31 March 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 5

(cont'd from previous post)

After several interruptions (e.g., half marathon, Carolina in the NCAA tourney, MLB Opening Day) and diversions (e.g., the last several posts), I now plunge back into my look at Elias Canetti's fiction masterpiece Auto-da-Fé.

It's so easy, as a reader, to want to overinterpret literature. For those of us who grew up as 'people of the book', that is to say those of us of Judeo-Christian heritage, this was our mother's milk; we were raised to wring every ounce of meaning out of every Biblical passage we possibly could. "Who is the Son of God?" "What does the seven-headed dragon symbolize?" "666?" "What does it mean to 'honor' your parents and your God?" etc. What's hard in such a hyper-hermeneutic environment is to find the text's true limits and restrict reading to reasonable, legitimate inferences.

One problem is the tendency in literary criticism to universalize characters, and, lord knows, with Canetti's caricatures it's awfully easy to do so. But Barbara Johnson points us in one particularly fruitful direction in her discussion of Billy Budd. The great scandal of Herman Melville's unfinished novella was that it defied readers' expectations.
"No consideration of the nature of character in Billy Budd, however, can fail to take into account the fact that the fate of each of the characters is the direct reverse of what one is led to expect from his 'nature'. Billy is sweet, innocent, and harmless, yet he kills. Claggart is evil, perverted, and mendacious, yet he dies a victim. Vere is sagacious and responsible, yet allows a man whom he feels to be blameless to hang."
People want to identify with the characters, their essences, and be comforted by their fates: the bad guys get their comeuppances and the good guys prevail. This—more than worries about capital punishment, law vs. justice, repressed homosexuality, good vs. evil, Adam vs. Jesus Christ, etc.—this deep irony accounts for the Literary outrage caused by this seemingly simple tale about men on a ship at sea.

It also provides us a good way of approaching Auto-da-Fé: how do the fates of Elias Canetti's characters match their essences, and what does that tell us about what Canetti is up to? [N.B.: Canetti spills far too much ink, at least to contemporary sensibilities, detailing the minutiae of his characters' backstories. My analysis will focus, for the most part, on their actions 'in scene': what we see them do, not what Canetti tells us about their pasts.]

Therese Krummholz begins as Peter Kien's illiterate housekeeper. She seethes with lower class resentment. Kien, deluded about her, marries her in the belief she will protect his library from fire when he is not there. In a great comedic scene, she tries to seduce the monastic Kien but is a failure.
"Therese approached swinging her hips. She did not glide, she waddled. The gliding was simply the effect of the starched skirt. She said gaily: 'So thoughtful? Ah, men!' She held up her little finger, crooked it menacingly and pointed down at the divan. I must go to her, he thought, and did not know how but found himself standing at her side. What was he to do now—lie down on the books? He was shaking with fear, he prayed to the books, the last stockade. Therese caught his eye, she bent down and, with one all-embracing stoke of her left arm, swept the books on to the floor. He made a helpless gesture towards them, he longed to cry out, but horror choked him, he swallowed and could not utter a sound. A terrible hatred swelled up slowly within him. This she had dared. The books!

Therese took off her petticoat, folded it up carefully and laid it on the floor on top of the books. Then she made herself comfortable on the divan, crooked her little finger, grinned and said 'There!'

Kien plunged out of the room in long strides, bolted himself into the lavatory, the only room in the whole house where there were no books, automatically let his trousers down, took his place on the seat and cried like a child." (59)
Over time, she takes over more and more space in his spartan library, further desecrating his sanctuary. She demands that Kien purchase furniture for her. She is over fifty, but believes she is a desirable young woman. When she goes to buy furniture, a flattering salesman fawns over her. She believes he is in love with her and fantasizes a new life with him. In her new position, she starts feeling entitled and demands that Kien provide for her in his will. She mistakenly believes he is much richer than he is. He mistakes her demand, believing she wants to include him in her will. Once Kien tells her he has very little money and that he invested practically his entire inheritance in his library, she beats him senseless and throws him out of his own apartment.

Therese returns to the furniture store and disrobes in front of the flattering salesman. She is a spectacle and a laughing stock, but believes the people admire her beauty and dignity. She returns home, comforted in her delusional grandeur, meets up with Pfaff, the caretaker, a "real man," and they move in together in Kien's apartment. She and Pfaff decide to pawn all of Kien's books. Kien catches them, and mayhem ensues. Kien, believing her dead, refuses to recognize her for the rest of the novel. When Georg Kien comes to help his brother, he divines the situation with Therese and bribes her to vacate the apartment by promising to set her up in a dairy shop across town so long as she promises to steer clear of Peter. Happy ending.

After being kicked out of his own library/apartment/flat, Peter finds himself in a low-life cafe, the Stars of Heaven, filled with thieves, conmen, pimps, and prostitutes who fall upon him when he flashes the stacks of cash in his wallet. One of them, the Jewish dwarf Siegfried Fischerle, rescues him, primarily so he can poach Kien's fortune for himself. He is a chess-player, you see. Here we see him for the first time:
"Suddenly a vast hump appeared close to [Peter] and asked, could he sit there? Kien looked down fixedly. Where was the mouth out of which speech had issued? And already the owner of the hump, a dwarf, hopped up on to a chair. He managed to seat himself and turned a pair of large melancholy eyes towards Kien. The tip of his strongly hooked nose lay in the depth of his chin. His mouth was as small as himself—only it wasn't to be found. No forehead, no ears, no neck, no buttocks—the man consisted of a hump, a majestic nose and two black, calm, sad eyes. For a long time he said nothing; he was doubtless waiting while his appearance made its own impression. Kien accustomed himself to the new circumstance. Suddenly he heard a hoarse voice under underneath the table"

'How's business?'" (174-75)
Kien enlists Fischerle in his service, much as Don Quixote enlists Sancho Panza. Kien persists in the delusion that, even though he has been kicked out of his library, he is carrying around his entire library in his head. Like a cunning Panza, Fischerle buys into this delusion, even offering to help Kien by carrying around some the books in his hump. Each night Fischerle helps Kien unpack the 'books' from Kien's head and carefully stacks them in whatever hotel room they find themselves.

Fischerle's own plan is to relieve Kien of his money, dandify himself, and go to America to defeat Capablanca for the world championship of chess. In pursuit of this dream, he comes up with an elaborate con: he hires four denizens of the Stars of Heaven, gives them a stack of books, and tells them to go to the city's pawnshop, the Theresianum. He alerts Kien to the dangers of the shop, telling him that there is a book-eating ogre who works there, and gets him to pay the dwarf's minions not to pawn their books, i.e., ransom the books. Kien worries that the top floor of the pawnshop where the books are kept is a fire hazard. When Therese arrives, as noted, chaos ensues.

Fischerle manages to con Kien out of four-fifths of his fortune. He obtains a false passport, buys a garish suit of clothes, a suitcase, and a train ticket to take him to Paris and closer to his goal of America. Just before his train is set to leave, Fischerle returns to his flat above the Stars of Heaven to retrieve his notebook which, among other things, contains Capablanca's address. His wife, a prostitute, is entertaining one of Fischerle's former employees, a beggar who pretends to be blind to increase his take. He is seething because Fischerle, the last time he'd seen him, had tipped the blind man with a button—the thing in this world he detests the most.
"'He's under the bed!' screams the woman. 'What!' bellows the double. Four hands drag the dwarf out; two clutch him by the nose and throat. 'Johann Schwer is my name!' someone introduces himself out of the darkness, lets go of his nose, not of his throat, and bellows: 'There, eat that!' Fischerle takes the button into his mouth and tries to swallow. For a single breath the hand lets go of his throat, until the button has gone down. In the same breath Fischerle's mouth attempts a grin, and he gasps innocently: 'But that's my button!' Then the hand has him again and strangles him. A fist shatters his skull.

The blind man hurled him to the ground and fetched from the table in the corner of the little room a bread knife. With this he slit the coat and suit to shreds and cut off Fischerle's hump. He panted over the laborious work, the knife was too blunt for him and he wouldn't strike a light. The woman watched him, undressing meanwhile. She lay down on the bed and said: 'Ready!' But he wasn't yet ready. He wrapped the hump in the strips of the coat, spat on it once or twice and left the parcel where it was. The corpse he shoved under the bed. Then he threw himself on the woman. 'Not a soul heard anything,' he said and laughed. He was tired, but the woman was fat. He loved her all night long." (364-65)
A bad, ironic end.

(to be continued)

25 March 2011


Here I am nearing the finish line of the Georgia Half Marathon last Sunday. That's 13.1 miles, yo. Not sure if that's a smile or a grimace on my face, or just me gasping for breath.

It was a perfect day for running: started before sunrise, temp rose to low/mid 50s, cloud cover.

It's my third Half in the last year; I'd never run that distance in my life before last year's race. Though not a PR, I was pleased with my result: within 20 seconds of my projected time. And but for a four-minute bathroom break waiting to get into a smelly port-o-john, I would've been right on my PR. But here's the thing: I set my PR at the Myrtle Beach Half, which is flat, straight, and at sea level—none of which is to be found here in the ATL. Elevation approx. 1000 ft. Hills galore: 1407 ft. elevation change, 702 ft. total climb. By comparison, I was 28 minutes faster overall than last year's Half on the same course. That's over 2 minutes per mile improvement in one year! (If I can keep up that rate, in six years I won't even have to run the darn thing! Heh.) Not bad for an old guy.

You can follow the saga of my running exploits (and the story behind those shoes) here.

24 March 2011

More of the Same

See? This is just the kind of thing I've been talking about. MIT scientist Daniel Nocera, founder of Sun Catalytix, has discovered how to generate energy from water. "[T]his process splits hydrogen from the two oxygen molecules in water to create power from the sun. One and a half bottles of water, including wastewater, can power a small house, and a swimming pool filled with water refreshed once a day will generate enough energy to run a plant." If I had fifty or a hundred thou to throw around, I'd love to invest in something like this. To my mind it could be like getting in on MicroSoft or Apple REAL early. (Or Compuserve).

My only question is whether the technology works with sea water. Whenever power and industry compete with the poor for a single resource such as potable water, the folks who need it for mere subsistence tend to lose out. Ethanol, anyone?

Hey, what about a bacterium that craps petroleum?

23 March 2011

Slide Show: World on Edge

Aiming for a full 4/4 [Canary (in a coal mine), weathervane (any way the wind blows), Cassandra (Somebody, please listen), fool (nothing's ever gonna' change)], I re-present:

Yet Another Crude Argument from Yours Truly

Like it or not, market forces control our economic destiny. I'm a realist, not a revolutionary. Hell, even the Marxists are having trouble identifying and identifying with revolution-like events in places like Libya and now Syria, because right now they seem to be shapeless, and they don't involve Western-type bourgeois States: "Do we support U.N./Obama imperialist interventions or not? Ewww."

If, like me, you were anywhere around a college in the 1970s, you probably had a friend or an acquaintance who was a computer freak. What a dweeb, you probably thought, as he obsessed about "getting computer time." Meanwhile, if that guy didn't drop out and become pretty wealthy very fast, he graduated and pretty much did the same thing. Because of the age of my own kids now, I have the opportunity to meet a bunch of HS- and college-age kids. The one thing I keep hammering home to them is that things like environmental sciences and sustainable engineering and desalination technologies and food sciences are the new computers. If they want to do very well and, at the same time, do good, they should pursue a career in these and similar areas. If you are an investor, a {ahem} capitalist, you could do a helluva lot worse than investing in such green type industries and funds.

And it won't just be a bubble. Real estate, for example, was a predictable bubble based solely on demographic realities. The baby boomers (not just a marketing term) needed places to live as they formed familial units. There were millions and millions of them. And as they got richer on the benefits they gleaned from the Space Age and the Information Age, they demanded bigger and better places than their parents. But, with that wealth, came a decline in reproduction—apparently that's an entirely predictable economic fact. The generation that followed them did not generate nearly as much wealth and was not nearly so populous. Ergo there was less demand for housing. Market forces.

Sustainability, it should be readily apparent, has to be integral to the on-going life of our species and its civilization. Its bubble, if you will, is tied to our own survival.


Some more links on the subject of true costs of energy:

Scientists have found a way to work around the costs of platinum in solar fuel cells using carbon nanotubes. Costs of solar energy should decrease exponentially over the next few years. Remember Moore's Law?

The defense industry is joined at the hip with the nuclear industry.

More uncounted oil costs. [NYTimes paywall alert: Headline reads: "Oil Spill in South Atlantic Threatens Endangered Penguins"]. Here's another link.

One of my greatest joys in scuba diving is encountering sea turtles. This article documents the amount of plastic found in one juvenile sea turtlerecently. Here's the pic:

Oh, and more on the fraud of fracking.

Welcome to Toxipedia.

Netflix of  "Crude" (2009), if you do. Trailer:

22 March 2011

Free Market Truth in Pricing

Some quick research turned up the following from Ch. 13 of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse by Lester R. Brown:
"The failure of the market to reflect total costs can readily be seen with gasoline. The most detailed analysis available of gasoline’s indirect costs is by the International Center for Technology Assessment. When added together, the many indirect costs to society—including climate change, oil industry tax breaks, military protection of the oil supply, oil industry subsidies, oil spills, and treatment of auto exhaust-related respiratory illnesses—total roughly $12 per gallon. If this external cost is added to the roughly $3 per gallon price of gasoline in the United States, gas would cost $15 a gallon. These are real costs. Someone bears them. If not us, our children. n.2

If we can get the market to tell the truth, to have market prices that reflect the full cost of burning gasoline or coal, of deforestation, of overpumping aquifers, and of overfishing, then we can begin to create a rational economy. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world energy economy. Phasing in full-cost pricing will quickly reduce oil and coal use. Suddenly wind, solar, and geothermal will become much cheaper than climate-disrupting fossil fuels.

We are economic decisionmakers, whether as corporate planners, government policymakers, investment bankers, or consumers. And we rely on the market for price signals to guide our behavior. But if the market gives us bad information, we make bad decisions, and that is exactly what has been happening.

We are being blindsided by a faulty accounting system, one that will lead to bankruptcy. As Øystein Dahle, former Vice President of Exxon for Norway and the North Sea, has observed: “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.” n.3 

If we leave costs off the books, we risk bankruptcy. A decade ago, a phenomenally successful company named Enron was frequently on the covers of business magazines. It was, at one point, the seventh most valuable corporation in the United States. But when some investors began raising questions, Enron’s books were audited by outside accountants. Their audit showed that Enron was bankrupt—worthless. Its stock that had been trading for over $90 a share was suddenly trading for pennies. n.4 

Enron had devised some ingenious techniques for leaving costs off the books. We are doing exactly the same thing, but on a global scale. If we continue with this practice, we too will face bankruptcy.


n.2. International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), The Real Cost of Gasoline: An Analysis of the Hidden External Costs Consumers Pay to Fuel Their Automobiles (Washington, DC: 1998); ICTA, Gasoline Cost Externalities Associated with Global Climate Change (Washington, DC: September 2004); ICTA, Gasoline Cost Externalities: Security and Protection Services (Washington, DC: January 2005); Terry Tamminen, Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction (Washington,  DC: IslandPress, 2006), p. 60, adjusted to 2007 dollars with Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 3—Price Indices for Gross Domestic Product and Gross Domestic Purchases,” GDP and Other Major Series, 1929–2007 (Washington, DC: August 2007); BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy (London:  June 2007); U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products,” at tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/pet_cons_psup_dc_nus_mbbl_a.htm, updated 26 November 2007; This Week in Petroleum (Washington, DC: various issues); DOE, EIA, “US Weekly Retail,” Retail Gasoline Historical Prices (Washington, DC: 4 October 2010).

3. Øystein Dahle, discussion with author, State of the World Conference, Aspen, CO, 22 July 2001. 

4. Eric Pfanner, “Failure Brings Call for Tougher Standards: Accounting for Enron: Global Ripple Effects,” International Herald Tribune, 17 January 2002; share price data from www.Marketocracy.com, viewed 9 August 2007."

19 March 2011

Price Discovery

This is a quick follow-up to my previous post. The main argument used by traditional industry apologists/lobbyists (oil, gas, nuclear [fission], coal, etc.) is an economic argument; to wit: these status quo forms of energy currently deliver more kilowatts per dollar than alternative forms of energy (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, fusion, etc.) currently are capable of delivering.

In the current climate of public argument—policy and political and PR—this passes for authoritative and conclusive. In a free market situation, the cheapest, most efficient producer wins.

The standard response is that traditional forms of energy have been entrenched for so long that they are therefore cheaper and more efficient. Alternative fuel sources are only just beginning to achieve the sorts of economies of scale that these older industries have been able to capitalize on. This is weak.

The second response is that the traditional industries receive vastly greater amounts of funding from public sources—tax payer subsidies, utility company vertical integration, lax and favorable regulation, etc. Both arguments nip at the heels of the real issue, especially the second because it gets closer to the real knock-out punch.

The second point raises the issue of price discovery. In a so-called free market economy, market forces are in a constant tussle to set price points at an equitable, agreeable amount for both producers and consumers. Government subsidies and regulations act as impediments to this process.

Now, traditional energy industries are at the forefront in opposing government regulation—whether it be in the environmental or antitrust or consumer protection areas. They are the first to shout when government seeks to intervene on behalf of consumers or the environment. However, they fight like hell to defend their subsidies—whether it's in the form of tax breaks or regulatory indifference. And, what's more, they don't include those subsidies in their cost calculation.

A further cost they refuse to include—and this is the kicker—is the environmental and climatic costs of their business-as-usual practices. For example, the environmental costs of mountain-top removal are not factored into the price of a kilowatt of coal. The costs—spread over the entire industry—of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or Fukushima-type situations are not entered on the cost side of their ledgers; the public assumes these and all future risks (though by all actuarial right they are estimably calculable). Neither are the costs of global insecurity due to the by-product of this form of energy: the threat of nuclear war. The costs of increased global warming due to, e.g., ozone depletion caused by pollution from all these forms of energy production can hardly be calculated, though early efforts in the form of carbon taxes are currently being floated. Neither can the costs of global instability caused by the political inequities of propping up oil-friendly, authoritarian regimes in such places as Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, etc. All non-humanitarian foreign aid to these countries should show up on the ledgers of the oil companies. The impact on the health of people who work in these industries and who are effected by them due, e.g., to their proximity to their production facilities also needs to be monetized and charged to their accounts. Why, similarly, are the costs of cleaning up, e.g., Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico not factored into the costs of a barrel of oil? Because the free market mechanism of price discovery is not efficient. Knowledge is not yet perfect. And these industries are in a battle to the death to prevent it from ever becoming so.

Unless and until there is true price discovery, because the ideology of the free market is regnant in American and thus global politics, these traditional energy industries will continue to win the argument and thus the day, and there will never be a level playing field for renewable and sustainable energy industries.

Here's a good general primer on the issue. Here's a piece on the hidden costs of nuclear energy. And here's one on the costs of fossil fuels.

15 March 2011

Compassion, Energy, and the Japanese Disaster (with Linkage)

Taking a break from my series of posts about fiction and its self-awareness of its remove from the "real world" to talk about what's going on in the real world:

They say the Buddha is infinitely compassionate. It's times like these that make me wonder whether compassion is enough. Japanese people are suffering from the after-effects of one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history, a tsunami of almost unimaginable proportions, and a potential nuclear meltdown nightmare. Beyond our prayers, here's one way we all can help:
"The best way for local residents to help these people, according to relief organizations, is to donate cash to organizations such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army.

Representatives from both organizations said Monday that money is the biggest need and donating supplies is not an efficient solution.

“Logistically, it becomes too difficult to store, sort and then ship the items,” said Randall Thomas, spokesman for the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia. “We can be much more efficient with cash donations.”

For many people, the easiest way to donate is by text messaging. To make a one-time, $10 donation to the Salvation Army, people can text “Japan” to 80888. The donation will be added to the person’s cell phone bill.

The American Red Cross is doing likewise, allowing people to make $10 donations by texting “redcross” to 9099."
In our world, sometimes money means compassion. How broken is your heart? May the Buddha's compassion never be exhausted.

One does not need to be a genius at inductive reasoning to recognize the obvious: the risks/costs entailed by continuing to rely on our traditional forms of energy production outweigh the rewards/benefits. To wit:
Do you get the sense that Mother Nature is trying to tell us something? And we're not even beginning to address the global climatic repercussions.

Fact is, we're running out of energy. It's the ultimate root cause of our lackluster global economies. This is the age of exhaustion.

To read about how some really smart, imaginative people have proposed solutions that seek to preserve not only humanity and civilization but our planetary environment, I urge you to read my series of posts entitled "Parameters of the Last Ark" on this issue.

14 March 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 4

(cont'd from previous post)

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé is a complicated, complex, disorienting read. One of the problems we have is trying to get a fix on the narrative voice. It's difficult, for example, to identify the place of the narrator in the overall scheme of the novel.

He appears occasionally, using the characters, mainly Kien, to draw his conclusions. For example (p. 71):
"Blindness is a weapon against time and space; our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which our mean intelligence—mean in its nature as in its scope—can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar.

Kien had not discovered blindness, he only made use of it: a natural possibility by which the seeing live. Do we not to-day make use of every source of power of which we become possessed? On what means and possibilities has mankind not already laid hands? Any blockhead to-day can handle electricity and complicated atoms. Shapes to which one man as well as another may well be blind, fill Kien's room, his fingers, his books. This printed page, clear and co-ordinated as any other, is in reality an inferno of furious electrons. If he were perpetually conscious of this, the letter would dance before his eyes. His fingers would feel the pressure of their evil motion like so many needle pricks. In a single day he might manage to achieve one feeble line, no more. It is his right to apply that blindness, which protects him from the excesses of the senses, to every disturbing element in his life. The furniture exists as little for him as the army of atoms within and about him. Esse percipi, to be is to be perceived. What I do not perceive, does not exist. Woe to the feeble wretches who go blithely on their own way, whate'er betide.

Whence, with cogent logic, it was proved that Kien was in no wise deceiving himself." (71)
This is supposed to be Kien's philosophy, brought about by his closing his eyes to the influx of furniture brought in by Therese, lately his wife, to clutter up his Spartan library/apartment. If he ignores these things, they cease to exist. He refuses to acknowledge that which is unfamiliar. It is his weapon against that which he does not want to accept. The Latin, for those of you playing along at home, is from the English philosopher George Berkeley (sans the copulative); it is the watchword for his philosophy of "subjective idealism," something the scholar Kien might reasonably have been expected to be familiar with.

But the voice is simply too lucid to be Kien's. Kien is delusional and somewhat addle-brained. It's hard to believe Kien actually thinks in this rational a manner. Rather, this sounds more like the articulation of Kien's philosophy by that elusive narrative voice.

It's convenient, of course, to say that this is simply Elias being Elias; that the narrative voice is indistinguishable from the author's. It's convenient, but wouldn't be entirely accurate. The voice that articulates Kien's (and the other characters') thoughts so lucidly—the narrative voice—let's call "Canetti" (in scare quotes).

And this "Canetti" needs to be distinguished from the historical Canetti (no scare quotes), the Hungarian Jewish author, one-time lover of Iris Murdoch, and winner of the Nobel prize who died in 1994.

For Canetti, "subjective idealism" is a thing to be satirized; it's articulation has a clear purpose: Kien here is meant to represent the folly of Berkeleyan empiricism. Those whose idealism, whose systematic point of view, whose limited perspective, blinds them to real world facts that don't fit neatly into their schemes are the subject of his scorn—and they can be found in every age. Undoubtedly, this Canetti had specific targets in the context of Weimar-era Vienna in mind by attacking Berkeleyan subjectivism, but it is beyond my scope to suss out who they might have been.

Recall, too, that Canetti's original German title for the book was Die Blendung, or "The Blinding". This tells us that in this brief disquisition on blindness we are close to the heart of the book's stated intent. Suffice it say, in this Canetti's view, it is a bad thing to shut ourselves off from the realities of the world.

"Canetti" is more of a ventriloquist or puppeteer. He puts words in his characters's mouths and thoughts in their head. He articulates their essences, if you will, or individual consciousnesses. His is the unifying persona of the narrative. His voice is articulate and, frankly, somewhat heavy-handed and repetitive.

Canetti, on the other hand, eschews psychological realism. He engages in pointed Juvenalian satire. And that is because he has bigger fish to fry than the portrayal of an individual consciousness. In fact, it could be argued that the critique of the novelistic focus on character and consciousness is the very heart of Auto-da-Fé: to wit, the novelistic focus on individual consciousness blinds us to the uses and abuses of power and leads to the ultimate breakdown of the public sphere—family, community, culture, society, and ultimately the state.

(to be continued)

09 March 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 3

(cont'd from previous post)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued)

03 March 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 2

(cont'd from previous post)

Those of you familiar with my Ur-story series of readings [see sidebar] will recall that I try to focus on the elements of the text from a writer's point of view, with special emphasis on the relationship of the work to something I call the Ur-story: an uber-theme in literature stretching from the Gilgamesh to Gillespie, from Jahweh to Gaddis. Briefly restated, the ultimate subject matter of serious literature (which I take to include comedy, by the way) has to do with the individual's coming to consciousness of the inevitability of her own mortality and the multiform variety of human (all-too-human) responses to this profound sense of existential loss.

How does Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé fit into this scheme, if at all? Let's take a look.

Instead of a cast of realistic characters, Auto-da-Fé presents the reader with a parade of grotesques. None of the main characters is remotely sympathetic or likeable. All are stereotypes. Most are insane or at least maximally delusional. Each has his/her own rather utilitarian agenda which is mutually exclusive and, in effect, incognizant of the humanity of any of the others.

The main character is Peter Kien. Peter (I'll use his Christian name to distinguish him from his brother Georg(-e)(-s) Kien) is a philologist and reputedly (at least according to him) the world's foremost sinologist, i.e., interpreter of Chinese texts. He is described as tall, skeletal, absent- and single-minded. He is reclusive and misanthropic. He possesses what is claimed to be the greatest private library in the city (let's call it Vienna), some 25,000 books, comprised mostly of original Chinese texts. He cares for his books more than for his fellow man. In fact, for part of the novel he is said to carry his library around with him in his head. When we first find him, he is engaged in scholarly research, but he refuses to submit it to professional journals or read it at academic conferences both of which he disdains. Thus, his reliability is suspect from the first.

The narrative revolves around Peter (though is not told from his perspective (more on that later)) and his interactions with the four other major characters. Therese Krummholz is the illiterate, 50-something housekeeper Peter marries because he believes she will take care of his library. She is lustful and vain and self-righteous and is always associated with a starched blue skirt. Siegfried Fischerle is a hook-nosed, hunchbacked, chess-playing, thieving, lowlife, Jewish dwarf who dreams of going to America and dethroning Capablanca to become world chess champion. Benedikt Pfaff is the thuggish, ex-cop caretaker of Peter's apartment building. His flaming red hair and expressive fists are the iconic leitmotifs of his character. He raises canaries in the small closet where his abusive behavior ultimately resulted in the deaths of his wife and his 'beloved' daughter the guilt for which he carries around with him throughout the novel. Georg Kien is a gynecologist-turned-psychiatrist (a joke in itself) who indulges the madnesses of his patients. He is handsome, well-meaning, and vapid. He is meant to be a sort of last hope, a deus ex machina whose efforts at redemption ultimately come to naught.

Reading Auto-da-Fé is like showing up at the proverbial convention of solipsists (and this includes the minor characters as well); the joke being whether there can ever be more than one person in attendance.

(to be continued)