28 February 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 1

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé is not an easy novel. By any coventional measure, it's not a fun book. It is savage. It is misanthropic in so many ways. Its satiric vision is merciless and bleak. Its style is wordy and clunky (which may be a result of its being German and translated) and repetitious; it certainly isn't lyrical. The narrative voice tramples upon the action and dialogue. The characters are stereotypes and caricatures; they seem like tokens being manipulated around a game board to execute the overall strategy of the writer. None of the characters are likeable, and ultimately they're all utterly unredeemable. Neither does the dialogue seem organic to the characters; it feels as though the writer is putting arguments in his characters' mouths. The book does not have a conventional plot. Its story is crabbed. Its imagery is heavy-handedly symbolic. At first face, it feels as if its themes overwhelm its characters and the plotlines, but then it mocks the reader's intellectualizing expectations. Ultimately, it provides the reader no comfort or consolation.

Why read it then? one might ask; no one likes to be mocked. Good question that.

Originally published in 1935, in German, under the title Die Blendung (The Blinding or The Dazzlement or The Glare), it was first translated into English in 1947 and titled The Tower of Babel. It was Elias Canetti's first and, it turns out, only novel. I'm not sure it could be published in today's pop cultural, affirmational, commercial publishing climate.

It is heavily allusional and grounded in the culture of Weimar-era Vienna, an aspect (intertextuality) and an audience-response (dated) that will, unfortunately, escape most non-scholarly, contemporary readings.

Like Melville's Moby Dick and Gass's The Tunnel, it is monumental and controversial. Like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, it delves into madness and delusion. Culturally, it belongs on the shelf alongside such modernist contemporaries as Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, and Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, among others.

Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. According to the Nobel committee,
"His oeuvre consists of a novel, three plays, several volumes of notes and aphorisms, a profound examination of the origin, structures and effect of the mass movement, a travel book, portraits of authors, character studies, and memoirs; but these writings, pursued in such different directions, are held together by a most original and vigorously profiled personality. ... The main scene of the macabre and grotesque events that [Auto-da-Fé] discloses is an apartment house in Vienna. It is an aspect of key importance when Die Blendung is regarded by several critics as a single fundamental metaphor for the threat exercised by the "mass man" within ourselves. Close at hand is the viewpoint from which the novel stands out as a study of a type of man who isolates himself in self-sufficient specialization - here, the sinologist Peter Kien surrounded by his many books - only to succumb helplessly in a world of ruthlessly harsh realities."
The Nobel Committee's vague and passive thematic association of Auto-da-Fé with Canetti's later, magisterial Crowds and Power (1962) is not only anachronistic, it is too simplistic a read. It's almost as if they didn't quite want to have deal with it on its own, as if to say anything directly about it might somehow contaminate them. One can almost see the reviewer holding the soiled, reeking manuscript out at arm's length with one hand and holding his nose with the other as he decides what to say about it. After all, he simply couldn't ignore it.

And certainly, there is an element of intellectual elitism vs. ignorant populism in the situation of the novel, but this single opposition makes for an unsatisfying thesis—as, I would suggest, would any single such construction. The last chapter of the novel effectively throws all such attempts at structural explanations into disarray. It casts us back on our theories and imputations of meaning. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Suffice it to say Auto-da-Fé avoids easy closure. In lit-crit jargon, it problematizes meaning itself.

Beware: Spoilers this way loom.

[to be continued]

27 February 2011

It's That Time of Year

I didn't want it to go unremarked: WoW has just passed the hundred thousand unique page views mark. My mother is so proud of me.
What do the following pics, taken last week, have to tell us:

Opening day: Wesdom (aka the big left-hander) on the mound. Nice post-up; notice how his weight is back and he's nicely balanced during a Nolan Ryan-like high leg-lift. And, in the second pic, nice long stride, head directly over his belt buckle, great balance. And see how his glove hand is pulling and his rotating trunk is flinging his throwing arm, elbow above his shoulder(!), forward. (As you can tell from the grip, it's a change-up on the way, at the knees on the outside corner for a strike. Wicked!)

Crocus and daffodil blooming in my backyard:

You guessed it: It's an early Springtime here in the ATL!

24 February 2011

Catching Up

See this? Bogey men on the right. See this? Labor's organizing in self-defense and countering the Tea Party anger from a couple years back (that, by the way, paved the way for the Republican victories in the 2010 election). See this? The Obama Administration will no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA.

Are you feeling stirred up? Then you're the base, and the heavy guns are laying down artillery fire for the Battle of 2012. Game on.

[I'm looking for a major Green initiative and a big-time fight over shutting down government in the current round.]

Remarkable: Before our very eyes, we are witnessing the modern fall of the great ancient empires: Babylonia. Carthage, Egypt. Even corrupt, decadent old Rome (bunga bunga). And now Libya. Can Persia and Assyria be far behind?

We support freedom-loving people everywhere. GWB-style: cram it down your throat on our own timeframe and agenda; kill, maim, and injure tens of thousands of civilians, install friendly puppets whether you want it or not. O-style: quietly support bottom-up, people's movements and timely throw thugs under the bus.

Shock Doctrine in action?

How this will impact the coming resource wars with China remains to be seen. But I like our chances better now.

Speaking of Libya and oil wars, look who's on the side of the terrorists and anti-democratic dictators. Yep, you guessed it: BIG OIL! Aren't they always?

UPDATE: Huge article confirming the above and more: "Some of the biggest oil producers and servicers, including BP, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Chevron, Conoco and Marathon Oil joined with defense giants like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, multinationals like Dow Chemical and Fluor and the high-powered law firm White & Case to form the US-Libya Business Association in 2005." This lobbying group opposed reformers in Libya. Quel surprise!"brahim Sahad, the secretary general of the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition, the largest coalition of Libyan opposition groups, blames the USLBA and U.S. firms that have lobbied and consulted on behalf of the Libyan government for helping keep Gaddafi in power."

Did I miss anything?

23 February 2011

Unfathomably Deep, Impenetrably Dark

Gratefulness to all who've expressed HumanKindness w/r/t my previous post. This will be a quick update of things in the personal space.

Young Wesdom and his circle are gradually easing back into the flow of their hyper-busy lives. And they are doing it as close or, if possible, even closer than before. I love them so.

Their school was as supportive as anyone could ever have expected. The community has drawn closer to the bereaved parents.

No precise causes. The young man, we all knew, had been troubled; this was not his first such attempt. But he seemed better lately. Professionals and parents and teachers and clergy and friends were all on the case. He himself knew how to cope (or at least seek help) when he felt what he must have been feeling. He just, in this instance, chose not to. And not to alert his vast network—near or far—of his decision. No one noticed anything unusually amiss. In fact, just the opposite: he fooled us all.

None of us fully understands, but we're all dealing with that. What we do know is that some chemical imbalance in his brain put him in a deep, dark place from which he felt there was no other exit: tragic for one so young. (Wisdoc, who has worked with schizophrenics and PTSD'ers and bi-polars all her professional life, says that sometimes she deals with patients whom she calls 'terminal'; meaning their mental illness, like an incurable cancer, can ultimately have only one outcome despite the best work of the world's best.)

He left a large hole in the lives of those who knew and loved him: a deep sadness. But a sadness that is neither as dark nor as deep as that—unfathomably deep, impenetrably dark—which drove him to take his own young life so abruptly and so violently.

We can't on; we'll go on.

Be prepared: In the works is another serial post in my Ur-Story series [see Pages in the righthand column], this time on Elias Canetti's savage Auto-da-fé. Read if you must.

10 February 2011

Moments of Silence

Please pardon the silence here at WoW. My youngest son's 16-year old best friend committed suicide Monday after school. We believe he was clinically depressed, even though Sunday night he was eating pizza and drinking chocolate milk and cheering on the Steelers here at Casa Wisdom with all the verve of teendom. All our energies are being channeled into helping young Wesdom and his extraordinarily tight and beautiful group of friends cope with this.

Healing is happening, but it is slow.

05 February 2011

I've Tried Subtlety Before

If you've paid any attention at all to the sporadic political commentary on this non-niche-y blog, you'll know that seeing this article about former Pres. Geo. W. Bush canceling his fund-raising, book-selling trip to Switzerland because of his fear of criminal complaints being lodged against him alleging war crimes under international law gave no end of a certain sense of schadenfreude.

Think Rumsfeld will dare venture abroad to monger his own revisionist dreck after this?

I have held my tongue about Egypt because I'm just as in the dark as anyone else—elites and non—about what the true fault lines are here. Seems to me that if our currently hyper-militarized/corporatized neo-Empire truly held sway, both (or all) sides would be massively armed to the molars and blasting away to make room for more armings. That that's not happening has me baffled.

Is Bush:Iraq :: Obama:Egypt? (That is to say, did Obama just liberate 80 million Arabs?)

Again, has there been subtle persuasion of the undercover agitation and encouragement and organization type at work in Africa's Northern corridor? That is, is this an Obama-style invasion, or is he just butt-lucky? And if there were such subtle skullduggery at play, would we ever know about it?

re: Egypt: When will former VP Dick Cheney (his own self) authoritatively declare the true causes of the Egyptian mess? Is he, like me, waiting to see how it all plays out before deciding where the laudat lies?

Over/under: Cheney himself, not his minions or relations or FoxNews allies (including any who may once have been a small-town Alaskan mayor) who've already been laying the groundwork, will make a definitive statement within one week of Mubarak's stepping down and its becoming clear how the chips will start to fall—if they start to fall in a positively democratic, pro-Israel, secular pro-Western direction he will declare victory for Boosh (Iraq blah blah blah, etc.); if they start to fall in an anti-Israel, Islamist-Caliphate, dictatorial direction, he will blame Obama.

Pints are herewith at stake!

02 February 2011

Novel Ideas: Hejinian v. Barthes?

In a comment to the foregoing post, Christoper Higgs from HTMLGIANT asserts: "I think that for Hejinian an open text means something different than it does for Barthes." I fail to see a difference, but am open to enlightenment.

My reading is that Hejinian falls prey to the myth of the closed text which Barthes has gone to great pains to explode. She uses the notion of the closed text effectively as a foil to advance her advocacy of her notion of the open text. Which is fine. Contra Hejinian, Barthes would never make the claim that, say, either pretentious, epiphanic lyrical poetry or detective fiction are closed. They are open to all manner of cultural, dare I say, contaminations which renders them "moderately plural". Here are the relevant quotes.

"The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening. ... The essential question here concerns the writer’s subject position. ...We can say that a “closed text” is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it [emphasis mine]. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the “open text,” meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work. ...The “open text,” by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The “open text” often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification."
Barthes, an early (if not the earliest) proponent of Robbe-Grillet, understands what an open text is. [Readers might be interested in my six-part look at how R-G went about opening up the rules of detective genre fiction in The Erasers.] What he wants to show in S/Z is that the notion of a closed text is a false one; there really is no such thing. No text is closed, despite the claims for it. There is no single reading of even such a traditionally-viewed and even avowedly closed text as the Balzac novella "Sarrasine". Quoth he:
"To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it. Let us first posit the image of a triumphant plural, unimpoverished by any constraint of representation (of imitation). ... the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language. ... it is a question, against all in-difference, of asserting the very existence of plurality, which is not that of the true, the probable, or even the possible. ... denotation...is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations [emphasis mine]."
The notion of the open text is so radical, so revolutionary, that any understanding of it opens up ALL texts, all literature.
"The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages."

01 February 2011

Novel Ideas

Christopher Higgs over at HTML Giant is working a series of posts on "What Is Experimental Literature," part 1, part 2, part 3, wherein he references this article by Brian Evenson: Notes on Fiction and Philosophy. Higgs misses the Barthesian point that the idea of of what Lyn Hejinian calls "closed" fiction is simply that: a fiction. (see S/Z)


James Ryerson's point in his essay, The Philosophical Novel, in last week's The New York Times, that "Both disciplines [i.e., Philosophy and the Novel] seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world," is simply wrong. It is naive about philosophy and grandiose about literature.

Philosophy, no matter what it claims to be about, is about PHILOSOPHY, on the way to which it wants to show why no matter what other disciplines claim to be about, they are ultimately about nothing—unless it's philosophy (however naively). Discuss.

The novel can portray a philosopher as a bumbler or an idealist or unfeeling lout or whatever, but that is secondary to its main business, which is, indeed, portrayal: portrayal of a specific character, of affect, of choice, of transformation. Generalization to "mankind" and "humanity" and "human nature" is the game readers (a la Ryerson) play.

Where the two may have some common ground (if we can say that they even do) is in the knowledge that they are ultimately about nothing: philosophy is the project to prove that that isn't the case, that there is some there there in reality, while the novel accepts it as given and attempts to create something out of it.


Over at The Guardian, Laura Miller wants to show us how novels are finally getting around to coming to terms with the internet. Victoria Patterson is having none of it.


What's the point of writing novels anyway? Does it matter?


Turns out 20th Century propagandist novelist Ayn Rand "believed that the scientific consensus on the dangers of tobacco was a hoax. By 1974, the two-pack-a-day smoker, then 69, required surgery for lung cancer." The perils of ressentiment, no?

Famous for her broadsides against the moochers and leeches of the middle classes and the working poor for their assault on the integrity of the heroic individual, she opted for Medicare and Social Security benefits to pay for her treatments under the name of Ann O'Connor. A closet socialist? Heavens, what a hypocrite! She didn't have the courage of her own convictions, to accept the responsibility for her free choice, to die for her own 'big idea'. Such is the real relationship between philosophy and the novel.