21 November 2008

Ur-story: What Is Lost

How then to wrap this theme post on Synecdoche, New York and Remainder. We rail against vagueness in fiction, against fiction written at a remove, distanced from character. Unfocused. We don't really care how much anomie or drift or lassitude a protagonist has, she is never insensate (unless, of course, she is and that is a prominent plot point and theme). Write with precision. Be detailed and specific. It's harder, frankly, especially when you're trying to move the story along. It is the demand of art.

If you stop at "I liked the book because I could identify with the protagonist" or "I bonded with the protagonist and wanted to get to know him better," you miss the serious fictional exercise as to character. Complexity is key. And this is achieved by close in writing: details. A vague nice guy is really not very interesting: dull.

This is not to say we take a position with respect to the great "realism" dialogue in which Zadie Smith and James Wood (Dan Greene, Nigel Beale, Edmund Caldwell, Steven Augustine, et al.) are engaged. We are agnostic with respect to realism. What must be real in the fiction is what is real to the character. This is conveyed through the detailed, artistic use of language. etc., etc.

Back to our topic. Let's take a look at the titles: 'Synecdoche' is a form of metonymy in which either the part stands for the whole, or the whole for the part. Some familiar examples:

• Give us this day our daily bread. (Other food, too.)

• Man cannot live by bread alone. (Neither can woman.)

• Ted Turner owns 40,000 head of bison. (Presumably he owns the rest of their bodies as well.)

• He asked for Mary's hand in marriage. (Again, he probably wanted to wed more than her hand.)

• He drew his weapon. (His sword, his gun, his knife, etc.)

• This election is all about Joe the Plumber. (Indeed.)

A synecdoche is a rhetorical figure. The purpose of rhetoric is to persuade us of something that basic logic cannot do; rhetoric is employed for the purpose of manipulating the emotions or passions when resort to logic and reason simply won't work. It is a means of persuasion. In the movie Synecdoche, New York, Caden purchases an enormous warehouse to re-enact scenes of his life, a living theater, if you will. As the movie progresses he constructs a warehouse within the warehouse to re-enact what is happening in the main warehouse. And then another one inside that one and so on. We are never quite sure how many there are—though, on principle, a theoretical infinity is conceivable without arriving at truth. The point being, presumably, that each particular staging of a scene stands for the scene from Caden's life.

Of what, we might reasonably ask Charlie Kaufman, is the movie trying to persuade us? Near the end Caden Cotard laments that no play would ever be large enough to enact or re-enact the dreams and hopes and sorrows and secrets of each person in each apartment in the huge city, each one of whom is or wants to be special in his or her own right to someone else. We will simply have to make do with Charlie's, er, Caden's. The closer we get to the dreams and secrets of one man—the particular—the closer we get those of everyone—the universal: synecdoche. And that is why "writing in close" is so essential.

The title Remainder refers ostensibly to the puzzlement the protagonist feels over the half-million pound portion of the eight and half million pound settlement he receives. How did the insurance companies and lawyers determine the damage done to the protagonist was worth that amount? Why the half-million pound remainder? There are plenty of other remainders also: a splinter of knee-cap left from in his leg from an operation, a dent in the fender of his Ford Fiesta. These are the of not the essence, though.

Heraclitus the Ephesian is alleged by Plato to have said one cannot step into the same river twice; the waters keep changing. Remainder is a literary disquisition on this text. You cannot recapture an experience; there is always something left over, some remainder, that eludes even if you constantly re-enact the events. Something that is lost. What, then, is lost?

As the protagonist keeps trying to perfect his re-enactment of the experience of deja vu, he has another surprising moment at a tire shop. Windshield wiper fluid poured into his car's engine seems miraculously to disappear into thin air and then, to his wonderment and disappointment, gushes out all over him when he starts the engine.
"I lay in my bath looking at the [re-created] crack and thinking about what had happened. It was something very sad—not in the normal sense but on a grander scale, the scale that really big events are measured in, like centuries of history or the death of stars: very, very sad. A miracles seemed to have taken place, a miracle of transubstantiation—in contravention of the very laws of physics, laws that make swings stop swinging and fridge doors catch and large, unsuspended objects fall out of the sky. This miracle, this triumph over matter, seemed to have occurred, then turned out not to have done at all—to have failed utterly, spectacularly, its watery debris crashing down to earth, turning the scene of a triumphant launch into the scene of a disaster, a catastrophe. Yes, it was very sad."
It is the sense of wonder, surprise, the miraculousness of the everyday events, their uniqueness that cannot be captured by re-enactment and, by implication, by art or fiction.

McCarthy's narrative compares this idea of re-enactment to the job of forensic reconstructions of murder scenes by police. These can replay the outlines of events, but can never capture the experience of dying. A black man is shot and killed outside the protagonist's apartment. He becomes obsessed with yet another re-enactment—before the others are even perfected. He pores over forensic reports, puzzles over models of the crimes scene, and, realizing their short-comings, tries to imagine what it was like to be the victim:
"His last words would still have been buzzing around in his head as he left the phone box, and in the head of the person he'd talked to, their conversation only half-decayed at most. Then he'd have caught sight of his killers. Did he know them? If he did, he still might not have known they'd come to kill him—until they took their guns out. At what point had he realized they were guns? Maybe at first he thought they were umbrellas, or steering-wheel locks, or poles. Then when he realized, as his brain pieced it together and came up with a plan of escape, then changed it, he found out that physics wouldn't let him carry out the plan: it tripped him up. Matter again: the world became a fridge door, a broken lighter, two litres of blue goop..."

"Why was I so obsessed with the death of this man I'd never met? I didn't stop to ask myself. I knew we had things in common, of course. He'd been hit by something, hurt, laid prostrate and lost consciousness; so had I. We'd both slipped into a place of total blackness, silence, nothing, without memory and without anticipation, a place unreached by stimuli of any kind. He'd stayed on there...

To put my fascination with him all down to our shared experience, though, would only be telling half the story. Less than half. The truth is that, for me, this man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he'd done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extent of having no more consciousness of them. He'd stopped being separate, removed, imperfect. Cut out the detour. Then both mind and actions had resolved themselves into pure stasis. The spot that this had happened on was the ground zero of perfection—all perfection: the one he'd achieved, the one I wanted, the one everyone else wanted but just didn't know they wanted and in any case didn't have eight and a half million pounds to help them pursue even if they'd known. It was sacred ground, blessed ground—and anyone who occupied it in the way he'd occupied it would become blessed too. And so I had to re-enact his death: for myself, certainly, but for the world in general as well. No one who understands this could accuse me of not being generous."
He tries, over and over, to re-enact the death of the black man, assuming the victim's role himself, even slowing down the action so he can hone his consciousness of everything around him. Yet, try as he might McCarthy's protagonist cannot die—and retain consciousness and memory of the event—as did the victim of the shooting; though he does go into a sporadic three-day trance. That is as close as he can get. He then seeks to re-enact other murders from the organized crime turf war that is waging around his building (itself a perpetual re-enactment). More re-enactments ensue and the intermittent trances persist.

Let's not lose sight of the meta-fictional point here (though it is by no means the only point). It is not enough merely to identify with the protagonist of the sort of re-enactment we find in fiction, let us say. That is not even half the story; certainly not enough for the writer of fiction to keep up a sustained interest over the time and effort it takes to create a work of fiction. The mind and actions of the fictional protagonist—the victim—must be resolved into pure stasis and the protagonist merged with the space around him. No distance, no detour. As we've been saying, "write in close."

McCarthy's protagonist ponders what it means to be authentic and real and he recalls the point in his life when he felt most real: after having received his windfall settlement, he was emerging from the subway trying to find the office of his stockbroker and began begging for change. He knows he can never re-enact this scene but decides instead to re-enact a bank heist. The same thing writ large.

The "argument" or dialectic, if you will, then moves from an art-imitates-life thesis to a life-imitates-art antithesis. The protagonist and his team rehearse, "pre-enact", the heist meticulously. But, as you might expect, shit happens. All his sense are alive. He tingles with authenticity—the feeling he has spent his considerable fortune trying to recapture. Everything slows down. Then disaster strikes: the intrusion of the miraculous. And everything spins out of control. "The re-enactment was unstoppable. Even I couldn't have stopped it. Not that I wanted to. Something miraculous was happening. ... [someone] whispered: "It's real!". The tingling really burst its banks now; it flowed outwards from my spine's base and flowed all around my body. Once more I was weightless ... The intensity augmented until all my senses were going off at once."

You must read the remarkable conclusion for yourself.

Some closing comments: It's never quite fair to compare a book to a movie. They serve different purposes to different effects. So we will not do so. That being said, we suspect Synecdoche, New York will be studied in film schools for some time to come. The script is tight, the scenes focused. The essential love story is coherent and moving, easily satisfying our Ur-story criteria. The main character is closely observed and his plight is compelling. The film has its flaws (as we've indicated above): the time frame is difficult to track and the ending is a bit diffuse. The recapitulated Olive seems to be absent. Moreover, at one point Caden claims he gets "notes" every day from his god and he plays god by giving notes to his re-enactors. We never get any clearer an insight into his motivation for wanting to re-enact certain scenes from his life. Nonetheless we recommend you see this film.

As for Remainder we've seen the sort of controversy it has generated (the Zadie Smith article, for example). We don't necessarily either agree or disagree with Smith; we have our own somewhat orthogonal view. We are in no position to expound on the future or even the progress of the novel—can one truly say the novel has progressed from, say, The Anatomy of Melancholy or Tristram Shandy? We can say McCarthy's work gets at the essence of fiction and once you nail the essentials you prefigure most everything. Remainder doesn't necessarily point the way forward, but—as with all true prophecy—simply explores the essence of the form.

Remainder, indeed, satisfies our Ur-story criteria. That is to say it responds to the essential human condition while telling a compelling and coherent story. It works at the level of the senses in ways much contemporary fiction fails even to attempt. Its thematic and motifal structures are handled masterfully. But it works as meta-fiction as well. Often meta-fiction forgets to tell a story, much less a compelling one. Here, Remainder succeeds in revealing its own essence as fiction.

If there is one aspect to critique, it is this: When we looked at Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, we discussed the preachy aspects of the good Count's work. Tolstoy employs the novella The Death of Ivan Ilych as a rhetorical device, a vehicle to convey a piece of moral or religious wisdom he has cadged from such likely sources as Socrates, Jesus, Gautama Siddartha. No doubt his insight was profoundly personal and so intense he felt he needed to share it with the rest of the world, to convince us of its urgency for our lives. The response to his novella is an ethical one, not an aesthetic one. The message overwhelms the vessel. We pose a similar question to Tom McCarthy: Is there an analogous case to be made with respect to Remainder? Follow me here: in Remainder does McCarthy's attempt to communicate a metaphysical (as opposed to a moral) point (art ultimately fails to imitate life and likewise is quite incapable of prefiguring it) cast it into the same pile as The Death of Ivan Ilych? Preachy in a hard-nosed philosophical kind of way? That, as they say, is a horse of a different color, a point we shall no doubt pick up in some later post.

19 November 2008

Ur-story: The Devil In the Details

Once again we've gotten ourselves in over our head. Attempting to make a simple structural and thematic comparison of Charlie Kaufman's new film Synecdoche, New York and Tom McCarthy's Remainder, we found ourselves in the midst of yet another theme post, this one dealing with the nature of realism literature and the essence of fictional representation.

Both works kick off from similar meta-fictional premises: a broken man, a knock on the head, an unexpected bounty, an obsession with the re-enactment of their lives. It is in their narrative strategies—dare we say their stories—they differ. Synecdoche, New York is really a conventional story, told with a lot of technical bells and whistles that bring in all sorts of let's call them avant themes of identity, reality, representation, etc. Though colorful, the meta-fictional effects are peripheral to the essence. This, of course, may simply be due to the nature of the medium: film vs. novel. This is not the place to spring that can of worms.

Though complex, Synecdoche, New York is essentially a love story. Structurally it borrows heavily from the Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1980's novel, Love In the TIme of Cholera. Hazel loves Caden though Caden, in all his brokenness, is incapable of requiting her love. Her love for him endures throughout the several-decade length of the movie; it outlasts two marriages for him and one for her; it outlasts five children; it outlasts the putative destruction of the society—though this is never quite clear in the movie.

Caden thinks he loves his first wife, Adele, but she doesn't love him and leaves, taking their four-year-old daughter, Olive, with her. Caden tries to reconnect with Olive, but cannot until she summons him from her deathbed. Caden's second wife, Claire, is a needy but talented actress who needs Caden's guidance to hone her craft; the two have a daughter with whom Caden never really connects. It is implied the daughter is somehow mentally challenged. Claire, too, leaves Caden for another actor and a role in another play.

Hazel runs the box office at the regional theater where Caden opens. She comes on to Caden and they make love sometime after Adele has left him but Caden has unfinished business and cannot reciprocate. She goes on to have a family of her own and eventually become his personal assistant on the massive theater project that occupies Caden for the last third of the movie. They are close but never close enough for her. They make love a grand total of twice over the course of their lives—once when they are young and once just before she dies. They never know the happiness they could have had together. (see supra Cholera)

It is a powerful story of Caden's long and ultimately unfulfilling relationships with women (which happens to be the emotional core of my unpublished novel, EULOGY, as well, if anyone cares). He watches his daughter die; they are unreconciled. He has an epiphany at the funeral of his mother. He adopts the identity of a cleaning woman (Adele's, it turns out). He turns over the direction of his play and his life to another woman, Millicent, who, likewise, ultimately abandons him. And ends (perhaps dies) resting his head on the shoulder of a stranger, an unnamed woman, who plays an extra in his play.

Meanwhile Caden and Hazel and a whole crowd of actors engage in a years-long, post-modern, impromptu theater event re-enacting moments of his life. Identities mix and mash and mesh, actors play actors playing actors, etc. We are left to puzzle and muse over the nature of identity and representation—though ultimately to no real effect. The emotional oomph of the movie comes clearly from Caden's interactions and relationships with the many women of his life. Of course, this left us with one crucial question that, apparently, Charlie Kaufman didn't address: Why does Caden never have an Olive double in his play? Was this an oversight on the part of the writer/director—a writerly gap? Or are we to assume the relationship was too real, too close, too painful to re-enact? If I had Charlie Kaufman here, this is the one question I'd like to have him answer.

Remainder, by contrast, is anything but conventional. The protagonist's obsession with re-enacting moments of his life begins with an episode at a friend's party when two girls ask him if he is looking for something:
"'Yes,' I said. 'I'm looking for a ... for a thing.' [N.B.: Not sure how much more clearly a writer can state his intentions.] I made a kind of twiddling motion with my fingers, a gesture somewhere between opening a bottle with a corkscrew and using a pair of scissors. Then I left the kitchen again.

I was heading down the hallway back towards the main room when I noticed a small room set off the circuit I'd been following up to now. I'd moved round the kitchen each time in a clockwise direction, and round the main room in an anti-clockwise one, door-sofa-window-door. With the short, narrow corridor between the two rooms, my circuit had the pattern of an eight. [N.B.: Remember this!] This extra room seemed to have just popped up beside it like the half had in my Settlement: offset, an extra. I stuck my head inside. It was a bathroom. I stepped in and locked the door behind me. Then it happened: the event that, the accident aside, was the most significant of my whole life.

It happened like this. I was standing in the bathroom with the door locked behind me. I'd used the toilet and was washing my hands in the sink, looking away from the mirror above it—because I don't like mirrors generally—at this crack that ran down the wall. David Simpson, or perhaps the last owner, had stripped the walls, so there was only plaster on them, plus some daubs of different types of paint where David had been experimenting to see how the room would look in various colours. I was standing by the sink looking at this crack in the plaster when I had a sudden sense of deja vu.

The sense of deja vu was very strong. I'd been in a space like this before, a place just like this, looking at the crack, a crack that had jutted and meandered in the same way as the one beside the mirror. There'd been that same crack, and a bathtub also, and a window directly above the taps just like there was in this room—only the window had been slightly bigger and the taps older, different. Out of the window there'd been roofs with cats on them. Red roofs, black cats. It had been high up, much higher than I was now: the fifth or sixth or maybe even seventh floor of an old tenement-style building, a large block. People had been packed into the building: neighbours beneath me and around me and on the floor above. The smell of liver cooking in a pan had been wafting to me from the floor below—the sound too, the spit and sizzle.

I remembered all this very clearly. ...

I remembered it all, but I couldn't remember where I'd been in this place, this flat, this bathroom. Or when. At first I thought I was remembering a flat in Paris. ... No: it wasn't Paris. I searched back further in my past, right back to when I'd been a child. No use. I couldn't place this memory at all.

And yet it was growing, minute by minute as I stood there in the bathroom, this remembered building, spreading outwards from the crack. ...

Most of all I remembered this: that inside this remembered building, in the room and on the staircase, in the lobby and the large courtyard between it and the building facing with the red roofs with black cats on them—that in these spaces, all my movements had been fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired, second-hand, but natural. Opening my fridge's door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I'd merged with them, run through them and let them run through me until there'd been no space between us. They'd been real; I'd been real—been without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour. I remembered this with all the force of an epiphany, a revelation.

Right then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my money. I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would."
Again, no clearer statement of the nature of fiction is needed.

Unlike Synecdoche the recapitulation of an elusive memory is central to the protagonist's story in Remainder. The protagonist remembers specific sensations—the sound of a pianist practicing, making mistakes, pausing, repeating measures over and over till he gets them right; the smell of liver cooking in a pan on the floor below; the sound and feel of his shoes on marble steps; the feel of his hand on iron banisters and the sensation as his shirt brushes against the woodwork in his apartment; the sensation of moving through space; the vista of red roofs with black cats; and again, the taste of a (hated) carrot. We are in; it doesn't matter whether we like this guy or hate him, whether we identify with him or don't. The writer has put us in his space. We experience his sensations and thus we "get" his attitude. We understand his motivations because we see things through his eyes. It is, McCarthy implies, crucial to the art and purpose of fiction.

This is what we at WoW keep referring to as 'writing in close.' Joseph O'Neill doesn't do it. Junot Diaz doesn't do it. Peter Carey doesn't do it. They tell good stories, but not great ones. Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilich is learning to do it—and it's painful. Joyce does it marvelously. Bellow does it. Per Petterson does it. Nabokov, Fowles, Connell, Banville, Lasdun all do it to one degree or another. James Salter does it as well as anyone. Beckett, Burroughs, Barthelme (to a lesser extent), Sorrentino, DeLillo, Pynchon, and Gass do it to magnificent, significant effect.

The great ones use all the senses. They tell the story of a particular person at a particular place and time in specific detail. Leaving off these sensuous details renders the fiction abstract. It doesn't draw us in.

At this point we're saying nothing about the metafictional aspects of McCarthy's work (or even that last crew of controversials either; if you read the examples at the link here you'll see what we mean). We're only getting at what we take to be the heart of the heart of fiction—whether meta- or no—and that is the details. (more to follow)

Ur-story: Ur-realism

In the 45th Anniversary Issue of the New York Review of Books (Vol. LV, No. 18), dated Nov. 20,2008, Zadie Smith contrasts two recent novels, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, as "antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other." Smith claims Netherland is a perfect flowering of a played-out form she terms "lyrical realism" (itself presumably antipodal to the "hysterical realism" tag which James Wood pinned to Smith and others (Wallace, Foer, etc.) whom he claimed "know[] a thousand things but do[] not know a single human being."). Remainder, on the other hand, attempts to point the way forward for the novel.

We reviewed O'Neill's book here, taking a different tack than Wood's laudatory New Yorker review. Where Smith objects to the 'realism' aspect of the equation, we found O'Neill's lyricism wanting. The narrative, the writing itself, felt distant, alienated, and disembodied—as opposed to the novel's main character for whom those adjectives more appropriately fit. It felt like a failure of the free indirect style. The writer did not get in close enough. We'll not repeat our argument here.

We did not review McCarthy's remarkable book when we first read it because we wanted to read it again after some time had passed. Its aftertaste lingered and we wanted to savor it, not jinx the experience by commenting on (or misreading) it—notwithstanding that misreading is often the father of invention. Remainder is quite unlike any novel we've read before or since, though it has Beckettian overtones and some of George Saunders approaches it. Two events, though, have brought it back to the forefront: Smith's important article and Charlie Kaufman's enigmatic new film Synecdoche, New York (in which, we should add, there is nary a quantum of solace).

Both Remainder and Synecdoche, New York begin with a blow to the head: the unnamed protagonist in Remainder has an experience somewhat like Donny Darko, though less drastically fantastical; Synecdoche, New York's Caden Cotard is struck by an exploding faucet. Both are pieces of broken humanity. If Caden was an automobile, you'd have returned him long ago under prevailing Lemon Laws; everything goes wrong with him: stool, pupils, urine, skin, leg, salivary glands, tear ducts, autonomous bodily funtions, psyche, and on and on seriatim as the world likewise collapses around him. The only time he can authentically cry is before, during, and/or after sex. As for McCarthy's protagonist, after he comes out of his coma and his bones are repaired he has to relearn and reconstruct all his basic motor functions:
"To cut and lay new circuits, what they do is make you visualize things. Simple things, like lifting a carrot to your mouth. For the first week or so they don't give you a carrot, or even make you try to move your hand at all: they just ask you to visualize taking a carrot in your right hand, wrapping your fingers round it and then levering your whole forearm upwards from the elbow until the carrot reaches your mouth. ... But the act itself, when you actually come to try it, turns out to be more complicated than you thought. There are twenty-seven separate manoeuvres involved. You've learnt them, one by one, in the right order, understood how they all work, run through them in your mind, again and again and again for a whole week—lifted more than a thousand imaginary carrots to your mouth, or one imaginary carrot more than a thousand times, which amounts to the same thing. But then you take a carrot—they bring you a fucking carrot, gnarled, dirty and irregular in ways your imaginary carrot never was, and they stick it in your hands—and you know, you just know as soon as you see the bastard thing that it's not going to work.

'Go for it,' said the physiotherapist. He laid the carrot on my lap, then moved back from me slowly, as though I were a house of cards, and sat down facing me.

Before I could lift it I had to get my hand to it. I swung my palm and fingers upwards from the wrist, but then to bring the whole hand towards where the carrot was I'd have to slide the elbow forwards, pushing from the shoulder, something I hadn't learnt or practised yet. I had no idea how to do it. In the end I grabbed my forearm with my left hand and just yanked it forwards.

"That's cheating," said the physio, "but okay. Try to lift the carrot now."

I closed my fingers round the carrot. It felt—well it felt: that was enough to start short-circuiting the operation. It had texture; it had mass. The whole week I'd been gearing up to lift it, I'd thought of my hand, my fingers, my rerouted brain as active agents, and the carrot as a no-thing—a hollow, a carved space for me to grasp and move. This carrot, though, was more active than me: the way it bumped and wrinkled, how it crawled with grit. It was cold. I grasped it and went into Phase Two, the hoist, but even as I did I felt the surge of active carrot input scrambling the communication between brain and arm, firing off false contractions, locking muscles at the very moment it was vital they relax and expand, twisting fulcral joints the wrong directions. As the carrot rolled, slipped and plummeted away I understood how air traffic controllers must feel in the instant when they know a plane is just about to crash, and that they can do nothing to prevent it. ...

It took another week to get it right. We went back to the blackboard, factoring in the surplus signals we'd not factored in before, then back through visualization, then back to a real carrot again. I hate carrots. I still can't eat them to this day."
Reality proves formidable, recalcitrant. The human relation to it is never simple. Our consciousness is continually being surprised. Thus, realism is never accurate nor can it ever be quite true: this is a respectable metaphysical point (start, e.g., with Rorty and progress to Dummett). Yet nothing we've encountered in recent fiction has struck us as being quite as close to being truly realistic as this passage, where, by 'realistic', we mean as close to giving us an accurate picture of the elusive point of contact between the conscious human psyche and the external world of objects as mediated by the broken human body. We can argue over the nature of realism in literature, and its various types, until the cows come home, but this, my friends, is the real deal. Let us call it 'Ur-realism'. From this point on we have been written in to the reality of this particular character.

Caden, too, seems to be losing everything. His wife, Adele Lack, an artist, leaves him and becomes an internationally famous artist specializing in miniatures. She takes their daughter, Olive, with her. Caden is disconsolate and can find no pleasure in life. He drifts, progressively losing any sense of time and reality (as does the film).

Both men then come into an unexpected bounty: Caden, a local theater director, is awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant; the protagonist of Remainder is awarded a settlement of eight and a half million pounds on the proviso that he never "discuss, in any public or recordable format, the nature and/or details of the incident."

The key words here are 'public or recordable format.' Why? Follow the logic: something falls from the sky causing him to become (hyper-)conscious of himself and his mortality. As a result he receives an unexpected bounty which he spends attempting to recreate certain moments of his life until, at the end, he ends up in an airplane flying figure eights in the sky waiting for it to run out of fuel and—what?—fall from the sky! McCarthy seems to be implying that language can never recapitulate consciousness. Can never capture what it means to be alive. And that everything we do—our institutions, our art—is merely an attempt to recover that spark... But I jump ahead.

Both protagonists, then, spend their new-found monies attempting to re-enact moments from their lives, Caden in a professional theatrical format, Remainder's protagonist in a setting he must create from scratch. [more to follow]

16 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych

There are echoes of Kafkaesque bafflement in the life of Ivan Ilych. Clearly, Tolstoy—and particularly this novella—was a great influence. But whereas Kafka would have his protagonists die without ever coming to any sort of insight into the enigma of their fate or the workings of their government, Tolstoy wants to be instructive. His method is irony. Though it is too late for poor Ivan Ilych to apply the insights he learns in his death-bed revelation and conversion, it is not too late for us.

Tolstoy treats his minor characters like props. In the first chapter the character of Pyor Ivanovich is promising in a Nick Carraway sort of way. But he fades into irrelevance thereafter. And Ivan Ilych is no Gatsby. The remainder of the characters, except for Gerasim, merely serve to highlight by contrast the experience Ivan Ilych suffers. They, the bourgeois with all their propriety and decorum, are the target of Tolstoy's scorn. Gerasim is useful, sympathetic, symbolic. None are developed. His main character, Ivan Ilych, he punishes mercilessly.

Tolstoy ventures into the mind of a dying man. This is bold, imaginative. Commendable. But, to our modern mind, he lets the man off too easily. The death-bed conversion changes nothing about the life he had led. It is as worthless as the sacraments his wife forces him to accept. It changes nothing about the man, other than his mind which, as we all know, is in the fits and spasms of excruciating pain. It merely allows him to die more or less at peace with himself, though impotent to aid and impart his hard-won insight to his grieving son.

The portrait of the thoughts and suffering of the dying man, Ivan Ilych, is unparalleled—certainly unprecedented—because it is from the inside! It surely took an enormous effort on the part of the writer. The process of creation and discovery for the artist must have been exhilirating, exhausting, excruciating—all at once. It is a supreme artistic achievement.

Tolstoy, likewise, succeeds in showing us how we ought to live—at least by his own lights. His message draws on Socratic and Buddhistic and Christian insights and he communicates it clearly, using among other things contrast, repetition, rhetoric, and plain old moralizing. We feel sympathy for the suffering, dying Ivan Ilych and, in identifying with his plight, we may profit from his revealed wisdom. Fine. But is this really the purpose of fiction? Are we supposed to learn a lesson from literature? Should the writer moralize?

I suspect there are any number of let us call them lesser works of fiction where a similar, even identical message, is presented, but less effectively or, more to our point, less aesthetically compelling. Didacticism for didacticism's sake doesn't work for me; it cheapens the artwork. Artistic preaching, on the other hand, presents a more complicated case, especially where the artistry is of such exemplary merit as in The Death of Ivan Ilych.

The critical response, it seems to me, is to set aside the so-called 'message'; bracket it. Identify it, accept it or refuse it, isolate it, and let it be. Then can begin an appreciation of the work qua work, not qua vessel for a message. That is the way I've tried to approach this reading.

In this vein let's see how Tolstoy's story fails. First, there are his social biases. From our post-modern mindset, Tolstoy's identity relations in this novella are readily apparent. He idealizes the peasant boy, Gerasim. Romanticizes his simplicity. This is echoed in his apparent sympathy for Ivan Ilych's son—his innocence, his pure grief, his pity for his father: note that it is only after he wakes to his son kissing his hand that Ivan Ilych realizes there is nothing more he can do and feels he must finally let go. Then, "there was no terror, because death was not either." In their simple pity the boy and the peasant are Tolstoy's chosen vehicles of instruction and wisdom. On the other hand it is clear Tolstoy has nothing but scorn for the aspiring middle class. They are all depicted as self-serving, calculating, hypocritical, false, unenlightened. Their cares are not genuine. Theirs are not the ultimate concerns (to borrow Paul Tillich's remarkable phrase). One suspects there were plenty of conniving peasants and even enlightened bourgeois in 19th Century Russia. Yet Tolstoy chooses to typify them—stereotypify them, if you will. This is a literary failure: dealing with types instead of specific characters acting in specific ways in specific situations. It is easy to generalize, especially when the author is trying to score points; indeed this is the armature of Tolstoy's message. In truth no one is true to type.

Second, though Tolstoy chooses a certain omniscient irony to drive home his point—Ivan Ilych's epiphany comes too late for him to rectify his own life or save his family from a similar fate—it seems there might have been an even greater poignancy had Ivan Ilych never come to such an insight. Had Tolstoy allowed II to die in let us call it an unrepentant state, without insight, the same way he lived, the novella would have felt less preachy.

Do we really need revelation, epiphany, insight in how to live? How important is it, after all, to live right? To find meaning and fulfillment? Wasted lives are a part of the human condition—perhaps the norm given Tolstoy's preachments. So what? Given this state of affairs, then, how does one make one's peace with extinction? Is there no nobility in just getting by? Surviving in the face of a hostile universe? Can the dying psyche not objectively assess the living being without resort to ethical or theological norms? Just as these questions take hold in the story, Tolstoy pulls out. He evades them with an easy moralizing out. Instead of trying to drive a point home, could Tolstoy not simply have given us a fuller portrait of the life and death of a complicated, complex man—good or evil—and allowed us to form our own value judgments about its worth. He gives us no credit. Yes it is realistic that a character such as Ivan Ilych would reassess his life in the face of impending death. But it is not enough. The Death of Ivan Ilych in this respect is ultimately unsatisfying.

Ivan Ilych is a shallow man who lives a shallow life. There is no real complexity to his character until, at the end in the midst of his great suffering, he achieves a remarkable insight into the meaning of death in and for life. There appears to have been no chance for him to reach this position of enlightenment during the course of his life—an opportunity he could have accepted or declined (either to great narrative effect). As with a sermon, we are called on to evaluate our own lives in the failure of his. Yet the picture of his life is too general. Tolstoy tells us through retrospection the story of his life in overly broad strokes. We are almost never 'in scene' with him except in his suffering, dying moments. How then are we to identify? Sure I went to law school, too. Thus Ivan Ilich represents me? Sure I have a wife and kids. Okay I get it! Sure I'm attempting to make a better life for me and my family. Ah-ha! Just as the minor characters are types, so is Ivan Ilych; only more fleshed out.

Ivan Ilych's response to the inbreaking of insight is simply to die. It has no consequence. The essence of fiction, the Ur-story, is in coming to grips with the consciousness of our sense of loss and grief at our own mortality. Those around us die and we come to realize that is ultimately our own fate as well. What we do in response to this is who we truly are. Do we embark on a quest for eternal life? Do we seek to revive lost ones? Do we try to bridge the void? Do we conceive ghosts? Do we concoct religions or succumb to delusions? Do we embark on murderous rages? Do we try to set things aright? Do we seek out love to assuage the pain? Do we laugh at the absurdity of it all? These are legitimate responses to this fundamental truth of human existence and they provide complex grounds for literary exploration.

The Death of Ivan Ilych does not deal with the consequences of this insight. Tolstoy merely presents his own version of the insight but gives none of his characters the opportunity to respond to it urgencies. At the end Ivan Ilych himself regrets not having lived right and in pity for the suffering of the others finally gives himself over to death. Regrets? Sure, I've had a few. But life is more complex than that. More wonderful. More beautiful. More mystifying. More profound.

15 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—Too Late?

When I started this set of posts on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych I didn't think it would be so intense and detailed. There are plenty of gaps in my literary education and Tolstoy's works is one of the biggest. I first started to read TDoII because its theme related to a theme of the novel I'm now working on. It was purely for research—to see how he handled it over a century ago. Yawn. I never expected to find it so compelling. I know, I know. Tolstoy is one of the greats, how could it not be wonderful? Let's put it this way: I've been fooled before.

Where were we? Right. The last time we dropped in on poor II, we found Count LeoTolstoy slumming—spiritually at least—with the peasant Gerasim. He was allowing his simple young servant to provide some aid and comfort to the bourgeois enemy. It does not last long. II's pain increases. Doctors continue to come and go, functionary professionals just like the lawyers with whom II practiced before he was taken ill. Ivan feels himself losing control of his family and household. He stews internally, his rage boiling as the family discusses their plans for attending a performance that evening by the famed actor Sarah Bernhardt. Yet, when they leave—their falsity and "decorous deception"—the pain remains.

When she returns Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan's wife, gives II some opium:
"Till three o'clock he slept a miserable sleep. It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust somewhere into a narrow, deep, black sack, and they kept pushing him further and further in, and still could not thrust him to the bottom. And this operation was awful to him, and was accompanied with agony. And he was afraid, and yet wanted to fall into it, and struggled and yet tried to get into it. And all of a sudden he slipped and fell and woke up. ... he could restrain himself no longer, and cried like a child. He cried at his own helplessness, at his awful loneliness, at the cruelty of people, at the cruelty of God, at the absence of God." (Ch. IX)
Then begins an internal dialogue. Ivan wants only to live the way he used to live and no longer suffer. But when he begins to relive his life, it now seems "trivial, and often disgusting". "It was like a memory of someone else." Only his childhood, he realizes, held any joy. Law school sucked (so what's new!). His marriage was "as gratuitous as the disillusion of it and the smell of his wife's breath and the sensuality, the hypocrisy." His professional life entailed nothing but soul-deadening anxiety.
"'Can it be I have not lived as one ought?' suddenly came into his head. 'But how not so, when I've done everything as it should be done?' he said, and at once dismissed this only solution of all the enigma of life and death as something utterly out of the question."
Tolstoy, in full preacherly mode, is telling us this is the one question we should never avoid: What does it mean to live a good life? How ought one to live? This question, as old at least as Socrates, should guide our lives, should be of ultimate concern. When it intrudes latterly on the defenses set up by the unexamined bourgeois life it will be with all the attendant pain Tolstoy here inflicts on poor Ivan Ilych.

II begins to lose hope of ever recovering. His illness has persisted three excruciating months, worsening by the moment. His suffering has become nigh unbearable. "Just as the pain goes on getting worse and worse, so has my whole life gone on getting worse and worse," he thinks. Yet he cannot comprehend what his life, with all its propriety, correctness, and regularity, was for.

He resists the thought for a couple weeks, but soon the revelation dawns upon him:
"His moral sufferings were due to the fact that during the night, as he looked at the sleepy, good-natured, broad-cheeked face of Gerasim [!], the thought had suddenly come into his head, 'What if in reality all my life, my conscious life, has been not the right thing?' The thought struck him that what he had regarded before as an utter impossibility, that he had spent his life not as he ought, might be the truth. It struck him that those scarcely detected impulses of struggle within him against what was considered good by persons of higher position, scarcely detected impulses which he had dismissed, that they might be the real thing, and everything else might be not the right thing. And his official work, and his ordering of his daily life and of his family, and these social and official interests,—all that might be not the right thing. He tried to defend it all to himself. And suddenly he felt all the weakness of what he was defending. And it was useless to defend it.

'But if it's so,' he said to himself, 'and I am leaving life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me, and there's no correcting it, then what?' He lay on his back and began going over his whole life entirely anew. When he saw the footman in the morning, then his wife, then his daughter, then the doctor, every movement they made, every word they uttered, confirmed for him the terrible truth that had been revealed to him in the night. In them he saw himself, saw all in which he had lived, and saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical agonies, multiplied them tenfold. He groaned and tossed from side to side and pulled at the covering over him. It seemed to him that it was stifling him and weighing him down. And for that he hated them." (Ch. XI)
II's wife coerces him to take the sacrament. He lies to her and tells her it makes him feel better, but the hatred still thrives within him. "From that moment there began the scream that never ceased for three days..."
"All those three days, during which time did not exist for him, he was struggling in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an unseen resistless force. He struggled as the man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knwing that he cannot save himself. And every moment he felt that in spite of all his efforts to struggles against it, he was getting nearer and nearer to what terrified him. He felt that his agony was due both to his being thrust into this black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it. What hindered him from getting into it was the claim that his life had been good. That justification of his life held him fast and would not let him get forward, and it caused him more agony than all.

All at once some force struck him in the chest, in the side, and stifled his breathing more than ever; he rolled forward into the hole, and there at the end there was some sort of light. It had happened with him, as it had sometimes happened to him in a railway carriage, when he had thought he was going forward while he was going back, and all of a sudden recognised his real direction.

'Yes, it has all been not the right thing,' he said to himself, ' but that's no matter.' He could, he could do the right thing. 'What is the right thing?' he asked himself, and suddenly he became quiet." (Ch. XII)
Tolstoy makes a bit of mistake in his 'blocking' here. Ivan becomes quiet, he says. Then his son comes into his room 'at that very moment' while 'the dying man was screaming and waving his arms.' But such a lapse is forgivable given the intensity of the emotion he is trying to present. His son cries and kisses his father's hand. "He opened his eyes and glanced at his son. He felt sorry for him. His wife went up to him. He glanced at her. She was gazing at him with open mouth, the tears unwiped streaming over her nose and cheeks, a look of despair on her face. He felt sorry for her."

Pity for the plight of humanity replaces the hatred of its hypocrisy and the fear of death that had lodged in his soul.
"And all at once it became clear to him that what had tortured him and would not leave him was suddenly dropping away all at once on both sides and on ten sides and on all sides. He was sorry for them, must act so that they might not suffer. Set them free and be free himself of those agonies. 'How right and how simple!' he thought. 'And the pain?' he asked himself. "Where's it gone? Eh, where are you, pain?' ... He looked for his old accustomed terror of death, and did not find it. 'Where is it? What death?' There was no terror, because death was not either.

In the place of death there was light.

'So this is it!' he suddenly exclaimed aloud.

'What joy!'"
The irony for poor Ivan Ilych is that this revelation comes too late in his life for it to have any meaningful effect. He can't relive his life knowing what he knows now. Moreover, in his condition he is unable to impart this insight to his family. Embrace the fact of mortality, examine life in all its finitude, and try to live as one ought by easing the pain and suffering of others. It is a good message. The kind of thing you can hear on weekends at any number of churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, or temples all around the world. The literary power of it comes in Tolstoy's parallel portrayal of pain and epiphany. Ivan Ilych's enlightenment comes at the terrible price of his suffering. He earns his epiphany through suffering and irony. In dying he embraces death—albeit too late.

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—Romancing the Peasant

Through his suffering Ivan Ilych has earned his solitude, his chance to come to terms with his own mortality. Tolstoy has systematically stripped him of the comforts of the middle-class life that stood between him and his authentic self. He has forced his protagonist to confront the emptiness of his life. It is a painful process: his life has left II with a bad taste in his mouth and an inchoate but persistent aching inside. Everyone, including II himself, is waiting for him to die, to "free the living from the constraint of his presence." Tolstoy tortures him with greater and greater pains, sleeplessness, and incontinence. Even the sop of opium Tolstoy allows II doesn't assuage this existential suffering.

Now comes Tolstoy to plague poor Ivan with his vision of populist authenticity in the person of Gerasim. One might compare it (uncharitably) in the idiom of present day politics to someone like a patrician Mitt Romney or George Bush feigning populism:
"Gerasim was a clean, fresh, young peasant, who had grown stout and hearty on the good fare in town. Always cheerful and bright. At first the sight of this lad, always cleanly dressed in the Russian style, engaged in this revolting task [cleaning the bedpans and soiled bedcloths], embarrassed Ivan Ilych.

One day, getting up from the night-stool, too weak to replace his clothes, he dropped on to a soft low chair and looked with horror at his bare, powerless thighs, with the muscles so sharply standing out on them.

Then there came in with light, strong steps Gerasim, in his thick boots, diffusing a pleasant smell of tar from his boots, and bringing in the freshness of the winter air. Wearing a clean hempen apron, and a clean cotton shirt, with his sleeves tucked up on his strong, bare young arms, without looking at Ivan Ilych, obviously trying to check the radiant happiness in his face so as not to hurt the sick man, he went up to the night-stool."
Notice the profusion of adjectives: clean, fresh, young, stout, hearty, cheerful, bright, cleanly dressed in the Russian style, light strong steps, pleasant, fresh (again), clean (again and again), strong bare (arms), radiant, happiness. We get the picture. Nothing subtle here. Gerasim is the idealized peasant, the noble workman, the authentic other. The name 'Gerasim' in Russian means 'elder' or 'older one', implying wisdom; Gerasim qua peasant is an old soul. Where Tolstoy seems to have nothing but contempt for the bourgeois who inhabit this novella, he seems to have nothing but adoration for this simple peasant boy who lives his life according to an exemplary morality.
"The terrible, awful act of his dying was, he saw, by all those about him, brought down to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and to some extent indecorous, incident (somewhat as they would behave with a person who should enter a drawing-room smelling unpleasant). It was brought down to this level by that very decorum to which he had been enslaved all his life. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one would even grasp his position. Gerasim was the only person who recognised the position, and felt sorry for him. And that was why Ivan Ilych was only at ease with Gerasim. He felt comforted when Gerasim sometimes supported his legs for whole nights at a stretch, and would not go away to bed, saying, 'Don't you worry yourself, Ivan Ilych, I'll get sleep enough yet,' or when suddenly dropping into the familiar peasant forms of speech, he added: 'If thou weren't sick, but as 'tis, 'twould be strange if I didn't wait on thee.' Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed clearly that he alone understood what it meant, and saw no necessity to disguise it, and simply felt sorry for his sick, wasting master. He even said this once straight out, when Ivan Ilych was sending him away.

'We shall all die. So what's a little trouble?' he said, meaning by this to express that he did not complain of the trouble just because he was taking this trouble for a dying man, and he hoped that for him too someone would be willing to take the same trouble when his time came."
Patrician moralizing or merely patronizing? You make the call.

Gerasim, the natural man, ministers to his master's neediness, babies him, satisfies the constant longing in his soul to be comforted from the oppressiveness of his emptiness and inauthenticity, brings the fundamental truth of one human touching another in his suffering. There is no question raised as to the propriety of the master-servant relationship or, more specifically, as to whether Gerasim is merely being kind out of a sense of duty and obligation (he'll lose his job if he doesn't accommodate his master's demands) or whether his is the sort of authentic fellow-feeling Tolstoy seems to want to portray here. This romanticizing of the peasant feels like a failure of imagination on Tolstoy's part. As a technical matter, though Gerasim is clearly meant to be symbolic if not emblematic, I don't believe Tolstoy's failure to confront the morality of an unequal power-relationship is a concession to the limited formula of the novella because this theme of comfort and pity is so central to the story.

Many accuse the later Tolstoy of preachiness, didacticism, moralizing. It is passages like this that lead them to bring that charge. Nabokov makes light of it in his Lectures on Russian Literature:
"this story was written in March 1886, at a time when Tolstoy was nearly sixty and had firmly established the Tolstoyan fact that writing masterpieces of fiction was a sin. He had firmly made up his mind that if he would write anything, after the great sins of his middle years, War and Peace and Anna Karenin, it would be only in the way of simple tales for the people, for peasants, for school children, pious educational fables, moralistic fairy tales, that kind of thing. Here and there in The Death of Ivan Ilych there is a half-hearted attempt to proceed with this trend, and we shall find samples of a pseudo-fable style here and there in the story. But on the whole it is the artist who takes over. This story is Tolstoy's most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement."
The authentic, noble, wise response to the harsh, painful truth of human mortality (the Ur-story) is portrayed in Gerasim's kindly attitude when cleaning II's filth and cradling his legs, the simple pity for the suffering and grief of one who is finally having to come to terms with his ultimate aloneness.

14 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—The Condition My Condition Is In

We continue with our look at Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. Before we get too far it might pay to define our terms. What exactly is a novella? The glib answer is it is a work of fiction shorter than a novel (~80,000+ words) but longer than a short story (~5,000 - 10,000 words); but the quantitative answer doesn't really tell us much of anything except that publishing a novella in either a journal or in book form is not going to be a ready option in the American market. Taking TDoII as our model, we can assert an intriguingly substantive thesis: in a novella one character has the space to grow and/or experience some sort of motivated, significant change, physically and psychologically, though none of the others do. The novel has more space to develop parallel, modifying plots; explore multiple themes and styles and points of view; and allow other characters to have their own emotional arc etc. The short story does not allow for much back story or thematic development. It must address its main characters 'crisis' efficiently. Here I think it safe to say none of the other characters has an interesting story arc. They are the props, the furniture upon which Tolstoy develops his story of II. They feel relatively fixed, symbolic even (as we have seen). They are there mainly to provide color and contrast for the protagonist's story. Let's leave it at that, a provisional definition of the novella, and get back to our look at the story.

As we have seen there is no mystery here: II is fallen man and as such his fate is death. Tolstoy's lesson is obvious. The concerns of fallen man, here synonymous with those of the middle class—careerism, wealth, orderly lifestyle, and social climbing—are temporal, vanishing. They result in a life filled with hypocrisy, vanity, obsession. Fair enough, Count.

The bad taste in II's mouth, the discomfort in his side, his irritability all continue to worsen. Life goes on around the dying man and he steadily retreats from it—losing interest in his friends, his cards, his job, his family—and into himself. Doctors are consulted. Diagnoses are proffered and withdrawn. Medicaments prove to no avail. No cure is forthcoming. Nor any salvation. II languishes in his study. His family and servants come and go. No one seems to understand him or his predicament. And no one will tell II the truth of his condition. This is an important Tolstoyan point for he repeats it several times to make sure we get it (we are using the Constance Garnett translation):
"The doctor said: 'This and that proves that you have such-and-such a thing wrong inside you; but if that is not confirmed by analysis of this and that, then we must assume this and that. If we assume this—and so on. To Ivan Ilych there was only one question of consequence, Was his condition dangerous or not? But the doctor ignored that irrelevant inquiry." (Ch. IV)

"Suddenly he felt the familiar, old, dull, gnawing ache, persistent, quiet, in earnest. In his mouth the same familiar loathsome taste. His heart sank, his brain felt dim, misty. 'My God, my God!' he said, 'again, again, and it will never cease.' And suddenly the whole thing rose before him in quite a different aspect. 'Appendix! kidney!' he said to himself. 'It's not a question of the appendix, not a question of the kidney, but of life and ... death. Yes, life has been and now it's going, going away, and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn't it obvious to every one, except me, that I'm dying, and it's only a question of weeks, of days—at once perhaps. There was light, and now there is darkness. I was here, and now I am going! Where?' A cold chill ran over him, his breath stopped. He heard nothing but the throbbing of his heart.

"'I shall be no more, then what will there be? There'll be nothing. Where then shall I be when I'm no more? Can this be dying? No; I don't want to!' He jumped up, tried to light the candle; and fumbling with trembling hands, he dropped the candle and the candlestick on the floor and fell back again on the pillow. 'Why trouble? it doesn't matter,' he said to himself, staring with open eyes into the darkness. 'Death. Yes, death. And they—all of them—don't understand, and don't want to understand, and feel no pity. They are playing." (Ch. V)
The accoutrements and amusements and diversions of the bourgeois life, II discovers, are merely defenses, forestalling acknowledgment of the terrifying thought of death's universality and inevitability. And they are impenetrable; that is why he is unable to connect with his friends, family, or even his doctors. As these defenses fall away, losing their power to shield II from this terrible truth, he has an epiphany. One day at work, in the middle of reciting the "familiar words that opened the proceedings" of business in the law court, the pain in II's side reasserted itself:
"It riveted Ivan Ilych's attention. He drove away the thought of it, but it still did its work, and then It came and stood confronting him and looked at him, and he felt turned to stone, and the light died away in his eyes, and he began to ask himself again, 'Can it be that It is the only truth?' And his colleagues and his subordinates saw with surprise and distress that he, the brilliant, subtle judge, was losing the thread of his speech, was making blunders. He shook himself, tried to regain his self-control, and got somehow to the end of the sitting, and went home with the painful sense that his judicial labours could not as of old hide from him what he wanted to hide; that he could not by means of his official work escape from It. And the worst of it was that It drew him to itself not for him to do anything in particular, but simply for him to look at It straight in the face, to look at It and, doing nothing, suffer unspeakably.

And to save himself from this, Ivan Ilych sought amusements, other screens, and these screens he found, and for a little while they did seem to save him; but soon again they were not so much broken down as let the light through, as though It pierced through everything, and there was nothing that could shut It off.

'And it's the fact that here, at that curtain, as if it had been storming a fort, I lost my life. Is it possible? How awful and how silly! It cannot be! It cannot be, and it is.'

He went into his own room, lay down, and was again alone with It. Face to face with It, and nothing to be done with It. Nothing but to look at It and shiver." (Ch. VI)
And thus, in this It, we are confronting the inbreak of the Ur-story, the essence of fiction, from the inside. The shiver of destiny. Note the motif of light and dark, the leitmotif of screens and curtains. Note the allusion to Kierkegaard's sickness unto death as a metaphor for the human condition, a predominant literary trope through at least Sontag. Notwithstanding, Ilych must now acknowledge his destiny, his defenses having fallen away, and he must confront his own mortality. Alone!

Tolstoy has brought us to this place as no one before him has. Others have danced around it, confronting it from the outside. Dealing with its effects upon the living: the inconvenience, the annoyance, the denial, the anger, the grief. But now we, with Ivan Ilych, are learning how to die.

13 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—Nearly Fallen Man

After a breathtaking, magisterial first chapter that on its own has surely stood the test of time, Tolstoy reverts in the second chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilich to a more traditional, nineteenth-century mode of storytelling—however fine. Where the first chapter was presented in a free indirect style from the point of view of Pyotr Ivanovich, an acquaintance and colleague of the protagonist, the second chapter rather omnisciently tells the backstory of Ivan Ilych.

"The previous history of Ivan Ilych was the simplest, the most ordinary, the most awful," begins the second chapter a line echoed by Ford Maddox Ford in the first line of his The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Indeed, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." One suspects this might have been the original beginning of the novella; it has that classic first line ring. It seems to me the first chapter must have been written after the rest was finished for the reasons we discussed yesterday.

II leads a good, some would say ideal, bourgeois life with only a few minor professional and family annoyances, for seventeen years until he experiences what my kids today term an MLC:
"The summer of that year [1880], to cut down his expenses, he took a holiday and went with his wife to spend the summer in the country at her brothers'.

"In the country, with no official duties to occupy him, Ivan Ilych was for the first time a prey not to simple boredom, but to intolerable depression; and he made up his mind that things could not go on like that, and that it was absolutely necessary to take some decisive steps."
II gets a big promotion and raise and patches up things with his wife. He takes new apartments in Petersburg and, in a truly modern fit of OCD, throws himself into its interior decorating to make it just so. Then this: "One day he went up a ladder to show a workman, who did not understand, how he wanted some hangings draped, made a false step and slipped; but, like a strong and nimble person, he clung on, and only knocked his side against the corner of a frame. The bruised place ached, but it soon passed off." Tolstoy passes off what is one of the most consequential actions in the story in two scant, non-descript sentences. Then he intrudes to insult his protagonist's self-satisfied—albeit bourgeois—taste:
"In reality, it was all just what is commonly seen in the houses of people who are not exactly wealthy but want to look like wealthy people, and so suceed only in being like one another—hangings, dark wood, flowers, rugs and bronzes, everything dark and highly polished, everything that all people of a certain class have so as to be like all people of a certain class. And in his case it was all so like that it made no impression at all; but it all seemed to him somehow special."
Ouch! The snark of aristocracy cannot but exert itself, no matter the authenticity of one's alleged conversion, eh, Count? Which is worse, you might well ask, the bruise of the fall or the ironic glance of the classist blow? No matter, II shrugs the whole thing off: "'It's as well I'm something of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, and I got nothing worse than a blow here; when it's touched it hurts, but it's going off already; nothing but a bruise." Right, but we moderns know better. Though still animated by bourgeois striving and dissatisfaction, their lives improved, the Golovins perservere, pursuing education, society, and professional advancement with only a few noticeable cracks in the facade of their new-found existence.

Chapter Four begins:
"All were in good health. One could not use the word ill-health in connection with the symptoms Ivan Ilych sometimes complained of, namely, a queer taste in his mouth and a sort of uncomfortable feeling on the left side of the stomach.

"But it came to pass that this uncomfortable feeling kept increasing, and became not exactly a pain, but a continual sense of weight in his side and irritable temper."
From here it's all downhill for poor II. Tolstoy subjects his protagonist to a run of the sort of sadistic nastiness we don't really see much of until Nabokov imperiously strides upon the New World. [to be continued]

12 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych

"In the great building of the Law Courts..." sounds like the opening line of a Kafka story, a parable of the unfathomable enigma of life. But no; it is the opening of Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. We soon discover that someone named Ivan Ilych has died. Who is he? Why should we care? Well, Tolstoy tells us, II "was a colleague of the gentleman present, and all liked him. It was some weeks now since he had been taken ill; his illness had been said to be incurable." The men, his colleagues, we learn through a feat of authorial omniscience, immediately begin thinking about their own promotions and raises as they rise to fill the professional void. There is also a perfunctory sort of 'there but for the grace of god go I' relief and a nod to the call of social duty. Someone must call upon poor II's widow and children. This falls upon one Pyotr Ivanovich whose main concern seems to be whether he can get in and out of the dead man's home in time for the evening's game of bridge.

Pyotr Ivanovich stands in for us, the readers. He gives us our cue as to how we are to react on this somber occasion:
Pyotr Ivanovich went in, as people always do on such occasions, in uncertainty as to what he would have to do there. One thing he felt sure of—that crossing oneself never comes amiss on such occasions. As to whether it was necessary to bow down while doing so, he did not feel quite sure, and so chose a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself, and made a slight sort of bow. So far as the movements of his hands and head permitted him, he glanced while doing so about the room. Two young men, one a high school boy, nephews probably, were going out of the room, crossing themselves. An old lady was standing motionless; and a lady, with her eyebrows queerly lifted, was saying something to her in a whisper. A deacon in a frockcoat, resolute and hearty, was reading something aloud with an expression that precluded all possibility of contradiction. A young peasant who used to wait at table, Gerasim, walking with light footsteps in front of Pyotr Ivanovich, was sprinkling something on the floor. Seeing this, Pyotr Ivanovich was at once aware of the faint odour of the decomposing corpse. On his last visit to Ivan Ilych Pyotr Ivanovich had seen this peasant in his room; he was performing the duties of a sicknurse, and Ivan Ilych liked him particularly. Pyotr Ivanovich continued crossing himself and bowing in a direction intermediate between the coffin, the deacon, and the holy pictures on the table in the corner. Then when this action of making the sign of the cross with his hand seemed to him to have been unduly prolonged, he stood still and began to scrutinise the dead man.
I am a sucker for a novelistic thesis statement, which is what this is: a map to the core of the book. An exegesis of the images Tolstoy sets up here would bring us fairly close the central meaning of the book: the awkwardness of the established rituals of society and its religion; the goings-on of the children of the family; the women's oddness and secrecy; the symbolically incontrovertible deacon; Gerasim, the noble peasant at the center of things, helping us deal with the stench of death; the uncertainty of Pytor's allegiances and the middle ground he strikes with his bowing; and his feeling when he has sufficiently paid his respects that it is time to turn his attention to the dead man. There is psychology (expectations and intentions), action (compromise), and the sort of sensuous detail (whisperings, putrescence) necessary to bring us in close: the true signs of a master.

There is a comic tone, a sense of satire, to Tolstoy's treatment of Pyotr here and throughout this first chapter. His awkwardness, his being buttonholed by the widow, his having to attend the service and miss his bridge game (the comic wink of Shvarts giving the game away), his wrestling match with the ottoman's "deranged springs", his fumblings over the widow's black lace fichu. Tolstoy is even unkinder regarding Praskovya Fyodorovna. She does not much care so much that her husband has died as she does for her own position. She quibbles with II's butler over the cost of a burial plot. She inveigles Pyotr to assist her in obtaining a grant and increasing her pension from the government. II's suffering was a burden to her which made it hard for her to be sympathetic with his plight. Pyotr attends the service with II's sullen daughter and her rich fiance and II's grieving son, his spirit and image, during which "[h]e did not once glance at the dead man, and right through to the end did not once give way to depressing influences, and was one of the first to walk out." Gerasim shows him out, remarking that II's death was "God's will. We shall come to the same." Pytor Ivanovich makes it to his friend's house just as they are finishing their first rubber, "just at the right time to take a hand." Thus ends the first chapter of Tolstoy's novella.

This first chapter is in and of itself brilliant as a short story. It stands alone and if Tolstoy had stopped right there it would certainly have passed into the canon as one of the masterpieces of the genre. It satisfies our criteria for Ur-story: confronting the inevitability of loss and grief (or as Umberto Eco put it "fate and death") as integral to the human condition. The story does just that, indicting all the characters except Gerasim. The son is in the state of youthful innocence and grieves truly; the daughter is narcissistic and haughty, untouched by it all, and doesn't want to be bothered; the widow is mercenary, concerned only with her own material situation; Pyotr Ivanovich, our guide here, is only doing what society requires of him; neighbors are secretive and gossiping; servants and butlers continue to function; and the deacon resorts to his prescribed theological niceties. Gerasim alone is philosophical, accepting. Thus, he stands in for Tolstoy: Gerasim's is the attitude he wants to inculcate in us.

So, how does Tolstoy go on from this magnificent opening? Were he to take the tack we've seen in, e.g., the Gilgamesh, Pyotr Ivanovich would embark on a great quest to come to terms with his true feelings (or lack thereof) concerning the death and suffering of his lifelong friend and colleague. But that is not Tolstoy's approach. What Tolstoy does—and I'm not sure anyone had ever attempted this prior to this story—is to take us inside the dying man's mind. Remarkable. He shows us how this man, Ivan Ilych, confronts his own mortality and in the process hopes to show us how to die. With respect to the former task—let us call it the psychology of Ur-story—Tolstoy's portrait is masterful, original, profound. Ultimately, however, he fails with respect to the latter task. We'll talk about this in a subsequent post.

11 November 2008

The Big Picture

Computer simulation showing a view of the multiverse, in which each colored ray is another expanding cosmos

Anselm of Canterbury famously formulated the so-called (by Kant for one) ontological argument for the existence of god roughly as follows: god is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. God's reality is necessary and unconditional by virtue of the fact that we can conceive of it so highly and Platonically perfectly. In reality, the argument reveals less about the divine than it does about the human: as long as we keep conceiving greater and greater conceptions of god, god will keep stepping in to fill the bill. It acknowledges an essential sense of our nature as strivers. Idealists. Perfectionists.

This is consistent with my take on all so-called proofs of god's existence: they tell us more about ourselves than they do about god. As faithful readers of WoW know, I call myself an agnostic. I find both theism and atheism characterized essentially by faith—faith that god exists vs. faith that god doesn't. Fact is, we don't know and we can't prove god's existence. We can keep trying, improving our arguments and proofs, but any god worth its salt would and should keep eluding our best efforts.

An intriguing article in the latest Discover magazine provoked this theological turn: "Science's Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: the Multiverse Theory."

The whole intelligent design argument harks back to Medieval ignorance, and beliefs in magic, alchemy, and the miraculous: "The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." If I can't explain something by resort to scientific proof or direct observation, it must have been done by god. Complexity and functionality are proof of an intelligent design process; if there's an intelligent design to things, there must be an intelligent designer. QED.

Structurally the intelligent design argument has the same flaws as Anselm's: really it tells us more about ourselves than it does about god. We (humans) so desperately want to believe in something greater than ourselves that we keep coming up with more and more sophisticated arguments to justify that belief.  But these explanations are all grounded in our consciousness of ourselves as individual consciousnesses.  Any idea of salvation implies salvation of the individual, the continuity of the individual consciousness throughout eternity.  What rank hubris!

But why, then, do things make sense? Why are we able to understand the world? the universe? Why can we discern its laws and rules and principles? Why do they seem orderly and intelligently designed? These are the fundamental questions of theology, and, more to the point, of human existence. Religionists of all stripes attempt to reach beyond the observable features of the world for an explanation, but the fact is that we can make sense of this world precisely because we are part and parcel of it. Those laws, etc. govern our very being—body and mind. Consciousness is not something outside the world but a necessary feature of it.

Why then do we feel the need fashion a god as creator of the world, to explain the world by resort to something external to it? Why do we imagine a god outside of it? We do this because we view ourselves, more specifically our minds, as above creation. The Bible intuits this in its very first chapter:
¶ 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
From the beginning, we imagined our consciousness as not subject to universal laws and rules of nature; independent, non-determined, free will. Because we have self-consciousness, we are not of this world, we are superior to it. We have DOMINION.  In this the Bible gets its exactly backwards: we created god in our own image—albeit our best image, in fact 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'— as a way to conceptualize our sense of self-consciousness, to reify our dominance over the world (and others!)

Now wait a minute. What does this have to do with science and the Discovery article. Just this: the project of a complete science must include the concept of consciousness within its explanation of the physical world. Up until extremely recently, physics, chemistry, etc. have, in Husserl's terms, bracketed being and consciousness. Let's get the facts right first, then come back to those more troubling concepts. The 'Multiverse' article is provocative on this count. Here's some quotes:
“Throughout the history of science, the universe has always gotten bigger,” Carr says. “We’ve gone from geocentric to heliocentric to galactocentric. Then in the 1920s there was this huge shift when we realized that our galaxy wasn’t the universe. I just see this as one more step in the progression. Every time this expansion has occurred, the more conservative scientists have said, ‘This isn’t science.’ This is just the same process repeating itself.”

If the multiverse is the final stage of the Copernican revolution, with our universe but a speck in an infinite megacosmos, where does humanity fit in? If the life-friendly fine-tuning of our universe is just a chance occurrence, something that inevitably arises in an endless array of universes, is there any need for a fine-tuner—for a god?

“I don’t think that the multiverse idea destroys the possibility of an intelligent, benevolent creator,” Weinberg says. “What it does is remove one of the arguments for it, just as Darwin’s theory of evolution made it unnecessary to appeal to a benevolent designer to understand how life developed with such remarkable abilities to survive and breed.”

On the other hand, if there is no multiverse, where does that leave physicists? “If there is only one universe,” Carr says, “you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

As for Linde, he is especially interested in the mystery of consciousness and has speculated that consciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time. He wonders whether the physical universe, its laws, and conscious observers might form an integrated whole. A complete description of reality, he says, could require all three of those components, which he posits emerged simultaneously. “Without someone observing the universe,” he says, “the universe is actually dead.”
To borrow a simile from 19th Century British philosopher Shadworth Hodgson, consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon, like the foam thrown up on the wave of the ocean of physical reality.
We raise the question, then, is the universe conscious? Is there some (epi-)phenomenon analogous to human consciousness thrown up by the energy of the physical universe? If so, is that god? Certainly that's something greater than which it would be hard to conceive (short, of course, of the phenomenon that threw up that multiverse). Yet, if it were true, how would we know? We can't. And that's the point.

From religion we learn that human beings are selfish, clannish, parochial, prejudicial, racialist, nationalist, sectarian.  They aspire, but are limited by their own natures.  The hubris of the anthropic principle impedes our ability to conceive of anything greater than our own self-consciousness (that than which nothing greater can be conceived).

We end with a cool, Zen-like quote from a speech by Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy touching on this theme:
"And it's rather like a puddle waking up one morning--I know they don't normally do this, but allow me, I'm a science fiction writer (laughter). A puddle wakes up one morning and thinks "Well, this is a very interesting world I find myself in. It fits me very neatly. In fact, it fits me so neatly, I mean, really precise, isn't it? (Laughter) It must have been made to have me in it!" And the sun rises, and he's continuing to narrate the story about this hole being made to have him in it. The sun rises, and gradually the puddle is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking, and by the time the puddle ceases to exist, it's still thinking, it's still trapped in this idea, that the hole was there for it. And if we think that the world is here for us, we will continue to destroy it in the way in which we have been destroying it, because we think we can do no harm."

10 November 2008

War Is Hell

I ran across the following while researching my new novel:

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reported tonight that: "The Army says that suicides among active duty personnel have doubled in recent years, and multiple deployments might contribute to that increase." Stacy Bannerman at Foreign Policy in Focus cites the following statistics from last year:
The suicide rate for army troops in Iraq is 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared to the overall Army rate of 11.9 per 100,000 between 1995 and 2002. This rate is higher than the rate for all branches of the military during the Vietnam War, which was 15.6, and higher than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which had a 3.6 rate for all branches. See, “Iraq: Low Army Morale, High Suicide Rate,” Reuters, March 25, 2004.
Dana Priest reported similar findings in January of this year in the Washington Post:
Suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2007 reached their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980, according to a draft internal study obtained by The Washington Post. Last year, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006.

At the same time, the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army has jumped sixfold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan.

The Army was unprepared for the high number of suicides and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among its troops, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued far longer than anticipated. Many Army posts still do not offer enough individual counseling and some soldiers suffering psychological problems complain that they are stigmatized by commanders. Over the past year, four high-level commissions have recommended reforms and Congress has given the military hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its mental health care, but critics charge that significant progress has not been made.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed severe stress on the Army, caused in part by repeated and lengthened deployments. Historically, suicide rates tend to decrease when soldiers are in conflicts overseas, but that trend has reversed in recent years. From a suicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001 -- the lowest rate on record -- the Army reached an all-time high of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2006.

Last year, twice as many soldier suicides occurred in the United States than in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I've heard first-hand anecdotal reports from VA psychiatrists that the incidence of PTSD is likewise higher for Iraq and Vietnam vets than for WWII and Korean Vets.

I have a theory. Smarter people than I throughout Western history have proposed that war is only justified if it is "just". Just war theory has a long and storied pedigree. Its principles have been widely debated and can be summarized briefly:
  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
Why bring this in? Most agree that the allied intervention in the Second World War was justified by just war theory. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam less so. And the current Iraq (mis-)adventure even less. Neither of the last two undeclared wars were responses to existential threats—one was ideological (domino theory, etc.) and the second was (in my opinion) to open up markets for our oil and oil services companies and ensure the re-election of the wartime administration (the leader of whose father failed to preserve his presidency by pulling out of his 1991 adventure prematurely). The shock and awe Iraq attack did not redress the injury of 9.11.01.

Boys and girls, men and women are dying in the cause of an unjust war. They wonder why they are there; why their buddies are dying; why they are killing civilians and why civilians are killing them. In WWII, soldiers were killing Nazis and Japanese who meant to conquer them and destroy their freedoms and their way of life. Not so much in Iraq (or Vietnam). Pre-emption is not countenanced in just war theory. The 'full metal jacket' brainwashing effect on the fighters in Vietnam and Iraq fails to fully take because of the lack of moral justification or existential significance of the conflict; soldiers allow themselves to become killing machines and monsters for insufficient reasons. Their psyches revolt; their human(-e) sensitivities assert themselves. Their consciences refuse to die. The trauma of warfare is insufficiently anaesthetized. They become depressed. They commit suicide.

This is not to take issue with the idea that it is multiple deployments that are contributing to these increases in the incidence of PTSD and suicide. I'm all for science and direct cause-and-effect explanations. It's just a big-picture theory from my point of view, and it's going to play a part in the back-story and characterological motivation of the protagonist of my novel.