The first edition of this Guide came out in 1983, when it was called "The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records". It began as a "logical outgrowth of Trouser Press magazine" and was "an almost-successful attempt to review all of the significant albums with a direct connection to new wave music - records that either directly led to or resulted from the 1976-1977 upheaval spearheaded by the Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Television, Blondie, etc."
From New Wave to New Music
This edition is the version that was printed in the UK in 1986 and updates the previous editions up until the Spring of that year. By that time, the usefulness of the term "new wave" had all but evaporated, so that now (and even then) it is probably better applied to what the Fourth Edition describes in 1991 as a "derisive designation for watered-down bands who affected hip style but were bland enough for pop radio". As a result, they dropped "new wave" from the title and substituted "new music". So this edition is blurbed on the back cover as "the only major record guide dedicated to music outside the mainstream" and on the front cover as "the only music guide for the discriminating rock fan".
Alternative and Independent Music
It's interesting to observe from today's perspective the struggle to give a title to the kind of music the Guide was about. I don't have the edition that came out in 1989, but by the time the Fourth Edition came out as the "Trouser Press Record Guide" in 1991, it described itself as "The Ultimate Guide to Alternative Music". Just as there had once been a counterculture, now there was a mainstream and an alternative. Only later would the mainstream corporate music companies try to subsume alternative music, so that it became possible to conceive of independent music that was created outside the dictates of the corporates. By the time the fifth edition came out in 1991, the preface played simultaneously with "alternative" and "independent" badges. On the back cover, it cites its reputation as "the bible of nonmainstream rock". Interestingly, the online version now refers to "those highly opinionated review books of alternative rock". It doesn't seem to matter any more whether the music is distributed by corporate or independent music companies.
I no longer consult this edition, because I would go to its successor and the website first:
However, for years after I first bought it, I spent hours delving into its corners, following links (in the days before they had a url behind them) and learning new stuff that I can't believe I didn't already know by osmosis. The writing is opinionated and concise, not a word is wasted. In fact, it's probably worth revisiting this edition occasionally just to see whether, as updates have occurred, anything had to be omitted for the sake of brevity (or possibly because an opinion or reviewer had changed).
Ultimately, the best thing I can do is to give you a taste of the writing by quoting a few sentences about one of my favourite bands, Magazine:
"Singer/writer Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks in an effort to move beyond punk and power pop and take rock music to new levels of complexity and sophistication without losing the recently regained energy of the form... "They advanced a music of many styles and moods with lyrics full of obfuscation and a lush, many-faceted sound, still maintaining the rudimentary passion au courant in the music of 1978."
Maybe this style of writing is not to your taste. People write differently these days. But it still appeals to me, especially because it recognises that you can write about difficult and abstract subject matter without being so difficult and abstract that you can't understand it. Or, worse still, writing so pretentiously that everybody and everything disappears up its own fundamental orifice, which did happen for a long time under the influence of post-modernism. P.S. I still had to look up "au courant", but hey, I learned something new. ...more
This afternoon, having just re-read "Lolita", I asked my local bookseller (a lovely lady in her late 50's) if she had ever read it. SBetween the Covers
This afternoon, having just re-read "Lolita", I asked my local bookseller (a lovely lady in her late 50's) if she had ever read it. She replied firmly, “No…and I’m not going to either. He’s a paedophile.” A bit taken aback, I enquired further, “Who? The author or the character?” Fortunately, she replied, “The character.” For me, this exchange showed how much “Lolita” can still sharply divide opinion, even within lovers of fiction. This wasn’t the conversation I had been hoping for. I had read “Lolita” in a couple of days, less time than my work commitments normally allow me, but I found it incredibly easy to read. Even though I was taking notes, even though I was conscious that Nabokov was playing games (even if I didn’t always know what game), even though there were unfamiliar words I should have looked up, I was constantly drawn towards the conclusion. I wanted to talk to someone about my experience straight away. My cheeks were still flushed, my nerve endings were still tingling, I had experienced the “spine thrill of delight”, I felt like I had just had sex with a book. Now, not being a smoker, all I needed was some post-coital conversation. And there was no one around to converse with. And the book wasn’t giving away any more of its secrets than it already had. Nor was it going to tell me I had been a Good Reader or that it had appreciated my attentiveness. It was back between the covers, challenging me to start again.
Three Act Word Play
At a superficial level, “Lolita” is a relatively straight-forward novel. Once you know that it concerns sexual relations between 37 year old Humbert Humbert and 12 year old Dolores “Lolita” Hayes, you just about know the plot. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. A grooming, a consummation, an aftermath. Nabokov makes of his material a three act play. And he does so playfully, seductively, lyrically, charmingly, amusingly, dangerously. To this day, I cannot look at Humbert’s initials “H.H.” without pronouncing them in German, “Ha Ha”, and wondering whether the joke is on us. Beneath the skin of the novel, there is much more. There is a whole complex living organism. You can lose yourself within its arms for days, weeks, months, a lifetime. As long as your love of wordplay, your love of words and play, will permit you. Again, at a superficial level, there is an almighty conflict between morality and aesthetics happening between the pages. Whether or not Nabokov deliberately put the conflict there, he put the subject matter there. We, the readers, can supply our own conflict in the way we read his novel. Nabokov knew the subject matter would inflame us, if not our desires, then at least our morals, our sense of righteousness. Morality and aesthetics are intertwined within the fabric of the novel. They embrace each other in one long death roll, just like Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty. We watch their interaction, open-mouthed, open-minded, but ultimately they have to be pulled apart or separated. When they are together, they are one. When they are apart, they are each other’s double.
The Morality of the Story
There is no doubt that sexual relations between an adult and a minor are not just immoral, but criminal as well. That is an unquestionable fact. From a legal point of view, the motive of the adult is irrelevant to the proof of the crime. The consent of the minor is irrelevant to the proof of the crime. If Humbert had been charged with an offence of sexual relations with a minor, he would have had no legal defence. Any question as to whether Lolita really seduced Humbert would have been irrelevant. In fact, the evidence might not even have been admissible, except potentially as part of the determination of the penalty. In other words, even if it was relevant to penalty, it was not relevant to guilt. Because morality is a social construct that depends on collective endorsement, he had no moral defence either. The personal views of the individual are not really that relevant to society’s determination that an act is immoral. The choice of the individual is to comply or offend.
Of Traps and Cages
Humbert offended not just once, but untold numerous times over two years. He carefully planned his seduction, he set his trap, he caught his prey, even if someone might want to argue that this 12 year old seductress walked voluntarily into the trap. Having freed Lolita from the trap, he imprisoned her in a cage, and repeated his crime. Again, someone could argue that she had plenty of opportunities to flee the cage (which she eventually did). But Humbert surrounded Lolita with an elaborate system of self-doubt that convinced her that she would become a ward of the state if they were found out.
The Legality of the Confession
“Lolita” is written from Humbert’s point of view. It is not just a recollection in his mind, it is a formal, written document. He sat down and wrote it in 56 days between his capture in 1952 (charged only with the crime of murdering Clare Quilty) and his death in prison before his trial could occur. For me, the written document is a fascinating choice of literary device to tell the story. The document becomes a book within a book. While Nabokov obviously wrote it, all that he purports to do is sandwich it between a Foreword and a (much later) Afterword. This device sets up an interesting relationship between Humbert and the reader. For Humbert, it is akin to a confession or a witness statement. To this extent, what he confesses to is clearly enough to convict him of the crime of murder. However, in it, he also sets out details of crimes that, for whatever reason, he was never charged with. If his lawyer had read the document while he was still alive, he would probably have excised all of the other confessions, because they would have prejudiced his client’s case (at least with respect to penalty).
The Role of the Jury
For the reader, the confession defines our relationship to the events that are described. We are cast in the role of a member of the Jury. This device allows heinous moral and criminal acts to be described and read and examined within a legal and therefore legitimate framework. In a sense, the book becomes a report of sorts on legal proceedings. We become legitimate observers and listeners to something that might otherwise have been prurient and offensive and illegal. Yet, we have to do our duty and participate in the legal process, because it is an important part of the justice system. Even though we have a legitimate interest in participating, I wonder whether we are still voyeuristic. Nabokov has trapped us in a game that persuades us that it is serious, but ends up being just as playful and perverse as the subject matter of the crime. In a way, Nabokov makes us complicit in a crime, if not Humbert’s crime, then perhaps our own thought crime. It is also material that, by the time Humbert’s confession is read, both Humbert and Lolita have died of natural causes. Humbert speaks from the other side of death. Nobody is alive, nobody can be hurt any more than they already have.
The Confessions of an Unreliable Narrator (The Fox and the Peacock)
I explored these issues, because I wanted to understand Humbert’s motivation for his confession. He is effectively pleading guilty. I don’t see any prospect for an insanity defence, even though he seemed to have been in and out of sanatoria at times of crisis. Equally, I don’t think that anything he reveals would reduce the penalty for the murder. To do so, he only needed to focus on his concern that Quilty had wronged Lolita in some way even worse than his own actions. But to confess all of these other crimes seems to be counter-productive. Similarly, I don’t think he was lying about the detail, I think that he was telling the truth, and that he was telling the truth, so that he could be understood, no more, no less. Humbert’s confession is not just the fiction of a dirty old man, it is not false or fabricated, it is not a mirage. No matter how immoral, no matter how deluded, no matter how selfish and narcissistic, it is his fact, his reality, his truth, his burden, his shame. His actions were the pursuit of a rational man, not an insane one. He was film-star handsome, educated, intellectual, talented, witty, charming, calculating, calculated, dangerous. There is no doubt that he was a talented performer, an exceptional player. However, Humbert is not an actor wearing a mask, performing some other fictional character or version of himself. I believe that we are seeing him for what he really is. He is as cunning, tricky, sly as a fox and as refined, elaborate, attractive as a peacock. His decoration, his ornamentation is part of him, his life, his loins, his sin, his soul. In pursuit of Lolita, he was prepared to lie and deceive in order to achieve his goal. I don’t believe that he was prepared to lie to us, if only because there was no point in lying. When occasionally he questions the veracity of his own account, it is solely to question the accuracy of his memory. However, he didn’t need to tell lies to achieve leniency, he didn’t need to tell the truth for some ulterior motive. By confessing to anything, he would only be found guilty of crimes he hadn’t been charged with in addition to the charge of murder he had been accused of. There was no point in confessing to anything extra, other than to tell the truth as he saw it. It wasn’t going to get him any sympathy or reduce his penalty, if anything, his disclosures would aggravate his penalty. To this extent, I don’t consider Humbert an “unreliable narrator”. I realise that some might respond that paedophiles are habitual liars and can’t help themselves. That might well be the case, but I think it is our horror at his crime, our moral judgment affecting our assessment of the whole of the person and shaping our (aesthetic) response to the book and the character. Perhaps naively, I want to find some good in him. Ultimately, whether or not Humbert’s love was morally wrong, I believe that he wanted us to understand his love and what he learned about his love by the end of his story.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Humbert’s Love
Technically, the sexual relations between Humbert and Lolita are not an example of “paedophilia” (which is a sexual preference for a pre-pubescent). While nothing moral or legal turns on the distinction, the sexual relations constitute “hebephilia” (which is a sexual preference for a person in the early stage of puberty). The name derives from “Hebe”, the Greek goddess of youth. Her name means youth or prime of life, and she personified both youth and immortality. She was the cup bearer who served nectar to the Olympian Gods to give them everlasting youth.
First Part (Obsessive Love)
For me, during the first part of the book, Humbert’s love was forbidden, but genuine. It was a transgressive love, in that it was a love of the particular aesthetic form that youth takes between the ages of ten and fifteen. The body is at its most perfect, it has not started to age, to wrinkle, to fill out, to droop, to deteriorate. After that age, the body starts to age, and he finds that physically unattractive (as in the case of his first wife and Lolita's mother). OK, we all make choices about our love objects. How can we account for our choices? There’s no accounting for love. Still, at the heart of this aesthetic approach to love is a fear or disgust at aging and mortality. There is an unreality, a lack of understanding and acceptance of the cycle of life and death, a Peter Pan desire to stay forever young, forever immortal. I also think there is a self-love or narcissism inherent in this aesthetic view. I love the young, because I love the perfect form of my own youth. Since my youth, I have fallen, morally and physically. I therefore have to preserve the visage of my own youth. I wonder whether it is only possible to have this view if you have never had your own biological child. Parenthood is an education in the reality of aging. It is an illusion to believe that you can live and defeat it. But tell that to the cosmetics industry. So far I have talked of love in the abstract. In the first part of the book, I struggled to understand Humbert’s love and the above is what I came up with. I won’t say I had a sympathy for him, but I think I understood him and his love. I even understood his obsessiveness. How many of us, during the first throes of love, trap and oppress our love object, so much so that we are not able to see how oppressive we were, until after the relationship has been consummated, or morphed into something more mature or ended? However, things started to change at the end of the first part (the consummation) and into the second part (the imprisonment). Of course the love had to be consummated, but as unexceptional as the description of the event was, it highlighted the reality that the first part was a trap for Lolita to walk into. As playful and lyrical as the language might have been, it was sinister in intent.
Second Part (Captivating Love)
During the second part, having captured Lo, Humbert makes it clear that his love will last no more than three years, to be precise, 1 January, 1947 to 1 January, 1950, which are effectively her 12th to 15th birthdays. After this, statistically at least, Lo will morph out of her nymphet form. So Humbert's love is solely for a definitive phase of her entire life, after which he expects and intends to abandon her. During this phase, Humbert’s goal is to maintain Lolita in captivity, to ensure her availability for him alone. There is no fairy tale promise of “happily ever after” or “’til death do us part” in this love action. There is no love or concern for the other, only selfishness and narcissism. I have tried to view the definition of beauty that appeals to Humbert as an aesthetic issue. I have tried to divorce it from morality, so I can understand it better. However, whether I think of it in terms of aesthetics or morality, obsession or love, the fact that it could be switched on and off at such identifiable times turned me against Humbert. He is in control of this feeling called love, at least, he knows with clinical precision when he will return to “normality” or a state of not loving. His love was a drug that he took too knowingly, he knew precisely when the feeling of the drug would wear off. So, I started to believe that there was no loss of self in his love. Instead, it was a heightened or gross act of narcissism. By extension, there was no sense in which he tried to "satisfy" Lo personally or sexually. There was no sense of a mutually satisfying relationship or intercourse (although to be fair, he doesn't go into the sexual detail, except in terms of physical exertion). However, I got the sense that, when it came to consummating his love, it was just about sticking his dick into his love object. OK, lots of sexual relationships can be reduced to this fundamental penetrative act. Some men see femaleness as no more than a receptacle for maleness and its fluid manifestation, the cup into which they spill their seed. However, I started to feel in the second part that Humbert's aim was to defile or despoil the beauty that had appealed to him in the first part (even if it was transgressive). And the three year zone of enchantment highlighted to me that Humbert would just go in search of the next beautiful nymphet to stick his dick into. So it became increasingly apparent to me that he was a serial despoiler of beauty, not a genuine lover or admirer of beauty. There is a hatred or disgust hotwired into this love. You don't normally hate the flowers in your vase when it comes time to remove them and throw them in the dustbin. But you get the sense that Humbert would have been disgusted by his former love objects, his objet d'obsession, the moment that calendar clicked over. Obviously, this same disgust or loss of interest appears in more traditional relationships. It could lie behind the mid-life crisis when the guy runs away with the younger woman. It could explain the inability to accept the inevitability of aging, at least in our partner. It could explain we males who still picture ourselves as the immutable 20 year old who deserves a young and nubile partner (no matter how soft or old or fat or ugly we have become). So Humbert’s love can teach the rest of us something about our own love.
Last Part (Adult Love Denied)
I wrote most of my comments about the second part before I had finished reading the last part of the novel. I have to emphasise that most of what turned me against Humbert came from my reaction to his own words. Neither he nor Nabokov held back the material that would make me hate him. Still, I read on, firmly in their constrictive embrace, until chapter 29, when Humbert and the seventeen year old, married and pregnant Dolores meet again. What you think of Humbert and his love, whether or not you think he is lying, depends on your interpretation of the confessions in this chapter:
“…there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her gooseflesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby… and I looked and I looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else… “What I used to pamper among the tangled vines of my heart…had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I cancelled and cursed… “You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. “I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine.”
This is just one part of Humbert’s journey. He realised that he still loved her outside the hebephile zone. However, he still clung to “his” Lolita, the Lolita of his deluded version of love. Obviously, Dolores is and never was “his” version of reality, she was her own person, and she declines his love a second time. Only then does he recognise that he “did not know a thing about [his] darling’s mind” or that “a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac”. Then he quotes “an old poet” (presumably Nabokov himself):
“The moral sense in mortals is the duty “We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.”
In other words, you can’t just indulge an aesthetic sense of beauty at the expense of a real human being, it comes attached to and constrained by morality. Morality, taboo and the law work together to protect innocence and beauty from those who would defile and despoil it. He was not above the law, he was no Nietzschian Superman. He was the fool in his own play.
There are suggestions that Nabokov saw Humbert’s story as a tragedy, that Humbert only realised that he genuinely loved Dolores by conventional standards when it was too late. That might be so, but Humbert only had himself to blame. He was a victim of his own hand, and his tragedy was nothing compared with the one he made Dolores endure, so that he, too selfishly for love, could have his “Lolita”....more
One of the qualities of great literature (at least, that which is written in an open, rather than a closed, manner) is that sometimes it can be a mirror into which we look and see ourselves from a different perspective.
Because we see ourselves, reflected, there is no guarantee that what we see will be identical to what another reader sees. In fact, it can be quite the opposite, it's almost as if it's guaranteed that what we see will not be identical.
Nobody's Doing It
Woolf's essay isn't so much a prescription as to how fiction should be written. It is more a lament about what she feels is missing from the fiction of her day (1927).
Like other critics, she looks backwards to the past for guidance, but she acknowledges this isn't enough. Mostly she is looking forwards to the future.
She says, this needs to be done. But few seem to be doing it.
In fact, she goes further and says, it used to be done, but it isn't any longer being done. She gives as her examples from the past Laurence Sterne and William Shakespeare. She has an enormous respect for the whole Elizabethan era.
Woolf doesn't mandate that everybody write fiction like this. Far from being normative, she implies that at least somebody should do it, and if nobody else does it, well at least in my opinion, she could justifiably say that she did it.
Towards a Definition of Modernism
So what is it that Woolf is talking about?
I suspect she is giving us a taste of her definition of what we would subsequently call Modernism, even if she didn't use that word in her essay. However, she also gives us enough understanding of the potential of Modernism to understand why I argue elsewhere that Postmodernism is not a separate movement to Modernism, but in fact a subset or branch of it with similar concerns.
In effect, I would argue that Modernism is any art that seeks to go beyond mere Realism in form and content.
The Context of Modernism
First, Woolf describes the age she was living in:
"It is an age clearly when we are not fast anchored where we are; things are moving round us; we are moving ourselves."
Society and history are fluid. We don't know in what direction or directions they are heading.
Equally, we ourselves, individuals, are fluid. We no longer have certainty about what constitutes the Self:
"The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unmanageable emotions. That the age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that human life lasts but a second; that the capacity of the human mind is nevertheless boundless; that life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive; that one's fellow creatures are adorable but disgusting; that science and religion have between them destroyed belief; that all bonds of union seem broken, yet some control must exist."
An Attitude Towards Life
In this last paragraph, Woolf identifies both the problem and, perhaps, the solution.
The old certainties of religion, science and political authority have been undermined. Order has given way to disorder, structure to chaos.
This affects what she calls our our attitude towards life:
"an attitude which is full of contrast and collision; an attitude which seems to demand the conflict of one character upon another, and at the same time to stand in need of some general shaping power, some conception which lends the whole harmony and force..."
Then she describes people in terms that many of us can relate to today:
"We all know people — if we turn from literature to life for a moment — who are at loggerheads with existence; unhappy people who never get what they want; are baffled, complaining, who stand at an uncomfortable angle whence they see everything askew."
It's identical language to the world that contemporary critics describe when they contextualise Post-Modernism. Only Woolf illustrates that this attitude has existed in the past, during her age, during the Elizabethan era, and probably during all periods of intellectual foment in history.
"The Perfectly Elastic Envelope"
Ironically, despite the questioning of the integrity of the Self, Woolf believes that the solution comes from the imposition of some type of "control", what she implies might be a new "anchor".
For all our weaknesses and flaws, we have to create our own anchor.
It seems pretty clear that Woolf thinks that the anchor is art or fiction.
She describes literature, or at least poetry, as "a great channel of expression".
In the past, the harmony and force came from the likes of the poetic drama of the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare is one of her two exemplars:
"Shakespeare's plays are not the work of a baffled and frustrated mind; they are the perfectly elastic envelope of his thought. Without a hitch, he turns from philosophy to a drunken brawl; from love songs to an argument; from simply merriment to profound speculation."
It is a creative world rich in form and content. It is a world of complete freedom, which she also finds encapsulated in the "looseness and freedom of 'Tristram Shandy'".
"That Queer Conglomeration of Incongruous Things"
The creative world of Realism is not enough to explore Woolf's concerns. She thinks we need a reinvention and reinvigoration of literature that can go beyond the psychology of its protagonists:
"We long for some more impersonal relationship. We long for ideas, for dreams, for imaginations, for poetry.
"It will give the relations of man to nature, to fate; his imagination; his dreams. But it will also give the sneer, the contrast, the question, the closeness and complexity of life. It will take the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongruous things — the modern mind. Therefore it will clasp to its breast the precious prerogatives of the democratic art of prose; its freedom, its fearlessness, its flexibility."
Woolf adds, "it is one of the glories of the Elizabethan dramatists that they give us this."
If they could do it, it can still be done, both in 1927 and now.
"That Cannibal, the Novel"
The advocates of Post-Modernism often discuss it in terms of its appropriation of the past. Woolf uses the same language in defining an agenda for her nouvelle novel or Modernism. She anticipates prose taking over the role previously performed by poetry and drama:
"That cannibal, the novel, which has devoured so many forms of art, will by then have devoured even more."
Life is rich, and it calls on a parallel richness in the way we experience and process it:
"Every moment is the centre and meeting-place of an extraordinary number of perceptions which have not yet been expressed. Life is always and inevitably much richer than we who try to express it."
"Full Play Upon Important Things"
This essay then was Woolf's manifesto for a new, additional way of writing.
It's exciting to read it today, not just because of what it proposes, but because of what she and others delivered and continue to deliver:
"It is certain that there are scattered about in England, France, and America writers who are trying to work themselves free from a bondage which has become irksome to them; writers who are trying to readjust their attitude so that they may once more stand easily and naturally in a position where their powers have full play upon important things.
"And it is when a book strikes us as the result of that attitude rather than by its beauty or its brilliancy that we know that it has in it the seeds of an enduring existence."
More power to the endurance of the literature Woolf foresaw!
(view spoiler)[Authors of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the bondage of Realism! (hide spoiler)]["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"]>["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"]>["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
I don’t normally seek out post-apocalyptic novels, but Paul Auster’s novel is one to treasure.
Even though it is an early worPost-Apocalyptic Apocrypha
I don’t normally seek out post-apocalyptic novels, but Paul Auster’s novel is one to treasure.
Even though it is an early work, I felt I was in the hands of a master.
It is both beautifully written and wise.
It’s easy to read, but it’s not so easily “readable” that I could read it without turning the telly off.
Although its style is sparse and economical, there’s a lot happening beneath the surface.
Still, Auster carefully manages exactly how much he wants us to know and what he wants to remain unclear or open for conjecture.
This transforms the reader into a literary detective, a sifter of clues and memories.
Anna’s Epistle to An Unnamed Friend
The story is told in the voice of 19 year old Anna Blume in the form of a long letter to a friend who isn’t identified (but might be a little sister or a childhhod friend).
The letter is a summary of her time in a post-apocalyptic city, written hurriedly in the last days before she expects to escape it illegally.
I’m not sure how appropriate or successful the epistolary format was.
There is only one long 190 page letter written in a blue notebook, not an exchange of correspondence.
We only get one point of view. It could just as readily have been a journal, apart from the fact that it’s addressed to one particular person.
A Letter Never Sent?
Was her letter ever sent?
It’s not clear whether the letter was ever delivered or read. It's quite possible that it wasn't.
This could be an inevitable consequence of the choice of epistolary format.
Normally, this format would dictate that the novel must work internally within the letter.
We can only assume that someone “found” or received it, even if it wasn’t the addressee for whom it was intended.
However, in the first few pages, there are some clues.
Phrases like ”she wrote” and “her letter continued” are interposed into the letter.
Perhaps, they are intended to suggest that somebody other than we readers might have found the letter and read it, if not necessarily the addressee.
However, ultimately, whether or not it was read by the right person, Auster implicitly makes the point that it was worth writing (if only because ultimately he wrote it!).
An Incomprehensible Apocalypse
As you would expect, Paul Auster doesn’t tell us a lot about the nature of the Apocalypse itself. It’s cloaked in mystery.
The novel is more concerned with its aftermath.
Anna Blume arrived in the city by foreign charity ship, 12 months after the Apocalypse occurred.
She comes from a different country to the east, possibly England.
There are opportunities to reveal where she comes from (presumably she has a foreign accent, but nobody comments on it; Victoria, one of the people she meets on the way, has sent her children to England to escape the Apocalypse, but they don't appear to discuss this common interest).
It seems strange that nothing is made of these opportunities to disclose her origins, although Anna might not have thought them important enough.
A Report Never Filed
Anna is looking for her older brother, William, a journalist who had previously come to report on the events for a newspaper, but has since gone missing.
It’s not clear how much reporting has got through to the rest of the world. Not much by the sound of it.
A Collapse of Epidemic Proportions
Only when Anna has been in the city for some time does she learn that:
"...some kind of epidemic had broken out there. The city government had come in, walled off the area, and burned everything down to the ground.
"Or so the story went. I have since learned not to take the things I am told too seriously.
"It’s not that people make a point of lying to you, it’s just that where the past is concerned, the truth tends to get obscured rather quickly.
“Legends crop up within a matter of hours, tall tales circulate, and the facts are soon buried under a mountain of outlandish theories."
It’s not clear whether the epidemic was the primary cause of the Apocalypse or whether it was an after-effect.
Auster refers to the Apocalypse occasionally as a “collapse”, which suggests that it might have been just as much a social phenomenon, as a natural or even man-made disaster, though there is some sense of past destruction and imminent war.
He also mentions “the Troubles”, which were violent political disputes, although it’s unclear whether they preceded or followed the Apocalypse.
Whatever the physical cause of the Apocalypse, it’s clear that not only have many buildings collapsed, but the social order of the city has collapsed into barely-controlled anarchy.
Like the surviving inhabitants, readers have to piece together the clues, and even then it isn’t clear how reliable they are.
The City of Destruction
Auster does not name the city in the novel, although many consider it to be New York.
It contains a National Library, but I doubt whether it is intended to be Washington, because it seems to be a port, and we learn that there is nothing on the same continent east of it.
None of the street names are recognisable, although “Circus Street” might just be Broadway.
Even though Anna comes from a place that has been unaffected, she lacks knowledge about the continent that the city is on.
Again, she has to rely on what she has been told:
"This country is enormous, you understand, and there’s no telling where he might have gone. Beyond the agricultural zone to the west, there are supposedly several hundred miles of desert. Beyond that, however, one hears talk of more cities, of mountain ranges, of mines and factories, of vast territories stretching all the way to a second ocean."
Whether or not this is America, why doesn’t she seem to have greater knowledge of the continent? Has the knowledge of the rest of the world been affected as well?
Wide is the Gate and Broad is the Road
Some clues as to the scope and design of the novel can be found in the epigram:
"Not a great while ago, passing through the gate of dreams, I visited that region of earth in which lies the famous City of Destruction."
This quotation comes from Hawthorne’s short story, “The Celestial Railroad”, which is an allegory about the people of a city who try to build a shortcut between their own city and Heaven, between “The City of Destruction” and “The Celestial City”.
Hawthorne based his story on John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, the full title of which is “The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come”.
Both works are concerned with the proper way to get to Heaven, which is itself described in the Bible:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
A Secular Pilgrim's Progress
The novel isn’t overtly Christian or religious (even though Anna describes herself as Jewish). However, there is an underlying morality at work.
Without any obvious clues, there’s a sense that the city was doing something "wrong", that it had started to step out too confidently and aggressively for its own good, that it deserved to decline and fall, and therefore that it had it coming to it.
Perhaps, it’s been punished for being immoral, greedy and inconsiderate, if not necessarily being irreligious.
In the wake of the Apocalypse, there’s a sense in which humanity has to reconstruct itself without the aid of institutional religion.
After her arrival, Anna is quickly reduced to the level of a local inhabitant.
She has to make her way back to virtue, happiness and fulfilment, and her letter describes a secular pilgrimage of sorts.
The Getting of Wisdom
Anna has to piece together every resource available to her, whether spiritual or worldly, to survive.
In the process, she gains some awareness, knowledge and wisdom, even if it could be taken away from her at any moment.
She starts by describing issues of subsistence, the hunger from which everyone suffers:
"You must get used to doing with as little as you can. By wanting less, you are content with less, and the less you need, the better off you are.
"That is what the city does to you. It turns your thoughts inside out. It makes you want to live, and at the same time it tries to take your life away from you."
Out of Order
Then she describes the social structures that have emerged to fill the void left by the Apocalypse: Runners, Leapers, Smilers, Crawlers, Dreamers, Fecalists, Resurrection Agents, Vultures, Tollists.
Where there is no longer any authority, there is now desperate tribalism, bare aggression and raw power.
Sickness prevails. Death is everywhere.
Even within the confines of the Library, many of the books have been stolen for fuel.
Those that remain have been scattered all over the floor.
They are "out of order" and therefore useless.
Like everybody else, Anna is left to her own devices. Or almost.
Populating the City
Having set the scene, Anna introduces the people she has allowed into her life in the city.
She makes friends and loses them, whether to death or fate or circumstance.
Still, the company of others gives her both love and hope, if only temporarily.
Every act of friendship is more valuable, given the circumstances in which it occurs.
At times, it seems that the novel is an allegory about the Holocaust, where even in the worst and most evil of conditions the beauty of humanity can still shine through.
Eventually, her band of accomplices resolves itself down to the comforting Sam Farr (who she had hoped would lead her to William), the charitable Victoria Woburn (who maintains a hospital in memory of her father) and the eccentric Boris Stepanovich.
A Persona of Indifference Becomes a Persona of Benevolence
Anna and Sam start a relationship, only to be parted, without knowing whether the other is alive.
"I gave up trying to be anyone. The object of my life was to remove myself from my surroundings, to live in a place where nothing could hurt me anymore. One by one, I tried to abandon my attachments, to let go of all the things I ever cared about. The idea was to achieve indifference, an indifference so powerful and sublime that it would protect me from further assault. I said good-bye to you, Anna..."
Yet one day, he stumbles into Victoria’s hospital where Anna is now working.
Reunited at last, he takes on the role of doctor, and the patients start to trust him with their problems:
"It was like being a confessor, he said, and little by little he began to appreciate the good that comes when people are allowed to unburden themselves – the salutary effect of speaking words, of releasing words that tell the story of what happened to them."
So Sam transitions from non-attachment to engagement with life and, by doing so, he reinvigorates Anna as well.
An Escape Never Made?
At the end of the novel, Anna’s unlikely "bande a part" is poised to escape the city.
So Anna writes her letter in the days leading up to their departure.
We never know whether they succeeded or what happened to them subsequently.
A Collection of Last Things
While there might be a tragedy inherent in this story, it also says something about the role of story-telling and writing.
Life is ephemeral. It happens, and once it has happened, it moves into the past and ceases to be:
"These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back...When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it."
If thoughts can’t survive, then neither can memories.
Memories require a human to maintain and transmit them.
Absent people, the memories die, and the reality that once was is no more.
Just as people deny the Holocaust, once the memories cease, people start to forget or deny the underlying factuality.
A Recollection of Lasting Things
Still, Anna feels the compulsion to write, to preserve these memories, to create an amulet:
"I am not sure why I am writing to you now...But suddenly, after all this time, I feel there is something to say, and if I don’t quickly write it down, my head will burst. It doesn’t matter if you read it. It doesn’t even matter if I send it – assuming that could be done. Perhaps it comes down to this. I am writing to you because you know nothing. Because you are far away from me and know nothing."
Towards the end, Anna pictures her letter as “one last thing to remember me by”.
The notebook could end up as a thing sitting on a shelf above a bed, one last thing that might last.
Boris the Chameleon
Anna owes some of this change of approach to the flamboyant, charlatan-like Boris Stepanovich.
At first, she is captivated by, but sceptical about, his tale-telling and his constant metamorphosis:
"One by one, he took on the roles of clown and scoundrel and philosopher."
Unlike anyone else she has met, his character shifts:
"A man must live from moment to moment, and who cares what you were last month if you know who you are today?"
Yet Boris is a sentimentalist at heart, if a wily one.
Without words and memories, who would know what they are today anyway?
He says of a precious tea cup:
"The set has suffered the fate of the years…and yet, for all of that, a single remnant has survived, a final link to the past. Treat it gently, my friend. You are holding my memories in your hand."
Hats Off to Boris
Anna gets another clue from Boris' love of ornate hats:
”Boris explained that he liked to wear hats because they kept his thoughts from flying out of his head. If we both wore them while we drank our tea, then we were bound to have more intelligent and stimulating conversations.”
Equally, perhaps, society needs memories, to be truly civilized.
Civilisation is what separates us from mere subsistence, whether in a ghetto or a garret.
So, ultimately, Boris too revitalises Anna:
"We became dear friends, and I owe Boris a debt for his compassion, for the devious and persistent attack he launched on the strongholds of my sadness."
Likewise, Boris becomes the inspiration for the escape plan:
"Make plans. Consider the possibilities. Act."
Humanity must not just embrace contemplation, it must embrace action to survive.
Promise to Write
Anna promises to write to her friend when they get out of the city of destruction.
We never find out whether she got out safely, or survived, or posted her letter, or ever wrote again.
Hear Me Calling You
Still, we are lucky to have read her epistle of engagement and action and persistence and humanity.
She did not just call out into the blankness, or scream into a vast and terrible void.
She did not just create one of the last things that will disappear, she created something that will last.
She did not write in vain.
The "you" she was writing to has become the "we" who have read Paul Auster's novel.
I am 40 I am naughty I am sick I am angry I am ugly I am superstitious I am undesirable I am different I am indifferent I am pettyI Am the Lowest and the Worst
I am 40 I am naughty I am sick I am angry I am ugly I am superstitious I am undesirable I am different I am indifferent I am petty I am nothing I am unstable I am rude I am impudent I am timid I am frightened I am vengeful I am lazy I am dirty I am secret I am wretched I am self-loathing I am humiliating I am humiliated I am nasty I am irritable I am irritating I am snarling I am spiteful I am unseemly I am disgusting I am disgusted I am repulsive I am ignoble I am immoral I am evil I am guilty I am shameful I am shameless I am clever I am stupid I am elusive I am deluded I am contradictory I am self-obsessed I am sensitive I am ridiculous I am infected I am unaffected I am ineffective I am undeserving I am the lowest I am the worst I am miserable I am unloving I am unlovable I am unloved I am lying I am unreliable I am underground I am under the floorboards I am in character I am a windbag I am an insect I am no hero I am a zero I am revolting I am rebelling I am telling I am compelling.
Whitney Houston sings, “How will I know if he really loves me?”
Pop Music asks some of the most probing questions we can imagine.
Many oHow Will I Know?
Whitney Houston sings, “How will I know if he really loves me?”
Pop Music asks some of the most probing questions we can imagine.
Many of them are secular versions of Spirituals, Gospel Music or Hymns.
How will I know if He really loves me?
How will I know if He really exists?
How will I know if He’s really there?
What would I say if he insists?
(Sorry, that last one slipped in from my review of "Glee: How to Plot an Episode in 70 Words".)
To which the tabloid press add:
How could I tell?
And, more significantly, in the Facebook era:
Who could I tell?
How would I tell them?
Can Anybody Find Me Somebody to Love?
Freddie Mercury sings, “Can anybody find me somebody to love?”
Can anybody find me somebody to love me?
We need somebody to love.
We need somebody to love us.
Need, need, need, need, need.
We are the most psychologically needy creatures ever to inhabit this Earth, but we are also the most skeptical.
We need to believe, we want to believe, we want to be believed in, but we are plagued by doubt.
How Could We Tell?
If Jesus or God returned to Earth, how could we tell it was Him?
Would we expect Him to perform a miracle?
Would we ask Him to show us His wounds?
What if She wore a dress?
What if He wore a suit?
What if She was a Democrat? (God forbid.)
What if He was a Republican? (God forbids.)
How would we know?
How could we tell?
Lift Up Your Heads, Read Joyce
As probing and insightful as these questions are, there is an equally important set of literary questions.
Would we recognise James Joyce if he was in our midst?
What if he wasn’t wearing a hat?
How should we laud him?
Re-Joyce, the Lord is King
On the other hand, there's the reader’s equivalent of the old chestnut: who is the next Bob Dylan?
Who is the next James Joyce?
Would we recognise them?
Would we recognise the next “Ulysses”?
Could someone in the 21st century write the greatest novel ever written?
Does it have to be a (or the) Great American Novel to qualify?
What if it was the Great Asian Novel?
What if it wasn’t written by Haruki Murakami? (I’d have egg on my face then, wouldn’t I?)
What if it was written by an Englishman?
What if it was “number9dream”?
2001: A Time and Space Oddity
David Mitchell released his second novel in 2001.
Having read the novel twice, I wondered what the blurb had said:
“David Mitchell’s second novel belongs in a Far Eastern, multi-textual, urban-pastoral, road-movie-of-the-mind, cyber-metaphysical, detective/family chronicle, coming-of-age-love-story genre of one. It is a mesmerizing successor to his highly acclaimed and prize-winning debut, “Ghostwritten’.”
The blurb-writer should be sacked.
This is understatement of the highest (or is it, lowest?) order.
“number9dream” is a time and space oddity.
But, more importantly, it is a time and space odyssey.
It is a 21st century “Ulysses”.
No, this is an understatement.
It is the 21st century “Ulysses”.
Prove It? These are Facts!
“It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams”: Don DeLillo, “Americana”
Proof? You want proof?
Must I show you Mitchell’s wounds? Must I document all his miracles?
Oh ye of little faith.
Must I bury reality, so that I can disclose his dreams?
OK. Prove it. Just the facts. The confidential. This case that I’ve been working on so long…
On Approaching “number9dream” (A Guide for Television Fans)
“First you creep Then you leap Up about a hundred feet Yet you're in so deep You could write the Book. Chirpchirp The birds They're giving you the words The world is just a feeling You undertook. Remember?”
It’s Juxtaposition (I Didn’t Imagine Getting Myself Into)
So, how would David Mitchell tell his story?
How would he know what to say?
“number9dream” is typical of Mitchell’s writing in that it is not a straight linear narrative.
It collects nine (apparently) disparate chapters and juxtaposes them against each other.
I have to confess that I didn’t really have a clue what was going on (and why) until the middle of Chapter 5 (“Study of Tales”).
Up until then, Mitchell seemed to be just assembling his paints and brushes on the table, getting everything ready, drawing an outline, only no picture was emerging.
But is it too much to expect a reader to wait 250 pages before they start to get it?
I think of Mitchell as a mosaic artist.
I see him as an author who might feel that meaning and society have become fragmented or broken, but whose counter-strategy is to fix it by making it whole again.
He is one of a group of artists who shepherds us from disintegration to integration. Individually and socially.
As long as people feel that alienation is not a natural or desirable state, I will look to culture and artists like Mitchell for this experience and outcome.
Yet, I had started to believe that this work might be an artistic failure, that he was trapped in mere juxtaposition.
The chapters didn’t seem to be conversing, they weren’t informing each other, they weren’t relating to each other.
It was only in chapter 5 that the mosaic started to take shape for me.
Father On Up the Road
Eiji Miyake is a 20-year old boy from the country who now lives in Tokyo.
His father abandoned his family when he was very young.
His twin sister, Anju, died nine years ago when they were 11.
Eiji’s mother became an alcoholic, and he more or less ran away from home.
It’s about time he started to make something of his life.
In a way, Eiji is a composite of both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s “Ulysses”.
Eiji and Stephen are on a quest to find a biological or metaphorical father, to flesh out, contextualise and complete a family.
Eiji and Bloom are on a quest to consummate or repair a sexual relationship, which in Eiji’s case will mark the completion of his passage through adolescence (in the same way it does in Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood”).
Joyce took 18 Episodes, Mitchell takes nine Chapters (one of which is wordless, apart from the digit “9”).
Joyce’s work is structurally modeled on Homer’s “Odyssey”.
Mitchell’s work takes “Ulysses” and leaps from it into a postmodern waterfall of meanings.
Only, paradoxically, like “Alice in Wonderland”, he leaps upwards rather than diving downwards – hence, “First you creep/Then you leap/Up about a hundred feet/Yet you're in so deep/ You could write the Book”.
Playing with Some Ballpark Figures of Speech
While Joyce explores different styles of writing in each Episode, Mitchell’s pyrotechnics are on display throughout.
However, the stylistic resemblance is most apparent in Chapter 5, where Mitchell playfully works his way through as many figures of speech as he can in the space of 66 pages (alliteration, assonance, consonance, euphony, hyperbole, puns, rhyme, probably many more that I’ll leave you to detect).
This happens to be a chapter in which Mitchell conjures a novel within a novel and the character in the internal novel realises that he is being written.
It’s important that you not take him too seriously.
He’s not using purple prose to display his intellectualism.
He’s playing with words in the most Joycean or Nabokovian fashion.
”First frost floated a wafer of ice on edelweiss wine.”
”The fourth noise, the whisperings which Goatwriter was waiting for, was still a way away, so Goatwriter rummaged for his respectable spectacles to leaf through a book of poems composed by Princess Nukada in the ninth century.”
”Suddenly the sky screamed at the top of its lungs.” (Note the Pynchoneque screaming.)
”A hoochy-koochy hooker honked.”
Then there are sentences you just read for the pleasure:
”The naked eyeball of the sun stared unblinkingly from a sky pinkish with dry heat.”
”A desert wind did nothing to cool the world it wandered through.”
”The road ran as straight as a mathematical constant to the vanishing point.”
”A quorum of quandom quokkas thumped off as Pithecanthropus flexed his powerful biceps, drummed his treble-barrelled chest and howled a mighty roar.”
Don’t worry if they don’t appeal to you. There are plenty of other jelly beans in the packet. There’s bound to be a flavour that you’ll savour.
Lookin' for Soul Food (and a Place to Eat)
Of course, sooner or later, one of us must know that Mitchell’s journey concerns stories and dreams.
Goatwriter seeks out and tells “truly untold tales”, yet is a character in one that is being told.
A character in one of Eiji’s dreams tells a story and remarks:
”Stories like that need morals. This is my moral. Trust what you dream. Not what you think.”
An Ogre in Eiji’s dream warns, “Be very careful what you dream.”
An old lady exchanges persimmons for dreams that give her nourishment and replenish her soul:
”You are too modern to understand. A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter. Fusion releases energy – hence sleep, with dreams, refreshes. In fact, without dreams, you cannot hold on to your mind for more than a week. Old ladies of my longevity feed on the dreams of healthy youngsters such as yourself.”
”Dreams are the shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once were, the will-never-be may walk amid the still-are.”
In a world of telephones, televisions, computers, technology, we have lost touch with the tactile and the spiritual, we have become too analytical and serious.
We have lost our sense of humour and absurdity and play.
We are not being refreshed the way we need to be.
We are consuming too many spirits of an alcoholic nature and too little soul food.
number9dream (Lennon’s on Sale Again)
Of course, “#9 Dream” is the name of a John Lennon song, and Lennon features in the novel.
Eiji plays guitar and learns how to play all of John Lennon’s songs.
He meets Lennon in a dream and discusses the meaning of three songs: “Tomorrow Never Knows”, "Norwegian Wood” and “#9 Dream”.
Eiji asks Lennon about the meaning of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.
John jokes, “I never knew” (and they “giggle helplessly”).
John explains that the song wrote him, rather than him writing it.
Character John is being a bit disingenuous here.
In the song, real John advises “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”, “lay down all thoughts and surrender to the void”, “listen to the colour of your dreams” and “play the game ‘Existence’ to the end/of the beginning”:
“Love is all and love is everyone It is knowing.”
These messages are consistent with the themes of the novel.
Character John also reveals that “#9 Dream” is a descendant of “Norwegian Wood”.
Both are ghost stories. While “Norwegian Wood” is concerned with loneliness, “#9 Dream” is concerned with harmony: “two spirits dancing so strange”.
John also explains that “the ninth dream begins after every ending”.
In a sense, there is a sequence of eight dreams, the eighth dream ends the first cycle and is followed by a ninth dream which starts a new cycle.
This explains why chapter 9 of the novel is blank.
It is an empty capsule or container for Eiji (and the reader) to fill with our new vision.
After eight chapters, we have simply reached the end of the beginning.
If Sex was Nine
By the end of chapter 8, Eiji has completed his quests for his father and a partner, in different ways.
At the very end, we see him running from the news that there has been a massive earthquake in Tokyo.
Having resolved his own concerns, he must still live in a world dictated by the vagaries of Nature.
He might be Mother Nature’s Son, but he cannot impose his Will on her.
However, just as he might be running from disaster, he is running towards his future, hopefully towards the embrace of his new love, Ai.
He is escaping from something to something else.
As real John says, he is floating downstream, he is not dying.
West Meets East
There is much more I could say about the detail of the novel.
However, I will leave that to you and to others to explore.
I want to say something more about why I rate David Mitchell so highly as an author.
Mitchell doesn’t just write within the Western literary tradition.
His wife, Keiko (to whom he dedicated this book), is Japanese and they lived for many years in Japan.
Henry James sought to understand himself by exploring the relationship between the new America and the old Europe.
Joseph Conrad sought to understand the Enlightenment of Europe in contrast to the Darkness of Africa.
Like John and Yoko, Mitchell works at the intersection of East and West.
While at the time of writing he understood and was influenced by Murakami, he has his own distinct and unique voice.
The world is not dominated by America or Europe anymore.
The future will contain (already contains) Asian DNA.
Mitchell understands this and has been exploring it since he first sat at a writing bureau with a pen.
His Odyssey extended beyond the Middle East and discovered the Far East (sorry if I offend anyone by using that term, but it says what I need it to say in this context).
Whereas Ulysses returned home to Helen of Troy and Bloom duplicated his journey internally within Dublin, Mitchell and his characters have made their home in a global village.
They don’t need to return anywhere, because they are comfortable anywhere on this planet.
Despite the fragmentation of society by technology and modernism, Mitchell is a Great Integrator.
I said at the beginning that I wanted to make a case that Mitchell is a 21st century James Joyce.
This case is closed.
Postscript: ”If You'll Be My Bodyguard”
On the occasion of her death during the week of this review, I want to dedicate this review to Whitney Houston, who I totally adored in “The Bodyguard”.
I wore a hired uniform for a week after that film.
The film was directed by Lawrence Kasdan (one of my favourite directors, who also directed “The Big Chill”, from which Kevin Costner’s role as "Alex" - the dead guy - was cut).
However, the film was also an important statement about the portrayal of inter-racial romance in Hollywood, only it involved a relationship between a white man and a black woman.
Hollywood hasn’t had the guts to feature a relationship between a black man and a white woman (like Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie).
I’m sorry if I offend anybody by saying that.
David Mitchell writes for and about a world in which the answer to the question “how will I know if he really loves me” is color-blind.
All hail, David Mitchell and the ship you sail in.
Genesis 9:09 (Unauthorised)
"So they went into the ark with Noah, by twos, of all flesh and of all colours, in which was the breath of life."...more
The Confused and the Bewitched [Apologies to Dean Wareham]
The bone clocks Sit clutching Champagne and Barbecue, Divided Betwixt the Confused and The bewitchedThe Confused and the Bewitched [Apologies to Dean Wareham]
The bone clocks Sit clutching Champagne and Barbecue, Divided Betwixt the Confused and The bewitched.
"Being For The Benefit Of Holly Sykes!" [Apologies to the Beatles]
For the benefit Of Holly Sykes, There will be A show tonight With clowns On bikes And acrobats On trampolines. If you don’t like The daring scenes, Call for The author To be sacked. You’ll get your Money back. It’s just a circus act!
"Jacob's Ladder" by William Blake
Dwelling on a Reservation
Sometimes, when I read what is written about David Mitchell, (ooh) it makes me wonder whether I’ve read the same book.
Mitchell seems to have become a target, because he walks a fine line between Post-Modernism and commercial success.
For the Post-Modernists, he's too popular to be holy. For the populists, he dabbles with genres without wholly embracing them.
The dual attack makes you feel as if you have to approach him with some reservation, with your guard up, that if you enjoy his fiction, if you derive pleasure from it, then you must do so uncritically or you might have missed some glaring stylistic flaws that are obvious to the literarty or the genre-arty.
Still, when I opened his latest book and started reading it, I got swept away again. For the duration, I..yes, I, um...suspended disbelief.
So, teacher, does Mitchell deserve disbelief? Or suspension?
But first, I'll describe some of the (mis-)apprehensions I've had about Mitchell's fiction in the past.
Recently, his style has been described as bad or atrocious. Does he really deserve the forensic dissection he gets at the hands of some critics?
No writer is beyond critical judgement. However, not every author sets out to write "War and Peace". What is the point of criticising what a novel is not, or doesn't purport to be? Surely, the author wrote the novel they wanted to write.
Mitchell is living proof we read the book we want to, not necessarily the book the author wrote.
Maybe we should cut authors some slack? Should we just ask, how successful were they in writing the novel they set out to write?
This doesn't mean that we can't criticise what they didn't try to do. However, this criticism can occur within the realm of overt subjectivity on the part of both author and reader. I didn't like what you wrote. On the other hand, I, the author, didn't write it so that you in particular might like it. I wrote it so that I, the author, would like it.
I don't think Mitchell set out to write a self-consciously literary novel on this occasion. He just wrote the kind of novel he felt his subject matter demanded.
In order to do so, he embraced genre. Again, I don't think he set out to become the next Stephen King or Neil Gaiman.
Mitchell plays around both with and within the boundaries of genre, not always by way of parody. But equally he doesn't take on strict accountability to the rules of genre (such as John Banville when he writes in the guise of Benjamin Black). He co-opts genre for his own purposes, for the purposes of his play and our entertainment. Genre is no more than a coathanger or skeleton upon which he drapes the threads of his narrative.
My Wild Irish Prose Style
Mitchell's prose isn't particularly flowery or pretentious or purple. Like the character Crispin Hershey, he isn’t "a fan of flowery prose."
It’s neither overwrought nor underwrought. If anything, it's deliciously wrought-ironical. It’s relaxed, casual, conversational, fluid, breezy, exuberant, charming, almost flirtatious. The sort of prose you'd hope to meet at a party, in fact, the very reason we used to go to parties.
The Importance of Not Being Earnest
I worry more that Mitchell might become too humorless, too serious, too self-consciously Post-Modernist, too precious, too everything I write is IMPORTANT, in other words, too Bill Vollmann.
Or I worry that one day I might read a Mitchell book and it will be just too, too nice, too complacent, too middle class, too metrosexual, perhaps, if it were a little more earnest, maybe too Jonathan Franzen.
This book isn't the one I fear. I hope it’s never written or I never get to read it.
I had another concern about style.
Like Murakami, Mitchell goes where his characters take him. He embraces improvisation. I kept looking for evidence that the result was sloppy or undisciplined.
If his writing was ever rough-edged during the early drafts, then he or someone else has smoothed it over by the time I got to read it.
Juxtaposition I'm Taking for Granted
Well, maybe one last apprehension: that Mitchell's juxtaposition of disparate elements would be too arbitrary, too artificial, too unbelievable.
Unlike "Cloud Atlas", the writing style is consistent throughout the entire novel. The style doesn't change with the subject matter or the period. This allows the reader to focus on the characters and the narrative without obstruction.
"The Bone Clocks" follows the life of Holly Sykes over sixty years, often through the eyes of her peers.
Here, the six chapters are more obviously interrelated than those in "Cloud Atlas". They’re very tightly intertwined, like strands of rope.
The chapters segue far more smoothly. It's worth re-reading just to see how quickly and efficiently he achieves each segue. Suddenly you're on the other side of the looking glass. They’re like snakes and ladders, or slippery slides. The transition is as easy as falling down a rabbit hole (Lewis Carroll) or an echoey stairwell (Murakami).
Is This Just Fantasy?
The main concern of many other readers seems to be the juxtaposition of fantasy elements (common to at least three of Mitchell's previous novels) with the apparent realism of some of his writing (in particular the first chapter in which we meet Holly Sykes).
Some readers can’t get their head around the "fantasy-pedalling."
Mitchell anticipates the objection, when a character pitches his next novel:
"A jetlagged businessman has the mother of all breakdowns in a labyrinthine hotel in Shanghai, encounters a minister, a CEO, a cleaner, a psychic woman who hears voices...think Solaris meets Noam Chomsky via Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Add a dash of Twin Peaks..."
"Are you trying to tell me that you're writing a fantasy novel?"
"Me? Never! Or it's only one-third fantasy. Half, at most."
"A book can't be half-fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant."
Still, what is wrong with fantasy that Mitchell is criticised for embracing it? What's wrong with fantasy-pedalling or genre-hopping? China Miéville often cops the same criticism. Does the criticism say more about the reader than the author?
Deliberately or not, Mitchell's works seem to divide readers between the confused and the bewitched.
Caught in a Landslide, No Escape from Reality
While Mitchell has demonstrated that he can write in the style of realism if he chooses to (particularly in some chapters of "Cloud Atlas" and "Black Swan Green"), I don't think it's his preferred or most natural style. This doesn't mean that fantasy is either. His concerns are always too metaphysical or metafictional (i.e., Post-Modernist). He writes in whatever style he feels he needs. His style is as fluid as his requirements.
The first-time reader shouldn't be surprised if the trappings of another genre suddenly appear in the narrative. They are almost inevitable. Here, though, it is strategically plotted, planned and foreshadowed ("the Script loves foreshadow").
Whatever your reaction on first reading, in retrospect it makes much more sense. Sometimes this only becomes apparent on a second reading. It won't be apparent if you grow impatient after the first 50 or 100 pages and skim the rest, oblivious to the detail or pleasures of the text.
"A Satirical, Postmodern, Science Fiction-influenced Adventure Story Part I”
OK, that’s enough serious talking head stuff.
STOP MAKING SENSE!
This book is loads of FUN! It’s an adventure story. Lots of goofy, crazy, trippy, weird shit goes down. "It’s mad! Infeckinsane!" It's "totes amazeball." Mitchell must have been doolally when he wrote it.
One of the characters wears a T-shirt with the slogan, "Reality is an illusion caused by a lack of alcohol." (So is realism.) It's that kind of book.
Don’t, whatever you do, take it too seriously. Take it seriously, but only as much as you would a playful entertainment like the film "Pirates of the Caribbean."
It’s like Indiana Jones meets "Alice in Wonderland" meets Umberto Eco ("Foucault’s Pendulum") meets "1Q84" meets "The Da Vinci Code" meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets the Three Stooges meets "The Wizard of Oz" meets Doctor Who meets Voldemort meets Darth Vader meets Merlin meets Jules Verne meets "Jack in the Beanstalk" meets Biggles meets "Little Red Riding Hood" meets Enid Blyton meets "The Matrix" meets the Wachowski Siblings (just in time for the filmisation).
It's like looking into Mitchell's mind and seeing everything he's ever watched or read, and enjoyed. It's like inspecting the last century through a kaleidoscope. This is the full David Mitchell Experience! The uncut Regurgitator! The complete acme David Mitchell Ruse Explosion!
It’s like "The Illminatus! Trilogy", which wiki describes as "a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-influenced adventure story." (Yes, such a thing is possible, and it’s been done before! Although this time it's more fantasy than science fiction.)
It's like...it's like...Doctor Who!
"A Satirical, Postmodern, Science Fiction-influenced Adventure Story Part II"
I first encountered the term "Post-Modernism" when friends of mine who were architects introduced me to Charles Jencks’ book, The language of post-modern architecture. I didn’t see Post-Modernism as a threat to Modernism, so much as an embrace of playful eclecticism.
There are ample architectural comments throughout the novel. One of my favourites goes like this:
"The BritFone Pavilion was designed by an eminent architect I've never heard of and 'quotes' Hadrian's Wall, the Tower of London, a Tudor manor, post-war public housing, Wembley Stadium and a Docklands skyscraper. What a sicked-up fry-up it is."
The novel is also chock-full of references and allusions to other writers: Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Gilbert Adair, Lucretius, Ovid, W. H. Auden, Halldór Laxness (who dat, I ask?), Michael Moorcock, Philip Roth, Tanizaki, E.M. Forster, Ursula Le Guin, Murakami, Samuel Beckett, Angela Carter, H. G. Wells, Dante.
There's a lot about writers and writing. Some good, some bad. How can you tell the difference between a master stylist and a wild child? Who cares!
Post-Modernism can be FUN! It’s a divine comedy. Have faith! Abandon doubt all ye who enter here! Believe it!
The Great Illuminati Brawl
What can you say about the plot? Somebody else can précis it. Or you could read the book!
OK, here's a bit of a snapshot. Good fights it out with Evil. This is one unholy sick crew. Or two. It’s a battle between supernatural action heroes called the Horologists and the Anchorites. What? A trope? How dare Mitchell! It’s the 21st century. Can’t he come up with something new?
What are they fighting about? Geez, I don’t know. What do supernatural heroes normally fight about? Eternal life? Jacob’s Ladder? A stairway to Heaven? The right to get to Heaven first? The exclusive right to get to Heaven?
Whatever, they’re pretty evenly matched, mirror images of each other, looking at each other through the looking glass.
This is Your Last Chance (to be by, of and in the Script)
Of course, the brawl is tightly scripted. In fact, it’s all in the Script. And just to introduce some narrative tension, there’s a Counterscript. And a metafictional or metafictitious guidebook that attempts to throw more (sun-) light on the Script (written by [Cirque du] Soleil Moore, aka the allusive Esmiss Esmoore). (view spoiler)[Off course;; Esmoore == Steven Moore, the greatest author of wicked excellent perfect awesome literary guidebooks evah!!! Word, bro!!! (hide spoiler)]
You could be forgiven for thinking that David Mitchell had written all three works of metafiction. Some conjuring trick! No need to split the royalties.
It’s a black comedy, perhaps even a black magic comedy. It’s a prank, a funfair, a carnival, a circus. There’s even a maze and a labyrinth. It’s fun, it’s playful. It's Rabelaisian. As has been said on GR before:
It involves the Eastern perspective on the West. Some of it is spiritual (mainly Buddhist), some economic, some political, some cultural.
Traditionally, Mitchell has been very pro-East. However, as the world globalises, he seems to have become more equivocal (at least in relation to economic and political power). It doesn’t matter what complexion power has:
"Shanghai's aura is the colour of money and power. Its emails can shut down factories in Detroit, denude Australia of its iron ore, strip Zimbabwe of its rhino horn, pump the Dow Jones full of either steroids or financial sewage."
In a Tree by the Brook, There's a Songbird Who Sings
And there’s some stuff about love. There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold. It's Holly Sykes. Like us, she's a mortal human temporal, a bone clock. She falls in love several times. She has a daughter and a grand-daughter. But for a moment, she is a Woman in the Dunes, looking out to the Dusk as it approaches.
Mitchell’s story surrounds and cocoons her. It transports her through life and this adventure and this tale. At the end, she can’t quite bring herself to say goodbye, nor can the author, nor can I:
"I'm feeling erased myself, fading away into an invisible woman. For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of."
After all the high jinks, there is an acceptance of mortality, not with resignation, but with grace. Life is what we do on Earth. If it exists, Heaven can wait. Memories can't wait, nor can fiction. Still, whether or not this voyage has ended, I’m certain another one will soon begin. Sort of.
"The Bone Clocks" (disambiguation)(From Winkipaedia, the free encyclopaedia)
The Bone Clocks may refer to:
* The Bone Clocks (novel), a 2014 novel by David Mitchell; or
* The Bone Clocks (film), a 2017 film based on the 2014 novel, produced by the Wachowski Siblings and directed by Tom Tykwer after the Siblings' epic space opera, Jupiter Rising.
This page was last modified on 13 October 2016 at 11:43.
This is a still photo of the inside of a kinetic sculpture ("Artifact" by Gregory Barsamian) at MONA, Hobart, January, 2014 (It shows the inside of a mind through a window in the skull. An internal strobe light flashed on and off rapidly, so I was very lucky to get such a clear picture.)
Beloved Reader, Don't labor For ages. Why wait To see If it Engages? Let a Review Of the first Fifty pages Deter you From a Book that Enrages!
For the Want of An Editor
Is this work Pretentious, Contrived or Overwrought? What if I Don't follow The author’s Train of thought? Well, I hope This Mitchell Novel won’t Come to nought. Let’s see if Bill Vollmann’s Editor Can be bought!
Hugo Queues and Pees [Short Shriftfest for Gilbert Adair]
Meanwhile, in the queue At the Buried Bishop, Hugo Rhymes Sartre, Bart and Barthes.
Afterwards in Bed
Shall I compare thee To a sordid, low-budget French feature fillum?
A Moment in Love
If just one moment Could last an eternity, I would choose this hug.
Upon Coming to the End of the Novel, Sort Of
Through my tears, I see a pair of blurry Overlapping moons.
THE TRIBULATIONS OF A PROTO-POST-HEGELIAN PAGAN HEGEL-BASHER
For the purposes of this undertaking, my accomplice DJ Ian and I (I and I) faked our way tTHE TRIBULATIONS OF A PROTO-POST-HEGELIAN PAGAN HEGEL-BASHER
For the purposes of this undertaking, my accomplice DJ Ian and I (I and I) faked our way through reading DC Hegel in English and German (English translation courtesy of Terry Pinkard) with the aid of diverse comic strips, annotations, opinionators and unreliable narrators:
The Professor:"If you don't read 'Phenomenology of Spirit' in German, you will never understand Hegel, let alone Zizek."
DJ Ian:"But I don't read German...OK, I will get myself a big fucking dictionary...Then I will get back to reading Zizek as soon as possible. All of my reading schedule is dedicated to reading Zizek for the next three years."
The Professor:I trust you're going to read Zizek in Slovenian?
GRATUITOUS ADVICE AVAILABLE FOR THE FREE
"The worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise!"
"One is thus tempted to say, 'Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted Hegel. The point [however] is to change him.'"
From a literary point of view, Hegel is a terrible writer whose work does its best to defy any attempt to distil it down to some great sentences and phrases and/or some great ideas.
The extent to which these ideas are Hegel's ideas or unique to him or just a response to or tweaking of the ideas of others before him is for historians of philosophy to judge.
Hegel's work itself doesn't expressly acknowledge or cite the sources of the arguments to which he is responding. It's assumed that we are familiar with them.
It's like an enthusiastic undergraduate term paper completed under pressure of a self-imposed deadline (the imminent battle of Jena and conquest of Prussia). By the time pen meets paper, the 36-year old Hegel embraces them as the foundation of his ideas, but neglects to expressly acknowledge his inspiration and sources. Ultimately, like the embrace of his acolytes, his work and its system is a triumph of assertion.
As a result, a comprehension of Hegel is just as needing and deserving of annotation and secondary material as Joyce and Pynchon.
Towards the Negation of the Ovation
At an individual sentence level, Hegel is not always difficult, just mostly. He seems to throw multiple sentences at the reader, without necessarily communicating or effectively helping readers understand the sequence of his arguments. When it comes to Hegel's sentences, the difficulty results from the untamed collective, not the disciplined individual.
Still, within the rush or barrage of sentences, some sentences and phrases inevitably stand out.
The quality of these sentences, or their pregnancy, occasionally, with a meaning that is hard to divine, are the source of much of his appeal.
Indeed, it helps Hegel's case that they are so difficult to divine. Like God, it is not for us to fully comprehend his ways or his words. We are just supposed to trust them both. They appeal to our credulity and need to believe.
Towards the Negation of the Negation
Many of Hegel's sentences and (catch-)phrases sound good, even if at first you don't really know what they mean.
The one phrase or catchphrase that most appeals to me personally is "the Negation of the Negation".
Engels said that the Negation of the Negation is:
"A very simple process, which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand as soon as it is stripped of the veil of mystery in which it was enveloped by the old idealist philosophy."
I've tried to set out my understanding of it in My Writings here:
DJ IAN VS. DC COMIC HEGEL (A MASH UP OF PERSPECTIVES ON GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT)
To understand and appreciate Hegel, it helps if you pretend that you're God.
God Makes Sense, If You Can Believe It
1. And so God took a part of his mind and his soul,
2. And where there was nothing, he made Man.
3. And he gave part of his mind and soul to Man.
4. And, lo and behold, Man did verily exist.
5. Still, though God had lost a part, he was still whole.
6. And while Man had gained a part, he too was whole.
7. And God and Man together made a whole.
8. And where there should have been two wholes, there was only one.
9. Man ascended to his feet, and looked around.
10. But there was no thing for him to see.
11. So God made other Life for Man.
12. And Man had Objects to look at and eat and desire.
13. Each Object contained a little part of God.
14. And when Man looked at an Object, he saw a part of God.
15. And that part of God was also a part of Man.
16. So when Man looked at an Object, he also saw himself.
17. Thus it was that Man was at one with the Object.
18. And Man was at one with God.
19. And verily Man understood this.
20. And so it was that Man made sense.
21. Out of what God had given him.
In Which God, Enraged, Goes Forth, Consumes and Returns [A Jena Fragment in Hegel's Own Words]
"1. God, become Nature, has spread himself out in the splendor and the mute periodicity of his formations,
2. Becomes aware of the expansion, of lost punctuality and is engaged by it.
3. The fury is the forming, the gathering together into the empty point.
4. Finding himself as such, his essence pours out into the restlessness and inquietude of infinity,
5. Where there is no present,
6. But a wild sallying forth beyond a boundary always reinstated as fast as it is transcended.
7. This rage, in that it is a going forth, is the destruction of Nature.
8. The going beyond the formations of Nature is in effect likewise an absolute falling back into the self, a focal return.
9. In doing this, God, in his rage, consumes his formations.
10. Your whole extended kingdom must pass through this middle-point, this focality;
11. And by this your limbs are crushed and your flesh mashed into liquidity."
HEY! WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?
Safeguarding the System
Hegel purports to construct a system of philosophy that is both comprehensive and self-contained.
Hegel and his adherents guard it preciously. [Forgive me, if I refer to Hegel and his adherents interchangeably.] As a result, it's difficult to criticise the System, without evoking responses that you haven't really read or understood Hegel or that you have inaccurately paraphrased him.
To be honest, I think any reader has to proceed regardless, if you're going to make the effort to read Hegel at all.
An Invitation to Heretics
Even if you sympathise with Hegel, like any dogmatist, he invites or attracts heresy. No purpose is served by agreeing or disagreeing with every tenet of his philosophy willy-nilly. There's no point in setting out to be an acolyte or an apostate. Readers should feel free to dismantle the System and save what they can. After all, this is what the Young, Left Hegelians did in the wake of his death.
Detection or Invention?
One problem with Hegel is that he pretends that his System is a detection of what is present in nature, that it is the result of discovery, not the product of invention on his part.
As a result, it purports to be factual and real. If you disagree with it, then supposedly you are flying in the face of reality.
This rhetorical strategy is disingenuous. Of course, he created his System, no matter how much of it is based on or modified from the work of earlier philosophers. Of course, we have the right to submit it to scrutiny, to attempt to prove it right or wrong.
If Hegel pretends that he deduced his philosophy from first principles, then he is not being truthful. If he pretends that he discovered a method in the workings of nature and history, but reckons that he does not apply that method or any method in his own philosophy, then he is playing with semantics.
An Aversion to Critique
Hegel is just trying to make his subjective pronouncements critique-proof or un-critiquable. A reasonable enough goal, if it is confined to enhancing the robustness of his own pronouncements, but you can't deny readers the right to attempt a critique. That is one way guaranteed to alienate an audience, to split a following and push potential advocates away. Which is what happened, inevitably, after his death.
What I mean by this is that I don't accept that Hegel arrived at all aspects of his philosophy after a process of deduction. [Not that I'm saying anybody could have achieved this.]
On Having Faith in the System
I don't disagree with Hegel's attack on Empiricism, for example. However, to the extent that he asserts that Consciousness is part of Spirit, a God, then I don't accept that he has necessarily proven the existence of God or that the Spirit of God plays a role in the process of individual human thought or reason. Thus, it seems that Hegel's System, which I assume is supposed to be rational, is built on an act of faith in the belief of God.
I accept that social, rather than spiritual or religious, factors play such a role. For example, I accept that we differentiate between objects, partly if not wholly based on our capacity for language. Language is a social construct. I don't necessarily accept that it is intrinsically spiritual. I also don't want to embrace any ideas that approximate to some hyped-up politico-cultural concept of Volk or the People.
I suspect that Hegel started his philosophical deliberations with a religious-based preconception, in particular, a belief in a monotheistic God, and that he integrated it into his philosophy.
On Questioning the System
To the extent that Hegel's System is a hierarchy that works its way up to the pinnacle of God, there are a number of questions that I, an Atheist, feel should be asked:
Does the entire System fall, if you don't believe in God?
Alternatively, is his System modular and severable, so that you can salvage parts that appeal to you? If the latter, which parts? And to what extent are those parts solely attributable to Hegel? Are they equally components of other philosophies, whether pre-Hegelian or post-Hegelian?
To some extent, my way of approaching and questioning Hegel might owe a lot to the approach of those Left Hegelians who happened to be Atheist.
In the absence of a belief in God, it must also take into account the approach of more materialist philosophies like those of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels (and subsequent Marxists).
Spirit Made Flesh
Of course, an atheist has to accept the possibility that Hegel might be right in believing that there is a Christian God (in his case, Lutheran), and that everything else potentially follows.
If it turns out that monotheism is right, then Hegel's philosophy seems to come close to a belief that all of Nature derives from God and that humanity, in particular, is Spirit made Flesh. Presumably, Nature is also Spirit made material.
Working backwards or upwards from Flesh, the ultimate destination must therefore be Spirit (even if Flesh is preserved).
I'll leave open for the moment whether Spirit might actually be any more than Energy. Hegel certainly regards it as the repository of Absolute Knowledge. Thus, it seems that, for him, it must be conscious and intelligent. It also appears to transcend each individual, even though it embraces every individual. It is a composite or unity of differences or opposites.
Fear of Contradiction
For me, what seems to sit at the heart of Hegel's philosophy is contradiction. This is the contradiction between different objects, whether consciousnesses or not.
For each of us, for each Subject, every other consciousness or thing is an Object, one that contradicts us. Just as I am me, I am not you, and I am not it, that object.
In my mind, this is simply a recognition of difference. Practically and socially, I don't see these observations as the foundation of opposition, conflict or contradiction.
I don't know whether this is a matter of translation. However, I witness a lot of conflict and antagonism between Subject and Object in Hegel. I haven't yet worked out why difference is not enough.
In other words, why isn't it enough that perception and language allow us to differentiate between things, consciousnesses, Subjects and Objects?
Why isn't it enough that language is a social system of signs that enable us to identify, think about and discuss difference.
Why is it somehow implicit that this Object exists at the expense of this Subject or Object? Why is everything "set against" everything else in perpetual contradiction?
Are two strawberry plants in a garden really opposed to each other? Do they battle each other for nutrients? Is their ostensible rivalry really such a big issue in their life? Are two rocks sitting at the bottom of a stream any different?
Consciousness and Self-Consciousness
It's possible that some or all of the contradiction happens within the consciousness or mind.
Consciousness detects the outside world of nature, grasps it and drags it into the mind. The Subject consumes or ingests the Object, where it begins to relate to or play with it. It's almost as if the mind is an enormous database of images and responses that are preserved intact. They are ingested, but not digested or integrated into something new and different.
It's possible that the dialectic doesn't posit a synthesis because within the database both thesis and antithesis continue to exist. Subject to illness, loss of memory and death, nothing in the mind ceases to exist.
Self-consciousness is the awareness that this process is occurring. However, Hegel also regards self-consciousness as desire itself.
The Hegelian Paradox: From the Inquisitorial to the Inquisitional
The ultimate Hegelian Paradox is that the Philosophy is based on contradiction, yet the Philosopher [and his acolytes] will brook no argument.
The System is founded on the adversarial, yet disagreement is heresy (even if the Philosophy by its very nature seems to invite or attract heresy).
Similarly, it is reluctant to accept that a rational philosophical process or method is being utilised. It is enough to look, seek and ask questions. The answers are there waiting for us to find them. Truth and understanding will result from the only method that is necessary, an inquisitorial process. If you ask [God], you will be answered [by God, if not reason].
Still, the normal outcome of an inquisitorial process is a decision. In Hegel's Philosophy, it is not a human decision, but a divine revelation. Once revealed, it can't be questioned. It can only be respected, observed and enforced.
Hence, as is the case with all heretics, the sectarian non-believer attracts the attention of the Inquisition.
Hence, Hegel embraces both the Inquisitorial and the Inquisitional, having constructed both a System and an Institution.
It's up to us to determine whether to take a vow to Hegel or whether simply to do good.
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Have you ever got the impression that, when an author started a book, they had no idea where it would go or how it would end?
That th Designated Driver
Have you ever got the impression that, when an author started a book, they had no idea where it would go or how it would end?
That they would just slide into the front seat and let the book take over?
This is not such a book.
Instead, I got the impression that DeLillo was so firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat here that he wouldn’t have got out if a crew of firemen arrived to rescue him from his burning vehicle.
It was win or die, so he had to pull out all stops.
When he started, he had the finish line in sight, and when he arrived at the finish line, he made sure that he had come full circle back to where he had started.
“The Names” was DeLillo’s seventh novel.
His previous works had enjoyed modest critical success, but hadn’t really made any commercial impact.
This book is generally regarded as the one that launched his career.
Originally published in 1982, I first read it in 1987, when it was repackaged after the relative success of his next novel, “White Noise”.
It is still the DeLillo book by which I judge all others, but it’s also the one that I recommend as an entry point for anyone who hasn’t read him yet.
While it deals with later concerns like cults, terrorism, modernity, security and the plight of America in the world, it does so in a more overtly humanist manner.
These issues are the backdrop for the very personal frailties and stories of the protagonists.
First Among Protagonists
The narrator is an American, James Axton, who is based in Athens at the beginning of the 1980’s.
Someone who is quite capable of writing fiction and screenplays, he makes a living writing reports and memos about the economic, social and political situation in the Middle East for the North East Group, a corporation that issues insurance policies against the risk of terrorist activities.
He has to identify and assess the risk of terrorist activity, which brings him and his employer to the attention of the CIA.
At heart, he is a lonely sad expatriate, a man living apart.
He isn’t writing the works he is capable of.
He is estranged from his wife and nine year old son, his native America and the Greek society around him.
He survives in a world of similarly jaded expatriates who have made Athens a European base for business sorties into the Middle East.
Like his own, the other expatriate marriages are stressed and vulnerable to adulterous affairs.
This is very much a late twentieth century European version of “The Quiet American”.
The Poor Norseman and the Acropolis
At the beginning, James defines himself in relation to the Acropolis.
He is overawed and daunted by this renowned, exalted building perched on a somber rock and surrounded by tourists.
He rationalises that he prefers to wander in a modern city, even though it might be imperfect and blaring compared with the beauty, dignity, order and proportion of the Acropolis.
He personalises it as a monument to doomed expectations, as if its existence will confront him with his own inadequacy and the madness of the society around him.
Like his peers, James constructs an elaborate sense of self-importance around him that he uses to conceal his loneliness and unhappiness.
He is not the stuff of a typical fictional American hero, yet bit by bit he pulls down the construct around him and by the end seems to have seized control of his life.
In order to do so, he has to learn from the tumultuous people and events around him.
The Women in His Life
“The Names” is not a sexually explicit novel, but it does bounce around in a slyly erotic manner.
Over the course of the novel, James negotiates comfort from many of the women in his community, whether married or not.
Of the women he flirts with, some appear to be good long term friends, some appear to be content with a Platonic attraction and one, Janet Ruffing, a banker’s wife and freelance belly dancer, he imposes himself on so insistently that I can’t think of any better word for it than rape.
It is strange that this last relationship almost goes unremarked upon.
If it had occurred in a Romansbildung of a much younger character, perhaps his conduct would have been excusable in the name of fiction.
However, it is almost as if this rape is intended to symbolize a growing capacity to assert himself within his overall getting of wisdom.
This, for me, is the one major, but inexplicable, failure of tone and sensitivity in the novel.
Owen Brademas, Epigraphic Detective
Perhaps the most important mentor for James is his wife, Kathryn’s, employer, an archeologist and epigrapher.
In the twilight of his professional life, he is fascinated by language and its origins in marks, inscriptions, symbols, characters, letters and alphabets.
He examines how these systems developed, almost as attempts to make a mark or impression on life, then as a method of recording details of grain, livestock, possessions and wealth.
So language wasn’t just concerned with communication within a tribe, but was a major tool, a lingua franca, designed to facilitate trade and commerce between tribes.
The Significance of Language
To enable communication, alphabets and words had to have commonly accepted meanings and significance.
A sign must have a signifier and a signified.
An image must have a connection that is commonly recognised.
This recognition passes from person to person, but also from generation to generation.
Images and words convey the memories of one generation to another generation.
Language keeps alive memories and experiences and wisdom.
Therefore, language became an important repository for social and cultural meaning.
The Language of Power
Language has always been more than a vehicle for individual or personal expression.
Like the Acropolis, language is a social construct that has its own beauty, dignity, order and proportion.
Unlike the Acropolis, it is a vehicle for a dynamic relationship between people.
Just as language connects people and things or people and other people, it defines, manages and controls the relationship between the two.
It allows people to discover the world and, having done so, it allows them to relate to it.
However, inevitably, the relationship involves elements of power, control and persuasion.
Thus, it is the fundamental mechanism through which politics operates.
Which means that it can be abused.
Within mass society, language becomes an instrument of oppression.
The Language of Religion
This abuse extends beyond the civil sphere.
Starting with the crucible of the Middle East, there is inevitably a role for language within spirituality and religion.
It connects people and God. However, it also defines Good and Evil, and defines our relationship with them.
We cannot engage with Good and Evil, except though the vehicle of language.
It shapes and moulds our responses to moral issues, especially in emotional terms.
Owen tells Kathryn:
"Masses of people scare me. Religion. People driven by the same powerful emotion. All that reverence, awe and dread."
And, as if by explanation, he states:
"I’m a boy from the prairie."
Like James in awe of the Acropolis, he believes he has a simple worldview.
He’s self-contained and not given to surrendering his independence to the powers that be.
He believes that you can lose your individuality in a crowd:
"Was it a grace to be there, to lose oneself in the mortal crowd, surrendering, giving oneself over to mass awe, to disappearance in others?"
Later on, Frank Volterra, a filmmaker who is captivated by and interested in filming Owen’s story, says:
"It is religion that carries a language. The river of language is God."
Language is a facility granted to us by God.
By the same token, language is a container that holds and transmits that reverence, awe and dread.
So, ultimately, language has positive and negative aspects.
And “The Names” is DeLillo’s chosen vehicle for exploring them.
Reducing Language to Writing
Spoken language is just sounds. In order to speak or communicate, we must make a noise:
"I liked the noise, the need to talk loud, to lean into people’s faces and enunciate."
Yet, too much noise, too little order, too much randomness, and the noise becomes a cacophony of incomprehension.
Language must be “subdued and codified” (again, the concept uses the language of power and control).
DeLillo first uses this term when he reveals that Owen has been thinking of the English archaeologist Rawlinson, who wanted to copy and analyse the inscriptions on the Behistun Rock, which contained three separate languages, Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.
This enterprise allows him to work at the level of meta-language.
Until the stone is deciphered, until the code is broken, it is just a riddle.
Rawlinson must apply intelligence to the task, in order to discover the intelligence within or at least on the surface of the rock.
He cannot establish a connection with the past, he cannot create a community, until he has managed to decipher the code.
Ironically, DeLillo ensures that all the time Owen is being watched by an intelligence community of one description or another, whether it is James or the CIA or the local security forces.
"All the noise and babble and spit of three spoken languages had been subdued and codified, broken down to these wedge-shaped marks. With his grids and lists the decipherer searches out relationships, parallel structures. What are the sign frequencies, the phonetic values? He wants a design that will make this array of characters speak to him."
An Array of Characters
Earlier, Owen mentions that the word “character” comes from a Greek word, which means “to brand or to sharpen” or in the case of the noun “an engraving or branding instrument”.
In English, he points out that the same word is used not just for a mark or symbol (like a letter in the alphabet), but a person in a story.
You could extrapolate that those original marks or symbols might actually have represented real people.
Interestingly, the same English word is used to describe the quality or characteristics of a person, their “character” and the “mark” they will make on the world.
So language is a tool that enables us to tell stories, to create our own worlds and to populate them with people.
In more advanced societies, story-telling takes the form of novels and film.
Just as Rawlinson and Owen are trying to decipher riddles, the challenge for an author like DeLillo is to create “a design that will make this array of characters speak to him”.
Frank Volterra follows in Owen’s footsteps, trying to make a film that will capture and describe the story.
Fiction and film are designed to make a lasting impression, they are the wedge-shaped marks scratched out by this generation that future generations will examine to learn about us and themselves.
At the simplest level, the concept of the “Names” is that language consists of giving “names” to things or images or signs.
But we need codes to understand the allocation of a name to a sign.
Many of these codes were carved in stone, intended to last a thousand years.
Just as these codes, when broken, reveal their meaning, we also learn that many of the inscriptions were codifications or codes of law and usage that were intended to regulate and manage trade and commerce.
They supply guidance, directions and commandments as to how things should and must be done.
Originally, they were primarily intended to work for the benefit of merchants and consumers.
However, language took on a life of its own as a tool of power and control.
You could even speculate that language is the power and control and that people are the vehicle it uses to achieve its purpose.
The risk in all codes and laws is that they become too prescriptive and inflexible.
They can ossify or, ironically given their origin, turn to stone.
So there comes a point when the code attracts not awe, but resistance.
A Cult Defying Language
In DeLillo’s hands, the resistance comes from a cult of fundamentalists.
They see language as an instrument of oppression and they begin to attack it by killing people.
Obviously, most people are the carriers of language, so if you murder someone you destroy their capacity to use language.
Yet, this seems so arbitrary. It makes an enemy of everyone.
Owen sets out to find “a pattern, order, some sort of unifying light” to explain their conduct.
Owen and James discover that all of the victims are old and infirm, (almost) ready to die, some having lost their memory and therefore their connection with the past, themselves and those around them.
Kathryn even speculates that the cult is sacrificing these people to God as a plea for divine intercession in a world that they believe has gone wrong.
Perhaps, they are a doomsday cult trying to forestall doomsday?
Owen questions it, because he has met them and doubts whether they worship a divine being:
"They weren’t a god-haunted people."
They are interested in “letters, written symbols, fixed in sequence”.
He suspects that they want to return to a simpler world, where symbols are purely derived from nature, where letters are mere pictographs representing only “everyday objects, animals, parts of the body”.
Frank learns that they oppose the order of language, the way it has become both law and order:
"The alphabet is male and female. If you know the correct order of letters, you make a world, you make creation. This is why they will hide the order. If you will know the combinations, you make all life and death."
Take Your Name and Place
James learns that the cult chooses victims whose initials match the first letter of each word in a place-name.
"The letters match...Name. Place-name."
They are placing people in the real world. Then killing them.
The act of murder silences the victim.
Owen learns from a former cult member:
"When we came into the Mani [peninsula], we knew we would stay. What is here? This is the strength of the Mani. It does not suggest things to us. No gods, no history. The rest of the Peloponnese is full of associations. The Deep Mani, no. Only what is here. The rocks, the towers. A dead silence. A place where it is possible for men to stop making history. We are inventing a way out."
A Cult with No Names
The cult appears to be a genuine cult with no name. They will not reveal it to anyone.
Ironically, James finds one incidence of where they have created their own marking.
It’s a rock inscribed with the words “Ta Onomata”, which he suspects might be the name of the cult.
"Do you know what it means? “The Names”."
They define themselves by the name of their enemy.
By marking the name of the enemy on pottery and smashing it, they will bring about their enemy’s death. And perhaps their own.
"You...want to hurt your enemy, it is in history to destroy his name…the same harm [as if] you cut his throat."
The Politics of Empire
DeLillo treats language as a symbol of a process that subdues and codifies people.
It can also have a special place in the subjugation of peoples, the politics of empire:
"We can say of the Persians that they were enlightened conquerors…they preserved the language of the subjugated people. Is this the scientific face of imperialism? The humane face? Subdue and codify?"
In the contemporary world, DeLillo’s subjects include “money, politics and force”, the topics of James’ reports and memos.
"For a long time, [Greek] politics have been determined by the interest of great powers. Now it is just the Americans who determine."
Americans “learn comparative religion, economics of the Third World, the politics of oil, the politics of race and hunger”.
They have learned that “power works best when it doesn’t distinguish friends from enemies.”
Like language, this imperial approach is destined to attract resistance, in the form of terrorism.
“The Names” was written at the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.
Terrorism has become more powerful and refined since then, but there is much in DeLillo’s novel that preempts both real world politics and the concerns of his future novels.
Even James realises that, "If America is the world’s living myth, then the CIA is America’s myth."
Ultimately, "The final enemy is government."
The Coded Matters of Intimacy
If the novel was just concerned with global politics, it would be enough.
However, DeLillo extends his gaze to personal and family relationships.
James is no hero, but he does embark on a hero’s journey, learning from others and his own discoveries.
It’s a collective effort that reconnects him to his family.
When we first meet him, he is alienated, although nowadays we would probably diagnose him as depressed.
Deep down he seems like quite a charmer, but he is a “reluctant adulterer” who has “an eye for his friends’ wives and his wife’s friends”, just two of “27 Depravities” he lists about himself.
He has failed to pay attention, failed to concentrate, failed to focus, failed to treat his family seriously, he has lost the words needed to make a family life happen.
Ultimately, as he learns about language, he rediscovers the language of love.
But first he must acknowledge that he has made a mistake.
Kathryn’s “every dissatisfaction, mild complaint, bitter grievance” was right, although it is amusing that he can only see this retrospectively.
He can only acknowledge that Kathryn was “retroactively correct” (i.e., “she is right now, but I was right at the time.” I must try this out on my wife, F.M. Sushi, next time I apologise).
Memorising the Future
This retroactivity involves memory.
Once again, James is influenced by Owen, who believes that memory is:
"... the faculty of absolution. Men developed memories to ease their disquiet over things they did as men. The deep past is the only innocence and therefore necessary to retain."
It is a reminder that we have been good and that we can be good again.
Language is the beginning of doing good:
"This is what love comes down to, things that happen and what we say about them."
It’s not enough to be awestruck by the wonders of the world, because we will sometimes encounter what his nine-year old son, Tap, describes as something “worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.”
James finds Tap’s mangled words exhilarating:
"He made me see them new again, made me see how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret", [but most importantly] "reshapable".
We have to add some love, some light, some colour of our own.
When James finally conquers his fear of the Acropolis, this is what he has come to realise.
There are crowds, tourists, families, none of them alone, making a noise, all speaking their own language, "one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong".
"This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language."
Ultimately, this is DeLillo's offering to us: language that is rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. ...more