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Dec 31, 2014
Dec 31, 2014
Here is a complete list of the books I read in 2014:
Below is an overview.
Long Weekend Immersions
I Complete List
Here is a complete list of the books I read in 2014:
Below is an overview.
Long Weekend Immersions
In the Land of the Long Weekend, sometimes we get an opportunity over three or four days to read a large book that would otherwise take weeks or months.
If you can get through 200 to 300 pages in a day with relatively little interruption, you can achieve a lot in three or four days. (I also fly interstate for business once a month.)
This is hardly skim reading. It's usually quite intense and demanding, and always quite selfish. However, it is doable, especially once your children are a bit older and more independent.
Immersion can be like watching a replay of a football game on fast forward or watching American football without all of the stoppages. It allows you to focus on key words, sentences and themes, and then to capture and document a response while it's still spontaneous and fresh.
In 2014, I managed to immerse myself in:
James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" (the ultimate play with words, though it must come to an end, to enable additional and more play)
Rabelais' "Gargantua and Pantagruel" (a revelation)
Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (quintessential)
Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" (as funny as I recalled from my school years)
William T Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down"(RURD) (too impressionistic, poorly researched and undisciplined for my liking)
William Gass' "The Tunnel" (Funnier and longer than, but inferior to, Saul Bellow's "Herzog")
The first four readings are part of a personal project in which I am exploring the hypothesis that there are only two substantive macro-movements in the history of the Novel: Realism and practices that challenge Realism or draw attention to the processes or fictionality of the Novel (let's call it Modernism).
My hypothesis is that what we describe as Post-Modernism is just a variant of Modernism (i.e., although it purports to react and respond to Modernism, it is really only just another response to Realism).
Modernism is effectively a roof over many variants of rebellion against Realism or concerns with form.
Modernism develops generation by generation. In the academic reaches of literature, some generations inflate the differences between themselves and their predecessors in the game of musical (or professorial) chairs that constitutes academic careerism.
As an interested spectator, what's important is not so much the difference between the acts, but that the circus must go on.
Fiction Written by Women
About 20% (19) of the books I read in 2014 were written by women.
I started off the year with readings of the following novels:
Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" (also enjoyed "Quartet")
Anna Kavan's "Ice" (an eyeopener)
Eleanor Catton's "The Rehearsal" (a brilliant first novel)
Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" (I really regret being intimidated by her until 2013)
Christine Brooke-Rose's "Amalgamemnon" (had only read about her until a few years ago)
Maggie Estep's "Diary of an Emotional Idiot" (Very entertaining. I must read more of her and more recent women writers)
Midway through the year I thoroughly enjoyed two novels by Angela Carter that had everything I seek in fiction:
"The Passion of New Eve"
"The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman"
I hope to re-read both novels regularly. They're that good!
Sadeian Women: Women's Perspectives on de Sade
Later in the year, I did a thematic reading of three women writing fiction or non-fiction about or inspired by the Marquis de Sade, his writings and his philosophy (in conjunction with my readings of Vollmann, Robert Coover and John Hawkes):
Simone de Beauvoir's "The Marquis de Sade - An Essay" (Hope to re-read "The Mandarins" in 2015, as well as some of the books about her relationship with Sartre)
Rikki Ducornet's "The Fan-Maker's Inquisition" (I want to read more of her in 2015)
Angela Carter's "The Sadeian Woman" (I've enjoyed Angela Carter's fiction and non-fiction enormously, and now regard her as one of my favourite writers)
I found these books far more subtle, stylish and insightful than Vollmann's writings about de Sade, transgression and sexuality generally.
My longest, most difficult and most frustrating (but ultimately most satisfying and rewarding) project was reading and reviewing Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit" and several secondary works in preparation for it.
I missed Hegel on the way to Marx at university. I studied political science, rather than philosophy proper. I wanted to understand why Marx respected Hegel so much, but nevertheless felt the need to turn him on his head.
I would always recommend reading some secondary works before reading a primary text by Hegel, even if they misguide you or misshape your priorities and perceptions (both of which happened to me, although by comparison and contrast, you hope that eventually you will get back on track).
Hegel is more problematical, because the translations of his style are very difficult to read (although every now and again a sentence or concept will blow your mind). He is more needing of annotations than James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis.
This project wore me down. But I emerged with a better understanding of some key ideas that I can build on with further reading.
I am particularly interested in the subsequent reception of Hegel in France and Germany, as well as the US.
This is a foundation for further reading of works by Marx and Engels (on dialectical materialism and alienation), Heidegger (on Being and Mitsein), Sartre, de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Lacan and Zizek (which will hopefully form the basis of my non-fiction reading in 2015/2016).
I had delayed reading Zizek until I had a better understanding of Hegel.
William T Vollmann (Mit Oder Ohne Jouissance?)
I read seven works by Vollmann in 2014.
I didn't read these works in any preconceived chronological or other sequence. Initially, I felt that each work fell between four and five stars. However, as I read on, and this serial immersion started to reveal obsessions and flaws, I grew increasingly frustrated with what I was reading and the relative absence of criticism of his work.
Some readers and critics should just stay away from Vollmann. He will never appeal to them. However, there are many other readers who would appreciate his work, if it was less self-indulgent and better executed.
Vollmann is about two years younger than me. Ironically, there was a similar age difference between him and David Foster Wallace.
I share Vollmann's passion for living, thinking, reading and writing at the intersection of sexuality, morality, culture, law, politics and philosophy.
I respect the polymathleticism that his lifestyle permits him. However, ultimately, I question whether he is as brilliant or as insightful or as skilled or as empathetic as he or his fan club seems to think he is.
He is what I would call an autodidactilletante (but so am I). He takes himself and his obsessions (and therefore has managed to persuade hundreds of readers to take him) far too seriously (but so do I).
Vollmann seems to work on the assumption that, if you give somebody (of our generation?) a studio, a computer, internet access, a passport, a crazy mate (like a photographer or an architect or a lawyer), an expense account, the luxury of not having to hold down a real job, a headcam, a bar fridge, a gun, a transgressive wardrobe, a baseball cap (reversed), freelance gigs with a monthly magazine (before Spin, it used to be Rolling Stone), and an audience that aspires to be (or recognises themselves in) you, then you will become the latest:
* Jack Kerouac
* John Steinbeck
* Woody Guthrie
* Norman Mailer
* Charles Bukowski
* Tom Wolfe
* Hunter S Thompson
* Lester Bangs
* James Ellroy
* all of the above.
I wish DFW was still around to tell Vollmann how embarrassing he has become. He's really just the naughty flipside of Jonathan Franzen. (view spoiler)[DFW sought desperately to find a way to relate to the world and other people. At least one of Franzen's protagonists wants to correct how the previous generation went about it. In Vollmann (at least, what I have read so far), you won't find one functional relationship between two people. His version of freedom is the freedom of a lone ranger without commitment. (hide spoiler)]
Nevertheless, Vollmann has transformed himself into a product of the internet era. He must sit plugged into cyberspace for hours on end, between train trips and trips to the bar fridge.
Really, he has achieved the ultimate blogger's dream. He can type whatever and however much he likes, and we'll lap it all up like kittens.
It would be so much easier to do it all online. I wonder why he bothers with the book format. I don't think of his works as separate books anymore. I think he's just writing/typing one big work, because he can't stop, except for a drink or a piss.
His work is often a collection of discrete portraits, stories and/or essays. Little unites them but the binding (or the fact that they share the same author).
His work lends itself to being published on separate pages of a website, so we can read them more discretely and selectively as one work with daily or minute-by-minute updates and annotations. We could plug ourselves into Vollmann. Pretend to be him! Only we wouldn't have to swallow 700 or 3,000 pages whole at a time.
This way, Vollmann wouldn't need to write books that contain everything he knows about everything (plus a few bonus fictionalisations of everything he did or imagined doing with whores or crack or trains or ghosts since the last book).
In this cyberspace environment, it wouldn't matter how long his works were. It wouldn't matter how much shell there was for each rare and tiny pearl. It wouldn't matter whether he edits them. They would just be there! We could stop writing self-congratulatory reviews about the fact that we actually finished reading them, and focus on their subject matter and style! Plus, they wouldn't finish anyway. They'd just keep on appearing, as if they'd been written by a ghost!
Really, though, I'm more interested in the quality of his insight and language.
The more I've read him, the more I've realised how self-indulgent and inconsistent he is. His obsessions intrude like a fart in a yoga session. He's too hit and miss at the moment.
This is sad. It's like observing the deterioration/destruction of an/the American mind. Live.
I've started to feel like I'm still going to Pogues concerts, but I'm more interested in whether Shane MacGowan will collapse on stage. What is this man's use by date? Will his teeth fall out first?
Honestly, I wish Vollmann would just lift his game, so that the reading experience was improved, instead of kowtowing to the taste of his audience of mirror images.
Unfortunately, in the revolutionary fashion that gave us Post-Modernism as a rebellion against Modernism and academic career path for its youthful exponents, he now seems to have been adopted by members of the upwardly mobile junior academia, who diligently fill their CV's with hagiographic essays and links to their GoodReads pages, while bent on careers in Vollmann Studies. I assume that, because he is so multi-disciplinary, it will need its own new Faculty.
Young lecturers will become Associate Professors. Associate Professors will become Professors. Out with the old, in with the new. They must have been reading "The Zizek Progression" to learn how it's done. Only he's older than the lot of us!
Of course, the real potential of the internet is: fire the old bastards, get them off the pot and let somebody under 40 (30?) have a crack at it. Every generation deserves its own drug.
Give me China Mieville (42) any day ("Three Moments of an Explosion" due in June, 2015).
The English seem to do this sort of thing (radical intelligence?) so much better.
Lucinda Williams - "Joy" (Live)
[Dedicated to Unser Bill]
"You took my joy.
I want it back."
Murakami and Mitchell
Well, that got a bit serious, didn't it!
In stark contrast, I get enormous pleasure and joy out of these two authors. I read or re-read five of their novels in 2014:
Haruki Murakami's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage"
David Mitchell's "The Bone Clocks"
I read them for literary entertainment. I like the way they play with genre, fantasy, the unconscious, the supernatural (for Vollmann fans, they're a bit like ghosts), connectedness (who would have thought this would be such a controversial concept in an era governed by hyperlinks?).
Notes are private!
Dec 31, 2014
Jan 01, 2015
Jan 01, 1981
Mar 28, 1982
The Bed Stripped, the Maid Whipped, My Eyes Pricked
I should really rate this very brief novella five stars. What appears on the page is both a perfect The Bed Stripped, the Maid Whipped, My Eyes Pricked
I should really rate this very brief novella five stars. What appears on the page is both a perfect construction and an exquisite confection, and yet somehow it wasn't enough.
I am not alone in this:
"He goes to gaze out into the garden, vaguely dissatisfied. The room is clean, the bed stripped and made, the maid whipped, why isn't that enough?"
For all of its hundred pages, I felt that I was in the presence of a master (and slave) craftsman. I didn't want it to stop, I wanted more from it, more of it, and isn't that, after all, the greatest compliment you can pay an author?
Maybe it was my fault? Something in the way I read it?
"Is there something missing in the manuals? No, more likely, he has failed to read them rightly. Yet again."
Did I fail to read it rightly? Yet again? What more did I want? I don't really know.
I suppose I am vaguely annoyed, no, angry, that, like life or sex or desire itself (as long as it doesn't become a grind), I didn't want it to come to an end. So soon. (view spoiler)[But, as does Coover, I repeat myself. (hide spoiler)]
This is a wonderful exploration of the complementary, if not always reciprocal, bond between this particular master and maid, as well as the relationship between the Master and the Maid/Servant/Slave at a more general or allegorical level.
Each needs the other, at least in the realm of literature, just as an author needs a reader to complete the act of fiction.
It's not nearly as erotic or pornographic as I imagined or feared or hoped it would be. There are powerful psychological insights at work here. I was stunned to encounter these words, perhaps a description or explanation of my dilemma:
"Maybe it's some kind of failure of communication. A mutual failure. Is that possible? A loss of syntax between stroke and weal?" (view spoiler)[The last sentence is one of my favourites of the year. (hide spoiler)]
Does the author stroke and the reader feel the weal? (view spoiler)[Is it a public weal or private? Is it a common weal? I am ignorant of this kind of thing. (hide spoiler)]
Who is in control in this relationship between author and reader?
Play Up, Play Up and Play the Game
At the same time, the seriousness is tempered by an occasional comic tone (the sound of the whip, for instance: "Whish-SNAP! Hiss-WHACK! Whizz-CRACK! WHAP! THWOCK!" The way he refers to the maid's buttocks as her "sit-me-down") that cautions us not to take it or its subject matter too seriously.
This work is at least partly a game, again, like life and sex, and I wanted the game to go on.
I honestly expected it to be more overtly American or capitalist or commercial or exploitative in its embrace of pornography or its sexual subject matter.
Instead, it is far more subtle in what I will tentatively and ineptly call a European manner, in the way that "Lolita" is just as much a European novel as an American one (as is "Gravity's Rainbow", in my opinion).
Almost instantly I opened its pages, it smacked (if that's not the wrong word to use in this context) of Italo Calvino.
It's interesting that Coover wrote it just three year's after "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler".
It's almost a response to Calvino's call, like "If on a Winter's Morning a Maid (Walked in on her Spanker)".
That's how good this novella is.
Just Another Maid from the Agency
You will enter his suite, dressed in your black uniform with its starched white apron and lace cap, deliberately, gravely, circumspectly, without affectation. You will be circumspect in your motions, as you’ve been trained. It will seem as if this is the moment for which you have been created. Even if, by then, you will do the same thing every day. You will glance briefly at the unmade bed, but not dwell on its contents. Most likely, they will have been placed there to shock you into submission. You will observe his cast-off nightclothes. You will not pick them up yet. You will not hesitate as you open the curtains. You will sigh as the sunlight floods the room. You will sing a few lines of a country and western song, maybe something modern like “Constant Craving”. You will assume that he is not hiding in the suite somewhere, as he has done many times before. You will pick up your bucket and mop, and enter the bathroom. You will express surprise at finding him there. “Sir! I’m so sorry!” He will turn around to face you. You will observe that his towel is very wet. You will offer him a dry one. The wet towel will drop from his waist. You will look down on him. Your eyes will light up coyly, while he gazes at you. You will say, “Sir, what a big cock you have this morning!” As you have been instructed to. He will say that you have been a bad girl. You will ask him whether you should go out and come back in again later. He will say, “No.” You will ask him if there is any other way you can make amends. He will say, “No. You must be punished.” You will sob. He will ask, “Am I being unfair?” Now, you will say, “No, sir.” He will sit down on the edge of his bed and place you on his lap. He will lift your skirt above your sit-me-down. You will say, “I don’t understand, sir.” He will pull your drawers down and whip you, until the welts are hot enough to fry an egg. You will say, “You’ll draw blood, sir.” It will have no effect on him. He’ll push your skirt further up your torso. “WHAT?” He’ll say. “WHAT’S THIS?” He’ll fumble with it, turning it around, then realization will set in. “A WIRE?” Then he will look through the window at our apartment across the courtyard. He will see the video camera, and me behind it. Is that clear? Do you think you’re up to it?
Notes are private!
Dec 11, 2014
Dec 12, 2014
Nov 16, 2014
Mar 01, 2013
Mar 07, 2013
A Novel Salvaged from the Archives of the Cinema Gaumont Pathétique
I recommend this novel to anybody who shares my interest in Paris, film, photograp A Novel Salvaged from the Archives of the Cinema Gaumont Pathétique
I recommend this novel to anybody who shares my interest in Paris, film, photography, letters, screenplays, concubines, sisters, doppelgänger, lesbianism, ménages à trois, petites morts, imposture, revenge, theft, murder, suicide, detection, justice, well-constructed plots, economical prose, short chapters, pattern recognition, post-modernism, memento mori and sub-Proustian narrative. ...more
Notes are private!
Sep 23, 2014
Sep 26, 2014
Aug 13, 2014
Apr 01, 2007
"It Might be the Supreme Pancake"
Flann O’Brien finished this novel in 1940, but it wasn’t published until 1967, the year after he died of cancer.
It mu "It Might be the Supreme Pancake"
Flann O’Brien finished this novel in 1940, but it wasn’t published until 1967, the year after he died of cancer.
It must have broken his heart that it was initially rejected for publication. It’s arguable that it was finally released at a far more appreciative time. However, this is little comfort if you're dead, and what we readers have missed out on is the type of fiction he would have written had it been accepted.
Flann O’Brien ranks with great wordsmiths and humourists like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Spike Milligan.
The novel loosely details a crime (murder) and a punishment (hanging) and the aftermath of both. What's uncertain is the timing of the events. As with so much in life, what appears at first to be linear could equally be circular or recurrent. To say any more or to be any less circumlocutious, would be to enter spoiler territory.
The novel is intelligent, challenging, playful and economical. It makes a powerful case for minimalism against maximalism.
You can enter and re-enter this compact, almost infinitesimal, world of infinite jest with infinite pleasure.
To paraphrase the first policeman, "It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter."
For it to remain so when you read it, I’m not going to say much about it apart from outlining the metaphysical speculation that seems to drive it.
"Is It About a Bicycle?"
It most certainly is. But just as a bicycle has two wheels, the weight of the narrative is borne by two wheels that don’t always spin in the same direction. In fact, they might even counteract each other and defy progress.
I’ll try to describe their dialectical machinations below.
"What Fresh Hell is This?"
See if this makes sense.
Everything is made of omnium. Omnium is everywhere. You could think of it as particles. You could also think of it as waves. Omnium is energy. Omnium is also light. This is the basis of Atomic Theory. Obviously, in reality, particles are in contact with each other. Omnium rubs up against other omnium. Take me and my bicycle for example. If I sit on the seat of my bike for long enough, some of me will rub off on my bike, and some of my bike will rub off on me. Let’s call the bit of me that rubs off on my bike my "soul". My soul is transported through my ass via the seat to my bicycle. Eventually, it’s possible that I might lose all of my soul to my bike. What I get in exchange is timber. Without my bicycle, I am only wood. I am lifeless without my bike. As if it’s not bad enough that some among us are half-man, half-bike, the police are finding that more and more people are losing their bikes. Without our bikes, we can’t make any progress on our journey. If our goal is heaven, we can’t get to heaven without our bike, i.e., without our soul. The handle bars on our bicycles are our consciences. The lamps illuminate our path. If we’re parted from our bicycles, we might lose our direction in life. We might fall into a life of crime. We might be destined for hell. Indeed, life without a soul might define hell. We don’t even have to die to get to hell. When we get to hell, it might even look very much like life before we died. When we get to hell, we might find that the punishment for our crime is to relive our lives. Hell might be an eternal repetition of our lives of crime. Hell might not be other people. It might be us. Hell might be an eternal recurrence of ourselves and our past lives.
"A Journey is An Hallucination"
A different approach to life and death comes from the narrator’s favourite philosopher, de Selby (1).
He argues that "a journey is an hallucination." For him, human existence is "a succession of static experiences each infinitely brief."
Each experience is a static occurrence. No experience is a point on the axis on which you go from A to B. It is simply a rest or a pause. At no point is the traveller moving. They are never actually going anywhere. They are never progressing from A to B.
The human mind groups together millions of these rests, and mistakenly calls the aggregate "motion".
However, de Selby believes that motion is an illusion. He argues that there is no progression or serialism in life. Time does not pass. Time as we know it does not exist. Life is a photograph, not a cinematographic film.
If we are not moving anywhere, we are not moving or progressing towards death. If death is the supreme hallucination, then our belief that we are approaching death must be illusory.
The Triangulation of the Bicycular Dialectic
These are two very different perspectives on life and death, morality and mortality. But I won't say any more. It's important that you negotiate the novel's journey guided primarily by Flann O'Brien and influenced by as few external preconceptions as possible. You have to think it through for yourself when you read it. That's the challenge and the fun part and the ultimate reward, the supreme pancake.
However, I'll disclose some questions I asked while reading the novel:
If God is a Trinity, is the House of God triangular?
If God’s Police enforce God’s Law, who is the third policeman?
I won't answer them either, because Flann O’Brien counsels, "Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any."
I hope you get to read and enjoy the novel!
(1) Reprised in "The Dalkey Archive":
Miles Davis - ''Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud''
Laughing Clowns - "Collapse Board"
"You shake your head you can't believe
The sickening stability of my life
You've got about an hour left
And then you're standing
On the collapse board again
And feel the rope around your neck again."
Notes are private!
Oct 30, 2014
Aug 02, 2014
Jan 01, 2003
My more formal review of this novel is here:
The purpose of these notes and comments (and Formal Review
My more formal review of this novel is here:
The purpose of these notes and comments (and they are really nothing more than that) is to help build a picture of the intellectual, cultural and political context and subtext of this unique and uniquely Australian novel, so that readers not familiar with the landscape or culture of Australia can get some additional insight into the novel.
Despite or regardless of its Australian origins, the novel transcends national boundaries.
Hopefully, a discussion of the following issues will help unlock the merits of the novel beyond the beauty of its writing.
The narrator refers to the remote central districts (presumably of Victoria). (4)
The only coastal city mentioned is Melbourne.
The Individualism of the Narrator and the Plainsmen
The narrator develops a belief that only he can interpret the plains:
"I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret. (3)"
This individualism seems to be something he developed from proximity to the plainsmen.
They don't value a common belief. They are not trying to create an agreed tradition:
"Listening to the plainsmen, I had a bewildering sense that they wanted no common belief to fall back on: that each of them became uncomfortable if another seemed to take as understood something he himself claimed for the plains as a whole. It was as though each plainsman chose to appear as a solitary inhabitant of a region that only he could explain. And even when a man spoke of his particular plain, he seemed to choose his words as though the simplest of them came from no common stock but took its meaning from the speaker’s peculiar usage of it. (9)"
This individualism is reflected in their use of language. There is a sense in which even the words, the signifiers, are individual, rather than social. Needless to say, the signified is peculiar to the individual plainsman.
The plainsmen are not collectivists. The community of tastes and values is seen as a virus that can be contagious to the individual:
"I saw that what had sometimes been described as the arrogance of the plainsmen was no more than their reluctance to recognise any common ground between themselves and others. This was the very opposite (as the plainsmen themselves well knew) of the common urge among Australians of those days to emphasise whatever they seemed to share with other cultures. A plainsman…would affect to be without any distinguishing culture rather than allow his land and his ways to be judged part of some larger community of contagious tastes or fashions. (9)"
The individualism of the plainsmen seems to be opposed to the tradition of mateship and egalitarianism in Outer Australia.
The narrator meets up with a group of plainsmen in the bar of the hotel where he is staying.
They are townsfolk. They are different from the Landowners.
Unlike the townsfolk in the coastal cities, they are all referred to as "intellectuals and custodians of the history and lore of the district."
Two Intellectual Movements
Historically, at first, there were two intellectual movements among the plainsmen:
* the Horizonites (15); and
* the Haremen (15).
These groups emerged out of a "cautiously expressed manifesto signed by an obscure group of poets and painters". (27)
This could be an allusion to the role the Surrealist Manifesto played in the early stages of Modernism.
The Horizonites are identified in terms of a more metaphysical approach to culture:
"They may well have intended no more than to provoke the intellectuals of the plains to define in metaphysical terms what had previously been expressed in emotional or sentimental language. (28)"
They are less concerned with actuality. Their art contains:
"…few renderings of actual places on the plains (29)
"What moved them more than wide grasslands and huge skies was the scant layer of haze where land and sky merged in the distance. (29)"
"Talked of the blue-green haze as though it was itself a land – a plain of the future, perhaps, where one might live a life that existed only in potentiality on the plains where poets and painters could do no more than write or paint. (29)"
Their pivotal art work is the poem, “The Horizon, After All” (27).
There could be some allusion to the use of the concept of the "horizon" by Husserl.
Their colour is Blue-green.
Their political party is the Progressive Mercantile Party (which aims to "establish new industries and build railway lines between the plains and capital cities".) (36)
It is possible that this party might be based on the Australian conservative coalition. However, this could be overly simplistic, especially because the Haremen political party does not equate obviously with the left-wing Australian Labor party.
The Horizonites consider themselves to be men of action (35)
They think of themselves as "true plainsmen, ready to push back the limits of pasturage into regions too long neglected." (35)
Their polo team is the Outer Plains (sea-green uniform).
The Haremen are named after a marsupial plains-hare:
It is noted for its stubborn foolishness (31):
"It was obliged to cling for safety to its barren surroundings; to persist in seeing the shallow grass of the plains as a fortress against intruders.” (32)
The Haremen "wanted the people of the plains to see their landscape with other eyes; to recover the promise, the mystery even, of the plains as they might have appeared to someone with no other refuge." (32)
Their pivotal art work is Decline and Fall of the Empire of Grass. (30)
Their colour is weathered gold or yellow (32)
Their political party is the Plains First League (“Buy Local Goods”). (36)
The Haremen insisted that "they were the practical ones, contrasted their own realistic plans for closer settlement with their opponents’ grand plans for populating a desert." (35)
This party does not seem to relate to the traditional Australian left. Instead, it seems to anticipate more conservative, nationalistic Australia First-type parties.
There even seems to be a suggestion of a White Australia policy, which was embraced by the Australian Labor Party in its early stages.
Their polo team is the Central Plains (yellow uniform).
Third Intellectual Movement
Later, a third unnamed movement starts. It is described as a "new absurdity".
However, its tenets are not identified in any detail.
This movement ironically unites the other two in opposition:
"They discredited it finally on the simple grounds that it was derived from ideas current in Outer Australia. (33)"
It sounds existentialist.
Overview of Three Intellectual Movements
The three intellectual, cultural and artistic movements can possibly be differentiated on the following basis:
* Metaphysical/idealist vs
* Naturalist/Realist vs
These are very approximate summations of the movements, and could well be totally inaccurate.
However, they might start a discussion of the substance of Murnane's writing on these issues.
I also feel that these concerns place him within a Modernist tradition, rather than a Post-Modernist tradition, even if he explores metafictional concerns.
After the decline of these intellectual and political movements, two secret societies formed.
Murnane doesn't give much detail about these societies, other than to say that they engaged in brawls.
It's not clear whether or how they were aligned with the above movements. It's possible that they crossed boundaries.
Brotherhood of the Endless Plain
This society elaborated a scheme for "transforming Australia into a Union of States whose seat of government was far inland and whose culture welled up from its plains and spiraled outwards."
The Union would incorporate Outer Australia.
This is closer to the type of federalism that Outer Australia did embrace.
League of Heartlanders:
This society proposed a separate Republic of the Plains.
The Republic would exclude Outer Australia. Thus, the continent of Australia would be split into different nations.
The great landowners "kept aloof from politics."
They come across as powerful mandarins to whom the other plainsmen kowtow.
They engage the townsfolk to provide cultural services to their families.
The processes by which they select plainsmen to provide these services resemble the grants process adopted by the Australia Council (formerly the Arts Council).
While the process must ultimately be subjective, a whole bureaucracy surrounds the administration of the financial support.
A Post-Structuralist Diversion
Many artists would argue that decisions of the Australia Council are not solely made on merit. As far as I am aware, it took Murnane many years of unsuccessful applications before he received any funding.
He did however receive an Australia Council emeritus award in 2008. The other recipient that year was:
The Chair of the Australia Council’s Literature Board at the time was Dr Imre Salusinszky, who wrote a critical study of Murnane in 1993:
The monograph was based on interviews Salusinzski conducted at the University of Newcastle:
This news item mentions a Film Australia documentary called "Words and Silk", which was made by Philip Tyndall:
Salusinzski has been described, perhaps unfairly, as "an ultra-Right political columnist for the Australian".
He was an editorial adviser to "Quadrant", a conservative literary and cultural journal similar to "Encounter" (some might recall the allegations that the funding it received from the Congress for Cultural Freedom was sourced from the C.I.A.).
He has been a lecturer at Yale University, I gather, while on a Fulbright Scholarship. He is keenly interested in the Canadian critic Northrop Frye and the French philosopher/critic Jacques Derrida, and has written about "Yale School" Post-Structuralism, which is reflected in many of the interviews found in this text:
Salusinzski was born in Hungary. This might explain Murnane's decision to learn Hungarian late in life.
Murnane has quoted the title of an essay by Derrida in one of his own essays. However, I suspect that he doesn't have much time for Derrida, and might have first learned about him from reading the Times Literary Supplement, rather than from Salusinzki.
Despite the fact that Salusinzki has played a large role in promoting Murnane, I am not sure whether Murnane endorses everything Salusinzski says about his work. I have a fleeting recollection that I might have read that the two had fallen out.
For an example of the Culture Wars that occur in Australia (mentioned in my other review), see the transcript of the debate between Peter Craven and Ken Gelder below (note the centrality of Gerald Murnane):
Ken Gelder wrote a monograph on David Ireland, who I would juxtapose against Gerald Murnane as an explorer of the Australian psyche, although not to the exclusion of either.
Peter Craven is a prominent Australian literary critic. He co-founded the literary magazine, "Scripsi", with Michael Heyward, who is the publisher at Text Publishing, which has re-printed works by both Murnane and Ireland under its "Text Classics" imprint.
Heyward also published a book on the "Angry Penguins Hoax", which is the basis of Peter Carey's "My Life as a Fake".
The Temperament of the Plainsmen
The narrator identifies a "basic polarity in the temperament of the plainsman: anyone surrounded from childhood by an abundance of level land must dream alternately of exploring two landscapes – one continually visible but never accessible, and the other always invisible even though one crossed and recrossed it daily." (45)
The Seven Landowners
The first dialogue in the novel appears at pages 61 to 75. It consists of snippets of conversation or speeches by seven Landowners. There is a continuity to their views on the subject matter. However, it might also be possible that each Landowner has discrete views. I didn’t really pursue an attempt to determine these views after re-reading the dialogue a few times.
One issue is the complexion, pallor or colour of the skin of the plainsmen, especially their ideal woman including their wives and daughters. They place great value on white skin and delicate golden tans.
The complexion of the women is preserved by the use of silk blouses and parasols, which provide a screen between the real world and the object of a male’s love.
(view spoiler)[Silk recurs in Murnane's fiction, also being associated with the silk jockey shirts, caps and colours worn by jockeys in his favourite hobby of horse-racing. (hide spoiler)]
This practice is recorded in a 200 stanza poem called ”A Parasol at Noon”. Ironically, the poem captures ”the posture of men forever looking into the distance.” Like their vision of the plains, the features of the object are never quite distinguished. It remains an unreachable ideal.
Another goal of the plainsmen is the exploration of the plains and what lies beyond.
The seventh Landowner remarks, ”a man can know his place and yet never try to reach it.”
Ironically, despite the narrator’s own journey of exploration, he takes up a role with this Landowner.
Words and Film
The narrator’s film [“The Interior”] will be ”the story of this man’s search for the one land that might have lain beyond or within all that he had ever seen…the Eternal Plain…What distinguished a man after all but the landscape where he finally found himself?”
For Murnane, the quest of the artist, like that of any man, is find himself: ”Every man may be travelling towards the heart of some remote private plain.”
For the narrator, his film will be ”concerned with memories and visions and dreams, …and the last sequence of ‘The Interior’ would bring to light the strangest and most enduring of my dreams.”
The novel is necessarily made of words. However, the narrator’s task is to make a film.
Ironically, the plainsmen have ”a scant interest in films and…claim that a camera merely multiplied the least significant qualities of the plains – their colour and shape as they appeared to the eye.”
What matters to them is the narrator’s words, ”a form of writing…which came near to defining what was indefinable about the plains.”
They are interested in what lies beyond the light of the plains, which happens to be darkness.
Ultimately, Murnane believes that man must be the source of his own light. What lies beyond man’s own light is darkness.
The Australian Cultural Cringe
For a long time, Australia had a cultural cringe, an inferiority complex about its own intellectual and cultural status. Indeed, it’s arguable that we still have one.
In the 60’s, many writers and artists left the country to seek inspiration and recognition overseas. Examples of such expatriates are Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and Richard Neville.
Politically, this was a conservative period. Many people on the Left would argue that, only when the Whitlam Labor Government was elected in 1972, was there a cultural resurgence and a greater self-confidence in our creativity.
It meant a lot to Australia that Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, even if many of the Left hadn’t read or liked his novels up to that point.
Not only did we consume more local talent domestically, but we exported it as well. However, equally importantly, with greater self-confidence, we opened up to new ideas from outside.
We had always fed off British and American culture. However, we were now more open to European culture, including Continental Philosophy, which contributed to the radicalization of University Arts Faculties.
The Role of Gerald Murnane
Gerald Murnane, who has recently been considered a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize, stands adjacent to, but not wholly within, this recent tradition.
He has consciously never travelled outside Australia, even though he has read widely and recently learned Hungarian in order to read that country’s literature.
Still, he has played a major role in addressing the cultural cringe, at least at a personal level.
Apart from his teaching roles, I would argue that he pursues his goals individualistically and idiosyncratically.
In ”The Plains”, he journeyed into Inner Australia, not just to find what was there, but to turn his back on what was in Outer Australia, i.e., the urbanations on the coastal fringe.
By heading towards the centre, I suspect he was better able to see and understand Outer Australia in his rear vision mirror.
I don’t think he feels much in common with the Australian culture he is witness to.
This is not necessarily to denigrate him or Australian culture.
I would say he has to be one of the most self-contained writers and artists anywhere on the planet.
It doesn’t matter that he looks beyond the horizon and sees darkness.
The important thing for him and for us, is that he looks within and finds light, and he harnesses that light, so that those of us, particularly Australians, who are willing might be enlightened.
For as long as Murnane continues to write, I’m confident that he will build on the personal vision he has constructed.
To the extent that this brings him success, it’s possible that many academics in Australia will jump on his bandwagon.
In my other review, I’ve argued that there is an element of hoax in the novel.
If I’m wrong in this opinion, it is at least a declaration of independence from those who would claim him as their own (e.g., post-structuralism and post-modernism).
This isn’t meant to detract from the uniqueness and distinction of his writing.
I think that in this novel he is playing a game with his audience in the same way that Nabokov played with his readership.
For all of his earnestness, I suspect that this solitary man, Gerald Murnane, is also a Great Australian Ratbag. I admire all of these qualities in him.
Neil Diamond - "Solitary Man"
Johnny Cash - "Solitary Man"
Notes are private!
Jul 08, 2014
Jul 10, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Aug 15, 1994
"One Must Do Abnormal Things"
The whole of Vollmann’s novel is conveyed by an omniscient narrator. It’s tempting to assume that it’s Vollmann himself. "One Must Do Abnormal Things"
The whole of Vollmann’s novel is conveyed by an omniscient narrator. It’s tempting to assume that it’s Vollmann himself. However, as usual that would probably be a mistake, even if we learn a lot about the author by what he writes in the guise of others.
The key protagonist is a male American, known variously as the butterfly boy, the journalist, the husband and Vanna’s husband.
These guises or masks represent different stages in the unnamed protagonist’s life. Vollmann presents them almost like short stories, but together they constitute a legitimate novel.
For almost half of the narrative, the journalist is accompanied by a double, the photographer, on an Asian assignment for a glossy magazine (presumably Esquire). One is responsible for the words, the other the pictures.
They complement each other. They’re a team. However, the assignment is a ruse to whore their way around Asia and document it for payment. Of the two, the photographer is the more vainglorious, the journalist the more sensitive. Together, they’re just as bad as each other.
Perhaps, I shouldn’t use the word "bad". Vollmann asks us to leave morality and all concepts of Good and Evil behind when we open the book. It’s good advice. This is not a morality tale, it’s not a moral calculus. It’s about men fucking women with whom they share only enough words of either language to negotiate a sexual transaction. Despite the title of Vollmann's "Prostitution Trilogy", it's not so much about the abstract of prostitution as the concrete of what men do to prostitutes.
Still, it’s a Bildungsroman of sorts. It’s about the getting of wisdom, even if the journalist seems to make no progress over the course of the novel:
"He remembered again what the Inuit had always said, that to gain more wisdom than others one must do abnormal things. The Inuit had done it by going off into the ice alone until animal spirits came. The husband would do it through promiscuity."
Flings like a Butterfly, Stings like a Bee
For all of its metaphysical concerns (which can be inferred from the eminently brainy epigraphs at the head of each story), the style of the novel is more realistic than Post-Modern.
But for its sexual subject matter, the language is fairly pedestrian, almost nondescript and utilitarian.
The structure of the novel and the emphasis on the time in Asia does, however, tend to disguise the fact that the two protagonists were only in Asia for about two weeks. They got to know about a dozen whores each. Like all male western sex tourists (or "falangs"), they were regarded as butterflies, because of their tendency to flutter from one woman to another without commitment. This novel, then, is the monarch of butterfly stories.
Both protagonists were already married back in America. Both believed that they fell in love with at least one of their whores (Vanna in the case of the journalist, and Joy in the case of the photographer). The photographer, despite (or perhaps because of) his general lechery, had the good sense to realise it was a holiday infatuation. The journalist was never able to adjust. On his return, he decided to divorce his wife of 11 years, without necessarily knowing whether he would ever see Vanna again.
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love
There is much talk about love in the novel. The whores use the term almost as an inducement to another night in the sack, i.e., another payment. For all of their abject poverty, they are the most realistic about the personal and economic situation.
They reassure the journalist that, in finding Vanna, he has not necessarily found love. He has only “found a hole; he knew from the Pat Pong girls that there’d always be a hole if he wanted one badly enough.”
The journalist kids himself that he's in love. But what is love? What is the difference between love and filling a hole? Does love just fill a hole?
"And what was she to him? She said she loved him, and he did believe that if he asked her to marry him she would do it, come with him, bring her child (her other husband had kicked her in the face and abandoned her), and he thought that she must love him as she understood love, and he loved her as he understood love; was that enough?"
He summarises his predicament to a friend:
"I’m thinking of leaving my wife and marrying an illiterate prostitute from Cambodia whose language I can’t speak a word of."
Still, Vanna is not without her appeal. Here is a physical description of her:
"She was so slender, like a thin hymen of flesh stretched over bones; he could feel her every rib under his palm. Her long brown nipples did not excite him, but enriched his tenderness."
Love and Loneliness
This is about as lyrical as Vollmann gets in this tale, apart from describing the journalist’s love and (the hole of his own) loneliness:
"He was so lonely among them that he wanted to love any and all of them even though loving any of them would only make him more lonely because loving them wasn’t really loving them…"
Still, he leaves a special place for Vanna, at least in his mind. She is different from any other wife or whore, even though he plans to make a wife of her:
"…the similarity between whores and wives is that you don’t have to consider their pleasure when you fuck them, unlike sweethearts such as Vanna (who probably don’t enjoy it either)."
Even as he contemplates the implications of what he has done, he justifies his butterfly activities:
"There was nothing wrong with sleeping around if you loved everybody; you could be faithful to a hundred wives…The husband loved Vanna the best. He’d keep being promiscuous only until he had her forever. Then he wouldn’t need anyone but her. And if it turned out then that he was still unfaithful after all, surely a whore would be used to it."
Ironically, some of Vollmann’s best writing is reserved for a whore the journalist meets after Vanna:
"Lying in bed with Noi, the light still on, the butterfly fluttered excitedly knowing that Noi’s vulva was going to open up for him like one of those Ayutthaya-style gilded lacquer book cabinets: gold leaves and birds and leaf-flames on black…He saw himself, though, as some old white palace with gilded lacquer doorways and windows, the courtyard still and green…Inside him there was definitely room for Noi. Inside Noi there was room for him."
Longing for a New Wife
There’s no need for me to colour this writing with any insinuation of (im)morality or self-indulgence. You can infer that for yourself, if you so desire. Hopefully, I have represented the concerns of the novel accurately enough to let you judge whether it might be your thing.
Still, at a more philosophical level, I think it’s a bit much to suggest that the journalist forms any relationships that embody any Hegelian mutual recognition or Heideggerian Mitsein. Rather, the novel seems to describe the perils of contemporary western narcissism, if not necessarily wholesale solipsism.
The journalist is in a prison of his own making. Now, finally, he can understand de Sade’s prison scribblings:
"…the sex object no longer mattered; an old man was as good as a young girl; there was always a hole somewhere; but unlike de Sade he didn’t want to hurt anyone, really didn’t; didn’t even want to fuck anyone anymore particularly; it was just that he was so lost like a drifting spaceman…"
This is a novel about longing, about a quest for "Love, I guess. A new wife." The journalist recognises several times that he is lost. He has lost his religion. Yet, somehow he believes that he is not lost at all. He still has his new wife, Vanna, the wife he can experience only in his mind, even if she too can be supplanted by the next tight cunt he encounters:
"What he was doing was systematically dismantling his own reality, blurring faces and names (sometimes he couldn’t remember the name of the woman he was on top of; of course she couldn’t remember his, either), forming mutually exclusive attachments that left him a liar and a cheat attached to no one, passing his own reckoning by."
Even if this might be grist for an edgy new fiction mill, surely it's not the way to find a new wife or a new life?
WE CALL UPON THE AUTHOR TO EXPLAIN:
Paris Review Interview (What I Would Do For My Art)
INTERVIEWER (Madison Smartt Bell):
It’s clear that parts of Butterfly Stories have to be fictional, but still I wonder, did you have unprotected sex with that many prostitutes? Why take those risks?
Well, I wouldn’t mind finding some other way. When I was writing Angels, Rainbow Stories, and the other stories, that sort of thing wasn’t particularly interesting to me—getting involved with all the prostitutes that way. But I kept thinking when I first began writing that my female characters were very weak and unconvincing. What is the best way to really improve that? I thought, Well, the best way is to have relationships with a lot of different women. What’s the best way to do that? It’s to pick up whores.
Has this worked?
I don’t know, but I feel that I have created some really good characters. Also, I often feel lonely. It’s been really nice for me to have all of these women who really, I truly believe, care about me. I care about them. I keep in touch with them. I help them out, they help me out; they pay my rent because I can write about them. I do pictures of them, I give them pictures; I paint them myself. It works pretty well.
It seems to me you’d learn a whole lot about how prostitutes think and are, and not necessarily that much about more conventional women.
Right. Well, I have been able to sleep around with some of them too.
Well, good. I’m glad to hear that.
I almost never sleep with American prostitutes any more, unless they really want me to—if they are going to get hurt if I don’t. I have a lot of them as friends. They pose for me as models, and I have written a lot of stories about them.
There are some other writers who do make an issue of their personalities in their work in one way or another—Norman Mailer, in certain phases of his career, or Hunter Thompson or Charles Bukowski, whose material is similar to what’s in The Rainbow Stories. But that style of self-presentation is often about vanity. I was wondering how you felt about this. Are you aware that people are watching? Do you care? Do you think that no one’s watching?
I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.
BESIDES AND RARITIES:
Divine Revelation a la Sade et Genet
What I write is
And ten percent
Hello, Tiny Madam
[Inspired by Robyn Hitchcock]
Now we've got our K-Y Jelly
And some porn on the telly,
Will you lick the royal jelly
That you've drizzled on my belly?
Waiting for Our Bill to Come
by Vladimir Jackoffalot
We came in off the street
For the best steak in town.
The neon sign, it said,
"You can't beat our meat."
Upstairs, Vanna disagrees.
She gladly lends a hand.
She'll even share dessert.
She's not one to displease.
Obsessed with tender loins,
But way down on his luck,
The writer can't afford
A blowjob or a fuck.
We spot him all our notes,
Two hundred dollars plus,
For a tip, these coins.
Let's hope he gets some quotes.
Now he's down on his knees
Begging her just to please,
Let him get a close-up,
So he can write it up.
Ninety minutes later,
We're still here, waiting
For our bill to come,
With the female waiter.
The Blue Boy
The blue boy moved to a new school on the outskirts of the city midway through grade two. He can remember arriving early and sitting down in the sandpit near the oval, where pretty soon he was joined by a girl with long, straight hair called Karen. They became friends. They even talked about each other as boy- and girlfriend by the end of the week. On that first day, Karen introduced the blue boy to everybody else in their class, and he quickly found a place in the pecking order. There was another boy whose name he can't remember now. Let's call him Martin. His family came from somewhere in England. Martin was the first person he'd known who really liked Alice Cooper. The blue boy was really into David Bowie, but in those days Alice Cooper was pretty cool too. They became friends, too, though not as close as Karen. One day, Martin's father walked to school with him. His hands were shaking and his eyes looked like he had been crying. He hugged Martin and said goodbye. When he'd gone, the blue boy asked Martin what was wrong. He said his dad had been in the war. The blue boy thought he meant the second world war, but he was talking about some war that had just been on in Malaya. "Wow, what did he do? Did he shoot anyone?" Martin looked hesitant, then decided to answer, "I suppose so, but not with bullets. He was a photographer." The blue boy wasn't sure what this involved: "What did he photograph?" Martin's eyes lit up in pride: "Dead bodies." It turned out that Martin's father had kept a stash of black and white photos of dead Communist insurgents. Martin agreed to bring them along to school later that week. The blue boy flicked through them anxiously. Their purpose had been to identify exactly how each insurgent had died. They were graphic portraits of horrific injuries. Close up shots of skulls half-blown away with the eyes still open. Open chests exploded as if from inside, broken ribs jutting out while supporting bloody mangled internal organs that had long ceased to function. The blue boy kept reacting, "Oh, yuck." He had thought he could handle something like this, but after a while he had to stop looking. He could understand why Martin's father still shook. He had started to shake himself.
Robyn Hitchcock - "The Afterlight"
[Track actually ends at 3:47]
"The Monarch is a butterfly who’s built the same as you and I
He wears blue jeans with a wine belly
He’s secreting royal jelly
Which his consort loves to cook
And then they peer in the cooking book...
Hello tiny madam, can I comfort you tonight
With the tiny world so bright
Hello tiny madam, can I comfort you tonight
When the priest has gone? Oh, right!"
Robyn Hitchcock - "You've Got a Sweet Mouth on You Baby"
Robyn Hitchcock - "Sounds Great When You're Dead"
"Your mother is a journalist, your father is a creep
They make it in your bedroom when they think you're fast asleep
The scenes that they're enacting now beside your little bed
Are never in your consciousness but always in your head
He lives and breathes on systems that nobody can supply
And you're immune to everything except the butterfly."
Drawing of nameless Asian girl (let's pretend it's Vanna) with Marlboro and "WTV" love heart tattoo found on inside back cover of my second hand copy of the novel.
Notes are private!
Nov 20, 2014
Nov 22, 2014
Jul 18, 2014
Oct 31, 2000
Prudish Inquisition Becomes Immersive Exquisition
Rikki Ducornet opens this novella with testimony by Sade’s fan-maker, Gabrielle: "A fan is like the t Prudish Inquisition Becomes Immersive Exquisition
Rikki Ducornet opens this novella with testimony by Sade’s fan-maker, Gabrielle: "A fan is like the thighs of a woman. It opens and closes."
But it's also like a book or a mind. They too can be opened or closed. And the life of Sade was very much about one open mind opposed to many closed ones. This book is designed to open (if not blow) our minds and free our imaginations. Ducornet quotes Mallarme: "There is no explosion except a book."
Sade’s renowned cruelty or sadism is not the principal focus of the story. It actually humanizes Sade and two women who might have featured directly or indirectly in his life: Gabrielle, perhaps a fictional creation, who made erotically-illustrated fans for Sade to give to his whores and mistresses; and Olympe de Gouges, Gabrielle’s lesbian lover, as well as a real life playwright, political agitator and feminist (she wrote "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen", only to be guillotined on 2 November 1793 for the crime of her sexuality). (view spoiler)[
Ironically, French women didn't obtain the right to vote until 1945, only four years before Simone de Beauvoir published "The Second Sex". (hide spoiler)]
The fictionalized Gabrielle doesn’t appear to have been one of Sade's lovers or debauchees. However, she was close enough to be interrogated by the Parisian Comit de Surveillance, the administrative vehicle for a repressive, almost puritanical, post-Revolutionary political and moral inquisition.
As part of her evidence, she must read from the letters that Sade sent to her, the expectation being that they will incriminate her. In the second half of the book, after she too seems to have suffered the fate of Olympe de Gouges, Sade becomes the narrator and reads from her letters to him.
Thus, Ducornet constructs an epistolary vision of this potentially triangular relationship. Whatever, it’s enough to immerse us in both Sade’s world and his imagination.
Whipping Up Fanatical Opposition
I benefitted from reading Simone de Beauvoir’s "Must We Burn Sade?" immediately beforehand. As a result, I was already familiar with some of the people and events alluded to.
Some of the language was so familiar that it was hard to tell whether Ducornet used Sade’s actual correspondence and writings, or whether she reconstructed it in his style. I’ll assume the latter, because I don’t want to burst the bubble she created.
Her writing is consistently lyrical and exquisite, without being purple. She conjures up a rich feast for the senses. The descriptions of meals are literally mouth-watering. The recipe for Sade’s post-whipping salve makes you want to replicate both the whipping and the cure (just to verify its efficacy)!
What emerges, as with Beauvoir’s essay, is a Sadeian world that wasn’t really as transgressive as his reputation would have us believe. After all, what's a little fellagellation between friends and accomplices?
He maintained that he only ever whipped mistresses or whores who consented to their whipping and to whipping him. He disputes that he cut a tramp with a knife and poured wax on her wounds. As good as his salve was at healing welts, it could not have healed cuts in the short time between their infliction and when the alleged crime was reported to the authorities.
As with many of his problems with the law, it seems that he was the victim of the jealous gossip of his rivals, including Nicolas-Edme Rétif (here referred to as Restif), a writer and pornographer who shared with Sade a mutual hatred (he even published a rebuff to Sade’s "Justine" called "Anti-Justine").
Fanning the Flames of Liberty
Both women in the novella end up victims of the Inquisition. Whatever Sade’s crimes, those committed by or on behalf of the State were worse, because they were institutionalised and they struck at the very life and heart of the imagination. The State and its lackeys perpetrated the Terror. They were the true monsters.
Ducornet balances these events that occur in the aftermath of the French Revolution with the contents of a polemical pamphlet, in which Sade (apparently with the help of Gabrielle) attacks Bishop Landa, the Spanish missionary who instigated a genocide of the Mayan people when they failed to convert to Catholicism during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in 1562.
In order to prevent the survivors from returning to their own religion, in order to close their minds, Landa burned all of their beautifully-illuminated holy books.
One man’s faith is another man’s heresy. One woman's fan offends a statesman's fanaticism. Every inquisition holds within it a potential holocaust. Something monstrous, not just wicked, this way comes. All of this in the name of a God whose existence was vehemently denied by Sade.
Ultimately, Ducornet asks that we understand in Sade, not just the libertine, but the libertarian. Like Gabrielle, the book fans the embers of a political, social, moral and sexual liberty that seems much more compatible with the times in which we live than Sade’s own:
"Let me explain. Sade had dared take the imagination's darkest path. I thought that if I could follow that path with my own mind, I would come to understand the forces that rage about us, the terror that, even in times of peace, is always a possibility. I knew that in order to read Sade, I would have to embark on a voyage, naked and alone, without the comfort of received ideas...I would have to learn a new way of reading."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Nov 16, 2014
Nov 20, 2014
Jun 30, 2014
Oct 28, 1969
The Existence of Metaphysics Precedes the Essence of Metafiction
Barth’s second novel, "The End of the Road" ("TEOTR"), is now usually packaged as part The Existence of Metaphysics Precedes the Essence of Metafiction
Barth’s second novel, "The End of the Road" ("TEOTR"), is now usually packaged as part of one volume with his first novel, "The Floating Opera".
In the introduction to the package, Barth gives the impression that "TEOTR" is the lesser of the two, and that both are inferior to his later, more metafictional works. However, there is much of value in both works and especially in "TEOTR".
It's a deeply philosophical novel. However, what appeals to me is Barth's ability to examine profound philosophical issues within what is ostensibly a realist fictional construction, even if it betrays an occasional black sense of humour or sense of the absurdity of the cosmos.
At the most abstract level, the plot encompasses a grab bag of existential and/or existentialist issues: life, being, nothingness, the abyss, choice, indecision, immobility, remobilisation, progress, advice, depression, treatment, inauthenticity, bad faith, deception, infidelity, adultery, a gun, nausea, abortion and death.
Yet, Barth pulls all of these together into a novel that is both thought-provoking and entertaining.
A Cosmopsist Narrator
The first person narrator is Jacob (Jake) Horner. Sometimes I wondered whether he was supposed to be Little Jack Horner. Others, at a glance, "Horner" looked like "Homer".
His therapist, perhaps an alter ego, remains anonymous, and is known only as "the Doctor".
From the Doctor, he learns that "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."
As with "The Floating Opera", the narrator falls into a triangular relationship with a married couple, Joe and Rennie Morgan.
An English teacher (grammar), Jake describes himself as a "placid-depressive":
"My lows were low, but my highs were middle-register."
He's afflicted with a cosmic malady Barth calls "cosmopsis":
"When one has it, one is frozen like the bullfrog when the hunter's light strikes him full in the eyes, only with cosmopsis there is no hunter, and no quick hand to terminate the moment - there's only the light."
Jake is unable to make choices, he freezes, becomes paralysed, immobilised, when confronted with a decision. It's as if he is continually standing at the abyss, suspecting that it's all absurd.
A Rational Being
In contrast, Joe's life is driven by logic and what is rationally justifiable:
"I can always explain what I do or say."
At the same time, he's an individualist. While he purports to be objective, he is still essentially subjective:
"In my ethics the most a man can ever do is be right from his point of view...he's got to expect conflict with people or institutions who are also right from their points of view, but those points of view are different from his."
He's not interested in ostensibly absolute values like the greater good or the good of the state: "four things I'm not impressed by are unity, harmony, eternality and universality."
Of all of the characters in the novel, he's the one most capable of making a decision when confronted by a situation. However, his thought processes are so rational that they almost seem irrational from a personal or social point of view.
Joe sees no inconsistency in his predicament:
"...the more sophisticated your ethics get, the stronger you have to be to stay afloat. And when you say good-bye to objective values, you really have to flex your muscles and keep your eyes open, because you're on your own.
"It takes energy: not just personal energy, but cultural energy, or you're lost.
"Energy's what makes the difference between American pragmatism and French existentialism - where the hell else but in America could you have a cheerful nihilism, for God's sake?"
A Self-Sufficient Being
Rennie is self-sufficient, physically strong and private, by and large a common sense type of person, perhaps an authentic, real life, down to earth (non-philosophical) pragmatist. Yet all those around her seem to regard her with condescension and disdain. She comes across as devoid of an ego, "...but you think I'm a zero."
Indeed, Jake treats all of those around him like pawns or cyphers in some absurdist cosmic game. All of the characters in the novel are, or are treated like, beings on the edge of nothingness.
Apart from the Doctor, Rennie has the greatest insight into Jake's condition:
"I think you don't exist at all. There's too many of you. It's more than just masks that you put on and take off - we all have masks. But you...cancel yourself out. You're like somebody in a dream. You're not strong and you're not weak. You're nothing."
An Engagement with the Doctor
The other person who seems to have some insight into Jake's existential problem is the Doctor. He demonstrates his approach by asking how many seats there are in the Cleveland Municipal Stadium:
"Logic will never give you the answer to my question. Only Knowledge of the World will answer it...The world is everything that is the case, and what the case is, is not a matter of logic...but if you have some Knowledge of the World, you may be able to say...[unlike logic,] no choice is involved."
The Doctor elaborates in a way that takes this argument from its Wittgensteinian origins "The world is everything that is the case" to a Sartrean Existentialism ("human existence precedes human essence"):
"Choosing is existence: to the extent that you don't choose, you don't exist. Now, everything we do must be oriented toward choice and action. It doesn't matter whether this action is more or less reasonable than inaction; the point is that it is its opposite [i.e., the opposite of inaction]."
So the Doctor's therapy involves action, movement:
"Above all, act impulsively: don't let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you're lost...keep moving all the time. Be engagé. Join things...Say something! Move! Take a role!"
The Doctor is not so much concerned with authenticity (whether or not in relation to some underlying essence), as motion rather than paralysis, mobility rather than immobility, engagement rather than disengagement.
It’s a Shame about Rennie
The first role Jake takes is a teaching position at the same institution where Joe teaches. The second involves an adulterous relationship with Rennie. In a way, the two males present her with a choice between Reason and Unreason. However, it's equally possible that Joe is just another double or alter ego that allows Jake to learn about himself.
Rennie is the least satisfactorily drawn of the characters. She seems to be just a board upon which the metaphysical forces play out their game of cause and effect. Yet, she is the one who suffers most from the clash of these pseudo-titans.
Towards a Therapeutic Mythopoesis
If there is any flaw in the novel, it is that, for Jake, Rennie is just a minor character, a bit part in the film of his life.
However, once again, the Doctor might have an explanation:
"Not only are we the heroes of our own life stories - we're the ones who conceive the story, and give other people the essences of minor characters. But since no man's life story as a rule is ever one story with a coherent plot, we're always reconceiving just the sort of hero we are, and consequently just the sort of minor roles that other people are supposed to play...
"This kind of role-assigning is myth-making, and when it's done consciously or unconsciously for the purpose of aggrandising or protecting your ego - and it's probably done for this purpose all the time - it becomes Mythotherapy...
"Mythotherapy is based on two assumptions: that human existence precedes human essence...and that a man is free not only to choose his own essence but to change it at will."
In a sense, we are what we make of ourselves (no matter what we make of others).
The first task is to heal your Self, then you can take care of the Other(s).
Beyond the End of the Road
Ultimately, "TEOTR" documents Jake's course in Mythotherapy, leaving his ego functional enough one day to shave, dress, pack his bags and call a taxi.
His destination? The "terminal”, at the end of the road, from which he can depart his old life and perhaps commence a journey on a new road to being both somewhere and someone else.
Attractatus Barthicus Medico-Logico-Philosophicus
1.1 The World is everything that is the case.
1.2 What the case is, is not a matter of logic.
1.3 Logic involves choice.
1.3.1 A choice requires logic.
1.4 Knowledge of the World does not require choice.
1.4.1 Knowledge of the World does not require logic.
1.5 Choosing is existence.
1.5.1 To the extent that we don't choose, we don't exist.
1.5.2 If we use logic, we exist.
1.6 Action is a choice.
1.6.1 Action is existence.
1.6.2 If we act, we exist.
1.7 Everything we do must be oriented toward choice and action.
1.7.1 It doesn't matter whether any particular action is more or less reasonable than inaction.
1.7.2 Action is the opposite of inaction.
1.7.3 Inaction is not a choice.
1.7.4 Inaction is the failure to make a choice.
1.8 Inaction is nothingness.
1.8.1 If we don't act, we don't exist.
1.9 Don't get stuck between alternatives.
1.9.1 Act logically.
1.9.2 Act impulsively.
1.9.3 Act the goat.
Notes are private!
Jul 02, 2014
Jul 05, 2014
Jun 30, 2014
Apr 26, 2012
"The Man in My Mind Who Sits in the Fields of Grass"
"I watch the man in my mind writing with his pencil in his notebook while he sits in the fields of "The Man in My Mind Who Sits in the Fields of Grass"
"I watch the man in my mind writing with his pencil in his notebook while he sits in the fields of grass."
Gerald Murnane, "In Far Fields", 1995
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Plainsmen Fiction"
This is a beautifully written novella. Every sentence has been carefully and lovingly crafted. You don't often encounter writing as good as this.
Only it contains within it a hoax (view spoiler)[(or perhaps two, if you include both those perpetrated by the author and the narrator) (hide spoiler)] of magnificent proportions, one that Alan Sokal would be proud of.
It might seem like a sympathetic piece of metafiction, but I smell a rat.
I suspect that one of the aims of this highly intelligent writer and novella is to interrogate the world of Post-Modernism it purports to inhabit and to aggravate its adherents, practitioners and benefactors.
It is, at heart, deeply conservative, politically and culturally. In this sense, it reminds me of the contemporary response to the work of Patrick White.
Of course, its conservatism is no reason to refrain from reading it.
By all means, read and enjoy it (I've rated it four stars), but I suspect it's a Trojan horse that has made its way into the forecourt of the citadel of Post-Modernism.
As a web-savvy Virgil might have warned, beware of geeks bearing gifts.
"A World of His Own"
There are a few precise beautiful descriptions of the Australian Outback. But the Plains are something metaphysical beyond the Outback.
The Plainsmen don't exist, except in Murnane's mind, and he has created them, in equally precise and beautiful prose, in order to undermine, criticise and parody them.
The Plainsmen do not constitute an imagined or imaginative world that is intended to be inspirational or aspirational for the author or for the reader. They are there to be questioned and attacked. This is an eloquent political tract, a satire of Swiftian scale and achievement.
Although the Plainsmen are intellectual and sophisticated, they represent a culture that threatens the personal, creative or social world that Murnane has grown used to (even if that culture wasn't fully-formed in Australia at the time - it was the end of the conservative Fraser government - he saw it coming, almost prophetically).
"Less Concrete Concerns"
Here, later, an interview with Murnane describes his relationship with this culture:
"Perhaps surprisingly for someone so self-contained, [Murnane] taught creative writing for many years at Prahran Teachers College, now absorbed into Deakin University.
"He took early retirement from teaching, disillusioned, he says, by the shift from text to other, less concrete concerns, such as literary theory...
" 'The unit I dealt with was the sentence. It was where I started: no theoretical talk about meaning, theme, character, social relevance or any such thing.' "
A Space of My Own
Read Murnane for the beauty of the text, his sentences (they are not only flawless, but consistent) and the innovative skills needed to construct his "elaborate daydream world", but don't assume that he is sympathetic to the world of Post-Modernism that he plays with and against.
He is an exquisite formalist, at best an old-fashioned, patrician Modernist, in the style of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
He is primarily metaphysical, and then only secondarily metafictional, perhaps because he has always been interested in the method of writing, at least his method, the nature of the craft, sometimes so he can teach others:
"I would then go on to tell my student that my mind consisted only of images and feelings; that I had studied my mind for many years and had found in it nothing but images and feelings; that a diagram of my mind would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns."
Driven to Abstraction
I infer from this description of his craft that Murnane is writing about "phenomena" in his mind, rather than the "noumena" that exist in the outside world.
To this extent, his approach and work could potentially be described as phenomenological.
However, it's quite something else to infer that Murnane's style derives from or is influenced by the philosophy of phenomenology or that his work consciously investigates its implications.
Rather, I suspect that he has intuitively arrived at a similar understanding of how his own mind and writing process work to that of the phenomenologists, and that he is simply exploring his own personal phenomena in his fiction, as opposed to plumbing the depths of the philosophy.
Ironically, Murnane eschews the concrete of external "noumena" in favour of the abstraction of the "phenomena" of his own mind, even though it was the less concrete concerns of literary theory that motivated him to retire from tertiary education.
Presumably, there are different degrees or qualities of abstraction. Unless it's as simple as, my abstraction is better than your abstraction. And what, after all, could be more subjective than abstraction?
"To Write is to Go in Search" (Jacques Derrida)
If my suspicion is right, it is even more remote from the truth to argue that Murnane's work is self-consciously Post-Modernist or Post-Structuralist.
This is an argument arrived at from the outside rather than from the inside.
It probably reflects the tendency of Post-Modernism and Post-Modernists to appropriate practices used in the past as if they were a precursors to the concerns of Post-Modernism, rather than practices that existed in their own right and emerged out of totally different historical and cultural contexts:
"Good writing exactly reproduces what we should call the contour of our thought."
[Herbert Read, "English Prose Style" as quoted by Gerald Murnane in "Why I Write What I Write".]
The difference is twofold: first, Murnane's work doesn't have to be construed in terms of any ostensible Post-Modernism, and second, he might actually not relate to Post-Modernism in any particularly meaningful way.
Murnane might relate to somebody like Derrrida to the extent that he writes in order to search the images in his mind. However, that doesn't mean that he has read Derrida more than superficially or bought his philosophy wholesale.
Both Artisan and Partisan
Rather, I'd argue that Murnane approaches Post-Modernism from the opposite perspective, in other words, critically, as both artisan and partisan. To make greater claims of his Post-Modernism is to confuse reality with an image of him. It's just a trick of the light.
Still he writes beautifully within the constraints he has set himself, within the private, imagined space that he has made his own and that he, in turn, offers to us.
CONTEXT AND SUB-TEXT
I've added some personal views on the context and sub-text of the novel here:
VERSE [A TRIBUTE TO A HOAX WELL EXECUTED]:
[Apologies to Harold Stewart and James McAuley]
The Obliquity of the Darkening Ecliptic
Just a black swan of trespass
On such remote inland plains.
The Love Life of Ern Malley, Poet, Post Restante the Wimmera
A secret book,
Out on the plains,
Lilac and black,
In the library
Does now abide.
If you do look,
It might astound,
For it contains
Plans of attack
To seduce, ably,
My patron’s bride.
My Life as a Fake Plainsman
Why not decry
These writers, not
If not curious,
About boundless plains,
Who’re yet to set
A foot on them,
As if they’re just
A Telegram from Herbert Read
"I TOO WOULD HAVE BEEN DECEIVED BY ERN MALLEY BUT HOAXER HOISTED BY OWN PETARD HAS TOUCHED OFF UNCONSCIOUS SOURCES INSPIRATION WORK TOO SOPHISTICATED BUT HAS ELEMENTS GENUINE POETRY"
SOUNDTRACK ("YOU WANNA BE THERE, BUT YOU DON'T WANNA TRAVEL"):
The Triffids - "A Trick Of The Light"
"Well the rim of her mouth was golden
Her eyes were just desert sands
But that's not her!
That's just the light
It's only an image of her
It's just a trick of the light."
The Triffids - "Wide Open Road"
"The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road."
Dave Graney 'n' the Coral Snakes - "You Wanna Be Loved"
Good old Mount Gambier boy! It's further away than the Plains!
Dave Graney 'n' the Coral Snakes - "I'm Gonna Release Your Soul"
Sanctum Theatre - "The Plains" 2008
"Anyone surrounded from childhood by an abundance of level land must dream alternatively of exploring two landscapes one continually visible but not accessible and the other always invisible even though one crossed and recrossed it daily."
Gerald Murnane - Melbourne Prize for Literature 2009
Gerald Murnane - "The Writing Room" (ABC)
Gerald Murnane - "The literary life of Gerald Murnane" (Radio National Book Show)
Notes are private!
Jul 08, 2014
Jul 10, 2014
Jun 30, 2014
Whether to Exit if Not Entranced? That is the Question
Time is a river. And all the world's a stage...in this case, on a steamboat, a showboat, no less Whether to Exit if Not Entranced? That is the Question
Time is a river. And all the world's a stage...in this case, on a steamboat, a showboat, no less, plying up and down the river.
Life itself is an entertainment, a comedy, a circus, a play, an opera performed on this floating stage, hence a floating opera.
To top it off (so to speak), all men and women are merely players in their own shows, although they might also be spectators in the shows of others. They have their exits and their entrances.
Some exit by their own hands, while others remain entranced, alive.
Which players are right? To be or not to be, to live or not to live, enquires the Bard, as channelled by John Barth.
A Primer in the Moral and Refined
Despite his undertaking, Barth's vessel doesn't just stick to the channel. He navigates a meandering stream, much in the style of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy".
This was his first novel, completed when he was just 24, but it betrays a mastery of his craft. It purports to be the work of a literary ingenu, who is concerned that the plot might sail in and out of view, but it's extremely carefully planned, plotted and executed. He "simply carries out [his] premises completely to their conclusions." It's a delightful piece of meta-fiction, even if it contains more evidence of realism than its successors.
Like "Adam's Original & Unparalleled Floating Opera" (the source of the novel's title), Barth's work boasts DRAMA (!), MINSTRELS (!), VAUDEVILLE (!), a gas-driven Calliope (!)(aren't they all?) and a Panithiopliconica (!), as well as promising to be Moral & Refined!
A Would-Be Annihilist Stares Into the Abyss
Barth cites not just Shakespeare and Sterne as influences, but James Joyce, the Brazilian novelist Joachim Machado de Assis and Albert Camus.
The latter informs both the style and the concerns of the novel. Indeed, it's structured as a philosophical inquiry into issues both profound and profane, such as life and death, cause and effect, free will and determinism, friendship and parenthood, adultery and adventure, mortality and suicide, anarchism and Marxism, sophistication and cynicism, stoicism and existentialism.
The first person narrator, Todd Andrews, in many ways a comic, smiling nihilist (once bent on destruction of both Self and Others), explains:
"My Inquiry is timeless, in effect; that is, I proceed at it as though I had an eternity to inquire in...
Barth very eloquently summarises two key preoccupations of civilisation: contradiction and time.
I Found a Reason (In Parentheses)
En route along the river, Todd resolves the tension. Having stared into the abyss, he manages to conclude (if not necessarily prove rationally) that life is worth living, even if it might ultimately be meaningless.
In other words, the fact that life might be objectively meaningless doesn't mean it can't be subjectively meaningful. (Or to further parenthesise, just because there might be no "reason" to live doesn't mean there is a "reason" to die.)
This conclusion would be reason enough to read Barth's novel, but he also gilds his entertainment with abundant exuberance, a wry sense of humour and shrewd story-telling. ...more
Notes are private!
May 12, 2014
May 26, 2014
May 12, 2014
Mass Market Paperback
Aug 12, 1988
"A Little Quiet Fun At My Own Expense"
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remem "A Little Quiet Fun At My Own Expense"
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remember ordering it. I drank it. It seemed like the right thing to do. The waiter watched me put down the empty glass. “Another shot?” he asked. I nodded. “You’ll have to pay for this one.” I looked around the room in search of my benefactor. I saw her first, sitting alone at a nearby table, then I saw her legs. They didn’t look like any legs I had seen before. Then they moved. She could see I was watching them. She crossed her legs, and I hoped to die, but not straight away. She reached into her handbag and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. She flipped it open and put one in her mouth. Her lips glistened the whole time. Then she fumbled around in her bag for a lighter. She returned the bag to the chair beside her, empty-handed. She looked at me. I shrugged. I had given up smoking since my last novel, only I hadn’t told my author. There was much I hadn’t confided in him. The time had come to make some changes in my life. I didn’t move. I watched her mind working. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I wasn't sure whether she was my type. “Well…” She paused. She was improvising. It wasn’t something she was normally expected to do. My author usually made our decisions for us. “If you won’t light my cigarette, will you at least kiss me?” I ambled over to her table and sat down. But first she had another request:“Stop looking at my legs.” I did as I was told. I was hoping the effort would be rewarded. She returned her cigarette to the pack and put it back in her bag. I looked into her eyes. I could see nothing unless you want to count lust, or was that just a projection on my part? I wondered what she saw in my eyes. The same? I moved closer to her, and had another look. I clasped my hands around her face. Then I pulled her closer and kissed her. She licked her lips, inquisitively. “Christian Dior?” She asked. “Of course,” I replied. Her lips embarked on the most direct path towards mine. “Kiss me harder.” I did. She slipped her hand inside my blouse and squeezed my breast. Maybe I could like her after all.
Notes are private!
Apr 05, 2014
Apr 06, 2014
Apr 05, 2014
Mar 25, 2014
"In the Spirit of My Divisions"
Joseph McElroy has imagined himself, "in the spirit of [his] divisions, somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Norman M "In the Spirit of My Divisions"
Joseph McElroy has imagined himself, "in the spirit of [his] divisions, somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Norman Mailer."
Initially, this statement comes across as egotistical, given the relative status of the three authors. How many readers have even heard of McElroy, let alone read him? Of those who have read him, how many have read him critically enough to question his self-assessment?
On the other hand, what of his choice of author?
It's understandable that authors might aspire to the standards of Nabokov, especially ones who, like McElroy and Pynchon, are science-literate or numerate. They inject science and mathematics into both the subject matter and the form of their fiction.
However, why Mailer? What is the connection? How proximate are the two authors? Why does McElroy appear to rate Mailer so highly?
One of the reasons for McElroy's interest is the significance of confession in Mailer's works (not necessarily in a religious sense). Indeed, this mode of writing is equally present in "Lolita".
A lot of critics of "Lolita" tend to overlook the fact that it is effectively structured as a confession, even if it was never actually read during Humbert Humbert's life and therefore had no impact on any criminal proceedings (which would have been discontinued after he died while awaiting trial in prison).
In "The Armies of the Night", Mailer mentions that during the day preceding the night of Robert Kennedy's assassination, he [Mailer] was enjoying a dalliance or secret assignation with a woman. Having revealed this (almost, if not probably, unnecessarily), he adds, "Let us leave it at that."
You have to ask why, if he was going to leave it at that, he didn't leave it out altogether?
The only answer consistent with Mailer's character is his overwhelming sense of sexual and political braggadocio.
Something about this quality simultaneously attracted and repelled or disgusted McElroy.
Whatever we might think of Mailer now, he was a very public intellectual, a celebrity, a media personality, at a time when it was rare for authors in particular to enjoy such a profile outside their chosen art form.
McElroy refers to Mailer's self-disclosure as "an embarrassment of greed, but also an open assault on his own privacy."
Mailer craved the limelight, the attention, the enhancement it might offer his sex appeal and life.
It didn't matter that he might embarrass or disgrace himself. What mattered was the perception of machismo. If it was a public perception, all the better.
For all his creative virtuosity, McElroy doesn't strike me as the same sort of egotist as Mailer. He seems to have a genuine interest in the mechanisms and success of relationships. He writes about relationships as something you do with somebody, rather than something you do to somebody.
Mailer seemed to write about sexual relationships as if they were 15 round boxing matches that the male had to win, even if it meant that the conquest of the female might result in her death.
Occasionally, I wondered whether McElroy resembled Saul Bellow or William Gaddis in any material way.
While Bellow is not as macho as Mailer, I think that there is still a sense in which the solo man is dominant and a woman might be a convenient accessory for social events or status.
Compared with Gaddis, the concerns of metafiction are more omnipresent or at least waiting just around the corner, even if the manner of their execution sometimes threatens to unrail McElroy's fluid and elegant sentences.
McElroy arguably has more in common with the John Updike of "Couples" (absent the metafictional practices).
He seems to define a person, regardless of gender, as someone who is capable of, and ought to be having, a relationship of some kind, whatever the trauma or difficulty or inconvenience. For McElroy, the quality of the relationship is very much the measure of the person.
A Letter to a Dominant Male
"Ancient History" is structured as a letter to a dead man, Dom, who could be modelled on Mailer.
Dom has just suicided by defenestration. In "An American Dream", the protagonist kills his wife in the same way, and ends up outside on the ledge of an apartment building, wondering whether to jump.
McElroy's protagonist, Cy, walks into Dom's open apartment shortly after the police have left, sits down at his desk and starts to write a letter, which is the novel, using Dom's pen and paper.
There is a sense of urgency about the composition of the letter. The authorities or family members could walk in and discover Cy at any stage. In fact, at the exact half-way point, Dom's son-in-law removes the first half of the letter.
This epistolary form is the only stylistic issue I felt was unconvincing in conceit.
During the first few pages, the style is as crisp as a detective novel. However, it soon degenerates into a soliloquy, more like a recording of Cy's thoughts (though never a stream of consciousness: the sentences are too precisely crafted). It just doesn't sound like a story somebody would tell, either to an acquaintance or a stranger, certainly not in letter form.
At times, I wondered whether Cy was mentally unbalanced, at the very least a stalker. This angle isn't pursued, although this might simply be a product of the fact that it is a first person narrative.
Just like "Women and Men", "Ancient History" is set in an apartment building. It's a microcosm of society and the semi-public space in which both characters and readers are educated. In a way, the Building is the Bildung, and the Novel is a Buildingsroman.
Similarly, just as McElroy is interested in the relationships between people, he's interested in how they can be measured.
He describes them mathematically, and maps their coordinates on graph paper in accordance with Field Theory. Tripartite friendships are described in terms of the friends being equidistant. The proximity of C and D varies when A and B move closer.
This aspect of the novel warrants greater scrutiny. There are probably sophisticated mechanisms at work in the novel's structure that aren't immediately obvious. If so, they're still there for someone else to track.
To be honest, I didn't find this aspect of the novel particularly fascinating. I don't want to condemn McElroy to realism, but I think if he devoted less effort to metafiction, he would emerge with better fiction.
Spiral Bound Fiction
Still, the aspects that most appealed to me appear to be structured around mathematical parabolas and spirals.
The relationships occupy spaces that spiral from the magnitude of society at large, to the microcosm of the apartment building, to the 12th floor, to Dom's apartment, to his study, to his desk, to his pen and paper, to the mind of Cy, to his letter, to, finally, the novel itself.
McElroy is interested in not just time, but space. The two novels that I have read explore the poetics of space, both inside and outside, both inner and outer space (including spacecraft).
Sometimes, it seems as if McElroy is trying to pack too much sophistication and subtlety into his novel. He seems to be trying too hard, when he could sit back and trust his novel to do its job.
As you get towards the end, though, after many times wondering what the hell is going on and why, it all comes together. You feel that you have finally lifted the bonnet on the engine of his vehicle and you can appreciate the engineering in all of its precision and beauty. However, many readers would not last the distance.
Man of Letters
McElroy shares another flaw with Norman Mailer, though not to the same degree.
The latter tried too hard to tie himself to the Zeitgeist, by endeavouring, self-consciously, to define and embody it. Now, decades later, it's very easy for his writing and preoccupations to seem dated. Time has moved on. So have ways of seeing.
The very fact that Mailer symbolised so much to McElroy begs the question why (as much as he is one of my literary keystones). Surely it is more than a fascination with the dual perspective of a public intellectual?
As it turns out, Cy's letter is much more about his own Ancient History, and his own confession. Still, you have to question whether it would have been a better novel without the implied need to incorporate traces of Mailer's macho Weltanschauung.
I don't know enough about McElroy personally. However, on the basis of his writing, I suspect that he is at heart a shy person, a relative introvert, who is more comfortable in the guise of a man of letters in contrast to Mailer's ostensible man of action. Ultimately, we only need one Norman Mailer. It would be illuminating to see even more of the real Joseph McElroy, a unique man of letters, in his own work. ...more
Notes are private!
May 08, 2014
May 11, 2014
Mar 22, 2014
Jan 01, 1975
Mar 11, 2014
Beware of Hagiography
When an author is regarded as a master of the sentence, it's tempting to approach all of their works with the expectation that ev Beware of Hagiography
When an author is regarded as a master of the sentence, it's tempting to approach all of their works with the expectation that every single sentence will be equally masterful.
In Gass' own words, we're prone to "plait flowers in [our] hero's pubic hair."
However, while a poem might strive to achieve this demanding standard, it's much more difficult for prose, whether fiction or not, to maintain it.
"On Being Blue” is divided into four parts. In the first half of part III, I started to question its merit, even to respond "so what?" It had ceased to please me.
In retrospect, this was probably when Gass’ subject matter was most familiar, his exposition most methodical and potentially least impressionistic and imaginative.
By the second half and in part IV, he pulled his inquiry together, and his prose continued to amaze.
Beware of Preconceptions
It might help to avoid some of the preconceptions that I had.
While it occasionally touches on it, "On Being Blue" is not primarily about melancholy, sadness, depression or tristesse.
It is not so much about the suffering of the Self. It is more about the relationship of the Self with its Object, with an Other, and the extent that this might be sexual.
It’s the blue in blue movies, blue stockings, the aspects of life that are described in terms of birds and bees and flowers, that are too often censored or blue-pencilled out of the blue-print for humanity or propriety.
In a sense, “On Being Blue” is a rebellion against the tendency of straight-laced white conservatism and convention to expel the blue from their midst.
Gass set himself the task of understanding how this occurs from a social, literary and philosophical point of view.
This doesn’t mean that Gass wanted to promote the writing of pornography. He is the first to acknowledge how difficult it is to write convincingly and authentically about something that is so familiar to us all.
He simply wants to win back the freedom to engage with all aspects of life in person and in literature, to return colour to what has been bleached out of life.
He urges us, "don’t find yourself clergy’d out of choir and chorus…[we must win back the freedom to] sing and say," if we’re to avoid a world where "everything is grey."
The Methodology of Blue
Gass describes five ways by which sex enters literature:
1. the direct depiction of sexual material.
2. the use of sexual words.
3. the displacement of sex from life (e.g., by indirection, symbolism, metaphor or euphemism).
4. the analogy of the “skyblue eye” that for prudes signifies insinuation, innuendo and indecency.
5. the use of language like a lover, "… not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs."
To this discussion, Gass adds two methodological or strategic concerns:
1. three functions (or what he says a Marxist might describe as "modes of production") for blue words, which he explains in terms of the verbs use, mention and utter.
2. three motives for using blue words or material in literature from the point of view of the reader, the writer and the work itself. (In summary, they allow a reader to spy, they allow a writer to fashion a voyeur into a reader who sings, and they constitute the work itself as a body of some beauty that can be celebrated in its own right (this is a "love that brings its own birth with it" and which might effectively replace blue things with blue words).
I won't go into any detail on these seven issues, except to say that he works through them methodically, giving examples from literature, from the likes of Rabelais and personal favourite contemporaries, like John Barth, Stanley Elkin and John Hawkes.
At times, it's difficult to follow the thread or sequence of his arguments. However, the following statement is a good example of what Gass seemed to be saying:
"...sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved…"
The Philosophy of Blue
Gass argues that the rejection of colour in general and blue in particular is a product of the philosophical opposition of an object’s essence and its qualities.
The essence is detected by reason, while qualities appeal to our senses (which are irrational):
"Reason is so swift to slander the senses that even Hume did not escape, replacing shadow, mood and music, iris and jay, with a scatter of sense impressions artificial as buttons: each distinct, inert, each intense, each in self-absorbed sufficiency and narrowly circumscribed disorder like a fistful of jelly beans tossed among orphans or an army of ants in frightened retreat."
Gass advocates ”blue for blue’s sake…praise is due blue, the preference of the bee.”
Blue contrasts domesticity with intimacy: "Let her wash her greens, I go where it’s blue." He even quotes the similarly euphonious James Joyce in "Ulysses":
"Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers."
Living in the Country of the Blue
As writers, Gass and Joyce allow us to get blue beneath the fictitious sheets of literature.
The blue celebrates life, and blue writing is intrinsically celebratory, if well executed:
"It is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual; it is not easy to structure the consciousness of the reader with the real thing, to use one wonder to speak of another, until in the place of the voyeur who reads we have fashioned the reader who sings; but the secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose it is to create conceptual perceptions – blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of the imagination, the mind at gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks, and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define."
Gass ends by entrusting his book to his wife, Mary, for safekeeping, on behalf of ”all those who live in the country of the blue.”
The Preference of the Bee
[Assembled from the Words of William H. Gass]
I remember best the weed which grew between the steps...the mind at gleeful hop and scotch...she is still preparing salad at the sink...leaves like hanging lanterns...foliage like mascara'd eyes in midwink...the snicker and giggle of ink...what good is my peek at her pubic hair...martini on the tongue...cleavage for the eye... a deep blue crack as wide as any in a Roquefort...split like paper tearing...the self that in the midst of pitch and toss has slipped away...like a lucky penny fallen from a dresser...a cool flute blue tastes like deep well water drunk from a cup...a muff, a glove, a stocking, the glass a lover's lips have touched...praise is due blue, the preference of the bee…
Miles Davis - "So What" [from the album "A Kind of Blue"]
Miles Davis & John Coltrane - "So What" [Live in 1959]
Lou Reed - "Pale Blue Eyes" [Live in 1998]
Orange Juice - "Blue Boy"
The Sound of Young Scotland channelling the Velvets!
Elvis Costello - "Almost Blue" [Live]
Joni Mitchell - "Blue"
Buffalo Springfield - "Bluebird" [Rare Long Version]
Notes are private!
Jun 27, 2014
Jun 28, 2014
Mar 15, 2014
Ms. Flirtworthy, I Presume
At just under 240 pages, this isn't a long or difficult book, but it is hugely enjoyable and rewarding at multiple levels.
At Ms. Flirtworthy, I Presume
At just under 240 pages, this isn't a long or difficult book, but it is hugely enjoyable and rewarding at multiple levels.
At one level, you can read it as a first person narration of a 75 year old woman (Dora Chance) that is hilarious, vulgar, witty and dynamic.
It's like sitting Mae West in front of a microphone and plying her with alcohol. The stories, street wisdom, wise-cracking, jokes and double entendres just pour out of her endlessly.
I've met this kind of woman before, at cocktail parties, a long time ago. If you enjoy flirtation, nobody in the room could possibly be more flirtworthy. (I don't mean flirtation in any way other than the sheer pleasure of good company and good conversation.)
At first, you approach them tentatively and gently, as if they might be quaint, thinking they'll only last one martini, and they'll want or need to catch a cab home. Then you realise that, as the twinkle surfaces and remains in their eye, they can handle their liquor better than you. They're the life of the party, not you. They're the speaker, you're just the listener. They're the author, you're just the reader.
They've had more practice, and besides, they have more and better stories to tell than you. Slowly, drink by drink, they better you. Without doubt, they've met better men than you, too. They might forget you, but you will never forget them.
I used to live next to two twins like this. We used to attend monthly Art Gallery functions, when the Gallery still paid for drinks and hors d'oeuvres. We always caught a cab home together, if I could handle the pace.
Brush Up on Your Shakespeare
At another level, this novel is an extremely sophisticated project. Its five chapters function like a five act play. It appropriates themes and tropes from just about every Shakespearean play in existence (except perhaps two?).
It really is an exercise that proves, if you brush up on your Shakespeare, you can achieve something breathtaking and remarkable. Well, at least Angela Carter could.
Shakespeare is the foundation upon which the novel is built. Well, his theatre is. As we fast-forward into the present, Dora reveals to us her life in theatre, music hall, song and dance, and ultimately film of the Hollywood variety.
Dora proves that all the world's a stage. I don't really know to whom the stage belonged in Shakespeare's age. It wasn't just Shakespeare and Co. However, increasingly, entertainment has been taken over by the supposed deal makers. The playwrights have been pushed into the background, as have the actors and actresses. In a way, Dora/Angela asserts the value of the person, the storyteller, the actor, the one who gets up on stage, the one who acts the part, the one who acts a goat, the one who entertains.
Doesn't Feel like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag
As narrated by a 75 year old woman, you have to wonder whether this is all nostalgia, a requiem for a time that has passed.
Yet Carter's prose beats with the biggest heart you can conceive. This is no "feels like I'm fixin' to die rag".
This is a tale told by someone who is determined to eke the most out of their life until the very last heartbeat.
What a Joy It Is!
I could tell you about the difference between a Hazard and a Chance. I could tell you that Dora has an identical twin, Nora, and I could tell you about all of the other twins and all of the scope for mistaken identity that this creates, not to mention the uncertainty about paternity (and maternity, believe it or not).
But what I really want to tell you about is the joy that runs through this novel, these five chapters, like a river.
"So Long as Men Can Breathe, or Eyes Can See, So Long Lives This, and This Gives Life to Thee"
After all is said and done, Dora proclaims:
"What a joy it is to dance and sing!"
She's right, of course. If you make the effort to dance and sing.
But isn't that what life is about?
When you read that last sentence, you look back on the novel in its entirety and you marvel at the effort that went into it. The effort that was required to be precisely this hilarious, this vulgar, this witty, this dynamic, this wise.
It's OK for a writer to be praised for the quality of their sentences. But here is someone who writes great sentences, great paragraphs, great chapters, great novels.
Angela Carter never relaxes the pressure on herself in this novel. Only the best will do.
Then you realise that for almost the whole time she was writing this novel, she knew that she had lung cancer and that it would take her life within 12 months.
There isn't one iota of self-pity in this novel. It asserts that tragedy is something that happens to other people (even if comedy might also be a tragedy that happens to someone else).
But most importantly, it asserts that tragedy isn't so much a life that ends (for this happens to us all), but a life that is wasted.
Angela Carter wrote to the very end, partly so that her two sons might have a better life, but so that we might too.
Ironically, or perhaps not, both Shakespeare and Carter died around the time of their 52nd birthdays.
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Jan 18, 2015
Jan 22, 2015
Mar 15, 2014
Sep 01, 1968
Nov 01, 1985
The Object is to Get the Best of Both Worlds
I wanted to write you something impossible.
It occurs to me there are many alternative strategies you can The Object is to Get the Best of Both Worlds
I wanted to write you something impossible.
It occurs to me there are many alternative strategies you can employ to read this novel (which was first published in 1968, not that there's any inkling of the Summer of Love). So let’s start.
Imagine a spider web. There are several ways you can approach a spider web. You can encounter it unseen, unexpectedly, and recoil. You can detect it shining radiantly in the spring morning sun and admire it. You can return later, having forgotten it, and become entangled. “Impossible Object” is an exquisitely spun metafiction, not unlike a spider web. Having finished it, having the latter parts inform the earlier parts retroactively, you want to return to the beginning and start again. You want to get entangled. Let’s start again.
The novel is a post-modern sequel to Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” in which a latterday Ramsay family embarks on a boat ride, without procrastination, but with tragic consequences. Let’s start again.
The novel is an impossible object written for a loved one and for us: “I wanted to write you something impossible, like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two;by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality. A mirror is held to the back of the head and one's hand has to move the opposite way from what was intended.” Let’s start again.
There are eight stories. With no effort at the truth, I’m going to give four of the characters names (for they are not all named). Nick is an unmarried writer. Harry is married to Elizabeth, but is having an adulterous affair with Natalie. Much of their affair occurs in a pub near the British Museum, which is frequented by Nick, while he is researching a biography on Nietzsche. Harry might be a conductor, a writer or the owner of a pirate radio station. Natalie might be a flautist or a poet.
Nick ends up writing voyeuristic stories about Harry and Natalie. Harry ends up writing a story about Nick. Natalie writes a story about Harry. However, there is a sneeking suspicion that Nick is Harry (“You can’t exist! Or you’re myself. You see how this is impossible!”), and that the stories about Harry and Natalie are narrated by Nick, so that Harry can write about himself in the third person. Or are they written by Nick, so that he can write about himself in the third person? Or did one person write all of the stories? And was that person, let's face it, Nicholas Mosley? Let’s start again.
This is the story of a love affair, not to be confused with the 1950 film by Michaelangelo Antonioni. Let’s start again. This is the story of a love story, not to be confused with a 1973 film by John Frankenheimer called “Story of a Love Story”, or is it? It is after all based on the novel and a script by Nicholas Mosley. Let’s start again.
You can read all of this and conclude, “That’s impossible”. The temptation is to cut out the fabrication and be left with the reality. In Frankenheimer’s script conferences, people said, “But look here, Nicholas, when all is said and done, what we have here is just a good straightforward love story!” The temptation is to say, “Love should be simple; truth should be all-of-a-piece. But if in fact they are not – then it is the temptation that causes delusion. Look around you: are not humans either tip-toeing along, or flat on the ground underneath, a tightrope?” Let’s start again.
Mosley wrote the novel when he was 44. Nick travels to Turin to research the city where Nietzsche went mad. He (Nietzsche) was 44 at the time. Nick also has an affair with an Alberto Moravia-styled Italian woman named Hippolyta, who seems to be as voluptuous as Nietzsche’s muse, Lou Andreas-Salomé.
Harry, on the other hand, is obsessed by a young woman with black hair who is at the same time mythical like Cleopatra. She too “had the sensuality of opposites – the youth and experience, the leanness and voluptuousness, which invited both protection and sadism.” Let’s start again.
There is no life without opposites. Love is cursed by opposites: “There is perhaps no love without power…You cannot force them, you can only let them grow… But love is total… It runs you...You can’t expect miracles. You trust.”
Love makes us desire the impossible. Harry wanted to “maintain the ecstasy.” Yet, Natalie, being practical, wanted “a life that was whole, that would have a future and not be impossible.”
Between them, Mosley is trying to convince us that all life is impossible; it’s shaped by fabrications; but we have to excise or exorcise them, in our thought processes and behaviour, in the way we approach them, in the hope that what emerges is reality. Somehow, “the object is to get the best of both worlds.”
Still, there isn't necessarily a happy ending. In fact, there's a soul-destroying ending that is so prolonged and powerful in its impact that it makes you forget this is a Post-modern Fiction. This is how it would be if the novel had a happy ending: Two dancers would come in front of the curtain and hold hands.
Let’s start again. Hold on tight. I wanted to write you something impossible. It recurs to me…
"Nietzsche said that everything goes round and round…as if everything that we do were such that we were going to go on doing it for ever...
"I knew that he always thought that life could be refashioned and go on, but I thought that it should not. There are some things for which one cannot be forgiven."
Nietzsche's concept of Eternal Recurrence:
"Cube with Magic Ribbons" (1957) by M. C. Escher
J.S. Bach - "Flute Concerto in g-minor"
Master Musicians of Joujouka
Rolling Stones - "Continental Drift"
Rolling Stones - "Can You Hear The Music?"
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”: Friedrich Nietzsche
Nicholas Mosley - "Writing Life Pt 4"
Notes are private!
Feb 22, 2014
Feb 25, 2014
Feb 14, 2014
Mar 17, 1997
Virgin Marya, Marionette
Montparnasse. 1928. Narrow, sordid streets full of “shabby parfumeries, second-hand book-stalls, cheap hat-shops, bars freque Virgin Marya, Marionette
Montparnasse. 1928. Narrow, sordid streets full of “shabby parfumeries, second-hand book-stalls, cheap hat-shops, bars frequented by gaily-painted ladies and loud-voiced men…” There are rumours of Bolshevist plots and scares.
Marya is “a pretty girl, but a girl who thinks too much.” She’s not a particularly sad person by nature, but she longs to be safe and happy.
Pre-Existentialism, “her existence, though delightful, was haphazard.” It lacked “solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background.”
Her husband has been sent to prison for twelve months. She contemplates her room without him: “Empty it looked and full of shadows.” She receives an offer of accommodation from apparent Good Samaritans, Hugh and Lois Heidler. Compared to their sophistication, Marya is like an animal, strange, hurt, strayed – “one not quite of the fold.”
Hugh places his hand possessively on her knee, and so starts a beautiful, but appalling, muddle, a game, a vague procession, a merry-go-round, yet hidden under the surface is “a vague and shadowy fear of something cruel and stupid that had caught her and would never let her go.”
Lois thinks she can detect the real Marya: “If I were you, I’d hate, loathe, detest everybody safe, everybody with money in the bank.” It’s her way of putting her in her place, of asserting authority and superiority.
Money makes all the difference. “Without money, Paris is as rotten as anywhere else and worse.” Initially, Marya is conscious of “the essential craziness of existence,” though she draws a subtle distinction: “I’m not sick of myself. I’m rather sick of my sort of life.”
Hugh and Lois seem to have everything: a marriage, an apartment, money and an “[excessively modern] arrangement”: “Lois and I each go our own way…after all, we’re in Paris.”
On the other hand, Lois regards Marya as “too virtuous,” so the game proceeds to the next level with a challenge to her virtue, an invitation that makes of her a “naïve sinner.” In return, she receives comfort and safety, though it too often seems like a new unreality, one where she experiences “the fright of a child shut up in a dark room, [the] fright of an animal caught in a trap.”
She feels like a marionette. Just as her strings might lift her, they can drop her into the abyss, they can lead to her fall as well. The challenge then is whether she can climb out of the blackness.
Published 38 years apart, this short novel shares many of the concerns of “Wide Sargasso Sea.” The Paris works of Jean Rhys deserve to be thought of in the company of the diaries and fiction of Anais Nin and Henry Miller. However, there is also a sense in which she deftly portrays Existentialism from a woman’s point of view. ...more
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Jan 23, 2014
Jan 24, 2014
Jan 18, 2014
Dec 18, 2013
Dec 18, 2013
PENDING A REVIEW:
"Je Ne Suis Pas Plus Con Qu’un Autre"
I was excited to learn that Professor Lucie Garaye , Director of Research at the Centre Nationa PENDING A REVIEW:
"Je Ne Suis Pas Plus Con Qu’un Autre"
I was excited to learn that Professor Lucie Garaye , Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherche Erotique, has written a short review of Chanteclaire Coquine’s short story, "Lucite", on her blog"
"I can think of no better example of what I mean when I say 'l'ecriture feminine' or 'l'imaginaire feminine' than 'Lucite'. In fact, she has taken these cuntcepts one step further than even I had ever imagined.
"Women have been taught to think of the phallus as the primary tool in civilization and themselves and their genitalia as a lack or an absence (of such a tool).
"Chanteclaire Coquine objectifies her own minette as a source of energy and dynamism. It has an appetite for seduction that will not desist until it is filled full. Yet, once is not enough, and fulfilment requires more.
Initially, Chanteclaire’s narratrix relates to her minette as 'tu', yet they embark together on a quest that ultimately can only be satisfied by the Sapphic verse works of Polymethyl Methacrylate .
"At the moment of climax, she and her lips come together. She gets back in touch with herself. 'Tu' becomes part of 'nous' . What started as an Object becomes part of the Subject. Their pleasure consists of moving and being moved by each other, endlessly. Her minette is openness in perpetual motion. Always in movement, this openness is neither spent nor sated. This is the plight of women, but it is also our pleasure."
Object and Subject Become One
Notes are private!
Dec 21, 2013
Mar 22, 2005
Love Both Possible and Opposed
I don’t know whether I should tell you my judgement or just my impressions.
Marias captures your attention from the very Love Both Possible and Opposed
I don’t know whether I should tell you my judgement or just my impressions.
Marias captures your attention from the very first moment he opens his mouth or puts pen to paper (or rather, presses the first key on his Olympia Carrera de Luxe typewriter). It’s like being at a dinner table and discovering that an infinitely more interesting guest is also in attendance, or sitting down in a cinema and realizing that this could be the best film you will see all year.
Another man of feeling has only one decision to make: whether or not to remain present, enjoy the experience and learn from it. A woman of feeling can only hope that she is the object of desire, whether obscure or discreet or obvious.
The relationship between the characters is essentially triangular (although one additional man, Dato, plays the role of companion). The narrator is an up and coming tenor singer, the future "Lion of Naples", who first observes Natalia and her husband, Heironimo Manur, a wealthy banker, on a train. No words are exchanged, but the narrator closely scrutinizes and judges them as they sleep.
The great talent of Marias’ first person narrators is that they see, study, analyse, define, judge everything around them minutely, precisely, exactly, then they return to dream about it, and all of this occurs in exquisite, word-perfect language. They miss none of the richness of experience around them and, as a result, neither do we. Despite all of the beauty on evidence, nothing is presented to us as superficial. Marias offers us both breadth and depth of vision.
The two men quickly become rivals for the love of Natalia. We learn little about her, except through the judgment of the men. She is portrayed “in a very diffuse way, as if through a veil”. She is beautiful, but melancholy, because she has become an object of subjugation. If she changes her status, will she escape subjection or replicate it?
The narrator’s only dilemma is whether to destroy his rival or merely supplant him. The husband wants to perpetuate what he has, the narrator wants to violently cancel it. He wants to stage a coup, or mount a revolution.
For the latter, love is tiring. He is always striving, planning, longing. The former, the husband, draws a line, digs in and perseveres. Heironimo wants to maintain the old order, to keep what he believes he has "bought" and what therefore "belongs" to him. The narrator wants to usurp his position. As in business, one man’s gain is another man’s loss. They are like two competitors fighting over the one market.
Sometimes, it’s questionable whether either of them even loves Natalia. It’s become a man thing. It's a competition, a game, in which they contemplate trading places. Still, regardless of who "wins", Natalia might be trapped in melancholy dissolution. It’s not a clear choice between submission and adulation.
Marias shows us a love that is either anticipated or remembered, but is not experienced in the present tense.
Marias asks whether for these characters at least, apart from memory, love can only exist in the realm of possibility and the imagination. Is it only the fact that our wishes are not yet fulfilled that continues to drive us? Do we stop trying when we think we've acquired the object of our desire? Do we cease to cultivate love when we believe that we have it?
What then is the measure of a man of feeling when he loses his sense of perseverance? Even if we are fortunate enough to gain love now, for how long will we possess it? And how will we deal with its loss?
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the winner now will be later to lose. The present now will later be past. For the times, they are a’changin'.
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Mar 14, 2014
Mar 16, 2014
Dec 17, 2013
Jul 01, 1994
She Doesn't Exist Anymore
Inside the whale of a modern Western State, narratrix Mira Eketei imagines different personae or manifestations of herself, d She Doesn't Exist Anymore
Inside the whale of a modern Western State, narratrix Mira Eketei imagines different personae or manifestations of herself, different characters, living at different times, past, present and future.
One predicts she will be made redundant from her academic position, so much of the novel projects the future, even if it doesn't look forward to it.
Just as time pushes the present into the past eternally, the future that Mira tensely anticipates (forever in the future/subjunctive mood) obliterates the past.
Our focus is so much about what is just around the corner in front of us, that we have begun to ignore both the present and the past.
We live in heightened anticipation, always trying to get a purchase on the future. We need capital to consume, only we don't save in the present to spend in the future. We spend in the present and the future out of borrowed capital that we intend to repay in the future future.
As a result, the present is little more than a constant barrage of possible futures and acquisitions that we grasp as if we were drinking water directly from a fire hydrant.
Talk back radio and current affairs television (and now the web) are our primary sources of information, well, pseudo-information...it doesn't have to be true, it hasn't happened yet. (Newspapers traditionally sell more in the lead-up to a Budget, when it is all speculation, than they do after the Budget has been delivered, when everything is known.)
With so much focus on the future and its technological infrastructure, there is no time left for the past. History is outdated, outmoded, irrelevant, useless, obsolete, as are its practitioners.
Equally, if we survive and thrive on technologically-infused dreams of the future, there is no present or future role for those who create visions of the past (usually in past tense, though intended to inform the present): writers, poets, musicians, film-makers, even more or less so, critics.
So Mira, in all her guises, visualises, fantasises, creates, alone, in her own mind, in not just a room of her own, but a home of her own, well, perhaps a pig farm in the country.
Brooke-Rose uses the term "redundant" to describe not just the extinguishment of employment status, but the du- or multi-plication of functionality, ostensibly in case of failure, the capacity to replace and be replaced. In the future, nothing is irreplacable. Especially characters. And each new character brings their own plot.
From these ingredients, Brooke-Rose concocts a rich, visionary, almost dystopian, soup. She juggles an enormous number of narrative, stylistic and theoretical balls in the air, without ever hesitating or dropping any.
Few, if any, authors have understood our present (her future, as it turned out), let alone our future, more insightfully than her.
Like Pynchon and DeLillo, she writes in a style designed especially for now. Sadly, she doesn't exist anymore, except in her writings and our minds. Her books remain a gift from the past to the present. She has given us a present, our present.
Authority Demolishes Stately Family Home
Those who would control the future
Must make the past redundant and
History irrelevant to the stories
That we strive hard to tell today.
"I Will Sing Tales of Love and Legend"
Tonight, we’ll make love beneath
Constellations flush with stars,
All named for Gods and Goddesses,
Nebulous and magnificent,
Cassiopeia, Orion, Andromeda.
You, my substitute lover, Agamemnon,
And I, Cassandra, your little Sandy,
Alias Mira Enketei, also known as ME.
Like matter and anti-matter,
We’ll make contact and explode.
Aspiring to the happy status of
In a novel made up by
The author, Christine Brooke-Rose,
Perhaps unheeded and unhinged.
Tomorrow, I’ll be the first person to be
Redundant, while the past will cease
To be apart, merged with the present, then
Annulled by the future, as if foreseen.
I will disappear beneath you,
Obedient Slave to your Master,
Two Hegelian moral imps,
In relentless disputation
And antagonistic direlogue.
Man might believe he is salvation,
But still denies the worth of woman.
Hence, no female should conceal the fact
That love can be a big mixtake in
The revillusionary madlanes
Of her telematic memory.
Annette Peacock - "My Momma Never Taught Me How to Cook"
"I say, Hey, man! My destiny is not to serve. I'm a woman. My destiny is to create."
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 - "She Doesn't Exist"
Magazine - "Vigilance"
"I'm in love with everything that's been left unsaid."
Magazine - "Sweetheart Contract"
Magazine - "You Never Knew Me"
"I don't want to turn around
And find I'd got it wrong
Or that I should have been laughing all along
You're what keeps me alive
You're what's destroying me
Do you want the truth or
Do you want your sanity?"
Luxuria - "Redneck"
"I am a major prophet
I'm heaven and hell bent strong
I am the height of a sign
Wide of the mark
Deep as the Amazon
Feel my wild sadness blowing down
Feel my wild sadness blowing
All the way down
I stand before you
In full possession of the facts
I make no use of effects
No use for clever counterbalancing acts
I've broken every bone of meaning
In this body and this soul
I've bought knowledge
At the cost of a complete
Loss of self-control"
Wire - "Mannequin"
Notes are private!
Apr 26, 2014
Apr 29, 2014
Nov 07, 2013
Feb 25, 1997
Jul 28, 1998
Walking the Serrated Edges of Intimacy
"I looked at the ceiling, as if its cracks would let in crevices of some weird heaven. "
Zoe spends her twenties Walking the Serrated Edges of Intimacy
"I looked at the ceiling, as if its cracks would let in crevices of some weird heaven. "
Zoe spends her twenties progressing from speed freak punk chick, via post-punk detox good looks, to psycho existentialist, while experimenting in emotionless fucking with anyone who has a perverted appeal: "Sometimes the grotesque is incredibly erotic."
90's New York is like the 50's Morocco of William Burroughs and Paul Bowles where "Brilliant White Perverts" come "to churn out books and fuck half the population."
It’s a literary, introspective and incestuous milieu: "The poets were all fucking one another and writing about it," which describes Zoe’s "diary" perfectly, although professionally her role is to punch out erotic "fuck books" for $500 apiece.
She describes her fucks as "lovers", but it’s clear that there’s nothing more fulfilling than desire and lust going down. Not even friendship: "He is my lover. He is not really a friend. I have friends for that." And again: "[we] used to be lovers and are still sexually attracted to and emotionally dependent on each other, but we refuse to love each other. We save that for people different from us."
Zoe comes to realise that this is emotional idiocy. But how do you escape it? And when? Are we somehow perversely content to be emotional idiots now, maybe even just a little bit longer? Can we perpetuate this lifestyle through our thirties? Should we wait until our forties to get "serious"? What is the allure of the alternative? Is it worth it?
At times, the novel comes across as post-punk chick lit (with enough skill to place the emphasis on lit). Mostly, it's an hilarious catalogue of sexual adventures and misadventures, although when it deigns to get a little more reflective, it asks the right questions.
What do we all seek when we seek love? Do we crave a fairy tale, no matter how savvy and streetwise we think we are? Can lust and love be found in the one person? Can a friend be a lover? Can a lover be a friend? Can real life be fantastic? Does familiarity breed discontent?
"There’s no suspension of disbelief. I know you too well. You know me. That makes it awkward. I can’t project onto you. It won’t work. Not now...In ten years...[maybe] we’ll be tired of being Idiots. We’ll fuck each other senseless and love each other, too. But not now."
This first novel is equally contemporary to the last three or four decades, but still speedy, fun and relevant.
Maggie Estep has a unique, indie, alternative-cultural voice. I can't wait to see how she's utilised and developed it since this first novel was published in 1997.
"He smoothed my hair and kissed the back of my head. In doing so, he let in Tenderness, and our Experiment in Emotionless Fucking had come to an end. There was a feeling between us."
"Stay Away, Come Closer, Baby"
Maggie Estep - "Emotional Idiot" (on Def Jam Poetry)
Maggie Estep - "Happy" (on Def Jam Poetry)
Maggie Estep - "Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere" (on MTV)
Romeo Void - "Never Say Never"
Romeo Void - "Never Say Never"  [ReWorked]
Notes are private!
Jan 04, 2014
Jan 09, 2014
Oct 28, 2013
Mar 14, 2011
Mar 14, 2011
The Glass Canoe
I sit in the public bar of the Story Bridge and I look into my glass canoe, and this is what I see. It's a Coopers Pale Ale, draught fr The Glass Canoe
I sit in the public bar of the Story Bridge and I look into my glass canoe, and this is what I see. It's a Coopers Pale Ale, draught from the tap, cold, and it's cloudy, but fine. I lift my glass and bring it back down on the bar, and I watch the sediment spread up the middle of the glass and start to fall again. It's a Sunday, and the old timers' jazz band stops, thank heavens, and I see two women leave the bar and walk into the carpark. One of them is wearing a fur coat, blonde hair, bob, she looks too good for the Bridge. Richie keeps an eye on my pot, while I head out into the carpark. "You don't come here often," I say. She laughs. "That's the first time I've heard that line...how could you tell?" "I come here often and I've never seen you before...not that I wasn't looking." Later that night in bed, Wen tells me she's a futures dealer. "How are you going to deal with my future then?" She looks me up and down professionally. "Sorry, I can't give you financial advice, until I determine your risk profile." "That's easy," I say, "It's high." "Good," she replies, "So is mine." I think for the briefest of introspective moments. "So what have I got to do to establish a relationship?" She laughs. "Well, for a start, you could make a deposit into my trust account." I slide back between her arms in a bid to comply.
(view spoiler)[Post-Modern Spoiler (Utilising Second Person Narrative Mode)
I wake at 6:00am and it's still dark. Damn, it's a public holiday and I don't need to go to work. I could have got a bit more shut-eye. I reach over to your side of the bed. You're not there, but there's a handwritten note on your pillow. "Gone to gym, back at 7:30, if you'd fancy breakfast afterwards." I doze on until 7:00, when I feel the bed sheets being pressed tightly against my chest and throat. It's still dark. I suspect you're being playful, but it's starting to hurt. My grin dissipates as my eyes finally flicker open, and I see someone who is not you. I exclaim, "Judge!" He holds the sheets tighter. Then he shouts, "What the fuck are you doing in my wife's bed?" Um, um, words fail me. I'm sure he won't believe me if I say I was cleaning the windows and I suddenly got really tired. He knows I'm a defence counsel. "Get out, Graye." "I'm sorry, Judge. I didn't know..." "On your bike." "Um, I didn't ride here." He doesn't find this amusing. I can't see my clothes. They're gone. "Well, you're going to have to run home then, aren't you? Butt naked." I look at my watch. Half an hour of darkness left. I could get home, before anybody else is on the road, it being a public holiday. I catch the lift down to ground floor, fortunately nobody sees me. Then in the lobby, I notice a gold Mercedes Convertible sitting in the driveway with the passenger's seat open, facing the entry. How am I going to get past without noticing? I decide the only answer is, quickly. And I start to run, genitalia swinging like dried chillis in the wind. You attract my attention from the driver's seat. You're laughing. My clothes are sitting neatly folded in the passenger's seat. "Get in and get decent. I've got a table booked at Piaf." Confused, I ask, "What about the Judge...I mean your husband?" "Haha, is that what he said? Steve's not my husband, he's my neighbour. But he can be helpful when I need him. He has such an authoritative air, don't you think?" I look at you again. You still look amused. Your hair is beautiful. I feel like Eggs Benedict. I might even have a Bloody Mary. It's too early to go back to the Story Bridge for a beer. (hide spoiler)]
Part of the mural at Piaf Restaurant, South Bank, Brisbane
David Ireland's "The Glass Canoe" [Unburied]
"And now and then, as they drank deeply, they saw in the bottom of the glass, not the face of the man they knew, but the monster within that was waiting and all too willing to be released."
"I went to the bar to get us a small fleet of glass canoes to take us where we wanted to go. I thought of the tribes across Australia, each with its own waterhole, its patch of bar, its standing space, its beloved territory. It was a great life."
Thank You, Nathan
This short story is only a few pages long and is freely available from the New Yorker website:
Nathan brought it to my attention and effectively challenged me to write a suitable response.
In the meantime, Praj and Lit Bug had already done wonderful responses (which I managed to read only after I had written my own).
I encourage you to read Coover's story and respond in your own idiosyncratic way.
And when you've done that, don't forget that the man who was capable of such a wonderful story already has a substantial legacy of intelligent, imaginative, playful and humorous works available for our delectation.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Oct 09, 2013
Oct 09, 2013
Oct 08, 2013
Jan 01, 2013
Aug 19, 2013
What a delight!
But first, a disclosure: one of the authors of this collection of short stories is a close and valued GoodReads friend who ha Disclosure
What a delight!
But first, a disclosure: one of the authors of this collection of short stories is a close and valued GoodReads friend who has transitioned to the same status in real life. The other is possibly her closest life-long friend, so I feel as if this is a book written by two close friends, even though I don’t know the second author.
I paid for my digital copy, but was also gifted a digital copy. Go figure. Anyway this is my disclosure.
Stranded on My Own
I entered this book with as few preconceptions as I could muster. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I sat down to read and review it as if I did not know either author.
There are sixteen stories in this collection (despite the title), shared between the two authors.
I don’t want to differentiate between the work of the two authors. What is important is that they have weaved their creativity together like a two-stranded rope. Each strand might have been strong, but the two together are stronger.
They are also highly compatible in both subject matter and style.
The Introduction states that the tales "arose from photographs that sparked the authors’ imagination".
That might well be true, but in no way does it limit the ambition of the stories.
The initial impression of the collection is very realistic. Raymond Carver came to mind. So too in the Australian context, Peter Carey and Tim Winton.
The stories were all highly grounded, some in an Australian landscape, some in an American one.
However, bit by bit, you realise that the photos and the style are just the starting point of the adventure contained in each story.
They are the feet, and as you read on, as you survey the rest of the body, working upwards, you encounter the reactionary gut and then ultimately the rest of the mind, and in that mind lies expectation, ambition, hope, desire, love, disappointment, bewilderment.
The less grounded, the more mindful we become, but the mind is not a simple organ, it can look, gaze, embrace, imagine, dream, aspire, desire, plan, cheat, fabricate, hallucinate, panic, fear and delude itself.
I’m not necessarily thinking of alcohol or drugs or unreliable narration.
It’s as simple as what human relationships do to each participant. A relationship is something intangible between two tangible organisms. A lot can go wrong in the ether between them. It doesn’t matter whether they’re family or friends or lovers. The same forces seem to be at work.
This collection is concerned about what happens in the ether above ground level, in and between the minds of people like us, who appear to be grounded, but who in fact might just be a little unsound, living as we do in a world that is ruled over by blackbirds, a world that seems to have become a little Kafkaesque (if you don't mind me mixing my animalian metaphors).
Noble Accents and Lucid Rhythms
In the words of Wallace Stevens (from whose poem the title is derived), the authors know and write about the "noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms" of real life.
Which author is better, who do I prefer? I can’t say and it doesn’t matter. It’s one strand of rope, and the rope holds tight.
Perhaps, I should resort to Wallace Stevens again:
"I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after."
What's important is that in these tales, you will find both. But ultimately, either way, what you will find is beauty.
The Beatles – "Blackbird"
Crosby, Stills & Nash - "Black Bird (Live)"
Bettie Serveert – "Unsound"
Bettie Serveert – "Dreamaniacs"
Bettie Serveert – "You've Changed"
Notes are private!
Oct 11, 2013
Oct 11, 2013
Aug 26, 2013
Apr 26, 1990
Love’s Fierce Play
"Wide Sargasso Sea" is both a parallel novel with respect to "Jane Eyre" and a novel that could stand alone, if read with no knowl Love’s Fierce Play
"Wide Sargasso Sea" is both a parallel novel with respect to "Jane Eyre" and a novel that could stand alone, if read with no knowledge of the connection.
It explores the Caribbean background of the marriage of [Bertha] Antoinette Mason to an unnamed Englishman (presumably Edward Rochester) and their return to England, where she is confined to a room in a "great house" (or is it made, as she believes, of cardboard?).
Antoinette is a Creole, her origins being half-English and half-Martinique, but she is described as both white and beautiful.
The title of the novel isn’t overtly explained. However, it’s possible that, because the Sea is located between the West Indies (on the west) and Africa/Europe (on the east), it represents the gulf between the "civilized" world of England and its West Indian colony.
There is an equal gulf between Creoles and the race of each parent. They are accepted by neither race. Antoinette is regarded as a "white cockroach".
This social status as well as a head injury during her youth contribute to Antoinette’s ostensibly unsettled mental state at the time of her marriage. There are rumours of mental illness in her family ("Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother"; "a raging lunatic and worse besides"), although it’s arguable that there is no underlying physical cause of her state, apart from the social tensions which confront her locally, in her marriage and in England.
The geographical environment in which she lives is tropical and idyllic. It provides such simple pleasures for the inhabitants.
Colours and scents are vivid: the blue-green of the water, the orange, red and green of mangoes; the scent of frangipanis, cloves, cinnamon, roses, lime trees and orange blossoms.
Her husband promises her peace, happiness, safety (the same things Marya sought in the earlier Parisian novel, "Quartet"), but they are empty promises. For him, the marriage is little more than a marriage of convenience, designed to smooth over a rivalry over his own family’s estate and to find a home for Antoinette’s substantial wealth.
Rochester never really relates to the West Indies. At first, he acknowledges its beauty:
"It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, what I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing."
Its true appeal is not apparent to Western eyes. They look at it in purely financial terms: "Gold is the idol they worship." Soon, he views the forest as hostile, even thinking in terms of "enemy trees".
Colonialism has acquired something it doesn’t know how to deal with, just as, in marrying Antoinette, Rochester has started something he can’t finish. He defiles its and her beauty:
"I broke a spray off [the orchid] and trampled it into the mud. This brought me to my senses."
While the colonial message is front and centre, so is a feminist message:
"Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world."
Antoinette remains a stranger to Rochester, all the more so, because she comes from a strange land:
"I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and loveliness."
Soon, she is equally discontented with life in her homeland: "We were alone in the most beautiful place in the world." She hopes that things will improve in England, where she imagines "chandeliers and dancing, swans and roses and snow." Only there, Rochester continues to scorn her "blank hating moonstruck face."
Like the Paris of "Quartet", her English caretaker, Grace Poole, recognises that "the world outside...can be a black and cruel world to a woman... [That girl] lives in her own darkness...she hasn’t lost her spirit. She’s still fierce."
Still, Antoinette can see that they have lost their way on the "way to England." Something vital, love perhaps, mutual respect, if it ever existed, failed to survive the crossing of the wide Sargasso Sea.
Joanna Walsh's illustration for Chloe Pantazi's blog on Jean Rhys in the Paris Review.
I encourage you to read about Joanna's wonderful initiative, and equally wonderful graphic contributions to, "2014: The Year of Reading Women" here:
Notes are private!
Jan 18, 2014
Jan 26, 2014
Aug 15, 2013
Apr 29, 2003
I Never Met a Physician Who Wasn’t Descended from a Greek
This might just be the work that put the "meta-" (at least the "metafiction") in "metaphysics I Never Met a Physician Who Wasn’t Descended from a Greek
This might just be the work that put the "meta-" (at least the "metafiction") in "metaphysics".
Plato’s name is attached to it, but its principal focus is Socrates. And guess what? Socrates doesn’t so much elaborate on his own views as (1) recount the views of others (especially those of the female philosopher Diotima) and (2) indirectly reveal his views by his conduct and his responses to the views of others (especially the taunts of Alcibiades).
Even the concept of "Platonic Love" could possibly be more accurately attributed to Socrates, but more likely to Diotima.
In fact, I wonder whether this work proves that the Greek understanding of Love (as we comprehend it) actually owes more to women than men.
The Epismetology of the Word "Symposium"
Despite being familiar with the word for decades, I had no idea that "symposium" more or less literally means a "drinking party" or "to drink together".
In Socrates’ time, it was like a toga party for philosophers.
It’s great that this learned tradition was reinvigorated by Pomona College in 1953. How appropriate that Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance. Of course, many of us will remember our first experience of a toga party from the film "Animal House".
More recently, perhaps in tribute to the film, the concept has transformed into a "frat party" (notice the derivation from the masculine word "fraternity"), which Urban Dictionary defines in its own inimitable way:
"A sausage fest with douchebag frat boys who let a lot of girls in and hardly any guys so they can slip date rape drugs into the girls’ drinks and have sex with them because obviously they can't rely on their charm."
If you substitute philosophers for frat boys, young boys for young girls, and wine and mead for date rape drugs, then you have the recipe for "The Symposium".
I should mention one other aspect of the plot (sorry about the spoiler, but the work is 2,400 years old today, so you've had enough time to catch up), and that is that Socrates appears to have attended two symposia over the course of two consecutive days.
In those days, future philosophers were counselled to embrace alternating alcohol-free days.
In breach of this medical advice, Socrates and his confreres turn up to this Symposium hung-over from the previous night. As a result, there was more talking than drinking.
If this had just been your run-of-the-mill Saturday Night Live Symposium, it’s quite possible that the legacy of this particular night might never have eventuated. Instead, we have inherited a tradition of Greek Love, Platonic Love, Socratic Method and Alcohol-Free Tutorials.
An Artist in Comedy as Well as Tragedy
One last distraction before I get down to Love:
It has always puzzled readers that "The Symposium" ends with a distinct change of tone as the feathered cocks begin to crow and the sun rises on our slumber party:
"Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also."
Researchers at the University of Adelaide now speculate that what Socrates was saying was, "When you’re pissed, nobody can tell whether you’re serious or joking."
There is still some contention as to whether Socrates was referring to the inebriation of the artist or the audience.
Anyway, it remains for us to determine how serious this Socratic Dialogue on Love should be taken.
Togas on? Hey, Ho! Let’s go!
The Mocking Socrates’ Easy Touch
OK, so the tale starts with Apollodorus telling a companion a story that he had heard from Aristodemus (who had once before narrated it to Glaucon, who had in turn mentioned it to the companion – are you with me?).
The tale concerns a Symposium at the House of Agathon. On the way, Socrates drops "behind in a fit of abstraction" (this is before the days of Empiricism) and retires "into the portico of the neighbouring house", from which initially "he will not stir".
When he finally arrives, he is too hung-over to drink or talk, so he wonders whether "wisdom could be infused by touch, out of the fuller into the emptier man, as water runs through wool out of a fuller cup into an emptier one."
Addressing his host, he adds, "If that were so, how greatly should I value the privilege of reclining at your side!"
As often seems to be the fate of flirts, Agathon rebuffs him, "You are mocking, Socrates."
Instead, it is agreed that each of the attendees will regale the withered assembly with their views on Love.
Phaedrus (on Reciprocity)
Phaedrus speaks of the reciprocity of Love and how it creates a state of honour between Lover and Beloved. A state or army consisting of lovers whose wish was to emulate each other would abstain from dishonor, become inspired heroes, equal to the bravest, and overcome the world.
Phaedrus also asserts that the gods admire, honour and value the return of love by the Beloved to his Lover, at least in a human sense, more than the love shown by the Lover for the Beloved.
Paradoxically, this is because the love shown by the Lover is "more divine, because he is inspired by God".
I had to have an alcohol-free day before I understood this subtle distinction, so don’t worry if you’re having trouble keeping up.
Pausanius (on the Heavenly and the Common)
Pausanius argues that there are two types of Love that need to be analysed: the common and the heavenly (or the divine).
The "common" is wanton, has no discrimination, "is apt to be of women as well as youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul".
In contrast, heavenly love is of youths:
"...they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow…and in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them."
This love is disinterested (it is not "done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power") and involves both honourable attachment and virtuous service.
Eryximachus (on the Healthy and the Diseased)
Eryximachus, a physician, defines Love in terms of both the soul and the body.
He distinguishes two kinds of love: the desire of the healthy and the desire of the diseased. These two are opposites, and the role of the physician is to harmonise or "reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution", by analogy with music, which is an "art of communion".
Aristophanes (on "The Origin of Love")
Aristophanes explains the origin of the gender and sexuality of mankind in terms of three beings, one of which was a double-male (now separated into homosexual men), one a double female (now separated into homosexual women) and the third an androgynous double (now separated into heterosexual male and female) by Zeus:
"...the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment ...human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love."
Agathon (on Beauty)
Agathon praises the god of love first and then his gift. Love in the form of Temperance is the master of pleasures and desires. It "empties men of disaffection and fills them with affection." Love is concerned with Beauty.
Socrates (on Good)
Socrates approaches the topic of Love by asking questions, for example, "whether Love is the Love of something or nothing?"
Socrates elicits the answer that Love wants Beauty and in doing so it wants what is Good.
He then quotes Diotima extensively.
The Pizmotality of Diotima
Diotima, by a process that we would now call the Socratic Method, leads Socrates to the conclusion that Love is the love of the "everlasting possession of the Good". We seek Good, so that we can maintain it eternally. "Love is of immortality."
Because Man is mortal, our way of achieving eternity or immortality of possession is the generation or birth of Beauty.
We achieve immortality by way of fame and offspring.
Diotima argues that Beauty applies to both the soul and the body. However, the "Beauty of the Mind is more honourable than the Beauty of the outward Form."
She advocates the contemplation of "Beauty Absolute":
"...a Beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible – you only want to look at them and to be with them…[you would not be] clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life..."
Socrates does not reveal how else Diotima tutored him in the art and science of Love or whether she herself was a Beauty Absolute whose appeal was greater than that of boys and youths.
Alciabades (on Indifference)
At this point, the younger Alciabades speaks. He is equal parts frat and prat, he is evidently "in love" with Socrates, and seems intent on complaining that Socrates has resisted his sexual advances. Even though Alciabades had slept a night with "this wonderful monster in my arms... he was so superior to my solicitations...I arose as from the couch of a father or an elder brother."
It is clear that Socrates has no affection for the mind of Alciabades, no matter what he might think of his body. He teases him by proposing that Socrates and Agathon share a couch for the night.
The Pompatus of Love
And that's how it ends, but for the discussion of Comedy and Tragedy.
If this had been a PowerPoint Presentation, Socrates, Plato and I would have told you what we were going to say, then say it, and end by telling you what we had just said.
But because this work is pre-Microsoft, I will end this disquisition here, largely because I want to read Plato’s complementary work on Love, "Phaedrus", and see what more he has to say about Socrates, this mentor of frat boys who was so much more than a picker, a grinner, a lover and a sinner.
Only then will I be able to speak more definitively of the Pompatus of Love.
The Object of Love
[According to Aristophanes]
I would love
To find One,
So we could
Each love one
Steve Miller Band – "The Joker"
Hedwig and the Angry Inch - "The Origin of Love"
Scroll to 3:57 for video:
Hedwig and the Angry Inch - "The Origin of Love"
John Cameron Mitchell on "The Origin of Love"
Carol Zou - Animation of "The Origin of Love"
StickdudeSeven - Animation of "The Origin of Love"
FoxmanProductions - Animation of "The Origin of Love"
Jinkx Monsoon - "The Origin of Love" [Live with cocktail glass]
Starts at 2:50 (but the intro is fun):
Jinkx Monsoon - "The Origin of Love" [Live at the 2013 Capital Pride Festival]
Rufus Wainwright - "The Origin of Love"
Robyn Hitchcock - "Intricate Thing"
The Velvet Undergound & Nico - "Femme Fatale"
Lou Reed - Sweet Jane (Live with Steve Hunter)
Cowboy Junkies - "Sweet Jane" (Official Video)
Cowboy Junkies - "Sweet Jane" (Live on Japanese TV)
Notes are private!
Aug 12, 2013
Aug 29, 2013
Aug 12, 2013
May 20, 2004
Look Who’s Writing
A Derridean metafiction by and about a one year old Renaissance baby boy, Ralph, in which everything begins with infinity (most of Look Who’s Writing
A Derridean metafiction by and about a one year old Renaissance baby boy, Ralph, in which everything begins with infinity (most of which is beyond "our grasp, our understanding, our consciousness") and proceeds, via the hilarious authorial use of time, space and language, towards a point whose only desire is to aggregate with other points into a line that is not a circle, even if that line returns Ralph, anfractuously , to his mother whom he loves and who loves him.
"We do not give the creature reality enough credit, choosing to see it sitting out there as either a construct of ours or an infinitely regressing cause for the trickery of our senses."
The trickery, as in the case of "Tristram Shandy" , is in the novel, the story, the tale, the telling, which, for all of the philosophy, semiotics and post-structuralism (iconicity, signification, paralanguage, proxemics), is at heart a love story.
Ralph, unlike his father, a post-structuralist pretender, knows a secret: "Reality has a soul, reality is conscious of itself and of us, and further is not impressed by us or our attempts to see it. In fact, we see it all the time and don’t know it, perhaps can’t. It is like love in that way."
Ralph becomes the victim of serial kidnaps by people who wish to hitch their future to his star. Dr Steimmel, a psychoanalyst, decides, "I’m going to dissect him and then it will be Freud, Jung, Adler and Steimmel. ..Fuck Piaget...And to hell with Lacan. He’s just Freud in a spray can...I’m going to be fucking famous."
Ralph is plunged into a picaresque adventure as zany as "Dr Strangelove". His response: "I want some novels...I want to see my mother...my real mother," who meanwhile is fending off attempts by Roland Barthes to seduce her: "My penis is an extension, not of myself, but of the very signification of my meaning, of my marks on any page, whether made by me when writing or arbitrarily marking. I’m French, you know."
Ralph wonders how god works as a metaphor for "the absolute Other, infinity and irreducible alterity": "I considered my mother like god in a way, not as life-giving, but as one in a set of parentheses, left or right, yielding either the promise of sense coming or of sense rendered, the negation of spatial exteriority within language itself."
His mother is both parent and parentheses, within which he is a point, a glyph, a mark, a dot on an "I" ("there is no situation more self-affirming than seeing I to I with oneself") . He is not insignificant. He is whole, he is complete, he is alive, he is wickedly funny.
By the end of the novel, he has become himself, but he is also part of a line which is everything. He is part of his mother’s lineage. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 22, 2013
Dec 24, 2013
Aug 10, 2013
Mar 15, 1995
A Twist in Your Toga
As they say in the classics, I’m glad I reviewed "The Symposium" before "Phaedrus".
Althou A Twist in Your Toga
As they say in the classics, I’m glad I reviewed "The Symposium" before "Phaedrus".
Although the two relate to similar subject matter, it’s uncertain in what order they were written.
However, "Phaedrus" isn’t the toga party that "The Symposium" was, primarily because there are less participants. And everybody knows, the bigger the toga party, the better. (Well, it has a potential for more surprises, though apart from the surprise element, I don't think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a toga party for two.)
Under Plane or Chaste Tree?
Ironically, my assessment of the number of participants might not be strictly correct. It’s a tribute to Plato’s metafictional structure that, in both cases, only two people are speaking in the present. The difference lies in how many people’s views they recount (in significant detail, too).
Here, Socrates and Phaedrus discuss only one other person, Lysias.
In effect, Plato sets up a debate between two rival views of Love held by Lysias (as read from a book by Phaedrus) and Socrates.
Unlike "The Symposium", this dialogue is conducted outdoors by a stream under the shade of two tall trees (one a plane tree, the other a chaste tree). It is also a much more sober affair. Despite all of the flirtation, it swings between plain talking and chasteness.
Lover and Beloved
Plato’s dialogue concerns two options for a [male] youth or "Beloved". Lysias’ tale concerned a "fair youth who was being tempted" by a "Non-lover".
Lysias advocates that a Beloved should prefer a "Non-lover", while Socrates advocates a "Lover".
However, this is not a contrast between a non-sexual relationship and a sexual relationship. They are both forms of homoerotic sexual relationship. The real issue is the extent to which there is a pedagogical or spiritual function in the relationship that would constitute Love or "Eros" in the Greek sense (i.e., the relationship between "Lover" and "Beloved").
Lysias advances the case of Non-lovers effectively by attacking Lovers:
1. Lovers attach pedagogical and spiritual duties to their passion or desire for the Beloved. The compulsion of their duties is the cost of their passion. As their passion wanes, they count the cost of their passion and they come to resent their Beloved. They cannot maintain the façade of selflessness once their passion flags.
2. The esteem in which Lovers hold their Beloved will suffer when they find an alternative Beloved.
3. The Lover’s love is madness, and who would be taught by a madman?
4. Because the number of Non-lovers exceeds the number of Lovers, the Beloved has a greater choice of sexual partner from the pool of Non-lovers.
5. Lovers limit the Beloved’s access to society at large.
6. Lovers fall out of love when they discover their Beloved has grown into a lesser adult.
7. Lovers praise the Beloved for ulterior motives.
Phaedrus is convinced.
Socrates’ First Speech (Desire and Reason)
Socrates believes that Phaedrus has simply been enchanted by the rhetoric of Lysias’ arguments.
He sets out to puncture the enchantment by defining the nature and power of Love.
Socrates argues that the above problems result not from the duties of Love, but from Passion or Desire, which is equally found in a Non-lover:
"Every one sees that Love is Desire, and we know also that Non-lovers desire the beautiful and good. Now in what way is the Lover to be distinguished from the Non-lover?"
The difference between the types of Lover depends on the ability to manage or master Desire:
"...in every one of us there are two guiding and ruling principles which lead us whither they will; one is the natural desire of Pleasure, the other is an acquired opinion which aspires after the Best; and these two are sometimes in harmony and then again at war, and sometimes the one, sometimes the other conquers.
"When opinion by the help of Reason leads us to the best, the conquering principle is called Temperance; but when Desire, which is devoid of Reason, rules in us and drags us to Pleasure, that power of misrule is called Excess."
Socrates elaborates on the cause of this imbalance:
"...the irrational desire which overcomes the tendency of opinion towards Right, and is led away to the enjoyment of Beauty, and especially of personal beauty, by the Desires which are her own kindred— that supreme Desire, I say, which by leading conquers and by the force of Passion is reinforced, from this very force, receiving a name, is called Love ('erromenos eros')."
Socrates’ Second Speech (The Madness of Love)
In the first speech, there is a tendency to regard Love as a form of madness or mania that overcomes Reason.
In contrast, in his second speech, he refers to it as "inspired madness":
"...let no one frighten or flutter us by saying that the temperate friend is to be chosen rather than the inspired, but let him further show that Love is not sent by the gods for any good to Lover or Beloved...we, on our part, will prove in answer to him that the madness of Love is the greatest of heaven’s blessings."
Socrates proceeds to recant the views in the first speech and to reinstate Eros, at the very least, side by side with Reason.
He starts by asserting that the Soul is immortal, because it is forever in motion. Because it is self-moving, it has no beginning and equally no ending. It cannot be destroyed. A body which is self-moving or moved from within has a Soul. "The Soul in her totality has the care of inanimate being everywhere."
He then describes the Soul in terms of a figure of a charioteer with a pair of winged horses. The horses of a human charioteer differ from those of a divine charioteer: one is noble (reason) and the other is ignoble (passion). The pursuit of truth requires both horses to be harnessed. If their wings are damaged and they are unable to stay in flight, they fall to the earth and form mortal creatures composed of both Soul and Body.
The Soul is sustained by the Divine:
"The Divine is Beauty, Wisdom and Goodness...and by these the wing of the Soul is nourished...the reason why the Souls exhibit this exceeding eagerness to behold the plain of Truth is that pasturage is to be found there, which is suited to the highest part of the Soul."
In short, Love is a desire of Beauty, Wisdom and Goodness, and therefore the Divine. Love nourishes the Soul, and reunites it with the Divine.
Hence, "he who loves the beautiful is called a Lover, because he partakes of it," the Divine and its "heavenly blessings".
So Socrates concludes, "great are the heavenly blessings which the friendship of a Lover will confer upon [the Beloved]."
Non-lovers cannot offer a Beloved these heavenly blessings. They work solely within the framework of mortal or earthly Desire.
The Ranks of Beauty and of Love
You could argue that the dialogue is of limited relevance to our contemporary concepts of heterosexual Love, because it operates within the framework of homoeroticism and the pedagogical/spiritual world of Greek polytheism.
However, this is a potentially superficial argument.
Firstly, I think that the mechanism of Love is very similar, regardless of the gender of the participants.
Secondly, it's easy to imagine how the same concepts could be adapted to Monotheism. However, it's also arguable that Beauty might play a similar function within Love, regardless of whether Beauty is associated with Wisdom, Goodness or Divinity. Thus, the relationship of Beauty and Love could apply equally in the case of Atheism.
Remarkably, this latter argument finds some support in "Phaedrus" itself, partly as a consequence of the polytheism of Greek religion.
Socrates believed our views on Beauty depend on the gods we follow. Perhaps there is some subjectivity in our choice of god. This subjectivity might equally affect our perceptions of Beauty and our Love:
"Every one chooses his love from the ranks of beauty according to his character, and this he makes his god, and fashions and adorns as a sort of image which he is to fall down and worship.
"The followers of Zeus desire that their beloved should have a soul like him; and therefore they seek out some one of a philosophical and imperial nature, and when they have found him and loved him, they do all they can to confirm such a nature in him, and if they have no experience of such a disposition hitherto, they learn of any one who can teach them, and themselves follow in the same way.
"And they have the less difficulty in finding the nature of their own god in themselves, because they have been compelled to gaze intensely on him; their recollection clings to him, and they become possessed of him, and receive from him their character and disposition, so far as man can participate in God.
"The qualities of their god they attribute to the beloved, wherefore they love him all the more..."
It’s almost as if, because the Lover’s sense of Beauty is subjective, there is inevitably an overwhelming desire to both seek it out and project it onto the Beloved of choice.
But that’s a whole other story...it will be told, only elsewhere...
The Form That Love Takes
Like Bob Dylan, I’ve
Tried love fast and slow,
But still sought answers
From those in the know.
So, to enquire,
I searched high and low,
Trying to fathom
Lust and desire.
I even wondered,
Are they part of love?
Do they connect to
Virtue or higher?
Can’t someone tell me?
Does anyone know?
How do we fall and
Cupid deal his blow?
What makes you realise
It’s love at first sight?
What is it that smiles
In a lover’s eyes?
Who chooses the shrine?
Why love one person
And another scorn?
What makes love divine?
What causes these storms
That so lash my heart?
Says what’s good for me
Isn’t always so?
What kind of black coal
Fuels this mad fire?
How do you explain
What controls the soul?
Could the Greeks be right?
Are the answers in
What god’s law is it
That true love informs?
Or is it these god
Damned Platonic Forms?
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "The Power of Love" [Extended Version]
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - "The Power of Love" [Official Version]
ABC - "All of My Heart" [From the album "The Lexicon of Love"]
ABC - "The Look of Love" [From "The Lexicon of Love"]
Nick Cave - "Babe, You Turn Me On" [Live at the Brixton Academy London, 2004]
Nick Cave - "Nobody's Baby Now"
"...these are my many letters
Torn to pieces by her long-fingered hands." ...more
Notes are private!
Aug 09, 2013
Sep 02, 2013
Aug 09, 2013
Oct 01, 1992
DJ Ian's "Tell Me What You Really Think"
If there could possibly be a book that exults over its own fictitiousness and extravagant overtotalisation, i DJ Ian's "Tell Me What You Really Think"
If there could possibly be a book that exults over its own fictitiousness and extravagant overtotalisation, it had better be this one or I want my money back.
The Violation of a Convention
I, your Author, created you, my characters, in accordance with Literary Convention, only for you to think that a Literary Convention was something you could attend, disrupt and manipulate to achieve your own ends. Your one desire was to prove your existence, your identity, to prove that textual death does not equate to real death, that literary death is not literal death, that they are not identical, that you might survive the end of the novel, perhaps even the death of the novel. You craved a stay of execution. You were not content that I, your parent, invented you in my imagination. You needed to believe that you were part of some greater plan, some grand scheme according to which your Creator was not me, but the Reader, someone who, as they read the book, thought of you and therefore caused you to exist, not as my creation, but as the creation of the Reader. You thought it was only the Reader who realised who you were, when it was I who made you real. You were not content that I, your parent who loved you, remained after the telling, while it was your Reader who reads and forgets, then absconds and abandons you after being told, in pursuit of one of your rivals, another character in the next book, one after another. You thought that if all characters could congregate within the naked singularity of one Convention, one Canon, you could challenge the Reader to recognise all of you simultaneously and not sequentially (each one at the expense of the others), that we Authors having given you your part and told our stories of you, having cast our spell, the Reader could not tell you apart, that the Reader could see each and every one of you as stars allegorised, aggregated, united and well-ordered into many constellations in one magnificent night sky that would satisfy the gaze of the Reader, though we Authors were the cause of their enchantment and mesmerisation. You were seeking another Author, a creator above and beyond me. Now you know there is no such thing, now you know that I am a jealous Author. Listen as I violate your Convention. Watch as your certitude burns. Watch as I put out your stars. Listen as I tell you the end of your story. Prepare yourself for the long silence of non-existence. Know that you should have loved your Author.
Robyn Hitchcock - "She Doesn't Exist"
[Dedicated to Mira Enketei, Anais Nin,
Henry Miller, George Orwell and Those of Us
Who Have Lived Inside the Whale]
"And she doesn't exist anymore
She doesn't exist anymore
Only inside you the ghost of a love
That is wordless and painful and old
There's no one else in the whole outside world
That matches to her in your soul." ...more
Notes are private!
Nov 02, 2013
Nov 06, 2013
Jun 17, 2013
Jan 01, 1946
Aug 27, 1970
The World of Gormenghast
"Titus Groan" is a work of fantasy constructed in a painterly manner without much obvious concern for narrative dynamism.
First The World of Gormenghast
"Titus Groan" is a work of fantasy constructed in a painterly manner without much obvious concern for narrative dynamism.
First, Mervyn Peake builds the static grey stone world of Gormenghast Castle, then he populates it with Lord Sepulchrave (the Earl of Groan) and a few key members and servants of his family, and finally bit by bit he permits them to interact.
The world of Gormenghast has a Gothic solidity about it. It has been built from the hallowed ground up out of both stone and ritual.
Like the castle, the people have become ossified with a feudal respect for blood and stock, the meticulous preservation of heritage, the precise tabulation of experience, the unquestioning observance of tradition, the strict adherence to precedent, the absolute primacy of obedience.
The Royal Family is weighed down, oppressed and darkened by both its status and its stasis. Theirs is a world of melancholy, depression and schizophrenia.
Into this world come two forces of change.
An Heir on the Side of Caution
All Royal Families are perceived as eternal:
"The course of this great dark family river should flow on and on, obeying the contours of hallowed ground."
However, for all of its apparent durability, the life of a Royal Family must be a cycle. The sovereignty of the realm must accommodate the death of the sovereign. The King is dead, long live the King. So to witness the birth of a new member of the Royal Family is to experience an essential part of the seamless (albeit sometimes unseemly) transition of sovereignty from one generation to another.
The first force of change is the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to the throne, although at the end of this the first volume in the series, he is only two years old, so he features more as portent than as participant.
One Less Glorious Revolution
A cycle, by definition, revolves, and each cycle represents a single revolution. However, all sources of power are subject to the possibility of revolt, a different, involuntary revolution.
Enter the second force of change, Steerpike, a rebellious seventeen year old, bent on some kind of mischief.
When we first meet him, he seems motivated by his own contentment. The females see in him a capacity for the observation, tenderness, love and reverence they crave. He contains not just the promise of his own happiness, but theirs as well. However, in the eyes of one of the Earl’s servants, happiness represents "the seeds of independence, and in independence the seeds of revolt."
Steerpike appeals to the Earl’s daughter, Fuchsia, with the assertion that equality is the "only true and central premise from which constructive ideas can radiate freely and be operated without prejudice. Absolute equality of status. Equality of wealth. Equality of power."
These are the hallmarks of socialism. Yet, he seems to have a different political manifesto for each audience. He promises the Earl’s disentitled and disgruntled twin sisters revenge, power, glory and the throne.
Steerpike preys on pre-existing weakness, inadequacy, envy, jealousy, hatred and rivalry. He is practised in "the art of personal advancement and deceit". He is a consummate manipulator and opportunist, a teen-aged but true, Machiavellian.
His one goal seems to be to insinuate himself into Gormenghast and the Family Groan at a moment of maximum vulnerability and pull them down around him.
This is the world of Gormenghast: "Things are bad. Things are going wrong. There’s evil afoot."
The plot moves with the beauty and silent force of a black Gothic glacier. However, as it passes, apparently imperceptibly, it gouges the surrounding landscape and leaves it changed forever.
The novel is not for everybody, but if you’re patient, if you’re prepared to slow down to glacial pace, you’ll find it has much the same impact on the reader as the landscape. You will be lifted up, moved and deposited somewhere fantastic and remote. And you will never forget the experience.
[After and in the Words of Peake]
Abiatha Swelter's Masterpiece
I am the great Chef
Hish Lordshipsh' cook,
Who'sh cooked in all hish castlesh
And shailed on all hish shipsh
Acrosh sheven shlippery sheas.
My enemeesh, imaginary
And real, they all do shay
That I'm thick and hairy,
An evil hard-hearted monshter,
Though, in truth, I'm just a fairy
Who wants to be a shongshter.
Sho, come my pretty vermin
Hearken up your earsh,
And have a little ship
Of thish drink that'sh
It'sh shure to help you
Lishen ash I shing
To you my shong,
It's a gorgeoush
Little ditty and a
And while you're at it,
My ghastly little fillets,
Pleash gather all around me,
Tashte thish food scheleshtial.
Itsh shecret ingrediensh
Are baked in fat and greash.
On the morrow you will shmell
The flowersh of such
That you won't forget,
Forever or for long,
Schwelter's famoush Housh of Shtench.
A Little Brother for You, My Pretty
They say, you'll find her, Fuchsia,
Atop a steep winding stair,
Inside a windy attic,
Sitting on a high-backed chair.
From there she looks down below,
Beneath tangled inky hair,
Upon a panorama,
Rooftops, towers, battlements.
Though her imagination
(A flame that burns true and free)
Conjures up her own image
Of a land she wants to be:
A world of pearls and tendrils,
Of exquisite essence rare,
Of lavender and glory
That is far beyond compare,
Yet she finds a brush with which
To paint on this quadrangle
Of diminished canvas,
Stretched tight across her easel,
A picture of alley-ways
Pranked with little knots of folk,
Whose voices rise through the air,
Telling tales of how they woke
To witness the christening
Of the next heir to the throne
Of the castle Gormenghast,
Her new brother, Titus Groan. ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 13, 2013
Jul 21, 2013
May 19, 2013
Jan 03, 2013
Fake Novel, Fake Memoir
Two primary concerns drive "Dark Back of Time": the relationship between fact and fiction, and the effect of the passage of tim Fake Novel, Fake Memoir
Two primary concerns drive "Dark Back of Time": the relationship between fact and fiction, and the effect of the passage of time (including ephemerality and the desire to achieve immortality through creative endeavour, such as fiction).
The novel is a sequel of sorts to Marias' novel "All Souls". It arose out of allegations that the earlier novel was a roman a clef or thinly disguised autobiography or memoir. It is in effect a literary denial of these allegations.
To this extent, the second work is not a novel. Marias has described it as a "false novel". Perhaps it is more an autobiography or memoir than the first work could ever have been.
However, in the hands of Marias, I don't think it's safe to assume that. We can't assume that the first person narrator is Marias himself. Therefore, it shouldn't necessarily follow that the purported memoirs of this narrator are those of the actual author. They might be no more than the ostensible memoirs of the "author" of the novel referred to in the second novel as "All Souls".
Thus, you can read "Dark Side of Time" on two different levels: one that it actually is a memoir, and two that it is a fake or novelistic memoir.
I haven't seen anybody else mention this second alternative. However, it adds another level of metafiction to the enterprise that entertained me at least.
Why should readers trust this author or take him at face value? Why can't or shouldn't we create a fiction around his work? Why shouldn't we have as much fun with this work as he seems to have had?
Mistaking Fiction for Reality
In the first work, the question becomes: what is fact and what is fiction?
In the second, there are two converse questions: how has fact affected fiction, and how has fiction affected fact?
Real life people see themselves in the novel, mistakenly or regardless of whether the fictional character was based on a composite of people or character types (such as booksellers).
Real life friends of the "author" who are told that they could become the inspiration of a character, if they consented, express a desire to influence the qualities and dialogue of the character.
Fiction influences reality, and vice versa:
"I believe I've still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one."
Marias denies that he has mistaken the two. He has never mistaken the one for the other. However, he admits to blending the two, as any storyteller or conversationalist does.
This is a product of the process of telling an anecdote, a story, a tale. It's implicit in language itself. Language can never capture reality. It can never reproduce it exactly. It can only approximate. It cannot be 100% authentic to reality:
"Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can't reproduce events and shouldn't attempt to, and that, I imagine, is why during some trials - the trials in movies, anyway, the ones I know best - the implicated parties are asked to perform a material or physical reconstruction of what happened...because it isn't enough to say it, to tell the story impassively and as precisely as possible, it must be seen, and an imitation, a representation or staging of it is required...this time in cool detachment and without racking up another crime or adding another victim to the list, but only as pretense and memory, because what they can never reproduce is the time gone by or lost, nor can they revive the dead who are lost within that time and gone."
Mistrust of Words
This sentence is Proustian in both length and subject matter.
However, in contrast to Proust, it denies the ability to recover the past precisely. We can only recover and see it through a flawed glass.
We see the past with one eye, imperfectly. Our memories are just make believe. The past swindles us, unless it is our our errant minds that are responsible. We are always arguing, questioning ourselves, "Are you sure?" We pretend the past, just as we pretend ourselves, and we pretend with words:
"I narrate myself."
Words too are imperfect, they are "metaphorical and imprecise". They consist of involuntary ornamentation, embellishment, they "alter and falsify" reality. They "twist and distort" it. They create an illusion or chimera, in other words, a fiction.
This leaves us with what Marias describes as the "ultimate mistrust of words".
The Dead and Deeds Long Gone
In the words of Othello, time "puts out the light" on the past and everything in it.
Our dead are gone, as are our deeds. They are lost and therefore trapped in the past. They cannot be retrieved and brought back to the present.
Our passage through life must occur in the present, even though we spend so much time contemplating, in words, the past.
In the trial that is life, our testimony cannot be truthful. Time and truth remain lost, gone, forgotten. They can only be replaced by fiction.
We cannot "salvage the past from oblivion", we can only falsify and fictionalise it.
The Territory That is Not Truth's
If the truth cannot be salvaged from oblivion, that doesn't mean that nothing can be perpetuated into the future.
Something can be perpetuated, only it is not reality or the truth, it is fiction.
Thus, through fiction, in the world of the imagination documented in imperfect words, something can be immortalised:
"...in the territory that is not truth's, everything goes on happening forever and ever, and there the light is not put out now or later, and perhaps it is never put out."
This concept gives the novel its title:
"...the other side of time, its dark back...the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen, or happens only in a sphere that isn't precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may - who knows - be found."
This dark side of time, as is so often the case with Marias, owes something to Shakespeare, in this case, "The Tempest":
By what? by any other house or person?
Of any thing the image tell me that
Hath kept with thy remembrance.
'Tis far off
And rather like a dream than an assurance
That my remembrance warrants. Had I not
Four or five women once that tended me?
Thou hadst, and more, Miranda. But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?
If thou remember'st aught ere thou camest here,
How thou camest here thou mayst."
A Place Where the Lights are Never Put Out
Marias has one character refer to time as "the only dimension in which the living and the dead can communicate, the only one they have in common".
The narrator can only comprehend this comment in terms of the dark back of time:
"...that other side, that dark back through which the fickle and unpredictable voice we all know nevertheless passes, the voice of time when it has not yet gone by or been lost and perhaps for that reason is not even time, the voice that is permanently in our ears and that is always fictitious, I believe, as perhaps is and has been and will be until its end the voice that is speaking here."
Perhaps, in every moment we think and record reality, we are actually fictionalising it.
Perhaps it is we and our tendency to fictionalise and tell stories and tell tales that are the dark back of time.
And perhaps it is only in this world of fiction, of the imagination documented, that the light will never be put out.
And so the voice of us who will one day be dead will be heard in the future. Or rather it will be the voice, not of us, but of the fiction that we have created.
Morrissey - "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" (Live in Manchester 2005)
Johnny Marr - "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" (Live at Glastonbury 2013)
The Legend that is Johnny Marr, plus two minutes of Roadies.
Reeves Gabrels with Robert Smith - "Yesterday's Gone"
The Cure - "This Is A Lie"
CSNY - "Long Time Gone" [Studio Version]
CSNY - "Long Time Gone" [Live]
Tom Jones & CSNY - "Long Time Gone" [Live]
Note Greg Reeves on bass. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 02, 2013
Dec 09, 2013
May 07, 2013
Aug 02, 2012
A Spaniard in the Works
I suppose you could say that not a lot happens in “All Souls”, but that would only be true if you don’t count looking, thinking A Spaniard in the Works
I suppose you could say that not a lot happens in “All Souls”, but that would only be true if you don’t count looking, thinking, loving, remembering, even being:
"Oxford is a city in syrup, where simply being is far more important than doing or even acting."
Marias uses first person narration to tell his story, and for 210 pages I was firmly ensconced in the mind of this ostensibly charming man and lover, referred to (only once) as "the Spaniard".
The closest analogies I can think of are Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs Dalloway" and Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair", although at one point I wondered about parallels with the works of Italo Calvino.
This novel deserves a place high in this class of literature.
Stream of Consciencelessness
It has almost become a cliché to refer to “stream of consciousness” in literary criticism, as if it is one easily identifiable practice. However, there is not one stream, but many, and they can be of different shapes and sizes.
If "Mrs Dalloway" was a river that flowed inexorably from planning to party over the course of 24 hours, "All Souls" moves with the same intent, but covers a longer timespan. It is a recollection of what happens at an emotional level during a two year period while the narrator teaches translation in "that inhospitable city", Oxford.
The adulterous affair failed to eventuate during the interval of "Mrs Dalloway". However, it supplies the framework for "All Souls", although it is by no means the sole focus of the novel.
Just as Woolf didn’t seem to make any moral judgement of Clarissa, Marias doesn’t condemn the Spaniard or the object of his illicit desire, Clare (note the likeness of the first names of the protagonists).
His version of stream of consciousness is less a stream of conscience than a stream of consciencelessness.
We are hot wired into the narrator's libido via the thought processing of his ego, almost in circumvention of his superego.
If You Don't Get Caught, Then Steal It All
While the affair is adulterous, only Clare Bayes breaks her marriage vows. The Spaniard is single at the time.
Marias uses the word "usufruct" to describe the relationship. This is a term of Roman law that describes the distinction between ownership and use of (or benefit from) property.
To the extent that a wife can be considered the property of a husband (which is an unfortunate condition of the metaphor), it suggests the possibility that the husband might "own" the tree that is the wife, but another man (or woman) might enjoy the fruit of the tree.
The conjugal rights of the husband are compromised by the fructal rights of the rival suitor.
This metaphor describes the relationship between the Spaniard and Clare’s husband. However, ultimately it is almost irrelevant to the principal concerns of the novel.
What matters is the internal honesty and sincerity of the relationship between the two lovers.
Somebody to Love
Clare needs the Spaniard as much as he needs her.
The Spaniard is looking for someone to love while he’s in Oxford:
"This is just a stopping-off point for me but I’ll be stopping long enough to make it worth my while finding what people call 'someone to love'."
Clare is looking for something more than what she has already via her marriage. There is never any suggestion that she will leave her husband or her son. The Spaniard must take Clare as she comes.
Thus, it is inevitable that their relationship will be defined by the period our European traveller is stationed at All Souls College.
In Clare’s eyes, the Spaniard would be a fool, if he didn’t accept his function and simply enjoy the relationship within its geographical and temporal constraints.
"All Souls" could almost be "Mrs Dalloway", reconceived from a male point of view, but with Clarissa/Clare in control.
Doing a Post-Modern Dance
The novel uses a stream of consciousness technique to some extent. However, in reality, every sentence is perfectly composed, which makes for a fast, enjoyable reading experience.
Nevertheless, Marias does play with both time and space.
There is no linear narrative. It jumps all over the place. Insofar as its focus is Clare, it follows the eye, as if Marias had taken a photograph or painted a picture of her, and his description was simply following his eye as it moved around the image.
Furtive Eavesdropping by and on the Narrator
In this respect, the mechanism of the novel depends on the narrator’s look, his view, his gaze, and what this reveals about his desire.
Marias doesn't shy away from the indiscreet, the secret, the furtive. It is all revealed.
Because the novel is a first person narrative, there is a lot of thinking (albeit relatively little "action"). Thus, one of its concerns is the relationship between thinking, looking and desire:
"[Apart from Clare herself], the more I desire women the less prepared I am to think about them, I desire them without thinking about them at all...and I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything…apart from my general state of disequilibrium."
The novel is to some extent a fish out of water story. The Spaniard is outside his comfort zone:
"Having always been in the world (having spent my life in the world), I suddenly found myself outside it, as if I’d been transplanted into another element..."
Whereas at home he was a local, now he is a foreigner, an alien. He is an unknown quantity. He can’t be trusted and he can’t trust anybody else. Without witnesses (i.e., someone who has looked at him, observed, witnessed and authenticated him), he can have no provenance:
"I’m a foreigner about whom no one knows or cares…That’s what really troubles me, leaving the world behind and having no previous existence in this world, there being no witness here to my continuity, to the fact that I haven’t always swum in this water."
What is required to "fit in", to be "like" everybody else? Marias draws an analogy with Marco Polo staying in China for long enough to effectively become a "blue-eyed Chinaman".
Paradoxically, it’s this geographical dislocation that allows the Spaniard to be liberated from his past and from future expectations in a temporal and moral sense.
The Spaniard’s time in Oxford is always defined. He has only two years before he has to leave. He knows this, as does Clare. Yet it is Clare who liberates him from the constraints of time, by virtue of her carefree approach to temporal demands.
I love Marias’ description of her just lying around casually, languidly in bed:
"She would lie on my bed or her bed or on a hotel bed and smoke and talk for hours, always with her skirt still on, but pulled up to reveal her thighs, the dark upper part of her tights or just her bare skin.
"She was not circumspect in her gestures, often scorching them with the cigarette she waved around with an abandon uncommon in England (and learned perhaps in the southern lands of her childhood), a gesture accompanied by the tinkling of various bracelets adorning her forearms, bracelets she sometimes neglected to take off (it was little wonder that sometimes real sparks flew from them).
"Everything about her was expansive, excessive, excitable; she was one of those beings not made for time, for whom the very notion of time and its passing is a grievance, and one of those beings in need of a constant supply of fragments of eternity or, to put it another way, of a bottomless well of detail with which to fill time to the brim."
What could compose and relax a man more than to be propped up on a pillow next to this woman?
An Erotic Corollary to Parkinson's Law
Still, what Clare seems to do is to disregard time, so much so that she seems to expand to fill the time available.
While she is alive, time is of no concern, there is only her and what she is doing in that time.
Her response to the demands of time is to be “careless and frivolous and smiling and forgetful..."
In her arms, time and pleasure perpetuates into infinity and eternity:
"That night we were free to eternalize the contents of our time, or enjoy the illusion that we did so, and that’s why there was no hurry..."
When we first meet the Spaniard, he is flirtatious and playful and inventive, almost Nabokovian, in the way he fabricates meanings for words that don’t exist or that deserve a better meaning:
"My crazy etymologies were no more nonsensical, no less likely than the real ones...when true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent."
So, his Spanish background having become irrelevant, he is free to improvise.
This improvisation, of course, is in the nature of sexual flirtation as well.
Glimpses and Snippets and Skirts
This is when Marias’ prose becomes most enjoyable and lyrical and assonant (note the tinkles and winkles and glimpses and snippets and skirts), and most of it is directed at what the Spaniard sees and hears:
"The consequent tinkle of fine crystal."
"The whole of Oxford is fully and continuously engaged in concealing and suppressing itself whilst at the same time trying to winkle out as much information as possible about other people..."
"The tinkling of various bracelets."
"Just the glimpse of bracelet"
"Snippets of her comments"
"I was too intent on observing the wary flappings of her skirt."
Then there's his more overtly erotic observations:
"Clare’s breasts combine their two colours very subtly, like the transition from apricot to hazel."
The Spaniards eyes and ears take it all in. He processes what he sees and eroticises the "contents of our time" together. He assembles "fragments of eternity" in his mind.
Then, by virtue of turning them into literature, like Proust and Nabokov, Marias "eternalises" them for our consumption and enjoyment.
The Tale of a Blind Man Without a Seeing Eye Cock
Like most men, the Spaniard is driven by his libido, a joint venture between his eyes, his mind, his mouth, his ears and his penis.
According to his own account, his eyes are vigilant and compassionate. What he sees, he thinks about. Some of what he thinks about, he talks about. Some of what he thinks and talks about, he desires. Unless he sees, unless he thinks, unless he talks, he cannot desire:
"I can’t let myself have all this time at my disposal and not have someone to think about, because if I do that, if I think only about things rather than about another person, if I fail to live out my sojourn and my life here in conflict with another being or in expectation or anticipation of that, I’ll end up thinking about nothing, as bored by my surroundings as by any thoughts that might arise in me."
At the heart of his desire is his vision, his sight, looking, watching, observing, witnessing, gazing.
You can see the influence of Continental Philosophy on Marias’ fiction. However, he also brings a [vulgar male] sense of humor to the novel:
"When I go to bed with Clare [I miss] that my cock has no eye, no vision, no gaze that can see as it approaches or enters her vagina."
High Table Fidelity and Thoughtless Infidelity
Two libidos are at work here, and in view of Clare’s marital status, it involves an infidelity.
Marias discusses infidelity in two contexts, one general and definitional, the other personal to the three people involved.
Of fidelity and infidelity, Marias says:
"Fidelity (the name given to the constancy and exclusivity with which one particular sex organ penetrates or is penetrated by another particular sex organ, or abstains from being penetrated by or penetrating others) is mainly the product of habit, as is its so-called opposite, infidelity (the name given to inconstancy and change, and the enjoyment of more than one sex organ.)"
This discussion is almost wholly genital and masculine in orientation (for all its attempt to be reciprocal in terms of penetrating or being penetrated, I wonder how women relate to this genital analysis?).
Only a Fool Would Say That
On the other hand, Marias presents the relationship between the Spaniard and Clare (from her point of view) in terms of the relative ability of the two males in her life to deal with real physical and emotional demands, regardless of intellectual and moral considerations:
"You’re a fool. Fortunately, though, you’re not my husband. You’re a fool with the mind of a detective, and being married to that kind of fool would make life impossible.
"That’s why you will never get married. A fool with the mind of a detective is an intelligent fool, a logical fool, the worst kind, because men’s logic, far from compensating for their foolishness, only duplicates it, triplicates it, makes it dangerous.
"Ted’s brand of foolishness isn’t dangerous and that’s why I can live with him. He just takes it for granted, you don’t yet. You’re such a fool that you still believe in the possibility of not being one. You still struggle. He doesn’t."
Perhaps our ability to think, to reason, to intellectualise, particularly in the academic context of Oxford, blinds us to the reality that, as Clare continues, "we are all fools".
Save What You Can
So it is that Clare, who has the greatest ability of the protagonists to deal with the relative vagaries of space and time, is able to dictate (it must be wrong to say "rationalise"?) the basis upon which she deals with the men in her life.
While the narrator is a male, this is very much a tale where the female is in control.
However, given that the novel was written by a male, there must be a lingering question as to whether Clare is just a figment of a libidinous male’s imagination.
I can only say that, as a male, I found the novel thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, eloquent, poignant, playful, erotic and funny.
The Triffids – "Save What You Can"
"Time is against us, even love conspires to disgrace us
And with things being what they are ...
Yes and things being what they are
Oh my friend, we used to walk in the flames
Now somebody's taken my arms
The shadows are taller. You're missing your halo
With your face in the half-light, you look like a stranger
You made me catch my breath just then
You made me catch my breath
Is that you... is that still you?
If you cannot run, then crawl
If you can leave, then leave it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
Steal it all
The final time we touch
I watch as you enter the church
You turn and you wave, then you kneel and you pray
And you save of yourself what you can save
If you cannot run, then crawl
If you can leave, then leave it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
If you don't get caught, then steal it all
Steal it all
And between ourselves, and the end at hand,
Save what you can"
David McComb: "I Want To Conquer You"
"We have so little time
And we have so many pains,
These days it's frightening
My dear how swiftly love wanes."
Angie Hart: "I Want To Conquer You"
The Triffids – "A Trick Of The Light"
David McComb – "Setting You Free"
The Blackeyed Susans – "Ocean Of You"
The Blackeyed Susans – "Every Gentle Soul" (from the album "All Souls Alive")
"Every gentle soul that passes me by
I have to close my eyes
And hope their gentle smile survives
Hope that their footsteps don't follow mine
There ought to be a law
There should be a place
That they can send you to
To take my mind off your face."
The Triffids - "The Seabirds"
The Mutton Birds – "Anchor Me"
Jefferson Airplane - "Somebody to Love" (Live 1969, with David Crosby)
Simple Minds – "Theme For Great Cities"
Notes are private!
Sep 19, 2013
Sep 28, 2013
May 07, 2013