Nov 03, 2015
I wasn't close enough to the US election to be able to understand exactly what happened and why: why did so few people vote, why did so many women app I wasn't close enough to the US election to be able to understand exactly what happened and why: why did so few people vote, why did so many women apparently support Trump?
When you live outside the US and you look at the red and blue map of the states, you have to wonder how the Democrats could ever win any election. There's just so much red on that map.
Observed from afar, this election for many voters seems to have been a referendum on free trade and globalisation.
Free trade was a policy promoted by the World Bank, conservative economists and Republicans, only Obama seems to have presided over much of its implementation and its consequences.
One goal of free trade was to reduce poverty in the undeveloped third world. This would obviously benefit third world communities. However, if manufacture was shifted there, whatever was made there would be cheaper to first world purchasers, because the wage component of the price was so much lower than the US. If you bought a small car from Mexico rather than Michigan, then it would cost you less, and theoretically you would have more money left over to save or spend on other needs or wants. Think of all the possessions you regard as vital to your everyday life, and think of how many of them come ultimately from the third world.
The point is things cost less if they're not made in America.
If they're not made in America, the jobs leave America and go to where the wages are cheapest. So the cost of cheaper goods is lower domestic employment.
The problem for the American political system is that the people who have lost their jobs live and vote in America, whereas the people who have obtained work in the third world don't.
The pursuit of free trade has therefore been at the expense of domestic political support.
Hillary Clinton had economic policies that were designed to address the unemployment problem. However, I doubt whether they were framed in such terms that anybody had confidence that they were targeted at them or that they would work.
In Marxist terms, her agenda seemed to be less directed at the economic base than the cultural superstructure.
On the other hand, Trump focused on getting these jobs back, building new factories and protecting American manufacturers from low wage competitors in the third world.
If Ford has just committed to spending $1.6BN on a factory in Mexico, would it turn its back on its investment and return production to the US? Would it expect wages to be comparable to those in Mexico? Who would want these jobs (or these third world wages) in the US? Trump supporters?
The other Trump strategy is to reduce corporate taxes, in the expectation that the funds will be spent on jobs. However, what projects will these funds be invested in? Will they contribute to infrastructure development or maintenance? Will the savings simply be passed onto shareholders in the form of higher profit distributions and dividends? Will the shareholders spend their profits on jobs?
These are the challenges that confront the Trump administration. Whether you voted for him or not, he will be presiding over an economic experiment that might or might not work.
However, internally, he has earned the right to conduct his experiment, because he prioritised domestic American employment over third world poverty.
Dream Syndicate - "Gonna Be Alright"
Michael Moore on CNN
Bernie Sanders on CNN
Notes are private!
Nov 11, 2016
Nov 11, 2016
Nov 10, 2016
This was a roller-coaster ride!
I picked it up cheaply, so I could do some secondary reading about Husserl. For the first t Phenomenological Elucidation
This was a roller-coaster ride!
I picked it up cheaply, so I could do some secondary reading about Husserl. For the first two-thirds, I thought it did a pretty good job of making sense of Husserl. In fact, it contained some of the most lucid writing about phenomenology that I've encountered in my limited exposure to the discipline.
Then, in the last chapter, Welch went right off the track and started comparing and contrasting Husserl with/to realism and critical realism. Here, the focus became what Husserl might or would have believed (rather than what he did believe or at least document in writing). At this point, I decided to see whether there had been any professional criticism of the book, and that's when it started to get interesting.
Welch studied under Husserl in the 1920's. On his return to the United States, he resolved to write a dissertation (1934) and then a book (1941) about phenomenology that would introduce Husserl's philosophy to Americans.
While writing his dissertation in 1933, he wrote to Husserl to clarify some issues. Reading between the lines of Husserl’s full and frank response, it seems that Husserl didn't regard Welch as his best or brightest student, or the person best suited to the task. Husserl actually recommended that Welch consult another one of his American students, Dorion Cairns, who subsequently translated and wrote widely about Husserl's works.
Unfortunately, Welch failed to heed Husserl's advice and didn't consult Cairns. Nor did he include anything he’d written in his comprehensive bibliography.
Even more unfortunately, Cairns reviewed the resulting book (apparently an earlier version of this one) in the journal "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research".
The review has to be one of the most amazing demolition jobs I've ever seen.
"The essay's chief result is a novel synthesis: ...Few of the concepts, fewer still of the doctrines in Mr. Welch's synthesis ever figured in Husserl's thought...It is obviously no attempt to borrow prestige for novel opinions by reinterpreting a widely respected thinker's statements...Under sympathetic examination, the surrounding exposition usually testifies that Husserl's words were among the immediate stimuli to the author's thinking.
"Why, then, did he produce and attribute to Husserl doctrines Husserl expressly rejected, propositions Husserl could never have entertained, concepts and verbal usages wholly alien to Husserl's thought? And why did he do so neither sporadically nor only in details but regularly and in fundamentals?
"...His misconceptions are too thoroughgoing and extreme to have resulted primarily from a failure to surmount occasional linguistic obstructions. What was honestly put forth as a description is, in fact, a fundamental and perfect misrepresentation."
I guess I’ll have to read Cairns’ book to get a more accurate or orthodox explication, or maybe I could be so bold as to read something by Husserl himself. If his adherents allow me. It seems his legacy is closely guarded. Nobody enforces orchestrated reception like philosophical and literary academics concerned about their tenure. Unless you count their surrogates on GoodReads. ...more
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Nov 11, 2016
Nov 16, 2016
Nov 07, 2016
Sep 28, 2016
really liked it
I sucked dick
For a free
It was great,
Well-Bred Poets Knit Full Disclosure
I sucked dick
For a free
It was great,
Well-Bred Poets Knitting Circle
Dare I say it, my only qualm with this book is that it wasn't horrible, sleazy or trashy enough. To my untrained eye, it actually stands as a collection of reasonably good contemporary poetry. To the extent that occasionally so-called objective standards might lapse, it's usually compensated for by a sense of humour or (self-) parody (i.e., it's fun!). The book is both well laid and well laid out. The whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. I enjoyed the whole and much more than some of the parts. It made me want to pluck my eyebrows, shave my legs and read more HST poetry. I can't wait for the next quarterly to come! Hopefully, one more swallow will make a spring of good reading. ...more
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Oct 05, 2016
Oct 05, 2016
Sep 28, 2016
Jan 10, 2016
Jan 28, 2016
really liked it
The Noise of Opinion
Two other novels came to mind as I read this 184 page work:
* William T Vollmann’s “Europe Central”; and
* John Banville’s “The U The Noise of Opinion
Two other novels came to mind as I read this 184 page work:
* William T Vollmann’s “Europe Central”; and
* John Banville’s “The Untouchable”.
I recall a comment by a member of the Vollmann fanclub pronouncing his book necessarily superior to Barnes’, because it was written by Vollmann and it was under-read by critics, while admitting that he hadn’t read any Barnes at all, let alone this one.
“Europe Central” is a five star achievement, but in retrospect it displays some of the indulgences that would plague Vollmann's later work. A lot of the description of Shostakovich's life sounds like it was worked up from extensive notes from biographies, journals and letters. This serves primarily as background material for the prurient investigation of the women in Shostakovich's life, who at least according to Vollmann’s account were far more interesting than the composer himself. At least, Vollmann seems to have spent a lot of time with Lizzy Kate Gray (no relation) listening to the music, which then gave him licence to review it in the body of the novel.
Just the Facts
Apart from the sex, Vollmann seemed to be more interested in the Sturm und Drang of the war. In contrast, Barnes squarely focuses on three pivotal politically compromising moments in Shostakovich's career. Barnes makes it clear that, even within these constraints, he gives us “just the facts”. He has done equivalent research, but doesn’t purport to embellish it. I kept waiting for some lyricism to emerge, but, alas, it didn’t. The events themselves must suffice to create the drama.
We see little of the composer’s internal world. This might result from the choice to write the novel in the third person. As a result, it lacks much psychological insight into the character of Shostakovich, beyond the David and Goliath struggle between an individual artist and the state.
The Music of the Narrative
Contrast this with John Banville who brilliantly describes the inner life of a character based on the Fourth Man, Anthony Blunt, in his superlative novel.
I’m not a fan of orchestral, symphonic or operatic music. My taste runs to rock, blues, jazz and classical music for smaller ensembles (e.g., quartets). Hence, I’ve got no knowledge of Shostakovich's music that allows me to guess at his temperament.
Perhaps this is why I didn’t detect or hear the music in this novel. To me, it sounded monotonal and almost undramatic, certainly not as Kafkaesque as I had expected.
Nevertheless, underlying the structure of the novel is a triad that was hinted at in the toast in the epigraph:
“One to hear
One to remember
And one to drink.”
This was “a sound that rang clear of the noise of time, and would outlive everyone and everything.”
The triad of moments consists of three “historic meetings” or “Conversations with Power” held in the years 1936, 1948 and 1960. Twelve years apart and each a leap year, an unlucky year for the superstitious.
Conversations with Power
On 26 January, 1936, Stalin attended a performance of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, about which he wrote an uncredited editorial in “Pravda” denouncing it as “a muddle instead of music”. Overnight, Shostakovich had become “an enemy of the people”. He fears being dragged out of his bed one night, taken away and shot in the back of the head. Each night, he packs a bag full of necessities and waits outside the lift on his floor. His fear is hardly conducive to creativity!
12 years later, he is denounced yet again. However, on 16 March, 1949, he received a personal phone call from Stalin, in which Stalin invited him to represent the Soviet Union at a Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. Stalin also undertook to overturn the blacklisting of his music.
By 1960, Stalin has died and been denounced by Khrushchev. Times have changed, apparently. Tyranny has been “repudiated”. Nobody is being shot anymore. But the apparatus of power and persuasion hasn’t been disassembled yet.
This time, Shostakovich is asked to become the Chairman of the Russian Federation Union of Composers.
On the one hand, it’s supposed to demonstrate that the Cult of Personality around Stalin is over. On the other hand, the state is just as reliant on propaganda as it ever was.
To be eligible, Shostakovich has to be a member of the Communist Party, which he has previously avoided. Finally, under less pressure than ever before, he gives in:
“1936; 1948; 1960. They had come for him every twelve years. And each of them, of course, a leap year.
“This was the final, unanswerable irony to his life: that by allowing him to live, they had killed him.”
Against the Noise of Time
Music, on the other hand, didn’t belong to the state or the people or the Party. It belonged only to music. It would survive his death, to be appreciated as music independently of the whisper of his own history. Regardless of what happened to Shostakovich, his music would transcend and be heard against “the noise of time”. ...more
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Dec 04, 2016
Dec 08, 2016
Apr 21, 2016
Jul 03, 1997
really liked it
The three protagonists of this 1969 novel "moved disinterestedly in the floating world centred loosely upon the art school, the universi Bristol Gothic
The three protagonists of this 1969 novel "moved disinterestedly in the floating world centred loosely upon the art school, the university and the second-hand trade and made their impermanent homes in the sloping, terraced hillside where the Irish, the West Indians and the more adventurous of the students lived in old, decaying houses where rents were low."
We aren't expressly told the name of the city, although Angela Carter refers to it as "provincial" and it's generally believed to be Bristol (where Carter was living at the time).
Like the psychiatric hospital in which Annabel ("the mad girl") eventually finds herself, their flat is in a Gothic "house [that] was built in the Age of Reason but now it has become a Fool's Tower."
And so we have the set-up of a Gothic novel that charts the decline and fall of 60's English counterculture.
Annabel starts off as a middle class virgin, "a sparse, grotesquely elegant, attenuated girl"...whose "movements were spiky, angular, and graceful" (she actually sounds more proto-punk than hippy to me). She's determined not to be "common" (like her parents) and jealously guards her privacy. She rarely speaks or reveals anything about her psyche. For all her secretive introversion and lack of energy, she's still incredibly self-centred (she thinks of herself as the "helpless pivot of the entire universe as if sun, moon, stars and all the hosts of the sky span round upon herself, their volitionless axle.")
Liberty for Lee
When her parents discover that she's living with Lee, they force them to get married, even though they don't think his prospects are good (being a school teacher from a modest working class background).
Neither is particularly committed to marriage, especially Lee:
"Lee expressed a desire for freedom; in the last years of his adolescence, freedom was his grand passion and a principal condition of freedom, it seemed to him, was lack of possessions.
"He also remained cool and detached in his dealings with women for freedom from responsibilities was another prerequisite of this state. So his sentimentality found expression in the pursuit of a metaphysical concept of liberty."
Mythic Flicker Book
Annabel is little better:
"She saw, in everyday things, a world of mythic, fearful shapes of whose existence she was convinced although she never spoke of it to anyone; nor had she ever suspected that everyday, sensuous human practice might shape the real world. When she did discover that such a thing was possible, it proved the beginning of the end for her for how could she possess any notion of the ordinary?"
This mythic world is one of her own construction, not one imposed on her by culture, society or the outside world. It's a product of her own imagination, which can produce both dreams and nightmares:
"I don't know from one minute to the next what it is that exists for her, it's like a flicker book."
We learn little of the physicality of the relationship. It matters not to Annabel, who's more concerned with her own mythic world. Meanwhile, Lee indulges in a number of extramarital affairs in a quest for simple pleasures.
Carter alerts us in the first paragraph to the fact that a catastrophe is coming, and come it does.
As if the chemistry between Annabel and Lee isn't explosive enough, they share their flat with Lee's brother, Buzz, a photographer who reeks of "incense and chemicals."
Inevitably, there is a greater psychic rapport between Annabel and Buzz: "Your brother seems to take your wife's fantasies for granted, as if they were real."
Even then, the relationship is a shadowy diffuse one of surface and surface:
"Everything is subtly out of alignment. Shadows fall awry and light no longer issues from expected sources...
"They represented, now, a fissure of tiny cracks in her scrupulous imaginary edifice."
This is a world of diffused dreariness that has started to disintegrate. Nothing purports to hold it together:
"...though she did not long for him, she waited for his physical return with a certain irritation that it was delayed so long.
"On the other hand, he might return to her in some other shape. Sometimes she thought of him as a mean, black fox and sometimes as a metamorphic thing that could slip in and out of any form he chose..."
The disintegration of their shared world is reflected in Carter's mode of story-telling. She gives us a kaleidoscopic perspective on an emotional labyrinth:
"There is a condition of shared or, rather, mutually stimulated psychotic disorder known as 'folie a deux'...
"In time, the principal actors (the wife, the brothers, the mistress) assembled a coherent narrative from these images but each interpreted them differently and drew their own conclusions which were all quite dissimilar for each told himself the story as if he were the hero except for Lee who, by common choice, found himself the villain."
And so it is that Angela Carter creates a contemporary myth that reveals how the Gothic mansion of the sixties became a Fool's Tower. Things ain't what they're supposed to be. This ain't the Summer of Love! But it is the aftermath.
The Blue Aeroplanes - "Colour Me"
The Blue Aeroplanes - "25 Kinds Of Love"
The album on which this song appears also contains a song called "Angela Carter".
The Blue Aeroplanes hail from Bristol.
Siouxsie and The Banshees - "Happy House" (from the album "Kaleidoscope")
Blue Oyster Cult - "This Ain't the Summer of Love"
(hide spoiler)] ...more
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Mar 28, 2016
Apr 03, 2016
Mar 28, 2016
May 01, 2003
it was amazing
This is an alternative edition and translation of the book I read and reviewed here.
Notes are private!
Jan 30, 2016
Feb 02, 2016
May 19, 2015
it was amazing
Decadent Rants and Harangues
This 1884 novel is a wonderful assemblage of prescient and decadent rants.
Something Huysmans says of another book of rants Decadent Rants and Harangues
This 1884 novel is a wonderful assemblage of prescient and decadent rants.
Something Huysmans says of another book of rants could apply equally to his own work:
"Conceived as harangues, they contained a certain strong muscular energy and were astonishing in the intolerance of their convictions."
Scoundrels and Imbeciles
Jean Des Esseintes (I'll call him Des E for short) fills his life with literature, art, music, furniture, jewelry, flowers, perfumes, food and liquor.
His journey started as a child:
"Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night."
Educated by Jesuits, he acquires a "bold and independent spirit".
He grows to scorn his fellow man:
"His contempt for humanity deepened. He reached the conclusion that the world, for the most part, was composed of scoundrels and imbeciles...Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity."
Des E the Eccentric Dandy
Des E's taste is anything but mainstream, even if he's familiar with it. The thing is he has consumed enough to know what he doesn't like and to be able to discriminate.
He becomes an eccentric dandy. Huysmans writes about the sensuous with a style that has both an economy and a sensuality of its own:
"Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines from Limagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas and porter and stout."
Whatever we might think of Des E, that's a meal I'd love to have shared with him!
Artifice against Nature
One consequence of Des E's lifestyle is that, the more he discriminates, the more he moves away from other people, until eventually he lives an almost hermit-like existence on the outskirts of Paris, surrounded only by the objets of his own immaculate taste and artifice. It's almost as if his subjectivism has become a form of solipsism.
His aesthetic opposes the artificial against nature. It elevates the dreamlike above the realistic, fantasy above naturalism:
"The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself. Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man's genius...Nature had had her day...Really, what dullness!...There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create..."
Gustave Moreau - Study of Salome for "Salome Dancing before Herod"
The Consoling Beacons of Ancient Faith
90% of the novel documents Des E's taste. We learn exactly what he likes and what he dislikes. From a literary point of view, you could assemble from the details of his library a reading list more erudite and filled with "the consoling beacons of ancient faith" than anything compiled by den Grossenlistengenerator Steven Moore (view spoiler)[(it's telling that it could be said, even then, as now, that the compilers of such lists (like the work of one of Des E's idols, Ernest Hello) have often "affected inordinate pretensions of profundity. There were some fawning and complacent people who pretended to consider him a great man, the reservoir of learning, the encyclopedic giant of the age. Perhaps he was a well, but one at whose bottom one often could not find a drop of water.") (hide spoiler)]
Nevertheless, the choice of books for his "breviary of decadence" compounds a sense of what can only be described as narcissism:
"...they lifted him far above this trivial life which wearied him so. In them he entered into a perfect communion of ideas with their authors who had written them when their state of soul was analogous to his own."
The Cowardly and the Servile
Inevitably, it seems, the last 10% of the novel witnesses his rapid decline in health. It's almost as if his discrimination is the cause of a social illness, his individualism the cause of a quasi-syphilitic social disease, and he must return to bourgeois Paris, the Church and its conformist flock, in order to cure his hallucinations, nightmares, melancholia, and ennui.
Towards the end, Des E proclaims, "I am certainly on the road to recovery."
Yet, as in many cases of mental illness, recovery comes at the cost of authenticity and individualism:
"...nowadays, nothing genuine exists, since the wine one drinks and the liberty one boldly proclaims are laughable and a sham...For what could [I] hope, if not new disillusionments...?
"To think that all this is not a dream, to think that I am going to return into the cowardly and servile crowd of this century!"
The Consolation of Long Forgotten Books
How little has changed! Maybe we, too, are in need of the "consoling beacons of ancient faith" contained in long forgotten books.
Only, Huysmans leaves us with a scintilla of doubt as to whether these very books are not the cure, but a cause, of Des E's dissolute condition.
Still, I'm confident they contain more tonic than virus.
Huysmans' 1903 Postscript/Preface
"As result of this brief review of each of the special articles exhibited in the show-cases of 'Against the Grain' the conclusion is forced upon us - the book was priming for my Catholic propaganda, which is implicit in it in its entirety, though in embryo...
"In all this hurly-burly, a single writer alone saw clear, Barbey d'Aurévilly, who... wrote:-
"'After such a book, it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol [and] the foot of the cross.'
"The choice has been made."
[Huysmans converted (or reverted) to Catholicism in 1892.]
YO, DES E!
"Yo, this is Des E, don't call me with any guest list requests, that ain't my department. Anything else, leave a message."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
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Jan 30, 2016
Jan 29, 2016
really liked it
On a Quest
The protagonist, Ged (Sparrowhawk), a 15 year old trainee boy wizard (not unlike Harry Potter) sets off on a quest to discover and defeat hi On a Quest
The protagonist, Ged (Sparrowhawk), a 15 year old trainee boy wizard (not unlike Harry Potter) sets off on a quest to discover and defeat his nemesis, his unnamed dark shadow.
Ursula Le Guin documents his quest in ten easy pieces. The style is rarely very lyrical and always subjected to the plot, as if it was a literal translation of a graphic saga, rather than a verbal one. You really have to suspend disbelief to derive much pleasure from it as a work of fiction. Ultimately, I was relieved that the novel was only 200 pages long (one of the main reasons I undertook it, anyway). The only aspect that interested me much as a reader was the metaphysical nature of the shadow, to the extent that it was intentional, rather than a figment of my own imagination.
"This Sorcery is Not a Game"
Ged’s quest is one of “self-transformation”. He starts at the age of 15, uncertain whether he has the powers of a wizard and concerned that he is slow to learn:
“Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise. Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do, you must know the price that is to pay!”
“Yet other cravings were in him that would not be stilled, the wish for glory, the will to act. Ogion’s seemed a long road towards mastery, a slow bypath to follow, when he might go sailing before the seawinds straight to the Inmost Sea, to the Isle of the Wise, where the air was bright with enchantments and the Archmage walked amidst wonders.”
“To Hear, One Must Be Silent”
Already we start to see that what impedes Ged’s quest is something internal, his impatience. No wonder that Ogion’s rune is the “Closed Mouth”. Ged must learn the discipline and power of silence:
“To hear, one must be silent.”
"To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow"
At the School for Wizards, he learns his most valuable lesson:
“Illusion fools the beholder’s senses; it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing. To change this rock into a jewel, you must change its true name. And to do that, my son, even to so small a scrap of the world, is to change the world. It can be done...But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on the act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow…”
Engraving of Ged with his pet otak on his shoulder
Knowing the True Name
Ged’s ego makes him question whether he can “drive back darkness with his own light”.
However, it’s not as easy as it sounds:
“He who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea.”
“Magic consists in this the true naming of a thing...Many a mage of great power has spent his whole life to find out the name of one single thing -one single lost or hidden name...In the world under the sun, and in the other world that has no sun, there is much that has nothing to do with men and men’s speech, and there are powers beyond our power.”
"The Shadow You Cast"
Ged first experiences the shadow while still at school:
“The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast.”
His next battle reminds him of another lesson he has learned:
“As a wizard he had learned the price of the game, which is the peril of losing one’s self, playing away the truth.”
Ogion tells him that “the shadow seeks to destroy your true being.”
He also suggests that he turn around and face the shadow. Ged cannot run away from his shadow:
“You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.”
A Shadow Quest
So Ged goes hunting:
“I tried to seize it. And there was nothing I could hold. I could not defeat it. It fled, I followed. But that may happen again, and yet again. I have no power over the thing. There may be neither death nor triumph to end this quest; nothing to sing of; no end. It may be I must spend my life running from sea to sea and land to land on an endless vain venture, a shadow-quest.”
His friend Vetch encourages him:
“Somehow you will learn its nature, its being, what it is, and so hold and bind and vanquish it.”
In the end, “Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one...And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.”
We are a polarity, only rarely do we realise it. As Le Guin herself says, rarely does iron know the location of the magnet.
"Only in Dying Life"
Le Guin concludes her tale by adverting to a fictional creation myth documented in song:
“Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”
Bright, indeed, was Sparrowhawk's flight across the empty sky of his youth.
Jackson Browne - "Before the Deluge"
Jackson Browne - "Late for the Sky"
“I am sick of boys and noise and foolishness.” ...more
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Nov 21, 2016
Nov 28, 2016
Nov 14, 2015
Jan 01, 1953
Oct 07, 1999
really liked it
"Rested Upon A Consideration of Sartre’s Novels"
The bulk of this book was first published in 1953 (and was the first of Iris Murdoch's books to be pub "Rested Upon A Consideration of Sartre’s Novels"
The bulk of this book was first published in 1953 (and was the first of Iris Murdoch's books to be published). She wrote the introduction much later - in 1987.
I read it as a breather or an in-betweenie in the course of reading some of Sartre's works (next on the list - "Nausea"). There's a sense in which it tries to define Sartre's philosophical and literary approach. However, Murdoch herself was both a philosopher and a novelist, so her perspective is that of someone trying to confront similar challenges and define her own approach.
The body of the book consists of ten short idiosyncratic chapters. The whole adds up to something like an introductory guide. It doesn't tell you too much about each book or so little that you can't understand Murdoch's perspective. It deals briefly with all of Sartre's major works. However, it's clear that Murdoch's main interest was Sartre's fiction:
"I have tried to rest what I have to say about Sartre upon a consideration of his novels."
I'd recommend this book if you plan to read any Sartre, especially "Nausea" or "Being and Nothingness".
Sartre demanded of fiction that it be engagée or committed, yet while Murdoch's own fiction would be equally serious, she felt that this was Sartre's weakness:
"His inability to write a great novel is a tragic symptom of a situation which afflicts us all. We know that the real lesson to be taught is that the human person is precious and unique; but we seem unable to set it forth except in terms of ideology and abstraction."
His problem was that he was too much of a rationalist to be a good novelist, even if he might have been a good dramatist:
"The novels are problematic and analytical; and their appeal does in part depend upon our being initially moved by the intellectual conflicts which they resume. All who felt the Spanish War as a personal wound, and all disappointed and vainly passionate lovers of Communism will hear these novels speak to them. But those who, without any pressing concern with these problems, seek their human shape and weight in Sartre's array of people may be left with a sense of emptiness."
Murdoch believes that Sartre placed his fiction too much at the service of his philosophical and political theories. He doesn't leave enough scope for the possibility that "art may break any rule." Sartre's vision is too analytical, disciplined and confined.
Paradoxically, Murdoch states in the introduction that "the metaphysical imagery of 'Being and Nothingness' was, for popular purposes, easily grasped...Existentialism was the new religion, the new salvation."
Murdoch describes how she first read it in Brussels in 1945, when she briefly met Sartre, whose "presence in the city was like that of a pop star." The only other occasion when she saw a philosopher "being hailed as a prophet was in California in 1984 when [she] attended a lecture by Jacques Derrida."
Sartre's philosophy carried an overt political message that she found charming and energising. His "obsessive and hypnotic world picture" also appeared in his philosophical novel, "Nausea".
She describes his fiction in terms of late romantic literature, in which "authentic being is attained in extreme situations, and in revolt against society."
For all the flaws she points out, Murdoch concludes that:
"Sartre, thinker and artist, so versatile, so committed, so serious, industrious, courageous, learned, talented, clever, certainly 'lived' his own time to the full, and, whatever the fate of his general theories, must survive as one of its most persistent and interesting critics."
The Experience of Freedom
Murdoch identifies freedom as the touchstone of Sartre's philosophy and fiction.
Yet it is trapped in the mind of the individual and unconsummated in society:
"The individual is the centre, but a solipsistic centre. He has a dream of human companionship, but never the experience. He touches others at the fingertips. The best he can attain to is an intuition of paradise..."
"It seemed from 'Being and Nothingness' that what Sartre meant by 'freedom' was the reflective, imaginative power of the mind, its mobility, its negating of the 'given', its capacity to rise out of muddy unreflective states, its tendency to return to an awareness of itself. For this sense of freedom, needless to say, stone walls make no prison; we are potentially free so long as we are conscious."
Freedom becomes the basis of all value. In the words of Sartre:
"The ultimate meaning of the actions of men of good faith is the pursuit of freedom as such...I cannot take my own freedom as an end without also taking the freedom of others as an end."
Freedom "becomes a weapon to use against the soul-destroying ossifications of both capitalism and communism."
Murdoch explains the title of her book in stages:
"Sartre is a rationalist; for him the supreme value is reflective self-awareness...Sartre prizes sincerity, the ability to see through shams, both social shams and the devices of one's own heart...The rationalism of Sartre is not geared on to the techniques of the modern world; it is solipsistic and romantic, isolated from the sphere of real operations...His reason is not practical and scientific, but philosophical. His evil is not human misery or the social conditions, or even the bad will, which may produce it, but the unintelligibility of our finite condition...
"What Sartre does understand, the reality which he has before him and which he so profoundly and brilliantly characterises in 'Being and Nothingness', is the psychology of the lonely individual. The universe of 'Being and Nothingness' is solipsistic. Other people enter it, one at a time, as the petrifying gaze of the Medusa, or at best as the imperfectly understood adversary in the fruitless conflict of love..."
"The general impression of Sartre's work is certainly that of a powerful but abstract model of a hopeless dilemma, coloured by a surreptitious romanticism which embraces the hopelessness."
A Pleasing Likeness
Murdoch continues, "It is patent that what many readers of Sartre find in his writings is a portrait of themselves. A likeness is always pleasing...; and to be told that one's personal despair is a universal human characteristic may be consoling...We can no longer formulate a general truth about ourselves which shall encompass us like a house...
"Sartre described very exactly the situation of a being who, deprived of general truths, is tormented by an absolute aspiration...Sartre is enough of a humanist to find this aspiration touching and admirable, enough of a romantic to enjoy adding that it is fruitless, and enough of a politician to introduce a theoretical contradiction for immediate practical ends. His philosophy is not just a piece of irresponsible romanticism; it is the expression of a last ditch attachment to the value of the individual, expressed in philosophical terms."
Having read "Being and Nothingness", I didn't find it as pessimistic or despairing about humanity as Murdoch seems to think it is. It was actually far more positive and liberating than I had anticipated. In particular, I didn't feel that Sartre's concept of "nothingness" was as negative as popular imagination would have you believe. Perhaps, the pessimism is more inferred from Sartre's fiction than his philosophy? ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 24, 2016
Sep 28, 2015
Jan 01, 1938
Jan 01, 1972
really liked it
Intimations of Intimacy
This collection of five short stories was first published in French in 1939.
At the time, Sartre had already written his first n Intimations of Intimacy
This collection of five short stories was first published in French in 1939.
At the time, Sartre had already written his first novel, “Nausea”, and several philosophical works.
My copy of the English translation was published by Panther Books and was marketed as“the brilliant study of the corruption of love”.” There are four photos of a naked brunette woman only partly cloaked by her bedsheets, as if viewed in an oval mirror (the frame of which could also pass for a large keyhole).
I’m not sure how well it sold in the English-speaking world. However, I don’t think either of these pitches gets at the appeal of the book.
On the other hand, it does sequence the stories in a way that adds to the appeal (compared with what I understand was the order of other versions):
2. “The Wall”
3. “The Room”
5. “The Childhood of a Leader”.
Exercises in Voice Projection
A couple of stories into the book, I started to wonder about the best way to approach the book as a whole. How would I review a collection?
Was there a linking theme? Was there an overarching style? Did the book consciously or unconsciously anticipate any of Sartre’s later works?
Ultimately, I abandoned these approaches.
What was fascinating about all five stories was how different they were in subject matter and how differently they were written in style.
In a way, the stories were partly exercises in style. “The Wall” reminded me of Camus and Orwell; “Erostratus” of Dostoyevsky; “The Childhood of a Leader” was Proustian.
Sartre seemed to be experimenting with different voices.
I found this story the most difficult, and therefore recommend that you read it first.
The story is a strange combination of third and first person narration. The protagonist is a woman, Lulu, whose perspective dominates the story. However, midway through a third person omniscient narration, she seems to intrude in the first person. I searched for a pattern, and the only one that I could find was that the first person seemed to arrive after a colon or a semi-colon. Here’s what I mean, though I love this passage about a torn sheet:
”Lulu was sleeping on her back, she had thrust the great toe of her left foot into a tear in the sheet...It annoyed her: I’ll have to fix that tomorrow, still she pushed against the threads so as to feel them break.”
My other query about this passage is the translation: do you have a great toe or a big toe? (In the third story, a woman opens the door and “penetrates” the room, rather than entering it. Did the publisher’s marketing department manage the translation?)
Still, the story itself is an interesting illustration of how somebody can attempt to seize freedom, only to turn back to the relative security of domesticity.
This story is a first person narrative by Pablo Ibbietta, a member of the International Brigade who has been captured by pre-war Spanish fascists. He’s one of three anarchists who will be taken out and shot against a wall the following morning.
Pablo tells us a little about himself:
“I took everything as seriously as if I were immortal.”
However, now, confronted with his mortality, most of what he tells us concerns the actions around him, with the exception that, having accepted his fate, he now has only one wish (which he keeps to himself and us):
“I want to die cleanly.”
Nevertheless, he’s given the opportunity to live if he betrays a superior. He decides to play a game with those who will ultimately kill him regardless:
“I found that somehow comic; it was obstinacy. I thought, ‘I must be stubborn!’ And a droll sort of gaiety spread over me.”
I like the fact that one of Sartre’s characters is both stubborn and gay in the light of inevitable death, even if it is destined to be tomorrow.
This is real black humour in confrontation with absurdity. But you’ll have to read it to find out why!
While Eve’s mother sits quietly at home consuming Turkish delights, her own husband (Pierre) is confined to a room with advanced dementia.
Early, a character warns, “One must never enter the delirium of a madman.” Only Sartre does exactly that, without necessarily entering the mind of the madman. The effect on others is enough for us to see: for example, Pierre now only knows Eve as Agatha.
Eve's parents want her to abandon Pierre to an institution, as if he had ceased to be a person, let alone a spouse. On the other hand, she maintains a brave face: “I love him as he is.”
Eve is sustained by the belief that one day it will all end, and that she might have one more role to play in Pierre's life before then.
This is another first person narrative that adopts the form of the classic myth of the man who, in a quest for notoriety, set fire to the temple of Diana in Ephesus, on the day Alexander the Great was born.
Self-styled anti-humanist Paul Hilbert sets out to shoot five people, then himself. We see everything as if it’s been filmed by a headcam. Even now, there are only two ways a story like this can end.
This story, while it might extrapolate on "Notes from Underground", is eerily prescient of the mass shootings of our times.
“The Childhood of a Leader” (This Odd Disquietude)
This, the longest and most psychologically insightful of the stories, concerns the childhood of Lucien Fleurier, the son of a regional captain of industry.
His father employs 100 people. He regards himself as bound by noblesse oblige, his privilege governed by a sense of responsibility rather than entitlement.
Lucien is a Proustian character whose sensitivity sees him slide down a slippery slide of peer group pressure that leads from self-doubt, “disorder”, anguish and nihilism to social inadequacy, self-pity, anti-Semitism and paternalism (all examples of bad faith):
“I have rights...[the right] to command...I exist because...I have the right to exist...You belong to me!”
Inevitably, he turns his back on his leftish mistress, Maud, who might have been his best chance of happiness and success. You have to wonder to whom Sartre was referring (Simone de Beauvoir or the third person in their triad to whom he dedicated the collection, Olga Kosakiewicz/Kosakievicz?) when he described her as follows:
”...her narrow, closed face which seemed so unattainable, her slender silhouette, her look of dignity, her reputation for being a serious girl, her scorn of the masculine sex, all those things that made her a strange being, truly someone else, hard and definitive, always out of reach, with her clean little thoughts, her modesties, her silk stockings and crepe dresses, her permanent wave.”
What Exit from Existence?
Some might question Sartre’s (like any man’s) ability to get inside the mind of a woman. However, in the majority of these stories, women take centre stage.
Like de Beauvoir’s own writing, these stories are relatively dry in their style. However, their power derives from the dilemmas in which Sartre positions his characters and out of which he then allows them to work their way (or not).
In a way, then, these stories are concerned with the existence (or otherwise) of an exit.
Madeleine Peyroux - "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (Bob Dylan cover)
"Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine've been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud
But there's no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You're gonna make me lonesome when you go."
The Wall/Muri (short film) - An adaptation of the story "The Wall/Le Mur"
Erostratus - "Giveaway"
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Notes are private!
Jan 23, 2016
Jan 29, 2016
Sep 18, 2015
Oct 04, 1999
really liked it
Attending to His Own Conventions
This is only the second of Saramago's novels that I've read (the other being "The Elephant's Journey"). Both were pu Attending to His Own Conventions
This is only the second of Saramago's novels that I've read (the other being "The Elephant's Journey"). Both were published after he won the Nobel Prize, so I'm unable to make any assessment of the merits of the award.
However, I'd like to start this review with some comments on Saramago's style, before discussing some of the themes of the novel.
The first comment relates to sentence and paragraph length.
I stopped counting after a while, but some of Saramago's sentences are up to half a page long, and many of his paragraphs are at least four pages long. This length doesn't service any sense of stream of consciousness or any other literary goal. The overwhelming tone is one of rational abstraction, so the length seems to reflect the thought that inspired the language.
Punctuation is a product of printing technology. It marks pauses in the sentence that guide or mimic how it would be spoken aloud.
Many of Saramago's sentences are punctuated by commas, where we would otherwise expect a full stop to end the sentence. In some cases, the first word of the next part of the sentence following the comma begins with a capital letter. Thus, pretty soon, a comma becomes a mere substitute for a full stop:
"The blind man raised his hands to his eyes and gestured, Nothing, it's as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea. But blindness isn't like that said the other fellow, they say that blindness is black, Well I see everything white, That little woman was probably right, it could be a matter of nerves, nerves are the very devil, No need to talk to me about it, it's a disaster, yes a disaster, Tell me where you live please, and at the same time the engine started up."
Punctuation is conventional. Saramago is unconventional, but he nevertheless establishes his own conventions that parallel or replace social ones. Nothing about his punctuation truly disorients the reader.
I was away from school the day they taught paragraph structure, so my comprehension is impressionistic at best. Given the size and content of some of Saramago's paragraphs, it's difficult to ascertain whether he utilises any rules to divide one paragraph from another.
They just seem to go on, they flow. Once I stopped thinking about it as a challenge, I imagined that the paragraphs were like clouds, abstractions that blew across the sky that is the page. Each paragraph was a dash of whiteness. Occasionally, their contents would come down to earth, falling like torrents of rain, thus becoming grounded or less abstract.
Words and Sayings
My second comment relates to the use of sayings, proverbs and allegory.
There is a moral or ethical dimension to the novel that I will explore in the second part of my review.
However, to some extent, this is conveyed not just by the narrative, but by Saramago's use of language, including pre-existing words and phrases.
Here Saramago comments on the performative nature of language:
"But I am still blind, she replied, It doesn't matter, I'll guide you, only those present who heard it with their own ears could grasp how such simple words could contain such different feelings as protection, pride and authority."
"...And why those words rather than any others, I don't know, they came into my head and I said them, The next we know you'll be preaching in the square we passed along the way, Yes, a sermon about the rabbit's tooth and the hen's beak..."
"...Here one can see that the true eternal return is that of words, which now return, spoken for the same reasons..."
"The doctor's wife was not particularly keen on the tendency of proverbs to preach, nevertheless something of this ancient lore must have remained in her memory..."
What's of interest is the social construction of language. It organises human behaviour, thought and action, even before it takes on any overt moral or pedagogical character.
To a certain extent, language rules us from within, even without us knowing:
"...we cannot tell what presentiments, what intuition, what inner voices might have roused them, nor do we know how they found their way here, there is no point searching for explanations for the moment, conjectures are free."
Language effects "the harmonious conciliation between what she had said and what she thought..."
Still, language is mutable and must change:
"...if sayings are to retain any meaning and to continue to be used they have to adapt to the times."
"Blindness” is in part an adaptation or updating of historical, even biblical, allegories.
Language and books are a repository for stories or history:
"There being no witnesses, and if there is no evidence that they were summoned to the post-mortems to tell us what happened, it is understandable that someone should ask how it was possible to know that these things had happened so and not in some other manner, the reply to be given is that all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened."
Who Are the Blind?
My third comment relates to the naming of the characters. Nobody is given a name. Saramago only refers to people by their qualities: the first blind man, his wife, the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the old man with the black eyepatch.
There is no suggestion that every character is representative of some class or category. What unites them is their blindness. Each has their own story as to how they became blind, so this is ultimately what differentiates them (other than the description they are given).
These characters are simply amongst the first to go blind in an "epidemic" of blindness from which everybody eventually suffers.
As we witness more and more people go blind, we inevitably ask what significance blindness is meant to have.
We are never definitively told its true significance.
The epigraph to the novel is a quotation from the "Book of Exhortations":
"If you can see, look.
If you can look, observe."
To look might mean to look with a purpose or on a quest.
To observe might mean to look or see with a mindfulness or critical ability.
In a way, we are being exhorted to notice more than what we see in front of us, to look more deeply and less superficially.
What then if we are blind and cannot see? Does it mean that we can neither look nor observe? If so, what can we be exhorted to do?
"Blindness" doesn't so much exhort us to do anything, as investigate the possibilities of what might happen if we all suddenly turned blind.
Blind People Who Can See, But Who Don’t See
Who then are the blind? The most obvious answer is all of us. A more precise answer comes at the end of the book:
"Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see."
Perhaps the blind are we who are willfully blind, or are blinded by an external cause, such as religion (the church) or the state.
Saramago imagines a church in which all the statues have a white bandage covering their eyes. (This reminds me of the apocryphal story that some room in the Vatican contains all of the genitals that have been chiselled off statues at the direction of the Pope, and one day will have to be matched to the statues from which they've been removed.)
Food to Survive
Another answer could be that the blind represent poor people or the working class/proletariat.
This possibility arises from the fact that what the characters in the novel lose when they become blind is the ability to find food and to survive.
Blindfolded in a sense, they return to John Rawls' hypothetical "original position" in which they don a "veil of ignorance" that blinds people to their personal and social characteristics and enables them to negotiate and formulate a social contract without partiality.
Here, the blind people appoint leaders and delegates to perform particular tasks on behalf of the community.
They form themselves into some kind of organisation to replace the state that has ceased to function.
This organisation is against the state, without being animalistic or anarchistic:
"Unless we organise ourselves in earnest, hunger and fear will take over here...
"The state of mind which perforce will have to determine social conduct of this nature cannot be improvised nor does it come about spontaneously."
Cover by Belgian designer Levente Szabó
Like Human Beings
The doctor's wife (who is not blind) verbalises it:
"If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like human animals, words she repeated so often that the rest of the ward ended up by transforming her advice into a maxim, a dictum, into a doctrine, a rule of life, words which deep down were so simple and elementary...propitious to any understanding of needs and circumstances..."
Observe the performative function of words again.
Blind Bourgeois Hoodlums
The greatest social threat to this little community is a gang of blind hoodlums, who take over control of the distribution of the food and start to charge for it.
By expropriating the means of distribution, they mimic the role of the bourgeoisie, and in effect start a class war that only the doctor's wife can end (with the aid of a pair of scissors).
A Great Hero to Me
Before she is able to do this, the women in the community are subjected to rape and abuse by the hoodlums, in exchange for the food that is to be supplied to their hospital ward. Some readers have expressed distaste about these scenes. However, they are fundamental to Saramago's implied argument that capitalist society had turned women into a property right and a commodity of exchange.
This contributes to the status of the doctor's wife as a saviour. No less than Ursula Le Guin has said:
"The woman who is the central character of Blindness is truly a great hero to me."
Notes are private!
Jul 17, 2016
Jul 24, 2016
Jul 23, 2015
really liked it
VOLUPTUOUS DOCILITY AND SYLLABISM
"Xaviere was watching Pierre with a kind of voluptuous docility..." (page 238)
"Her fresh lips slowly plucked off each VOLUPTUOUS DOCILITY AND SYLLABISM
"Xaviere was watching Pierre with a kind of voluptuous docility..." (page 238)
"Her fresh lips slowly plucked off each syllable of the word: vol..up..tu..ous." (page 151)
Simone de Beauvoir's novel was first published in French in 1943 and in English in 1949. Nabokov's famous syllabic enunciation of "Lo-lee-ta" appeared in the novel "Lolita", which was written in English, and first published in 1955 in Paris, in 1958 in New York City, and in 1959 in London.
SHE CAME TO STAY (AND WOULDN'T GO AWAY)
[A Three Act Play with an Alternative Ending]
A booth in the brasserie at la Coupole on the Boulevard du Montparnasse.
XAVIERE: You have nice breasts.
FRANCOISE: They used to be nice, but I’m 26 now.
XAVIERE: I’m only 17.
FRANCOISE: Your breasts are so much nicer. More pert.
XAVIERE: I’d love to kiss yours.
FRANCOISE: You will, in time.
XAVIERE: I’d like to kiss you now. Your lips, I mean. Here.
FRANCOISE: You can – but subject to one small condition.
XAVIERE: What’s that? Would I like it?
FRANCOISE: I’m sure you would.
FRANCOISE: I’d like you to kiss Pierre as well. Both of us.
XAVIERE: A menage a trois? A triad?
FRANCOISE: Everything would be so easy.
XAVIERE: I can't imagine how it would work. I haven't slept with one person yet, let alone two.
FRANCOISE: A couple who are closely united is something beautiful enough, but how much more wonderful would be a trio who loved each other with all their being!
PIERRE: Well, well, my two favourite women!
XAVIERE: We were just talking about that!
FRANCOISE: Pierre, you're not one man between two women, but all three of us could form something very special...
PIERRE: ...something difficult?
FRANCOISE: Perhaps, but something which could be beautiful and happy.
PIERRE: Well, count me in then!
PIERRE: Xaviere, I want nothing more from you than what I have, but I could not bear that anyone else should have more.
FRANCOISE: She's no more than a capricious child, Pierre.
PIERRE: No, don't believe a word of it, Xaviere...you’re a wild and exacting soul. I love you. I want to sleep with you.
XAVIERE: I'm having a wonderful time with you, Pierre.
FRANCOISE: Beware, she wants to take revenge on you for the desire you arouse in her.
PIERRE: Why are you so morose when I'm so much in love with you?
XAVIERE: The pleasures of the mind are repulsive to me.
PIERRE: Go ahead, tell me frankly that you don't love me.
FRANCOISE: Give her time to breathe, Pierre, you're badgering her.
XAVIERE: I don’t love you. I never loved you.
PIERRE: You just don’t know how to receive my love. Yet.
FRANCOISE: What exasperates you so much is that Pierre and I are always on such good terms.
XAVIERE: You both oppress me.
PIERRE: I no longer enjoy this affair. It’s frivolous and wasteful.
XAVIERE: I'm such a coward. I ought to kill myself, I ought to have done it a long time ago. I will do it.
PIERRE: You’re just trying to make me feel guilty.
XAVIERE: I could kill myself right now, if I wanted to.
FRANCOISE: Don’t do it. You mustn’t!
XAVIERE: Why not?
FRANCOISE: Because I want to.
XAVIERE: Are you joking?
FRANCOISE: You’re a bitch. I hate you. You just wanted to take Pierre away from me. I could kill you.
XAVIERE: Here’s my gun. Be my guest!
FRANCOISE: What have you got a gun for?
XAVIERE: I thought I might have to shoot Pierre.
PIERRE: What? I’m going to the bar. Does anybody else want a drink?
XAVIERE: No thanks.
FRANCOISE: That’s a plastic pistol. A theatre prop, if I’m not mistaken!
XAVIERE: I only wanted to scare him.
FRANCOISE: This is a gun. Feel it.
XAVIERE: It’s heavy.
FRANCOISE: That’s because it’s real.
XAVIERE: Francoise, I’m frightened. Put it back on the table. Where we can both see it.
FRANCOISE: OK, but remember it’s loaded. And there’s only one bullet.
The lights go off. A woman screams like a banshee and a solitary gunshot rings out.
PIERRE: Francoise? Xaviere?
The curtains come down.
Cover painting: "Yvonne in Green Dress" (1938) by Guy Pene Du Bois
THE INCIPIENT LANGUAGE OF EXISTENTIALISM:
The English title has different connotations to the original French title.
The French title implies that Xaviere was invited, which was the case, both with respect to her living arrangements and the formation of the triad.
In both cases, Francoise seems to have been the inviter or instigator of the relationship.
Correspondence with Reality
There are approximations, if not precise equations, with real life characters.
Francoise is most obviously modelled on de Beauvoir.
Pierre is Sartre, who was writing "Being and Nothingness" at the same time. (The character "Pierre" appears in some of that work's illustrations of philosophical principles.)
Xaviere is a conflation of the sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz/Kosakievicz.
The novel is dedicated to Olga Kosakiewicz/Kosakievicz.
The novel was set in the 12 months immediately before World War II. The real events occurred during the period 1932 to 1937, although the friendships continued subsequently.
Pierre comes across as warm, but naive and often manipulative, if not necessarily malicious. His interest in sex and sensuality is almost academic. He seemed to have sex, so that he could think about it then and afterwards. To the extent that Pierre ever suffers, what hurts is his ego or vanity, rather than his feelings.
Francoise is genuinely intellectually committed to both a relationship with Pierre and whatever other relationships occur. However, she is also genuinely hurt by what happens in these relationships.
She is a much more sensitive person than she comes across:
"Gerbert wondered why people usually thought Francoise looked stern and intimidating; she did not try to act girlishly, but her face was full of gaiety, life and healthy zest; she seemed so completely at ease that it made you feel perfectly at ease when you were near her."
She is the most generous of the core three characters. However, it worries me that she seems to bring women to Pierre, almost as if they are her offerings to him. Inevitably, she hurts when they distract his attention away from her.
Xaviere is probably almost as egotistical as Pierre, only she is much younger (a "mere gamine", as de Beauvoir would describe her in her memoirs), less experienced and less intellectually gifted. She causes chaos precisely because she doesn't yet know what she wants.
Consciously or unconsciously, she brings out the worst in Pierre, even though he projects the fault on to her:
"It's not my fault if the thoughts you inspire are filthy."
Of course, it isn't necessarily or always Xaviere who is inspiring anything in Pierre or anybody else.
A triad necessarily and inevitably splits each being in two, at least temporally. It's almost impossible to give one's whole being to two separate people, at the same time:
"It can't spoil anything vital, but the fact is that when I'm worried because of her, I neglect you. When I look at her I don't look at you. I wonder if it wouldn't be better to call a halt to this affair. It's not love that I feel for her: it savours more of superstition. If she resists, I become obstinate, but as soon as I'm sure of her, I become indifferent about her."
It's tempting to describe Olga as the most self-absorbed of the three. However, is she any different from the others? Each is out to satisfy and protect their own self or "I" with the help or at the expense of the "other", well, at least two others in fact.
Closing the Book on Real Life
It's interesting that de Beauvoir uses the novel to document and explore her actual relationships, so that she can better understand what happened. She also uses the fictional denouement to obtain a more satisfactory closure or punctuation mark with respect to the sentence she served.
Below are passages that reflect or anticipate some of the philosophical concerns of both de Beauvoir and Sartre in their non-fiction.
We Two Are One
"It's impossible to talk about faithfulness and unfaithfulness where we are concerned...You and I are simply one. That's the truth, you know. Neither of us can be described without the other."
"You and Francoise have a way of pooling everything."
"Pierre still repeated: 'We are one,' but now she had discovered that he lived only for himself. Without losing its perfect form, their love, their life, was slowly losing its substance, like those huge, apparently invulnerable cocoons, whose soft integument yet conceals microscopic worms that painstakingly consume them...
Sex and Sensuality
”What exactly did [Pierre] want of Xaviere? Polite [encounters] on the hotel staircase? An affaire? Love? Friendship?”
"I wanted to give you more than you were prepared to accept. And, if one is sincere, to give is a way of insisting on some return."
'I no longer enjoy these affaires,' said Pierre. 'It's not as if I were a great sensualist, I don't even have that excuse!...The truth is that I enjoy the early stages.'
“You know I'm no sensualist. All I ask is to be able at any time to see an expression like the one I saw last night, and moments when I alone in this world exist for her.”
"Pure sensuality does not interest me...and besides, does pure sensuality even have a meaning?"
"[Xaviere's] cheeks were flushed with anger. Her face was extremely attractive, with such subtly variable shadings that it seemed not to be composed of flesh, but rather of ecstasy, of bitterness, of sorrow, to which the eye became magically sensitive. Yet, despite this ethereal transparency, the outlines of her nose and mouth were extremely sensual.”
”...I shall sleep with other men...Sexual faithfulness is perfectly ridiculous. It leads to pure slavery. I don't understand how you can tolerate it.”
”I've no ardent desire to see much of people, that's quite true.”
”The fact remains that I love you. Do you really think that freedom consists in questioning things at every turn? We've often said, apropos of Xaviere, that this way was the way to become the slaves of our slightest moods...”
”She smiled at him. What was she uneasy about? He could easily cross-examine himself, he could question the world. She knew she had nothing to fear from this freedom that separated him from her. Nothing would ever change their love.”
”She had loved him too blindly, and for too long, for what she received from him; but she had promised herself to love him for himself, and even in that condition of freedom of which he was now availing himself to escape from her; she would not stumble over the first obstacle.”
Being and Existence
"Elsewhere something was in the process of existing without her being there, and it was that thing which really mattered. This time, she couldn't say: 'It doesn't know it exists, it doesn't exist.' For it did know."
”Xaviere existed and was not to be refuted, all the risks involved in her existence had to be accepted.”
"It's you who always deliberately introduce a kind of Germanic ponderosity into our discussions."
The Clash of Two Existences or Beings
"Henceforth, Xaviere belonged to Pierre."
”...she really makes me uncomfortable, that creature, with her philosophy which makes us less than dust. It seems to me that if she loved me I'd be as sure of myself as I was before. I would feel that I'd compelled her approval. To make her love me is to dominate her, to enter into her world and there conquer in accordance with her own values. You know this is the kind of victory for which I have an insane need."
”Xaviere's existence had always threatened her, even beyond the very limits of her life, and it was this old anguish that she recognised with terror.”
“How was a conscience not her own capable of existing? If it were so, then it was she who was not existing. She repeated 'She or I.'”
At One with the World
”At last the circle of violent emotion and anxiety, in which Xaviere's sorcery imprisoned them, had been broken, and they found themselves once more at one at the central point of the vast world. Behind them stretched the limitless past. Continents and oceans were spread like huge sheets over the surface of the globe, and the miraculous certainty of existing amid this incalculable wealth overran even the too narrow bounds of space and time.”
David Crosby - "Triad" (original solo studio take)
The Byrds - "Triad"
CSN&Y - "Triad" (Live in 1970)
Jefferson Airplane - "Triad"
In memory of Paul Kantner
Carly Simon - "We Have No Secrets"
"The water was cold
The beach was empty but for one
Now you were lying in the sun
Wanting and needing no-one
Then some child came, you never asked for her to come
She drank a pint of your Rum
And later when you told me
You aid she was a bore
Sometimes I wish
Often I wish
That I never knew some of those secrets of yours."
Carly Simon - "We Have No Secrets" [Live at Grand Central Station, 1995]
Wendy Matthews - "Token Angels"
The Pretenders - "Stop Your Sobbing"
Notes are private!
Jan 29, 2016
Feb 06, 2016
Feb 18, 2015
it was amazing
The Death Throes of Modernism
I first read this collection of essays in 1982, but I was already familiar with some of them, because I had read them in The Death Throes of Modernism
I first read this collection of essays in 1982, but I was already familiar with some of them, because I had read them in "Encounter" or "Playboy", plus I had read ”Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey'' in “Partisan Review”.
It mightn't have meant anything to me at the time, but Fiedler was probably one of the first critics, if not the first, to use the term "Post-Modernism". I first came across the term in the early 80's in the context of architecture. However, Fiedler seems to have first used it in 1970 in his essay "Cross the Border - Close the Gap".
He used it to describe a literary movement that he presumed was superseding Modernism. He had been "acutely conscious of the fact since 1955" that we were living through "the death throes of Modernism and the birth pangs of Post-Modernism."
The Presumption of Modernism
This is how he described Modernism:
"The kind of literature which has arrogated to itself the name Modern (with the presumption that it represented the ultimate advance in sensibility and form, that beyond its newness was not possible), and whose moment of triumph lasted from a point just before World War I until just after World War II, is dead, i.e., belongs to history not actuality. In the field of the novel, this means that the age of Proust, Mann, and Joyce is over; just as in verse that of T. S. Eliot, Paul Valery, Montale and Seferis is done with."
What is important about this interpretation is that Modernism seems to have died of its own weight(-iness) (or pretension), rather than because it was under some form of attack from the literature of the present or the future. Fiedler's support for Post-Modernism therefore derived more from his belief that Modernism needed to be superseded than the characteristics of what might supersede it.
Fiedler tends to use the term Modernism interchangeably with Avant-Garde Literature. Within this he incorporates literature that used techniques that were "revolutionary and exciting in the heyday of James Joyce", only now (1970) some authors and the academy were embracing a style "contrived of yesterday's avant-gardism, the nostalgic imitation of" the old Modernism.
Fiedler believed that the exclusive focus on technique was short-sighted:
"The whole meaning of advanced art was never contained, however, in mere technique, which was only one of the many modes of offending the philistine reader...It is, after all, offence on many fronts which distinguishes avant-garde from other kinds of writing."
The Insult of Experimental Art
It aims not just at protest (which is middlebrow):
"Highbrow or truly experimental art aims at insult; and the intent of its typical language is therefore exclusion. It recruits neither defenders of virtue nor opponents of sin; only shouts in the face of the world the simple slogan 'mock the middle classes', which is to say, mock most, if not quite all, of its readers."
Imitators and Vulgarisers
The problem with the exponents of experimental literature was "how quickly their breakthrough to new frontiers of offence has been followed up by imitators and vulgarisers. In our time of rapid communication, the first discoverers have scarcely staked out a territory before the tourists have come, then the carpetbaggers, and at last the middlebrow suburbanites - eager to set up house-keeping on prime sites overlooking the first landing places."
What was once avant-garde had now become Kitsch.
What Fiedler abhorred most was the copyist who mimicked someone else's experimentalism. This was the weight that killed off Modernism. Nobody was coming up with any new experiments. The original Modernists had conducted all of the conceivable experiments. It seemed that there were none left to conduct.
An experiment when conducted first is avant-garde, when conducted next or second is Kitsch.
Beyond High Art and Low Art
In the eponymous essay, Fiedler argues that the distinction between High Art and Low Art should be obliterated:
"The truly new New Novel must be anti-art as well as anti-serious."
This would potentially take the novel back to its beginnings, when it was more entertainment than art. This was a popular tradition rather than an elitist one.
Fiedler hoped that any new movement would embrace the Western, Science Fiction and Pornography; in other words, genre fiction:
"[The novelist] had only to cross our own particular Border, the Frontier, to inhabit a region where adults and children, educated and uneducated, shared a common enchantment."
"Closing the gap" involved extinguishing the boundary between High Art and Pop Art or Mass Art:
"But most importantly of all, it implies the closing of the gap between artist and audience, or at any rate, between professional and amateur in the realm of art."
It no longer made sense to refer to somebody as a "mere entertainer". Fiedler gives as examples Frank Zappa and John Lennon.
Holy Disturbers of the Peace of the Devout
So what happens when you have crossed the border and closed the gap?
"Let those to whom religion means security beware, for it is no New Established Church that is in the process of being founded; and its communicants are, therefore, less like the pillars of the Lutheran Church or Anglican gentlemen than they are like ranters, enthusiasts, Dionysiacs, Anabaptists: holy disturbers of the peace of the devout...Imaginary Americans..."
In the essay "The Middle Against Both Ends", Fiedler concluded:
"The fear of the vulgar is the obverse of the fear of excellence, and both are aspects of the fear of difference: symptoms of a drive for conformity on the level of the timid, sentimental, mindless-bodiless genteel."
In the final essay "Chutzpah and Pudeur", Fiedler refers to the pseudo-Cult that worships a canon informed by "the Art Religion or, in its revised American form, the Great Books Religion."
The Pseudo-Cult of the Nostalgic Imitator
This pseudo-Cult can be detected at work in the slavish followers of Post-Modernism and Holy Maximalism on GoodReads. There is no recognition that contemporary Post-Modernism has descended into "nostalgic imitation" of the old Modernism or the old Post-Modernism. Books are canonical for the very (and sole) reason that they are long. Witness the abundance of texts that are described as "Wakean". This term is evidence that we are yet again having "imitators and vulgarisers" thrust upon us as the new New Novelists.
Equally significant is the fact that these pseudo-Cultists dress up in the garb of avant-gardists and experimentalists when they are in fact mere nostalgic imitators. Their attempts to formulate lists of great books (aka canons) and declarations that a work is the greatest novel since "Finnegan's Wake" are little more than attempts to reconstruct a High Art that is opposed to any other art form, whether popular, excellent, elitist or not. They crave the status of an elite without the burden or responsibility of knowledge or insight. Once again, as Fiedler would say, the Middle is positioning itself against Both Ends. And the Cultists are merely the rear guard pushing it from behind. We’d better watch our asses!
Frank Zappa - "Eat That Question"
Zappa plays Zappa - "Eat that Question"
Moon Zappa and Thorsten Schutte On "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words" (including trailer)
Frank Zappa on Larry King Live
"If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us."
"Never bend over for a Christian."
John Lennon & Frank Zappa - "Well (Baby Please Don't Go)" (Live at the Fillmore East June 6, 1971)
Notes are private!
Oct 30, 2016
Nov 04, 2016
Jan 29, 2015
really liked it
MONA the Antipodean Anti-Museum Extraordinaire
MONA is the Museum of Old and New Art. It’s located in a formerly working class suburb of Hobart in the MONA the Antipodean Anti-Museum Extraordinaire
MONA is the Museum of Old and New Art. It’s located in a formerly working class suburb of Hobart in the island state of Tasmania.
You could argue that it is the best art museum in the world. However, what’s even more certain is that it deserves to be called the best anti-museum in the world.
White Cubes and Wall Labels
MONA dispenses with two features that have been regarded as essential to conventional museums: the white cubic space and the wall labels.
As a result, it comes across as a subversive museum:
“MONA’s subversiveness lies not with the art, but with the fact that it gives the finger to the pretensions upon which the contemporary art world is built.”
Some have described it as a “subversive adult Disneyland.”
MONA also uses lighting to create a dark intimacy around the work of art itself. (See my review of Thomas Pynchon’s "Against the Day" for a parallel discussion of light versus darkness.) Not only are wall labels eschewed, but signage is as well. Thus, the viewer is encouraged to wander (and wonder) spontaneously, free of institutional direction, didacticism and dictation.
The vast bulk of the museum is built underground. It’s a subterranean wonderland. Some have even likened it to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, suggesting that the mirrored entrance on the surface is “a portal into a parallel world below.”
Because most of the building is beneath the surface, the museum doesn’t present as an imposing edifice. We must be inside before we can experience it. Nothing external intimidates us or dictates our response to the interior.
This is a still photo of the inside of a kinetic sculpture ("Artifact" by Gregory Barsamian) at MONA, Hobart, January, 2014 (It shows the inside of a mind through a window in the skull. An internal strobe light flashed on and off rapidly, so I was very lucky to get such a clear picture.)
MONA avoids a taxonomical or thematic approach to curating exhibitions. Instead, it seeks to “challenge the visitors’ pre-conceived notions of art through the juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory elements.”
“[The owner, David Walsh,] is keen on juxtaposition’s power to disorder and detach things that have been assembled into orders and groups. Disordering things can produce new associations and thoughts, new relationships: it jars the senses and forces us to see things in new ways.”
Thus, MONA breaks down boundaries and contravenes conventional definitions of what art is supposed to be and how it should be exhibited.
Don’t Dictate (To Me)
It’s a fundamental philosophy and aesthetic of MONA that “We will not be dictated to.” Equally, it will not dictate to the viewer. The audience is free to shape and define its own experience of the art and its environment:
“David Walsh wanted his art to inspire and transform. That meant he had to design a new experience, not based on the transfer of information primarily but on creating a space where people were made more receptive to challenge and change. This was achieved partly by the art itself, by its transformative intent and exuberance, but also by MONA’s Dionysian vineyard setting, with its temple-like precinct and approach, and from the satirical, festive and radical traditions of carnival that it captured and recreated.
“Being at MONA is like being at the centre of an audacious carnival parade, or in the strange, liminal world of the American funfair or burlesque. There’s art, yes, but it brings release and abandonment.”
Walsh describes the atmosphere as “loud and unruly”:
“In the absence of a single voice of authority in MONA’s writing and branding, it’s various voices are cheeky and mocking of the art and artists. It’s particularly scathing of their social elevation, pretentious language and airs and graces - anything that needlessly creates a culture of art apart. As with the carnival spirit anywhere, MONA seeks to build a community of experience built around the people, around popular culture: to flatten any sense of social hierarchy. Figures of authority are taken off their pedestals and brought down to earth through good-natured laughter and teasing: a form of subversion that carries the crowd, and even its targets, along with it. It heralds a new truth: that the art world doesn’t need to be a mystery and need not be the preserve of a social elite.”
MONA doesn’t oppose excellence or merit, but it does question the pedestalisation of art and the construction of boundaries around art that deny people access to it. There is something anti-authoritarian about Walsh that pervades his museum. It’s also quintessentially Australian, as is his refusal to accept government funding and interference with MONA’s agenda and offering:
“It’s about the recovery of art for popular culture, for one and all; it’s about enjoying art as it once was and should always have been - as a pleasure, as a life-affirming meditation and a means of confronting our demons.
“Walsh was going to summon up the intoxicating forces of the people’s long- dormant Second Life. He was going to unleash the excessive, outrageous, exuberant and triumphant spirit of Carnival inside the museum. It was going to be like lighting fireworks in church.”
Private Collections and Wunderkammer
MONA started with the private collection of David Walsh:
“He doesn’t see himself as an obsessive, trainspotterish type; for him, collecting objects has been a significant and pleasurable way of making connections to the world. Such collectors have an excitement and passion for objects that is missing, or not allowed to be expressed, in the curatorial practices of conventional museums.”
Walsh’s objects were a “source of wonderment”, which he wanted to pass on to the public:
“Collecting and restoring objects, then displaying them in collections, became what theorist Walter Benjamin described as a form of memory unique to the modern era. A person’s collections can be a method of preserving former ways of life, or of remembering a period or moment in their own lives (or others’ lives) through objects that evoke it, such as music, books or art - which in some way the collector may inhabit.”
In the time before museums and galleries, collectors displayed their objects in a Wunderkammer (a wonder cabinet or a cabinet of curiosities). This tradition defines MONA’s contemporary approach:
“To give free reign to curiosity and experience, wonderment [is] valuable in itself.”
Carnivalesque Transgression and Wonderment
Wonderment comes from a private experience of both collector and viewer. However, MONA strives to achieve a more public carnivalesque experience in the spirit identified by the critic Mikhail Bakhtin:
“Carnival had a special language. It was vulgar in the extreme, it contravened most accepted forms of everyday speaking, it was rarely serious and it mocked authority in the most biting manner.”
Walsh granted MONA’s staff a licence to "deploy ridicule, mockery and laughter." Like fools or clowns, they assumed a great licence to mock and ridicule authority figures:
“They felt that art had been hijacked and set on a pedestal. They found all that pomposity and stiffness highly amusing, and the more they mocked it, the more they inadvertently found themselves restoring art as a form of popular culture. MONA gave them a rather big stage, and they turned art into a theatre production that people rather liked.”
“The banishment of seriousness, and the follies of human pretension that Carnival reveals, enable everyone to see the world slightly differently, through different lenses - with a more open mind...They could suspend disbelief in the magic of theatre and performance; they were most likely drunk; their individuality dissolved into the crowd and was therefore most open to new suggestion.”
“Like all carnivals, MONA would look closely and bravely at the human condition via the human body, as one of the most important things that unites us socially. Because the body has always been used as a metaphor for humanity’s collective body and the means through which we’re disciplined and shaped, this allows MONA to tackle issues relating to morality, liberty and freedom, politics and philosophy.”
“What counts is whether licence is given for carnivalesque practice (writing, reading, audience participation, etc) and whether it is free, expressive and transgressive.”
There is a sense in which MONA is truly Rabelaisian, even more so than much literature that claims to be part of this tradition. Its aesthetic is equally applicable as the foundation of a protest against the canonisation of literature by classicists, modernists and post-modernists alike. Fuck the fat book spruikers, annotationists and list-makers! And fuck their shelf-justifications! If you can hear the beat of MONA, well I've been to France, so let's just dance!
Penetration - "Don't Dictate"
David Johansen - "Frenchette"
"I've been to France, so let's just dance."
The Void Bar viewed from above. ...more
Notes are private!
Nov 16, 2016
Nov 20, 2016
Jan 12, 2015
May 27, 1997
Jan 02, 1999
really liked it
The epigraph for Cynthia Ozick’s fourth novel is a quotation of a literary critic from Julian Barnes's novel “Flaubert's Parrot”. B Flaubert's Epigraph
The epigraph for Cynthia Ozick’s fourth novel is a quotation of a literary critic from Julian Barnes's novel “Flaubert's Parrot”. Barnes' subsequent comments are so scathing, it’s quite possible to read his novel, unaware that the ostensible source of the original quotation, Dr. Enid Starkie, Reader Emeritus in French Literature at Oxford, is a real person:
“Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description: in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes; on another deep black eyes; and on another blue eyes.”
However, what is the significance of this quotation for Cynthia Ozick's novel?
Achieving a Real Sense of Trust and Distrust
Whatever else Ozick aspires to do, she studiously avoids making the same mistake as Flaubert (if, indeed, he had erred, as alleged, which is questionable).
She works hard on verisimilitude and plausibility. She requires the reader's trust to achieve her purpose.
As a result, there's a beautifully crafted sense of realism in the first chapter or episode in particular. Here, we’re introduced to Ruth Puttermesser (Ozick refers to her solely by her surname, which means “butter knife”), who when we first meet her is a single 34 year old New York lawyer, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants:
“Puttermesser had a Jewish face and a modicum of American distrust of it.”
Despite her rationalism, her intellectualism, her political idealism and her profession, Puttermesser still hasn’t come to grips with her identity, her culture, her home and her place in it.
On the other hand, what isn't anticipated by the epigraph is that the realism is soon joined by a Postmodern sensibility that works its way into the narrative extremely subtly, almost within the space of a sentence.
Distracted from her work, Puttermesser dreams of "a reconstituted Garden of Eden, a World to Come," in which she -
“...will read Non-Fiction into eternity; and there is still time for Fiction! Eden is equipped above all with timelessness, so Puttermesser will read at last all of Balzac, all of Dickens, all of Turgenev and Dostoevsky (her mortal self has already read all of Tolstoy and George Eliot)...”
Her self-image is defined by the literary (as was Emma Bovary's). However, suddenly, she enters a world in which reality, fiction, fable and myth blur into one, by way of Ozick's expert objective, external description and careful attention to both outward appearance and inward perspective.
Ozick nevertheless adds a touch of the comic to her metafiction:
"Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence. Who made her? No one cares. Puttermesser is henceforth to be presented as given."
A Golem Story In Rehearsal
Sculpted from Clay with Nothing But a Knife
Ozick positions Puttermesser inside literary and religious myths, and builds her story out of these experiences. She uses her character to impersonate mythology. Creator and creation continually struggle to become one. Via creativity, the creator endeavours to become one with all creation.
Yet, there is a sense in which this whole enterprise is egocentric. Puttermesser is a flawed character, and so therefore is her creation. Just as she embraces myth, she removes herself, consciously or unconsciously, from reality or, at least, some version of it. She is duped by the duplicate. She remains a copyist and somehow inauthentic (a theme seemingly reprised from William Gaddis' "The Recognitions").
The novel consists of five episodes set (and actually written as connected short stories) decades apart. The second and longest episode features a golem called "Xanthippe", named after one of Socrates' wives. For a while, it allows Ozick to explore Puttermesser's repressed desires:
"I know everything you know. I am made of earth but also I am made out of your mind...I am the first female golem...I will ameliorate your woe."
Still, it’s not a fairy tale world, nor is there a fairy tale outcome. Xanthippe acts as Puttermesser's amanuensis, but fails to help her "become what she was intended to become." Puttermesser's experience is primarily an imagined, rather than a lived, experience. The novel, both before and after Xanthippe, seems rather to be a caution that isolation from our family, society or culture can undermine the prospect of happiness.
No Entry to Paradise Without Papers
The papers of the title don’t exist in real life. They’re literally what we’re reading, the fragments of Puttermesser’s fictional life. Without family, without these papers, there would be nothing to remind us that Puttermesser had ever existed, nothing to document or recognise the beauty of her short, mortal life, even if it was only in the minds of writer and reader.
This is not just a personal tale, but potentially an allegory. How many people, how many families, how many communities, how many stories were irretrievably lost in the Holocaust?
These papers, these fictions are the vehicle for something authentic, something of value to transcend death from generation to generation, notwithstanding the constant threat of ephemerality. Whether or not any of us end up in Paradise, the future is better for the fragments that Ozick has located and preserved.
This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Ozick’s killer sense of humour and her ability to nail stereotypes. Here is her version of a personal ad in the New York Review of Books:
“Fit, handsome, ambitious writer/editor, non-smoker, witty, imaginative, irreverent, seeks lasting relationship with non-smoking female. Must be brilliant, unpretentious, passionate, creative. Prefer Ph.D. in Milton, Shakespeare, or Beowulf.”
Here are a few other parodies:
"Thirtyish academic wishes to meet woman who's interested in Mozart, James Joyce, and sodomy." [Woody Allen, “Annie Hall”]
“Lawyer and self-deprecating, but otherwise appealing, Good Reader seeks poignant quotation for perusal, update and possible review, suitable for close-knitting circle of global friends and followers.”
“Bald, fat, short, and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.” [London Review of Books]
“Blah blah, whatever. Indifferent woman. Go ahead and write. Box no. 3253. Like I care.” [London Review of Books]
Cynthia Ozick responds to Norman Mailer at Town Bloody Hall, 1971
Listen to some music here:
Notes are private!
Jan 03, 2016
Jan 11, 2015
Mar 30, 1985
I Did It for A Dare!
To attempt a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” series raises reader expectations on at least two levels.
Firstly, the I Did It for A Dare!
To attempt a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” series raises reader expectations on at least two levels.
Firstly, the originals are so well-known and well-loved, not to mention extraordinarily well-written, that readers will approach the sequel with a degree of scepticism, and preciousness about the originals.
Secondly, such a project is likely only to attract an author whose chops are already pretty good, so their own reputation as a writer will be under more scrutiny than ever.
The Alice series is one of my favourite pieces of thinking and writing. It invites parody and pastiche. Gilbert Adair is also a writer I think highly of and one of the few I would have expected to be up to the task.
As in the original books, Alice arrives in an uncertain world and encounters the unfamiliar, as well as the linguistic building blocks of the familiar. And it's all written down for the benefit of other children. (The primary audience for this novel still seems to be children.)
For all the imagination on display, I came away with a sense of disappointment, of being let down.
Adair managed to create a transition between two worlds worthy of his model. However, his parallel world doesn’t have the same imaginative and visual appeal as that of Carroll’s, and this lets the story down in the middle after its strong start.
Carroll’s own transition mechanisms (down the rabbit hole, and through the looking glass) are so evocative that they have become metaphors in their own right.
Adair takes an existing Biblical metaphor (through the eye of a needle) and repurposes it to good effect.
Alice enters the parallel world by falling through the eye of a needle, while she is sewing (i.e., attempting to thread the needle).
Connected with Letters
Adair then turns the “eye” into an “I”, and no sooner have we arrived in the other world than we are exploring the letters of the alphabet. Alice says in the penultimate chapter:
”All the things which have happened to me today seem to have been connected with letters in some way.”
Alice’s fall to Earth is broken by a haystack, more correctly described as an A-stack.
Alice assumes that the needle has also come to Earth by passing through its own eye “like a serpent swallowing its tail.” She proceeds to look for the eye (or the “I”) of her needle, in the A-stack.
Hence, to paraphrase the Biblical expression, it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than to find the I of a needle in an A-stack.
Drawing the Short Straw
Instead, in the A-stack, she finds a Country Mouse, which had “recently been sucking on a short straw, which the chattering of its teeth was now causing to swing up and down in a comical manner.”
Alice thinks of it as the last straw, whereas I wondered whether the mouse might have been artistic and might have “just drawn the short straw.” This is the style of infectious verbal humour used by both Lewis Carroll and Gilbert Adair.
Alice then discovers that all of the hay is in the shape of Capital A’s and the mouse reveals that “it’s best to make A’s while the sun shines.”
There’s much ado about the “silent aitch” in “haystack” and other words like “had” and “hoped”.
Meanwhile Alice is surrounded by bees, whose job she thinks is to collect pollen from flowers. However, the mouse reveals that it is to collect letters to spell out words. “That’s why they’re called spelling bees.”
The mouse also points out that “there ain’t no ’i’ in ‘needle’.”
Characters of the Alphabet
Next, Alice meets two Siamese Twin Cats named Ping and Pang, who are, quite logically, joined at the tail.
They recite a poem called “The Sands of Dee”, thus completing the first four letters of the alphabet.
Soon it starts “raining kittens and puppies, but they’ll turn to cats and dogs soon enough.”
After some wordplay about camels, Alice spots an elephant that had been frightened by the mouse.
Together they go to Hide and Seek Park to hear the Election speeches. Here, they find a fast-talking Emu (“It’s got ‘Emu’ written all over it!” as is evidenced by the illustration), as well as a Grampus in academic gown, and a moustachioed Italian hairdresser who uses a crocodile for a pair of scissors.
The Emu stands for everything beginning with an “F” (e.g., freedom, facts, fair play, fairyland, faith, Father Christmas, the fat of the land, festivities, foreign affairs, forgiving and forgetting, fruit-cake and fun.
Adair’s poetry is a lot of fun throughout, including the Emu’s poem about F:
“Oh, f’s the only letter
The world can count upon;
For, without f’s, there’d be no if’s,
And dreams would end anon.”
Alice and the Emu then argue about who Anon is and whether it is the author of the poem. The Country Mouse claims credit, because it believes it stands for Anonymouse.
In the next scene, the Grampus is revealed to be very absent-minded. “I sometimes forget I am absent-minded, and remember everything!”
Alice asks, “Then I suppose the first thing you remember is your own absent-mindedness?”
The Grampus replies, “Exactly so, which means that I forget everything all over again! So I decided to write the story of my life, in advance, so that I could live it out afterwards. This way, I am sure to remember.”
There follows a discussion of Snakes and Ladders and Auto-Biographies and trains and shortcuts and tunnels and surprises and brigands on the platform.
“Well,” said the Grampus, smiling with condescension at Alice, “that went off quite satisfactorily, I think.”
“I only meant –“ Alice began to say.
“Don’t mean!” the Grampus roared at her. “Think, speak, mention, assert, deliberate, declare – even opine, if you will – but never, never mean! Why, the world would be in a fine stew if just anybody felt free to mean, where and when they pleased!”
“But dictionaries are full of meanings,” objected Alice.
“Full of meanings, perhaps, but empty of meaning,” said the Grampus. “And the reason for that is, that the best meanings ca’n’t ever be written down, that’s how precious they are.”
Next, Alice meets Jack and Jill up the hill “well, it was a very little one indeed – not much more than a mound really.”
Alice doesn’t know what to make of Jack’s broken crown: “Perhaps he’s a young Prince in disguise in unfancy dress, I imagine you would call it, since Royalty are in real fancy dress every day of the week.”
Jack explains that it means “my bean, my noodle, my head.”
Illustrations in the style of John Tenniel by Jenny Thorne
Otters, Queens and Queues
Later, Alice meets a Hamster, as well as a singing Otter, “a composite Otter, the Platonic ideal of Otters, the very essence of Otterdom” who offers Alice an “Ottergraph”.
Then Alice encounters the Red Queen and the White Queen standing in a queue with all and sundry.
Alice joins the end of the queue and is told by the Red Queen that “a queue is always followed by you!”
And then, “Always remember, child. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s, mind your p’s and q’s, and the other letters’ll take care of themselves!”
Off to the King’s Head
Next, Alice is off to the King’s Head for lunch where she peruses the menu, not realising that the stains are meant as samples.
The waiter is a Frog, and Alice sits next to a Rattle-Snake who’s been waiting weeks for the delivery of his oysters.
Swan Songs and Capital Tea
Alice orders a swan pie, but changes her mind when the swan selected for her meal sings its swan song.
She orders a cup of tea, which proves to be capital Tea.
Noting the connection with letters that her day has had, Alice remarks, “It’s a pity my adventures aren’t all written down in a book, for then I could turn back the pages and make certain of it...still, it seems to me as if I’ve been travelling through the Alphabet...”
Adair Lacks Sufficient Flair
Little does she know her adventures have been written down - by Adair!
And that’s pretty much how it ends! I was left with a sense of deflation, like when you return to your favourite restaurant only to find that the owner, the chef and the head waiter have all moved on. The fit out is still the same, but everything else has changed.
Competence and imagination are still apparent, but not as much flair, and sadly, another five star restaurant has reverted to three.
Notes are private!
Feb 06, 2016
Feb 12, 2016
Nov 28, 2014
Jan 01, 1984
Nov 01, 2001
Undue Care and Attention
In my last couple of years of secondary school, I did some holiday work for an attorney who lived next door.
He hated litigatio Undue Care and Attention
In my last couple of years of secondary school, I did some holiday work for an attorney who lived next door.
He hated litigation, and must have come perilously close to some professional negligence actions, because my job was to draft the pleadings that would initiate legal action against drivers who had injured his clients or damaged their cars in motor vehicle accidents. Often the files had been sitting in his in-basket for over 12 months. I had to empty his in-basket.
I found a pleading that somebody had served on one of his clients, and used that as the basis of my first draft.
I alleged that the defendant had driven "without due care and attention". My boss crossed it out and alleged that they had driven "with undue care and attention".
I couldn't convince him that this seemed to mean that they had driven with more care and attention than was appropriate, rather than less!
"Something Else Must Be Said"
Sorritoni's essays reminded me of this experience, because he seems to have been motivated by the desire to remedy situations where some authors or books were paid undue attention, i.e., either more or less attention than they were due.
Most of his essays could be labelled "Corrections" in the sense, ironically, used in the title of Jonathan Franzen's novel.
If Sorritoni felt an author had been given more attention than they were due, he would be the instrument of massive ad hominem eviscerations and putdowns.
If, on the other hand, he felt that they had received less attention than they were due, he would eulogise them, especially if they had been one of his buddies or had praised his works and deserved to have the favour returned.
Sputter and Rage
Either way, Sorritoni approached his task with a sense of "moral imperative" and a belief that he was being "brilliantly funny":
"I’ve always been taken with ad hominem attacks - I love them - they’re so deliberately unfair. There is no rational reply to them except a sputter - and rage."
Needless to say, those whom Sorritoni took such pleasure in eviscerating weren't very pleased about it, and often used the very next opportunity to reciprocate.
Which is probably the reason such novels as "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things" received a less positive reaction than was due to it:
"Hostile, cold, and silent. They were the three states. Or let’s put it: hostility, frigidity and silence. The book was born into those, that climate. But, you see, the thing that has always annoyed me about the people who were deeply displeased with the book is that they did not see in the book two things: the comic aspects of the book, which I think are obvious, and the compassion in the book."
Mind you, I'm sure that the authors whom he eviscerated, if they had been alive, would likewise have felt that Sorritoni had overlooked the comic and compassionate aspects of their books.
Some would argue that Sorritoni was just applying high standards of artistic integrity.
Tell them they're dreaming!
Rant and Cant
If you read only one of the essays or reviews in this collection, you might think that Sorritoni is an exquisite writer and critic.
When you read two or more, you inevitably realise that the criteria he uses to judge works vary from author to author and work to work. This recognises the subjectivity of critical standards. However, what becomes apparent after a few reviews is that Sorritoni's criteria are often inconsistent. He's just making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, there's one criterion that all the authors he praises lavishly share, and that is that Sorritoni thinks they've been unjustly ignored or neglected by other critics. His praise is motivated not just by redressing the balance, but by scorning his academic and professional rivals and implicitly or explicitly attacking the authors whom they have praised (he singles out Mailer, Roth and Updike as novelists).
What these authors have done wrong is to become popular, i.e., to win an audience. I've never worked out what is supposed to be wrong with this. Sorritoni seemed to think that it somehow deprived his friends and favourites (he talks up the members of a male buddy club; 0f 72 chapters, less than 5% discuss female writers) of an audience. Not to mention undermining the authority and integrity of his criticism, even posthumously. Any wonder that he's become the patron saint of the oversensitive Buried Book Club (which occasionally finds a home and a five star rating for an orphan book, if less frequently a review).
HOMAGES & PASTICHES:
In Praise of Jack Pepper's Real Things
[In the Words and Style of Sorritoni]
Not to go into a great song and dance about it, but Jack Pepper is a scandalously neglected poet, at a time when there are few poets worth attending to in any way whatsoever.
America eats her artists alive.
His great glory and the contempt in which Jack Pepper was held for so many years are both dependent upon the fact that he just would not be a good fella and stay in the slot that the Untermeyers, the Eliots, and even the Pounds would have him in. He confounded the picture that had been carefully drawn by endless risks, by constant ventures into areas of literary endeavour that were not poetic. To all genres he brought freshness and brilliance. To dullards his poetic was (and is) ‘arbitrary’. So be it. Its very ‘arbitrariness’ has been the major force behind the contemporary American poetry which still characterises the ‘official’ poetry of our time.
Art is a country by itself. The poet’s job is to extract intelligible forms from seemingly unintelligible things. Things are ideas, and ideas must be, ultimately, things - for the poet. The poet must make reality useful through the employment of the imagination; and conversely, that imagination, to be legitimate, must be inseparably linked to reality. Mr. Pepper, so far as is possible in language, makes real things; he has for some time now achieved his own aesthetic, which speaks of a removal from the concept of image as a method for ‘connection’ within the poem; and instead pushes for a pursuit of those essences in the world which may be said to ‘correspond’. To be free of the image, to be free of the machinery of poem as literary game, to place, as it were, the poem in the position of the revelatory - this is Pepper’s program. The world is here, outside us, the poem is a tool to reveal its correspondences, not by means of simile, metaphor, or image, but by means of language itself.
The poet’s task is to make his words real, make them, that is, things as certainly as things of the earth are that, i.e., things. There are dangers. The most obvious, it would seem, is that one may pursue reality within the poem and end up with description. The poem back into narrative, the matters of prose. So Pepper had somehow to use the words in such a way that narrative preoccupation and movement are both avoided, yet technique is avoided, also.
The poem is an instance of reality, not a gloss of same; the language, not its tropes and elegances, is the core of the ultimate poem; the poet is not an interpreter, but a revealer; things do not connect, neither in the poem nor in the life from which it springs: they correspond. This lemon as against the lemon in the world. To connect is to muddy and blur; to correspond is to isolate and sharpen.
The artist’s job is not to tell you what he thinks about it, but is to tell you it. The world we live in does not depend on us for its life; but the artist, the poet, by the use of language, a record of sensibility, attempts a revelation. The poet’s task is to reveal it.
Pepper, with his dogged conviction that language is merely the ‘furniture in the room’ that the poem invades was and is sadly out of the swim. We must cling to our belief in the hegemony of the mind as the locus of all reality or face the pain of realising that the world does not depend on us. From this position issues the persistent mumbling about the poet as idiot savant whose ‘experience of self’ is holy and true. You must, Pepper says, ‘clear the mind away from yourself’ and allow the objects outside to manifest themselves as reality through the words that are awaiting them.
Pepper exiled himself, working in almost total darkness, by trial and error, to hammer out an art that would express the vitality and vulgarity of the American experience. What Pepper says must be repugnant to us. Religion is dead, as are politics, business, philosophy - all the goals we serve. Only the imagination can save us by allowing us to see, momentarily, the truth. We see it best when it is embodied in art; therefore, trust the artist. No good American can accept that hilarity.
Somehow, during almost forty years of the most preposterous ignorance of his fiction on the part of the critical establishment, he captured, by dint of perseverance and his own wide-ranging imagination, the meaning of the shapelessness of American life, buried, as it always has been, in the pettiness of our daily routine, and the ‘famous’, hollow triumphs that speckle it.
His sensibility was so acutely against the grain that his work, to this day, is almost unfathomable to many literary people who have been raised in what has been called the ‘international tradition’ in letters. He does not fit, he is a maverick, his compositions bulk uncomfortably in the landscape of the classical moderns and almost seem to refute them.
Nothing fooled him for long because he refused to let ‘ideas’ govern his work. He is sprawling, confused, unfinished, and at the same time brilliant, succinct, crafted - and unfailingly, unerringly dark. Not dark with the tragic, but with the endless defeats of life and - nonetheless - its tenacity. Without sentiment about God, politics, love, the working man, nature, the family, marriage, or children, he is yet uncynical.
The fact that Pepper had everything under his eye, that his laboratory was something so uneventful and banal as the American small town, gave rise to the critical dullness that has always thought of him as primitive, or a naif, or an ‘experimental’ writer. (‘Experimental’ - that patronising word whereby the serious artist’s productions are tolerated, or as harmfully lionised.)
Pepper was a great artist whose creative powers neither flagged nor became ancillary to shifting fads. Readers are so passive before this assault of the conventional that they often look for these signals: when they are not there, they feel abandoned, they feel that the work is difficult, or gauche - they feel, perhaps, betrayed. At such times the novel is often forced to yield up that which it does not possess. Those novels that have no symbols at all, nor that can be squeezed to release a few, critics have misnamed ‘naturalistic’ or ‘realistic’ novels. But signals are gimmicks, elements of craftsmanship, or the lack of it. Signals in novels obscure the actual - these signals are disguised as conversation, physiognomy, clothing, accouterments, possessions, social graces - they satisfy the desire that we be told what we already know, they enable the writer to manipulate his book so that it seems as if life really has form and meaning, while it is, of course, the writer who has given it these qualities.
It is the novel, of itself, that must have form; and if it be honestly made we find, not the meaning of life, but a revelation of its actuality. We are not told what to think, but are instead directed to an essence, the observation of which leads to the freeing of our own imagination and to our arrival at the only ‘truth’ that fiction possesses. The flash, the instant or cluster of meaning must be extrapolated from ‘the pageless actual’ and presented in its imaginative qualities. The achievement of this makes a novel which is art: the rest is pastime.
Who is our ranking official great novelist? Mailer, of course, who else can it be? - a writer who has never written a first-class novel, a man who cannot refrain (he is a supreme Romantic) from putting a coat of paint on everything he sees, so that his America is unrecognisable to anyone who has walked the street. His imagination functions in a world of ideas, which may be why the novel has become almost impossible for him to write - witness his last two attempts. But American life is not tragic, it is dull; its losses are almost silent, inexpressible, obscure. Pepper tells us this and tells us with such persistence that we cannot stand him. We will not stand him. The imagination, only the imagination, can release us from despair? Who will believe it? We need signals; evil must be given a face or else we will be forced to accept the fact that it has no face, that our corruption is diluted so thoroughly that we all have a little in us, like strontium-90.
Pepper’s novel makes no sense! It has no plot! What are we to do with the character who has tricked us? Nothing happens, nothing really happens! It is not even an attack on the middle class, it is - nothing. Under the words, there is nothing. It is American success as it is, without tragedy, grace, or understanding. His problem was not that the patterns of American life were unobservable, but that a language had to be found to express them.
Pepper’s biographer is relentless in detailing the shabby critical treatment accorded Pepper throughout the whole of his career, a record of intellectual misprision that invented a Pepper who was, and still is - with endemic regularity - thought of as a kind of amiable primitive, an unsophisticated scribbler, a simple white collar worker who wrote on the side, but wrote, mind you, without quite knowing what he was doing.
In a sense, his biography may be read as a kind of graph of the reactionary shoddiness of the American critical mind in the face of a modern master. This book may be read as a record of the ultimate vindication of an artist who worked all his life against the grain of his time. But this sort of grinding combat is not exhilarating to those who are engaged in it. It may be that we are so thoroughly inured to the idea that art is novelty or fashion, a titillation, or teasing, of reality, that a poet of Jack Pepper’s gifts and intelligence must go unheeded. As well as his marvellous range and nonpompous erudition.
To understand that the world is not ours for the taking, and to understand further that it will not yield up anything that it does not intrinsically possess, seems to me the only program that a serious writer can subscribe to. God damn interpretation. God damn opinion. God damn explanation.
I don’t have enough space to go into why I think Bob Dylan is not an important poet; suffice it to say that what he has fills a definite need: he is the equal of Cole Porter or Larry Hart, but he’s no Arthur Rimbaud.
Just My Imagination (For WTV)
[Apologies to Kenneth Rexroth]
I sit in the cold of my study,
Quaffing whisky, typing poems, and
Drawing nudes in the white space
That mimics the sheets of my bed,
Copulating with thirteen year old Thai
Nymphomaniacs of my own creation.
Because You Were Flesh
[What's Ode to Edward Dahlberg by Sorritoni]
I descry the way
Those whom you deem
Much less literate.
You set a standard,
Well nigh close to gold,
Though neither double
Then with no hurry
Or hint of worry,
Your lowly quarry.
Half man, half gadfly,
Bitter and sour,
For any of those
With your scornful prose?
While fighting the world,
You lost your centre
To an eccentric
Like Ezra Pound, you
Battled easy bucks,
Anguished and poor with
No reward or rest.
Against you we pale,
Above all you tower,
A holy temple,
Because not for sale.
The Blood in the Oranges
[As Opined by Sorritoni]
"Is there then"
According to Ford,
Of the olive leaves,
People can be
With whom they like
And have what they like
And take their ease
And in coolness?"
Yes, there is,
According to Hawkes,
According to Sorritoni,
But only for
A little time.
For the ease
Of sexual licence,
Must be paid for
And in blood.
This is the one true
In the oranges. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2016
Dec 12, 2016
Sep 30, 2014
Jul 05, 2012
really liked it
Exemplary Linear Realism
John Williams' novel is neither a work of modernism, nor a work of post-modernism, despite the fact that it was first publishe Exemplary Linear Realism
John Williams' novel is neither a work of modernism, nor a work of post-modernism, despite the fact that it was first published in 1966.
At the time, one of my favourite critics, Irving Howe, published a generally favourable review in “The New Republic”, which started with the following assessment:
"The style, assumptions and matter of John Williams' 'Stoner' are at variance with those dominating current American fiction."
In effect, it’s a work of exemplary linear realism.
Sometimes it reminded me of “Madame Bovary”, in the sense that Professor William Stoner is sustained for most of his life by the concept of literature (rather than the sort of romance fiction that sustained Emma Bovary).
Other times it reminded me of the dry, but precise, fiction of Mary McCarthy (“The Groves of Academe”) and C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” series.
Gulf State of Mind
The words "passion" and "love" are mentioned frequently throughout. Yet, the novel is curiously devoid of either.
The key word in my reading of the novel is “gulf”.
If our lives often lack passion or love, it’s usually because we have placed a gulf between ourselves and others.
Stoner says of his mentor, Archer Sloane:
“...he came to his task of teaching with a seeming disdain and contempt, as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it.”
Of himself, Stoner says something similar:
“He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.”
The Mystery of the Mind and Heart
Stoner ostensibly finds a “love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print...”
However, he's rarely able to express it convincingly. He might believe in passion or love (within the arena of literature), but he can't seem to find a language that enables him to bridge, close or repair the gulf between himself and his wife Edith, his daughter Grace, and his work colleagues.
These key relationships in his life are almost uniformly devoid of the (positive) force of passion and love.
Yet, in summing up his own life, he declares:
“He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.”
Lifelike, but Not Alive
Coming late in the book, this declaration was both odd and disingenuous, perhaps even narcissistic.
Who was it who received his gift of love or passion? Was it confined to his mind? Was its sole purpose or effect reflexive, to draw attention back to himself? (Look at me! Look at how sensitive I am! I'm alive...notwithstanding the disaster that is our relationship.)
Rarely did Stoner seem to radiate life or light. Instead, he seemed to have found himself in a cage from which he just couldn’t or wouldn't escape. Not only was he trapped, but he'd inadvertently trapped others with him as well.
It was frustrating how little attempt he made to free himself (or anybody else) from his predicament.
We learn little about the dynamic of his relationship with Edith from the dialogue. Why was it as bad as it's described? Nobody ever seems to confront the underlying problem, nobody ever seems to complain, nobody ever seems to try to remedy it.
Despite the focus on work, duties, chores and tasks, nobody makes an effort. Both spouses seem to persist with the thorn in their foot, until eventually, almost inevitably, the condition becomes hereditary and is passed on to Grace.
In contrast to F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum (that "there are no second acts in American lives)", this play, this American life, for what it’s worth, lacks a third act (which is not to say it might not be lifelike). Unfortunately, so does the sequel designed for the next generation. The Stoner family creates its own nemeses, just as it creates its own demons.
Make Thy Love More Strong
This lack of emotional intelligence is a product of what is perhaps an even greater flaw, which is adverted to in the following comment in Irving Howe’s review:
“...Mr. Williams writes with discipline and strength: he is devoted to the sentence as a form, and free from the allure of imagery. He disobeys Ford Maddox Ford’s dictum that the novelist should show rather than tell, on the assumption that to tell with enough force and intelligence is to create a mode of drama.”
Williams tells us about abstract states like passion and love (and epiphanies that paradoxically consist “of knowing something through words that could not be put in words”), but too rarely demonstrates them.
Just as Sloane asks what Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 means, we’re entitled to ask what these nouns mean to the people who use them or to whom they're supposed to apply.
Ultimately, when you finish the novel and return to the sonnet to gauge its meaning or relevance, the last two stanzas resonate:
“This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
This is not just advice to love somebody dearly when they are close to death, but to love them well for the duration of your relationship.
Once again, I didn’t find that Stoner ever perceived the import of these words or acted on them.
Drawing Attention to Our Own Wounds
In the end, Williams seemed to tell us too much about Stoner’s wounds and his suffering, with little else by way of relief, thus tempting us readers, not to empathise, but to experience his suffering vicariously (if we're that way inclined) or, worse still, to wallow in our own pain and self-pity. (Look at me! I'm alive! But Heaven knows I'm miserable now!)
With one exception: Stoner’s relationship with his fellow teacher, Katherine Driscoll.
She's the one ray of sunshine in the entire novel. She is a greater source of illumination than all of the books from which he is supposed to have derived strength and inspiration. If not for her, we would know little about the truth of Stoner’s capacity for passion and love ('"Lust and learning," Katherine once said. "That's really all there is, isn't it?"' - note that Katherine says, lust, not love; and learning, not teaching). She's the one person who could convince us that Stoner was ever alive in any sense beyond that of Thoreau's quiet desperation.
For these reasons, I can’t quite bring myself to add to the five star assessments of either Stoner as a character or the novel as a whole.
Four will have to suffice.
Thomas Eakin's portrait of his brother in law (featured on the cover of some editions of this novel), a metaphor for intellectual solitude, doesn't reveal that he was physically violent towards the artist's sister. The suit or robes rarely maketh the man.
After My Work is Done
When I read that Irving Howe and C.P. Snow had reviewed this novel positively, I inferred that it might have been one of those rare novels that rotates around the protagonist's work life.
Outside the context of Socialist Realism, we read so little about the nature of work and its role in people's lives.
Stoner comes from a farming background. In a rare moment when he has time to think, Stoner's father encourages him to go to college, so that he can be a better farmer. However, Stoner opts out after a year, when he falls under the spell of his future mentor, Sloane, who lectures young agricultural students on literature.
It's important that Stoner doesn't disclose his decision (the result of an epiphany) to his parents or relatives.
In effect, Stoner turns his back on the land, although he retains his brown skin for most of his life.
The Job of a Teacher
The life of a teacher is a relative unknown to him. I wouldn't say his mentor was a particularly good teacher. He seems only to have had one good pupil, as does Stoner himself (if you can count Katherine, who sits in on one of his classes).
The modern world needs farmers and teachers, just as it needs factory workers and musicians, and bankers and artists. Or to put it in quasi-Marxist language, it needs people to take care of both the economic base and the cultural superstructure.
I don't want to be critical of Stoner's relationship with his own parents. However, the reality is that his mother and father worked so hard, that they had little time to talk and have what middle class people would call a family life in the evening, let alone on the weekend.
Stoner turned his back on this life in favour of the life of a teacher. However, I question what he put into the life of a teacher. Did he work hard enough at his profession? How do you measure his success, except in terms of the passion and love he managed to inspire in his students? Are we to blame his students for their lack of inspiration?
In the body of my review, I commented on Stoner's lack of effort in bridging the gulf in his personal, family and work relationships.
This is the quality that most characterises the man. He wants to be a teacher, but he has never learned how to teach. He wants to be a lover, but he's never learned to love or be loved. Initially, there might have been no fault on his part. But how long are we supposed to make excuses for him? When must he accept responsibility for his own life and that of the people around him? If we make excuses for him, would we equally make excuses for ourselves?
Nowadays, we would probably say that he and Edith needed marriage counselling. It mightn't have existed during his life, but most people in those days would have sought marriage guidance from their priest. (Incidentally, I can't recall any mention of Stoner's religious belief in the novel.)
No Haven in a Heartless World
All this smacks of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self. Irving Howe initially called his review "The Virtues of Failure". I suppose we can infer that he regarded Stoner as a failure, but found some virtue or heroism in his life.
I'm not sure whether we should be that generous. I question whether he embodies the culture of narcissism that Christopher Lasch would later write about in his 1979 book and in his 1977 Partisan Review article "The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time".
Ironically, Lasch's previous book (1977) was "Haven in a Heartless World", in which he focussed on "the family, particularly the attacks on the traditional bourgeois family purveyed at least since the 1920s by psychiatrists, sociologists, marriage counselors, and legal reformers."
John Williams seemed to have had all of this material in front of him, perhaps presciently. Yet, he doesn't allow his protagonist to fight his way out of his predicament.
Instead, we're supposed to feel sad or sorry for him. We're supposed to share his miserabilism.
Which is why I wonder whether we as readers are simply bridging the gulf between Stoner's world and ours via the construct of our own narcissism.
It's a tribute to the publishers that they realised that Stoner's story had become a book for our time. However, I'm not sure whether we should draw any comfort from that.
"Oh, Ken Doll, you're so sensitive! Oh, Barbie Doll, you're so evocative!"
THE SPECIAL GIFT OF LITERATURE:
"Remembering Irving Howe"
By Nina Howe Dissent Fall 1993
"One of my earliest and most vivid memories of my father took place on a sultry summer afternoon in the ruins of Ostia, the seaport of ancient Rome. I was about five years old and my brother, Nick, was about four. My mother was exploring the ruins and left the three of us behind under a tree. Nick and I had a wonderful time digging trenches in the dirt for our Dinky cars, while Daddy sat on a small ledge under the tree reading a book. I remember looking up and seeing him engrossed in his book. He was so much at peace as he read on this still, hot afternoon. It was one of my first memories of my father, and the book is a central theme in my image of him. I don’t know what book he was reading, and when I asked him several years ago, he no longer remembered. From this experience, I gained an appreciation that books had some kind of magical quality, that in some way they were a special gift. This is a very special gift I feel he gave to me and I know to many others as well."
Reflections on the World of My Father
The Smiths - "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now"
"In my life
Why do I give valuable time
To people who don't care
If I live or die."
Echo and the Bunnymen - "Rescue"
The Verve - "Sonnet"
Alan Rickman Reads Robyn Hitchcock's Poem "If Death Is Not The End"
"Life is what kills you in the end,
And I can cry,
But you won't be there to be sorry.
You were made of life.
For ever we did not exist,
We woke and for a second kissed."
Notes are private!
Jan 15, 2016
Jan 17, 2016
Sep 21, 2014
Oct 26, 1984
Jan 22, 1997
John Barth was there the whole time Postmodernism was happening. However, I’m not sure whether he's the best person to attempt a Defining Postmodernism
John Barth was there the whole time Postmodernism was happening. However, I’m not sure whether he's the best person to attempt a definition of the term.
Sometimes, the best people to document history are not those who participated in the events, but those who came afterwards, and can look at the events from different and multiple perspectives.
Frankly, I expected more of Barth, one of my favourite authors. He is/was both a story-teller and a teacher of story-telling.
However, I wonder now whether it was unfair to expect more of him (i.e., more than expecting him to tell his own stories). Barth is the first to admit that his talent is for the writing rather than the critical analysis of his own or others' work:
"Writing well, reading or discussing well, are separate talents... There is simply no correlation either way between the two (or among the three) competencies."
The Postmodernist Program
Ultimately, Barth's real skill is to define precisely what he was trying to do (perpetuating the traditions of story-telling, frame-stories and his adoration of Scheherazade) and, in the absence of an adequate definition of Postmodernism, to describe what he felt other writers should be trying to do.
Thus, he doesn’t really come up with a definition, but a program:
“In my view, the proper program for postmodernism is neither a mere extension of the modernist program..., nor a mere intensification of certain aspects of modernism, nor on the contrary a wholesale subversion or repudiation of either modernism or what I'm calling premodernism: 'traditional' bourgeois realism.
“My ideal postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents...
Barth is really striving for the personal freedom of the author:
"...we may regard ourselves as being not irrevocably cut off from the nineteenth century and its predecessors by the accomplishment of our artistic parents and grandparents in the twentieth, but rather as free to come to new terms with both realism and antirealism, linearity and non-linearity, continuity and discontinuity. If the term "postmodern" describes anything worthwhile, it describes this freedom, successfully exercised."
To this I'd add the view that artistic movements become sterile when they become prescriptive and programmatic.
Barth also emphasises certain basic skills. His is not solely an ideological agenda:
“I was on the whole more impressed by the jugglers and acrobats at Baltimore's old Hippodrome, where I used to go every time they changed shows: not artists, perhaps, but genuine virtuosi, doing things that anyone can dream up and discuss but almost no one can do...
“...in other words, [an artist] endowed with uncommon talent, who has moreover developed and disciplined that endowment into virtuosity...
So, what is this virtuosity applied to?
“The subject of literature, says Aristotle, is 'human life, its happiness and its misery.' I agree with Aristotle. That's why we object to the word experimental. It suggests cold exercises in technique, and technique in art, we all know, has the same importance as technique in love: Heartless skill has its appeal; so does heartfelt ineptitude; but what we want is passionate virtuosity.”
Algebra and Fire
Barth drew enormous inspiration from Jorge Luis Borges and his distinction between algebra and fire:
"Let Algebra stand for technique, or the technical and formal aspects of a work of literature; let Fire stand for the writer's passions, the things he or she is trying to get eloquently said. The simple burden of my sermon is that good literature, for example, involves and requires both the algebra and the fire; in short, passionate virtuosity. If we talk mainly about the algebra, that is because algebra lends itself to discussion. The fire has to speak for itself."
Technique is not all, nor is a rejection of all previous techniques. The author can pick and choose the strings for their bow:
"At heart I'm an arranger still, whose chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody - an old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention, a shard of my experience, a New York Times Book Review series - and, improvising like a jazzman within its constraints, reorchestrate it to present purpose."
Besides, what Barth objected to most was the prosaic, especially if it was "dull and tedious writing" (a criticism I'd level at many humourless mega-novels). He was trying to entertain his readers. He was determined to enjoy himself in his works as well:
"They're meant to be serious enough to be taken seriously, but they're not long-faced. They're pessimistic, but I hope they're entertaining. In all of them, for better or worse, the process of narration becomes the content of the narrative, to some degree and in various ways; or the form or medium has metaphorical value and dramatical relevance. The medium really is part of the message."
The Death of the Novel
Barth was writing at a time when authors and critics were prophesying the death of the novel.
However, once he had discovered the fiction of Borges, he was much more optimistic about its future. The perceived problems actually illuminated the solutions or the way out. He wanted to explore whether:
"different kinds of artistical felt ultimacies and cul-de-sacs can be employed against themselves to do valid new work: whether disabling contradictions, for example, can be escalated or exacerbated into enabling paradoxes. "
Ultimately, to the extent that we were ever concerned that the novel might be dead, it’s partly because of Barth’s own passionate virtuosity that it is still alive, even if it owes considerably less to his literary criticism.
Barth, Fiedler and Gass
Two people inhabit this collection of essays, like ghosts or phantasms: Leslie Fiedler and William H. Gass.*
In retrospect, I probably first learned of Barth’s fiction in 1981, when I read a number of Fiedler’s collections of essays that had been published a decade earlier.
Barth describes him as “my friend and colleague the erudite, unpredictable, iconoclastic, large-spirited troublemaker Leslie Fiedler, from whose outrageous statements I have seldom failed to learn.”
I was familiar with Fiedler’s writing from his contributions to “Partisan Review”. However, he was more of a radical nonconformist than the usual contributors to that magazine. The nearest analogy I can think of, but in a musical context, is that he was literature’s Lester Bangs, only a better thinker and writer.
Fiedler wrote a very positive review of Barth’s “The Sot-weed Factor” (“John Barth: An Eccentric Genius”) that was published in January, 1961.
However, Fiedler was also one of the first literary critics I can recall using the word “Postmodernism” - in his 1970 essay, “Cross the Border – Close the Gap”:
“We are living, have been living for two decades - and have become acutely conscious of the fact since 1955 - through the death throes of Modernism and the birth pangs of Post-Modernism. The kind of literature which had arrogated to itself the name Modern (with the presumption that it represented the ultimate advance in sensibility and form, that beyond it newness was not possible), and whose moment of triumph lasted from a point just before World War I until one just after World War II is dead, i.e., belongs to history not actuality. In the field of the novel, this means that the age of Proust, Mann, and Joyce is over; just as in verse that of T.S. Eliot, Paul Valéry, Montale and Seferis is done with.”
Barth is equally complimentary of “my friend William H. Gass - a professional philosopher as well as a professional storyteller,” notwithstanding that the only fiction Gass had written during the timeframe of this collection (1960 to 1984) and then up to 1995 was one novel, one book of short stories and a novella. Still, they seemed to share at least some intellectual affinity about what the novel should be doing, if not necessarily the role of story-telling, character or plot. No doubt the relationship was cemented when the two of them (with John Hawkes and their wives) did a lecture tour to the University of Tubingen in 1979.
Barth and Gass Bag their Peers
Fiedler was a great promoter of the avant garde, the experimentalist and the non-conformist. However, he was also an astute critic of the novelists who preceded the generation of writers he was promoting.
Thus, his criticism is equally worth reading, whether he was writing about John Barth, John Hawkes, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer or John Updike.
Barth and Gass, on the other hand, despite Barth's own openness to traditional or pre-Modernist techniques, were participants in a battle for the attention of publishers and readers (not to mention comfortably tenured academic positions).
No matter what the author embraces or imitates from the past, at times it still seems necessary that they must repudiate the most recent movement before them.
One thing that spoils this collection is the snarkiness of comments about peers like Mailer (whose stylistic innovation Barth is reluctant to acknowledge, while he makes silly subjective comments about the titles of his novels), Updike, Bellow (“programmatically traditional writers like Styron, Updike, and Bellow”), even Roland Barthes (“French hyperbole”).
On the other hand, Barth is ever alert to promote the like-minded when they agree with him, such as Gass and John Hawkes.
Perhaps, though, we need to recognise that, in the generational wars between writers (or among writer-academics), our mythic heroes are human after all. As Barth says of Scheherazade, you're only as good as your next story; night by night, it's publish or perish. In the case of academia and public opinion, at least, you're threatened both by those who came before you and those who would come after you.
Quite apart from this reservation, readers will probably learn more about Postmodernism by reading Barth's fiction in all its liberated glory than his more prescriptive and programmatic non-fiction. In the end, to paraphrase Barth, fiction is something that most authors do better than discuss.
The Capriciousness and Ephemerality of Distinctions
* After writing my original review, I remembered another one of the connections between Barth, Fiedler and Gass:
Harold Augenbraum [currently Executive Director of the National Book Foundation] writes:
"I would love to have been a fly on the wall of the 1973 [National Book Award] Fiction panel discussions.
"The judges seem to have fallen into two camps: what you might call “post-modern” (Fiedler, Gass), and traditional (Connell, Percy, Yardley).
"And so they split the award between John Barth’s Chimera and John Williams’ Augustus, two novels as different in style as they could be, despite the link between the former imagining the inner lives of mythical characters and the latter the inner lives of historical people from the ancient world." ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 29, 2015
May 14, 2014
Jan 01, 1973
really liked it
My Favourite Martin
You either love Martin Heidegger or you hate him.
Those who love him embrace him with a messianic fervour that excuses otherwise ab My Favourite Martin
You either love Martin Heidegger or you hate him.
Those who love him embrace him with a messianic fervour that excuses otherwise aberrant behaviour (like anti-Semitism and Fascism) in the quest to salvage something of his philosophy (ostensibly of care).
Of those who hate him, I can't think of anybody more concerted than Theodor Adorno.
Heidegger is just one of the targets of "The Jargon of Authenticity". Karl Jaspers also features. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Heidegger is the ringleader around whom the others revolve, and Adorno becomes more and more hostile towards him as the book progresses.
"Jargon" is a philosophical analysis of alleged flaws in Heidegger's philosophy as well as a literary analysis of the language used by Heidegger to promote his ideas. Thus, it's concerned with both what Heidegger has to say and how he says it:
"The jargon of authenticity is ideology as language, without any consideration of specific content."
Adorno starts with a story about a number of people active in philosophy, sociology and theology some call "the Authentic Ones".
The story sometimes sounds like a myth, so it's difficult to tell whether it's true or not. However, it describes a dynamic of Heidegger's strategy that is consistent with some of my own personal observations, so I'll give it some credence, at least on a metaphorical level.
Publish or Perish
"Being and Time" originated in a desire to publish a philosophical work, so that Heidegger could obtain an academic position. Hence its ambition and the exaggeration of its claims, and the fact that, having won his position, he never returned to finish the schema of the greater work.
The tone of the work is that there was once an ancient understanding of "Being", which has since been forgotten. Heidegger's role is to reconstruct a remembrance of being and beings past. Thus, his strategy is to place himself in the role of an oracle or a medium between the truth and us. To the extent that he speaks on behalf of the truth, he speaks on behalf of God. Thus, he assumes the hubris of religion to elevate his own authority and credibility.
The word of the preacher is presented "as if his and God's were one without question".
I've always wondered whether Heidegger was more in the business of hermeneutics than actual philosophy. He was trying to find lost meaning, i.e., meaning that had been lost or obscured over time. He was reading the same words that others before him had read, only his interpretation differed.
Putting Themselves in the Right
Adorno makes the same point:
"What 'the Authentic Ones' fought for on a spiritual and intellectual plane, they marked down as their ethos, as if it elevated the inner rank of a person to follow the teaching of higher ideals; as if there was nothing written in the New Testament against the Pharisees."
[It's interesting that one of the connotations of "Pharisee" is a hypocritically self-righteous person.]
Adorno mentions that "people of his nature" have a tendency called "putting-themselves-in-the-right". Religion tends to the absolute.
The authentics were "anti-intellectuals" who embraced a hodge podge of religious and philosophical ideas.
Adorno claims that, in philosophy, Heidegger's use of the word "authentic" "moulded that which the authentics strive for less theoretically; and in some way he won over to his side all those who had some vague reaction to that philosophy”:
"Through him, denominational demands became dispensable. His book acquired its aura by describing the directions of the dark drives of the intelligentsia before 1933 - directions he described as full of insight, and which he revealed to be solidly coercive. Of course in Heidegger, as in all those who followed his language, a diminished theological resonance can be heard to this very day. The theological addictions of these years have seeped into the language, far beyond the circle of those who at that time set themselves as the elite."
So, step one in Heidegger's employment strategy was to attach himself and his ideas to an elite who would carry him to his destination (whatever the denominational differences in detail).
Adorno describes the language of authenticity as "sacred":
"The sacred quality of the authentics' talk belongs to the cult of authenticity rather than to the Christian cult, even where - for temporary lack of any other available authority - its language resembles the Christian. Prior to any consideration of content, this language moulds thought. As a consequence, that thought accommodates itself to the goal of subordination even where it aspires to resist that goal. The authority of the absolute is overthrown by absolutised authority."
Now, step two in Heidegger's career path involves the embrace of Fascism:
"Fascism was not simply a conspiracy - although it was that - but it was something that came to life in the course of a powerful social development. Language provides it with a refuge. Within this refuge a smoldering evil expresses itself as though it were salvation."
True and Revealed Language
So Heidegger co-opts and appropriates both religious and political power in order to promote himself and his hermeneutics.
He uses a combination of noble and banal words, "holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements:"
"Elements of empirical language are manipulated in their rigidity, as if they were elements of a true and revealed language. The empirical usability of the sacred ceremonial words makes both the speaker and listener believe in their corporeal presence.”
Elsewhere I've suggested that Heidegger was like an ambitious architect who needed to sidle up to the Nazi Party in order to have the vision of his plans realised. His embrace of Fascism (like his embrace of the religious Authentics) was a calculated part of a strategy for self-advancement.
While he appealed to revelation, he was also chronically addicted to authority:
"If one adds to a statement that it is 'valid', then whatever at a given moment holds good, whatever is officially stamped, can be imputed to it as metaphysically authorised. The formula spares people the trouble of thinking about the metaphysics which it has dragged with it, or about the content of what has been stated."
The Suggestion of Theology
Adorno considers that this practice "secretly warms up irrationalism...in the end stupidity becomes the founder of metaphysics...Theology is tied to the determinations of immanence, which in turn want to claim a larger meaning, by means of their suggestion of theology."
"The jargon...marks the adept, in their own opinion, as untrivial and of higher sensibility."
So the appeal to religious and political authority is designed to acquire status and power for the speaker, even if they are merely "bleating with the crowd".
The jargon both joins the speaker with and separates the speaker from the crowd:
"The formal gesture of autonomy replaces the content of autonomy."
The jargon results in a pseudo-individualising:
"It seems to be invented for those who feel that they have been judged by history, or at least that they are falling, but who still strut in front of their peers as if they were an interior elite.
"They let themselves be confirmed in this attitude by a uniform mode of speech, which eagerly welcomes the jargon for purposes of collective narcissism."
"They usurp for themselves the charisma of the leader."
The jargon becomes a symbol of solidarity within the elite:
"One can trust anyone who babbles this jargon; people wear it in their buttonholes, in place of the currently disreputable party badge.
"Even those who are not sheltered are safe as long as they join the chorus.
"...they actually find something like contact, comparable to the feeling in the fraudulent National Socialist Volk-community which led people to believe that all kindred comrades are cared for and none are forgotten: permanent metaphysical subvention."
Adorno believes that the jargon is an ideological distraction from the political action that is needed to overcome the status quo:
"Nothing is done in any serious fashion to alleviate men's suffering and need. Self-righteous humanity, in the midst of a general inhumanity, only intensifies the inhuman state of affairs. This is a state of affairs which necessarily remains hidden to those who suffer here and now. The jargon only doubles the hiding cover."
A Small Divinity
Heidegger leaves Man with "the stale reminder of self-identity as something which gives distinction, both in regard to being and meaning. This unlosable element, which has no substratum but its own concept, the tautological selfness of the self, is to provide the ground, which the authentics possess and the inauthentics lack. The essence of Dasein, i.e., what is more than its mere existence, is nothing but its selfness: it is itself."
As Heidegger says:
"Man is he, who he is, precisely in testifying to his own Dasein."
Adorno refers to this as a cult of selfness.
It's possible to construe Heidegger in terms of how the subject once thought of itself, " a small divinity, as well as a lawgiving authority, sovereign in the consciousness of its own freedom".
"He has to puff himself up into selfness, in the way the futility of this selfness sets itself up as what is authentic, as Being."
Adorno concludes that Heidegger failed to see that the dignity he was striving for "contains the form of its decadence within itself," which becomes apparent when "intellectuals become accomplices of that power which they don't have and which they should resist.”
Notes are private!
Apr 06, 2016
Apr 10, 2016
Jan 17, 2014
Feb 07, 1987
it was amazing
You Can Lead a Whore to Culture But You Can’t Meet Her Shrink
This slender novel is no less rewarding for its size or lack of it: indeed, it's ample pr You Can Lead a Whore to Culture But You Can’t Meet Her Shrink
This slender novel is no less rewarding for its size or lack of it: indeed, it's ample proof that a novel doesn't have to be a thousand or 1,500 pages to stimulate our imaginations or thrill us verbally.
The chapters more or less alternate between father and son, Lamprias de Bergerac and Septimus de Bergerac. Lamprias is a horticulturist and whoremonger. Septimus is a polemicist and fascist sympathiser/collaborator. The one is metaphorically light, the other dark. Lamprias is promiscuous and profligate. Septimus is puritanical and paternalistic. Septimus resents his father for abandoning and humiliating him and his mother, Virginie, who seems to be the only woman for whom Septimus has any respect. He speaks of other women in the most misogynistic terms.
Georgia O'Keeffe - "Black Iris III" (an iris, not an orchid)
Lamprias is obsessive about orchids and, despite not being scientifically trained, embarks on a project to discover, conserve and breed them, his specialty being the creation of exotic hybrid forms. While on an expedition in Brazil, he meets a 12 year old native Amazonian girl, Cucla, with whom he forms a long-term relationship, despite their lack of a common language. They have other ways to communicate.
Septimus, though he never meets Cucla, regards her as an "animal". He has always been envious and scornful of a younger half-brother, True Man, the illegitimate son of a relationship with a Chinese woman named Dust. Septimus sublimates his feelings in a preoccupation with aesthetic and racial purity, as if racial diversity has undermined the integrity of his own family and community. He craves a leader in the absence of his father, and his chapters are riddled with anti-Semitic rants and Nazi propaganda.
Robert Mapplethorpe - "Orchid" (1977)
"Blue is the Colour of Copulation"
Superficially, we're tempted to sympathise with Lamprias and his libertinism and abhor Septimus' self-righteous pomposity. However, especially towards the end of the novel, Septimus' cosmical struggle with his father becomes increasingly comical, and Ducornet's use of language frequently hysterical.
This is a highly refined concoction of Nabokov, Marquez, Pynchon, Coover and Theroux that packs a mighty punch for what passes itself off as a tropical fruit cocktail. Ducornet makes a fine alchemist and bartender. ...more
Notes are private!
Sep 18, 2016
Sep 25, 2016
Sep 27, 2013
Feb 04, 2010
really liked it
Let me detain you
For a thousand and one nights
And so entertain.
An Introduction to the Frame Story
In the essays "Muse, Spare Me" and Shahrazad (Haiku)
Let me detain you
For a thousand and one nights
And so entertain.
An Introduction to the Frame Story
In the essays "Muse, Spare Me" and "Tales within Tales within Tales" (from "The Friday Book"), John Barth expresses his admiration for the frame story of "1,001 Nights".
It's clear from the structure of every story that Shahrazad is telling them to King Shahriyar, and that she stops each tale shortly before sunrise, before resuming the following night.
Thus, Shahrazad extends her life one tale and one day at a time. As John Barth says so colloquially, Shahrazad "[yarns] tirelessly through the dark hours to save her neck."
The introduction reveals a bit more about the framework of the book.
The implied narrator mentions that the story comes from "the histories of past peoples".
So Shahrazad herself is an historical or legendary character within the introductory story, as are her younger sister Dunyazad and the two cuckolded princes (King Shahriyar and Shah Zaman).
While we're used to believing that it is Shahrazad who is telling these stories to King Shahriyar, it is also her tale that is being told by someone else. These are literally tales within tales within tales, or stories within stories within stories.
Ironically, the tales told by Shahrazad are actually a compendium of disparate stories collected over time and recorded in the shape of one work.
Thus, the frame story is ultimately just an imaginative narrative vehicle by which a miscellany of diverse tales is brought and held together as a treasury or discrete work.
Treasuring the Tale
Apart from the frame story structure, two aspects of (oral) tale-telling stand out.
One is that the story must be worth telling. The other is that, if it is told well, then the response is that it must be written down and kept in the caliph's or sultan's treasury. Thus, a story well told is an item of value that deserves to be archived and preserved for posterity. Fiction is beginning to emerge from the transcription of the oral tradition:
"Your tale is a wonder of wonders."
"The story of the two of you ought to be recorded in books and recited from generation to generation after you have gone."
"The story of your prowess will remain until the end of time."
The Pattern of the Tales
This volume contains tales told on only 294 nights (plus "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves"), even though it's 984 pages long. (The three volumes total around 3,000 pages.)
Still, it's possible to detect patterns in the subject matter. The tales can be categorised as:
In a way, they are cautionary tales that warn the audience against the vicissitudes of life that they might one day experience, especially if they are young people of high social status.
The Kings' Tales contain wisdom about the challenges of gaining, exercising, transmitting and maintaining power, almost as if they were an Arabic version of Machiavelli's "The Prince".
The Lovers' Tales are stories of passionate love, lust, obsession, bewilderment and love at first sight:
"Know that I shall sleep in your room tonight and tell you things that I have heard, diverting you with tales of infatuated lovers, sick with love."
The Coquettes' Tales often question the wiles and trickery, the guile, the cunning and the treachery of women. Thus, even though the tales are being recounted by a woman, there is a misogynistic undertone.
On the other hand, women are often praised for their education, culture and eloquence, not just their beauty, their elegance and their shapeliness.
"I never saw any man to match al-Ma'mun or any woman to match Khadija or to come near her in understanding, intelligence or powers of expression."
One princess asserts her independence in the following terms:
"I have no intention of marrying. As a princess, I am a mistress of power and authority, ruling over the people, and I have no wish for a man to rule over me."
Versed in Translation
There is a lot of verse, some original, some quoted, in the book. However, the translator made a conscious decision not to seek rhymes where it was rhyming in the original Arabic. It presents as blank verse, usually with little lyricism at all.
In the poems and haiku below, I've tried to capture some of the lyricism of what remains, without compromising the integrity of the original translation. I hope it gives you a sense of the style of the work.
The King's Treasury
"People like you should be treasured by kings to help in times of peril."
The King's Treasury of Tales (Haiku)
Stories like this should
Be treasured by kings - to ease
In times of fatigue.
The Uncovered Face (Haiku)
She revealed her face,
At the sight of which, the king's
Wits departed him.
The Sword of the Messiah (Haiku)
To be near him was
Harder to bear than to part
From a beloved.
Prince Taj al-Muluk (Haiku)
Observe on his face
A mark like the black banner
Of the caliphate.
The Lover Parted from His Beloved (Haiku)
Tears flow from my eyes;
I took leave of my heart on
The day of parting.
Beware of Her Glance (Haiku)
Beware of her glance,
Because it works sorcery
That can't be escaped.
The Gazelle Lady (Haiku)
When I first saw her,
Fire broke out in my heart;
I was bewildered.
Sweet Torture (Haiku)
Call love sweet torture,
In which the soul finds pleasure
Or is lost instead.
Time's nature is
The end of
Lies in parting.
Better Then to Die
If he finds no patience
To conceal his secret,
Nothing will serve him
Better than to die.
Give me a kiss or at least lend it to me.
May you not perish; I shall give it back
Exactly in the form in which it was.
If you want more, be pleased to take it now.
Your image is in my eye; your name is on my lips;
You dwell in my heart, so how can you be gone?
My only grief is for a life that ends
Before we have enjoyed our share of union. ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 24, 2016
Sep 13, 2016
May 15, 2013
Jan 17, 1962
really liked it
Babblings of the Avant-Garde
In the Introduction to this 1948 novel, John Hawkes’ mentor, Albert Guerard, says:
"John Hawkes is now, at the outset of hi Babblings of the Avant-Garde
In the Introduction to this 1948 novel, John Hawkes’ mentor, Albert Guerard, says:
"John Hawkes is now, at the outset of his career and at the age of twenty-three, a rather more ‘difficult’ writer than Kafka or Faulkner, and fully as difficult a writer as Djuna Barnes."
It’s interesting to see the word "difficult" used in this (non-dis-)paraging way before it was hijacked and depreciated by Jonathan Franzen. Difficulty is almost represented as a badge of honour.
When the novel was republished in 1962 (following the success of "The Lime Twig" in 1961), Guerard added some comments that seem to betray a frustration with the subsequent fate of Hawkes’ work in particular, experimental fiction in general and the apparent ruptures within its ranks (even if Hawkes’ readership might have been increasing):
"...each year...[the book has won]...new adherents among readers impatient with the clichés and sentimentalities of commercial fiction, or impatient with the loose babblings of the publicised avant-garde."
Guerard seems to have been drawing a line between two types of avant-garde or experimental fiction: that which was publicised (and which presumably enjoyed some sort of success, fame or prospect of reprinting) and that which wasn’t publicised (and presumably had to find a home one book at a time).
Nowadays, an author would be grateful to have the support of a major independent publisher like New Directions, not to mention contemporaries like Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Leslie Fiedler.
Totality of Vision and Structure
If you’ve read any criticism of Hawkes, you’ll probably be familiar with the definition of his early modus operandi:
"I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained."
If you’re wedded to these enemies, you might be deterred by the prospect of what you’ll find in "The Cannibal".
The reality, however, is that it’s incredibly well-written. This is a case where the totality of vision is both expertly conveyed and sufficient.
As with "The Lime Twig", Hawkes' most important goal seems to be the establishment of a pervasive atmosphere or tone. Here, it’s Gothic, menacing, almost bordering on horror. Even if you accept that there’s no significant plot (which I question), there’s a sense in which you can feel yourself being dragged or pulled towards a sinister, nightmarish denouement.
Hawkes’ words are beautifully assembled. However, they’re almost filmic, as if the camera is dwelling at length on the scenery, until our eyes finally detect something that might or might not always have been there. Anyway, we will eventually see, if we look long and hard enough.
Most of the novel is set in immediate post-war Germany. We think of this period as a time of peace and reconstruction. Perhaps this is how a documentary camera might have portrayed it. However, what Hawkes’ camera finds is the belief that this is instead an invasion and occupation of Germany, not by the Soviet Union, but by the Allies. These survivors might look like they’re grateful, but they are in fact resentful:
"The conquered spirit lies not only in rest but in waiting, crushed deep in face-lines of deprivation, in fingers that no longer toil, the one thing that shall lift, and enlarge and set free."
The world that Hawkes describes is desolate, dissociated, scattered, broken, flung out. It’s just emerged from a major trauma. If the Second World War was a result of the embarrassment of the First World War, was Germany now prepared to accept an even greater embarrassment? If not, was there anybody around whom a resistance movement could cohere? How could Germany recover from unconditional surrender?
So there is a sense in which Hawkes describes how the War destroyed the traditional German narrative - plot, character, setting and theme included. Mythical heroism failed, leaving dangling men and women in its wake. All that was left was the atmosphere or tone for which Hawkes’ style seems to be ideally suited.
Notes are private!
Jan 04, 2016
Jan 05, 2016
Apr 15, 2013
Jan 01, 1908
May 26, 1983
really liked it
Rotten Kisses and Opium
As the substance and prestige of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dissipating in the “deepening dark” and “black silence”, so t Rotten Kisses and Opium
As the substance and prestige of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dissipating in the “deepening dark” and “black silence”, so too was the authority of the bourgeois family.
Most of the parents in the families in these stories have either died or are living a subsistence life, whether as a result of death on the battlefield, farming accidents, poisoning or suicide. Rarely is there the comfort of a father or mother to say, “Hold onto my hand, little boy!”
These stories are dark fairytales in which children are still threatened, but have become a threat in their own right.
Just as the adults succumb to poverty and drug addiction, the children construct an alternative reality midway between dream and nightmare. Their world is marked by obsession, delusion and hallucination. It’s not unusual for them to be surrounded by rotten kisses and opium. As the dying magician counsels in the last story:
“I told you opium’s trouble. It’ll ruin you! I’m fifty, look at me. I’ve lived a different life, quite a different life.”
The children spend less time exploring benign forests than wandering the streets of the deserted city like stray mutts.
In the story “Matricide”, the Witman boys murder their mother while trying to rob her of her jewelry, so they can give it to a young woman they have fallen in love with. The following morning, with their mother dead but undiscovered in her bedroom, it’s of the utmost importance that they get to school on time, so that there is an illusion of normality in their lives. Conventional life is a disguise for their distorted emotional world. The story’s first sentence warns us, “When fathers of fine, healthy children die young, there’s trouble.”
Our Little Home
There is occasional delight and joy, but more often “I feel that dread overcoming me. No hiding from it anywhere.” It’s impossible to find a safe house, let alone a safe home. “Our little home was shrouded by the repulsive, wet wings of the black silence.” The children feel like “tortured beasts”.
Moments of Clarity
Some of the stories are told from the perspective of the narrator. Others are recited to the narrator or recorded in journals read by him (“I found this story in a diary”). It’s apparent that his world of psychic suffering and misery is shared by his friends. Occasionally the dreams of others are less horrific: “I envied Joseph his having had such a beautiful dream.”
Csath writes without romanticising the predicament of his characters. His stories are matter-of-fact, naturalistic, like bubbles of oxygen rising to the top of a collective psychic morass. The narrator of the story “A Young Lady” opines: “The psyche guards itself from the unpleasant, terrible and ultimately unbearable impressions the body it’s attached to would reveal in moments of clarity.” It’s the function of clear thinking to detect the horror that surrounds or shapes us. Story-telling plays a small but valuable role in mitigating the horror, even if Csath himself (a doctor) eventually succumbed to it at the age of 32.
Two other aspects of the collection deserve special mention: the richly evocative Art Nouveau illustrations by Attila Sassy and the superbly insightful introduction by Angela Carter.
Notes are private!
Mar 07, 2016
Mar 10, 2016
Mar 20, 2013
Sep 12, 1983
it was amazing
"Fame Puts You There Where Things Are Hollow" (1)
This is often regarded as one of DeLillo's lesser novels. However, I can't agree. It continues and an "Fame Puts You There Where Things Are Hollow" (1)
This is often regarded as one of DeLillo's lesser novels. However, I can't agree. It continues and anticipates the subject matter for which he has become famous as well as his clipped and precise writing style.
If you're uncertain whether this book might be for you, I urge you to read at least the first chapter (three pages), if not also the last two chapters. The first chapter in particular contains some of the best and most exhilarating writing in DeLillo's career:
"Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic."
Don't you love phrases like "somber renown" and "erotic terror", not to mention "rueful nostalgia" and "convergent destinies"? DeLillo is great at personalising and emotionalising abstraction. Here, he does it within a framework that could well be a Tarantino film. John Travolta could play rock star Bucky Wunderlick, and Uma Thurman his girlfriend Opel Hampson.
There's much speculation that Bucky is derived from Bob Dylan, who dropped out of the mainstream after a motorcycle accident in 1966 and then recorded "The Basement Tapes" (which weren't released officially until 1975).
At times, Bucky reminded me of John Lennon after the breakup of the Beatles (except Bucky's American) and Lou Reed after the breakup of the Velvet Underground. I think of the Velvets, because Bucky's unnamed band's third album is described as noise (as was "White Light/White Heat"). (2)
Ultimately, however, DeLillo's portrait of Bucky is so complete we don't need to worry about his inspiration. Bucky is an archetypal rock musician circa 1973.
To the extent this is a rock 'n' roll novel, and a good one at that, it's broader significance lies in the fact that the music industry at the time was a microcosm of capitalist society at large.
Bucky walks away from his audience, a crowd, the public, his legend, his fame, his celebrity at its peak. Just as David Bowie turned his back on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and their legion of fans in 1973.
Like his fans, Bucky has lost his sense of identity in the crowd. He and they have become manifestations of "mass man", none of them any longer an individual with authenticity and integrity.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
On stage, Bucky had already started to rebel against his status. His music had become mere noise and was played at such volume that it alone could almost kill or injure members of the audience. Still they worship him all the more. Their secret wish is that he too will die, preferably onstage and by his own hand, in their presence, a rock 'n' roll suicide.
Remember that this novel was published in 1973, just a few years after the premature deaths (3) of Jimi Hendrix (1970) and Jim Morrison (1971).
The audience expects the performer to take them to a place of greater danger, to the edge of the void, where death is possible, if not probable. Music, experienced in a crowd, confronts us with the experience of our own death or the experience of mass apocalyptic death.
By walking away and breaking the pact with his audience, Bucky seeks out silence, an absence of or escape from language (which is itself the vehicle for social manipulation and control). He escapes, in order to become an individual, a private man, again. His departure is a quest for revolutionary solitude.
Know Your Product
The middle chapters concern two packages and the products within them.
One product is "The Mountain Tapes" (Bucky’s primitive recordings of 23 unaccompanied, almost imbecile songs recorded soon after his escape).
His manager is desperate to release the tapes and get Bucky out on the road again. The tapes are yet more product that will satiate the musical appetite of his audience and the financial appetite of his corporate backers.
The other product is some massively strong drugs that have been stolen from a secret U.S. Government installation, where they have been developed to "brainwash gooks and radicals". They affect the language sector of the brain.
A number of groups are trying to get their hands on the drugs, so that they can distribute them within the so-called counterculture.
At various times, Bucky has the packages with him in Opel’s apartment in Great Jones Street. He receives many visitors looking for one or other package. In the end, they both get stolen, the tapes by his manager, the drugs by a faction of the Happy Valley Farm Commune.
"A Return to Prior Modes"
Bucky’s manager convinces him to go back on the road. However, in the last chapter, in a scene reminiscent of "Infinite Jest", the Happy Valley Farm Commune prepares to kill Bucky or force him to commit suicide, (view spoiler)[although he actually takes a sample of the drugs and survives, speechless, wordless and wandering the streets of Manhattan, thus missing the chance to tour the Mountain Tapes:
"This was my double defeat, first a chance not taken to reappear in the midst of people and forces made to my design and then a second enterprise denied, alternate to the first, permanent withdrawal to that unimprinted level where all sound is silken and nothing erodes in the mad weather of language. Several weeks of immense serenity. Then ended...It's just a question of what sound to make or fake."
Although Bucky is still alive, he is survived yet again by rumours that circulate amongst his followers. Meanwhile, he reconstructs his own language, starting with the word "mouth":
"Soon, all was normal, a return to prior modes." (hide spoiler)]
From the lyrics of the David Bowie song, "Fame"
The name of Bucky’s management company is Transparanoia Inc. I was never sure whether his unnamed band was also called Transparanoia.
Hendrix and Morrison were both 27 at the time of their deaths. Bucky is 26 during much of the novel.
The Doors - "When the Music's Over" (Live in 1968)
John Cale - "Heartbreak Hotel"
The Saints - "Know Your Product"
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!"
PJ Harvey - "Big Exit"
Captain Beefheart - "Abba Zaba"
Allen Willner - "Pee Pee Maw Maw"
Tom Waits - "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)"
Something For Kate - "Transparanoia"
The Jam - "That's Entertainment"
"Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude"
Luna - "Great Jones Street"
Featuring Sterling Morrison on guitar
October 26, 2016 ...more
Notes are private!
Oct 17, 2016
Oct 26, 2016
Mar 13, 2013
1. "A General Idea is Enough" (First Impressions)
When I started reading this novel, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the writing. (-871)
Each shor 1. "A General Idea is Enough" (First Impressions)
When I started reading this novel, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the writing. (-871)
Each short (!) chapter seemed like an extrapolation on a single image in a photo album or a contribution to a literary almanac. Unlike a chronological album of holiday snaps, it didn't seem to matter much in what order the images were displayed. I adapted to jumping around the chronology pretty quickly.
The first part of the book was a panoramic view of the domestic lives of a small group of Hispano-Argentine expatriates living in Paris in the late 1950's. There was too little of the proceedings of the Serpent Club (a collection of would-be artists, writers and hobby philosophers whose debates I'd looked forward to) for my liking. In the second part of the first half, one of them (Horacio Oliveira) returns to Buenos Aires.
I peeked at the chapters in the second half of the book in the suggested hopscotch order, but they didn't really add much of interest to what I'd already read, at least initially. They seemed to be more of the same. Mere footnotes. Cortazar described them as "expendable". Maybe he was right?
These later chapters originally ended up on Cortazar's cutting room floor. Then he (or his editor) left them in and built the hopscotch structure around them, as if to salvage some value from his writing time and the secondary images in his album. (-741) The question is whether this is merely a gimmick and whether it weakens or strengthens the work as a whole.
2. Dramatic Intermission
"Hopscotch" challenges you to conclude that it would be better fiction if it had been:
* read differently;
* written differently;
* written by somebody else;
* read by somebody else.
3. Nominal Alterity
Cortázar must have been confronted by a number of titular options for his work:
4. Owed to Post-Modernism
[In the words of Julio Cortázar]
"Oh, they came from behind
Oh, they came from behind
And they stuck a pole up his aaass-hole
It wouldn't come out
It wouldn't come out
The poor man was out of his mind.
5. From Circus to Clinic
One of the qualities that appeals to me about Post-Modernist fiction is its sense of playfulness. (-791) The sense of play here (in the first half, at least) is infrequent and not particularly convincing. (-901) While humour often counteracts the excesses of rationality, here it accompanies a slow decline into madness, both of the protagonist and of this reader.
The first half of the novel is 350 pages long, which is not especially long for a maximalist (postgraduate hipster jargon for "long") work. But it was more than enough to make me question whether I could or should continue with the offcuts (against my better judgement, I decided to continue). Maximalism seems to challenge the author to simply fill the available space with words, regardless of whether they make for a vivid language (or any other) experience. (-732)
I've seen this novel described as "exhilarating" and "mysteriously beautiful". (-735) It's a mystery how anybody could form this opinion, even though I accept that reading is a subjective pleasure. But when it comes to opinions about the merits of a book, can't you show us, don't just tell us. Isn't literary opinion and judgment more than just imperious assertion and declaration? (-781)
It took me gargantuan determination and persistence to work my way through the tedium. (-731) This was like observing a human imagination, word by word, page by page, converting ephemera into detritus. (-841) I don't think I've ever been so relieved to finally put down a book (William T Vollmann excepted). (-761) Have these authors no respect for language or readers or time? (-792) How is it that the maximalist novel has become just a way for a so-called writer to expend or spend their time in vast, expansive quantities? Any wonder that half of the book, even in the author's opinion, is "expendable"! Why does inspiration suffer when too much perspiration is devoted to it or to its avoidance? Why do we readers so willingly contribute our time as well? (-931) Why do we indulge the self-indulgent? (-1414) Haven't we all got better things to do and think and create and enjoy? (-733)
6. Narrative Self-Reflection
Much Post-Modern fiction contains at least one sentence that acts as a description or review of the entire work. There are many in "Hopscotch". In fact, they're just about the only sentences worth quoting.
"Everything was perfect in the circus, a spangled fraud with wild music..."
"I'll have to tell you all about it someday if it's worth the trouble, and it isn't..."
"This sounds like a dialogue between two idiots..."
"What I really am is a bad parody of Faulkner..."
"A fixation, a touch of idiocy. REWIND. This will be funny: Faulkner. Cheap effects. STOP. It isn't very funny listening to myself again. All this should take time, time, time. All this should take time. REWIND..."
"Pure corn...Misapplied tenderness..."
"All the words he used to fill the notebook along with great flourishes in the air and shrill whistles made him laugh like a madman..."
"It would have been so easy to organise a coherent scheme, an order of thought and life, a harmony..."
"The episode was cute and didn't have much to offer..."
"Both of them knew that the other one was thinking that this was all a comedy of idiots..."
"Do you think we're in some kind of kindergarten here?"
"Can't you see it's a bad dream?"
"Let's not fall into any quick swoon over it."
7. An Explanation of the Impossibility of Being Understood
Perhaps, on the other hand, a reader can glean some sort of meaning or understanding amidst the sheer volume of words (-734). However, at the same time, the novel questions the concepts of meaning and understanding, as if they are pointless quests:
"Who climbs up to the hole unless it is to wish to come down changed and find one's self again, but in a different way, with one's people..."
"Problems are like Primus heaters, everything is fine until they blow up. I could tell you that there are teleological problems on this earth. They don't seem to exist, like right now, and what happens is that the clock in the bomb is set for twelve o'clock tomorrow. Tick-tock, tick-tock, everything's fine. Tick-tock..."
"But it's as if something is talking, something is using us to talk. Don't you get that feeling? Don't you think we're inhabited in some sort of way? I mean...It's hard to explain, really..."
"You understand, sometimes it occurs to me that I might be able to tell you...I don't know, perhaps right now words would be good for something, could be useful to us. But since they're not words from everyday life and mate in the courtyard, well-oiled conversation, one draws back, from his best friend, no less, who is the one we have most trouble telling such things to. Doesn't it happen to you, that sometimes you confide much more in just anybody..."
"You talk about understanding each other, but basically you realise that I also want to come to some sort of understanding with you, and you means much more than you yourself. The burden is the fact that real understanding is something else. We're satisfied with too little. When friends understand each other well, when lovers understand each other well, when families understand each other well, then we think that everything is harmonious. Pure illusion, a mirror for larks. Sometimes I think there's more understanding between two people punching each other in the face than among those who are there looking on from outside..."
"You think you're going to explain something, and it gets worse every time..."
"Explanation is a well-dressed mistake. Make a note of that..."
"Everything could have meaning just as long as it was extrapolated, the whinevitable whextrapolation at the metaphysical whour, that stately word was always on time...But how many times had he gone through the same cycle on dozens of corners and in cafes in so many cities, how many times had he reached similar conclusions, felt better, thought he could begin to live in a different way?"
"The change from circus to [mental] clinic was like a step forward..."
"Oliveira appeared, and they had to explain to him with whispers and hidden gestures that everything was going along fine and that nobody understood much of anything..."
"It all means you don't exist or I don't exist, or that we're so stupid we believe this..."
8. Crazy Stupid Love's Labour's Lost
In the end, I couldn't help being reminded of the film "Betty Blue", in which love is conquered by madness. Here, love is plagued by misunderstanding, incomprehension and impossibility.
"Maybe love was the highest enrichment, a giver of being; but only by bungling it could one avoid its boomerang effect, let it run off into nothingness, and sustain one's self alone again on this new step of open and porous reality. Killing the beloved object, that ancient fear of man, was the price paid for not stopping on the stairs, just as Faust's plea to the passing moment would not have made sense if he had not abandoned it at the same time, just as one puts down an empty glass on the table."
"At the same time he understood that it was certain, that in one way or other he had transgressed the world of Talita and Traveler, without acts, without intentions even, nothing more than giving in to a nostalgic whim..."
"The three of them loved reading with commentaries, each in his own way, polemics from the Hispano-Argentine pleasure in wanting to convince and never accepting contrary opinion, and the undeniable possibilities of laughing like crazy and feeling themselves above suffering humanity under the pretext of helping it come out of its shitty contemporary situation..."
"Look at him, making the three of them dance a slow, interminable pattern..."
9. Himmel und Hölle
A suggestion to the author and the reader about playing "Hopscotch":
"Pick up a pebble and try again..."
Or, at least, try something different, something else. (-801)(-1411)
10. Expendable Notes, Quotes and Wall Labels
Much Post-Modernist art is accompanied by wall labels that explain the work or the artist's intent. This assumes that their intent is not adequately conveyed by the work itself or detectable by the viewer. It also seeks to add a verbal credibility to a visual work.
Much of Part 2 of "Hopscotch" consists of wall labels that express Cortazar's writing goals (in the guise of manifestoid musings by the writer, Morelli, mainly in chapter 99). (-891) Some of it supplies details of the characters in the novel that are dispensable or could have been incorporated into part 1. (-861)
The hopscotch structure isn't important enough to describe as a gimmick, but its aesthetic role is overstated. You don't have to read it in the suggested order of reading chapters, if you don't want to.
The distinction between the two parts could be removed, as well as the suggested order, and the novel would make just as much sense, if not more (this is, after all, how most of us will read it the first time).
Despite Morelli's manifesto in chapter 99, Cortazar does little to make the reader an accomplice in any metafictional enterprise he might have in his mind. It remains there, to his and our frustration. Chapter 99 contains a manifesto that the novel doesn't really live up to.
11. "A Fusion of Parts"
Ultimately, you could almost say that the novel is a unity that tricks readers into believing that it is made up of fragments. Which it might be/is/does. Without any desire for coherence.
731 Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire?
732 How often I wonder whether this is only writing, in an age in which we run towards deception through infallible equations and conformity machines.
733 Too easy a solution.
734 An invented fire burns in us.
735 We invent our conflagration.
741 Acceptance of the pebble and of Beta Centauri, from the pure-as-anodyne to the pure-as-excess.
761 Oh, you know, fear is not my forte.
781 All endearment is an ontological clawing, yes, an attempt to seize the unseizable.
791 To attempt a text that would not clutch the reader but which would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers to him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions.
792 The reader would be able to become a coparticipant and cosufferer of the experience through which the novelist is passing, at the same time and in the same form.
801 I mean something else, almost impossible to grasp.
841 Imagination has been praised to excess.
861 It was easier to understand Morelli from the quotes he used than from his personal meanderings.
871 Why is it necessary at certain times to say: 'I loved that'?
891 Explain me something before I fall asleep.
901 The whego and the whother.
931 A sea of tongues licking the ass of the world...
1411 It didn't take many pages to see that Morelli was aiming at something else.
1412 The apparent paradox lay in that Morelli was accumulating episodes that were imagined and focused in the most diverse forms, trying to attack them and resolve them with every skill of a writer worthy of the name.
1413 It was hard to deny belief in the fact that a flower could be beautiful to no end; it was bitter to accept the fact that one could dance in darkness. Morelli's allusions to an inversion of signs, to a world seen with other and from other dimensions, as an inevitable preparation for a purer vision (and all of this in a resplendently written passage, and at the same time suspicious of the farce, of icy irony before the mirror) exasperated them as it offered them the most of an almost hope, of a justification, but at the same time denied them total security, keeping them in an unbearable ambiguity. If there was any consolation left it was the thought that Morelli too moved about in that same ambiguity, orchestrating a work whose legitimate first hearing could well have been the most absolute of silences.
1414 That's how they went along through the pages, cursing and fascinated...
1471 To have the strength to plunge into the midst of parties and crown the head of the dazzling [lady/lord] of the house with a beautiful green frog, a gift of night, and suffer without horror the vengeance of [her/his] lackeys.
1541 A sensitive freemasonry, the voluptuous feeling of being one of so few partaking of an adventure.
1551 Why be ashamed of masturbating? A lesser art next to the other one, but in any case it does have its divine proportions, its unities in time, action, and place, and any other rhetoric you might want to apply.
1552 We can't sit on this bench all day.
001. "I jes hope what I been writin down hear do somebody some good so he take a good look at how he livin and he dont be sorry when it too late and everythin is gone down the drain cause it his own fault."
THE NOVEL GIVES BOTH WRITERS AND READERS THE OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE UP THEIR OWN MINDS. ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 13, 2016
Jun 25, 2016
Aug 18, 2012
Jan 07, 1986
it was amazing
An Explosion Over the Desert
You could spend weeks or even months inside this short novel.
It's as rewarding as it is challenging.
There are multiple cha An Explosion Over the Desert
You could spend weeks or even months inside this short novel.
It's as rewarding as it is challenging.
There are multiple characters with multiple points of view. It's not clear whether any are supposed to represent DeLillo's reconciled or concluded views, or, rather, whether it's the debate that matters (and that that debate could and should continue).
The debate concerns reality, consciousness, identity, silence and language. Oh yeah, and war and football and weight loss and orange dresses (“You look like an explosion over the desert”).
Inside the Language of Logos
This is just as much a metaphysical novel as it is a metaphorical one.
Everything happens within language, not just within the language of the novel.
Silence seems to be the absence of language, or the exile from community and language. Without language, there is no society or discourse. As Wittgenstein remarked:
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
DeLillo's protagonist, Gary Harkness, says, "Of all the aspects of exile, silence pleased me least."
As David Foster Wallace inferred from his reading of the novel, "SILENCE = HORROR."
It's the horror of separation from and the destruction of society.
One way of viewing exile is that it is "the state of being separated from whatever is left of the center of one's own history."
Exile and silence, therefore, de-centre the individual consciousness.
The Complication of the Exile
Harkness is one of the exiles in (and from) the Logos College football team.
He's physically talented enough to earn a place, but he doesn't really fit in. He's not simple enough. As his coach says:
"You're more the complicated type."
As a result, he's regarded as an outcast or an exile. Most of the rest of the team are crazy. In a way, you can either be sane outside the team/crowd or insane within it.
The Simple Life of the Warrior
Harkness' coach urges him to become more simple, to "lead a simple life":
"Oneness was stressed - the oneness necessary for a winning team. It was a good concept, oneness, but I suggested that, to me at least, it could not be truly attractive unless it meant oneness with God or the universe or some equally redoubtable super-phenomenon. What he meant by oneness was in fact elevenness or twenty-oneness."
Harkness seems to crave oneness with something more than mere people or community or society.
At a previous college, he accidentally killed another player. Now, he "liked reading about the deaths of tens of millions of people. I liked dwelling on the destruction of great cities..."
This is one of the first connections between war and football:
"I felt that I was better for it [football], reduced in complexity, a warrior."
Between Silence and Violence
Harkness seems to inhabit the space between silence and violence (apologies for the rhyme!).
"I respect Tweego in a way. He thinks in one direction, straight ahead. He just aims and fires. He has ruthlessness of mind. That's something I respect. I think it's a distinctly modern characteristic. The systems planner. The management consultant. The nuclear strategist. It's a question of fantastic single-mindedness.
That's something I genuinely respect."
For all his complexity, Harkness is still captivated by simplicity and single-mindedness, qualities that are often associated with the violence of both sport and war. Yet it's also fundamental to nature:
"The universe was born in violence. Stars die violently. Elements are created out of cosmic violence."
The mantra for their football team is:
"Hit somebody. Hit somebody. Hit somebody."
However, Harkness' problem is, in the words of his coach:
"You're just too damn nice...You people got a long way to go in meanness."
Still, football provides some comfort:
"Life was simplified by these afternoons of opposites and affinities."
Opposites being the opposition, and affinities being your own team.
War and Football
DeLillo equivocates over any possible analogy between war and football. He describes the action of the game in militaristic terms:
"The special teams collided, swarm and thud of interchangeable bodies, small wars commencing here and there, exaltation and firstblood, a helmet bouncing brightly on the splendid grass, the breathless impact of two destructive masses, quite pretty to watch."
On the other hand, one of his characters (Alan Zapalac) proclaims:
"I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing."
Later, he describes some of the unique features of football:
"Football is discipline. It's team love. It's reason plus passion. The crowds are fantastic. They jump and scream."
Zapalac is less enthusiastic about wars between nations:
"A nation is never more ridiculous than in its patriotic manifestations."
Technology and Language
DeLillo does however explore some differences and likenesses between war and football.
On the one hand, "War is the ultimate realisation of modern technology.”
In a way, for all the noise, technology destroys language and creates silence. In a scene that preempts “Infinite Jest”, it’s this silence that causes Gary Harkness’ breakdown:
“In the end they had to carry me to the infirmary and feed me through plastic tubes.”
The Exemplary Spectator
On the other hand, DeLillo sees football in terms of organisation, language and spectators:
"The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible. It's a form of society that is...organised so that everyone follows precisely the same rules; that is electronically controlled, thus reducing human error and benefitting industry; that roots out the inefficient and penalises the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.
"The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that. No, it's details he needs - impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols. Football, more than other sports, fulfils this need. It is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name. The spectator's pleasure, when not derived from the action itself, evolves from a notion of the game's unique organic nature. Here it is not just order but civilisation. And part of the spectator's need is to sort the many levels of material: to allot, to compress, to catalogue."
Language is the vehicle within which the game operates:
"Each play must have a name. The naming of plays is important. All teams run the same plays. But each team uses an entirely different system of naming...No play begins until its name is called."
“End Zone” therefore appears to be the first of DeLillo’s novels in which his focus is the essence of language and names (names, for DeLillo, are the wording of the world), as it would continue to be for the rest of his writing career, hence the influence on more post-modernist authors like David Foster Wallace.
June 12, 2016 ...more
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Jun 08, 2016
Jun 12, 2016
Jul 13, 2012
Apr 23, 1989
it was amazing
"Canon Fire", a poem in heroic couplets, of thirty-six lines, consisting of only one canto, was composed by Ian Vinogradus (born March 4, 195 Foreword:
"Canon Fire", a poem in heroic couplets, of thirty-six lines, consisting of only one canto, was composed by Ian Vinogradus (born March 4, 1957) during the last two days of his life (up to that point in time), at his residence in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
He started the poem on Saturday, July 16, 2016, on the evening that the military coup occurred in Turkey. He completed it the following day, Sunday, July 17, 2016, after it became clear that the coup had failed.
[After and In Many of the Words of Vladimir Nabokov, John Shade and Charles Kinbote]
I have a certain liking, I admit,
For parody, that last resort of wit.
Though any jackass can rig up the stuff
In this epoch when packs of rogues can bluff
Like the prosemongers of the Grubby Group;
The Mitsein Man, the owlish Nincompoop,
And the Post-Modern Acolytes of our age
Leave but a pinch of coal dust on the page.
Readers who think there’s something you can learn,
Listen to distant cocks crow, and discern
Conmal, the hack reviewer of fat books
That staid academia overlooks,
Who inveighs against populist traction
With unpardonable satisfaction.
This pompous obtuse son of a bitch
Photographs all his books to show like kitsch.
Like many near-cretins, he craves novelty,
Though he’s a stranger to modesty.
Some regard the blockhead's demolishment
And his rave with similar detachment.
True, his Vollmann crits only loudly cry,
Each work is "a great book by a great guy."
Pretending to all that he’s contrary,
He lives too much in his library,
Not to mention various other nooks
Among the bewitched hush of buried books.
He surrounds himself with young boys and youths
Who generate likes in quanta profuse,
Mere mechanisms of haphazard lust.
His taste is something you can barely trust.
His titles possess a specious glamour,
He bangs on about them with his hammer.
Hence, devoted fools, timorous and grim,
Applaud his ev’ry pronouncement and whim,
While others respond with acrimony
To praise of books they can tell are phony.
Juxtaposition of the Elements
"Pale Fire", the novel upon which "Canon Fire" is modelled, is a swarm or flight (view spoiler)[or a flutter (hide spoiler)] of butterflies in a hall of mirrors.
I've always been fascinated by what happens when an author juxtaposes two or more different creative elements within the one work. What is meant by the juxtaposition? What happens as a result of the juxtaposition? Does it change the interpretation of the whole or does one element change the interpretation of the other?
In "Pale Fire", there are four such elements: a foreword, the poem itself, a commentary and an index.
Although "Pale Fire" is the name of the poem, it's also the name of the collective work as a whole. Thus, Nabokov redefines the scope of a novel, so as to extend to both a work of fiction and a (fictitious) commentary on that work.
This shaped my initial reaction to the work as a whole. It seemed that the dominant theme was the relationship of a reader's response, or an academic's criticism, to the work itself. Charles Kinbote, the academic, almost overwhelmed the author's intent or work, in his self-indulgent commentary. In a way, the work didn't live up to his expectations. Not only does he attempt to shape the interpretation of the poem, but he expresses disappointment that it doesn't live up to his inspiration or suggestions for inclusion in the poem. In a way, the muse is judging the creator.
While this point deserves and needs to be made, much more is revealed as you read on. The relationship between Kinbote and the poet John Shade is much more complex. The commentary becomes a thriller or suspense novella in its own right.
Making Ornaments of Accidents and Possibilities
A lot is revealed by the first four lines of the poem:
"I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky."
Who is the first person "I"?
Is it the poet or author, or is it the narrator? Or, perhaps, the poem/work itself? Or, double perhaps, the reader's response (which keeps the work alive)?
The real event is a bird hitting a windowpane, unaware that the sky it is flying towards is a reflection, a fiction, a falsity, a fraud, a semblance of reality.
The bird is not so much lost in translation, as lost in transition between reality and fiction.
The bird we think we see isn't real, but a shadow, an illusion. Yet, even if the real bird dies as it hits the windowpane, the illusion continues, it "lives on, in the reflected sky." In a way, fiction has the ability to transcend reality.
At one point, Kinbote asserts that:
"'Reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality' perceived by the communal eye."
Ironically, Kinbote believes that Shade's fiction should look more like his (Kinbote's) reality. This is quite different from expecting the work to look like his fiction, the fiction that he imagines as he reads the work. Both reactions are possible in this work. However, in a normal case (where a reader has had no factual input into the conceptualisation of the actual work), only the second reaction is possible.
A Monstrous Semblance of a Novel
Nevertheless, we as readers of the work approach the commentary, prepared to give some credence to Kinbote's version of the poem. His interpretation seems to reflect his intimate knowledge of its creator and its creation, as well as his purported influence on its creation.
Yet, as we read on, we become more convinced that Kinbote is misguided, egotistical, maybe even insane. Thus, bit by bit, he becomes an unreliable narrator or commentator.
We learn that other academics question Kinbote's views, in favour of their own. They stake rival claims for ownership of the frontier field of Shadean Studies.
Perhaps, this is Nabokov's way of questioning the veracity of all academic interpretation and criticism? Perhaps, he was trying to create a work so sophisticated that it would keep critics forever guessing (wrongly!) about its meaning (whether or not this is a worthwhile task at all).
Kinbote suggests (a little disingenuously):
"I have no desire to twist and batter an unambiguous apparatus criticus into the monstrous semblance of a novel."
As Nabokov himself would say:
"I do not believe in any kind of interpretation."
Perhaps, he just wanted us to enjoy the beauty of the language, and to play along with his ludicrous game.
Maybe, he just wanted us to fly into the windowpane, to pass through the looking glass, and discover the fictitious world that lies beyond, the semblance of the world of Zembla that is there?
"Engazhay and Compelling"
As if this is not possibility enough, Nabokov encourages and permits us to question whether Kinbote is the construction of Shade, or vice versa. Is one a shadow of the other? If so, which one?
If we ignore the author himself, which narrator should prevail?
Nabokov/Shade inserts a syllogism into his poem:
"Other men die; but I am not another; therefore I'll not die."
Is the first person narrator a fictional person who, unlike the author and the reader, cannot die? Is literature and its assemblage of characters capable of immortality?
"How curious that our rationality feels satisfied when we plump for the first explanation?"
"How ludicrous these efforts to translate
Into one's private tongue a public fate?
Life is a message scribbled in the dark."
This is the most ludicrous novel ever written. So far.
Conmal, Duke of Arrogance line 11, cretinous nature line 17, his presence in library line 24, identity almost revealed line 27, writing style line 11
Mitsein Man, Heideggerian henchman line 6
Vollmann, William T., The most overrated American novelist since William H. Gass, uncritical review of line 21["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["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!
Jul 11, 2016
Jul 16, 2016
Jul 04, 2012
Nov 01, 1995
really liked it
The first person narrator of "The Master of Petersburg" is Coetzee's imagining of Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he might have been in October Imaginary Memoirs
The first person narrator of "The Master of Petersburg" is Coetzee's imagining of Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he might have been in October, 1869, immediately before he started writing his third novel, "Demons".
The Master is living in Dresden, when he is summoned back to St. Petersburg after the sudden death of his stepson, Pavel Isaev, on 12 October.
He soon begins to inhabit Pavel's lodgings, haunts and psyche in an attempt to comprehend their shared life and fate and to solve the mystery of his cause of death (suicide or murder, and if the latter, by whom? The police or his insurrectionary acquaintances?).
The relationship between the Master and Pavel hasn't always been amicable. The Master's journey is designed not just to learn more about Pavel, but to reconcile the two of them, albeit too late to make any difference during his lifetime. His immediate goal is to recover Pavel’s private papers, which have been confiscated by the police. Just as the Master learns things about his stepson, he learns what Pavel thought of him, as well as learning more about himself by way of introspection.
I haven't read any of the biographies of Dostoyevsky, but there appear to be some parallels with actual events in Dostoyevsky's life in the lead up to 1869. However, this is not the point of the novel - to record actual events with historical veracity. Instead, it's a vehicle with which Coetzee can speculate on the writing process used by Dostoyevsky, as well as which Coetzee can utilise to kickstart and structure his own creative process.
Towards the end of the novel, the Master sits down at his writing desk and starts to compose chapters about his experiences in the style of "Demons". In a way, Coetzee returns to and taps the spring that gave life to Dostoyevsky's novel. The aim is to see Dostoyevsky's world with his eyes, if this is at all possible. These are "imaginary memoirs, memories of the imagination."
Fathers and Sons: Foes to the Death
For Coetzee, the Master is symbolic of Russia itself. If we can understand one, we can understand the other. Pavel represents the legacy of both. A student, he had joined a group of anarchists led by the demonic Sergei Nechaev, who urges him to overthrow the government in the name of justice. When the police examine Pavel's personal papers, they find a list of targets for assassination. The Master questions whether the police actually killed his son or whether Nechaev arranged his murder, because they might have fallen out over the composition of the list.
When the Master meets Nechaev, they retroactively become rivals for Pavel's soul; father figures and foes in the quest to determine his future.
This is not the only rivalry: the Master and Pavel are rivals with each other.
Each just wants to be loved and respected by the other ("Father, why have you left me in the dark forest? Father, when will you come to save me?"), but they lock horns in a perpetual power struggle.
In the Master’s parallel world, he starts to see himself with Pavel’s eyes. If the Master can find out what Pavel really thought of him, perhaps he will understand himself better.
He recognises that this journey of self-recognition might entail even more pain and hurt than the loss of his son that initiated it.
A Russian Life
The Master reveals no apprehension:
"I am not here in Russia in this time of ours to live a time free of pain. I am required to live - what shall I call it? - a Russian life: a life inside Russia, or with Russia inside me, and whatever Russia means. It is not a fate I can evade."
Nechaev senses the Master’s opposition to his radical political agenda:
"How can you abandon Russia and return to a contemptible bourgeois existence?"
The Master starts to understand the psychology of Pavel’s motivation for revolution: "Not the People's Vengeance but the Vengeance of the Sons: is that what underlies revolution - fathers envying their sons their women, sons scheming to rob their fathers' cashboxes?"
Nechaev describes it to the Master:
"Your day is over. Only, instead of passing quietly from the scene, you want to drag the whole world down with you. You resent it that the reins are passing into the hands of younger and stronger men who are going to make a better world..."
"Revolution is the end of everything old, including fathers and sons. It is the end of successions and dynasties. And it keeps renewing itself, if it is true revolution."
Idealist Fathers, Nihilist Sons
In Konstantin Mochulsky's biography of Dostoyevsky, he explains that "nihilist sons are immediately linked...with idealist fathers."
Here, the policeman Maximov asks: “Why are dreamers, poets, intelligent young men like your stepson, drawn to bandits like Nechaev?”
The Master responds “I do not know. Perhaps because in young people there is something that has not yet gone to sleep, to which the spirit in Nechaev calls. Perhaps it is in all of us: something we think has been dead for centuries but has only been sleeping.”
The Master experiences both anger and grief:
"He can no longer deny it: a gap is opening between himself and the dead boy. He is angry with Pavel, angry at being betrayed. It does not surprise him that Pavel should have been drawn into radical circles, or that he should have breathed no word of it in his letters. But Nechaev is a different matter. Nechaev is no student hothead, no youthful nihilist. He is the Mongol left behind in the Russian soul after the greatest nihilist of all has withdrawn into the wastes of Asia."
The Master contrasts Nechaev with the generation before himself:
“The [Decembrists and the men of 1849] were idealists. They failed because, to their credit, they were not schemers enough, and certainly not men of blood. Petrashevsky...from the outset denounced the kind of Jesuitism that excuses the means in the name of the end. Nechaev is a Jesuit, a secular Jesuit who quite openly embraces the doctrine of ends to justify the most cynical abuse of his followers’ energies.”
In an earlier pamphlet quoted by the Master, Nechaev explains the psychology of an insurrectionist (in the vein of Bakunin):
"The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no interests, no feelings, no attachments, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed in a single and total passion: revolution. In the depths of his being he has cut all links with the civil order, with law and morality. He continues to exist in society only in order to destroy it...He does not expect the least mercy. Every day he is ready to die."
The Master adds, "Extremists all of them, sensualists hungering for the ecstasy of death - killing, dying, no matter which. And Pavel among them!"
Dostoyevsky subsequently explored these views in greater detail in “Demons”.
The Writer as Chess-Player
Coetzee is equally interested in the writing process. The following description applies to the Master’s relationship with Pavel’s landlady (Anna) just as much as it does to the relationship between writer and reader:
“He feels like a chess-player offering a pawn which, whether accepted or refused, must lead into deeper complications. Are affairs between men and women always like this, the one plotting, the other plotted against? Is plotting an element of the pleasure: to be the object of another’s intrigue, to be shepherded into a corner and softly pressed to capitulate? As she walks by his side, is she too, in her way, plotting against him?”
Coetzee’s novel is intricately plotted and word-perfect. There is a sense that, sentence by sentence, we’re being transported through a maelstrom of emotion toward a more profound appreciation of both Dostoyevsky and revolutionary Russia.
Notes are private!
Feb 21, 2016
Mar 05, 2016
Jan 27, 2012
it was amazing
NOTES IN THE MARGIN:
Footprints in the Sand of Time:
Hello. You don't know me. I bought your book online. I don't know your name. I don't even know whet NOTES IN THE MARGIN:
Footprints in the Sand of Time:
Hello. You don't know me. I bought your book online. I don't know your name. I don't even know whether you're dead or alive. You made notations in the margin. I noticed them straight away: some were in pencil, some, later, when I looked, were in pen, although they might have been made by someone else. We started to note similar things and make similar comments. After a while, I started to make fewer comments, because I was content with yours. Either that, or I started to think like you, to walk in your footsteps. I'm a reader like you. You're a reader like me. Reader. Like me. Please. Whoever you are. I don't think there are many of us around. Let me know if you get this message. In the meantime, I'll try to write a review. I hope it's an OK one. I hope we like it.
NOTES FROM THE MARGIN:
Friend or Foe?
"Foe" raises fascinating metafictional ideas in a text that is just as economical (157 pages) as it is intellectually and aesthetically stimulating.
It's a postmodern reconstruction of "Robinson Crusoe" that asks questions about empire and colonialism, slavery and dominion, history and fictional narrative, especially its ownership: What is the story about? Whose story or perspective is it? Who is telling the story? Who owns the story that results?
Plantation and Quotation Marks
Coetzee tells his tale in four parts.
The first is wholly contained in quotation marks. It purports to be the perspective of Susan Barton, incidentally a character from a subsequent Daniel Defoe novel ("Roxana"), who in "Foe" ends up on the island with Cruso (sic) and Friday (whose tongue has been cut out by slavers).
The second is largely epistolary, being the letters written by Susan Barton to Foe, trying to get him to write her story for publication. Again, this section is in quotation marks.
The third is an almost Borgesian confrontation between Susan and Foe, which begins, "The staircase was dark and mean." There are no quotation marks around the section.
History and Heritage
The fourth begins with the words, "The staircase is dark and mean." It mimics the beginning of the previous section (but in present tense), there are no quotation marks, however, it's not clear whether the narrator is actually Susan Barton or whether the "author" of this section is the same author as any or all of the previous sections.
It's quite possible that this author is a contemporary writer or reader (i.e., us) who is visiting Defoe's home (complete with heritage plaque). It's as if the narrator is a visitor to the home, narrating their experience in the physical space, as well as their imaginary extrapolation of events that could have taken place here three centuries before.
Dying to Tell the Tale
The bulk of the first three sections explores the power relationship between Cruso and Susan.
Eventually, it becomes clear that she will have to tell (or commission the telling) of his and/or their story. The second option necessitates the involvement of Foe, who de-authenticises the tale, in order to make it more entertaining and commercially successful.
Not only does this dialectic raise issues about control and ownership of the narrative, it dramatises a power struggle between two genders.
Friday on My Mind
Just as Susan recognises her own need and desire to communicate, increasingly, her own perspective comes to focus on the plight of Friday:
"...this is not a place of words…This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday."
He has no tongue, therefore he cannot speak. He knows little English, and presumably cannot write. Therefore, apparently, he has no capacity to contribute his version of the story, in other words, a black version of history.
Susan starts to teach Friday how to write in the third section.
As if the issues raised in section four aren't enough, I wondered whether Friday might have "written" the entire novel.
Thus, there is a sense in which the book can be read as a post-colonial work that gives voice not just to non-whites, but simultaneously to women. In any event, just as it subverts the authorial conventions of literature, it subverts the social conventions of white male authoritarianism.
Friday, I'm in Love!
This review might make the novel sound very academic. The truth, however, is that it's exquisitely written. Not one word is surplus or out of place. It consumes our imagination so effectively that we don't need any distraction. However, having achieved its goal, it remains a distraction for the reader. I'm sure the previous reader would agree with me!
The Cure - "Friday, I'm In Love"
"I don't care if Cruso's blue,
Author's gray and readers too.
Defoe, I don't care about you,
Coz, Friday, I'm in love."
The Easybeats - "Friday On My Mind"
David Bowie - "Friday On My Mind"
Pink Floyd - "See Emily Play"
"She's often inclined to borrow somebody's dreams till tomorrow."
David Bowie - "See Emily Play"
"It is not whoring to entertain other people's stories and return them to the world better dressed." [J.M. Coetzee] ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 11, 2016
Jan 12, 2016
Dec 09, 2011