22 December 2008

State of the Blog: First Anniversary

Dear Readers:

It's been one year since I started this blog. I thought I'd use this post for some navel-gazing. In that time I've logged over 220 posts, some long, some short. Some were link aggregations, most, though, were original content. That's a fair output—at least quantitatively speaking—for one person.

I'm not sure what my expectations were for beginning this thing: an outlet for personal expression, a chance to practice non-fiction writing with the constraints of (perhaps) an audience, or a forum for developing some sort of cyber-community with like-minded readers and fellow-bloggers. Most likely, it was some combination of all three.

Looking back at my posts, I do think I've stayed true to the purpose set out in the heading: "A blog about philosophy, theology, literature, politics, economics, law, ethics, culture, and any thing else that strikes our fancy." That may be too broad a mission to attract any specific audience; literary folks may not care much for politics and vice versa, e.g. But, for now, I'm happy being niche-less, generalist, broad-minded.

A look at the range of topic labels list on the right side of the page will show, however, that the majority of my posts have to do with fiction and literary criticism. And that is only natural. Lots of what appears here is purposive. As I work on my new novel, I read widely and deeply. My research sends me on tangents, stimulates my thinking, inspires my writing. It also distracts me from the work at hand. But now I have something like a roadmap of my own stream of consciousness for a solid year. In some senses, these posts serve as notes to myself. If, somehow, I can go back and look at them in several years, I'll see where I was and what I was thinking. Also, if I ever get a novel published, anyone who wants can go back and see the raw material of thought going into my art.

A quick check of statistics for WoW shows I've had nearly 25,000 unique, or cookie-less visits since the beginning. That is humbling. It is not huge in the Arianna Huffington sort of universe, but for some guy sitting at his Mac it's way more than I ever imagined.

I'm quite fond of the pictures accompanying my posts, and I spend a lot of time searching them out. I really enjoy how they complete or complement entries as visual puns or humor, or provide some sort of artistic statement. Early on, my biggest draw was this pic: Those clickers didn't stay for long.

Lately, though I've been getting readers who log on for 10 minutes plus and spend up to over an hour reading around. I'm happy to provide content; I only hope there is some wisdom to be found here. A couple of sites have even been gracious enough to list (and some have subsequently de-listed) WoW in their blogrolls. For those kind links, I am grateful and hope to be more reciprocal in the future.

Readers have been logging on from all over, as well. Here is a map from StatCounter showing where some of WoW's most recent visitors have logged on:

As for comments: I wish there'd've been more comments from my readers. I welcome them. The ones I've gotten, I've enjoyed the 'ahem' attention and tried to respond thoughtfully and appropriately. To generate more comments, should I try to be more provocative, more controversial? I wonder, too, if I should do less essayistic posts, less intertextual (self-referential) posts, less theme-blog posts, more aggregating posts.

Some ideas for next year: More music. Maybe some podcasts, some streams, some videos. I constantly listen to music while I work. Maybe I should share the soundtrack of my musings. I have over 17,000 songs on my iTunes and several favorite radio stations bookmarked. (One big disappointment this year was the crash of my hard drive. I didn't lose my music, thank blog, but I did lose all my ratings (1 to 5 stars). That's a lot of database work to replicate.)

I do plan to remain non-commercial: no amazon links, no paypal donation widget, no ads. If, on the outside chance (given the economy), I manage to get my novel published, I'll create a separate marketing website.

Thanks to all my readers. Any suggestions you have for improving this blog would be welcome. I have lots of ideas circulating for the new year and believe there is much to discover. Till then, though, I'm not sure how much more posting I'll be doing. Best of the Holiday Season!

Jim H.

20 December 2008

Ur-story: Brian Boyd & Doing vs. Being

If you've been following WoW, you'll know we've been pursuing a theme-blog we've been calling Ur-story. As of this writing, we've put up twenty-six posts on this topic (not including this one). The point is to examine works of literature (mainly fiction) to see if we can discover something essential in/about/to them. We noted how James Wood in his How Fiction Works neglected to provide any coherent account of the notion of story in the working of fiction. He's not alone. Much of the 'theorizing' about literature we've seen ignores the centrality of 'story'. High-brow critics emphasize such elements as character, theme, voice, language, structure, etc. Social or cultural critics tend to focus on identity issues, social or historical context, ideological cues, power relations, etc. Popular criticism tends to highlight plot, pacing, familiarity, compliance with genre expectations, etc. None of this, It seemed to us, gets to the essence of why people go to movies and plays, watch sitcoms and police shows on television, read novels and short stories, are mesmerized by myths and legends. What gets people's attention and keeps them coming back for more is the stories. As William Gass says: "Stories are things that get told. They can exist outside of any particular medium or any particular method of narration."

We were struck by the lack of critical attention to this fundamental aspect of so many forms of literature. We were also struck by the lack of any clear, readily available discussion, definitions, parameters, outlines, etc. of what a story is. So, we decided to come up with one of our own, proceeding empirically through any number of texts.

One way of addressing the essence of story is to examine its origins (something we did with respect to the creation myth and the Gilgamesh epic). This is also the approach of Brian Boyd, Distinguished Professor of English at Auckland University, New Zealand, and Nabokov exegete, in his article "The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who," in Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 197-214. The question is whether his analysis gets at the heart of things.

He locates the origin of story in evolutionary attention-seeking behaviors: "Not only do we like to command attention, we also enjoy simply sharing it with others, because this cements our place in a social group whose support we need." (198) These behaviors show up in crows, parrots, rats, chimps, cetaceans, and other species. But there is more to story-telling than there is to, say, birdsong or communal dances of chimpanzees. The jury is still out with respect to whale songs.

According to Boyd, the precursors to narrative, at a minimum, are an awareness of and an ability to comprehend things that happen to us, the mentality to replicate these things, the recognition of other minds and their intentions and actions, and language. But these proto-stories need be nothing other than gossip or a recounting of the day's events which carry with them certain attendant risks:
"it can be misleading and it can be boring. Fiction on the other hand removes the dangers of deceit or manipulation and offers the promise of interest. Since we develop the ability to detect and resist stories, like any other forms of communication, that we see as skewed toward tellers whose interests differ from ours, skilled storytellers secure our attention by appealing to our cognitive craving to comprehend the actions and intentions of others, while serving their own aims both through the attention they garner and through appealing to interests that we either share or can be made to think we share with them. Fiction therefore offers a win-win situation, a non-zero-sum game, an advantage for teller (benefit in attention and status, at a cost in imaginative effort), and for the listener (maximum cognitive interest at little cost except time).

An evolutionary model of fiction, therefore, should focus on ways storytellers, as active individual strategists, maximize the attention of their audience by appealing to features that have evolved to be of interest to all human minds, to our shared understandings of events, our shared predispositions to be interested in and engaged by what others do and our sheer readiness to share attention." (200)
Stories work, he says, because humans are essentially problem-solvers. We have goals we strive to attain. We encounter obstacles along the way. Sometimes those obstacles are other problem-solvers just like us whose goals conflict with our own or entail the stymieing of our own. Sometimes we mistake their intentions for hostility and sometimes we encounter genuine hostility. It is important to be able to tell the difference. Still, we are able recognize others in similar situations. We can identify individuals and link them with their projects. And we can, ultimately, sympathize with their plight.
"there are two essential forces behind the power of plot to command our continued attention to a story, and that these forces are best explained in evolutionary terms: first, our interest in whether or not agents achieve their goals, which arises from the natural sympathy creatures at a certain cognitive and social level can have for others of their kind; and, second, our unique human interest, because we have Theory of Mind, in knowing the full situation that will explain the whole story. For as soon as we appreciate false belief, we realise that mistakes can be made through not understanding the true situation" (208)
Boyd proceeds to analyze these aspects of storytelling in Horton Hears a Who, a story by that master storyteller Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

He locates the origin of storytelling in the evolutionary psychology of attention-seeking. In our Ur-story series, we took a more empirical, or evidentiary approach—looking both at some of the earliest stories known (Gilgamesh, Job, Eden, Genesis) as well as at numerous examples. There are benefits to both approach. We wanted to know what lay at the heart of the stories themselves. Boyd was looking at their origins in the human mind: what human faculty produces stories and why. We are looking for essence (Go away, Emeril! BAM!). Origin and essence, one would think, should coincide or at least be reconcilable.

The inference we drew from our look at a number of texts was that the essence of story—and by this we mean great, profound, moving stories—lies in the ways in which the individual character attempts to come to grips with the inevitable sense of loss that accompanies his/her confronting his/her own mortality and ultimate death. This may, indeed, be explainable in Boyd's attention-seeking terms. There is a fundamental human truth at the heart of story (whether incorporated into myth, religion, fiction, drama, etc.) and those who have confronted that truth have found that the dramatic tension of a story is the best means of communicating this insight without seeming, for example, preachy or didactic. So, sure there is some crowing. We would be the last to deny we are evolutionarily conditioned in our thinking and artmaking, our storytelling.

(N.B. In fact, we would probably one of the last to deny that stories may have also, say, an imperialist or a paternalist bias, or be the product of unconscious Oedipal urges and instincts, or have hidden structural similarities. The more theories and analyses we bring to the text the merrier, as far as we are concerned, so long as the text will bear them.)

Boyd breaks his analysis down to agents and goals, on the one hand, and psychology, or what he calls Theory of Mind, on the other. Ego. These do not approach what we take to be the essence of story. Sure, it's great to have goals. And the story of how one goes about achieving them against all odds is important. But 'doing' is not the fundamental human truth—'being' is. How does the character react when she recognizes that "all flesh is grass" and her moral dilemmas, decisions, actions, triumphs, and ironies are truly inconsequential? How does the character cope with the hard, awesome reality that transcendence is a convenient fiction that we use to comfort ourselves in the face of indifferent reality? That is the hard task at the heart of stories that matter.

18 December 2008

What Passes for Humor Around Here

Sigmund Freud is reputed to have said: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."


And sometimes a Virgin is just a virgin.

Mais ceci n'est pas une pipe:

I Am the Slime...

According to two Scandinavian scientists, asking where or how life grew out of lifeless matter is like asking "when and where did the first wind blow that quivered the surface of a warm pond.” Rather, the important question is "why" it developed. And they've put forth a theory consistent with known physical laws.

According to the two scientists, son and father Arto Annila of the University of Helsinki and Erkki Annila of the Finnish Forest Research Institute in “Why did life emerge?” International Journal of Astrobiology 7 (3 & 4 ): 293-300 (2008)
"life is a very natural thing, which emerged simply to satisfy basic physical laws. Our “purpose,” so to speak, is to redistribute energy on the Earth, which is in between a huge potential energy difference caused by the hot Sun and cold space. Organisms evolve via natural selection, but at the most basic level, natural selection is driven by the same thermodynamic principle: increasing entropy and decreasing energy differences. The natural processes from which life emerged, then, are the same processes that keep life going – and they operate on all timescales.

“According to thermodynamics, there was no striking moment or no single specific locus for life to originate, but the natural process has been advancing by a long sequence of steps via numerous mechanisms so far reaching a specific meaning – life,” the researchers explained.

And because thermodynamics recognizes no specific moment, particular place, compound or reaction that would distinguish animate from inanimate, a search for ‘the birth of life’ seems like an ill-posed project, Arto Annila explained.
We are part of the natural cooling mechanism of the universe. We process energy from the sun and recycle/redistribute it into the environment:
when systems (e.g. molecules) become entities of larger systems (e.g. cells) that participate in larger ranges of interactions to consume more free energy, entropy increases. Genetic code might have served as another primordial mechanism, acting as a catalyst that could increase energy flow toward greater entropy. Today, complex organisms have cellular metabolism, which is another mechanism that increases entropy, as it disperses energy throughout the organism and into the environment. The food chain in an ecosystem is another example of a mechanism for transferring energy on a larger scale.
So, as my kids say, CHILL!


You can read more here, here, here, or here without getting too esoteric.

17 December 2008


Where's the outrage?

Having most likely irritated my literary readers with my political/legal posts, I wanted to follow up a thread I began almost from the beginning regarding the potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the current American administration. First, here's an excerpt from a recent interview with the Vice President of the United States conducted by Jonathan Karl of ABC News:

Some key points: After WWII, at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, generally called the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, conducted by the U.S. and its victorious allies, Japanese soldiers were convicted of war crimes for the specific act of what we now refer to as 'waterboarding'. It was a crime then, when it was committed against members of our military, despite the claims of protecting the homeland, and it's a crime now. Recall, the Doolittle Raid was a direct assault by Americans on Japan.

I cannot begin to tell you the number of slippery quasi-excuses the VP just gave to justify this illegal act. Let's throw out the defense that waterboarding has prevented any further attacks on the homeland. This is the classic 'ends justifying the means' argument. In point of fact, they don't. But the claim itself is specious—it is only on the basis of Mr. Cheney's say-so that the cause-effect connection between the two is asserted. This is the most secretive administration we've ever had. The VP's office employs truckloads of shredders to keep documentation of its actions from ever seeing the light of day. We have no way of knowing whether anything that we (America) did prevented another attack, or whether, for example, the bad guys are just laying low and planning something else. In fact, there seems to be specific evidence to the contrary presented in this article in this month's Vanity Fair. Notwithstanding, success is not a legal justification

Cheney claims: "On the question of so-called torture, we don't do torture. We never have. It's not something that this administration subscribes to. Again, we proceeded very cautiously. We checked. We had the Justice Department issue the requisite opinions in order to know where the bright lines were that you could not cross."

Try this on for size: I go into a bank, hold it up with a gun, take the money and run. Then I get my highly-paid lawyer to write an opinion, a "Memo to File," stating this is not armed robbery. After I get caught and charged with armed robbery, I produce my memo and claim I don't do "so-called armed robbery." Does my claim have any legitimacy? No. A crime is a crime, whether I know it or not, whether I admit it or not—no matter what you call it. I can't redefine criminal behavior and have it be legal. A semantic distinction doesn't negate a legal concept. This is classic CEO-think: 'I want to do something. Have the lawyers draw me up a memo telling me that I can get away with it. What? They say it's illegal. Fuck them! Fire them all and get me some other hired guns who will.' As a litigator, I saw this maneuver so many times it was laughable—a CYA ('Cover Your Ass') memo is often a tacit admission; you just have to look deeply enough. An opinion from an in-the-bag, toadying flunky in the Office of Legal Counsel of your own corrupt Justice Department (the department this self-proclaimed 'CEO Administration' used as its corporate counsel) is not a "Get out of jail free!" card. Torture is torture, no matter what John Yoo, or even Alberto Gonzales, says.

Cheney further asserts: "And I think those who allege that we've been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don't know what they're talking about." How could we? You've tried to destroy all the evidence.

The fact is, the man admitted to war crimes in this interview: he admits he was aware of and supported and authorized the use of a method that has been defined by U.S. and international war crimes tribunals as torture: "I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn't do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it."

This interview, against interest and in no stretch of the imagination under duress, should be Exhibit A at his war crimes trial.

His argument in support of unconstitutional surveillance against Americans is much more subtle and is the sort of thing a CEO would use to justify something he'd been caught at red-handed. It is often referred to as 'remediation'. That is, getting a subsequent justification for something done illegally and asserting that the justification applied retroactively. FISA, whether or not it is constitutional in whole or in part, cannot retroactively justify this administration's illegal actions. Let's say an automobile company discovers the brakes in one of its cars are causing deaths in its purchasers. So, without telling anyone, it fixes the problem in subsequent models. In a subsequent lawsuit, the company can claim there is no evidence its brakes are causing deaths. It's true, but only because it is in the present tense. If investigators then discover the fix, the prosecutors can show the company had guilty knowledge of the problem and undertook to remediate it—which effectively served as a cover-up. It is a tacit admission against interest of its guilt.

Cheney tries to make the point that these tactics are essential and specifically tailored to deal with specific threats. This is mere political rhetoric, without any shred of supporting evidence: the bald assertion of a known, compulsive liar.

Yet, all this begs the question: why did VP Cheney make these statements? Well, either he has balls the size of Wyoming and is thumbing his nose at the American people and the entire legal system (domestic and international) and the incoming Congress and Administration or he's deluded. He seems to be saying: 'so what?' And to quote Nabokov from my previous post (in another context) there's no rational response to 'so what?' He must believe there is insufficient political will to bring him down by forcing a trial on these issues. He may think there is no jurisdiction or forum where these claims can be successfully heard, much less prosecuted. He may feel there is no one who has standing or political clout to bring these claims, certainly not KSM. Or else he might well believe his actions were heroic and patriotic and, thus, justifiable and above reproach: "It's not illegal when the [Vice] President does it."

Either way, it is a sad day for this country and, indeed, for humanity.

15 December 2008

Ur-story: Death of a Salesman

In our take on Beckett's Malone Dies, we examined his uncompromising look at the ultimate isolation of the soul in its long, lonely, bleak struggle towards death: there is no escape even in storytelling. In our next text, we see this Ur-story theme played out in fantastical form.

Okay, see if you recognize this story: a traveling salesman returns home from many a long night on the road. His life on the road is deeply unsatisfying, consisting of meetings and meals full of false, forced bonhomie. He gets no real, human connection from his work relations with clients and co-workers. His bosses at the job where he works (apparently to pay off a debt incurred earlier by his father) are dedicated company men, rigid time-servers who have no real concern for him other than his value as a functionary, a producer. He is never at home on the road. What's more, the product he peddles is just some irrelevant commercial merchandise of no real, existential significance.

Figured it out yet? Read on.

More: Once home—where he rarely stays—between trips, he realizes he doesn't really belong there either. He is unmarried. His travels have provided a good, modest, middle-class living for his parents and his teenaged sister. They have a nice, three-bedroom apartment (similar to the one in The Death of Ivan Ilych) in a decent part of town. The problem, however, is they hardly know him. He is gone so much, they don't know who he really is. Oh, they recognize him as their son and brother; but, beyond that, the closer he tries to get to them, the more repulsed they are by him. He seems like a sincere chap and wants to (re-)insert himself into the family's activities. He continually approaches them, but, it seems, they would prefer him to be out earning on the road. They would prefer not to have to deal with him. This injures him physically as well as emotionally. Ultimately, his sense of his own humanity unreinforced in the world and fading from him, he dies of his wounds and inflicts his hideousness upon them no longer. The family decides they will be able to get by just fine without him and agree to take a smaller apartment.

Sad. Ironic. Pathetic.

Recognize it yet?

What if I quoted you the first sentence—truly one of the greatest, most famous first sentences in all of Western literature: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." (Muir translation)

Of course, it's The Metamorphosis, or The Transformation by Franz Kafka (1915). For good measure, here's the new Corngold translation: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

Elias Canetti said: "In The Metamorphosis Kafka reached the height of his mastery: he wrote something which he could never surpass, because there is nothing which The Metamorphosis could be surpassed by—one of the few great, perfect poetic works of this century."

Vladimir Nabokov opens his lecture on this, Kafka's "greatest work", thus:
"Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. 'To take upon us the mystery of things'—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol's 'The Greatcoat,' or correctly 'The Carrick'): another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis')—so what? There is no rational answer to 'so what.' We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis' strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers." (251)
Kafka's story, like so many of its Ur-story peers, is about the impact of the awareness of our own mortality—our humanity—on the way we live our day-to-day lives. The monstrous beetle Samsa turns into is an obvious metaphor. Its meaning is infinitely debatable, and that's what makes it so powerful. But, what Kafka does, originally and profoundly, is to literalize the metaphor: the metaphor becomes the reality and sets the story into motion. This is a technique used to great, Nobel-winning effect by the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago in Blindness, The Double, etc. As readers, we accede to the reality of these texts which just is the reality created by the writers and "experienced" by the characters—the willing suspension of disbelief.

Without attempting to gauge its meaning per se, we can look at the parameters of the metaphor in the only context in which it matters: the story. Gregor wakes up one morning from a troubled dream and discovers he has turned into a giant insect. That no panic or abject disbelief intrudes should clue us in to that fact that Kafka is unconcerned about reality or realism or verisimilitude here. Gregor accepts the fact that this is who he is now—this is his reality now—and attempts to deal with it. He is isolated in his bedroom. He is the only one this has ever happened to as far as he or anyone else knows. This insect is his essential self actualized, materialized, physicalized. Really, this is all we need to know.

The first section of the book, the family's discovery of and coming to grips with Gregor's new situation, has moments of pure comedy, ending in a bit of near-Vaudevillian slapstick. The second section involves Gregor's prolonged, pathetic struggle to retain or recapture any semblance of the humanity he has lost, ending in what turns out to be a mortal wounding by his father. The last section witnesses Gregor's tragic, lonely death soon after he hears his sister, Grete, playing violin for the family's boarders. It proves to be a relief for the rest of the family who've had to hire a charwoman to 'handle' Gregor: the family is able to normalize its life once again without the insect intrusions of their strange son.

Gregor, though hideous to those around him, seems to be a selfless, beautiful soul. He tries to cling to his humanity to the end. He is unsuccessful in one sense. In another, though, he achieves the tragic insight we must all reach: no matter how much we reach out, no matter how much we try to connect with our friends, co-workers, and family, we are fated to die isolated in our own individual carapaces, ultimately alone, ultimately misunderstood. This, of course, is nothing other than the essence of great literature, the Ur-story, told in a startling, unique, original form.

As for the realism issue: we know no one actually turns into a bug in real life. Kafka's story is unrealistic in that sense. But, in a manner we brought up in relation to Tom McCarthy's Remainder, there is an aspect of ur-realism in Kafka's story: at some fundamental level, each of us struggles each day, individually, with the real world of beds, sofas, desks, chairs, tables, doors, food and water, light and dark, gravity, relatives, co-workers etc. in and through and within the mechanism of our isolated, ungainly bodies. Human relations are tenuous, fragile. No one ever really fits in. And, in an uncaring world, it is all too easy to lose our own humanity.

Interestingly, and often quite unnoticed, the story ends with yet another transformation after Gregor's death: that of Grete:
"The greatest immediate improvement in their condition would of course arise from moving to another house; they wanted to take a smaller and cheaper but also better situated and more easily run apartment than the one they had, which Gregor had selected. While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body."
[Anyone notice we managed to get through the entire post without using the word 'alienation'?']

05 December 2008

Ur-story: No Stranger to the Joys of Darkness

Where were we before our brief cultural meanderings? Right, we were looking at Beckett's Malone Dies—we cannot escape its orbit.

In Malone, we found traces of the lingering religious bias in literature in its assumption of a soul, something beyond thought, beyond physical suffering. Something that may or may not endure. No such religious atavism in Remainder, however. All traces of religious influence have been effaced, deferred, distanced; the most prominent occurring spectacularly at the end with the haunting, magisterial image of the plane flying a figure eight (the symbol for infinity), almost like a prayer, in the sky:
"I looked out of the window again. I felt really happy. We passed through a small cloud. The cloud, seen from the inside like this, was gritty, like spilled earth or dust flakes in a stairwell. Eventually the sun would set for ever—burn out, pop, extinguish—and the universe would run down like a Fisher Price toy whose spring has unwound to its very end. Then there'd be no more music, no more loops. Or maybe, before that, we'd just run out of fuel. For now, though, the clouds tilted and weightlessness set in once more as we banked, turning, heading back, again."
Malone attempts to distanciate himself from his dying by telling stories, something he refers to as play:
"This time I know where I am going, it is no longer the ancient night, the recent night. No it is a game, I am going to play. I never knew how to play, till now. I longed to, but I knew it was impossible. And yet I often tried. I turned on all the lights, I took a good look all round, I began to play with what I saw. People and things ask nothing better than to play, certain animals too ... I shall never do anything any more from now on but play. No, I must not begin with an exaggeration. But I shall play a great part of the time from now on, the greater part, if I can. ... I must have thought about my time-table during the night. I think I shall be able to tell myself four stories, each on on a different theme. One about a man, another about a woman, a third about a thing and finally one about an animal, a bird probably." (180-81)
There is some initial confusion in Malone Dies as to whether Malone is telling his stories verbally or writing them down with his nib of a pencil in his exercise book. Beckett doesn't really distinguish between the two, though he does indicate: "At first I did not write, I just said the thing. Then I forgot what I had said. A minimum of memory is indispensible, if one is to live really." (207)

The first story he tells involves the young Saposcat. As everyone knows, the name is a combination of Sapiens and scat, or "I know shit." [Macmann-'son of man'; Malone-'evil one'; Lambert-'unit of light'; Lemuel-'belonging to god'; Moll-'prostitute', nickname for Mary; blah, blah, blah]. This story-within-a-story feels like it might have been a story once written by the younger Beckett and wrangled into the context of Malone's telling. It is a traditionally realist story..."What tedium," interjects Malone into the telling. How telling!
"What tedium. And I call that playing. I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject? I feel the old dark gathering, the solitude preparing, by which I know myself, and the call of that ignorance which might be noble and is mere poltroonery. Already I forget what I have said. That is not how to play...." (189)
[Poltroon=coward] Even though it is his own story, Malone seems to have little control over it—at least ostensibly. He doesn't understand why Sapo isn't expelled from school for an infraction over a stick. This lends credence, in my mind at least, that this happened to Malone and he doesn't understand the grace or human kindness that spared him punishment for his sin: "I shall make him live as though he had been punished according to his deserts." (190) So, he treats Sapo as if he had been expelled. This feels like remorse by Malone, wishing he hadn't sinned—though it is quite opaque in the story how Sapo relates to Malone. Fact is, it doesn't matter, though it makes for fun speculation.

Beckett qua Malone continually interrupts and comments on the ordinariness of his story: "Sapo loved nature, took an interest This is awful." (191) Yet he continues with the story of Sapo/Macmann. Malone doesn't like his own writing. We are lead to ask whether this is Beckett commenting on his own writing style, or, more broadly, on traditional modes of storytelling. It is a good question. So, leave it to Beckett to answer his own question:
"We are getting on. Nothing is less like me than this patient, reasonable child, struggling all alone for years to shed a little light upon himself, avid of the least gleam, a stranger to the joys of darkness. Here truly is the air I needed, a lively tenuous air, far from the nourishing murk that is killing me. I shall never go back into this carcass except to find out its time." (193)
How reliable is this comment? Who knows.

Throughout the novel, there is Beckett's trademark, marvelous humor. For example, the story about the Lambert's dead mule: "Together they dragged the mule by the legs to the edge of the hole and heaved it in, on its back. The forelegs, pointing towards heaven, projected above the level of the ground. Old Lambert banged them down with his spade." (212)

That's good, old-fashioned slapstick. Could've been in a Monty Python film.

Then there's Beckett's perverse side:
"When the meal was over Edmund went up to bed, so as to masturbate in peace and comfort before his sister joined him, for they shared the same room. Not that he was restrained by modesty, when his sister was there. Nor was she, when her brother was there. Their quarters were cramped, certain refinements were not possible. Edmund then went up to bed, for no particular reason. He would have gladly slept with his sister, the father too. I mean the father would have gladly slept with his daughter, the time was long past and gone when he would have gladly slept with his sister. But something held them back. And she did not seem eager. But she was still young. Incest then was in the air. Mrs. Lambert, the only member of the household who had no desire to sleep with anybody, saw it coming with indifference. ... What tedium." (215-16)
This is classic, realist narrative with that perverse Beckettian twist. It extends the form, but does not [transcend] it. What tedium. It is not enough for the artist.

Neither is the naturalist, mimetic beauty of Beckett's prose:
"Then Mrs. Lambert was alone in the kitchen. She sat down by the window and turned down the wick of the lamp, as she always did before blowing it out, for she did not like to blow out a lamp that was still hot. When she thought the chimney and shade had cooled sufficiently she got got [sic] up and blew down the chimney. She stood a moment irresolute, bowed forward with her hands on the table, before she sat down again. Her day of toil over, day dawned on other toils within her, on the crass tenacity of life and its diligent pains. Sitting, moving about, she bore them better than in bed. From the well of this unending weariness her sigh went up unendingly, for day when it was night, for night when it was day, and day and night, for the light she had been told about, and told she could never understand, because it was not like those she knew, not like the summer dawn she knew would come again, to her waiting in the kitchen, sitting up straight on the chair, or bowed down over the table, with little sleep, little rest, but more than in her bed. ... " (216-17)
Such lyrical beauty; this could easily be the description of a still life by a Dutch master: the dying light, the posture, the face, the sadness. Yet, to Beckett qua Malone: "Mortal tedium." (217)

Still, tedious or not, writing is crucial to remembrance: Malone drops his pencil and cannot find it for forty-eight hours. "I have spent two unforgettable days," he tells us, "of which nothing will ever be known..." (222)

What is to be done? Malone reverts, as he promised, from storytelling to describing his 'present state'—a standard novelistic move. Malone, like Ivan Ilych, feels himself dying gradually, feels his body distancing itself from him:"
But this sensation of dilation is hard to resist. All strains towards the nearest deeps, and notably my feet, which even in the ordinary way are so much further from me than all the rest, from my head I mean, for that is where I am fled, my feet are leagues away. And to call them in, to be cleaned for example, would I think take me over a month, exclusive of the time required to locate them. Strange, I don't feel my feet any more, my feet feel nothing any more, and a mercy it is. And yet I feel they are beyond the range of the most powerful telescope. Is that what is known as having a foot in the grave? And similarly for the rest. For a mere local phenomenon is something I would not have noticed, having been nothing but a series or rather a succession of local phenomena all my life, without any result. But my fingers too write in other latitudes and the air that breathes through my pages and turns them without my knowing, when I doze off, so that the subject falls far from the verb and the object lands somewhere in the void, is not the air of this second-last abode, and a mercy it is." (234)
Frantically, Malone reverts to storytelling: There is some wallowing and squirming in the mud. There are possessions, lost, found, and lost. There is a hat on Macmann and one on an ass. There are sticks and bloody clubs. And Macmann comes/goes to the asylum. There is sex with his keeper, Moll. There is a tooth carved in the shape of a crucifix. There is murderous rage and a murder. There is the theft of bacon from the 'excursion soup' by the unscrupulous keeper, Lemuel. And there is the inmates' murderous excursion to the island with the asylum's benefactor, Lady Pedal.

Then, again, Malone's dying:
"A few lines to remind me that I too subsist. He has not come back. How long ago is it now? I don't know. Long. And I? Indubitably going, that's all that matters. Whence this assurance? Try and think. I can't. Grandiose suffering. I am swelling. What if I should burst? The ceiling rises and falls, rises and falls, rhythmically, as when I was a foetus. Also to be mentioned a noise of rushing water, phenomenon mutatis mutandis perhaps analogous to that of the mirage, in the desert. The window. I shall not see it again. Why? Because, to my grief, I cannot turn my head. Leaden light again, thick, eddying riddled with little tunnels through to brightness, perhaps I should say air, sucking air. All is ready. Except me. I am being given, if I may venture the expression, birth to into death, such is my impression. The feet are clear already, of the great cunt of existence. Favourable presentation I trust. My head will be the last to die. Haul in your hands. I can't. The render rent. My story ended I'll be living yet. Promising lag. That is the end of me. I shall say no more." (283)
Malone fails at his projects. He does not complete his stories—and what he completes is tedium, mortal tedium—though he scribbles furiously and unconsciously. His possessions seem to take on a life of their own, refusing inventory, wandering off, returning mysteriously. And his present state, well his present state dwindles into a homunculus inside his head and, after the rest of his body, is extinguished into a terrible darkness.

Such is Beckett's stark vision of the inner life of the dying Malone. Trying to avoid himself, he finds himself. Trying to escape his fate, he dies. We watch him, in that most memorable phrase, "being given...birth to into death."

In terms of the Ur-story theme we've been pursuing, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych was pure porn, a literary snuff piece, if you will, much like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was pretty much a pornographic, snuff film: the level of the storytelling is intense, direct, realistic; trapped within its own form. Beckett tries to escape the ambit of 19th Century realism by commenting—derisively we might add—on his own storytelling. In the face of the Ur-story, Beckett seems to be showing us, straight-on storytelling simply will not suffice. Tom McCarthy has absorbed this lesson. Remainder (and with it, Synecdoche, New York) is, indeed, the child of Malone Dies.

Some More Science Stuff for Non-Scientists

It's all just so awesome in its awesomeness.

Is there a hole in the sky from the Big Bang?


Old School Lawyer?

Are you a dog-person or a cat-person?

Here's an apolitical Noam Chomsky Tribute: He Found the Innate Humanity in the Human Brain

Just don't forget Nim Chimpsky!


The Whales

Then, there were the mysterious Cloud Warriors of ancient Peru:

And, finally, just because I want to revive one of my favorite pictures on the site:
Win Ben Stein's Mind! (if you think you can stand it)

03 December 2008

Brief Pop Culture Interlude

Does anyone think that Hugh Laurie of TV's House fame (not to mention his early hilarious stint on BBC's Blackadder comedy series) sounds just like Joe Frank?

I do.

If you do not know it, you are encouraged to check out Mr. Frank's work. House is on TV all the frickin' time.

That is all.

02 December 2008

Ur-story: No Light But Reflected Gleams

Somewhere on a continuum between Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych and Tom McCarthy's Remainder lies Samuel Beckett's short novel, Malone Dies. Let me explain.

In the Tolstoy, for the first time, we saw the novelist attempting to portray the consciousness of a dying character from the inside, i.e., the dying man's point of view. He faced the same problem as those fundamentalists who claim Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, to wit: how could Moses in the thirty-fouth chapter of Deuteronomy have written about his own burial? (NB: These, of course, are the moderate fundamentalists. For the truly die hard, the entire Bible was dictated word-by-word by their god. In fact, when I worked in the library at an evangelical seminary where they used to shelve the books by author, the joke was that we needed to shelve the Bible under 'S' for 'Spirit, Holy'.) Ilych dies in the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter. The artifice is evident, especially given the first chapter which is written in a more omniscient, third-person POV-type free indirect style.

At the end of McCarthy's book, we found the unnamed protagonist circling (figure-eighting, to be precise) in a hijacked private jet waiting, presumably, for it to run out of fuel and plummet from the sky. This would have re-enacted the incident which changed his life, but from the point of view of the inciting object. In the meantime, he had spent his considerable fortune re-creating and re-enacting scenes from his life. At first the scenes he sought to reproduce had happened directly to him and he tried to re-create his direct sensory sensations—the sight and feel of a crack in the wall, the smell of liver cooking, a pianist rehearsing, the sight of black cats on red roofs, etc. As the story progressed the scenes grew farther and farther away from his direct experience until, at the end, he pre-enacts a scene he wants to see happen in the future. The distance of alienation increases with each re-enactment, but the themes of unexpected windfall and unknown object falling from the sky somehow persist.

Where, then, does the Beckett lie? In Malone Dies, Beckett's protagonist, like Ivan Ilich, is dying. The first line of the book reads: "I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of it all." Malone sounds almost relieved, his life has been miserable. Unlike Tolstoy, Beckett does not give us the straight inner consciousness of the protagonist. "I shall not watch myself die," Malone baldly states on the first page. Instead, he defers it. Malone tries, in a sense, to escape death by trying to think about something else, or, in the language of criticism, alienating his consciousness of what is happening to him. How does he accomplish this? By writing!

Is this, then, meta-fiction? Is this an allegory of the artist's struggle? Good questions, best left to be resolved by evidence in the text. "While waiting I shall tell myself stories, if I can. ... I have also decided to remind myself briefly of my present state before embarking on my stories. I think this is a mistake. It is a weakness. But I shall indulge in it." He proposes to divide the time he has remaining (as best as he can predict it) into five projects: "Present state, three stories, inventory, there. An occasional interlude is to be feared. A full programme, I shall not deviate from it any further than I must. So much for that. I feel I am making a great mistake. No matter."

Here Beckett gives us his thesis statement in the guise of Malone laying out the project for the rest of his life. Each, we discover, is problematic: Malone's present state is unknowable: he is confined to bed and cannot explore the room he finds himself in much less the world he can spy beyond the frame of his window. His stories keep getting interrupted by his own sufferings and intrusions. The inventory, likewise, is problematic for Malone is unsure what he has—as opposed to what he once had and lost or what he thinks he has—and keeps losing things he imagines he has. The whole program is, we infer, uncertain at best, and, more likely, doomed to failure. Indeed, "a great mistake." Yet it is all that Malone is capable of doing.

Malone is, ostensibly, an old man living out his final days of bedridden isolation in a small room in some sort of care-giving institution—a hospital, an asylum, a prison, it is never entirely clear to him or to us.
"A few words about myself perhaps. My body is what is called, unadvisedly perhaps, impotent. There is nothing it can do. Sometimes I miss not being able to crawl around any more. But I am not much given to nostalgia. My arms, once they are in position, can exert a certain force. But I find it hard to guide them. Perhaps the red nucleus has faded. I tremble a little, but only a little. The groaning of the bedstead is part of my life, I would not like it to cease, I mean I would not like it to decrease. It is on my back, that is to say prostrate, no, supine, that I feel best, least bony. I lie on my back, my cheek is on the pillow. I have only to open my eyes to have them begin again, the sky and smoke of mankind. My sight and hearing are very bad, on the vast main no light but reflected gleams. All my senses are trained full on me, me. Dark and silent and stale, I am no prey for them. I am far from the sounds of blood and breath, immured. I shall not speak of my sufferings. Cowering deep down among them I feel nothing. It is there I die, unbeknown to my stupid flesh. That which is seen, that which cries and writhes, my witless remains. Somewhere in this turmoil thought struggles on, it too wide of the mark. It too seeks me, as it always has, where I am not to be found. It too cannot be quiet. On others let it wreak its dying rage, and leave me in peace. Such would seem to be my present state."
Malone here is the direct descendant of Ilych—sans, say, any sentimental nostalgia or, its obverse, regret or, importantly, insight. In fact, Malone claims he will not indulge any complaining about his symptoms or sufferings (contra Ilich). He proposes to hide from any revelation about his condition, whereas Ilich was radically open to his ethical epiphanic experience. Profoundly, Malone asserts he himself, his authentic self, his essence, is something more than the sum of his sufferings, something untouchable. Something unnamable perhaps?

How does Malone propose to evade his present state? He tells stories. The first is about a young man named Saposcat a/k/a Sapo. Sapo eventually morphs, in the second story, into Macmann: "For Sapo—no, I can't call him that any more, and I even wonder how I was able to stomach such a name till now. So then for, let me see, for Macmann, that's not much better but there is no time to lose, for Macmann might be stark staring naked under this surtout for all anyone would be any the wiser." And Macmann embodies all "the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones" we have come to know from Beckett's fiction.

The stories are problematic for the characters keep morphing with Malone. It is, nevertheless, safe to say the stories Malone attempts to tell to avoid thinking about his own dying are, in fact, self-reflexive. They are stories about himself—deferred one degree. There is some experiential truth in them.
I simply believe I can say nothing that is not true, I mean that has not happened, it's not the same thing but no matter. Yes, that's what I like about me, at least one of the things, that I can say, Up the Republic!, for example, or, Sweetheart!, for example, without having to wonder if I should not rather have cut my tongue out, or said something else. Yes, no reflection is needed, before or after, I have only to open my mouth for it to testify to the old story, my old story, and to the long silence that has silenced me, so that all is silent. And if I ever stop talking it will be because there is nothing more to be said, even though all has not been said, even though nothing has been said. But let us leave these morbid matters and get on with that of my demise, in two or three days if I remember rightly. Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave. But sufficient unto the day, let us first defunge, then we'll see. How many have I killed, hitting them on the head or setting fire to them? Off-hand I can only think of four, all unknowns, I never knew anyone. A sudden wish, I have a sudden wish to see, as sometimes in the old days, something, anything, no matter what, something I could no have imagined. There was the old butler too, in London I think, there's London again, I cut his throat with his razor, that makes five.(236)
This dark passage reveals so much. Whatever it is that exists beyond the suffering of the human body (for convenience's sake, let's call it a soul), Beckett seems to be saying, we cannot know in this life whether it exists beyond the grave. We must defunge first! In Italian, defungere means "to die". Thus, before we can know if the soul lives on beyond the grave, we must die. Fungere, though, means to act as or in place of another. Maybe, then, immortality lies in the creation of fictions, of art. No matter. The truth is there, somewhere. It is also interesting to note that, like Lemuel, Malone is a multiple murderer; their stories, too, coalesce in Malone's dying. Again, there is no escape from the experiential truth of the self, despite one's fictions.

In this, the remainder of the book becomes the precursor of the McCarthy, whose protagonist attempts to re-enact a significant experience of his life to recapture a feeling of deja vu he experienced. Subsequently, he tries to re-enact a moment in a complete stranger's life to capture the feelings that person felt when he experienced his own murder. There is an "other minds" argument going on in Remainder that is absent in the Beckett. Finally, McCarthy's hero attempts to create an experience he has never known—thus, definitively, taking it beyond the Beckett.

The irony is that no matter how hard Malone tries to escape his situation by frantically scribbling stories and inventories, he keeps returning to himself. The same holds in the McCarthy: the protagonist wants to recapture the one true 'authentic' moment he had begging for money in front of his stock broker's offices after he had won a settlement for the accident. He figures a bank heist might do the trick in an exaggerated sort of way. Indeed, he receives a sack of money but things go wrong and he winds up about to fall from the sky just like the mysterious object that clocked him, knocked him into a coma, and nearly killed him. The message is the same in both the Beckett and the McCarthy: no matter how much one attempts to defer one's self, no matter how much one resists, no matter how much one projects, no matter how much one scribbles one's fictions (or, in the Beckett, describes one's realities), one cannot really escape one's self. It is "immured", one might say imprisoned, in our "stupid flesh." The eternal return (to borrow Nietzsche's formulation) of the true self—whether in story or in the act of creation—is inescapable: the ineluctable modality (to borrow Joyce's) of the self. [More to follow]

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)