Below is an email that I sent to the Guardian regarding their obituary of Eva Figes. It's very long and perhaps of no interest to the vast majority of people to whom the name Eva Figes is unknown. I happen to love Eva Figes' books and I'm not too keen on the Israeli occupation of Palestine, so it upset me to see the death of one of my favourite authors used as an excuse to engage in a little re-writing of history in the standard zionist style. In spite of this I've hopefully retained a certain level of objectivity in my criticism (that's the whole "academic standards" thing I mention in a moment of snobbishness). The article is available here - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/07/eva-figes
To the editor of the Guardian,
I'm not usually one to complain of newspaper articles - it seems somewhat redundant considering no-one's forcing me to read your paper - but I felt compelled to share my thoughts on your obituary of Eva Figes, written by Eva Tucker. I'm currently writing a PhD thesis on Figes and the group of writers surrounding her so it makes me a touch defensive when I see inaccuracies printed. It is my understanding from the article that the author knew the late novellist in person far better than I, yet I don't think that should render my input invalid. As this obit may be the only contact that most people have with Eva Figes now that she's passed it's a shame to leave them with a bad impression.
Anyway, here's a couple of inaccuracies that I noted:
The biographical information in paragraph four (which I assume stems from her work Little Eden, or a review of that work, or perhaps a personal conversation) talks about her being called a "Jerry". There are a couple of other minor niggles here that can be excused for purposes of concision but I think this one is particularly notable considering what comes later. The bullying that Figes writes about happening when she moved to England was actually due to her being Jewish, and she notes in Journey to Nowhere that she escaped the "collective guilt" of her German nationality by referring to her Judaism. Perhaps she was called "Jerry" on occasion, but it would not be the most obvious thing to take from her memoirs, as it makes her experience of anti-semitism appear somewhat conspicuous by its absence.
The reading of Journey to Nowhere is so biased that I can only assume the "acme of fury" described was an act of projection on Mr. Tucker's part. The considerable research that went into that book is dismissed in favour of ad hominem attacks on Ms. Figes and "Edith" - the starting point, not end point, of the book's argument. I am aware that journalism cannot be judged by the same set of standards as academic criticism, but any balanced reading of the text would consider the quotation about Israel's right to exist as an abberation in terms of the overall tone that is introduced at a climactic moment for effect, rather than symptomatic of the entire work.
In terms of hard factual innaccuracies, the phrase 'she called German Jews who went to Palestine in the 1930s "Hitler Zionists"' is just wrong, and cannot be excused as subjective interpretation. "Hitler Zionists", "yekkes" and "soap" are listed by Figes as terms used by Palestinian Jews to refer to the German Jews forced to Palestine by Hitler as they were uncomfortable with the fact they did not share a language and the more cosmopolitan Germans were not part of the settlers movement out of choice. Eva Figes is writing against these terms that she had encountered as part of her research - using them as an, admittedly crude, counter-argument to Israel's current ideological interpretation of the holocaust and the political power which that lends them internationally.
Apologies for the lengthy email. I don't expect anything to be rectified as I realise that most of my points could be considered "my point of view". It would be incredibly appreciated, however, if you did something at least about the glaring error regarding "Hitler Zionists". You are essentially calling a recently deceased woman an anti-semite by attributing to her words which she was herself condemning. Ironically, it is this kind of irresponsible conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-semitism that Eva Figes was warning about.
As a final note I think I should mention my favourite of Figes' novels, 1969's Konek Landing - an experimental work that very subtly investigates the post-war European landscape from the perspective of a stateless Jewish boy. It is a work of incredible beauty and compassion that has never properly been identified as part of the holocaust writing canon, although Figes has mentioned in numerous places that she considered it her most important novel. You are of course free to publish whatever obituary you wish, but I would suggest that an inclusion of a novellist's most important novel would not only be of worth from the standpoint of the general reader but may also help to counterbalance any nasty insinuations made by a journalist who does not seem familiar enough with her work to offer criticisms in a responsible manner.
Thanks for taking the time to read this if you have reached this point. I wouldn't blame you if you gave up after the bulletpoints! I really appreciate the fact that the Guardian published an obit as I believe Eva Figes to be unfairly neglected as far as modern British writers go and anything that may inspire someone to pick up one of her books is great by me. I am also sure that Eva Tucker believed wholeheartedly that her apology for Journey to Nowhere was the right thing to do when defending Eva Figes as a writer. I only wished to have it noted that I respectfully disagree.
I am thrust into the conclusion that without David Cameron I would not be the theorist I am today. A terrible concept perhaps, but like all concepts of any worth it both springs from solid grounding and indicates the way forth to better, firmer, more fertile grounds…
The theory that I have written so far was passed around our bi-monthly discussion group where fellow PhD researchers comment on each other’s progress. Although I felt my grounding of the novel in its actual being (rather than ephemeral thought) was reasonably sound on logical principles, I was hoping for some help in connecting it to “culture” – something I’m also chasing in terms of actual being but haven’t fleshed out systematically. Well, this is the problem I wanted help with, although it wasn’t the problem I encountered.
Too hugely egotistically to complain at the time, the real problem was the fact that everybody agreed with the completed part of the theory (oh, sweet applause!) without really seeing the point of the incomplete part, or treating it as a different theory altogether. For me, though, without the link to “culture” this is barely a theory at all. Something had happened that had made analysing the novel seem pointless in-itself yet massively vital for social progress as a whole. At the same time it struck me that although I could still see this, the drive towards it was far murkier and fuzzy than I remembered it was during writing.
So, I went back to context. At what point did these ideas form into recognisable shapes that could be formulated properly? Well, in short, between the end of November 2010 and mid January 2011 – the era of state violence and student aggression. Tramping snowed-in streets between political meetings had seemed to be getting in the way of my work at the time, but its message, motives and movement clearly filtered through. Complex ideas simplified, got cut, else proved their necessity when faced with the most brutal counter-arguments. What initially took months of pondering and page after page of writing was boiled down to 3,000 words that, if they didn’t find a suitable reason for existence, would end up being thrown out too. The moment was revolutionary – everything said was political, and our survival depended on its defence.
Conflict that with now – why so weary am I? The movement has lost energy, but not ground, and much that we looked forward to has actualised – the support of the unions, if not student ones, for example. But where are the sites? What was police-lines, snowy streets and heated arguments is now the organised march and the booked communal-space. Just as violence fails to erupt on the streets, it also fails to erupt where it previously shouldn’t. The endless calls for solidarity have dried up as the factions are now separate and content with that. The Roscoe “autonomous students” won’t share a room with the SWP – now neither drive towards protest in any meaningful capacity. What has gone is the state of emergency. Without constantly being faced by arguments you disagree with it is remarkably hard to form a cohesive argument. Too much will be left to slide, remain unstable, carried on by prejudice.
In spite of common sense, then, it would seem that it was the huge, pointless arguments that provided the strength of the left. Solidarity is an important concept as it asks not for people to agree but only that they barely tolerate each other – if it is not being called for then there is too much agreement going on; we will lose our focus, our creativity, we’ll get ideologically flabby. That is why I should really thank David Cameron; if it wasn’t for his single-minded determination to destroy the country then I’d never get any decent work done. God bless the mental neoliberal prick.
So it comes around to that time of year again. Time of our own traditions, those inherited, and those mashed together over countless generations down shifting cycles of the human unconscious. Yes, the mass of Christ – the weight of his sufferings and the density of his flesh. Nom-noms.
In my nightly wanderings around the works of Frazer I’ve come across many an interesting scene that will perhaps add weight to last year’s Jungian ramblings. May the myth of Persephone serve as an example. Ovid’s version, if failing memory serves me, depicts the abduction of a daughter from a mother and the ensuing custody battle. Frazer expands on this by drawing on the “eastern” version of the myth in which two lovers are separated. Being a season-based myth, the emphasis is thus moved from the nurturing vision of mother-earth to the impregnating actions of the seed-sower. What interested me, however, was that both versions utilised the pomegranate as a more-or-less arbitrary symbol: it both grew in the underworld and represented through seeds the many hungry days of winter. The version taught to me both at school and, more memorably, by my grandmother instead stated that it was Persephone’s eating of the pomegranate that doomed her to life in the underworld. In the land of Milton then, it would be fair to say that Eve’s original sin has jumped on an otherwise Hellenic bandwagon. Or sleigh, as they’d have had back then…
Forgive me, my comely and insatiable imaginary reader, for the roundabout way I’m taking – I only wish to demonstrate how imprecise and over-presumptive my method is here. You see, Christmas is a time of baffling complexity in terms of its symbolism (if can even be called that). The Christian nativity is second only to the book “Revelations”, or maybe “Ezekiel”, as far as Biblical weirdness goes. The three (important kabbalic/pythagorean number) magi standing beside shepherds has some Christian merit I guess; “tending of the flock” being a central doctrine, as well as its sense of egalitarianism. That hardly provides an overt for them though.
Once I return to Frazer and read of the Thracian celebrations of Dionysus – almost identical to the nativity in terms of setting, time of year, and dramatis personae – a consistent theme seems to emerge. The shepherds tend their flocks that they may be harvested. One magus brings myrrh; an embalming resin. The stable is depicted traditionally as filled with animals, many of which serve only as food, with the babe placed in the manger, or feeding trough. In essence, all the signs point to the inevitable death and consumption of the newborn. The Theban Dionysian ritual sees an old man become a cow that it might be torn apart to reveal an infant. The Christian ritual of eating body and drinking blood is perhaps tamer, but only as it happens so regularly and, for Protestants at least, is reduced to symbol.
Both myrrh and frankincense, as resin, are also the blood of trees. Yet the tree is traditionally an element of springtime symbolism eg/ the maypole. Here the Thracian myth goes whole-hog and employs a giant wicker phallus, but lets not get dragged into Freud. I think the key issue here is one aptly demonstrated by the Tate’s new tree; the tree is always an evergreen. Where spring is happily to be spotted in the greening of an oak, so is winter to be bravely weathered by the pine. Although usually depicted as an ash - the life-tree, Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, would be well-suited to this role. Standing as the eternal symbol of constant being, Yggdrasil stands for a gleaming permanence amongst the anthropophagic flux.
I’m getting pushed for time so may as well try and eke out a few more observances about the remaining elements. Now, I’ve said I wouldn’t get into Freud but it’s in Totem and Taboo that some of the implications of Frazer are drawn out on the subject of parenthood. Why is he “Father” Christmas? It could be argued that the term is historically a term of respect (perhaps like “grandpa” would be now, though it’d be hard to not make it sound sarcastic). If we’re talking historically, however, St. Nicholas has pretty much nothing to do with this odd character – albeit his namesake. Rather than Freud then, lets turn to Levi-Strauss and, less so, Frazer again. The notion of fatherhood is often ignored and sometimes not even understood by the tribespeople they studied. Women simply became pregnant and families extended through the maternal line. The father is negligible – a belief shared by the Jews and, to drag us back, perhaps then an influence on the creation of the Virgin Mary?
It’s here that I must stop myself. I fear a bottle of wine and increasing liberties regarding synchronic notions has left me pondering whether Father Christmas is actually Jesus’ dad. Perhaps a better path would be to follow the line of presents and dinner (offerings/sacrifices), or maybe some “Santa Claus” Germanic track? Maybe something to do with Coca-Cola or the fact that I’ve never really liked Christmas that much anyway…
Anyway, anyway… this has been a long one for you, my intrepid imaginary reader. You must be tired. Do come join me in bed. Or, failing that, consider that there is a strange sublimity in all man’s works, even at their most ridiculous. Surely that’s a better reason for the season? Well screw it then, I’ll return to Bakhtin…
People talk a lot of our modern lack of concentration. It’s a given that we of the new generations can’t be trusted to sit though anything as time consuming as a novel or a play. We need constant novelty, stimulation. This is assumedly why we all sit in front of computer screens for hours and hours.
Still, media bullshit aside, the question of the length that “art” should be is an interesting one. A visit to a recent Picasso exhibition saw me tired out after about an hour, and there was still four roomsworth of paintings left to go. I couldn’t help feeling the entire experience would have been far more enjoyable if I’d spent the entire time with perhaps two true masterpieces and done them justice proper; rather than nod, read the title and give an internal thumbs-up or down.
Filmwise, Hitchcock always made films “in direct accordance with the size of the average human bladder”. The great silent comedies are even shorter; the length of a premise and a pie-gag. The cinema’s inherent compromises between populism and quality make duration something essential in a film’s success. Australia, for example, seemed a successful (if eccentric) movie for the first 90 minutes before, inexplicably, deciding to carry on for another 90 – turning itself into a universal flop in the process.
Novels, however, are something else entirely. BS Johnson believed the modern novel should be short as Victorian epics were stuff of a different time. Of course, we also forget that most Victorian novels were serialised and, similarly, the proliferation of speeches and sermons would no doubt have given readers an ear for the windiest of prose styles.
The average size of ‘blockbuster’ modern fiction then (eg/ The Da Vinci Code) seems a curiously post-modern mix of these two approaches to novelistic length. In word-terms it’s unusual to find anything pushing the 100,000 mark, but page-wise anything less than 500 is quite rare. The amount of words on a page can at times be half the amount you’d find in a Penguin Classics. This phenomenon is perhaps indicative of the idea that a longer book makes for a more “engaging” story, or even just that people enjoy turning pages. The highest acclaim on any poster tends to highlight the books kinaesthetic appeal – “A great page turner”.
In essence, there can’t really be a perfect novel size. On the other hand, there can definitely be wrong novel sizes. David Mitchell’s novels tend to drag an extra 200 pages from a 300 page premise. Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night could have even been a classic given a good editor. Richard Brautigan, on the other hand, always puts me off as I’m effectively paying £8 for 30 paragraphs. Great paragraphs, yes, but this is the “Age of Austerity”!
The length issue is indeed a tough one though. Many’s the time I’ve brushed off a book that I could have liked were it shorter; elaborate lengths oft reek of vanity. On that note, my intrepid imaginary reader, I should best end it. Of course you’ll never have reached this point anyway, you fickle thing, but it’s nice to know you tried.
(PS – I’m writing up my dissertation at the moment, fairy audience, so don’t expect much in the way of blogs for a good while yet!)
Just returned from a rather wonderful weekend at the Hay-on-Wye literature festival… or I would have done if I hadn’t realised that there was the “HowTheLightGetsIn” philosophy and music festival on at the other end of town. Despite Elinor and I both technically subscribing to the status of literary scholars, the call of reasoned debate trumped the megalomaniacal brain-farts of the likes of Martin Amis and philosophy, as ever, won over.
The most striking debate that I attended was that of Zygmunt Bauman talking about Utopias, Dystopias and society. The striking element was my sudden inability to grasp the word “society”. Used in every sentence, Bauman obviously knew very well what it was, as did the rest of the audience, yet I grew increasingly confused. It wasn’t, as was suggested to me, that some unconscious Thatcherism had revealed itself in a bout of free market solipsism – no, it was the very transcendental quality of the word and the resulting metaphysical warmness that it made me feel as a result. Like Bion’s Group Experiences, it suggests an unspoken, unified coherence of minds in such a way as to alleviate any possibility of existential anxiety; a charming prospect.
That the talk took place in the context of (U/Dys)topias was no doubt a helpful indicator of this transcendental quality of the “social”. Taking 1984 as an example – the “social” threat lingers in the dystopian ambivalence. The state apparatus itself (similarly with the book’s political ideologies) is indistinct, only to be pictured in the mythic figures of Big Brother and Goldstein. These figures are “social” where the state itself, be it legislature or particular representatives, can only be seen as what they are within that society. Society is like Room 101; we already know what is in it, and it is not Winston’s rats. The appearance of the rats (not particularly scary in itself) is purely an indicator of the potential of Room 101, just as any definable entity can only be a potential of society and not society itself.
The notion of the social and Utopia overlap in this capacity. William Morris’ late-Victorian anarchist utopia, News From Nowhere, is essentially a description of this transcendental field of society. Its great success in achieving this comes through a mix of two-dimensional characters and a total lack of any concrete politics or history within its established world. Utopian cohesion is “natural” unlike the individual or the state that, as definable entities, can never truly exist within the ambiguous melange that is “society”.
“Society”, like “Utopia”, appears to be an attempt to cross what can only be considered a truly “Parallax gap” as described in Zizek’s The Parallax View. Individual personality and politics, as is evinced in the hyperreality of “personality politics”, can never truly be attached together (perhaps Kant’s distinction of private and public reason is the case here?). Society is a useful bridge between these two that encapsulates both whilst placing itself “elsewhere” via a kind of theoretical Derridean “differance”. I would not consider myself to be society, nor would I consider David Cameron, a parking ticket, a 20 pence piece or a bacon sandwich to be society – yet they are all “part of” society. Zizek’s description of society as only existing in the “background”(Perverts Guide to Cinema) is not so much true as to say that society exists only in vignettes. We can never truly “see” society but by making a situation indistinct enough we can start to “feel” it.
Perhaps the ultimate description of a “society” can be seen in the second level (and title sequence) of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in which you are driven around the city, helplessly looking out upon countless scenes “symptomatic” of violent revolution. The marching soldiers, the massacred civilians, all are uniform and without individuality, signifying similar events without even truly signifying themselves. Even the moment when, driving down an alley, a man pops up from a rubbish bin, sees you, screams and disappears back into it to hide, seems faceless. He is the comedy of the human stuck within political engines as their most inhuman. A symbol of the social - not Barry or Jeff or Akhmed…
Perhaps this indicates something intrinsically reactionary, or at the least paralysing, within descriptions of “society”. Its general effect is that of reductionism without use; by stripping entities of forces in order to locate them in a transcendental social they lose autonomy within the social field. This is perhaps what Latour and the Actor-Network-Theorists are dealing with at the moment; there is a society outside of the individual and the state but it exists as a network of influences and not as a residue of trends and generalisms. That which takes place within the social can therefore never be passive, it must always be active – even if, like Pacifism, it is active towards passivity. For if society is to be thought of as a “between” and not as an “elsewhere” then only that which exerts influence can exist within its existential jurisdiction.
Perhaps the ultimate A-N-T Utopia, then, is Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. The world of “Watermelon Sugar” is one of balance similar to Morris’ “Nowhere” yet each of the individuals within the anarchistic community differ in beliefs and personalities, even to the extent that some choose to live in a junkyard and drink themselves to death. No resident of Watermelon Sugar exists in order to represent wider trends. Even the lingering, evil genii Other of the “tigers” get their chance to explain why they killed the young protagonists parents (hunger, family needs, his parents long, full lives upto that point) and, as such, can be seen as Actors in a Network and not as a “social threat”. Morris’ “objectors” to “Nowhere” are passed off as fools that would soon die out – Brautigan’s “tigers” are active characters simultaneously to being a menace. Of the two situations, we can only truly understand (and thus think of ways to change) the situation of the tigers, whereas the “society” of objectors must be left to die out of their own accord, much as we’ve expected racists and fascists to do for the past however-long-it-is…
I apologise for my rather lackadaisical attitude blogwise recently, my delicious imaginary reader, but I’ve been finishing off essays to a somewhat excessive extent. A collaboration between myself and the university in terms of work-to-deadline ratios has undoubtedly ended my career in academia – yet I have a summer left to write my thesis and continue with these increasingly odd blogs. So never fear, gorgeous, you will not lack the sustenance you have come to take from my pen – yet I may consider it a bi-weekly duty from now on…
Today I’m hoping to write of something that I have been obsessed with for a long time – the relationship between Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque and Freudian psychoanalysis. The two appear as opposites, but focus on much the same things. The distinction first occurred to me whilst reading one of a million awful, completely-missing-the-point, critiques of the writings of Burroughs. The intrepid Freudian set out to squeeze Burroughs into his Oedipusillanimous box (much like a small child trying to get the circle shapes through the circle holes – or simultaneously fucking and shitting as a “pure” Freudian would have it); the “crabs” and “centipedes” were obviously then his mother, the police and “authority figures” his father.
A fair enough presumption if it were to lead to a better conclusion, yet it didn’t, as it usually never does. I eventually drew the line when he began explaining Burroughs’ “anal fixation” through the famous “talking asshole sketch”; the story of a man who taught his asshole to talk, only for it to eventually gain individual consciousness and eventually takeover his body. Yes, this can obviously be read as a sort of fable about anal fixation and sexual desire, but to reduce it entirely to that is to oversimplify the situation incredibly. Firstly, Freud himself was not a “Freudian” with regards to seeing anal pleasure as a form of mental disorder – he in fact calls it “perfectly natural” in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Similarly, the talking asshole sketch isn’t famous because it’s a fable, it’s famous because it’s funny. Anyone who has read Kathy Acker’s later works realises how humour is the driving force behind Burroughs’ works.
This is where Bakhtin comes in. In Rabelais and his World, Bakhtin establishes a pretty comprehensive set of theories that interrelate to form the “Carnivalesque”, as it’s now known. One of Carnival’s central themes is “turning the world on its head” (the common middle-ages image) being applied to the body; the “material bodily lower stratum” overtakes the body and dictates its every movement. The king of the carnival is thus the village idiot, the most academic scholar becomes the drunkest and most lecherous, the seriousness of ordered society becomes jocular violence, cruelty and blasphemy. In short, during the carnival it’s the asshole that does the talking.
So far, so contradictory. Yet the movement of the scatological out of popular, carnivalesque works during the Renaissance and out of sight completely in the Enlightenment could point out a link. The great scatological masters of the Eighteenth Century were the satirists. Satire is the quintessential Reading Event medium; each work is written in and for a context, its sense lying elsewhere than the body of the text. The Hogarth prints of peers shitting upon donkeys and immense telescopes used for administering enemas are pure Carnival images, utilised to lend violence and palpability to otherwise dry political and legislative matters. That these work within the moment, relying upon Events, demonstrates another element of Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque – the liminal qualities of the “Carnival Time”. The Carnival can only occur with the foreknowledge that once it ends a restored stability is guaranteed. It is a relinquishing of power to an external source.
This “opting out” of control is the heart of Bakhtin’s message. If the “world is turned on its head” then it still retains that head, even if the “world” is now momentarily directing the flow of being. The relinquished Time of the Carnival, like the chaotic rule of the “material bodily lower stratum”, is effectively a giant “Organ without a Body” (to return to Deleuze). Without immediately returning to psychoanalysis here via Lacan’s “Signification of the Phallus”, another great example of this function in action can be found in Burgess’ Enderby. The character of Enderby, aesthete recluse and poet, is constantly undermined by the disruptions of his dyspeptic digestive system. A scene in which he must make a speech upon collecting a poetry prize is interrupted by loud farting and belching that occurs beyond his control. The sublime is thwarted by the ridiculous, just like Bloom’s grubby sexualisation of Mother Ireland in Ulysses.
The escape of the body from the control of the mind, spirit, higher powers, etc, and its Carnivaleque revenge as “Organs without Bodies” is thus gathered in Bakhtin’s system under its own designated “Time”, its Event. This designation is what appears to me as the distinctive juncture at which the Freudian, or “pure” (as in rather naïve and overeager) Freudians, break away from appreciating the liberation of the Carnivalesque. As a system initially designed for the treatment of long-term patients, psychoanalysis utilises the momentary as self-evident of its own impact; to remember an occurrence in the therapy situation demonstrates its importance, albeit sometimes unconscious. Yet the everyday occurrence within the present, the primarily unconscious Becoming, is generally without this importance unless especially designated. Bakhtin then, is proposing the fractality of being based on a liminal, fluctual, multiplicitous notion of time as opposed to modernist Freud whose allegiances are to systemisation, and increasingly so into his later years.
The fractal then, the multiplicity of differences, is what is encountered within modern Carnivalesque works. Burroughs’ talking asshole is, if anything, the hero of the sketch that eventually gets its way over its “owner” that would try repress it for his own use and gain (such as taking it onto the stage). The endless pornographic scenes of Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys are similarly celebrations of this fractal sexuality in action. The libido may be channelled into the identifiable forms designated by the mind (straight/gay, single/married, and other distinctions of social being) yet, in essence, it remains a force drawn in largely inexplicable ways to distinct fragments. A shape, a movement, a word, each of these revolve as actors in the network of libido in the same way that power, style, gender do.
This essence of joissance, however, is dangerous at the same time as it is liberating. This is where the “pure” Freudians come from, I guess, in wanting to systematise and rationalise why the asshole is talking. The same occurs in Sade when his endless ménages begin to take on their own rules, their own forms, and their Will to disobedience forms a geometry and law of its own. Sade and Freud act upon the plain of stability; their systems are definite and eternal. Bakhtin recognises the importance of social structures in his Carnivalesque system and plays to them – just as Burroughs’ pornography does in its kaleidoscopic construction of the moment. In attempting to understand the workings of a moment we cannot lose its essence as a moment and its situation upon the Carnivalesque stage - just as it would be foolish to throw away the theoretical tools of psychoanalysis because its methodology has become outdated.
Perhaps the difference is somehow between the micro and the macro? Nevertheless, as I always think, the importance of a text impresses itself upon an individual almost inherently (if it is to be important to them), call it Sensation if you want. This Sensation is the important issue to follow, let the text lead, deal only in savours. Burroughs is funny, stop trying to analyse him! You bastards!
It strikes me that people don’t grasp post-modernism. The term itself is overly laden with values, much of which conflict and most, without sympathetic reception, appear superficial, pompous and banal. Yet at the core of the truthless meta there is a distinct set of quasi-truths that are central to the future of social understanding. I don’t necessarily argue for them, people have been doing that since the 70s and have gotten nowhere - I simply illustrate them, highlight, foreground, and unambiguously narrativise them.
Post-modernism is perhaps best summarised by its own hyperbolic suicide note, Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Once we realise that the process of compiling history is purely speculatory self-justification, then surely it must “end”? But no, I’d suggest that the more mature attitude would be one that continues regardless, a stiff-upper lipped historical detachment that is finally prepared to approach foreign narratives; be they class-based, geographical, genderly or any of a million others. The post-modern attitude is sceptical through its fragmentation (for every Reason there are a thousand more passing as Coincidence) and believability is reduced to an aesthetic quality.
To return to my favourite novelistic example, Earthly Powers, the process of 20th century history is monitored through a set of fictional characters. These characters remain reasonably marginal, leaving room for the introduction of real historical characters such as James Joyce, until the narrative reaches a point of relative contemporary nearness, lending a “modern” relatability, when a fictional character is then made Pope. In this capacity, the novel seems to span both the traditional historical novel and post-modern “historical metafiction” genres; characters fit seamlessly into the gaps of history before overwhelming that “objective” history with their personal narratives.
The conflict between the presentation of history and meta-history can be seen in comparing a couple of war films; a genre almost a priori bullshit laden. Saving Private Ryan, aiming at realism, will stand for history – Inglorious Basterds, patchwork pastiche, will stand for meta-history. In Saving Private Ryan, the rest of the Allies are famously ignored in favour of a “heroic” storyline. The heroes follow a singular line of identity-thought that posits the Self as Good, the Other as Bad, Nation as Self, Foreign as Other. Compare this to the identity relations of Inglorious Basterds: the Americans are Jewish, they play the role of the Indian (traditional enemy of Aryan American Cowboys), and fundamentally, their narratives rely upon those of Others within the film’s progression. The ending of both films is the death of Hitler – but only Tarantino’s meta-history is free to make this visible. Perhaps the key to understanding post-modernism then, lies in a mix of irony and obviousness. An awareness of narrative-as-narrative does not undermine its content - in the right hands it can even improve it. The last South Park episodes, 200, and more obviously 201, operate only on the meta-level. When Buddha is told to “stop doing coke in front of kids”, the joke exists only in the context; no Buddhist would complain of this joke, nor would any of the million other real people that South Park has offended during its time on air, yet the imaginary threat of Muslim “fundamentalism” is enough to get the show banned.
The conclusion of episode 201 is intentionally edited out. The traditionalist mode of exposition that South Park does so well with its “today I learned a valuable lesson…” speeches are reduced to their announcement, the rest removed under the guise of “censorship”. The incomplete content remains a completed narrative; the joke being its very incompleteness. It’s in this capacity that post-modernism completes itself. The other underlying joke of the episode being that South Park had already shown Mohammed in an earlier episode shows how societal reception is as essential as content. The artwork exists only in the process of its reading, or watching, as an Art Event. Our Aion-Chronos constant present is the variable scope of the post-modern; post-modernism is its utilisation in the fullest sense through Events that function, rather than simply happen. Event-functions expand beyond their borders and reterritorialise other narratives, something traditional forms can only express within their own happenings whilst remaining fixed, territorialised themselves.
In the spirit of the disconnected ramble that was the previous rant, I write now on a certain synchronicity of mind. An acausal connectivity principle that flirts with Hume’s associationism before swiftly dropping back into the philosophical equivalent of Bosch’s hell. Yes, thought is an odd thing that one rarely contemplates in a spirit of problem solving, more likely our pronouncements on thought are closer to platitudes than real beliefs. Without doing a Woody Allen and “looking inside the soul of the guy sat next to me”, I can only base my thoughts on contemplation in personal experience, or more rightly experiences; my personal idea associations bearing no resemblance to linearity in either their content, my consciousness of them, or the time of their occurrence.
Contemplation itself can hardly be called a singular event – cut to a cartoon image of chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing, straining to turn on a floating lightbulb. No, much of our thought is unconscious; this is why it’s best to take breaks during periods of complex mental work. The action of “sleeping on it” is often when the great connection is made and the bridge into comprehension and understanding is quickly burned behind you, making you feel as if the problem was simple all along.
In laying our solutions over problems, in the manner of early Deleuze, we constitute the problems themselves via their solutions. Causality is projected backwards and “thought patterns” are formed. An expert on trees wouldn’t have become an expert on roots and then worked his way up to leaves. As more knowledge is added, it lays itself over previous knowledge, obscuring our memory of the chance accumulations that are inherent in learning and replacing them with a causal, linear narrative.
Yet these “patterns”, as selections made through judgements of meaning-value, must surely occur throughout all thought then, not simply education? In Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse 5, a scene in which three Germans stare, slack-jawed, out across the annihilated city of Dresden gives Billy Pilgrim, the main character, the uncanny sensation of there being something missing. Many years later, on the day of his marriage, he hears a trio of barbershop singers whose song is retroactively placed in the mouths of the three Germans, completing the image. The acausal connectivity of thought is here traced via meaning-value again, yet arbitrarily, between decades. The fragments of the past that unite with the future are the essence of these patterns (be they conscious or not), and their meaning-value is embedded in the sensation of recurrence.
Marcus Aurelius describes the existence of all times in one moment, Nietzsche the finite universe that must “eternally return” in its vastness, Deleuze’s “Aion” places all pasts and futures in the present – all these theorists effectively do the same thing; posit meaning as the circular time of recurrence. I suffer from a similar mental tick, although rather than philosophise, I tend to distrust it. You see, when I remember past events, regardless of their importance or when they occurred, I keep experiencing the sense of having done them before I did them. Something I experienced for the first time (something I could never have previously experienced before) is remembered as being a repetition. The feeling is that of déjà vu – except it isn’t so at the time, only afterwards in memory.
As I said, I refuse to be Woody Allen, so here I will intrepidly utilise my subjective mental obscurities to suggest to you, my lovely invisible reader, that the sensation of recurrence is the Deleuzean double present (Aion-Chronos), hotwired by chance. Our thought becomes like our face when we see it from an odd angle in a photograph; the mirror-face that we carry as the image of ourselves is presented from a new angle, a photo-face that occurs simultaneously with the mirror-face without changing or destroying it, despite its difference (its difference being that it is exactly the same). The seamless process of problem-solution “patterns” is confused, split and doubled, revealing products of the mind’s fractal workings in a self-contained recurrence. Recurrence is not repetition, but a meaning-connection/selection essentially acausal.
This is the reason that thought, in itself, doesn’t make “thinkers”. “e=mc2” could have been daydreamed by a shoeshine boy in 1840s London, “to be or not to be” may be a throwaway comment made in 700 years time when all fiction has been long eradicated, none of it matters. Thought itself doesn’t matter, neither its content nor its action; it only functions as true meaning on a cultural level, on a level of fame, hegemony, threats and bargaining. In such a way does Bernard K. Smith (“that’s Smith with an “I”) lament his greatest ideas being stolen, taken into the past and made by others, in the excellent youtube series/channel Church of Blow.
Continuation, then, is more of a habit in life; a tendency rather than its true being. The narratives that we construct, verifiable or not, are only what I previously described as islands of “Laputan meaning” for the reason that such is the way the human mind works. Synchronicity of mind, its endless collisions of thought, this is the nature of possible worlds now that Godfrey has popped his clogs
Perhaps it would be fitting to end with a note on the Lamed Wufniks. These are the 36 great individuals whose influence on the human race is paramount at this time. They tend to have little power, they never know of each other, and we will never hear of them, not until the far future, if ever at all. In all likelihood, they don’t know that they are one themselves. I doubt that I’m one of them, but perhaps you are, my beautiful imaginary follower? If so, could you put in a good word for me to the future? Much obliged.
Another late blog I’m afraid. Seems I’m to use my one blog’sworth of credit to buy your patience, my dear nonexistent follower. Never fear though, the reasons are good ones that are well epigrammated by MacNeice,
Shelley and jazz and lieder and love and hymn-tunes And day returns too soon, We’ll get drunk among the roses In the valley of the moon…
I’ve had that in my head for many a day now, along with numerous Tom Waits songs and nagging memories of appointments. In the continued spirit of said, I’m going to talk today of booze.
Wine has a long history of cultural representation; its importance as a cultural artefact probably outdates writing itself. In fact, the aura of wine is such that it is considered by some an art in itself. Beer and spirits have their moments, but they never quite reach the inherent respect people have for wine. Indeed, the invention of glass, a technological success on a par with the wheel, can be seen in terms of a reaction to the power of wine. Yet the inherent majesty of wine doesn’t seem to lie in its own qualities. Baudelaire’s wine poems from The Flowers of Evil, for example, are some of his most tedious.
The Flaubert’s Parrot paradox also returns when we consider Homer’s wine, or Virgil’s. Ulysses seems to have an infinite supply as he voyages the world and he’s more than willing to pour most of it in the sea for his tormentor Neptune. But is it the wine that we drink today? “Wine” from the Ulster cycle to the Three Kingdoms certainly wouldn’t be. Perhaps Horace’s wine would be closer – his Ode that references the drunken marriage brawl of the Lapiths and Centaurs makes an excellent case for the need to drink in a pleasant environment. Although, later again, Rabelais makes an even better case for gorging oneself into a scatological nightmare
In fact, the relationship between alcohol and the situation of its consumption is perhaps the place we should be looking for its special cultural aura. The little known writer Rene Daumal uses the alcohol itself as a mental journey through A Night of Serious Drinking. His implication is that where “philosophy teaches how man thinks he thinks, drinking shows what he really thinks”. It’s an interesting thought, but one that not even he can sustain throughout the text.
The Leary-esque belief in intoxication bringing wisdom through alternate thought-perspectives is visible in the great alcoholic writers, however. Almost the entire oeuvre of Charles Bukowski is a celebration of drunken superiority through scepticism. From walking the streets in shorts during his time at the Post Office to the most elegant of parties in Hollywood, Chinaski remains the solipsistic barometer of “what’s classy and what aint”. In fact, the highest accolade that Bukowski pays to fellow writer Burroughs when Chinaski meets him in Women is simply leaving him alone. Drinking may not be the opposite of philosophy because of its physical clarity then, but rather because where philosophy is the Self becoming Universal, drinking is the Universe becoming the Self.
F.Scott Fitzgerald, boozer extraordinaire, can be seen to unite the two qualities of alcohol-situation and alcohol-self through his mastery of the extravagant party scene – a recurring set piece throughout all of his works. The flashing images of dancers, champagne, fights and romance capture both the intoxicated mind and its chaotic reality when acted out en masse. Deleuze put this effect down to the hardening of the alcoholic mind, the need to break memories into distinct portions that take on excessive meaning; the very mind of a writer in fact. Yet similarly it’s an appreciation of pathos, a kind of modern version of Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death. The link between drinking and death is far closer than that between sex and death (although perhaps the link between sex and drinking is the closest of all…).
Overall, drinking is a Dionysian function par excellence. Its ceremony is ritualistic, not biologic like, say, the ceremony of junk in Burroughs. As a consequence, descriptions of drunken physicality are created best literarily (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses through to “this one time, we were so wasted right…”) through descriptions of circumstances, conversations, fights, etc. It’s a cultural trend that may explain the difference between alcohol’s legality compared to the illegality of far less dangerous drugs. One day I’m going to blog about legalisation of narcotics, but for now I’ll leave you with the fine words of goodly Panurge,
“By God, this is the wine of Beaune, and the best that I ever tasted, and may a hundred and six devils run away with me if it isn’t! How grand it would be to have a neck six foot long, so as to taste it longer!”
What is the point in this odd bracket-word of “love”? It’s a valuable commodity, but only in its blandest depiction as an objective set of clichés. Hollywood could save a lot of money by only making one “rom-com” and then digitally replacing the stars’ faces every few months, I don’t think the minor variations in storyline would be missed. Similarly, I don’t think a popular love song has ever been written about an actual person. In fact, if one has then I feel rather sorry for that featureless object of reheated second-hand platitudes…
One way of interpreting this could be the capitalistic need to meet every audience’s demands: the lowest common denominator argument. If this was truly the case though, why would one of my favourite “love stories” be Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when I find the character types portrayed in it really quite repellent and certainly don’t “empathise” with them at all? No, I imagine it probably comes back to the “courtly love” angle. The love of Petrarch that is readily applied to any woman willing to go along with it. Phantasmic descriptions of characteristics that no individual actually has, but is only seen to have by another – delicate, innocent, motherly, whatever…
It’s no wonder that popular love songs are as clichéd musically as they are lyrically. The bowel-rumbling major-minor sequences with hyperbolic key changes barely hiding the metronomic not-quite-a-rhythm. It is less music than an audio assault, an emotional response trigger pre-programmed by innumerable moments of movie pathos, the overwhelming effect of which is, to me, claustrophobic disgust. The pure self-centredness of the whole thing, its courtly quality, is reinforced only through its very loudness. It’s not hard to see Don Quixote mixed up in it all, bellowing unspecific love to the fair Dulcinea.
There’s a reason then, other than it just being obvious, why blues has always survived as a superior musical style. If the emotional Dionysianism of music has to be inherently self-centred, blues’ self-pitying lyrical themes are a perfect match. At the core of blues stories (far more varied and individual than love stories) is a kernel of inexpressible sorrow that only the wordlessness of music can come close to. Blues music unites people through a form of mutual masochism; a triumphal joy at the expense of the rest of the world.
It’s for this reason that I similarly find Venus in Furs to be one of the most interesting love stories out there. Sacher-Masoch’s own portrayal of masochism is, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the perfect anti-masochist text. The sexual object that initially fulfils the role of dominatrix ends up as a sadist; the illusion of the dominatrix’s power is actually fulfilled, leaving the masochist actually powerless, a position completely opposed to their desires. To be powerless, the masochist must always be the one in control, just like Petrarch’s weeping lovers – but then his Venus in Furs acts for herself… Laura starts to speak. Of course, as soon as The Loved One speaks, the Real intrudes and horror ensues; but does it need to?
In writing The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy “gives a voice” to forgotten women back throughout history; the point being that it is her voice, of course. The silent woman cannot be made to speak after she is dead… or atleast not without some rather macabre ventriloquist schtick anyway. The trick was all in her subjectivity, her Self. Yet the connection, like music, exists out in the Dionysian wilderness between subject and object. It’s in this sense in which the core of human relationships, of any kind, is deeply schizophrenic at its core… its decentred core of jagged, inexplicable fragments…