Just Pointing Out the Obvious…

March 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

A brief blog-maintenance interlude: if you’ll glance to the right, you’ll note that I’ve started a Twitter feed.  (You’ll also note that I chose the goofiest name possible, ambiguitweets.  What can I say, it makes me chuckle.)  It’ll basically be a place for me to write quick notes on reading and other things of note that don’t seem to require a post.  And I insist on remaining 4 1/2 years behind the rest of the culture.  (Coming in 2014: Facebook!)  Hope you enjoy.

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Three or More Madmen

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.

Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not.  More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw.  That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.

Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai.  That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable.  Which is perfectly valid.

As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary.  The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse.  You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.

As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to  wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions.  And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems.  Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.

“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God.  Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:

A clean, whitewashed, square room.  How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square.  There was one window, with a curtain — red….  And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual.  Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life.  Somehow life and death merged into one.  Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it.  Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.

The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence.  It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions.  But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”

I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well.  If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist.  There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories.  Thank God.

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary).  I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family.  As he dies, at the end, we read the following:

He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:

“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…”  He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.

Okay, fine.  God will understand.  But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged?  Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him?  And what are they to understand from “Forgo”?  One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence?  (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.)  The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”

Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare.  The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story.  It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?

Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse.  This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage.  And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art.  Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.”  He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.”  The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here.  He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife.  He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion.  Moral or immoral?  Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous  works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?

On Virginia Woolf’s Favorite Baseball Book

March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.

Reading now: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.

I’m not sure quite where You Know Me Al stands these days.  It was both wildly popular and critically acclaimed in its time (shocking fact: Virginia Woolf somehow loved or pretended to love this book — look it up, there’s an easy-to-find blurb), then became one of those last-generation books that no one actually reads, and now — is it a semi-forgotten classic?  A bestseller that’s found its way to the appropriate level of public awareness?  I suppose it’s something like a cult classic now, though even when I lived in Chicago pretty much no one I knew had read or even heard of it.  But I suppose book cults must be the smallest cults of all.  We’re not talking Jesus and Mary Chain here.  We’re not talking Lebowski.

But there’s a little of YKMA‘s DNA in Lebowski as there is in all American satire, all American humor.  The book’s a transcription of the letters home of Jack Keefe, young pitcher for the White Sox, to his “old pal” Al of Jack Keefe.  It’s rife with misspellings, malapropisms, double negatives, horrible grammar.  Jack’s dumb.  And an asshole.  But he’s an entertaining asshole, an asshole on many levels and in many different ways.   I love it when he’s both too clever by half and obtuse, as in this passage:

Bodie and Schalk was on when I come up in the 5th and Hill hollers to me and says I guess this is where I shoot one of them bean balls.  I says Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you.  You see what I was getting at Al.  I was insinuateing that if he beaned me with his fast one I would not never know nothing about it if somebody did not tell me because his fast one is not fast enough to hurt nobody even if it should hit them in the head.  So I says to him Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you.  See, Al?

Thinking of Hill, the pitcher, trying to sort all of that out on the mound cracks me up.

Al ends up being a fascinating character in absentia, because you end up just itching to see the other side of the correspondence: does he realize what a jerk Jack is, even to him?  Is he just that loyal, or is he as dumb as Jack (or dumber) to keep bailing him out with loans and running errands for him back in his hometown?  Does he take offense to Jack’s apparently unintentional but really mean slights of Al’s wife Bertha, or not even notice them?  I like to think of Al as the good angel to Jack’s bad: taking care of his family, loyal to his friends and teammates, overlooking the human foibles, errors, and monstrosities of his pal in favor of remembering good times they’d shared.

Lardner clearly knew baseball from his sports writing, and he doesn’t let management off altogether: Charles Comiskey, the real-life owner of the White Sox, is a character here, and is treated as no saint when it comes to taking advantage of the onerous contracts of the day.  And in the end, when Jack is talked into an around-the-world tour of exhibition games with the White Sox for nothing but living expenses, we see the other side of the equation of Jack’s naivete and idiocy: businessmen taking advantage of it for material gain.

You Know Me Al has an infrequently cited subtitle: A Busher’s Letters.  Partly I suppose this is a matter of branding, because the first section appeared in the Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Busher’s Letters Home” and subsequent chapters appeared as stories there, as well.  But partly it’s Lardner’s sly dig at Jack Keefe, the titular busher (baseball slang: one who is or belongs in the bush, or minor, leagues).  In terms of talent, Keefe turns out to have enough to win a lot of games for the White Sox (assisted, surely, by pitching during the end of the “dead ball” era when 1-0 scores were a regular occurrence) and back up his incessant braggadocio, which surprised me.  But he’s forever a busher in his contempt for his teammates, his utter lack of self-awareness, his naive belief in his omnipotence and omniscience.  He’s a rube, and an American archetype.

American Weirdness

March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place.  It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.

And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely.  I love horror movies, after all.  And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways.  It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films.  It would involve poor people.  And black people.  And cults.  And drug abuse.  And monsters.  And abortion.  And weirdness.

Lots and lots of weirdness.  The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having.  I guess this is what we normally call mythology.

The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways.  One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home.  It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways.  It feels very true, as that kind of story.  Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself.  The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.

And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks.  While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching.  We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet.  We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.”  We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness.  Terrorism and holy war.  Angels and demons.  Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing.  A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.

Introducing DeLillo’s Internet Man

March 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Reading now: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.

Reading next: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.

I’d like to think that DeLillo wrote this when he did for much the same reason I read it when I did: Fot the love of God, let me finish something quickly! After Underworld, DeLillo surely enjoyed writing this spare novella, a whispering ghost of a book.

And yet, he’s DeLillo, so it’s also, still, a book like a steel rail, vibrating with the force of the train bearing down on us, and a book like a radio spinning its dial through the world’s most erudite and finely crafted frequencies.  It’s a book that concerns itself with film, radio, audiotape, performance art, art reportage and criticism, but mostly death and the human body.  DeLillo notices more than most of us, and shows us things we were bound to notice eventually but hadn’t yet.  But he does it in such interesting ways that often it’s up to you to notice what he might be talking about.

Case in point: the Internet, here, in this 2001 book.  It make a direct appearance, as the “live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland” with which Lauren becomes obsessed for its “sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch… she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.”  But the Internet might be a larger figure in the book.  Is it the mystery man who appears in Lauren’s house?

This feeling, that the mysterious savant is actually some sort of Internet Man, came slowly, but once I’d had the thought it was difficult to dislodge.  DeLillo is a master of ambiguity, and so he can be an Internet allegory and many other things at once.  But his uncanny mimicry, his lack of human personality and self, his flat screen of recited language and incident, and his blurring (both to Lauren and to us, the readers) of “realness” and artifice or simulacrum add up, for me at least, to a portrait of a new technology, this search-engined network of knowledge and memory.

It crystallized in this passage, near the end, after meditations on the nature of “past, present, and future” and language:

“…she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.

He violates the limits of the human.”

The connection of all of this with the book’s deep concerns with death, with the body, and with art: this is, perhaps, of a piece with millennial techno- and future-thinkers, and yet it is utterly different from utopian wishes to escape the body online or dystopian visions of technological tyranny.  It takes Lauren’s artistic vision — and especially her “body work” — to make sense of both the Google-like retrieval of her late husband’s voice by the “savant” in her house and of the mysterious appeal of a Finnish road in the dead of night.

Where Am I?

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