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.

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.