Choice, Control, and Constraint

March 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature.

In chapter 11 Des Esseintes is inspired by his sick-room reading of Dickens to undertake a journey to London.  He hates how isolated he’s become and desires a trip into the world, and he wants to compare his imaginative creation of London as it is presented in Dickens with the real thing.  This chapter’s great: Des  Esseintes makes the trip into Paris, which turns out to be rainy and subdued, and has a gigantic English/French meal at a tavern.  There are these passages of Des Esseintes imagining himself to be in London already — Paris as London, the nerve! — and at last, he decides the real thing could never match his image of it, and goes back home.  In chapter 12, as happy to be home as if he actually had been gone for months, he lovingly handles and reviews his book collection.  This chapter’s also interesting from a bibliophilic perspective, as Des Esseintes reveals that he actually has his favorite books specially typeset, printed, and bound for him in one-copy editions to his specifications.

This revelation — Des Esseintes’s mania for controlling all aspects of his beloved books’ appearance, at exorbitant expense — got me thinking about the relationship among the three C’s in this post’s title.  As I said in the last post, Huysmans spends much of this book talking about taste, which is a function of choice: Des Esseintes is obsessed with maintaining and explaining (to himself, if to no one else) his choices in literature, art, decoration, companionship.  But so much of this taste — all taste, really, but especially in the case of this decadent eccentric — is really about control: about exerting the control he lacks over his poor health and personal relationships (or lack thereof).  And the desire for control leads to constraint — to a wildly proscribed life, a decision to shut out the world and create an artificially superior one, an individual-sized universe.

These C’s have been the focus of most of the books I’ve been reading lately: Villette, with its constrained governess exerting the control over her narrative which she so often lacks over her life and loves; Schreber’s Memoirs, with its pathological display of choosing to believe in the universe which places Schreber at its center, in control of the fate of the world; VALIS, with its overarching intelligence invading an individual’s consciousness, questioning the very concepts of free will, control, reality.

Huysmans also puts me very much in mind of Georges Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual (especially the Bartlebooth plot), and other works of the OuLiPo group.  Constraint is the raison d’etre of this group, and I’ve always thought of the group as freeing the artist by limiting the impossible, limitless choices of language — and as a rather existential expression of the human condition, a duplication in artworks of the non-negotiable constraints we all face in life.

I recognize a lot of myself in Des Esseintes, even with his massive wealth, outdated ennui, and colossal perversity.  I have his tendency toward hermeticism, toward cloistering in the home and mind.  I’ve never thought of this as a desire to exert control over a scary world, but perhaps it is.  What about Des Esseintes — is ennui camouflage for fear?  Does the world-weariness of the fin de siécle actually stem from fear that the world was simply getting too big, with too many options, too many freedoms, too many possibilities?

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Decadent Surreality

March 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature, by J.-K. Huysmans.

This is regarded as the key text of the Decadent movement which is best known by the works of Oscar Wilde.  It is quite easily the most foppish book I’ve ever read: Literature Dandified.  So far, at least, it is quite persistent in its celebration of “taste,” its abhorrence of the mob, and its ugly streak of misogyny.

There are manifestos strewn here and there throughout the first four chapters, but the root of them all seems to be this, from chapter two:

The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.

Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes….

So our “hero,” Des Esseintes, decides to isolate himself in a villa on a hill outside of Paris.  He spends his time alone, keeping vampire hours, contemplating the furnishings he’s chosen, his art collection, his book collection (and his walls are bound like books, in “orange morocco”), his perverse fancies and desires.  It’s amazing how much it reminds me of surrealism, and both Huysmans and Des Esseintes seem to be longing for just such a movement.

For instance, chapter four is devoted to Des Esseintes’ attempt to bring out “the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool” of an Oriental rug, by placing on it a “huge tortoise.”  However, the brown of the shell does not have the effect he anticipated — so he has it gilt.  Even this gilt does not prove to be enough, however, so he has a design of precious stones set onto the shell, simulating a Japanese drawing of flowers.  Leading to the image of an aesthetic turtle lumbering across a gorgeous rug.  (The turtle dies, of course: “it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it.”)

This incident reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Roussel: there are similar set pieces in Impressions of Africa.  It also reminds me of some of the OuLiPo writers, Harry Mathews especially, and Perec.  It’s also an extended example of the dominant metaphoric motif in the book: things from nature — insects, plants, weather — are compared to items in Des Esseintes’ artificial world, and, by the alchemy of metaphor, somehow transformed into them.

I love this stuff: so far, Against Nature is mostly description, metaphor, incident for the sake of striking image, and pure belletristic language.  There have been chapters devoted to an alternate history of Latin literature and linguistics, the aforementioned turtle chapter, and an ekphrastic chapter on two artworks by Gustave Moreau featuring Salome.

However, it is amazing how the book disregards both any concern about money and any feeling for people — in general, really, but especially those without taste, which really seems to be everyone but Des Esseintes.  There seems to be a pull back towards feudalism and a push forward towards fascism in the work.  Acting on the desire to be left alone, the hermetic, Decadent ideal, leads to those who would get into everyone’s business running the world.

Time, Reality, Authorship, and Other Delusions

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

Reading next: Against Nature (À Rebours), by J.-K. Huysmans, and Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, by S.S. Prawer.

VALIS is more or less the perfect book to read after Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, if I do say so myself.  Like Schreber’s book, it’s a cosmology and exegesis, not primarily a narrative, entertainment, or memoir.  Like Schreber’s book, the most interesting thing about it is the question of how seriously to take it. The question you keep asking yourself, when reading both books, is: Is this a joke? They’re batshit-crazy books.

Of course, there are different standards for VALIS.  Schreber, by all indications, was mentally ill, and both telling the story of his imprisonment and explaining the nature of the universe as he felt it had been revealed to him.  Dick was a novelist; his book was marketed as a novel; and despite the fact that the book is legendarily connected to the experience of “an invasion of [Dick’s] mind by a transcendentally rational mind” in 1974, it is (has to be) a fiction about madness, theology, reality.  It’s kind of Memoirs… turned inside out.

And the book’s main character, Horselover Fat, does have a stint in an asylum, after his miraculously unsuccessful suicide attempt.  Chapter 5, about this time, includes some great insights.  My favorite part of the book might be Fat’s interactions with Dr. Stone, a fascinating character — a “healer,” Fat believes, but possibly a quack and unstable himself.  Stone uses the unusual technique of simply believing his patients.  Stone takes an interest in Fat’s obsession with Gnostic Christianity and his theory that time stopped, kind of, in 70 A.D.: that time since then has been a delusion.  And as they discuss it, Fat seeks validity for one of his ideas.  “‘You would know,’ Dr. Stone said, and then he said something that no one had ever said to Fat before.  ‘You’re the authority,’ Dr. Stone said.”

Dr. Stone wasn’t insane: Stone was a healer.  He held down the right job.  Probably he had healed many people and in many ways.  He adapted his therapy to the individual, not the individual to the therapy.

That’s an interesting idea.  Most of the time we think that the problem with the seriously delusional — the schizophrenic, psychotic, what have you — is that they are too sure of their point of view.  They are sure they know.  This passage, in which Dr. Stone’s belief (real or feigned) in Fat’s theories is applauded as a therapeutic approach, seems to me to indicate that Dick really does want us to take Fat’s — the book’s — cosmology seriously.  Because you do not encourage the delusional to persist in their delusion.  Do you?

Here’s how Dick explains it, in one of the book’s best and most affecting passages:

They — note the “they” — paid Dr. Stone to figure out what had destroyed the patient entering the ward.  In each case a bullet had been fired at him, somewhere, at some time, in his life.  The bullet entered him and the pain began to spread out.  Insidiously, the pain filled him up until he split in half, right down the middle.  The task of the staff, and even of the other patients, was to put the person back together but this could not be done so long as the bullet remained.  All that lesser therapists did was note the person split into two pieces and begin the job of patching him back into a unity; but they failed to find and remove the bullet….  Dr. Stone had a paranormal talent, like his paranormal Bach remedies which were a palpable hoax, a pretext to listen to the patient.  Rum with a flower dipped into it — nothing more, but a sharp mind listening to what the patient said.

But as it turns out, Fat’s not healed after all.  If he was, he wouldn’t exist anymore, as we find out later.  (I think that “note the ‘they'” is PKD’s authorial interjection to tip us off to the fact: Fat’s/Dick’s persistent paranoia.)  So where’s that leave us?

As a novel, I have to say the book’s a failure (not that any PKD fan’s going to give a damn what I think).  It has about 50% too much going on: so many half-explained theories, overheated tracts on the nature of time and space, overreaching attempts to encompass too many very different ideas and religious systems in single symbols, muddled events.  (In this, it also resembles Schreber’s book, which could also be mind-numbingly boring in its minutiae of the workings of an obviously delusional and incomprehensible worldview.)

However, as a document, as an artifact of a mind with a vast capacity for idea- and narrative-generation shucking its habits and trying something vast and self-consciously “important,” it’s fascinating.  I do feel like lately, I keep harping on the narration of events rather than the events themselves.  I hate to keep being so meta in my reading; but it happens to be the most interesting thing about these books, to me.  I mean, I’m sure PKD would rather his readers took the opportunity to reflect on what they actually think about God, the existence of evil, and the connections between the religions of the world.  I’m sure he’d rather we talk about reality and whether our experiences are not often delusional in one way or another.

But the fact is, this is a book in which Philip K. Dick is a character, and so is one Horselover Fat — “Horselover” being the meaning of “Philip” in Greek, and “Fat” meaning “Dick” in German.  And it’s also a book in which Dick says, right up front, that he is Fat, but that he’s going to write as though he’s not.  And near the end of the book, Fat is reabsorbed into Dick.  Fat’s been a fiction all along, even in a fictional world.  Dick has been writing about an alter ego, a fictional version of himself.

You can see the whole narrative of this book as a complex allegory on the creation of fictions — of narratives, of universes.  VALIS is a term for a supposedly rational mind invading our irrational world, ruled by a “God” who thinks he’s the only god — a delusional god.  Is Dick trying to break out, and break his readers out, of the delusion of being the one true “God” of their fictions?  In other words, is the work self-consciously bogus — a hoax, like Stone’s, which really exists to listen and “believe”?

Near the end, Dick and Fat have become one and he and his friends have met the young girl Sophia (wisdom), who may be the “Savior.”  The group believes that Sophia tells them that “The time had come when we no longer had to believe in any deity other than ourselves.”  It’s wisdom shared in people, between people.  Is Dick trying to help us see that truth exists in between — in the communication, not in the interpretation?

Bellowing with the Bourgeoisie

March 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

The strangest thing about this very strange book is the mystery of Schreber’s mental state as he wrote it: clearly still mentally ill, but lucid and intelligent enough to write a tract which makes his insanity seem utterly sane, even dull.  It is, mostly, the evidence and procedure of a courtroom, not an asylum.  Schreber explicitly states that he’s writing the book both to disseminate the important information he’s received about the universe and to prove his sanity — to show the evidence for his brain’s perfect functioning, but also for the truth of the universe he’s had revealed to him.

It veers so close to self-parody, while remaining utterly in earnest.  The most stunningly forthright passage is at the beginning of chapter 20, when Schreber comes right out and says what every paranoid thinks, but shows that he’s aware of how this might sound and explicates his reasons for believing it nonetheless:

everything that happens is in reference to me. Writing this sentence, I am fully aware that other people may be tempted to think that I am pathologically conceited; I know very well that this very tendency to relate everything to oneself, to bring everything that happens into connection with one’s own person, is a common phenomenon among mental patients.  But in my case the very reverse obtains.  Since God entered into nerve-contact with me exclusively, I became in a way for God the only human being, or simply the human being around whom everything turns, to whom everything that happens must be related and who therefore, from his own point of view, must also relate all things to himself.

It’s truly baffling how he, veteran of the asylum and respected legal authority, can make this kind of flimsy claim for his exemption from the monstrous egocentricity of his view of reality.  It is shocking how real it must have all come to be, for him; how he’d worked it all out in his head, had told himself the story to make sense of his pain and confusion and isolation, and therefore made it true.

There are a number of moments in the book when one can get a glimpse of Schreber against the grain of his narration, or especially in the reports of Dr. Weber, the head of the asylum, in the Addenda section at the end of the book.  The most compelling such moments involve Schreber’s “states of bellowing,” times when he feels he must let out an animalistic bellow or roar as a reaction to the voices he hears.  He talks of the great release he feels in this state, and how he loves going for walks in the country when he can just let it rip, but has also learned to control the bellowing in polite company, restraining it to little peeps or yelps.  Schreber presents this as little more than a perfectly understandable quirk, a trait of his that should simply be accepted and ignored by those he meets once they know about the reasons for it.  And yet, it’s clearly one of the main physical symptoms of his illness.  Isn’t it somewhat horrifying to imagine meeting a man, presented to you as a “respected jurist,” whose face twitches and trembles until he finally lets loose with first a yip, then a yelp, then great bovine bellows of mixed relief and rage?  (Hasn’t David Lynch made a career of horrifying people with scenes just like this?)

Further, in one of his reports on Schreber’s progress, Dr. Weber confirms Schreber’s report that he was allowed to join Weber’s family at dinner occasionally.  Weber also mentions that Schreber would sometimes stay to play the piano or converse with Weber’s wife and daughter.  This sounds, to me, like a Robert Olin Butler story waiting to happen: at the time of Freud’s great discoveries, mental patient with highly developed, extremely idiosyncratic worldview, who believes himself to be turning into a woman/earth-goddess, plays sonatas with German bourgeoisie , occasionally giving vent to animal sounds in the parlor.

Compulsive Thinking

March 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

Reading next: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

A brief note about one of the most affecting touches in this deeply alienated book: Schreber’s discussion of his “compulsive thinking” and the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” which he used to combat it.  He introduces the concept in chapter 5:

The nature of compulsive thinking lies in a human being having to think incessantly; in other words, man’s natural right to give the nerves of his mind their necessary rest from time to time by thinking nothing (as occurs most markedly during sleep) was from the beginning denied me by the rays in contact with me; they continually wanted to know what I was thinking about.

This leads to arcane and obscure attempts by Schreber to “falsify” his thoughts, and to use a kind of mental “static” to block out the voices he heard: counting, recitation of names, etc.  His only real relief comes from the few activities during which he is actually able to forget about the voices incessantly bothering him.  These are playing chess, playing the piano, and exercising. From chapter 12:

The feelings aroused in me when I resumed this occupation [playing the piano]… I can best describe with a quotation from Tannhauser:

“Total forgetting descended between today and yesterday.  All my memories vanished rapidly and I could only remember that I had lost all hope of ever seeing you again or ever raising my eyes to you.”…

I must confess that I find it difficult to imagine how I could have borne the compulsive thinking and all that goes with it during these five years had I not been able to play the piano.  During piano-playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned.

Schreber is describing the necessity of getting out of one’s own head.  When he plays the piano, he feels, he does not think; when he plays chess, he thinks only of the moves of the game, not the cosmic battle he believes he is fighting with God.  The quotation he uses above is touching, isn’t it?  How wonderful it feels to forget, and how glad he is to have some preoccupation from his hellish life in the asylum?

In light of Schreber’s reinvention of the Christian cosmology, it’s interesting how Buddhist this idea is: a defense of oblivion, of the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” as Schreber’s own demons put it, against the incessant Western pressure to do, build, accumulate, think, be.  If I’m understanding some of the wonkier aspects of Schreber’s universe (and I may not be), it would also be better for God and the spirits that harass Schreber if they could also accept his right not to think constantly.  God is attracted to Schreber the living being whom he does not understand as he does the dead; God’s “rays” are irritated when Schreber is not thinking, because they think him dead, and so they curse and speak in half-sentences to make him think and come alive.  If Schreber could just be left alone, not to think, perhaps God could withdraw back to his rightful place in the universe.

Where Am I?

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