09 March 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 3

(cont'd from previous post)

I continue today my look at Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé. It is a complex book which does not lend itself to easy analysis, and I often find myself at a loss how to proceed here. It is, as I noted in my first post in this series, a savage satire. And, generally, I find myself pretty much in agreement with Daniel Green:
"Although certainly the best satire is also the most artful, I would still maintain that satire aspires to be primarily a mode of moral or political discourse, or of cultural criticism, and not an object of aesthetic contemplation."
The problem with an older text such as Canetti's (1935) is that we latter-day readers (without the sort of massive, multi-disciplinary scholarship to which a blog like this one can hardly aspire) simply do not have authentic access to the object of the satire: namely, the moral, cultural, and political discourse against which the text levels its attack—to wit, Weimar-era Vienna. The question becomes, then, whether the novel is, therefore, simply out-of-date or whether we, today, can look at the only thing we have (the text itself) and try to draw out something interestingly meaningful? Stated differently, do the characteristics of our own society today somehow mirror those of interwar Austrian society such that Auto-da-Fé's satire may at least partially hit home? Is it still relevant today?

Assuming, then, that there is some sort of satiric brunt to the text to which we can have access, we must first look at the text itself—its aesthetic qualities—to see what it might be trying to say (or, at least how it might be trying to say whatever it is it is attempting to say), mindful all the while of our own complicity, as readers, in the very culture who's practices are potentially being satirized. [As I indicated in my first post, however, such an assumption of meaning is problematized by the text itself. Whether or not this assumption is an intended object of the book's satire is another question altogether going to the heart of my reading.]

That being said, it's really quite difficult to get a fix on this novel. For one thing, the narrative is problematic. The narrative voice remains aloof, yet it asserts its intimacy with all the book's characters. It bounces around from head to head, often in the same paragraph; fantasies, dreams, memories, thoughts, plans, intentions, judgments, and running internal commentary from different points of view commingle with the action and dialogue. This makes for difficult slogging when first reading the text, putting off many readers after about the second or third chapter. But, upon re-reading, it makes it even more difficult to get a sense of the novel's narrative unity.

Here's an example picked at random (p. 321 of the Wedgwood translation). It comes in one of the most farcical scenes in the book in the chapter called "Private Property". After a fracas at a pawn shop over some used books, Kien has been taken to the police station for questioning. Kien believes he has been hauled in because he killed Therese by locking her up in his library and abandoning her. In actuality, she ran him out and took over the apartment. He thinks she's dead and that he's hallucinating her presence before him. Pfaff, deluded by guilt, fears he's going to be interrogated for the incestuous, abusive death of his daughter. Each of the policemen has his own agenda, as well. Fischerle, the other major character, does not appear in this scene, but is present in his absence. His doppelgänger, the Fishwife, his female, Jewish, hunchback dwarf twin, is killed by the crowd at the pawn shop. They believe that because of her deformity she must have committed some vague crime. Fischerle, who was there, managed to escape after picking Kien's pocket. No one cares about the death of the poor, deformed Jewess; their inquiry is about a potential breach of the peace (breaking the glass door of the pawn shop) and a robbery of which, in point of fact, Kien is the victim [notes mine]:
"The policemen nudged each other. He [the inspector who'd been daydreaming about purchasing beautiful silk ties and worrying about his tiny nose] was in one of his moods. Therese's foot overstepped her circle [the starched, blue, hoop skirt she always wears]. The man with a memory [Policeman 1] saw his goal in sight. Not one word had he forgotten. He intended to repeat the whole story in place of the accused. 'He's tired already,' he said and shrugged a contemptuous shoulder at Kien, 'I'll tell you quicker!' Therese burst out: 'I ask you [her trademark phrase], he's murdering me.' In her fear, she spoke low. Kien heard her; he disallowed her. He would not turn round. Never! for what purpose? She was dead. Therese shouted: 'I ask you, I'm afraid!' The man with a memory [Policeman 1], annoyed at the interruption, challenged her: 'What's biting you?' The father [Policeman 2] spoke soothingly: 'Nature has created women the weaker sex,' a motto he had derived from his son's last German composition. The Inspector drew out his mirror, gaped at himself and sighed: 'I'm tired too.' His nose eluded him; nothing interested him any longer. Therese screamed: 'I ask you, he must be put away!' Once again Kien resisted her voice; he would not turn round. But he groaned loud. The caretaker [Pfaff] was sick of all the fuss. 'Professor!' he bellowed from behind, 'It's not so bad. We're all still alive. And no bones broken!' he couldn't relish death. That's how he was. With ponderous steps he strode forward. He intervened."
Whew! It's dizzying. The reader has to keep in mind and catalog each character's reasons for being in the scene, their history, their delusions, etc.

Contemporary novel readers are used to psychological realism. Though we know that there is a writer actually writing the words on the page the characters speak and think, we bracket this knowledge and pretend we are gaining some sort of privileged insight into the internal world of the characters. The writer achieves this aesthetic effect by using, mainly, either the first person POV or the free indirect style. And the reader accepts that the realist author tries to portray each character uniquely and multi-dimensionally. To give each character a different voice—something I've called elsewhere on this blog "method writing."

This simply does not happen here. The characters are stereotypes, flat. Certain characters have limited vocabularies and specific recurring identifying markers and motifs, but their thoughts and utterances do not vary in style. Because of this, it's often difficult to pin down the narrative point of view. It rings false to our aesthetic ear. What's more, because of this perspectival relativism, there doesn't appear to be a global narrative voice. And we feel disoriented.

(to be continued)

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