Monday, October 30, 2006

Powers, etc

Recently I've only found time to blog on weekends, and I missed even that this past weekend. I have a bunch of things awaiting my attention that I hope to post sooner rather than later (including long-gestating posts on Despair and The Sleepwalkers, both of which are well past their sell-by dates).

In the meantime, I finished reading Richard Powers' new novel, The Echo Maker, yesterday. It's a very fine book and definitely of a piece with Powers' ongoing themes and concerns. Here he returns to an essential set of questions running through almost all of his fiction: who are we? how do we narrate ourselves to ourselves? how can we possibly recognize other people, and relate to them, when we can barely maintain ourselves (our "selves") from moment to moment? I may have more to say about it later, time permitting.

For more on The Echo Maker, be sure to take a look at the excellent five-day roundtable discussion over at Return of the Reluctant (parts one, two, three, four, and five, the last of which features Powers' own comments responding to points made by the roundtable participants). Also, at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito responds to the William Deresiewicz lame attack-review in The Nation, which I talked about here (and Ed here).

On a somewhat related note, at The Pinocchio Theory Steven Shaviro reviews a science fiction novel by Peter Watts, called Blindsight, which is "a space opera, and a First Contact novel, and a vampire novel — and also a philosophical novel about the nature of consciousness." Shaviro then discusses at length the novel's exploration of consciousness. The novel sounds fascinating, and Shaviro's post is very interesting. Waggish responds with a thought-provoking post of his own.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Remainder, Tom McCarthy

Sometimes I find myself in a strange intersection of events, and a clutch of books, read more or less in random sequence, will touch on the same theme or mention the same detail. I bought Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder in France and read it in its entirety on the flight home. It was the second of three recent novels I've read in which the main narrator and principle character opens the book telling us about a mysterious accident or physical trauma and its aftermath, including the character's recuperation, re-entry into life, etc. The other two were Jennifer Egan's Look at Me and Rupert Thomson's The Insult, both of which I enjoyed. But the comparisons end there. And they are dwarfed in my memory by Remainder. Praise from certain people had my expectations high; too high, I feared. In the event, the novel far exceeded these expectations, and I feel that my experience of reading it will stay with me for a long time.

Here is first page of this remarkable novel:
About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That's it really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.

It's not that I'm being shy. It's just that - well, for one, I don't even remember the event. it's a blank: a white slate, a black hole. I have vague images, half-impressions: of being, or having been - or, more precisely, being about to be - hit; blue light; railings; lights of other colours; being held above some kind of tray or bed. But who's to say these are genuine memories? Who's to say my traumatized mind didn't just make them up, or pull them out from somewhere else, some other slot, and stick them there to plug the gap - the crater - that the accident had blown? Minds are versatile and wily things. Real chancers.

And then there's the Requirement. The Clause. The terms of the Settlement drawn up between my lawyer and the parties, institutions, organizations - let's call them the bodies - responsible for what happened to me prohibit me from discussing, in any public or recordable format (I know this bit by heart), the nature and/or details of the incident, on pain of forfeiting all financial reparations made to me, plus any surplus these might have accrued (a good word that, "accrued") while in my custody - and forfeiting quite possibly, my lawyer told me in a solemn voice, a whole lot more besides, Closing the loop, so to speak.
Immediately the narrator (who is never named), is interested in the meanings of words and in the vagaries of memory. Very soon he learns that his Settlement was for "eight and a half million pounds" and he gets snagged on the "half", the amount leftover. And because of brain damage he has to re-learn how to perform basic functions. He gets fixated on the minute elements of actions and words. He becomes obsessed with forensic science. He keeps noticing the smell of cordite.

He interrogates the commonplace and finds that his actions seem unreal to him. He is taken by the perfection of Robert De Niro in Mean Streets: "De Niro was just being; I can never do that now." After moving more or less aimlessly for a while, hanging out with friends, investing his settlement money, he has a strange vision, an elaborate déjà vu in which he "remembers" a certain moment in a certain room in a certain building with certain neighbors. He has no actual memory corresponding to it, but in the moment of his vision, he feels alive. He knows what he must do, with the perfect logic only someone with a lot of money can think: He sets out to recreate the conditions so that he can re-enact this feeling of being alive. Before long he's hired staff to follow his every whim, bought a building in Brixton, and hired people to re-enact the other people who appeared in his déjà vu.

And there are further re-enactments, which get more and more elaborate. In his effort to isolate the moments in which he feels most alive, he has elements of the re-enactments slowed down. He enters into these moments: here, this is where life happens, in the moment, at the atomic level. He finds authenticity in the most literally unreal situations (more and more artificial re-enactments of real or supposedly real events). He goes into trances from which he doesn't awake for hours, even days. He appears to be further and further removed from reality around him.

Repetition plays a major role in this novel. The re-enactments are repeated over and over again. The narrator's singlemindedness creates restlessness in the reader (or, well, this reader): what, I wonder, is the purpose of these re-enactments? Or, where is this going? Indeed, expectations of "story" are continually raised and then thwarted. But the re-enactments are the point: he is trying to have a real experience, to enter into the experience, and his experience is such that we enter into it ourselves, almost achieve a trance state in our reading... In the re-enactments, as the narrator seeks to enter into the moment, to recreate these fleeting sensations when he felt most real, most alive, as he slows down the process, the prose slows, and we enter into the moment as readers, achieve an almost trance-like state, as he does.

Throughout, McCarthy's prose is appropriate to the material: precise, controlled, deliberate, restrained. One of the blurbs on my copy of the novel talks about how, in the novel, the event, is "lived and relived in... Beckettian vibrations...", which I immediately scoffed at as typical blurby hyperbole. But now I know what it means. I've only read Beckett's Murphy, which I know is not "mature" Beckett, but while reading Remainder, especially the slowed down, repeated re-enactments, I seemed to feel, yes, "vibrations" of what Beckett is about. Here he describes in minute detail the slowed down re-enactment at the building in Brixton:
We stayed there for a very long time, facing one another. The pianist's chords stretched out, elastic, like elastic when you stretch it and it opens up its flesh to you, shows you its cracks, its pores. The chords stretched and became softer, richer, wider; then they kinked back, reinstating themselves as he hit the keys again.
...and I am reminded of Morton Feldman... actually, scratch that: I'm not merely reminded of Feldman, the passage makes me feel that I know what it would be like to be inside Feldman's music; and then I remember that Feldman composed a piece "for" Beckett, and the reference seems entirely appropriate.

The temptation to write about this novel in excessive detail is strong. As is the temptation to quote from it at considerable length. But I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I think the novel is to be finally published in the US next year. If you can get it earlier, please do. I can't recommend this novel highly enough.

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Honeymoon in France - Impressions and Travelogue

It's been more than a month since we returned from our honeymoon in France, and I am the slowest writer in the world. I know, it's ok: the everydayness of things quickly takes over and trips recede into the distance. There just isn't time. Besides, we were married in April and had to delay our honeymoon, so this is nothing out of the ordinary.

It’s often said that we all carry with us an idea of Paris. Maybe. For my part, while I definitely have various images of Paris in my head cobbled together from movies and novels, I have tried to resist certain romantic notions. It does not, for instance, matter to me in the least that many famous writers went to Paris and stayed there and became part of serious artistic communities. To the extent that I am interested in some of these writers, I am interested only in their writing. And I knew that the famous Bohemian underworld of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was long gone well before I ever thought of going. Places made famous for one reason (art, say) were already to my mind surely at best tourists’ theme park shadows of their former glories. In the event, for example, Montmartre is a dump.

But I was recently taken with the idea of Paris that emerges from what little I’ve read by Walter Benjamin, particularly his use of Baudelaire’s idea of the flâneur, or the urban stroller who is a detached observer. When we travel, there is no escaping the fact that we are tourists; the best we can do is observe and enjoy without running ourselves ragged. Aimée and I at least try to have a more casual trip--a relaxing vacation--rather than run from site to site. We mostly walk around. But even avoiding most of the obvious “things you have to see when you go to Paris”, we inevitably confront the fact of being tourists.

Museums are of course major tourist areas, especially the famous ones. And while part of me wants to experience the art that is on display in the great museums, the truth is that I am not well-suited to the practice of looking at paintings. I get impatient, I quickly feel as if I must move along to the next painting, into the next room, skim over the pretentious informational plaques. I was reading Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters on the trip, and in it the character Reger says,
Real intellect does not know admiration: it acknowledges, it respects, it esteems, that is all…. […] I have never yet seen a person enter a church or a museum entirely normally … because the journeys these people take are nothing but admiration journeys… Admiration makes a person blind.
“Admiration journeys”. I like that. This pressure I feel to move on is partly motivated by an awareness that I am usually unsure of what I am looking at, but somehow certain that I ought to look at it, and to look at as many pieces as I can. This is contrasted with the feeling that, to really see a great painting, I should stay in front of it at some length, devote my full attention to it, truly experience it. But then I get antsy: there are other paintings that might be more worth the extended effort; I will try to find them. And people are in the way (people are always in the way; museums, famous museums, are thronged with people, people on their own admiration journeys, checking one more thing off of their list of things to see), blocking my view, crowding in on the art, bustling, murmuring, making it difficult for me to concentrate, just as I no doubt make it more difficult for someone else to concentrate. In this way, traveling as a tourist can easily be little more than an admiration journey. You select a place and then pack in as many of the buildings, neighborhoods, artworks as you can. This is what we try to avoid, where possible.

Aimée has been to Paris before, and her mother has lived here, so she feels that she should be ok speaking French, even if hers is rusty. And rusty doesn’t begin to describe the problems with my French. Aimée jumps right into it, impressing me with her attempts to make herself understood. Yet we are chagrined when numerous attempts to engage in French are cut short by the other person, wishing to switch to English. Actually we think this is funny. As much as we are trying, and as patient as people are being, there is no escaping the fact that, at best, we speak French as if we were exceedingly dim second graders. For me, my uncertainty with speaking French makes me nervous, reviving largely eradicated speech impediments. For years I got around my (actually quite mild, but bad enough for me) speech impediment by softening sounds and quickly moving on to alternative words when I had a problem. With French, I just barely decide on one word or phrase I can use; if I fail to get that word or phrase out, I have no other options.

Our first day includes a nice walk through Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis, the heart of the old city, in and around various buildings, toward Notre Dame. We are unable to go inside because the area is blocked off for a lively AIDS march. The day ends well, with the obligatory boat ride on the Seine. The ride is enjoyable and makes Aimée happy. Neither of us had expressed interest in going to see the Eiffel Tower, but we must admit that it looks pretty cool from the Seine, all lit up, glowing gold against the night sky.

After the first couple of days, we learn that we are much better off when we have determined ahead of time where we will be eating. Otherwise, it winds up being 9 pm and we’re hungry and settle on something nearby. We end up eating some mediocre food because of this. But when we do well, we do very well. We go to le Marais, on the Right Bank, our second day, and we love it, not least because of all the great food we eat in its Jewish/Middle Eastern quarter. That night we eat at the justly popular Chez Marianne, filling up on cheese and wine, meat and falafel, tahini and humus. Highlights of our walk in le Marais include the winding streets and pre-Revolutionary buildings, as well as the Place des Vosges, intended by Henry IV as an exclusive aristocratic retreat, which it was, though it was later also heavily working class. We sit in its splendid park at length. We spend a lot of time sitting in parks and reading.

The next day it’s very hot, and I’m not feeling well. We see the Louvre, and it is impressive, but we have already decided that we are not going inside. We walk along the Champs Elysées and go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. We love the view, and take many photos, but today has not been our favorite. The Champs Elysées is, of course, highly commercial and very crowded. We go to Montmartre, where Aimée remembers going with her mom many years earlier. It is very crowded, tacky, covered in trash. And at the bottom of the hill, on the main drag that includes the Moulin Rouge, it is replete with sex shops. Aimée is disappointed. We return to le Marais for dinner. We give up on waiting outside another popular place, opting instead for a lovely, intimate restaurant half a block away, where I have duck, with a nice fig sauce. Another thing we learn on the trip: it turns out we like fig.

The next day, we leave Paris, taking the train to Avignon, where we rent a car and for the next week drive around Provence, listening to jazz.

The historical city of Avignon, site of the Papacy in the 14th century, is enclosed by a wall. We only spend two evenings inside the walled city, happily avoiding the daytime crowds. Something about Avignon makes it seem like a toy-city to me, ghostly, with its old buildings, imposing palaces and churches carved out of stone, inside the wall, now seemingly geared almost completely towards tourists of one stripe or another. And yet people certainly live here. Walking the back alleys at night confirms this, but it seems odd. Maybe it’s because we are Americans and everything is relatively young in the US, but I always find myself wondering what it’s like to live in these old buildings. We talk about the fact of being a tourist, how we are necessarily separated from people’s actual lives. We want to experience France, but our experience can only be that of a visitor. Even if we succeed in avoiding the heavily crowded areas, our experience with the place is mediated through interactions that inevitably tell us little about everyday French life, and we are alienated by our ineptness with the language, mine in particular. Our awareness of this alienation does not mean that we are not enjoying ourselves. Quite the contrary: we are interested in the question. We discuss further our own ambivalence about it; we want to visit places, but there’s no accessing the idea of a visited place. Unless we live and work there, we cannot truly know it. We understand that there is only so much we can do with a two-week trip, and we make the best of it.

One of these nights in Avignon, we have a great dinner at a hole-in-the-wall French pasta restaurant we happen upon while looking for another place. Our waiter is a charming Frenchman who speaks broken English and who gets progressively drunker throughout the evening. He has had some good news and is celebrating. We sit outside, toasting ourselves. We decide that, so far, the honeymoon has been excellent. We are optimistic about our future and review the events that brought us together. As we talk, we laugh, and I am reminded once again why I love her. Aimée is funny and smart and witty, and tonight she is in fine spirits. She is lovely. We have a wide-ranging discussion, at one point deciding that we should write a book about history’s missed opportunities: the Paris Commune, the German Revolution just after World War I, the Spanish Civil War. And in the United States: Reconstruction, the so-called Progressive Era, the Civil Rights movement… We think it would be a pretty big book. Our waiter recommends a fantastic fig tart for dessert. When he discovers we are Americans, his reaction is so strong that our instinct is to apologize, but he is excited. He lived in Washington, DC, for a year back in the late 1980s, and he loves America. When he learns further that we are on our honeymoon, he gives us some champagne on the house, and kisses us both. When we have to go, he hugs us, and as we leave, he calls out, “Be good to each other!”

Surrounding Avignon, especially to the immediate east and southeast, in the direction of our chambre d’hôte, is suburban sprawl, that vision familiar to any American--ugly commercial box stores and malls, heavy traffic, dispersed residential development. It’s interesting to note that, yes, France is a commercial place, and the French do live with some of the same kind of blight that we do. But we did not travel to France to find ourselves back in Towson. We take steps to remedy this and head further east, away from the chambre d’hote, toward the Luberon region, where we have a delightful day wandering through many of its picturesque hill towns. We enjoy the pleasant drive, which takes us through fields and past farms, till we arrive in Fontaine de Vaucluse. This village is located at the source of a river, which is supposed to be a spectacular sight when it’s flowing, which it’s not. The village is still quite lovely, even without the benefit of this attraction. We have a fine lunch of baguette and goat cheese and juicy plums. From here we drive to Bonnieux and then on to the tiny village of Buoux, where we go for a hike on one of the marked trails. We learn that following the walks in the reverse order than is described in our book is a lot easier on the streets of Paris than it is in these hill areas, with its nebulous, hard to identify landmarks. We never do find the supposed end of our walk. We return tired, but happy to have spent the day walking in a natural setting. With only one day available, we inevitably miss a lot of the Luberon (and resolve to come back on a future trip), but it's a much-needed corrective to the congestion and sprawl.

Leaving Avignon, we drive south, on the way to Cassis, stopping for an hour for lunch at a random kebab place in Marseilles, eating the best pommes frites of the trip. Aimée is enchanted by Marseilles, its bustling, multiethnic city life. We’ll be coming back here, too.

We get to Cassis, a coast town, with the calanques and boats and many fabulous people who have clearly spent way too much time in the sun, all leather-skinned and shriveled; we swim in the translucent, turquoise water of the Mediterranean, with the nearby cliff red against the sky, looking unreal, shimmery, as if it will disappear if you stopped looking. We notice that the only people anyone can hear on the beach are the Americans sitting ten feet from us. They are from Connecticut and they are loud.

At night we take a walk to the other side of the port, near the smaller beach, and sit on a rock jutting out into the water. I am mesmerized by the movement of the water around the rock, as it hugs the stone, slapping back and forth, in and out, as if alive. (Soon after returning home, I read a passage describing this effect perfectly, in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping: "…among all these pilings and girders the waves slipped and slapped and trickled, insistent, intimate, insinuating, proprietary as rodents in a dark house." I am jealous and want to steal it.)

From Cassis we drive northeast, en route to the Gorges du Verdon. It’s a long drive and we arrive after dark--the road winding through the mountains, the vast expanse hidden in the black night. The next day, we go for a hike. We stop to rest off the side of a mountain path, and eat lunch: a fantastic assortment of bread, cheese, and chocolate, and perhaps the finest apples either of us have ever tasted. I struggle to write in my journal. What can I write about the Gorges? It's beautiful, of course; spectacular. The view is indescribable. Returning to Old Masters, the narrator describes nature as "uncanny"; I’ve always found uses of this word mysterious, but here I think I have an idea what he means. Nature renders insufficient our attempts to process it or describe it. Nature is beautiful, but the word seems wrong. "Beautiful" seems to belong to artificial things, to art. Nature just is. And there’s something overwhelming and fearful about that fact. Here, the views in the mountains are breathtaking and words elude me. Where we are, it seems at times untouched, relatively pure, the illusion of wilderness, but then there are the remote villages, the connecting electricity and telephone cables, the roads, signs--footprints of humanity, footprints of organized humanity, of institutional France. But, even with this evidence of human interaction, nature remains, and where there is evidence of older, abandoned settlements, nature has taken over, as it will. Nature is beyond my ability to understand. It's huge, relentless.

I stare out at the expanse beneath us, across from us, and the mountain there, against the sky, in all its different shapes and striations, and I can say nothing other than variations on "wow". So I stare. I stare while sitting at lunch (beneath telephone towers, it turns out), and I enjoy following the flight of a bird as it glides in the wind; as it soars for a distance before rising above the visible peak on the horizon, it encounters another bird, they tangle, appearing to play. Do birds enjoy flight? Is enjoyment too anthropomorphic a concept? No doubt it is. Nevertheless, this is the impression I get: this bird, these birds, are enjoying themselves.

Earlier, during our walk that brings us to our lunch spot (through a plateau, where each step comes alive with the scattering of millions of jumping insects that seem to behave like crickets, but look like butterflies or colorful moths), we talk about birds and how they, en masse, suddenly all rise, all do the same action at the same time. There never seems to be a signal when they do this. Aimée has been reading Jung and is reminded of his idea of the collective unconscious. We talk about this, and about the limits of human understanding.

I return to the idea that nature is uncanny. I would include ancient structures in this concept. Ancient buildings, whether ruins or not, are uncanny, at least to someone coming from a place where, by definition, no structure is older than two or three hundred years. When we were staying around Avignon, one day we went west to the town of Nîmes to see the Roman buildings there--the large amphitheatre and the Maison Carrée. The latter is a temple (which, says our guide, “rivals Rome’s Pantheon as the most complete and beautiful building that survives from the Roman Empire”) that sits squat in a square, amidst other buildings from throughout the intervening centuries, including a huge, very modern, all glass office building. In this context, the Roman building seems like a mirage. I get the strong impression that the building is not really there, so strange does it seem to me to see it among all these other buildings.

Our chambre d’hôte near the Gorge is a former school located in a tiny village in the mountains called Chasteuil, operated by Pascal and his American wife, Nancy. Pascal packs our lunches and presides over two fantastic dinners with all of the guests. We are the only Americans staying there. Among the others are two British couples, a Danish couple, a trio of Germans, and two Welsh couples. These dinners are multi-course affairs and give us the opportunity to talk with people, something we realize we miss, which reinforces our feelings of ambivalence about what it means to be tourists. Everyone has their own ideas about the United States, and, while they are unlikely to come across two Americans more critical than we are of America and its actions, we still feel the need to correct some misapprehensions and even, on occasion, defend it. The dinner conversations range from American television (uniformly bad, it appears) to Bush (ditto, but fair enough), and touching on healthcare, travels, and the EU. This time in the mountains is our favorite part of the trip: for the scenic walks, the peaceful mountain air, the leisurely pace, and the welcome opportunity to engage in non-commerical conversation with other people.

We return to Paris, but not before driving to Nice to drop off our rental car and catch a train. We had talked about trying to fit Nice into this trip, but there just wasn't enough time. We know instantly that we will have to make a point of coming back here; the water is a stunning sight, with a wide strip of azure running along the coast (almost as if it were called the Côte d'Azur for a reason).

Back in Paris, we stay in the Latin Quarter and enjoy walks through Luxembourg Garden and Jardins des Plantes... We view the Impressionist paintings at the Musée d'Orsay and the Roman and Medieval artifacts at the Musée National de Moyen Age. We feel the trip winding down and wish we had more time. This doesn't stop us from enjoying our last couple of days. We discuss the trip, the things we have learned, things we'd like to do again. We continue to eat interesting food. One night, I order steak tartare, which, it turns out, is basically raw beef. I rather like it. Our last night, we return to Île de la Cité and Île St. Louis for a final romantic, night-time stroll. We stop for some of Berthillon's rightly famous ice cream and some wine, and we sit, watching people go by.

Though we struggle with our roles as tourists, we have a wonderful trip. We discover some things about ourselves (for example, it turns out we don’t know French), what we want out of traveling, what kind of planning is necessary, what places we will want to return to, what places we won’t. And we do get some glimpses of French life. Though we don’t want to leave France, by the end of the trip we are ready to. As enjoyable as traveling is, not knowing the language well is limiting and alienating, and living at length out of suitcases is tiring. Returning home, it is a relief to again hear English. And after being away for two weeks, even Baltimore seems new, freshly scrubbed. We are happy to be back.

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Hauntology

I am not well acquainted with the concept of "hauntology". But after reading the many posts on the topic by Mark at k-punk, I feel I have glimpse into the nature of the idea. Mark's brilliant most recent post opens it up even further for me:
It is this sense of temporal disjuncture that is crucial to hauntology. Hauntology isn't about the return of the past, but about the fact that the origin was already spectral. We live in a time when the past is present, and the present is saturated with the past. Hauntology emerges as a crucial - cultural and political - alternative both to linear history and to postmodernism's permanent revival.

Ten years ago, we would have looked to SF and cyberpunk for this alternative. But hauntology and cyberpunk can now emerge as twins; travelling back in time in Butler's Kindred is the complement of the violent irruption of the past in Morrison's Beloved. It's no accident that hauntology begins in the Black Atlantic, with dub and hip-hop. Time being out of joint is the defining feature of the black Atlantean experience. As Mark Sinker wrote, the 'central fact in Black Science Fiction - self-consciously so named or not - is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened: that (in [Public Enemy's] phrase) Armageddon been in effect.' In this disjunctive time, it makes perfect sense for Terminator X to juxtapose samples of helicopters with discussions about the slave trade, as he does on Apocalypse...91. There is no way in which a trauma on the scale of slavery - 'the holocaust that's still going on' as Chuck D had it - can be incorporated into history, American or otherwise. * It must remain a series of gaps, lost names, screen memories, a hauntology. X marks the spot... The deep, unbearable ache in Kindred arises from the horrible realisation that, for contemporary black America, to wish for the erasure of slavery is to call for the erasure of itself. What to do if the precondition for your being is the abduction, murder and rape of your ancestors?
This last specifically reminds me of a professor of Russian history I had back in college. One day, while railing that Russians, in the approaching dissolution of the Soviet Union, had nothing to learn from "Jeffersonian nonsense about natural law", he said something to the effect that, as horrible as what happened to the Native Americans was, he was nevertheless happy it had happened. To wish otherwise was to wish away his own existence.

Before getting to the end of Mark's post, I was also immediately reminded of Greil Marcus and his thesis of the "Old Weird America"--a much derided idea now, I suppose, but one which made some sort of sense to me. When I read Invisible Republic, I was bored by the chapters specifically about Dylan and the Band and the recording of the The Basement Tapes--I love Dylan, but I'm no Dylanologist, I was then discovering. But the stuff on the old folk songs, on Dock Boggs, on "The Coo-Coo Bird"--this stuff fascinated me. It seemed to speak to a history of America beneath the surface, away from the standard narrative we've had forced down our throats, to acknowledge the strange religious practices, the violent upheavals, the anxiety about technological change... At the time I also listened to an interview with Marcus in support of his book. When he wasn't droning on about who played what on The Basement Tapes, but was talking about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clarence Ashley, and Dylan's songs that seemed repond to other currents in pop culture (like Dylan's take on the teenage murder song), I felt that I was on the cusp of understanding something, something that tied in with Faulkner's imagined South, and Cormac McCarthy's highly stylized violence of the Old West in Blood Meridian, and this something was just beyond my reach, something I could not articulate intelligibly.

Mark does mention Marcus, in a footnote. He notes that Marcus invariably avoids talking about production techniques and that, indeed, in his discussion of the Sex Pistols, for example, Marcus talks about their live performance... Mark admits: "I haven't read any of Marcus' Old Weird America material, so correct me if I'm wrong - isn't it about Dylan? - but couldn't all this return to field recordings be fitted, all-too-comfortably, into a quest for presence?" Yes, yes it could. Also, it strikes me that, in his recent work, Marcus appears to be positing something essential about America, locating some kind of authenticity in the musicians and writers he chooses to focus on, in the particular narrative strain he choses to highlight. His focus on David Thomas, for instance, is interesting in this regard, given how inauthentic Thomas' musical persona is. In his music, in and out of Pere Ubu, Thomas is saying something about America, too. As if there is something authentic in the very inauthenticity of the projected persona, in the music, and as if this reveals something essential about America.

One of the important things to remember about the Anthology of American Folk Music, emphasized by Harry Smith but often overlooked, is that these were intended to be commercial recordings. The musicians may have been playing songs that had been around seemingly forever, but these were not field recordings, these were performances recorded for release by record labels. That it's been well over 50 years since the Anthology first appeared, and another 20-30 years since the recordings first appeared, means it's easy to listen to these songs as if they are ancient, but the recordings have locked in place a certain time, and the technological artifice of the records--their scratchiness equals for us "old-time"--allows us to continue to believe in the illusion of folk tradition transmitted via the recordings. Not that there is no folk tradition, but that the tradition we think we know about is necessarily altered by the technological artifact.

I'm just sort of riffing here, but I'm interested in pursuing this line of thought further. I look forward to reading Simon Reynolds' piece (referenced by k-punk) in the new issue of The Wire, which I haven't received yet, among other things....

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Phantoms of the Imagination

From Italo Calvino's "Levels of Reality in Literature", collected in The Uses of Literature:
The preliminary condition of any work of literature is that the person who is writing has to invent that first character, who is the author of the work. That a person puts his whole self into the work he is writing is something we often hear said, but it is never true. It is always only a projection of himself that an author calls into play while he is writing; it may be a projection of a real part of himself or the projection of a fictitious "I"--a mask, in short. Writing always presupposes the selection of a psychological attitude, a rapport with the world, a tone of voice, a homogeneous set of linguistic tools, the data of experience and the phantoms of the imagination--in a word, a style. The author is an author insofar as he enters into a role the way an actor does and identifies himself with that projection of himself at the moment of writing.

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Stories That Don't Make Regular Sense

From Laird Hunt's excellent novel, Indiana, Indiana:
You didn't tell me about your finger yet.

Didn't I? said the saw player.

Noah shook his head.

The saw player took another drink then asked Noah what he'd heard about the Finger Lady and whether or not he had an opinion on her.

The what? said Noah.

Now don't you go on and tell me you never heard about the Finger Lady.

I never did, said Noah.

Well, now, that's a shame, that is indeed, and I reckon we'd better rectify it directly. You bring me on over one of your daddy's fine tomatoes and I'll see if I can't tell you the long of it good and short.

Noah brought over a tomato. The saw player lifted it up to his mouth and bit into it like it was an apple.

Then he told Noah about the Finger Lady.

My daddy would like that story, Noah said.

Is that a fact?

He likes stories that don't make regular sense.

Well then I reckon he likes most stories.

Noah thought about this then nodded.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Experimental and Weird

Related to earlier posts of mine (here and here), this is from Phil Freeman's interview with David Thomas, in this month's issue of The Wire:
...sometimes it seems like David Thomas keeps his back catalogue in print because he thinks (or hopes) that maybe that way, understanding will eventually sink in. He's probably wrong of course, but it's easy to understand why he'd find it futile to endlessly re-debate the 1970s. The battle's been lost; Pere Ubu's been enshrined as a pioneering proto-punk act, the better to allow critics to trace lineages and build imaginary hierarchies the most obsessive football fans would envy. "First we were pre-industrial, then we were industrial, then we were post-industrial," he scoffs. "First we were this, then we were the other thing. It's all baloney, and the reason there's so much confusion about it is, we're mainstream rock. It's not my fault that the rest of the world has gone off into a bizarre parallel universe where they find comfort in experimental music."

If that statement seems counterintuitive, it's because of the dominant, and obfuscatory, role marketing jargon has achieved in artistic discourse. Thomas, having been a professional musician for more than 30 years, sees things clearly and simply--a group playing three-chord songs with guitar, bass, drums and occasional synth is a rock group, not some avant garde art project. It's those who make their music with computers, in the least organic manner possible, who are the strange ones, to him. "In the early 70s," he says, "the evolution of rock was very, very, very obvious. Analogue synthesizers and concrete sound was entering into the music. Various people had various strategies, and it wasn't one thing. It was stuido techniques and other things. All of it, to us, was coming to this juncture. And it was very obvious to us that this was what rock music was supposed to be, to make use of this powefull, relatively new narrative voice. That's why I've always said that we are in the mainstream. It's people like Eminem or Britney Spears who are the weird experimentalists. They are avant garde. They are dealing with weird alternative worlds. If you put our view of the human condition alongside Britney Spears's, one of them is extremely experimental and weird, and it's Ms Spears'."

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Monday, October 09, 2006

What Novels are For

I haven't read Richard Powers' new novel, The Echo Maker, yet (it's on order), but I've noticed that the reviews have started coming in. This one in The Nation by William Deresiewicz is a pretty annoying James Wood-style takedown (link via The Written Nerd). Deresiewicz irritates immediately, attempting to take down Powers and his fixation on science:
Richard Powers has a lot of ideas: complex, articulate, deeply informed ideas about artificial intelligence, virtual reality, relativity, genetics, music and much more. But poems, as Mallarmé told Degas, are not made of ideas, and neither are novels. The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.
Nice of him to decide for the rest of us what novels are for. I can only say that I've never found Powers' introduction of scientific ideas or themes off-putting or, as Deresiewicz later puts it, "textbookery". It's never been difficult to understand their relation to the narrative--or, rather, it's always been clear that they have a relation to the narrative, and part of the enjoyment in reading Powers is figuring out what that is.

Anyway, some other offending remarks: About The Time of Our Singing, he writes "Powers constructs an enormous novel to tell us, in part, that white people will never be able to understand or accept black people (so black people should stick to their own culture and their own kind)." Though I disagree with him, I'm not especially bothered by many of Deresiewicz's criticisms of this novel (for example, that he finds Powers to be more sentimentalist than humanist), but this comment is just lunk-headed. About The Gold Bug Variations, Deresiewicz says that it's little more than Powers "treating the novel as a container for scientific ideas". And: "One can't help but feel that Powers is more in love with his ideas than with his story."

I know I shouldn't get too worked up; if he's unable to figure out what Powers' "elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like", then that's his loss.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Experience Only Words

Hugh Kenner, in his introduction to his A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, providing some background to the idea that Beckett, in his prose fiction, "became our time's inheritor from Flaubert.":
The Flaubertian Revolution was, we know, a matter of style, of the nuanced cadence and le most juste. It was also a revolution of theme, for after Madame Bovary the theme of fiction after fiction proved to be illusion. Madame Bovary is about Emma Bovary's notion that successive men--Charles, Leon, Rodolphe--offer the vast emotional opportunities to which she feels entitled. She acquired her sense of entitlement from such sources as novels, so Flaubert's novel is like the novels she has read, from the marriage and the obligatory adulteries to the theatrical death; like them, but written as they are not; composed, sentence by sentence, with a double vision, a simultaneous awareness of her illusion and of the realities, barely perceived by her, out of which the illusion is spun. That is why the style is so important; each sentence must walk that tightrope, making Leon simultaneously the not unusual young clerk, in our vision, and the sensitive lover, in hers. Thereafter we encounter a whole fictional tradition of people who live inside stories. Joyce, in Dubliners, presents person after person enclosed in some received fiction, the men and women around them virtually transformed into figments. When Gretta Conroy, in the [sic] 'The Dead', says of the young man who died, 'I think he died for me', she is placing him inside a story that shall obliterate the commonplace fact that he died of having stood in the rain, and that ficiton of hers has more power over her passions than has the living husband from whom she turns away.

The novels of the Flaubertian tradition have tempted playwrights and film-makers, but have never made successful plays or films. The Great Gatsby for instance--how shall Jay Gatsby be impersonated by some actor? For he is incarnate illusion, the collective dream of all the other characters. Such a being abides in fiction, where he is created by figures of consummate rhetoric in a medium whose very condition must be that we shall see nothing, shall experience only words.

So fiction, since Flaubert created the fiction of solipsism, has turned away from the visible and the palpable: from the stage, from the film...

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

What if the World Were Already Lost?

I'm in the midst of re-reading Richard Powers' second novel, Prisoner's Dilemma, which was the first Powers book I ever read. In this book, Powers plays with history and time and family interactions and the question of how the individual can impact the world. The family in the novel is the Hobsons: Eddie Sr., his wife Ailene, and their four children, Artie, Lily, Rachel, and Eddie Jr. Eddie Sr. suffers from an ongoing illness that he refuses to have diagnosed and the rest of the family avoids talking about, has avoided talking about for years, finding elaborate ways of evading the issue. Powers' fiction is usually packed with puns and metaphor and allusion, and Prisoner's Dilemma is no different. Here, the engine of this language is Eddie Sr. and his battery of pedagogical tricks and referential tics. The children have all grown up under his dark, often tasteless humor and his constant barrage of movie quotes, literary allusions, bad puns, ad hoc mind games, science quizzes over breakfast--indeed, he speaks almost entirely in this language, leaving the children to figure out what he might be getting at with any given comment or joke or question. His way of teaching them how to make their way in the world. But the children, adept at playing the game, have each in his or her own way instead mastered the art of evasion: evasion of the topic and of having to admit their true feelings.

In the "present-day" narrative, as the book opens, it is November 1978 and the family is gathered for Eddie Jr.'s 18th birthday, and Eddie Sr. is increasingly, alarmingly ill. He is ill but somehow still able to bounce back from each seemingly awful collapse and maintain his cheerful, joking demeanor, and the rest of the family battles silently over how to confront him about it. The following passage is taken from the middle of the novel, towards the end of the visit, Rachel having finally coaxed the family into singing by providing the first line, "Lo, how a rose e’er blooming". The rest of the family joins in with four-part harmony:
All at once, the flash that each had tried so hard to evade was there, intact: a moment of tender visiting hovering over them as the tenors slid down that narrow half-step to the F sharp. They all felt it, momentarily. And each knew the others received a momentary hold on the instant, too. All six stood looking into a place before irony, before wit, before anxiety, before evasion. Surfaces dispersed, and in the still point underneath, they saw what was so terribly obvious to all of them, despite their long gainsaying: how hopelessly each cared what happened to the other. The care shouted out uninvited between them, like a candidate's criminal record. They had no choice but to tune their chord to it. They stood startled, flushed into that snare, aware for once of the connection between them that could reach down at leisure and destroy them. Caught in glorious chord, in facts gathered from each other's faces, they all felt the fissure--fragile, dangerous, and beautiful--close up and leave them in the incurable call back to tonic. The rose I have in mind.
That last sentence is too much of an apparent non sequitur to pass without notice. A short search came up with words to this Christmas carol:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
So, as expected, it's clearly not a non sequitur. "The rose I have in mind" is just another line in the song. Or is it? The placement of the line in this manner implies a lot more than mere quotation. Why is Powers using this carol? It appears at least one other time in the book. What is he trying to say? I don't know much about carols, nor am I well-versed in Christian literature or imagery. But, at risk of being obvious, I'll take a stab at it.

In the carol, the "Rose" is obviously Jesus Christ. Or, given the reference to Isaiah's messianic prophecy, the Messiah, or Saviour, more generally. In the passage, I think the line means that here, in this singing, where the family realizes with a shock how much they care about each other, they perhaps see that it might be a way out of their standard evasion, it might save them. They might just be able to drop the act and get to the point. But it is as elusive as understanding. Singing is where they see past all their jokey facades to their intimate connections, where they realize that they matter to each other more than they might have been able to say. But when the song ends and they part ways, they're back where they were.

But I think there's more to the allusion than that. Ed Hobson learned something about the world, something about America, that ruined his youthful idealism, left him adrift in the world, unable to find the purpose for a small individual like himself in the vast billions and in the huge historical currents that happen without most of us being aware of the changes. His illness has a dark source, connected to one of these hidden histories, and he knows it. In a world that may already be lost (a variant on one of his favorite phrases: in many ways this book is a meditation on loneliness, and its opposite), he resorts to trivia, silly movies, fantasy, in order to survive, or so it appears. Alternating with the present-day narrative is a counter-narrative, Eddie Sr.'s "Hobstown" project, involving Walt Disney and a fictional scheme to free some of the Japanese Americans interned during World War II, in which Eddie imagines a world where history is redeemed. Where people realize that the way out of the elaborate Prisoner's Dilemma of the title is in fact not mutual mistrust, that self-interest is not in the self's interest, that they must hope against hope that the other party, the Other, will recognize this too. This might just save humanity. The rose he has in mind.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Liberation Theology

At Lenin's Tomb, Lenin is tired of people continuing to throw the word "liberation" around:
And if there is no excuse now for such deluded horseshit, there never was any excuse. To imagine, to fantasise that the people who calculatedly and maliciously imposed the genocidal sanctions regime on Iraq, a wilful and wicked assault on Iraq's civilian population - to dream that such people are likely to want to 'liberate' Iraqis, except from their mortal coils, is a profound and shocking abdication from the duty to analyse and think through a situation. To then on the basis of this preposterous illusion go on and publicly, clamorously, boisterously demand invasion and occupation is to advertise a kind of collective insanity. And the hide n seek game, so beloved of the 'humanitarian interventionists', won't do either - "we found some Kurdish leaders who agreed with us, so we must be right." Of course the Kurdish leaders agreed with you - they, as the single Iraqi group most imbricated with the US, had the least to lose from it and the most to gain (at least in the short term). What happened to thinking for oneself? What happened to thinking?

"Liberation" - the canard of every bullshitter and hypocrite in the world, and yet another example of a cynosure of radical discourse being enclosed on behalf of imperialist tyranny.
All kinds of otherwise intelligent people still resort to disingenuous "liberation" arguments or its variations. And this crap shows up in all kinds of unexpected places. For example, over the weekend I read this article about photography criticism in the Boston Review by Susie Linfield (link via The Reading Experience). It's a very interesting piece. Actually, in many ways it's quite excellent. Along the way she discusses the criticism and influence of Susan Sontag and John Berger and Walter Benjamin--people whom even I, knowing virtually nothing about the history of photography criticism, would expect to potentially come up in such an article. Anyway, Linfield argues that present-day Anglo-American photography critics do not love photography (whereas, for example, Pauline Kael obviously loved movies), that they are stuck in a view of photography that is mistrustful, taking their cues ultimately from Bertholt Brecht and his own mistrust of sentiment and emotion. She writes:
There is much that is bracing, and revelatory, and so wonderfully challenging about Brecht’s emotional astringency. [...] What is often forgotten, however, is that Brecht—like Moses—was a particular man who lived in a particular time and place and who observed particular things. Brecht’s time and place was Weimar Germany, and he saw—correctly—that his compatriots were drowning in a toxic bath of unexamined emotion: of rage over their defeat in World War I, of ressentiment against Jews and intellectuals and others, of self-pity, of bathos, of fear. Brecht saw—correctly—that this poisonous mix of increasingly hysterical feeling, and the voodoo conspiracy theories to which it lent itself, was the perfect incubator for fascism. [...] Brecht’s relentless war on emotion was ethically, politically, and artistically necessary for him, but it has been taken up in an all too uncritical way by Anglo-American photography critics working in very different times and places and facing a very different set of challenges.
She suspects that these "postmoderns" (generally people identifying themselves with the Left), rather than worrying about people's "automatic" responses, instead don't trust viewers to come to the right conclusions about photographs. She may be right about this, and the quotations she supplies do appear to support her argument. But she presents examples, and her discussion of them is problematic. She discusses, by way of demonstrating the "strange, confounding ability of photographs to make us feel things that we do not think we should", a book of photojournalism about the Iraq War, Witness Iraq: A War Journal February–April 2003. Let me say that, in general, as she describes the various photographs and her responses to them and the questions they raised, her questions are usually interesting, provocative, well-taken. But she sneaks in a number of troubling assumptions. First, she describes a photo of relatives standing over the coffin of a man killed by a bomb. Linfield tells us:
Because the picture is dated “03/29/03,” we know that the bomb was probably an American one, and that it was dropped on the civilian marketplace almost certainly by accident—which is not the same as forgivably. (If the picture, and the bomb, were dated yesterday or today or tomorrow, we would know that it was planted by members of the Baathist or Islamist insurgency, and on purpose.)
As if there is no question about this whatsoever. As if the notion of "by accident" means anything when you have invaded a country and routinely bomb civilian areas. The clause "which is not the same as forgivably" does not get her off the hook. Linfield then discusses a couple more photos and her reaction to them, before offering us this gem:
These photos speak not just of the plight of children in wartime, though they depict that too. But perhaps more important, they suggest—though do not explain—the strange incongruities of the Iraq war, which cannot be summed up by phrases like “U.S. imperialism” or “war on terror.” It is a war in which an army of liberation quickly became an army of occupation, offering an unusual, catastrophic blend of negligence and oppression; in which the overthrow of a dictator led to the unleashing of tremendous violence against his already wounded people; in which a nation newly freed from decades of brutal rule turned, furiously, inward, its lessons in sadism learned all too well.
It is a war in which an army of liberation quickly became an army of occupation. I'm sorry, but no. This is indeed horseshit. At this point, the article is almost over, and Linfield finishes up by echoing the standard "decent Left" chorus, effectively accusing the "postmoderns" of missing the true enemy at the gates:
And though most photography critics—or at least those I have been discussing—identify themselves with the left, this detestation of the photograph is not a subversive or progressive or revolutionary stance, but in fact aligns them with the forces of the most deplorable backwardness: aligns them, for instance, with the frenzied crowds in Kabul and Karachi, Damascus and Tehran, who called for the execution of the Danish cartoonists and promised what they called a “real” holocaust. Here is where pre-modernism and postmodernism merge, for those demonstrators, too, view images as an exploitation, an insult, a blasphemy: as an “act of subjugation” indeed.
I don't know much of anything about Susie Linfield--a quick search reveals that she has written for The Washington Post, Dissent, Newsday, and The Nation--but here she emerges as just another Liberal buying into idiotic notions about a "Clash of Civilizations", unwilling to recognize the implications of American foreign policy and actions.

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