Thursday, March 27, 2014

The satanic provocation yields before an angelic one

Winfried Menninghaus's 2003 study, Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation, includes a chapter on Kafka where he argues that 'Kafka's art consists precisely in making the presence and the strongly affective value of a disgusting subject matter, openly presented as such, almost entirely invisible, imperceptible'. (227) He traces what he calls a 'libidinal fixation' in Kafka's relation to writing:

Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward... for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind.... And the devilish element in it seems very clear to me. It is vanity and the craving for pleasure (Genußsucht) which continually buzz about one's own or even another's Gestalt -- and feast on it. The movement multiplies itself -- it is a regular solar system of vanity.... The writer... has no ground, no substance, is less than dust. He is only barely possible in the broil of earthly life, is only a construct of the craving for pleasure. (Kafka, from Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, p. 334-335)

After investigating all the wonderfully smeared, obese, deformed objects of such 'dubious embraces', Menninghaus suggests that, for Kafka, the very use of writing is to work 'the nether parts' to a careful purpose:

...what if The Trial and The Castle were also, first of all, novels which operate -- in a form that simultaneously discloses itself and makes itself invisible -- to process the vexed relations between disgust and sexuality, disgust and food, disgust and the injured, or tortured, body? (273)

Menninghaus's analysis nudges its way into the Kafkan oxymoron of 'deceiving... without deception' (Letters to Felice, 545), where he reveals how the 'invisible frankness of Kafka's texts' is 'played off... against' the texts' 'absorption in visible aesthetic "deception"'. (280) His exploration of erotics and disgust in Kafka concludes by reminding us of the way Kafka's treatment of the vetula forms a fiercely guileless cleft between the opposing intentions of romantic and classical aesthetics:

Kafka's writing answers the question how the disgusting old woman can obsessively occupy the place of desire, can appear in "innocent" openness, and yet become invisible again in the type of second-order observation which is the work of literary representation. Kafka's work interweaves the romantic license to display the disgusting with the paradoxical return of the classical intention to neutralize it. The satanic provocation yields before an angelic one, whose infernal character consists precisely in its simulated innocence. (281)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Merely by dining out often in the company of a physician

They are almost hidden in the vast work of Proust, these few short words that, together, suggest the dogged but also quietly enterprising nature of what he calls 'talent':
To my parents it seemed almost as though, idle as I was, I was leading, since it was spent in the same salon as a great writer, the life most favourable to the growth of talent. And yet the assumption that anyone can be dispensed from having to create that talent for himself (de faire ce talent soi-même), from within himself (par le dedans), and can acquire it from someone else (le reçoive d'autrui), is as erroneous as to suppose that a man can keep himself in good health (in spite of neglecting all the rules of hygiene and of indulging in the worst excesses) merely by dining out often in the company of a physician. (Within a Budding Grove)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reports on intimate human experience

In Summertime, part three of J. M. Coetzee's fictionalised memoir Scenes from Provincial Life, when a one time lover reflects on Coetzee the protagonist's limitations as a sensual, relational being, something Murnanian suggests itself:

But the fact is, John wasn't made for love, wasn't constructed that way -- wasn't constructed to fit into or be fitted into. Like a sphere. Like a glass ball.... Which may not come as a surprise to you. You probably think it holds true for artists in general, male artists: that they aren't built for what I am calling love; that they can't or won't give themselves fully for the simple reason that there is a secret essence of themselves they need to preserve for the sake of their art....Consider. Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how did he make a living? He made a living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about -- isn't it? -- intimate experience. Novels as opposed to poetry or painting. Doesn't that strike you as odd?

Any reader familiar with Gerald Murnane's work will immediately recognise this notion of 'reports, expert reports, on human experience' and the understated intensity of the relationship between the very precision of these 'reports' and the restrained human interactions that float out from behind the words. Already in Boyhood, there is something about the narrative that reminds us of Murnane's writing about childhood: something about the spare analysis of the protagonist's obsession with the letter R, which is one of the reasons for his choosing to be Roman Catholic at a new school and preferring the Russians to the Americans during the Cold War -- something in the patiently described network of thoughts and impressions that keep the young 'he' from feeling himself to be 'normal'.

In his article on Murnane for the New York Review of Books in December 2012 Coetzee might be writing about his own later fictional works, including this fictional memoir, where, between the text and the often bleak world it traverses, words are assembled with what he might call 'elegiac' but also seemingly unfeeling care:

There will be readers who will dismiss Murnane’s dual-world system as idle theory-spinning, and perhaps go on to say that it shows he is all intellect and no heart. Murnane indirectly reflects on this criticism when, in Barley Patch, he tells the story of his last visit to a beloved uncle dying of cancer—the same uncle who had cut ties with him when he decided to become a writer. The two spend their last hour together in a typically male Australian way: avoiding sentiment, discussing horses. After that Murnane leaves the hospital room, finds a private place, and weeps.

His uncle was right, Murnane reflects afterward: there was no need for him to waste his life writing. Why then did he do it? The answer: without writing he “would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her.” That is to say, only by telling a story of a man who appears to have no feelings but privately weeps, addressing the story, elegiacally, to one who can no longer hear it, is he able to reveal his love.

Murnane’s writing, from Inland onward, reflects continually on this difficult personal fate. On the one hand, being a writer has set him apart from human society; on the other hand, it is only through writing that he can hope to become human. The elegiac tone that surfaces in his later work comes from the realization that he is what he is, that in his life there will be no second chance, that only in the “other” world can he make up for what he has lost.
Unlike Murnane, however, whose protagonists thrum to the surface of the page, entranced by the way the images of themselves in the writing generate a whole quietly dazzling play of image relations, and take their consolation in these relations, Coetzee uses words to span the terrible void -- the void which, as we realise, only opens up because the very writing that we are reading, as it is implied, depends on a prioritisation of words ('personal projects') over intimate relationships, as becomes clear at the end of this final, 'undated fragment' in Summertime:

He is going to have to abandon some of his personal projects and be a nurse. Alternatively, if he will not be a nurse, he must announce to his father: I cannot face the prospect of ministering to you day and night. I am going to abandon you. Goodbye. One or the other: there is no third way.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Anxieties of the writing life

The blurb on the back of Brian Castro's novella, Street to Street, claims that it is a 'comic-tragic enactment of the anxieties of the writing life' -- an observation with which Castro scholar, Bernadette Brennan, would no doubt concur, since '[f]or Castro, grief and anxiety', as she writes without further explanation in her review of the work, are the 'critical edges of writing'. And yet, or so I first thought, my reading experience of Castro's novella was a dilatory rather than a harried one -- there seemed to be nothing of the sort of driving voice that we might find in works by Sebald, Woolf, Proust, Svevo, Duras or, Castro's favourite as he once wrote in HEAT: Thomas Bernhard. The voice in Street to Street is elegiac, gently comic, fond, and yet all the time accompanied by the lingering smell of booze-sodden cardboard, nineteenth century skirtings, mid-twentieth century bathrooms, and sudden, lonely stretches of misted boggy roads. After all, an aged black dog called Dante accompanies the protagonist -- the writer-academic Brendan Costa -- to the very end, and the book, as we learn, is narrated by his affable, floppy-eared, soft-bellied friend and academic-in-decline who is known as the Labrador. If I did sense the thin wire of anxiety in the book, I thought, it was only in those frequent occasions when the narrative moved so seamlessly between Costa and his mirroring biographical subject, the brilliant, alcoholic poet-academic Christopher Brennan, or vice versa, that I constantly had to look back a little and check: an effect that never failed to unsettle me and which, as a result, gave the whole piece, as it developed, a hallucinatory and hence rather beautiful double outline. Castro's work, like that of his protagonist, Costa, is alive to the deceptively shambling and usually opaque, goggling aspects of those feelings that are hardest to hold onto:
Costa was not offering a biography of Brennan, not even a minor, muddy one, picking the stones of false memory. He was thinking of one loose thread: the way a life unravels, falls apart, becomes dissolute, not for all of the obvious reasons like alcohol or disastrous relationships or depressive illnesses, but through mood. Conditional, jussive, optative, subjunctive, irrealis. His life had not happened, is not likely to happen etc. A grammar of moods. (17)
Feelings that take very palpable form:
He was outside himself too much; his inside was becoming a hollowed shell he would hold up to his ear in old age and hear the murmur of failure, the sea of forgetting and obscurity. In Memoriam. The shudder of Tennyson's lines. (97)
He told Mallarmé how alcohol had hidden the realisation that the back of one's head was something which, upon apprehending it and perceiving its strangeness, delivered to the subject the most overwhelming insight and dismay. But the back of one's head was not about realisation; it was about concealment.... The back of his head was what he didn't want to see.... He had bought a bowler hat and had worn it everywhere. But when he looked in the mirror he didn't see bourgeois civility, only self-deception (130)

If anxiety in a text can be traced to the finely wrought workings of perspective and a muted but unsettling affect, Castro's novella draws a long quiet draught of it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain

Although, as Mary Oliver observes in her nearly twenty-year-old guide to writing, A Poetry Handbook, 'in the world of writing it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins', the role of imitation in the development of voice is decidedly under-valued. In fact, '[t]he profits are many,' she writes, 'the perils few.' (p. 13) And later: 'Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one's own work -- these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there', (p. 18) with the practice of imitation, we infer, making up the more inspired moments of this long drudging. Proust would agree, and it could be said that the entire oeuvre of Orhan Pamuk meditates on the problem and, indeed the necessity, of imitation when it comes to being yourself, as he would call it. There is something shilly-shallying in this word 'imitation', however -- even in her own handling of the word as it occurs within a couple of pages. When addressing the concern of apprentice poets to stay contemporary by only reading current publications she writes:

...perhaps you would argue that, since you want to be a contemporary poet, you do not want to be too much under the influence of what is old, attaching to the term the idea that old is old hat -- out-of-date. You imagine you should surround yourself with the modern only. It is an error. The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference.

Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, nothing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air. (pp. 11-12)

We imitate and it drains us of something; we imitate and we are filled. Is there something in the time delay of imitation where we imitate something from another period, another context, even another language -- something in its apparent dead-aliveness, its mountain strata -- that sends us upwards, as Oliver has it?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Their diurnal stars are all the shining holies

I've had Lars Iyer's Exodus lying part read (differently part read) at various times beside my bed for the past year. This is not because his novel, as people often complain of novels, 'didn't pull me through' -- or perhaps it is, since 'Literature should be boring!', as W. says in Exodus somewhere. Henry James once described reading Swann's Way as 'inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine' (and my awareness that this is not only true but the highest possible compliment might even be the very reason I am still steadily rereading À la recherche du temps perdu, which will no doubt take the rest of my life -- a rest of my life that I am in no hurry to race to its end).

For all the protagonists' discussions of end times, Exodus is not at all a teleological narrative. I see Lars and W. agitated and blousy: bickering in a mid field of university canteens and parsimonious conference spreads, with a greyish green moor spreading out on all sides towards an encircling horizon (and an empty bottle of Plymouth Gin rolling around between the drain and the glass doors). Their diurnal stars are all the shining holies -- Kierkegaard, Weil, Duras, Blanchot, Badiou, Rosenzweig, Rosenstock, Gandhi, Marx, Žižek, Kafka, Krasznahorkai, Tarr -- as well as the faceless but ethereally beautiful Essex postgraduates. For some reason, I see W. as dry skinned, thin and woody; Lars, we are continually reminded, has a white, soft middle: they are the yin and yang of our emptying world. Theirs is a sidereal time with all stars, for the moment, descending, but there is something that remains, still, after the stars have passed. Try as he might to leave them utterly stranded, Iyer keeps his protagonists warm from the rumours of thinkers, in the thought of thinking, and we huddle beside them, trying to believe, even as we despair a faux Kierkegaardian despair, in all of this faithful thinking for ourselves.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The frown in Beckett's What Where

Today, at the Australian premiere of the new English language film production of Beckett's What Where, which is yet to be released, the actor who played V and hence was on screen for the entire running of the single eight minute take -- for which it had been necessary to make twenty seven attempts -- told us after the screening that he'd lost his voice as the filming progressed and even now (nearly one year later) it had not recovered. The actors had had to strip all the emotion from their voices. They also had to stay completely still during takes; they weren't to blink -- even when their eyes were closed, they had to keep their eyeballs from moving.

In the accompanying documentary, the director (Asmus) describes the way that, unlike for his other television productions, Beckett did not arrive with a predetermined plan for What Where. Originally the actors were to be upright, as in the staged show -- at one point, we learned, Beckett had even thought of giving them fezzes to wear (an allusion to 'the political situation in Turkey', according to Asmus) -- but in the end, in the German production, as we heard from the Australian producer (Uhlmann) today, the actors were confined to dentists' chairs -- just as in this production they were made to sit in chairs that had added contraptions to keep the heads still that the cinematographer/ editor (Denham) had made. Uhlmann told us that it had been Asmus's suggestion to Beckett -- once it had become clear that there were no longer to be heads with bodies on the screen as there were on stage, but heads alone -- that the actors close their eyes rather than bow when their faces re-emerged from the dark.

After the screening, one of actors told us that he'd noticed (in the finished film) the slightest suggestion of a frown on one of the other actors when he re-emerged with his eyes closed -- a frown which Uhlmann and Denham admitted that they had never noticed (and which Asmus would very likely have wanted to expunge had his attention been drawn to it in time) -- and that this had made him think that this character -- whose name he'd forgotten just as he'd already forgotten the name of his own character -- that this character, alone among all of them, had moral integrity.