on a steamboat, a showboat, no less Whether to Exit if Not Entranced? That is the Question
Time is a river. And all the world's a stage...in this case, on a steamboat, a showboat, no less, plying up and down the river.
Life itself is an entertainment, a comedy, a circus, a play, an opera performed on this floating stage, hence a floating opera.
To top it off (so to speak), all men and women are merely players in their own shows, although they might also be spectators in the shows of others. They have their exits and their entrances.
Some exit by their own hands, while others remain entranced, alive.
Which players are right? To be or not to be, to live or not to live, enquires the Bard, as channelled by John Barth.
A Primer in the Moral and Refined
Despite his undertaking, Barth's vessel doesn't just stick to the channel. He navigates a meandering stream, much in the style of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy".
This was his first novel, completed when he was just 24, but it betrays a mastery of his craft. It purports to be the work of a literary ingenu, who is concerned that the plot might sail in and out of view, but it's extremely carefully planned, plotted and executed. He "simply carries out [his] premises completely to their conclusions." It's a delightful piece of meta-fiction, even if it contains more evidence of realism than its successors.
Like "Adam's Original & Unparalleled Floating Opera" (the source of the novel's title), Barth's work boasts DRAMA (!), MINSTRELS (!), VAUDEVILLE (!), a gas-driven Calliope (!)(aren't they all?) and a Panithiopliconica (!), as well as promising to be Moral & Refined!
A Would-Be Annihilist Stares Into the Abyss
Barth cites not just Shakespeare and Sterne as influences, but James Joyce, the Brazilian novelist Joachim Machado de Assis and Albert Camus.
The latter informs both the style and the concerns of the novel. Indeed, it's structured as a philosophical inquiry into issues both profound and profane, such as life and death, cause and effect, free will and determinism, friendship and parenthood, adultery and adventure, mortality and suicide, anarchism and Marxism, sophistication and cynicism, stoicism and existentialism.
The first person narrator, Todd Andrews, in many ways a comic, smiling nihilist (once bent on destruction of both Self and Others), explains:
"My Inquiry is timeless, in effect; that is, I proceed at it as though I had an eternity to inquire in...
Barth very eloquently summarises two key preoccupations of civilisation: contradiction and time.
I Found a Reason (In Parentheses)
En route along the river, Todd resolves the tension. Having stared into the abyss, he manages to conclude (if not necessarily prove rationally) that life is worth living, even if it might ultimately be meaningless.
In other words, the fact that life might be objectively meaningless doesn't mean it can't be subjectively meaningful. (Or to further parenthesise, just because there might be no "reason" to live doesn't mean there is a "reason" to die.)
This conclusion would be reason enough to read Barth's novel, but he also gilds his entertainment with abundant exuberance, a wry sense of humour and shrewd story-telling. ...more
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May 12, 2014
May 26, 2014
May 12, 2014
Mass Market Paperback
Aug 12, 1988
"A Little Quiet Fun At My Own Expense"
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remem "A Little Quiet Fun At My Own Expense"
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remember ordering it. I drank it. It seemed like the right thing to do. The waiter watched me put down the empty glass. “Another shot?” he asked. I nodded. “You’ll have to pay for this one.” I looked around the room in search of my benefactor. I saw her first, sitting alone at a nearby table, then I saw her legs. They didn’t look like any legs I had seen before. Then they moved. She could see I was watching them. She crossed her legs, and I hoped to die, but not straight away. She reached into her handbag and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. She flipped it open and put one in her mouth. Her lips glistened the whole time. Then she fumbled around in her bag for a lighter. She returned the bag to the chair beside her, empty-handed. She looked at me. I shrugged. I had given up smoking since my last novel, only I hadn’t told my author. There was much I hadn’t confided in him. The time had come to make some changes in my life. I didn’t move. I watched her mind working. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I wasn't sure whether she was my type. “Well…” She paused. She was improvising. It wasn’t something she was normally expected to do. My author usually made our decisions for us. “If you won’t light my cigarette, will you at least kiss me?” I ambled over to her table and sat down. But first she had another request:“Stop looking at my legs.” I did as I was told. I was hoping the effort would be rewarded. She returned her cigarette to the pack and put it back in her bag. I looked into her eyes. I could see nothing unless you want to count lust, or was that just a projection on my part? I wondered what she saw in my eyes. The same? I moved closer to her, and had another look. I clasped my hands around her face. Then I pulled her closer and kissed her. She licked her lips, inquisitively. “Christian Dior?” She asked. “Of course,” I replied. Her lips embarked on the most direct path towards mine. “Kiss me harder.” I did. She slipped her hand inside my blouse and squeezed my breast. Maybe I could like her after all.
Notes are private!
Apr 05, 2014
Apr 06, 2014
Apr 05, 2014
Mar 25, 2014
"In the Spirit of My Divisions"
Joseph McElroy has imagined himself, "in the spirit of [his] divisions, somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Norman M "In the Spirit of My Divisions"
Joseph McElroy has imagined himself, "in the spirit of [his] divisions, somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Norman Mailer."
Initially, this statement comes across as egotistical, given the relative status of the three authors. How many readers have even heard of McElroy, let alone read him? Of those who have read him, how many have read him critically enough to question his self-assessment?
On the other hand, what of his choice of author?
It's understandable that authors might aspire to the standards of Nabokov, especially ones who, like McElroy and Pynchon, are science-literate or numerate. They inject science and mathematics into both the subject matter and the form of their fiction.
However, why Mailer? What is the connection? How proximate are the two authors? Why does McElroy appear to rate Mailer so highly?
One of the reasons for McElroy's interest is the significance of confession in Mailer's works (not necessarily in a religious sense). Indeed, this mode of writing is equally present in "Lolita".
A lot of critics of "Lolita" tend to overlook the fact that it is effectively structured as a confession, even if it was never actually read during Humbert Humbert's life and therefore had no impact on any criminal proceedings (which would have been discontinued after he died while awaiting trial in prison).
In "The Armies of the Night", Mailer mentions that during the day preceding the night of Robert Kennedy's assassination, he [Mailer] was enjoying a dalliance or secret assignation with a woman. Having revealed this (almost, if not probably, unnecessarily), he adds, "Let us leave it at that."
You have to ask why, if he was going to leave it at that, he didn't leave it out altogether?
The only answer consistent with Mailer's character is his overwhelming sense of sexual and political braggadocio.
Something about this quality simultaneously attracted and repelled or disgusted McElroy.
Whatever we might think of Mailer now, he was a very public intellectual, a celebrity, a media personality, at a time when it was rare for authors in particular to enjoy such a profile outside their chosen art form.
McElroy refers to Mailer's self-disclosure as "an embarrassment of greed, but also an open assault on his own privacy."
Mailer craved the limelight, the attention, the enhancement it might offer his sex appeal and life.
It didn't matter that he might embarrass or disgrace himself. What mattered was the perception of machismo. If it was a public perception, all the better.
For all his creative virtuosity, McElroy doesn't strike me as the same sort of egotist as Mailer. He seems to have a genuine interest in the mechanisms and success of relationships. He writes about relationships as something you do with somebody, rather than something you do to somebody.
Mailer seemed to write about sexual relationships as if they were 15 round boxing matches that the male had to win, even if it meant that the conquest of the female might result in her death.
Occasionally, I wondered whether McElroy resembled Saul Bellow or William Gaddis in any material way.
While Bellow is not as macho as Mailer, I think that there is still a sense in which the solo man is dominant and a woman might be a convenient accessory for social events or status.
Compared with Gaddis, the concerns of metafiction are more omnipresent or at least waiting just around the corner, even if the manner of their execution sometimes threatens to unrail McElroy's fluid and elegant sentences.
McElroy arguably has more in common with the John Updike of "Couples" (absent the metafictional practices).
He seems to define a person, regardless of gender, as someone who is capable of, and ought to be having, a relationship of some kind, whatever the trauma or difficulty or inconvenience. For McElroy, the quality of the relationship is very much the measure of the person.
A Letter to a Dominant Male
"Ancient History" is structured as a letter to a dead man, Dom, who could be modelled on Mailer.
Dom has just suicided by defenestration. In "An American Dream", the protagonist kills his wife in the same way, and ends up outside on the ledge of an apartment building, wondering whether to jump.
McElroy's protagonist, Cy, walks into Dom's open apartment shortly after the police have left, sits down at his desk and starts to write a letter, which is the novel, using Dom's pen and paper.
There is a sense of urgency about the composition of the letter. The authorities or family members could walk in and discover Cy at any stage. In fact, at the exact half-way point, Dom's son-in-law removes the first half of the letter.
This epistolary form is the only stylistic issue I felt was unconvincing in conceit.
During the first few pages, the style is as crisp as a detective novel. However, it soon degenerates into a soliloquy, more like a recording of Cy's thoughts (though never a stream of consciousness: the sentences are too precisely crafted). It just doesn't sound like a story somebody would tell, either to an acquaintance or a stranger, certainly not in letter form.
At times, I wondered whether Cy was mentally unbalanced, at the very least a stalker. This angle isn't pursued, although this might simply be a product of the fact that it is a first person narrative.
Just like "Women and Men", "Ancient History" is set in an apartment building. It's a microcosm of society and the semi-public space in which both characters and readers are educated. In a way, the Building is the Bildung, and the Novel is a Buildingsroman.
Similarly, just as McElroy is interested in the relationships between people, he's interested in how they can be measured.
He describes them mathematically, and maps their coordinates on graph paper in accordance with Field Theory. Tripartite friendships are described in terms of the friends being equidistant. The proximity of C and D varies when A and B move closer.
This aspect of the novel warrants greater scrutiny. There are probably sophisticated mechanisms at work in the novel's structure that aren't immediately obvious. If so, they're still there for someone else to track.
To be honest, I didn't find this aspect of the novel particularly fascinating. I don't want to condemn McElroy to realism, but I think if he devoted less effort to metafiction, he would emerge with better fiction.
Spiral Bound Fiction
Still, the aspects that most appealed to me appear to be structured around mathematical parabolas and spirals.
The relationships occupy spaces that spiral from the magnitude of society at large, to the microcosm of the apartment building, to the 12th floor, to Dom's apartment, to his study, to his desk, to his pen and paper, to the mind of Cy, to his letter, to, finally, the novel itself.
McElroy is interested in not just time, but space. The two novels that I have read explore the poetics of space, both inside and outside, both inner and outer space (including spacecraft).
Sometimes, it seems as if McElroy is trying to pack too much sophistication and subtlety into his novel. He seems to be trying too hard, when he could sit back and trust his novel to do its job.
As you get towards the end, though, after many times wondering what the hell is going on and why, it all comes together. You feel that you have finally lifted the bonnet on the engine of his vehicle and you can appreciate the engineering in all of its precision and beauty. However, many readers would not last the distance.
Man of Letters
McElroy shares another flaw with Norman Mailer, though not to the same degree.
The latter tried too hard to tie himself to the Zeitgeist, by endeavouring, self-consciously, to define and embody it. Now, decades later, it's very easy for his writing and preoccupations to seem dated. Time has moved on. So have ways of seeing.
The very fact that Mailer symbolised so much to McElroy begs the question why (as much as he is one of my literary keystones). Surely it is more than a fascination with the dual perspective of a public intellectual?
As it turns out, Cy's letter is much more about his own Ancient History, and his own confession. Still, you have to question whether it would have been a better novel without the implied need to incorporate traces of Mailer's macho Weltanschauung.
I don't know enough about McElroy personally. However, on the basis of his writing, I suspect that he is at heart a shy person, a relative introvert, who is more comfortable in the guise of a man of letters in contrast to Mailer's ostensible man of action. Ultimately, we only need one Norman Mailer. It would be illuminating to see even more of the real Joseph McElroy, a unique man of letters, in his own work. ...more
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May 08, 2014
May 11, 2014
Mar 22, 2014
Jan 01, 1975
Mar 11, 2014
Beware of Hagiography
When an author is regarded as a master of the sentence, it's tempting to approach all of their works with the expectation that ev Beware of Hagiography
When an author is regarded as a master of the sentence, it's tempting to approach all of their works with the expectation that every single sentence will be equally masterful.
In Gass' own words, we're prone to "plait flowers in [our] hero's pubic hair."
However, while a poem might strive to achieve this demanding standard, it's much more difficult for prose, whether fiction or not, to maintain it.
"On Being Blue” is divided into four parts. In the first half of part III, I started to question its merit, even to respond "so what?" It had ceased to please me.
In retrospect, this was probably when Gass’ subject matter was most familiar, his exposition most methodical and potentially least impressionistic and imaginative.
By the second half and in part IV, he pulled his inquiry together, and his prose continued to amaze.
Beware of Preconceptions
It might help to avoid some of the preconceptions that I had.
While it occasionally touches on it, "On Being Blue" is not primarily about melancholy, sadness, depression or tristesse.
It is not so much about the suffering of the Self. It is more about the relationship of the Self with its Object, with an Other, and the extent that this might be sexual.
It’s the blue in blue movies, blue stockings, the aspects of life that are described in terms of birds and bees and flowers, that are too often censored or blue-pencilled out of the blue-print for humanity or propriety.
In a sense, “On Being Blue” is a rebellion against the tendency of straight-laced white conservatism and convention to expel the blue from their midst.
Gass set himself the task of understanding how this occurs from a social, literary and philosophical point of view.
This doesn’t mean that Gass wanted to promote the writing of pornography. He is the first to acknowledge how difficult it is to write convincingly and authentically about something that is so familiar to us all.
He simply wants to win back the freedom to engage with all aspects of life in person and in literature, to return colour to what has been bleached out of life.
He urges us, "don’t find yourself clergy’d out of choir and chorus…[we must win back the freedom to] sing and say," if we’re to avoid a world where "everything is grey."
The Methodology of Blue
Gass describes five ways by which sex enters literature:
1. the direct depiction of sexual material.
2. the use of sexual words.
3. the displacement of sex from life (e.g., by indirection, symbolism, metaphor or euphemism).
4. the analogy of the “skyblue eye” that for prudes signifies insinuation, innuendo and indecency.
5. the use of language like a lover, "… not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs."
To this discussion, Gass adds two methodological or strategic concerns:
1. three functions (or what he says a Marxist might describe as "modes of production") for blue words, which he explains in terms of the verbs use, mention and utter.
2. three motives for using blue words or material in literature from the point of view of the reader, the writer and the work itself. (In summary, they allow a reader to spy, they allow a writer to fashion a voyeur into a reader who sings, and they constitute the work itself as a body of some beauty that can be celebrated in its own right (this is a "love that brings its own birth with it" and which might effectively replace blue things with blue words).
I won't go into any detail on these seven issues, except to say that he works through them methodically, giving examples from literature, from the likes of Rabelais and personal favourite contemporaries, like John Barth, Stanley Elkin and John Hawkes.
At times, it's difficult to follow the thread or sequence of his arguments. However, the following statement is a good example of what Gass seemed to be saying:
"...sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved…"
The Philosophy of Blue
Gass argues that the rejection of colour in general and blue in particular is a product of the philosophical opposition of an object’s essence and its qualities.
The essence is detected by reason, while qualities appeal to our senses (which are irrational):
"Reason is so swift to slander the senses that even Hume did not escape, replacing shadow, mood and music, iris and jay, with a scatter of sense impressions artificial as buttons: each distinct, inert, each intense, each in self-absorbed sufficiency and narrowly circumscribed disorder like a fistful of jelly beans tossed among orphans or an army of ants in frightened retreat."
Gass advocates ”blue for blue’s sake…praise is due blue, the preference of the bee.”
Blue contrasts domesticity with intimacy: "Let her wash her greens, I go where it’s blue." He even quotes the similarly euphonious James Joyce in "Ulysses":
"Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers."
Living in the Country of the Blue
As writers, Gass and Joyce allow us to get blue beneath the fictitious sheets of literature.
The blue celebrates life, and blue writing is intrinsically celebratory, if well executed:
"It is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual; it is not easy to structure the consciousness of the reader with the real thing, to use one wonder to speak of another, until in the place of the voyeur who reads we have fashioned the reader who sings; but the secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose it is to create conceptual perceptions – blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of the imagination, the mind at gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks, and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define."
Gass ends by entrusting his book to his wife, Mary, for safekeeping, on behalf of ”all those who live in the country of the blue.”
The Preference of the Bee
[Assembled from the Words of William H. Gass]
I remember best the weed which grew between the steps...the mind at gleeful hop and scotch...she is still preparing salad at the sink...leaves like hanging lanterns...foliage like mascara'd eyes in midwink...the snicker and giggle of ink...what good is my peek at her pubic hair...martini on the tongue...cleavage for the eye... a deep blue crack as wide as any in a Roquefort...split like paper tearing...the self that in the midst of pitch and toss has slipped away...like a lucky penny fallen from a dresser...a cool flute blue tastes like deep well water drunk from a cup...a muff, a glove, a stocking, the glass a lover's lips have touched...praise is due blue, the preference of the bee…
Miles Davis - "So What" [from the album "A Kind of Blue"]
Miles Davis & John Coltrane - "So What" [Live in 1959]
Lou Reed - "Pale Blue Eyes" [Live in 1998]
Orange Juice - "Blue Boy"
The Sound of Young Scotland channelling the Velvets!
Elvis Costello - "Almost Blue" [Live]
Joni Mitchell - "Blue"
Buffalo Springfield - "Bluebird" [Rare Long Version]
Notes are private!
Jun 27, 2014
Jun 28, 2014
Mar 15, 2014
Ms. Flirtworthy, I Presume
At just under 240 pages, this isn't a long or difficult book, but it is hugely enjoyable and rewarding at multiple levels.
At Ms. Flirtworthy, I Presume
At just under 240 pages, this isn't a long or difficult book, but it is hugely enjoyable and rewarding at multiple levels.
At one level, you can read it as a first person narration of a 75 year old woman (Dora Chance) that is hilarious, vulgar, witty and dynamic.
It's like sitting Mae West in front of a microphone and plying her with alcohol. The stories, street wisdom, wise-cracking, jokes and double entendres just pour out of her endlessly.
I've met this kind of woman before, at cocktail parties, a long time ago. If you enjoy flirtation, nobody in the room could possibly be more flirtworthy. (I don't mean flirtation in any way other than the sheer pleasure of good company and good conversation.)
At first, you approach them tentatively and gently, as if they might be quaint, thinking they'll only last one martini, and they'll want or need to catch a cab home. Then you realise that, as the twinkle surfaces and remains in their eye, they can handle their liquor better than you. They're the life of the party, not you. They're the speaker, you're just the listener. They're the author, you're just the reader.
They've had more practice, and besides, they have more and better stories to tell than you. Slowly, drink by drink, they better you. Without doubt, they've met better men than you, too. They might forget you, but you will never forget them.
I used to live next to two twins like this. We used to attend monthly Art Gallery functions, when the Gallery still paid for drinks and hors d'oeuvres. We always caught a cab home together, if I could handle the pace.
Brush Up on Your Shakespeare
At another level, this novel is an extremely sophisticated project. Its five chapters function like a five act play. It appropriates themes and tropes from just about every Shakespearean play in existence (except perhaps two?).
It really is an exercise that proves, if you brush up on your Shakespeare, you can achieve something breathtaking and remarkable. Well, at least Angela Carter could.
Shakespeare is the foundation upon which the novel is built. Well, his theatre is. As we fast-forward into the present, Dora reveals to us her life in theatre, music hall, song and dance, and ultimately film of the Hollywood variety.
Dora proves that all the world's a stage. I don't really know to whom the stage belonged in Shakespeare's age. It wasn't just Shakespeare and Co. However, increasingly, entertainment has been taken over by the supposed deal makers. The playwrights have been pushed into the background, as have the actors and actresses. In a way, Dora/Angela asserts the value of the person, the storyteller, the actor, the one who gets up on stage, the one who acts the part, the one who acts a goat, the one who entertains.
Doesn't Feel like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag
As narrated by a 75 year old woman, you have to wonder whether this is all nostalgia, a requiem for a time that has passed.
Yet Carter's prose beats with the biggest heart you can conceive. This is no "feels like I'm fixin' to die rag".
This is a tale told by someone who is determined to eke the most out of their life until the very last heartbeat.
What a Joy It Is!
I could tell you about the difference between a Hazard and a Chance. I could tell you that Dora has an identical twin, Nora, and I could tell you about all of the other twins and all of the scope for mistaken identity that this creates, not to mention the uncertainty about paternity (and maternity, believe it or not).
But what I really want to tell you about is the joy that runs through this novel, these five chapters, like a river.
"So Long as Men Can Breathe, or Eyes Can See, So Long Lives This, and This Gives Life to Thee"
After all is said and done, Dora proclaims:
"What a joy it is to dance and sing!"
She's right, of course. If you make the effort to dance and sing.
But isn't that what life is about?
When you read that last sentence, you look back on the novel in its entirety and you marvel at the effort that went into it. The effort that was required to be precisely this hilarious, this vulgar, this witty, this dynamic, this wise.
It's OK for a writer to be praised for the quality of their sentences. But here is someone who writes great sentences, great paragraphs, great chapters, great novels.
Angela Carter never relaxes the pressure on herself in this novel. Only the best will do.
Then you realise that for almost the whole time she was writing this novel, she knew that she had lung cancer and that it would take her life within 12 months.
There isn't one iota of self-pity in this novel. It asserts that tragedy is something that happens to other people (even if comedy might also be a tragedy that happens to someone else).
But most importantly, it asserts that tragedy isn't so much a life that ends (for this happens to us all), but a life that is wasted.
Angela Carter wrote to the very end, partly so that her two sons might have a better life, but so that we might too.
Ironically, or perhaps not, both Shakespeare and Carter died around the time of their 52nd birthdays.
Notes are private!
Jan 18, 2015
Jan 22, 2015
Mar 15, 2014
Sep 01, 1968
Nov 01, 1985
The Object is to Get the Best of Both Worlds
I wanted to write you something impossible.
It occurs to me there are many alternative strategies you can The Object is to Get the Best of Both Worlds
I wanted to write you something impossible.
It occurs to me there are many alternative strategies you can employ to read this novel (which was first published in 1968, not that there's any inkling of the Summer of Love). So let’s start.
Imagine a spider web. There are several ways you can approach a spider web. You can encounter it unseen, unexpectedly, and recoil. You can detect it shining radiantly in the spring morning sun and admire it. You can return later, having forgotten it, and become entangled. “Impossible Object” is an exquisitely spun metafiction, not unlike a spider web. Having finished it, having the latter parts inform the earlier parts retroactively, you want to return to the beginning and start again. You want to get entangled. Let’s start again.
The novel is a post-modern sequel to Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” in which a latterday Ramsay family embarks on a boat ride, without procrastination, but with tragic consequences. Let’s start again.
The novel is an impossible object written for a loved one and for us: “I wanted to write you something impossible, like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two;by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality. A mirror is held to the back of the head and one's hand has to move the opposite way from what was intended.” Let’s start again.
There are eight stories. With no effort at the truth, I’m going to give four of the characters names (for they are not all named). Nick is an unmarried writer. Harry is married to Elizabeth, but is having an adulterous affair with Natalie. Much of their affair occurs in a pub near the British Museum, which is frequented by Nick, while he is researching a biography on Nietzsche. Harry might be a conductor, a writer or the owner of a pirate radio station. Natalie might be a flautist or a poet.
Nick ends up writing voyeuristic stories about Harry and Natalie. Harry ends up writing a story about Nick. Natalie writes a story about Harry. However, there is a sneeking suspicion that Nick is Harry (“You can’t exist! Or you’re myself. You see how this is impossible!”), and that the stories about Harry and Natalie are narrated by Nick, so that Harry can write about himself in the third person. Or are they written by Nick, so that he can write about himself in the third person? Or did one person write all of the stories? And was that person, let's face it, Nicholas Mosley? Let’s start again.
This is the story of a love affair, not to be confused with the 1950 film by Michaelangelo Antonioni. Let’s start again. This is the story of a love story, not to be confused with a 1973 film by John Frankenheimer called “Story of a Love Story”, or is it? It is after all based on the novel and a script by Nicholas Mosley. Let’s start again.
You can read all of this and conclude, “That’s impossible”. The temptation is to cut out the fabrication and be left with the reality. In Frankenheimer’s script conferences, people said, “But look here, Nicholas, when all is said and done, what we have here is just a good straightforward love story!” The temptation is to say, “Love should be simple; truth should be all-of-a-piece. But if in fact they are not – then it is the temptation that causes delusion. Look around you: are not humans either tip-toeing along, or flat on the ground underneath, a tightrope?” Let’s start again.
Mosley wrote the novel when he was 44. Nick travels to Turin to research the city where Nietzsche went mad. He (Nietzsche) was 44 at the time. Nick also has an affair with an Alberto Moravia-styled Italian woman named Hippolyta, who seems to be as voluptuous as Nietzsche’s muse, Lou Andreas-Salomé.
Harry, on the other hand, is obsessed by a young woman with black hair who is at the same time mythical like Cleopatra. She too “had the sensuality of opposites – the youth and experience, the leanness and voluptuousness, which invited both protection and sadism.” Let’s start again.
There is no life without opposites. Love is cursed by opposites: “There is perhaps no love without power…You cannot force them, you can only let them grow… But love is total… It runs you...You can’t expect miracles. You trust.”
Love makes us desire the impossible. Harry wanted to “maintain the ecstasy.” Yet, Natalie, being practical, wanted “a life that was whole, that would have a future and not be impossible.”
Between them, Mosley is trying to convince us that all life is impossible; it’s shaped by fabrications; but we have to excise or exorcise them, in our thought processes and behaviour, in the way we approach them, in the hope that what emerges is reality. Somehow, “the object is to get the best of both worlds.”
Still, there isn't necessarily a happy ending. In fact, there's a soul-destroying ending that is so prolonged and powerful in its impact that it makes you forget this is a Post-modern Fiction. This is how it would be if the novel had a happy ending: Two dancers would come in front of the curtain and hold hands.
Let’s start again. Hold on tight. I wanted to write you something impossible. It recurs to me…
"Nietzsche said that everything goes round and round…as if everything that we do were such that we were going to go on doing it for ever...
"I knew that he always thought that life could be refashioned and go on, but I thought that it should not. There are some things for which one cannot be forgiven."
Nietzsche's concept of Eternal Recurrence:
"Cube with Magic Ribbons" (1957) by M. C. Escher
J.S. Bach - "Flute Concerto in g-minor"
Master Musicians of Joujouka
Rolling Stones - "Continental Drift"
Rolling Stones - "Can You Hear The Music?"
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”: Friedrich Nietzsche
Nicholas Mosley - "Writing Life Pt 4"
Notes are private!
Feb 22, 2014
Feb 25, 2014
Feb 14, 2014
Mar 17, 1997
Virgin Marya, Marionette
Montparnasse. 1928. Narrow, sordid streets full of “shabby parfumeries, second-hand book-stalls, cheap hat-shops, bars frequ Virgin Marya, Marionette
Montparnasse. 1928. Narrow, sordid streets full of “shabby parfumeries, second-hand book-stalls, cheap hat-shops, bars frequented by gaily-painted ladies and loud-voiced men…” There are rumours of Bolshevist plots and scares.
Marya is “a pretty girl, but a girl who thinks too much.” She’s not a particularly sad person by nature, but she longs to be safe and happy.
Pre-Existentialism, “her existence, though delightful, was haphazard.” It lacked “solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background.”
Her husband has been sent to prison for twelve months. She contemplates her room without him: “Empty it looked and full of shadows.” She receives an offer of accommodation from apparent Good Samaritans, Hugh and Lois Heidler. Compared to their sophistication, Marya is like an animal, strange, hurt, strayed – “one not quite of the fold.”
Hugh places his hand possessively on her knee, and so starts a beautiful, but appalling, muddle, a game, a vague procession, a merry-go-round, yet hidden under the surface is “a vague and shadowy fear of something cruel and stupid that had caught her and would never let her go.”
Lois thinks she can detect the real Marya: “If I were you, I’d hate, loathe, detest everybody safe, everybody with money in the bank.” It’s her way of putting her in her place, of asserting authority and superiority.
Money makes all the difference. “Without money, Paris is as rotten as anywhere else and worse.” Initially, Marya is conscious of “the essential craziness of existence,” though she draws a subtle distinction: “I’m not sick of myself. I’m rather sick of my sort of life.”
Hugh and Lois seem to have everything: a marriage, an apartment, money and an “[excessively modern] arrangement”: “Lois and I each go our own way…after all, we’re in Paris.”
On the other hand, Lois regards Marya as “too virtuous,” so the game proceeds to the next level with a challenge to her virtue, an invitation that makes of her a “naïve sinner.” In return, she receives comfort and safety, though it too often seems like a new unreality, one where she experiences “the fright of a child shut up in a dark room, [the] fright of an animal caught in a trap.”
She feels like a marionette. Just as her strings might lift her, they can drop her into the abyss, they can lead to her fall as well. The challenge then is whether she can climb out of the blackness.
Published 38 years apart, this short novel shares many of the concerns of “Wide Sargasso Sea.” The Paris works of Jean Rhys deserve to be thought of in the company of the diaries and fiction of Anais Nin and Henry Miller. However, there is also a sense in which she deftly portrays Existentialism from a woman’s point of view. ...more
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