Tag: postmodernism

easier Said than Fanon

MAKBARA
Juan Goytisolo, trans. Helen Lane
Serpent’s Tale 1993

Where have all the colons in writing gone? asks Terry Eagleton (one of his stock jokes in his lectures). They went into this novel, which has no end stops (but it does have line breaks and chapter divisions with allusive titles like “Heloise and Abelard”). MAKBARA is the most aesthetically radical novel I’ve encountered since Dara’s LOST SCRAPBOOK. No protagonist, no discernible plot. Huge chunks of it are in French, Arabic, and possibly other North African languages and dialects.

Behind this experiment is the work of Edward Said and the great Dr. Fanon as well as the poststructuralists. He uses the techniques of high postmodern narrative: East and West, Man and Woman become ontologically confused.  That is, we flit from metropolitan places in Europe and America to Moroccan scenes without any marked transitions. There is an Arab man and a white woman, but their identities and voices are in a total state of flux with that of the narrator’s (the narrator is a ventriloquist, and is themselves a nomadic figure). The pronouns I, she, he, we do not demarcate but blend together and combine with random voicings from the streets and bazaars.

Come to think of it, the romance narrative is actually pretty standard. Like in BELOVED, the simple storyline is the scaffolding for ambitious rhetorical and modernist operations.

in the beginning was the cry: alarm, anguish, terror, chemically pure pain?: prolonged, sustained, piercing, to the limits of the tolerable: phantom, specter, monster from the nether world: a disturbing intrusion at any event: disruption of the urban rhythm, of the harmonious chorus of sounds and voices of supernumeraries and beautifully dressed actors and actresses: an oneiric apparition: an insolent, brutish defiance: a strange, transgressive presence: a radical negation of the existing order: index finger pointed accusingly at the happy, self-confident Eurocraticonsuming city: with no need to raise his eyes, strain his voice, extend his beggar’s hand with a black gesture of Luciferian pride…

The Arab man is a pariah figure shifting between peripatetic beggar, an ex-soldier with a big brown dick, an underground man, and still other figures. You can see the colons at work. In cinema, cuts are a division and a join at the same time. Likewise, at the same time the colon separates clauses it also promises an elaboration of what came before, so the novel unfolds at a relatively micro level. I’ve tried to stop worrying about translations too much, but clearly this sort of alternative system depends a lot on a prosody that can’t be reproduced — I wonder what it sounds like in Spanish.

Goytisolo’s work was heavily censored in Franco’s Spain. There have been some surprises as to what offends people in this novel. There was one online review that spent a whole paragraph complaining about the bad Darwinian science in the second chapter, apparently missing the entire context of it being a series dystopian proto-Fascist radio broadcast about eugenics and building the master race. Some folks still go to novels for adult education…

Another one is “Angel,” a white European woman who falls in love with the Arab man. She was virtuous until she is raped, which afterward makes her sexually active; she is “turned out,” as they say.

…a primal scene, a continually repeated point of reference that haunts you, has haunted you, and will haunt you: a ceaseless beginning all over again, one step forward and two back, with my Sisyphusrock on my back: how to defuse, pray tell, the tension of that extremely painful episode?: I have tried, you have tried medicines prescribed by doctors, the traditional remedies of faith healers, to no avail:[…] acting as though I were a frivolous creature without a care in the world: comporting myself in a deliberately childish, shocking manner: visiting the doctor’s office without a brassiere, winking suggestively when the nurse left the room, insisting on unhooking your garterbelt… (30-31)

Notice the pronoun switch, the narrator’s voice taking over or embodying voice. Well, the kind of media criticism sensitive to assault — and this is the classic rape porn narrative — would find this totally repugnant. But remember that this is Franz Fanon’s sexual analysis of colonial mentality, but in reverse.

I’ve come to think that the social justice oriented criticism, that accuses these moments of regurgitating the filth of our society, are right, mainly because the media they critique is garbage. I realize this makes me a Frankfurt School snob. But successful art and literature engages in the world’s filth in order to hold it in suspense.

It’s a blue book, by the cover as well as the eros packed into it. It’s darkly funny, and no matter how distressing you may think it looks or is to read, it happily opens itself up to you.

Everybody who knows about Goytisolo says he’s the best in Spain. He’s still underrated.

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Reading Derrida part 1: rage against the machine

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Jacques Derrida is too eagerly portrayed as a gleeful anarchist. While post-structuralism does resemble the act of ruining a game of Jenga and running away snickering, Derrida’s ethos in his own writing is that of a sage who thinks slowly and carefully.The postwar philosophy I’ve read is experienced more as a leisurely stroll through a Japanese garden than a sprint through flawless logic. Deconstruction doesn’t need any dynamite to plant; it simply re-focalizes any given dualism in human thought so that it undermines itself before our eyes — modest work in practice.

Derrida is pretty hard to read. It’s partly the time and place. He tacitly admits that he’s using the rhetoric of a “Last Philosopher,” except this time he really is the last of an incredible vein of Last Philosophers, from Nietzsche onward, “Last” because they’ve read more widely and deeply than us, and because they are out to destroy metaphysics. His writing is a blow-by-blow grapple with structuralism and semiotics, which get more obscure with each passing day as they fade into memory, so some familiarity with early 20th century theory is needed.

But if he had written out his thought in plain, lucid prose, he would have been a hypocrite. He’s out to prove, after all, that language is slippery, constantly pulling out the ground for its own interpretation.

So, the picture above is a diagram inspired by a model Derrida offers at the beginning of “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” He’s basically outlining the common conception of Structure or structural thought, but teases us with a certain “Event” which will rupture this model. (It should be “metaphorical displacement,” it’s not the only kind.)

It would be easy enough to show that the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as the epistémé—that is to say, as old as western science and western philosophy—and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language, into whose deepest recesses the epistémé plunges to gather them together once more, making them part of itself in a metaphorical displacement.

The structure is the collection of rules and traditions legislating how we speak and write all day every day. What’s scary is that they existed before we did — how else could we utter anything in the first place? “Free speech” controversies are such liberal sideshows that would be sobered by any serious thinking about how language works: nobody really believes in free speech.

The structure sits on a foundation of our collective knowledge, which Derrida identifies with the greek word epistémé to emphasize its longetivity.

But then we have this image of an infernal machine, or an eldritch cyborg, digging and drilling and penetrating into the “soil of ordinary language,” strip-mining it of its words and concepts, digesting them and assimilating them into its own composition. My inadequate drawing went for limp tree roots because I couldn’t decide on infernal machine drill bits or eldritch cyborg tentacles.

Writing is hard; the easiest course to take is write the way you talk. As a friend once said, America’s southern writers are the best because they talk the best. The written word is just the spoken word in code. And this is the framework of de Saussure’s linguistics.

Derrida is about to argue that this is wrong. The metaphorical displacement machine is an incorrect model. More precisely, it is a dream sign.

What he emphasizes about this model of structuralism is that it is centered, or has a center. It has always been “neutralized or reduced” because we force a center onto the model, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it in the first place. The machine in my doodle looks stationary and stable enough on its epistemic columns, but the real thing is constantly roaming the landscape of everyday speech (or parole). Like in quantum physics, theorists have an observer effect to worry about: they can only look at a distorted image of their object of study, like the astronomers who find exo planets by looking at the gravitational mirages made by their suns.

The center is what allows for “play” within the system’s totality. The “play” doesn’t become radical — it doesn’t fundamentally transform its structure — because such a move is “interdicted,” and Derrida really wants us to pay attention to his word choice. An interdict is a forbidding of something, but it is also “between diction,” which leaves open another meaning. It’s not that the system is a rulebook-thumping despot, but that it sometimes confounds itself into silence as part of its operation. Theory gently nudges us toward the more interesting ideas, and that’s why it usually deserves our patience and tolerance of its jargon and density — these are counter-intuitive and non-obvious ideas about how things work around here that need to be developed carefully; they could potentially be instrumental in our liberation. Turn on Fox News to see what “straight talk” does for you.

But anyway, this incorrect model is a dream sign. This is because the premise that the discourse’s structure has a center, and that a center-less structure is unthinkable, is “contradictorily coherent.” A coherent contradiction is an oxymoron, but it’s a common thing. We are all pretty comfortable with coherent contradictions in late capitalism: look how much despotism is necessary to protect our freedoms in this century. Derrida writes:

Coherence in contradiction expresses the forces of a desire.

We’re in psychoanalytical territory now. The unconscious is the experimental movie of your life: the power of the id manifests itself in enigmatic signs which we experience in our dreams. Indeed, our recollection of our dreams is another filtered reproduction, as our cerebral ego tries to normalize them. To see the horrible true natures of our desires would be like the film EVENT HORIZON, or something, and we need shuteye.

These dream signs are also contradictorily coherent. They are the synthesis of a given desire (a lack which must be filled) and the counter-desire to repress that desire.

So this machine is a big embarrassing dream sign of Western thinking. What does it repress? That the machine has no center.

Derrida makes his task as difficult as possible, which I suppose is why having done it he ushered in post-structuralism. You cannot claim that the center of the sign system doesn’t exist without rejecting the sign itself.

The sign cannot in itself surpass this opposition between the sensible and intelligible.

But that didn’t stop structuralists from trying. They bracketed off the sensible, the actual existing world and the flesh-and-blood readers living in it, while their Formalist comrades bracketed off the author’s intentions.

The sign is an intense fusion of the signifier and the signified, or the word and the concept the word evokes in context. If the signifier “Open” is in neon red and blue, its signified is that the restaurant is open.

Derrida is outing the signifier as a metaphysical concept. This is the Jenga block that gets plucked out. But that metaphor is too easy. Derrida isn’t so irresponsible as to weed out any metaphysics in the cultivated Western garden on sight. That would have us naively reducing the sign to the signified, which is only half of what a sign is. We are then metaphysically complicit — well, I’ve done worse things.

There are more important insights here. One is that semantic dualisms pave their own way to their deconstruction, because they repress the key thing that sustains them. Take the classic doublet of Nature/Culture. The split represses the problem of incest, which humans have a harder time avoiding than animals do — is human incest nature or culture? Incest is banished to the unthinkable, but it’s also perversely what the opposition depends on by its absence. And indeed, structuralism banishes post-structuralism to the unthinkable. Nothing is safe from deconstruction because ideological doublets can always be questioned. Masculinity depends on a degraded and devalued Woman to define itself against, and it can be a stressful thing, not just because men have to measure up against a negative definition, but because the repressed can always return — Woman is a banished part of men, and men with the behaviors they’re encourage to have, may not take the news so well. Creating a solid core of an identity means you now have borders to patrol.

Which leads to the other insight. These semantic doublets can always be questioned because there isn’t really a foundation to our thought. That’s what people mean when they say “It’s turtles all the way down.” Every foundation is dependent on another foundation. The machine is digging through ordinary speech because structuralism desired (and then repressed said desire) for a natural foundation of language, from whence all other rules came, that was in there somewhere. Ironically, Derrida has the “transcendental signifier” not Out There but sequestered in the earth, like the dead dinosaurs we dig up and burn. The clue was there all along that this framework is not sustainable.

While this whole lecture of his was an intervention on a model, I find myself overwhelmed by the model and the way it was expressed. It’s not every day a work of theory moves me to draw something up. This blog is about literature loosely called modernist, and my biggest take-away point here is that throughout literary history moves a certain bundle of contradictions that bring forth texts we call Modern. They can have different outlets in different times and places: novels in the Anglo-American world, theatre in the Weimar Republic. I see no reason why these outlets wouldn’t include post-war theory.

I didn’t cover everything, but I think that’s pretty much post-structuralism’s opening move. But Derrida’s implicit argument is that writing is way more problematic than we thought, which is, funny enough, not at all a novel claim in philosophy. If writing is a code with a missing cypher, we are then left with the problems of GRAMMATOLOGY.

 

character demolishing

SEIOBO THERE BELOW
Laszlo Krasznahorkai trs. Ottilie Mulzet

New Directions, 2013

In chapter 13, “He Rises at Dawn,” me meet a master carver of Noh masks. This story is a single sentence that contemplates the flow of his work routine. LK’s characters in SATANTANGO were vivid and grotesque. Here, it’s like his prose aesthetic has been taken so far that characterization as we think of it is not quite possible. The novel is pretty conservative about characters in the Aristotle sense: characters as vessels of action, which comes in the form of massive chains of words so intensely focalized on various aesthetic objects.

But with the various classical artists like this mask carver, we can glean all kinds of artistic values.

…if there ever even was, his master taught him in his youth — or rather fulfilling the prophecy of his master, his own experience taught him that if there is within him the desire to create an exquisite mask, then he will unavoidably and unconditionally create the ugliest mask possible, this is always, and it is unconditionally always so, hence for a long time now that desire has not been within him, to put it precisely, there is nothing at all within him, the thoughts don’t whirl around, his head is empty as if he had been stunned by something; only his hand knows, the chisel knows why this must happen… (153)

Humble and modest is the artist who empties their heart of desire. The mind is empty too but not inactive. It’s just that only the present moment matters; you need to stay in the moment in general, but also when reading Krasznahorkai lest you get lost in the current sentence.

In Chapter 3, “The Preservation of a Buddha,” a monk says that his temple’s sacred Buddha statue “is knowledge given form, but not knowledge itself” (85). I suspect that’s why the master carver is impatient with “Western curiosity-seekers” who want easy answers from him about the “essence” of Noh theatre.

There’s a high-modernist tendency in the book to look wistfully at the art of the past: it seems so perfect and unified, pure, uncommodified. Fundamentally bound with religion, they constitute a force of their own that devastates the very bodies of the spectators each story. There is a notion in Marxist criticism (but from who? Lukacs?) that it was the very material underdevelopment of the pre-modern societies that made such a unified art possible.

But then there’s chapter 34, “The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki,” about a Noh performer. It’s opening sentence is narrated by Seiobo herself; maybe master Kazuyuki is so good at Noh drama that she was intrigued enough to come down. Then she returns “back to the purity of the Heavens, to the sphere inconceivable — which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is,” which means she doesn’t exist in her home either (214). This infinite place beyond…we have to narrate our way to it. But its nature of being infinite means narrative is impossible — nothing can happen.

There is no improvisation to Kazuyuki’s work, not even in his work schedule or other prosaic matters.

…even if it seems that way, he never improvises, what happens is not improvisation, absolutely not in the everyday sense of the word, of that they are sure, since the sensei knows everything in advance, and knows it with dead certainty, and this is the general conviction, that’s why only to them does it seem like improvisation, because while it is true that he has a prescribed schedule for every given month, the sensei is eternally open, like a book, which means that in this direct contact with the Heavens, and for that reason he may suddenly be a bit unpredictable…(219)

He has stock narratives he tells the media. He has stories passed to him from his sensei, and “not even one single word may ever be altered, not even a single expression, no one may add anything to it, and no one may take anything away” (226). This is an aesthetics connected to the divine, conserving the absolute. Innovation is degenerate market modernism.

But what about Amoru-san, who describes her upbringing under this sensei:

I only love sensei because sensei is everything, and my father was a very hard man, he beat me every day, every single day, once I knocked over a porcelain vase, then he shoved my head into the iron stove, and he slammed the stove door against my head until I lost consciousness; in a word every single day was painful for me, every blessed day hurt, and I wanted to die, for a long time it wasn’t possible, and then finally it was, and I was already an adult when I first saw sensei, and I knew immediately that I loved him, but nothing was possible, so that is why I jumped in front of a car, and I lay in a coma for seven weeks, the blow had struck my brain, I was between life and death, the doctors said there was nothing they could do, but sensei knew, he knew that I loved only him, so as soon as he found out, he came to hospital and he called me back, I only now sensei and I only love sensei, don’t ask me about anything, so, well, sensei is my goal, before him there was nothing and after him there will be nothing, and I hope that he, too, will love me forever (241-42).

In all our desires for a lost whole, we shouldn’t forget: the anxieties of modernity is still preferable to absolute authority and the loss of the self, in my opinion.

But a lot of sacred art is unattributed, and a good thing too. Chapters 2 and 89 examine authorship, or rather its impossibility before modernity. (Foucault tells us the “author” is the function of a discourse based on private property.)

Because I’ve been hung up on the relation between fiction and nonfiction, I see another theme on this book’s back burner. There is a lot of factual stuff about the works of art and artists concerned, even citing modern scholarship and papers and whatnot. I hear LK is at work on a novel about Melville. This doesn’t shock me because I believe SEIOBO is encyclopedic in the way of MOBY-DICK.

Its’ been argued that the split between fact and fiction is recent and a-historical. The problem begins with Plato when he cast out the poets from his republic, thus turning philosophy into something that is not-literature. But Thucydides feels a lot more like creative nonfiction than traditional academic history. To borrow from Stephen Mulhall, philosophy and literature can be thought of as different kinds of “thoughtfulness” (more in a later post) but perhaps what I like about encyclopedic narratives is the “fusion” of these modes. My tastes go in this way.

premodernism

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SEIOBO THERE BELOW
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, trans. Ottilie Mulzet
New Directions 2013

I almost had a serious problem. The first chapter of Krasznahorkai’s new book appeared in THE WHITE REVIEW . I was entranced just by the first sentence, 800 words, describing a white crane wading in Kamo river in Japan, doing absolutely nothing except waiting for the moment to strike its prey. Indeed, I didn’t want to get on with the chapter, I only wanted to read that sentence again, and again…

Then by December of last year I got my own copy (signed by the author himself in New York). Again, I only wanted to look at that curtain opener. It wasn’t until the end of June that I finally started reading the rest.

SEIBO is a cycle of short stories concerned usually with art from the old world, but pretty much always with aesthetic questions — it’s an encyclopedic novel full of holy Shinto and Buddhist sites and statuary, Russian iconography, antique literature, Renaissance panels, ancient Greek architecture…I’m still only 2/3 of the way through it.

Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here through some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades; now and then the silken breeze sways, the mountains quiver in the scourging heat, but this heat itself also moves, trembles and vibrates in the land, as do the tall scattered grass-islands, the grass, blade by blade, in the riverbed; each individual shallow wave, as it falls, tumbles over the low weirs, and then, every inconceivable fleeting element, this surface suddenly emerging and just as quickly collapsing, with its drops of light dying down… (3)

It was hard to stop typing up the sentence: these are really just going to be arbitrary cut-offs. The message of Heraclitus: the only constant is change. Compared to the extreme stillness of the crane, the whole universe is quivering with movement. The text thrives on difference. There are actually an unusual amount of adjectives in this sequence: most of the time, Krasznahorkai’s eye is so close on the chapter’s given object (a crane, the restoration of a wooden Buddha statue, a painting of angels) that there’s no room for rhetorical ornaments. And yet the long sentences give a sense of expansiveness. Yeah, many of them are technically run ons, but it’s obvious that he’s doing something different here, more paratactic.

The sentence develops as the narrator describes how, eventually, this crane will kill “a fish, a frog, a beetle, a tiny reptile” in a rapid, precise movement.

and there it stands, in one time, immeasurable in its passing, and yet beyond all doubt extant, one time proceeding neither forward nor backward, but just swirling and moving nowhere, like an inconceivably complex net, cast out into time; and this motionlessness, despite all its strength, must be born and sustained, and it would only be fitting to grasp this simultaneously, but it is precisely that, this simultaneous grasping, that cannot be realized, so it remains unsaid, and even the entirety of the words that want to describe it do not appear, not even the separate words; (4)

Animals are great at existing in the eternal present moment. When a puppy dog waits in barely contained anticipation for a piece of jerky, is he conceivably in some “cast out moment” of anticipation that could go on forever if he had to wait that long?

Just when the crane seems to be about to be cast into something (I hesitate to say symbol), we get some shorter sentences (each one is separated by a space break) about the eternal starvation of the animal world, and the surrounding city of Kyoto. Nearby is the famous Higashi-Honganji temple. A tourist in from the Shinkansen station could look on this temple, but

the Higashi-Honganji today does not exist; as the eye looks upon it, the Higashi-Honganji never had a past, or a yesterday or a day before yesterday, there are only thousands and thousands of Allusions to the obscure pasts of the Higashi-Honganji, so that the most impossible situation is created, that there is, so to speak, no Higashi-Honganji of today, just as there never was a Higashi-Honganji at one time, only an Allusion, commanding respect, there is one, there was one, and this Allusion floats across the entire city, as one enters into it, as one tramps across this prodigious empire of wonders, from the To-ji temple to the Enryaku-ji

It comes to represent “the ungraspable, the inconceivable — as it is unreal — in other words: unbearable beauty” (9-10).

Only humans (the embodiment of sloth and evil) need time, before and after. It is the imposition of time that allows us to ruin the sublime indeterminacy of these beautiful objects. They exist out of time until we see and appreciate them and, as the event still transpires, puts it in the past tense: I experienced this, I learned that about the world and that about myself.

So that crane, with no indication of when it will strike, with no visual transition between its stillness and the moment of the strike, which is never narrated, becomes our first encounter with the unnamable realm of beauty and truth; the realm of Seiobo, where we desire to penetrate yet also need to keep unsullied by the world. Modern storytelling takes us to the terrain of what is necessarily inexpressible, and we can see how language gets all messed up as we approach it, like the gravitational lensing around a black hole.

So it’s actually a really scary thought, that Seiobo is, was, and will be, there below. We have to think about how and why these problems of aesthetics haunt us precisely when the aesthetic has devolved into a commodity object and cut itself off from the divine. We walk a line between the holy pilgrimage and the crass consumerism of the tourist.

And not all unbearable beauty inspires love. One story I want to look at closely in a future post shows how the sublime can punish the body without mercy.

One last bit: there’s a little digression in this first chapter, “Kamo Hunter”, about the building of the great water infrastructures in ancient China and other East Asian empires. This was a watershed (sorry) advancement for the development of these civilizations.There’s a role, not explained with the same lucidity as Krasznahorkai brings to other topics, for the ideological and its use of art for the interests of the ruling class, and the assault on the environment these uses entail.

 

couple stories

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For these are the kind of stories in Barth’s 1996 collection ON WITH THE STORY. All twelve of them, and the framing device, concern straight, white, upper bourgeois couples on vacation. A couple checks in to the hotel, do the usual business: topless beach, tennis, maybe some hot tub time, and of course post-coital bedtime stories. A story for each night of the vacay: as usual Barth has a eye on the old literature.

These pieces are like a domesticated, mainstreamed version of postmodernism. Narratives of upper middle class white couples, dreadfully straight, naturalistic, national magazine stuff with a bit of O. Henry like charm… But the familiar material is part of the fun, since Barth injects what could be stale shorts with encyclopedic details of quantum physics and narrative theorizing. The act of storytelling is some kind of profound part of humanity, but the reason is not as simple as telling stories in order to live. It’s probably more like staving off death, more Scheherezade than Didion.

The earlier stories focus on this kind of “primitive” storytelling, the need to put off the end, to fill up with words lest we’re met with silence, before moving on to more sophisticated narrative theory. “The End: An Introduction” for instance is narrated by a writing professor introducing an author traveling with heavy security, since her work, like Rushdie’s SATANIC VERSES, has attracted enmity from certain authorities. It’s taking a while to get her through campus onto the venue, so he fills the dead air with musings, including the millennial sense of termination.

In short and in sum, endings, endings everywhere; apocalypse large and small. Good-bye to the tropical rainforests; good-bye to the whales; good-bye to the mountain gorillas and the giant pandas and the rhinoceri; good-bye even to the humble frogs, one is beginning to hear, as our deteriorating ozone layer exposes their eggs to harmful radiation. Goodbye to the oldest continuous culture on the planet: the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, in process of extermination by Saddam Hussein even as I speak. Good-bye to the once-so-cosmopolitan Beirut and once-so-hospitable Sarajevo, as we who never had the chance to know them knew those excellent cities. The end of this, the end of that; little wonder we grow weary of “endism,” as I have heard it called. (15)

The influence of Barth’s diction on Wallace and Baker and maybe other writers after him became way more obvious to me. Indeed this story reminded me a lot of THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, which I’m still pondering a year after experiencing it.

More procrastination in the next story: A wife learns terrible news, news that could compromise the emotional happiness between her and the husband forever. Their time of equilibrium is over; she just has to cross over to the garden where the husband is at work to tell him. But the narrator, at pains to keep this moment at bay, starts describing the trees on the property, the birds and the nearby lake. There’s some business with Zeno’s paradox: how Achilles cannot catch up with the tortoise, since the distance between them is infinitely divisible.

Barth is famously a novelist who doesn’t usually do stories (his remark of being a long-distance rather than a sprint writer actually shows up in this text), so that when he does put out a collection it feels thoroughly composed. These are not novel chapters that have been published separately as stories, but rather a set of stories connected by small motifs (objects as well as bits of language) to loosely comprise an alternate narrative world. One white couple, Joan and Frank Pollack, appear in two stories (and I suspect they are the couple of the framing device. The phrase “On with the story”crops up in each one. A story about folks in South Carolina preparing for Hurricane Daishika is followed later with a story of a couple riding out Hurricane Emile in the Bahamas, which came after the first one.

That last one about Hurricane Emile, “‘Waves’ by Amien Richard”, was definitely my favorite piece. Amien Richard is the nom de plume of a straight white upper mid-class couple: Amy ‘n’ Richard. They’ve got it made as far as writers go: they apply for grant money to go on fun exotic trips and make non-fiction pieces out of them. Here they are in an island resort paradise, scuba diving, trying to keep their minds off something — something terrible has happened to them in the recent past. They’re trying to heal, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

Most interesting is the narration itself. It uses the legion “we” pronoun, but Amy and Richard are free to insert their own voices and separate themselves from the couple unit from time to time, which seemed like a wonderful way to dramatize the dynamic of these characters, and made what could have been a really boring story (as they try to distract themselves) into something delightful and energetic. For instance, when Amy and Richard swim around in a reef:

Has any of this advanced the story? (It has, between the lines, Amy here opines in pained parentheses; but she isn’t prepared to say how just yet. [What she did — unnoticed by Richard but not by the central joint narrative intelligence of this story — was give the slip to her mates recently somewhat oppressive though understandable monitoring of her ((as she perceives it)) and dive down behind a pile of living coral to see whether she would carry through on her one-tenth-serious inclination to drown herself. As her held breath reached its limit, however, she happened to catch sight of the corkscrew inner spiral of a small, ground-down conch shell on the sea floor: a dainty, perfect, tapered bush-and-ivory auger, not uncommon in these waters but in this instance uncommonly fine in its coloration and its intactness-within-attrition. Instead of blowing out the last of her air therefore to find out whether she could actually inhale water as… others have done before her, she forced herself a fathom deeper, retrieved the token, and shot to the surface. No Richard ((he has ducked under in search of her)); then there he is, looking the other way, toward shore. She recovers her breath and inner balance; returns to snorkeling as if nonchalantly, although her heart still pounds; tucks it for safekeeping into the crotch of her bikini, faute de mieux; then clasps her hands behind her back, the better to feign insouciance.]) (124)

The “central joint narrative intelligence” is the couple’s collaboration on the manuscript that is the story (Barth never permits the reader to be immersed, to forget they’re reading words on a page). It’s such a fun idea, and it’s also a throwback to the 18th century  English novels, always from this or that lost manuscript. At a glance it seems naive or gimmicky, but such devices were ironic ways to confront the profound lack of authority we have to craft literary fiction. It’s 19th century realism that shrugs off this problem or tries to distract the reader from it.

“‘Waves'” also theorizes about narrative in more formal way beyond the Scheherezade notion. The Russian formalists taught us that a given work has a syuzhet and a fabula, a plot and a story. You could generally observe that postmodernist fiction saturates the text with syuzhet while the fabula is far more obscure than usual (hence the interest in mystery stories by American pomo authors, really anti-mysteries, since they’re about how the bigger truth of What Happened eludes us).

What happened that damaged this couple so badly? Barth never tells outright, but there are more than enough clues that you can figure it out.

“Are we waves or particles?” Amy asks. Forget Richard Powers, Barth is my nomination for the true author of SCRAPBOOK, which never gets as cutesy or light as the later stories in this collection do. “The Stories of our Lives” is like that Simpsons episode, complete with physical transitions of people’s objects, a misplaced coin or pair of shades. Evan Dara didn’t have to use those kinds of tricks while putting things off til the last end-stop. And there were so many ding-dong kids these days gags that I was reminded by Barth will never be as cool as Coover or Pynchon.

We learn late in the collection that this frame couple, staving off the end of the vacation with stories, is about to end. If I comprehended it right, Frank Pollard has terminal pancreatic cancer: this really is the last vacation, and the final full-stop. A little bit of pathos with all this pomo esoterica.

All the same though, it was light, and it’s summertime.

 

stutter, memory

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i dont mean to be cute: DICTEE by Theresa Cha is hard to talk about.

it’s a postmodern, feminist avant garde book. you might call it a novel; it has memoir and poetry in it as well. it draws on cinema and conceptualist art. there are photos without captions, and reproductions of handwriting.

it’s organized in nine sections. you get a table of the program: each section is named after a muse (and there’s a prologue with a proper invocation of the muses). but one of the muses, Elitere of Lyric Poetry, isnt real. Theresa made her up. pull apart the word: Eli Tere…Tere in Teresa. El i… Elle y Taire. She is silent.

there’s an epigraph from Sappho: “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.” she made that up too.

the text comes in english, sometimes broken, as well as french and hangul and chinese characters. the experience will be different depending on your linguistic background. and like the Elitere thing above, Cha makes multi-lingual puns. “Speak fucking english!” Cha mounts some incredible wordplay, nearly all of it i unquestionably missed. it’s part of her response to the experience of an immigrant writer, an exiled writer, a politically orphaned writer. this is no rah rah rallying cry for the ~Asian American Community~. that’s all bullshit. no identity, no speech. it’s an incredible political charge brought to Beckett’s concerns with silence and the representation of an incommunicable experience.

it resonated with me on a deeply personal level. my mom’s side of the family are ethnic Chinese who fled from Vietnam as part of the mass exodus from Indo-China in the 80s. Who do they blame? the communists, naturally. they embraced the US and thoroughly assimilated. my mom badly wanted me to be that cliche Asian Achiever that i simply wasnt. it made me angry and i couldnt understand it, until i got into punk and anarchism (very white things, in the very white pacific northwest). my family is anti-black, and i cant say they’re just bargaining their way into the white dream — Asian people are anti-black in their distinct way. i often think to myself that i hate my chineseness more than my whiteness.

but it’s not like the finger should be pointed to Uncle Sam instead. this is where Cha sustains incredible complexity. towards the end she gives us a page with a single line:

Tenth, a circle within a circle, a series of concentric circles. (175)

it’s tenth of a list of what i think are schools of thought, including tai-chi. i have no clue. but the concentric circles image reflects on the US, among many other things. there are concentric circles to US imperialism/neocolonialism, which operate distinctly yet concurrently. Cha includes an appeal from Korean Americans in Hawaii to intervene in Korea due to Japanese imperialism, which the US neglects because of their own interests in the Philippines.

one of the strongest sections is Clio / Epic Poetry, which is centered on Cha’s mother (the chapter is flanked with two portraits taken of her, in youth and old age). she describes the process of assimilation:

They have not questioned. It is all the same to them. It follows directions. Not yet. They have not learned the route of instruction. To surpass overtake the hidden even beyond destination. Destination.

I have the documents. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature. One day you raise the right hand and you are American. They give you an American Pass port. The United States of America. Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph. The other one. Their signature their seals. Their own image. And you learn the executive branch the legislative branch and the third. Justice. Judicial branch. It makes the difference. The rest is past.

You return and you are not one of them, they treat you with indifference. All the time you understand what they are saying. But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity. They comment upon your inability or ability to speak. Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality. (56)

identity replaced with photograph; the adopting country allows you to assert your existence on their terms, those of representation. “The rest is past.” this is the triumphalist delusion of linear history. trauma can be erased just by the beautiful experiment of US governance. it’s all in the past, get over it; your rise to citizenship cancels it out. really it’s America’s own crimes that are erased, throughout the century.

the other stand out section is “Erato / Love Poetry”. the text is laid out in a stereo-form, with each page acting as a column. you jump from one side to the other depending on where the text goes. on the left channel, a woman is watching a film (Dreyer’s Gertrude), on the other is an impressionist narrative of St. Teresa. we follow the unnamed woman, an immigrant, enduring an awful marriage with an abusive husband who cheats on her, but she stays for the baby. we also get another through-line of Joan of Arc. the three threads or layers actually move fluidly through the stereo format — it’s hard to keep track of it.

you can see it as another form of concentric circles, those of women in history who “transcended suffering,” i suppose, but Cha invites us to be more skeptical of celebrating women in this way. marriage here is one of the most oppressive and torturous institutions imaginable. and in these cases of pain, different women through time seem to rise out of the text, in a way similar to Walter Benjamin’s messianic conception of history. we get a still from Dreyer’s film about Joan D’Arc, that famous tear-stained close up. we also see a photo of St. Teresa dressed up like Joan of Arc for a play.

the feminist avant garde might be characterized as deliberately sloppy. films by Su Friedrich or Minh-ha may be scattershot and deliberately obscure, but sloppy i dont think they are, even if they refuse the coherency of a proper masculine closed system. Cha’s embracing of mythological and classical forms and her intricate placement of every element makes the book incredibly dense. the very last piece is a photograph of nine Korean women — nine muses. one of them is the militant and martyr Yu Guan Soon.

another photograph opposite the title page is graffiti on a wall scrawled by a Korean minor in a forced labor camp in Japan. he’s addressing his mother, likely never to be seen again. wholeness is false — Cha shows us that the honest way to do history is to haul up these fragments of misery.

her conceptualism drives the text to become spatialized, so to speak. although that’s really hard to follow through, since words still have to be read in sequence. the photographs of handwriting, actually reproductions of photographs, probably do most to hold the reader in that liminal spot between text and image, line and space. here she tries to give voice to a yearning and experience that really can never be understood. the space itself is kind of a festival, all the same, with its own rituals, and everyone inside is free to “become” something, not their true identity, which is meaningless anyway, but just becoming, again and again and again.

communion w/ cockroach (notes)

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i cant write posts on the last three novels i read; they move me to silence. at the end of Clarice Lispector’s amazing PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H. are six em-dashes. she ends with the unsayable, but the punctuation is a way to make silence a part of language.

the novel is this incredible mind journey that works circularly, from G.H. to the dying cockroach in the wardrobe and back. she’s disgusted by the white and yellowish roach guts which ooze out of its carcass, but this paste is no different from mother’s milk. so she eats it. it’s not the most transgressive thing ive ever read, but it’s visceral. in communion the bread actually is the body of Christ, not a symbol or substitute. God in this novel works more like Spinoza’s god–this god exists everywhere. and the roach can actually be itself, not just its own representative; it’s the dream of true communication, and it’s right there in front of her and us, but it’s the circuitous and experimental route that is necessary to arrive at this point.

–Bear with my telling you that God is not pretty. And that because He is neither a result nor a conclusion, and everything we find pretty is sometimes not only because it is already concluded. But what is ugly today shall be seen centuries from now as beauty, because it shall have completed one of its movements. (167)

the novel moves towards the symbolic feminine. G.H. is a well-to-do sculptor. her work is rarefied, with a defined end point. women’s work (the work of her maid) is tedious, monotonous, and circular — no end to doing the dishes or the laundry. when G.H. enters the maid’s old bedchamber (a black woman who was invisible to her), she’s also in a disavowed part of herself. but female is not just one half of a dualism–it also contains the potential to dissolve that entire set-up. Christa Wolf’s CASSANDRA is similar, female also includes everything and everyone who is marginalized, and feminism can serve for the liberation of all of these people, that is if we don’t let it get any more co-opted by neoliberalism.

it’s a reductive book, which i dont mean in any pejorative way. it strips away everything you get from novels so that all that is left is the gaze and a particular experience. at the same time, the prose is super analytical, and i didnt really understand any of it.

there’s something about time as well.

I was seeing something that would only make sense later — I mean, something that only later would profoundly not make sense. Only later would I understand: what seems like a lack of meaning — that’s the meaning. (27)

G.H. is the first person narrator, but she also dissolves into the space around her, as well identifying with the cockroach. She addresses a “you” who is just as protean, her ex-lover, her doctor, her mother, the reader perhaps. autobiography, autofiction, autotheory, confessional; these are powerful first-person genres. Lispector’s modernism questions the capacity of the “I” to relate anything from the past. the failure to recall, to re-present, to own, frustrate our desire to reach “now.”

for “I” is just one of the instantaneous spasms of the world. My life does not have a merely human meaning, it is much greater — so much greater that, as humanity goes, it makes no sense. (188)

G.H. is like Oedipa Maas in Pynchon’s novella CRYING OF LOT 49. buffered from the world, each lives in a metaphorical tower, examined in the wonderful lyric passage that ends chapter 1:

What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant , visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (12)

the great experimental/modernist novels have a layer of literary criticism to them. they theorize about their own methods, teaching you how to read this shit. there’s a vinyl metaphor, in which Oedipa skips along the grooves, jumping out of linear time. this is the step that legitimates Pynchon’s digressive flashbacks into history; the astounding architecture of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. 

Oedipus solved the riddle of the sphinx. as a postmodern detective story, LOT 49 conflates the detective and the mystery into one being, so that Oedipa contains her own riddle.

Nabokov’s DESPAIR is also a detective story that is simply told from the P.O.V. of the villain. i thoroughly enjoyed it, and that’s all i really have to say.

(that chubby hardback from NDP of Lispector’s stories is way cheaper than i expected, but i bought Laszlo K.’s DESTRUCTION AND SORROW instead….)