April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Moby-Dick and The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick.
A couple of short notes on the early sections of the book — things I hadn’t noticed before, or had forgotten:
-“The Counterpane” features an anecdote from Ishmael’s childhood, one of the few autobiographical hints we get about our ostensible narrator (“ostensible” since Ishmael largely drops out of the narrative in the middle of the book and becomes a floating, omniscience narrator before reemerging towards the end). I’d forgotten how perfectly told, how subtly creepy and folkloric, this little tale is: of Ishmael sent to bed early in the afternoon of the summer solstice as punishment, by his stepmother — stepmother, mind you! — and dozing off in the sunlight to find, in the darkness, “a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine.” It’s this perfect little short story; in fact, I seem to remember a similar story by Ray Bradbury, but can’t find it at the moment. This chapter, if it gets mentioned at all, gets mentioned mostly as the beginning of the affectionate bond between Ishmael and Queequeg. But the gorgeous little excerpt of Ishmael’s perfectly horrible fairy-tale upbringing in early America is the most complicated thing about it. Why is it here? Ishmael tells the story to compare the feeling of holding that phantom hand with the feeling of waking with Queequeg’s “pagan arm” thrown over him. But he tells us to remove the fear from his earlier feeling to understand how he feels under Queequeg’s arm. Now, the fear is the most important thing about that earlier sensation, isn’t it? Melville seemed to be simply compelled to tell this (autobiographical?) story, and to connect that uncanny sensation with the juxtaposition of Ishmael and Queequeg. It’s the quintessence of American Weird, plain and simple.
-Father Mapple’s sermon in the Whaleman’s Chapel is rightly one of the most famous chapters in the book, and Howard Vincent examines it admirably. However, he may have been a little straightforward in his treatment. Vincent reads it as a warning, plain and simple, to hubristic Ahab. And you certainly can read it that way. But the sermon is also one of Melville’s closest approaches to Paradise Lost, I believe. And like Milton’s great poem, it is profoundly ambiguous. Just as easily as you can read it as a reproach of Ahab and foreshadowing of doom, you can read it as a defense of Ahab. After all, doesn’t Mapple say that “Delight is to him — a far, far upward, and inward delight — who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self,” and “who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges”? Isn’t Ahab more like the prophet Jonah should’ve been, insisting on the wrongness of the evil perpetrated upon him, than the coward Jonah was, who ran away from his duty and was swallowed for his trouble? Is Mapple’s sermon an indictment of God, or of Ahab?
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.
February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read. It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed. The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways. One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.
Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s. It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail. To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig. Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body). He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.
Got that? Yes. Well. It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan). Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.
There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God. Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe. God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.
Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him. As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something. Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.” (Italics Schreber’s.) This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think. After all, how could God understand life? Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?
Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God. And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him. Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by
“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”
Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”
Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument. God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!
You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head. Heartbreaking. And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too. The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it. But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.
October 26, 2008 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Today’s subject: confluence, anti-confluence, paranoia, structure, and accident.
I’ve talked about the structure of the novel before, but of course I left out a couple of things. For instance, I haven’t even addressed the weird fractal theory, in which every chapter is supposed to replicate the structure of the entire book (and I see this in some chapters, and miss it in others; there does seem to be a pattern in which a chapter, just like the book as a whole, opens at a disorienting end and then works backward to fill in the details, although this isn’t all that unusual, really). But what I’ve been thinking most about, nearing the end of the book, is J.O. Incandenza’s concept of “anti-confluential” cinema, and how this reflects on IJ. Is this an anti-confluential book? A confluential one? Both or neither?
This ties in with the theme of paranoia, and two of DFW’s great literary father-ghosts: Pynchon and DeLillo. Pynchon, especially, was a master at ambiguous paranoia: are the characters right to be paranoid? Are you, as a reader, right to be paranoid, making connections from your privileged perspective? Or does Pynchon write “about” paranoia, as a phenomenon, gazing coolly at it as from a distance? However this finally came out in your mind, you couldn’t deny that Pynchon and DeLillo are both masters at tweaking their works to show the connections between things, the systems governing our lives, the ways that it was impossible not to see forces at work, pulling strings. White Noise is especially concerned with the confluence, with how things are connected.
The Higher Power in IJ is an AA term, typically meaning God or another supernatural force. DFW is very serious about this in subtle and powerful ways. Thinking about literary lineages, it’s not hard to see that the “higher power” in Pynchon is typically government, bureaucracy, sinister forces of destruction. The higher supernatural powers are usually wildly marginalized and powerless, forgotten or neglected. (See the Yuroks’ woge, in Vineland.) This is somehow emblematic of the differences between them, I think.
I digress. Conspiracy and skullduggery play a big part in IJ too, of course. But the book also jokes with its conspiratorial figures, inserting inconvenient accidents of circumstance and timing that fit the book’s narrative, but not the conspirators’. Somehow, I think DFW was trying to write a book in which it was apparent that human efforts to control could only go so far, and human efforts to interpret would always remain incomplete. Somehow both confluence and anti-confluence contribute to his thesis.
Example: the most obvious, Gately’s botched burglary, killing “the anti-O.N.A.N. organizer” DuPlessis. This event becomes the focus of immense conspiratorial and governmental scrutiny. It is, to those who knew who DuPlessis was, obviously an intentional message of some sort, or at least done for a reason connected to them: to find the tape of “the Entertainment,” to snuff the French-Canadian terrorist offensive. But this event, so badly misinterpreted, was an accident. There was no guiding hand here at all. Gately and his partner fucked up. DuPlessis was home when they didn’t think he was. These events — Gately’s robbery, the search for Infinite Jest — were not connected. Anti-confluential. (But then… wait… Joelle Van Dyne, star of the lethal entertainment, comes to Ennet House. And so does Remy Marathe, looking for Joelle…)
And then there’s Mike Pemulis. We learn Pemulis’s fate in two somehow heartbreaking footnotes (and I’m still trying to figure out why these sections are footnotes, exactly, and not just regular sections of text, because they footnote nothing but gaps in the text). Pemulis is the one with the poster of the troubled king with the tagline that is the title of this post. He’s a street kid, gets in trouble, and the major drug source at E.T.A. And he always covers his ass, and he is extremely paranoid, and lives in fear of getting kicked out in his last year when he’s so close to getting away from his horrible family and neighborhood and life for good. But then he is kicked out, and it is because his roommate, Jim Troeltsch, kept some (stolen) amphetamines in a bottle labeled as anti-histamine tablets, one of which John Wayne takes, leading to horrible embarrassment for just about every official at E.T.A. in one of the book’s funniest scenes. And, Pemulis thinks, Troeltsch ratted on him to save his own hide. There was some kind of conspiracy to get the kid out of E.T.A. — Avril, Hal’s mom, hates Pemulis, and so do the other administrators, it would seem — but they got him for something he didn’t even do.
But DFW also pulls strings throughout the book, bringing people and events together: Hal seeing Kevin Bain at the horrible “Inner Infant” meeting; Avril and her Quebecois cronies; the purse-snatchings of Lenz and Krause, the meeting of Kate Gompert and Remy Marathe. Read that poster-tagline again, in its original all-caps: “YES, I’M PARANOID — BUT AM I PARANOID ENOUGH?” I think DFW saw this as the crucial problem with postmodern literature, and with postmodern readers, and with postmodern thinkers (which is pretty much our culture, and not some kind of hyper-elite subgroup, at least in my opinion): always believing there to be another motive behind the surface, always another layer of secrecy. And, importantly, always a conspiracy pointed right at you, the king of your universe. And a seemingly transparent pose about it all: who could really be so cripplingly paranoid who had a poster advertising his paranoia on his wall?
Strange to say about such a complex book, but I think DFW was trying to help us all find our way back into some kind of honest relationship with literature and ourselves. The footnotes, the complicated narration, the complete or over-complete disclosure and the lack of knowledge in other areas: it is about showing that there are no tricks here, nothing up his sleeves. He was trying to write a book for adults, about being an adult, part of which is letting your guard down once in a while and engaging. DFW tried to let us know exactly as much about what happens to these characters as he knew, I think.
July 17, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Vineland.
Well, shucks, things have changed. It’s still a fun book, but we’ve gotten into heavy-duty Pynchon territory now. The damned, the paranoid, the radical and the tyrannical. I have this strange feeling that TP started out trying to write a different kind of book but it sucked him in and he let it take him, his obsessions with Calvinism, systems, technology. There are moments when you can feel the sentences pulling him along to his inevitable conclusions. But it’s great stuff, and there are passages in here to rival anything in Gravity’s Rainbow. (Also, the quirk I remember most from GR, the “a-and” stutter or elongation, has resurfaced here, if only a couple of times. I always liked that, and it always seemed like Pynchon was trying to channel the archetypal overexcited American kid in movies and ’50s TV with that extra letter and dash, and it seemed to me like a brilliant condensation of American character. In which case it fits in well in this media-obsessed book, showing how TV has worked its way into our minds and is constantly showing us how to live, how to be. Or it was just supposed to be a longer “a” sound and I got the whole thing wrong. Anyway.)
He’s on to computers, for instance. There are no less than three really virtuoso pieces about computers already in the book. Two are in the chapter in which we’re shifted to Frenesi’s story (a virtuoso chapter overall, really). On page 87, after Frenesi’s husband Flash has been talking about how people are disappearing from the government’s computer files (and it begins…), their son enters. The kids in this book are really interesting — Pynchon seems to have a lot more invested in them than in previous books, or maybe is just more interested, or is acknowledging the shift toward youth that the culture as a whole took after the 60s — so I might quote a little long just to get in some of the allusive, pitch-perfect, idiosyncratic dialogue:
…Justin came wandering in, cartoons having ended and his parents now become the least objectionable programming around here, for half an hour, anyway — and just as well, too, because the last thing either parent needed right now was an argument, or what passed for one with them, a kind of alien-invasion game in which Flash launched complaints of different sizes at different speeds and Frenesi tried to deflect or neutralize them before her own defenses gave way.
“Say, Justintime, how’s ’em Transformers, makin’ out OK?”
“And how was everything over at Wallace’s?”
The kid put on a genial smile, waved, put his hand to his ear like Reagan going, “Say again?” “How about a few questions,” Justin pretending to look around the room, “Mom? You had your hand up?”
“We’re just getting you back for all those questions you used to ask us” — Flash adding “Amen!” — “not too long ago.”
“I don’t remember that,” trying not to laugh, because in fact he did, and wanted to be teased.
“Must be gettin’ old, man,” said Frenesi.
“Nonstop questions nobody could answer,” Flash told him, “like, ‘What is metal?'”
“‘How do you know when you’re dreaming and when you’re not?'” Frenesi recalled, “That was my favorite.”
Isn’t that great, that subtle shift, incorporating the computer-game metaphor into the already-established TV theme? And this idea itself, of parental arguments being seen as a video game? I’m always fascinated by Pynchon’s narrators, how they manage to shift their voices so rapidly and convincingly without actually shifting point of view: the idea of Flash and Frenesi’s arguments being like a giant game of Space Invaders would not have occurred without Justin’s point of view, in addition to the metaphor being important to Pynchon’s overriding concerns. (I love Justin impersonating Reagan, too, and “I don’t remember that” — just like Reagan, forgetful whenever convenient, and playing his coy game with the media, wanting to be teased.) Plus there’s Frenesi’s remembrance of young Justin asking about dreams; we’ll later see DL asking similar questions, wondering if she’d become “finally lost in a great edge-to-edge delusion.”
So this leads to the end of the chapter, as F&F’s nightmare is coming to pass and they’ve apparently been erased from the system they were living on the edge of, as independent contractors on shady governmental missions.
…it would all be done with keys on alphanumeric keyboards that stood for weightless, invisible chains of electronic presence or absence. If patterns of ones and zeros were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long string of ones and zeros, then what kind of creature would be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name… We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to a sort of standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.
Overblown? Maybe you could say that. But mind-blowing, too, and I wonder what Pynchon makes of the fact that a lot of the people in the world are now busy adding to their “computer records” pictures, profiles of friends and acquaintances, weird literary blogs? (2.0 apps as path to acknowledgment by the hacker-God, and as handy guides to governmental intrusion.)
Then there’s Prairie, looking at her mom’s file on an apparently magic computer (it plays “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and it politely says goodnight to Prairie when she shuts it off — it’s maybe the worst line I’ve ever seen Pynchon write, actually, right there on p. 115). But this is a great paragraph, an enrichment of the theme:
So into it and then on Prairie followed, a girl in a haunted mansion, led room to room, sheet to sheet, by the peripheral whiteness, the earnest whisper, of her mother’s ghost. She already knew how literal computers could be — even spaces between characters mattered. She had wondered if ghosts were only literal in the same way. Could a ghost think for herself, or was she responsive totally to the needs of the still-living, needs like keystrokes entered into her world, lines of sorrow, loss, justice denied?… But to be of any use, to be “real,” a ghost would have to be more than only that kind of elaborate pretending….
After that we get Prairie finding out some things, but transported by a picture of her mom with DL (the asskicking Ninjette) in the 60s. There’s a great transcript of what Prairie imagines they’re talking about in the photo, and then, once Prairie has shut the machine off, in his inimitable Pynchonian fashion, the narrator takes us back into those “quiescent ones and zeros” and shows us (apparently) the true story behind the picture, and we get a nice long flashback, and flashbacks to flashbacks, and the ghosts become as real as ghosts in a machine can. (Realer, maybe.)
March 12, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: A Passage to India.
I’m rapidly in the process of falling in love with this book (quite a change from yesterday, eh?), as it seems determined to thwart my expectations and be just completely fascinating, unpredictable, and beautiful. (The lesson, as always: trust Ray Bradbury. He says it’s good, it’s good.)
Forster has that sense of chapters as scenes, as potent mini-books which readers will stop and reflect upon before moving to another. As such, the beginnings and endings of his chapters tend to be crucial, the places where he makes his points, sets his scenes (something he’s very good at, of course), brings his ideas to the fore from behind the action of the narrative. (This is a common trait, another that I, for one, especially associate with early modernist British writers. Again, maybe it’s just me. I’d like to read something someday about the development of the chapter. Surely Gerard Genette says something about it. But I digress.)
Forster has been excellent, so far, at ending every chapter with an epigram, symbol, incident, or idea that’s really provocative. See Chapter II: Mrs. Moore says, “I don’t think I understand people very well. I only know whether I like or dislike them.” To which Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, replies, “Then you are an Oriental.”
But I want to share the two that seem to be developing the most interesting theme, so far. At the end of Chapter V, Mrs. Moore is talking to her son Ronny about the interactions between the English and the Indians, and Mrs. Moore is arguing that the English “are out here to be pleasant,” not simply to administer justice and bring civilization to India, “Because India is part of the earth. And God has put us on the earth in order to be pleasant to each other. God… is… love.” This talk of God disturbs Ronny, and he ends the conversation as soon as possible. In the chapter’s last paragraph, Forster writes:
“Mrs. Moore felt that she had made a mistake in mentioning God, but she found him increasingly difficult to avoid as she grew older, and he had been constantly in her thoughts since she entered India, though oddly enough he satisfied her less. She must needs pronounce his name frequently, as the greatest she knew, yet she had never found it less efficacious. Outside the arch there seemed always an arch, beyond the remotest echo a silence….”
At the end of Chapter VII we hear a similar thought from a different direction, told by Forster in a different way. Mr. Fielding, the master of the small college, has invited to tea Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore and Ms. Questing, and a Brahman Professor at the college named Godbole. At the end of their tea (which began very well and ended quite badly, with the arrival of Ronny to usher away the ladies) Godbole, with very little provocation (and quite out of character, seemingly, as he has been Brahminishly aloof throughout), sings a song for them. It is unintelligible and rather baffling to the English ear, but the Hindu servants are entranced and delighted. Fielding thanks him for the song and asks for an explanation, to which Godbole replies:
“I will explain in detail. It was a religious song. I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden. I say to Shri Krishna, ‘Come! come to me only.’ The god refuses to come. I grow humble and say: ‘Do not come to me only. Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me.’ He refuses to come. This is repeated several times. The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening.”
“But he comes in some other song, I hope?” said Mrs. Moore gently.
“Oh no, he refuses to come,” repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question. “I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come. He neglects to come.”
Ronny’s steps had died away, and there was a moment of absolute silence. No ripple disturbed the water, no leaf stirred.
This theme, of the god who cannot be denied but is also removed, distant, inscrutable (as Gaiman and Pratchett had it, humorously, in Good Omens, “ineffable”), is handled so well here. That last paragraph really knocks me out. (As an aside, it also reminds me of the George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord,” the greatest pop song ever about god.) Another interesting thing about this, I think, is that Forster relieves himself of the unwelcome necessity of commenting on Mrs. Moore’s reaction to this, after her similar rumination the night before. We’re left to contemplate her reaction ourselves: that’s a nice ambiguous space to think in, and also leaves us wanting to read ahead to how she develops in the coming chapters.
There have started to be discussions about the Malabar Caves outside of town, and Part II of the book is entitled “Caves” (Part I is “Mosque”). I have high hopes that we’re going to move into some really interesting metaphysical territory in Part II.