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?
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.
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.