Everyone and the Dream

July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions.

Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.

Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle.  It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.

The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress.  (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.)  Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam.  And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.

Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.”  The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.”  And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.

But what’s the American Dream?  The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.

Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation.  One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread.  Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage.  (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style.  Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)

Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom.  Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free.  The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me.  And there is only/ one boundary.  Me.”  But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?)  Freedom is the freedom to fear.

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 Appearance of Freedom

October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)?  It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them.  Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer.  (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads.  Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )

So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia).  But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:

164.  Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.

Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.”  He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.

“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.”  Well, yes.  That’s a very large part of this book.  The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that.  This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works.  And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better.  And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)

So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen.  But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself.  Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image.  We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained.  We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want.  We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously.  We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.

And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people.  (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.)  Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court.  Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.

Beautiful Absurdity

February 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Having just finished this, and with a great deal to process and look into, I’ll say that the book is clearly a masterpiece, and no wonder Ellison had such trouble finishing a second novel: where do you go from here? Two things nag at me, the way small flaws in otherwise perfect constructions do. One is the opening paragraph, which, after the power of the first sentence–the famous “I am an invisible man.”–is stiff and verbose in ways the rest of the book avoids. The other is chapter 24, very near the end, which is weirdly tedious, annoying, and overlong in its explication of a drunken night between the narrator and one Sybil. There’s a point to all of this, too, of course–the constant fear of miscegenation that’s haunted America, the superstitions of sexual power this fear has assigned to black men, and the comic debunking of same–but the tone and the tedium seemed all wrong to me for a chapter so near the end, and it seems wildly out of place. At times it seemed to me simply an excuse to have drunken Sybil call the narrator “boo’ful,” with its potential to signify beautiful, boogieful, and boo-ful (as in, ghostly, invisible, scary) all at once.

There’s far too much going on near the end of this book to go into all of it–the final chapter, with its surreal race riot and the fascinating image of Ras (now Ras the Destroyer) on his black steed, holding a spear and spiked shield, leading his warriors against a police troop while stores are looted around him; not to mention the narrator’s dream, on an underground coal pile, of a bridge brought to life as an “iron man” by the transplant onto it of the narrator’s castrated testicles–but I wanted to focus on one small phrase near the end. The narrator says, in the midst of the wild riot:

“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

Beautiful absurdity… this is the phrase that Ellison chooses to sum up American identity. And he includes all of us in it–black and white, rich and poor, revolutionary and reactionary. It’s a phrase the narrator enacts himself, in previous chapters, in his impersonation of one Rinehart–equally rind and heart–who turns out to be a popular preacher promising to make “the invisible visible” (there’s a handbill shown here reminiscent of the famous J.A. Dowie handbill in Ulysses) but also a numbers-runner, womanizer, and general sleazebag.

And it’s a phrase that might also be the key to understanding the contents of the narrator’s pocket. Throughout the book he collects these somewhat talismanic objects in his pocket: first the leg iron given to him by Brother Tarp, a kind of symbol of slavery, and used as a kind of brass knuckles to escape from a couple of jams; then one of Brother Clifton’s “Sambo” paper dolls; then the dark, green-tinted glasses he bought to hide his identity and which convinced passers-by that he was Rinehart. These are all symbols of identity: of identifying who he is, who his people are, how they are perceived or not perceived. This strikes me as a beautifully absurd collection of objects to carry around in a pocket.

But so what’s meant by “beautiful,” anyway? Is it tied to the fact that, as the narrator says in the epilogue, “one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray”? This is an appealing theory, to me, but if so, why does this description of American unity-in-diversity use ugly words like “dull and gray”? Is it because of the struggle against this becoming? The “absurdity” is more obvious: no one seeing who they are, where they came from, where they are going; no one taking the time to delve into their connections to others, or their own motives for the actions they take or do not take. Plus, of course, there’s the absurd distance between America’s foundational principles and the actions of the ones we entrust to uphold and enforce those principles. Hard to find beauty in that, though.

And it’s the “beautiful” in that phrase, I think–a phrase which is very close to a self-summation of the book–which keeps the book from being a polemic, a manifesto, or (only) a “social” novel. “Beautiful” is open-ended, subjective, ambiguous, personal. Because Ellison is concerned with the aesthetic, and is concerned with the individual. It’s a book about individual perception and awareness, as much as anything–about self-discovery and its power, and the beauty of those things.

Plunging Outside of History

February 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Just finished watching Yes, a deeply weird, deeply beautiful movie in which all the dialogue is in a lovely, Shakespearean iambic pentameter–some rhyming, some not. (You know I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Bonus points for an antiquated outlandish formal conceit.) There’s an Irish-American biologist, a Lebanese cook, a chorus of housekeepers, an English blues aficionado, and much much more. I’d spoil the plot but want you to go ahead and watch the movie, so I won’t.

Anywho, this coupled with IM finds me thinking about history. The place of the individual in it, out of it, or near it. What we think of as history and what we think of as life. Etc.

Chapter 20 felt an awful lot like the core of this book. In chapter 17 the narrator and his compatriot, Brother Tod Clifton, have a run-in with their nemesis in Harlem, the black militant Ras the Exhorter. And Ras does not approve of their working in the Brotherhood (as their organization is called) with and for white people. After their confrontation, Clifton says of Ras, “I don’t know…I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history….Plunge outside, turn his back…Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts.”

By chapter 20 Clifton has abandoned his post in the Brotherhood. The narrator, reassigned to the Harlem beat, tries to track him down and finds him hawking small, paper-and-cardboard dancing dolls. They’re black, they’re called Sambo, and the narrator sees them as a betrayal of everything he and Clifton had stood for. Clifton ends up shot dead by a cop he’d punched in anger. And the narrator is left to ruminate on Clifton’s sudden plunge outside history, into the black marketplace, selling the world’s image of himself.

I won’t pretend to understand everything in the narrator’s ruminations, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about history and time. He sees three black boys in the subway, and thinks, “These fellows whose bodies seemed–what had one of my teachers said of me?–‘You’re like one of these African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design.’ Well, what design and whose?” And going on, continuing to talk about these “transitional,” extra-historical (because not recording their own histories, and sure to be forgotten in the traditional textbooks) boys, he says, “What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?”

What does it mean, exactly, to plunge outside history? To turn one’s back on the narrative of “progress,” or destiny, or fate? To what end? Are the downtrodden in any sense free agents–or does the narrator insinuate the exact opposite–that history is gambling on those boys (all of us), thinking they might lead to some big payoff (the Brotherhood, writ large) but never quite knowing? A kind of determinism lite?

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