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?

The Freedom of Constraint

April 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth.

There was a terrific, seemingly out-of-the blue post on Slate this week by Robert Pinsky, a kind of manifesto on the laziness of complaints on contemporary poetry. I enjoyed it, and his second point was especially appropriate for my current reading. He gives a couple of excellent examples of free-verse poetry.

I am beginning to realize that Sharp Teeth does not belong in this company. I am beginning to wonder if its free verse really is “just prose chopped into lines.”

There are any number of examples I could give. Here’s just one:

They exited the freeway and pulled

into a neighborhood

just east of Huntington Park.

Ray slung the van up a drive and shut off the engine.

He pointed to Frio and Penn and said,

“After you change, hit the back of the house,

and be ready to rush.”

(Sorry, too dense to figure out single spacing right now.)

You see anything poetic there? Anything requiring line breaks besides the clauses of each sentence? Any careful wordplay, alliteration, internal rhyme? I don’t. It’s utilitarian prose. There are some nice flights of fancy in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be contained in prose. Some nice metaphors, turns of phrase, digressions.

I’m having a lot of fun with this book, don’t get me wrong. But what annoys me is that I really could have loved a book that actually was a rigorous piece of poetry about packs of werewolves in L.A. Because there’s a nice tension there, see? The constraint of writing within the urbane, civilized, even antiquated constraints of metric, even rhymed verse could have made an ingenious counterpoint to this book so much about the human and the animal within the human which we all live with. I could even have gone for sections of verse broken up with sections of prose, Shakespeare-style. I’m afraid Barlow wanted this kind of effect, but was either too lazy or too scared to go whole hog. Instead he just broke his sentences up into lines. Too bad, really.

I’m one of those people that thinks what we need in literature (insofar as “we” need anything, overall) is more constraint. I’m an OuLiPo fan, in other words. I adore books written without the use of the letter e. I admire fantastically elaborate linguistic or structural puzzles embedded in novels. I love poetry marrying  torturous demands to gorgeous language.

Shakespeare’s the summit of literature for a reason, right? I mean, mostly because he was a genius, and would have been a genius whenever he lived. But partly, I insist, it’s because he lived at a time that demanded that he place constraints on his passions; that he write his dialogue in iambic pentameter, that he create words to fit that meter, that he structure couplets to end his scenes, that he conform to the rigors of the sonnet and only occasionally take liberties. Shakespeare’s great lines, soliloquies, and speeches would simply not be were it not for his operating within these structures. This is the genius of the OuLiPans. It’s only when we limit the set that things get interesting; structureless freedom in art leads to a multiplicity of tempting, horrible choices (see Art Scene, Contemporary American).

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