Sunday, March 1, 2015

There's no more to it than that

On Friday we went to the funeral of a family member who had died, finally, after many years of crises that had come about through his apparent determination to drink himself to death. We had been prepared to be saddened, if not immobilised by the terrible and depressing circumstances of his final years. After all, he had once been a conscientious academic in the faculty of Drama at a rural university. In his lifetime he had directed and performed many plays and cabarets, both his own and others'. In fact, it was this person who had first introduced me to the plays of Samuel Beckett, through a production of short pieces he had directed with his students. Although it was only about a year or so later that I saw productions of Beckett's most well-known plays by the company, as I've been reminded since, that Beckett himself directed, I know that it was the intimacy and even amateurish directness of those student pieces that had touched me more profoundly than the supposedly brilliant productions of Beckett I saw later.

Less than a decade ago, this family member who had directed his students in a series of Beckett short plays had taken very early retirement, and after this so much had gone wrong for him. His marriage split up, a computer crash saw the loss of most of his major literary and musical works — he was a prolific writer of songs, cabarets, plays, and poems — but while many people have copies of some of these, it was the long and complex novel that he supposedly wrote and finished on that one never-backed-up computer whose annihilation is most complete — all this and, what was far more devastating for everyone around him (especially his young adult children and his sister who looked after him in the years that followed), he took to alcohol in a serious and doggedly self-destructive way. He nearly died three years ago from some kind of internal bleeding in the brain that had been brought on by the sheer intensity of his drinking; several weeks ago, there was another crisis from which he never recovered. And yet his funeral — all of it: the eulogies, the tears, and the splendidly wild and energetic wake — was so exuberant and rich and not at all sober, that we knew by the end that we had celebrated a life that had been lived to the full. After all, he had been one whose summary, we'd learned, of Waiting for Godot could run (with a tune) to four simple lines:

I want to take my shoes off
I want a bigger hat
Intellectuals can piss off
There's no more to it than that

(vale Andrew McCue)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

There are optical errors in time as there are in space

It's been half a week now since I saw Jim Sharman's 1978 film of Patrick White's screenplay, The Night the Prowler, and I have to say that the film works best at a distance since, as Proust writes, 'there are optical errors in time as there are in space'. Now, what even a day or two ago I still thought of as the more awkward attempts of the script seem mostly to have disappeared between scenes of beehive teas, leathered frumpings and the near smiling, high camping delight that the writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley take in their roles as nocturnal Centennial Park derros. The naked, emaciated man, whose death is signalled by a quiet runnel of urine, pulls the film towards something Beckettian, from which the film keeps itself, nevertheless, at a firm remove with all of its Easter Show bag, stiff cat artifice, as well as the whole 'Many and One' drag that Kerry Walker plays with such admirable, slow witted awkwardness -- because, how else to play that final, fatuous line?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them

‘I read Freud,’ declares Julius, the young psychiatrist narrator in Teju Cole’s Open City, ‘only for literary truths.’ Here, I was thinking, his invocation of Freud might have been apt – and particularly what he takes to be Freud’s main ideas on grief and loss, from Mourning and Melancholia and The Ego and the Id, which should have resonated so well with what was looking then to be little more than a gently meditative novel about the stunned and peripatetic aftermath of loss:

The dead are fully assimilated into the living, a process he called introjection. In mourning that does not proceed normally, mourning in which something has gone wrong, this benign internalization does not happen. Instead, there’s an incorporation. The dead occupy only a part of the one who has survived; they are sectioned off, hidden in a crypt, and from this place of encryption they haunt the living. 

Except for the fact that this wasn’t Freud at all. Julius, I could see, had confused Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia with Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s 1972 essay ‘Mourning or melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation’, in which all these ideas are elaborated away from, and in response to, Freud. For one thing, I thought, Abraham and Torok’s use of the term ‘introjection’ to mean ‘a process of broadening the ego’ by working through loss and trauma – but also any new, challenging experience – comes, most ironically, from their fellow Hungarian Sandor Ferenczi – the same Ferenczi with whom Freud famously fell out when he retreated from the so-named ‘seduction theory’ to his one of the drives and the Oedipus complex. I then got to thinking that it was likely to have been Derrida that had confused Julius (or Cole): perhaps something that Derrida had written, or something that someone else had written about Derrida. After all, it was Derrida, whose Foreword, ‘Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’, to their The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy, did most to bring the ideas of this Franco-Hungarian pair to a wider readership. What kind of psychiatric specialist, or writer about psychiatric specialists, I was wondering, would make such a slip?

Of course, I could see that Open City was all about slips and failure, unedifying deaths and indecisiveness – from Julius’s overwhelming sense of multiple erasures at the site of the World Trade Centre towers, his unacknowledged avoidance of a dying friend, to his experience as ‘a pathetic old-young man padding about in the grip of some nervousness’, unable to remember his ATM card code. And it seemed that the codes that so often elude Julius represent, merely, the sorts of meanings that make the functional materiality of our living a little smoother – codes for the ordinary workings of financial transactions, for apparently coherent, if archaic, systems of making sense of herbs – and not for meanings resisted and denied, as the oblique, and in fact erased reference to the Wolf Man suggests. Initially I was thinking that there simply was no key encrypted word/action like ‘teret’ in Open City – that this novel, despite its faux Freud reference, was not so much about encryption at all but the more predicable theme of the inadequacy of signs.

Then Moji speaks – and to say more would give away too much – but it should suffice to say that the great blind spot that Julius identifies at the heart of his profession – and the blind spots in his memory, the great blinding spot that both lures the birds of New York to their deaths and obscures how they died – blinding spots that flare on each side of Moji’s story – might very well have to do with the word ‘force’ which, before its noticeable play in both the telling and the context of her story, emerges in the novel not long after Julius encounters Moji for the first time in New York:

I noticed a copy of Simone Weil’s essays. I picked it up. My friend turned from the window. She’s wonderful on the Iliad, he said. I think she really gets what force is about, how it motivates action and loses control of what it has motivated. You really should take a look at it sometime. 

Behind this ‘force’ – should we read here Freud’s theory of the drives? Julius’s entire field of expertise? – is something that Abraham and Torok would have called the ‘fantasy of incorporation’: ‘The magical “cure” by incorporation,’ they write, ‘exempts the subject from the painful process of reorganization’. Incorporation enacts a pretence, after a loss or a trauma, that ‘we had absolutely nothing to lose’.

But as Moji says to Julius: ‘Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them.’

Immediately after listening to her story, Julius becomes obsessed with Camus’s account of Nietzsche and Gaius Mucius Cordus Scaevola, and the pain they inflicted on their own bodies just to demonstrate to others – if not more to themselves – their fearlessness. As though to deflect the import of what Moji has just told him, Julius finds himself researching exactly what the fifteen-year-old Nietzsche had done to himself in the presence of his schoolmates. Was it a hot coal or a brace of matches? Such questions serve, most usefully, to distract.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fiction is a kind of magic or alchemy

In this interview with Ivor Indyk, Gerald Murnane speaks, it seems, as he writes -- from the room he has written about so often -- the one from which he reports, as he might say, how one image changes into another in his mind, with all of it documented in one way or another -- in his writing, as well as the legendary files that he has arranged against the walls of the room:

So I can say in all honesty and sincerity that I can’t tell the difference between my fiction, my thinking about my fiction, and my life. It’s as important to me as almost anything else in my life. And as I jokingly said years ago to somebody – it was in connection with literature board grants. Somebody said it must be nice to have a literature board grant – this was back in the 1970s – it must be nice to have a literature board grant now, you’ll able to go on with your writing. I said, I’d go on with my writing if they fined me for writing, instead of giving me seven thousand a year or whatever it was. If they made me pay that amount. So long as I could find the money I would go on writing, that’s how important it was to me. And in the face of a certain amount of unfavourable criticism, which I have had from some quarters. It would have no effect on me whatever because I am just one of those people who just had to write, even if it’s not for publication. The evidence is around us as we sit here.
He tells us that 'fiction is a kind of magic or alchemy', and then goes on to describe the reading moment -- a reading moment that is placed, characteristically, in the context of how it occurred -- which not only prompted a life long obsession with learning Hungarian, but also insinuated something new into his landscapes:

I was sitting on a suburban train. I can’t recall – somewhere in those archives over there would be the answer to that, but never mind – it was a date somewhere in the ‘80s, and I was reading an English translation of the Hungarian – it’s not a novel, it’s a book of sociology I suppose – Puszta Népe, which means people of the Puszta. It was written in the 1930s. And I read a section about the oppression, the sexual oppression of the girls on the great estates by the – not by the owners and the aristocrats who owned the estates, but by the lesser officials who were only jumped up peasants anyway: the overseers and the farm supervisors. And then I read the pages – the cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn – and I think my life changed at that point. Something, I knew something was afoot. I couldn’t have imagined the way that piece of reading would change my life and my fiction.

Friday, June 20, 2014

In which the whole world might be invoked from a remote or neglected standpoint

Dr Ivor Indyk is perhaps the best person to discuss the writings of Gerald Murnane, not only because he is Murnane's publisher or because of his rather touching thesis about what he sees as a peculiar strength of several of the more eccentric writers in Australia -- their provincialism -- but also because his own voice -- soft, earnest, seemingly hesitant and always ready to laugh a little at what he has just said -- is the perfect vehicle for describing the work of what he calls 'imaginative recursion' in Murnane's writings. He argues that this 'imaginative recursion' is more than a virtuosic technique. It is a means of dealing with 'real issues' -- real issues, however, which the text, as I would suggest, finds hard to name or to be sure of, even as it works towards them with meticulous determination.

While a Murnanian text might seem as far from the Gothic as might be imagined, the extreme claustrophobia of its highly turned verbal world puts us in mind, paradoxically, of the wide windless moors of Emily Brontë which connection, as you will hear from Indyk, is far from accidental. David Punter has remarked that in the Gothic we are in the wake of effects of events that we cannot know have even happened, and the remains of history that assault us 'are not to be obviously or readily learned from; for they are the remains of the body, they are the imaginary products of vulnerability and fragility,they are the "remains" of that which still "remains to us"; or not'. Murnane: a Gothic writer? Hardly, or at least hardly not.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

We have art in order not to die from the truth

It is a nicely sobering epigraph, this one that Donna Tartt inserts at the beginning of the fifth and final section of her novel The Goldfinch: 'We have art in order not to die from the truth -- NIETZSCHE'. When I read it, I had to put the book down for a moment: this book that, otherwise, was pulling me kicking and twisting through the shiny black streets of its meticulous research -- pulling me despite, or perhaps because of, the increasing delays in the plot: those narrative deferments which deliberate teasings I'll never get used to -- just tell them about your dead phone Theo! -- and that judder to an halt only when the requisite chapter of wisdom is served.

I wanted to poke at the quotation. There was something too obvious about the way the dots were joining up: the way these three words art, die, and truth could be assembled as follows: that although the truth can be terrible, too terrible to bear -- with no resolution possible, nothing reconciled -- while we might even die from the horror of it -- thank god, at least, for the ever glowing lamp of art, and for being able to pass it on through the centuries as it has been passed on to us.

So I googled the line and found what I should have guessed from the first: that this particular quotation from Nietzsche would be out there, seemingly everywhere -- some on quotation collection sites, some shining bare and proud on somebody's tumblr or blog -- but try as I might I couldn't find the exact source. Was it from a book, a fragment, letters? When it turned up, unreferenced, in Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus -- near the beginning of the section, 'Absurd Creation' -- I even began to wonder whether the whole of this line's ubiquity on the web came down to a pass-the-parcel game with a fond but half memory on the part of Camus.

I will spare you the erroneous attributions of certain Radiohead reviewers because, if nothing else -- and very directly due to this misdirection -- I managed to unearth a small treasure that I had come across somewhere else once (who hasn't?) and promptly lost:

But then why do you write? -- A: I am not one of those who think with a wet quill in hand; much less one of those who abandon themselves to their passions before the open inkwell, sitting on their chair and staring at the paper. I am annoyed and ashamed of all writing; to me, writing is nature's call -- to speak of it even in simile is repugnant to me. B: But why, then, do you write? -- A: Well, my friend, I say this in confidence: until now, I have found no other means of getting rid of my thoughts. -- B: And why do you want to get rid of them? -- A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to. -- B: Enough! Enough! (The Gay Science, Book II, section 93)

Sometime later, after recourse to databases, I found the longed for line in Book III of Nietzsche's The Will to Power (1968 Vintage edition). I'll quote the entire fragment (number 822, dated 1888; emphases in the original):

If my readers are sufficiently initiated into the idea that "the good man" represents, in the total drama of life, a form of exhaustion, they will respect the consistency of Christianity in conceiving the good man as ugly. Christianity was right in this.

For a philosopher to say, "the good and the beautiful are one," is infamy; if he goes on to add, "also the true," one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.

We possess art lest we perish of the truth.
The preceding fragment throws an important light on this -- one that, for me at least, makes the accent on the ugly in this section -- a certain relishing of its strange, unaccountable pull -- so much clearer. Again I quote in full (number 821, dated March-June, 1888; emphases in the original):

Pessimism in art? -- The artist gradually comes to love for their own sake the means that reveal a condition of intoxication: extreme subtlety and splendor of color, definiteness of line, nuances of tone: the distinct where otherwise, under normal conditions, distinctness is lacking. All distinct things, all nuances, to the extent that they recall these extreme enhancements of strength that intoxication produces, awaken this feeling of intoxication by association: the effect of works of art is to excite the state that creates art -- intoxication.

What is essential in art remains its perfection of existence, its production of perfection and plenitude; art is essentially affirmation, blessing, deification of existence -- What does a pessimistic art signify? Is it not a contradictio? -- Yes. -- Schopenhauer is wrong when he says that certain works of art serve pessimism. Tragedy does not teach "resignation" -- To represent terrible and questionable things is in itself an instinct for power and magnificence in an artist: he does not fear them -- There is no such thing as pessimistic art -- Art affirms. Job affirms. -- But Zola? But the Goncourts? -- The things they display are ugly: but that they display them comes from their pleasure in the ugly -- It's no good! If you think otherwise, you're deceiving yourselves. -- How liberating is Dostoevsky!

No beauty as consolation here.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Last fumblings and betrayals

It is fitting that the softly abrasive voice of François Mauriac both begins and ends this surprisingly sepulchral tele-movie about Proust that, while made in 1962, might have been strung from a series of daguerreotype plates.

 

Most alive -- and therefore most precious -- are those moments when Proust's one time housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, breaks down, although even here there is a willing naivety in her hagiography -- a willing naivety that is most obvious in her memoir of Proust where, like the village admirers of eighteenth and nineteenth century fasting girls, she appears too easily convinced that, despite his late night trips to the Ritz, her employer subsisted in his last years on little more than café au lait. And yet in this film there is true pain in her account of the last fumblings and betrayals over the dying writer's thighs, and it is in this pain, I think, that we can sense the remnants of a vulnerable, sometimes petulant but also astonishingly determined and sensitive person that, by the screening of the numerous death bed sketches at the end of the film -- where the thick black of Proust's Jesus-like hair and beard only draws attention to the immaculate white of the sheets -- can no longer be felt.